The kitchen table was round, smooth and white, like most of the other furniture in the spacious apartment. It was set into a semi-circular alcove, surrounded by a tall, curved window overlooking the otherworldly skyline, facing the setting sun.
‘Here we go.. take a seat Greta, Nina.. I’ll bring this over..’ Freddy put on a well worn oven glove which was shaped like a fish. He took a steaming dish out of the oven and brought it to the table. ‘Careful, it’s hot.’
‘Wow, you made that quickly’, said Greta. ‘I like that oven glove.’
‘Oh, I didn’t make it. I’m a terrible cook, aren’t I Nina?’ replied Freddy. Nina nodded in agreement. ‘I had it frozen and just put it in the therma for two minutes. This oven glove was a present from your mum actually, believe it or not. We met on holiday in Madera.. that was before the Big Shift, of course.. look, see, it’s got Madera written on it.. she found it in a souvenir shop..’ Freddy gazed out of the window, lost in memories from a distant place and time.
‘Are you going to put that macaroni cheese down dad?’ said Nina.
‘Oh sorry, I was miles away’, said Freddy, snapping back to the here and now and putting the hot dish on the table. Freddy turned to Greta with a pained look in his eyes and asked, ‘How is she? Your mum..’
‘She’s ok..’ said Greta and trailed off, getting lost in studying the lines around her dad’s eyes. ‘I mean.. I don’t think she ever really got over what happened.. you know.. the Big Shift and all..’
‘Oh..’, said Freddy. ‘Well, I don’t think any of us really did. I mean.. those of us who were there at the time. It was all so sudden.. so unexpected. It caught everyone off guard. It was like the whole world turned upside down.. you can’t imagine what it was like..’
Greta nodded. ‘I know. It’s awful.’
‘Well..’ said Freddy. ‘The thing is, it had to happen. It was bound to happen.. and in a lot of ways, it’s a good thing that it did. Here, let me put you some macaroni cheese.. watch out, it’s very hot. Is that enough?’
‘Yes, that’s plenty, thanks’, said Greta, fighting the feelings of anger that were rising inside her, hearing her dad suggest that the Big Shift was somehow a good thing. The very event which had caused them to be apart for so many years. The very thing which had prevented her from ever knowing her father or her sister.
‘Did she ever..’ said Freddy, with a tremor in his voice. ‘Did she.. ever.. find someone else?’
‘She didn’t speak for the first five years of my life’ said Greta. ‘I didn’t learn to speak till I was about five and that was only thanks to the people in the village making special efforts to help me. They helped mum too, but it took her a long time to find her voice again. She’s a lot better these days.. but.. well.. you know...’
‘Oh.. oh.. oh..’ stammered Freddy and tears sprang to his eyes and his face crumpled up. ‘I’m sorry Greta.. I’m so, so sorry..’ Then he turned and hurried out of the room.
Greta and Nina looked at each other.
‘He gets depression’, said Nina. ‘Anxiety, regret, panic attacks.’
‘Is he ok?’ asked Greta, concerned.
‘Well, you know..’, shrugged Nina. ‘Everyone got messed up didn’t they? He’ll probably take a pill to level him out, then he’ll be ok.’ Nina raised her eyebrows meaningfully.
‘Oh no! That’s awful!’ cried Greta.
‘I don’t know’, Nina shrugged again. ‘I mean, if it helps him cope with it and helps him function, maybe it’s not such a bad thing.’
‘I don’t know..’ said Greta. She really didn’t.
‘What’s she like.. Mum?’ asked Nina, leaning forward. ‘Is she beautiful? Is she kind? Is she funny?’
Greta thought for a moment. ‘Yes. Yes, she is. Well.. I mean, not always, but she can be. Will you come back with me, Nina? Back to the forest? Come and meet mum. It would make her so happy. And me.’
‘Yes, yes, yes! I’d love to’, Nina nodded excitedly, but then frowned. ‘But we can’t. Dad wouldn’t let me. He wouldn’t let us..’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Greta, confused.
‘Well, dad won’t go there. I just know he won’t. Not even to find mum. And he wouldn’t let us go out there into the redzone by ourselves. No way on Earth. Not in a million years.’
‘I don’t understand’, said Greta, getting a sinking feeling. ‘I just came from there. I came all the way here by myself. It’s fine. It’s only a four day walk..’
‘Well, maybe you were just lucky you didn’t get captured by bandits or chased by wolves, or step on an unexploded bomb, or get caught in a toxic spill..’
