Seventeen: Force of Gravity
In the middle of all the chaos, Harold was trying to give Trip an impromptu tour of the city. He'd only been there for a short time himself, but he seemed to have learned plenty, and he didn't stop talking the entire way. He pointed out buildings she should know, and the streets she might want to avoid, and the areas they'd had to rope off after the enslaved got too interested in a radio or something else. Trip barely heard it, but nodded when nodding seemed appropriate and followed him against the onslaught of traffic. There wasn't as much of it this way, but everyone was moving faster, with less chance to see them before getting out of the way. The smell of smoke kept after them, drifting on their clothes, and Trip kept scrubbing needles out of her eyes.
"Just a bit more," Harold said, three or four times, and eventually Trip stopped believing it.
The buildings grew taller the farther they went, until they were stories upon stories high, with hundreds of windows lit on each side. Trip stopped to count them, up rows of lights that had to represent more and more people, crammed together in such small spaces that she starting thinking of home in comparison, and the view of open sky where the cliffs dropped off.
"How many people actually live here?" she asked, when Harold was half-turned to her.
"You know, never thought much about it," Harold said. "Enough, I guess."
There were solar panels here, too, and some of the metal plates they stepped on seemed to give a little under them, like they were pressurized. Trip could imagine a million things to do with power like that, harvested from a few thousand people walking over the plates, instead of relying on weather and luck for power.
After a long time, following Harold like a force-field that filtered the oncoming crowd around them, she stopped looking at the city itself and tried to concentrate on the people. She had almost gotten used to the idea of anonymity, and could watch people without so much as a flicker of interest or recognition from them. She stared at them in turn, in case she might see a face she might remember from Pyramid, or anything familiar at all.
But the more she looked, the less likely it seemed, and it was another five minutes of searching before Trip realized that they'd only seen a few enslaved since the commotion back at the radio, and none at all in the last hundred faces.
The tunnels weren't so bad this time, now that he knew where he was going. He let the footprints guide him most of the way, but they never bothered with the offshoots. Whoever made them knew exactly where he was going. Monkey tested a number of them anyway, just in case, but they led him to cave-ins or exits that had been boarded up tight years ago. There was never any light, not even a lick of cool air that would tell him he'd found another way out, so he headed back to the footprints each time, and ticked the dead-end off his list.
There weren't any more traps, but he kept an eye out for them and stopped a few times, seeing shadows as tripwires. There were only the original three, where the footprints were heaviest. Monkey paused at the first one when he came to it, to think about how long it might have taken to rig. It might have been an hour's work at most, even if you weren't exactly sure what you were trying to build, and only wanted to make sure it would kill whatever came after you.
He was still thinking about it when he reached the drop down into the open area, and he swung himself over the edge to the ladder bolted to the side of the rock face. He only remembered the missing rungs halfway over the edge, and scrambled in the space they should have been.
His right arm swung out to compensate, until he was almost facing backwards, dangling over a twenty-foot drop. He kicked off the rock and leapt, just to get clear of it, and hit the ground in a roll that still cracked somewhere.
Monkey stood slowly, in case the racket had woken the dead. But the tunnel was silent and undisturbed, and he flicked the safety back on his staff as soon as he realized he'd released it.
He angled the flashlight up to where there were two rungs missing, right where he'd chucked himself over the edge. The breaks were clean, like they'd been snapped right off with a good bit of effort, and Monkey swore.
He spun, searching, and from this angle could see a dip in the rock face that he hadn't noticed on his way in. It wasn't much, just a place where they hadn't dug properly, and the rock cracked and split open. But there was a light there, faint yellow-green, and the rot smell he'd sensed earlier was stronger there. Monkey's stomach clenched, in preparation for anything, and he swung the flashlight beam over.
There was a databand, half-buried in dirt and under a scrap of fabric that was a sleeve. For a stupid, unthinking moment, Monkey thought of Trip. But she didn't have a databand, and wouldn't be coming this way, and hadn't been gone long enough to end up like that. He pushed the arm out of the way with the tip of his staff, his breath stiff in his chest anyway.
The sleeve caught and rolled partway up to expose the arm, which was fairly dark with hair, and Monkey relaxed.
The man was in his mid-fifties, from what was left of the face. There was a deep crack in the side of his head, where he'd hit the ground after missing his step on the way down. Dark stains of dried blood crackled in the man's hair and along his face.
Monkey crouched near the man's legs, to see his boots. He tipped the soles toward him, and recognized the pattern that had been leading him through the tunnels so far, and had stomped designs into the dirt around the traps.
"Huh, poor bastard," Monkey said, without any feeling, and went back to the man's arm.
The databand was still flashing, and he tugged at it gingerly, remembering the patrol. The databand didn't look damaged, and Monkey thought that of all the things to land on, he'd have sacrificed his arm for his skull, if it came to that. But the man's hands didn't look like they were used to climbing through tunnels, and the fall would have surprised him. Either that, or the databand was worth saving.
Monkey pried it free, careful not to destroy this one, and flipped the main switch.
The databand had power, somehow. The screen flared on when he tried to navigate the display, and the whole damn thing went into a series of menus and boxes that popped up for brief seconds and shut down again, all in a flurry of light and color that hurt to look at.
When the light dimmed, he was staring at a wall of overlaid text that seemed even more packed with information than Trip's display ever did. It seemed vaguely like what she worked on when she made changes to his slaver band, a life ago. But if he was being fair, it all kind of looked the same. He pawed through it, to kill the light so he could keep searching without being visible by anyone within half a mile, when he sensed something behind him.
He held perfectly still until he heard it clearer. The noise was like a whisper of bare feet on stone, and Monkey whirled.
There was nothing there except the rocks, and the darkness of the tunnel, farther on. He clutched the databand in one hand, and reached for the staff with the other, listening.
All at once, the laughter came out of everything. It poured out of the cracks in the rock, and jagged ceiling, and the shadows where the flashlight couldn't reach. It rushed at him like smoke through the tunnel, winding up to him and hitting him hard, and Monkey turned in a full circle.
There wasn't anyone, not unless children were melting into the rock before he could see them. The laughter came from everywhere, even the man's body, crumpled and useless, and Monkey jerked away. The sound of it wasn't right. It should have bounced off the rocks until it was all reverb and no original sound. But the noise was everywhere, all at once, clear as anything.
