TRIP THROUGH YOUR WIRES
Chapter 19: Dreamline
Jody lay on his bunk with his fingers laced behind his head. His jaw was set tight and his mouth was a grim slash on his angular face.
On the left side of the room, there was a soft plop as the ice cream cone he'd flung against the wall minutes earlier fell to the floor.
I don't want to hurt her.
Oh, this was a great revelation. Just loverly. Jody Loy, great Mechanical Hound of Eden like his daddy and his daddy before, given the honour of fetching the famed Celeste McTreggor and delivering her to Eden.
"And when you bring her back," Jody's shoulder twitched at the memory of Asmodeus' paw lying heavily on it, "she'll fight by your side. I'll give her to you as your wife and the mother of your children ... "
"Hey Loy!" One of Jody's barrack-mates poked his head up over his bunk. "Dessert time down at the mess hall! Vanilla ice cream! Did you get some?"
The startled boy barked an insult of his own before climbing back down and leaving the barracks. Jody's mind returned to its slow boil. Celeste didn't remember him. She didn't remember Eden. How the hell did you forget about something like a giant underground city, anyway? Jody would've loved the answer to that.
While in the womb of Eden, getting Celeste back and having her seemed like the most important thing in the world. Then Jody was expelled into the light and given a simple task. A simple task that slammed into three major barriers. First, his eyes had a hard time adjusting to sunlight. He'd never been in it before -- he'd never had any reason to venture up, and neither had his father or his father before him or his father before him. Thus it wouldn't surprise him if the ol' genes had decided to go a little lax in the pigment department after so many generations. The headaches had been fantastic as he recalled. Next was the fact that the world wasn't set up so that men could easily snatch women off the street like meat at a grocery store freezer. As Jody worked with Celeste, he grew to admire her to the point that he knew he could never just club her over the head and drag her off by her hair.
And that metaphor held hands with his third problem, which had been refreshed in his brain by the sight of that damnable ice cream; he didn't want to hurt her. Maybe Eden was different, but here, if there was no trust or sense of friendship, a relationship was worthless. He didn't want Celeste handed over to him like a prize. He wanted to be her friend before he was anything else. Just like the Olden Days, ironically. Asmodeus had the wrong idea --
Oh no. Oh nononono. He couldn't think that way about Eden or Asmodeus. Reploids were filth.
Jody wondered if such loyalty would save him from getting his head lopped off by Asmodeus' katana when he returned empty handed.
If he returned.
He rolled over on his side and exhaled loudly through his nose. Things were once so much simpler. But what was the point of pining for the past? You may as well ask the sun to extinguish itself. Still, the wretched thing about the human brain is that it loves to ramble over memories given the right key -- like a vanilla ice cream cone -- and it never knows when to shut up, even when told. There's nothing to do but let it burn itself out. Jody closed his eyes, an unwilling spectator.
Celeste woke up and blackness pressed down on her eyes. She was racked with a soreness and exhaustion that seemed too large for her small body. Was she still in the hospital? Was she still sick? No, hospitals still had movement at night, the soft padding of nurses, the lights in the hallways, the quiet announcements over the PA. She noticed such things whenever the fever stopped scrambling things up and let her come back to the real world, always at night. And in the hospital, her dad had always been there, sometimes stroking her hair and talking to her soothingly, sometimes wiping her face with a damp cloth, always holding her whenever she was sick. And when the fever ducked her under again, her dad squeezed her hand and she was aware of it like a rope in rough water.
But her dad wasn't there now. There was just the darkness, a strange smell in the air, and the rough sheets under her hands.
Nothing. Hot tears spilled out of the corners of her eyes. A warm ball of ache swelled in Celeste's stomach and filled her throat.
"Be quiet!" someone hissed at Celeste out of the thick darkness like a spectre, and she yelped, startled into silence. When the voice didn't scold her further, she felt even more abandoned and started to sob.
"By Asmodeus, keep your gob shut!" the voice returned, louder this time.