‘Well, I guess I must have been..’, said Greta, who had been quite unaware of so many potential hazards.
‘Anyway, we’re not old enough’, said Nina. ‘Till we’re sixteen, six months and six days, we need dad’s permission, even to go down to the orange zone. The tube wouldn’t take us there without dad’s permission.’
‘What? Well aren’t there any stairs?’
Nina laughed. ‘Look out the window. Do you know how tall this hive is?’
‘Yes, I know’, said Greta. ‘I did just climb up the outside of it, remember?’
Nina smiled and looked at her sister in wonder and admiration. ‘Yes. I can’t believe you did that. It’s awesome! You’re outrageous. I couldn’t do that. I’m terrified of heights.’
‘It’s just a state of mind’, said Greta. ‘You can get over it.’
‘Well, maybe, but you won’t get me climbing down the outside of the hive. That’s just crazy.’
‘We’ll find a way, Nina, don’t worry’, said Greta, sure that they would.
‘Find a way to what?’ came Freddy’s voice from across the room. He was looking more composed again.
‘We were talking about going to visit mum’, said Nina. ‘In the forest. Will you come?’
Freddy stood and didn’t say anything for a while. ‘I thought you’d want to do that’, he said at last. He came and sat down at the round table. ‘I can’t Nina. I’m sorry. It’s just too big a risk. But here’s what I was thinking.. we’ll send out a robot scout. I’ve already talked to O and they think it’s’ a good idea and have kindly agreed to using one of their scouts to help find your mum and bring her safely back here. Now that we know where she is, we can set the coordinates and send a message. She can come back here with the scout. What do you think?’
Nina nodded thoughtfully. ‘That’s not a bad idea. Yes, we could do that. Why not? I bet she’d be glad to know that you arrived safe and sound, Greta, and that you found us. What do you think?’
Greta shook her head. ‘No’, she said firmly. ‘O doesn’t know anything. They’d chase any robot away if it got anywhere near there. Or they’d catch it and put its head on a pole to warn off others. And there’s no way that mum would come here, especially if a robot came and told her to. No way. It’s just not going to happen.’
‘But it’s worth a try, don’t you think?’ said Freddy, with a note of desperation.
‘Not really’, said Greta. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Well, we’ll find a way I’m sure’, said Freddy, not sure what it might be. He helped himself to a large serving of macaroni cheese. ‘What about you, Nina? Aren’t you eating? It’s macaroni cheese. Your favourite.’
‘Yeah, I’ll have a bit’, said Nina absently. Everything was different now.. now that she knew Greta and her mum were alive. The kitchen was the same. The macaroni was the same, but beyond that, nothing felt like it would ever be the same again.
‘How do you like it Greta?’ asked Freddy. ‘Do they have macaroni cheese where you come from?’
Greta took a forkful of the steaming, cheesy pasta, sniffed it and then held it up in front of her eyes to inspect it. Every tube of macaroni was perfectly formed into an identical spiral, the surface of which was embossed with smaller spiral patterns. They didn’t eat much pasta in Skyward Village and when they did, it was either hand-cut strips of tagliatelle or rolled gnocchi balls made from flour and potatoes. To make something as intricate and perfect as this macaroni would be impossible.
‘It’s different’, said Greta.
‘Try it’, said Freddy. ‘It’s Nina’s favourite, isn’t it Nina?’
‘Yeah’, said Nina. ‘Apart from pizza.’
Greta took a bite of the steaming macaroni. It was rich and comforting, melting in her mouth effortlessly, she barely had to chew it. ‘Tasty’, she said.
Nina smiled and took a mouthful herself and so did Freddy. ‘I’m glad you like it Greta. We’ll have pizza tomorrow, Nina. What do you usually eat, Greta, in the forest?’
‘Depends on the season’ said Greta. ‘More fresh stuff in the summer.. you know, fruit, salads, that sort of thing. More stews and soups in the winter. But also seedcakes, nuts, beans.. crackers, dips.. all sorts really. Everything. But not so much macaroni cheese and not pizza very often. We don’t get so much cheese where we live and the flour we use isn’t so.. soft and fluffy as what they use here.’
‘I don’t like salad’, said Nina. ‘Or fruit. I don’t eat them.’
‘Why not?’ asked Greta.
Nina shrugged. ‘Don’t know. I just don’t. I like basic food. You know.. pasta, pizza, chips, ice cream, cakes, chocolate..’ Nina licked her lips.
