DON’T READ ME.TXT
This is the part where I make some grandiose statement about who I am and who I’m not. You know, a declaration of my worth and how I’m not like the other sheeple out there. But that would make me one of them, right? And let’s face it; it doesn’t make a damn difference in your life, does it? That’s what I thought. I’m not going to give you all the miscellaneous deets like where I was born or what I do for a living — that’s not important. You’ll have forgotten by this time tomorrow, anyway. No, I’m going to tell you a story. The kind of story that sticks to your bones and gums up the works so bad you won’t be shitting right for weeks. Ten years from now, you’ll wake up screaming for your mama and you’ll have me to thank for that. That’s my legacy.
So maybe you’ve been watching the news lately. If not, what are you doing with your life? All this nonsense about the Psychonauts and bioterrorism. I swear, if I have to hear another news anchor say the world is literally coming to an end I just might have to end it for them. Events are unfolding that are irreversibly changing the world as we know it, and I know how it all got started. I’ve known all along, today’s just the day I decided to enlighten you.
Once upon a time — let’s say three years ago, although it could be a hundred the way it feels to me – I was ousted from my living situation and left to fend for myself in this great big nut house of a city. The streets were a hard, cold place for a delicate flower like myself. At the time, there were significant gaps in my education. All I knew was that I needed to find some sort of landing pad if I was going to survive in ThisCity on my own, even if that meant liquidating all of my spare organs and stem cells…
Here’s the thing about urban sprawl this dense. It’s damn near impossible to find somewhere to live remotely close to the core districts — wanting fewer than six roommates and a working lock on the bathroom door was being unreasonable. One time I had a date take me back to their place only to find out that their bedroom was the hallway. The eternal apartment shortage got so bad at one point that people were being off’ed for their tiny one bedrooms. These days, the locations of places up for rent are closely guarded to avoid shenanigans. You want to live in ThisCity, you gotta hire yourself a realtor and tack on twenty percent to your monthly rent. And if you want to buy a place? You’re either a multi-trillionaire and already own a good chunk of This City or you just sold the next 6 generations of your family into slavery — and they will collect.
Being a student, I was in no position to do either of these things; my only option was to turn to the net. *Shudder* There are still a few reliable TOR nodes being maintained that serve as the scumbag craigslist. This is where all the desperate shitbags who want to work outside the system conduct their business. Don’t trust any of them. Looking for a pad like this is like playing Russian roulette, except there is only one empty chamber — if you’re lucky. Let me tell you, my luck back then was not so good. The fact that this whole city runs twenty-four hours was my only saving grace. That and one of my professors let me stash my valuables in her office as long as I didn’t tell the Dean how so many of her students passed last semester.
I don’t know if you’ve had any experience with TOR nodes, but it took me that whole week to sort through the want ads posted by pimps, drug runners and snuff film directors hoping to lure in the easy marks. There were so many things I wish I could unsee, so many things about human sexuality I wish I could unlearn. Did I mention the waves of madware, spyware and rogue sentient viruses looking to copulate? My screen was never the same after that. Sometimes I can still hear it screaming when I’m not using it. What did all that work net me? One viable listing. Count ‘em – ONE, which read thusly:
Roommate needed (but not wanted)
Prodigious Info-Liberator and mad clever performance artist requires a co-habitator with healthy organs for spacious walk-up in OldTown.
Must be open to radical shifts in power dynamics; possess an adventurous, Puckish spirit; and be a sound sleeper — a very sound sleeper.
The roommate creature will enjoy a space with four walls and a door — no lock, unheated. (Only two varieties of parasites on premises. None infected with madware)
What that really means:
Some wire-head junky is too broke to afford their rundown, leaky hole in a wall situated in the condemned northern part of ThisCity.
They keep weird hours and are outrageously noisy when they are awake. Either you gotta be game for wild monkey sex orgies or you’re a sound enough sleeper to sleep through the apocalypse.
Yes, boils and ghouls, that was really the best ad in the barrel full of radioactive baby entrails. So off I went to OldTown to see this “spacious walk-up.”
Let me tell you something about OldTown; no one goes there if they don’t have to. Living there is two steps above squatting — except cops won’t bother with you. This area gets zero political representation, which is just as well because no one there really gives a shit about the democratic system that bends them over and gives it to ‘em, hard, whenever possible. That said, OldTown is a magical place. It’s a living anachronism, a renfair/black market hybrid. The best street meat you’ll ever taste is sold from illegal food carts in OldTown, not to mention all kinds of things you wouldn’t think existed. Best of all, there aren’t stray pack animals hunting pedestrians at night, like in the rest of ThisCity.
My stomach was growling by the time I reached the place I was going to see. It was my sixth day on an all Spoo diet and the scintillating smell of street meat was cruel. (Spoo’s that nutritional substance paste. Can you guess how it got its name?) The place was on the outskirts – two blocks over and it wouldn’t even be in OldTown. It wasn’t the bombed out wreck I had pictured. Some of the windows still had glass behind the security shields. The building was shockingly well maintained for something so old. It only had four stories — of course I had to walk up all those stairs, no escalators even! The door was a dull brown colour and it absorbed my knocking. I stood out in the hallway clutching my bag, looking over my shoulder nervously. The whole building was silent. I was terrified.