"Aw, Jahn, she's just a little one," another voice creaked, kindlier but still frightening for its disembodied nature. "Torrent said she'd probably wake up confused."
"I don't care. It's too late for this garbage, and it's never too soon for a child to learn that in Eden, you shut your mouth when you're told."
Despair and fright bubbled up Celeste's throat. "I want my dad!" She howled, and sleepy murmurs floated to her from seemingly everywhere in the room.
"What's the noise--"
"Get Arlen in here. He'll give her something to cry about--"
"Why does Torrent always do this?--"
A line of light appeared a little to Celeste's right, and it widened. A door. It swept open and the light that spilled in revealed the phantoms; women of various ages in their beds, placed in two long rows against the walls of a narrow room. They all squinted against the onslaught and groaned. Only Celeste seemed to notice the small boy who walked into the room, holding a bowl in his hands. He closed the door behind him, but left it open just enough for Celeste to be able to see him as he walked up next to her bed. His wispy hair was the colour of a cloudy day, and he had a little ponytail. Celeste was reminded of her dad and the tears pooled in her eyes again.
"Hello," the boy said.
Celeste curled up miserably, but didn't look away. "Hi."
"Don't be scared." The boy took one of Celeste's hands in one of his own. It was cold. "You'll be okay. My name's Jody. And you're Celeste."
"How old are you?"
"I'm five!" He said brightly. "I brought you some ice cream. Do you like vanilla?"
"It's ... " Celeste swallowed her tears and some of the ache went away. "It's okay."
Jody helped her sit up and handed her the blue bowl. She spooned up the ice cream rapidly -- she was hungry. She stayed quiet until she finished and asked Jody, "Where's my dad?"
"What's your dad's name?" Jody asked, taking the empty bowl from her.
"Big people sometimes call him Jacob, but his name's Jake."
"I don't know where he is. We'll find him."
"Am I still in the hospital?"
"Hospital? No, this is where they put people who don't have a room yet. I have to go bring this bowl back to the kitchen now."
"Can I come with you?" Celeste asked urgently. The thought of Jody shutting the door and the women swooping down on her again was more than she could bear.
"Sure. Can you walk all right?"
Celeste slid from the edge of the bed. She was dressed in her red sweater (she never liked it much; it itched) and pair of blue jeans, but her feet were bare and the cold from the concrete floor zipped up to her ankles like shockwaves. Then her knees vanished and Jody was standing over her.
"You fell. Are you sure you're okay?"
Celeste blinked at the ceiling, dimly lit by diffused light from the open door. She felt like the world had jumped three seconds ahead and left her behind. "That was weird."
"My dad told me you were pretty sick. I guess you're still tired from that." Jody grasped her under her arms and lifted her quite easily. Celeste wobbled, but she didn't fall again.
"Follow me," Jody said. "I'll walk slow."
Celeste staggered clumsily. It was like learning how to walk again, and Jody would help her up whenever an irregularity in the ground caused her legs to buckle --
Celeste's legs buckled, and she yelped, spilling onto the training room floor with a slap. Her damp palms screeched on the polished wooden surface, skinning them. Something sharp slashed the back of her shoulder and a black fog misted the backs of her eyes when she felt the object graze the bone underneath. If there was one feeling in the world that set her teeth on edge ...
"...Miss?" The word focused slowly in Celeste's head an eternity later. She felt like someone was pulling yards of cotton out of her ears. Her shoulder was wracked with a sticky numbness.
"Are you all right?"
Celeste turned her head to the side -- she knew through experience that she shouldn't move her injured shoulder -- and saw Jody kneeling beside her.
"You'll be okay."
Celeste's heart gave a jump for a reason she couldn't put her finger on, but something told her it was the same reason her legs had given out on her in the first place. She looked at the silver-haired boy. She'd been doing a routine training drill with him, and then suddenly ... something punched her in the back of the head. Not literally, but some magnificent memory touched her brain without warning, like a flashburn. She'd once fallen as a child -- somewhere, somehow -- and best as she could tell, her body responded sympathetically to the vague memory.
