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Plugs - Ch. 8/9

The next week passed in a blur of hard work, and the discovery that more of the Farms were burning. No one said it in so many words, but the electrical fires addressed the need Holland had identified, something quick to euthanize those Plugs who had survived the power surge, at least in some of the Farms.

The Plugs they’d identified the day after the power went out, and who had survived the power surge, were now awake, including the surviving members of Teams 139 and 138. It was a relief to have more people around to help, although both Noah and Doc were already aware of a divide between the Plugs and those survivors who had never Plugged In. It was something else they would need to watch and manage carefully.

Noah quickly organized the survivors into work units. Moira and Mel were in charge of the greenhouses, while Holland and his crew were given hunting and gathering duties. Noah and Hope were busy repurposing the buildings in the city, and had already, using ancient technology, built several small generators and flashlights, which made moving through the Farms much easier. The generators were weak, but they provided some power, and it was enough for most of the small but growing group of survivors to begin to spread out to their own living spaces.

Billy and Girl were in charge of sanitation. They weren’t pleased with the task, but they both understood it needed to be done.

Doc and her small crew had the worst job. They were inspecting the Farms that weren’t burning, and finding the majority of Plugs were already dead. They were also working on rescuing those friends and family of the survivors where the locations were known, and if the specific Farm wasn’t already burning. Each new survivor named new Plugs they wished to rescue, but the number of survivors was minimal at best. Doc and her team also knew they wouldn’t be able to rescue many more survivors; they would need to begin burning the Farms within the next few days, or else they would be letting the survivors slowly starve to death.

“It seems,” Doc told Noah one night as they paced the dark, silent streets of the city, “that the older the Plugs, the more likely they were to have died from the power surge.”

Noah strolled beside her, the only sound their footsteps and the soft rustle as she caressed the unlit cigar in her hands. There were small, comforting beacons of dim light in various houses and apartments, and Noah felt cautious hope even as he pondered Doc’s words.

“Maybe,” he said slowly, his voice low and deep, as smooth and dark as the night, “they died from shock rather than the power surge.”

Doc cocked her head to one side. “The shock of suddenly being cut off from the Worlds, you mean?”

“Think about it. They were in the Worlds for decades or well over a century. They were used to constant sight, sound, emotions, experiences. They were used to seeing sound, tasting light. They were used to constant contact with other Plugs. In some cases, they were, for all intents and purposes, merged together, with everything intensified, thanks to the microfibres and the bots. Then, suddenly, with no warning, they’re absolutely alone and all their senses are removed. There’s no sight, no sound, no other Plugs, nothing. Even with the bots, their hearts may not have been able to withstand the shock.”

Doc shuddered. “Jesus,” she breathed. “I thought they weren’t aware of anything around them...”

“In the physical world," Noah agreed, “but they were still conscious at some level in order to function in the Worlds.” He grimaced. “I don’t really know. I do know I don't like thinking about it.”

“Me neither,” Doc muttered, and they continued on in silence for several minutes. “Do you have any beer left?” she finally asked.

“I do. But it’s piss warm right now.”

“Ew.”

“I know. A fridge is high on my agenda.”

“Like a boat is high on mine,” she sighed, then slid him a sly glance.

