"I have to get to class, but if you need me...call OK?"
I take some mental days off school. Cause yeah—-that's what fucking crazy people did. And yes I am crazy. Officially. Good news is that I am home. Luckily I'd found a way to crawl out of the car that had collapsed, no thanks to Bronx and his friends who had just abandoned me.
"Wait Dree does this cut look weird to you?" I ask.
I look down, opening up my wound by removing the gauze and trying to ask it without looking completely fucking nuts.
"That's all you see?"
"Flesh. Blood. Are you trying to make me throw up by showing me this?" she asks.
She can't see the wires. I know Dree. I know when she is playing a joke on me. She can never hold a straight face. This was no joke. And honestly, it made more sense that I was going crazy with wires and metal pieces underneath my skin than she was. It was me. Something was wrong with me and the only person that I could ask about it had completely abandoned me.
The person had left me to fucking die.
"I'll walk you out."
I know she's concerned about me. Hell, I'm concerned about myself. Either I was crazy or I had become a robot after clicking a button. I can see it written all over her face. I'm lucky that Dree is the only person who has to see me like this. I didn't have a roommate because my roommate decided to change schools last minute. I ended up pushing the two twin beds together to make one big bed. As I walk towards the door though I see Lloyd, my RA at the door.
"Dammit Lloyd, can you be any more fucking creepy?" I ask, "How long were you standing there? Why not just fucking knock?"
"Whose your sexy friend?" Lloyd states clearly talking about Dree.
The answer to whether he could be any more fucking creepy was an overwhelming YES. Dree rolls her eyes and pushes past him to walk away and his eyes follow her like a dog in heat. It's irritating because I'm pretty sure I'd never met a bigger Lesbian than Dree in my entire life and somehow that didn't matter to Lloyd.
"Is there something you want?"
"You have guests waiting in the lobby. They are asking to come up."
"Yeah. Seem important. They want to ask you some questions. Should I buzz them up?"
I return to my room and start putting something decent on. I'm not completely sure who my so-called guests are. As I am getting dressed I realized that my television turns on.
A symbol pops up on the screen.
The same symbol I saw on Bronx's jacket. It had to be him. Or at least someone from that weird group of cyberpunk kids he was with.
And then the words.
GLAD TO SEE YOU MADE IT.
All I can think is oh no no no. This isn't happening. I turn the tv off. I'm imagining it. The wires in my body. The television being hacked into and communicating with me. I'm imagining ALL of it.
That's when I hear a ding. I turn to recognize the laptop sound. My laptop is doing something weird. First off it was off and all of a sudden it just powers up.
I turn. Completely dazed by it. I'm not imagining this. My laptop just turned on.
Instead of logging Windows regularly the screen on the laptop goes black completely and there are plain letters written.
DID YOU LET THEM IN?
My heart races. I turn around. Can someone see me?
I go to the computer, sit down in the chair. Well if I'm crazy then it won't go away without me addressing it. So fuck. Time to just be completely crazy. My heart is racing. I type back slowly. Y. E. S.
There is a pause for a second.
Then a quick response:
THAT WAS YOUR FIRST MISTAKE.
I'm so confused. Someone had hacked into my computer somehow. Someone was trying to communicate to me online and I don't understand. I type back quickly.
The answer isn't clear: A FRIEND OF BRONX. YOU DON'T HAVE A LOT OF TIME. GO TO THE BATHROOM. REMOVE THE TILE CLOSEST TO THE TOILET. REMOVE THE CONTENTS.
I type back: WAIT...WHAT?
A message appears on my computer. This time the letters aren't in white. This time the letters are in red.
YOU HAVE 60 SECONDS MR. RICE.
I do what he says. For some reason I'm nervous. Sweat is making my hands slippery but I remove the tiles and retrieve the contents. I notice something else. It's a gun. Not just any gun. A silencer is there as well.
I grab it and get back to the computer. At this point, I'm in a downright panic.
WHY ARE THERE WEAPONS IN MY BATHROOM!?!??!!?
NO QUESTIONS. MR. RICE. 20 SECONDS. SCREW THE SILENCER INTO THE BARREL'S GROOVES COUNTERCLOCKWISE. GO OUTSIDE AND SHOOT AT WHATEVER IS WALKING TOWARDS YOU. HOPEFULLY, THEY SENT A REGULAR FIREWALL TO ERASE YOU. IF NOT IT'S A PROGRAMMER AND YOU NEED TO RUN.
HOW WILL I KNOW THE DIFFERENCE.
ONE WILL DIE IF YOU SHOOT IT. THE OTHER...WON'T.
