Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Chapter 1: The Spirit Festival



On white winds 
the eyes of god, they rise 
They meet and watch 
from North-Eastern skies 
They too will see 
the dead brought home
And perhaps a babe 
To our cradle come. 
 - Xinland Nursery Rhyme, as recorded within the Republic’s Intra Archives. Reportedly both sung and said in homes around the time of the Spirit Festival. 

#

Grace stage-whispered to her best friend, “How long do we wait here watching these things?” She cupped her dainty hand in front of her mouth and nodded towards the lanterns bobbing in the bay. “I can’t even tell which one is mine anymore.”

“That probably has something to do with the fact that your lantern is one of a google of red lotuses.” Neith teased.

The young pair stood amongst the holiday throng at the harbour’s edge, night fresh fallen. Most had set their sentiments adrift by now. A few latecomers were still apologetically working their way to the front of the mass to launch their paper creations or purchasings.

“Fair. But we’re not all gifted with the mind and hands, are we, Nee? Although I rather enjoyed the attention your little masterpiece got us earlier.”

“You would.” The crowds were not Neith’s preference. She was more accustomed to tinkering in her quiet lab. Occasions such as these brought her out; the opportunity to see a conception realised, sharing it with a grand reveal – it was all her way. She liked to see the reaction to her private tinkering, even if it meant navigating through onlookers. And tonight she had outdone herself with the waka. It was a small alloy sea vessel Neith built to carry her festival light. It even had a flourish of ancient indigenous detailing at its bow. Being 2K’s, she and Grace were used to drawing looks and whispers in a crowd – sometimes a hand. Admirers would steal a satisfied touch of one of their cheeks, treating its softness as they might luscious fabric for sale. Tonight brought more than looks, whispers and unwelcome hands. The unique waka lantern had amplified public curiosity surrounding two 18-year-olds being out at the bay; two 18-year-olds being at all.

Long before the borders closed, there had been two separate celebrations: the Chinese Ghost Festival and Māori New Year, Maatariki. Over time, the traditions of the two began to merge; the lines between them blurring until a singular, watered-down version of both holidays remained. That holiday became known as Lanternfest. Lanternfest – or the Spirit Festival as it was sometimes known – had reflected the blurring of cultures too; it satisfied the politically correct and the traditional equally well.

Lanternfest endured after the plagues. After the unrelenting tidal spread of death, the territory wars, and the skirmishes over food all ended, the festival meant more. Survivors like her grandparents had forged a new order and semblance of happiness in the last clean city in New Zealand. Xinland now. The last clean city: Feichangbei. It glittered like a technological crown on a mostly uninhabitable haunted isle. A week dedicated to spirits seemed more relevant than ever. Overhead, a cluster of stars in the north-eastern sky had appeared to signal the festival’s opening. Unlike everything else, those stars hadn’t changed. Seeing the stars, the people of Feichangbei had partied all week, inviting wandering spirits to join them. The Intra was covered in digital shrines and dedications to the dead; letters to ghosts. Now the lanterns the girls watched were to serve as guiding lights. The wandering spirits were to follow the lights to the afterlife at sundown. Some of the living dared to sing to spirits they hoped would yet live. Some hoped for births. Neith wasn’t one of them. Regardless of whether a ritual was for the coming or going, everything during the week had been for the spirits. It helped the tortured living release the ghosts of memory and gave voice to the hopeful prayers of others. Either way, the mixed-race Republic colony honoured ghosts every year.  Most people launched lotuses to do that.

Neith was not most people. Her waka was a tribute to some part inside her that was little spoken of. Lotuses were nice enough, but they presented little technological challenge. The sea vessel was different. For a few minutes, that difference had caused strangers to stop eyeing the girls’ unlined skin, fawning instead over Neith’s unusual, steady light. The bright glow that stole focus emanated from some circular metalwork on top of the canoe-shaped design. Tea light candles nestled in paper flowers were good enough for everybody else. Strangers probably assumed Neith had wealthy progenitors she was attempting to honour with her grandiose lantern.

Or that she was casting for views.

She had other ideas.

