Denine was eight when she lost her mother.
It happened on her second date with Esfour from Children's Unit (CU) number twenty three. Esfour was eleven, nice to look at and fun to be with - a boy with thoughtful eyes that could easily burst into sparkles of delight or enthusiasm. Their first date, arranged by her mother in coordination with Esfour's mother, had been an unqualified success and after a few days, Denine had requested her mother to set up a second date. Mother approved.
For their first date, they had met at her cubicle - number 69 of CU#21 which was two levels above Esfour's unit, CU#23. For the second date, they would meet at his cubicle number #72 and have lunch together.
At noon, she left her cubicle and, guided by her mother, took the shaft - no, 'tube' was the more fashionable word - to CU#23. The tube was not crowded this time of the day. Thinking of time, Denine recalled the lesson she had learned just a few days ago. A day consists of 1440 minutes. In the olden days, another word was used in conjunction with "day". The word was "night". What was a night? Mother had not explained.
Reaching CU#23 and there, switching from rail to rail - again no crowd, just a few children moving about - it took her less than 4 minutes to reach cubicle 72. The door slid open as she approached, indicating that Esfour was waiting for her. She entered. Esfour took her in hands in his. They laughed joyously. It was nice to be together again.
They sat and talked for some time. It was a lively talk. Denine was usually shy and tongue-tied but with Esfour, she had a sense of comfort and she opened up. Words followed words like bubbles in a stream. Gestures accompanied words. Giggles punctuated phrases. Sentences overlapped. Sounds filled the small cubicle to the brim.
Suddenly, Esfour stopped talking. He put his arms around her and pulled her close. He began kissing her on her lips. Denine was completely taken aback. Her whole body twitched as strange sensations flooded her. She tried to pull back. She found she didn't want to.
"Mother," she gasped between kisses.
"Yes, baby?" mother said.
"What's he doing to me?"
"I don't know. You tell me what he is doing," Of course mother could not see. She could only feel and hear.
"Is it all right?" There was an urgency in Denine's voice. It was all so new, so strange.
"Is what all right, dear?" mother queried.
"Whatever Esfour is doing to me."
"By the electrical emanations from the pleasure centres of your brain, I would say it seem all right."
"You need not have bothered," Esfour said. There was a soft slur in his voice. "It was my mother who told me I should kiss you this way."
Denine felt positively light-headed, buoyant and slightly faint.
Sensations swirled. Their mothers carefully monitored and recorded the intensity of their sensations, and after approximately 700 seconds, told the two children to stop whatever they were doing.
They didn't want to stop. It was all such fun.
"Stop now," both their mother's ordered for the second time. Denine tried to stop but oh, it was so difficult. Then suddenly she jerked as pain filled her brain for a fraction of a second and receded, only its memory remaining behind, bringing tears to her eyes. Almost simultaneously, Esfour went through the same experience. He too had disobeyed his mother and mothers always punished disobedience.
"Shall we have lunch now?" Esfour asked. By then, both of them had got over the shock of their mothers displeasure.
"Why not?" A few of her wayward tresses had fallen over her eyes. She jerked her head to remove them.
Ceremoniously, Esfour picked up and placed her taste helmet over her head. His helmet he placed over himself. He pressed a few keys on his terminal and out of a slot in the wall, two plates of the nutritious pulp emerged.
"What would you like to have?" he asked.
"Hmm, how about sixty seven?"
Esfour keyed in the number 67 on Denine's helmet and adjusted his own to 32.
On the taste helmets, 67 was the taste of a spicy dish from India but, of course, Denine didn't know it. All she knew was that she liked this particular taste very much and reserved it for special occasions.
They proceeded to enjoy the meal, the pulp in their plates tasting the way they had programmed it to taste.
It was several hundred seconds after lunch. Esfour and Denine sat close to each other, holding hands. A cosy silence surrounded them. This was broken abruptly when Esfour, with one of his sudden movements, brought out something black from his pocket and started writing on the wall of the cubicle. What was it in his hands? What was he writing with? Denine's eyes went wide. Coal! It was a piece of coal. Where had he got it from? The only piece of coal she had ever seen was at the museum on CU#29. And why was he writing on the wall instead of on the smartboards provided to them for just that purpose? Denine looked at the written words.
