Grand Tour pt. 2: The Cafeteria

(Cross-post Winters, Blitzen, GardensTale)

The cafeteria was sparsely populated, the bonded except for Wren of course were there, as well as Magpie, Kite, Ibis and Lori, as well as a few of the pups, in addition to a few of the ‘braver’ non bonded, like Ylena and Gaige. Dove was still Neo-sitting Toxx to answer any questions he might have and make his transition as smooth as possible. As for the anomaly, most of the Neo chatter did still surround the earlier occurrences, what with Blue and running damage control to assure everyone that the shield was intact, that the anomaly’s tech couldn’t reach outside of the Spire, and that the shield worked both ways.

Sy was digging into a plate of lasagna with reckless abandon. She had barely eaten the day before; what she had eaten had come back up after her confrontation with Logos’ electrical deity. As a result, as well as the energy the healing process had taken, she was ravenous, and anyone observing may have wondered how the girl could eat that much, that quickly, and still be as skinny as she was. “Wmw,” she said through a mouthful of pasta and tomato sauce, “Ygm sm grb fbff ub hff ungf spbb!” She stopped forking food into her mouth for a moment, swallowed, and grinned sheepishly. “Sorry. Meant t’say y’all got some great food up ‘ere in the Spire.”

“Wait til you get to dessert.” Piper said absently, tuning back in to the conversation at the table. She smiled to her Alpha. “Romeo’s a big fan of them.” Romeo, who was still shoveling lasagna in himself offered a nod and a thumbs up in response. Piper looked back over at the girl across from her adding: “You’ll want for nothing in the Spire.”

“I don’ feel like I deserve all o’this,” Sy said, her smile faltering. “I been nothin’ but trouble fo’y’all.” She scratched her head. She’d used some of her dreads to tie up the others and they were now piled precariously on top of her head. “I ne’er got ‘round to askin’, but what happened to them New Way thugs anyway? Did y’all capture ‘em or did ya…” She mimed pointing a gun at her temple and firing.

“Dove and Foxtrot brought in one of the thugs.” Piper replied, not commenting on the ‘trouble’ statement, unsure really how to respond to it. “The other was killed trying to escape. And the Neo?” She shook her head.

“Did you see the splatter mark?” Romeo quipped, his dark humor shining through again as he took a sip of water. “Perfect outline of Lima.”

“Wren and his Alpha took care of the Neo.” Piper finished.

Sy grimaced at Romeo’s description of the splatter outline, but not without traces of a smile. “Well, least rent gon’ be cheaper with y’all bringin’ the property value down like that,” she said and chuckled. That died down quickly, too, however. “My ‘partment, though… Don’ reckon I can get back there anytime soon. Got a lot of stuff in there. How that gon’ be taken care of? Did ya leave the place with the door blown out an’ everythin’?”

“Having you not die was kind of more of a priority to us at the time,” Piper said, matter of fact. “But I’m sure OSEC followed up. More than likely we have most of your stuff, anything tech related anyway.”

“Thanks. Place woulda been picked clean in hours otherwise.” Sy said, looking relieved. Then she pulled at the neck of her hospital gown and peered down. “An’ anythin’ clothin’ related?”

“No, but once you’re released from the med ward, we can take you to provisions so you can pick out some stuff that suits you.”

“Yo, seriously? I get to pick me new outfits?” Sy lifted her eyebrows in a half-impressed, half-skeptical expression. “Y’know how this is in the slums? Y’gotta try an’ make each an’ e’rry piece o’clothin’ you got last, long as you can. Cause no one there got anythin’ provided fo’ them, ya dig. People jus’ kinda scrapin’ by left an’ right, an’ sure, now an’ then ya get a windfall an’ you can splurge on somethin’ nice. But that don’ happen often, an’ when it does, y’often got more pressin’ stuff that needs payin’ before clothin’.”

She took another bite of the lasagna, chewed quickly, swallowed and went on, gesticulating with her fork as she spoke. “Now, fo’ a slum rat, I got it pretty good right now. Well, I mean, ‘til all my shit was blown to kingdom come but you catch my drift. I’m a kickass welder, ‘f I say so myself, an’ I usually make good money with that, relatively. If all o’this woulda happened 8 years ago, yo flashbang woulda blown that stinkin’ shack I camped in to smithereens. It was basically a big cardboard box.” She reached a pinky finger into her mouth, dislodged a bit of pasta from her teeth and swallowed it. “But in the slums, y’always a bad day away from bein’ in the street, so y’make yo clothes last. So ‘scuse my manners if I seem incredulous ‘bout bein’ able to just head on over to provisions an’ pick out some clothes. That sorta thing ain’t been part o’my reality for 11 years now.”

