Fearsome Dreamer

In a world where the old fights against the new, Rue and White are Talented – and valuable. But both have more power than they know, and their electrical attraction may spell disaster...or change the world.

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2. WORLD

WHITE

 

He woke to freezing, draining cold.
Out of everything that had been done to him so far, it

was the cold that was the hardest to bear. Hunger was a creature whose ways he understood. His childhood had not been a rich one; hunger he had learned to deal with. A food unit might be free; credits to buy food from it were not. And life had been made harder than necessary for people like him.

Even as a child, White had been aware that there was something about him that didn’t fit. The other children he knew were so unlike him that he found them incomprehensible and alien. They cared about pointless things like games he had never heard of, famous people he had heard of but couldn’t muster up any interest in, and the latest holographic shoes that his family would never be able to afford.

Each time his father had suggested that White should try to get to know the other children at school, he had found the idea so absurd he would choke on it and be unable to speak. He felt bad, sometimes, because all his father needed was for him to agree, or comfort him with trying, and he would be happier. But instead, when he sat White down and told him that those children were not so different from him, that he should ask them who their favourite GameStars player was or which Life worlds they liked the best, he just looked back at his father, choking silently.

The truth was he had really grown to hate other children, and the truth was that at first they made fun of him and then ignored him totally as if he wasn’t even worth their spite, and the truth was that even if any of them did like the same snack that he did, that would only make him hate them more. He didn’t want to be anything like them. The idea had made him feel ill.

It was so cold, here.

Endless cold was insidious. You only got used to it for periods at a time, and to cope you carved your existence into blocks. Over this block and fine for a while. Barely even noticing it. Then it would stroke you gently over the arms and set you shivering with misery. You endured by begging each second to be the last, and when it was, you basked in the numbness, begging desperately for each extra minute, just another, and just one more, until the shivering began again.

So were his moments spent.

Back in the time pre-prison (as he liked to think of it, his entire life now firmly divided up into BEFORE and NOW), he had often thought about how he might cope if he were ever really and truly imprisoned. It was quite hard to imprison someone with his talent for escape. He had decided that the best way to cope would be to separate his mind from his body, and spend his time creating another life inside his head.

He would dream.

He was very good at that. It was part of the reason he was here in the first place.

But here and now, and just when he needed it most, his talent for dreaming had utterly deserted him. His thoughts were broken and confused, consisting mainly of thinking about how hungry and cold he was, and trying not to think about how hungry and cold he was. There was no energy left for anything else after that.

It would be easy to blame his mother for this. She was the one who had passed on the freakish abilities that had landed him in here. She was the one who had taught him about his gifts, and urged him incessantly on.

But there was no one to blame, not really, no one except himself, and the defect he had been born with that meant he could do things that others could not.

His mother had told him that there were others like them, but he hadn’t yet met a single one. He had been the only one in his school, the only one in his district. As far as he knew, anyway. If there were others, they hid it better than he did.

He didn’t want to hide it. Hiding meant shame. He would not be shamed.

When he was younger, there had been a popular slang thing going around; a little rebellious thing kids did as a nose-up to adults, because everyone knew that World’s past had been a stupid, dangerous place, weren’t they told so in school? So the other children’s favourite nickname for him was ‘jesus freak’. He didn’t even know what a jesus was – he’d had to look the term up in Life’s historical files. It had made him angry when he understood what it meant. He and his mother were not religious. Religion was for crazy people; everyone knew that.

He’d tried explaining this to his stupid, pathetic peers, but somehow he could never find the right way to say it, and they just laughed at him and screamed ‘look at the jesus freak speak!’ in the rhyming way some of the older ones liked to do.

Sometimes he had caught the looks on teachers’ faces as they watched him, before they managed to lower their gaze hurriedly. If adults could react in such a way to what he was, then that meant that they felt there was also something wrong with his mother. And that meant that his mother could be wrong. And that led to thoughts he didn’t want to have.

The door clicked.

He twitched, a tic he had developed in unconscious reply to the very particular sound of that door click.

He would be strong, this time. There was always another time, another chance to redeem himself. It wouldn’t be like the last time, nor the time before that. But his body had chosen to deal with these visits without his input, and before he could stop it, his voice broke into its regular litany.

‘Please please please,’ he said in a babbling rush. Then, ‘I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t know what you want.’

Good Man crouched next to him in his customary position. His hands were locked loosely between his legs, his eyes kind.

‘I’m trying to help you,’ said Good Man earnestly. ‘I’m the only one that can. You know this. I hate watching you suffer.’

