April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
Just a passerby, sidewalk chalk dust washed away by automatic lawn sprinklers.
“Have you seen Susanna?”
They laughed, gathered in a dark circle around a car battery, sucking luminescent pacifiers under Circle X neon – red, red, red.
“Baby left you, huh?” One of them leaned back and stretched to her feet. Slight girl with long, transparent hair, couldn’t have been more than 14.
“Have you seen her?”
“Do you pick up strays?” Walked over to where I was standing, reaching with glow-in-the-dark hands. “I’m a little lost kitten, can I cuddle with you?”
“Have you?” My left arm was starting to shake in the shadow.
“Don’t you want to take me home?” Had on a Dust Lag shirt, the one I designed.
“Where is she?” Above – red, red, red. Her hair shimmered pink black brown.
“Don’t you want me?” All the e’s were cracking up as they watched, and I couldn’t move as she slinked right in front of me, her pixel-glazed eyes staring into mine.
“Where?” My legs wouldn’t listen.
“Shhhhh.” Placed her palm on my chest, and I felt her power even through my jacket. “You’re mine now.” Her breath was Freezie sweet, and as she moved her hand up and curled it around my neck, I wanted to run yet my feet were hers.
“Don’t” Pulled my head downwards, her eyes flickering like the space between channels.
“Do.” She parted my lips with shining thumbs, and kissed me a secret.
“It’s over. Over.”
I only ran with the Circle X witches for a week, but without them I don’t think I’d be alive today.
“Susanna doesn’t have time for your shit right now,” she said, pulling out her thumbs. Inside my mouth she left a black key cap labeled “esc”.
That’s Amy, the leader of the technocoven, and after she took me under her wing I started to recover from the shock of losing the net. Before we met up I wandered the streets for weeks, trying to contact Susanna with a junky transmitter. No go. And the shaking was worse.
“I don’t know why the fuck we have to, but A-Bell ordered us to watch you.” She reached in a sliver mylar anti-static bag hanging around her neck and pulled out a handful of loose key caps, which she then threw to the ground like dice.
Fairview was Amy’s zone and she had advanced warning that A-Bell was coming back to raise the dead OSes, to bring the collective bodyweb online no matter what, and the witches were there to watch her back.
“But, since Tomoe vouches for you, I guess we’ll stop fucking around.” Bent down on all fours and examined the pattern of letters and numbers on the pavement, mumbling to herself all the while.
Tomoe, the shiny girl who saved me when I crashed, was also part of the coven, but she was elsewhere then, recruited by A-Bell and her e-punks for a secret project. She pointed me in the witches’ direction the last time we spoke, knowing they would take care of me while she was gone.
“Shit. Keyboard says we have to leave now. The CXNU daemons are back.” Picked up the keys in heaping handfuls and motioned over to the rest of the coven. The other two girls quickly unhooked themselves from the car battery and ran down the street into shadow.
Amy reads the near future of the net by throwing her keyboard – some e in Russia came up with the script and she modified it to sniff through encrypted packets.
“Come on Phone,” she whispered in my ear, taking my hand by the control nodes. “We have some business to attend to.” With that she walked around the car battery circle, and led me into the darkened Circle X with a key card swipe.
The witches – Amy, Sarah, Mavi and Tomoe – first formed their coven a few years ago, when A-Bell’s partner Amber recruited them due to a simple video game console hack.
Amy was only 12 but had learned 3-D modeling from her big brother who worked for a living making the lip sync for talking dog and cat food commercials. She quickly cobbled together a game engine with Tomoe, her best friend who was creating her own open source OS and wanted to adapt the kernel so it would support a dead console she bought at a flea market for a few bucks.
Once they were successful they started making kits and selling them over the internet – a few extra wires, more RAM and spare modem was all you needed for deathmatch action. Amber heard about the kit and contacted them to see if they were interested in adapting it as a WOF client – the markup language the collective was using to make the bodyweb. They agreed, but first recruited two members of their deathmatch clan: Mavi for the GUI and Sarah for the textures.
Mavi’s 18 and already retired after holding a particularly choice domain name hostage until some IPO-fodder coughed up blood. She also is deadly with Phonecom 500 hour-free CD-ROMs; she could embed one in a telephone pole from 50 feet away. Sarah is a little older, not sure how much, and has wicked virtual scrollbars down her arms and legs, which she says are good for gaming and foreplay, but I can’t vouch for either. She’s also into cannibalizing portable inkjet printers for use on sidewalks and storefronts, and I bought one from her just in case I start tagging again.
After making the WOF box the coven became an official cell of the collective, and Amy was elected the leader only because she beat the others at capture the flag. Which was probably good for everyone’s sake, because when A-Bell came back the coven was put in charge of offering up a large diversion, and Amy was a born drama queen.
“We have 5 minutes, tops.” As soon as we entered the Circle X she waved on the lights and then hopped the counter, attaching a wire from the WOF client at her waist (that year’s model was as small as a beeper) to a card she then swiped through the POS reader. Punched in her PIN and smiled as a receipt popped out, which she tore off with a flourish. “Got it.”
I wasn’t sure then just what she had, thought maybe she was after some extra e-cash, but I caught on quickly once she hopped the counter again and ran past the freezers, toward the store room door. Took out her key card, swiped it, and punched in a number off the receipt. The door opened with a click and she waved me in behind her.
“All I need is 3 minutes to get what we came for,” she whispered, headed for a computer in the corner. “Be a dear and graze the shelves for snacks, you know, chocolate and bubble gum, maybe some sugar cereal. Oh, and make me a cherry Freezie for the road.” I had no reason not to do what she said, so I turned back around, grabbed a plastic bag from behind the counter, and went shopping. Even snagged a 2 liter of soda before she ran out of the back and quickly exited through the front door, carrying a hard drive in one hand, and what looked like a small container of propane in the other. I followed, trying not to spill her Freezie.