"God damn—" he started, and stopped, as if they could hear.
The laughter snapped at him, bright and brilliant.
It was never that strong in Liberty, even when just the sight of the enslaved sent his head tipping. He reached for the slaver band, to see if it was as hot to the touch as it felt on his skull. The databand fumbled in his hand, and tumbled past the grab he made at it, a second too slow. It fell to the ground and bounced once, and the light snapped off, taking the laughter with it.
Monkey stood perfectly still for a good minute, to see if it came back, but there was only the wind in the tunnel, and the steady drip of water somewhere.
"Shit," he said, to hear his own voice, instead of the children. "Shit."
He crouched to pick up the databand again, and to make sure he picked it up firmly closed, in case it tried to send more noise crashing through his head. But it was silent now, so long as he didn't accidentally set it off again, and sat in his hand like nothing had ever happened.
After a minute, he ended up looping it through his belt, probably more dangerous than was smart, but he needed his hands.
There wasn't any point in going back to where the tunnel let out near the overpass, so he turned back to the ladder.
On the climb up, he stopped where the rungs were missing, to lean back and mimic falling. It worked, if he'd been trying to shield his arm. He would have thrown himself over the edge, expecting the rungs to catch him, and would have tipped forward to protect the thing on his arm, if that was the most important thing he was carrying.
He looked back to the crevice where the dead man lay, a rumple of fabric in near-darkness now, and thought for a good while before hefting himself up over the break in the rungs and back along the footprints the man had left on the way out.
He meant to walk it again, to do one last sweep for the traps the man had left. But he was listening too hard to pay much attention to anything else, and stopped every time his own footsteps didn't sound like his, and the faint rush of underground water was like distant laughter.
Harold and Sophie's home was part of a large building snugly bundled between the others, an afterthought like everything else in the city. The plumbing was on the outside walls, clinging like hard silver vines, and Trip suspected that the walls had once been the insides, and only rebuilt halfway.
Harold led her up a flight of stairs, and a second, before twisting down a hallway that zig-zagged in happy confusion before picking a direction. There were rows of doors on either side, and Trip couldn't imagine each one containing rooms and people, packed that close together like fitted pieces. But she could hear voices behind some of them, a few louder than they probably should have been, and she listened to the ceiling creak as someone on the floor above stomped along, going the other way.
She almost bumped into Harold when he pulled to a sudden stop and began fishing around a keyring at his belt.
"Sophie'll be home," he said, and fumbled through the mess of them. "Colt usually is. Portia would be out, but she's grounded today. I never ask why. Seems safer."
"Mm," Trip said, diplomatically.
"Most people get put on a wait list of some kind," he said. "Don't know how Sophie managed it, but we got here, and got this place easy enough. I don't know how she does it. Ah!"
He found the right key and jammed it into the lock, and ushered her inside.
Their entire vehicle must have been filled to the brim, because the room was a catastrophe of towering boxes and crates. Some were open on the floor, but most were three or four deep. They were in every place she tried to step, and Trip had to stick to the walls to inch past.
"Sophie?" Harold called, and somehow got three syllables out of her name instead of two. "Portia? Anyone?"
His voice boomed through the tiny space, and came back to them without answer. Harold shrugged. "Maybe in the back? Hang on."
There wasn't much of a back to speak of, but Harold thundered off that way, down a short hallway and the doors that led off it. Trip crouched near the ribbons on the floor, folded into bows and tangled with dog fur.
"Nobody home," Harold said, and she stood guiltily. "Should be back soon."
"I really need to get going," Trip said.
"Well, who's your friend?" Harold asked. "Is he from Rider, too? When did he get in?"
Trip almost corrected him, but didn't see the need. "His name's Ben. He would have arrived a few days ago."
Harold's face pinched, like he was thinking too hard. "Would've been around the time all the mess started. Hope he didn't get involved in it."
"The thing with Lee?" Trip asked. "Is that why they stopped letting enslaved into the city?"
"Should have been checking a lot sooner," he said. "For a while, they were showing up all the time. But you know, it makes people feel safer, knowing we're not letting any more in. Us, too."
Trip's eyes still stung, and she rubbed at one with a finger, expecting anything, and was almost surprised not to find blood when she was done.
"Ah," Harold said. "Hang on. Got hit a few times myself, when they started using the smoke."
He pushed into the kitchen, enough for her to squeeze past him, and he started searching the cupboards in no apparent order.
"Why did they start doing that to them?"
Harold opened a drawer, pushed everything in it out of place, and shut it again. "Hm?"
"Breaking them up when they started gathering. And using the smoke like that."
"Oh. Well, when the message started," Harold rumbled. "Can't have them grouping up to listen to it. We thought they'd order more firepower, but it came down from command that they wanted just to send them home. Would make things a lot quicker, you know, if we could scare them right. They're dangerous. Sophie says it, all the time. Have to watch out for the squirts, you know?"
Trip's free hand was at the side of her head before she meant to, where they'd struck her in the street back at Liberty, and found it still ached. "They're not dangerous," she said softly.
Harold snorted. "When the doc vanished, he took the drugs with him. Or burned them, or something. Now they've got no way of getting out of their own heads, or back into them. It's a mess for the rest of us."
Trip was about to say something about it being a mess for the enslaved, too, but the front door opened before she could get to it.
A child's footsteps flitted around the mess, and Portia threw herself through the doorway. If she saw Trip, she simply ignored her, and went straight to her father.
Harold scooped her up, catching her on the first try, and hoisted her high. "Hello there, rapscallion. Still grounded?"
Portia kicked her feet in the air, pedaling. "Still grounded. Tell Mom it's not fair."
"Mom, it's not fair," Harold said, obediently, and Sophie sighed from the doorway.
Colt poked his head around the door, saw Trip, and vanished back down the hall.
"You could try backing me up every now and then," Sophie said, from the front door. There were two dull, heavy thuds, like she'd toed off her shoes and thrown them.
Harold held Portia out at arm's length. "Right. So, what did you do this time?"
Harold raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
Port considered, and nodded, and Harold's other eyebrow went up.
"Have you seen the dog?" Sophie asked, and Trip didn't even need to see her face to guess at the weariness in her. "The entire back half of him is shaved. Where they even found—"
Harold choked on a noise that shouldn't have been a laugh, but most likely was, and lowered Portia to the ground. "My razor?"
