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Plugs - Ch. 1/9

There are not many who remember
They say a handful still survive
- Miami 2017, Billy Joel

~~~~~
Billy yawned as the elevator rose and the floors flashed past.

“Stayed in the Worlds all night again?” Girl asked.

Billy shrugged sheepishly, shuffled his feet and ducked his head while Doc gave him a friendly shove on the shoulder.

“Noah will ride your ass if you slow us down,” she said, but she grinned.

Billy groaned. “What’s Noah doing here? I thought he was at 139 today.”

“139 was fully upgraded late last night,” Doc replied. “The 139 team Plugged In almost immediately. We’re all that’s left.”

Billy felt a surge of resentment, then mentally shook his head. He forced a grin, and bounced a little on his toes, the elevator rocking slightly as he did so. Mel grimaced.

‘Don’t do that,” he groaned. His hand gripped the railing so tightly Billy thought the plasmet was going to snap under the strain. Moira and Holland scowled, and Moira subtly shook her head.

Billy carefully turned his face away before he rolled his eyes. Mel was the third oldest Mundane on their team; he should be used to the daily trip to the top of the Farm by now. On those rare occasions when he felt compelled to explain himself, Mel claimed it wasn’t the enclosed space; it was the idea of being suspended over empty air for a thousand feet or more. When Billy was in a pissy mood, and when Doc or Noah weren’t around, he’d dig at Mel, remind him just how high they were, and update him on the height as each floor flashed past. Every now and then, like now, he’d subtly rock the elevator and watch Mel turn green.

The door soundlessly slid open on the 100th floor, and they spilled out. Team 140; six Mundanes, seven including Noah, and the last in the city - but not for much longer, Billy thought almost viciously. Once 140 was finally upgraded, then they’d be Plugging In, too.

As always, the first sight of the floor took his breath away. Thousands of narrow, gleaming, tube-like beds, set in precise columns and rows: a hundred columns; a hundred rows. Ten thousand Plugs in all their glory; a sight repeated on each of the ninety-nine floors beneath them.

Noah was already there, standing tall and lean by the console, reviewing the messages the Eye had generated in the night regarding the status of the Plugs on this floor. The harsh overhead lights revealed the deep grooves of his face, highlighted the grey in his short-cropped hair, and emphasized the stark contrast between the white of his shirt and his black skin. He glanced up as they approached, his dark brown eyes impersonal although he gave them a slight smile in greeting.

“Billy late again?” he asked with a thread of amusement, his deep, smooth voice rolling over them. It was a distinctive voice, rich, mellow and almost hypnotic when he chose. Girl had once confided in Billy that you couldn’t help believing everything would be all right if Noah told you so in just the right tone of voice. That was shortly after Girl’s parents had left, and while Billy had scoffed, he’d also conceded that Girl had probably needed someone to comfort her. At least his parents had had the decency to tell him when and where they Plugged In.

Now Billy nodded sheepishly, his hair flopping in his eyes. He impatiently brushed it aside.

“Well,” Noah said, “it’s not like we don’t have time to get everything done.” He turned his attention back to the com, and said, “Mel, there’s a Plug that needs to be cleaned in aisle 10, row 99; Doc...”

Billy let the rest of the instructions roll over him. A hundred floors to get through, he thought as he trudged to his assigned Plug to deal with the problem the Eye had identified, but then he’d be free to go home, back to his com and his VR cap, and what he privately considered his true life.

He glanced at the others, scurrying about their tasks. This was only temporary, he assured himself, like he did every morning. Another year, perhaps a little longer, and then 140 – hell, all of New York - would be upgraded, and he’d finally - finally - be able to Plug In.

He could not wait.

~~~~~

The team worked almost silently, except for Noah’s slow, deep voice calling out the locations of the dozen or so Plugs who needed assistance, and what needed to be done for them. They moved quickly and efficiently, decades of familiarity honed into their bones and pores as they unblocked feeding tubes, cleaned waste, and serviced the machines that kept the bodies functioning while their occupants were off in the Worlds, oblivious to whatever was happening to their physical bodies and the physical world around them.

