Beginning: Möbius rose

White. Perfectly, painfully white. And cool. Everywhere, along my arms, my legs, my chest, behind my eyes, between my ears, everywhere. Cool. I couldn't tell whether I simply wasn't able to move or something was preventing me, because it was merely cool. It didn't change. Nothing changed.

After hours, or seconds, they felt rather the same, I could pin down the source of the cool. I had an IV in my arm. Which I could not move an inch. Then other sensations arose, pressure at various points of my body, changes in texture. So I was strapped down. A humming noise clicked on and off. Air conditioning. I waited for something to happen.

Rather disappointingly, the first thing to break the monotony was a sudden need to take a piss. After holding it for only a few minutes, I decided that I definitely preferred monotony. The urge became absolutely unbearable. When I let go, it was a moment of total bliss. To my surprise, nothing ruined the revelry. Apparently there was a catheter in. All that trouble for nothing.

My zen state of detachment lasted until I heard a door open. Then the memories broke free and rushed through me like a torrent. A male nurse's face appearing suddenly in my view, completely placid, perfectly poised to match his pristine white uniform, invited questions. My voice cracking painfully as I asked, "Hey... umm... where am I?"

He said nothing. His eyes remained fixed on what I supposed was my arm, because I felt the IV being removed. The cool faded, warm blood taking its place. "Where is this? Could you tell me what's going on? Please?" He moved out of view. I tried to turn my head to follow him, but it wouldn't budge. "Hey... come back... come back! Hey!" I began to jerk against the restraints, awakening painful aches and stabs throughout my body that seemed to surface just where the cool withdrew. "COME BACK!" I yelled after the closing door, growling angrily as I heard it click. Bastards.

It was probably another hour before I began to feel the craving. It didn't take long after the nurse left to figure out what was going on, but the implications didn't set in until that first, solitary thought. "I want some kep." It was a short step to, "I need some kep." Then there were no more thoughts, only the vicious bite of withdrawal sinking its teeth ever deeper. My body seemed to fill with every pinprick of pain I'd saved myself over a thousand doses all at once, everywhere and nowhere. I could feel the sweat dribbling down my sides, soaking my medical gown, making it cling sickeningly to the skin. My skull was being crushed, mercilessly, always closer, trapping my mind within the vice. It focused helplessly on the drug. I couldn't pry it away. That was the greatest agony, simply thinking about kep. Imagining it. Realizing that I was without it. What began as a whimper and grew to a sob emerged as an all out scream, slowly, painfully fading to only a voiceless rasping. No one came.

"What are you staring at?" She tugged at the cuff of my t-shirt, glancing up curiously. Short for her age, Naomi looked two or three years younger than she really was. I shook myself of the daze and crouched to my haunches. "Just that flower there." Her face beamed as she turned to it, "the roses?" She reached suddenly toward the bush. "Ah... the thorns..." but she ignored my protest and snatched a blossom. Holding it to her nose, she took a deep breath, then giggled.

"Uncle Benji, you're silly, why didn't you just smell it? See?" She held it out to me. I chuckled, "who's been teaching you clichés behind my back?" but she offered it persistently. Slowly, I took it from her open hand. I felt a prick.

Benji? Benjamin? Benjamin? Benjamin Okapinski?

I shuddered, arduously opening my eyes. A man with a goatee filled my hazy vision, his nose nearly touching mine. His face seemed familiar. He backed away. I was sitting upright before a small table with a briefcase atop. The thought of having been moved wrenched my stomach with a fresh burst of nausea. There was a door in the room's corner. To either side stood two other men.

"You awake? Good. Thought I'd lost you there again."

He walked to the other side of the table and sat down. "How you feeling?"

I said nothing.

He got up again, rounding the table and taking a seat on top of it, arms across his knees and feet swinging. "Pretty nasty bruises you have there," he said as he reached to grab my arm. I flinched at the touch and wrenched away, an action that filled my head with an angry, buzzing flash of pain and made me aware that I was shackled. The man withdrew his hand casually.

"You were thrashing for hours."

I closed my eyes and kept my mouth shut. Like the games I had played when I was a small child. Maybe if I ignored him enough, he would go away.

"Mind telling me what you were so worked up about?"

Too angry, I snapped my eyes open again. "You already know the answer to that, asshole." My voice was harsh and grating, leaving a lingering sting in my throat. I suddenly felt very thirsty. "Call me Eugene," he replied with a chuckle. "Well, it's good to see you can talk again. You made quite the racket. Good thing these rooms are soundproof."

I shifted in my seat uncomfortably.

"We've pumped you with drenamine, incidentally, so you won't be passing out again for a while. It's rather irritating having you konk out in the middle of introductions. Definitely puts a damper on the conversation."

He waited for a response. Getting nothing, he went on.

"Of course, consciousness can be a definite disadvantage, in certain circumstances."

"Would you just get to the fucking point?" I muttered spitefully, adding off the cuff, "Has anyone ever told you by the way that you're piss-poor at implied threats?"

He sighed and brushed his hair back with a hand. " Not really, because frankly, this isn't my job--"

"No shit."

"... so fine, whatever, the point. You're a talented guy. A relic, you might say. After the Schism, most criminal hackers took day jobs, settled down. I mean, seeing that one black hat is capable of leveling civilizations and wiping away hundreds of thousands of lives in the course of a few days sours the whole business a bit. But for some reason, you kept it up. An old dog chock full of new tricks. You were on the trail of someone we need to find. You were almost there. Finish the job, and you're free. We have everything you need."

He paused, pushing off the table to standing, and crossed his arms. "What do you say?"

I stared up at him dumbly. Boy, was I gonna relish this. "Fuck off."

He rolled his eyes. "Look, Hitasura destroyed everything you loved, he had a direct hand in thousands of-"
"Which part of 'fuck off' did you not understand?"
"The world can't move forward while he's still-"
" and we do not have a lot of time, so if you would please-"
"Listen, asshole!" I yelled, "I'm. Not. Interested. I care shit-all about Hitasura. Find the fucker yourself."

Perhaps a week earlier, I could've swallowed my pride and helped him. For ten years I had hated Shikai Hitasura more than any one person on Earth. He represented every single thing that had gone wrong with my life since the Schism, every disappointment, every ache of regret, every pang of sympathy for those thousands who had lost family or friends in the catastrophes following the network crash. He was my very own anti-Christ. My loathing for him bordered on infatuation.

But, in the course of following his little trail of breadcrumbs, I began to notice too many things out of place. Conspiracy theories were a dime a dozen, but this was something more. There had been a project, an important one, with the backing of several conglomerates and governments, in which Shikai seemed to have taken part. Many of those involved with its oversight were either disappeared or dead now. Doctors, bureaucrats, scientists, even janitors; a trail of random missing persons and dearly departeds that just barely exceeded statistical expectations. The convenience of the whole situation was starting to weigh more heavily on me than it had previously.

No nation had held a truly contested election in years. The media was unabashedly pro-government. The networks were tightly muzzled and thoroughly observed. For safety's sake, everyone agreed, that the Schism may never again be allowed to reoccur. I had been as glad for the return of stability as any other. And I was still fairly sure of Hitasura's guilt. But not sure enough. When that voice piped up over the museum PA, the button Eugene was now trying to push had broken.

"There's a bottle of kepefrin in my briefcase, Ben."

That button, however, was fully operational.

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