keaalu: Three colourful speech balloons (Coloured balloons)
[personal profile] keaalu posting in [community profile] strangestnotion
(So, this is just chapter one. I have more written, but I'm so slow at posting, these days.)

“…Mistress Tuuli? It’s time to get up for work, now!”

Wrapped in the warmth of her quilt, and still heavy with sleep, Tuuli a’Pemari groaned and wound the covers a little tighter up over her head. “Just give me a little longer, Notion.”

“Sorry, Tuuli.” Two small hands teased the quilt away from her ears. “I’ve snoozed my alarm twice for you already. You’re going to run out of time to catch the monorail if I let you sleep much longer.”

“I could call in sick.” Tuuli glared blearily out from her cocoon at her PDA’s small face.

Notion’s whiskers perked as she smiled. “I’ve made your breakfast.” In a whirl of plum-coloured fur she bounded down off the headboard and went to open the curtains.

“Uugh.” Tuuli flopped facedown into her pillow. “All right. You win. I’m up. Slave driver.”

Like a beached seamonster the young laima slithered off her mattress, and sat for a moment on the floor in a pool of early morning sunlight. Diluted by the morning’s haze, it still felt far too bright. She rubbed her face with both hands; her eyes were still sore from last night and the police’s over-generous application of riot-control spray. Taking a shower could wait until after breakfast.

She got up and walked stiffly across her small apartment to the kitchenette at the rear, stepping over puddles of discarded clothing and week-old newspapers, trying not to trip over Notion. Her small synthetic pet was already scampering around, gathering up the laundry.

As promised, her breakfast was in a tidy arrangement of bowls in the only clear space on the countertop. Thick creamy porridge and berries, and a cup of keem. She sagged onto the nearest stool and for a while just… stared at it all. Her arms dangled heavily at her sides, aching. She wasn’t sure she’d even manage to pick up the spoon to eat it.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a scrap of pink paper, wadded up into a ball and discarded alongside her house-keys and purse, still where she’d dumped them the night before. She picked up the crumpled piece of paper, and glared at it. Breach of Peace, Failure of Dispersal, Order Notification NN-2. She smoothed it out with her thumbs, and debated pinning it up on the wall, where she’d collected the rest of her “trophies” – photographs of the other activists that had got her involved with the campaign, brightly coloured fliers advertising another city-centre protest, another sit-in, another meeting with left-leaning politicians. Newspaper clippings; gender March causes Traffic Chaos! Fessine demand Equal Rights, but can society stand it? Where do YOU stand? March turns to riot! Water-cannons used against protestors!

Tuuli propped her head on one hand. I’m still not sure how I got involved in all this.

Her phone chirped. She glanced over at it; a missed call alert glittered back at her. Lillibet, one of her friends from school; another fessine, another troublemaker. She’d been at the same protest/riot/whatever as Tuuli, last night. Difference was, Lillibet was married, and didn’t have to still crawl off to work today. She thumbed the call button and waited for her friend to answer.

Lillibet sounded much too chirpy for this time of the morning, after the busy night they’d just had. “Hey Lee-Lee! Welcome back to the world of the autonomous.”

“Hey, Bet.” Tuuli finally managed to pick up her spoon, and began to eat. “Sorry I missed your call. Everything good with you?”

“Yeah, I wanted to see if you were all right, after we got separated. Cops said they’d delivered you home, but wouldn’t tell me anything else as we’re not family.” She giggled. “Congratulations on your first arrest, by the way!”

Tuuli grunted around a mouthful. “Yeah, well. Thanks. I’m still sore, if it helps. Got a facefull of pepper spray, then got manhandled by a walker. I thought you said those things couldn’t hurt us?”

A bark of laughter emerged from the speaker. “Well, sure, they’re programmed not to actively cause harm, but if you struggle, well, that’s your own fault. I treat ‘em like I would a wall, you know? Walls don’t hurt you unless you run smack into ‘em.”

Tuuli glared. “So what time did you get home in the end?”

“Not too late. Got kettled at University Plaza for a while, while they brought in reinforcements, but they let us go home after that. Too many cops to keep fighting against, I figured. I know a lost cause when I see one.”

