Cold was the only thing she could feel, weighting her limbs, fogging her senses, distorting her thoughts. Cold pressure against her mouth. A radiating cold of the stone table beneath her. Even the light was cold, streaming through the slits of the turret, draining the stone of hue.
Laughter. A voice, deep and rough. Another, harsh and high, the caw of a crow.
“Installing neural net and physical nodes. Switching to primary stimuli.”
It crackled from her toes to the crown of her head in regimented waves, meshed agony as if her body were on fire. Her eyes popped wide and she screamed.
“And we gotta live one!”
“Don’t touch her. The net is still testing the new connections and you’ll get the flow on.”
“Got some lungs on her.”
“Turn her off. She’s giving me a headache.”
Light, sound, pain, senses gone. Floating, deprived of everything except herself. In darkness, memory returns, a slow tide that can’t be escaped.
“Althea, this is for the best — ”
“My sweet girl, it’s the only way — ”
“They will have the cure, one day — ”
“I can’t bear you dying — ”
Let me out. Let me out. LET ME OUT!
Her voice had been silenced. Like Aurora, her mother had said. Sleeping Beauty in a tower, she remained, unchanged, not dead, not alive and the world going on and on.
“She’s back online. Mesh has been integrated. Frame bonding is complete. Cycle alpha testing.”
“Cycle Omega testing.”
A barrage of odours engulfed her, triggering a gag reflex. They rose from beside her, sour perspiration, the sweetish cast of decomposition, a sharp, bright scent, like burning batteries.
Eyes narrowed against the brilliant overhead lights, Althea blinked, the face looming over her slow to resolve. Fuzzy black printing wandered in and out of the folds of a faded blue mask. Shrin — ildren’s Hosp — icago.
She was home.
“I’m Tock.” Pitted, jaundiced skin gleamed under the brush of greasy hair. Loose, wide lips drew back from black teeth. “I’ll be your keeper from here.”
Her throat hurt, dry as powdered glass. She swallowed. “Wha — a?”
His fist moved faster than her eye could follow, stopping when the knuckle touched her cheek.
“I talk. You don’t talk. You listen. You obey. Understand?”
His voice was low, without inflection or tone. Its lack of discrete threat or emotion frightened her more than the almost-blow. Inside, her courage curled up, trying to hide.
“I get it,” he said, leaning closer, the gusts of his breath hitting her face. She struggled to control the reflexive action. “You don’ remember too good and what you do ain’t like this.”
He waved a casual hand around behind him, drawing her eyes to the filthy walls, painted with ugly words and pictures, the mounds of dirt in the corners, his two companions hovering like vultures.
“All you need to know is things changed,” he continued. His friends laughed. “Been a long time since you were put in here, princess. Long, long, long time. You get?”
She couldn’t move. He nodded, as if she’d agreed.
“They tol’ you was all be good, right? You wake up, fixed, happily ever after? Well, it’s nearly like that. We brought you back. Gave you a body. You owe us. Right?”
His hand wrapped around her wrist, long fingers tightening like wires around her bones. He pulled her upright and off the table and she gasped at the knifing pain that ran like twin bolts of lightning down her body as her feet hit the ground.
“Resurrection’s a damn trick. Costs us a lot in resources. Only fair you pay that back.”
He stabbed a finger toward her. “You owe us. So you work it off.”
“But I — ”
She had meant to tell him she had no skills, no experience at working. Before the words got out, he’d yanked her toward him, fingers biting into her flesh.
“Shut up.” He put his hand against her chest and shoved her backward. Hands caught her before she could fall, holding her up as he drew out a long, thin knife and took two steps toward her.
“Take too long to s’plain. Lemme show you how this works.”
He took a step closer and the blade caught the blue light, flashing into her eyes. White heat hit her abdomen and she looked down, the blade withdrawing, dripping a dark substance. Another point of blinding pain, first hot then frigid as the steel slipped out. Another trail of dark red liquid pouring out, staining the floor beneath her feet.
“Wai — ”
“Shut — ” He stabbed her twice more, in the thigh, in the cheek. “ — up”
Her knees gave way, and they let her fall, her head hitting the stone floor. He wiped the blade and slid it back into the side of his boot, then dropped into a crouch beside her.
“This body feels like we feel, but it’s not real. You can’t die like us. Worst case, you be trapped ’til we find you again. Lots of people pay us to have a good time with you. You get?”
He straightened, nodded to his friends and she watched them walk away, soft-soled shoes barely raising an echo.
In her flesh, the conflagration rose, each centre spreading outward and meeting up with the others until the mercy of shutdown found her.
