Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Chapter 4: Generation 2K


We wish to assure all lands within The Republic that we remain strong.  While disease and infertility may have beaten other nations, we have retained our body of government and remain confident borders will reopen at some future date so we may see if anyone else has survived.  Until such a time, gather together those who remain and choose to hope; this is not our end; we can weather this storm. 
- The last Press Release received from The People’s Republic of East Asia, 13 AS
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“I do not lie.”

“The woman thought I’d opted for an Escort-And?’   Mama Cole?  Verbatim?”  Gray’s eyes were wide.

“She has a sense for the dramatic, what can I say?” Neith shrugged. 

“She thinks we’re pathetic, doesn’t she?  Escaping into a forgotten century with fictional characters instead of seeking someone…seriously less appealing in the present.”  Gray was less fizzy, today.  “She’s summed up the pickle we’re in, quite nicely.”

“Where’s the pickle?  I’ll take the historic hero any day, thanks.”

“Not my historic hero, right?  I mean, no returns, dude.”

Neith laughed.  “No, not yours.  I’m just surprised she pushed me on this.  I thought they respected my escapes – they have theirs.  I thought they liked having me living in the loft!  I thought they wanted their one and only to keep the nest warm.  Now they’re nudging me out suddenly?  Suggesting we need to grow up?”

“You’re lucky they’ve held back this long!  My olds have been at me to at least try to produce a grandchild for a decade!”

“I still don’t get that.  Don’t they understand that if – by a literal miracle – you were to conceive and go to term, you would be some kind of modern Madonna!  Those grandbabies would hardly be around to snuggle.  They’d practically be government property!  Also: your parents might get off your back if you’d settle on a job path…or even a major!”  Neith leaned to bump her eternal student comrade.  The two shared a short pause before Neith continued, “Do you think that’s what Mama Cole’s after?  Babies to snuggle?  I guess she could be.  I figured she appreciated that I’d stuck around.  I’m still here.”  Neith propped her legs up against the jungle gym framework.  The pair of friends sat beneath an abandoned installation in the outer suburbs between their families’ apartments.  The suburbs on the fringe of the City were only partially inhabited – one privileged family per neighbourhood.  It was a Ministry of Health measure to help contain any future outbreaks from wiping out the precious young.  That’s what made a family privileged – having had a 2K.  Neith liked it out there.  She liked the quiet.  It was what she’d always known, growing up.  Although she now worked in the City, she lived on the fringe. 

“Oh, I know she likes that you’re still here.  But I think she’s starting to feel the guilt set in.  You say you’re not going to bear the weight of fornicating away the world’s problems.  She’s probably making sure she’s done her duty.  If she reminds you this one time that the world needs you, she doesn’t feel so bad for keeping you to herself and stopping you from saving the world.”

“Dad sounded like he didn’t care about that.  I know he’s a romantic, but I think he really hopes I’ll find some 2K to share my life with…not initiate a propagation mission.” 

“I hate to bring this up again, but we still need to flood social media channels with a better nick than
‘2K.’  Because – hello – first of all, we failed to reach the 2K count.” Grace was raising her rant fingers. “Secondly, we are the end of humankind!  I get that ‘2K’ is short and easy to type, but it’s not epic.  Give me epic, people!  I’m still lobbying for ‘Omegas.’ Yes, yes, there’s possible confusion with the lowest werewolves in a pack – but only you and I know that.  We are the last – that is epic.  2K sounds like a screen virus, not the last generation of people alive!  Who names a people after their headcount?”  She had a point.  Multiple points. 

There were 1,602 people between 16 and 40 years of age in Xinland, and – all evidence suggested –the world.  It made for a dismal dating pool.  And the country of Xinland was really only Feichangbei.  The rest of the North Island was contaminated and unusable. The South was dedicated to farming and food production.  What the Agri-Ands and limited overseers managed to grow, they sealed up tight and sent up on the El for the survivors.  There were more than half a million survivors altogether.  They were mostly older, was the problem. 

When births after the flu had slowed, then limped along, estimates for third generation survivors sat at 2,000, or 2K.  There was meant to be a measly 2,000 births over the course of ten or so years, as second gens settled down.  But things were even worse than predicted.  It was to be the last generation of live births and there were less than 2,000 of them.  The optimistic “2K” the last city had waited and watched for had already been tagged and hashtagged, and their title – even if it wasn’t an example of precision of language – stuck.  So, too had some hope that they weren’t the last.  Maybe a 2K might get pregnant.  Neith was doubtful.  The population hadn’t replenished, and it didn’t look like it was going to.

“So, you think I just let this go then?  Ma’s just saying her piece because she wants to know she tried? Now things at home can go back to the way they were?” Neith would like that.