Piper nodded. “Sounds rough -- Romeo and I have been there a few times, investigating reports, sometimes turns out to be something, but usually it doesn’t, so we’ve seen them first hand. As for the Spire - the Spire isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely far from the prison people seem to think.”

“Hell of a lot be’er than the slums, that’s fo’sho,” Sy nodded. “Easier to get out of too, fo’ a lot o’people.”

“To get out of?” Piper asked, tilting her head to the side. Finished with her food, she offered her half finished plate over to Romeo. Having skipped out on training that morning, there wasn’t a lot to build a strong appetite.

Sy swallowed her last bite and pushed her empty plate to the side. “Yeh. I mean, y’can get out of the slums easy, jus’ keep walkin’ and either you wind up in the city or in the wastelands. But the way the system is set up, damn hard to make a livin’ in the slums an’ then buy your way out. Lotta people gotta rely on Clicks, which ain’t legal. People born in the slums often don’ got the implants y’need. ‘Cordin’ to Sevo an’ the bank, lotta people in the slums flat-out don’ exist. There ain’t no way to jus’ buy yo’self a ticket to freedom if yo’ currency ain’t legal and the banks don’ think you real.”

“I remember a crackdown a ways back on creds for clicks places.” Piper nodded. “That wasn’t our jurisdiction though.”

“Nah, I bet,” Sy said. “Got nothin’ to do with Neo. Jus’ people tryin’ to survive in a system stacked agains’ them.” She looked pensive, and a little somber. “Weren’ always like this for me, either. Lived in the inner city ‘til I was 15. But I’ll tell y’all more ‘bout that some other time.” She glanced around. Most of the other Neo were eating quietly, and seemed focused on each other more than them. Yet she couldn’t help but feel like some of the eyes kept darting in her direction. “Guess me ‘n my big mouth are the story of the hour, huh Pipe? Well, an’ poor Blue, I suppose.”

Damage control, Dove reminded Piper Maybe try to prevent damage in the first place?

“We should probably cover some civilities.” Piper said gently after Dove nudged her in that direction. “Like Romeo said, if you tell one of us, sooner or later everyone knows, usually sooner rather than later. Our discourse, the chatter?” She pointed to her head. “It’s sort of like -- “ She shot her eyes over to one of the younger Neo quickly then back. “If one of us was to crawl inside your tech and poke around. Does that make sense?”

"Yeah, I gotcha," Sy said. "Logos got into Heimdall for a hot minute 'fore he sent out his golden boy. It felt like…" She closed her eyes for a few seconds. When she opened them again, there was a terrible hollowness behind them. "I ne'er got raped, but in the slums, there's plenty o'women who ain't that lucky, an' I had a few close calls. What Logos did felt like one o'those attempts, but worse. I ain't gonna do that to anyone. Done enough damage like that to y'all. Sorry I asked, Pipe."

“It’s okay.” Piper assured her. “I mean, that's part of it. People are afraid of us, but a lot of us are afraid of outsiders as well. There are a lot of Neos that have been here since they were newborns, they know the Neo, they know Alphas, but outsiders? They might ask you prying questions that may not be that polite too. Like I said, we don’t get a lot of outsiders in the Spire.”

"Ah shit, y'got a lot o'kids 'round here too, right? Should I watch my language?" Sy made an expression, half pained, half amused. Then suddenly, a look of realization dawned on her face. "Ahw shit. I dunno how much y'all got from yo black kid from the infirmary yet, but I can tell from lookin' at him, some o'the shit he been through… I dunno what it is, but I got my doubts you wanna expose the kids to that."

“Yeah. Dove’s working with him, he’s getting his own crash course. He’s Neo, so when I found him in the hive - I knew his story." She supposed it might take a bit to an outsider, it might take a little getting used to, the hive mind aspect. Unless it involved the Alphas, with absolutely no Neos around, everything was common knowledge. “Wish we could have got him sooner, Spire would have made a world of difference for him. And we do have some littles. Romeo and I brought in a baby not long ago even.”

Sy just nodded and was quiet for a while. She seemed lost in a train of thought of her own. Then she said quietly: "D'you never get tired of havin' no thoughts for yo'self? Feels like none o'y'all get a semblance of privacy, way yo e'ry thought is public. Ain't anywhere y'can just go 'n have some private thoughts in 'ere?" Then she answered her own question: "'Course not, minute y'step out e'ryone else woulda known what you been thinkin' of. We kinda the opposite sides of the spectrum." She chuckled, but wasn't a happy laugh. "I ain't had anyone to share with fo' 11 years. You couldn' stop it if you wanted to."

