By Marka Rifat
'Just anither wee sweetie, son. C'mon for Nana.'
Hamish gazed dolefully at the large, sugar-crusted caramel carefully pincered in its clear wrapper by shellacked nails, each nail's hologram shimmering and shifting. He sighed and relaxed his compressed lips.
'Good boy, Hansel!' his grandmother cried.
The adults named him Hansel ('happy and new sign of everlasting life', in the Chinese tradition), but he secretly called himself Hamish.
In it popped and sat like a weight on his tongue. He tried to ignore it, but his treacherous saliva rushed, as ever, to greet the monolith. Hamish was eight and felt very old that afternoon.
Certainly, Hamish's teeth and organs were much older than would have been expected of a child 100 years ago. He had heard about the old time, when there were lots of children and they ate anything, and played rough games and got dirty, and learned together in 'schools', and had sisters and brothers, and ran about wherever they wanted.
That was before the Coli evolved and changed everything.
His little heart ached at the thought of running. The dissolving caramel bumped over his throat and the sugar rush lulled the longing. He smiled bleakly and looked up: 'Thank you Nana, can I play on the 'puter, everybody?'
It is true that Hamish had spotted a box of cheese surprises — creamy concoctions with one containing a small transport toy. He would imagine being tiny enough to get inside and escape. But Hamish was on a mission and bravely turned away from the uncle who brought the savouries.
His assembled relatives considered his request — they had struggled to buy bonbons and all manner of rare, non-electronic games, all sonically cleaned — but he was their precious one and should be cosseted and kept happy at home. He was also their link to fame, respect and money, for perhaps another eight years. There were so few precious ones and they were all kept indoors, with their families well supported by sponsors and grants. Many of the children were lightly sedated so they could not try to leave home, but Hansel's parents opted for indulgence to tether their boy, and were assured that his body, with the most expensive treatments, would recover.
There was more discussion among the adults and brandishing of calorie-laden gifts, but eventually they air-kissed and wished him a reverent 'Good health and safety'.
His father, Briar, arrived outside the apartment's airlock as the relatives processed through the decon hallway. The relatives bowed to the great progenitor — he produced a boy, and so bright too.
As Briar entered the apartment, he saw Hansel gripping the drinks trolley and propelling himself towards the floor to ceiling window.
No! Hansel! Stop!”'
Briar ran across the thick carpet and reached his son just as the wheels gently bumped the glass.
The boy's soft face had a hint of guilt: 'I just wanted to look out Daddy, and it's easier if I hold onto Mummy's trolley.'
Briar thought he saw the flicker of a sly smile, but dismissed the notion, and lifted the boy's plump hands away. He held his wheezing son steady. Briar was about to quietly repeat, yet again, why children did not risk any injury, or go outside, or eat any fresh food, or go near animals …
'I'll fetch your chair, son, and we'll both look out at the woods. Let's sit back a wee bit from the window, though.'
Briar positioned the support chair so that Hansel could flop down and not be seen by people on the street. There had almost been a riot last year, when Hansel was spotted, pressed up against the huge pane. The smoked glass prevented him from being identified, but everyone caught the coveted sight of a child — a talisman of hope and proof that O157 had not taken one of the next generation. Rose had begged her husband to move from the city, when poverty spread and kidnapping was rife. She had started drinking then, unable to cope with the sudden wealth and attention of being one of the Mothers. She could not accept the accident of genetics which meant she, among so many, would successfully bear a child, a boy, a rarity. But Rose was no happier on the edge of the countryside. Motherhood was a burden she escaped in alcohol every day.
At night, Rose would pass out in a stupor and Briar would press a Somna patch onto his wrist, but lately a nightmare had emerged from the sleep-inducing chemicals. It was always the same — an animal was moving about the apartment, smearing every surface with bacteria, and he desperately wanted to fight the beast and protect Hansel from its fatal traces, but Briar had no strength to move from his bed. What his drugged senses picked up was Hamish, doing his secret exercises to strengthen his legs and lungs.
Hamish was very good at simulated wheezing now, having genuinely struggled for breath most of his life. Now his heart and lungs hardly hurt when he worked them in his nocturnal gymnastics.
