Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Chapter 19: Digging

Nutrient content data for Nandao’s garden crops reflects notable deficiencies of at least seven essential nutrients (ascorbic acid, calcium, iron, potassium, protein, riboflavin and selenium).  These deficiencies and decreases from data on record may be attributed to Health Department changes to the cultivars used, which have been selected based according to greater yield, growth rates and pest resistance, not for their nutritional value.
- Censored Independent Study conducted by Feichangbei University students, copy labelled “2/40” housed in the Nydia School Library
Neith was sweeping.  No one had told her about all the sweeping.  Children have a lot of energy, yes.  They require constant supervision – and, it seemed, feeding – along with help with simple tasks – all of that.  Nothing prepared her for the clockwork call to the broom. 
Sweeping allowed her to think.  To think about the chip surgically buried in her waist – where it painlessly tracked her vitals, and in the City’s vicinity linked to and personalised almost everything.  She understood the chips had been around for over two-hundred years, initially, in pets – that part always threw her.  In pets?  She swept past Ninja, who withdrew his claws briefly, then resumed his stretches.
The chips in humans began as an option.  People wanted the perks of personalisation or the promise of safety.  It allowed their home security system to admit only them, remote call centres to confirm their identity by nearness to their phone, for all of their purchases to be automatically deducted, and urgent support to be sent if there were signs of distress.  It allowed children, back when there were some around, to have their whereabouts monitored at all times.  Before long, it became mandatory.  Why wouldn’t you want to be chipped?  Did you have something to hide?  Were you leaving work early?  Did you visit unsavoury establishments?  Did your chip spend too long, too close, to another person’s chip?  A minor’s?  Would your chip place you in location that would prove your guilt in some crime? 
Everyone was chipped.  Nanny Cole had been chipped.  Criminals received second chips.  Chips had reduced crime dramatically.  Chips had helped people do away with constantly wearing surgical masks – since an elevated temp would sound a warning and restrict a person’s movements.  Missing persons’ lists became a thing of legend.  Chips couldn’t be stolen without incriminating a proximate chip guilty of the gory crime.  People tried, but people failed, and people were executed.  Occasionally, an enterprising crim would find a way to coerce another to do something – gain access here, or take something there – without coming into proximity with their victim.  But the vitals would always betray them – Duress at a Distance.  The truth would come out.  There were the steep penalties too, those helped.
Could it be that simple?
Could Nydia be right?  Were chips frying her ovaries?  The chip was placed there for monitoring her health, and to keep it closer to her body’s centre to increase proximity accuracy and personalisation in crowds.  The central core body heat was converted into the miniscule power necessary to run a chip’s functions and wireless links.  A torso was also a body part everyone had.  Plague or infection amputees or those born with missing limbs were chipped just the same.
Should she tell Elle that her confession had been incomplete?  Neith rationalised.  She never paired with her phone when she was close to anyone else – she wasn’t doing them harm.  The internal chip was certainly insulated.  She was harmless.
It came time for family prayer.  Neith waited on her knees beside Ruthie, who rolled her eyes over Davey’s delay to find his way into the circle for prayer.  Neith had come to love this circle.  She smiled through Davey’s prayer.  Amos begged for a turn to say his own.  Elle obliged. 
Amos prayed, “Hank you for Nee.  And books.  And Nee.”
Neith’s heart seized.  A trifecta.  Each child had slayed her with their sweetness now.  Not knowing what to do at prayer’s end, she had hugged him.
Piggybacking and wheelbarrow-children made their way into the backroom. Neith retrieved her bed things from beside the front couch and laid down.  This home and its routines were becoming her normal.  She had shared in this nightly ritual so long now it felt natural.  Once again, Neith did not want things to change. But tonight the routine had included a child expressing love.  What if she had gained that love, only to admit others who weren’t harmless?  And what might tomorrow bring?  Two children saying those words?  Three?  Neith expressing them in return?  Maybe.  Want it or not, Neith feared completing her assignment so well felt dangerous.   Love wasn’t business.  She wanted some assurance she wasn’t putting these people at risk. She didn’t feel ready to sleep yet.  She considered speed-reading something on her gently-lit phone screen before she slept, like she would have back home.  She could now; Elle was down with it, these days.  But her Republic-approved digital library had become tiresome and hollow (although the flashing words were a thing of wonder, to Ruthie – in spite of the lacklustre content).  Maybe she could balance a real book and her energy-efficient phone screen in some way that would allow her to finish the sequel story about Ender.
She needed to message her mother.  It’d been a week, at least, but ironically, house-wide knowledge of her phone’s existence had made its use more complicated.  She could read and type near others – but she didn’t risk activating the link to send any of the text homeward – both to keep that part secret still, and in case there was any validity to Nydia’s theories about the danger of transmitting devices.
Neith foraged for her phone beneath the couch pillows.  Success.  Still hearing little from the backroom, she decided to risk it, activating the link between her chip and phone.  She turned onto her back and held the screen above her face. 
From: Lucienne Cole [mailto:luciennecole@feichangbei.intra]
Sent: Thursday, 23 July, 0054 A.S. 10:22 p.m.
To: neithcole@minscix.intra
Subject: How long?