The door opened with a terrible bang, having nearly been wrenched off its hinges. A man — if you could call it that, stood on the threshold wearing nothing but a tattered velour robe (open) and Spiderman underoos. My estimation of what this guy was going be like was a lot more spot on. Most definitely a wirehead; the socket at the base of his skull was plainly visible seeing as he had no hair to speak of — not even eyebrows. Instead, he had misshapen hairy caterpillars drawn on with black sharpie. His skin was like a worn road map and the bloodshot corneas and murky irises made him look all the more addled. No wonder he answered the door nearly nude. Not that I objected to the view, he was strangely attractive… His wiry frame was ripped — and covered in ink: black scored through with bizarre alien script that seemed to shimmer even under shadow. I remembered seeing this kind of ink on TV, back when I was in primary school, but it was rare to see anyone with tats like this now. It went out of vogue a week after the Prophet vanished, or died or whatever happened to him…
“Who are you? What do you want? I don’t need any!” He said all this unintelligibly fast, looking around, shifty-eyed. His grubby fingernails dug into the doorframe as he leaned out to peer around me.
“I’m here about the room for rent. You messaged me this morning saying it was okay to come by…” I said, timid as a mouse.
“What? Oh yes, The Room.” A manic grin spread over his face as he grabbed me by the shirtfront and hauled me into the apartment, slamming the door behind us. The floorboards creaked under his cracked combat boots and the metal tips of his laces danced around his feet as he dragged me into the living room.
He might not have been lying about the spacious part. It was hard to tell under all the clutter. Dude was a packrat. Worse yet — he was a techno-hoard. We all know anything more than six months old is obsolete. I mean, it still works, but it’s obsolete. Here I was looking at stuff that was made before I was born. Lots of colourful little boxes with nobs and antennas and blinking lights. Some of it looked like audiovisual equipment and antique computers with their guts exposed; the kind of shit that belonged in a museum.
He paced around me like a feral cat, appraising, evaluating. At one point, he even sniffed my hair. He didn’t try to lick me — at least there was that.
“What do they call themselves?” Now that he was speaking more slowly, I was struck by the depth and richness of his voice. It was like he spoke into the bowels of my soul — but in a good way.
“This is acceptable,” he said after pondering it a moment.
“It’s worked for me so far.” Did he really have to stare like that?
“And what does the Lilith creature do?” He was standing in my blind spot and his voice made me shudder involuntarily.
“I’m a student.”
“Of what? Where?”
“Uh… Classics at the BS Institute.” I absolutely hated telling people my major. He started laughing immediately just like everyone always did. Except his laughter had a spectral quality to it — sounding near and far all at once until it devolved into a wet phlegmy cough like my Aunt Vera use to have because she smoked those Silk Road combustible cigarettes.
“Why would you study that?” He demanded once he could breath again, still flushed. “What’s the use of studying dead cultures no one cares about?”
I rolled my eyes. Like I’ve never been asked that before. “Why do you hoard dead tech?”
“That’s a fair point.” For the first time, he sounded like a human being. “You didn’t bring much stuff with you.”
The comment made me bristle as he continued to stare at. Deadpan lunatic. I clutched my bag to my chest so tightly I felt the sharp corners of my screen dig into my ribs and my tube of Spoo may have exploded. This was not the gaze of a Normal Person. Unblinking eyes bore into me, like I was a puzzle he couldn’t quite solve. Slowly, as not to alarm him, I reached into my sleeve pocket for the baton I’d secreted away there, only it was gone. Shit! I must have left it at the last screen terminal I was at. My palms became slick with sweat as I froze, looking like an animal who’d wandered into oncoming traffic. His look shifted into something I didn’t recognize as we stared at each other. Probably deciding on what to do with my body when he was done with me. And what was I thinking? Please don’t wear my face as a mask.
“Maybe this was a mistake. I’m going to go now…” I started backing towards the door.
“What? No no no noooo. You haven’t even looked at The Room yet!” Whatever twisted images were flickering through his head had dissipated. His frigid hands landed on my shoulders as he propelled me towards the back of the apartment. His breath smelled of cherry blasters as it tickled my cheek.
“The Room” wasn’t much more than a glorified walk-in closet — but it was bigger than any room I’d ever lived in. In complete contrast with the rest of the apartment, this little space was empty — containing only a bed and a set of drawers. The security shield on the window was programmed to mimic stained glass. Maybe it was the beginnings of Spoo poisoning, but I was transfixed by the patterns of coloured light splashing over the white walls.
“What do you think?” He whispered in my ear, making me jump. Limited attention span – I’d actually forgotten he was there.
“How many people I gotta share it with?”
“None.” None? Ridiculous, I know. All this space just for one person…
“Who else lives here?”
“No one. Just me.” He beamed as he answered and I got the feeling that intense isolation had addled his brain meat. There had to be some kind of catch.
