I step out of the cab, my side still hurting from the rondo that took place not even hours age. The sensation of being full on pizza mixed in with pain makes for an uncomfortable, undefinable kind of nausea – disgust at personal life choices? A bad attempt at recuperation ending in regret? Weltschmerz? What language even is that. That same familiarity, of a word you know how to use but feels clustered in its origins and how it made its way onto your tongue is a taste you cannot remember, I’m feeling that right here.
I’m familiar with education. Like, I’ve attended classes, approximately. Sorta. It was on Third Life, in one of my earliest roleplaying groups. It was… very contextual. I was a teacher, who taught. I taught students. Things. Many things. Long things. We emulated what we thought was the real thing by equipping school outfits on our avatars and never took them off. One dude in the group was a slime puddle? That was a weird lesson, but I liked it. We did research to make it as authentic as our subscription fees and VR-helmets could allow. We also found out school uniforms aren’t really a thing outside of smut. It felt sexy, to contribute to false stereotypes.
Never been to college, though. Or high school. Didn’t have the money, didn’t have a parent to pay for me either. It’s not something I’m sad about, or actually know how to feel sad about? Grief is something you learn and I never got the IM. From what I know, college or any educational institution you’re rich and lucky enough to get into, it’s pretty good. It teaches you things, how to think clearly about things you care about. It also gives you more things to care about, in new, microscopic ways. You begin to love the world in ways and manners so close to its inner workings, so familiar with the cables underneath your desk, you are put in an office chair and forced to look at how endangered it really is. It becomes something you want to, but continuously fail to protect. I care about surviving and getting my frick on, but that’s not very academic I don’t think.
“So, love, what are we here for again?”
I glimpse at Exeter. His face, although obscured by that visor (or his visor IS his face?), still manages to convey cold, distant professionalism. If I were him — if I were a ‘he’! — the setbacks of tonight would’ve left me sufficiently distraught to go for the universal ‘hiding in a dumpster’ solution. But this guy, he’s driven. “Orlando.” His voice splashes against me like the puddles of rainwater filling the broken sidewalk, pretending everything’s alright. “This plant is extremely important.” He’s been holding it close ever since we got on the cab – I haven’t seen enough plants in my life to really know how it’s doing. It’s alive? I guess? It’s green with bright green leaves. “We’re here to drop it off. To… make something work.” He looks over his shoulder and at me when he says that, pausing not with skepticism but with hesitation. He can’t let me in on his plans, or maybe he doesn’t want to? To protect me? My face flushes at the thought.
We enter the courtyard, dilapidated and over-strewn with silicons and plastic wrappers. “So uh, what was Caesar supposed to deliver, anyway? Some kind of data?” Data barks approvingly. “Yes. Data–” bark “…containing instructions on how tp sustain plantlife. Flora, as you might imagine, hardly has any chance of survival in these parts. Seeing as the datadrop went awry and I antagonised not only my contract but two extra people courteous to your doing, I’m in a bit of a rush. Not to worry, though–” I can see his visor flicking to a confident :-J. “– it’s all still in motion.” “This isn’t actually a community college, is it?” I not so much ask as I flat out realise, my voice inflexed with a similar epiphany that I might be in over my handsome head. Exeter chuckles. “No. Not at all.” “Yeahhh, I could kind of tell, doll.” I admire the sudden air of mystery that’s beset him in the same way fear can feel sexy. He performs an intricate knock on the tall, shoddy rotwood doors, and I perform a rubbing notion across my torso. I didn’t even notice how cold it’s gotten. I could really use a shirt. Datadamn, my nipples are cold.
A door opens to the side: someone picked it up and moved it out of the way in its entirety. A large man wearing a bandanna of the Angolan flag pokes his head out of where a door used to be. Sure, it may be ancient history, one that’s never been taught – I found out Africa exists and is a huge continent by accident while browsing BBS for ‘cool flags’ – but if a nation has a machete in its national flag, you remember that funk. “Aye, Exeter. What brings you here? Next meeting’s not till next week.” He speaks clearly, with a pleasant and warm, but commanding cadence. Exeter leans in to whisper something and I’m met with single, sometimes double glances. The man shuts his eyes in a quick thought and nods.
“Come in. You too, naked man.”
“Ah. Naked person.”
“Thank you.” Once inside, the man, who I assume to be named Hanna going by the ‘Hi, my name is Hanna’ nametag pinned to his pink leather jacket, fits the door back into place. Tucked into his tailored, moth-bitten slacks is a one-size-fits-all, soot black silicon bag.
We are not so much welcomed inside as we are forced into the interior a horror mansion. Like the one in DEATH CUM CYBER ZOMBIES 7: HOUSE OF HORNY HACKERS. Three people-shapes meet us. Strapped in ill-fitting, violently bright, green skinsuits, kowtowing in a perfect line a few feet ahead. Their necks are contorted inhumanly – or even inrobotically -, their oviform faces pointed straight at us and clearly visible. Or clearly non-visible. No mouth, no eyes, no nose. But they’re staring at us, facelessly. “uhh, Ex…?” No response. Data modulates a sad whimper. He’s never been a growler. I’ve never been a fan of body horror. Especially when it’s real. From the corner of my eye I can barely glimpse Exeter’s visor displaying a small ‘-_-‘. It seems serene, in a regretful way. “Exeter. I really don’t like th–” My words become a muffle and a taste of synthetic filth fills my mouth as a cold, silicon bag is yanked over me. I can still see the glowing figures through the fibres.
My nipples are still really cold.