Dear Neith,

It is so quiet here, without you.  Even the screens shut off sooner than they used to.  Don’t be mad, but Grace told me about the And and the whistling.  Is the And turning the screens off, too?  Is that thing still “active” up there?  Grace thinks you have it overriding your father’s heart-rate and breathing settings for auto power-down so that it will turn off the lounge screen when he falls asleep in front of it. 

I can tell Grace misses you.  We all do.

Have they given you any idea when you might be coming home?

I can’t bear it seeing that thing up there in the loft.  Yes, I go up there sometimes.  I sit on the bed and think about you.  Sue me!  Then I see the And there and I wonder if it’s filming me when I’m at my most honest and vulnerable.  I have to trust you had our best interests at heart, but Nee…I hope a robot isn’t what we have to look forward to in our old age.  Not yet, anyway.

Come home soon.

x Mama
From: Neith Cole [mailto:neithcole@minscix.intra]
Sent: Thursday, 30 July, 0054 A.S. 6:55 p.m.
To: mailto:luciennecole@feichangbei.intra
Subject: Re: How long?

Oh Mama Cole,

I miss you too. 

I’ve met someone here.  Someone older.  Before you get excited, it’s a friend – a mother, actually.  And she makes me miss you more.

I love you,

Nee xxxxx
From: Alma Boyd [mailto:almaboyd@fr.intra]
Sent: Thursday, 30 July, 0054 A.S. 6:56 p.m.
To: neithcole@minscix.intra
Subject: Careful, Miss Cole

We have reviewed your report re you confirming to Elle you are in possession of a phone.  We think it an excellent decoy to have suggested your phone is merely a Reader, and praise your initiative for leaving the book files on your device.  We are pleased you will be permitted to use the phone to send your report, but please, ensure vigilance for all transmissions – you do not want to bring anyone any harm.

You say you believe Elle values your help.  That is good to hear.  Do you think they feel they can trust you?  You’re still there, and that alone has us hopeful. 