“Oh-kay. What did you do, knock over the old bat who used to live here?” I stared at him like he was speaking in tongues because there was no way this pant-less wonder could afford his own place.
“She was my Great Aunt and she died of natural causes.” I couldn’t tell if he was being defensive or was genuinely upset by the passing of his aunt.
“Oh! I – I’m sorry.”
“Move your stuff in today. I’ve already told everyone else to fuck off.”
“Why? You don’t even know me.” Although, really I had more to worry about from him than he did from me. Even though he was skeevy as hell, what other choices did I have than to take the room? This was like winning the lottery, but it had to be too good to be true.
“The Roommate Creature is going to be very happy here.”
“Right. I can’t give you first and last yet though.”
“Whatever.” He was already clomping away from me, his head somewhere else.
“Speaking of which, where’s the closest organ bank?”
“You wanna go to the one in Eighty-third District. Drop my name, they’ll give you a better return,” he said, peering at me through some kind of mental haze.
“And your name would be?”
“Johnny. Johnny Osiris.”
It’s kind of hard to explain what living with Johnny Osiris was like. He set out a few ground rules and the proceeded to break them more often than I did. In fact, the only rule that held was no spoo in the house, which I was violently in agreement with. As it turned out, the man was some kind of multimedia artist. His horde of dead tech was used to build elaborate reactive sculptures. When he was working, he reminded me of the Wizard of Oz tinkering with his machines. I’d taken to calling him Oz because of it.
When Oz wasn’t working, it was a whole other story. The man had manic highs like a kid who’d gotten into mama’s go juice. Some days, I’d wake up to him throwing broken TV sets and other large objects out the window at terrified pedestrians. Things were lit on fire, tantrums were thrown. When OZ was in one of his moods, no one in the building knew peace. During those times, I sought refuge in the school library – until Oz started tracking me down there. The security guards didn’t like that so much…
Okay, okay, I know you’re probably wondering why the hell I’m telling you all this shit and when the hell am I going to get on with the damn story? My mother used to say good things come to those who wait. Yeah, I thought she was full of shit, too. The point is, for three months things were normal. Peaceful, almost. I mean, Oz didn’t put much stalk in sobriety. And even when he was sober, he was still high. So you’ll have to forgive me for wanting to provide a little context before I dive into the shit-storm that is the demise and rebirth of Johnny Osiris.
Three months almost to the fucking day, he shook me awake with this crazed look on his face (so his usual expression). I don’t know what it was like where you went to school, but the BS Institute has a certain reputation for an abysmal completion rate. This is achieved by assigning murderous amounts of homework with impossible deadlines. It’s so bad that all BS students get a wholesale discount on sleep condensers. How else are you supposed to get twelve hours of sleep in only three? I was about an hour into my power nap when he saw fit to disturb me.
“Wake up, you damn stink rat!”
“What?” He threw my clothes at me. My heart was pounding fiercely in my chest and I had the kind of headache that felt like my brain had been replaced with packing peanuts.
“We gotta bounce. It’s not safe here.”
“I don’t understand.” He was packing my stuff and that should’ve alarmed me, but in my condensed sleep haze, you could have chop off both my arms and I’d have been okay with that.
“They’re on to me. We’ve gotta clear out of here.” He was frustrated now, and more serious than I’d ever seen him.
“Who’re they?” I’d finally managed to sit up and that was a feat.
“We don’t have time for this. Put your damn clothes on or I’ll do it for you!” This roused me enough to divorce me from my beloved bed, but getting dressed was a little more complicated than I was up for.
“What’s going on? Have you been huffing Duster again?” I asked when I finally stumbled out of my room as dressed as I was ever going to be and struggling to zip up my bag. He stomped around the place throwing whatever he deemed useful into a stretchy lycra bag that clung to him like a spider monkey. It dawned on me that this was the first time I’d seen him fully dressed. I didn’t know he owned that much clothing. He had on the prerequisite black bad boy jeans tucked into his combat boots — tied for once, tattered t-shirt and aviator sunglasses to hide the botch job he did drawing on his eyebrows.
“I’ll explain on the way.” He pulled on a hoodie and leather jacket like it’s body armour.
“On the way where?” I didn’t get an answer. His giant hand engulfed mine like a child’s as he pulled me out the door and up the stairs to the roof.
“If I find out this is one of your insane acid flashbacks, I will rip out your liver and feed it to you!”
“Don’t be such a buzz kill,” he said with a laugh, kicking the door to the roof so hard the lock broke. It also sent the door swinging back to slam in his face. I giggled at his stunned expression. That was going to leave a mark. And then he dragged me across the threshold. Thankfully the smog had rolled in so I didn’t have to deal with direct sunlight. He paced the length of the roof, his hollow footsteps following him. I guess he hadn’t thought this all the way through. The sounds of the street were much louder, like a hundred people filing along the sidewalks instead of dispersed handfuls. I leaned over the edge to see a crowd congregated outside the front door. I was waving at them when he yanks me back by my collar.