Portia darted off.
"Yes," Sophie said. "And if that weren't bad enough, they make scrap out of my good—"
She came in to lean in the doorway, half-melted against it already, when she noticed Trip, and every muscle in her went tight.
"Soph," Harold said, carefully. "You remember Trip? She was on the road from Rider."
"I remember," Sophie said. "Why's she here?"
Somewhere down the hall, Portia found Keats, and there was a scrabble of nails on the floor as she hauled him out into the open.
"And why are you here?" she asked, and Harold blinked. "You're on probation, you know? If they boot you..."
"They won't," he said, and tried to kiss her.
Sophie wasn't having it, and ducked away. "You can't keep stopping by, you know."
"You're in a mood, aren't you?" Harold said, but there was fondness in his eyes. "Right. Well, Trip was out there and got stuck in one of the veg spots, when the message came on. You didn't see it, did you?"
Sophie was quiet for a moment, then sniffed at him. "No. Is that why you smell like that?"
"Hope so. Anyway, she couldn't find her own nose, in all that, so I brought her back. I thought we might be able to help her find her friend."
There was a moment of very loaded silence from Sophie, but she finally shrugged, and Trip scraped more imagined smoke from her eyes.
"How many is that, this week?" Sophie asked.
Harold thought. "Four? Not sure. Same message, though."
"What is the message?" Trip asked. "I didn't hear it. Why are they broadcasting it if..."
She stopped, because Harold was puffed up in his uniform, and Sophie's mouth went pale around the edges, pinched hard and crinkled.
"They're...not," Trip said slowly. "It's not their message, is it?"
Harold sighed in a gust of air. "Planted. You know. Someone got it into the comm system and it does that, every hour. Sends out that message off the tower."
"It's off the radio tower?" Trip asked. "How on earth—"
"Someone hacked the whole system it's on," Sophie said, and sat at the table with a soft thud. "Why do you think they're out looking?"
Trip watched her for a second, puzzled. "Who's out looking?"
"Didn't you see the patrols?" Harold asked. "And we've been in lockdown, too, since it happened. Command's not happy about it, and we've all got to suffer until they find him."
Hope like that was expensive, and Trip circled it carefully. "The patrols are out looking for whoever planted that message?"
Sophie massaged the back of her heel roughly. "What else would they be doing?"
"I thought..." Trip struggled to sound like it wouldn't be everything in the world if she'd been wrong. "The kids who've gone missing. I thought they were out looking for whoever did that."
Harold made a clucking noise in the side of his mouth. "Wish they would. Haven't heard anything about it, though, and we've got enough trouble."
They weren't out looking for Monkey now, if they had been at all. It didn't sound real, because nothing was ever handed to her just like that, simply because she'd been hoping for it hard enough. "But if they heard about someone, or got a message that someone knew who did it..."
Harold shrugged. "Dunno. Might go to command, if they had time to see it. Probably get dozens."
Sophie folded her hands in front of her at the table, and slid her fingernails under each other, searching out invisible dirt. "You should go back, shouldn't you?"
Trip was ready to go, and had been for a while, but the question had gone to Harold.
"I know," he said, and did sound guilty. "They won't miss me for a while yet."
The radio crackled at his side, like a small patter of thunder, and Harold flipped it up, and listened for a second to the code that poured out of it.
"Gotta go," Harold said, when the code started to repeat. "There's another one, but closer to their area."
Sophie's fingers twisted together. "They should be corralled there. Just close off the sector and call it done."
Harold kissed the top of her head. "Trying, sweet. Kiss Colt for me, and Portia if she'll have it."
He saluted at Trip, a little clumsily, and edged back out the door. "Stick around for a bit," he said; Sophie's eyes narrowed at the seams on the table. "I'll be back soon, and we'll find your friend, right?"
Trip looked to Sophie, expecting her have something to say to that, but she stayed quiet. Harold vanished back out the door, much too fast for someone that heavy, and the sound of the door crashing sent Keats barking insanely down the hall. Portia shouted something, and the barking cut off in a whine. Colt laughed, then muffled it, then kept laughing.
Through all of it, Sophie sat, straight-backed and blind, and ignored Trip with every ounce of energy she had.
Trip edged around the table, too close to Sophie to really go unnoticed, but she didn't stir. If Mark's dragonfly hadn't arrived yet, there might still be time to intercept it. Or, if it had, there might be someone willing to listen to her, if they were busy chasing the man who left the message.
"I don't know anyone here," Sophie said suddenly, and Trip froze. "No one. I don't know where your friend is, and I don't care."
There was no feeling in her voice, and barely anything human. Trip shrugged half-heartedly. "I figured, but Harold—"
"But Harold," Sophie said softly, meaning something else.
Trip cleared her throat. "Do you know where they take the dragonflies that get here? From the settlements?"
Sophie's eyebrows came together slightly. "No. They collect them from the towers, probably. They don't trust the radios right now."
Trip thought about Harold's radio, spewing code at him that he had only just learned, and the guard towers. She hadn't thought about it, the whole walk into the city with Toby, but she should have, and should have recognized the box he was carrying a lot sooner.
"Dragonflies," she said. "He was delivering dragonflies." Sophie ignored her.
Trip was still kicking herself when Sophie hissed slowly, releasing some kind of pressure out into the air. "The radio message is calling them all out into the open, asking them to do something, and no one knows what. And they just let it run, and cause all this chaos."
"The message...is for the enslaved?" Trip asked. "And some stranger planted it here, right?"
"That's what they're saying."
Trip couldn't imagine it following her, and it really hadn't. It had been here all along, and she could feel his work here, like he still had his hands in everything, long after he'd moved on.
Sophie curved over farther in her chair, until her back was a tight bow. Her hands creaked in each other, but she didn't seem to feel it. "Let it take them," she said, more to herself than Trip. "Let them follow it out to nowhere."
She seemed to remember Trip, and peered at her around a mess of hair that was just starting to tangle. "Did you need something else?"
Trip didn't, but she hesitated anyway, one foot in each room. "Why do you hate them so much?"
Sophie tilted her head, like she was hearing Trip through water and had to concentrate to make it out. "They should have stayed," she said, not quite answering. "It was easier. It was just easier."