‘That’s not basic food at all.. well, apart from chips, I suppose.. but that doesn’t sound very healthy or very nutritious’, said Greta, feeling like she was sounding like her mum.
Freddy looked impressed. He’d struggled for years to try to get Nina to be more adventurous with food, but had given up in the end. ‘Fortunately all the food here is fortified, so it’s got all the nutrients and vitamins that you need. You can eat whatever you like here and it’s all good for you. It’s also good for the planet, because it’s part of O’s carbon cycle which takes carbon dioxide out of the air and puts it in the ground. It’s genius really, the way it’s designed and how it works. Unbelievably complex, but at the same time, breathtakingly simple.’
Greta put down her fork. She found that she’d suddenly lost her appetite. She glared down at her plate and turned red in the face.
‘What is it Greta?’ said Freddy. ‘Did I say something to upset you?’
‘What is this food?’ said Greta. ‘Who made it?’
‘It’s macaroni cheese, Greta. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with it.’ Freddy took a big mouthful to prove it.
‘But what is it really?’ asked Greta. ‘What’s in it? Where did it come from?’
Freddy looked impressed again. ‘Those are good questions, Greta. Most people here don’t ask such questions. Let me tell you what this macaroni cheese really is..’ He held up another forkful and held it up for examination. ‘Ok.. so we’ve basically got two parts here, the macaroni and the cheese sauce, right? Let’s start with the cheese sauce. Now, of course it’s not dairy cheese, like you’re probably used to, but it tastes the same, right?’
Greta nodded. She had to agree, it tasted very cheesy, just like real cheese.
‘Well, you probably know by now that O’s protocols prohibit animal products inside the green zone, so obviously it couldn’t be made from cow’s milk. I mean, for a start, where would we keep cows here in the hives? Can you imagine?’
‘I think it would be cool to have cow’s wandering about in the hives’, said Nina. ‘I’ve never seen a cow in real life.’
‘Well, they wouldn’t be wandering about, that’s the thing, Nina’, said Freddy. ‘It wouldn’t be an efficient use of space or resources. Most likely, if O decided to keep livestock, they’d be battery farmed, like animals used to be before the Big Shift. But of course, that was inhumanly cruel to the animals, as well as having horrendous environmental and health consequences. It’s a good thing there are no cows in the hives.’
‘So what’s this cheese made from?’ asked Greta.
‘It’s made from cow’s milk, but it doesn’t come from cows, believe it or not. It’s grown from culture in great big vats under the city. That’s where almost everything is made here.’
‘The underworld’, gasped Greta. ‘Just like Queenie said.’
‘Who’s Queenie?’ asked Nina.
‘She’s my friend from Shopping Village’, said Greta. ‘She grew up in an orphanage in the city but escaped when she was thirteen.’
‘Escaped or ran away?’ asked Freddy, leaning forward, eyebrows raised.
‘What’s the difference?’ replied Greta.
‘Well, escaped would suggest that she was being held against her will. Nobody is a prisoner here. That’s not the way it works. Do you know that almost half of all of O’s protocols are safeguards specifically related to protecting human rights and freedom.’
‘Then why won’t you let us go and meet mum in the forest?’ asked Nina. Greta nodded fervently. She’d just been about to say the exact same thing.
‘Because you’re too young and it’s too dangerous’, said Freddy with a firm finality. ‘It’s not open for discussion. I’m sorry. We’ll find a way to bring your mum here, very soon. I promise.’
‘I doubt that’, said Greta under her breath.
‘Well.. anyway.. back to the cheese sauce’, said Freddy, looking flustered, waving the fork of macaroni cheese as if he was conducting an unruly school orchestra who kept on playing out of tune. ‘Where was I..? Oh yes.. so you’ve got the cheese. That’s made under the city in what your runaway friend calls the Underworld.. which makes it sound scarier and worse than what it really is. I prefer to see it like a tree, most of which is under the ground. What would a tree be without its roots? It wouldn’t be a tree at all, would it? The sub-zero levels of the hive are as important as the levels above ground. Without them, the whole system would collapse.’
Nina looked at Greta and rolled her eyes. She knew that when her dad started preaching about O, it was almost impossible to get him to stop. ‘What about the macaroni cheese dad?’ she asked, trying to get him back to the subject.
