BREAKING: YU LONG YIU HEADING TO JOVIAN SYSTEM TO RECRUIT, HOPING TO DIAL DOWN USE OF RE-WIRED CORPSES IN FACTORIES
Suni didn’t want to, but clearly did want to, some part of her, possibly a section of the brain that had an understanding with masochism cos she clicked on the link and read the whole article twice in seven minutes.
I paused, lowering Moon Prison to look up.
The underside of the bunk above had one wooden plank misaligned but that didn’t matter as Moon Prison was seventeen pages from ending and only now setting up a possible revenge mission against the main antagonist.
For Yu Long Yiu to turn up and Suni & Xaaa & Yu Fei & the Romanian tech guy to initiate their plan and assassinate him.
Or fail to assassinate him.
And die like Rodney, Sankara, Kelli Matrimonical, Tax-Bag…
There was noise on the bunk opposite, the intro sounds of a podcast on the Israeli guy’s phone. Kuso, he’d found another one? After two hours straight of a man with throat issues screaming Mossad Mossad [and some other shit], we were about to get a secondary dose?
I picked up my phone and typed out a message to Lexi.
‘Hebrew rant in 5, 4, 3, 2…’
Her phone beeped on the bunk above, and I saw that she’d read it…but no reply came. Not even the attempted typing of one.
Across the room, the podcast finished its ads and got underway. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Hebrew this time, it was English, two guys with clipped American accents complaining about their housses in Israel being stolen by Palestinians. And how the rest of the world was just sitting back and letting it happen. Twelve housses between the two of them, all leased out and making money at the time of the theft.
Picking up Moon Prison, I tried to focus on the next paragraph.
Something about rigging the docking hatch and disabling the upper pylon graviton emitters.
But it wouldn’t stick.
The Israelis were too loud.
Gods, if Nick were here…or Reshmi…
I stared at won’t rewire corpses anymore, counting back the time elapsed since the disappearance. Twenty-six…no, twenty-seven hours…just over a day. They’d been gone for longer before, but never after fighting a djinn. This time…somehow…felt permanent.
Was it though?
Maybe Reshmi had got hurt and needed to go somewhere to recuperate?
My eyes went right to the wallpaper, reimagining two of the yellow sunflower prints as a pair of purple eyes, watching me struggle with the final pages of Moon Prison, muffling their laughter.
But then…she’d also have to listen to the right wing Israeli shit on the bunk opposite. No way she’d be able to tolerate that.
A squeaking from the bunk above, bare feet coming down the ladder rungs.
‘Budge up a bit,’ said Lexi, giving me about one tenth of a second to react before putting her knee down on my bunk.
‘Finished your Slovene vid?’ I asked, pushing against the wall.
‘And the Portuguese one.’
‘That was quick.’
‘Was thinking about going out somewhere…away from the noise.’
‘Not a bad idea.’
‘Maybe dye my hair a normal colour. Or just integrate the green better. I don’t know. Something.’
‘You can borrow my wig if you want.’
Lexi twisted her head round and studied the blonde mess hanging off the back of the nearby chair. It looked a bit comical in this light, this context…as did the dress with bluebells on it…but part of me [a residual part] was still considering putting them back on.
‘At least we don’t have to buy new clothes anymore.’
‘Or visit weird holes dug in the middle of nowhere.’
‘I kind of liked that one.’
‘Or watch dead bodies get dredged up from picturesque lakes.’
The last line was said a bit too loud, the Israeli on the bunk opposite pausing his video and looking over, pretending to stare at something on the floor.
‘Wonder how Juana’s doing,’ I said, picking up Moon Prison again and flicking randomly from middle to back.
‘It’s been nearly three hours.’
Nothing more was added and Lexi’s eyes seemed transfixed by the out of sync bed plank in the bunk above so I drifted back into the plot that couldn’t possibly in any way be resolved in the next seventeen pages.
Three pages deep and Lexi returned from her trance, asking if I thought Reshmi would pop up on the street outside somewhere.
‘The golden question…’
‘Or on that bunk over there.’
I glanced left, focusing first on the empty, top bunk…then reading between the lines and switching to the Israeli.
‘Wah…didn’t think of that.’
