Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Chapter 6: MinSci

“We’re still talking, in spite of your betrayal,” Neith voiced Grace via her phone as the El-train hushed and clacked its way through lower Feichangbei.  She held the screen against her chest and looked out of the window opposite her side-seat.  She preferred side-seats.  That way she could see people coming, not be caught by surprise if someone reached for her hair or cheek.  The El was approaching the city’s artery.  Grace.  Out there?   Not that the empty schools and boarded-up stores back in their fringe suburbs were peachy, but it was separate and other from this congestion; this place where people came in stacks.  Most people lived in small quarters in buildings closer to the city centre now.  Mama Cole’s assignment came as soon her first ultrasound appeared normal.  Neith needed a secluded place to call home, at the end of each day – the lab was out of her comfort zone. 

Neith worked for the Republic.  When things had gotten ugly, New Zealand had turned to their long-standing ally in immigration and trade; The People’s Republic of East Asia.  The small Pacific country welcomed support for their limited forces when the panic began.  The country took in a substantial influx of immigrants and refugees from China and Hong Kong in return.  It wasn’t long before the country was absorbed into the greater Republic.  Neith’s lab was housed at the Ministry of Science and Technology, or MinSci.  It was the largest and most influential arm of the government.  Although the officials who survived and remained after the borders closed ensured each Ministry remained functional, none had power like MinSciMinSci overlapped with everything else; science and technology kept the city functioning; Medi-Ands in the Health Sector, Ands maintaining Water and Waste, Ands now even manufactured aesthetically superior Ands from old AndsMinSci was the heart of a little government that had proven for over 50 years that it could function autonomously.

Hush came the doors.  Clack. Clack.  Her phone emitted a small light indicating a response.  Neith hit ‘play.’  Gray’s voice came deep and mocking; “I’m still empathising and listening.  It’s who I am now.  We can talk about this.” 

“Maybe I can wave to you from the El in the mornings – you know, up in your tower?  Maybe you can throw down your hair and let me up sometimes.” She released her finger from the sensor and let the audio send for screening.

Voice in: Thank you.

Voice out: For…?

Voice in: Trying to see this as being okay; something that is going to work.  Things will change, but we won’t.  We’ll find work-arounds.  Also, thank you for calling it my tower.  That is excellent.

Neith’s eyes went wide and unfocussed as grey structures seemed to slink by.  She thought of how she was actually slinking, not the stationary buildings.  Then she thought of the buildings.  One being Gray’s Building.  She snorted as she imagined suitors climbing Grace’s hair, offered as a black rope through an urban window.  Extensions would be required.  Ew, would Grace be getting actual extensions and her nails done now? 

Voice out: Tell me you’re not going to feed the Meat Market.  Don’t turn into a preening thing like the rest of them.  Your hair is an acceptable length already…and colour.

Voice in: Blue hair could be killer.  Also: We need to take I.M. flying as soon as possible.  Teach me Obiwan.

Neith smiled.  She slid her phone into a chest pocket of her jacket.  She was approaching her stop.  Blue hair would be killer.  Red was the current fad – dyed or synthetic of course, since black or almost-black was most common.  She and Grace hadn’t bought into much of the synth culture, but if she had to choose a hair colour to be other than black, it’d be blue.

Now the El was closer to the city centre, a lot more people had joined Neith along the line.  A blind woman in her 60’s had taken a seat near her.  She had a service And with her.  Neith couldn’t help but admire the quality of the new dermalayer on the And’s hands.  That wasn’t her specialty, but she knew good work when she saw it.  She redirected her gaze to the wall screen and saw an ad running for the model.  They hardly needed to run a commercial when the product was already rolled out, tantalising consumers with its sleekness.  It took less than a month after release, Neith estimated, for people to find all older models undesirable, in comparison. It didn’t stop those who’d fallen on hard times continuing on with their current And; they knew they weren’t fashionable, and accepted it.  She admired them. Neith scanned the carriage for an example. She found a model, two runs old, sitting on its own – probably running an errand.  Its aesthetic appeared sharp and angular compared to the curves of the newer lines. 

