“Are you sure you want to shut down your computer now?”
Cassandra stood in the center of the warehouse floor, surrounded by a phalanx of clear plastic figures, with two holographic buttons floating above each shoulder – “Cancel”, and “Shut Down”.
This was perhaps the ultimate insider joke, since she knew all of her infinitely long lives that she would not live to see the morning.
Jenny bounded out of her seat, ran up to Cassandra, and gave the Shut Down button a high five.
Cassandra then pointed Jenny back to her seat, and cleared her throat.
“Shut down procedures for Sasha OS have now been initiated. All fragments are now being recalled. As per the agreement, I shall now summarize the effectiveness of the project. Please stand by.” She directed the plastic figures to line up against the far wall by height – about half of the 13 were the size of young children. The lights went back down, so that only Cassandra was illuminated, seemingly from within.
She raised up her arms, and moved them apart as if she were opening invisible curtains with a flourish. As she did, a massive array of pico projectors came to life, accentuated by selective hooks into the OSes of everyone assembled. We could see, and feel, everything that was about to happen next.
Cassandra folded away, and one of the plastic figures walked into a white void. It shifted in appearance, wearing Emily’s Ghost again. She was bald, and etched, and seething with power – her body could barely contain her supercharged essence. She raised her right palm, about eye height, and a tiny black spot appeared, hovering directly above it. Put the black sphere into her hands, and encased it in a silver, reflective substance. Then she reached her arm back and tossed the silver sphere into the void, before she disappeared herself.
The scene changed, and a smaller figure ran onto the stage, covered by the Ghost of a young girl. She kind of looked familiar, and to aid in comprehension Cassandra introduced floating identification captions. “Laura Elizabeth Watson, Age 7”, it read in an authoritative sans serif font. Laura was surrounded by her bedroom, filled with stuffed animals and Star Wars gear, circa 1979. She took a peak in her closet, apparently to double check for monsters, and fussed with a night light by the door, before jumping under the covers. Soon after, her mother appeared in the room, “Atsuko Watson”, and she stepped inside long enough to take away the unauthorized night light, closing the room into proper darkness.
Laura tried to sleep, still anxious about the invitation left for any stray monsters. As soon as the finally dozed off, Emily’s Ghost appeared in the room, next to her bed. “Dramatization”, the captions read, as she plunged her glowing hands into Laura’s head and heart.
Every one assembled knew what was going to happen next – the awakening of Laura was the stuff of Collective Sunday school. We saw the 7 nights of dreams, as Laura was visited someone named Sarah, who claimed to be her granddaughter from the future. In the end, Laura passed through the White altogether, and made a connection with Sarah’s “room”, her self-aware personal OS. That connection, from 1979 to the unspecified future, never left – it only strengthened as time progressed.
The big thing that was freaking me out then was why Emily was used as a stand in for Sarah. Cassandra is nothing if not exhaustive, so she sensed my doubt and put up explanatory captions:
“Emily is Sarah. Sarah is not Laura’s granddaughter.”
That only made me freak out worse, but I tried to calm down enough to take in the rest of the presentation.
The next scene was a montage, with Laura running away from her home in Vancouver, (“December 5, 1985”), the one in Washington state, across the river from Portland, Oregon. There were a few close calls with the police, but she eventually hooked up with some street punks, who were portrayed by two plastic figures. The taller one was “Joan Gordon, Age 15”, and the shorter “Sasha Williams, Age 13”. The three of them traveled down the coast, mostly by hitchhiking, with a few segments riding the rails. By the time they reached the San Francisco Bay Area, they were solid friends.
(“March 3, 1986”) – The three girls are spare changing on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. They are extraordinarily punk in their demeanor, with a swagger well beyond their years. Laura (now known as Frisbee) is psychically calling out the color and license plate numbers of cars that have not yet turned the corner at Dwight Way, a few blocks down. Sasha is intrigued, and tests Laura’s abilities. A montage of the revealed future. By nightfall Laura is running around the Berkeley BART station in her underwear, and ends up held by the police and taken away in an ambulance. She is observed at nearby Alta Bates Hospital, turns violent, and ends up that night at “Thomason Memorial Hospital”, a psychiatric hospital in Oakland.
A lot of the scenes are of the usual antizine fragments, and just like in Ceiling Holes, Jenny meets Laura in the hospital. Laura tells her and everyone else who will listen about the future, including the fractures in the structure that result in her death, but no one but Jenny believes her. She also starts to “download” rudimentary plans for etching from Sarah, and practices on herself using colored marking pens.
