Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Chapter 2: Tops

Laughing and quoting scenes from their favourite cult classics on the Intra archive, the two wound through those disembarking and millers-about on the platform. They were headed to Tops, their local hole-in-the-wall. With cut-backs as they were, there were few dispensaries left like this one – people came from all around to get a fix that wasn’t freeze-dried.

The dispensary was framed by lockers and charging bays. The hole itself was rimmed with piped neon. The screen above listed current drinks in stock. For all Neith and Grace’s celebrity, this was as fancy as Feichangbei’s culinary scene got. The And posted there picked up the chips embedded in the flesh of their waists and began mixing their drinks without them saying a word; they’d made a selection in their settings to have their order filled if they entered proximity.

The radio frequency identification chip inside them did more than that. It had automatically deducted the cost of their drinks and logged their claim against their entitlement. The chip deducted their fare when they’d got off the El – it tracked the number of stops they’d travelled. It monitored all their vitals; sent a first warning signal to their medi-And each time their heart-rates sped up. For Neith, that would have been the two times she’d been stroked by older admirers tonight. She never got used to unwanted touch. Neith hoped an alert was sent for Grace’s vitals when she saw her blockbuster hero brought to life. Resuming normal, healthy activity, no alerts would have been escalated from their medi-Ands to their parents. Now they were 18, their parents’ only remaining right to notifications about their dependents were for those signalling a serious emergency. Back when they’d been minors, Grace and Neith’s parents could track their children’s blips on their screens from anywhere; know their kids’ every movement. Neith’s parents had even watched hers when she’d been chaperoned – which had been right up until her seventeenth birthday. They’d known when she was getting a migraine before she did. As debilitating as they were, Neith’s migraines had never been life-threatening. Although Neith’s parents were both born post-epidemic, any sign of elevated temperature had them on edge.

Neith retrieved two collapsible coffee cups from one of her inside jacket pockets. She placed them in the line of waiting vessels on the counter in front of the service And. She watched its smooth, programmed movements and did her best not to think about work. The girls called this dispensary Tops because the service And didn’t have any legs. It was mounted in the space opposite the luxury appliance. There wasn’t much use for legs when you served hot beverages around the clock through a small window. There were no toilet breaks it had to get to, no micro-exercises to perform to ward off carpal tunnel syndrome; no walk home at day’s end. No parents watching its blip blaze a trail on a digital map. She took a deep breath and smiled to think she and the And had that in common. This Lanternfest she felt more free and alive than any other year.

“Did you see? Rawiri’s here.” Grace nudged Neith. I.M. stood at the distance selected in its settings, stationary because Grace was.

“What?” The And was just finishing topping the girls’ drinks with frothed soy milk. Neith reached to take their cups from its outstretched hands while looking in the direction Grace was staring, wide-eyed. Neith’s fingers glanced over the brushed metal digits of the And. They were cold. The And showed no sign of detecting the contrasting warmth of Neith’s fingers, although she knew it had. The barist-And was a 12, and fingers had been hyper-sensitive since And6. The coldness reminded her the And would be a statue with fancy insides when orders ebbed later that night, reverting to stand-by.

Neith saw what Grace was seeing. Rawiri, a 2K from their Cluster. He’d struck out with Neith and Grace. He’d pretended that the girls had been the jilted ones to save face. He now stood the length of an El-car away, on the screen-lined platform.

“What is he doing here? His profile said he moved to the towers.” Grace spoke through closed teeth.

Rawiri was on the chubbier side. They’d never known how he managed it on sanctioned rations. He was the type who wore athletic gear but was never caught working out. Tonight he was not alone. He squeezed his arm around a 2K Neith had never seen in person before – although she knew all of their faces from the Intra. There weren’t many to remember, after all. Rawiri lifted his phone and began speaking towards it, capturing both his face and that of his young squeeze in the frame. Neith knew exactly what he was doing. “He’s casting, is what he’s doing here.”

“Of course he is, but what?”

“I’m sure you can find out exactly what in about an hour and creep all over it.” That’s how long it took for a cast to go live. It had to pass by Republic censors. An hour to pass for 2K’s, whose socialisation was a priority. That was if it passed. Neith couldn’t imagine Rawiri capable of sharing anything that would be flagged, he toed the line. Almost everyone did – without the Republic, they’d have nothing.

Neith and Grace moved over to a pipe-bench and sat down. I.M. stood. The girls both uttered “guan” under their breath to dismiss the feeds of audio that came into their earpieces. The advertisement screens surrounding the bench had picked up their chips in proximity. Like a lot of people in the City, the girls used Chinese for all of their technological commands. That way their everyday speech wouldn’t accidentally turn on or deactivate something. If their settings remained set to English commands, they might say “play” in conversation and have it picked up as a command by a screen in proximity. It might play audio or project a hologram. They’d reconfigured their voice recognition settings the day Grace had said “Sit by me” on the way to a Cluster Meet. There had been this dirty billboard above them they hadn’t even known was active. The billboard picked up “sit by me” and registered “buy.” It then asked Grace in her earpiece to press her thumb to her phone screen to authenticate her purchase. As if to mock them and their world further, beneath the city grime of the billboard they could make out the product of the advertisement. Private cleaning services; a Sanitari-And for hire. Everywhere they looked sardonic lights continued to hide how bad things were. Feichangbei was technology-rich, everything-else-poor. Programming was free. They could update, install new operating systems, cast their streams, keep ads running…but they couldn’t keep the streets clean or manufacture new clothes.