“Who knows, Miss Cole, who knows?  We are Omegas – a class with a future unknown.  All we can do is hope.”  Grace’s eyes were looking past Neith now, paired with a mime’s expression of deep thought.

“Grace.  Calling you back down to this conversation.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m content to keep on keeping on.  Work is good, my parents are kind, the playground’s all ours,” Neith threw her arms out to take in their setting.  Neith would love for nothing to change.  The nightmare her grandmother had survived had ended.  Yeah, her daughter hid inside most of the time, but she and Owen seemed happy.  Neith was happy.  “I haven’t left them an empty nest and made for the towers.  They have got to appreciate that.”  Now the girls had more freedom and each other, there was nothing Neith would change.

Grace sighed and looked around before replying:  “About that.  I want more.”

“What do you mean?” 

“I want someone to tell the Nursery Rhymes, Nee.  Long live the absurd rhymes!  You know I do.  I’ve always wanted them.  I want a little brood to tell all the tales.  I want to give kids lemon juice at a young age and send you pics of the faces they make.”

“What we want is irrelevant, we both know that.  I want to travel!  See the old world Seven Wonders and dig up prototype robotics in Silicon Valley. I want to understand how everything worked before.  That doesn’t change that borders are closed and I have to see out my lot.  Here.  With the rest of the Omegas.  The rest of the world is gone.  Also: Nursery rhymes, really, Gray?  Really?  Eyes get pecked out in those things.”

“Nicely put.”

“I know you’re only referring to me using the word ‘Omegas’ in a sentence.”

“Maybe.” 

“I’ve found new wants.  I intend to be the best science intern the Republic’s ever seen.  I’m gonna kill at my first year at a big person job.  I’m designing Ands – it’s like I’m being paid to tinker!  I’ll make people happy, and I’ll make me happy, solving one robotics problem at a time.  The other wants are irrelevant.”

“Irrelevant or not, mine haven’t gone away.”

One of the old swing-sets still had chains suspended from its frame.  They squeaked as a heavy wind moved the gnarled seat slightly.

Back when Neith was eight, she remembered a few news pieces about people fighting for a school somewhere in the clean city to reopen.  Advocates for reopening said something about how congregating in public places seemed safe enough now and that the kids needed to make friends.  Neith knew the news anchor was talking about her and that “the kids” meant the final sixteen hundred.  The Republic statement came next.  It was essentially: Yes, socialising is important and so we will prioritise approving Intra communication for 2K’s over all else. And they had.  Neith’s voice messages to Grace still got to her in a fraction of the time Lucienne’s took to reach her adoring Double Income No Kid fans and friends.

Lucienne had said she wasn’t so sure that Intra-correspondence schooling was about protection against further outbreaks.  Yes, the housing had been planned with that in mind.  Yes, they were guarding a small, precious and vulnerable demographic.  But she thought there was more at play.  Lucienne could see the cracks in the population ratio appearing then.  There were hundreds of older citizens to each child.  What would all of them do for work?  One school would only offer a handful of opportunities to teach when there were so many seeking gainful employment.  Private tutoring had meant every single 2K could have twenty or more tutors invested in their education.  It also meant all of those people could pass their knowledge onto someone – something Mama Cole believed was a basic human need. 

Owen Cole said he didn’t care if fear of an outbreak or being obsolete was true, he didn’t want Neith commuting.  Or worse, boarding elsewhere.  A school for children whose homes lay scattered across the entire fringe was illogical due to geography, to his way of thinking. 

Neith remembered Lucienne had started an argument then; about how that kind of talk was exactly what would get them moved further in-city, or into another suburb where their neighbours were closer.  Owen had said he didn’t understand how she got all that from him saying he didn’t want his daughter moving. 

Funny how a decade later, getting all the 2K’s in one place was exactly what everyone wanted.  The towering Match Complexes were an effort to see the young ones they’d safely guarded through adolescence Matched.  Scientists recommended pairings based on genetic compatibility and best odds.  They encouraged exploration with their sanctioned pairings, even rewarded it with digital trinkets; “adventurous” (read: promiscuous) 2K’s moved up the ranks as they fulfilled certain date quests, assigned them.  Neith ignored those notifications.  Scientists no longer attempted to interfere with the process of reproduction in the lab – but to Neith’s scientific eye, their towers were still an abominable experiment. 

Maybe Mama Cole had been right all along.  Or just as likely, what was best for the 2K’s was constantly being debated and redefined.  Her parents discussing the possibility of everything changing like it was no big deal was too much, back then.  Neith had only known isolation.  She’d left the room.  Her parents’ fights always ended in a short sulk, apologies, and kissing anyway.  Neith logged onto the Gifted and Talented forum.