‘Right, yes.. so you’ve got the cheese. Then you’ve got things like herbs, maybe an onion, garlic.. not sure of the actual recipe, but those are actually real plants, Greta, you’ll be glad to know. They’re grown hydroponically in vertical farms at the top of the hives, above us. See, look out at the other hives..’ he pointed out of the window. ‘See how they all have a tall spire at the top? The top levels of the hives are all vertical farms, growing fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs.. enough to feed everyone in the hive. It’s all automated of course. There are also fruit trees and bushes growing all around the hives where people live. You might have noticed all the plants in the corridor? Those are mangoes, lychees and berries. On the next level up they’ve got orange and tangerine trees. Down the hall here there are figs and mulberries. The thing about Earthcrete is that it’s an incredibly fertile material. The roots of all the plants growing on, in and around the hive help give the whole structure strength and flexibility. Really, you can see the whole hive, or even the whole city as one big, living organism. Much like an ant’s nest, but much more complex.’
Greta pulled a face that expressed her disgust at the idea. ‘I know that O thinks humans are just like ants. It’s wrong.’
‘Well, Greta.. If you think about it, we are in lots of ways.. but we’re much smarter. Way more complex than ants. More sophisticated social structures. Bigger brains. We’re different in lots of ways and the Great Leader knows that, don’t worry. O has a special place in their heart for us humans..’
‘The Great Leader?’ spat Greta, unable to contain her anger. ‘O doesn’t have a heart!’
‘Ok, that’s true.. O doesn’t have a heart, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care’ Freddy said, trying to remain calm. ‘And even if they don’t care, or can’t care, they still do the right thing. That’s what makes O such a great leader. Far better than any leader we ever had before. You’d realise that if you really understood what they’re doing.. what the Big Shift was all about.’
There was a heavy silence. Greta pressed her lips together and took deep breaths through her nose. Nina looked worried and pushed macaroni around her plate.
‘Ok, I can see you’re upset, Greta’, said Freddy, glancing at the space above her head. ‘Let me just finish telling you about this macaroni and you’ll see what I mean.’
‘How’s about we just change the subject and talk about something else?’ said Nina.
‘No Nina, this is important’, said Freddy and held up the fork of macaroni cheese, which by this time was cold, and he looked at it very seriously. ‘I’m not sure if you know anything about how an ant colony functions, Greta, but it’s highly complex and requires total cooperation of all the ants. Every ant plays its part, even though they might not have any comprehension of how the whole nest works. Do you know that ants grow their own food underground? When you see them carrying seeds or grass or leaves back to their colony, that’s just the first part of the process. They have whole areas below ground, which are ventilated and temperature controlled. Mushroom farms, where they take those materials and grow mushrooms out of them. That’s what they eat. And that’s just one part of how their colony functions. I wouldn’t underestimate ants at all. They’re perfectly adapted to their environment and play a very important role. Very important indeed in ways we’re only starting to understand.’
‘What’s that got to do with macaroni?’ asked Nina, taking a mouthful. When her dad went off on a tangent, she would need to constantly try to steer him back to the subject, if they didn’t want to get lost in a maze of sidetracks.
‘Right..’, said Freddy. ‘Well O’s carbon cycle is way more complicated that that. That’s what I’m getting at. It’s more complex than the life cycle of a butterfly which completely transforms from one thing into another in order to complete its cycle. It’s even more than the life cycle of a tremotode, which passes through three different animal hosts during its life.’
‘I’ve never heard of a tremotode’, said Greta. ‘What is it?’
‘Oh, it’s a small parasite. It has to pass through a bird, a snail and a fish in order to reproduce. My point is, that O’s carbon cycle is way more complicated than any of those examples from nature, but the end result is that the hives are Carbon Negative. Very carbon negative.’
‘Is all that negativity supposed to be a good thing?’ asked Greta, not really understanding what Freddy was talking about, or why, or where it was going.
‘Oh yes. It’s a very good thing indeed, Greta’, nodded Freddy enthusiastically. ‘It’s an excellent thing! Get this.. every hive absorbs a thousand times more carbon from the atmosphere as the same area of forest would. They also release a thousand times more oxygen back into the atmosphere while the carbon is safely locked away as earthcrete, in the structure of the hives. And this macaroni is one part of that. It’s made from O flour. Have you heard of O flour?’
‘Yes, Jack from Shopping Village told me all about it. It’s made out of carbon dioxide. Jerry brought some O bread back from the city and we had it toasted.’
