Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Chapter 9: The Trance

Before my parents and I were born, dates had different names.  Those years were part of the Julian and Gregorian calendars.  Calendars used the terms AD and BC.  The initials AD stood for the medieval Latin words “Anno Domini,” which was often translated to mean “in the year of our Lord,” in English.  This was a reference to a Christian religious figure which “BC” and “Before Christ” also reference.  Our current years are no longer determined by the symbols or icons of a single religion, but instead bear names based on a commonality all people of Xinland share – the time the borders closed.  Years are numbered to coincide with the number of years passed since containment commenced.  The international Waves of Quarantine resulted from attempts to ensure there was no further threat to the stability of human life.  Since then, the sudden decrease in births has seen the fertility crisis escalate to become the main crisis of our generation and time.   The term Anno Solitudo (AS) was chosen by a council of Ministers convened by the Republic.  It is in medieval Latin, in tribute to the historical calendar’s format.  The meaning in English is a definition of the present; “in the year of isolation.”   The internet my grandparents relied so heavily upon began ever so slowly to fall. Unattended major servers in the most-affected cities began failing because there was no one left to maintain them.  General response times degraded gradually, and the living took little notice as the internet's designed resilience continued to deliver from mirrored servers in faraway places.   When the last server assigned to the largest search engine finally failed, it was like the closing of a large coffin at a funeral during a time when funerals were all everyone did.  Everyone had to admit that the internet from The Before was dead.  Republic specialists scrambled to salvage what data was still within their reach, and this great undertaking led to the establishment of a secure Intra, which the Republic maintains and ensures meets all of our learning, functional, and social needs. 

- Final History Essay Abstract, Author: Neith Cole, 53 AS

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Neith knew Ms Zhang was talking.  For someone with a wordgame power play of a name, she wasn’t so smart.  Could she not see she was dealing with someone approaching catatonic?  Clearly, Neith was not transfixed by Ms Zhang’s short fingernails and undamaged cuticles.  She was zoned out, and Zhang was oblivious.  Oblivious and verbose, an irritating combination.  She’d been this way for a while.  It was time to come back to the present, Neith knew it.  She moaned as she dragged her eyes up to Ms Zhang.

“Miss Cole.  Ah, I see I finally have you!”  Not entirely oblivious then, simply uncaring. “I understand you have received a lot of information.  But your day is hardly through.  Miss Cole?”  Semi-caring.
Neith blinked to show she was out of the fingernails-zone, but barely.

“There are more specifics we need to cover and little time to do it.  Please confirm: You understand you cannot take any of this information with you when you leave today, not even in memo form on your own device.”

Blink.

“Once installed in Nydia, you will be permitted clothing, your migraine medication, basic toiletries, paper and pencils.  Your phone must be stripped of all transmitting capability, and you will wear no earpiece of any kind.  You will retain your phone, and use its editor paired with your internal chip once a week to report on the progress of your assignment.  You must not at any time cause the people of Nydia to fear you have brought anything into their camp that might cause them harm, being absolutely discreet in your use of your phone at all times.”

“No cameras?  Not even a CLC?  Surely MinSci wants surveillance?” 

Quinn Zhang buried her chin in her neck in response to Neith’s sudden elevation in status from blank-faced to communicating in words.

She composed herself and chided, “You really haven’t been listening.”  It was impossible to tell Q.Z.’s age, but Neith knew there was no Quinn Zhang on the 2K register.  She must be older than 40.  That was hard to believe looking at her flawless skin.  There wasn’t any sensory hair she could see.  “The people you are going to meet – they want nothing to do with the City things.  I am sure Minister Prescott adequately explained that these people are trying to keep themselves…pure.  There is still more to understand of all the factors that have kept them as they are.  It is everyone’s best interests to honour the agreement – it reduces risk and increases trust.  MinSci needs them, and MinSci needs them happy.” 

“Why don’t they send Wei?”  Mr Wei was Wilson.  Surely Wilson could assume the same cover story – science “training.”  The Upper Floor assistant seemed to know a lot, and she didn’t frighten Neith like Prescott did.  So now Neith made her appeal; “That’s what I should go back in there and tell him – send Wilson.” 