His teeth flashed white in the moonlight as he laughed.

~~~~~

Girl glanced up as Mel walked up to where she’d cut through the plasmet that made up the streets and sidewalks in the heart of the city and was now digging a trench for a temporary public latrine, with the goal of tying it into the existing sewer system. He lifted a glass of nutrients and raised an eyebrow, his self-deprecating grin back in full force.

Her eyes lit up at the sight of nutrients, and she gratefully threw down her shovel, heaved herself out of the trench and stripped off her gloves. They walked a few feet away, and she settled herself on top of a flat fence in front of an abandoned apartment building.

“You are a prince among men, Mel,” she sighed, and took a gulp of the nutrients.

Mel’s smile abruptly vanished, and he looked away.

Girl frowned and swallowed her mouthful of nutrients and asked, “What’s wrong?”

He glanced at her, his brown eyes sad and troubled. He shrugged. “Nothing.”

Her frown deepened. “Something most definitely is wrong. Did I - did I say something?”

He smiled sadly. “No, you didn’t say anything.”

“Mel,” Girl said, gently for her, and patted the fence beside her, “tell me what’s bothering you.”

Mel’s shoulders drooped and he slowly sat beside her. “I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Because...because I did something...very bad.”

Girl took another gulp of nutrients and considered him thoughtfully. “Mel,” she said slowly, “you’re one of the kindest people I know.”

He glanced at her from the corner of his eyes.

She shrugged ruefully. “Okay. I don’t really know that many people, and there are only – what? twenty of us in this city right now? So, take that for what it’s worth.”

Mel chuckled reluctantly.

“Is it about your wife?” Girl asked shrewdly.

He grimaced.

Girl sighed and stared off into space. She took another gulp of nutrients, frowned then turned to him with a determined air.

“Mel,” she said softly, “have you ever wondered why my name is Girl?”

Mel frowned. “I - well. No. Not really.”

Girl’s mouth twisted into something that might have been a smile. “My parents didn’t bother to name me.”

Mel stared.

“They just called me The Girl.” She looked at the glass in her hands, rolled it between her palms. “They were scheduled to Plug In when they found out my mother was pregnant. For some reason, my father decided to stay behind with my mother. Maybe they’d actually loved each other once; they certainly hated each other by the time I was old enough to know what was going on around me. I think they would have happily ignored me and let me die if, you know, they could have gotten away with it. But it wasn’t like there were a lot of babies being born, after all, and I understand Noah kept a pretty close watch over us. Over me.”

She paused and lifted the glass to her lips with a trembling hand.

“Girl,” Mel murmured, then hesitated. There was a tightening in his stomach, a growing dread about what she was saying, what she was going to say. He bit his lip, wondering whether he wanted to encourage her to keep talking or find some way to get her to stop.

“Did you know that my parents were offered the chance to Plug In before Billy’s parents?” Girl murmured.

“N-no.”

“My parents turned the opportunity down. I heard them arguing about it. My dad wanted to take it; my mother said it wouldn’t look good to the other Mundanes if they Plugged In when I was only twelve. They were enraged when Billy’s parents jumped at the chance - and Billy was only ten! - and none of the other Mundanes seemed to care. Well, except Noah, of course, but it’s not like he could have stopped them, and he would have just kept an eye on me like he did with Billy.” She shrugged. “Of course, they didn’t know that, and by the time they figured it out, it was too late. They were very angry with Noah, for not giving them peace of mind about Plugging In. But they were furious with me. After all, I’d made them miss their chance to Plug In not once, but twice.”

She stopped and stared off into space.

“Things went from bad to worse very quickly.” She finished her nutrients with one last gulp, then gripped the glass tightly, her knuckles turning white.

Mel bit his lip and said, carefully, “How - what -?”

She stared thoughtfully at her hands, then held the glass out at arm’s length. “Do you know how long it takes for the bots to fix a broken arm?” she murmured.

Mel sucked in his breath.

“Nine and half hours, when you’re fifteen or younger. Legs take a little longer: twelve hours.” She carefully turned her arm first one way, then the other. “Bruises are gone in less than three. If you play your cards right, everything’s healed before you have to go to work in the morning.”

She stared intently at the glass in her outstretched hand. “Do you ever wonder where my parents are?” she asked softly.

She opened her fingers and let the glass fall, and Mel flinched as it shattered on the plasmet.

“Some things even the bots can’t fix,” she whispered, her eyes vacant.

Mel made a small, choked noise. “Girl. You didn’t have to tell me this,” he whispered.

“I wanted to tell you. I think...you understand.”

She turned and looked at him, and he blinked, his dark eyes wide. He slowly nodded.

“More than you know,” he whispered. He paused, his mouth twisted into a bitter grimace, then said, “She was awake, and I held her nose and mouth closed until she stopped breathing. It didn’t take long. I told her it was more merciful that way. That she’d been Plugged In for so long, she’d never be able to adapt to the physical world again. But the truth is...” He swallowed, his eyes on the shattered glass on the plasmet. He straightened his shoulders. “The truth is, I didn’t want her back in the physical world. I – I was...happier...safer without her.”

Girl nodded without surprise.

They sat in somber silence.

“How’d you get away with it?” Mel asked softly.

Girl shrugged. “Noah. It wasn’t like I tried to hide it.” She huffed what almost sounded like a chuckle. “Besides, how could I? My parents had the Eye in every room of that house. How they never caught -” she stopped abruptly and shook her head. “That doesn’t matter. I told Noah the next day, when he asked me where my parents were. I’ve never seen him look like that before. But he put me in a different house, then cleaned everything up. I don’t know exactly what he did, but no one from Washington ever came for me. Of course, no one ever tried to stop them, either, so who knows what the Eye really saw. If anything.”

“Noah didn’t know about what they were...were doing to you?”

Girl shook her head. “He seemed to know everything afterwards. He told me I should have told him something because he would have dealt with them himself.” She sighed, and slid off the fence. She pulled on her gloves, then bent and picked up the shards of glass from the street. She threw them into an old garbage bin in front of the apartment building.

“Sorry about the glass,” she said with a rueful grimace.

Mel shrugged. “I think that’s the least of our concerns after this conversation,” he said drily.

She blinked at him, then slowly smiled, and laughed a little.

“Maybe we’re the ones who are batshit crazy,” she sighed.

He smiled, too, a true one, not his usual self-effacing grin. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” he said.

