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11.50 PM

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Alarm clock wakes me up at 5.30. With my eyes closed, I take three steps towards the kitchenette. A coffee capsule goes into the machine. Expensive brand containing ten per cent of natural coffee beans is the only luxury I still allow myself. Next month I’ll have to switch to surrogates, if I don’t want to go into the red for ever. I thrust the breakfast packs into the microwave, and the coffee smell fades defeated by the familiar sickening odour of compressed yeast. It appears to be bacon and eggs, but you can never tell: all these ready-to-eat meals smell and look the same, only the labels are different.

Children’s alarm clocks ring. Nelly’s one plays the latest hit about immortal love. The singer is a high school senior with a sweet voice, Prince Charming of all teenage girls. Dave has chosen something loud and brutal, but fortunately short. It won’t do to get another complaint from the neighbours to the superintendent. Children don’t understand that in order to live in this part of the dome it is not enough to pay rent on time. No less than a hundred families would fight for this flat the first day it gets vacant. Two bedrooms, a kitchenette and a real shower, not a sonic one! But the most important thing is the school, the best one in the sector. It was pure luck to get this place several years ago.

Nelly flops down at the table still wearing her pyjamas, whiffs suspiciously and pokes the contents of her plate with a fork.

“Not yeast again! Mum, you promised!”

“Sorry, honey, this month we can’t do anything. I’ll get paid a week from now.”

I know she’s right, I did promise, but with my current work schedule I haven’t managed to take a side job, and the black market prices have jumped again.

Right after they banned the suppressants, prices dropped so much we could even afford to buy cloned meat. Before many people had used the market to obtain clean food, now they were not ready to overpay for the flavour only, the more so because the meals in alpha-sector canteens taste decent enough. But time passed, and everything resumed its natural course. Demand still exceeded supply. However, Nelly thinks she can forget about yeast for good.

Dave sniffs looking at her doleful face as she lifts the fork to her mouth.

“Just look at our princess! Her Highness must have been expecting steak and egg benedict for breakfast.”

“I know you don’t care what you fill your stomach with, but I do! I’ll never grow tall if I eat this garbage.”

I let out an expressive sigh, but too late to stop the morning squabble. Dave grins sardonically.

“They’ll never admit you to the Officer School, little Nell, even if you grow two metres high. Cause you brain is the size of a peanut and you’ll never pass the exam.”

Well, he’s right, Nelly is short for her age, but she’s only thirteen. It’s unfair for him to tease his sister. He knows her most cherished dream is to be admitted to that School.”

“Cause we eat crap, and we’re always short of money! And we’re short of money because of your tutors! Maths, Physics, Chemistry… Is there anything at all that you can learn yourself? Maybe my brain is the size of a peanut, but at least I handle my homework myself!”

“Stop it!” – The tutors are my decision. Dave assured me he could manage, but I know what classification is. One point makes all the difference. You get a hundred, and you’re an alpha. You get ninety nine, and you’re a beta. For ever. No second chances.

“Yes, you handle it. But what you should really do is to study.”

“Don’t tell me you study! You surf your sites and tell Mum about your homework! The computer is always occupied; I was late with my test because of you yesterday!”

My cheeks begin to burn. Not those sites again!

“Dave?! You promised!”

“But Mummy, I only read the news. Everyone does.”

“You can find enough news on the news channel! Do you want to find yourself in a penal colony instead of the university?”

“First of all I’m minor; second there aren’t enough colonies for all who visit those sites. I do nothing. I just read.”

He just reads! Why couldn’t just Blake continue to seduce the underage boys in the proper sense of that word?! Not only started a Federation-wide scandal, after which they had to ban the suppressants even in the delta sector, and delinquency increased threefold at once, but he is also spreading the news. I work in a computer centre, and we spend all the time blocking more and more sites, writing defensive algorithms… but nothing helps. It’s a real information war: you don’t need to have any secret relations with the underground, you just log on to the net, and you find out what public enemy Number One is busy with and what his great objectives are! Last month they managed to hack the news channel and appeared in the live evening viscast.

I don’t know how they do it, and I don’t want to know. But those who suffer first are young people. Boys like Dave. They don’t realise yet what the real price of freedom is. A sabotage in the food factories, transportation system troubles, constant provocations… here, on Earth! At least there are no explosions here…

But what they do in the Outer Worlds! A week ago my neighbour received death notice for her son. He had only two months of service left. Some kind of a scientific research military base on the other side of the galaxy. They didn’t even bring his ashes – the whole planet was under eternal quarantine. Blake brought some kind of plague there, while testing a biological weapon. Well, of course they have a different version on their site: an alien virus. But why did that virus appear on the planet the same day their ship came to the base?

