Naina woke up with a start and took a deep breath. She was sweating profusely. In half senses she realized she had been dreaming. A terrible nightmare it was that kept recurring. She always felt weak and drained out after the dream. She drew a deep breath and then one more. These days it took 4-5 deep breaths before her lungs were filled and she felt the fulfillment and contentment of an easy breath. Every time there was a difficulty, she panicked. She would run to her son Aravind’s room to see if he was also struggling. Already an asthmatic, she always expected the worst. She half expected to find him lying scrawled on the floor, his little body limp and senseless after a massive struggle for air. If he was alright and playing with his toys or sleeping, coughing his usual dry cough, she would cover his nose with the oxygen mask connected to the centralized supply of oxygen available with their apartment.
His dry cough coupled with her struggle for breath indicated lower oxygen levels in the atmosphere and letting him be would only aggravate his asthmatic condition. For Aravind and the other children of his age the use of the oxygen mask was as normal as the use of an air conditioner when she was small. Low weight oxygen “bags” as they were called were carried by both adults and children wherever they went, for you never knew when the oxygen level would drop below the normal safe levels. She had rented this flat, in spite of its tiny living space for the convenience of the centralized oxygen generating plant it housed. This ensured a comparatively non-erratic supply of oxygen which many other apartments failed to offer, but for which she was paying a very hefty sum as rent. Being a single mother and one of an asthmatic, she could not take chances.
She went back to bed a little queasy in the head, and after some turning and shifting finally fell into a disturbed sleep. She served Aravind some cereal and canned fruits for breakfast. Fruits were a delicacy in the country now. Fresh ones were never available and the canned ones that came to the supermarkets very rarely were in very high demand and cost a fortune. Many had begun switching over from food to tablets that provided the necessary nutrition and nourishment. Tablets were more easily available, convenient to carry and most important, cheaper than food. There were tablets that supplemented proteins, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, starch, fats or any nutrient you could think for. She popped a pill herself as she got ready to drop Aravind to school and go to office.
They drove past beautiful sky scrapers, constructed to the minutest of engineering perfection. They seemed to be towering higher and higher aiming to touch the skies. The skyline resembled the settings of a high tech sci fi movie. Paved roads stretched ahead and in the areas where there was fear of ground sinkage, concrete roads and roads of interlocking blocks were laid on strong foundations so that the acid rains that poured from the skies wouldn’t eat into them. The government seemed to have given up the project of cloud seeding to produce artificial rain. It was of no use. Water was the most precious of all commodities. Rivers had dried up long and expensive desalination plants were the only source of water but again mighty expensive.
Forgotten were the days when people had hair. Naina touched her head. She was used to the emptiness on her scalp now. Hardly 42, her skin had already begun to wrinkle and her head looked large in comparison to her torso. Her bony frame made her look like an alien, an extra terrestrial from another planet. Ageing was fast and wrinkled skin, the new trend.
She worked for a Civil Construction Firm and was Project Head for one location of the new phase of metro. The old pillars had crossed their maximum age limit of 100 years long back and re-fabrication and restructuring had them running for another thirty three years. But it was high time for reinvention. It was a massive project. Huge but silent cranes worked round the clock at dismantling the girders and the piers which were now rendered unsafe due to age. Even the pile foundation that had involved so much of labour and money at the time had to be dismantled from under the ground.
Technology was at its best. There was building and there was rebuilding. Everything was so fast. Floods and natural calamities were a common occurrence. Technology had made it a lot simpler to receive warnings. It was like mammals had turned amphibians, accommodating to every circumstance. When there was flood people moved to higher level areas and when there was a drought they adapted to going for long periods of time without water. Thirst quenching capsules did the magic. Humans were perennially dehydrated and this was considered normal. The scorching sun’s rays directly hit the earth’s surface since the ozone layer had depleted to a dismally thin layer no longer capable of preventing ultra violet radiation. There was a boom especially for those in the sunscreen business. But in spite of it all skin cancer was a very common occurrence.
She dropped Aravind at his school. He was still on the oxygen mask since his breathing levels weren’t yet normal. Naina was a bit worried if he would be fine so she decided to drop him in his class so that she could put a word to his teacher. On reaching the class however she could not help but smile. Nearly fifty percent of the students had their masks on. Having come she put a word to Ms. Smitha, Aravind’s class teacher.
