Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Chapter 16: Good Morning

Neith awoke to whispers and giggles.  She kept her eyes lightly closed, and reminded herself where she was and who it was she could hear.  She tried to picture each face as they spoke. 

“I don’t think she even brushed her teeth,” she heard one say.  That had to be Davey – the boy who could talk in sentences but with an apparent lack of filter.  Now he reminded her of Gray – filterless.  Neith realised Gray and movies were the only real references she had.  Davey was also right, on the missed brushing count – her cheek-insides felt suctioned to her teeth and tasted stale. 

“She was probably really tired.  Mum said she wouldn’t have done a walk like that before, being from the City.”  There was the guide, Ruth, breaking it down for the boss. 

“What d’you mean?  What kind of walking does she do?  She looked like she walks okay to me.”  Neith’s lips tightened into the beginning of a smile but she quickly relaxed her cheeks in case they were watching her.  Oh please, do not let them know I am awake yet.  It was too good. 

“I mean where she walks, Davey – if she walks much at all.  The City has trains and elevators to take people places.  And when City folk do need to walk any place, the paths are concrete and smooth.  It’s nothing like around here.”  They were growing gradually louder. 

“Oh.  Do they ride on the elligators?” 

“Yes, elevators.” 

“Mama says elligators SNAP!”  Neith heard a clapping sound. 

Ruth resumed giggling.  Neith recognised this was the same sound that had woken her.  There are worse things to wake up to. 

“Not alligators, elevators.  Oh boy, I can’t wait to tell Mum about your vision of Auckland!  Would the alligators have reins, Davey?  And where do people even put their legs?  Do they sit on them like this?  Or like this…?”  Davey was giggling now too – a deep, gurgling laugh somewhere between his throat and chest.  It topped Ruth’s hysterical one.  Only just. 

“Mawning!”  Was that the youngest, she could hear?  If the older two had woken him, it was probably becoming far-fetched Neith was not being disturbed by their morning chatter. 

“I prefer riding alligators bareback, front-facing, myself,” Neith inserted, springing one eye open, but with a dead pan expression. 

Ruthie and Davey stared at her as though they had become accustomed to the idea of her being a sleeping fixture in their home for all time.  They were startled by her metamorphosis into a speaking, interactive person. 

Davey spoke first: “Ruthie!  Ruthie!  She’s awake!” 

“I’m right here, Davey, I can see that.” 

“She rides her elligator bear back!”  Davey squealed. 

“Look at what you’ve done.” Ruthie smiled through her comment of disapproval, at Neith. 

“You started it,” Neith shot back, then reminded herself she was an adult guest. 

“Mawning!”  Amos was indeed awake, and still pealing out his greeting with cheerfulness.  While their voices had been darling and captivating (although sometimes difficult to make sense of), seeing these three little people again took her breath away.  This was real.  Their small features and smooth skin were more perfect than she remembered.  A single night had rinsed her memory of their vividness.  The brightness of Amos’ smile insisted she smile in return.  She felt like saying, Remember the kumara bit?  That was me. We’re friends, but settled for a wink like she’d seen Elle give him the day before.The next hour flew by.  Elle was up and ringmaster – filling bellies, wiping faces, popping small hands and heads through clothing-holes, diffusing minor quibbles, and regularly squeezing each of her kin.  Now and then Neith would wipe up a smudged spot on the bench or nudge out a shoe hiding beneath a cushion. For the most part, she did her best to stay out of the way.  She watched as Ruthie did almost everything for herself in a quarter of the time it took Davey, then she helped Amos without being asked.  Neith bit her lip to contain frequent temptations to laugh when she suspected she should be stern.  She couldn’t believe how much talking there was, often with multiple speakers at once.     

The family then knelt together by the door.  Elle looked over at Neith.  “You can come, or you can stay there, but we’re going to pray.”