“Is there a parade today?” My brain still wasn’t firing on all pistons.
“Don’t be an idiot.” Now we were stomping to the side of the roof that faced the ass end of a much taller building.
“Jump.” He shoved me toward the fire escape of the other building, but there was at least a six-foot gap – no way I’d clear it.
“Are you nuts?!”
“Fine! I’ll go first.” With the grace of a ballerina, he launched himself over the edge and landed square on his feet. The fire escape shuddered under the force of his weight. The rusted metal didn’t look like it could stand the weight of another person, pipsqueak though I was.
“Come on already!” He held his arms out like he was going to catch me and somehow it didn’t seem unreasonable to put all my faith in Johnny Osiris. I took a running start and scrunched my eyes shut as soon as my feet left solid ground. In a second I crashed into his shockingly firm chest and the fire escape groaned under us. Images of the structure giving way to metal fatigue and plunging us down five stories fluttered through my mind.
He didn’t give me a chance to recover before we were running up the twisting flights of stairs to the roof. These taller buildings were all linked by makeshift catwalks to facilitate the ninjaesque foot messengers in their mad dashes across ThisCity, so no more death defying leaps for me. He looked over his shoulder as we ran from rooftop to rooftop, but I didn’t hear any footsteps other than ours. We’re seven or eight blocks away before he stopped to consider his next move. Adrenaline and sleep condensers were not a good mix. As soon as I stopped moving my stomach heaved and I regurgitated all over the glittering tar paper. I was shaking like a leaf and vividly reliving my prom night.
“You don’t look so good.” His face swam in front of me.
“I need coffee… B12… something.”
“Shit.” Oz’s indecision intensified into panic as his hands rubbed compulsively at his bald head. In a snap (or it could have been a few minutes, I can’t really tell) he shifted gears. He practically had to lift me up to get me moving towards the door. This one he jimmied open. Propping me up the whole time, we rode the elevator down to the street like Normal People who weren’t running for their lives from some imagined ghosts.
When my faculties returned to me, we were sitting in a diner. Johnny Osiris had ordered me a giant glass of go-juice and an equally monstrous sized lumberjack breakfast. I didn’t know what a lumberjack was, but they must have been beasts. The chemicals in the go-juice had started to work their magic and my thoughts were coming much clearer. Oz was sitting across from me, practically buzzing. The only thing he’d ordered for himself was black coffee. Something had changed in him since leaving the house. He had the look of someone who’d woken up from a very long nap. Couldn’t say I felt the same. At least I’d started tuning back into the constant flow of words streaming out of him.
“— You and your damn sleep condensers! Those things are dangerous.”
“They’re only dangerous if you get woken up too soon. You could have given me a heart attack.” I cut him off before he could keep going because he may have actually done just that. I had this burning tightness in my chest and my jaw ached so bad it was hard to chew properly.
“Well sorry I didn’t exactly have the luxury of letting you get your fucking beauty sleep!” He glared at me from behind those silly mirror shades like somehow this whole ridonkulous affair was my fault.
“Why is that, exactly? You still haven’t told me what the hell is going on!” I stared at him with his coffee cup clutched between both hands like it was about to run away from him.
“Some stuff caught up with me that I wasn’t expecting, but the apartment isn’t safe right now,” he said peering out the window.
“Yeah? What kind of stuff?”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me. I haven’t always been the loveable hermit you share an apartment with.” Great. That explained everything in such detail. Just once I’d like a straight answer out of this guy.
“Who says you’re loveable? And what does this have to do with the Prophet?”
I didn’t know what Oz expected me to say, but that wasn’t it. He coughed and spluttered as a big gulp of steaming coffee shot out his nose and mouth, spraying down his side of the table.
“I thought you wanted to avoid making a scene,” I said, keeping my face neutral, as I fought the urge to burst into hysterical laughter. Maybe I was still a little light headed. This whole situation couldn’t be real.
“What makes you think this has any thing to do with the Prophet?” He demanded in a harsh whisper.
“Dude, seriously?” I said, giving him the same look of incredulity he used on me whenever I didn’t know something he did. “You’ve had at least a dozen sites devoted to the Prophet open when we left the house. Not to mention how squirrelly you get whenever I ask about him, even though you’re usually the one bringing him up. I know you were a follower —”
“They’re called Disciples,” he said, correcting me absentmindedly, looking anywhere but at me.
“Whatever. You can disparage my field of study all you want, but I’m not a moron. So why don’t you show me a little respect and just tell me what’s going on!” The infusion of stimulants had jacked my attitude up to eleven and still I was just a fly buzzing around his shiny bald head.
“Are you even hearing me? Hey! What are you looking at?” I demanded because he’d been glaring steadily out the window for the last minute.
“That.” He raised one long bony finger to indicate the situation brewing outside. There was what could be classified as a mob filling the sidewalks about ten meters from where we sat.
“Did they — Did they follow us here?” I asked, but I really didn’t want to hear the answer.