“Shit, do you have any matches?” she asked, turning on the propane with a hiss. I shook my head no so she pointed me back inside. “Get some by the cash register, and one of those crossword puzzle books, too.”
I did, and decided to snag some extra peanuts for the road, because I hadn’t eaten all day. She met me by the door, kick-rolled the propane down an aisle, and grabbed the matches and puzzle book. “You like running?” She lit the book on fire and threw it at a stack of newspapers. “I like running, it’s like sex only with heavy breathing at the end instead of the beginning.” With that, she took the Freezie out of my hand, turned around, and jumped over the car battery, sprinting down the street in the same direction the rest of the coven did.
Sarah and Mavi were waiting for us a few blocks down, their bikes already unlocked. Amy waived me over to a small dirt bike and jumped on the handlebars. “Let’s go already, and if you make me spill this,” she took a long drag on the Freezie, “I’ll kill you.”
Surprisingly, the Circle X didn’t explode until we made it all the way down the hill.
The next day Sarah was nice enough to update my body marks so I would be compliant with the new WOF standard, and she even convinced Amy to give me an extra client box.
In exchange I helped Sarah with some new skins for the next WOF browser – it seems that the Dust Lag shirt originally was hers, and she was a fan of my art since she was in elementary school. Amy had already decrypted the drive she had stolen, and sent the needed data to Tomoe, who attached a little message for me with her reply.
“Hey baby, I hope the witches are taking care of you. I told them all about San and Izzy and after they stopped laughing they decided to cut you some slack. After the shakes are all gone, rebuild your OS and meet me at the Treehouse.”
It had been ages since I last visited the club – not since San left – and it wasn’t like I was looking forward to it. But I trusted Tomoe, even missed her some, so I did what she said and let the coven help me get back into shape.
Besides, the witches were a blast to be around. Mavi used her stock options to buy up a small arcade, and the back room was converted into their base of operations. When she wasn’t trying to beat her high score on Major Havoc, she maintained the cell’s bodyweb node, usually while baking cookies – chocolate chip was her favorite.
Sarah was a bicycle messenger before the net fell, so she not only had hardcore legs but knew every shortcut around town and then some. Because of this, she was in charge of collecting WOF data for Fairview and the surrounding cities, and usually did so during her runs. I think she had a thing for me, because she let me crash on her bedroom floor and was always on me to sign her album covers.
Not that she wasn’t cute, especially with glasses on. She was perhaps the most intricately marked e-punk I had ever met, almost entirely self etched with body circuits that were both functional and artistic. She couldn’t stand to look at my street etch though, so when she did the WOF update she also added some extra flourish, taking her time on my hands and face.
I guess that was her way of flirting, but she had nothing on Amy, who continued to make me as uncomfortably aroused as she could until I had to wiggle away. She was with Tomoe but didn’t let that stop her from using every available opportunity to throw weird scripts at me that would cause uncontrollable orgasms or make me faint dead away. When I’d wake up, she’d be fussing around with my hair, whispering sick shit in my ear before she bit it. It was all one big power trip, because she knew my reputation and wanted to see how far she could take it before I snapped. She knew I still had San on my mind and heart, and wanted to see just how committed I was.
Amy wasn’t all that bad though, because she let me become an unofficial member of her coven, with a ceremony that involved sucking on lit birthday candles, making fingernail clipping collages and having to memorize their FAQ. After that we broke into a bowling alley, watered the lanes and slid down them naked, which was as fun as it sounded.
Anyway, the new OS kicked in and so I stopped shaking soon enough, and then I had to hit the road for the Treehouse, which was off on the industrial side of town. I borrowed one of Sarah’s bikes, and before I left Amy pulled me aside, threw a paralyzing script and stuck a key cap into my mouth with her tongue. “Give that to Tomoe for me, OK?” With that she gave my body back to me and patted me on the butt. “Now scoot.”
It took about an hour to ride to the Treehouse since I had to avoid downtown – it had been a total police state since the night everything went to hell. The power was back on, and stores were starting to open again, but the streets were scarred with the half-faded footfalls of revolution, and even the street cleaners couldn’t blast away all of the broken glass, blood and spray paint.
Things over by 3rd street looked just as trashed, but honestly it had been that way for the past decade. The Treehouse was now flanked on either side by some live-work lofts and you could just imagine a burrito shop and some cafes fitting in perfectly to the newly gentrified neighborhood. Somehow the pre-punks that used to beg Ariel to get into the back door grew up to be lawyers and community activists that lobbied the city council to keep the club open, and won.
As I rolled up to the front door and took out my old set of keys, I could even see some of the ancient concert posters I designed peeking out behind the new ones. I ran my fingers past fliers for Intruder Alert! and Fire Escape, but before I could skip down memory lane any further, I saw Tomoe inside on a couch by the tetherball pole, her arms around A-Bell and someone else I didn’t recognize at first.
“Glad you could make it,” Tomoe said, giving me the finger. “Come on over and join us for root beer and conspiracy.”
After I propped the bike against a wall, A-Bell stood up and walked over to me, and put her hands on my shoulders. “Things are not what they seem, Phone.” With that, she stuck out her tongue and changed with a shimmer into Isabel.
“You’ve got that right dear.” The other girl stood up from the couch, and I immediately recognized her as Jenny antizine. She walked over next to Isabel and kissed her on the cheek.
Then she touched her wrist and changed into someone else. I couldn’t believe it. Sasha.
“Fuck Traffic baby,” she smiled, pinching my cheek. “Are you with me?”