What manner of stupidity is this?
"Yeah, I'll be okay. Just give me a second." Celeste slowly sat up with Jody's help, and some spiritual recess of her being, guarded from the effects of her physical shock, was surprised when she didn't shy away from his touch like she normally would have. "It's just my shoulder."
"Your legs just kind of gave out, and I couldn't stop my attack in time. I was surprised. I guess that'll teach me to be ready for anything." Jody scratched the back of his neck. "You're bleeding."
By now there was a small group around Celeste, and she felt mildly irritated at all of them nodding and ahh'ing over a wound she couldn't see. "It probably needs to be mended," she said. "I'll go see Genesis."
"Follow me," said Jody. "I'll walk slow."
Celeste shook her head to clear the cobwebs. "No thanks, Jody. Just help Ozzie keep an eye on things while I get fixed up. Tigre, will you help me out?"
"Sure!" answered a reploid member of the Night Vipers. He offered a hand to Celeste, but she stood up on her own and started towards the door, her new, uneasy feelings being stomped into ruts in her brain.
The huntress barely heard Tigre call from behind her, "Miss, maybe you should let me get you some gauze? You're puddling pretty badly."
Light barely touched the world under the city. The labyrinth of sewers was sometimes blessed by dusty shafts of light that would spill in through the grates set by the street curbs, but any sun worshippers who found themselves in the sewers were generally SOL. However, when Torrent Leviathan decreed that it was a beautiful day, Overdrive Ostrich knew better than to argue.
The large bird Maverick timidly watched his mentor as he tightened some screws protruding from a large hunk of machinery set at the edge of a water-vein.
"Not much room to work down here," Torrent grumbled. He paused, scratched around his horns, and wound his body around the mysterious project, straining for a particularly hard-to-reach bolt. "C'mere, my love ... "
The machine had a thick, squat base made of mismatched metals and set with a colourful array of mismatched dials and switches. A transparent tube about a metre and a half high was set on the base, and a hose was attached to one side of the tube like the mouth of a hideous leech. The hose snaked across the platform and its other end was poked into the scummy sewer water.
"I don't think Soaking traditionally uses runoff from storms and garbage," Torrent mused, "but wet is wet. Might even get some fun results out of this. I once kept a cat alive on this stuff for a year, and boy I really have to wonder what people pour down here. Her kittens were something to see."
Overdrive wrung his large, feathery hands together. "Y-yes sir ... I just hope Miss Phoenix is pleased with the results of our project. I want her to be happy with me again."
Torrent glanced up. "Are you still here?" he asked. "Well, never mind. Build me a fire. I'm taking a break."
Overdrive did as he asked, his fingers trembling as he fumbled with Torrent's matches and the pile of damp wood he used as his hearth. The matches wouldn't catch in the sad, heavy air of the sewers with its ceaseless slap of water against brick that echoed like moaning voices. Home seemed farther away every night.
"Give me those you omadhaun." Torrent snatched the book of matches away and scraped one across the break of his jittery pupil. It flared to life. "There, that got 'er going." Torrent threw it onto his pile of wood, and a model of hell was instantly, miraculously ablaze. He sat cross-legged next to it, and motioned for Overdrive to do the same. They sat in silence for a few minutes.
"All I need is a pipe," Torrent suddenly cackled, "and a nice Irish Setter. Eh, boy?"
Overdrive smiled feebly. "Yeah."
"Well, you're too ugly to be any grandchild of mine," Torrent grunted, "but let's roleplay. I'm going to pass some wisdom of the world onto you. We're going to have our baby delivered to us soon, and we can thank Mindspeak for our express delivery. Do you know anything about Mindspeak, Big Bird?"
"I can't put any real definition on it, so too bad for you. I guess you could say that, in its simplest form, Mindspeak allows two people to communicate telepathically. Once a link is established, those two people will might become the most hated of rivals, or else they might share a love deeper than words could ever explain."
