You know, what the world thinks of you is worth about as much as a hundred dollar bill stapled to a dead junky’s forehead. People say that all the time, but it’s true. Take me for example, the victim of an extremely bizarre case of identity theft. While I may introduce myself as Lilith, a woman of most humble origins, the world knows me as Osiris, an artist with either a twisted sense of humour or a gross inability to anticipate consequences. Whichever you pick, there are a lot of mixed feelings about Osiris’s work — at least, the early stuff. So if it really mattered what the world thought of me than I’d have gone into hiding, or worse. Not that I had an easy time learning that lesson. Who wants to listen to sound, reasonable advice when you can screw up horribly and make yourself miserable? Me, for one. So I thought you could learn from my mistakes or just learn from my misfortune. Either works for me.
I went through a period of profound disconnect from society. A wilful and total isolation from living people, digitally or otherwise. I tried my best to be an anonymous ghost in all things, which isn’t all that difficult if you put the effort in. At the time, it felt like the best way to protect the world from Oz and myself from the world. Let’s be real, the name Osiris is attached to some pretty horrible stuff. Stuff that most people find unforgivable – and I tend to agree. And back then I didn’t know about half the things Oz had done, let alone how to prevent any more of his creations from running amok. I’m still not convinced Oz was aware, either. He brought eccentric genius to a whole new level. Who else would get themselves a roommate with the express purpose of dropping them in the hot seat like Oz did to me?
And really, how can I say I knew Oz on any meaningful level? I only lived with Oz for three months. Sure, that was enough time to get to know each other’s bad habits and peccadilloes, but not much more than that. In that whole time, I had no idea he was capable of building machines that literally drove people insane, or triggered blanket signal jackings – and then erase all traces of him ever existing on Planet Earth. The only reason I’m sure he existed at all is that my imaginary friends generally aren’t menaces to society. He might as well have had “stranger than fiction” tattooed across his chest.
Here’s the thing about willful isolation, it always ends in one of two ways: you either go bat-shit insanobrains and end up living in a cardboard shack somewhere, decorating the walls with your own feces; or something drags you back into the mundane, not banana pants way of living.
Error: connection failed. Check your setting and reload page, or contact your service provider.
Those hateful words had been staring me in the face for a full five minutes. Wasn’t this sort of thing supposed to be impossible? We had a Unified Data Network (UDN) so that no one had to go without connection no matter what nook and cranny of ThisCity they holed up in. And they taxed us up the wazzou for it, too. No way service went down, and Oz’s computer was wired into a hardline to boot. I had checked every setting, ran every cable, rebooted anything that could be rebooted and still had no connection. What the hell was going on? One minute I was researching components from some of Oz’s schematics, the next I was sitting in front of a useless husk of machinery. I didn’t know what to do. Frankly, the lack of connection was mildly panic inducing. What exactly did one do without the Internet? I had never experienced this sensation before. Was I the only one experiencing this? No, I couldn’t be.
Deciding I was adequately attired in my boxers and ratty tank top, I strode confidently over to the front door to try and find some answers. Someone out there must be able to tell me what was going on. If not, well, I wasn’t sure what I’d do. When I wrenched the door open and peered around the hallway, Gary was walking down the stairs from the roof. The fire door slammed loudly behind him. He was the building’s custodian so if anyone was going to know what was going on, it’d be Gary.
“Oh, hey, Lilith.” He stopped when he noticed me staring at him. He was probably the most normal guy I had ever met. In his forties, medium build, balding, pretty much exclusively wore jeans and flannel shirts. He was super nice, though.
“Hey, umm, the -”
“- Internet’s out, I know. Urban golfing is making a come back, apparently. A stray golf ball put a nice big dent in our box.”
“When is it -”
“- Gonna be back up? Don’t know yet. There’s a technician on the way to take a look.”
“Oh.” I did not like the sound of that. It must have shown on my face because Gary gave me a concerned smile.
“It’s a really nice day out there for once. Why don’t you go for a walk or something? Get out a little. You’re looking kind of pale.”
“Yeah, maybe I’ll do that…”
“The connection should be up by the time you get back.”
“Okay, thanks, Gary.” I hovered in the doorway awkwardly, not sure what I should do, while Gary stood at the stop of the stairs, staring at me with a curious look. Eventually, he nodded and I backed up into the apartment, slamming the door by accident.