Sophie was still bent, like her hands had some force to pull her looped and aching over the table. "I wish...whoever the hell got there—" She pinched at the skin around her cheek, her temple. "I wish they'd just left them."
"And what?" Trip asked. "Just left them to die?"
Sophie's sharp eyes went to her, briefly, and came back down. "It would have been easier."
"Easier than what?" Trip demanded. "That wouldn't have been easier than anything."
Sophie stood slowly. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"The hell I don't," Trip said, louder than she meant to, and the side of Sophie's mouth curled. "You don't— You don't get to say that. You weren't there, were you? They'd have died like that."
"It would have been a kindness," Sophie said, cold and furious. "They hear things, see things. And if you don't believe it, you haven't been paying attention."
"I have been paying attention," Trip said, and came so close to telling her exactly who disconnected them that day, and who had to see them blink off those dreams and start the trek back across the desert. "Listen—"
Sophie whirled on her. "You listen. Don't you talk to me like you understand this. Don't even pretend you've tried to talk to someone who came back, and not seen that there's nothing left in them. Do you understand?"
Trip had opened her mouth to answer, but really heard her that time. "What are you...?"
Sophie's eyes were thin slits of gray, and didn't flicker to follow her when Trip shifted back. "He promised them a cure, did you know that?"
The word didn't make sense, not for the few seconds it took Trip to figure out what she'd even said, and Keats clattered down the hall, children in tow.
He exploded into the room in a hailstorm of fur, ribbons and wide-eyed panic, and scrambled under the table.
Portia screamed and dove after him, grabbing at his hind legs and coming away with only ribbons. Colt hung in the doorway, shocked and a little horrified.
"C'mere, Keats! Come — come here!"
Keats had other ideas, and kicked madly as Portia made a solid grab for his tail. The table scooted a few inches as she got a good grip, and Keats bucked against the table legs.
"Oh, be nice to him, Port!" Colt whined.
"You be quiet!" Portia followed Keats through the crowd of chair and table legs, and got her hands wrapped around his belly.
Sophie watched it all out of the corner of her eye. "Portia, Colt, go watch vids for a bit."
Keats nipped at her, and Portia backed out from under the table, rear-end first. "But you said—"
"I know what I said!"
Portia and Colt stopped dead and stared up at her in wonder, not sure what to believe.
"Now," Sophie snapped, and the children heard steel that time and ran into the next room.
A split second later, the vidscreen blared on, and a splatter of inane noise fed into the kitchen, over the faint sound of Keats tearing ribbons from his coat.
Sophie drew a breath that didn't stop as early as it should have, and held it tight in her chest.
"What do you mean, a cure?" Trip asked, carefully.
Sophie leaned her elbows against the table, like her own weight couldn't be trusted. "That man...was working on one. The military hired him to find one, to keep them from drugging themselves all the time, to get that noise out of their heads."
Sophie gestured, at the city itself. "Does it look like it? The cure was no such thing. It made everything worse, and they were dropping dead in the streets, or close enough to it. Catatonic, a lot of them. A hundred times worse than the dreams ever were. It's hard to say who played who."
She breathed in through her teeth for a second before continuing.
"He cut and ran, and should have. Maybe it was all a scam. The rest of them, the lucky ones, if you can call it that — they're as useless and empty as they were when they first got back, and watching them is like..."
Sophie stopped herself, and bunched her fingers together in the hem of her shirt. "It's never you. They never look at you. They look just over your shoulder, at something you can't see, because it isn't there."
Trip thought of the man at the fountain, singing at nothing.
Sophie showed her teeth. "You turn anyway, don't you? Just to see if you can catch it. But you can't. You weren't plugged in, like they were. And they have this whole other world in their heads. Some bright, perfect place that's going to be better than you, standing right in front of them."
Trip heard Jason in it somewhere, and her hands ached.
"But it's over," Trip said. "It's gone. Pyramid is dead. They don't need to hear it anymore."
Sophie opened and closed her hands at her sides, on nothing. "They say...voices. But not just that. Memories. Actual...things that they say happened, and never did. Or, maybe a thousand years ago. I don't know."
Trip swallowed in a jerky, painful reflex. "No. Maybe bits of what they saw there, but it's just residual. There's no way it's that—"
"Not that real?" Sophie's voice lilted, but her face didn't change.
"They would have told me," Trip said, before she meant to, and Sophie's smile was feline and sharp.
"Why should they?" she asked. "You think, they'll leave it behind, eventually. Even if they don't drug themselves, even if they stay here," — she gestured, and Trip knew she wasn't indicating the room or even the city, but here, wherever the real world lay — "they're never quite looking at you, are they?"
"Even if that's true," Trip said, "that's not a good reason to hate them."
Sophie chuckled, like breaking bones in her throat. "You have to distance yourself, somehow. Either you leave, in the end, or you tell them to." She kinked a piece of hair so hard in her fingers that a few strands snapped off. "It doesn't change, and it doesn't get better."
Trip couldn't breathe, couldn't find a way to get air back into her lungs at all. "It's not like that," she said, not quite fast enough to outrun the lie.
"Then you're better than the rest of us, aren't you? You look at them, and it doesn't hurt?"
"Stop it," Trip said. "It's not like that."
"Because that'll make it better, won't it?" Sophie asked, brutally. "Don't talk about it, so it's not true. Does that work for you, really?"
Portia must have turned up the volume on the vidscreen, because some mindless, rapid-fire chatter washed over them, and she couldn't make out a word of it.
"It's not like that," Trip said again. "Hating everything is easy. It's...it's easy."
Sophie's mouth formed around something hostile, but she lost energy for it halfway, and turned her head aside. "I'm not having this argument with you, whoever you are, wherever you're from. Get out."
There was no negotiating the madness in Sophie's eyes, or knowing what she'd do when she found out exactly who made sure the enslaved didn't die there, in the desert.
In the next room, Portia scream-laughed, Colt a second behind her.
"Your kids aren't scarred," Trip said, slowly.
Sophie's eyes went wide and furious.
"Neither is Harold," Trip continued. "So, who...?"
"It's none of your business!" Sophie hissed.
It wasn't, but Trip took a step forward, her fists tight. "Whoever it is, you can't live like that! It's not— They're here! They're here, they're home. Why can't we just—?" But everything did hurt, it always had, somewhere under skin, and Monkey had another world buried silent and yearning in his head.