That confusing day, she’d met Grace. 

She’d typed in a quote from Frodo – a character from the most violent but enthralling movie she’d ever seen.  She had found it in the Intra archive that week and watched it three times.  She had typed the quote into the chat window; “I cannot do this alone.”  She understood the City was clean and safe, she understood the children were placed safely on its fringe in case that proved wrong, and she even understood she was perhaps being coddled for the sake of her tutors’ need to feel valued, or even her own parents’ need to keep her young.  She appreciated those things.  She still felt alone.  Peerless.  Her parents had each other, and thousands of fans they commed on the Intra.  Neith had…the film archive.  So she’d typed the words.  She’d put it out there; “I cannot do this alone.”  At first her text appeared in italics – it wasn’t approved and displayed until it cleared the Republic filters.  After a moment, the words sent and appeared in normal type.  They were out in the Intra for anyone in the City to see.  She was breathless with the thrill of having typed something so personal.  She waited.  Three users were online.  Text came in under Neith’s on the display.  Beneath “I cannot do this alone,” were the words: “You are a 2K, NeiCo1530.  To bear the title ‘2K’ is to be alone.”  Little Neith could scarcely believe what she was seeing.  She’d even rubbed her eyes like she’d seen a film character do.  A user called GraWh1524 was paraphrasing the pretty elf who’d answered Frodo in the movie.  The movie she’d just quoted.  Before Neith could recover from her shock, GraWh1524 sent another message to the chat; “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”  It was another LOTR quote. 

That chat room exchange changed everything.  Neith wasn’t alone.  GraWh1524 had heard her, but more importantly, GraWh1524 had really heard her; GraWh1524 had delved into the archives.
The two had met at the abandoned school playground ever since.  They were chaperoned during those early years, of course.  A few years after their closely-monitored play dates for two began, they found themselves in the same group of 2K’s invited to a Cluster Meet.  Cluster Meets were a compromise that allowed some face-contact for 2K’s back when the fear of another outbreak was still high.  The precious children could meet in smaller groups without risking the entire 2K body being in a single location at any time.  They’d seen Rawiri there. 

There was a certain social awkwardness that came with meeting others for the first time during puberty.  Worse still, meeting at monthly intervals.  Changes were only more prominent when encounters had so much space between them. It was like seeing people grow up via slow motion capture. The girls coped through employing their own secret language and in-jokes.  Even then, their preference for archived entertainment had been met with disapproval, sometimes taunts.  Neith pretended to ignore it.  Grace on the other hand, rarely ignored a jab at either of them, defending them both with a defiant confidence that suggested everyone else was inferior for not getting what she and Neith got; that spending all of one’s time filming and uploading casts wasn’t real entertainment.  Neith began believing that.

Neith leaned into her friend now, grateful to have her.  Grateful too to be without chaperones, and to even have adjusted to having a job in the City. Grace ended the thoughtful silence, blurting out, “I’m going to do a short-term stay in the towers.” 

“Yeah, right.  Me too.  I’m going to start making Ands to patrol the floors.  They can all report to you and I.M..”

“This isn’t a gag.  I’ve signed a lease.”

Neith swivelled to face Grace.  She saw tears threatening to spill from her friend’s eyes and zero sign of the jester in her.  “What?”  This came out as a whisper.

“I said, ‘I’m going to do a short-term stay in the towers.  I’ve signed a lease,’” Grace repeated.

Neith frowned in confusion, “I still haven’t heard your angle.

“Oh, you heard it, it just didn’t compute.  I want to pass on ol’ stories about blackbird pies, Nee.  Babies.  I want babies.  Yeah, I know it’s unlikely, I know the pickings are slim, and I believe everything you said about how un-fun having the first newborn in 16 years would be…but I need to answer this ‘what if’ that is hanging around me like a noose all the time.

“I didn’t think you were capable of surprising me.” Neith’s jaw was dropped for effect.  Her words were drawn out as she spoke.

“Short-term, like I say.  If fate would have me be the answer to crisis, I’ll take the super-celebrity status that comes along with it…if it means I get to have a baby.  I want one.”     

Neith pushed her jaw up with her hand.  “I get this is real now.  So why didn’t you lead with this?  This is huge!”

“Because you led with your Parental Units Team Assault story.  I was empathising, being a good listener!”  Grace bumped back.

“Full of surprises.”  Neith stared ahead at the squeaky swing and nestled into GraWh1524.  Her Grace.  She imagined visiting this spot alone. 

Worst news. Worst day. Ever.


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