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Chapter 16 - Willow
Willow's friend Zaire was becoming successful. She hardly messages her anymore even though they had been friends all their lives, shared fashion tips; and went to Karaoke; and the beach; and the driving range; and indoor rock climbing; and snow skiing; and go-carts; and gigs; and everything, together.
There is a big hole in Willow's life. She feels rejected and jealous. After all she had been there when Zaire saw the job advertised. She could have applied too but the thought of actually going to places that she could just as easily experience in virtual reality seemed silly.
Like most young people Willow and Zaire still live with their parents. Because parents are licensed and children are generally limited to two per family, children are the most precious thing. So many parents, particularly mothers, try to keep them at home for as long as possible, sometimes into their thirties. So it's been four years since Willow and Zaire were first allowed to bring a boyfriend home to sleep with them overnight or to go to a boy's family home and expect the same hospitality.
But now Zaire's new job takes her away from home as well, so now she seldom sleeps in her bed at home. It's only a matter of time until she doesn't come home at all. And she's only twenty one. This is another thing that annoys Willow. It's as if Zaire is growing up faster and leaving her behind.
Another example of this is their virtual personal assistants, VPAs. When a child is named they are allocated a VPA, hosted in The Cloud, and before they begin to speak they are normally given their first baby touch screen and start to interact with their VPA, who will be given a baby name like 'Namby' or 'Tookle' and will be chosen a comforting Avatar for their virtual appearance, like a soft-toy or even a vehicle of some sort. Starfighter has a talking aeroplane called 'Buzzy'.
Willow's parents thought she was saying Snookle so her VPAs avatar got the name 'Snookie'. Snookie could appear almost anywhere: on the MV; the screen in her cot; inside toys; at preschool; and on any viewing device that she ever owned. Snookie would read her stories; and babysit; and call mum or dad when she was sad or wanted them; and teach her things; and call her friends so she could talk to them; and suggest games that she could teach them to play; and warn her of danger; and later she could tell her how to go places; and show her things that she could buy; and manage her credit; and get songs and video for her and do a hundred and one other things. She loves Snookie and wouldn't change her for the world, even though she looks like a pink bear she has a loveable growly voice.
Zaire's first VPA was Jemma, a light brown teddy bear that suited her because she has darker skin than Willow and looks like she has a permanent suntan. The two VPAs were friends, like the two girls, and would be very funny when they called each other, leaving the girls laughing with delight. But now Zaire has a 'professional' job she's decided that she can't have a teddy as a VPA and has 're-skinned' Jemma as a young man called Pip, from some old story by someone called Dickson or something. Pip's Avatar dresses and talks like someone from the nineteenth century and has the body of some hot actor called Booth who once played the part in a movie; or so Zaire says. She kept talking about having great expectations.
It's heartbreaking. How could she do such a thing? Willow soaked her pillow with her tears.
Willow's parents are members of the Bogan Song Church and religion has always played a big part in her life. Recently she persuaded Starfighter to come with her to a service. He was really blown away by the size of the church building and the huge number of worshippers. At the Catholic Church that his family attends, they would be lucky to get a thousand to a service.
Bogan Song Church is a Pentecostal Christian music-ministry and the services are more like a concert, interspersed with fundamentalist teachings. It's quite unlike the traditional Catholic service that Starfighter is used to, even though his church does have a choir and gets regular visits from singing nuns with guitars. Bogan Song Church have even greater inspirational songs such as the mega-hits: Bogans Just Like Us and Uplift Your Love.
It worries Willow that Starfighter is a Catholic and that Zaire is an atheist. She is not sure which is worse. Almost everyone else Willow knows, mostly through church, is a Protestant Christian so it must be the true religion. When she asked Pastor James if she should have non-Christians as friends he told her that she should be a missionary for the truth: tell them about the love she holds in her heart for Jesus; and invite them to the Bogan Song Church to hear people speaking in voices, so that the true faith might bring them into the light. But he warned her that she should be cautious when dealing with unbelievers lest she be led into the darkness and seduced by the Devil. He explained that the Bible is the only Word of God and was transcribed by men acting under divine inspiration. It's literal truth and can't be doubted. Catholics, for example, were once Christian but they were led by evil men in Rome motivated by power and prestige into the darkness. They have been seduced by numerous heresies that have no support in Holy Scripture, for example they have invented a place called Purgatory and they imagine themselves cannibalising Jesus, instead of simply remembering his sacrifice with the Eucharist, at their Mass.
