When the hell did it get so cold out? When I’d hopped onto the tube I’d been nearly melted, now I was shivering. Leaving my hoodie at the studio was a bonehead move. I was still getting used to the shaved head, and the short layer of fuzz wasn’t exactly keeping the brain canister warm. At least the savoury smell of cooking oil and street meat carried on the wind told me I wasn’t far from my bed.
Man, I hadn’t realized how much OldTown felt like home until I started commuting to TinkerTown every day. Don’t get me wrong, TinkerTown was a fascinating full of ThisCity’s weirdest people. The area was developed as a social experiment turned artist commune – sort of. I was still getting used to the area, but the best part of my day was always coming back to OldTown. Even if I always stayed at the studio way later than I meant half and hour to my trip home and I’d end up having to walk the twenty minutes from the tubes to my place in the dark. I’d heard rumours that years ago there had been plans to open another tube station in the middle of OldTown, but it was tabled until City AdMin could sort the are out. If that were true, it explained the huge gap in public transit in this area.
Then again, there were a lot of rumours like that. City AdMin considered OldTown to be a blight on ThisCity. It was a twelve block stretch that crossed over into three different districts and just wouldn’t seem to go away. The buildings were old and crumbling, the infrastructure was a costly pain to maintain and nothing was built to code. Worse still, most of the buildings were in legal limbo so they couldn’t be sold or demolished. City AdMin was always working on changing laws and finding loopholes, but that was easier said that done.
A young woman walking home alone at night may have sounded incredibly reckless, but OldTown had to be the safest place in ThisCity. You were more likely to be the victim of a violent crime in one of the “entertainment” districts than you would be here. This was a community, after all. What was the old saying? Don’t shit where you eat. Yeah, that was the golden rule of OldTown. I may not have been on a first name basis with more than a handful of people in the neighbourhood, but people knew my face. It wasn’t like walking in the rest of ThisCity where you had to watch out for skeeves using selfie sticks to take upskirt shots or kids with pocket scanners hoping to capture unprotected credit info. It was almost like OldTown were a civilized place.
As I rounded the corner on my block, I was confronted with yet another wall of fliers. Someone had been plastering the whole area with yellowing text-dense ads for I didn’t know what. I’d been so focused on cramming my mouth full of delicious shawarma that I hadn’t been paying attention to anything else. Whatever the fliers were for must have been important because someone had put an awful lot of time and energy into wallpapering OldTown. Where did you get that much cellulose these days anyhow? Most people relied on holo-ads and glow paint to get the word out in meatspace. Before I reached the steps of my four story walk-up, I pulled one of the crinkly sheets of paper down to see what all the fuss was about.
d 1 yr. anniversary of d evnts @ Ascension Club
Approaches. We humbly invite aL thOs touched by dat
nyt 2 attend a vigil 4 & w d victims of
d Prophet’s nyt of Terror.
Vigil starts aftR drk on d 2nd wed. n August.
aL R wlcm 🙂
Offerings of f%d R also appreciated
I felt like I’d stuck a fork in a socket. Every hair on my body stood on end. Blindsided – that was the word for it, I think. I hadn’t anticipated this. In fact, the anniversary had not entered into my mind. That night still felt so recent. How could a year have already passed and I was no closer to finding Oz, to finding my answers? And now his victims – his disciples – were holding a vigil to mourn for those who’d lost. They didn’t even know his name and I couldn’t tell them because Johnny Osiris didn’t exist. Not anymore, maybe not ever.
I stared at the flier with unseeing eyes as memories crashed in on me. The mobs of people running for their lives, and the way they screamed and cried as they were rounded up into the waiting paddy wagons. That night had radically altered the course my entire life, but that was peanuts compared to the suffering of those who’d lost their minds. Traumatic Reality Shock was what the shrinks were calling it. There was no cure and yet to be a successful treatment course developed, either. Although, the docs had no shortage of patients to experiment on. Ascension had a maximum capacity of four thousand, and if the reports were accurate, they’d been over by a considerable amount. Disciples from miles and miles away had converged on the club to witness the return of their spiritual leader, the Prophet, and they’d all had their minds wrecked by Oz’s psychotic display. The perils of augmented reality in the wrong hands…
“Lilith? Are you okay?”
“What?” I blinked and Gary was standing in front of me holding a bucket of cleaning supplies. He must have come out to start scraping the fliers off the brick façade. Unlike the fancy buildings in the rest of ThisCity that all had security fields to burn off any vandalism, Gary had to do it by hand. He’d gotten real good at it. Weird that he was doing it so late at night, though.
“You’ve been standing like that for the past five minutes.”
“Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, sure. I’m fine,” I said in a monotone voice as I slowly backed towards the stairs.