Sophie cocked her hand out, in a strangely twisted, violent gesture. "You really don't understand anything. It was easier, thinking they were dead as soon as Pyramid got them. You bury the idea of someone, and it's neat and clean and doesn't come after you at night. But this...knowing is worse. Seeing their eyes following something that isn't there, and knowing they hear things you aren't saying. It's worse."
Sophie flattened her hands against the table for balance, and her nails scraped. "You think you can get past it, or learn to ignore it. But you can't, not ever, and you find yourself wanting them dead and buried, so at least it's over."
Trip reached back to her bag, where the Cloud was, just to feel its weight against her hand. "No. You're wrong, I'd never want that."
When Sophie looked at her, there was a calm, vicious brightness in her eyes. "Then you're some kind of saint, aren't you?"
Rachel was waiting for him when he got back to the grate, her back against the wall and her finger tapping some off-kilter rhythm, when she remembered to follow it.
Monkey rapped the metal near her hand, and she flicked it up, like he'd grabbed her. She waited a second to make sure the coast was clear, and an earbud dropped to her side.
"You find her?" Monkey asked.
Rachel bent down halfway, like she didn't want to be seen. "No. Everything's a mess up here and I can't get anyone to stand still for three seconds. But there's someone who I think might know, and I'm going to see him next. I just needed to make sure you're still here."
Monkey grunted, and ducked low as someone passed by.
"Take this with you," he said, when he could. "She'll need it."
He held the databand up to the grate, and Rachel's eyebrows lifted, clear up into her hair. "Where'd you get that? No one has those unless you're in the military."
"Found it," he said, and it wasn't exactly a lie. "She'll need it to get through the door."
"Huh," Rachel said. "Okay. But how're you going to get it through?"
The pattern in the grate might have accepted Rachel's hand, if she was careful, but not the databand.
"Yeah," Monkey said. "Hang on. Try not to look suspicious."
"Try not to look what?"
He gripped one corner of the grate, where the hinges were rusted beyond use, and pulled hard.
The sound was like tearing mechs open while they still had power, and Rachel clamped her hands over her ears, earbud and all.
The grate gave maybe four inches, and by then he was feeling the fight clear through his fingers down to bone. He released it, and the grate hung there, a corner bent up like a scrap of paper.
"Holy shit," Rachel said, properly cowed.
"Here." Monkey passed the databand up to her through the gap. "Get that to Trip."
Rachel was a little slow in reaching down, but she got a grip on it, and she held the databand up to the light.
"Don't turn it on," Monkey said. "I don't know what the hell it does. Trip will. But tell her something's weird about it."
"Something weird what?" Rachel examined it from every angle. "Looks like what all the uniforms carry."
"Yeah, well, make sure it gets to her. It's your only way out."
Rachel had been considering the databand like she might have a chance of using it herself, or selling it, or any number of things, but she shoved it into her bag. "I'm not stupid," she said. "And it's not like we even know where the door is, anyway."
Monkey tried to measure. "About a hundred yards that way," he said, and pointed. "What's over there?"
Rachel stared off for a second, so he could only see the back of her head.
Monkey smacked his palm against the grate. "Hey, what's over—"
"The labs," she said quietly. "They're totally off-limits. Of course it would be there."
She tangled the speaker wire in her fingers. "I get it. No wonder no one could find it."
Monkey could hear her thinking, working things out. "You can't get through the door," he said, in case she was considering it. "Trip can. Just get that to her."
Rachel sneered, but didn't say anything.
"You're only going to get one shot," Monkey said. "You know that, right? And if you screw up, you can't get out at all."
"I got it," she said. "I don't need advice from some idiot who got stuck in a hole."
"And you're stuck in a city," Monkey pointed out. "I think we're even."
Rachel scowled and pulled her bag over her shoulder.
"Okay?" Monkey asked. "You going to find Trip this time?"
"Yeah, I'll find her. Are you always going to say her name like that?"
"Like..." Rachel made a hopeless motion with her hand, like she was used to dealing with idiots, but never found a good way to explain it to them. "Nothing."
Monkey didn't want to pursue it. "What do you need on the outside so bad? It's not safe. Someone's going to pick you right off the road."
Rachel bent down to re-tie her shoes, to block out the person who was walking past. "Me?" She sounded amused, if anything. "No way. They'd really have to try."
"Someone is trying," he said.
She went still, her fingers snarled in her shoelace knot. "I know that. What the hell do you think I'm trying to get out for?"
"I have no idea."
Rachel jerked the laces, and they fluttered to the ground. "I'm going after him. I don't care if he comes to get me, because then at least I won't have to waste time looking."
"Who?" Monkey asked. But he knew, and didn't want to hear it.
"The guy who's taking the kids. The Bone Man, or whatever stupid thing they're calling him."
Monkey drew back from the grate a little, but she didn't notice.
"He took my sister," she said, without prompting. "She was there — she was right there, and then she wasn't. The sick bastard took her. And I don't care if it's just her—" She stopped, and Monkey knew it was because she was about to say she'd even settle for her sister's body, somewhere out there.
"You sure it was him?" Monkey asked slowly. "You sure she didn't get lost or something?"
Rachel would have hit him if she could have reached, he was sure of it. "She didn't get lost."
Rachel shot to her feet, and Monkey threw himself down the tunnel, just far enough to be out of sight.
Two sets of footsteps stopped next to Rachel, precious few feet from the grate. "What are you doing out? It's near curfew."
Monkey heard Rachel will herself taller, older. "The hell do you care? You're not doing any good anyway."
The soldier spluttered for a second. "God, why is it always you? Go home. Isn't your mother sick or something?"
"She's not sick, she's in mourning."
Monkey edged forward, just enough to catch sight of the pair of boots that were far beyond any point in shining, but seemed solid enough.
"Look," the first one said. "I'm getting sick of catching you climbing shit, and trying to break into the watchtowers, and whatever else. Just...stay put, would you?"
"Let me out, and I won't bother you anymore."
"Does the word lockdown even mean anything to you?"
"No," Rachel said flatly. "Explain it to me."
"Oh for—" The soldier came closer, to peer at the grate, and Monkey retreated. "Did you do this?"
Rachel hesitated. "Yeah, so?"