Good luck.
The last message had flashed in while she was linked.  It had an image attached.  It was a shot of Owen and Lucienne both asleep on matching recliners in their living room.  It looked like it was taken from the lens in the wall screen.  The image was a warning.  She wondered if Dr Boyd thought she was simply reminding Neith of their discussion in the elevator, of if she had acted on Minister Prescott’s orders.  Neith severed the connection smartly and tucked her phone under the couch cushion. 
It was still early, though dark. 
She spun around to sit up on her couch-bed, and wondered if Elle would re-emerge from the backroom tonight to talk, as she did many nights after the house was still. 
What Neith had just done had been risky.  Was she becoming too relaxed here?  Or did part of her want Elle to find out? For this entire circus of gaining trust by lying to everyone to be over.  Elle deserved better than finding out by accident.  Neith should tell her. 
So what was Neith waiting for?
She knew.  She wanted to know what Nydia stood to gain.  She might be willing to risk being dismissed from Nydia for confessing her secret transmissions (although she didn’t want to leave), but she needed to understand first why Nydia needed Feichangbei.  What might Nydia lose if she prematurely ended her visit?  And could she find a way to explain her choices that would result in Elle’s forgiveness?  She didn’t want someone else to be sent in her place.  Neith at least knew she was an advocate for Nydia’s way of life; an advocate for leaving Nydia’s people in Nydia.  She wasn’t so sure Prescott would stick with the gentle approach if it didn’t produce results to his timeframe.  Neith wanted to stay.  She needed to find words or a way that allowed her to stop lying to people she was starting to love, without harming others she’d loved longer.  She feared neither MinSci nor Nydia would want her around if she came completely clean about her reporting methods and her fears.  Where would she live then?  If she was sent away – as Elle promised would happen should there be any threat to their safety – would the Republic allow her back after all this?  How was she to keep on with the secret – them monitoring her every movement with more scrutiny than ever before?  She would remember living another way, she’d be ensconced in a waking dream amongst a populace of the duped. 
She would get more information first.  She would at least try come up with a suggestion for a way forward, try to establish if Nydia generally believed Phase 2 could go any way but badly, and find out what Nydia wanted.  They had a history with her employer she did not.  Maybe, if there were others like Boyd, there was a chance this could all be okay, handled quietly.
To think, moments ago, she had considered reading!  Her attempts to escape what was really going on felt feeble now.  At night, when it was quiet, she would remember a report she’d sent – claiming progress with these people.  Some nights she attempted to squash that memory into the further reaches of her conscience by losing herself in censored literature.  She’d confessed that to MinSci – that she felt reading to Amos and talking about galactic battle rooms with Ruthie helped her in gaining trust.  Boyd’s failure to comment on the fact only confirmed Neith’s fears MinSci had no intention of allowing her to reintegrate back home.  No reprimands, no future.  So she wasn’t going to stop.  She was asking questions about Nydia’s way of life too.  She had more: about theories on transmitting devices causing sterilisations, organic cultivation promoting better reproductive health.  She’d certainly experienced no negatives for having adopted Nydia’s diet.  She’d even learned three ways to eat eggs…and grown to like them.  She wasn’t as tired.  She had a few healthy curves on her frame and she liked them.   Neith believed there were answers in Nydia.  Would Boyd listen?
Elle appeared from the darkened backroom, squinting.  She refilled the kettle, sitting it back on the grate above the fire stove.  It had been emptied to fill rubber pouches the kids took to bed at night.
“Tea?”  Neith asked.
Elle smiled the smile that actually turned down at the corners.  It was her most loving smile.  “I’d love one, thank you,” Elle answered.  She collapsed into the story chair while Neith took over in the kitchen.  She retrieved one of Elle’s aniseedy mixtures of herbs and aromatics from the shelf by the hob and pulled down two mugs.  She brought herself back into the present after a moment of déjà vu.  Plucking a spoon from the open tray of utensils, she spooned some of Elle’s homemade herb-mix into both mugs.  Once they were both seated, steaming mugs in hand, Neith began with the questions.
“Do most people share beds and bedrooms, here?”
Elle smiled over her mug.  “I was wondering when you would start asking about the rest of Nydia.”  She took another sip from her mug.  “Most do, yes.  Didn’t you?”
“No.”  Neith thought of her loft above her parents back home and the now-guest room near her parents’ quarters that had once been hers.  “We had…more rooms.” She explained, with some apology.
“Yes, I imagine you did.”
