All fifty girls in the sanctuary got out of their beds in a frenzy. The cables plugged into their temples throbbed throughout the night and nobody knew why, but it became the major topic for discussion at the cafeteria.
“Me thinks it's some kind of fault from the tower,” said Glen, a short girl with a dark bob.
Her small frame and coy persona made it easier for the girls to dismiss her as usual.
“I felt a throbbing in me fore’ead” Esmeralda whispered.
Esmeralda’s green eyes twinkled in a slight craze. She demanded an explanation because It was the most interesting thing to take place at the shelter since last autumn. Unlike other days, there was excitement in the air. The boredom of young females was replaced by a thirst for gossip as every unit and every girl was tuned in to the indistinct chatter. At least that was until Ina resumed. Then the talking came to a halt.
They all fell silent and turned their heads to stare at Ina, a mop-stick of a girl with turquoise blue eyes and the lightest skin. Her white tunic was almost too big for her thin frame. Demure in her disposition, she walked silently down the hall and lowered her eyes to avert the glares from the other girls. She had a striking and spotless face, save for the scar on her right temple. This is what the girls were glaring at.
Ina stopped at the glass entree table and played around with the interactive surface until she found something that captured her fancy.
“Such a shame” Esmeralda whispered.
“She could have been selected,” another girl added.
The girls at Esmeralda’s table looked on Ina with pity as she took her tray of greens and settled down by herself in the corner. Ina had become an outcast within the last month. She was marked for bad behaviour and for not adhering to the protocol of the shelter. The protocol was their law. It kept the girls safe. It made them smart and perfect. It was there to mold each one of them into the prototype, Esther. A prototype that Professor Heinrich spent years trying to mold.
Professor Heinrich created the shelter to make the perfect world. Where wars do not exist. Where people will think and frame clever ideas and contribute to society. Where nobody will be poor and nobody richer than the next. A world that excluded what he regarded as the main cause of pathology in society-
The fifty girls of the sanctuary were his first sample. So far all of them showed signs of compliance until Ina painted something extraordinary during her art class. It was a portrait of a boy.
Ina being a talented painter could recreate the dimensions of any object in her sight on paper. Usually she would convey something precise. As was required of the girls, her art usually depicted a clear idea and a message that was easy to interpret. But that day, what she painted was out of the ordinary.
The portrait had dimensions and highlights to bring life to this bright face. His eyes had a sparkle in them. They conveyed something that nobody had ever seen before in art-
She had never met a boy in her life. In their world, the male should not exist. This innocent act was seen as a radical deviation from protocol. Ms Louise, a short plump matron, was conducting her usual rounds, inspecting each of the girls' works when she came across Ina’s painting. She stood still for a second with a face expressing disgust and disdain. She thought it best to consult the Head Matron Teresa, a stone faced woman with an intimidating demeanour.
Teresa didn’t speak much. Her eyes said enough. She stood tall, with thinning dark grey hair and carried a cane in her left hand at all times which according to rumours, she did not hesitate to use. Many stories about Teresa had been circulating the shelter. Some said you would turn to stone if she looked at you long enough. Some said she slept with her eyes wide open. Some said it was her cane that could turn you to stone. And so none of the girls would dare get a disciplinary mark from Teresa.
Nobody expected Ina would be the first to get in a conflict with Teresa.
Teresa seized Ina’s hand In an instant and dragged her to the disciplinary room. A while after, orders were given to seize the painting and destroy it.
Where could this concept for the painting have come from? Her instructors thought.
It was a mind boggling phenomenon. A steward suggested that It had something to do with the scar on Ina’s forehead. When she brought it to her matron’s attention weeks before, it was dismissed as a mere rash or irritation. It had now been weeks since Ina painted the boy. Her scar was still sore .
It didn’t take long before the chatter in the cafeteria resumed again. The girls carried this bubbly energy through to the next phase of the day. In Ina’s unit, it was a session in Logic and Reasoning. Ina could barely remember anything from her previous session except that the girls behaved more rowdy than usual.
On a typical day, they would line up in a fashion as perfect as robots in a factory. This time, they were a little humanly messy. She didn’t know why but this made Ina feel a sense of relief. The change in the girls’ behavior soon became evident to the instructors. Through the glass, they watched as the girls in Ina’s unit solved puzzles. What bothered the instructors the most was that they looked as though they were having fun.
Little Glen smiled gleefully at Esmeralda who was just putting in the last piece to complete the pattern. Head Matron Teresa, observing from the glass window, noticed something concealed under Glen’s jet-black fringe. A scar similar to Ina’s- an alarming sight .