He believed Good Man. He’d even seen tears running down Good Man’s cheeks before.

‘Please,’ said Good Man. ‘I’m begging you.’

No, no. I’m begging you, he wanted to say. You’ve got this the wrong way round. What kind of torturer are you?

‘Only dogs beg,’ said the other, Bad Man. He was in a corner, in his customary shadowed position. Good Man’s face was earnest and sweat-streaked. Bad Man could have had the face of an elephant for all he knew – he’d never seen it. Bad Man never came close.

He hated Good Man, quite a lot more than Bad. In the earlier, more lucid days, he had wondered if it was because Good Man was real and close to him, and so gave him something to focus his hate on; or whether it was because Good Man seemed human and kind, in spite of what he was doing.

‘What I want to know is,’ said Bad Man from his corner, ‘why don’t you just leave? Why can’t you just disappear, like you’ve done before? They tell me it’s the drugs they give you, and the cold and the hunger. But I don’t believe it. I believe it’s instinctual, like a dog when it needs to hump something. It’ll come out, and there will be nothing you can do to prevent it.’

Later, in his mind, they would pay. Later, he would run fragments of the conversation through his head and reply in the way he should have, with a cool, collected screw you. In his perfect version of events, there would be violence, and he would be powerful.

But here and now and out loud, he was a child again, frightened and begging.

‘I can’t do that!’ he said, hating the plaintive whine in his own voice.

Good Man grabbed his arm, gripping it at the shoulder joint. ‘Your hand is fading.’

White looked down. His wrist was very dirty, he realised. When was the last time they had washed him? Washing in this place consisted of shoving him, naked and grime-streaked, into a Hot ’n’ Dry, a hideously ancient contraption that blasted dirt from you with chemically treated, moisture-heavy air. He hadn’t felt the soothing, cleansing touch of liquid on his skin for weeks. It was amazing how much you could miss it.

‘Your hand is fading, and you don’t even realise it,’ repeated Good Man, a little sadness creeping into his voice.

‘I wasn’t,’ White managed. ‘I wasn’t doing it.’

‘I told you,’ said Bad Man triumphantly to Good Man. ‘It’s automatic, they can’t help it. It’ll be soon, you’ll see.’ He turned to White. ‘And when you Jump, we’ll track you. You remember the shiny new implant we gave you, don’t you? It will track you within seconds to wherever you go. And if you Jump out of World again, we’ll know.’

‘I don’t DO THAT.’

Good Man let go of White’s wrist and hung his head. ‘I can’t help you if you don’t want to help yourself.’

‘No,’ said White, knowing he was begging again. Hating himself for it.

‘Listen to me. People like you need help. Why do you want to move around all over the place? It’s unnatural. You have everything you need right here.’

‘It’s not my fault!’


Bad Man’s voice drifted out from his corner.


‘We know you help the Technophobes,’ he said. ‘We have evidence of them actively trying to recruit people like you. Just give us names. That’s all we want. Names.’

‘I don’t know any Technophobes! I don’t know anyone!’

Good Man sighed, pained. ‘Why do you want to hurt people? Why do you hate us?’

‘We don’t hurt anyone. We don’t hurt anyone. We don’t do anything!’ White screamed, his voice splitting. The worst thing about it was trying to make them see. They just wouldn’t see. It was the despair over this, over knowing he was trapped by people who would never change their minds about him, who would always see him as a dangerous little mutant, that scarred him the most.

Good Man stood up.


‘Goodbye,’ he said, his voice resigned.

 

White woke.


He had managed to sleep for a while, after they had gone. But every time he woke, it took a moment for him to remember where he was, and what was happening. He floated in nothingness, and a voice told him to enjoy it as much as he could, to soak up the blank comfort.

Then he remembered, and wished he’d listened to the voice.

Every wake day began the same. They were wake days now because he could only count his life between being awake and being asleep. There was no concept of time in this tiny, dank place. There were no windows to let in the light, and the strip lights overhead were never turned off. They glowed a pale, heartless sort of blue. The exact shade of blue, he thought, designed to drive you mad. His captors must have done studies on it. They must have tested each imperceptible shade on prisoners until they found the one that broke people the fastest.

The new implant really hurt. Of all the physical things that had been done to him, that galled the most. That they would use something as normal, as natural as the implant against him. Make him hate them more. Surely that was not what they wanted? Surely they wanted him to love them? He had already told them so. Told them he loved World. He loved it. That he would never leave. Could they somehow detect the lie in his voice, even when he screamed it with everything he had? Even when he actually believed himself in that moment that he said it out loud, because what was more convincing than desperation for this all to end?