"How did you even manage it? You're got, like, spaghetti arms."
There was pure, bristling rage in Rachel's voice. "I'm getting out, whether you like it or not."
"Shit, sweetheart, I'd love to get rid of you. But orders are orders. You find a way out, someone finds a way in. You want to get everyone killed?"
"You can die, for all I care!"
"Well, she's charming," the other soldier said. "Look, don't let us catch you here again, and stop damaging city property. And stop showing up at dispatch. Some of us do actual work."
Rachel set herself right in front of the grate, like she was guarding it. "Don't you have other people to bother?"
"Go home," the soldier said, world-weary. "There's enough going on, and we don't have time to peel you off the fences every other day."
The soldiers turned away, and Rachel muttered after them, until the sight of their boots was gone, and the sound of them shortly after.
She dropped to the grate again, and barely ducked her head to see him. "Don't come back here," she hissed. "They'll put a patrol here now, they always do. I'll find her and get her to the door on this side. You wait on the other side."
Monkey could feel his gauntlets rusting. "I'm not going to sit around and just wait."
"Up to you," Rachel said. "But that's where we'll be. The rest of it is your problem."
"Usually is," Monkey said. "How long have you been trying to get out, anyway?"
"Practically since the day I got here," she said. "They should let me right out the stupid front door, but ever since the lockdown, I can't get anywhere. But I'm going to get out, and I'm going to find him."
Monkey thought of the boy, even though he tried not to, and imagined this girl finding her sister the same way. It couldn't possibly be better than not having any answers at all, not if it meant having the image of a child weak and failing, and not being able to do a damn thing about it.
"You might not want to," he said.
If Rachel got any closer to the grate, her face would be pressed flat and inhuman against it. "I'm going to tear his throat out myself, do you get that?" she said, so much older and uglier than she should have been. "I'm going to find Piper, and then I'm going to find him. I will, do you hear me?"
He didn't doubt it, the way her hands clawed at the stone walk, and her eyes were wild and blind at the same time. He'd seen it before, not so long ago he didn't remember gravel and hate and pain in Trip's voice.
"Yeah," he said, after Rachel finally had to blink and turn away. "I hear you."
The radio tower was hard to miss, and there wasn't a single place she couldn't see it, even when she stepped out of Sophie and Harold's building. Trip only had to look straight up, and turn a bit to her left, and start walking. The trouble was when the streets didn't go where she expected them to, and ended in alleys that were too crowded with dark to consider going down. She held her bag close, her hands tight on the shoulder straps, and wormed through the city, as far from the guard towers as she could get when she saw them, for reasons she couldn't quite explain.
It wasn't right. None of it was right, but she couldn't find a single person in the street to explain it to. She tried to stay patient with it all, when she picked another street that looked like it should get her to the tower, but didn't, and the sun drifted low and heavy toward the horizon. Monkey was still somewhere, probably close enough to hear her walking. But she couldn't know, no matter how hard she listened for him, and the city couldn't tell her.
There weren't any enslaved on the streets now, and Trip kept her hand tight over the band on her arm, in case the guards thought to look at it with more interest, the closer they got to nightfall. But no one gave her a second glance as she passed through, down one street and right back up it, when it led her nowhere.
Sophie's voice didn't follow her, not down any of the streets where Trip got lost and had to spin before getting trapped, and felt the city closing in on her. Instead, Trip thought about the bend of Sophie's back, like she was holding something in until it forced a new shape on her against her will.
"Monkey," she whispered, to have his name nearby.
Miraculously, the next street was a familiar one, and the one after that. She started seeing the places she and Toby had passed, on their way through earlier that day.
And finally, as the sun blistered out over the western sky, she got back to command, where smoke still clung to the air.
The gates were shut, ten feet high and covered with sharp wire. But she stalked straight past them, without looking at the building itself, or the concrete steps leading in. She kept away from the guards just inside the gate, on either side of the main door, and followed the remaining light and cluster of voices to the shorter, less aggressive building next to it, where Toby had gone.
Trip pushed through the double-doors without expecting them to be locked, and was lucky when they weren't.
There were half a dozen people in the entryway, crowded around a counter that blocked off the back part of the building. Trip stopped, to keep from running into them, and a woman waved a ticket at the man at the counter, her hand whipping back and forth.
"—been trying to send this message for hours!"
The man was bewildered and exhausted, and stared at the group of them over the tops of his glasses, like seeing them blurry would help somehow. "We're not accepting any more civilian transmissions at this time. We'll start taking them again tomorrow."
"But we were told, if we waited until the end of the day..."
The man glanced behind him, like he'd find reinforcements there, but there was nothing but a row of narrow screens and consoles. He turned back to her warily. "I know what you were told, but there's no way we can right now."
The woman bristled, ready for a fight, and the crowd behind her rallied silent support.
"What do you want?" someone asked, at Trip's side, and she had missed the woman coming out of the employee hallway. "We're not taking any messages, so—"
"I'm looking for Toby," she said swiftly.
The woman pulled a face Trip couldn't identify. "Toby?"
Trip pantomimed something vague, meaning the box he'd been carrying. "He brought the dragonflies from the watchtowers, right? I think one got here for me."
She shrugged. "Sure. Wingway's open, anyway. Go on back. But he's working, you got it? I don't know what he tells you all, to get you here. But don't get in the way."
"I won't," Trip said, having no idea what she'd just promised, and the woman waved her toward the doorway to her left, with a faded marker on the wall.
The door was shabby and uneven, and the hinges grated when she pushed through. But she was on the other side of the counter now, where she could see the man's hands clenched carefully at his sides.
"No more messages," he repeated, louder. "I will call security to have this room cleared if I have to."
Trip didn't hear the woman's response, and she followed the next wingway sign through another set of doors.
The buzzing hit her ears almost as soon as she rounded the corner, like someone pushing air through their teeth too rough. She came up against metal door with a window at eye level. There were lights inside, and a sickly glow of screens and LED, and she pushed inside.
The area was big enough for a row of consoles, and a glass pane leading back out to the main area, where she could just see the corner of the front desk, and the woman still talking, her hands flipping in the air.
There were dragonflies on shelves, in mesh bags, and disassembled on countertops. A few of them were plugged in and dimmed, their wings snapped back. There was a garbage bin in the corner, pieces and parts of dragonflies that hadn't survived the journey back, and Trip caught her reflection in their broken lenses.