Neith looked at her hands, as though they held the answer as to whether or not she came equipped for this kind of regular, spiritual devotion.  They did not.  The Spirit Festival and lantern launch was all she could think of that approached religious worship.  She’d always been put off by the doomsday groups and debate between the sects.  The inoffensive, Republic-approved celebration had worked for her.  But she wasn’t in Feichangbei anymore.  She was in Elle’s home, and this didn’t look doomsday or conflict-inducing.  She ducked her head and approached.  “I’ll join you,” she said.

Amos then did a small shuffle on his knees closer to Elle, away from Davey.  He clearly meant to make room for Neith.  Davey inched over to fill the gap Amos left.

“Davey?  I think Amos was meaning to scoot over so Neith could kneel there,” Elle said gently.

“Oh.”  Davey looked embarrassed and shuffled back the way he had come.

It was then that Neith knew that being given this little space was precious.  She knew that these four were used to scooting to close in the gaps, not making them.  That Davey hadn’t meant to shut her out, he just wasn’t used to letting anyone new in.  Heat flooded over her.

Amos put his hand up and repeatedly cried, “Me!  Me!”

Elle whispered, “Okay then,” into his ear, complemented by another squeeze.  The woman never grew tired of offering them.  Before Neith knew what was happening, they were praying again. 

Amos’ eyes were tightly closed.  He had edged his way into Elle’s lap.  He made a few babbling sentences, in amongst which Neith heard “please” and “thank you” repeatedly before he cried “Amen!” with  energy.  Neith saw everyone’s eyes were now open.  They all went in various directions, collecting last things before making for the door.  She made a note to close her eyes next time; she’d forgotten somehow – so absorbed to be included in a kneeling family prayer.

Elle stood, slinging a bag over her shoulder and took Amos by the hand.  “I’m going to walk the kids across to the school and then check on a friend.  You’re better off here, for now.  I won’t be long.”  Her eyes crinkled.

And with that, Neith was alone.

She rubbed her tongue over her teeth and the soft coating that cringefully confirmed Davey’s remark.  She wasn’t yet hungry, and so decided to brush them.  She retrieved her toothbrush from the chest, and dug around amongst her upturned toiletry bag for her paste.  Giving up, she made her way to the back sink and held the family’s granular offering up for closer inspection.  It smelled vaguely of peppermint but was mostly yellow in colour.  The kids’ teeth had looked okay, hadn’t they?  She scraped some out and began brushing.  It wasn’t what she was used to – especially the salty, bitter flavour.  It beat teeth fur.

She realised then she’d been gifted a window.  Her parents thought she was at some sort of training, not off the grid.  She returned to the chest and located her phone by feel, stashed in one of the inside pockets of her coat.  She’d removed all of its transmission capabilities and the camera lenses, so now it was a sleek shell housing a Republic-approved digital library and a keyboard interface, nothing more.  Having met Elle had increased Neith’s respect for Nydia’s desire to keep technology out of Nydia...but she also needed to contact her own family.  Ms Zhang had said she should pair with her chip away from the Nydia and its precious people.  She agreed, they were.  She had a plan.  Neith put on her jacket and made for the outhouse.

Once outside, she drank in the sounds and smells of the forest.  Also still real.  She ambled up the path to the small, moss-covered structure, scanned the surrounds and confirmed things were as she had remembered. The tree line, a stone wall, and some shelters housing firewood; not a body in sight.

The outhouse door squeaked quietly on entry.

Focus on the technological wonder of super-rural sewage, Cole.

After relieving herself (it was morning, after all), she sanitised her hands, and put down the toilet’s lid. 

She might get used to the smell.  

Sure of a few undisturbed minutes, she slid out her phone.  She enabled wireless detection and paired with the chip buried close to her hip bone.  She let out a reassured sigh when the connection confirmed.  She could transmit. Quinn Zhang was true to her word, Neith was able to access a special purpose email account from Nydia.  Her editor was loaded with four addressees; Alma Boyd, Owen Cole, Lucienne Cole, and Grace Whittaker.  The doll had come through with her best friend. 