I swallow my spit at that moment walking outside of the door. There are these men walking towards my room. Men wearing all black. They freeze for a minute when they see me. I have no choice. I start shooting like a wild man. Screams fill out the hall from people in their rooms wondering what the hell is going on. I get one. It gets down. But what I don't expect is that there are 5 more men JUST like him.
I run back into my room.
I go to my computer, sweat dripping in places I never thought imaginable!
I'm typing frantically: GOOD NEWS IT WASN'T WHATEVER A PROGRAMMER IS. BAD NEWS: THERE'S A LOT OF FIREWALLS! A LOT MORE!
PUSH YOUR DESK IN FRONT OF THE DOOR. OUT THE WINDOW. A CAR IS PARKED TWO STREETS DOWN. A RED HONDA. GET IN AND DRIVE.
I don't ask where. I don't have the chance. There is a knock on the door. At this point, my heart is racing. I don't know what it means to be "erased" but I damn sure wasn't about to stick around and find out.
As I'm getting out the window the knocks are getting louder. My heart is racing because I know these people are trying to get to me for some reason. But still, I'm curious. Whoever was helping me could see me. They could see what I was doing? How?
That's when I see it.
A camera light on my computer was on.
I'd always wondered if there was a way to hack into those and I don't know if I'm amazed or horrified to realize that someone could hack into your computer and watch you...
"STOP" Commanded my GPS, "IT IS TIME YOU DISCOVERED THE TRUTH. TURN LEFT."
There's a point between either accepting you've lost your mind and taking the risk to lose your life. I had to make my choice, so I choose my mind. So I accept it. Wires under my skin. My computer and my GPS giving me instructions. And there were hidden forces who knew my identity who were out to erase me.
The rabbit hole takes me deep into the city. It was a run down area. The kind of area you wouldn't want to be caught dead in at night. The GPS lead me right here. And for some reason when I exit out of this mysterious Red Honda I know that nothing is ever going to be the same. A part of me considers going back, hiding out in Dree's room and pretending like all of this shit never happened. But for some reason, I knew that whoever was after me wasn't going to let it be so easy. I had no choice but to trust this mysterious figure.
The door is open when I walk into the building. It's a junk store it seems like. It seemed like some sort of hoarder's paradise. There's this corrugated iron roof that domed about twenty-five feet above. Old machinery lines the walls covered in dirt. A broken tarmac around it is empty except for a forklift. This place was abandoned, thrown out. Empty.
Or so I thought.
"Don't touch anything," an old voice states as though I'm surrounded by gold instead of trashed machinery.
My eyes pierce across the hall to see a woman. She's older and has on dark glasses even though it's quite dim in the junk store. She has black rags on. If I'd met her on the street I would have sworn she was homeless by her tattered appearance. My mouth drops open slightly when I see that she is in some sort of machine. It's the biggest thing in the large space. The machine was dusty and archaic, truthfully I doubted it had as much RAM as my morning coffee. What was weird though was when the old lady removes a wire from her skin that connected her to the machine. It was just one cord out of many. She takes her time to disconnect herself. Removing wires---FROM HER SKIN as though they were some sort of clunky power switch. An orange light glowed dimly on the front. Whatever secrets the old lady had used to contact me would all be on here...or so I hoped.
I stare at the woman realizing she is just as much machine as the shell she was unplugging from, "Waiting for more instructions, kid? What are you expecting? Windows?"
A flashing white arrow appeared in her skin when the last cord was taken out.
"You're a machine," I stutter.
At this point, I'm just wondering how it all works.
"What gave it away?" the old lady asks.
Was she serious? "The wires in your skin----for one."
She smiles an almost toothless grin, "That usually does it."
As she walks away from the clunky machine, I approach. My heart is racing, "Is this what you used to contact me?"
I reach over but when my finger was about to press against the strange machine, I notice something jerking towards me. It's a gun. Not a regular gun though. This gun was PROTRUDING out of the old lady's skin like some sort of revolutionary hydraulic machinery. Her pointer finger the gun and her thumb the trigger. If I doubted for a moment it was active I could simply look down the barrel and feel the threat.
"I said no touching," she states, "Just because I can't see doesn't mean I don't have other senses."
Shit. She was blind.
"If you can't see how'd you find me?"
She nods over at the machine as though remembering where it was, "My husband saw you."
"That---that---THING is your husband?"
"I won't take offense kid," she sighs, "but, you ought to learn to be careful what you say though. That so called-thing is the love of my life. Don't be a headache though. Just sit down and wait. Why don't' you? I've already notified them to come and get you."