Shit. Now what? This was going to be the longest afternoon of my life. Everything I had planned to do today was dependent on having connectivity. I honestly couldn’t think of anything that didn’t require UDN access, which was sad and frustrating. As I walked back into the living room, I was seeing the place for the first time in a long while, and it wasn’t pretty. Slovenly was not a word I used to describe myself, but maybe it was time to start. Seriously, the place was a filthy sespit of human laziness. When was the last time I did dishes, or laundry for that matter? I mean, Oz didn’t exactly leave behind a tidy apartment. His techno-junk littered every surface and more or less took up two thirds of the floor space in here. Yet, somehow without noticing, I’d created my own layer of disarray on top of that. Gross, sticky disarray. Cleaning this up was going to take days – just to get it back to how Oz had left it…
Repulsed by my own filth, I had to let some overdue sunlight into here. I stomped over to the large windows and ripped open the still taped up drapes. Gary was right about it being a nice day out, or it looked nice at any rate. Knowing the weather in ThisCity, it could still be cold as balls. Not that I was going to let that stop me from airing the place out. I had to slap the temperamental control panel around a bit before I could get the security fields to turn off. As long as those energy fields were still up, it didn’t make a damn difference if the windows were open or not, which was was most places didn’t bother with installing glass in their windows anymore. This building was old as hell so I still got the pleasure of fighting with sticky window frames.
As the first breeze rolled in, I became acutely aware of the pervasive funk about the place. Suddenly, the thought of spending the rest of my day cooped up here filled me with such an overwhelming sense of dread that I nearly had to sit down. Anywhere was better than here. It didn’t take long to throw on the cleanest clothes I could find, slap on an obscenely thick layer of deodorant and run out the door.
Outside, what a weird concept. I stood on the sidewalk in front of the building, squinting in the sunlight. Now what? I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. “Anywhere but here” was not a very precise destination when you thought about it. As I stared up at the sky, I felt a vague sense of vertigo come over me. Man, did I need to get out more. What exactly did people do outside the house? I used to go places, didn’t I…
“FOUR!” A deep voice boomed out from somewhere unseen and then an energy field behind me zapped some kind of projectile. Instinctively, my hands flew up to cover my head as I dove for cover.
“Sorry,” the voice boomed again, accompanied by peels of laughter. A round face appeared over the edge of the adjacent roof top. He held up his gold club and shrugged apologetically. That’s what Gary was talking about… I flipped him off and got out of there, not caring which direction I took.
Sometimes you just needed to go. Oz said that to me once. He never understood how someone my age could be so devoid of wanderlust, but all the places I wanted to visit only existed in books or movies. Didn’t need to go far for that. Maybe he was right, though, that I should want to see the world. Right now, I was the man who had slept for a hundred years..
All on their own, my feet took me to that cyber cafe I used to escape to whenever Oz was in one of his moods and I needed to get course work done. It was actually a pretty decent place, dark and cozy, with chairs that had good lumbar support. For two bitcoin you could get decently edible soylent ramen. For three bitcoin, they’d even put hot water in it for you. I hadn’t been there in over eight months, but nothing had changed. Even the same pale faces were planted in front of the same screens, as if they hadn’t moved in that whole time. I half expected them to have grown mold… Standing outside, peering in through the barred window, the appeal of a working UDN connection wasn’t strong enough to compel me into the cafe. I wanted to be around people who were alive and not digital zombies. If only just to pretend I was one of them for a few hours. Then I could go back to being a shut in.
I flung myself across the street, nearly tripping over the conduction rails in order to hit up one of those tourist kiosks that no one ever really used. The thing was beat up and so graffiti filled that the screen was barely visible, but it lit up when I gave it a good whack. Using the hack Oz showed me with the gaming token that for some reason registered on the prepaid card scanner, I got it to let me into the system for free. As I stood there trying to figure out how to pose me query, I started laughing at myself. What the hell was I thinking? This was how twisted out of my mind I’d become. Seeking out crowds, excitement and adventure. This was not the Lilith people knew and loved (sort of). Was this Oz seeping into my grey matter and polluting it or was I blossoming into a real girl?
I shut down the terminal and backed out of there, relieved to be away from the stink of urine. I knew exactly where I wanted to go: the one place I avoided more than anywhere in ThisCity – The Central Nervous System.
You knew you’d hit the Central District (aka the Central Nervous System) when you couldn’t move five steps in any direction without encountering some form of business hipster/yuppie peacocking for all to see. I immediately regretted everything I’d said about wanting to be where the people were. This place was literally the worst. People were always saying this was where anything in ThisCity got its start, but it was more like this was where things became monetized and commodified. This was where trends went from edgy to cliched. Yeah, the streets were choked with people and traffic was moving at a turtle’s pace, but I wouldn’t call it buzzing with life. People were streaming by the dozens on the catwalks above, but from this vantage point they looked more like robots than humans. This was what I’d been missing? Everyone was wired in, doing who knows what, probably the same inane shit I got up to online. So totally stuff that could only be done in the Nervous System… yeesh. Six people had already walked headlong into me. Not that I had the most imposing presence, but was it really that hard to watch where you were walking?
