Chapter 31

Emma awoke face down on her bed, fully clothed, a blanket thrown over her shoulders. She stretched, patted the bedside table till her hands closed around her glasses, then squinted at the wall clock.

11:27am.

She blinked. The time stayed the same. She could remember dinner, her careful avoidance of Lilith’s mother, and sitting at her desk, watching as each sensationalist blog post slowly disappeared. Then her eyes growing heavy, and then . . . .

Someone had put her to bed, and it couldn’t have been her mother.

Emma sat up, scanned the room for signs of tampering. There! Her slippers were in the wrong place, by the door. Her pyjamas had been folded. Her empty mug was gone, replaced by a fresh glass of water. Emma eyed it with suspicion. That Lilith’s mother was capable of such small kindnesses was unnerving.

She stood. Even her desk has been tidied, her mother’s baby application forms stacked neatly in one corner. Emma picked up the first page, traced the slanted lines of her mother’s handwriting, each vowel and consonant so carefully penned and so brutally rejected. Not enough resources, the government said. Small sacrifices for the greater good.

Some couples weren’t even granted the license to have one child, let alone two. Yet Emma’s mother had insisted, pinned all her happiness on the thought of having a second child. Ten years of petitions and applications. Ten years of rejections. Emma put the page down carefully and wondered, not for the first time, why she wasn’t enough.

The monitor was a pale, soothing blue, streaked with white, slow-moving clouds.

“Computer, any emails?”

The screen brightened. “One unread email from Marie. Would you like me to read it?”

Emma had forgotten about the new AI. She stared at the monitor, longing for the old robotic voice with its archaic technology and simple voice commands. This. . . . It sounded too human. If she hadn’t known the charter laws, Emma would have suspected the AI of having a personality.

“I thought I had ninety emails,” Emma said.

“Your inbox was cleared by Dr Gray,” the AI said. “All theatre-related emails and press queries were seized for inspection. Your personal emails are untouched.”

“She can’t do that!”

“Dr Gray has full access to this network.”

“Block her,” Emma said. “I don’t want her in my stuff.” Then came a horrifying thought: “Can she override my settings?”

“No. Only you have admin rights to your personal data.” A pause, then: “I have set your account to private.”

Unprompted, the AI spoke again: “First new message received today at 10:34am from Marie: ‘Hi Emma, a few of us are having lunch at the Old Brass today around one. Would be cool if you came along.’ End of message. Would you like to reply?”

“I didn’t ask you to read it,” Emma said.

“The contents were time-sensitive. Would you like me to turn off auto-reading?”

“Yes.” Then, because she felt rude: “Please.”

Rather than speak to the AI, Emma used the touch screen to open her emails. She scanned Marie’s email again, suspicious. The timing of the invite seemed too convenient.

“Shall I add it to your calendar?”

“No! I mean, maybe . . . I don’t know.” Emma huffed. “Please stop doing things until I ask you to.”

“Suggestions are now disabled,” the AI replied.

A soft chuckling from the doorway drew Emma’s attention. Her mother was leaning against the doorframe, dressed in jeans and an orange v-neck jumper. The colour clashed with her hair, but at least she looked presentable.

“I struggled with her this morning, too,” Emma’s mother said, nodding towards the monitor. “She’s too advanced for the likes of us. What do you think of the name Vicki?”

“People don’t name AIs, mom.”

“Why not? It’s faster than saying ‘computer’.”

Emma rolled her eyes. “You might as well name it Kunama and be done with it.”

“But that’s not shorter than computer.” Her mother raised an eyebrow, waiting for her to take the bait. When Emma only shook her head, she chuckled again, and said: “So what did the computer want to put in your calendar?”

“Oh, Marie invited me for lunch today. Not sure if I want to go.” Then she remembered the phone call with King, and frowned. “Not sure if I can go.”

“Of course you can! I’ll ask Arlene to escort you when she gets back. She went home to freshen up.” She pulled her jumper straight, keeping one shoulder propped against the doorframe. “You can’t stay locked indoors all the time; it’s not natural.”

Emma nodded reluctantly. It seemed stupid to go see her classmates when Lilith was dead—maybe worse. But she didn’t want to disrupt her mother’s calm mood.

Too calm, in fact. Emma walked towards her mother with growing disappointment, noticing the flushed cheeks, the heavy movements.

“You’ve been drinking,” she said. In her heart where the pain had used to be there was now only an empty hole.

“No,” her mother said, but the lie didn’t stick for long. She patted her curls self-consciously. “Only one glass. Maybe two. Don’t blame Arlene, she doesn’t know.”

“Where is it?” Emma said. “Give it to me.”

“But I’m not going to have any more. I just needed a little to steady my nerves—”

“Mom! You promised. It’s been six months . . . I thought we were past this!”

“I was so sure I’d get the license this time,” her mother said, eyes flicking towards the application forms. “I—” Her shoulders slumped. “In the kitchen, behind the cleaning products.”

Emma swept past her mother, down the stairs and into the kitchen. Behind the washing up liquid was an unmarked glass bottle. Unscrewed, the alcohol fumes made her eyes water. Emma poured it down the sink, shaking out every last drop as her mother watched.

“Is there anything else?” she asked flatly, dropping the bottle into the recycling.

Her mother shook her head. “Only that. I— I’m sorry, Emma. I’m a terrible mother.”

Emma’s repy was cut off by the sound of the front door opening and closing. For a moment she thought it was Dr Gray, then she heard the familiar thump of a briefcase hitting the floor. Heavy footsteps down the hallway. Her father was home.