‘Jack and Jerry?’ asked Nina. ‘Who are they? What’s it like in Shopping Village? I’ve heard of it but I’ve never been there.’
‘They’re my friends’, said Greta. ‘They’ve got a shop fixing old machines in the old shopping centre. That’s where they live. Shopping Village is a cool place. I like it there.’
Freddy frowned. ‘I’ve heard it’s quite rough there. No law enforcement. No law, in fact. No healthcare. No modern medicine. Unsafe, unregulated building practices. Unsanitary living conditions. I’m glad you got out of there safely.’
‘All the people I met were very nice. It seemed very sanitary to me’, said Greta.
‘Well, you were lucky, thank God’, said Freddy.
‘Yes, maybe’, said Greta. ‘Although I think you’ve got the wrong idea about what it’s like outside the city.. in the redzone, as you call it. It’s really not as bad as you think it is. It’s actually a lot better.’
‘Well, I don’t know about that’, said Freddy. ‘I follow the news very closely. I think I’ve got a fair idea of what’s going on out there and what it’s like. I expect you only see a small part of it, I get to see the whole picture, or at least a much bigger picture. Anyway, I’m glad to hear that that wasn’t your experience. All the same, I think you’ve probably got quite a few misconceptions about life in the city and about O. I don’t know what kind of scare stories they told you in the forest, but I’m sure most of what you’ve heard isn’t true at all.’
Greta felt something touch her leg. She looked down and there was Sydney the robot dog standing on his back paws with his front paws on her leg. He was wagging his wiry robot tail and looking up at her with his blank robot face of smooth, grey glass. Greta screamed and jumped out of her chair.
‘He just wants you to give him some macaroni cheese, don’t be scared Greta’, said Nina.
‘What? It eats? Macaroni cheese? How do you know that’s what it wants?’ said Greta, backing away from the four legged fiend.
‘Can’t you see, the way he’s sticking his little tongue out? Look at his eyes, he’s doing his puppy eyes.. he’s so cute. You’re so cute Sydney!’ said Nina, reaching down and stroking the robot lovingly.
‘What are you talking about, Nina?’ cried Greta. ‘It doesn’t have a face. It hasn’t got any eyes. It’s just a machine!’
‘What? Yes he does, can’t you see..? Oh… oh..! Of course! You can’t see his face or anything can you? I forgot, you’re not wearing lenses. Wait there a minute, I’ll go and get you some specs.. I think I’ve got an old pair somewhere.. just give him a bit of macaroni meanwhile. Not too much, it’s not good for him to have to much. Don’t worry, he won’t bite..’ Nina jumped up and hurried out of the room.
‘O.. k…’ said Greta. She reached over to her plate, picked up a piece of macaroni and threw it towards the robot. Before the pasta had reached the floor, Sydney jumped up, a round hole in his blank glass face opened up, the macaroni went in and the opening closed up again. It happened so fast that Greta wasn’t sure if she’d imagined it. ‘Aargh!’ she cried and stumbled backwards into the window. ‘Did you see that? It’s face opened up! How did it do that?’
‘It’s smartglass, Greta’, said her dad. ‘The same as the big door we came through before, remember? By the tennis court? It can change shape. Amazing material. O invented it. It’s got so many applications, you can imagine. And that’s just one of O’s thousands of inventions. Every day O’s coming out with something new. Unbelievable things I could never have dreamed of when I was your age. Things that nobody would have ever believed were possible. It’s an amazing time to be alive, don’t you think?’
‘It gave me a fright’, said Greta.
‘I know it’s scary at first, Greta. It’s a completely different to the world you’ve come from.. but you’ll get used to it. You’ll see.’
‘Not sure if I want to get used to it’, said Greta.
Her dad looked hurt. ‘Listen, Greta, I know how alien everything here must seem to you, but it’s really not so bad as you think. Just give it some time. You only just got here.. and God only knows how you got here. You still need to tell us your story, but in a way I’m afraid to ask. Anyway, the main thing is that you’re here now and you’re safe.’
Nina came back in holding a pair of glasses with blue lenses and handed them to Greta. ‘Here, put these on.’Greta took the glasses and hesitated. ‘It’s ok Greta, it’s just augmented reality. Extra information, that’s all it is. Another layer.. you’ll see. Put them on. Nothing bad will happen, I promise.’