Tuuli contrasted her friend’s experience with her own; where Lillibet seemed to have escaped mostly free of repercussions, Tuuli had been inconveniently close to a canister of tear gas when it had gone off. Mostly blind, eyes and nose streaming, she’d lost her footing and almost got trampled in the ensuing melee, until a walker swooped in and rescued / arrested her. A van had taken her to the local police station, where she’d sat in cells repeating “no comment” like a holy mantra until the spray had worn off, and they’d delivered her home sometime in the small hours of the morning. Small wonder she still felt stiff and sore.

“Merit and Ivanna are meeting me at a Friendly café after they finish work later today. Apparently there’s a Righter politician visiting one of the housing developments, we’re gonna join up with a rally to go heckle her. You up for it?”

“You know what? I kinda want to get some sleep, since I didn’t get any last night.”

“Come on, it’ll be fun! She might even give us some good soundbites if she yells at us again.”

“Bet, listen…” Tuuli sighed, and concentrated on her porridge. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep campaigning with you.”

Lillibet remained silent, for a moment, as though trying to gauge whether her friend was serious. “What? Lee, come on, you can’t be serious? We’re just starting to get noticed! They’re starting to see our campaign as a real issue, not just a bunch of whiney, pampered fessine wanting what they can’t have. You can’t back out on us now-”

I got a pink ticket, last night.”

“-Big deal! I must have twenty already-”

“Failure to disperse. Inciting civil disorder. Rioting! Do you know what’ll happen if my boss finds out?” She stirred her cooling porridge around the bowl with short, hostile strokes. “I can’t lose this job! I’m barely managing to make ends meet as it is.”

Lillibet remained quiet.

Tuuli glared at the phone’s screen. “If I lose my job because of violent disorder, what are the chances of me getting another one?”

“You could sell your PDA,” Lillibet sniped. “She’s hardly an essential commodity. You could still pay the rent for a few more months while you look for a new job, that way.”

Tuuli glanced over to her PDA; she’d owned Notion for her whole life, pretty much, and it had ‘grown up’, upgraded into its current format, with her. She couldn’t imagine life without her. “I’m not selling Notion. She’s the closest thing I have to family.”

“Oh, come on. It’s a smartphone with legs. With the amount of money you invested in upgrades for that little critter-”

“Exactly! No-one wants someone else’s designs, they want to create their own. And I’m not selling her! Can we stop talking about this? It’s not very nice, especially when she’s actually still in earshot.”

“It’s a PDA, skeida. You’d be able to make ends meet if you quit buying expensive bolt-ons for it! I know you treat it like a pet but it’s not actually alive, you know?” A sigh. “So… get married, then. Find some gullible medusi, and you’ll have a home and money and won’t have to worry about a job.”

Tuuli rested her forehead against both hands. “Bet, do we fall into the same parallel universe every time this comes up, or do you just have a really selective memory? My family kicked me out in the first place because I didn’t want to get married.”

“Ugh! I know, I get it.” Lillibet groaned unintelligibly into the speaker. “I’m not talking about love and fate and lifemates and all that mushy stuff. It’s called a marriage of convenience for a reason, Lee. Just meet up with some left-leaning medusi who’ll sponsor you for a while, you don’t have to go all-out and get pregnant too.”

“Doesn’t this defeat the whole purpose of our campaign? Being taken seriously as autonomous citizens with our own legal rights, without needing a medusi’s support for everything?”

Lillibet snorted. “Or it emphasises the whole point that we can’t do a damn thing for ourselves. Please, Lee-Lee. Every voice we lose might be the one voice that makes the difference. Don’t give up on us?”

Tuuli gave a resigned sigh. “All right. I’ll think about it. But tonight, I’m definitely gonna sleep. Maybe tomorrow night, too. I’ll call you when I’m not still aching all over. You can come over and we’ll talk about this.”

“Aye, I hear you. Take care of yourself today, all right? Love you.”

“Love you too, Lillibet. Take care.”

Her breakfast had gone unappetisingly cold and congealed, by the time Tuuli actually felt capable of eating it. Tuuli cupped her hands around her keem, and watched Notion bustle around, tidying the apartment and stripping the bedsheets. Could she really contemplate selling her? What if she ended up having no choice in the matter? What if it was the choice between that and being out on the streets? Because neither of them would survive that.