“Pull yourself together!” Emma whispered. “I’ll go stall him.”

Her mother had paled. She grabbed Emma’s arm on the way out. “Don’t tell him about the baby,” she said. “He doesn’t know yet.”

Her father was standing in the hallway by the coat rack, his movements careful and precise as he removed his jacket. He glanced towards her, but didn’t say a word, his mouth a flat, hard line. Emma felt her stomach clench, braced for the worst.

“Hi dad,” she said.

“I couldn’t get home last night.” His voice was deep and quiet. The calm before the storm. “Came back from work to find the press on our doorstep,” he continued. “My doorstep.”

He hung up his jacket, turned to face her fully. “What’s going on?”

13 responses to “Chapter 31”

  1. WA_side says:

    I really dislike Arlene Gray, but I’m also worried about Emma’s reaction to her Dad. >(

    • A.M. Harte says:

      There is a reason why Arlene is a bad mom—she never wanted to be one in the first place. I think she does the best she can, given the circumstances.

      Originally I’d planned for Emma to have nice, normal parents. But somehow I ended up making her mom baby-hungry and alcoholic . . . oops? (Well, it’s not entirely by chance. The baby stuff will come into play later!)

  2. Jaid says:

    Arlene is not a bad person, just used to running things and the people involved. Shes a strong woman, a leader, and used to making tough decision. But if her duaghter Lilith is any idication then is far cry from ‘evil’.

    While I find the Emma chapters intersting I must say I hope we don’t get to far derailed from the main story. Err.. main protagonist. That would be Lilith in my opinon.

    Anyway, I am always disapointed when a story gets to fractured by every chapter following a different character and plot thread.

    Also, Cheesecake is ALWAYS a great sugestion in ANY situation and on ANY topic. Period.

    Jaid ~ Still thinks Silver sees the world through a straw.

    • A.M. Harte says:

      That’s interesting to hear – a lot of other people have said Emma’s storyline adds colour/texture to the plot.

      Lilith does remain the protagonist; the bulk of chapters are hers. But Emma’s storyline will set some crucial elements in place for book 2, so it needs to be there. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Silver does see the world through a straw. That’s what makes him fun to write!

      • Jaid says:

        Anna,

        I agree that the Emma chapters add flavor and more importantly, a fascinating peak into the undergrounds political/social backdrop. This of course is the root cause that set the whole story in motion.

        I do enjoy the Emma chapters. I do feel they add to the story. My comment was not aimed at what you have written so far. Rather itโ€™s a almost paranoid fear I have developed. Many of my favorite authors have gotten so far off track that the overall epic they are writing gets muddied and lost in translation.
        George R.R. Martin is a great example. 10 “main characters” has turned into around 70 or so. One entire book never had a chapter covering any of the original “main” characters we cared about. Even the author admitted he got completely off track with the story he wanted to tell because he went down to many rabbit holes with a ‘character development’ idea. It basically ruined an EPIC adventure and thatโ€™s just a shame.

        Now to be clear, I DO NOT think you are doing that in Above Ground. I was just voice a concern that really was not founded in any actual reality.

        Jaid ~ Thinks you should keep up the excellent work so he can continue to pimp out your books to his friends.

        • A.M. Harte says:

          Phew! Panic attack over ๐Ÿ™‚

          Well you’ll be happy to hear that I’ve already decided not to do more than 3 POVs per book. And Lilith will always be one of them. For Between Worlds, when I get back to re-planning it, I’m thinking Lilith, Silver, and maybe someone else (not Emma). We’ll see!

          I’ve only just got into Game of Thrones (TV series, not books yet) and I can see what you mean about there being a ton of characters. I am enjoying it, but honestly, I’m far too lazy to follow that many people.

          That’s why I’ve been thinking of writing side-novellas, separate from the main series. Like a novella only about Jake & Fang, and another about Rae, etc . . . So anyone who is interested can find out more, anyone who isn’t doesn’t have to read it!

  3. Vicki says:

    HAHA! I like the would-be A.I’s name ;P Awesome sauce!

    • A.M. Harte says:

      Hee ๐Ÿ™‚

      Well I scoured through all the commenter names, and yours was the best fit. At one point in the draft, I did have Emma make a sarky reply about calling the AI ‘kunama’, but it ended up prolonging the conversation a bit too much!

  4. Kunama says:

    I see what you did there! ๐Ÿ˜›

    Re cover – above-ground town(? Maybe the theatre where it all started) and surroundings on top half of page. Significantly more advanced-looking living quarters on the bottom half. Brightness/colour contrast between the two.
    For some reason part of me thinks it ought to turn out mirrored (like an analog sound wave), but I don’t recall many high towers above ground.

    Putting the title in between seems cheesy, but I can’t visualise where else would be appropriate.

    Alternately.. different races vs technologically advanced humans?

    • A.M. Harte says:

      Oooh! I like mirrored things! Tulkan has some high towers . . . and the cover wouldn’t have to be exact.

      I wish I could draw so I could sketch up all these ideas!

  5. Jaid says:

    FYI,

    The link to Qazyfiction.com from amharte.com is broken. It goes here http://amharte.com/abovegroundseries/aboveground/qazyfiction.com/above-ground/ instead. Which is a file not found.

    Jaid ~ Likes the Novella dea. You actualy had some of that before the re-write. I think you called it “bonus material” before you revamped your old site and blog.

  6. Vicki says:

    Where’s the next entry?

  7. Serenity says:

    I second Vicki. I check weekly for the next installment.

    I hope everything is all right on your side of the world!