There were few of us girls left in my Green City neighbourhood when I was small. Those of us that did exist — maybe 10 or 12, certainly not more than 20 — weren’t encouraged to befriend one another. We would talk, we might question our roles in life, or dream of another life for ourselves. Still, we looked up the Bureau records from the safety of our homes and found out all about each other — girls and women in Green City were required to have public profiles that men could peruse before applying for a Wife.

Sometimes we would catch each others’ eyes when we were out, with our parents or guardians. We’d walk in the Galleria on hot days, browsing the shops teeming with luxurious clothes from Kolachi, tulipwood furniture made in Chabahar, precious jewellery from Gedrosia. On pleasant days we’d visit the large open-air rainforest parks to see the exotic sloths and porcupines, the rare whales and giant turtles that had been cloned back into existence. Or we’d go to the Corniche, aimlessly wandering amidst the food stalls and fountains. We turned our eyes to the blue waters of the Gulf, we pretended to admire the crystalline kites soaring above it in the breeze, excited little boys controlling them with wireless remotes on the ground. We were really searching for each other. That spark of recognition as we stared into each others’ eyes, that furtive smile, the twitch of fingers to wave hello or goodbye, would signal that girl as a friend — and an ally.

We connected with each other in ways that our parents and the Agency didn’t know about. At least, that’s what we always told each other. We couldn’t use our parent-connected devices at home, couldn’t use the Network to find each other, so we resorted to things that had become almost obsolete: scrawled notes dropped in places only girls would search, inside jewellery boxes at certain stores, underneath a pile of dresses, tucked among a row of hairbrushes. The chances of our notes being found by others was low, because there were so few of us — but still, we tried.

We dealt in optimism. On those notes, we wouldn’t write messages, but we just left codes to TalkBots that would store messages and erase them if they were left unresponded to for longer than a few minutes — that we hoped other girls of our age would find and reply to. We sent messages in bottles to each other, even though we all lived on the same island.

I am fourteen, I live in Sur. I like chocolate and horror stories.
I have three brothers. I’m from Green City Central.
I live in a village in the Wahiba.
My favorite colour is lavender.
My mother died when
I was a little girl.

We didn’t tell each other our names. Instead, we used nicknames — flowers, like Rose, Jasmine, Honeysuckle; gems like Ruby or Opal; birds like Sparrow and Dove. We grew a little community that existed nowhere but in our own heads, arranging bits and bytes into patterns that relayed our thoughts, hopes and dreams to each other.

It was one of these girls, unromantically named Chicken, who told me about the Panah. At first I laughed at her for spreading a silly rumour. With a name like Chicken, what else could it have been but the crazed invention of an overexcited girl? But she insisted that her father was a high-up official in the Agency; she’d somehow come across one of his classified bulletins mentioning rumors of an underground community where Rebellious women existed outside the system, traitors to Green City and the largesse of its Leaders.

Ignoring my disbelief, Chicken soon told me even more details: that there were virtual tunnels on the dark Web. The Agency tried to surveil them and shut them down, but they were always architectured to shift from one anonymous and undiscoverable server to another. With the right codes, Chicken said she could not only reach out and make contact with those women, but she could tell them about herself and send them her profile, and they might select her to join them. If that happened, then a girl could escape her fate, and disappear like a cloud in the sky. Or a snowdrift that would simply melt away with the warming sun. One hour there, the next, gone. A strange feeling, to think of oneself as “disappeared”.

But then, wasn’t that just what had happened to all those girls and all those women in Green City who should have been alive, but weren’t? The missing girls, aborted out of existence, killed by the Virus, buried alive in marriages they didn’t want? I was one of the lucky ones, who had survived the first two, but I didn’t know if I would survive the third.

Chicken herself was a product of one of those multiple marriages, and sadly had no idea — and was never told — which of her mother’s four Husbands was her father. She said all the fathers treated her well, spoiled her and brought her gifts. But how her mother felt — we never spoke about that. Her silences on the subject said more than her words ever could.

It was a capital crime to hit or abuse a woman — women in Green City were precious resources, to be treasured and protected, looked after and provided for, and in return for their bodies given to the cause of repopulation. The fertility drugs took their toll on the women’s health; women started giving birth to triplets and quadruplets because of the high doses, and the high-risk pregnancies wore them out more quickly. So they were discouraged from taking up too much activity outside the house, in fresh air. Work was considered beneath them and domestics did a lot of the household chores.

The women I saw moving around the City were always accompanied by two or three of their Husbands. They were dressed well and their husbands were attentive to them, bringing them presents from the shops in the Galleria. No matter whether a woman was rich or poor, when she became a Wife, her status rose, and the Green City government doubled the family allowance each time she gave birth. Her womb was the ticket from poverty straight into the comfort of the middle class for her as well as all her Husbands. And yet, those Wives I saw were bowed down, shrunken and meek, unmoved by the generosity of their Husbands and the state.

The times when I caught their eyes, I saw them fix me with steely looks of recognition, as if they were saying to me, I was once young and carefree like you. Treasure these days, girl, they don’t last.

The above excerpt has been taken from the writer’s upcoming novel Sleep.

The writer is the author of six books

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 13th, 2017