“Fuck. Let’s cheese it!” Oz threw down some cash on the table as he hurriedly got up. He damn near over turned my food into my lap in the process. I stood to follow and then paused. I didn’t know who the people outside were or why Oz was so scared of them. Like… Was this really my problem? What if I walked away? And just rode this thing out at school? Would it matter? Oz was already halfway to the back of the restaurant. There was something about the self-assuredness of his posture even as he fled and I ended up following him against my better judgment —my instincts were saying leave this alone.
“This is getting stupid!” All that greasy food in my stomach was not conducive to a citywide marathon – I hope Oz had a better plan because I might hurl again.
This is part of town was a perfect grid of gigantic office buildings that made the streets into canyons. This was not the place to be playing hide and seek. There weren’t any winding streets or dark alleys to duck into, and with all the people massing; the office buildings had gone into lock down. There was nowhere to hide and no way we could out run them. Okay, maybe Oz could. Definitely felt the lumberjack’s revenge at that moment… Within a few blocks we’d run into another throng of people. There had to be at least a hundred of them. They herded us into the middle of the street, forcing traffic to a grinding halt. The cacophony of horns honking went unheeded.
The multitudes of people surging through the streets were filled with an electric energy. They all had the same ecstatic expression like it was the fucking second coming or something. It was creepy — like they were all tripping. At least they’d left us a wide berth — as if not wanting to get too close to us now that we were surrounded. Oz was staring, half crouched like a cornered animal. What was going through his head was anyone’s guess. I know I’d never felt my heart pounding so hard before. What did they want with us? I tripped over the power rails for the cars as I backed away and I bumped into Oz. He pulled me closer to him. There was something hard poking me in the back. I didn’t know what it was until it was suddenly in his hand. The burnished pistol looked like a child’s toy in his hand as he waved it around. Where the fuck did he get a gun? Now I had the urge to run from him, too.
“Everyone stay the fuck away from me!” He yelled and waved the gun around. I had no idea what was happening. Judging by the way the veins on Oz’s temples were throbbing, I don’t think he did either.
“What the hell is this?” I asked, my voice shrill with terror. Oz was holding me even tighter. His arm swung up in a wide arch as he pointed it toward the sky. I scrunched my eyes shut, bracing for the gunshot. He pulled the trigger.
Instead of one big bang, every speaker, every receiver, every mic in the area exploded to life in a distorted uproar. The effect was instantaneous. Every person in sight was clutching their ears, doubled over. Their screaming and wailing deepened the disarray. The gun wasn’t really a gun, but a sonic disrupter. They were highly illegal. Oz must have built it himself. I’d only ever seen one used in movies and let me tell you; it wasn’t at all the same thing. For one thing, it was ten times louder than anything I’d ever heard before. Most people had started crying, some were on the ground.
“Why aren’t we affected, too?” I had to shout for Oz to hear me.
“Come on, we have to get away from here,” he said, grabbing my hand. Obviously he didn’t answer my question, but I felt something warm vibrating in my pocket — an audio dampener. Oz must have slipped it in there while I was out of it.
“This is insane.” I was Alice, falling down the rabbit hole.
It was easy enough to navigate the crowd now that they’d been incapacitated. People melted away from Oz. As soon as we were clear, he broke into a run, tugging me along. There was a tube station right around the corner. The Tube Authorities got real nervous when hundreds of people tried to get into a station at once, which worked to our benefit. Oz and I passed through the mantraps unaccosted. We caught the first train to show up and settled into a relatively vacant car. Oz didn’t speak, but his expression said murder most foul.
“So are you going to tell me what the hell that was all about? Why were all those people calling you the Prophet?” I said after we passed yet another station. The brooding silence was giving me a headache.
“Don’t worry about it. This will all be sorted out once I talk to a friend of mine,” he said, pulling his hood up.
“Was that supposed to be an answer?”
“Will you shut up? I need to think.” He glared at me before going back to his intense examination of the floor.
“No. I won’t. I was fine when this was just another one of your flights of fancy. Hell, it was funny and I wanted to see where you’d take us. But I’m not laughing anymore. What happened back there was not okay. Who were those people? Why did they want you?”
“You could have stayed at the diner, finished your breakfast and gone on with your day. Why didn’t you?” He asked and he might actually care about the answer, but I ignored it.
“What is your connection to the Prophet?”
“Don’t,” he said, his face now two inches from mine. “Leave it alone.”
“You’re him, or at least they think you are.”
“And who exactly do ‘they’ think I am?” He said, enunciating every word crisply with a menacing grin.
“The mother fucking Prophet,” I snarled in his face.
“You think too much.” He burst into a fit of cackling laughter. The other passengers stared, but even as the fit continued, the laughter never reached his eyes. Instead, I saw a cocktail of fear and anger, and something else I didn’t know how to identify.
“What’s the buzz word, asshole?” hard eyes asked us through a slit in the door. Johnny Osiris had taken us to an augment club called Ascension. I wasn’t cool enough to gain entry to one of these places, but apparently they were the snake’s testicles. Oz shoved the barrel of the disrupter through the slit. Hard-eyes blinked and then the lock clicked and the door swung open.