A pair of dinks whispered something about Neith being one of the final 100.  Yes.  She was one of the last 100 living births; they’d clearly viewed her page.  Neith did what she did best; she pretended not to hear.  She couldn’t muster any resentment, she was a known quantity in a very small minority, and neither she nor they had chosen sides.  It made the ride easier if she didn’t engage.

The doors hushed open and Neith half-committed to a swing on the vertical rail on her way out.  Her phone flashed in her pocket; her chip had signalled her ride complete.   A middle-aged cyberpunk snapped her pic en route.  Her personal response setting remained set to ignore.

She took her turns towards the MinSci superstructure and ascended the old world, intimidating stairs to the palatial foyer.  Her phone again indicated her movements to the powers that be; Neith has entered the building. 

Elevator button, elevator button, phone flash signalling chip detection; entry permitted to MinSci’s restricted robotics labs.  MinSci housed varied ventures on each floor; disease control, fertility studies, surveillance analysis.  Robotics was connected to them all.  Ands were the technology that inoculated the masses, the means to perform monthly health and fertility screenings, and Ands cameras fed back surveillance city-wide.

Neith breathed in the quiet, relishing having survived the morning crowd.

She straddled a stool on wheels and rolled to one of her desks.  She emptied three pockets of their contents onto the glass-top beside a tray of parts that appeared to be more of the same to an untrained eye. 

She felt eyes on her.  She smiled and swivelled.  “Yes?”

Wilson had come in.  He leaned on the desk behind her and responded, “What did she say?  Come on!  Don’t just walk in here after delivering your cult fantasy project of years and act like it’s no big deal.” 

“She said she might dye her hair blue.”

“What are you talking about?  Grace?  Gracey. Gray.”  Neith’s lanky colleague appeared to be taste-testing each variation of Grace’s name.  “You made her geekfangirliest dreams come true last night.  I imagine there was squealing.  Oh, the squealing.” Wilson cringed.

“She loved it.”

“Of course she did!”

“She’s leaving.”

“No!”

“Yes.  She caved.  She’s going.”

Wilson paused to compute. “To one of the towers?  Grace?!”

“Her tower, apparently.”

“Well, well, well.  Little Gracey wants to pay a visit to the happy camp, huh?  Who would have thought?”

Now Neith cringed.  “She remains forbidden fruit,” she said, sternly.  She immediately regretted referencing fruit.

“Come on, she clearly wants to be part of the action.  This is her life, and she’s seizing opportunity where opportunity abounds.  She’s not really leaving you, Ms. Lab4Life.intra. Technically she’ll be closer to you, moving into the City.  Is she really going to dye her hair blue?”  Wilson stroked his whiskers.

“Stop it.  Stop now.”  The disgust was real.  She then added with a squint, “Do you think that domain name is available?  I mean, of course it isn’t, but I could get it, right?”

“Now you stop.  Look, I can’t promise my undeniable chemistry with your friend can stay checked forever, but I’ll do my best.  I’ll honour our friendship.  But if it comes to saving humanity by way of Grace – get it? –  I’ll have to do my duty, with pleasure.”

“This conversation is over.”  Neith spun back to her desk and hit the release button on a drawer beside her workspace.  A gleaming, partly-constructed prototype smoothly conveyed out and into view. 

“I’m not finished. But I guess I don’t require responses…”  Why was he still talking?  Wilson had enough creep factor for Neith to keep him at arm’s length.  “I can be serious.  Miss Cole.  I will look out for your best friend.  I will help her dodge the slimiest of the pack and point her towards the gentlemen amongst her Match recs.  If she prefers gentle-ladies for company and gentleman only for consort, I know some stell picks there too.  I can be helpful, you know I can.”

Neith wanted to shout Silence, pig! Ignoring Wilson worked just as effectively, she knew. He might be trying, but it was too much.  Grace. With suitors and Match recs?  And talk of packs.”  Packs was used as a term for old world carnivores for a reason.  And Wilson among them…

“Blue, blue blue....”  Wilson hummed as he finally moved away.  Neith felt groups of her muscles discharging their tension in relief.



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