~~~~~

Twelve days after the power went out, and eight days after Noah had built a HAM radio, somebody answered him.

To Noah’s relief, it was Alfred from Toronto. Alfred and his team had still been getting ready to leave when the power went out. They were now doing the same things in Toronto that Noah and his small crew were doing in New York. Alfred said they had thirty-three people and growing, and Noah grinned.

“It’s not a lot, but it’s still better than the seven we started with,” Noah said gleefully. He handed beers to his original team as they sat around his dining room table, a large piece of furniture that was a hold-over from earlier days when there were more Mundanes and having large groups of people over for dinner, drinks and laughs was a common occurrence. In this case, Noah had invited them there to celebrate making contact with Toronto, and the fact that Noah had finally gotten around to making ice by reinventing the freezer. As Doc said with a sly grin, that was important for both food preservation and keeping beer cold.

Noah grinned as he handed around the bottles and said, “Alfred’s already promised me another shipment of beer, but we’ll need to think of things we can trade in return. Luxury items as well as practical ones, like extra nutrients or algae stock. They also have a crop of vegetables started in their greenhouses – apparently more varieties than we have in ours. We’ll be trading those, too, once they’re ready to harvest.”

He raised his bottle in a toast. “I’m sorry we’re where we are, but I think we’re going to survive.”

They all took a sip and Girl and Billy grimaced at the taste. Noah laughed at their expressions.

“Well,” Billy said a little sullenly, “you never intended to Plug In anyway. Weren’t you already planning on how to survive outside the Eye?” He paused, frowning. “Have you heard from the other Mundanes who refused to Plug In?”

“Not yet,” Noah said, “but -”

Holland violently pushed himself away from the table, his chair toppling behind him. He swayed on his feet and stared around wildly, his brown eyes wide, taking great, gasping breaths.

The others also stood quickly, hovering around Holland with concerned eyes and confused faces.

“Holland,” Noah asked carefully, “what’s wrong?”

“Everything,” he panted, sweat standing out on his forehead. He pressed the balls of his hands hard against his temples. “Don’t - don’t talk about those other Mundanes,” he groaned, shaking his head, his words sounding almost like they were being forced from his throat, “they’re not there.”

Noah frowned. “What?” He took a step towards him, and Holland exploded into motion, abruptly grabbing Girl and hauling her in front of him like a shield. One hand gripped her throat while his other arm was pressed tight across her chest and shoulders.

Everyone but Noah gasped and took a step back.

“What’s going on, Holland?” Noah asked softly, soothingly, his voice pitched low and deep. “Nobody wants to hurt you here.”

“I’m the one who does the hurting,” Holland snapped, glaring at nothing. His chest heaved with his erratic breathing, his eyes wide and wild as sweat trickled down his temple. There was no recognition on his face as Noah moved more cautiously this time and edged closer.

“Holland,” he said again, “let Girl go. You said you’re the one who does the hurting, but you don’t want to hurt Girl or anyone in this room...do you?”

Holland didn’t seem to hear, and his grip on Girl didn’t ease.

Noah frowned, searching Holland’s face. His frown deepened at the blank look in Holland’s eyes, and Noah realized whatever Holland was really seeing wasn’t in that room.

“Holland,” Noah said, a bit more forcefully. Holland started slightly, and Noah pressed that small sign of vulnerability. “What are you seeing?” he asked, his voice the deep, smooth, soothing tones of a hypnotist.

Holland swallowed, his throat moving convulsively, then he whispered, “Most of them were unarmed.”

Noah’s stomach dropped, and he glanced at the others. He saw they, too, were suddenly aware of where this was going. He returned his attention to Holland, who was squinting now, as if the light in the room pained his eyes.

“Who were unarmed?” Noah asked gently.

Holland shook his head slightly. “People. Just...people. Trying to get by.”

“Why don’t you let Girl go, and tell us all about it.”

They waited, suspended for a long moment before Holland’s grip eased, and Girl, with naked relief on her face, carefully slipped away and joined Doc. Doc quickly checked her neck before they once again turned their full attention on Noah and Holland.

Holland, for his part, didn’t even seem to realize she’d moved; his hands were suspended in the air before slowly dropping to hang limp at his sides. There was a slightly green tinge to the waxy skin of his face.

They stood in silent tableau, then Noah urged, gently, quietly, “Holland?”