“Okay.” He didn’t sound convinced, but he turned towards the wall, letting the subject drop. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I just went inside. As I trekked up to my apartment, I tried to recall what it had been like the day I’d come to see Oz’s room for rent, but I couldn’t. Everything that had happened in my life before Ascension had become faded in my mind. It was like they were someone else’s memories that I was experiencing secondhand, years after the fact. Only, I was way too tired to be upset about it.
I wanted to say those weeks leading up to the vigil had passed by in a flash, but they hadn’t. It’d been three weeks filled with anxiety and fits of paranoia as I obsessed about the vigil. I was conflicted about going. Would it make me a hypocrite? When the day came, I still hadn’t figured that out. Since crossing paths with Oz I had a lot more going for me than I’d had since Aunt Vera, the only family I’d known, passed away. I had a place to live – by myself – and a career, even if I didn’t know what I was doing. Whereas, most of Johnny’s victims had their very foundations crumble out from under them. I had directly benefited from Oz’s lunacy and malicious programming. Was it an insult to go to the vigil even if I was acutely aware and remorseful for the damage he’d done? Was I allowed to show solidarity? There was no way for me to answer that.
Then again, maybe I was over thinking it. No one was going to know who I was. I’d been keeping a low profile, avoiding anyone who might be a disciple at all costs. After the bullshit at Encom, my paranoia had definitely felt warranted, but I hadn’t had any kind of run-in since then. If I didn’t go, I’d regret it. And yet I was still sitting in my big old armchair staring at a blank screen with my heart thundering in my chest.
Something stirred in one of the moebius islands of crap that occupied eighty-eight percent of the place, making me jump out of my skin. Still half lost in my thoughts, I expected to look over and see Oz doing a waltz by his onesome, spilling his chocolatey chai explosion all over the carpet as he puffed away on his hookah pen, but he wasn’t there. The place remained silent – and thankfully that sound hadn’t been the beginnings of an avalanche. I had just finished excavating the hallway from the last landslide. Some days it felt like this place was fighting me for dominance. Oz’s crotchety ghost was still banging around, I guess. Maybe I needed to get a cat or something.
What ever the disturbance had been, it burst my little thought bubble. The sun was already starting to set. Had to get going or I’d miss the whole thing. Padding barefoot into the bedroom, I was once again caught off guard by the emptiness of the room. This was the only space I’d managed to claim for myself. I hadn’t actually gotten rid of any of Oz’s stuff – couldn’t bring myself to go quite that far. So I’d packed it all into the white room and did my best to forget about it. Underneath all that clutter, the bedroom was only sparsely furnished. After months of living in chaos, it was hugely relieving to have my little oasis of sanity. My duffle bag worth of stuff strewn about the room brought home how much I didn’t have Oz’s knack for dominating spaces.
This wasn’t the time to brood about it. I dressed in all black, despite the late summer heat. The sun was dipping down behind the land towers so it was going to cool down soon. I took my time lacing up my combat books and then shrugged on an oversized work shirt I’d found among Oz’s things so I didn’t feel quite so small and vulnerable. After a last moment of hesitation, it was out the door. I’d stalled too much already.
Outside on the street, it was hot and clear, just like it had been a year ago. That had to be a hunter’s moon rising because you could just barely make it out through all the smog and light pollution. Hopefully it wasn’t an omen of how the night was going to go. The air still smelled of lingering cooking oil and sweat. Since the vigil was being held only a few blocks away, I headed there on foot, carrying with me only a switchblade and enough coin for a few stiff drinks afterwards. The address was scrawled on my palm, but I didn’t need it since it was the only place in OldTown that currently showed signs of life.
Mourning Ascension was taking place in what used to be the storefront of a computer repair shop. All the doors and windows had been thrown open and warm light cascaded onto the pavement. There was no music playing, but the sounds of dozens of hushed conversations echoed in the street. Already, a sizeable crowd had amassed even though the event didn’t start for another half hour, and more were still filtering in. How many people were going to turn out for the vigil? This was only one of a handful of locations where memorials were being held, were they all this crowded?
I still hadn’t brought myself to head inside. The room looked claustrophobically long and narrow, and was crammed with more mismatched chairs than should have reasonably fit in the space, with even more cluttering up the sidewalk. As I stood on the other side of the street watching, I was shocked by how many familiar faces I saw. Guess my idea of keeping a low profile was a waste of time. I couldn’t tell a disciple from my own asshole. They looked just like the regular brand of ThisCity humans. I was an idiot for not realizing do many of them lived in OldTown. City AdMin shunted them all out of the healthcare system the minute all the media attention died down – cost too much to foot the bill for years of psychological treatment for all these people. Where else was there for these people to go except for a place that didn’t exist? I hadn’t been paying enough attention, yet again. Oz would’ve been pissed.
The larger the crowd outside got, the more I felt myself withdrawing into the shadows where the street lights didn’t quite reach. My mind was filled with images of the seas of hopeful faces waiting to see the Prophet again after all those long years of abandonment transforming into fear and despair as the bass line thrummed viciously through the murky darkness. Ascension was a nightmare I’d never stop having. Maybe I’d just watch from here. What did I have to contribute anyhow?