"Oh," Overdrive said. He tried not to flinch when a spider as big as a man's hand crawled parallel to his leg.
"I used to think it was very uncommon," Torrent continued, pinching his chin between the knuckle of his index finger and his thumb. "As time goes on, I'm beginning to see I'm wrong. In fact, I think we might be witnessing the next stage of human evolution."
The spider next to Overdrive lifted a front leg, brought it down, and lifted it again.
"Some of us mechadrakes have Mindspeak. Don't know how, don't know why, but we do. I've been playing with it for time out of mind, and it's gotten to the point that I can tap into just about any mind that I wish, even if the person on the other end doesn't share the ability."
The spider charged for Overdrive, and Overdrive squawked and squashed it with a particularly wet sound. Torrent went on as if nothing had happened.
"It's particularly easy if said victim has a very troubled mind. Troubled minds tend to have the front door locked tight, but the walls are decayed and full of plenty of cracks to spill in through and plant suggestions. My latest quarry has been none other than that air headed member of the late Repliforce, Iris."
Overdrive's hand was covered in spider-goo. He felt queasy.
"Now there's a disturbed child. She'll do what I want, neat as you please. She wants children." Torrent snorted. "What do they feed Reploids these days? Chocolate Frosted Delusion Flakes? Mindspeak can drive people to do stupid things, let me tell you. Iris isn't the only idiot in history. I have some good stories about a fellow and a gal I used to know some years ago ... "
Jake woke up slowly, pleasantly. First his fingers came to life and they twitched a little as he opened his eyes and yawned hugely, stretching out. He was on a narrow cot with a thin mattress, but he'd slept on the ground enough times in his life so that even a frugal futon such as this felt nice. Well, there was the bed he'd shared with Silvia, but he shoved the memory out of his head. He didn't want unpleasant thoughts spoiling his fine form. His joints were free of the dull, rubbing ache that had been tormenting him in days past. He felt good, very good.
"You're awake, then?" A large blue mechadrake with a small topknot of black hair glided up to Jake's bedside. He was wearing a white lab coat. If anyone ever told Jake they'd seen a mechadrake wearing a lab coat, the mental image would've set him laughing. But there was nothing undignified about Eamon, as his nametag branded him.
"Well, I'm talking to you, aren't I?"
"So you are, you clever little man." Eamon picked up a fresh jumpsuit folded at the foot of the bed and handed it to Jake. "You've been asleep for about 18 hours," he explained. "You staggered in here and kind of snarled at Dr Ison and I when we asked you if we could help you. Then you just curled up on that cot, pulled the covers over your head and dropped dead asleep. Dr Ison recognised you from when he treated you with antivenin. He figured he'd give you the final dose while you were asleep, but you weren't as dead to the world as we originally thought."
"Really?" Jake fiddled with the jumpsuit but didn't make a move to get into it.
"When Dr Ison got near you, you woke up and jumped him."
"Oh," Jake said, and grinned. "Sorry about that. Lived a great deal of my life outdoors, you see. Had to wake up and fight for my life more than once."
"No hard feelings. It took some doing, but we subdued and sedated you. You fought like a tiger in a net."
"No wonder I feel so rested." Jake paused. "You drugged me. That brings back all sorts of unpleasant memories. I don't know whether to thank you or get as mad as hell."
"Before you decide," said Eamon, "get dressed in that new jumpsuit. Your old one was pretty woebegone."
Jake slid out of bed and did as he was told while he looked around. Dr Ison and Eamon performed their duties in a moderately sized square room. There were only a few other empty cots aside from his own, and what medical equipment was available seemed a little dated. Eamon must've noticed Jake's critical eye because he said, "Eden has a hospital of its own about halfway up the Tree. Much bigger and modern. This is just in case someone needs to be stabilized before going up. You're quite near the bottom, you see, and our elevators can be slow."