Amy was wrong.
It’s not over at all, not by a long shot.
April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
I woke up data blind, deaf, and dumb to a car-alarm symphony conducted by apocapunks. My head felt totally thwapped, like I swallowed one too many junk obs, but when I tried to clean my cache all that came forth was static.
You must have felt it. The big throbbing rip and black nothing then white white white…
Yeah, I didn’t understand much then. Now….?
I don’t know…. it’s bad enough talking to myself like this, but there has to be someone out there listening, a stray head that didn’t get fried by an e-bomb. Or the e-bomb…. whatever, at this point I don’t give a fuck.
All I know is that I woke up in my own vomit, and my circuit clothes were dead. I couldn’t see shit past the shadow glare, but I managed to crawl across the leafy sidewalk and hide behind a dumpster before the city devoured itself.
Maybe it wasn’t as bad for you. You could have been watching TV or something, maybe jacking off in a closet to the latest teleporn, and cursed at your kids when the power fled…. at this point it doesn’t matter, huh? Everything’s different now.
Anyway, I still haven’t recovered from what happened that night, but like I was telling you before, all I care about now is just finding Susanna, and everything and everyone else can just go to hell….
O.K. Bad choice of words. But what am I supposed to say or think or do? The whole world turned inside out and me with it, and no one….
I’m sorry…. maybe this is a waste of time after all. If you can hear this, you probably got enough shit together that you don’t even need my help to make it through. I don’t know why I even bothered to slap this transmitter together….
Fuck it. Either you care, or you don’t. I’ll never know one way or the other.
So where was I? Yeah…. behind the dumpster, wallowing in crumpled beer cans and newspapers, and the streets soon filled with little kids chasing the end of the world ice cream truck, along with their brothers and sisters and parents and gramps and granny too…
As far as I can tell, I was out for at least an hour after it happened, so the sun was starting to set and people had enough time to put their home-grown riot gear on. There must have been some psychic emergency broadcast system action going, because everyone had just one thing on their mind – fuck the police, fuck CX, fuck NU, fuck everyone and everything, moving or not. Or maybe it was just me, still shaken after my OS crashed and infoskin grew cold.
I still can’t get over it…. 4 years wired erased in a nanosecond, and I had the shakes and the sweats and my head felt like it had already exploded. Everything was a shadowy blur, and it didn’t help that all the street lights and neon were dead and buried. You would think that it wouldn’t take that long to readjust to the h/n, but it took me days to walk without bumping into shit, to move at all without feeling like I was on invisible, shaky crutches.
Of course, I was still too freaked to realize this – always Mr. Uber e-punk, ready for mass decontextualization at the twitch of a finger – and so as soon as I could make out the traffic for the cars, I staggered up and into the stream of urban locusts, carried along for the ride.
I guess I was high on reality or something, because I kept turning to everyone I saw and gave them the full stare on, tripping on the lack of bio-data. No social, no DMV, no dems or financials or even a simple position history, they were silent strangers that had neither past nor predictable future. After a couple of minutes of bouncing from person to person, and getting shoved and slapped away because, this glow-in-the-dark girl carrying a car-battery came up to me and asked what the fuck was my problem, anyway? I babbled something about the black white white and she frowned, took my hand, and led me over to a side street. Sat me down by a vidbooth, hooked some jumper cables up to my thumb nodes, and gave me some pure DC to collect myself.
5 seconds of absolute clarity, enough for my OS to clean up and shut down properly, and when I came to she smiled and sat down beside me, making sure to free the alligators before I got burned. “Shit. Where’d you get etched, anyway? Someone sure fucked up bad.” I was too happy for the recharge to take offense, and besides, she was too cute to bitch at. Like I said before, from head to toe she was all shiny, one of those phosphorescent dermal tints that were big with the e-teens and various wannabes, and her clear-vinyl dress only accentuated the positive. Kind of like a ceiling star sticker come to life, only sexier and with green eyes that looked straight through you. I was too struck to flirt, so I just nodded and gathered my senses.
It wasn’t just me after all. Everything was totally fucked up, and the car-alarms just wouldn’t quit. I asked her if she knew what had happened, but she just frowned again and told me to follow her with the quickness. So we slipped back into the crowd, and weaved through the angry skatepunks, housewives and armchair athletes, who all seemed to be headed in the same direction – the mall.
I don’t know if I’m doing the whole scene justice. Running though a gaggle of suburban horsepeople of the apocalypse carrying broomstick torches and assault rifles, past abandoned, screaming cars with the keys left in ignitions, and there wasn’t a stray electron to be found. I’m not even going to speculate about how big the EM burst was, but it managed to fry all the ATMs and stoplights, not to mention anything and everything that moved, beep or blipped, and yet was not alive. Of course, it also crashed every e that was even remotely logged on, and the only thing that saved my synapses was the fact that I had a street etch without any hardware.
Not that I was blessing my chickens or anything, I was too busy trying to keep up with Shiny, who wasn’t in the mood for stragglers. I did my best to follow her glow as she shoved past the populouses, and after cutting across Commerce Dr. – in the distance the Yogurt Hut and Valumart were already aflame – we ran on the off ramp and across the freeway, making a bee-line for the Fairview Shopping Center.
I don’t know where you’re from, but every city worth its property tax has some mall equivalent, and Fairview was the same old cookie-cut piece of shit. Super Circle X anchor, with the typical fast-food faster-death joints, not to mention circuit clothiers and 3rd world electro-emporiums. When I was younger I used to bomb the side facing the freeway weekly, trying out my latest burners and honing my crew. Then they got video-cameras and aerosol alarms, so if you even as much pointed paint in their direction, it was you spread eagle on SWAT! or another syndicated police-state crimecom. Anyway, I hated Fairview with a passion, and would only go there to harass the security guards and pick up Susanna from work. San…
Shit. I haven’t heard from her in weeks, ever since….