“I need to talk to Digger,” Oz said as soon as we were inside.
“Who the fuck are you?” Hard-eyes demanded, rubbing his beefy hands together.
“Osiris, you fat fuck, that’s who!”
“Send him back,” a soft voice said over an intercom. Hard-eyes grunted and pressed a button that opened a hidden door and deeper down the rabbit hole we went.
The soft voice belonged to a woman with ebony skin and turquoise hair. She stood waiting expectantly. Her office had a warm, defused glow that seemed to be the only lighting in the otherwise dark room. Didn’t know how she gets much work done in here.
“Johnny Osiris,” she said warmly, like a cat purring.
“This morning I was doxxed on every major Prophet forum on the net. You know anything about that, Digger?” He asked like he was talking about a misplaced set of keys.
“Who’s your friend?”
“That is my Roommate Creature. Unless you’ve had all your shots, I wouldn’t touch her. She bites.” I’d been so focused on Oz that I hadn’t noticed the pairs of disembodied hands hovering around me. My skin crawled as they floated closer. I didn’t know what to do, except maybe scream. Digger laughed and the hands scattered.
“You picking up strays now?”
“This is between you and me,” Oz said casually, stepping closer to Digger and away from me. She touched a panel on her desk and her creepy parlour trick deactivated.
“What can I do for you, Osiris?”
“Don’t play coy with me, Digger. You sold me out.”
“It’s just good business. Nothing personal.” Digger smiled, baring her pearly whites at us.
“Don’t give me that bullshit line. The Beast is going to net you strong draw, that’s the only reason you took my call in the first place.”
“I know you think Osiris is a bankable name, but the Prophet will bring in twenty times the people,” Digger said, sliding open her desk drawer to produce an thin bar of chocolate. She snapped off a square with delicate fingers and placed it on her tongue, her eyes never leaving Oz. “Times have been hard these last couple years. People are moving on. The appeal of Alt State is too overwhelming. It’s impossible to compete. I’m just trying to put Augmented reality back on the map.”
“And Ascension right with it.”
“Well, of course. The Prophet was a big fan of Augment clubs back in the day. What better way for him to come out of retirement?”
“This isn’t what I signed on for,” he said through gritted teeth.
“That’s because you haven’t been thinking. You should be doing so much more than hiding in that squalid apartment of yours and terrorizing Alt-State.”
“I like my apartment.” Oz twitched. Digger had struck a nerve.
“When you walked away from the Prophet gig, I thought it was so you could do something more. I mean really. What have you achieved in the last few years other than pissing off a few wireheads?”
“You know what? Fuck you, Digger.” Oz said, pacing around the room. “You have no clue what I’ve been up to, the plans I’ve set in motion. You couldn’t possible know how close you’ve come to ruining everything.” With a sweep of his arm, he sent a gaudy statue of Morpheus crashing to the ground. The porcelain shattered into oblivion. Oz was being overly theatrical, but it looked like it was having the intended effect.
“But you’ve always been a tad short sighted, haven’t you? You never did see the bigger picture. So why should I go along with your little gambit?”
“The Beast is already here.” But Digger had shrunk a size or two.
“What? The Beast was never meant to be moved! It took me months to get it calibrated just right.” Another statuette came crashing down. This time not on purpose.
“The added bonus of that little mob this morning was that it got you out of the house.” Oz looked apoplectic. Digger made sure to keep the desk between them, but I didn’t think it would take much to send Oz vaulting over it.
“Your mongrels shouldn’t be touching my equipment.” His whole shiny head had turned an unappetizing shade of plum and I worried he’d pop a blood vessel or something. He was breathing real hard. Digger started laughing. I guess she wasn’t so intimidated after all.
“I’m sorry, I can’t take you seriously right now. I can’t tell if you’re mad or just really surprised.”
His hand smacked into his forehead. “Geese, maybe if someone had thought to warn me that a mob of obsessed lunatics was gonna show up at my door step, I’d have been calm enough to draw them on properly!”
“Honey, your equipment is upstairs. You’ve still got six hours to tweak things before going live — and fix your brows.”
“You’re going to regret bringing the Prophet back,” he grumbled, but some of this morning’s frenzy had collapsed in on itself.
“Whatever you say.”
“Oz? Can I go home now?” The way they both jumped, they must have forgotten I was in the room. Oz was right, none of this had anything to do with me and I had readings and assignments piling up by the hour. At this point I was never going to catch up.
“No!” They both said it and I didn’t see how it was any of Digger’s business.
“You don’t really need me here,” I said, annoyed.
“Someone’s gotta help me get the Beast ready,” Oz said as he dragged me out of the room like I was five.
“Helping” mostly consisted of sitting in the corner not touching anything. My annoyance grew by the minute. Oz was oblivious. He only remembered I was around when he needed use of my tiny hands to fit in places he couldn’t. The Beast turned out to be the conglomeration of graphical hardware that had been occupying a full third of the living room. It was scaffolded together so precariously that the “mongrels” who’d moved it couldn’t figure out how to put it all back together.