Neith couldn’t blame a stranger for either of those assumptions – the lanterns were traditionally about remembering. Recently any event, any moment, was a chance to cast – she got it – people were scrambling for things to do. Casting just wasn’t for her. Anyone who knew Neith (either in reality or by creeping her Intra profile) knew Neith’s lantern was for her grandmother, like last year. Nanny had been a first gen survivor, she helped settle the City. Neith imagined most of the lotuses were for first gen survivors. A few might be for the miscarried – there were always those. Neith tried not to dwell too long on that. Nanny had managed to carry Neith’s mother to term, and Neith’s mother had birthed a live child too; Neith. She was here. While Neith appreciated the ritual send-off idea, she had always considered the entire thing something more for those left behind; the living. That was part of why Neith’s lantern was for a ghost, plus one.

“I have something stell for you,” Neith sing-songed, tilting into Grace’s small frame. Neith’s straight black bob swayed with the motion, curtaining half of her playful smile.

Grace spun, eager. She then commenced frisking Neith’s many pockets, repeating “Where?!” Neith attempted to fend off the physicality. She retracted her elbows in that telltale squirming way ticklish people do, confirming their vulnerability. Grace searched, undeterred. Neith always wore The Coat of Many Pockets. Its asymmetrical side zip ran from its stiff high collar down to Neith’s left side. A large pocket crossed the whole mid-section. It also had pockets at the breast, sides, and sleeves. Those were just the pockets on the outside.

“You should really ask questions before frisking, Gray.”

“I’d argue ‘Frisk now, ask questions later’ is a much catchier policy.”

“I’d like to see that policy in action with anyone but me.” Neith knew Grace talked a big talk, but when it came to growing their inner circle, neither of them were aggressive.

Grace hadn’t given up the search. She’d felt Neith’s phone in the large stomach pocket and moved on. She managed to empty the contents of one of the sleeve pockets, despite Neith’s blocking efforts. In Neith’s defence: laughing compromised her ability to block effectively. Grace now dangled her plunder. Neith smiled at the items pinched between her friend’s fingers; a small tangle of 22-gauge jumper wires and a voltage regulator. Grace made a quick inspection of the parts by the esplanade lamplight. Her look in response to what she was seeing said two things for her; one – to her eye, she had found some cords and a small comb-thingy, and two – cords and a small comb-thingy had better not be her gifts.

“I don’t have your gift on me. What do you think this is, Lanternfest 44? Do you think I’ve learned nothing in the past 10 years?”

“Good, glad to hear it.” Grace stuffed the Neith-paraphernalia back into the jacket – deliberately selecting a different pocket than the one she’d found them in. She chose one hidden in the side-seam. She knew that would bug Neith. She zipped the misplacement closed and gave it a double pat. Neith smiled with an exhale.

Every year since they had met, back at age 8, Neith and Grace attended a lantern launch on some coastline of Feichangbei – there were plenty to choose from in what was once a City of Sails. The gift exchange afterwards was their private celebration of the living. As well as honouring spirits – spirits Neith hoped lived on – Neith used the occasion to show Grace how much she valued her fiery friend. Grace used the occasion to be fiery...and Neith loved it. She loved that Grace understood and embraced her, with her unusual hobbies and interests, even because of them. Their shared years had taught Neith; Grace could jump the gun and spoil the big reveal. Neith keeping Grace’s gift on her person would have been a rookie mistake. Experience had taught her to keep the gift out of Grace’s excitable reach.

Neith’s smile morphed into a smirk. She nodded out across the water.

Grace folded her arms and turned back to the few lights that persisted. They reflected in bright lines on the bay. She looked back to Neith, seeking more information. “What?” She was attempting a stern expression but the upward flicks of black eye-liner at her eye corners screamed mischief.

“It’s in the waka,” Neith gave in. Her dark eyes sparkled.

“Wait, what?”

“Your gift. It’s in the waka.” Neith nodded again, out towards the bobbing beacon.

Grace took an instinctive step forward and dramatically clawed the air after the distant lanterns. “You launched my gift? Into the toxic surrounds of a major metropolis. Mid-winter?” Her words were punctuated by massive inhales every two words. “I hope this is like that viralcast where the guy proposes to that bug-eyed 2K. You know the one? He gives her the ring-box, and inside there was an old world El-train ticket, and she’s disappointed – jerk right? Untiiil she rides the El to the stop on the ticket and he’s paid for all the screens at that station to say ‘Will you marry me?’ Tell me this is like that.”

“You want me to propose?” Neith withheld her laughter.

