No time for tears! Roshan scolded herself, even as her eyes welled up. She pulled the knot of her long black hair tight behind her head and called to her eight-year-old son, “Tuktuk!” Her voice was muffled by her mask. “The van will be here any minute.” They lived in Garden Estate, which was the closest point to the Millennium Medical Centre, far to the south of New Delhi. She guessed they’d be the last to be collected on the early morning run.
She snatched up the house keys and hurried towards the front door, pausing by what used to be the guest room. “Ash?” she called to her husband. “We’re going now.” She was about to add, “It’s alright, don’t come out”, but he did, anyway.
His face was grey, unshaven. He hadn’t changed out of his pyjamas in days. He met her gaze and whispered, “What you and Tuktuk are doing is … God’s work.” Then his voice cracked and he turned away, weeping. The room was in darkness. But Roshan could see, on the floor behind him, the golden mound of marigolds still laid out on a white sheet, in the shape of a small body. There was, of course, nothing beneath the flowers.
Mourning families were not allowed even a last goodbye. She and Tuktuk rushed out of the flat. The young boy looked like an astronaut, in his shiny white suit, gloves and boots. His curly black hair framed the blue face-mask. It had translucent breathing tubes curling out from the nostrils. Roshan wore regular clothes: black slacks, pearl-grey turtleneck jumper, black puffy jacket. It was early in the year and the air was icy. They ran down three floors. Sure enough, the white transport had just drawn up, with the flashing red light on its roof. They scrambled in through the rear door. They were the last to be collected. Four other parents and their children were already strapped in.
The vehicle raced through the broad, empty avenues of Gurgaon with the siren whooping. The sky was black, encrusted with stars. The towering buildings on either side were dark and lifeless, all the residents and offices having closed after successive lockdowns. There was no traffic: the siren was meant to alert checkpoints along the way that a transport was coming through and must not be halted.
The Centre was believed to be the most advanced medical facility ever created. It was visible from afar, blazing like a permanent dawn over the horizon. The structure, when it came into view, resembled a glittering honeycomb made of plate-glass. The van cleared through the checkpoints without triggering any alarms. Then it plunged into the depths like a white bee returning to base. Tuktuk had been silent all the way. But when the two of them got out and were walking towards the ZeeZee Hub alongside dozens of others, he clutched Roshan’s gloved hand with his own smaller one.
“Mumma?” he whispered, into the microphone in his helmet.
She wore earbuds and a discrete mouth-mic. “What is it, sweetie?”
“What happens if I can’t?”
She knew what he meant. “Sweetie, you’ll be fine,”
she said, hoping she sounded sincere.
“Yes, but —”
There was no time to stop. Around them, walking with the same air of steely purpose were other parents and children. All the children were dressed just like Tuktuk. There were girls, with their hair in long plaits or ponytails. Some boys had shaven heads. Some had turbans.
Roshan said, “Whatever happens, there’s no danger to you. No danger at all.”
Ahead of them, they could hear a wordless murmuring. There was also an undercurrent of bings, chirps and booms.
The corridor widened gradually, so that the transition to the enormous underground Hub was not too abrupt. As the murmurs and dings grew louder, tall figures wearing deep blue helmets and matching uniforms began to appear. They called themselves ZeeZee Hosts. Their faces were hidden, yet they seemed to be smiling with their whole bodies, as they greeted the young warriors and their parents.
Then the first ZeeZee stations came into view. Roshan heard Tuktuk gasp in amazement. Each one looked like a huge bubble made of frosted glass. Many were lit from within. They glowed and flashed in multi-colours, accompanied by muffled sound effects. “Hello!” said someone. One of the blue-uniformed figures. She bent forward, addressing Tuktuk first, then Roshan.
“You’re …” a tiny pause as her helmet scanner read information from the boy’s face mask, “… Tuktuk! Your first time? Welcome! I’m Mimi. Follow me?”
All around them, other parents and their children were trotting obediently behind their individual hosts. Tuktuk clutched his mother’s hand even tighter. Roshan clutched back. But she no longer felt anxious. The place had an unexpectedly festive air. Mimi led them through the maze of occupied stations until she came to a halt beside a darkened one.
