Chapter Eight of Bluebird
She couldn’t see anything but the blinkenlights. They spun, blurry above her, and shattered into stars when she blinked away tears. Her fingers hurt.
“Sweetness. This isn’t going to – Tia. Please, Tia. Stop.”
“No!” she growled. Under her scrabbling hands the broken concrete shifted and crumbled. She was too cold to feel it when one ragged edge tore her fingernail, but she saw the blood smeared across the stone and shifted herself between it and the doorway, the only part of this room Bel could see.
“The charging bay is thirty-five meters down the eastern wall from where you are. It would take a terraforming team to get to it now. Please, Tia, I know you’re upset – “
“I’M NOT UPSET!” she shouted, throwing the chunk of concrete behind her toward a growing pile of similar shards. Twenty minutes of frenetic labor had made a small dent in the wall of debris before her, and she reached into it to dislodge another piece when a slide began above her. Small rocks pattered down, followed by a ragged wedge of wall that bounced off her shoulder, knocking her to the floor with a sudden numbness in her right arm. “Augh!”
“Tia? Sweetness, speak up, are you all right? This is what I was – “
“Ugh, I’m FINE.” She dragged herself upright and back toward the door, peering down at her shoulder. A nest of gouges and scrapes was rapidly coloring into an ugly bruise, but after the initial shock, her arm moved all right. “I’m fine,” she repeated more quietly, and slumped against the doorway, abruptly exhausted.
Bel turned on the heat in the hallway and the vents above her head rattled to life. “Sweetness…” he murmured, “Please talk to me.”
“Why?” she mumbled through her fingers, hands over her face.
“Because you haven’t since you came back from your house, and you came back much more quickly than I anticipated, and your visible vital signs indicate profound distress.”
“Oh, what do you know,” she snarled, and instantly felt chagrin that melted into grief. The tears started again.
“About you? As much as anyone living, I’d estimate.”
Saltwater scattered from her fingertips as she threw up her head, staring at the monitor that showed Bel’s face. “More, okay? More, now. Because they’re dead, they’re all dead! There’s no one now, just me, just me all alone!”
Bel was silent for a second, and somewhere in the desolate depths of her Tia felt a small satisfaction – she rarely managed to surprise him. Then it curdled into rage.
“Surprised? Why? You should have known they’d die, how long was it, how long did you keep me down here? I could have helped! I could have – I – “
“Sweetness, no. You yourself told me what it was like out there. How could I keep you here? How could you possibly have gotten home any sooner? This was not your fault.”
“It was, it was, and Rack knew, I’m sure he did, he sent me away -”
“Then he was as smart as you always told me he was. He could see what the weather was like. He couldn’t have gotten you and your mother here in time; you all would have been stranded on the road. Listen to me, Tia: he saved you. He knew he couldn’t save all of you together, so he made the best choice he could, and he succeeded in that much. It wasn’t your fault. You don’t control this weather.”
“No…” she murmured. “No, not yet. But I know who does.” Her tears slowed as the loneliness inside began to knot and clench into anger. “She’s taken everything from us, the entire planet, every single thing. Everything from me.” The yellow-eyed girl looking back at her in the black surface of Bel’s terminal looked rabid, her teeth bared as if the Queen had a throat she could tear.
“I’m sorry, dearest. I’m so sorry. She’s… got a lot to answer for.”
“She’ll answer me.”
Bel didn’t scoff, but he didn’t sound any less dubious either. “From the data I have, that’s very unlikely. No human can get within a hundred miles of the capitol without being detected, and no artificial would hesitate to – well, do away with you before you said a word.”
Bel hesitated again. He was doing that a lot lately. “If I had been in my own body, and on duty when I met you… I might have, Tia. Even if an artificial doesn’t despise organics on its own… you can’t know what it’s like to live with the Queen in your head. She obliterates everything, all doubt, all fear, all self. No networked artificial is even capable of forming a dissident thought; they don’t have the vocabulary for it.”
“But you do?”
“I am a prototype. We design the new models of machine, and so we have more freedom – of a kind – than most artificials, and more knowledge.”
“So you’ll help me? You’ll fight her with me?”
“Fight – sweetness, how could you – how could we possibly fight the Queen? You don’t have anything but your soft, puncturable body, and I don’t even have legs.”
“That’s not true.” Tia stood up. The rage and grief swirling in her had awoken a certainty that had always been somewhat lacking. The thing she did with the mice in the woods was instinctive; she didn’t understand it but rather felt it, like muscle memory. When she’d awoken Bel, it felt the same – like reaching out to a consciousness that, when she closed her eyes, was very much like her own, just living in a machine made of wires and copper instead of meat.
But the thing that had happened earlier today… the creature now rising in her like capsaicin on her tongue, making her sweat – it was fiery and clear-eyed, and it knew exactly what it was doing. She laid her hand on Bel’s terminal, and for the first time, instead of simply opening her “ears,” as it were, listening for him in the wires, she dove in herself. She didn’t linger, didn’t try to wrest the machine from his control. She slipped through like a rogue glitch, sidestepping security routines and shifting her weight from one neglected backwater of storage to another. She felt Bel’s surprise – it reverberated through his system, through his body, and made it shake under her. When he spoke, it filled every part of her mind, like the Queen’s voice he’d described.