“Very funny. But let’s not rule that out if we’re still each other’s dates to next year’s Maatariki.” Such a public pairing was fairly uncommon, what with it being made illegal in any formal way. Attraction within the sex didn’t solve the Republic’s problems. The chances anyone believed Neith and Grace would risk being life partners publicly was low. Neith gave Grace a stern look anyway.

If the girls had lived 100 years ago, it was more likely Neith and Grace would be mistaken for sisters – they looked so much alike, their Chinese bloodlines singing out over their Pakeha-mixed-bag of ancestry. But in 54 AS?

No one their age had sisters.

Grace continued: “I want to know if you’re casually presenting your gift but there’s still transport involved – like the cast. Like, do you have keys to a super-sub I can captain out to the ‘lantern to rule them all.’ I need some way to find out what you’ve stashed inside. Eh?” Grace looked Neith up and down. She unzipped and zipped Neith’s other sleeve pocket playfully, patted her jeans at the front. There was no key, they both knew that. No one carried keys anymore.

Neith raised an eyebrow and blew her hair out of her face.

“Better yet, with that key, you could demonstrate the sub’s super-ness. Forget the sub, you can swim out there and get my present, the after-glow will wear off in a week or two. Do you even swim?” Grace began looking around them now, to the crowd. “Does anybody here swim? My friend accidentally sent my Lanternfest present out into the drink.” Neith doubted anyone listening appreciated the cult term for the sea. Neith was lucky Grace did, even if the term sounded absurd coming from a young woman wearing a Cheongsam.

A group of drynurses tsk-tsked in their direction – but it wasn’t like Neith and Grace cared about disapproval from the delusional. A 50-year-old-plus cyberpunk looked like he might pause to answer Grace. He appeared to be interviewing his friends. They wore trademark hoods they rarely pulled up; they liked to be seen. He carried on interviewing. He was probably wearing a contact lens camera, casting every word. Neith heard him ask, “So whose ghost are you here for? Do you believe there is a life after this?”

“You’ll get your gift, okay. It’s no accident it’s out there.” Neith hushed Grace. “It’ll come to us.”

Grace was still looking around for someone Neith must have enlisted in all this – someone to retrieve the waka; bring the light to them. Neith’s semantics suggested a third party was involved. Grace eyed the cyberpunk castuer suspiciously. Last year, Neith had hired a flash mob to re-create a scene from an old world film. Grace had overheard one of the performers express relief to be have finally finished work on the weird brief they’d been given. She’d thrown his phone into the drink. Grace wasn’t having anyone suggest she had been the epicentre of anything short of spectacular; nor would she stand for criticism of Neith’s gift. She’d been wearing a traditionally-inspired dress with a mandarin collar and knotted buttons that day too. Splash. Neith smiled at the memory.

The disapproving dries had returned to chatter amongst themselves, rocking their lifeless Quins. Who was going to get the gift? Grace could feel the night brewing something epic. Grace’s fringe shimmered in the lamplight as she turned and took in the types assembled; mostly dinks. Dinks were childless couples. Pairs and pairs of only-twos; Dual Incomes, No Kids were the City’s backbone. They earned more than they could consume and helped balance out the burden of supporting the most disproportionate aging population in history.

“No one else is involved.” Seeing Grace’s disappointment, Neith added, “But I guess I can see one way this is kind of like the cast you were talking about.”

“You haven’t seen it?”

“No! I thought you didn’t have time for uploads either.” She didn’t think it, she knew.

“Everyone has seen this one though. Everyone, Nee.”

Neith shrugged in response. She’d never understood how people could spend any length of time watching videos their peers had made with a mere moment’s thought, or worse, zero thought. She had little interest in following content featuring people falling down stairs or showing how to jailbreak an And to upgrade code strings being guarded for the next And’s release and sales. Especially the second thing – she didn’t need anybody’s help on that front. She and Grace preferred Old World media; entertainment produced back when there was revenue to spend on costumes, music, special effects, and actors’ salaries They loved a good ol’ escapist narrative and all of the fantastical offerings from The Before had those in spades. Things created before the economy was pared back to “essentials.”

“She’s right, everyone has seen it.” The interjection came from the cyberpunk clique. The interviewing casteur more than 30 years their senior had decided he would chime in after all.

“Thank you!” Grace responded. The guy resumed his interview with an energetic wink that even his shoulder got in on. It made the chains suspended across his chest swing.