Freedom! Sometimes I think that alphas enjoy too much of it. Deltas don’t blow out federal military stations, don’t arrange demonstrations, don’t attack rehabilitation centres. And even more they don’t put stupid ideas into young heads. Gammas work peacefully in the factories, we, betas, know our place, and only alphas are never satisfied! Just in our sector we had three student demonstrations this year! I thought I would catch a break when Dave enters university, but now I’m not so sure what will be better for him. But what can I do? I can’t take away the computer from him a week before the test. He must study!

“Dave, please, I beg you! You know how it all works. A random check, and all is finished. You won’t be admitted to the qualification. You’ll be a delta for the rest of your life!”

“You say like it’s the end of the world. By the way, if you read him at least once, you would know that our caste system is not the only possible social structure. The Outer Worlds do quite well without it.”

I know my son. No, I don’t believe he “just reads”. He is absorbed. So much absorbed, that begins to argue without hesitation. Today he argues with me in our own kitchen. But what would happen tomorrow?

“The Outer Worlds do quite well without many things, without good health care, without decent education, without reliable transit. Are you ready to spend your life on the other side of the galaxy repairing evaporators on a planet conditionally suitable for habitation?

No answer. He takes his bag and jumps out to the corridor, chewing the last piece. He pretends to be late, though the train will come only in fifteen minutes. I only manage to shout to the closing door: “I’ll show you the news this evening!”

Nelly gets quiet and pokes her eggs sadly, then she stands in front of the mirror trying to fix her uniform skirt higher so that one could see her knees. A quick movement – and my lipstick disappears in her pocket. I pretend not to have noticed.

My coffee is cold already and I can’t afford to reheat it. Due to new limits we have to save energy. Nothing can be done. Domes don’t grow, but population does. There is a rumour about a new emigration programme for deltas. The time draws nigh. If they multiply like rats, let them do it in the open air and not on Earth.

I drink my cold coffee not noticing the taste. Dave won’t listen. Children… they never listen. Yen could explain his son what the price of youthful mistakes is. It only seems that you can do anything, that all is possible. But a single quarrel with your boss, and in the twinkle of an eye you are transferred to a new job. Industrial waste processing, old equipment, you work yourself to death. Vacation is getting shorter, your shifts – longer. Until one day you are not fast enough to close the leak. An accident, a gas explosion, two orphans and survivor's benefits. Because of two foolish words.

To distract myself I switch on the news. What a distraction! The whole Universe has gone mad. An awful crash on the orbit of Keldan, snow storms on Palmero, a drought on Suni… Well, we can do without exotic fruit, but what shall we do without wheat from Suni? I dash the rest of my coffee into the sink – I’m afraid I’ll be wanted at the office earlier than usual. If this is shown on the official channel, you can imagine what can be found in the net. We’ll be on emergency schedule till the end of the crisis. I wonder whom would they blame this time. A year ago Ministry of Information forbade to mention Blake’s name in any context. All the acts of terrorism, too big to be ignored, are performed by anonymous terrorist groups. But even an epsilon will never believe that terrorists have declared war against tropical fruit.

I switch off the visor and go out into the corridor. My next door neighbour is on the morning shift as well. We make small talk about nothing, though I see he can hardly suppress his curiosity. Well, sometimes I do know more than a common technician, but I’m not completely out of my mind to discuss classified information with my neighbours. I almost run to the monorail station. Train is delayed, platform is crowded. Next to the purple tunics of the Ministry of Justice are technicians grey jackets and workers green overalls.

It seems people try to be closer to each other today, though usually we, the inhabitants of domes, value our personal space. Everyone discusses the latest news. There is something in the air: heavy and worrisome. I join the crowd, and it takes me into the train. My body occupies its familiar position: one hand lies on the hand-rail, with the other one I press the workpad to my hip, my head is bent a bit, thus I can see the display panel better.

***
Amazingly, my worst expectations did not come true. The shift lasted only an hour longer than usual. It is surprisingly silent at home. Dave hasn’t come back from school yet, sometimes he has evening classes. Nelly sits at the table reading a textbook. She tries to avoid my sight so hard, that I understand something has happened.