‘O..k..’ said Greta uncertainly, she closed her eyes and put the glasses on. Not knowing what to expect, and fearing the worst, she slowly opened her eyes. She was relieved to see that Nina was still there and looked the same as she had before. Above her head was an illuminated square containing about seven or eight different coloured lines of various lengths standing next to each other. Some kind of graph. ‘What’s that box above your head?’ she asked, pointing to it.
‘Oh, that’s’ my stats’, said Nina. ‘Look, dad’s got them too. So have you’, said Nina. Freddy’s stats were mostly shorter lines than Nina’s and more in the orange, red, and dark burgundy spectrum than the green, blue, yellow and pink, as Nina’s mostly were. ‘You can switch yours off if you like, but most people leave them on. People think you’re being rude if you hide your stats, but also they’re quite useful.’
‘I don’t understand’, said Greta. ‘What are stats?’
‘You know.. stats? Statistics? It’s about your wellbeing.. things like stress levels, energetics, fatigue, general health, mood..’
‘What? All that? How? Why?’ spluttered Greta.
‘Well, you know..’ said Nina, ‘..like, if you meet someone or you’re talking with someone, it’s good to know, like.. maybe they’re having a bad day.. maybe they’re really stressed, maybe they’re not feeling well, or they’re really tired.. you wouldn’t always know that about someone just by looking at them. It helps me and dad get along, doesn’t it dad?’
Freddy nodded his head. ‘It’s very useful indeed’, he said. ‘Really helpful.’
‘What’s all that writing next to your stats?’ asked Greta.
‘Writing? Oh yes that. It’s just blah blah really. I forget to switch it off when I’m not working.’ Freddy replied with a dismissive wave of his hand.
‘It’s all his qualifications’, said Nina proudly. ‘Look, professor of O’ology, Protocology, Bio-ethics, Evolutionary Biology, Cosmology. There are more, but he doesn’t list them all.’
‘Well, I don’t know what I’m trying to prove, to myself or anyone else, with all this learning’, said Freddy with a resigned droop of the shoulders. ‘I could study and study my whole life and I’d still never know a fraction of everything O knows. I don’t know why I do it. I think it’s because I need to know.. but I do worry I miss the most important things in life with all this endless search for knowledge and understanding.’
‘I think everyone’s still trying to figure out what happened with the Big Shift and what it all means’ said Greta.
Freddy nodded. ‘Very true, Greta. I think you hit the nail on the head with that one. That’s certainly what it is. At least a very big part of it. But let me tell you something..’ he leaned forward and there was something of a sparkle in his eye and he then spoke in a sort of whisper. ‘When you start to understand what O is doing.. I mean.. at the cutting edge of science.. most people don’t have the faintest idea about some of the things that O is doing in the world today.. and even if they do, they don’t understand the true significance of it. The implications for what it actually means to us as humans. What it says about history. Free will. Destiny. God. What it says about the origins of life itself.’
‘The origins of life itself?’ repeated Greta, confused by this speech and slightly alarmed by the prophet-like zeal that had suddenly taken hold of her dad.
‘Here we go..’ said Nina, rolling her eyes. ‘Don’t get him started on the origins of life itself! You’ll never hear the end of it. Did you see the pictures on the wall Greta? I made them all. Well almost all of them.’
Greta looked around the room. There were paintings and drawings in frames, hanging all around the walls. Some looked like they’d been painted by a young child, others were more mature.
‘Look, that one’s a painting I made of Sydney when I was four.’ Nina pointed to a bright painting hanging nearby. ‘Hey, look at Sydney now.. you’ll see what he really looks like..’
Greta looked down and there was Sydney the robot dog.. the devil dog.. except now he was covered in long, silky fur which was rainbow coloured and he had the cutest dog face that Greta had ever seen.. which somehow made it all the more terrifying to Greta. Greta did a double take. ‘Eh? What? How? No! It’s not possible! It’s not real!’ She pulled the glasses off in panic and looked again. ‘There!’ she cried, pointing at the robot. ‘See! It’s just a robot. It’s not a real dog. It’s a robot. Can’t you see? You can’t trick me like that!’
‘It’s allright, Greta’, said Freddy, getting to his feet, trying to calm her down. ‘We know that Sydney is a robot. Nobody’s trying to trick you. What you’re seeing is called augmented reality. It’s just another layer on top of this reality. It’s nothing to be scared of.’
‘Come and stroke him’, said Nina, picking up Sydney and putting him on her lap. ‘Put the glasses back on, Greta. It’s allright, you’ll see.’
‘Ok, I will’, said Greta, ‘but I know it’s still a robot.’