“Miss Cole.  Prescott sees everything that goes on in this building, in almost every building.  He monitors every comm, every stream, every audio, text and movement each of you makes, down below.  Mr Wei is…unsuitable.”  The last word appeared to sour her mouth. 

“Besides,” Q.Z. deferred to smoothing her blazer before she continued, “Management personnel are all required here, at present; important things are happening.”  It was clear from Q.Z.’s expression she numbered herself among the elite, by association.  Access to the top floor had gone to her head.  Hot chocolate retrieval duties suggested she may have access to privileged information, but she wasn’t a decision-maker.  She was simply a well-informed, well-presented assistant.  

“The Executive Cabinet wants an And designer?  To step through a time warp, into a land where suddenly she is not only permitted, but welcome, to use materials that have served little purpose for more than a hundred years?”  It was unbelievable enough without adding living children to the mix.

“Yes.  You still don’t understand; these people are different…they have children because they have abstained for so long from medical intervention and the technology from which you and I result.  They wanted away from all of this.”  Miss Zhang waved her arm around the top floor foyer.  “And now they are…untainted because of it.  They are also paranoid.  Paper and pencil are something they have agreed to tolerate – they have been told you like to draw, but won’t cast a thing.”  Q.Z.’s eyes almost smiled, revealing her satisfaction at knowing things Neith had never disclosed.  “They expect you to serve as an ambassador there, conduct research by observation, and return to present your findings after an extended stay.   Your drawings would work as great visual aids, don’t you think?  Nydia’s council is aware of plans for a second phase, provided your stay and final presentation go well.”

“But I really report from my phone.”  That sounded better than presenting at a meeting with the heads of every Republic Ministry.  “When you say discreet, you mean they shouldn’t know about the phone?  It seems like that might be something that would upset them.” 

“Log your reports away from them where this is no risk of any exposure or breach of trust.  You really weren’t here for the first few minutes, were you?”

“Not entirely.”

“What you choose to draw and document on your paper is entirely up to you.  The key is to see out your stay – give them evidence no harm will come from City presence.  You will report any progress you make towards a bridge between our communities.  If they show signs of warming towards you, report it.  If they warm to the idea of welcoming more people like you, report it.  If you develop a friendship, report it.  Minister Prescott and the other Cabinet members will worry about when and how to execute Phase 2.  The editor you use for reports may also be used to electronic message Mr and Mrs Cole, perhaps Grace, if I ask Minister Prescott nicely.”   No one called email that anymore.  Neith was disturbed that like Prescott, Ms Zhang did not appear to be consulting any screen as she recited the names of someone else’s loved ones.  Neith’s loved ones.  The significance of this – so soon after the implied threat – wasn’t lost on her.  They were making it clear the luxury of communicating with those she loved was necessary to maintain her cover and avoid distress while she was away, yes, but they were also reminding her they could give and take away any “luxury” she had.

Quinn Zhang continued. “All communication will be in text form only.  It will be screened and delivered quickly.  You may wear your old earpiece out today to say good-bye to your family,” (and so she could be monitored, Neith mentally added), “but this will not leave your departing shuttle.  You will find it on your department desk with your other things when you are through here.”  Neith saw the tray she had filled upon entering Prescott’s office was empty.  She hoped her jacket had made its way back to robotics too.

Ms Zhang tapped two sections of her screen.  She had sent a call to someone. 

“Someone will be with you shortly to see to your final medical examination.  It must be clear you present no risk of bringing anything into Nydia that might harm the subjects there.” Ms Zhang waved up and down Neith’s entire body as though Neith and all of her body fell outside both her realm of expertise and interest.  She locked her screen before exiting, via the lift.  It appeared assisting Management Personnel and Important Things were happening elsewhere.  
Neith sat with the empty tray and suspended screen and waited.  She felt odd so close to Q.Z.’s workspace – she might be mistaken for the Executive Assistant, should a guest arrive.  She moved to the waiting area she’d occupied briefly earlier. 

The elevator doors opened and Neith dipped her chin in surprise.  She was expecting some unknown with a medi-And to come and perform simple diagnostics.  Instead, one of her only living idols appeared. 