“There was a growing segment of the population that was leaving the cities,” Holland said abruptly. He hung his head and pressed one hand tightly against his eye. The words seemed to spill out of him in uneven, rapid bursts. “They didn’t want to be Plugs. They didn’t want to be Mundanes. They were willing to live outside the Eye, without bots, so long as they could remain connected to the physical world and be freed from caring for the Plugs. They wanted to live in small villages and towns, live off real food instead of the nutrients from the greenhouses. They wanted to have children. Grandchildren. They wanted to grow old. Die.

“That couldn’t be allowed to happen.”

Noah’s expression turned grim as Holland talked.

“We were a team. Special forces. Top secret. Trained to follow orders without question. Our bots made sure of it. We weren’t military, but we were the best trained combat personnel the world had ever seen. Our mission was to eliminate resistance.”

“Resistance?” Noah murmured. He glanced at the others who were staring with stunned fascination at the man they’d known as the embodiment of the word Mundane, in all of its meanings.

“Resistance to the Eye. To the Farms. To Plugging In. To participating in humanity’s transformation from solely human to something...beyond human.”

Noah slowly shook his head. “Resistance is futile?” he muttered bitterly.

“Yes. We made sure of that.”

“What happened, Holland?”

“We were tasked to evacuate the mid-west.”

“Evacuate?”

“We were to find the settlements and disperse the residents. By whatever means necessary.”

“What happened to them?” Girl whispered.

Holland turned blank, wide eyes to her. “We were to take them to the Farms and Plug them in. Collateral damage was high, however. Whoever survived was Plugged In. I assume most were relatively happy.”

He dropped his hand and blinked, a fleeting look of confusion crossing his face. He held his body still, balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to move in whatever direction was needed at any given moment. His fingers flexed slightly, and everyone in the room tensed.

The Holland they knew, the slightly vacant, easily led Holland, was gone. There was now coiled danger in every line of his body, and Noah didn’t want to put Holland's control and reflexes to the test. He wasn’t entirely sure, even now, if Holland was seeing what was in front of him, or simply the past, but he had no doubt that Holland could cause a significant amount of damage with just his hands.

The seven of them stood in a silent tableau.

“Why are you telling us this now, Holland?” Noah finally asked.

Holland’s frown deepened, and he blinked in pained confusion. “Because...because I remember it now.”

Noah’s shoulders relaxed. “Ah,” he breathed. “You said it yourself: your bots have special programming, don’t they?”

Holland slowly nodded. His eyes were suddenly riveted to Noah’s and Noah relaxed even more. Holland seemed to actually be seeing him now, and not just his memories.

“They must be recalibrating due to the circumstances,” Noah muttered to himself. “Tell me: how much control do you have over your actions?”

“I - I don’t know.” He flicked his eyes to Girl and back again to Noah. “Not as much as I’d like. Obviously.”

The others also relaxed. They could see the crisis had, for the most part, passed.

“Do you think you can control yourself long enough to sit down and tell us what you’re going to do to us while we drink our beers?”

There was a murmur of soft, nervous chuckles that ran through the group.

Holland slowly nodded. “I think so.”

“Good.” They all carefully edged back to the table and took their seats.

There was silence as they took long, deep drinks of their beer.

Noah thoughtfully considered Holland. “Were you planted on my team to ensure we’d all Plug In when the time came?”

Holland jerked a nod. “Of course. I had a mission.”

“Had?”

“There is no Eye. There are no Farms. The objective is no longer valid. By rights, I should still be deep undercover.” He looked at each person at the table. “I can leave tonight, if that’s what you want.” He inclined his head at Girl. “I obviously can’t be trusted.”

Noah smiled a thin, humourless smile. “We’re an endangered species. We need every relatively functioning person we can find. Besides, even if you were deep undercover, you worked beside us for a lot of years, Holland. I wouldn’t send you away from the city to survive on your own.”

Holland stared unblinkingly at Noah, then gave him a slight smile. “You want to keep me in sight.”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“Yes.”

A silent acknowledgment passed between the two men, and everyone around the table took another drink.

“Were you working for Marissa?” Noah asked abruptly.

“I was working for the Eye.”

Noah nodded. “Then you were working for Marissa,” he murmured drily. He ignored Doc’s questioning look and took another sip of beer.

Which was why Noah wasn’t even surprised when, in the early hours of the morning two days later, Marissa and her crew of Mundanes arrived in New York.


Chapter Seven                     Chapter Nine

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
onceiwasaturtle
Feb. 21st, 2013 02:57 am (UTC)
Beautiful! Nice cliffhanger, too. :D
shirleyann66
Feb. 22nd, 2013 06:20 am (UTC)
Thank you! :D
( 2 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

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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

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

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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