No one consciously thought about the Farm upon Farm and floor upon floor of silent bodies, the tube-like beds or the trillions of bots in each Plug’s bloodstream that minimally maintained the muscles and organs, kept the blood flowing and the brains functioning. They didn’t consciously think about the delicate computer microfibres that were inserted directly on and in the brains and made existence in the Worlds possible and which gave the Plugs virtual experiences that were more intense than anything the physical world could ever provide. Most of the team had learned long ago that thinking about it too much could drive them crazy if they weren’t careful. For those like Moira and Girl and Billy, who had never known a different world, it didn’t appear to cross their minds at all.

While they worked, Noah watched his team carefully, especially Billy, and mentally prepared the report he’d give Marissa at the end of the day. She’d be interested, he knew, on how his team was reacting to being the last Mundanes left in New York. If they showed too many signs of emotional stress, even with their bots’ modulating their emotional responses, Marissa would order their bots to be adjusted again to keep them calm.

As he calmly, almost rhythmically called out Plug locations and needs, he pondered his fellow Mundanes. He was the oldest and in the days before the Worlds he would have been described as being in his mid-seventies, although the bots kept him feeling and moving like a thirty-year-old. He sometimes felt a pang when he looked at the others, all of whom looked to be much, much younger than he did. But he was the oldest, much older than any of the others truly understood, and sometimes there was a price to pay for that privilege. He thought he had an advantage on the others, though: during his long life, he’d spent a great deal of time alone, and a great deal of time with others, and being one of the last few conscious people in a sleeping world didn’t bother him...so long as he didn’t think about it, and how he got there, too deeply.

Although Mel looked older, Doc was actually next in age; a hard-edged woman who hadn’t been softened even by a hundred years of directly caring for Plugs. Then again, he hadn’t softened either, and he had fifty years or more on her; he wasn’t exactly sure. When you were, for all intents and purposes, immortal, and your body aged very slowly, the passage of time didn’t seem quite as important as it had before the bots and the Plugs. An unexpected side effect, he thought ruefully.

He mentally shook his head and forced himself to refocus. He had no doubts Doc would be absolutely fine with being one of the last few Mundanes wandering the city. She’d probably like it, considering her penchant for solitary night-time wanderings.

He turned his attention to Mel, a distant third in age, a man with a perpetual smile on his face and a self-effacing attitude. Holland, on the other hand, always looked blank, hunched in on himself, always waiting for someone else’s lead to determine how to react to any situation. Both seemed used to, and comfortable with, solitude. Holland even seemed to prefer it, as much as he seemed to prefer anything. A slight frown creased Noah’s forehead as he considered the younger man. He sometimes wondered what, if anything, went on behind that blank face and those expressionless eyes.

He shook off his thoughts and looked at the youngsters - Moira, Girl and Billy, although Moira at fifty-seven was much older than the twenty-seven-year-old Girl and the twenty-five-year-old Billy. He tended to think of them as a unit not only because they all looked to be around the same age, but also because they were the only ones on the team who had been born long after the majority of the world had Plugged In.

Billy, of course, was the youngest, the last baby born in New York City, and determined to Plug In as soon as he was allowed. Over the years, Noah had almost despaired of him until he realized there was simply no point. Billy would Plug In, as would the rest of them, and the human race – all fourteen billion members of it - would slowly settle beneath the weight of the Farms and the Worlds and eventually sink into oblivion as the Plugs slowly died out one by one.

If the Eye and the bots actually allowed them to die, that is.

Noah shuddered inwardly, then shook off his discomfort as they finished the floor and headed down the stairs to the next one.

When the time came, he knew he wouldn’t Plug In. Instead, he’d leave the city and search for the small enclaves of other like-minded Mundanes who also hadn’t Plugged In. He knew where one or two of them were supposed to be; he’d find one and settle down to live out the rest of his days far from the shadow of the Farms, removed from the Eye and puttering in a small garden, tending vegetables.