“You’ve got a real set of cast-iron balls on you, don’t you?”
I jumped as a shiver ran down my spine. I knew that voice. Turning, I saw a group of four men approaching me in pack formation. They weren’t in combat gear this time, but I’d have known these fuckers anywhere.
“What are you talking about?”
“Did you come to see the results of your handiwork?” The leader of the pack – Rudy was his name – sneered as they stopped to loom over me.
“No, that’s not – I didn’t do this.” God, I thought we’d been over this already. Despite my conviction, I was still tense and hunched over defensively. They were a lot bigger than me and they did not like me at all.
“So you say.” Rudy inched closer to me, but Grüder, the beanpole who hovered at his right, moved so that he was almost shielding me, which was odd. He’d done the same thing at Encom when Rudy was looking like he was going to bring the pain. Grüder must have been the only one with a shred of human decency in him. The other two meatheads just looked bored.
“What do you want from me?” My palms were sweaty as I shoved my hands deep into my pockets, groping for my switchblade.
“You know, we looked into you after our little encounter,” Rudy said with an animal grin.
“You mean your botched attempt at tracking the Prophet down? Did you ever find what you were looking for?” I shot back more confidently than I felt.
“We couldn’t find a damn thing that proved your story, which makes me think you’re probably one of the best liars I’ve ever encountered.”
“Damn it, I’m not a liar. Even if I knew how, I would never do something to cause that.” I gestured vaguely towards the crowd before shoving my hand back into my pocket. My face was hot and tears were converging near the brims of my eyelids. And I was afraid, terrified of the glint in Rudy’s eyes. There was no doubt that he’d have no qualms beating me right out in the open like this. Everything I’d found out about him through months of painstaking research told me he was a sociopath.
“Jesus, you actually believe that, don’t you?” Rudy burst into a barking fit of laughter and I flinched.
“It’s the truth,” but I barely managed to whisper it. My throat had tightened almost painfully as I shied away from him.
“No, it’s not. This delusion of some other person – the Prophet no less – being responsible for everything that happened at Ascension is just a pitiful attempt at absolving yourself of the guilt.” His tone turned harsh as he clenched his fists.
“No, that’s not – you don’t -”
“Look at them. You did all this with your mad machines. That’s the kind of person you are. Stop being so weak and accept that you’re a monster.”
“No! That’s not who I am and I don’t care if you believe me or not, Rudy!” My temper suddenly ignited and I lifted my head to glare at him. He didn’t fucking know me and he definitely didn’t get to decide what kind of person I was. No one did.
“You fucking piece of shit! How do you know that name?” He demanded, his face turning red. I could see him starting to shake.
“You didn’t do such a good job at destroying all the evidence.”
“Neither did you. We saw the security footage of that night. You were there by yourself the entire time. There was no other person. Just you and your illusions.” Rudy stepped closer, trying to sidestep Grüder, who now had his back to me and was fully blocking Rudy.
“You have the camera feeds from Ascension?” I asked, derailed from my anger. In all my research and trawling the net, that was the one thing I’d never been able to get my hands on. Not to relive the events, but to look at earlier that day when Oz and I had shown up, just to get some shred of proof that he was real – for myself more than anything.
“You make me sick.” Rudy lunged for me, but Grüder stopped him. Using his body as a wall, he had his hands of Rudy’s chest, shoving him back.
“Is this really necessary?” Grüder said in a low whisper.
“You and your bleeding heart…” Rudy growled between clenched teeth.
“I’ve seen more than enough violence in my life. Besides, look at her. She’s barely worth the effort.”
Rudy continued to glare at me for a moment. “You’re right,” he said to Grüder and abruptly walked off, muttering to himself. Grüder looked back at me with a shrug as he and the two meatheads followed suit.
And then I was alone again. My little bubble sealed up around me again and I felt cold. I was shaking as I looked around wildly, trying desperately not to make eye contact. A few people had noticed the altercation, but lost interest as soon as it was over. Thankfully, no one else approached me. I was fighting to keep my emotions contained. Coming here had been a huge mistake. What had I been thinking? My feet carried me as fast as they could towards home. The only thing on my mind was getting back to my apartment where I could safely collapse in private – away from Rudy and his ilk. Thoughts swirled madly through my head. What if Rudy was right about me, about everything? I mean, it was stupid to even entertain the idea, but still his words had struct a cord. I had been searching, for a year, for concrete evidence that the man I knew as Johnny Osiris existed. All I needed was some shred of proof, outside of my own memories, that he was real. I hadn’t found it yet, or it didn’t exist. At this point it was all the same. Rudy knew it, and I guess I’d known it all along, too. Maybe. It still didn’t explain Where Oz’s art came from… Someone had to make it and it sure as hell hadn’t been me. Right?