Dr. Alma Boyd – the woman responsible for engineering Ands 1 through 7.

The Alma Boyd. 

Dr Boyd’s hair was all white, long, and tied in a simple pony tail.  She smiled with genuine warmth and approached Neith in the waiting area, carrying a small case.  “Miss Cole?”

“Dr Boyd?” Gulp.

Dr Boyd chuckled.  “Yes.  Pleased to meet you.”  How old-world.  Neith adored her for her Star Wars references in interviews, but this was too much.  “I’ll be conducting your final medical examination – I’m the only M.D, with the clearance.”  She winked.  “Let’s get you somewhere sterile.”  Neith frowned at the expression.  Sterile was precisely the word for this floor.  She could have just said they needed to go to a lab. 

Alma Boyd’s lab.  Neith was not going to argue.  She might still be reeling from her idea of the world being decimated, but enough of who she essentially was remained intact; she would have traded all her paper or even I.M. for access to her current destination.  She wouldn’t tell Grace that.  Quietly, she stood, and the pair walked to the elevator.  Boyd called the lift with a touch.  They stood quietly too, Neith, and the middle-aged genius doctor and scientist.  The elevator doors opened and they stepped inside.

“This wasn’t how I hoped we’d meet.”  Neith spoke as the doors closed. 

“Oh?  How do you mean?”  Dr Boyd smiled.  Neith wanted to trust her.

“Well, I guess I hoped I’d have a grip on exactly what my job title was when I introduced myself.

You know, ‘Neith, Robotics.’”

I understand your job title.  You’re a MinSci intern, like I was.  Only you have a chance to skip robotics and advance straight to the science that matters.”  Dr Boyd pressed another button and they began a short descent to the tune of Neith’s hammering heart.  She was a little dizzy.

The doors opened.  Neith was looking at the kind of lab Cole-dreams were made of.  There were paper books everywhere.  That was unexpected.  She swallowed repeatedly to ward off slack-jaw.  Boyd motioned towards a high seat.  Was Dr Boyd really about to perform a series of check-ups usually assigned to a droid? She was washing her hands.  Maybe MinSci didn’t want to outsource her examination when so much was at stake; possible infection of the last lifeline to fertility.  Couldn’t they have called for an additional Medi-And screening before she attended a “training programme?”  No one would question that, surely.  “Why isn’t my medi- doing this?”  Neith asked from the raised chair.

“Well-designed they may be, but this is a job I had to see to personally.”  Boyd snapped on gloves.  She then seemed to make a study of the very substance Neith was made of.  Her eyes were a startling rare blue.  They took in Neith’s eyes – brown, wide, and also searching.  Neith didn’t flinch, although she still felt shaken by Prescott’s veiled threats.  Boyd must have found what she was looking for; she continued; “When I learned about Nydia, it became my life.  I was done with robotics – it had no meaning anymore.  Once I knew there was a chance at making a real difference – not some band-aid fix, but a possible solution – I was all in.  It’s part of why I insisted I see to your exam myself.  We can’t risk something dangerous entering a place so valuable.”  Boyd took Neith’s temperature and blood pressure.  She pulled Neith’s lower eyelids down in turn.  She pricked her skin and ran slides under scanners.  Neith was overwhelmed.  This was definitely not how she’d envisioned their first meeting.  “You’ll see soon enough.  There’s so much in Nydia worth protecting.”

Neith felt a confused excitement again.  Dr Alma Boyd was telling Neith she backed this plan; that she thought this was a wise course of action.  Neith would be part of a solution – one she never foresaw – but a solution.  A bridge between two communities was positive for everyone, wasn’t it?  Neith thought so, but something in Prescott’s disarming delivery felt off.  Not having a choice about it felt wrong; not telling anyone where she was going felt wrong.   Ms Zhang suggested she conceal her true reports?  Also wrong.  She understood the reasoning they had supplied, but it didn’t make it feel right.

“How does Nydia feel about all of this?”