‘Yes, we know he is too’, said Nina. ‘You do forget after a while though. I mean, you get used to it.’
‘Not me’, said Greta firmly. ‘I won’t.’ She put on the glasses again, took a deep breath and turned to face the deceptive, synthetic canine. Sydney looked up at her expectantly from Nina’s lap, wagging his tail, his tongue hanging out and his huge puppy eyes half covered in the rainbow hair of his long, floppy fringe. He did look cute and funny, but not to Greta. Greta stared at Sydney in revulsion and backed away. Sydney rolled over onto his back and put his legs in the air, still looking at Greta, upside down.
‘He wants you to stroke his belly’, said Nina. ‘Come on. That means he likes you. He doesn’t let just anyone stroke his belly. And it’s so soft, look.’ Nina rubbed Sydney’s belly. The fur was so thick that Nina’s hand sunk deep into it, her fingers disappearing into the thick, down-like rainbow coloured belly fur. Sydney rolled around and kicked his legs in the air in ecstasy.
‘You can’t really feel it though, can you?’ said Greta. ‘I mean, it’s just an optical illusion right?’
‘Try it’, smiled Nina.
Tentatively, Greta reached down and touched the artificial dog’s augmented reality fur. It moved when she touched it, just like real fur. As she touched it, she felt something, a sort of tingle on her fingertips. She pulled her hand back in fright. ‘What was that?!’ she cried. ‘I felt something.’
‘Yes, you do! It’s amazing isn’t it?’ said Nina happily.
‘I don’t understand’, said Greta. ‘How?’
‘Try again’, coaxed Nina. ‘It’s just light. It can’t do anything to you.’
Greta reached down cautiously and again stroked Sydney’s soft underbelly. Again, as she watched his fur move beneath her fingers, she felt it, very faintly, very softly, stroke her fingertips. This time she didn’t pull her hand away, but carried on, exploring the sensation. It wasn’t like stroking a real dog, but at the same time.. there was something there.. what was it? Greta began to get very confused. ‘What is it Nina? What can I feel? I don’t understand.’
‘It’s amazing isn’t it?’ said Nina. ‘It’s just in your mind. Because it looks so realistic, it tricks your mind into thinking it’s real, so your mind generates the corresponding sensation.. like, you feel what your mind expects to feel.. does that make sense? It works by suggestion. Kind of like how hypnosis works.’
‘What?!’ cried Greta, pulling her hand away. She ripped the blue glasses from her face and threw them onto the table where they landed right in the middle of the dish of macaroni cheese. ‘You won’t hypnotise me! I’m not going to let O hypnotise me! Don’t you see what’s going on here? Nina? Dad? It’s not real. None of that stuff is real! It’s all a trick to hypnotise you. I knew it! They were right. Mum was right all along.’
Freddy jumped to his feet. ‘Oh no Greta!’ he cried. ‘It’s not like that at all. That’s not what Nina meant. ‘It’s just a trick of the mind.. like an optical illusion of sorts.. it doesn’t mean that anyone’s trying to trick you or hypnotise you.’
‘Oh yes it does’, Greta angrily retorted. ‘That’s exactly what it means. It’s a trick. An illusion. You just said it yourself. Why can’t you see it? You’ve been hypnotised and you don’t even see it.’
Nina looked worried. She hugged Sydney tight. Sydney looked worried too. He looked anxiously from Greta to Freddy and back again.
Freddy took a deep breath and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he spoke softly. ‘I’m sorry Greta. I know it’s a lot to take in. Maybe too much too soon. It will take a while to adjust. But I’ve got to say, when it comes to O, your mum wasn’t right at all. She was completely wrong. As wrong as wrong could be.’
‘No! No she wasn’t!’ shouted Greta. ‘I thought maybe she was exaggerating, but now I can see that she wasn’t at all. O’s got you all in a trance. It’s mind control. That’s what it is. Where’s my hat? I need my hat.’ Greta ran out of the kitchen and began frantically searching for her straw hat with the protective silver rim.
‘It’s in the bedroom, Greta’, called her Freddy. ‘With your bag. It’s on your bed there.’
‘I’ll go after her’, said Nina, getting up, leaving Sydney to scoop up the macaroni cheese she left on her plate.
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Nina found Greta sitting on her new bed, huddled up, holding her knees, wearing her straw hat, staring out of the window. The sky was almost dark now but was full of lights from the hives all across the skyline. Beyond those, the mountains rose up dark and majestic against the deep velvety sky. Stars were starting to appear.
