16 Jun 62%
Somehow we managed a fifteen-minute walk to my friend’s apartment without getting killed by a possessed car or a zombie bus. Hopefully, that meant that my sorry excuse of a disguise was enough to throw off face recognition software. Or maybe, a thought cautiously crawled through my mind, my mysterious adversaries weren’t so omnipresent and omnipotent, after all. The thought was mildly encouraging.
Tia was walking beside me, trying to keep up. She looked like she was having fun, not the least bit worried. Come to think of it, this was not a typical reaction for someone who had just witnessed an ominous subway train hack, followed by a rushed escape through a dark and rat-infested tunnel. Equally exceptional was her decision to stick with a total stranger that was supposedly pursued by some unknown ruthless killers. As if this was all a game for her. An escape room with fun and challenging puzzles to solve, to tickle her nerves in a pretend play, just to return to the normal flow of life an hour later.
“Tia, you know you don’t have to go with me, right? It’s…” – I was looking for words, trying not to sound like a condescending ass, “…not safe to keep me company.”
Tia frowned, and I realized that this may sound to her as if I was trying to get rid of her (now that I don’t need her phone or her subway pass) – and I added quickly, frantically waving my hands, trying to convince her otherwise.
“Tia, I’m not trying to get rid of you! I just don’t know what’s happening, and who wants me dead, and why…” – here I wasn’t entirely honest, because I had a partial answer to the “why” question: rigging a surveillance camera near an object concealed using a supposedly non-existent technology, and then chasing that object’s minder, may have something to do with that. All this was too complicated to explain at the moment. “…but whatever is happening – it’s definitely not good!” – a very profound thought, indeed, Captain Obvious at your service! Sometimes I can be such an idiot. “And it may not end well. Nice people don’t usually crash cars and hack trains, and it seems that they are very persistent in trying to locate me. So I think it would be safer if you stay as far from me as possible for a while. You can just walk away. And I promise to call you when it’s all over and tell you everything.”
“Are you kidding me?” – she looked at me indignantly, as at a total idiot, which actually was a fair assessment if I were to be judged by my speaking ability. Oh, we are all brilliant intellectuals inside, if only we wouldn’t utter such banalities and empty nonsense when we open our mouths. She gesticulated excitedly at me as she spoke:
“This is the most exciting day ever! Are you suggesting I give up an adventure? Look, my life is boring. It’s OK, I’m not complaining, but aren’t most of our lives boring? Isn’t yours, I mean before this whole mess? I think boredom and apathy are the plague of our times. I mean, when you don’t have to fight for your survival and overcome crippling problems every day – you know, illness, hunger, poverty and shit like that – you have some time on your hands and you’ve got to do something for your life to mean anything. The rest is just a routine. All people I know are bored to death! They worship the routine but when you take it away – they have nothing. They find some lame distractions and go through the motions of amusing themselves with trivial things like money, politics, sports and movies. The ones that have some energy and willpower to break out – but apparently not brains – find themselves dangerous but meaningless hobbies like extreme sports or shoplifting or something. Just to feel the danger and excitement, to break the routine. Some find escape in books or drugs, others fall into depression and despair. I was doing OK, but my life overall has been just ‘meh’ lately. Nothing interesting has happened to me in a while. But this? This is incredible! No, I’m sticking with you, well, at least for today. I’ve got a shift at work tomorrow, and will need to bail then.”
She got a bit winded by talking so much while we were walking briskly, so she stopped talking for a moment to catch her breath. I looked at her incredulously. I mean, what she said was mostly right in my estimation, but the conclusion was ridiculous.
“Hey, believe me when I say this: I would give anything to get my routine back. You know, it’s all relative: there is such a thing as too much excitement, and not all adventures have a happy ending.”
I wondered if she realised what she was playing with. Did I? All I knew was that for the first time in my life someone relentlessly wanted to kill me. And making good progress at that so far. And that someone had the resources that were borderline impossible. Everything pointed to a government agency of some sort, maybe not even our government. CSIS or CIA or some other alphabet soup like that. Although I never thought they have so much control and would sacrifice innocent people’s lives so off-handedly. The reborn KGB could do that, if their reputation was to be believed. But the same reputation reeked of corruption and ridiculous unprofessionalism. This here was anything but unprofessional. It seemed very efficient and swift, but maybe they were getting better. Also, I was still alive, so I guess KGB was plausible.
Reasonably speaking, I should be wetting my pants now. But somehow I was not a nervous wreck I should have been. Maybe it was a force of habit: I could always compose myself and concentrate on the problem when shit happened – and only become a trembling mess when it was over. Question was, how long I can last in this crysis mode. Things were looking up though: I had Tia on my side and we were heading to a safe place, where I could relax a bit, and contemplate my problem with the help of a good friend. As long as I wasn’t alone there was hope.
How naive I was to think that it could last…
Marc’s place was in an old brown brick apartment building full of wonderful smells of all of the exotic cuisines from distant continents. Having a newly developed allergy to all networked electronics, I have politely declined a welcoming elevator “ding”, flipped an obscene gesture passing it by (yes, I can be inconsistent when I’m tense), and chose to use the stairs instead.
While walking over to his door I sensed a bouquet of Indian and Pakistani spices, balanced by a touch of Jamaican curry sauce, a delicate but distinct whiff of pickles and sauerkraut, with a sickeningly sweet undertone of yesterday’s borscht. To top it off and to make sure my olfactory palette would be in a state of coma for quite a while, there was a nagging smell of either a distant skunk, or bad weed – I could never tell which was which. Bleh.
I picked up my pace to reach Marc’s door and pressed the doorbell button. I could not hear any sound from inside. That was like Marc to disconnect the doorbell – he loved disconnecting things. I knocked, and was soon rewarded by the sound of approaching footsteps. The door opened.
Marc was your typical fashionable geek type, the way a cool geek protagonist looks in a Hollywood movie: smart but well-built, always in a good shape, amicable but self-assured and charismatic. I wish I looked like that. He wore neat squarish thin-framed glasses, an anachronism he said girls found cute. I’m not sure it was the glasses, but almost every time I visited him (which wasn’t that often, I admit) he had another cat-like girl at his place. All his girlfriends had something vaguely feline about them. They invariably had nice curves, long hair, moved silently and gracefully, didn’t talk much and exhibited no obvious emotions.
Despite looking like a geek, and being a geek to some extent, Marc hated technology with passion. He considered it a necessary evil and avoided it outside of work when at all possible. He unceremoniously placed duct-tape over all cameras on devices he had to use, like his phone or laptop. He didn’t have any social media accounts, and although he had a computer he used for work, he would never use any modern technology for entertainment. If he wanted to see a movie, he went to an old movie theater where they projected movies from real film reels. All his music was on vinyl records, and naturally he didn’t have a TV set. Considering he was a network security expert, his place was one of the safest in the city for me to be.
But today he looked unsettled. “What the hell, Art?” he said accusingly, “What kind of a sick joke is that and how the hell did you manage to do it?”
“Err… Marc, I’m happy to see you too. This is Tia. And I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
We entered his apartment. His oversized monitor was on the desk, showing a black background with a white text written in large white Helvetica font (which meant the author had some taste).
I squinted at the text.
“Art, I want to help you. It is critical that you follow my instructions to the letter if you want to live.”