“The fact you’re even asking that is a good sign.  We need to advance our relationship with Nydia, but we need to adopt a gentle approach.   I believe you have a real chance of being sensitive to these people and their sensibilities.  Someone from the towers?  Jamin would send one of them back in a week.”  Neith would usually enjoy the attack on the promiscuous 2K’s, but now Grace was among them.  Jamin must be a leader-figure in Nydia.  “We need to hear from you that you’re gaining their trust – any indication you have towards that end – I know you’ll tell us.  But please, understand Nydia has its own council and rules, and we expect you to do your best to abide by them.  The reports are the only exception to that.  We need those.  Send them in private; what Nydia doesn’t know can’t hurt them.”

Q.Z. had been over that part – Neith would pair her stripped phone with her internal chip.  Neith considered the process of dismantling her phone of almost all of its features.  It was straight-forward.  She would do it herself.  Ms Zhang had suggested Neith leave a small library of e-books on the device to conceal the keyboard utility. Although Neith had been reviewing her dialogue with Prescott for quite a while, she had heard some of what Ms Zhang had said while she appeared to study an Upper Level manicure.  The keyboard utility would allow Neith to report and contact her family.  I’ll miss them.  This realisation came as a blow at her sternum.  Contacting the family she missed also satisfied MinSci – it kept up the pretence of her being somewhere safe, contactable.  Zhang had said something else, during the post-signing fugue, about allowing Neith the bare essentials.  There really weren’t going to be mics or hidden cameras.  She supposed she could hardly leak the secret of Nydia’s existence once she was there, anyway – her only means of doing so being closely monitored.  Once she was in Nydia, all she had to do was ensure she wasn’t sent back – as Boyd had suggested someone else might be.  If these Nydia people came upon her phone, would they send her back for that?  They would probably expect a City girl to cling to some technological thing or other.  They’d probably expect a lot of things from someone City – high maintenance needs and carelessness, among them.  Neith would have to be careful.  She couldn’t afford to fail; she got it.  Why?  From Prescott: Or else, From Boyd: Because Nydia and Feichangbei needed her to succeed.

“What would Prescott have done if I’d become just like the 2K’s in the towers?  What would he have done if I’d always been…like everyone else.”  Neith looked to Boyd, sincere.

“But that’s it, Neith.  You’re not.  You’re not at all.”  She squeezed Neith’s shoulder. Neith felt a surge of pride.  She was still nursing some residual confusion and hurt over having her world redefined, but her new assignment was still useful.  Boyd added, “Going in softly and quietly like this is our best chance of gaining Nydia’s trust.  We will need to work together if we want to increase the number of prospective partners for everyone back here in the City.  If they will let in one young woman, and she proves we City-people can live alongside them, maybe they’ll let in three.  Maybe ten.  Maybe Feichangbei still has a chance.”  She looked at Neith with intensity.  There it was; Neith latched onto the thing all these debriefs were skirting around.  Monstrous MinSci was taking a gradual, gentle approach; MinSci wanted to send a conservative scout, then maybe more 2K’s.  There was something the Upper Floors weren’t telling her.  She understood Feichangbei needed Nydia – that was clear.  Neith understood why Nydia would put up with a scientist from MinSci – when the 5000kg elephant wants to sit down, you make room.  What Neith hadn’t figured out, was why the elephant was worried about breaking the chair.  For a dictatorship, MinSci was playing awfully nice.  If the Republic wanted something Nydia had, why hadn’t they simply gone in and taken it?

“One question.”

“Yes?  What is it?” 

“Why does Prescott care so much about what Nydia wants?”  Why the polite elephant?