Around the world, the use of words like sustainability, reduce, reuse, recycle had long been forgotten. Slogans like “save the environment”, “go green”, “reduce pollution” etc were nonexistent. That stage had been crossed long back. The time for that was over. This was a new era, where only the fittest and the wealthiest survived. There wasn’t crude oil anymore and neither was there hydro power or wind power. The new power source with which every single machine worked was either was either solar or nuclear. Oxygen was given on ration at subsidized rates to the relatively poor if they managed to survive.
Artificial Intelligence was now being groomed to study the possibility of cloning half man half robot creatures to survive the present extreme conditions on earth. That way, whatever life remained could be sustained without facing extinction. In the past two decades thousands of species of plants and animals had become nonexistent. A century ago, the very idea would have probably been considered fiction, based on which animated series and super hero movies were made. Not anymore.
Colonization of Mars would become a reality in the next couple of years. The progress at which work was happening on this new planet to be it habitable was remarkable. Artificial photosynthesis units had been installed at regular intervals throughout the planet to convert the carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere to oxygen. The existent ice on the planet surface was being thawed to life giving water, which when completed would finally pave way for human life on the planet.
Naina had also booked for a permanent resident status in Mars and planned to shift with Aravind as soon as it was ready. It was one of the reasons she was tight on funds now. The amount paid for the booking had eaten away into all her finances including the huge alimony paid by Harish when they decided to separate. The separation still weighed down on her making her feel guilty sooemtimes. “Escape to Mars” had been her only focus when she demanded a divorce from Harish. Had they remained together, she knew that shifting to Mars was least probable for in spite of all the suffering here, Harish would never abandon his family to move out to Mars. Taking them all was impossible since it was just too expensive.
It wouldn’t be long, Naina kept reassuring herself that she and Aravind would be out of this hell hole. She no longer had any friends or any close aides. People seemed to be afraid of forming bonds for relationships often paved way for obligations. It was a selfish world where all that mattered was one’s survival. Office was for work and home was the place to mind one’s own business. There was no socializing anymore, not even on social media. Communication had come to a standstill all together.
She picked Aravind on her way back. Working and school hours were the same for it was difficult to stay out for longer periods be it adults or children. They killed time at home with his homework, some television and little food and water. There was not much for mother and son to share and each seemed to be lost in thought. Yet, she had decided to keep him when she left Harish and even the rest of her family to fend for themselves. Perhaps a small trace of humanity was still existent in this new environment. Naina put Aravind to bed and went back to the kitchen to tidy up.
Well into the night, she woke up breathless again. Panting and gasping for breath. She checked the oxygen level. Oh No!! It was alarmingly low. It had never come to this low. She could hear Aravind coughing from the next room. She hurried and turned on the centralized oxygen supply system moving to Aravind’s room. He had begun to breathe normally again. She was relieved and was just beginning to heave a sigh of relief when there was a beeping sound from the oxygen supply. She found the red indicator light was beeping. This meant that there wasn’t enough stock of oxygen in the reservoir.
She immediately checked up with the care taker. The oxygen plant was under repair and the alternate supplier had not been able to refill because there was shortage of oxygen in the city. Gosh!! What would happen now? In the hurry to get back home she had also forgotten to purchase the small oxygen refill packs. How could she have been so careless? Now what would happen? A few minutes and the centrailsed supply of oxygen stopped. A few minutes more and Arvind began coughing all over again. She realized with a sinking mind that all they had was one refill pack of oxygen. There was no question of borrowing one from anyone. No one would lend.
Aravind’s cough grew worse and he was beginning to suffocate. Naina stood petrified, shocked. She had also begun to feel faint and more and more out of breath. She pulled out the last oxygen refill and connected the mask to it. Aravind’s was squirming agitatedly in bed, trying to get up his hands outstretched in desperation, reaching out for the life gas and its connecting mask. Naina moved a step towards him and then stopped short.
She stood so for a while, a couple of seconds and as things began to slowly get hazier, she turned round, pulled the mask over her nose, locked the door of Aravind’s room behind her and moved forth. Tears welled in her eyes……………