Matrons and stewards gathered at the disciplinary room to observe and examine Glen’s bruised red scar. She mentioned feeling a throbbing from the cables of her head gear.
“A couple of girls complained that they're cables went haywire all through the night,” said Louise.
All the girls had experienced it that morning.
Could the fault in the cables in the headgear have something to do with Ina’s strange behaviour?
Desperate to find a solution, Teresa demanded that the headgear was monitored. She thought it highly unlikely that this was the cause. The headgear was only designed to transport them to a virtual reality. A computer generated world known as Estheria. Their only place free from surveillance in this rigidly governed society.
In Estheria it was always warm. There was no seasonal change. The girls could run around and wile away time, playing hide and seek in the trees in the parks. They all took delight in the cool spongy sensation of the green grass when they laid their heads on it.
Time didn’t exist. Neither did work.
Only the girls had the privilege of experiencing the splendor of Estheria. During the day, Ina couldn't help but ponder on the delightful things she experienced in Estheria. She recorded these ideas in a diary which she kept hidden in a safe, secluded spot inside the hedges near the park benches. It was perfectly concealed and out of sight… or so she thought.
Once every interval break, she would hide herself and discreetly pour out everything she could remember about Estheria down in her diary. The sun shone differently. The sky was a distinct blue and the lake rippled serenely under the tropical breeze. Recently however, she decorated the pages of her diary from end to end with her colorful art. Things recollected from her dreams. Things from the outside world- portraits of nature, savannas, plumerias, hyacinths, human life- women in beaches and swimming pools. A picture of the lake managed to make it into her diary. Like all the other pictures in her diary, it was drawn in haste. The lake was Ina’s favorite place in this virtual paradise. She loved it because it was the only place she could see her reflection. Estheria was the perfect dream until the headgear was switched off every morning at 7:00am.
Afterwards, the routine was the same every single day. They would head out of their dorms in a rigid organized fashion, head to the cafeteria for breakfast which was followed by their daily sessions and then march downstairs to the common lobby to form a circle around the screen. A hologram of a statuesque female would then emerge from the screen.
This particular day however, whilst the other girls sat on the floor transfixed on this screen, Ina’s attention was diverted to the room around her. She began scanning her environment. For the first time, Ina became more aware of her surroundings. Things became more clear and obvious - things she once ignored, things she was once oblivious to. Cartoons in monochrome colors displayed on the television set, the light bulbs, the chandelier, the furniture. As her eyes spanned the room, she caught Glen’s eyes. In this moment, they shared a look of understanding that transcended words. A look of one whose soul had been liberated.
But Ina noticed something else. Something that gripped her and made the hairs on her skin stand erect. She noticed someone studying the girls through the glass above.
It was Teresa.
Only Glen and Ina noticed Teresa and her blank eyes. They were like big dark brown pebbles suspended in the spheres of her dome. Almost soulless. Teresa had a stern look as usual and was holding something in her right hand. As Teresa shifted a slight angle away, Ina caught a glimpse of what she was holding.
She was holding Ina’s diary.
Glen looked to Ina unsure whether to be afraid or alert. Ina however was sure of one thing- she was paralyzed by terror. Teresa didn’t take her gaze off Ina for even a split second..
How long had she been standing there, Ina thought as she sat numb, with a thumping heart and wet palms.
Following a loud spark coming from behind the television set, the light bulbs in the room dimmed slowly and in sequence until the lights were completely off. The girls were left in a bleak dull atmosphere where nothing but their shadowed forms could be seen. An orientation session had transitioned into a complete Lights Out. The screen displayed white noise and Esther’s hologram was nowhere in sight. Ina could no longer make out the sight of Teresa. Only a silhouette
The girls were dumbfounded - a mixture of angst and tension in the air. Ina braced herself and managed to regain a natural breathing rhythm and feeling in her limbs. She figured if she made her way through the girls around her, she might find Glen. Luckily, Glen found Ina first and clung onto her arm like one holding on for dear life. They were latched onto one another like jam on bread. The bond between them was the strongest it had ever been.
“You will be fine,” Ina whispered.
Their embrace was interrupted by the violent sound of the door being kicked open, followed by the sound of heavy boots stomping on the wooden tiles. The girls all scrambled to find their footing. A yellow flickering light from a torch pierced the darkness and hovered over the girls' faces. It wandered around the room until it stopped at Glen and Ina.
A sudden forceful tug on Ina’s arm detached her from Glen’s embrace. She managed to cling onto Glen a few seconds longer. A few seconds long enough to whisper to her ,
“The Passageways….Behind the television”
Everyone could hear the tug of war- the rough kicking and screaming as Ina resisted being dragged across the room. Glen panted heavily as Ina was dragged away. She didn’t quite grasp the meaning of Ina’s words just yet. Passageways? Television ?