Dr Boyd pulled her lips inside her mouth as she smiled.  She shook her head, still smiling.  “You’re curious.  I respect that.”  Boyd appeared to be weighing up a decision.  She stood taller with resolve.  “And I think you deserve to know.  Abe…Minister Prescott, rather, disagrees with me on this point.  There’s a division within the Cabinet.  He and I are on separate sides of that debate.  Both sides want what’s best for Feichangbei, but we’ve spent hours in boardrooms arguing over the best method of getting what we want.  Miss Cole, this isn’t our first attempt to harness Nydia and its fertility potential.  After it became clear we had more than a foothold in the City, we sent surveillance to Nydia.  That is how we learned Nydia had not only survived, but they were flourishing.  They clearly weren’t facing the difficulties we were here.  At that time, a majority within the Cabinet approved of a more drastic approach; of taking what was best for the City.”  Now they were getting somewhere.  Boyd was going to tell her what Prescott had been hiding.  Why was the Republic being so gentle about achieving their goals?  “It was all done in the name of saving the human race.  Doesn’t it sound noble?”  She scoffed.  “It was enough for them at the time.  They took someone from Nydia.”  This sounded more like the Republic Neith knew and feared.  “They…we…brought her back to Feichangbei, hoping to study her.  Hell, we had people pairing her off with the most suitable 2K’s here before she even landed – they wanted to see if a fertile partner and infertile partner had a chance.”  Boyd said a 2K partner; they wanted to pair this woman with a third gen, someone like Neith.  This abduction had happened in Neith’s lifetime.  “But it went wrong.  Things never got that far.  The woman – her liver failed.  She went into atrophy.  It was like…she couldn’t live here in the City, with our diet and surroundings.  She couldn’t function, Miss Cole.  Do you follow what I’m saying?” 

“Maybe.”  Neith thought for a moment.  She was horrified, but she also wanted to understand. “Are you saying this Nydia woman was like a Galapagos finch?”  Neith was referring to content covered in her science curriculum.  Many of her tutors attributed Darwin’s theory of evolution to his observation of finches.  He’d seen the results of natural selection; observed them in Old World islands.  Finches on each island had developed characteristics unique to survival on that particular island – if they were somehow relocated to another island, their specific adaptations would render them ineffective, or even obsolete, in a new setting.  For example, a finch with a long beak designed to obtain its food from a fluted flower on its own island would lack the short, hard beak required to crack shells on another island.  Something like that.

Boyd crossed her arms, eyes wide.  “You are the right intern for this job.  Yes, Miss Cole.  It was just like the finches.  This young woman, it was like her body had adapted to live as she had in Nydia – away from all the wireless pulses, transmissions and emissions.  And eating meat – can you believe?  And all sorts of other foods you and I can scarcely imagine.   She wasn’t made for the City.  I think you need to know this, for two reasons.  One – you deserve to know the extent of the risks.  There is a very small chance you’ll be a finch too – maybe your digestive and respiratory systems won’t cope in Nydia. Maybe they’ll cease to function – it could be a shock to your system.”  Neith showed some concern.  “Knowing also helps you understand this assignment isn’t so much about gaining trust as regaining it.  You are taking very real risks with the people there too.”  She paused and allowed Neith to take this in. 

“There’s another reason I deserve to know?  You said two reasons.  Other than being entitled to know the risks involved?” Neith asked.  Prescott failing to mention she was a human-sized lab rat pleading for peace seemed like criminal enough concealment.

“Yes.  Two – now you know, when Prescott implies he is willing to do unconscionable things to solve the fertility crisis, he means it.  He’s gone in with a hard approach with these people in the past – with little respect for an individual’s life when weighed against the common good.  You’re that individual life now, Miss Cole.  Don’t underestimate his threats.”   Neith hadn’t.  She knew she wasn’t safe in Feichangbei knowing everything she did now.  But she’d been carefully manipulated to underestimate the risks in Nydia.  These people chose their isolation.  They surely wanted their existence to remain a secret as much MinSci wants it to.  They wanted to protect their way of life.  Prescott has threatened revealing their existence, or at least intervening again, and they bought the bluff.  If it was a bluff.  For them, Neith would be like a wolf they were letting in amongst their lambs. 