I don’t know where she is. I don’t know if she even made it back into the h/n…
It’s no use. You’re not going to have the answer I need, so once I spill my guts it’s back to the streets, hitting all the squats and micro-reality stations that are bound to still exist, somewhere. Someone has to know what happened to her….
Fuck this. I’m in too much trouble to be worried and love-sick, and besides, San can take care of herself far better than I can….
So Shiny and I cut through the freeway trees and followed the shoplifter trail to Fairview, and all the while she filled me in on what I missed. Seems the CXNU got ahead of itself and flipped the switch before the collective could pounce, and one of the first casualties was Frisbee. I never thought she really had it in her, but when the smoke cleared she had flown off and took all of the electrons with. Shiny didn’t know what really happened next, except that Jenny led the counter-attack and the whole world was limping because.
At this point it doesn’t really matter. Things just are, and I didn’t understand this fully until we met up with the rest of the e’s behind the SCX. The last person I expected to see there was Isabel, and she wasn’t orgasmic to be in my presence either. She glared at me briefly before going back to work, fussing with a tangle of wires, half of which dangled from the roof of the building, 4 stories up. While Shiny went over to her to help and exchange notes, I sat down on the nearest loading dock, feeling nauseous. Part of it was because I wasn’t used to all of the static that was flying up, around, and through my head, but mostly I was weirded out to be around Izzy again. It had been almost 6 years since the last time we talked, and I wouldn’t say we parted ways on a high-note.
But you don’t even give a fuck, huh? Here I am, last will and testifying to you when all you want to know is why I’m saying anything in the first place, why I can’t lick my wounds like everyone else and just let things be. Well, I’ve always been a jerk that way, sucking on the past like a security blanket, even though it never makes me feel any better. The thing is that Izzy is one big walking billboard listing all of the things that I lost, all the ways that I’ve hurt the people I’ve cared for the most, and meeting up with her just brought back the pain.
It wasn’t always like this, at least I don’t think so. I really can’t pin down where things went wrong with me, but I guess I started to notice how much of a jerk I was becoming back when Masking Tape was starting up. Doug and I had just liberated what was to become the Treehouse from an athletic shoe sweat shop, that was raided by the INS and had to scatter quick. The building was condemned, but no one seemed to put up too much of a fuss when we broke in and converted it to an all-ages monster punk rally. No, the corporates started to smash heads only after the home town bands started to break big, and all the $3 tax-free admissions started to add up. Still, we had a little over 2 years of unrestricted freedom, and during that time I was convinced that I could do no wrong. Of course, I did nothing but wrong, but no one dared suggest that then, because I was still tight was Doug and anyone passed basking in his glow.
He first started Masking Tape on a drunken dare cutting French 4 class; we were tagging the back of the Circle X over by the High School, and a gaggle of ripe girls passed us on the way home from 6th period. I picked out Izzy, all of 15 and already resplendent, and boasted that I could win her over by the sheer force of my artistic talent, which then consisted mainly of exhibits on the backs of buses and street signs. He countered by stating flat out that no girl in her right mind ever fell for an artist unless he was a total jerk or dead, and thus I was already half way to home plate. I let him get away with that, but not without first dragging him over to stalk the girl-pack.
We caught up with them a few blocks down, and I put on my best face and tried to ingrate myself with the crowd. I was far from the big man on campus, but outpunk enough that Isabel, Patricia and Becky had already taken notice, in a 9th grade sort of way. Meaning that I couldn’t help but prove sly giggles with my sophomore status, and entertaining tales of the street that were miles from the nearest salt lick. I was so enthusiastically full of myself that they bit, even more so with Doug because he looked liked a centerfold from some skater rag, all scabbed, scruffy and basically irresistible.
Somehow that day we ended up at Pat’s house, and camped out in her garage drinking homemade lemonade while we flirted awkwardly. Doug insinuated that he was starting a band, which I hadn’t heard shit about until then – since he had made it up just to impress. Then Becky and Pat ran inside and came out swinging guitars, and before we knew it Masking Tape was born. Well not exactly, because it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I quit (more like was thrown out) due to a complete lack of musical talent, and Susanna found her way to one of our practices. I can’t say that I was struck by her immediately, partially because I was too busy chasing after Izzy, but mostly because I was intimidated by her presence, her power. As soon as she took the mike during her “audition” – which was more like Friday night and a stray 6-pack, I wanted to run out of the room then and there, because I didn’t feel worthy of her voice. It was too honest and primal, like a baby’s laugh or the serenade of a grizzled woman spare changing in front of the supermarket. Doug gave her the mike and told her to “follow my lead”, but as soon as Isabel started tapping her cymbals San was already….
Fuck, I’m hopeless. I promised myself that I would just stick with the factoids here, and not float down the river singing songs of my stupidity. This’ll probably be the first and last time anyone will ever hear my side of the story, and I’m already wasting it and my batteries ranting about the good old days. That time and place is gone forever, as am I at this point. Before, I was Brian Thomas, stupid-ass Phone the high school dropout street artist, and now I’m just another cockroach crawling out from under the ashes.
I’m the first one to admit that it’s over, but the last one that’s going to accept it. Somehow along the line I listened to Sasha one too many times, and became convinced that we actually could make a difference, that I had a purpose above and beyond painting Suspender concert posters and getting on San’s nerves. But Sasha died years ago, and took my dreams with her. Slide Rule School and the collective might still live on, but it’s no big secret who’s winning the war.