“As I was saying,” Neith said, “This is kind of like that cast in that the gift is still coming.”

“I still don’t get it. This is ridick.” Grace began glancing in every direction, waiting for the reveal to materialise from the dissolving crowd.

“Watch the lanterns, Gray...”

“Wait, there’s only one.” Grace’s rubbed her palms together. She knew which light remained out on the water. Neith’s light remained steady. The tea lights had flickered out.

Then, as the girls watched, dries and dinks tittered, and cyberpunks cast, The Lantern – the last lantern – moved. And not in a bobbing, floating-away-with-the-tide way. Or at least the boat’s light moved. And fast. The once-lazy, bobbing orb shot skyward. It then travelled in a glowing arc. Was Neith’s boat flying?

Conversations shifted and arms extended to point. People set about the business of nudging and tapping their neighbours.

The light grew. Its course towards the waterline became clear. Their waterline. Grace looked to Neith. Neith’s teeth were making impressions on her bottom lip and she was smiling, squinting. Grace scanned her friend for clues. Aha! Neith’s hands were concealed inside the muffler front-pocket Grace had dismissed earlier in the gift-hunt. Neith was using her phone to control the thing. Oh, the schemes of brilliant female friends. Grace joined in biting her lip. She added to that flinching with her whole body – the light-gift was incoming; incoming!

But the light slowed, then hovered about ten metres above the water’s surface and ten metres from shore. Grace could make out a single bright orb surrounded by what looked like a humanoid form. She suspected the remains of Neith’s little boat were still at sea and that this marvellous creation had been concealed inside. She was right. The form remained upright, standing midair. Everything around the light was alloy, as the boat had been. It came closer, horizontally, in a controlled line overhead. Once it seemed to be almost on top of them (and an inevitable periphery of rubber-necking humans), it descended at a steady, slow speed. Grace’s grin was painfully wide. She began clapping. She knew what her gift was. She’d seen the gold and red.

Neith tried not to cry. Her hands briefly stilled on her pocketed phone’s screen while she took it all in. She wasn’t casting, she was living; she was watching her oldest friend’s joyous reaction in the real. Neith saw Grace’s expression shift to a confused frown. The gift had stalled in its flight. Neith resumed giving her full attention to directing the gift for its pièce de resistance.

The creation’s jets stilled. It settled (with very little tink-tinking imbalance) on the rocks, near Grace.

Iron Man had landed in Feichangbei.

Well, Iron Man in miniature. The robotic replica featured a chest-light which continued to glow as it stood stationary, in all its shiny glory. People who had so recently thought of leaving the vicinity were now closing in from the fringes.

Grace was effervescent. There were perks to being friends with the country’s most promising And Designer; namely, incredible gifts that served as throwbacks to an almost-forgotten century’s pop culture.

Grace whirled and threw her arms around Neith’s neck in a tight hug. “You do better than make dreams come true, Neith Cole. You hear me? You take people’s dreams, and then you knock ‘em down and say, ‘You call that a dream?! This is a dream!’ Kinda rude, if we’re frank, but kind of awes’!” Grace planted kisses on Neith’s cheeks.

“Okay, that’s enough. You have a super hero to defend.”

“What? To defend…?” Grace spun back to face her Iron Man in time to see curious onlooker hands reaching to stroke the machine’s finish, much like the way they handled the girls’ faces earlier. “Back off, people; plenty to see here, folks, yes, plenty to see, but it’s all mine,” Grace made haste to the landing site and now hugged the And. Her new embrace looked uncomfortable, but sincere. Neith released an audible laugh. Maybe one tear. People were still talking and laughing a short distance from the young woman on her knees, clutching this machine. “You’d think these people had never seen an android before,” Grace commented – an aside for Neith’s amusement. Neith laughed louder, ignoring the castuer who took the chance to cast this peculiar demonstration of affection. Neith was relieved when he joined the rest of the spectators and moved on.

Seeing Grace like this almost allowed Neith to forget all of the things that were wrong with their lives and their time.

She could almost forget the fertility crisis.

Grace held one hand extended towards Neith, the other remained draped around the small metal suit. She flexed her fingers towards Neith, beckoning. Did she want a group hug now?

“Yes?” Neith asked, approaching.

“Gimme.” Another finger flex. She wanted the phone.