“All of us do have our own thoughts, but we share them. We sometimes bicker, we argue. We’re not -- “ She looked to Romeo, “the old sci fi show, with the cube?”

“Borg,” he replied through a mouthful of sauce and cheese.

“That. When we go out,” she pointed between herself and Romeo, who’d finished his plate and a half of lasagna. She stopped to make a gesture with her thumb on the side of her mouth to let him know he still had a bit of sauce on his face. Alphas. They don’t eat, they inhale. “I can’t hear anything inside the Spire. It makes it easier to try and get a lock on a Neo if that’s what we’re looking for, but you have to try to tune everything else out, there’s a lot of tech out there. AR in particular -- “ she chuckled, shaking her head. “But Romeo,” she looked at her Alpha, full of pride, even as he used the back of a spoon to see his own reflection, checking if he’d gotten his face clean, “he keeps it from dragging me under. I trust him with everything. I couldn’t imagine going 11 minutes let alone 11 years without sharing what I’m thinking.” She smiled and pointed a warning finger at Romeo as she preempted whatever his comeback would be. “So, I get as tired of that as I would of breathing. It does make me feel bad for you though.” There was a genuine pang of sympathy in her voice.

Sy waved it away, but she lapsed back into silence. In every practical sense, she was talking to 90 people at the same time, but she was still an outsider. She couldn't tell anything about herself, because everyone knew instantly, including those who wanted her gone. They could all be talking about her, and probably were, and she wouldn't know. And Romeo and Piper shared everything, so she couldn't talk to just him either, not confidentially. Even the kid in the infirmary was in on the loop. But not Sy. As always, she was on the outside again. The loneliness crept back in, and she considered how people always said you were loneliest in a crowd. As long as she was in the Spire, she was in a crowd. And she was alone.

“Well …. turn it on.” Romeo suggested. “You’re in a place where people weren’t born with the choice and here you are, someone, who can jump in and out at will. You can see how that might cause some to distrust it even resent you.” The Alpha pointed out.

“So why not pop is and start getting used to leaving it on. Show you’re willing to try.” The copper eyes blond explained. “I also have cake if you do.” He grinned bribing the street rat with something sweet. Of course, this advice was coming from an Alpha who was all about camaraderie and unity with his unit and Neo. The final authority on Neo-related culture, of course, would always be Piper.

Sy shook her head. "It don' work the way it does outside in 'ere," she said somberly. "Pipe already said, is like nails on a chalkboard. 'Cause I ain't got the means to fuzz the signal like I do outside. It's full-on, direct scan, an' it drives the Neo nuts. 'Sides…" She scanned the room again. "I'm still an unwelcome intruder at this point. Even if I can fix the jolt e'ryone gets, I ain't jumpin' in unless invited. Kinda sacred space. I don' gotta show bein' willin' to try, I gotta show respect fo' their boundaries first." She turned to Piper. "Am I gettin' that right?"

Immediate protests started flooding in.

Whoa, hold on, Piper pacified back. That idea isn't half bad, if you think about it.

It's all bad? She hacked your conversation. Now we're what, inviting her to do just that? For everyone? Kite demanded.

It'll work, Piper explained to the others, a promise not to do it again won’t, because we know the option, the opportunity is there. If she were neo herself, this wouldn't even be a conversation. Toxx, we accepted him. Enough people are afraid of us, especially now with the Chosen. So maybe this is a step in a better direction. And really, I listen to you all all day long, it's not like you say anything all that thought provoking.

But Blue…

Don't use Blue as a rally cry. I could have just as easily sprung the trap. Would you all turn on me? Or Dove? Or Wren? How do we expect to be accepted if we have zero regards for anyone not Neo? We’re doing the same thing. So we prove it, we let her prove it. There was some light grumbling, but for the most part, there was agreement.

“Romeo makes a good point. And I can probably fix what’s causing the feedback.” Piper shrugged. “That’s just fine-tuning, but it’d have to be from the inside. The lag, the artifacting --. Our synapses are faster, I think that part would remain. If you’re willing to do that, let me invade your boundaries, I think that would go a long way in regards to starting to make amends - if you’re sincere.” Pyria? You on board?

Sy hesitated for a moment, staring at the palm of her left hand. "Well…" she started, glancing around again. This time some of the Neo were looking at her openly. Apparently, her answer interested them a lot too. She turned back to Piper and nodded slowly. "Alright," she said. "Long as you don' break my baby, an' the other Neo agree, too. I'll trust you. Let's do this."

Romeo stood up so suddenly Sy almost fell backward. “Not until we’ve had dessert!”

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