Toby was bent over a struggling dragonfly, his whole body contorted to wrestle it into the console and still keep a finger on the controls. "Just — get — in — no, fuck it, what are you doing?"
The dragonfly still had full power, and swatted at him with its wings. Its lens shifted in and out, considering Toby's fingers and looking for a way to break them.
"Can I help?" Trip asked, and Toby let go of the controls to grab the dragonfly with both hands in surprise.
"Shit!" he hissed, as the dragonfly's wings sliced through a fingertip. "Could you push that?"
Trip considered the console briefly. "You don't even have the dock primed."
"I know what I'm doing," Toby said. "Push the activation — top corner."
"I would, except that won't let you connect it."
Toby gripped the dragonfly as hard as he could without cracking its shell. "Who the fuck are— Okay, right. Push whatever the hell you want. It's not like I work here or anything."
Trip's fingers wanted every button at the same time. She flipped off the safety Toby had tripped, and had the dock primed in a few swipes.
"Great," Toby said. "Top corner, please."'
She let her finger rest on the pulsing button near the bottom of the screen, but didn't push down. "Tell me about what's happening with the enslaved."
"What?" Toby's grip on the dragonfly slipped, and its shell nicked at his hands. "Ow! Are you insane? Just push it!"
Blood ran down Toby's hand, into the inside of his wrist and down, but Trip didn't move. "Why are they talking about a cure?"
Toby tried to bundle his sleeve around the dragonfly, but it only tangled and shredded. "What do you care about the veg, anyway?"
She didn't know this boy, but his sneer was Harold's, was the guards', and he used the word one time too many, and Trip waited.
Toby twisted the dragonfly away from him. "God, fine, I would have told you anyway. Would you just—"
The dragonfly was mid-jacknife in his hands, its wings spiking toward his eyes, and Trip punched the release.
The dock flipped up, and Toby snapped the dragonfly's lens into place and shoved it onto the prongs. For a second, its wings thrummed at its sides madly, but the motion eventually died down, and data began to pour across the screen.
A minute passed as Toby massaged his hands, beads of blood dripping down his fingers like candle wax.
"The enslaved," Trip said. "What's going on here?"
"Bitch," Toby muttered, and Trip just waited.
He pressed his fingertips against the wound, waiting for it to close off. "What's there to know? They're everywhere, aren't they? They came back from Pyramid, and left that backwards town after a while. Some broke off, came straight here."
People had left, back in the beginning, to go home. She might have heard the name Granville in it all. "Okay. But what was the cure Lee was working on for the military?"
"For the..." Toby stared at her. "Who told you that?"
"You told me."
She matched his gaze, but Toby shook his head. "No, the hell I didn't. I never anything about the military. Who told you?"
"I don't remember."
He tried to stare her down, but blinked after a second, and deflated completely. "No one's supposed to know that," he said, and mussed with his hair. "Fuck. Whatever. I don't even— Look, they didn't want anyone on the drugs anymore, so they had him working on some way to reprogram them, so they could shut down the dream-house."
Toby tipped his chin. "What would you call it?"
She would call it that, if she was being honest. "So Lee was working on a way to...undo what Pyramid did to them?"
"I guess so," Toby said sullenly. "But he ran on us, didn't he? And he screwed a bunch of them up, worse than they were before."
Trip played with the console for a second, thinking. "So where is he? What does the message have to do with it?"
"The message? Nothing. Dr. Lee just vanished. Some think the veg took him, for meddling with their heads or something. But most of us think he couldn't do what he said, and chickened out and ran. Easier than facing Dallas, I guess."
"The message, though?"
Toby snorted. "Some veg sympathizer bullshit."
The entire scheme sounded more and more like Jason every second. "What is it, exactly? What's it telling them?"
"Can't tell you," Toby said. "Don't have a copy."
"You don't know what it is?"
Toby pointed at his head, where he would have had slaver scars, but didn't. "You think I need to hear that crap? Not my problem."
"So Lee vanished, and then someone hacked into your radio system and planted a message for the enslaved—"
"Who calls them that?" Toby whined.
"—and the man who planted it is...out there, somewhere? They're searching for him?"
Trip folded her hands, her fingers zipped together. The timeline wasn't quite right, but it was close. "Do you have any pictures of him?"
"Of the fugitive? Sure, there's the security feed. They were pushing it out to the vidscreens for a while, but we're not sure how far the hack spread, so..."
"Where is it?"
Toby gestured at his console, and Trip stood to let him to it. "Are there any other ways out of the city that Lee might have used?" she asked, thinking of Monkey's way in.
Toby started flipping through the screens. "I don't know. You should ask Rachel. It's totally her thing."
Toby selected an entry on the console, considered it, and flicked past. "She should be here soon. She always shows up. If anyone knows if there's a secret way out, it's her."
Trip started to think that a secret way out of the city was probably an excellent idea. "Look, did you get any dragonflies from Liberty lately?"
"Command's been grabbing all the dragonflies from the settlements as soon as we scan them. Don't know why they bother with Liberty at all. It's all batshit out of there, anyway."
She ignored that. "Okay, but if I needed to find out—"
"There," Toby said. "That's all I've got for you. Just watch it and go, would you?"
He stood, and Trip bent over the screen.
Toby made an irritated sound in the back of his throat, and she looked back up before the video could start. The glass was just thick enough to muffle the shouting into a blur of rage, but it still sent the hairs on the back of her neck straight up. She pressed close to the glass to see the front desk, squinting.
"Dallas's here," Toby said, dourly.
The civilian crowd had cleared out, and there was a woman in uniform behind the counter, near the consoles in the main area. The man stood in front of her, but he was leaning back, as far away from her fury as he could get.
"She's been pissed ever since the hack," Toby said, a little obviously. "We're doing all we can to get rid of it, but..." He shrugged. "Whatever. She doesn't get it. She's all, shut it all down, and we try to tell her it doesn't work like that. What, shut the whole system down? All of it? It's crazy."
"Wait, that's Dallas?" She wore the same uniform as the rest of them, and her hair was flattened against her forehead under a crisp military beret.
Toby's mouth went sideways. "Yeah. Stay out of her way, though."