Light from the opened door revealed Ina being carried away by two uniformed guards. The harsh sound of the door slamming shut reverberated through the room. Whether by sheer force of will, determination, or a rush of adrenaline Glen found a way through the herd of girls, to the television set and managed to dismount it. A shocking show of strength for someone of her stature. Other girls were in a frantic state. Some cried for Esther, others cried for Louise whilst others bit their nails in heart pounding anticipation.
Ina’s words kept replaying in Glen’s mind- The Passageways...Behind The Television. Still in a state of shock and utter delirium, Glen pushed the TV to the wall. A vain attempt to mount herself to the window ledge. Not practical, she realized. And it was also too risky. As she slowed down to catch her breath, she sunk into the wall and looked to the window high above. She felt a small indent along the face of the wall. She ran her hands through it and followed it’s trace as it led to a subtle dent somewhere in the middle.
All the girls sat and watched in awe as Glen’s act of bravery seemingly led to a wonderful discovery. Glen forced her fingers through the dent and ran them through the inner surface. It was indeed a wonderful discovery. What appeared to be a dent in the wall was actually a door handle.
Very carefully and slowly she pulled the ledge towards herself and allowed the entire surface to detach from the wall. The prancing of the girls slowly drew to a calm. They sat and watched with numb mouths as Glen unlatched this door from the wall. She looked back at the others and paused momentarily as if to take a breath. She braced herself.
She then turned back to face their one hope out of a messy situation. She made her way through the door and boxed herself inside the confinement of the hollow space. She examined the surrounding area. It was desolate, unkempt, dry, dusty, occupied with nothing but muddy air and the stench of metal. She looked to the right and the tiny space seemed to lead further down into an extremely long path. One more time, she turned to look at the other girls. No one was brave enough yet to follow. She started down the path alone until finally a green eyed fuzzy-haired fellow from behind crouched down and followed. She recognized the green eyes. They belonged to Esmeralda.
The two crawled into the confinement through the long stretch of metal and wood. Very quickly, two became three. And then three became four. Within minutes, ten girls followed behind Glen and forged down this risky path that seemed to stretch on for miles.
Glen continued to lead the pack, crawling with her eyes set ahead. The ceiling got higher and the smell of dank wood and metal began to dissipate slowly. They forged further until an hour passed and their surroundings became more friendly.
Their grueling journey had led them to an incline along the path a significant distance away from the door and the room. The width of the passage walls got wider, giving them liberty to squeeze through. A hungry and fatigued Glen was tempted to take a break until she considered the girls behind and how far they’d come. She mustered up courage to make it a few meters ahead. Esmeralda kept close to her tail. With assistance from those behind, Glen gained leverage to the top of the incline.
Immediately, she was met by a greater open space. A brick-walled and concrete floored structure filled with abandoned furnishings. Another room perhaps? Glen and Esmeralda shook the debris off their bodies as they helped themselves to their feet realising they had come to a cellar.
Their end of the tunnel.
Looking around there were timeworn boxes and mirrors arranged against the wall, old furniture, broken bulbs, and dusty portraits scattered along the floor. The ceiling was at least twenty feet high supported by long rusty wooden trusses nailed to the wall. Long lines of images on plastic film stretched across the room. There were faces on them. But too much contrast to make them out. One of the girls soon realized they were all pictures of females.Youthful girls in particular.
Glen was startled by a sharp noise from behind. Esmeralda’s loud gasp. Everyone looked to Esmeralda as she abruptly dropped what she was holding- a rain soaked teddy bear. A series of flashbacks ran through her mind.
Esmeralda slowly stepped away from the toy box and let tears rain down her face. Memories of another life began to stem from her adolescent heart. Memories of her childhood. Glen laid an arm on Esmeralda’s back as she came to a mutual understanding. This rain soaked teddy bear was a surviving remnant of her life before the shelter.
Other girls ransacked the boxes. There were toys, portraits, pins and needles stuck into balls, woven shawls, pink knitted scarves and sweaters. It slowly became evident to them- they grokked Esmeralda’s tears. Each item belonged to one of the girls. Fragments of a former life.
Glen was still pacifying the broken Esmeralda when she looked up to the mirrors arranged along the wall. She had never seen anything of its kind. In the shelter there were no mirrors. Only images. She became curious, noticing her full body’s reflection in all its dimensions. Wow, She thought. She moved closer. The modest light from the small window situated at great height compensated for the dimness of the room. She couldn’t see her face clearly in the mirror but what she saw was enough for her. Enough for her to remember who she was.