"Bronx and his team."
My heart is beating hard. Hard and fast. The same group who had abandoned me on the side of the highway leaving me for dead. No thanks.
"I don't want them to come and get me," I state, "I'm fine."
"Don't think you have a choice kid. That's your best chance of survival. You understand you in danger right? I know you don't know much but you know that much, right?"
"Oh no. You're not going to get me in trouble with Bronx. He's been having me spy on you for years to make sure you're safe. If I tell you anything without him knowing he'd go nuts. You'll have to ask him. Ahhh---- there it is. Looks like that's them pulling up now."
She seems to be moving to the door to welcome her guests in. Truthfully though I'm pissed. I don't want to ever see Bronx Barnes again.
"He betrayed me. He left me."
"Oh, stop. Bronx is a good kid. He thought you were a goner. Anyone would have left you."
"He's a DICK."
"Taking it kind of personal, aren't you?"
Maybe I was. My skin is so hot at this point that I'm steaming. What if I hadn't gotten out of that car. What if I wasn't strong enough to pull myself out. I would have been erased----whatever that meant. And Bronx could have helped. He could have at least tried to help, but he didn't. Neither did his fucking friends. They all were so ready to let me die.
The anger gets my voice all raspy, "Thought he was different."
"Oh. Different huh?" she says with a small giggle, "You like him."
"I NEVER SAID THAT."
"Oh stop. It's OK. Literally, all the members of his team are in love with him. I guess it takes love to follow someone like Bronx Barnes fighting this same old fight that he can't win."
"In love with him? Like is that some sort of figure of speech."
"No. Love. They are in love with him, literally. Every last one of them. I may have fallen for Bronx's charms too if I weren't blind. Mr. Finnick would go jealous, wouldn't you Mr. Finnick? Oh, don't be like that..."
I swear this woman is talking to the clunky machine sitting on the opposite side of the room. What's even more amazing is the machine buzzes back.
I should probably be concerned about my life. I mean maybe I was but there was something else going in my head. The fact that Bronx was around all these people who were obsessed with him made so much sense. They were definitely nasty towards me for some reason. And beyond anything, I'm just curious about this group's dynamic.
"Is he dating any of them?"
"Bronx. Hell no. He's harder to hack into then a firewall."
She laughs as though she is amused by this. For some reason, I also have the feeling that this old lady has had this conversation with some other lost poor soul who was beyond intrigued by Bronx Barnes.
I try to stay calm when I see the old lady welcome her guests in. I'm trying not to react. Not to take things personally. Not to act emotionally. The door opens and Bronx walks in. He has the others with him. They don't have their masks on now. They looked normal----save the weird cyberpunk clothing.
"Mrs. Finnick. You found him," Bronx states.
And by the look on Bronx's face, you would probably be fooled to think he was glad that I was alive. The others who were with him, not so much.
"He's a resilient one Bronx. Might be a good member of your team," the old Lady says.
"He brought HIMSELF online, Mrs. Finnick. First ever. He's special," Bronx explains.
"Not special enough to save huh?" I ask.
"Oh great. He's mad at us for leaving him," the muscular boy amongst the group says, "We have a crybaby on our hands."
"Fuck you. I don't need you, weirdos."
I storm away getting away from them. Maybe Bronx was able to play off like he actually was OK with me being around but his comrades definitely didn't want me around. And that was OK.
Someone is calling out. I think it's the old lady but I don't stop. I am walking hard. Pressing my feet up against the concrete as I get outside. And I look at the street and for some reason, everything just seems so much different than I'd ever known. I stop walking. I am staring out into the street.
I'm alone now.
And this world just seems so much more dangerous than it was before.
"You want to leave," a voice states, "But you can't. Because you're curious. That's what I've always loved about you----"
I turn. It's Bronx Barnes.
"You don't know me."
He didn't know shit about me. The warm stare and the handsome face wasn't going to change the betrayal he sent towards me. He's so damn handsome though. Fucker. I turn away and look down the street. If I could only just keep going. Walk away from him and his asshole friends. I could find my own way. Right? Yes. So why am I not walking? Why am I still standing here struggling not to turn back and look in his handsome face?
"I know you," he says getting closer to me than I would normally like, "You met Mr. and Mrs. Finnick. They aren't a part of my team but they help us from time to time. There's not much left of Mr. Finnick. A ghost in the machine."
"What happened to him?"
"He was the 2nd person to ever survive one of the enemies we call Programmers. You see a programmer. You run. There wasn't much left of him to save. Now he's much more machine than human. There are parts of him in there. Maybe a piece of flesh there or an organ or two left. Mostly machine though. But it helps him hack into almost anything. And I saw you. I watched you. For longer than you could imagine. You're special..."