“Nell?”

“Mummy? You’ve come so early…”

She thought I wouldn’t be back tonight, as I left a message, I would stay for a night shift. I didn’t know at that time that I would be free in an hour. I sit next to her and hug her.

“What is the name of your trouble, and who has he dared to look at instead of you?”

She sighs so hard that it’s difficult for me to hide a smile. Snowstorms, droughts and floods become unimportant and faraway compared to the first unanswered love at the age of thirteen. It’s even good Dave is not at home, we can have a heart to heart talk between two women.

“I promised I would tell no one.”

“Is it such a mystery?”

“No! You don’t understand!”

“Of course I don’t. Parents never do. But maybe I can help?”

“Well, you remember Taira?”

I give a nod. How can I forget a girl who spends more time in my flat than in her own one? No, I can’t say anything bad about her, but Dave could have found someone smarter. But I don’t interfere. The test will put everything in order.

“Taira has an elder brother who serves in the Municipal Security Agency.”

It is coming a little too strong. A pimpled classmate is one thing, and a trooper is quite another.

“He told Taira not to go with Dave tomorrow, cause it would be for real this time. And Taira told me everything, as Dave… They have quarrelled, and he won’t listen. But I don’t even know where he is now! And he won’t listen to me either!”

I never have thought that blood could really run cold. Nelly speaks hastily, choking with emotion, and I can’t catch all the words, but I’ve heard quite enough to feel the cold spreading over my body from my heart. Tomorrow the Chief Magistrates of this sector are going to pass the representative of the Supreme Council a petition from an action group of alphas. They suggest returning the old practice of adding suppressants into the state rations for deltas. It’s quite a reasonable proposal, it takes into account the growth of delinquency, as well as the withdrawal effect which deltas suffered from the most.

Freedom is great. When you speak about it. But in real life someone always has to pay for the freedom of the others. I wish Blake left that fairy-tale ship of his and returned to Earth to see what the results of his struggle are. The end is always the same. Blood. Students are going to protest against the petition. Tomorrow they will set up picket lines outside the Municipal Administration. It seems to be a spiral of absurdity. Those who don’t have enough freedom are going to protest against those who have too much of it.

Tomorrow… Three more hours and it will become today. A very special day. Dave’s birthday. I recall these dates one by one, year after year, beginning with the very first one. Eighteen years. A tiny lump of flesh with swollen lids and greedy lips has become an adult man. I’ve already stopped wondering about my son’s shoe size and his appetite. I know he has grown up. It is time to let him go and live his own life. But I still have three hours.

At midnight he will come of age. If they don’t kill him tomorrow, but just arrest, the central computer will classify him as a citizen. Today he’s just a child. I send Nelly to bed, saying unnaturally calm, that I’ll take care of everything, that I won’t let him go there, that Taira is a wonderful girl. Nelly believes me. She is too frightened not to believe.

Three hours. Dave will never forgive me. Or he wouldn’t forgive. I can’t choose the correct grammatical form. He won’t forgive if he finds out? But he’ll never know. I only manage to dial the number at the third attempt.

They are very polite, but that politeness is too professional, too forced and a kind of detached. Like that of a surgeon before the operation. They understand everything and they are ready to support my difficult decision. But behind the sympathy I read disapproval. They are sure it is my fault as well. I’m a bad mother if I had to dial that number. But I don’t want to be guilty of that! I always acted correctly, as was right and proper!

I sign the papers relinquishing custody. For two hours. Now I can only wait. They explain to me, that in the rehabilitation programme for teenagers they use moderate methods of induction, that the earlier you ask for professional help, the more effective the treatment is, that if everything goes right, he will be back home in three months. But I know I’ll never see my son again. The person that will come back will be a stranger.

I answer them, I nod, I learn that the classification test is held on an individual basis in such cases, and I confirm that I understand the importance of follow up appointments after the main treatment.

Dave comes ten minutes before midnight keeping our old agreement: I don’t care how late he comes, but he must spend the night in his own bed. The woman in a formal skirt stands up to meet him. He slits his eyes scrutinizing the Juvenile Department emblem on her chest and turns to me. He only looks, he doesn’t say a single word, and at that very moment I understand that he has really grown up.

I could have told him that I did it for his sake. That three months in a rehabilitation centre are much better than a penal colony or a bullet in his head. But instead I look silently at his back. My minutes end. Number nine fades from the display giving place to a zero. It’s midnight.