‘He is capable of changing form. She is capable…they are capable. Fuck, it should be they, right? Two of them, shape-shifting…’
‘Maybe we should leave, see what happens?’
‘Or it maybe. It is capable of…nah, but that sounds a bit impersonal…like they’re a creature or something.’
‘Just go with she and Reshmi. It’s easier.’
‘You wanna head out now?’
Lexi responded with one of her infamous battle yawns, offering a fairly ambiguous, ‘yeah, don’t know,’ at the end of it.
‘We can go and see that witch’s hut you were talking about.’
She stretched out her arms, yawning again.
‘Or something else?’
Before she could get out the words let’s go and play Nightmare Castle, the door beeped open and Juana walked in. The first look she gave was directed at the racket from the Israeli’s bunk, a glint of yellow, followed by a switch leftwards to our bunk, specifically the small patch of space next to Lexi’s feet, which she decided to collapse down on.
‘Did you find her?’ asked Lexi, lifting her left leg up and dropping it on Juana’s lap.
‘… … …’
Juana looked down at Lexi’s foot, prodded a fingernail at it. ‘Poet. Topless guy. Living together.’
‘Wrong neighbourhood, witch. That’s what he said when he answered the door. That exact word. Witch.’
‘Err…that’s not very nice.’
‘What are you looking at, witch? What do you want, witch? Just glaring at me, hand on his hip…like there was a gun.’
‘Maldito Nazi. Sì, her too. Peeked out from behind him…that tight, little Metroid X t-shirt. Stared at me, this Scanners thing, my hair…dead eyes, blank as a doll…‘sorry, I don’t know who you are.’’
‘Not know…no idea. Sorry, I have no idea who you are. Same tone. Blank. Complete nonchalance.’
‘Maybe that djinn creature messed with her memory,’ I offered, keeping my voice low enough not to be detected by the nut on the bunk opposite.
Juana didn’t have the same caution as she just stared across at him, apparently losing all interest in continuing her narrative. Or any interest in sitting on my bunk as, a minute later, she had pushed herself up and disappeared up the ladder to the mattress looming above.
‘Guess she needs some space,’ whispered Lexi, sliding her legs onto the floor and sitting up. ‘Shall we go?’
‘Sure. If you want.’
‘No, I mean…do you want to go there?’
‘Why not? Better than sulking around here.’ She bent down to the chair, picking up my Damijana Chu. ‘Hey, can I wear your hoodie?’
‘I’ll give it back tomorrow. Can I?’
‘Sure. If you want.’
Turned out the witch’s hut wasn’t as close to our hostel as Lexi thought, and it was a mythical witch who’d lived in the hut, not a Lavinia type, and therefore no good. But the VR plaza she’d spotted just round the corner, that seemed to have reasonable prices, and Nightmare Castle, and not much of a queue outside, so why not go there, escape into fantasy-scape dynamics for a bit?
My mind was fairly blank, apart from an odd fixation on the imminent, abrupt ending of Moon Prison, as well as a general fugue state over the lack of blonde wig on my head and the general sense of unreality about the streets we were walking on, the idea that it was actually Portland and not some kind of well-funded simulac-
‘Foda, it’s all full,’ said Lexi, her voice a mix of irritation and disbelief.
I scanned the huge electronic FULL next to Nightmare Castle, gradually reintegrating my brain schematic into the lobby of the VR plaza and sliding out a monotone, ‘that’s weird.’
‘The most niche game in the history of VR.’
‘Must be more popular here.’
‘And a waiting time of two hours. Foda. What are we gonna do?’
‘Moon Factory 7?’
‘Can’t wait around two hours, it’s like an eternity. Not hungry enough to eat anything. Don’t wanna go back to the hostel with that fucking Israeli-…’ She stopped, my VR suggestion finally penetrating. ‘Moon Factory…isn’t that quite dense?’
I frowned, looking at the menu screen in front of us. ‘The story?’
‘I mean, the crowds…aren’t there like a million NPCs hassling you all the time?’
‘You can change that in the settings…’
‘What do they call it? Versimulism?’
‘…and there aren’t that many NPCs, not if you avoid the main promenade. Yeah, verisimilitude. I think that’s how you pronounce it, I’m not sure…’
‘That’s it, verisimilitude. I think Jammer was the one who said it was annoying…the hassling thing…but if you can edit it out, okay. Maybe give it a try. If it’s still got space?’