The door clicked, and he twitched, and half of him was relieved that at least there would be someone in the room with him, someone he could talk to. The other half was revolted at himself, that a person could sink so low as to be grateful for the company of people whose job it was to hurt him as much as they could.

But instead of Good Man and Bad Man, there were two guards he had never seen before. They dragged him upwards and out of his room and down the corridor, presumably to the wash room and that horrific creaking machine.

It was rare that he got to leave his room, and the first couple of times he had looked forward to it, to the opportunity to look around, try and memorise the layout, in the back of his mind nurturing the hope of a daring plan of escape. But the corridors all looked the same, and nothing gave him a clue about anything, and after a while it was too hard to concentrate on anything much except trying not to fall down between the arms that gripped his. And a while after that, a small seed of fear began to sprout, a fear that told him he didn’t want to leave his room any more, that it was easier just to stay in there. Safer.

They didn’t go to the wash room this time. They went through a series of doors, doors that weren’t even locked, and ended up in a small room, completely bereft of furniture. Four walls, one door, and nothing else.

He was stopped in the middle of the room, and handed a small bundle of clothes and a pair of soft shoes. He stripped off his dirty clothes and stood naked, hastily shaking out the nondescript trousers and tugging them on. It had been a while since he cared about being naked in front of strangers. They never looked at him, in any case, but neither did they turn away; as if he wasn’t worth the consideration. The clothes they had given him were scratchy, but clean.

He was led through another door set into the side of the room. Behind it was a woman in a chair, and a desk in front of her. She smiled at him.

‘Hello, Jacob,’ she said.

He stared at her dumbly. If this was a new tactic they were trying, he couldn’t yet fathom it. Perhaps they thought a sweet motherly type would bring out his inner child. At least they couldn’t read his mind yet. It had been gnawing at him ever since they had put the new implant in his head. What if that was what it did, somehow?

But so far, it didn’t seem like it. If it had been able to read his mind, he was sure they wouldn’t have had to carry on questioning him the way they had, and the operation had been a long time ago. Or perhaps it just seemed a long time ago. He had no way of knowing. He was pierced with a sudden, yearning need to know what date it was, what time precisely. His new implant could have told him, assuming it worked anything like the old one, but he couldn’t access it in this place. They had blocked it somehow; or maybe it wasn’t even activated yet.

The woman was looking at him with the glazed smile of someone unsure if she should keep waiting for him to say something. She seemed to decide against it, and spoke again.

‘I’m afraid we don’t have the clothes you came in. Regulations. Silly, really. But I hope those will do. They’re not very exciting, I’m afraid.’ She gave a fluting laugh.

It took him a moment, and quite a lot of effort, but his reply was worth the energy. ‘Why do you think I would give a fuck about some clothes?’

He put everything he had into the fuck. His voice was raspy. Another time he might have been pleased about that. He had always wanted an interesting voice.

Her face had dropped, and turned uneasy. She would know what it meant. It was a hot topic on Life news at the moment; the degradation of today’s youth by the awful, aggressive language of the past.

He felt first a flash of guilt, then a tidal wave of fury that overrode everything else. So what if she was kind? So what if she went home to her three children at night and read them stories, and tucked them in, and always volunteered for extra civic duty shifts, and was the loveliest woman in her block? She worked here. Here. That made her either deeply stupid or plainly evil, neither of which he could forgive. She deserved it, and more. She deserved everything he could throw at her, which was only one hurtful word, after all. He would have done more if he could.

‘Well,’ she said brightly, as if he hadn’t spoken at all. ‘Everything is in order. You didn’t have much on you when you came in, so nothing to give back. If you’d like to step through that door to your right, Jacob. Thank you so much.’

He considered saying no, and seeing how far that got him, but his legs were trembling, and he felt tired. He hadn’t walked around this much in quite a while. He considered telling her that his name, as far as he was concerned, was not Jacob, which was a weak, normal kind of name; but White, a purer simpler name, a name that suited him much better, even if it wasn’t the one his parents had given him. But the fight had gone out of him in the face of her bland cheeriness. It was an effective weapon.

So he went to the door and it opened up automatically for him, and beyond it was bright light, painful and fierce.

He stood, tears leaking from his eyes.
‘Jacob.’
There was a vague shape beyond, but the light was still too bright.
‘Jacob,’ the voice said again, with a tremble. ‘It’s me,

Cho. It’s your sister. I’ve come to pick you up. They’re letting us take you home.’

He heard the door behind him click shut.

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