I tried to get Oz to explain it to me, but his explanations quickly devolved into angry rambling that had nothing to do with me. It was hard seeing him like this — well, scary, actually. This wasn’t my roommate anymore. I didn’t know this person I was locked in a room with.
It took me a while to put my finger on what the difference was because it was more than just him being pissed off. Oz was focused. He didn’t have twenty things going at once, he wasn’t breaking anything. All of that brainpower was directed at a singular task. Man, if he was this focused all the time, he could have, like, conquered the world or destroyed civilization as we knew it. It was freaky. And fucking enviable. I’d definitely never look at him the same way again.
Oz finally let me out about an hour before he was due to turn the Beast on, mumbling something about static as he started taking his clothes off. I could have gone home now. At this point, no one would’ve noticed or cared, but I’d come this far. Might as well stay for the show.
Excitement and anticipation were palpable in the air — maybe it was the mood boosters that people were chowing down on like candy. Even for the uninitiated like myself, it was obvious this wasn’t the usual crowd. Everywhere I looked, there were neo-tech tattoos lit up like Christmas trees under the black light. The club’s staff seemed ambivalent. I wondered if cult members tipped well. You know, I’d never seen the appeal of places like this. Something about the fluid backdrops and mood lighting was downright unsettling. How did anyone muster the suspension of disbelief to go along with this farce?
I’d been avoiding the mood boosters; today had been enough of a head-trip. I also wasn’t talking to anyone here. Bunch of techno fetishists. They all had the glazed-over look of obsession. I must have overheard at least twenty different theories for the Prophet’s disappearance.
There were so many people here. Thankfully I had snagged a spot by the bar — otherwise I’d have never been able to get my drink on. Sweat and body heat hung heavily in the air. Swampy. I hoped Oz didn’t take too much longer to get things going. I was starting to crash. When I turned around to scan the room again, Oz was standing right in front of me, still wearing his silly mirror shades. It was as if he knew exactly when I was thinking about him. No one else reacted to his presence.
“How much have you had to drink?” He said taking the cup out of my hand and placing it on the bar.
“I’m fantastic! Thanks for asking.”
“Three drinks – I think. What does it matter?”
“Three?” He lowered his shades so I could see just how impressed he was with me.“Oh – and a bunch of shots, too.”
“Wonderful. Open your mouth.”
He rolled his eyes and pried my jaw open. Before I could protest, he’d emptied a vial of some bitter liquid into my mouth. It stained my fingers blue when I tried to stop him from forcing more of it on me.
“What is your damage?” I had had about as much as I could take of this guy. Maybe when I got back home, I’d try and find somewhere else to live. Probably not.
“It’s an inducer blocker.”
“A what? I haven’t had any of the happy pills.” This time I rolled my eyes.
“The inducer is in the booze. The mood boosters are to make sure nobody bad trips and ruins it for the whole class. Maybe you should stop studying dead civilizations and take a look around for once.”
“Ouch. Sorry for being the philistine in the room and all, but you’re the one who made me stay,” I spat back venomously, but inside I was humiliated.
“Jesus, Lilith. I’m just trying to look out for you. Augmented Reality has a way of getting under your skin and twisting everything around when you aren’t prepared for it.” Oz’s shoulders sagged as he sighed deeply. The bad lighting deepened every crease in his face, like he’d aged ten years in a day. I didn’t know what to say to him. He was staring at me, gripping both my arms tight. I wished we could go back to yesterday.
Oz looked like he was about to speak, but something far off caught his eye. He nodded at whatever it is.
“It’s time. Just – keep your head down.” Oz kissed me on the cheek and then he was gone.
“Um. Okay then.” I felt like I’d just been ghosted.
The ambiance was changing, subtle at first. I noticed people shifting before I saw any difference in the club. The air was shimmering, the light filters through it like we were under water. Something nudged my elbow — it was a delicate little koi fish trying to swim by. Squeals of delight played through the room as schools of fish darted this way and that. I wasn’t the only one who had no idea what to expect. Giant jellyfish floated up to the rafters to the amazement of those on balcony. The music thrummed low through the floorboards, rattling my bones and growing louder. Bodies were starting to move causing the fish to swim faster to avoid the crush.
Johnny Osiris strode through the room, floating above our heads like the messiah walking on water. He was stark naked, a sight I was all too familiar with, except in place of his member was an unnaturally vibrant sunflower. Who knew he had a modest streak in him?
“Remember children, you asked for this!” His deep, ethereal voice boomed through the room, making everything flicker and tremble. The audience stared up at him, transfixed as though their very lives hinged upon his every word. The lights went down — no, the water had become murky and everything had that far away, ethereal quality to it. The thrumming bass line had slowed down, like the sound waves were moving through mud. The eerie sound made the atmosphere that much more unsettling. There was something big moving through the water, more like several things. Mermaids. But we weren’t talking little redheaded Ariel’s. These were hellish nightmare creatures with rows of razor sharp teeth and gnarly black claws tipping each webbed finger. Their flesh was a rotting mass of scales that sloughed off at the slightest touch. The Disciples were screaming and ducking under tables. The Koi fish had transformed into the piranhas of a bad horror movie and they were seeking out anything that moved. Bodies flailed on the ground, convinced they were being devoured.