This is the point at which Willow got a bit confused. Pastor James says that Jesus, our Saviour, is one with God the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Trinity but that the Catholics are heretical because they believe that you can also pray to Saints and to Mary mother of Jesus. But Willow's friend Alya lost her keys in the surf at the beach. They fell from the waistband of her swimsuit and they were certainly gone. They all searched and searched until it was hopeless. Then Alya prayed to Saint Anthony and they looked again, just below where the waves were breaking, as St Anthony had told her, and there they were on the bottom. It was a miracle.
She told Pastor James that now she sort of believed in Saint Anthony. He was very cross with her, explaining that the invocation of Saints is repugnant to the Word of God and punishable by everlasting torment. And anyway Saints have no power to find keys in the surf. Finding the keys was just normal providence at work and all part of God's mysterious plan. When we have accepted Jesus we have no need of Saints or mothers of God or a Pope who claims some sort of higher authority for interpreting scripture. All a true Christian needs is the Bible, as read to us by our VPA.
When she tried to tell Zaire all this and that she must come with her to the Bogan Song Church to hear Pastor James, Zaire asked why one church was any better than another? They all made similar claims about special possession of the truth. And anyway fundamentalists are nuts. The Bible is internally contradictory in dozens of places, and outrageous nonsense in a lot more, so how could it be the literal word of God? And who is this God anyway? If 'He' is already three entities wrapped into one, why shouldn't He represent the entire heavenly family? She said she quite likes the story of Mary's assumption to be with her son, even though Protestants and the Eastern Church regard the story to be a shocking blasphemy.
The Catholic Church has hugely enriched out culture with truly imaginative tales; wonderful music; and a lot of fine paintings and sculpture. Anyway who is this Devil, who Willow reports Pastor James being very concerned about? Is he a God of darkness who is so powerful that he can't be vanquished by the God of light? At least the Muslims and Unitarians get around the issue by insisting on a singular God and relegating the other religious entities, like Jesus, to prophets or teachers or abolishing them altogether. Alternatively, the religions with a pantheon of deities get around the issue of who's running things in heaven and earth by nominating one of the gods as a sort of emperor who rules over a court of squabbling lesser gods. This seems more sensible than hypothesising a single all-powerful yet benign God, as they serve to explain natural disasters and why life does not always go smoothly. Eastern religions are appealing for similar reasons. And a good mythic tale always goes down well, like the Arthurian Legend, to provide a set of diverse characters.
Willow didn't really follow any of this but she continues to pray for Zaire's soul every night. She started doing this way back in Sunday School when she discovered, to her horror, that her best friend had not accepted Jesus into her heart and refused to hear the message that could redeem her and save her everlasting soul. Now all those prayers seem to have gone unanswered and their lives are drifting apart.
Zaire had been feeling the separation too. When she got her bonus for solving the Aden Hitch matter to the Resort's best expectations, and a glowing endorsement from Aden himself, Zaire saw a chance to take Willow overseas, to somewhere easy like Bali, to show her what's she's missing and renew their friendship.
At first, Willow insisted that travelling can be done more easily in virtual reality. Her parents recently installed a video cube. It's the latest thing. It has six three metre by three metre 3D screens and you go in wearing your polarised contacts or glasses and sit on the floor screen. When you select a location like Bali the screens seem to disappear and all you can see is somewhere in Bali. It has microclimate control and scent. And if you wear a haptic body stocking you can touch things and feel people touching you as well. There are great movies too. You can be on the deck of the Titanic with the actor of your choice; the icy ocean stretching out into the distance; the cold wind blasting your face; and the thump of her mighty engines vibrating the warm bulkhead behind you. Or you could be on a beach; or exploring in the Himalayas. There are even accidents. If someone trips over your leg; or you go in for a swim; or you fall; you feel it, just as if it was actually happening. And you can interact with other people in their video cube or with virtual people, like in video-games, generated by Apps in The Cloud. There are also virtual brothels and porn sites. Willow's younger brother had to be banned from using the cube alone after he'd spent one too many days in there.
Despite Willow's insistence that the 6D VR Cube was better and a lot safer, Zaire dragged her off to Bali. It's an island within the Continent of Indopacifica where there are lots of islands, some of them now designated wilderness. This one is a designated tourism and pleasure. There are a lot of resort hotels near the beaches of Kuta and Seminyak. The climate was a bit too hot and humid outside the resort for Willow yet Zaire had loved it. They spent a bit of time on the beach in real surf but Willow preferred sunning herself alongside one of the many pools under the air-conditioned atrium.
Willow had to admit that their suite was very nice. Now that there are a lot less people in the world room sizes have risen as hotels and resorts combined two three or four old rooms into new suites. Of course you pay a lot more but then everyone earns a lot more than before. It's all fixed up in the credit system and you have to be a Grad to understand that.
