Chapter Twelve: Cloak and Swagger
"We gotta go, Joyce, but where's Ashe?" I asked with Nash still tugging gently on my hand.
Joyce stared at me vacantly and motioned to a spot on the floor beside her. There appeared to be an intricate pattern of white, blue and pink tiles spread across the cement. It made no sense to me until I moved and shifted my perspective. The pattern came into focus and I saw a dissected two-dimensional representation of Ashe within it. Little white squares for her hair and little pink and blue squares for her clothes. I turned back to Joyce, my eyes as wide as a nice set of hips. This gave her the cue that it was time to explain.
"I was just trying to restrain her so I could copy all her data and wipe it," she said, "I guess I mighta lowered her res a bit. Just to make it go smoother. But she just got way bitchier, after that, believe me, and then things got kinda... out of control. She got so low-res that she lost a dimension. She's basically like a sprite, now, from some shit like Gex or something."
I sighed and looked back at the pattern. Ashe did look like something out of a video game, but this twisted version of her was all wrong. Every few seconds the tiles shifted slightly, and I couldn't tell if this was something she was doing consciously or merely in reaction to her environment. There was no way to communicate with her- Joyce had turned her into pixels and data, she had no vocal cords that were capable of vibration. I looked back at Joyce with her feet in the coding pit. The monitor in there was blank- there was no more code anyone could feed into that ancient computer outside and use to kill everyone Stanley's unethical program deemed unworthy. Joyce had certainly handled things thoroughly. I was now painfully aware of the huge divide between her very nature as a being of code and mine as a human. All I could do was try to be cautious of it.
"If you have the code, there's nothing left for us here." I said, "Let's go- there's a lot of stairs."
The three of us descended slowly down the sparsely illuminated staircase. Joyce walked a little ways ahead of us, occasionally flitting out of view for a few seconds. I focused on making sure Nash didn't trip and fall in her state of shock. There was nothing by way of a railing there so I did my best to function as her railing, but in a different way than I had hoped she would function as mine. Even after everything that had happened I knew I would still be needing it soon. After a while we heard some excited chattering from the chamber we were circling around. I motioned for silence and peeked in. I caught a glimpse of robust and well developed shoulders on the figures below and ascertained it was the escaped iron-workers. I told Joyce and tried to help Nash hurry along downstairs.
When we reached the bottom of the stairs there were already a few iron-workers gathered by the large orange door. All three were muscular goddesses, tanned and statuesque. They recognized me instantly and began chattering amongst themselves. It was almost more than my ego could take.
"Hey," said one, "Aren't you that girl with the fake nails and the really loose asshole from last week?"
I stirred and sputtered, my face turning bright red as I tried to pretend I didn't notice Joyce's wry smile. I explained to the tan beauty that I was also the one who had freed them, and she nodded and ran off into the chamber. She came back with another goddess, a pale redhead with an air of authority who I hadn't seen before. This woman introduced herself as Becky and, after cornering me against the stone wall, slapped the wall above my shoulder quite fiercely. Even Nash flinched at the bang her strong but elegant hand produced. Becky nodded at her then turned back to me.
"So you're the one that unlocked the cells, huh?" she asked, looking down at me, "Why? Because some of my girls helped you out that time?"
"No," I said, "I need your help."
"Of course you do. But it turns out we're busy. See, those fuckers still have one of our workers. Her name was Val. So now we gotta go out and search the mountain perimeter for the assholes that took her."
"You would die!"
"Probably. But we have to find her. We're Arbuckles- the union always has been."
Nash covered her face and I thought I heard a soft sob. I pushed myself up off the wall and turned my face up towards Becky's.
"You don't," I said, "Val is dead." But! She was one of them. A cat person. And we didn't kill her- it was Davis."
"What the fuck?" asked Becky, "Nash? Is that true?"
"I'm pretty sure she was actually their leader," I said, "So we don't have to worry about the rest of them. They're just subby cats who can't organize for shit unless someone else tells them what to do. We can all just walk out of here."
Becky took a while to consider this. The greek-looking workers watched her with interest. She finally pushed herself off the wall and reached out her hand. I took it gingerly.
"If Val was a rat- I mean cat," she said, "Then thanks for taking care of it for us."
"It was Davis," I said.