Predicting her question, I swiped the menu and brought up Moon Factory 7. ‘Fourteen spots left. Thirty-five currently active. Not bad.’
‘It’s a big base too. Probably won’t see most of those.’
Her fingers went to a green strip of hair, pulling on it as she examined the game art on the screen. Xen the reanimated human worker fiddling with a positronic scanner, flanked by Abbie the Ah-Bot in gypsy headscarf, herself flanked by a whole factory floor of comrades wretched-oppressed.
It wasn’t speaking to her heart, I could see that, but it was speaking to mine, and I’d already played Nightmare Castle a thousand and seven times, so now it was her turn to yield.
And if she couldn’t do that, one fucking time, then what was the point?
‘It’s up to you,’ I said, putting a bromine-coated gag on my Id. ‘No pressure.’
‘Don’t know. You sure it’s really not that packed?’
‘Very. Hundred and two per cent.’
I turned to a random poster on the wall, giving her a little more time, a little less covert coercion.
‘Okay,’ she said, finally, letting go of the hair strip.
The settings may have been fixed to low density NPC count, but the game didn’t seem to care as the base galleria was teeming with life, alien, human, AH-Bot, Kontolian.
Lexi took it quite well initially, saying it wasn’t as crowded as she’d been dreading,
and she seemed to like my favourite bench
the one overlooking the Byrgius Crater
probably cos it wasn’t the hostel
or a shivery simulacrum of Portland
or a shrieking Israeli
and when I explained to her how I used to play this game a lot in Japan, as well as Pluto 2270, she pepped up enough to say, ‘let’s practice some Japanese together.’
Not really game-appropriate, and definitely not interesting for me but
we tried for a bit
[without eros or persuasion, no touching of skin, no stroking]
running through the planet names and the things on the base around us, like wall, bench, view, metal floor, artificial gravity
and then branched off into Juana talk, Lexi saying how at some point we’d have to detach, but that point was gonna be far off now as the poor Yaqui-Mexican demon looked depressed and you couldn’t just abandon a friend when they were that low, and
even though Juana had once sat down in a basement to dine on my brain
saying we could take her with us for a while, perhaps slowly make our way back down to Fresno and drop her off at the video caffé, if that’s where she wanted to go
or where we wanted to go
back to a cracked shell like Fresno
backwards in general
Lexi stared off at the replica mining factories of the Byrgius Crater, ditching the fifty-seven different thoughts I knew were colliding in her head on the lunar surface, trying to graft out a placeholder response that wasn’t just, ‘I don’t know.’
Before the grafting process could be rendered complete, an NPC crouched down at the side of our bench and asked in a hushed voice if we were the ones looking for a top of the line graviton emitter.
‘A what?’ asked Lexi, looking to me.
‘It’s an in-game product. Very valuable. No, we’re okay. Thank you.’
The NPC scratched his neck, a common programmed trait that indicated criminal tendencies, and told us it was on the market for one hour only, and if we were interested, we should meet him in Storage Bay Eight.
‘No, we’re not interested, thanks,’ said Lexi, turning her back on him.
‘Don’t be fools…it’s a graviton emitter, top of the line, no previous users. I’ll give you thirty seconds to re-think.’
‘Wah, I thought you said the plot wasn’t this intrusive.’
‘Just ignore him, he’ll go away.’
‘Err…don’t think so, he’s still staring at me. Foda. And his pupils-…’
The line was stalled by a giant chasm appearing in the NPC’s head as he got shot from behind by base security, who were obviously not the official kind cos they were neither bumbling nor aggressive as they strolled over and coldly stated, ‘this man is not a human but a fugitive Martokra in a skin suit.’
‘The aliens from Pluto 2270?’ asked Lexi, more to me than the masked guys with laser guns.
‘Crossover characters. Same company.’
She nodded, watching the security attach RATCH-clips to the Martokra corpse, who still looked like a human male, and then saying fuck when, with an impressively realistic and abject digital effect, they dematerialized it.
‘It’s not usually this busy,’ I tried, but it was lost in the haze…the Jovian fog of guilt…some swirls saying, hey, it’s okay, she’s distant outside too…while others castigated me for pushing the potential love of my life into this type of silly, juvenile space station shit.