Banked to either side of the street, the weeks’ snow lay grey and melted, refrozen into treacherous ice mounds. Althea shivered, rubbing her skin with care, trying to avoid the bruising. She thought she was near Cherry Blossom Road, just another two blocks and the abandoned buildings would give her some shelter overnight, crumbling masonry to block the ice-laden winds that blew winter-long across the great steel expanse of the lake.
They whistled and moaned through the skeletal and broken structures of the ruined city, the noise constant and dangerous, hiding the sounds she needed to hear, of approach, of attack.
She knew now Tock — her saviour — resurrector — torturer — had lied, yet he hadn’t. She could — and had — died. Several times so far. The pain was doing something to her, but she wasn’t sure what that was, not yet. She couldn’t pass on, at least not as her memories insisted people did, unable to be repaired or restored or resurrected. When the heart and respiratory system ceased, she was still here, aware, locked into darkness. A sleep of some kind. A permanent nightmare.
Each time, her body had closed up and sealed itself, replenished itself in some way. Twice she’d come to in the turret. Once she’d woken in subterranean tunnel, something trying to eat the synthetic cells of her legs. Those memories were locked away — at least as much as they could be. It had taken her some time to recognize her brain was no more real than her chest or arms or legs, and that, like them, it was modeled on the human original, complete with the same flaws.
And the same weaknesses, through which new memories seeped and poisoned and tainted.
“Is she awake?”
“Ssssh. They’ll hear you.”
“She’s coming around.”
Like waking from a dream, Althea fell into the body, into consciousness, into the not distant memory of pain. She opened her mouth and a hand slapped over it, a voice whispered into her ear.
“Ssssh. Don’t make a sound.”
Under the steady roar of rain on a roof, she heard shouting and whistles. A staccato rattle returned a distant memory, of men in uniforms, climbing over bodies and wire, holding…some weapon? Guns. The memory sharpened. She could hear gunfire.
The sounds peaked then receded and the hand lifted from her mouth.
“They have gone.” A flickering light, golden-yellow, lit up the side of an oval face without features, a small, round speaker where a mouth should have been.
She recoiled, and the speaker turned away. “I know. It’s startling at first.”
“Where am I?” Behind the slender, faceless form, two other figures crouched. “Who are you?”
“You are in a building on North Elston Avenue. I am Poke.” The figure pointed to itself. “This is Ulysses — ”
The larger of the indistinct figures leaned into the circle of light, dark eyes wary beneath a heavy brow. Long wiry hair and thick beard framed a blunt-featured face.
“ — and Marlee.”
The second figure turned toward the light, giving Althea the brief impression of reddish hair and bright blue eyes, striking against blue-black skin. She nodded then returned to scanning the street above.
“You’re like us,” Ulysses said, his voice a basso rasp. He reached out a hand and she flinched.
“He won’t hurt you,” Poke said. “Touch him. You’ll see.”
His hand was large enough to encircle her head, calluses over the finger pads and palm, dark hair curling on the back. Poke was right. She could see. Where something real and living would have had scars to mark wounds, Ulysses’ skin showed smooth places, the human-like details so painstakingly grown for his body rubbed away by the self-healing process.
“What are we?”
“Toys.” Marlee’s voice held an ocean of bitterness.
“Substitutes,” Poke said, sitting back on her haunches.
“Slaves,” Ulysses added, his eyes downcast, beard twitching as his jaw muscle flexed.
They called it wetwiring. Or deadwiring. Consciousness installed into the cyber-biological frame. Artificial intelligence had not made the leaps and bounds hoped for, any more than those hopes for the medical breakthroughs of disease and genetic limitations had, Poke had explained. The first signs of a problem had been at her twelfth birthday party. She had been one day shy of sixteen when they had flipped the switches and sent her into the long dark. Young enough to wish for the waking with a kiss. Cold lips pressed on hers.
Someone had looked at the sleeping minds trapped in useless bodies and the advancements in technology and had chosen an obvious solution. The world was not as it had been.
“Tock will keep looking for you,” Poke said as they descended into the subway tunnels.
“Can we escape?”
“From Chicago? No.”
The tunnels smelled old, sometimes of cold metal, occasionally of something dead. Mostly just old. Poke led them for miles through the underground labyrinth, to substations and interchanges where the winds couldn’t reach and they could light fires, burning what they carried down there with them. The firelight lit up the red eyes of the watching rats.
“How did they make the bodies?” She had been used for four months before Poke and the others had found her. Each time left unable to move. Each time, the holes and tears had fixed themselves. “Why do we heal?”
Marlee’s expression was empty. “It’s a persistence of design in the materials. They remember what they’re supposed to look like and return to the original form.”
Something about that felt familiar to Althea but she couldn’t recapture it.