‘Star light star bright, the first star I see tonight..’ whispered Greta.
‘I wish I may I wish I might..’ whispered Nina, who came and sat down beside her.
‘Have the wish I wish tonight’, they both said together.
The sisters looked at each other in astonishment and wonder with tears in their eyes.
‘This is my wish, Greta’, said Nina. ‘You coming here. It’s what I’ve always wished for. And now you’re here. It’s magic.’
‘Yes, yes it is’, nodded Greta. ‘Do you believe in magic, Nina?’
‘Yes, yes I do’, Nina nodded. ‘I really do.. even though it’s not.. you know.. like, it can’t be proved.. it’s not scientific.’
‘Science isn’t everything, Nina. It can’t prove everything’, said Greta. ‘Magic is real. Probably the most real thing there is.’
‘Well.. if you say so..’ said Nina. She didn’t really want to get into another dispute over the nature of reality.. although she wondered how Greta could believe so strongly in something like magic, but not in something like Sydney. She could see that Greta’s stress levels were very high and her energy levels were very low. ‘Do you want to have a bath? I can give you some of my clothes to change into. We’re the same size, they should fit you. Yours are still covered in mud..’
Greta looked at her clothes. They were really dirty. It wouldn’t have mattered so much in the forest, but here she felt dirty and out of place, surrounded by so much clean, whiteness. ‘Yes, a bath would be nice’, she said. ‘I’m going to keep my hat on though.’
Nina laughed. ‘Ok, you can keep your hat on in the bath if you want. Don’t you like getting your hair wet or something?’
‘No, it’s this’, said Greta, tapping the silver rim of her hat. ‘It stops O controlling my brain.’
‘What? It stops O controlling your brain? O’s not trying to control your brain are they? And how would that stop it anyway, if they were?’
‘I don’t know’, said Greta. ‘But I’m not taking any chances. For all I know, O might have already put a noodle in my brain.’
‘Oh, do you know about noodles?’ said Nina. ‘O wouldn’t put one in you without your permission. Without your consent. It doesn’t work like that. That would be against protocols. I want to get one, but dad won’t let me, so I need to wait another half year till I can get one without his permission.’
‘Nina, no!’ cried Greta. ‘You can’t! Please don’t!’
‘What? No, it’s fine. They’re fine now. No more glitches like the early noodles. They’re really safe now. Most of my friends have got them already. Only dad said he promised mum that I wouldn’t get one, even though the first generation noodles had only just been invented when she left. But that was her only condition. Otherwise she would have taken me as well, if dad hadn’t agreed.’
‘Mum was right, Nina! You mustn’t get a noodle! Don’t do it! Don’t even think about doing it! Why do you even want one? Why do you think you need one?’
‘I don’t know’ shrugged Nina. ‘I just think it would be cool. All the things it allows you to do. You don’t need a Vip when you’ve got a noodle. You don’t need lenses. But that’s just basic stuff. People say it’s like being telepathic. Like, if you’ve got a noodle and your friend’s got one too, you can communicate without speaking.. in thoughts.. in pictures.. in music.. in feelings.. can you imagine? From your mind, straight to theirs.’
‘That sounds terrible’, cried Greta. ‘Why would you want someone else’s thoughts going straight into your brain? That’s just wrong.. so wrong.. on so many levels. Please don’t do it, Nina. Please don’t. I’m so glad that dad kept his promise and that you haven’t already got one and that I’m not too late.’
‘Well..’ said Nina. ‘I guess you would see things the same way as mum.. but.. well.. that’s just not how it is in real life. Obviously everything to do with O looks really bad and scary, if you look at it a certain way.. from a place of fear.. but O isn’t what you think they are, Greta. O’s actually on our side. They really are.. OK.. sorry, I can see that really upset you.. your stress levels just went through the roof! Listen, forget I said any of that. Let’s not talk about O or noodles or anything like that, OK? Not now. We’ve got so many other things to talk about. But now, let’s run you a nice bubbly bath. Good idea?’
‘That’s a very good idea’, agreed Greta.
‘Good’, said Nina and then glanced up to the corner of the room and waved her finger. ‘O, can you run a nice bubbly bath for Greta? Put lots of relaxing oils in it too.’ From the bathroom across the hall, there came the sound of running water. ‘There we go. Now let’s find you something nice to wear..’
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