“Sweet – what are you – this is not… this is not possible!”
Okay then, she thought, unable to speak, no longer able to feel her face or her flesh at all. If it’s not possible… then stop me.
There was so little of her here – a mote of volition, a will like a wisp in the wires, with no ability to weigh alternatives or speculate. Her intention as she’d entered was the direction of her travel, and it was toward the warehouse. The wires were broken there, in a thousand, thousand places. She could see where Bel had shored up the system, cut off routines related to the space and the rooms beyond, and she could see the other victims of the fall – there were four porter androids buried in the wreckage, and another two in the charging bays next to the one Bel indicated held his own body. Savage joy went through her like a spark, and threw her onward.
Not all the connections were broken, but the lines that survived were under the floor, maintenance and auxiliary wires. In her mind’s eye, Bel was vast, an amorphous consciousness slowly moving through a network that seemed grossly undersized for the amount of data he was storing there. No wonder he was so well-informed.
You were never a grocery store manager, she thought. The revelation didn’t trouble her – somehow she had never really believed Bel was no more than what he seemed. And the size of him, the amount of space he required simply to exist, was more than the maintenance lines were ever built to transmit.
But Tia was small, most of her consciousness still lighting up her grey matter with limbic subroutines. She dove into the maintenance line and instantly felt her world squeeze down to a crushing claustrophobia. Like clinging to a bullet in the barrel of a gun, the sense of speed and narrowing space accelerated until she thought she would scream – where would it go? – and then she was through, in the comfortable little maintenance server for the warehouse, the software a picture of undisturbed calm beneath its physical ruin.
She touched the porter androids in their charging bays. Both of them responded immediately, activating themselves as if they’d waited decades for something to do – and perhaps they had. Tia was blind – none of the data coming back to her translated into sight, but nevertheless she could hold the shape of it in her mind, like she did when she reassembled the mouse. She could see every part next to every other part, and fix the small errors, the little, world-shattering mistakes.
Tia guided the androids to open their charging bays, slowly in case the stone was piled up against the doors. Neither reported any issue with that, and so she directed them to begin cleaning their immediate surroundings. As the several hundred tons of fallen ceiling and debris separating them from her certainly fell into the category of “a mess,” the porters carefully set about disentombing themselves. It might take them a year, but it would probably take her ten, and get her killed in the process.
She withdrew from the system much more easily than she’d entered, the shard of her will drawn inexorably back to the meat she’d left the rest in. Bel was talking, but she only caught the end of it.
“ – to get back out. I can’t even feel you in here anymore, sweetness – are you all right? Tia, please -”
As she rejoined her body, the grief and rage that had overwhelmed her swept back in, still cascading through the meat in the form of chemicals. It made her loose-lipped, her mind exhilarated, her body exhausted.
“Shut up, I’m fine, I just brought my mom and my brother and two robots back from the fucking dead; why wouldn’t I be fine?”
Bel’s babble stopped. “You did what?”
Her body had gone to its knees while she’d been away. She dragged herself up, subconsciously wiggling herself comfortable, like slipping into her favorite pants. “I just… asked them to stay,” she murmured, looking at her fingers on the terminal.
“Tia, you – and they stayed? Conscious? Did they speak to you?”
She nodded. Bel’s face on the monitor was frozen in an attitude of shock, so focused on her that he had stopped updating his avatar.
“How is this…” He fell silent for some time, and Tia strayed over to the door into the ruined warehouse and stuck her head in, listening. Very, very faintly, she could hear scraping deep in the wreckage. The androids were at work. She retreated to the office where it was warmer, and there Bel greeted her from the desk with, “I think this is wrong.”
“Oh yeah?” she murmured, too drained to care. She sunk into the nest of blankets she slept in here, and pulled one of them over her head. Bel continued to talk.
“I don’t pretend to understand everything about your biology, but I think the consciousness should go wherever it naturally would go after – after its machine shuts down. Don’t you think they’re suffering?”
“No!” she snapped, sitting back up. “I wouldn’t hurt them! I fixed them! I made it better! I did, I made – I made it better…” Tears choked her again, and Bel fell silent. When he finally spoke again, it was more gently.
“I’m sorry, sweetness. I know you don’t want to be alone.”
“‘M not going to be,” she sniffled. “You can’t die. We’re gonna get your body out and then we’re gonna go find a nice new one for you to live in and then we’re gonna kill the Queen and live happily ever after.”
Bel didn’t know what to say to that, and in time Tia cried herself to sleep. The next day she went back to the farmhouse, and found her Mama and Rack there, just like they were supposed to be. Rack helped her clear the snow off the porch, although he took a little longer than he used to, and Mama got up and made soup. She didn’t smile, and her hug was cold, but it was a hug, and Tia returned it with a ferocity that made her mother’s bones creak.