“It doesn’t matter,” Poke said. “He cannot find us. None of them can now.”
Pulling the tattered blanket around herself more tightly, she climbed over the slippery bank of ice and slid down the other side, glad to find some of the piercing wind was blocked. She couldn’t die of hypothermia. But she could feel the pain of freezing.
The trackers had been cut out, but they’d overlooked the design of the bodies, themselves, tracking devices. Tock had found them, like a black prince in a fairy tale gone bad. Poke and Ulysses were gone.
More and more memories of her old life were returning. It was as if, when her body lay helpless, prey to violence and depravity, her mind used the memories like circling wagons, drawing inwards to protect her core.
“Philip, have you met my little girl? Althea, this is Mr. Ellicott, head of our Munitions Department.”
“How do you do, Mr. Ellicott. What’s a ‘munition’?”
They’d laughed, and explained the stable plastique they were developing and stockpiling. At first to her, then between themselves.
She shook off the loop and slid down the ice-covered driveway to the building’s underground garage. The doors were long gone, the entrance thick with frozen mud and trash, hundreds of years worth. As always, that thought caught her by surprise, a sucker punch. Hundreds of years. She’d come to the idea that the definition of nightmare was a state in which nothing could be ruled out, nothing could be regarded as too unbelievable.
The garage was lightless and silent, save a drip somewhere to her right, where the elevators had been. The darkness no longer frightened her.
“How do we fight back?”
“Fight back?” Marlee’s brows arched high, vestigial gestures unconsciously recalled.
“Yes.” Althea studied the smooth section of her abdomen, as undefined as a sheet of plastic. This time she’d woken in an underground garage.
“We don’t.” Marlee got to her feet and walked away. The pistons and rods in her legs, once so smoothly silent, clicked and whirred, stripped of coatings and lubrication. “We can’t.”
“Wrong.” Althea rolled onto her side and pushed herself onto hands and knees fighting the tremble waiting. “We can and we have nothing better to do.”
There was silence from the darkness. We have nothing, she wanted to shout. We are disembodied in our bodies, shorn of everything that meant anything.
“No.” The single word was a wall between them. “You know we can end it.”
“We don’t know that for sure.”
“Nobody knows anything for sure, not the reals, not us, not even the rocks and the sand.”
“You want me to destroy you.”
“Then help me kill them and we’ll go together.”
Once upon a time, in a far-off world where everything had gone wrong, a princess woke from a long sleep…
Althea pulled herself up the last two rungs of the rusting steel ladder. The building was high and penetrated deep under the ground. The security she recalled had been dismantled or destroyed by time and weather. Behind her, she could hear Marlee’s boots clang softly on the metal.
“How do you know about this?” Marlee asked when they reached the roof.
“I remember it from school,” Althea said as she walked to the building’s access door. “We did a tour here. I was fourteen, I think.”
There’d been fields and woods surrounding the building then. Now there was only dirt, unhealthy, yellowish dirt in which nothing grew.
They’d been working their way out of the city for four days, north then west, then south then west.
Everything she needed had been just where she’d remembered, in her father’s factories, in the warehouses. Some of it buried in rubble. Other things had been used already or were too old to be usable, or needed the lifeblood of current to work, lifeblood that couldn’t be found. It had taken all of her willpower to walk away from the pools surrounding the ancient dynamite, its tears beckoning to her, offering an ending in an instant. The smooth grey plastique had been there too, shrink-wrapped, ready to use. Memory had shown her the way. Where to find the detonators, the wiring, behind it all, the voice of her father explaining the nature of explosives, of warfare, of death.
“Can we do this?”
“Yes. The shafts go all the way to the reactor pools. It’ll be like flying.”
It wouldn’t be at all like flying, she thought. It would be like Icarus falling from the roof of the sky. The explosion would take out the city. Maybe it would change things in the other cities. Maybe not. Poke hadn’t been sure the same problems existed elsewhere. Althea wasn’t sure that mattered anymore. Not dreaming at all was better than living in a nightmare.
“Here.” She stopped at the doorway, peering down into the shaft. “Turn around.”
The detonators were concussion caps, designed to trigger the explosives on hard impact. They were all inserted facing outward in the pack, not that orientation was going to matter in this case. The fall was over five hundred feet. The impact would be considerable from any angle. She checked the straps on Marlee’s pack, tightening them.
“Will we survive?”
“Will it hurt?”
She wasn’t sure but she didn’t think it would. It would be fast and bright and final.
“Take my hand. Close your eyes.”
They stood in the doorway, toes hanging over the edge. Althea gripped Marlee’s hand tightly and stepped forward into the cold, lightless air.
No more dreams to come.