Neith considered how excessive ‘rooms’ sounded when you had been sharing one large room, for years.  One was certainly enough work to heat as it was.
“I’ve seen pictures in books, of what they call a Nursery, yeah?  With a small bed, made for a baby?  The rooms decorated in pastels…”
“Those are the ones.”  Neith brushed off Elle’s stereotyping – who was she kidding, a lot of rooms did look like that.
“It’s hard for me – to imagine being anywhere far from my babies, let alone when they’re asleep, and unknowing!  Especially now…it’s only me.”  Was Elle considering if “only me” still made sense?  Neith was.  “Even when my husband was alive, we all slept in a row.  Not only because we didn’t want to stumble about to find them when they called out to be nursed or soothed at night, but we were checking on them all the night if it was too quiet and they were out of reach.”
Neith had read something about that somewhere, the night wakings. 
“I could never forgive myself, if I came upon a child turned blue with a sheet around her neck, or one that stopped breathing or some such.  Anything like that.” The woman cleared her throat before going on. “It’s unthinkable.  I want them right under my arm. Here.” She patted her side. “Or close by.” 
Neith had never once considered anyone else’s sleep besides her own, nor their safety during it.  “That makes perfect sense, to me.  Especially since you hardly have an ambulance to call on, if something horrible did happen.”
Elle shook her head, sullen, before looking up happy again.  “Besides, they’re so warm, Nee.  I don’t even know if I could fall asleep now, without being there amongst all that breath.”
A piece of still-wet wood popped in the fire.
Are you sorry you don’t have a hospital close by?”  Neith probed. 
“Sometimes.  Sometimes I wish there was a hospital. When Gabe died – I was sorry then.  It was a boat accident, so you know.  It occurred to me while I was lying by Amos the other night – after talking about isolation and all the rest – you might be waiting for someone to come whistling home from work to join us here.”  Elle was touched by some emotion, but seemed able to wade through it with a realignment of her shoulders.  “But you know, it’s staying away from all of that that’s kept us…well, apart.”  Neith could see Elle took comfort in what she still had, ever emphasising it.  By “apart,” Neith knew Elle meant healthy, fertile, pure.  Or any other descriptor that reminded Neith by comparison, she was none of those.
“The hospitals have changed.  My parents used clinical services…for me.  But 2K’s – all of the youngest people around – it’s no longer an option for us.   Things have changed.”  Elle sipped with a polite smile.  “But things haven’t improved, I guess.”  Neith wanted to rub at her chip at her waist.
Elle tipped her head.  “What about you?  Are you sorry…there isn’t a hospital close by?”
Neith knew this was a euphemism for asking if she missed the City.  She thought carefully before framing her answer.
“Yes and no.  I miss some people.  My people.  But the way you’ve treated me here?  And what you have?”  Neith shook her head in disbelief.  “I can see why you’d want to keep it a secret.”
This was the first time they’d spoken of the fact that Nydia wasn’t known to all.
“It wasn’t always like that.”
Neith perked up.  “No?”
“No.  At the start, people came here because they wanted a different way of life.  They wanted to grow their own foods and live off the land, free of taxation and politics.  It wasn’t a real secret they came here.  Most people avoided anything to do with early Nydia.”
Elle nodded.  “Mmhmm.  We were a cult!  Or in-bred.  Deranged!”  Neith did crazy eyes and waved her hands around.  “It was only when…the problems started, in the cities…that we became interesting.”
Neith stared at the remains in her mug.
“Cities.  Huh.  We only have one now.  And it’s a monstrous place.”
“I heard.”
“And no one there has ever eaten anything that hasn’t come out of a sealed package.  Literally.”
It was Neith’s turn to nod.  “Everything is sanitary.  The food is all pre-screened to prevent illness and ensure any pregnancies…have a chance.  Folic acid’s in everything.  It all comes from the farms in the South Island.”
Elle stretched to sit her mug on the edge of the long table. “Do you miss having it all ready to go?”
“Not at all!”  Neith laughed. 
Was Elle kidding?  “I’ve never tasted anything as good as your cooking! I obviously haven’t told you enough.”  She’d thought the groans at mealtimes spoke for her.  “I mean, I love my parents, but they’ve never prepared a meal using ingredients plucked from a garden before.” 
“I thought you’d find all of that exhausting – the gathering and the rest – compared with the ease of sealed-up food.”
“No, not at all!  I am glad to be doing something to help.  Although I do get everything done slower than you.” Neith said.
“That you do.”  They laughed.  “Well, my grandmother used to say that sealed up food in the cities isn’t just food.  There’s all sorts of things they’re putting into it to yield more crops, be a brighter colour, keep for longer, all the rest.  Then there’s the supplements and preservatives they put in after it leaves Nandao.  I can’t imagine how that is really food anymore.”
