The greenish haze of her optic nerves re-adapting to analog input still swirls across Kali’s eyes as she looks at herself in the bathroom mirror. She knows it is nothing but an accidental harmony of polished metal and the flickering, naked florescent bulb jutting from the ceiling. A primitive way of painting the inside of the windows in our heads that evolved so that her ancestors could accurately throw spears at mastodon. She shuts her eyes and the slowly-coiling green static remains, though all else goes dark. What tigers stalk this jungle of neuropeptides and synapses? After splashing her face with cold water, she hobbles away and into the kitchen. Though she spent the entire night feeding, she is ravenously hungry.
The lights in the kitchen are flickering too–just barely perceptible, but right now every sense Kali possesses is elevated. She decides the Envoy is rationing power again, so uplink bitrates will crawl like snails across the wires of magnetic fences. There are a half-dozen half-empty dumpling-and-noodle boxes in the fridge, and a dented metal jug of World Cola balanced on the edge of the sink. The soft hum of the climate system sounds like jet engine taking off. Swan’s violin playing in the other room wafts through the wall sounding weirder than usual, like her sister’s bow is strung with creeping insect legs. Their neighbor in the next apartment is arguing with himself, again, in staccato dog-bark whispers. Kali grabs the jug and, against the recommendations of most medical professionals, goes outside before the aftereffects of feeding have fully worn off.
Shanghai’s sky is a white cascade of fogs. Kali keeps her head down as she cuts through the streets, stiff muscles pulling sleepily at her gait. The overstimulation has become an unfocusable roar, a falling through space. She doesn’t truly know where she is going or why and wanders, barely able to see beyond the toes of her boots. She collapses against the wall in an alley across from a dog licking a headless Puyo.
Her vision focuses on a cluster of thin, cryptic lines on the wall above the dog. That mark, she thinks. I drew that. God, that was so long ago. Oh, Brick.
Kali is ten, crouching next to the wall behind a fabrication depot. In one hand she holds a marker three centimeters across containing ink juiced with nanoreflectors. In the other, a scrap of paper with an inscrutable design drawn on it. Brick was the best at these. He could freehand them in a few minutes, but it takes Kali almost fifteen to copy the design exactly onto the wall.
Brick was the one who got her this job in the first place. He said his bigger brother needed these things for some reason. Kali doesn’t really care why. She just likes watching Brick draw even though she herself feels awkward and thumbless depicting anything more complex than her own name. No matter how clear the image was in her mind she could never get it exactly right by dragging around a stylus. So she just takes her time and usually no one on the street gives her trouble.
Then her phone begins pulsing with what would sound to anyone else like arrhythmic, dissonant static but Kali knows is in fact a heavily, heavily downsampled version of last summer’s K-Pop anthem “Nitro Swing” cut into Morse code-like blips that spelled out Brick’s full name, Wang Dan Lei, in hexidecimal. When Kali was bored, and she often was, she made ringtones. All the message said was: “Come to the house urgent.”
The house was, of course, not either hers or Brick’s real house, but a boarded-up library that had been closed by the city because no one used it, or because they needed more police. It wasn’t very hard to get in by climbing up to the second floor around the back, where people weren’t watching. Kali knows the way in by heart.
She finds Brick waiting by the window. He’s wearing his red tiger jacket and a cap with some English on it.
“Hey, what’s happening?” she asks. Brick smiles in a funny way.
“Hey, you get that message written?”
“Yup. So easy,” says Kali.
“That’s good,” he says. He pauses, eyes down. “I don’t know if we’re going to be doing too many more of those.”
“Oh yeah? What, we’re doing a bad job? They found someone else for it?”
“No, no, not that. We’re good at it. They say you’re great.”
“Well, not as good as you.”
“Not as good yet!” Brick smiles again. It’s like he’s talking out of the side of his mouth for some reason. He takes a step closer.
“Yeah, sure, but what is it then?” says Kali.
“Well. I don’t have a lot of time, I’ve gotta go really soon. But–I, well, I’m going away with my mom for a while.” Another step.
“Oh? Vacation? Hey, if you go to the mountains again could you–”
“No. Well, look,” Brick says, then opens his mouth and sticks out his tongue.
“Whoa, what is that?”
“Mom says it’s a dreaming spot. That it means I’ll always have good dreams.”
Kali looks at the spot on Brick’s tongue. It’s the size of her pinky nail. There is no texture to it at all. It’s like someone carved a void out from his body and replaced it with–nothing. The pupil of a strange eye regarding her from strange climes.
“Can I touch it?” Kali says.
“Yeah, you wanna? It’s feels really weird, like an inside-out blister.”
“Will it make me sick if I do?”
“I’m not sick. I don’t even feel bad at all. Come on, touch it. I dare you.” Kali twists her mouth. She has a vague recollection of someone at school talking about this, and it definitely sounded like a disease.
“Anyway,” Brick says, still very close to her, “mom says we have to go to this research camp where they can study it. And I might not be back until next year.” He paused again. “So, you know, they’ll probably get someone else to do the messages.”
“Yeah, the messages. Okay. But we can still talk, right?”
“I think so. I wanted to tell you this face to face, though. I’m not even really supposed to be here. We’re supposed to be on the train in an hour.” He takes another step closer. Kali feels his quick breaths.
“They say you don’t remember the dreams,” he says, whispering, “but last night I did, and I–I–”
Brick shakes his head, squeezes his eyes shut, and turns towards the window. “Anyway, I gotta run.” Before she can process any of this, he’s climbing out the window, eyes down, shouting goodbyes into the darkened library.
That was the last time she saw him awake.