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Plugs - Ch. 7/9

The morning dawned clear and silent, and Noah watched as the last vestiges of hope slipped from his companions’ faces. They silently dispersed to the neighbouring houses to deal with their bodily needs, then returned and drank their nutrients just as quietly.

Doc, Moira and Girl returned from Mel’s bedroom with a wobbly Hope wrapped warmly in a blanket, her head looking far too large to be supported by her thin neck. They settled her on the armchair as the others cautiously moved closer. She leaned back with a sigh and closed her eyes.

“All right,” Doc asked briskly, turning her attention to Noah, “what’s on the agenda for today?”

“Food,” Noah said, “and a way to cook it.”

“Cook?” Billy asked blankly.

“We’ll have to get used to food other than the nutrients we’ve been living on for decades. We’re going to have to learn how to hunt again.”

Hunt?” Everyone winced at the high pitch of Billy’s voice.

“Yes,” Doc said firmly, “hunt.” She turned back to Noah. “Do we even have any guns?”

Noah shrugged. “There may be guns somewhere in the city, but they were put into storage decades ago, shortly after the bots were fully upgraded to control our emotions.”

He noticed Hope had her eyes open and was frowning at him.

“Upgraded to control our emotions?” she asked. Her voice was stronger but still tentative. The bots had repaired her vocal chords, but Noah reminded himself that, until yesterday, she hadn’t physically spoken for a hundred and thirty-six years.

“The Mundanes,” Noah told her, “not the Plugs.”

Her frown deepened.

“Didn’t you ever speak to the Mundanes who visited the Worlds?” Billy asked, staring at her, his wide-eyed fascination as strong as the day before.

She carefully shook her head. “Not for...a very long time,” she murmured, then turned her attention back to Noah. “I need you to explain this to me.”

“This?”

“Everything. How did I get here? You’re talking like...like...”

“The power is out,” Girl said bluntly. “As far as we can tell, the Eye is gone, too. We need to focus on our own survival now rather than on the Plugs.”

She glanced around at the others’ disapproving stares.

“Look,” she snapped, “do we really have the time right now to sugar coat anything?”

“We can at least be a bit gentler,” Billy snapped. “She’s been in the Worlds, and now she’s back,” his mouth twisted with distaste, “here. That has to be a bit of a shock!”

Girl rolled her eyes, then huffed and crossed her arms. “Fine. Fine!”

Noah raised an eyebrow before he turned back to Hope. “There were a lot of changes after you Plugged In,” he said. “Bots for Mundanes were upgraded to control our emotions, keep us on an even keel, so to speak. We still feel happiness and sadness and anger, but we don’t feel them as deeply as we would without the bots. Girl’s example notwithstanding.”

Girl flushed and looked away, grimacing.

“About twenty-five years ago, the bots were upgraded again, both to eliminate our sex drives and to enforce absolute birth control as the last of the Mundanes began to Plug In.”

“And now the power is out and the Eye is gone?”

“Yes. As far as we can tell.”

Hope gingerly leaned forward, tugging her blanket a little closer around her. “What are you going to do about the - the others? If they’re still alive, I mean?”

The others stared blankly at her, then, “Why wouldn’t they still be alive?” Mel asked.

Hope bit her lip, her eyes now focused on the tips of her toes peeking out from beneath the blanket.

“Because...it was...strange,” she said. “Painful. Like...like a - a - I don’t know. It felt like everything was shorting out. It -” she shook her head. “Like...electricity or something overloading, you know?”

Noah stared off into space, his face drawn, the grooves in his cheeks etched ever deeper into his dark skin.

“Do you understand what she's talking about?’ Moira asked.

He nodded slowly.

“Well, can you explain it to the rest of us?” Doc snapped with a significant glare at Noah.

Noah shook off his distraction, gave her a glimmer of a smile, then said, “When the power grid began to go down, there would have been a cascading effect of overloading circuits and connections. If a pulse of energy was large enough, or close enough to the Farms’ connectors, then that pulse may have made it all the way to the Plugs, and - for lack of a better way to describe it - burned out the microfibres on the brains, possibly even the bots in the blood. Like...like electrical transformers becoming overloaded and exploding.”

“That shouldn’t happen anymore!” Billy objected wildly.

“Well, not exactly like that, of course, but electricity is still electricity. The grid had protection against power surges, but this may have been much larger than the designers ever anticipated.”

Noah groaned, rubbing his hands over his face, then looked at the others.

