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Plugs - Ch. 2/9

Girl opened her eyes and stared blankly at the ceiling. Recognition finally dawned and she blinked, then rolled out of bed, wrapping her thin blanket around her nude body.

She used the bathroom, the only private room in her small hut, then padded to the kitchen. She punched in her request for breakfast, picked up the resulting glassful of nutrients, and took a gulp as she opened the door. And there he was: evil-eyed and battle-scarred and stinking even worse than usual, but she softened at the sight of him, and almost smiled.

She crouched down, and he leaned into her touch, rubbing against her knees, his purr rumbling against her fingers. She felt it throughout her entire body, and it warmed her.

He’d appeared about a year ago, and they’d quickly come to an understanding. She poured some of her breakfast in the small bowl she kept outside for that purpose. She didn’t really know if she was helping him or hurting him with the bot-saturated nutrients; what little she knew about cats she’d learned on the com in 140, and from Noah, when she warily told him about her new friend. It was the only time she’d regretted not having a com.

She opened the door wide, and the cat strutted inside like he owned the place, and Girl almost smiled again. He was the only guest she allowed into her home. She liked the privacy and isolation, she liked the silence, and the security of knowing she was alone. Even the Eye was mostly blind inside her hut, except for the nutrient tubes, of course. But she liked that, too, being outside of the Eye. Craved it, even. Needed it, like Billy needed the Worlds, or Noah needed his beer, or Doc her cigars.

She watched as the cat reacquainted himself with the small room, then left him to it as she showered and dressed.

The bus would be there soon, and the last thing she wanted was Noah coming to look for her.

~~~~~

“Have you had your breakfast?”

Mel rapidly bobbed his head, his wide, obsequious grin never twitching. It made him look slightly stupid; he should know - he’d practiced it enough when his wife was...he froze. He’d almost said alive, but that was stupid; she was still very much alive, just Plugged In, and -

“Are you listening to me?”

His eyes refocused on his wife’s suspicious face, and he bobbed his head again, even more rapidly, his grin still firmly in place.

“Yes, dear,” he said. Sincerity radiated from every pore of his broad, open face.

“Good. I’ll expect you to stop by my Plug today and make sure everything’s working properly. You know how I hate filth, and even though I trust the Eye, one of those other Mundanes might have let something slip. Make sure my hair is clean and the sheet is firmly in place. Then I want you to...”

Mel let her words roll past him. They were virtually the same ones she’d said to him for the last ten years, after all, ever since she’d Plugged In. Finally, she was finished with her instructions, and he was free to remove the VR cap and get on with his day.

Another year, he thought, and sighed as he carefully folded the VR cap. He finished drinking his breakfast and headed out to wait for the bus.

~~~~~

Moira drank her morning nutrients as she paced through the greenhouse she called home, checking the gauges, pumps and lines. She didn’t have to, of course; the Eye had fully automated all of the greenhouses almost twenty years ago, but she’d grown up here, trailing behind her father as he maintained the machines that maintained them all, Plug and Mundane alike.

He’d hated every minute of it, and had never failed to grumble and curse the greenhouses, even as he showed Moira their inner workings and what little he knew about how and why they operated. He and her mother had happily Plugged In as soon as they could. They had wanted Moira to Plug in as well, but she’d been assigned to Team 140 by then which meant she wasn’t eligible until it was her team’s turn.

They didn’t have long to go now.

She set her glass down by the door, then closed her eyes as she breathed in the dank, moist air, savoring the green scent of the growing algae, enjoying the warmth that enveloped her.

In another year or so, she’d be able to Plug In, too, and leave all this behind.

She opened her eyes.

She loved the greenhouses. She loved the sound of the water, the sharp, bright green of the layers of algae growing thick in the tanks, the sound of machinery whirring through the steps of caring for and harvesting the algae and processing it into the nutrients they all needed. She particularly loved the humid heat. Her parents had told her, in one of their few conversations after they’d Plugged In, that the Worlds were as warm as she wanted. She wanted to believe them, but she cared for the Plugs every day.

The Plugs were naked, covered by thin sheets for the sake of tradition more than anything else, and they felt so cold to the touch. She simply couldn’t bring herself to believe that, even in the hottest of the Worlds, she wouldn’t still, beneath it all, be cold.

She shook off her thoughts and went outside to wait for the bus.

~~~~~

Holland rolled out of bed when the alarm gently chimed. He used the bathroom, showered and dressed, drank his breakfast and went outside to wait for the others.

He didn’t think at all.

~~~~~

Noah was once more at the com when the others trooped off the elevator on the top floor.

“Early again?” Moira teased. “You need to get more sleep, Noah.”

Noah smirked and chuckled. “The older you get, the less sleep you need.” He glanced at her, his dark eyes amused. “Although you have a long way to go to catch up with me.”