That’s what I found out the hard way on the night the world ended, as Isabel and Shiny stole the Fairview Mall for one last hack. By the time some e managed to pop open the back door, everyone had made it across the overpass and was already tearing things apart. The e’s started to go inside, and Shiny motioned for me to follow, but I stood transfixed, watching toddlers raised on the shoulders of their parents cheer greedily as the strip mall was consumed by a sea of softball bats and shopping carts. The Super Circle X was the main attraction, and the night shift was carried out into the parking lot – a shaking, red mass of minimum-wage earners surrounded by ex-consumers, pleading for forgiveness. An old Chinese woman, dressed in a white nightgown and pink slippers, slowly approached one of the cashiers and raised her finger angrily. “Stop your whining son, and face judgement! Our day has finally come!”
Before his co-workers could stop him, he rose up to face her and shouted back at those assembled. “This is insane! What have we ever done to you?”
Then she reached into her purse, pulled out a pistol, and aimed it right at his head. “Jesus came on TV tonight and told me to seek out the mark of Satan, and wipe it clean from the face of the earth.” It looked like she pointed right at the X on his baseball cap, but after she pulled the trigger her accuracy didn’t matter all that much. His head jerked back and he slumped down to the pavement, bleeding red upon red.
She stood over his body, her arm still shaking, and the crowd started to back away as if suddenly broken out of a trance. She then kneeled down next to her still twitching victim, looked skyward as if to ask for forgiveness, and turned the gun on herself.
That second shot traveled through every last cellular phone golfer and former market segment, and they all suddenly rushed forward to obey the starting pistol to long-awaited anarchy. I didn’t stick around long enough to know where their gunfire was directed, who was screaming at whom, or exactly how brightly the imagined enemy was allowed to burn. I just ran inside, through a long access tunnel and up some stairs into administration. I felt my way around shadowy cubicles and copy machines, until I spied Shiny as she and Izzy picked apart the mainframe.
“Make yourself useful for once, and hold this.” Gave me a flashlight, which I steadied as she panned for gold. Soon enough Izzy pulled out a little black cube, which she quickly shoved in her satchel before replacing it with something similar, yet far from sanctioned. I had no idea what was up exactly, but I was smart enough to tag along as Shiny and crew suddenly shot for the entrance to the mall proper, Izzy barking cryptic instructions all the way.
Usually Fairview was one big consumer-bacteria culture, with ever multiplying masses of sex crazed teenagers claiming all unoccupied space for their stand-around swagger. Of course, they had to compete with the radioactive nuclear families, with 2.4 kids orbiting the harried mothers, pops usually no where to be found. That night, however, we entered the football-stadium sized center part to find a virtual ghost town, save for a few straggling night managers quickly rolling down the bars before the outside came rushing in. Over by the SCX entrance to the mall there were hundreds of security guards, decked out in their finest Christmas-crowd control gear, but the shoddy bars and fencing which usually held out the stray shelf-grazer were buckling under the force of disgruntled office workers and burger flippers. It was obvious that the barricades were only going to last a few more minutes, but Izzy and crew weren’t fazed at all, and instead started to unload a bunch of crap by the central water fountain and fucked-up abstract sculpture of “Our American Heritage,” which looked like a bunch of squirrels devouring a large chicken.
“Come on, we only have 3 minutes!” Shiny was spreading a big mess of aluminum foil over the black and white tiles, while a particularly anemic looking e reached in his backpack and pulled out what looked like a gray, translucent beach towel. The guards were too busy with the rioters to notice our activity, and I crouched nervously by the fountain while Izzy slipped out of her black overalls and Intruder Alert! t-shirt, down to her iridescent datasuit. As always she was a sculptured chunk of the sun, hard and smooth yet universally maternal, and I couldn’t help but stare, remembering the nights I explored her body, vowing never to leave and lying through my teeth. Before I had a chance to reminisce any further, though, she suddenly turned up to look at the ceiling, and what happened next quickly got my mind out between my legs. A piece of the air was missing.
Right below the “Welcome to Fairview” banner, a circular gap in everything suddenly appeared, a beyond-white throbbing other that slipped in out of nowhere and started floating downwards, towards Isabel. My first reaction was to rush forward to protect her from the light, but Shiny held me back as the glowing piece of heaven seemed to reach for Izzy’s outstretched hands. The other e’s were frantically fussing with tech even I couldn’t place, and at the moment her fingertips intruded into the beyond, everything seemed to reverse, like a film-negative only 3-dimensional. We were all touching the white with her, and my heart skipped an infinite beat as the mall faded out from vision, along with Isabel and Shiny and all thoughts of existence. It was that moment just before the pixels right themselves when you’re logging on, and you’re nothing but a diffuse data-cloud, all mind and power and potential. That infantessimile bit of infinite awareness suddenly rushed though every cell in my body, and I felt more complete, more whole, than anything ever. Better than sex, than painting the perfect stroke, than lying in the sun and just being alive. It was the bestest, and I wanted it all, forever.
After I don’t know how long of floating in bliss, the veil suddenly lifted and the world flipped back to its normal fucked-up state. It took me a few seconds to readjust, and then I found myself holding on to Shiny, facing her back and head resting upon her shoulder. She must have came to about the same time I did, because she suddenly jerked away and rushed forward to who I thought was Izzy, lying on the bed of crumpled aluminum and wrapped up in the clear cloth. All the e’s were frantically collecting their materials and whisper-yelling a fast retreat, for just as the white left the mall, so too did the barrier between the shadowy interior and the chaos beyond. I was jerked into action by a storm of gunfire and what sounded like a marathon of lawn mowers, and I quickly rushed to the body on the floor, calling for Isabel. Pushed aside Shiny and reached for her shoulder, only to draw back in horror.