"Let us speak for a while by writing on the wall," Esfour had written. "This way, our mothers will not know what we are saying." What? Hmm, yes. That is correct, isn't it? How clever of him to have thought of it. But why?
"Would you like to go to the Top?" wrote Esfour.
The Top? The Top? Grey sky. Hovercrafts, big and small, running about on legs of air. Savages. Wars. Strange structures called buildings. And the sun - the fiery, blazing sun. Oh how many times had she seen all these things on the video. The Top. Horrible, fascinating Top.
She stretched her hand. He handed her the piece of coal. For a few seconds, she looked at it curiously. Then she wrote a single word: "Why?"
"To find out."
Was the Top really the way they showed in the videos? Denine sensed the awakening of a strange yearning within her. To find out? Why not.
"All right, but how?" she wrote. "Our mothers would know when we move from this level."
"I know a way," Esfour was beaming now, happy that Denine was going to share his adventure. He did something to his mother and hers. "Now, no matter where we go, the mothers will think we are still in my cubicle. Let's go."
The tube was quite crowded this time. They had to wait, with loudly beating hearts, for nearly 1000 seconds before they could enter it. Just then, Denine's mother spoke up: "Your pulse rate has increased. Your breathing is rapid. Your adrenalin is up. What is going on? Are you kissing again?" Denine heard Esfour's mother ask him similar questions.
They said they were fine, just excited thinking about the kissing. This kept the mother's quiet for some time but repeated the questions and received the same responses. This happened again and again throughout the adventure but the mothers didn't take any further action because they didn't know exactly what was going on.
Inside the tube, the two children were apprehensive of both the known and the unknown. The tube was becoming emptier and emptier as they went up level by level. At level 9, the tube emptied and the children heaved a sigh of relief when no one entered.
Level one. They were there. This was the last point of the tube. One level up was the Top but the tube did not go there. They emerged out of the tube into a vast hall full of hovercrafts. A lot of huge plastic boxes were strewn around while some adults operated strange machinery to unload more such boxes from some of the hovers. A strange light filled the place.
Fortunately, no one was near the tube so no one saw the children emerge. They quickly hid behind a box and peered around. Suddenly, Denine nudged Esfour. She excitedly pointing overhead. What was it? A huge opening in the roof. That was the place where the strange light was coming from. It was an opening to the Top. They could see the sky. The grey sky. And white mountains. No buildings, no savages. Just white mountains.
There was a slope leading to the opening from the hall. Transfixed, Denine and Esfour watched a hover, its cargo apparently unloaded, majestically rise up the slope and with a hiss of airjets, vanish from sight.
Denine nudged him again and pointed to the top. Now that they were here, she wanted to go all the way up. Holding their breath, they started sneaking toward the slope. Could they make it? Should they?
Just then there was a shout. They had been spotted.
"Run", Denine shouted. They ran towards the tube. There was a strange machine in the way. They dodged around it. Suddenly, Denine was jerked to a stop. For a heart-stopping moment, she thought she had been caught. Then she realized that it was her backstrap which was caught in the protruding arm of the machine. The men and women running to catch them were almost upon them. She panicked. She tried to jerk herself fee. Esfour held her hand and pulled. There was a loud snap. She was free and once again racing towards the tube. All this had taken not more than half a second.
They reached the tube. Entered it. Streaked down. Safe. They were safe. They had out-run their pursuers.
***Back in Esfour's cubicle, they were too excited to speak to each other for quite a while. Wow, what an adventure. What a narrow escape.
Just then there was a sound of a chime. "End of free time," Esfour's mother announced. Education time begins after exactly 1000 seconds. Send Denine back and start preparing."
Denine waited for her mother to say something similar but there was only silence. What was going on? Denine's hand immediately went to her back. She wanted to touch her mother, ask her not to be angry with her. "Mother?" She froze in utter shock. Her mother was not there.
She screamed. "Mother, where are you?" Esfour watched, dazed.
