I ceased to exist at 23:00 on 2011.3.12.
I opened the door of my flat, ready to confront Number 8. Inside, every last thing was gone.
The kitchen table my mother bought me when I moved out. The rug I found in Paris. The ugly but comfortable blue couch. The bookshelves full of carefully annotated works.
My framed photos. My vinyl collection. My zines. My computer. My kitchenware.
All that was left was the hardwood floors, and the paint on the walls. It was even cleaner than when I moved in so many years ago.
It was all gone. I was all gone – done for.
The only thing left were the memories, the big red suitcase, and Number 8 walking out of the bathroom.
“You’re not late. I respect that.” She was still in the sparkly A-Shirt and panties, but seemed far more relaxed than after the flight.
“Where is it?” I yelled. “Where is my life!”
She sat down in the middle of the living room floor. “Kaia Strauss moved out. She was drafted into the army, and didn’t look back.”
I slammed the door shut as I rushed inside towards her. Took 5 steps, reached out, and found myself curled in the hard bathtub, naked. She was holding her damp hand to my forehead.
“You’re lucky you’re not etched yet. I had to take you out barehanded. Sorry.”
I scrambled to cover myself with my arms. I felt like someone had stuck their arm down my throat, and yanked. “How long?”
“About an hour. I don’t pull my punches, so to speak.”
I still wanted to kill her, but I had a higher calling. By coming home, she knew I had already decided to become Pure Land Antenna. I just didn’t expect to react so strongly to losing my possessions.
“Now, stand up and start the shower.”
I tried not to seem embarrassed, but I was riding the U-Bahn naked with everyone staring.
It seems that Kaia Strauss decided not to take the soap and shower curtain on her journey, so I borrowed them and hid behind the frosted plastic with bright flowers. I had just showered before I left the hotel, but I already felt dirty.
Number 8 – Susanna – sat on the closed toilet while I cleaned. “You’re now property of the Structure. The next 3 days will be the most painful of your life, like giving birth to your adult self feet first.”
I tried to ignore her voice, but it burned through the wax in my ears.
“You will try to kill me two more times. Everyone does. Next time I won’t have to touch you to make you beg for death.”
Through all of this, I think she was actually trying to be nice, to give me fair warning and handheld guidance into the dentist’s chair. The statue that was her body didn’t betray it, but I could sense a slight internal softness. I wanted to take advantage of that.
After I dried myself off with the one remaining towel, and quickly wrapped myself in it, she motioned for me to sit on the bathroom floor.
“Kneel over the bathtub. Time for a haircut.”
I don’t know why I was shocked for a moment – it’s a given that when you’re first etched, all of your hair has to go. Still, my long, brown locks – I had cultivated them with expensive, imported shampoos that smelled of beautiful, wild, nature. They made me feel desirable, refined, ready to face the world hiding just enough to entice. Susanna took a razor that had been charging in the wall, yanked my still-damp hair back, and mowed it like a lawn. I watched it fall to the tub in clumps.
“First time, huh?” I was sobbing like my cat had just died. “I remember when Sasha cut my hair, when she etched me by hand.” She slowly slid her right hand down my stubble, past my ear. “She made it seem like I was never beautiful until after it was all gone.”
“Do you hate me?” I wanted to follow that string back to her heart, and pull.
“No, I hate that Phone loved you more than me.” She cut with less vigor.
“That’s not possible,” I sniffled. “You were the only one he carried like a favored blanket, the memory that he cuddled with.”
Stopped cutting. “He loved wanting me, chasing after me around the world. He loved my smell, my taste, but never my shadow.”
“I know he loved you. He left me and continued looking for you.”
Cutting close around my neck. “He cheated on everyone but you. He never left you. He never touched anyone again. Followed you around from afar, until a few weeks before he died.”
My heart was collapsing. “I don’t understand.” My fingers pressed hard against the rim of the tub, grasping for air.
The clippers went into a full, satisfied silence. Susanna pulled me to her feet, and gave me a hug from behind, resting her chin on my exposed shoulder.
“Phone left on his last mission, the only one he initially declined. He intentionally made himself sick in attempt to get out of the game, so he could stay with you.”
I closed my eyes for hide and seek, so tight and strained.
“He would rather die than leave you. Ai threatened to hurt you if he stayed. Not in so many words, but yes.”
I wanted my eyes to pop inside of my head, to roll down and be digested. I wanted blindness of the soul.
“Phone had his mission. You have yours. I have mine.” Turned me back around to face her. Her cheeks were so kind just then. “If we fail, everything dies, over and over, forever.”
I didn’t want to understand. I understood.
“It may not seem like it, but I’m your best friend now. Your partner. Through this and all variants we will be connected like twins in the womb. My love for you will be pure, and cut through everything.”
I didn’t want her. I wanted her.
“Now I’m going to take you the bedroom. The apparatus is waiting for you.”
Led me by the hand to my bed, the larger one that Phone helped pick out. The sheets were covered by a shiny, mylar blanket, like the kind you use for emergencies, to barely hold in the warmth.
Plugged in where my alarm clock used to be was some medical equipment, and an IV drip – you could see how it could collapse into the suitcase. On the other side, there was something that looked like a BMW factory robot arm, only with needles for fingers.
She didn’t need to ask – I took off the towel, and lay down on my stomach, my head resting on a pillow. The room was cold, and I had goose flesh all over.
“Sasha believed that the connections wouldn’t be complete unless you were wide awake. Of course, back then it was all by hand, and the circuits were minimal. Now…” She prepared my arm for the IV. “Everything has to be precise, and no one could ever survive the pain unaided. At least, not before the process was complete.”
I hate needles. I’m not afraid of them, but my body is my temple, no artifice invited.
That’s what the timely departed Kaia Strauss thought, as she heard a pumping, and a whirring, as the world slowly slipped away from her mind. She imagined she she would soon be blessed by angel kisses, and not steel fingernails. She could feel Phone snuggling beside her in the bed, his touch like the shock from rubbed balloons.
There was no her left – she drifted away as Susanna held my hand, silently singing a nameless, powerful lament.
When I woke up this morning, over 50 hours later, I was sore beyond belief, but far away from tears.
I was eagerly singing that same song, the music of the space behind the spheres.
From around the world, the Collective sang back.