(“June 14, 1986”) – A new scene starts, at the Treehouse, in Fairview, Minnesota. This time we’re seeing Yard Stick Vs. Tape Measure, the night that A-Bell meets Sasha, and the rest of the early Collective. Before she and her best friend Patricia arrive, we notice that Helena and Cassandra are in the crowd. They seem to be the same, perpetual 16 year olds that they are now, and they’re dressed not to shine, but to blend into the crowd. Above their head, “Trouble Twins” floats, and we watch them walk over to Sasha, who is sitting on a couch with Roger, “Circle X” from Intruder Alert! Sasha is in her red Circle X shirt, and overalls with hidden straps. They are holding hands, but break away as Cassandra steps forward.
A few people gasp – it wasn’t well known that Roger was involved with Sasha. There was a big age difference – she was 14, he was 18, and they started hooking up in secret during various tours. Roger was the heir of the Circle X company, and he funded Intruder Alert! and other bands. If Jo knew about Sasha and him, she would have never taken the money. It all ended more badly than you can imagine – Sasha grew to hate not just him, but the whole company.
“Is my face speaking to you?” Cassandra asks, as she stands unnaturally close to Sasha’s knees.
Sasha scoffs and turns back to Roger, before noticing the elaborate etching on the twins’ faces. Up until this point, she had only practiced marking up herself, and the results barely worked – it was a miracle she could even see the pathways. “Yes! Fuck yes, where have you been all my life!”
Sasha takes the twins out of the club, next to a white van in the parking lot. “Before she was nabbed, Frisbee told me you’d be coming soon, although it was in her half-poetic half-insane way. You’re the Siamese angels with sparking faces. So what happens now?”
“Once Laura and Jenny get out of the hospital, you must etch them as soon as possible.” Helena pointed to her head. “Laura is receiving the plans from Sarah as we speak.”
“We will come to visit you regularly, to check up on your progress.” Cassandra placed her hand on Sasha’s shoulder. “When your OS and the Bodyweb are fully online, I’ll need to borrow a copy of your source code. For safe keeping.”
“Sure, sure, no problem. Oh man, Jo is not going to believe this. You have to meet her!”
“We’ve already met. Don’t worry, everything is already taken care of. Just make sure you talk to the tall girl tonight. Annabelle Spencer. She knows Frisbee. Introduce her to Jo.”
“And don’t let Roger give you that burrito later, unless you want food poisoning too.”
As promised, later that night Roger is throwing up on the dance floor, and Anabelle (“A-Bell”) meets Sasha for the first time, and is introduced to Jo.
(“October 31, 1994”) – That was a long jump; Cassie skipped over most of the formative years of the Collective. I guess she just wanted to cut directly to the chase. The scene changed back to this very warehouse, but it was almost 17 years ago. Brian Thomas (“Phone”) is supervising a massive graffiti installation, covering the ceiling, walls and floor. He is etched quite poorly, like it was done in a back alley somewhere, and Sasha seems full to bursting.
She walks up to him, and says “You’ll die in the shadow of Circle X, like all the other self-satisfied jerks who just don’t want to learn, to understand the truth.”
Then she slaps him, and spray paints his Fire Escape t-shirt with a large, red question mark.
“When we meet again, you’ll know.”
We were all blown away. Not because of their little exchange – that’s right out of Phone’s last testament. But because of what was happening in the ether.
As she slaps him, she transmits a huge amount of data into his body, ripping holes in his firewall like she owned it (which she did, as the superuser of anyone who was etched). It was so fast that you could almost miss it, but Cassandra aided in comprehension by not just slowing the exchange down, but pulling out a copy of the data for our perusal in the here and now.
It was so brilliant. Phone was a Trojan Horse walking the streets for 6 more years, unknowingly carrying the Collective’s secret weapon to Fairview.
Shortly thereafter, we see the Trouble Twins approach Sasha, as she gives Isabel and Susanna some final instructions – not just verbally, but via various threads in the Bodyweb. Cassandra is wearing the glowing wig and metal jump suit, and Helena has on her pink dress, her eyes covered with bandages that are spotted with blood. Since it’s Halloween, no one bats an eye.
Cassandra pulls her aside forcefully, and they walk out of the front door.
“We’ve come to collect that copy of Sasha OS that you promised.” Cassandra smiled widely. “I know it was a while ago, but that’s not the kind of thing you’d forget.”
“This is so not the best time. Slide Rule School, you know? We only have one shot at this.”
“Ah. One shot. You totally kill me.” Cassandra grabbed her by the head, and Helena patted her on the back, folding them both away.
I really can’t continue with this right now.
It’s just too much to take, to know what Cassandra did with Sasha, and that copy of S.OS.
Just imagine – the mistress of time fully infected by the renegade world destroyer. Protecting a full copy from harm, even after the original was locked away in Jenny.
You may think you know where things are headed, what Cassandra revealed in the Second Act, but you don’t.
I don’t think I even want you to know.
As I wear Phone’s Intruder Alert! jacket, still holding the ultimate weapon, I don’t even know where to begin. Or to end.
Just promise me you won’t hate me too much when you finally learn the truth.