It wasn’t Izzy in the blanket. It was A-Bell, naked and screaming.
“Get off of me, we have to leave now!” She threw my arm aside, grabbed Izzy’s clothes and satchel off the floor, and rushed for the door we came in from. I was too stunned to move, and so Shiny yanked me away from the floor and forced me to flee, my hands latched on a large strip of foil that trailed behind me.
I still don’t understand how they did it, or why. But A-Bell was leading us to safety, and it wasn’t the same A-Bell I knew. She seemed older and harder, like having just crawled out of the desert or something, and her eyes…. they looked right through me, right into my essence, shooting daggers of the white she sprang from. I didn’t have time to examine her any further, as we jumped down the stairs and out into the night, the mall behind us half-shrouded in flames that leapt up into the starry sky.
After we cleared the parking lot, A-Bell stopped by the side of the freeway and slipped on Izzy’s clothes, which barely fit her. The same e that had the towel then pulled out some boots from his bag, which she stepped in barefoot and didn’t bother to tie. While I caught my breath and crumpled my aluminum souvenir, she silently consulted with Shiny, who illuminated all those assembled. I couldn’t help but stare at the two of them, at how beautifully strong A-Bell was. I always had a thing for her, even though I knew she could never want me in the same way I wanted her. More than anyone else she knew how bad I could be, and although she put me through total hell for what had happened with Izzy years ago, she never gave up on me completely, and was one of the few friends I could count on to be honest yet loving. I wanted to walk over and thank her for everything, but before I could she kissed Shiny briefly, gathered Izzy’s things, and ran across the frozen lanes of cars, back to what was left of the city. The other e’s followed, and after a few moments they had disappeared from sight behind the wall of trees.
All I could manage was a stammered “where’s Isabel….”, which Shiny caught and addressed with a forceful hug. She said she would explain later, that she would take care of everything, but that right then we had to leave town, and leave it quickly. I just nodded and followed her down the bumpy freeway, watching Fairview implode upon itself in the distance.
After jogging a mile to the next exit, we took the long way around a police barricade, and hit the bike rack by Central library. Shiny put her universal keys to good use and scored a rickety red one-speed, and was kind enough to set me up with a muddy mountain bike. Then we meandered down past the train tracks – heading against the current of the homeless and otherwise disenfrachized, no doubt marching downtown to reclaim their 2 million cents worth – and found a cruddy warehouse to crash at. By this time it was about 11, but I guess the excitement had gotten to me, because I immediately found an inviting pile of yellowed newspapers and cardboard fragments and settled in for the night.
Well, more like passed out, because the next thing I knew a few hours had snuck, and Shiny was shaking me awake. “Hey, you fuck! We have to go!” I was all who what where but soon got the point as the corrugated metal walls started to rumble – it sounded like a herd of mute elephants were running past. Surprisingly, she wasn’t shining anymore – her clear dress was hidden by a dark poncho, and her head covered with a fuzzy blue cap with ear flaps. I didn’t even bother to ask about the change, and just followed her flashlight into the alley. While we rode away I got a quick peek at the source of the racket – a huge, dark, metallic mass, more like a mountain than a tank, advancing down the train tracks and towards town. Reinforcements.
To be honest, I’m not sure what the fuck happened next. We were almost countrified, over by the cereal factory, and I could barely keep up with Shiny (she claimed my 12 speed while I was asleep). Every so often I looked over my shoulder at the huge finger of smoke that pointed at the sky, severing the Milky Way before diffusing into a sea of shadow, and I kept trying to logon and send a v-prox back into the middle of the inferno. Some habits die hard, I guess – ever since my first etching I always wanted to be where the action was, at least virtually. But that night all circuits were permanently busy, and I was totally pissed-off because.
Anyway, the last time I peeked back at what we were running from, it looked like the sun was rising up from the growing ashes. I yelled at Shiny to stop and look and tell me what the fuck was going on, and once she turned around she totally freaked out, and started pedaling even faster. “Don’t look! Just go!” But I’m a stupid ass, always have been and always will be, so my legs stopped with the up-down and I stood transfixed, watching the light expand and wipe away the darkness. It was like yanking the chain in a closet, and everything, from the trees along the side of the road, to the cars abandoned in drainage ditches, was bleeding harsh shadows as the white leapt forward.
As soon as I realized that whatever was happening wasn’t just isolated to downtown, and was moving towards us, I quickly turned my red piece of crap around and pumped for dear life. But before I had traveled a hundred feet, a shimmering wave of warm whiteness rushed past my face, and the road in front of me dissolved into nothingness.
Where were you when the end finally came? Do you even remember the transition, how the world was devoured by the infinite other slipping out of every star in the sky and hole in the ground? Odds are you think I’ve totally lost it, because you woke up the next morning with a slight headache and coffee-slapped yourself silly. Or maybe you watched all insides turn out, and cried or laughed or peed in your pants as everything was made pure again. Not that it even matters any more – the end came, and went, and left me bruised and tangled up in my bicycle chain on the side of the road.
I didn’t even bother getting up from the ground, and just stared up at the night sky for a while, trying to make up my own constellations. By the time I got to the three-headed snail Shiny came rolling back for me, sat her bike down, and joined me in the dirt. She didn’t have to say a word, because in that universal moment of transition everything became clear, like a baby grabbing onto your finger and just pulling and smiling and drooling up a storm. We just lay there next to each other, wallowing in the afterglow of swimming in God’s tears, and after what seemed like forever she turned her still-glowing face to me and kissed me softly on the nose. “Come on, lazy. We have a ways to go yet.”