“After experiencing real food, I am in complete agreement.” Neith put her hands up, in surrender.
“Well maybe that’s part of it.  The food – with the additives, the hormones.  Then there’s the radiation from all the gadgetry.  There seems to be a lot of unnatural things going into your bodies back in the cities.  I wonder if food is another part of the puzzle.  I’m not convinced there’s only one piece.  I mean, the problems can’t all be because you were...”
“…made in a Petri dish?”
“You said it, not me.”
Neith took both mugs to the kitchen and leaned on the sink as she spoke.
“It’s no secret that fertilising eggs in vitro had long-term consequences.  But they tell us all the time the food we’re eating has been vetted to hold everything we need…”  Neith trailed off then.  She’d been assured a lot of things.  Why was she still trusting the nutritional memos about her food?  Or the Intra sites that fed her the nutritional requirements to begin with?  Or the safety of using her phone?  Her internal chip?   “You know what?  They could be putting anything in our food.”  She realised aloud.  “Who knows?”  She shoved off of the bench and returned to her seat near Elle.  She wanted to ask if Elle knew the woman who had gotten sick on City food.  The woman that had been taken.  But she felt like talking about the things the City had done wouldn’t help with growing Elle’s trust – something she wanted for herself now, too.
“Whatever they’re doing, no one deserves what it’s doing to you.”
Neith let that sink in.  What were they doing to her?  Forcing her to lie to her family about where she was – a family who had kept tabs on her for almost all of her life.  She was being forced to hide things from people here who had showed her kindness.  A bi-product of what MinSci was doing was giving her an assignment that was causing her to lose all motivation to resume her former vocation-distraction for which she’d had a passion.  She wanted to read paper books and eat fresh beetroot and pretend this was the world; her world.  She knew that wasn’t what Elle was referring to; what it was doing to her.  Elle was referring to the fact that Neith – and everyone she knew – was barren.  Broken.
“You want to know what’s really sad?” Neith asked.
“What’s that?”
“I wasn’t that upset about it.”  Elle remained quiet.  “I mean, I was upset when I thought of some of the products they were rolling out to fill this spectacular void, but I didn’t feel the void, you know?   I was a void-filler.  I didn’t think I was, I thought I was helping, would you believe?  Helping solve some of the real problems – the things I had power to change…”
“But now I’m not so sure.”
Elle looked into her lap and smiled.
“Nee, my life hasn’t gone perfectly – the widow part, for starters – not in my plan. And we don’t have a lot, by City standards, I’m sure.  But when I heard you were coming here – because some group had virtually accepted that it’s over for you all, up there – that’s it, no more children – well, it broke my heart.  I don’t have much, but I have them.” She pointed with the crown of her head, behind her.  “And they are everything to me.”  Elle was getting tearful but she smiled while she spoke.
Neith got it.  She really did.
“To imagine you all out there, going about your business, just waiting to…” Elle choked again.
“…die?”  Neith finished her sentence again.  “You can say it, it’s what they’re doing.”
“It breaks my heart.”
The pair sat in silence for a while, before Elle rose.  Neith remained seated, staring into the dying fire.  Elle had paused beside her, standing still.  She wrapped an arm around Neith’s head then, pulled it into her waist, and kissed her on the top of her hair.  The deeply maternal gesture made Neith cry for the first time since she had left Feichangbei.
It wasn’t because she felt such honesty come from Elle when Neith hadn’t yet offered her the same.  Or because the couch felt temporary and lonely.  It was because Neith got it, right then; she would never comfort someone as Elle had comforted her, just now. 
With that, she stood, and made her way to the couch, where she lay alone under the blankets for a long time, shaken by her own thoughts of her future.
What would she say if she was truly honest with Elle?  She would say she felt sure no good could come from allowing Prescott to advance to Phase 2.  The talk of distance from hospitals and Elle’s worst fears had given Neith her first idea of a loophole.  Maybe, just maybe, there was a way Neith could report something that would make Nydia cease to be so appealing.  Maybe she could protect Nydia by making Feichangbei believe the last lifeboat left had a hole in it.  Before Neith made a decision that would affect 1,602 people’s future, she would ask more questions about the future of the people here.  She would see more of Nydia – not just the compassionate, kind people.  If she confirmed her suspicions – that Phase 2 seemed likely an unhappy marriage – she would try for this loophole.  But she needed to be sure about what Nydia wanted first; they’d agreed to this arrangement.  Before she traded their wants for the 2K’s.  She would have to face Grace knowing she had sabotaged her best friend’s lifeboat.