“Most of the Plugs may already be dead,” he muttered.

There was profound silence as they stared at each other.

“Then we’re going to have a very busy day today,” Doc said drily.

~~~~~

Noah and Holland left to search for guns where Noah remembered them last being stored. If they found them, then they’d worry about whether they could be used – and then they’d worry about learning how to use them.

Doc stayed with Hope while Girl and Mel went to Farm 140 to find Mel’s wife, and Billy and Moira headed to Farm 136 to find Billy’s parents.

Moira and Billy carefully made their way to the 75th floor where they pulled off the window coverings, then stood and looked out over the vast floor filled with rows and rows of Plugs.

“Are you ready?” Moira asked gently.

Billy swallowed and nodded.

As they made their way to his father’s tube, Billy said, “Where are your parents?”

Moira sighed. “Farm 132. Twenty-fifth floor. I...I’d like to go there next.”

He nodded absently as they stopped beside his father and looked down at the motionless form. Billy took a deep breath, then delicately placed his fingers against the man’s neck. He looked at Moira, shook his head and took a small step back. Moira frowned, then placed her own fingers against the Plug’s neck. Her shoulders slumped.

They walked to Billy’s mother’s tube, only to find she, too, was already dead.

Billy stared over the sea of Plugs and felt he was seeing them clearly for the first time.

These Plugs had once been minds attached to a useless appendage known as the physical body. Once freed from physical restrictions, they had built the Worlds. They had created complexity and beauty from - literally - nothing. And it had all returned to nothing with - literally - a flip of a switch, or whatever the hell had really happened.

Tears pricked his eyes. Within those tubes, he now understood, the Plugs were simply bones held together by a thin mesh of skin. Not that it mattered, Billy thought dimly. They were the dead, even if some of them may not have actually died yet.

He mourned for a long, silent moment.

“Billy.”

He slowly, almost painfully, turned and looked at Moira.

“Are you ready to go?” she asked gently, her eyes soft with sympathy.

Billy took another long look at the Plug who had once been his mother, then looked over the rest of the floor.

He swallowed, and nodded.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready to go.” He gave her a small smile. “I hope you have better results,” he offered.

“Thank you,” she murmured, her gaze dropping to the floor. She picked up the torch and led the way to the stairwell.

~~~~~

Mel and Girl silently toiled their way to the top of Farm 140. Their legs were burning and weak by the time they made their way onto the floor where it all began.

“I think you’re going to have to carry me down,” Girl groaned.

Mel gave her a fleeting smile. “I was just going to ask you to do that for me. Although I think I’m starting to get used to this.”

She gave him a slight almost-smile and said, “Or the bots have adjusted to deal this excessive stair climbing.” She paused, then said, “Are you ready for this?”

Mel hesitated, his eyes roving over the vast array of silent, still Plugs. He nodded.

“Do you want me to come with you?”

He shook his head.

She nodded, relieved, and watched him slowly make his way to a Plug in the middle of the room. He stood motionless beside the tube, his back to her, his shoulders slumped. After a long moment, he reached out to touch the Plug - no, the woman who had been his wife, Girl told herself sternly - and his shoulders shook. She turned away and stared out the window, looking at Farm 139 beside them.

She leaned closer to the window, craning her neck to look up at the blue sky. Her gaze roved idly over the sky, the roof line, the windows -

She stopped, blinked, stared. She leaned forward, trying to get a better look.

“Shit,” she whispered.

“What?”

She shrieked and spun around, her hand to her chest. She gaped, wide-eyed at Mel.

He was dry-eyed, his face drawn, his mouth twisted into an unfamiliar sad frown. He lifted his hands. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you.”

She wildly shook her head. “No - it’s okay - I - look over there.”

Mel looked in the direction she indicated. He frowned. “What am I looking at? Or for?”