“Here,” she said. “This one’s for first-timers.” The door slid back at her touch and she stood aside, letting the other two in.
As soon as the door slid shut behind all three, the interior lit up. It revealed a cockpit bristling with twinkling instruments inside a child-sized spaceship. The details were a cleverly designed video projection curving around the raised and padded commander’s throne. The only physical equipment was, in fact, the throne. The cubicle filled with the thrumming sound of a spacecraft idling in space, as the star-strewn blackness of the cosmos surrounded them on all sides. Roshan suppressed a smile behind her gloved hand.
“As soon as I strap you in here, Commander Tuktuk,” Mimi was saying, “your ship will power up. Okay with that?”
Roshan couldn’t see her son’s face, but she knew that his small round mouth would be open and his eyes wide with wonder and delight. “Yes,” he said now, his voice sounding clearly in her ears. “Yes! Of course!” He jumped up and into his seat as readily as if he’d spent his entire young life doing nothing else.
For the next 20 minutes, Mimi guided the boy through the rudiments of commanding a fully-weaponised space vehicle, equipped to destroy enemy fighters. He was so eager to begin his first solo mission that he refused the offer of a chocolate slurpee. Leaning forward in his seat, he called out, “Secure all decks!” in clear, piping tones. Mimi had taught him the start sequence. “Raise shields … ENGAGE!”
The engines roared to life and, immediately, the field of vision began to fill with speckles of light speeding towards him. “Incoming!” cried Tuktuk. “Enemy fighters!” Mimi straightened up. Turning to Roshan, she gestured towards the rear of the cubicle. There was a narrow bench there, just enough for two. She drew down a transparent partition to reduce the audio. Then she removed her helmet. She wore a face-mask underneath. “One more warrior launched, I think!” she said, her eyes smiling. Roshan smiled back. “He didn’t even turn to look at me!” They both laughed. “So: tell me. How does this work? What connects these little warriors to the viruses?”
Mimi said, “It’s a simulation linked to patients, via the medical centre’s HyperNet.” She directed Roshan’s attention back to the display. “See those enemy fighters? They’re make-believe. But once your son hits enough of those practice enemies precisely, he’ll be connected by remote links to an actual patient, in the medical wing upstairs. Tuktuk’s movements will be scaled down to the microscopic level until they can act on instruments too tiny to be seen. They’re minute machines that we’ve constructed and positioned inside the patient’s lungs. Like minuscule missiles. Each missile carries molecules of virus-busting fluid —”
“Wait! There are no drugs against this virus!” exclaimed Roshan. Mimi nodded. “That’s right. No drugs. We’re using molecules of soap.” She smiled again. “The virus has a thin outer shell of fatty tissue. Soap breaks up the tissue. That’s why hand washing is so important: it really does disable the virus. Without its outer coating, the virus loses the tiny prickles it uses to hook onto human cells!” No hooks, no infection, no death. “We need effective vaccines. But until then, this is the best we can do,” said Mimi. “It’s extremely desperate! Using children as warriors, for goodness’ sake! What’s more desperate than that?” Roshan watched Tuktuk, now swaying and rocking in his seat as dozens of spiky objects came whirling and twisting towards him. Boom! Got one. And another — BOOM! Pom. DING! Whee —
“Kids!” said Mimi. “For them, it’s just video games. Each virus is worth a thousand points. They compete against one another and earn money as they go — 10,000 points is one rupee. They can keep at it for hours — oh! See the little glowing blob? That’s the real thing — a real coronavirus. He’s been assigned a patient!”
Both women leaned forward in excitement. Tuktuk swung the electron beam of his ship’s primary canon this way and that, sending out shattering blasts of green light until, with an abrupt boom, he hit the blob. It burst open. Thousands of wriggling fragments shot into the void, faded and died. “Zee-Zee-Zee!” shrieked the virus as it collapsed. “Zee-Zee-Zee!”
Roshan felt a radiant joy awaken within herself. Yes, she thought. We will win this war.
(Manjula Padmanabhan is an author, playwright and cartoonist. Her novel The Island of Lost Girls is set in a brutal future world. She lives in the US, with a home in New Delhi)
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