In Bali an average suite is around a hundred square metres. Theirs had a nice sitting room and a bedroom with two king-sized beds. They had to share a bathroom but it was as big as their bedroom with a large jet bath; double shower enclosure and two good sized toilet booths. This was the only complaint Zaire had about the bathroom. Obviously her WC had all the usual settings to wash and dry the user. But she couldn't find out how to turn the heated toilet seat off. Room service was no help.
"I hate these things," said Zaire, "They make me feel as if someone else has just got up off them, and the viruses and bacteria are incubating on them, they feel unhygienic."
"Where does she get all these ideas?" wondered Willow. "Viruses, bacteria? The girl thinks she's a Grad."
In many ways Bali is a Bogan paradise. They drank fruit juice cocktails and lay in the sun during the day and went to music venues at night, where they flirted with boys but both avoided sleeping with any of them, as it would certainly get back to Starfighter and neither wanted that. They both bought lots of clothes made using traditional dying techniques. This involves printing the fabric with wax; dying it; removing the first wax and then doing it again until all the colours have been applied. Zaire spoiled Willow's pleasure in her hand-made shift by pointing out that all those warehouses full of clothes and fabrics couldn't possibly have been made by the three old ladies and an old man on a treadle sewing machine working away outside. To start with they were far too well made using modern fabric printing technology and in those quantities they obviously came from a robotic 'China Works' factory.
She made the same remark about the hand woven fabrics being produced by two ancient looms, at about one woven thread per second; and again when they went to a carving workshop where she pointed to the marks of a numerically controlled router bit; and a jewellery factory where gold chains were obviously machine made. Nevertheless they both bought some chunky gold. It's nicer that silver because it doesn't tarnish and it feels heavier. Willow was doubtful when Zaire claimed that it was once very valuable and much more costly than stainless steel. Like salt was once too.
Again thought Willow: "Where does she get this stuff? Salt valuable! Gold cost more than stainless steel? Ridiculous!"
When she tried to tell Zaire, Zaire started to say that it was different today because the recycling and environmental premiums attached to stainless steel were much higher than attached to gold, which was easier to remelt and refine. Willow stopped listening. She was off on one of her rants again. Everyone knew the price and that was that.
Of course the Bali clothes, that they had all that fun bargaining for, didn't last when they got home. The presents for friends and family were received politely and quickly binned and those they bought for themselves were quickly replaced by the latest fashion. Everything had gone into the recycling bin long ago.
Another thing Willow admitted liking about Bali was that they have one of the largest under-glass-mega-malls in the world. It's a place called Ubud and whole streets and a park are glassed over with a huge undulating glass roof. Underneath it are very old Hindu temples and traditional twentieth century houses. Some may even date back to the nineteenth century. Many of the temples are no longer active and now house restaurants or coffee shops or art retailers selling traditional paintings of palm trees and Balinese dancers. It's climate controlled to preserve the ancient structures and it's all very authentic.
Stone monsters outside the temples have chequered table cloths tied around their waists. Zaire wanted to peek underneath to see what they were hiding but it was nothing like as revealing as what they were selling at every street stall. There must have been tens of thousands of erect penises of all sizes from wee little ones to huge ones that only a giantess could enjoy. They speculated on who was buying these things and what they wanted to use them for. Some had a funny metal attachment at the ball end that Zaire said was to remove the screw top from old fashioned drink bottles. But why would anyone want such a useless tool, let alone one with a penis handle? Anyway most were just a realistic size so they decided that they were sex toys or maybe a risqué educational gift for naïve girls about to be married. Both girls were feeling like saints, avoiding sexual liaisons in the evenings, so they mutually agreed that maybe a sex toy's the best explanation.
Later, when she was telling Starfighter about Bali, Willow would show him some of the images she captured in Ubud that day and show him what she'd secreted among the clothes in her shopping bag when Zaire's back was turned. But that's a different story.
Willow has another really nice souvenir, that's also survived recycling. Starfighter told her it looks just like her since she got her boob job. She's like a Greek Venus except that she has a translucent plastic core with a lamp inside so she lights up in the dark but only through the cracks between the tiny little mirrors that cover her surface like crazy paving. During the day her hundreds of mirrors look beautiful, reflecting the colours and shapes in the room and people as they move about, like a silvery stationary kaleidoscope. At night she glows and casts a crazy pattern in Willow's darkened bedroom. In Ubud you can get lots of similar sculptures covered in little square mirrors, like animals and even Buddha.