Grace was still watching Rawiri and the female 2K across the gum-pocked platform. “Wait, are they…?” Grace spoke behind her cup, which Neith had passed her.

Neith checked Rawiri’s fingers. “Yup, looks like.” He was wearing a ring.

“Wow. I never took him for the type.” Grace took in a large gulp of hot chocolate.

“Maybe even the athletes among us tire of constant sexual escapades.” Neith snorted.

Grace laughed loud enough for Rawiri to turn to look in their direction. Instead of coming over to greet them or even wave, he instead spoke loudly to his wife apparent. “Ignore them, they’re jealous, babe. Filmophiles.” He said the last like it was a dirty word. The wife laughed. She wore a blonde wig that sparkled synthetic under the station fluorescents.

Neith refused to reveal any reaction. She knew insult was intended, but inside she deeply believed she was better than this guy; that her way was better. If any emotional response was evident, it was indignation.

Grace was less inhibited. “Pfff. Jealous? Of your date tonight? Does your date come with ultra-freon? Iron Man does.” This was why Neith would do anything for Grace; Grace was the gutsy one, the one who spoke up for both of them. She always had.

Rawiri cringed, shook his head, then resumed addressing his phone lens.

“Green-blooded hobgoblin,” Grace added, under her breath. Neith snickered quietly.

The girls eavesdropped and watched with narrowed eyes. “As I was saying: here we are, at the coffee shop of my chaperoned days.” Rawiri angled the phone to take in the And at the counter behind them. “But it’s all better now that I can do it with you, and without Mr Sardonkis.” He looked to his “blonde,” then ensured his phone was angled to cast their kiss with the station as backdrop.

“If I was entitled to more than one hot chocolate a month, I would throw up right now.” Grace grimaced. Her small features couldn’t even be ugly then. Still cute.

Cute or not, she was a far cry from Rawiri’s latest type. In addition to lacking fair hair or some simulation of it, Neith and Grace both went easy on the makeup – figuring their youth drew attention enough. Sure, they put some mascara on for special occasions, and Grace liked to add cats’ eyes in liner, but the face painting ended there. Neith could see from here that blondie had very different feelings about cosmetics. The girl wore a combination of contact lenses and makeup that created an optical illusion of uber-large eyes and lashes, anime in size. Every clothing item she wore was tight. Grace was obsessed with vintage fabrics and lines, celebrating every bright-coloured oriental tunic she found at the salvage store. Neith preferred a wardrobe made of few well-made practical items. Neith needed her pockets. Her uniform of a long-sleeved T and jeans didn’t call for attention. She got plenty anyway. It was clear Rawiri had moved beyond the likes of Grace and Neith; their clothing choices reflected their personalities instead of advertising their availability. The Star Trek insignias both girls had pinned to their collars sealed the deal. They were filmophiles by their own accessorised admission – the arrowhead to the stars signalled it to anyone who cared. Few people did; and none they knew of were their age.

All Rawiri revealed by dismissing them as filmophiles was the fact he’d crawled their profile pages – they’d posted the nick themselves.

Neith spoke so only Grace could hear, “I’d rather spend my time in a mind-blowing past than constantly cast a seriously bleak present.”

“Are you calling me bleak, Nee?”

“No. No!” Their friendship was far from dull. But everyone’s present was bleak, and everyone found some way to fill their time. For most that included casting and a digital presence – they projected every choice they made for others to like or promote on their feeds. For fun, when Neith and Grace wanted an escape, they opted for films over casts. Most castuers (including Neith and Grace’s parents) failed to see the appeal of the productions their daughters (and a small handful of other citizens) watched and re-watched. They found the girls’ willingness to revisit dated films from a frozen era weird. With the rest of the world gone dark and the internet lost, the film archive consisted of old world blockbusters salvaged from hard drives, made available on the Intra. Those the Republic approved of, anyway. If you wanted the big budgets, you had to go to the past; millions of dollars simply weren’t available for movies when the world became survival of the fittest. Then survival of the fertile. Then survival of…what? That unanswered question was probably part of why casteurs documented so much; they were preserving what they could because the domestic servers were all they could be sure would survive. Because after them, then what? It was easier to say they cast because they preferred the current. “You know what I mean,” Neith added. Grace wasn’t bleak. Revelling in what was wrong with the world was bleak.

“I do.” Grace patted I.M.’s head affectionately. She loved the films of the past too. She knew more script lines from their favourite five than Neith did. The favourite five? None of them were grounded in reality (Iron Man, Jurassic World, Avatar, Star Trek, and Return of the King had plenty to get lost in, including male heartthrobs). “I do. Now, if only there was a full-size man-friend inside this thing...preferably one responsible for this evening’s grand gesture,” she mused aloud.

“I can only build so much.”

“I think you mean you have only built so much, thus far. There’s still time for you to engineer an actual suitor. I’d like one inclined to woo, in person, without casting it for everyone else to see. Ooo, and with an appreciation for shameless filmophile allusions.”

“What need would you have of me then?”

“You’re right. A suitor capable of shameless wooing will do. You may remain Chief of Archive Allusions.”

“Thank you.”