"I was a little curious," Jake admitted while zipping up the suit. "I just finished spending days in a hospital above ground."
The blue mechadrake didn't pry, but remained bent over some work at his desk, pecking rapidly at a keyboard with his long pointer-claws. Jake was surprised to find himself in such a jovial mood. He couldn't remember ever having a friendly discussion with a mechadrake. He idly searched himself for the reason of his good humour and discovered it quickly; Celeste was all right.
He could feel her presence in the back of his head like a pleasant thought. She was back on line, for lack of a better term, and she seemed stable and happy enough. As best as Jake could tell, Celeste didn't know anything about her Mindspeak, poor girl. Jake could sense her and less desirable company like Torrent, but if Celeste knew anything about them, it wasn't obvious. She evidently had some sense of the matter ... even as a newborn, if Jake became agitated, she'd get upset. But there was no full-blown communication, not yet. Some might've considered Mindspeak to be a beneficial thing, but not Jake. Hearing voices just couldn't be good for you. And then you had sports like Torrent who insisted on stinking up the bus for everyone. During sleepless nights, Jake would stare wide-eyed and confide silently to the ceiling that he was afraid his sanity was eroding--
"Lousy jeans," Dr Ison grumbled while he stepped into the room, brushing off his dusty pants.
Jake nodded solemnly. "Genes are the curse of our wretched race."
"Well, I wouldn't say they're all that bad," Dr Ison said, peering up at Jake. "They're comfortable. Oh, by the way, you have company."
Something pointy poked Jake in his right shoulder. "Turn around, bright eyes."
Jake turned, and so did his stomach. "Blackavar!" he grinned sourly at the black mechadrake. "Did you find a nice hole to duck in when Asmodeus called for Ange?"
"Keep your mouth shut, Outsider."
"Mechadrakes. Loyal and true until someone ties a pork chop on the neck of those who love them and declares a famine."
Ange walked into the room and sighed. "Blackavar, stop growling at the man. Please leave us alone, I need to talk to Jake for a minute."
Blackavar bared his teeth. "Anything you want to say can be said in front of me, my girl. Or are there secrets in Eden now?"
Dr Ison cleared his throat and ran his fingers through his sand-coloured hair. "Actually Blackavar, your presence is upsetting Jake, and he still needs his rest. Please leave my patient alone for a few minutes."
Blackavar tossed a snarl at Ison, but he turned sharply and stalked out of the room.
Jake sat on the edge of his bed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get your pet in a snit."
"I just wanted to see how you're feeling."
Jake looked at her and smiled. "You know how I'm feeling."
Ange pressed a finger over her lips and rolled her eyes back at Eamon and Dr Ison, but they seemed busy with their own matters and didn't hear Jake. Jake nodded, knowing what was safe.
"I'm feeling much better, thanks." He looked into her eyes, which were dark brown. "Thanks, really, for everything. You saved my life."
"Didn't I say I had a feeling Fate was going to make friends of us?"
"Possibly. These past few days have been kind of a blur."
"It's a bit late in the day for you to get started in on anything," Ange said. She also sat down on the cot and her hand brushed against Jake's in a way that seemed accidental, but he knew better.
"Plenty of time to pass 'till tomorrow, I guess," Jake said. "Since you're my only friend here, maybe you could tell me a bit about the place. Were you born here?"
"Yes." Ange hooked a stray strand of black hair behind her ear. "My grandfather was in the wrong place when some robots malfunctioned and hurt him badly. After he recovered, he found his way here. He was never too affectionate towards robots, and the sentiment kind of runs in the blood."
"I'm not overly keen on them, either. Met a few during my travels. Bad experiences."
"So then, you fit in perfectly here. Why am I your 'only friend?'"
Jake shrugged. "Celeste -- my daughter -- caught sick and Torrent was my last option to save her. Since mechadrakes fancy being paid in warm bodies, here I am. I guess I'm supposed to be happy here, but I'm not social to begin with and being double-crossed hasn't helped much."