There are a lot of sex workers in Bali offering services for all tastes. They also have lots of less personal services like remedial massages and pedicures. This interested Willow on a personal level because she is a makeup artist at one of the MV stations and finger and toe nails are important, particularly if a performer makes gestures like singers and actors. She would like to move more into that area. At the moment she only does talk shows.
In Ubud the old historic market street is quite steep, so you can get an electric shopping trolley to take all your purchases to the top, where it connects to the high-speed ground transport back to Denpasar. The trip takes ten minutes. From Denpasar its twenty minutes to the dormant volcano near the zoo place, with the horrible monkeys, or to the one that erupted in 2035, when a pyroclastic flow killed everyone within twenty kilometres. An alternative way to see the island is by personal hover-bike like the ones used by players in aerial badminton. Willow had never seen so many until Bali. They are just like hover-cabs with four downward facing propellers except they are smaller and lighter and the rider sits astride a seat suspended between front and rear propellers. There are two 'side car' propellers. Zaire explained that these are for lateral stability and direction and are managed by on-board electronics to keep them stable within a flight envelope determined by global positioning and related software resident in The Cloud. Willow has no idea how or why she knows this. Why would anyone bother? It's like wanting to know how an MV works. All she knows is that they are very annoying when whip in and out between the other air traffic and land almost anywhere. They miss you by centimetres and you just have to learn to ignore them. But that's hard because they produce a continuous loud buzzing sound in the populated areas that gets suddenly louder and very windy if they land too close to you.
You can hire them yourself but they are quite dangerous to ride and to land. If one propeller fails they suddenly shoot off, out of control, in a most alarming way. Arial badminton riders wear helmets and body armour. But civilian riders prefer special flying-suits, with air-bags that inflate around the rider creating a big protective ball, if they crash. There are no restrictions on who can hire them except that you must be an adult. Of course the law is the same as everywhere else on Earth. If you get injured doing something dangerous, or doing anything at all, the Robot Ambulance will take you to be fixed in the automated hospital. Generally you will then be fine, because medicine can do wonders these days, but if the prognosis is so bad that the treatment exceeds the presently determined quota per capita, you will simply be terminated. There are no exceptions. All classes, education and income groups have the same treatment quota.
"That's because we all share responsibility to lower world population and the accident prone or diseased can more easily do their bit," Willow told Bianca, pleased to turn the tables on her for once in the 'knowing stuff' arena.
Willow has no objection to going to a resort and lying on a beach but these other activities risk expending your quota. For example, why go into the waves in the sea when the pool is a lot safer and has no sharks? That was why when Zaire got excited about keeping her awful job Willow tried to persuade her that it was God sending her a message, so she should walk away and become a cosmetician again.
"Reality is dangerous," she told Zaire: "You can actually be injured or killed and it wastes so much time when you could be shopping or something, Why do you want to lose sleep in an uncomfortable air plane in a single bed, just to experience something that you can just as easily experience at home in safety? Come and use our Cube. In 6D, using glasses or contacts or polarised lens implants, like mine, plus a full body haptic stocking and scent gland you can't even tell the difference. You are there."
But Zaire was insistent that actual reality was different somehow.
"Part of the difference is being in control of your own personal interactions with other people and the new places, not experiencing something a travel show has recorded for you and wants you to see with the goal of entertaining you or selling you something. They censor what you get to see, so nothing is ever exactly as it is. It's all part of a story that they are selling you, propaganda of one sort or another. When I actually go to a place I'm always struck by how different the reality is to what I previously imagined. I love being one of the people in the background behind the cameras, making the travel experience for the masses to enjoy. I like it to be my story that they are getting, rather than me getting someone else's," she'd insisted.
She's getting far too big for her boots and now, to top it off, she'd somehow befriended a Grad. None of their friends had ever met a Grad so how that happened Willow had no idea. All Zaire would say was that Bianca, that's her name, had helped her with a problem at work.
Her latest idea was for them to visit some 'museum' place where the Grads have kept a lot of old junk from the past. She rudely told Willow that she might learn something there. What could she possibly want to know about the past? She refused and they went to the Zoo instead but even there, instead of laughing at the silly animals and their antics like everyone else, Zaire started talking about 'biology' and evolution' and pretending that she could 'read' the little notices on the cages without even using her VPA to translate them.
She's lost interest in a lot of the things they always loved to do together like trying the latest style in makeup in one of the new franchised places in their favourite mall. There are several new ones they haven't yet been to, along with new with nail and manicure and body pampering places. They've been always been spoiled for choice at their mall and sometimes spent all day on body treatments. But now Zaire prefers to hang out with Bianca, learning to read or some other such nonsense.