“I never agreed it was right to keep the risks from you.  I’m glad I’ve told you now.  Prescott…he’s been forced to see; not caring about Nydia got us nowhere.  Bringing Nydia to Feichangbei – it didn’t work.  We need to try taking Feichangbei to Nydia.  Knowing what I’ve told you, you can see why Nydia would resist that.  We haven’t made a great impression.  What end would a handful of typical 2K’s meet if they were thrust into the community now?  If they could live there at all, would they be shot on sight?  Ignored?  Exiled? They certainly wouldn’t have a chance at forming relationships with prospective partners.  We need Nydia’s trust if this is going to work.  That’s where you come in; our forerunner.”  Neith had no problem with doing her best not to upset the people in Nydia.  As far as she could tell, all Nydia had done wrong was try to live free of chips, smog, screens and tofu.  What Neith had a problem with, was going into territory hostile because of stupid decisions scientists before her had made.  Alma continued, “We agree you’re the right person for this job.  We agree this is a better approach.  We tried Prescott’s way.  This new way is better.  You will hopefully bridge a gap we desperately need to cross.  I don’t think Prescott needed to threaten you for you to see that.  He means every word, I assure you, but I think his threats were unnecessary.  I think you and I are alike.  We can’t leave a hypothesis unexplored.  There’s a possible solution here, Miss Cole.  You’ll be a part of that.”

“I’m obviously doing this, I’m not sure why you’re selling it.”  Neith shrugged.  A wave of confusion washed over her.  MinSci had been her feeble refuge.  It had offered a way to lose herself and feel accomplished in a society that was broken, when she was broken.  She knew she was monitored, she knew the job was a diversion, but it was working.  Wasn’t it?  Being manoeuvred by Prescott towards these new ends, crushing her understanding of where she fit in, and now, manipulating people who had found a way to be truly happy?  A community somewhere who was minding their own business being added to the rows of pawns in a larger game?  Prescott had made clear she wasn’t the only pawn in the City at his fingertips; he’d threatened her family.  With a smile.

Neith thought of Owen Cole, earnest in avowing he only hoped for Neith’s happiness.  Mama Cole’s lip exercises preceding her concern.  Grace and the quiet playground.

Of course they were implicated and at risk, how could she have been thinking of refusing a part in this?  As soon as Prescott informed her of Nydia, Neith became something he needed to contain – with blackmail.  To think she’d wanted to defer to Wilson.  It was all over after she picked up her tepid hot chocolate.  MinSci’s reach was too great; resistance was futile.  How could she have taken this long to consider their safety?  The plenty of pawns, known and unknown, had overwhelmed her.  She’d been selfish, or stupid, to think she could just step aside and spare herself from a peace mission into the unknown.

“You’re right.  I don’t need to sell it.  But I could see you had your doubts.  You were right to.  But now that everything is laid out on the table, maybe you can go in better prepared – with a clearer understanding of all of the variables.  I want you to have the best chance of making this work.  We’ve promised them someone unlike anyone they would expect from the City – someone different, someone they’ll find hard to hate.  I’m betting on you.”  She whispered the final affirmation.

Neith nodded as she stared into her lap.  She was still working for MinSci.  Dr Alma Boyd was betting on her internship making a difference.  The Republic had ulterior motives – and thanks to Dr Boyd – for once, she knew what some of those were.  She could work with this. 
Boyd had stepped back and returned her stethoscope to a chrome trolley.  “You’re all clear.  Ready to go.”  Neith stepped down from the elevated chair and nodded in parting. “Good luck.”  Neith gave a small wave as she waited for the elevator. 

Inside, she punched in her floor number, and retrieved her things from a quiet lab.  It was now late.  Her downward drop and lab punch-out were all conducted in a state somewhere between normal and fingernail-atonic. 

The El-ride home she sent no voice messages and scarcely heard the headlines streaming from Vu on the El-panels.  What did she know anyway?  Was she reporting on living children?  Did she have the latest on the head of MinSci’s dirty past?  What about a report on how Feichangbei’s most famous scientist, the pioneer of robotics’, had turned her attentions to an entirely different field?  No?  
Forget all that, did the gorgeous reporter have an interest piece running on how to tell your best friend you’re leaving when you pummelled her for doing the same? 

Neith tuned out the stimuli while she replayed her own day over and over, processing information from Prescott, Q.Z. and Boyd one layer at a time.  Living children and forced reassignment, reports and rules in some far away place, finches, wolves and lambs. 

Scarlet Vu cheerfully reported on solar levels.

The El slunk home.

Neith braced for emotional impact.


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