"I'm sorry," Ange said sincerely. "You've just had some bad luck. Asmodeus has been good to me and my family. I like living here."
"Is that why you turned as white as paper when he called you?"
Ange opened her mouth and shut it again.
Jake laughed. "It's all right. Nothing wrong with being scared. Although I will say that I prefer your skin colour as it is now. It's lovely, really."
"Not a very subtle one, are you?"
"I didn't mean to be rude," Jake said apologetically, rubbing the back of his neck. "I just ... know pretty when I see it."
Ange started and got to her feet quickly. Then she paused, looked at Jake, and thawed a little with a laugh that sounded like a songbird in a meadow. "If only you could see the look on your face right now, Jake ... you look like a little boy. Now I know what Torrent meant when he told you that you have an odd manner. I guess you picked it up while wandering, but you'd be smart to settle down a little bit." Ange left the room and Jake could hear her arguing in a low voice with Blackavar outside the door. Jake leaned the side of his face into his hand and stared at Ange's wake. Eamon left his work and came to stand beside him.
"You know, it's odd."
Jake looked at him. "What?"
"Torrent doesn't like to talk to the humans here unless he has a very specific reason to. How would Ange know what he said to you?"
"Maybe ... " Jake's heart raced. "Maybe I was delirious while she was taking care of me and I said something."
"Maybe," Eamon said slowly before shaking his head. "At any rate, Torrent is definitely right about you. Stay here tonight, we'll find a place for you in the morning. It's probably a good idea to exercise a bit, since you've been still for so long."
Jake stood up, stretched, and mounted a treadmill in one corner of the room that was probably there for physiotherapy cases like himself. He started with a walk, and Ange bid him good night. Jake smiled inwardly and jumped into a trot.
Okay, so Mindspeak wasn't all bad news.
"Huh!" Celeste jolted awake and stared down at a white-tiled floor from a considerable height. Her shoulder felt like a hive of bees were living just under the skin.
"Twenty stitches!" she could hear Genesis sing above her. "Not bad. It should hold up pretty well. I used good old-fashioned catgut, as usual. Every other idiot doctor in this city uses a mending laser, and then wonder why their patients' guts spill on the floor whenever they sneeze. You feeling all right?"
"It's not the worst I've ever been gouged," Celeste answered truthfully while sitting up on the table. "Lucky it's my bad side." She remembered the time a Maverick had injured her left arm, which never regained its full strength. Her new wound now topped her wrecked muscle tissue.
"Don't overdo it, but don't neglect it, either. Your arm or your shoulder. I noticed you've kind of adopted a one-handed fighting technique. It's cool, but your arm isn't getting the exercise it needs, and now you're risking your shoulder on top of it." Genesis pulled open the curtain before Celeste had a chance to get her shirt back on, but luckily no one was in her immediate line of sight. Except for ...
"Iris," Genesis asked the pretty reploid, "will you pull up Celeste's file for me?"
"Yes," Iris answered, but she was staring at Celeste, who struggled to put her shirt back on as quickly as possible, her dressed shoulder screaming in fiery protest. She shuddered. Iris' stare wasn't openly hostile, but it was unsettling, accusing, like she was drowning and Celeste was sitting by the bank doing nothing to help her ...
"Celeste?" Tess called unseen to her friend from across the ward. "You're here again? God, when are they going to just write your name on one of the beds and be done with it?"
Celeste didn't answer. Her eyes were locked with Iris'. There was a message, something vital about the stare, but if she opened her mouth, Iris would bound away like a startled deer ...
Paul started to cry and the ice bridge shattered as Iris turned her head away. Celeste quietly slid down from the table as Tess tried to settle her baby down. She felt funny, a feeling that she hadn't been able to shake since Jody talked to her earlier. She'd missed something urgent from both him and Iris, but the feeling was beginning to fade a little bit as she walked over to Tess to try and help her calm Paul down.
But Paul, who was rarely anything but good-natured, would not stop crying.