Day 53. 64 pages, 30,172 words.
He sat in the green shade, listening to the whispering of the leaves. They told a story. They told him who he was. They always had. He just never quite managed to remember.
Back to normal in a few…
Strain of not understanding…
Go to your cell and rest…
Quite satisfied, you’ll find your guns in working order…
Take him to Reco, just in case…
And time passed.
He looked around.
So this was a forest, he thought happily. He still wasn’t sure he had it exactly right, but the feeling was there. It was quiet, warm, and he was alone. Alone, after his experiences in the cho’gule, was more precious than the grey fire Happy Gretchen wanted so much. The rest wasn’t important, the details weren’t important, as long as he didn’t have to share them.
He felt his body being jostled, lifted. Manipulated. Maybe by Happy Gretchen herself. It was a soft and distant thing. Maybe she took him to Doctor Reco, maybe she took him to his cell, maybe both. Maybe other things. He didn’t pay much attention. He’d become adept at retreating into himself when bad things happened, and bad things happened a lot. His retreats had become easier, more long-lasting, as he’d built the forest around him. It was almost to the point now, he thought, when he might be able to just stay in here. Like his p’bruz from the other pods.
He wasn’t an unbroken exception, he’d come to realise. He wasn’t some lucky anomaly who had managed to retain consciousness. He was one of the slow learners who hadn’t built a secret place for himself as soon as they’d dragged him from his sleep.
He looked around, without really stopping to think that this was all in his head and that there was nothing for him to look around with. The trees whirled and blurred in his mind’s eye, shifting shapes and colours that fell apart and were replaced by the drab surroundings of his cell, the scrawled decorations he’d put up on its walls. He looked up.
“Jadis?” he said.
“What is this you have made?” she asked. “Is it a forest?”
Pod 9 looked around again. At first he thought she was talking about the pictures he’d attempted to draw. “It is…” he stopped, words failing him. As always.
“Have you seen this before?” Jadis asked. “Is it memory?” Pod 9 shook his head, more a sign of helpless ignorance than an answer. “May I enter?”
“It maybe is obla – cramp,” Pod 9 said, although he was puzzled. The cell door was open and there was no sign of Jadis in the corridor. “If you have the suit on…”
“No suit,” Jadis said. “And you must enter first. It is … protocol.”
Pod 9 frowned and looked around one more time. Belatedly – again, as usual – the truth dawned on him. He returned to the simple scrawled lines and whispering canopy of his internal forest.
“Do you mean this place?” he asked. Strangely, the words came more easily – although perhaps it wasn’t so strange. This was inside his head, after all. “Can you enter here as well?”
“I can,” Jadis said, “but it is an ugly thing for me to do without your invitation.”
“Consider my invitation extended,” Pod 9 said formally.
“Thank you,” her voice came from behind him, and he spun the forest on its axis – the axis that was him – to reveal Jadis.
She didn’t look like an aki’Drednanth. If anything, he thought, she looked like a human, only larger and grander, a human finished. Her garments were glorious yet tattered. She swayed, as though momentarily off-balance, and laughed lightly.
“I am not accustomed to a fixed mind, moving the Dreamscape around it. Perhaps I should not call it a Dreamscape … not yet. But no other term will suffice,” she stepped close and looked down at him. “What happened?” she asked. “With the Blaran, Grendel’s Grief, and Pod 13? I received the message from Happy Gretchen but was … unwilling to make the journey. The grey of relative speed is cold and lonesome, and when you get to my age…” she raised her pair of long, flowing-sleeved arms, then let them fall. “And then…” again she trailed off, then continued more positively. “This, I was not expecting. I would not have waited. I would have reached out to you before my return, had I known.”
Pod 9 recognised, in the same way his own words were coming to him, that she was not talking about any planned visit to Happyface. “Your aki’Drednanth form has died,” he said.
Jadis nodded, then gave a snort. “A feeble old thing it had become,” she said. “Lifting the gauntlet to speak was beginning to cause me pain. This is much more to my liking. Now,” she went on, just a little stern, “tell me.”
“To be honest I don’t know what happened,” Pod 9 said. “Grendel’s Grief had a piece of Fergunakil technology that he’d apparently salvaged when he was supposed to kill a little school of the sharks. It held some kind of consciousness snapshot, a backup in some broken sort of way. He couldn’t get it to work with any tech he had tried, because it was more mind than program.”
“And he did not trust us,” Jadis said, “because of Sleet.”
Pod 9 shrugged. “They had me attempt to communicate with Deadflesh,” he said, “the Fergunakil ghost. But I was afraid. They brought Pod 13 to act as … I don’t know, the filter, the storage space, that I sometimes borrow my p’bruz to do things with,” Pod 9 slumped, curled in on himself in misery. “Something happened.”
“The data ghost installed itself in Pod 13,” Jadis said, the sternness in her voice tinged – but only tinged – with sympathy. “Poured itself into her empty matrix.”
“I think it wasn’t empty,” Pod 9 whispered. “I think she was just hiding in a – a Dreamscape like this one, while her body was used in the cho’gule.”
Jadis did not reassure emptily. She never had. “That is possible,” she said. “I have never seen evidence of such, not like this,” she spread her hands again. “But I may not, if they were small and private enough. You and I, we have a connection we have worked on together,” she sighed. “And so Pod 13 was infected by this ghost,” she said, “and you were the conduit. And Grendel’s Grief took her away.”
“Happy Gretchen didn’t want him to take her,” Pod 9 said. He shivered, remembering what the glittering black-and-silver Blaran had said. Within the next twenty years, every Fleet, Separatist and Fleet Junior ship bigger than a lander is going to have these guns. But until then, and in certain spheres permanently, they’re going to be a commodity. “Grendel’s Grief made her part of the price. For the guns, the fire he had stolen from the Cancer in the Core. He said she was a communication interface, nothing more.”
Jadis hesitated, looking around.
“It is crude,” she mused, “even by Molranoid standards, yet it shows promise. And if Tían was capable, why not you? You must be trained,” she declared. “You cannot be permitted to wallow and fall to pieces inside your own fantasy. Do not concern yourself with Grendel’s Grief and Pod 13 for now. Come.”
“Where are we going?” Pod 9 asked, not even certain how he was supposed to go anywhere. “Is there another aki’Drednanth you can send to teach me?”
“Not an aki‘Drednanth, no,” Jadis said. Now, if anything, her voice was tinged with nervousness. Perhaps even fear. But again, only tinged. “Not this one.”