He was also very good with computers and logged on almost every night, in between trotting and jumping round the apartment, to Daddy's special site, U-Xplore.
Briar had used it when his son was much younger. Hansel would sit on his lap while Briar gently waved his hands over the room-sized projection to operate their virtual walks across deserts and mountains, along great rivers and through crowded cities. It used real-time sat-imaging and was Briar's best effort to teach his child about freedom and the world that he would join, if he could be kept healthy. As Hansel learned to operate his own games and more time was taken up with Auto-teach, Briar made these walks alone and thought the boy had forgotten about them.
On one night-time trawl, Hamish found a site for antique collectors which offered 'children's books'. Intrigued, he opened it. There were colour images with creatures he had never seen before and most had a boy, like him, only thinner and having outside adventures. Some images were black and white but still had one boy, being brave. Some 'books' even had a boy and a girl. He tapped the images to make the holograms start, but they refused to move. When he realised he would have to read to find out what was happening in the story, he almost gave up, but the lure of the children was too strong.
It was when he was studying a picture of a man who looked like Daddy, putting a furry shoe on the foot of a very thin, dirty girl, that a message appeared in screen: 'Go away. This is mine.'
Hamish squeaked and slapped down the image. He sat in the dark, breathing fast. He counted to 100 and waved the screen back to life.
'Hello, are you a child like me?' was the new message.
He murmured: 'Yes, who are you?'
'This is my special place — go away!'
“Are you really a child?' whispered Hamish.
'Yes, I'm a girl. What’s your name?'
'Why do you want me to go away?'
'I am sorry. I was frightened. I haven't talked to a child for such a long time. I'm really sorry, please don't go.'
'My name's Hamish. What's yours? How can you message me?'
'You're a boy?'
'You’re a boy?'
Hamish paused. Why did the girl send two messages the same? How could she message him at all?
'Where are you?'
Hamish pondered, then smiled: 'In the same building as you.'
Hamish took a deep breath and whispered: 'Yes. Do you go on adventures?'
And so began the first of seven thrilling nights of exchanges, all of which Hamish wiped, or so he believed, from the building's server. The girl ('great reward, ever true, eternally loved') was three and a quarter years older and Hamish couldn't work out if she was very friendly or very bad-tempered, because she was both every night and sometimes sent two messages at once, but he was too excited to complain.
Even Rose noticed her boy-burden was happier. Her fumbling hand patted his head when he blurted out that he was happy. She was cleansing her blood in the washroom and gazing at her drawn face in the mirror, when the reflection caught him jumping and clapping his hands. In a daze, she told Briar that evening. He silently held her close, anticipating an expensive cerebro-scan for her failing wits. Rose persisted with such animation that he gave in and agreed it was delightful that their son was healthy and happy, but that they should give Hansel a little something to calm him, for his own safety.
Rose made a great effort to stay sober until, with a steady hand, she slipped the sedative into Hansel's night-time chocolate, while her son was looking out towards the woods. Hamish observed her in the polished surface of the window and it hardened his determination on the Great Adventure.
That night, Rose rewarded herself with five cocktails and Briar eased his worries with Somna, but the nightmare of the beast returned. This time, it was Hamish hunting for provisions for his journey. He had memorised all the items shown the story books and was gathering approximations to 'bread', 'cheese', 'apples' and a 'knife'. He stuffed them into his teddy pajama-case, wrapping the 'knife' in Mummy's red scarf.
At two minutes to midnight he was ready. He put his sticky palm to the door scanner. The DNA he had collected from gently stroking his father's sweating brow was just enough to trick the sensor.
In the cool apartment hallway stood a shadowed figure. Hamish turned to re-open the airlock. 'No, stupid, it's Gretel. Why d'you ask me to come here if you're going run back in? Don't you want an adventure now?'
She stepped forward and they stared at each other. Hamish was so astonished to be outside, to be with another child, to smell her, to feel so many new things all at once, that he failed to point out that she had told him to be ready so she could collect him.
There would be lots of time in the woods to talk about that.
© Marka Rifat, unless we say otherwise
In January 2013, this story was shortlisted in the Hansel and Gretel adult creative writing competition by the National Library of Scotland and Scottish Ballet.