"She might know about—"
"Does that look like a good mood to you?" Toby asked, as Dallas only shifted her weight forward, and the man in front of her leapt back.
Trip watched for a second more, and went back to the console. She brushed past the feed Toby had brought up, and started typing.
Toby craned his neck to see. "For the love of— What are you doing now? You're going to get me in so much shit. Rachel doesn't even touch the consoles when she's here, and she gets into fucking everything."
"Shut up a sec," Trip said. The command line snapped open, and she stared at it for a second. "When did the message start?"
"I dunno. A week ago?"
She filtered through it, all the changes made during that time, and drilled down until she had something usable. Toby watched in growing panic as she hit the authentication at a blind run, and dodged around it.
"You're so going to get me fired," Toby said. "What're you looking for?"
"The timestamp from when the message was dumped into your system," Trip said, without stopping. "If we can find that, we can figure...out..."
"Figure out what?"
There was an explosion of new commands in that time frame, and a host of processes that had been altered at the same time. "What is this?" she asked, largely to herself.
"Heck if I know," Toby said anyway. "Ask the guy who put it there. Dallas thinks he made it outside, but that's crazy. If he's here, he's with the veg, because they're the only ones nuts enough to hide him." Toby reached past her and pressed a key, and the code winked out. "You're going to get me in so much shit," he hissed. "I was lucky to get this job, you know?"
The camera feed was back, and Trip stared for a long second at the back of the man's head, blurry and anonymous in the frame. It didn't look like Jason, but it could have been something simple, some disguise he was wearing. "Where is this from?"
"I told you, security cam at command."
Trip advanced through the frames until the man started to turn, to argue with someone at his side.
"He ran," Toby said. "They got this of him, but he ran, and knocked a few guards out, and escaped into the city."
"And you're really not hunting the Bone Man, are you?" she asked, dully.
"The psycho taking the kids? We got fifteen reports about that last week alone. Heck, some people are reporting neighbors they don't like, just to get rid of them."
Trip had time. Not much, but a little, and it would keep Monkey safe a while longer. She kept keying through the frames, waiting for the man to turn, and to finally become Jason.
"There, see?" Toby asked, and pointed in front of her. "He's not even a veg. So fucking weird."
By the time the feed had almost finished, the man had turned close enough to the camera for Trip to see his profile, and she kicked the chair back when she stood.
"They only had the camera rigged because we got the warning he was coming, you know?" Toby asked, somehow ignoring the fact that Trip was standing ramrod straight, her hands rigid on the controls. "They're shitty cameras, anyway. At that resolution, it could be anyone. Dunno what the hell they think anyone'll find."
But Trip flattened her knuckle against her front teeth until she tasted salt and iron, and pushed her other finger toward the screen, over the man's face.
"What do you mean, you got warning?" she asked.
"Didn't I already say? We got a dragonfly a couple of weeks ago that this veg sympathizer would show up. Sure enough, he does, and the message starts up."
Trip's finger went right through the display, the lines rippling wildly where she touched. But when they reformed, the image was the same, grainy and monochrome from the security feed that would have looked like anyone who didn't know him. But the longer Trip watched, the worse the weight in her grew. Somewhere off-camera, there was an argument going on, and an elbow just in the frame that was part of a punch flying by. But the man in the middle of the frame was just turning, his face startled and angry, clearer in the frame after that, and the one after that.
Trip watched until the camera feed reached the end of what was useful, and the image of Ben stared straight at the camera, his arm half-up and warding off someone coming from his side.
Everything in her chest stopped working, and Trip had to breathe, had to tell herself to, while Toby watched with growing suspicion.
Trip rallied one calming breath. "You said, the enslaved sector, if he was anywhere?" she asked.
"Do you know him?" Toby asked, incredulous. "You have to tell command, if you do."
Trip could almost hear Ben's voice through the security feed, imagining the moment they tried to arrest him. "Where are all the enslaved?"
"Do you know him?" Toby repeated, slow and deliberate. "You can't just head out looking."
Toby folded his arms over his chest. "Forget it."
Trip suddenly had him backed up against the console when he wasn't expecting it, and he was stuck between her and the dragonflies that eyed him with interest, their wings flickering.
"Oh, right. What're you going to do?" he asked, as Trip realized she didn't quite know. He really was taller, and if it came to it, he'd push past her.
She drew away, and was back at the console before he could stop her.
"What are you doing now?" he demanded. "Get off of that. I'm calling security."
She barely thought about the code, but made sure he saw every letter of it as she typed it in. "You do that. I'll wipe your entire datastore before they get here."
There was a brief flash of fear in Toby's eyes, but he shrugged at her. "I've got everything backed up. You ever heard of redundancy?"
Trip held his gaze. "You don't have the resources for daily backups. You'll lose everything from the past...three weeks, looks like."
Toby's mouth gulped at air, and Trip waited, her finger over the confirmation.
The room was a thin buzz of angry dragonflies, and Toby spent a long time calculating, running through everything he'd done in the last few weeks, and his face darkened.
"Well?" Trip asked. "I swear I will, and you're not smart enough to hide this for very long."
Toby's jaw tightened. "...What do you want?"
"Where are the enslaved?"
"Northeast," he said, tonelessly. "But it's gated off after curfew anyway. All the sectors are."
"Why are they in another sector at all?" Trip said, and almost pushed the button anyway. "Who gave you the right to put them—"
"Not us," Toby interrupted angrily. "They put themselves there, because it's near the dream-house. Or it was, before it got shut down. They don't want anything to do with us, and it's mutual."
Trip waited a second longer, until Toby was almost twitching, his hands jerking up like he was searching for the controls.
She turned and yanked the door open, and Toby was shouting for help as she went crashing through the double-doors to the outside.
It was well into dusk now, and the square looked muted and lifeless. Trip heard a door slam somewhere behind her, and she leapt down the few steps out of the building, and cracked shoulders with someone shorter coming up the other way.
The girl almost toppled over. "Oof! Watch where you're going!"
Trip righted, and kept running, away from the building and the noise that was growing in it. The girl shouted something else, but Trip was in front of the command building now, where the gates were still locked, and she had to get away from all the lights.
She dove down the first side street she saw, and the next when that one ran out. She kept to all the shadows that might lead her in the right direction, as close to northeast as she could manage, and ran until the stitch in her side was an open wound across her ribs, and kept going even then.