"Than why'd you leave?"
"It was my fault. I apologize," he states, "I truly do..."
He reaches over and grabs my hand in a way that was really nice. Real gentle.
"Don't fuckin touch me! I'm not one of those members of your team infatuated with you."
"Infatuated," he states pulling back only to smack his hand on his forehead, "You've been speaking with Mrs. Finnick huh?"
"She saved me. Unlike you."
"It was a mistake. I felt like either I leave and escape with my whole team or try to save you and put my team at risk. I shouldn't have left you. I should have found another option. And I apologize. And for what it's worth I can promise you it will never happen again. Do you trust me?"
I look at him.
"Because I don't trust you?"
"Exactly. Don't trust anyone. Give me the chance to prove it though," he offers.
I pause. I find somewhere to sit though. Regardless of if I trusted this asshole or not I needed to be around him. He and his group were the only ones who seemed to know what was going on with my life. If I liked it or not, I needed them.
"I'm still angry."
He sits next to me. Close again. He smells great. He smells...human. I'm so intrigued by him. Even with him being so human there was something that seemed to disconnect. Maybe it's the way he sits. Stiff. A strange expression follows as though he's trying to adjust his face and think of the right way to respond. He ends up just going blank as though giving up.
He probably realizes I notice because he defends himself immediately, "I sometimes forget what it's like to be offline. What it's like to be human. I've been online the longest out of everyone on my team. Sometimes certain emotions go right over my head, but I think I'd like to work on that. Especially if I make people feel the way you felt when you got left."
"Offline?" I ask.
"Like you were."
"Before I realized I was a robot?"
Saying it out loud sends a shiver up my spine. I feel weak but I try not to reflect it on my face. I don't want Bronx to think I'm some sort of coward. It's hard though. Ridiculously hard not to break down at a time like this.
"You're not a robot," he explains, "Not the way that you think. You are a machine. Sure. You can be hacked into. That's how we were able to visit you in your sleep and get information about who you were. There's human in you, though. There's human in all of us. Even Mr. Finnick..."
I pause. I look up at him, finally connecting. I'm staring into his eyes. Behind the slanted eyes and brown cinnamon skin, I see someone who is desperately trying to relate to me at this moment for some reason.
"You know how I feel right now?"
"Not fully, but I can imagine. Scared. Nervous. You want to know the truth but I started things off with you on the wrong foot so you're reluctant to believe anything I say? Is that about right?"
I shrug. I hate that he left me. Definitely killed that crush I had on him----at least for now. Ah, fuck, who am I kidding? When I turn around and see him bite his lip my heart drops. Perhaps he's not good at expressing emotion but he is good at expressing uncertainty.
"I really wish I had the emotional bandwidth to be more sensitive with the truth I'm about to tell you."
"Emotion doesn't come in a bandwidth, " I state, "Just spit it out. Am I some sort of machine?"
"Android. You are. I am..."
"Shit. Figured it. Thought I was going crazy."
"That's not it," he tells me, "Remember the whole big deal about Y2K. The huge hoopla about the Y2K bug. I was there. I was fighting around at that time. And I was the reason there was so much fear about a technological crash that could end the world and send mankind back into the stone age. They were afraid of what I did..."
"That was 18 years ago...you would have been..."
"That kind of stuff doesn't matter when you're online. We stop aging. Aging is a complex that they want you to believe. Dying a complex that they feed you. Either you're erased or not. It's all...fake..."
"Whose they?" I ask.
I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer based on how Bronx Barnes was talking. I'd already was scared enough.
"Y2K was the last time we fought them. The System is what we call them. A system of artificial intelligence run by a god device. A god device called IT. Or I.T. Information Technology. We don't know IT's true name. All we know is that at some point humans stopped existing. At some point, they were replaced. At some point, God was replaced by IT. IT gives birth to us. It controls our lives. It shows us exactly what it wants us to see. We see veins when there are wires. We see peace where there is chaos. It designs how we live. It designs how we die. And in truth, we never die. In truth, we are just erased. We stop being useful IT's divine programming."
My heart is racing. I shouldn't trust Bronx Barnes. I told him that I didn't, but for some reason I did. At this moment I knew he wasn't lying to me.
"What about humans. Do they know what's happening?"
He shakes his head.
"There are only those who are offline and unaware or those who are online and choose to fight back."
"Bronx are you saying that ----"
"Yeah. I'm saying there are no humans left..."
To read the next chapter in advance go to www.crushedcrown.com