With that, she helped me rechain my bike, and patched up a big gash on my knee that I didn’t even notice until then. Left her poncho and hat by the side of the road, and lit our way down the highway, past the crickets and frogs dueling for our attention. After a few miles we turned left at a golf course, and rode into one of those suburban housing developments where every address looks the same. Circled around a bit avoiding any number of dead-end streets, and finally pulled up at a white number with brown trim. Left our bikes in the driveway, stepped over a sleeping cat, and Shiny strode up to the front door, gave me a shhhhhh finger, and entered with a key twist.
Yeah, I followed. Walked past a pillowed couch, turned left and creeped up the stairs behind her, and entered the room she nodded towards. She quickly rushed past, closed the door behind me, and waved me over to a purple bean bag in the far corner. I sat, and tried not to stare too hard as she took off her dress, dug around the closet for a while, and put on some gray sweats. Then she sat down in front of me, lit a few candles, and filled me in on what I’d missed.
Seems I didn’t know shit from toilet paper after all. Just because Susanna was in the collective, and she and I were together, I always assumed that she gave me the real deal, the secret board game instructions that always lead past go. But by the time Shiny was done with me, and the real sun peeked in through transplanted trees and venetian blinds, every little twitch and moan that San rubbed into me as she slept added up into one, huge mosaic of spare change and bottle tops. It’s the kind of grand design that only can be understood in retrospect, and before I had time to fully contemplate it Shiny was pushing me out the garage door, promising to get back to me when the time was right. Of course, she and I both knew far too well that the right time had long since past, and the only thing which lay ahead was the infinite stasis of long-wished for future present.
OK…. I’m being ultra vague, but at this point can you blame me? The net is twitching back into life, CXNU is already rising from the ashes, and every last e is being hunted down one by one. I’ve basically staple-gunned a dart board to my chest by sending out this message, because all the strong encryption in the world won’t stop the universal keys they pick-pocketed from the collective. In a few days they’ll find this transmitter, and in a few weeks I’ll be laying face down in a garbage dump, swimming forever in crumpled snot rags and microwave dinner boxes. Yeah, I’ve already backed myself up, but diffuse data-cloud consciousness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Eventually they’ll wipe all my v-proxes away too, and the only sign left of my existence will be stray tags and junkshop 7″ sleeves.
At this point I don’t give a fuck. All I care about is finding San, and apologizing one last time for all the ways I messed up, the infinite-plus times I held her hand and knew, just knew, that she was so much more important than I, yet I never told her, elevating my fool self instead. I always was the sarcastic lead of the big man sitcom, never willing to settle down, to zip up my pants and throw away the all-life sucker, and at this point I can’t blame her for leaving. I can’t blame her for anything, except walking away without smashing me to a pulp first. But she loved me too much for that, loved herself too much to stoop to my level.
It should be obvious by now that I’m a self-obsessed shit that never takes no for an answer. From the get-go she knew that it would end this way; as we rode home from the Treehouse that first night I wasn’t consciously trying to betray her trust, but it was obvious that the last thing she expected was for Isabel’s boyfriend to hit on her. Or maybe it was the first thing, the only thing anyone ever expected from me, for why else would she play along, hitting me right back as we devoured each other in her back yard, freeing dandelion seeds and scaring moths in our reckless bliss. We were the first two puzzle pieces that fit perfectly out of a jumbled box with no cover picture, and every last kiss and suck and fuck was a desperate attempt to smooth away all the rough edges, so that nothing could intrude into our forced union. It was all one big love game show, where she screamed maybe in the starlight, and I countered with always, never.
From that moment on I was held captive by her whisper-screams, and she by my insistence that Isabel meant nothing to me, and that nothing was great than my San, my sun, that lit up the world mirror-like, reflecting back only purity and beauty. It was one big joke, of course, for she was just as tainted as I, just as selfish and hurtful, only her darkness came from love, while mine from divorce and abuse and closeted tears. I shared my shadow with only her, and she tried desperately to replace it with light and hope, but in the end I would have nothing of it. All I knew how to ask for was love as sex, love as hate, love as anything but what I really deserved, and that’s why I kicked aside Isabel, that’s why I openly cheated on everyone, that’s why everything changed when Sasha died.
When we were preparing for the last Suspender show, Sasha sat me down and told me her grand unified CXNU theory, which started with cherry freezies and lead to the universal 666. I tried to laugh it off, to just follow instructions and wait for Susanna to get back into town, but she wouldn’t let me out of her grasp. “You’ll die in the shadow of Circle X, like all the other self-satisfied jerks who just don’t want to learn, to understand the truth.” I asked her what that truth was, and then she slapped me in the face and spray painted a huge, red, question mark on my favorite Fire Escape t-shirt. “When we meet again, you’ll know.” A few hours later she was dead on the floor, and my idiocy died with her. It goes without saying that unlike A-Bell, Sasha never gave me the benefit of the doubt, only the benefit to doubt. That, and the realization that love doesn’t conquer all; love is all.
I know, coming from me that sounds as solid as a whiffle ball, but laying here wrapped up in electric guitar strings and duck tape, sending my last will and testament out into the static, the only thing I know for certain is that love is something I never quite got the hang of. When I was little I always gave too much; even after dad traded mom in for a new wife and life I couldn’t even consider thinking of him as anything less than god-like. Every weekend he would take me out for video games and pizza, and when the big puberty demon came calling he sat me down and told me one of those secret father stories, where lust comes first and responsibility over time. I knew he wasn’t perfect, but I sucked up that imperfection with a twisty-straw, cookie-cut my adolescence into not the moral of his stories, but the plot. Every last girl that came and went as I did was my way of showing him how much of a man he wasn’t, only it came out as how much of a man I wanted to be. I blamed myself for his abusiveness, for all the times I came home to my mother cradled against the phone crying. How could it be his fault when he was just following his bliss, the natural compass that always led towards the next conquest?