Moira grinned back, and thought he was a handsome man, even if he was the oldest Mundane she’d ever known.

He glanced at the others, wished them good morning, then turned his attention to the com and began to call out the locations of the Plugs who needed assistance, his smooth, deep voice soothing and commanding at once. The team dispersed and began their work, just like any other day.

Most of them were still working on their first Plugs when the lights went out.

There were sharp, startled gasps as they were plunged into inky blackness, and Billy heard Noah curse, then call, “Stay put! The lights will be back on right away!”

An endless minute passed in suspended silence, then two, and Noah cursed again, more viciously, his disembodied voice drifting through the darkness.

“Everyone stay put!” he ordered again, then Billy heard careful shuffling, and realized a small amount of light had to be seeping in from somewhere since he could now dimly make out the dark shapes of the tubes and equipment, the other Mundanes who were close to him, and Noah’s tall, lean frame as he inched his way towards the wall. Billy heard Noah’s fingernails skittering against the stiff, unyielding fabric that had been placed over the Farm’s windows long before Billy was born.

“Ah,” Noah breathed, and there was a tearing sound as the material gave way slightly, and a beam of light spilled into the room. It wasn’t much, but Billy still felt a rush of relief at the sight. He gratefully made his way towards Noah, where he was struggling to widen the opening he’d made in the window coverings.

They both pulled and ripped the material away from the windows as the others cautiously made their way over and crowded around the revealed window.

Noah scowled as he stared out across the landscape of skyscrapers.

“What’s wrong?” Doc asked.

“The arrays,” Noah muttered. Their eyes drifted to the stocky equipment on the top of each Farm, the Plugs’ lifeline to the Eye and the Worlds.

Billy stared until his eyes watered, and finally said, “What about them?”

“Their lights are out.”

There was a hiss of indrawn breaths as they realized Noah was right: for all the Farms they could see, the red lights that normally lit each corner of the array were dark.

“How long before the Eye fixes it?” Girl asked.

“I’m a little surprised it’s not fixed already.”

“I’m surprised it happened at all,” Holland said, then shrunk back as everyone turned their attention towards him. “I - I mean - with the Plugs – since the Plugs - there’s always power.”

“What do you think happened?” Doc murmured.

Noah shook his head and sighed. “I don’t know. A blown fuse?”

The others gave him exasperated looks, and he shrugged helplessly.

“Maybe there was some sort of connector blown in one of the Farms or in one of the arrays. I have no way of knowing up here.”

They stood quietly, and Billy realized it was truly silent. There was no sound from the machines that monitored the Plugs, kept them fed, kept them clean, kept them alive.

“Well,” Doc said briskly, making them jump, “we can’t stand here all day. Is there any place we can check to see if there’s something we can fix?”

Noah indicated the enormity of the Farms with one expressive sweep of his arm. “Where would you like to begin?” He shook his head. “No, we just have to wait for Marissa. I’m sure her group has already pinpointed the problem and are working to fix it. We won’t know if there’s anything we need to do until we hear from them.”

“Well, can you call her?” Moira asked hopefully.

Noah’s expression softened. “Yes, Moira, I’ll call her as soon as I can.”

Doc smiled a slightly evil smile. “Well, you’d better get going, then. Who knows? By the time you get down all those stairs, the power may even be back.”

Noah mock-glared at her, then nodded at the team. “Come on, we may as well all head downstairs. We’re not going to get any more work done today, anyway.”

“Why not?” Moira asked. “The power will probably be back on before you get all the way down.”

“True. But if you think I’m the only one walking down two hundred flights of stairs in one shot, you’ve got another thing coming!” He grinned beneficently at them as they groaned or stared or rolled their eyes in response. “Besides, we’re a team, and we’re all in this together. Come on, let’s go.”

They grumbled, but followed him towards the stairwell until Doc stopped short.

They all turned and looked questioningly at her in the dim light.

She frowned, her forehead creased in thought. “There aren’t any windows in the stairwells.”

Noah’s mouth opened and closed.

“Well, shit.”

They looked around the room at the silent tubes and the bodies that lived inside them.

“Well,” Doc said slowly, “I have matches.”

“That’s something, at least,” Mel muttered, his self-effacing smile firmly in place as he surveyed the room. “We can burn the sheets; we can always replace them tomorrow. Not that there’s anything else.”

Girl frowned and glanced at the window coverings.

“Toxic,” Noah explained.

“We can take the nutrient bags off some of the IV stands,” Moira said. “Use them as bases for torches.”

Noah nodded, a slight smile on his face. “I knew we were a good team,” he murmured. “Let’s get working.”