You had all these people who were, I don’t know, hooked into their digital lives or worried that they’d come off looking like tourists or something. Meanwhile, there I was standing in front of the Infinity Fall, a seventy-two story waterfall that looped back in on itself. How could you walk past that without looking up? The Nervous System might have been brimming with yuppies, but there was something to be said for the area’s aesthetic. Across the street was a giant robot that constantly transformed itself into a conventional building and back again. A few blocks down, there was the floating cloud with a glass elevator that brought you into the building proper. My personal favourite was the haunted house that rearranged itself endlessly. Let me ask you this; what kind of person didn’t get excited about living in a city that had a life-size replica of Godzilla?
This whole trend started when some architect realized that since no one was constructing solid state buildings anymore, there was no reason for buildings to look so conventional. The way construction worked these days, once the concrete skeleton, wiring and plumbing were laid down, it was just a matter of turning on the energy fields and moving the furniture in. You could build megastructures in months instead of years. Illusion Architecture, it was called, and it completely changed the face of ThisCity.
Ouch! Make that seven people. Big fucker would have crushed my foot, too, if it hadn’t decided to wear my steel toes. Seriously, why couldn’t people do this shit from home? Get why I usually avoided this place now? I remembered being brought here on a school trip – back when only half the buildings looked like hallucinations. I was laughably sheltered in those days and the Central District was a tad overwhelming for Tiny Lilith. The holo-ads were so mesmerizing; they were so big and I’d never seen them up close before. I was transfixed by the ephemeral maidens dancing around me, enticing me to buy, buy, BUY! Until I was nearly trampled in the crush of the business lunch rush.
Those ads were still running today. Giant shimmering ladies soared above the streets and wove in between buildings. Now, they just reminded me of Oz’s corpse-like sea creatures from his augmented reality hellscape. I shuddered involuntarily every time the shadow of one fell over me. Maybe it was time to head home. Ominous looking storm clouds were rolling in. The rain could start up at any time. It wasn’t like we had that fancy Star Trek weather control bullshit.
As I steered myself in the direction of the tubes, I was overcome by the smell of paint fumes and rotten eggs. It was the kind of of stink that got right up your nose and pressed on the back of your eyeballs. Reminded me of the time Oz was trying to mould plastic with a blowtorch. Either someone had built a bonfire out of last week’s egg salad sandwiches or the air scrubbers must have shut down, which was a pretty catastrophic failure. Air in ThisCity wasn’t exactly breathable without the nanomachines constantly filtering out dangerous particulates. And I wasn’t the only one to notice. People were starting to cough, covering their mouths or slipping on masks and looking for somewhere to shelter from it. Luckily, a ventilator was one of the many things I lugged around in my ridiculous bag of junk that I still carried with me out of habit from sharing a dorm room that had no lock with six skeevy roommates. After some digging, I managed to fish it out and slipped it on.
Whatever caused the air scrubbers to fail was affecting other systems in the area, too. In the time it took me to slip the ventilator over my face the Infinity Fall had shut off, along with half the Illusion Architecture on the block. Something was zapping the nearby energy field generators. Weren’t there supposed to be backup generators? Why hadn’t they kicked in? I thought this sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen. Like ever. ThisCity was built on redundancies. It didn’t exactly look good for all those expensive corporate buildings to suddenly be laid bare for all to see. The poor dudes sitting at their desks in plain view of everyone on the street looked especially distressed. I didn’t blame them, but I felt worse for the people stuck up on those narrow catwalks ten and twenty stories up that were currently devoid of any protective barrier. It got windy that high up.
Between the black clouds overhead and the lack of glowing holo-ads and luminescent street panels, it was almost completely dark out. How surreal. Weirder still, whatever was caused this phenomenon only had a five block effect radius. You could see through the buildings to where civilization started up again. It was like someone had dropped an EMP bomb into the heart of ThisCity, but without any of the collateral damage.
I never realized how loud ThisCity got until now. Without the droning of energy fields, the buzzing of the conduction rails, the wailing of the sky train and the overlapping jingles from the holo-ads it was nearly silent – except from the murmured, panicked conversations between hundreds of people. Unnerving. I’d never known how afraid I was of the dark until that moment. My heart fluttered uncomfortably and every sound made me jump.
People were starting to cluster together, holding out their phones and screens to let the glowing displays light the street. I had to get pictures. This was a once in a lifetime event, and I was actually right in the middle of it instead of reading about it in some textbook or news site. In my bag, I had an old digital camera – the kind my Aunt used to talk about having as a little girl. Oz had a bunch of them and I’d managed to get this one to hold a charge. I’d intended to play around with it at some point. This seemed like as good a time as any.