I’ve had enough practice after all, Noah thought cynically as they walked onto the next floor and he headed to the com.

~~~~~

It was dusk when they left the Farm, the sun already hidden behind the hundred and forty towering buildings that housed what was had once been the entire population of the city. On their left, 141 rose, still a stump of a building compared to the others, half-built but already occupied by almost fifty thousand Plugs. It had been commissioned to allow the final Mundanes in North America to Plug In.

The seven of them paused to look at 141, as they always did.

“Is Washington still planning on building that to full-size?” Billy asked idly. “There aren’t enough Mundanes left to fill it anymore. Are there?”

Noah shrugged. “Not as far as I know,” he said, “but maybe there’ll be more Mundanes to fill it up some day.”

Billy frowned as the others glanced at Noah with varying degrees of confusion and sly amusement.

Noah shrugged. “Not all Mundanes are going to join the Worlds, Billy. Some of us will stay here, unPlugged, and if we’re allowed to have children again, then those children may eventually decide to Plug In someday, too.”

Billy stared, horrified. “Who’d want to stay here?” he blurted.

Noah gave him a gimlet stare.

Billy flushed.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that, right, Billy?” Moira said, and grinned at Billy’s mortified expression.

“No,” Billy said slowly, but it was obvious he couldn’t truly understand the desire to stay here, in the physical world.

Noah shrugged. “It’s not for everyone,” he said, his tone carefully neutral.

Billy nodded in embarrassed silence as they clambered on the bus to be taken to their homes.

~~~~~

Billy thankfully closed the door to his apartment and leaned against it. His heart began to pound as he looked at the com, and his stomach tightened with anticipation. Soon, he thought, soon his real life would begin again.

He slowly walked into the kitchen, savoring the excitement building inside him. He prepared his nutrient drink and downed it slowly. It was thick and tasteless but Billy had never experienced anything different. His parents hadn’t believed in giving him anything other than what would sustain him once he was a Plug, and he’d continued on that path after they Plugged In. Besides, they’d told him, it would only make the Worlds that much more amazing to him: the tastes, the sights, the sounds. Their unbridled enthusiasm for the Worlds and joy when they had the opportunity to Plug In fifteen years ago had eased his momentary loneliness at being left behind. He’d been ten, already working in the Farms, and the bots were keeping him healthy while the Eye kept him fed and at the time, there’d been more then enough other Mundanes willing to keep watch over one young boy, if he needed it.

He was the last child, after all.

He slipped on the VR cap. As his apartment receded and the entrance to the Worlds appeared, Billy finally gave in to his desire and dove in.

For the first time that day, he felt truly alive.

~~~~~

After drinking the nutrient soup that passed for supper, Noah sighed, opened a beer, and settled in front of the com. He connected to the Eye, dialed Marissa’s number, and waited as the simulated ringing sounded through the speakers. It was a personal modification he’d made to his com; it reminded him of different days.

An ethereally beautiful brunette appeared onscreen.

“Noah.”

“Marissa.” His voice was warm, even deeper than his usual darkly mellow tones.

“What’s new in New York?” she asked briskly.

“The bots are working ahead of schedule,” he said. “139 was fully upgraded last night; 140’s upgrade has already begun.”

She nodded and made some notes. “How’s 141 progressing?”

“Smoothly. Another floor was finished today.”

“Good. Toronto completed their upgrades today. Alfred and his team will be heading to New York sometime tomorrow morning. He seemed to think they needed to make one more check to be sure everything was running smoothly before getting on the train. They should be there and ready to Plug In by late afternoon.”

“We’ll be waiting for them,” Noah said. He suspected, however, that Alfred wouldn’t be a member of the group when they arrived.

“How’s your team holding up? How are they dealing with the fact that they’re the last Mundanes in New York? Are they upset?”

Noah shrugged, even as a part of him wondered how they were supposed to be upset when the bots in their blood kept their emotions on a relatively even keel and their biological urges in check. There was a reason Billy was the youngest Mundane in New York, Noah thought bitterly.

“They knew it was coming,” he said now, none of his thoughts showing in his face. “I think Billy was disappointed no one from 139 offered to let him Plug In first, but other than that...the others didn’t seem to have much reaction to the news. I wasn’t there when they first found out, though; Doc told them on the ride up.”

“That was your job,” Marissa said, her voice cooling slightly.

“I was at work early,” Noah replied smoothly, “since I had to Plug In 139. The question was asked; Doc answered. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

“Hmmm.” Marissa didn’t sound convinced. “You’d better keep your eye on Doc, and the rest of the team, Noah. We’re entering the most critical phase of humanity’s transformation. You don’t want things to be derailed because of internal power struggles.”

Noah raised an eyebrow. “No power struggle, Marissa,” he assured her, “and nothing will derail the rest of the human race from Plugging In.” Even if they didn’t want to, he added silently.

Marissa’s eyes bored into his. “Let’s make sure that’s true. The future of humanity depends on it.”

Noah disconnected from the com, leaned back in his chair and took a slow, savoring sip of his beer.

Future of humanity? Humanity’s end more like it, he thought, but kept his expression carefully blank. The Eye saw everything, and while he knew the electronic watchdog wasn’t independently intelligent enough to interpret his expressions, there were still human minds attached to the Eye who could. There was no point in pushing his luck when he was so close to finally being free.

He closed his eyes as he took another sip of his beer then put his head back. The others on his team had all been born many years after him and had grown up with the Farms and the Plugs as already established, simple facts of life. They believed the claims from Washington that Plugging In to the Worlds was the only goal worth having. But Noah...

Noah remembered.

He’d had a different name then, of course, when it all began, but he remembered how excited everyone had been about the Farms and the Eye. He remembered how they’d been trumpeted as the salvation of humanity and the physical world even as the tinpot dictators were ordering the Farms to be built, then marching their enemies and dissidents and those who came from the wrong town or used the wrong name for God into the finished buildings, forcibly Plugging them in and forgetting about them.

The company spin after those stories broke was declaring the Farms the best way to end genocide, and he supposed it was true, in a way. The people were still alive, after all, and kept alive, even as their physical bodies were left to wallow in their own filth by the dictators and their followers.

The next people forced into the Farms were those living in the most famine-stricken parts of the world – well, those few places without the tinpot dictators. A small public rumbling began that asked why, if they could provide enough nutrients to keep them alive as Plugs, the world couldn’t provide enough nutrients to keep them alive as Mundanes.

Which, of course, meant the next people into the Farms were those who were rumbling the loudest against them. Not that anyone really knew that, of course, since by then the Eye had complete control over the information being released to the world at large.

That was when Noah changed his name and face and job, and melted out of sight.

Noah shook his head and sighed as he took another sip of his beer. Tonight, sitting in the twilight of the human race’s time of walking on the earth, he felt every one of his two hundred plus years, and the responsibility that weighed heavily on his shoulders.

He took another sip of beer, closed his eyes, and dreamed of what it would be like when he was finally free.

