2200 A.D., Shimla, India:
“Bappu, my friend lost one of his shoes, can you help me find it?”
Five year old Ayush Singhvi looked up hopefully to his father, sitting inside his productivity cubicle. A red icon was slowly beeping on the flexiglass panel enclosing the father-son duo, indicating the end of their family interaction hour. His father, Parth Singhvi, sighed in resignation.
“Where did your friend lose his shoe?” Bappu finally asked him, but his eyes kept glancing at the left side control panel to see how much time was left, exactly.
Ayush leapt up with excitement and hugged his father’s knee, "Here, Bappu, he used to live here before us. He says it is very uncomfortable to roam around with just one shoe on. I don’t like to see him like that.” Ayush was glad that he could finally tell someone. His friend was right, fathers are the best. Now, they could look for his lost show together.
But Bappu was not happy to join in the adventure, he instead leaned forward to place an firm hand on Ayush's shoulders. Turning him towards the exit panel, he said, “Young man, nobody lived here before us. Your friend is mistaken.” Ayush could see, he was being gently pushed towards the travellator outside the cubicle.
Do you want to use your second hour of parental interaction?
A smooth, electronic voice silenced Ayush's protest for a minute.
“No, I decline.” Bappu stretched sideways to push the red icon which had now become an exclamation mark.
“But Bappu,” Ayush tried to wrestle away from his father’s grip, “I just need to switch off the lights for a few minutes, Bappu please..." He would have continued whining had it not been for the look on his father's face. Fear. Ayush had heard the word, now he knew what it meant.
"No matter what happens, do not talk about turning the light off, Ayush. We live in a civilized world, not the barbaric sun-feeding world. Look at these beautiful lights, they glow orange in the morning, radiate a comfortable white heat in the afternoon and sparkle violet in the evening. Without the all-pervasive power of thallium, we would all be dead. Never, ever talk about switching off the lights."
Ayush listened in silence and by the time he could speak again, his father had managed to lock him out of his productivity cubicle and the glass panel had slid back into its place. He grudgingly stepped onto the travellator connecting his father’s cubicle to his own nursery. It was the last year that he would have to stay at his nursery--at six years of age he would graduate to having his own Room. Similar to the one his sister, Tara had right now, who glided past him on her own travellator.
She sometimes reminded him of Mummum, who worked in the Thallium Power Grid Protection Force and had left last year to work at the new power plant in Vienna. “Hello Bhai,” her deep, cracked voice swept past him as she headed into their father’s Room. Ayush did nothing but stare at her and the visor she was wearing, twinkling with rapidly changing images--he did not care much about having a Room, but the visors looked really cool to him.
“I guess I will have to switch off the lights myself.” Ayush smiled a little, his disappointment morphing into excitement--he was going to join the kid in the shadows.
Tara Singhvi had never felt so scared in her life as she did now, not even when Ma had left for Vienna and her father had cocooned himself in the lofty, east wing cubicle. She knew her parents were not cold-hearted--they were trying to climb up the social ladder and atone for her childhood mistake. She was 9 years old when the voices had started booming in her Room.
"But Ma, I am not lying. Sometimes the the dinner announcements get disrupted by a girl's voice. She asks me to play hide and seek with her, she is very lonely in her home." Tara knew Ma was stressed by the way she held her head, clasping it with her long, bony fingers.
"Taru, don't you have friends at school?" Ma's voice cracked like it couldn't bear the weight of a single word. She and Pa had been to three judiciary meetings in the past week to get access to the home security footage so that they could verify Tara's vehement claims. And all that had turned out to be a hoax. Wrenched with guilt, Tara had stopped talking about it altogether.
Until one day, when she got back from school, she could hear loud and happy voices children playing and running around, like they used to in the ancient past. If there was no one inside the room, no one on the tubular travellators, where could all these children possibly play? Surely, not on the Outside--even a few minutes of Thallium exposure could be deadly. She remembered what the voices had told her once, " You will only be able to find us if you let the darkness in."
It was an unforgivable Offense to turn down the energy tube which crisscrossed their house in pearl-grey, iridescent veins, the heart of which sat in an undecipherable location. Tara knew how human civilization had survived annihilation by bowing down to the power of Thallium. The beautiful, powerful source of energy that could outlive the treacherous sun, which threatened to black out any day.
Yet she would sit down and listen to the voices, let them guide her to the heart of the energy tube. Had it not been for a recent upgrade to the power-grid AI, she might have reached it as well, without anybody noticing.
5 years later, her family was still reeling under the consequences. Thallium Inc., her parents' employer and a global energy giant had sent her mother to a dangerous task-keeping force at Vienna and reduced her father to a non-stop working automaton. Tara shuddered at the thought of the actual consequences of disrupting the power grid.
Now, those voices were preying on her baby brother and she had had enough. She had promised Ma that she would be the best sister in the world, and this was the time to make good on that promise.
Abnormal human activity detected.
Prelim defense engaged.
Employee alert. Employee alert. Abnormal human activity detected.
Parth Singhal was sweating and shaking with alarm. He wished he could run or scream or break things. Not again, not another child of his. Why was fate so cruel to him? He had run away from everything that he once loved--parents, siblings, friends. Only because he shunned the world of the solar parasites, only because he saw himself in the beautiful, glittering world powered by thallium. Where every luxury was attainable and no life was blemished by sorrow. The travellator stopped in front of Ayush's nursery.
It was empty.
"Room 4," he barely managed to speak into the microphone.
When he met Feroz at Thallium Inc., she seemed the perfect developed world citizen. He had told her everything about himself and she promised to keep his past safe. But it caught up with him, no matter how hard he tried to rise away from it.
When the travellator stopped again, Parth fell to his knees, head swimming in fear. Tara's room was empty as well.
Security Issue 1A. Security Issue 1A.
The nasal, toneless AI spoke twice before the house dissolved in a cacophony of sirens and alarm bells.
Lights off. Utter darkness. Complete silence. Only a father sobbing, trapped in the ink-black cataclysm of his two worlds colliding.