No, I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m just one big babble, a stressed out nothing that tried his best and failed miserably. After Sasha left I totally straightened up and treated San right, but it was too little, too late. She left me for Frisbee and the collective, for the final promise of definite and irrecovable change, and I tagged along for the ride, following in her electronic shadow as best I could.
It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been apart, yet she never totally turned away from me. Whenever I came crying she would sit me down and remind me of the night Isabel found out about us, when I cowered between the two of them and begged forgiveness. Izzy had just come home early from work only to find San singing in the shower, while I lay steaming and self-satisfied between the tossed blankets. Instead of simply killing me straight out, she casually strolled into the bathroom and took a piss while San wiped away my sin. Of course she thought it was me on the toilet, and so she proceeded to tell Izzy that she had to leave soon, before Isabel came home. Izzy gave her best approximation of my mumble-grunt yeah, flushed the toilet in spite, and walked into our bedroom like nothing was up.
“Oh hey, sorry I didn’t call, but I thought I’d surprise you by coming home early.” I cringed, and prayed for lightning with my name on it. “See, I’m leaving on a little trip,” she said, gathering up her clothes by the handful and piling them in the middle of the room, “and I just stopped by to wish you eternal torment in hell.” I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, and just closed my eyes as Susanna filled the apartment with her songs of cleanliness, sneaking past the bathroom door. “Ummm…. Phone dear? Have you seen my duffle bag?” I pointed her the right direction, and as she stuffed her dresses and t-shirts into it I quickly tried to make up the perfect anti-excuse. Something like it’s exactly what it looks like, only less so. Before I could even say a word she smiled, walked over to the bed, and kissed me on the forehead while I trembled. “You know, you’re nothing if not consistent. Given time, I’ll learn how to hate that about you, too.” Gathered the last of her things and walked away, as I quickly got off my ass and ran after her. By this time Susanna walked out of the bathroom wrapped up in Izzy’s favorite towel – a Return of the Jedi beach model – and found me balled up at the foot of the front door, trying to block the inevitable. To be honest, I don’t remember what passed between the two of them after that, only that Susanna helped Izzy carry her stuff to the subcompact, and the two of them drove away together.
Eventually Susanna came back, with a note from Isabel and her own ultimatum. From this point onward I was hers to do with as she wished, and if I ever put up a fuss, ever fucked her over even once, she would personally see to it that I got more than what was coming to me. Actually, there was far more to it than that, but I didn’t find out the full extent of their agreement until Shiny filled me in. Basically, the two of them still had use of me, but for little more than a vowel in the ultimate scrabble game. So San pretended that everything was cool, that love indeed would conquer all, and that in the end she and I would be together forever. I bought it in bulk bin bliss, and swore to myself then and there to straighten up, and only cheat on her a little. The rest is history, is me the ship in the Circle X water bottle, and Frisbee the avenging angel spitting up bitter book bits.
It’s kind of funny, actually. Just before the big blackout, I was telling Susanna about my grand artistic plans for the future. For the past year I’ve been working on this massive virtual graffiti project, filling up all unused bandwidth with viral tags. If all went as planned, my mark would fill up every last nook and cranny of the net on a particular day of the year, effectively shutting down all packets except those blessed with the right headers, the one’s I specified. I was asking San for a suggestion as to what day to choose for my experiment, and she laughed at me half way across the world. “Well, I don’t think it matters all that much. Someone’s already beat you to it.” I asked her what she meant, only to be hit by final data tsunami, all black nothing then white white white…
OK, so I wasn’t laughing then. But now….
Fuck it. The car batteries are almost drained, and I haven’t even had breakfast yet. In the end, there’s no way that I can make you see through my stigmatism, so I might as well throw the toaster in the bathtub. But before I log off again, for the last time, there’s one last story I want to tell. It’s short, not that sweet, and potentially incriminating, but I never let that stop me before.
So. The first time I met Frisbee she and Jenny were still together, desperately scowering the city for a space suitably run-down enough for the antizine HQ. I heard about their search from Spazz – he was totally pissed about what had happened with Laura, but not enough that he wasn’t above helping her out – and he asked me to secretly see what I could do for the two of them. Anyway, eventually I came up with the perfect place, used to be a tennis ball factory. It was over by the river, long since condemned and left to gather spray paint, and it was the ultimate battleground for any and all turf wars. For every significant moment in my life there was an appropriate mark somewhere on that building, and when the two of them started to squat I pointed out each one with reverence. Once I got to the burner that Susanna and I made together – a few weeks after we started seeing each other behind Isabel’s back, during the first Masking Tape tour – Frisbee stared long and hard at the convoluted message, trying to figure out what it said. “Looks like a big bunny rabbit eating a bigger carrot.” Jenny disagreed, insisting that it was an obscure map to buried treasure, with more than one x marking the spot. At that point I was too embarrassed to tell them that I had actually forgotten what it said, because San and I were high out of our minds that night, picking up cans at random and spraying the wall, and each other, in an neverending, sleepy eyed giggle fit. When we woke up the next morning to the sound of hungry sea gulls, all that remained of the night before was a wall full of cryptic figures and dripped trails separating us from the world. Looking back on it then, I told Jenny and Frisbee that it was a self-portrait, and then they nodded and smiled to each other like it was obvious all along.
Later on that week was the grand opening house-burning bash, and when I got there the whole factory, inside and out, was painted over black. I asked Frisbee what the fuck was up, and she smiled while pouring the gasoline: “Fuck self-portraits. Some things just aren’t meant to be captured.”
She let me light the first match.