~~~~~

It was dark when Doc stepped out of her house. She paused as she struck a match and lit the slender cigar she’d placed between her lips. She pulled the smoke into her mouth and held it, letting the taste roll gently over her tongue before she slowly exhaled. She glanced around, the Farms rising dark and forbidding to her right, the small houses and apartments that were the homes of the Mundanes to her left.

She took another pull off her cigar, then made her way down her front steps and began to walk, her footsteps almost silent on the pristine, dark plasmet streets. There were no lights to be seen and the night was silent except for the familiar underlying hum of the Eye maintaining the city and the last few Mundanes who populated it.

We’re small in number, she thought, those of us left to watch over a sleeping world.

Doc often wandered the city at night, strolling slowly between the towering Farms or through the once-bustling Mundane neighbourhoods, smoking her cigars and thinking of the Mundanes left behind, or of the Plugs who slept within the Farms.

She pulled in another mouthful of smoke, and savored the taste as she slowly breathed it out. Her one vice; her one illness the bots repaired time and time again.

The bastards.

Not that she minded, really, but it still sometimes made her uncomfortable to know the bots were busily working in her bloodstream to keep her functioning for the sole purpose of ensuring she’d be capable of caring for the Plugs.

In the dark hours of night, walking the silent streets of what had once been a bustling metropolis, she sometimes visualized her planet as seen from the outside, spinning through space, home to a species who appeared dormant, cared for by machines. She sometimes wondered what an alien visitor would think about it all. Or were all sentient beings destined to merge with their machines and disappear - for all intents and purposes - into their own navels?

As the Farms were fully upgraded and team after team of the remaining Mundanes in the city Plugged In, Doc found herself looking at her own team, trying to determine who, if anyone, would remain behind.

Noah. Her. Girl, most likely; she didn’t even have a com in that ramshackle hut on the outskirts of the city.

Billy already had his name engraved on a Plug - metaphorically speaking. Holland would Plug In if someone made the decision for him. He’d stay Mundane, too, if someone made that decision for him. She shook her head. Holland was a perfect fit for the Worlds; he was a timid, blank slate and in the Worlds, there was always somebody who would be more than willing to use someone like Holland. He might even be happy there, or as happy as he could get.

That left Mel and Moira. Mel seemed like he would follow meekly, and he had the obsequious posture and smile down pat, but there was a hint of steel in his eyes, a sign that he would follow only so long as he wanted to follow. Doc had dim memories of Mel mentioning a wife once or twice, years ago. If her memory was correct, then he’d probably Plug In, if only to reunite with her. For awhile, at least. No one stayed together for long in the Worlds. What was the point? The concept of forever love didn’t seem so desirable or possible when ‘forever’ was a reality.