She held the phone screen in her lap, eagerly tapping open the messages displayed. 
From: Owen Cole [mailto:owencole@feichangbei.intra]
Sent: Thursday, 11 June, 0054 AS 10:47 a.m.
To: neithcole@minscix.intra
Subject: We miss you + Hey!

Hi Neith,

We found the And, or rather it found me!  It nearly gave me a heart attack, Nee!  I thought someone was breaking into the house!  How did it know to pass me a towel?  I was about to get out of the shower myself and get one and it was like it read my mind.  Having an And driver or doorkeep is one thing, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with Android ESP.  Or one of those things seeing me naked.  Machine or not, there’s such a thing as privacy.

Really, how did it know?  Are you linking to our home security from your course and sending remote commands? That would also explain why the lounge screen turned off when I briefly fell asleep last night even though I expressly set it to ignore reduced heart rate and breathing changes.  I was just dozing! 

Anyway, your “gift” is powered down in the loft for now.  I’m sure you meant well, but your mother and I will do just fine without any help.

Do what you have to do at your training, but come home soon.  Or don’t.  But don’t think you can replace the Neith-sized hole you’ve left in our home with something of your own creation.


P.S.  Seriously, are you watching me right now?
From: Grace Whittaker [mailto:gracewhittaker@2K.intra]
Sent: Friday, 12 June, 0054 AS 2:31 p.m.
To: neithcole@minscix.intra
Subject: Too good for the 2K domain, huh?


They gave you a new email address?  That is ins’.  As long as I have it, I guess.
My Towers are not yet quite mine. 
But they are okay. 
It is nice to be around people our age. 
But none of them are like you, Nee.
None of them understand I.M. – which is pretty much my Level 1 screening question of eligibility, “Who’s this guy?”  I take him with me sometimes, and if someone doesn’t dig Iron Man, they’re done.  I know, I’m this century’s cat lady, only dating.
Also, I went and saw your parents.  I should have seen it coming but that doesn’t change how funny it is every time your dad tells the story of the peeping tom-droid sneaking up on him in the shower.  I am CU now just thinking about it.  Are you running that thing from your phone?  HOW DID YOU DO IT?! Are you running all the things? Is I.M. filming? Should I cover his eyes on my dates if one actually progresses beyond one of these Matches answering “It’s Iron Man, obviously!” 
I should probably find the thought of you filming creepy, but it is kind of comforting. 
I take that back.  Turn it off Neith, it’s still creepy.

Get that And14 good and made, would ya?

P.S.  Who said it? I have been and always shall be your friend.
From: Neith Cole [mailto:neithcole@minscix.intra]
Sent: Saturday, 13 June, 0054 AS 8:40 a.m.
To: gracewhittaker@2K.intra
Subject: Re: Too good for the 2K domain, huh?

It’s the whistling.

I set the And to deliver a towel when it registered the sound of Dad whistling. 

He always does in the shower.  Don’t you dare tell him, it’ll be so much more fun this way.

Thank you for visiting them. 

Please DON’T visit Wilson.

As for the towers – thatta girl.


P.S.  I thought I was Spock and you were Kirk!  Also: I took one more step, and I’m the farthest away from home I've ever been.
Neith didn’t know how long Elle would be out visiting her friend, so Neith settled for composing and sending a single, short email reply.  Now, to see to her phone’s life.  It was holding up okay now, but would need sun soon.  She looked up and assessed the slat openings at the top of the tiny room she was in – presumably designed for ventilation.  They also let in enough light for people to see to their business, casting lines of brightness onto one wall.  She spied a part of the framing she thought was wide enough to balance her phone husk on.  She tested the strength of the lid of the toilet seat, then stepped and stretched to balance her device on the base of the glass-less window.  Done.  Getting light.  It would harvest and store enough for her to send messages during toilet visits.