“Oh no you don’t. You lack a licence to fly this thing.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“I am not kidding. I just saved this guy from following an ocean-full of lights destined for the afterlife. Tonight is not his time to die.”

“So you’re telling me you’ve made me an Iron Man that can die, just like that? He’s not fit for flight?”

“You’re not fit for flight.”

“I’ve made some calculations, Cole, and I’m sorry to tell you, but this is one outfit no amount of flattery will make my size,” Grace said, scanning the miniature. It came up to her waist when she was standing.

“Har har. But really. You’ll need some practise before you can pilot I.M. remotely – it took me weeks to master the simple trajectories you saw displayed just now.”

“I’m choosing to ignore the ridiculous second half of that sentence, because: did you just bust out an accent in the middle? We’re calling the suit ’im now?”

“It’s an acronym, Gray; Iron Man; I.M.? Work with me here.”

“Right. Okay, I’m with ya; I.M. It’s okaaay, but I don’t have to use it, right? I mean, what good is having your own, bona fide Iron Man if you never name drop?” Neith’s parents would probably argue What good is a bona fide Iron Man?

The crowd had dispersed. Few of them appreciated this year’s gesture, Neith knew. That was kind of the point. She didn’t need everyone’s approval, she only needed Grace’s. And after I.M. landed and remained still, to the plebs I.M. was just another And; they moved on, looking for the next minor cast-worthy event of their existence. It helped there were final festivities to enjoy back in the City – what with all of the hungry souls safely guided back to their rightful place. Another Spirit Festival complete. Another year gone.

The girls were ready to leave as well. “Okay, does IRON MAN walk?” Grace threw her voice on the keywords to ensure any stragglers were sure to hear her caption for what just went down on this city beach. The casteur looked back briefly, but even he appeared to be done with this year’s Lanternfest.

Grace was holding her gift with visible disapproval. It was heavy. “You carried this how far as a waka?”

“I only carried a waka to the shoreline. He followed me here on foot. I came extra early in case you chose today to arrive on time and spoiled the surprise. I’m guessing you’d prefer it if I tasked him to follow your chip home…?”

“Do it. Make Iron Man my minion.” Again with the shouting. It was sweet to see her so proud. Maybe tonight someone would surprise them and say, “No way, you’re into Iron Man too?” It was unlikely, based on the Intra view count for archived Marvel movies. Grace was putting feelers out anyway.

Neith performed a wireless proximity search on her phone. She selected Grace’s internal chip from the list that appeared and paired the mini-And to her best friend’s, switching the mobility setting to auto-pilot; I.M. would now go wherever Grace went. A walking And was no big deal – the City was filled with them – they sensed and moved around obstacles with ease. A flying And was something nobody else had seen or currently owned; it was an excess. An And arrayed in the colours of a comic book hero and at the size of a robotic pet instead of a full-scale droid, to boot. Finished with her configurations, Neith made a flourish with her hands that said voilà.

#

Beaming, Grace took three steps towards the El-station, looking back to confirm I.M. would follow. I.M. did. She stopped and started twice to appraise I.M.’s mimicry. “He’s amazing.” Grace barely spoke above a whisper. “Nee, you’re amazing.”

“I’m pleased you’ve rediscovered your close proximity voice,” Neith ribbed.

“You’re welcome.” The girls and I.M. continued to the station and boarded the El-train, tolerating the crowd and the whispers – now all about them, once more.

Sixteen stops later, the girls had reached their stop. Grace squeezed Neith’s arm as they stood. “You know, I tease you about your job and your skillz, but tonight all I have to say is: You are incredibly gifted and talented.” She said the last part in a jilted robot voice. It matched the Intra audio that had played when they clicked the heading above their online learning activities. They both laughed.

“Well, thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. You haven’t seen your gift.” Grace pumped her eyebrows, making the pre-sale.

“Aren’t you taking me to collect my own hot chocolate? Like every other year?”

“How pedestrian do you think I am, Cole?” Grace drew splayed fingers up over her chest, a thespian in an instant. “This year is Hot Chocolate 2.0; Hot Chocolate…with Special Guest.”

“Ah. I see. That guest wouldn’t happen to be...”

“…the only Avenger that mattered?! Bingo.” Grace said, finishing Neith’s sentence. “Now, I realise my present is super-stell. Don’t sweat it though, Cole," she patted Neith on the back, “there’s always next year.” She patted Neith on the back.


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