It wasn’t quite as easy as they’d hoped. The IV stands were awkward to carry, even at their shortest length, and the sheets took some time to rip apart and wrap properly around the stands. Setting them on fire was another issue, and Doc silently thanked her lucky stars that she’d filled up her box of matches that morning. It took longer than they expected to finish their preparations, and when they were finally ready to brave the pitch black stairwell, the power was still off.

~~~~~

Mel huffed as he carefully followed the others down the stairs. The makeshift torches they carried burned fitfully and the smoke stung his eyes.

There was little sound, only their careful footsteps on the stairs, the soft crackling of flame and their breathing that became increasingly more laboured as they worked their way past a hundred floors of oblivious Plugs.

Even with the bots, going down the stairs was taking a toll, and Mel’s muscles were beginning to scream in earnest when the first torch went out. Noah cursed, long, low and creatively.

“We’ll stop here and make more torches before any more go out,” Noah said.

No one objected. This floor, like the one they’d left, was in absolute darkness, and for the first time Mel wondered why the windows had been covered over. The Plugs didn’t care, one way or the other, but for the Mundanes who cared for them, it would have helped to see outside sometimes, especially when they were surrounded by motionless bodies, softly beeping machines, and the detritus of human bodily functions that still occurred no matter where the mind might be. Or sometimes because of where the mind might be, Mel conceded. There were many Worlds and he’d started looking after Plugs before they - whoever ‘they’ really were - had determined how best to moderate the Plugs so their physical bodies didn’t react to whatever stimuli their minds were receiving.

Mel shook off his thoughts as Billy and Girl pulled the fabric away from the windows while the rest of them quickly began to build new torches. It wasn’t long before they were ready to head back to the stairwell.

Mel groaned as they began to work their way down the stairs again.

“Next time,” he puffed, “they should build slides.”

Noah chuckled. “I’ll let Marissa know.”

~~~~~

They emerged, finally, blinking in the late morning sun. Billy’s legs and thighs were burning and shaking as they stumbled towards the bus, some of his team members supporting each other. He wondered what he’d feel like if he didn’t have the bots, and shuddered at the thought.

They clambered on the bus, and Billy’s leg muscles screamed in protest as he took the small step up to get inside. Mel collapsed into his seat, muttering curses even as he heaved a gusty sigh of relief.

Noah eased himself into the driver’s seat with a pained grimace.

“Home, James,” he groaned, and for once Billy didn’t roll his eyes at the reference to ancient times.

The bus remained dark and still.

Noah frowned. “Bus. Start.”

Silence rolled through the vehicle, crushing them beneath its weight. Doc sat with her eyes focused on the thin cigar she was rolling restlessly between her fingers.

Then Girl half-groaned, half-sobbed, and the tension eased.

“What’s going on?” Holland whispered, and the words boomed in the quiet, and Billy was suddenly, painfully aware there was no underlying hum of power thrumming through the air.

“I don’t know,” Noah said softly, but he looked sick, his face drawn, his hands tight on the steering wheel. Billy found himself fascinated by that steering wheel and wondered why it was even still there; that thing was just for show. The bus, all vehicles, if any were needed, drove themselves. The wheel was only still there to just give them - the Mundanes - the illusion they could have any control at all, over anything, really.

Billy heard through the heavy silence the raspy breathing of his teammates, the soft rustling of Doc’s cigar between her fingers, the slow scraping of Holland’s nails against his slacks, and his own voice, high and hollow as he said, “This is more than just a blown connector in one of the Farms. Isn’t it?”

Noah’s hands tightened even more on the steering wheel until Billy thought he was going to rip it right out of the dashboard.

“Yeah,” Noah finally breathed. “Yeah, I think it is.”

Chapter One                         Chapter Three

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
onceiwasaturtle
Feb. 20th, 2013 07:26 pm (UTC)
“True. But if you think I’m the only one walking down two hundred flights of stairs in one shot, you’ve got another thing coming!” Thing = think? (Because I would want it pointed out to me.) :)

Very good chapter! Nice building of suspense. :)
shirleyann66
Feb. 22nd, 2013 06:02 am (UTC)
Thank you - glad you like it!! :D

Re: thing vs think...I'd only ever heard the saying as "if you think x, you've got another thinG coming" - just like in the Judas Priest song ("You've Got Another Thing Comin'" - awesome song, by the way, especially when you're 18/19/20 - LOL).

I had never heard the saying as "you have another thinK coming" until a year or so ago, here on LJ. Maybe it's a regional thing? :D

To me, "thinK" doesn't seem right as it's very passive: the person with the misconception is the one who has to do the action to change the misconception, i.e., they have to "re-think" the issue. With "thinG" it doesn't matter what the person with the misconception thinks, subsequent actions/words/etc. will prove them wrong; it therefore seems much more active and defiant to me (and makes more sense). But that's just my personal take on it.

This was a whole lot less confusing (and shorter) in my head...LOL.

Thank you for pointing it out! I didn't even remember when I wrote it that there are two versions of that saying! :D
( 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.

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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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Even heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed: but won't you concede
Even heroes have the right to dream

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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.
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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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