Neuron

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neuron
ˈnjʊərɒn/
noun
a specialised cell transmitting nerve impulses; a nerve cell.

I'm not a religious person. I'm not not religious. It's just that it's never been a big deal to me, either way. There's never been a part of my life which has made me think I'd be better off believing in gods, but I also can't be bothered with that ultra-atheist secularism that's all the rage back in Perlyn. I'm just kind of okay right in the middle.

Back home, it's easy to not be religious because it's not in your face. Sure, there are churches, and religious leader types always end up on television to talk as 'experts' about random ethical issues. But actually, day-to-day? You're not likely to bump into an overtly worshipful person. And so, I don't think about it much.

But here. Qinhu is one seething mass of repressed belief. It's everywhere and nowhere. Every street has a church, but most of them have been converted into community halls, or markets, or some such. Iconography of the big religion is everywhere from statues in plazas to little gargoyles perched on the corners of old buildings. Some paving slabs even have images or text relating to the five gods.

Yet nobody worshipped openly. Huddles of people disappeared in to the remaining active churches for a few hours each day - at dusk and dawn - but it was confined and boxed. The country had compartmentalised its own faith.

"This place is all kinds of strange," Marv noted as we took our seats at a table in a dingy, red-bulb-illuminated smoking club in the worker district of Zhangao. A haze hung in the air, drifting just above our heads. Almost everybody here was smoking something: cigarettes, pipes and cigars, of course, but mostly hookahs. Lots of hookahs. The club was expansive, with a low ceiling made lower by hanging drapes and curtains and lanterns. Every surface had a sullied brown tinge from decades of smoke, with only the drapes serving to give splashes of varied colour.

"You mean the bar, or the whole city?" I asked.

Marv shrugged. "Take your pick."

Furey sat on the seat farthest from the lights. It was far easier to be a human on Locque than it was for one of us to blend in on Earth. There were plenty of genotypes which looked essentially like Earth people, as long as you didn't look too closely. She still kept to the shadows, as there was no reason to push our luck. Not yet.

Places like this used to be the hub of the entire town. It's where the workers used to congregate in their unions, before the revolution shut them down. That's when the churches had been shut down. It took the wings longer to wrestle power here in the east, maybe because it had always been a multicultural society that celebrated difference and cooperation, right down to its polytheistic religion. That all changed when the wings took over and set up their usual hierarchies.

I can't say I fully understood the ins and out of unions, having never worked anywhere other than behind a fast food till, but I got the point. I knew that making them illegal was a dick move. Back home, the wings had taken over by making everything seem all fine and happy while they sucked you dry; out here they'd simply clamped down on everything. Political expression. Religious freedom. Worker rights. All gone.

I remembered vague snippets of all this from politics and history lessons but I'd never paid much attention. It had always seemed so far away. Since we arrived I'd been reading up - and Furey had a kind of beginner's guide level of knowledge, of course. She was a sponge for this kind of stuff.

The club opened out onto a small stage at the far end, equipped with a glitchy microphone. It was open mic night, which meant anybody could get up and do whatever they wanted. Read a poem. Tell a story. A man was currently singing a melancholic song in Qinese which I didn't understand. It still made me sad. He was probably about fifty and looked like he'd lived through changes.

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