“I think 139 is on fire.”

~~~~~

Their legs were shaking badly by the time they ran down the hundred storeys. They staggered to the next Farm, and reeled back when they opened the door. They could smell the smoke, the melting plasmet, and something they didn’t want to name. They stared wide-eyed at each other, then stumbled their way back to Mel’s place to share the news with Doc and Hope.

Doc paled, and frowned. “But...the Farms are fireproof,” she said, stunned. “How would a fire even start?”

“Where’s Noah?” Girl asked. “He’d know -”

“It’s the wiring,” Hope said, her voice hoarse, but stronger than it had been just a few hours earlier.

They blinked at her.

“Electrical fire. They’re hard to start, but even plasmet can’t withstand a sudden, intense electrical short if it’s big enough. Once the fire starts, it’ll burn slowly throughout the building but within the walls. If it burns long enough, it’ll begin to melt the plasmet walls, and depending on how many floors catch fire, it can fill the entire Farm with toxic fumes. You could have killed yourselves when you opened those doors.”

Mel and Girl nodded wordlessly.

“The fire should be contained within that particular Farm,” Hope continued. “The outer walls are much thicker plasmet, more metal than plastic, and unless the fire burns much hotter than normal, they should hold. They were designed that way, anyway. That means the Farm won’t fall, and the fire shouldn’t spread to the neighbouring Farms. The biggest problem’s going to be the toxic fumes within the Farm itself.”

“How the hell do you know all that?” Doc blurted.

“I was an engineer before I Plugged In,” Hope said. “I helped build some of the first Farms here in New York, including my own.”

They stared unblinkingly at her.

“Well,” Doc drawled, “I think that’s a skill that will likely come in handy.”

~~~~~

Billy and Moira returned late that afternoon bearing a small amount of nutrients they’d made from the algae in the greenhouses. The sun was setting when Noah and Holland returned, without guns but not empty-handed. They carried wild fruits and berries they’d scavenged outside the city as well as the vegetables from Noah’s place, all of which they handed to Moira to put into the greenhouse.

Noah’s eyes narrowed when he learned about the fire in Farm 139, but his face lit up with a grin as he and Hope moved from chatting about the likely course of the fire, and the possibilities that other Farms may also be on fire, to talking about the very earliest days of the Farms and Plugs, and whether she’d ever met the inventors, Joel Beecher and Marissa LeBreton. She told him she’d never had the opportunity to meet Joel, although she’d worked quite closely with Marissa for several years after Joel’s disappearance. Noah told her Marissa was now in charge of the Washington Mundanes and charged with overseeing the last phase of humanity’s merger with the Eye.

Well.

What had been the last phase.

When it was time for supper, he told her it had been a pleasure to talk to somebody who understood his language and who remembered the way it had been, back in the very beginning. He lightly touched her hand, and she flinched away with a grimace of distaste and he sighed sadly and apologized.

Later, she walked with Doc to one of the neighbouring houses to take care of her bodily functions and Girl watched them go, her head cocked to one side, a thoughtful expression on her face. Noah settled beside her on the couch and raised an eyebrow in question.

“If she can’t even handle human touch,” Girl murmured, “she’s really going to have a problem with taking a shit.”

Noah gave her his best stern look, then reluctantly grinned. “It’s just going to take her a while to get used to the physical world again.”

“Do you think she’s batshit crazy?” Girl asked curiously.

Noah frowned, and stared thoughtfully into the distance. “I think...there’s a very good possibility she’s completely neurotic. I’m not sure if she’s the batshit crazy Doc was talking about, though. I guess we’ll have to watch and wait to get a real sense of her mental state.”

Girl nodded. They sat in companionable silence for a moment, then she glanced at him from the corner of her eyes.

“There are animals outside the city,” she murmured.

“I know.”

“We can eat those animals, right?”

“Some of them. Most of them. If we can catch them.”

Girl nodded, biting her lip. Her gaze dropped to her hands, twisting together in her lap. “There’s a cat,” she blurted.

“I remember.”

“We won’t have to eat him, will we?” she winced at how young and vulnerable she sounded. She hadn’t been vulnerable since her parents...well. She forced herself to meet Noah’s dark, sympathetic gaze.

“No,” he said gently, “we won’t have to eat him.”

“Promise?”

“Promise. What’s your cat’s name?”

Girl shrugged. “He doesn’t have one.”

Noah chuckled. “It’s comforting to know some things never change.”


Chapter Six                    Chapter Eight

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
onceiwasaturtle
Feb. 21st, 2013 02:13 am (UTC)
"When it was time for supper, he told it had been a pleasure to talk to somebody who understood his language and who remembered the way it had been, back in the very beginning." Should that be "he told her", or maybe "he told them"? :)

Riveting storytelling. :D
shirleyann66
Feb. 22nd, 2013 06:11 am (UTC)
Thank you - I'm glad you're liking it!

And it should be "her" - thanks for pointing that out. I'm fixing it now. :)

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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"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

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"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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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"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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