A losing battle, I thought, when the fog cleared and the Martokra corpse had finished decaying, cos at the core of it all
I didn’t really mind Nightmare Castle
or anywhere really as long as she was there next to me.
that’s what the current part of me was saying.
I looked left, flinching when I realized how close her face was.
‘Can we patch out now?’ she asked, already reaching for her palm.
‘You don’t wanna try the-…’
‘Need some air outside.’
‘If that’s what you-…’
Her form and costume phased out in three slides, leaving me alone on the bench, the construct. For about four seconds…until a green-wigged language exchange girl came over and filled the empty space. Put a calculated hand on my thigh. Breathed into my neck.
‘Wanna go somewhere mute, hero, try some Japanese?’
I stared down at her body, plant-like.
Remembered other [Japanese] times, me and the same type behind a cargo crate, calling each other junkies, saying we could see it going in. The NPC Martokra disintegrating with a smile on its face. Indian skin. Purple ostracism eyes. The cover of Moon Prison. Lexi on the sand, in the lake.
Then blinked at the floor and pushed a finger to my palm, told myself it was Portland.
The Portland Effect.
An extension of the Lake Arrowhead Effect.
After walking around the surrounding block five times [and frowning at the local menu prices – fucking adventurists!], we returned to the VR plaza and patched in to the inevitable, Nightmare Castle.
Lavinia the Goddess of Death, the rack, talk to Satan room,
all of them performed their programmed function
yet Lexi insisted that it felt weird, Lavinia wasn’t talking with the usual level of veiled threat, and the rack didn’t have the same hardness as the one in Fresno, lacked the same cracks and grains, and, yeah, she knew objectively it was the same, that there wasn’t an actual difference, but
that’s what it felt like
and maybe it would be better if they just went back to the hostel and got some rest, then tackled things with a bit more distance tomorrow.
Her use of the word distance was odd,
distance from what?
Things that had given some colour to our lives?
But I didn’t dwell on it or say anything out loud, mostly cos I was busy covert-staring at Lavinia’s blue tits, trying to guess where the nipples were, wondering if my dick had read Kant’s Lectures On Ethics and decided, right, nothing sexual, from this point on. Not even the ghost of it.
Back at the hostel
yet another podcast was suffocating all the air in the room as we pushed open the door, full rabid Hebrew, and there were two silhouettes on the Israeli guy’s bunk listening to it.
One slouched on the edge of the mattress, the other propped up behind, almost in a sitting position.
At first, I thought it was the slouched one getting a massage, but then I saw the two yellow dots hovering and my brain went static.
‘Jesus fucking-…’ came out of Lexi, as she switched on the lights and the horror show became real.
‘Not my fault,’ said Juana, one claw still inside the man’s skull, the other holding him steady by the shoulder. ‘The radio thing…’
‘Fucking psycho stupid fucking…’
‘…he wouldn’t turn it off.’
Lexi stormed forward, stretching out her hand to…do something, grab something, then stopped halfway and, with a feral burst of oarrgagah, forced her eyes down to the floor.
A few feet behind, I did almost nothing…continued to do almost nothing…except stare forward at the green strips in Lexi’s hair, keep my finger stuck to the light switch, blur out the Israeli’s cracked head frozen in the background.
The whole scene…it was too much, too Goya.
And yet, at the same time, oddly mundane.
‘I asked him…so many times, but he wouldn’t turn it off,’ said Juana, audio only as I refused to shift my eyes right.
‘We’re in downtown fucking Portland,’ hush-yelled Lexi, looking at the bunk again and straight away covering her mouth with my hoodie sleeve. A few retches and then a muffled correlation. ‘People know he’s here, Juana…in this room. With us. Fucking hell.’
‘No entiendes. He tried to touch me…when I was sleeping.’
I moved over to Lexi, keeping eyes off the murder bunk, and told her we had to leave, quickly.
She muttered things in response, then dropped down on my bunk and breathed out a broken fuck.
‘At some point,’ I mumbled to myself and sat down next to her.
Moon Prison was facing cover-up by the pillow, able to help in no concrete way.
Fuck was pretty much it.
If anyone checked in, got that top bunk…we were done.