Thunder snapped through the unlit canyon followed almost instantly by a blinding flash of lightning. It must have struck one of the buildings because startled cries flared up in the distance. That was enough to get the crowds moving. It was one thing to be stuck in the middle of an unprecedented black out, but the threat of being rained on was too much. In the rush, I was being jostled every which way. My only option to escape being trampled was to scramble up onto one of those gungy public call boxes. At least it wasn’t as bad as crawling into one – I doubted anyone was having sex on top of the damn thing. The better vantage point showed me that things were so much worse that I’d first thought. There were just too many people crammed into the area. Things were a hair’s breadth away from turning ugly. It struck me as odd that City Admin hadn’t rolled in the troops yet. Maybe they were affected by the black out, too?
A terrified scream went out as a suit was tipped off one of the cat walks. Frightened gasps and yelling filled the street as he fell in slow motion. Then silence fell as we all stared at his lifeless body splayed angelically on top of a car. While we stared in abject horror, the handheld devices being used to light the street started dying out one by one until only the flash from my camera was left. True darkness descended – and so did the rain. There was panic as people had to get out of there, right away. Hundreds of people attempted to move in unison, only there was no where for them to go. It was almost rush hour. More bodies fell from the cat walks. The heart-wrenching whomp of body versus steel. Poor souls never stood a chance. I kept taking pictures, I didn’t know what else to do. Somehow, this tiny little camera still had power. Impossibly, it was immune to whatever was going on. And I was going to document it all.
For the second time in my short existence on this damaged planet, I was witness to a human stampede. The crush of bodies was rocking the call box and I was scared it was going to topple over and crush something. It wasn’t exactly a small box… The rain had completely soaked through my clothes and I was shivering, making my teeth clatter. Without the air scrubbers, the rain turned to acid. It stung my eyes, making it hard to see. No way were any of these pictures going to turn out.
As I panned over the crowd, I got the distinct feeling that someone was watching me. I didn’t know how to describe it other than I suddenly got so cold I stopped shivering. Searching around, I caught sight of an all too familiar face staring up at me, unmoving even in the chaos. The aviator glasses and all-knowing expression… Who else could it be other than mother fucking Johnny Osiris. And he was staring straight at me. What a shocker. He was behind this whole mess. How did I not make the connection? The man was a menace to society, after all.
But I had questions for him. Launching myself off the call box, and onto one of the cars, I made right for him. The rain was really coming down and my boots squealed obnoxiously as they struggled to keep their traction on the slick surface. In a less than graceful manner, I hopped from car to car, but Oz wasn’t planning on staying put. Turning away from me, he blended easily into the crowd that verged on rioting. As I called out to him, my feet finally lost their purchase and I slammed hard into the car on my way down. The wind was knocked out of me and my camera flew out of my hand, skittering somewhere unseen. By the time I picked myself up, Oz was long gone. He’d seen his handy work in action and left just before City AdMin showed up to contain the situation. How convenient.
The Great Black Out of 20XX, as it was later dubbed by the media, was not caused by terrorists or anything like that. Nor was it some kind of cascade mechanical failure or faulty maintenance. What it came down to was the horrible decision to connect every single piece of technology in ThisCity to the UDN, as opposed to it’s own extranet that not every Tom, Dick and Harry could access. You just can’t trust the Internet of Things. Someone will always find a way to break it, spy on you, or worse. Each device has it’s own vulnerabilities and in this case, someone managed to execute some exploit, or library of exploits, that tore through device security in minutes. City AdMin still hasn’t released any details on how it was done. Either because they still don’t know, or they don’t want anyone else to try it. No one ever came forward to claim responsibility, so I’m guessing someone just wanted to see if it could be done. Care to wager who I think that “someone” was?
Here’s the weird thing: I made it home that day, without my camera. I’d dropped it while busy getting myself concussed and I wasn’t about to start crawling around in the middle of the main artery of ThisCity looking for it. At that point I just wanted to get home, same as everyone else. So imagine my shock when the damn thing showed up on my doorstep two weeks later – fully intact, no less, but with the memory card missing. There’s no way to explain it. By that, I mean I have no conclusive proof, but it had to be Oz. Crazy asshole had to have gone back for it to make sure no one got a hold of pictures of him. He was definitely that kind of paranoid. I just didn’t get why he brought it back. Was it to keep me searching, or…? I will never understand how that man do.
Up until that point, I had more or less convinced myself that I’d imagined seeing him. That the stress of the whole situation and after spending so much time alone obsessing over Oz had caused my brain to misfire and create connections where there were none. In all that rain, I couldn’t be sure what I saw. The whole thing was a mess and just trying to get out of the Nervous System without further injuries was such a harrowing experience that the whole afternoon was a blur. When I got home, it was all I could do to strip off my soaked clothes before crashing for the next twelve hours. Upon waking up, instead of plopping my ass in front of a screen, I started cleaning. It felt almost like a ritualistic cleanse as I made the place habitable for humans again. It took several days, just as I’d predicted, and then I started carving out my own space amid all of Oz’s techno-junk. This was my place, now, and it was time I stopped walking on eggshells around Oz’s ghost.