As for Moira, Doc assumed she’d Plug In, but only because she doubted Moira had ever really considered a different option. It was difficult to judge, since Moira never talked about it. For all Doc knew, she looked forward to the Worlds as eagerly as Billy.

Well.

No one looked forward to the Worlds as eagerly as Billy.

She finished her cigar and glanced around. She blinked when she realized she was standing outside Noah’s house. She shrugged when she saw a light was still on.

Perhaps it was fate, she thought as she walked up the steps and knocked on the door. Or maybe it was just coincidence. Whatever.

Noah opened the door and stared, his dark brown eyes wide and startled.

“I’m restless,” she said without preamble. “Maybe some conversation will calm me down and help me sleep.”

Noah raised an eyebrow. “Maybe some beer, too?”

The corner of her mouth lifted in a slight smile. “Maybe some beer, too,” she agreed.

Noah stepped aside, and she brushed past him into the house.

Chapter Two

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
onceiwasaturtle
Feb. 20th, 2013 06:48 pm (UTC)
Your characterization is amazing, as always, and this is a great lead-in and world-building, background-giving sort of chapter! I'm excited to read more!! :D
shirleyann66
Feb. 22nd, 2013 05:40 am (UTC)
Thank you! *claps hands with glee*

I'm glad you like it!! :D
susanmarier
Feb. 21st, 2013 12:37 am (UTC)
Wow, your storyline is awesome, and so detailed. I love it. This is a wonderful start, and I look forward to reading more. I'll totally need to finish this. I just can't believe I started when I knew I couldn't finish it RIGHT NOW. :) thanks.
shirleyann66
Feb. 22nd, 2013 05:41 am (UTC)
Thank you!! I hope you like the rest of it (once you have a chance to read it - LOL).

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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Quotes

"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need...fantasies to make life bearable."

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little --"

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

"So we can believe the big ones?"

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

-- Susan and Death in Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

---------------------

"And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based."

-- Lord Vetinari in Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

---------------------

They thought the Library was a dangerous place because of all the magical books, which was true enough, but what made it really one of the most dangerous places there could ever be was the simple fact that it was a library.

-- Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

---------------------

As a wizard, it was something that Ponder had only before encountered in acorns: a tiny soundless voice which said, yes, I am but a small, green, simple object - but I dream about forests.

-- Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

---------------------

In the 24th century, there will be no hunger. There will be no greed. And every child will know how to read.

-- Gene Roddenberry, as repeated by Jonathan Frakes in the documentary How William Shatner Changed the World

---------------------

We've got two lives, one we're given and the other one we make
And the world won't stop, and actions speak louder
Listen to your heart, and what your heart might say
Everything we got, we got the hard way.

-- Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Hard Way from the album Come On, Come On

---------------------

Cause when they own the information, oh
They can bend it all they want.

-- John Mayer, Waiting on the World to Change from the album Continuum

---------------------

Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, "I'll try again tomorrow."

-- Mary Anne Radmacher, as seen in Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Tales to Inspire

---------------------

I never loved the soldier
Until there was a war.
Or thought about tomorrow
'til my baby hit the floor.
I only talk to God
When somebody's about to die.
I never cherished freedom
Freedom never cries.

-- Five for Fighting, Freedom Never Cries from the album Two Lights

---------------------

It may sound absurd: but don't be naive
Even heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed: but won't you concede
Even heroes have the right to dream

-- Five for Fighting, Superman (It's Not Easy) from the album American Town

---------------------

Had a dream last night took a time travellin' ride
Back to my childhood where those monsters reside
They snack on innocence and dine on self-esteem
But I like to be in touch with what makes me scream
Vampires, mummies and the Holy Ghost
These are the things that terrify me the most.
No alien, psychopath or MTV host
Scares me like vampires,mummies and the Holy Ghost.

-- Jimmy Buffett, Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost from the album Fruitcakes

---------------------

"I want to believe that... the dead are not lost to us. That they speak to us... as part of something greater than us - greater than any alien force. And if you and I are powerless now, I want to believe that if we listen, to what's speaking, it can give us the power to save ourselves."

-- Fox Mulder, The X-Files from the episode The Truth, pt. 2
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