Then Denine remembered the machine snaring her backstrap, remembered herself wrenching away from the machine, remembered the sound of her backstrap snapping. No! Oh, no! Her mother. She had lost her mother up there. Almost crazy with fear and worry, she wept.
Esfour touched her. Awkwardly, he tried to comfort her. But her loss was too great. She had lost her mother. What could he do?
From the depths of Denine's brain, a far away memory rose to the surface of her awareness. The Guardian. She remembered the instructions given to her by the Guardian a long time ago. What had the Guardian said? "Whenever you feel you are threatened by a situation that your mother cannot help you with, press hard the small button embedded in your left wrist."
For a brief instant Denine hesitated as she felt a sneaky thought intrude upon her awareness. No mother would mean relief from discipline, from constant surveillance.
Denine severely chided herself. Discipline or no discipline, her mother loved her and she loved her mother and wanted her back. Between sobs, she pressed the button.
***An electronic impulse left her wrist transmitter. Within an infinitesimal fraction of a second, it was caught by the receiver in the administration department on level 30, the lowest level in the structure.
Two women observed the signal on their monitors. These were two of the several Guardians operating the structure.
"What is it, Sav? Who is signalling?" One of the women asked.
The younger of the two women read the console. "It is coming from a child assigned to cubicle sixty nine of CU twenty one, Jen a girl named Denine."
"But the signal is not coming from CU twenty one."
"Yes, right now the source is located at cubicle seventy two on CU twenty three. This cubicle belongs to a boy, Esfour."
"Oh, a date probably. Try to contact Denine's mother and find out what is going on."
The younger woman's fingers flew over the keyboard. She suddenly jerked upright. "What?!"
"What's wrong?" Jen asked anxiously.
"Look," the younger one pointed to the console.
"The child is on level twenty three and her mother is on a level one. Level one? What is going on here?" Sav was flabbergasted.
Jen had seen many more emergencies than the younger Sav, so she was comparatively calm. "Have the mother collected from level one immediately," she said, "and get Denine and Esfour down here. We will find out what is going on."
While waiting for the workers to carry out the assigned tasks, the two woman talked.
"I sometimes wonder if what we are doing is ethical," Sav said.
"Oh, I have wondered about that for a long time."
"So what do you think?"
Jen sat back in her chair and went into her expository mode. "Well, we have to look at the whole picture," she began. "Think of what is going on out there. After the third World War, the fabric of human civilization is in tatters. At least this organization, Psychorg, managed to save part of that civilization in the form of a few hundred human children that had survived the devastation. This crache world they created in the Himalyas may not be the best solution but it is not a very bad solution either. There are several grey areas in the system, I agree, but I am hoping that these would be sorted out in time."
Just then, a worker entered the office carrying Denine's mother in his hand. Almost as soon as he left, another worker brought the two children in.
"So that is the story." The two Guardians looked at each other and looked back at the two children.
"You know that going to the Top is forbidden," said Guardian Sav. "It is dangerous." The children nodded, sheepishly.
"Your mothers will punish you for your actions of today," said Guardian Jen. Esfour nodded again but Denine was more worried about the whereabouts and the safety of her mother than about the punishment she would receive.
"And you, young lady," Guardian Jen continued, "should take much better care of your mother." She had been holding one of her hands behind her back. Now she brought it forward. Held in her hand was Denine's mother.
Denine screamed with joy. The Guardian placed the small black box in her hands and she hugged it to herself.
"Mother," she called out.
"Denine, Denine. You've been a naughty girl, haven't you?" The box said.
Then two mothers administered punishment to their respective charges.
The punishment over, their composures regained to some extent, Denine and Esfour parted. But before they parted, they gave each other a look, and this look promised that 'punishment or no punishment' someday they would once again try to reach the Top and gaze at the vast, grey sky.
x x x
When Ahmed accepted the contract for this story (thank goodness), he asked when I planned to post it. I told him I would post it in Jannaury because "I like to atart off strong." I knew I couldn't go wrong posting a tale from my good friend Ahmed Khan. Let me know if you agree on our BBS.