If we couldn’t get rid of the body before morning…before the cleaners came in…we were done.
If we didn’t delete all records of us ever staying here…
‘No tengas miedo vale, I’ve covered him up now,’ said Juana after a few minutes of silence and imagined DIY corpse burials.
I looked up and cough-laughed at the duvet with a giant blood patch forming on its surface. Then the Israeli’s hand slipped out and I laughed again. Lexi elbowed me then caught sight of it and did the same.
It was hard not to. The entire set up looked ludicrous. As did the ingenuous expression on Juana’s face, as if she’d just stamped on an irritating mosquito and that’s why we were upset.
‘What the hell are we gonna…’
There was a clicking noise, then the door opened.
‘…do?’ finished Lexi, adding fuuuuuuck when she saw who was standing there.
‘Not exactly the nativity scene,’ said Reshmi, scanning both bunks without any attempt to close the door behind her.
Outside, a car drove past, providing a brief vapour-wave interlude.
‘Fucking knew it,’ continued Lexi, gripping my arm.
I stared at the green bruises all over her face and neck, running through the obvious questions:
Where have you been?
What’s all that green shit on your skin?
Before finally settling on close the door and then help.
‘You know, I was rehearsing a semi-apology for leaving you all alone like that…even though it wasn’t entirely my fault…’ She pushed the door back and forth a few times then finally let it close [when it started to beep], moving over to Juana’s bunk. ‘But now that I see this little landscape…’
‘He tried to touch me,’ protested Juana, pulling the duvet down half an inch further to try and cover the hanging hand.
‘Wah…it’s almost embarrassing…the amateurism. You didn’t even lay down a plastic sheet. Or mesmerize him…by the look of that death mask. And in a hostel of all places…’
‘No fue mi culpa, el lo provoco…’
‘Sì, he touched me.’
‘With his scalp torn open?’
‘Are you gonna help us or just stand there and gloat?’ asked Lexi, grabbing my blonde wig off the chair and awkwardly twirling it on her index finger.
Reshmi turned, the intensity of the novelty ceiling light showing dried blood scabs within the green patches on her face.
‘Please,’ I added, trying and failing to put even the tiniest bit of conviction into it.
‘Wah…that was very sincere. Both of you.’
‘Cos we don’t have anyone else…to fix this.’
I flinched, and then once more as the blonde wig flew off Lexi’s finger into my cheek.
‘Will you help us or not?’
Reshmi bent down, picking up the blonde wig and placing it on her own head…stroked down past the ear…then smiled and handed it back to Lexi.
‘Yes or no?’
‘I can clear my own mess,’ interjected Juana, giving up on the duvet logistics and raising herself up. ‘Drop him in the same lake Sadia used. Drop her too. Callous little bitch.’
‘Ah, you found your little poet then.’
‘… … …’
‘And her new boyfriend, no doubt.’
Juana slurred some more Yaqui then moved towards the door. ‘I’m gonna find some bin bags.’
‘Transportation. To the lake.’
‘No, no…silly demon girl.’ Reshmi put a hand out and guided Juana back to the bunk, sitting her down next to the still leaking corpse. ‘We’re way beyond lakes.’
‘It’s no problem. I’ve done it before, back in-…’
Juana stopped abruptly, her mouth still moving but no sounds coming out.
Ah, that old walnut.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked, just to test that I still had my own voice.
‘You mean the body?’
Reshmi put a finger to her lips then used the other hand to eject purple mist directly onto Juana’s head…then her body…then around the corpse and the duvet too. Like a paranormal cut and paste, the mist grew denser, brighter in intensity, forming a vague outline shape of Juana and her victim before re-shading itself mustard yellow and erasing them from the room completely.
Alien fucking sorcery.
Yellow muon blob.
The bottom bunk, the sheets, everything except the duvet…was still right there, without any blood stains whatsoever.
‘Where did they go?’ Lexi asked, beating me to it by half a second. ‘Juana…the body…’
‘To a place where things can be disposed of without anyone coming to investigate.’
‘I don’t-…which place?’
‘My home, of course.’
‘No, comrade. My real home. Up, up there.’ Reshmi walked towards us both, the purple mist residue still leaking from her right hand. ‘Or out, out there if you want to be pedantic. Care to see?’