She could probably get a fair price for her. PDAs – Personal Digital Assistants – were popular, and the more exotic the better. The city centre was full of fancy little boutiques, offering exotic upgrades and bespoke modifications. Notion herself had started life as a toy; a synthetic pet, to be both company to and monitor of a single (rather spoiled) infant, to teach her decision-making and responsibility. As Tuuli had got older, though, she’d begun to purchase her own upgrades for her PDA – a diary module, music playback, research aid, organiser – and the more money she invested, the more important the little creature became.

Right now, Notion was on her fourth major physical upgrade. She looked like she was somewhere between a four-legged pet and a very small laima; she was covered in primarily soft plum-colour fur, and walked on four legs, but where an animal’s head should have been was the upper body of a small laima, with two arms and a somewhat primitive laima head. She was just big enough to be able to do everything she needed to do around the home - the top of her fuzzy head came up to just a little above Tuuli’s knee.

Tuuli closed her eyes. The little machine was more than just a servant, did so much more than just help out around the home. They’d grown up together. A cosy evening in might involve being snuggled up on the sofa, watching television together. Discussing the news over breakfast. Thinking about selling her made her feel like she was contemplating selling her sister.

Not just my PDA.

Perhaps some hot water would wake her up. Wash off the dust and grime of the previous day, and wash away some of the sourness of her spirit. Tuuli slid off the stool and headed for the rainlocker, the only other room in her small home.

She turned her face up into the stream of hot water, and felt the subtle tingle of residual riot-spray washing off her hair. The unpleasant spicy smell still made her nauseous. Half a bottle of floral body wash barely touched it. She’d have to wear a ton of perfume to avoid her coworkers picking up on it.

She’d never been glad that her job was so basic and monotonous until now; sewing beaded designs into clothing she’d never have been able to afford, she could have done it in her sleep. She wasn’t sure her sore body would have stood up to anything requiring much brain power this morning.

She examined her reflection in the tall mirror, and pursed her lips, glaring; thick, pigmented laima skin didn’t bruise easily, but the shadows of huge fingertips still stood out on her dark upper arms. It hadn’t felt that bad at the time. Perhaps she’d been so high and disoriented off the riot gas she’d just not noticed. She made sure she wore long sleeves, to hide the marks, but it really began to feel like the whole world was conspiring against her – as though it was determined for her colleagues to find out.

As usual, Tuuli was cutting it fine – by the time she was finally dressed and (mostly) presentable, it was getting close to the time she should have already been on the station. She glared at the clock. She was going to have to run again. She scooped up her keys and slung her bag over her shoulder.

Notion jumped up to the table just inside the front door and held Tuuli’s purse out for her. “Are you certain you don’t want me to make you an appointment with the doctor? Your biometrics are still reading quite off.”

Tuuli smiled and petted the PDA’s fluffy ears. “I’ll be all right. I’m just a bit stiff.” She stuffed her purse into her bag and opened the front door. “Maybe if I’m still sore tonight. Tell me if my metrics are still off when I come home, yeah?”

Notion paddled her forefeet on the spot, as though sensing the untruth. “Take care, Tuuli.”

“You too. Be good.” Tuuli leaned down and bumped cheeks, then was gone. Through the door, Notion could hear her yelling to a neighbour to hold the lift for her.

As she always did, Notion bounded straight over to the big windows looking out over the hazy city, to try and catch a glimpse of her owner and ensure she’d made it safely out of the building. Tuuli rented a small, fifteenth-floor apartment, in a densely-populated area of the southern city suburbs, and commuter traffic often held her up. She actually worked all the way across the city, in a factory in one of the industrial parks to the north, and had to catch an early monorail to make it in time for her shift.

The apartment block was hardly prime real estate, crammed in as it was with other similar high-rise apartments, but Tuuli had got lucky and rather than stare back at some other poor soul’s window, she had a decent view looking out over one of the small green square parks below. At the side of the square was one of the stations for the municipal monorail, safely jacked up above head-height on slender pillars and half-obscured by trees.

Notion spied Tuuli’s bright blue coat as she emerged from the apartment building’s big doors, bolting across the park even as the train made its final approach into the station. She watched her owner sprint up the stairs to the monorail platform and leap for the closest set of train doors, only just making it in time; the doors whisked closed and almost caught the trailing toes on one foot.

Notion leaned into the window, at last allowing herself to relax. She liked it when things went according to plan. Her internal diary ticked off “Tuuli is on the train and on her way to work”.

Now, on to the laundry…


The Strangest Notion

January 2018


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