As they went down the elevator shaft, going deeper underground, neither Nada nor Manko spoke a word. To Manko it seemed to take forever.
In his mind, he went over the long conversation they had had at dinner. Zero had finally explained the reason for Manko to be invited. It was almost too crazy to believe, but here he was all the same, on his way with Nada, about to be introduced to these children. The first human beings to live forever, born eight years ago, living two miles underground.
These kids did not know any better than having dinner without food and days without sunlight. Surely, they were not going to miss what they never had. But dealing with a lack of death was going to be another matter. Nada had explained that it's normal for a child to not have a sense of their its mortality yet. So it was up to Nada to help the children deal with their limitless lives once they would stop aging at maturity.
Manko had agreed to help out in devising a plan for this. The first idea was to come up with rituals for the children, borrowing ideas from both psychology and art. Zero had flattered him when he had said that Manko's thinking, based on the lack of things, would definitely inspire these rituals. Manko did not question that Nada was a key figure in dealing with the future psychological issues these children might have, yet he wasn't sure yet how an artist like himself would be just as valuable.
He loved thinking about rituals though. He remembered a research project in Art School that could prove helpful. He had been studying some rituals that ancient tribes had created for youngsters reaching their adolescence. For girls, menstruation provided a natural introduction to womanhood, yet for boys they had to be invented. One ritual that had captivated his imagination was one where an adolescent boy, ready to become a responsible man in his tribe, went into the forest with his grandmother and grandfather.
Grandparents and child visited a young tree that had been planted there at the day the boy was born. They split open the thin stem vertically and opened up the slit, representing an open vagina. Then the grandmother would lift up the boy and pass him through the opening to his grandfather on the other side. This ritual of passage into the world of adulthood would then be rounded off by closing up the stem again, tying it firmly so it could heal quickly and continue to grow. The grandparents would then tell the boy the stories of his tribe and how to be a man. Manko loved that ritual and had always felt that in the society he was raised in, these meaningful rituals were lacking.
The elevator door opened with a hiss. Nada stepped into the dimly lit space first. Manko followed. This dome was huge. Nada winked at him and blinked four times. He followed her example.
The first thing that caught Manko's eye were the luminous drawings on the ceiling of the dome. They reminded him of prehistoric cave paintings. He recognized the signature of children, not much different than that of any child anywhere in the world. There were drawings of people, of domes and cubes and even one of a cat. Staring at the ceiling he could swear he could even hear the purr of a cat until he noticed a real cat rubbing against his leg.
Nada: 'Meet James, our first test subject.'
Manko: 'So, I suppose he has more than nine lives?'
Nada: 'An infinite number of lives indeed. And he stays playful for life. The children love him.'
The room itself was filled with colorful virtual objects, constituting a labyrinth of some sorts.
Nada: 'Okay, let's find our way through this. Be careful not to walk through these objects. That would be cheating.' She laughed: 'The good thing about Augmented Reality is that it doesn't matter that they don't clean up their room.
Manko: 'Don't the others ever come down here?'
Nada: 'Oh yes they do, but they can easily monitor this place from where they are and they don't want to bother me too much with my work down here.'
Nada touted her lips, whistled and called out gently: 'Come out, come out wherever you are. You know I'm going to find you!'
Manko could hear muffled giggling.
Nada: 'This is their favorite game. And they're good at it too, changing the maze while we're in it.'
They tried to find the children, but to no avail. The vast maze kept reconfiguring itself constantly. In the dark dome, the neon colored objects moved in and out of view. They walked around the corner of what looked like a huge pink nose. Manko shrieked. In front of them a giant creature got up on its back legs and towered over them. It beat its chest and wildly shook its horned head and as it leaned forward it froze in this position.
Manko heard kids cheering. His heart pounded heavily. Nada let her hand wave through the creature's head.
Nada: 'Sorry, I forgot to tell you about the minotaur. If the minotaur finds you before you find the kids, you lose.'
The labyrinth and the minotaur disappeared and further down the dome the children emerged from the shadows.
Nada: 'Come on, don't be shy. This is Manko and he would like to meet you.
Six children came at them, three couples, holding hands.
Nada:' They're all twins. Always a boy and a girl. Bokor said they have to be a backup plan for each other. Don't ask me what all that means. Zero, Bokor and Gill started this operation ten years ago and I have been here only two. There's a lot I do not fully understand yet. The youngest ones are Edan and Mimir. Then there's Lif and Lifra and the oldest ones are Askr and Embla.'
The children looked quite ordinary. Manko had expected them to be pale from the lack of sunlight, but their skin looked tanned and healthy. The wonders of Nanotechnology, no doubt.
The children introduced themselves to Manko, a bit shy still but very curious at the same time.
Nada: 'You had better not underestimate these kids. They may seem very well mannered but they're real scoundrels.'
She winked at them. The children smiled broadly, showing Manko their unnatural white teeth.
All of a sudden, in the middle of the room, a huge virtual red ball appeared and started pulsating. Then Manko, Nada and the kids jumped up as an electric shock went through their bodies. Manko was instantly focused and full of adrenaline.
Manko: 'Is this another game?'
Nada: 'No that's our alarm. Highest emergency frequency. Something's terribly wrong. We better contact the others immediately and find out what's wrong.'
The elevator opened and Gill burst into the dome: 'Nada, we have to leave now! We're in terrible danger. Bokor lost control in the Lab and Zero's dead!'
Nada: 'Zero is dead? What happened?'
Gill: 'No time to explain. The whole place is filling up with something deadly and I don't wanna be around when it hits this level.'
Nada: 'We should try to contact Bokor first. Was it an accident?'
Gill: 'No accident. I think Bokor killed Zero on purpose. We better get out of here and take the children with us. Manko, you better follow us. I'm sorry about all this, but you're going to have to trust me. We're going to leave right now!'