“You opened your minds and souls to technology. You served yourselves up on a platter. You wanted to become one with the machine; to blur the line between the neuron and the circuit. What will you do when you can no longer tell the difference between reality and the dream?” Oz was standing aloft, his arms spread wide. His manic laughter echoed and reverberated becoming distorted passed all sane recognition.
The world was being pulled down round my ears, as I stood rooted in my spot. Everywhere I looked, people were screaming and crying, paralyzed by their own fear and I felt nothing. I was numb. One of the mer-beasts swam through me and it felt like a thousand prickles of ice water. I shuddered, but was unmoved. As I watched, the illusion got thinner and thinner until all it was, was a trick of the light — a poorly executed imitation. Everyone was scared of it. Was I supposed to be, too? The house lights had come on and the staff had disappeared. Didn’t the Disciples know the show was over? Someone had pulled the plug on the Beast — taken an axe to it probably. Oz was nowhere to be seen.
There was a shift — someone made a break for it and the tide turned. Hundreds of people surged toward the exits. The noise of panic intensified as bodies were crushed and trampled underfoot. This was beyond anything I’d ever experienced. Rational beings reduced to animal instinct. The current dragged me along and I felt like I was drowning. I was immediately lost. I couldn’t tell if I was moving closer or away from the exit. There was something slick under foot. I didn’t want to know what it was, but I slipped. Someone caught me, a strong arm around my rib cage. I didn’t see who it was — and then fresh air.
I’d made it outside. Riot Brigade was there already. An army of flashing lights and helmeted persons waited to herd and triage the distraught Disciples. Many of them were resisting — they weren’t able to tell the difference between the monsters inside and the monsters outside. At any rate, more back up was arriving to deal with the sheer number of psych cases. It was easy enough to slip through the barricades and escape down an unlit back alley. I hit up the first cab I saw and made far, far away my destination. So much for the great Oz…
I sat up the rest of the night waiting; for what? I didn’t know. Too wired to sleep, I stayed transfixed to the dozen or so different news feeds up on my screens. The gaping hole of missing tech in the living room mirrored the hole Oz just tore through my life. Every news outlet had picked up the story, their drones and reporters descended upon the scene like vultures — as they always do. More details surfaced; enforcers stormed the club, found the Beast. Buses were brought in to truck Disciples to hospitals and detention centres. City AdMin was completely unprepared to deal with a situation like this. Augment clubs had made it back to the mainstream, but I don’t think this is what Digger had intended. I heard through the grapevine that Digger was among the casualties, though I’ve never been able to confirm that. Either way, her conversation with Oz that afternoon never came to light — not that it would’ve changed anything.
When Oz didn’t come home, it sent me into full panic mode. I hadn’t realized how much I was counting on him telling me everything was going to be okay. Obviously he couldn’t come back, he was a fugitive now. But I wasn’t thinking very clearly. At any moment I expected enforcers to bang down my door, detain me and interrogate me. Every little sound set me on edge. The fact that OldTown was so quiet at night, and the apartment building was so old, didn’t help any. I darted from window to window, making sure there weren’t any black vans parked outside, while horror spewed from my screens.
This went on for weeks. I barely slept, barely ate — failed all my classes. As time went on, I started stressing about being evicted, too. I couldn’t afford this place. I didn’t even know what rent was. Oz had given me a random number off the top of his head and it changed each month. But that never came either. Eventually I succumbed to the stress and acute mental fatigue, and crashed. Must have slept at least two days straight.
The new semester started and I couldn’t bring myself to care. ThisCity was still feeling the after shocks of the Prophet’s Augmented Nightmare, and we were sitting around discussion stuff said by a bunch of white dudes who’d all died over two hundred years ago. I kept hearing Oz’s voice in my head saying, “Nobody gives a shit.” Worse than that, I started channeling the motherfucker — doing things I never would have before. Like hacking into the Teacher’s Net and replacing every file with pictures of ponies in pumps, or locking a rabid pigeon on amphetamines in the Dean’s office. The full-scale riot I incited during midterms was the icing on the cake, and now I’m no longer allowed within fifty meters of the BS Institute of Douchebaggery. Still don’t know why I did it.
There’s a lot of stuff I still don’t know concerning Oz. Like, was that what the Beast was meant to be, or was he just getting his revenge on Digger or the Disciples? How did he escape? And where is he now? And why did he want me there, that night? Why did he pick me at all?
You’re probably wondering why all this has to do with the worst bunch of bio terrorists this side of the Atlantic. It might surprise you to know that they were once Disciples — followers of the Prophet and his techno legacy. The Psychonaughts would never have come into being if Oz hadn’t thrown his little temper tantrum. Of course, it’s not that simple. A lot of stuff happened in between. Maybe if you ask real nice, I’ll tell you what happens next. 😉