"Sure. Look, we owe you one- probably more! There was no reason for you to help us- besides, well, I can tell you care about Nash. Which is good, I always thought she was too good for Val. Whatever it is, I'll put my best and brightest on it. But first we gotta get outta here safely. Can you do one more thing for me?"
"Take this- it was Val's. She was always a big fan of films from 1991 to 2001. The 'true nineties', she called them. Had quite a prop collection. This is one of them- an invisibility cloak."
She handed me a piece of cloth barely large enough to cover a single well-developed teenager. It was a dark purplish grey, and covered in moons and stars. I gave Becky a quizzical look and pulled the cloak over my head.
"Can you see me?" I asked.
"Uh, no. I can't. Where'd you go?" Becky replied dryly. Joyce flashed me a smirk.
"Really? I'm actually invisible right now?"
"Yeah, sure. Now go sneak a peek at those cat people so we can sneak outta here. Then we can help you or whatever."
I nodded and started walking off. Nash and Becky still followed me with their eyes despite the cloak. Joyce even ran up to me and stopped me at the narrow corridor.
"Wait, Riese," she said, "You're sure you wanna wear that cloak?"
"Why, is it not working?" I asked.
"No, it's totally working," she teased, "But wasn't it created by a Terf? There might be discourse here."
"Maybe. But I think it's ok 'cause I'm reclaiming it."
"By, like, being a chick with a dick and stealing a Terf's cloak."
I walked through the corridor with the shaky belief that I was doing something revolutionary. The inside of the mountain's stony rampart held a small screen with a lock symbol. I tapped it and the lock unhinged, which caused the wall to rumble and give way. I sidled out and saw no signs of man or cat. Lacking any sense of direction, I started off to my right and began searching the perimeter of the mountain. After a few minutes I came upon the couple hundred cat persons, some on guard while others lounged and chatted idly. As soon as I began stealthily approaching the closest ones stirred and stopped talking. They stared at me, as did those behind them, and then the masses beyond. Soon all two hundred were giving me a blank look. I stepped back and prepared to run for my life. Then, just as soon as they had stopped, they resumed their searching and lounging.
I breathed an uncertain sigh and inched a bit closer- as close as I dared. From here I could see the faces of almost all the cultists. But there was one face that I didn't realize I was expecting to see until I didn't. I frowned and slowly turned around. I made it back to the front of the mountain and removed the pipe from its hole. I stepped inside and locked the entrance. Joyce, Nash, and Becky were waiting for me. I slid off the auspicious cloak and they all feigned surprise despite all having seen me and Nash having waved.
"We can avoid them if we all just go left," I said.
"So they're on the north side, then," said Becky, "Good."
"Yeah, Becky," said Joyce, "Anything else, Riese?"
"Not really," I said, "There was this guy I met last week. I thought I'd see him here for sure. He seemed like a really big fan of Garfield."
I shrugged and Joyce narrowed her eyes. Becky ventured into to the main chamber and returned with two of the greek women. She motioned towards them.
"Thank you for your help, Riese. I'll start organizing my girls so we can move out. You can take Zoe and Thalia. They're some of my hardest workers. They can help you with whatever you need, just send them back to me after. Deal?
"Sure," I said, "Welcome aboard."
Zoe and Thalia nodded. Becky thanked me again and then returned to her people. I gathered Nash and Joyce and after leading all four through some deep breathing exercises we all zipped up our coats and headed out through the narrow passage. I lead the group, with Joyce behind me, then Zoe and Thalia. Nash brought up the rear.
The mountain birthed us out into the wintery quiet. The snow had picked up and we couldn't even hear the group of cat people less than a hundred yards away. We stood their for a moment before taking a dozen paces south. I already felt chilled to the bone, but in that refreshing and invigorating way that I sometimes craved when exploring such climates. It would be nice to return to the moderate warmness of summer at home, and to the lingering pollution of the City.
I turned around to check if my group were in similar spirits. I saw Joyce smiling in her tank top and shorts, impervious to the cold as she was, and the greek unionists in their warm black coats with their unreadable faces. But to my shock I couldn't see Nash. I asked Joyce where she was and she looked around and shrugged. I ran back by the mountain, then further south and what I guessed must be west. I didn't dare go north without Val's cloak.
"Nash!" I yelled. There was no reply in the stiffening cold. Just an empty silence and a smattering of yellow snow in the spot my tenacious travelling lesbian had vanished from.