In the previous installment, we get background about Sebastian Fuller, the televangelist cult hero that inspired the creation of The Collective. Fuller is serving a life-in-prison sentence for his role in bombing the federal building that houses Portia, and he continues to inspire religious zealots like Azibo.
Let’s jump to Part 8, where Azibo and Unity will meet with their Collective contact and talk about a new mission that will change both of their lives forever.
Azibo and Unity sent the report about the Machina member at St. Mary’s the night it happened, and their contact at the Collective said he wanted to talk. The man’s name was Horace, and they’d only met him a handful of times. The Collective regularly rotated the people they spoke with; it was a habit born of necessity, as they tried to keep lower-level members in the dark.
Horace told them to meet him in Rittenhouse Square, which was quite close to where St. Mary’s was. From there, they’d follow him to his apartment where they could talk in secret. It was nearly midnight when Azibo and Unity left for the square, and a misty rain kissed their faces as they walked downtown. Unity had gotten over their argument earlier in the day, but she still warned Azibo to let her do the talking when they met with Horace.
“I’m tired of these informant assignments,” Azibo complained. “How long does it take to climb up the ladder?”
“If you had tech skills, you’d be there already. The Collective needs hackers and informants. Let’s face it – we’re more of the informant type.”
Downtown, the city was hopping, despite how late it was. That was because people barely slept anymore – there was no need to. The streets bustled with driverless cars and party buses. Nearly everywhere they turned, they saw Portia’s blue face on large, flat screens. They passed by an alleyway, and a group of people were having sex in public. Their skin was dark blue – a dead giveaway they were Machina. Azibo wanted to retch.
“Is that him?” Azibo asked.
“Yeah. Hey! Horace.”
Horace leaned against a lamppost, smoking an old-fashioned cigarette. His mangy dog, Pickles, was collared and sniffing the post. Pickles always appeared half-dead, with a bloated belly and skinny legs that made him move slowly. Horace treated the dog like shit, too, and Azibo wondered why he even kept the thing.
“There they are,” Horace said through his yellowish buck-teeth. Underneath his tattered trench coat, he wore a black Megadeth t-shirt, a heavy metal band from the 20th century. Horace liked to listen to very old music, claiming the music was better when humans made it.
“What’s the scoop?” Unity asked.
“Let’s wait ‘till we get to my place,” Horace said. “This part of the city is bugged like hell, and we’re surrounded by Machina.”
Horace dragged Pickles along, the dog wheezing as he tugged him hard at the neck. Horace always smelled like piss – he was an all-around disgusting human being, and his apartment was a mess. He was a hoarder, collecting old heavy metal records and vintage newspapers that took up nearly every square inch of his studio. Azibo was repulsed by the man and wondered why he was even Collective – he seemed to have no religious sentiments. He figured Horace was one of those Collective members that joined more because they were anti-establishment than because of any allegiance to the cause.
Once they settled into Horace’s apartment, he offered them a beer, forgetting they didn’t drink. Then he began rambling about his neighbors, who kept trying to take him to a mosque across town. Horace lived in a multi-faith community housing project, the type the government allowed for people who weren’t loyal to Portia. Horace explained the project was full of “religious freaks,” everything from Rastafarians to Catholics to Hindus. Azibo let the comment slide, knowing full well he could be labeled a religious freak.
“So, I read your report,” Horace finally said. “It’s … good. Machina has been infiltrating the churches more and more lately. And they’re succeeding. I’d say in a year, this city will be 90% Machina.”
“What can we do about it?” Azibo asked.
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out.” Horace rolled a joint on his desk as he looked over reports. “We’re impressed by you two. You’re loyal, unassuming; you get the job done. We have an assignment in mind if you’re willing.”
Unity spoke before Azibo could, cutting him off and saying, “What is it? We’ve only been informants so far. More of that?”
“Not exactly.” The joint fully rolled, Horace lit it and took a long drag. “This is a special assignment, one with big implications. And not for the faint of heart.”
“Okay,” Unity replied. “Well, lay it on us.”
“Portia Day is coming up, you know, the anniversary of her birth. Machina is going to have a huge celebration in the city, kind of like street festivals everywhere. We’re recruiting suicide bombers. We want to fuck this shit up as much as possible.”
Azibo jumped from his chair. “Hell, yes! Sign me up.”
“Wait,” Unity grabbed his arm. “Are you nuts? We should think about this first. I mean … you want us to be suicide bombers?”
Weed smoke filled the room by now; Horace’s eyes were glazed. “Yes, that’s the idea. But only if you’re willing. You’d be doing a great thing for the Collective. And we’d take care of any family you left behind.”
“Sign me up,” Azibo spit out again.
Horace laughed, then fell into a coughing fit. Pickles began to bark, and Horace kicked the dog to make it stop. “Fucking dog … anyway, that’s the spirit, Azibo! You sure you don’t want to talk it over with your lady first, though?”
“Yeah, I think he should,” Unity said. She pulled Azibo aside and whispered to him, “Suicide! We have to talk about this. You can’t just sign up right here. Let’s go talk, and we’ll get back to him. Please, Azibo.”
“All right,” he said. “But this is what I want. Finally, something to make a difference.”
Horace smiled in between hits off the joint, showing his rotten teeth. “So, what’s the verdict, you two lovebirds?”
“We’re gonna think about it,” Unity said. “When do you need to know by?”
“I’ll contact you in two days. Have an answer for me by then.” Horace stood up to shake their hands. “All right, well, pleasure as always. I’m sure you can see yourselves out?”
“Yes, we’ll do that,” Unity replied.
Azibo gripped Horace with both hands and told him how appreciative he was for the opportunity. “Truly, thank you. This is a gift from God; for me to show my loyalty and allegiance to the cause.”
“Ha! Don’t thank me, junior. I’m just a messenger.”
Azibo beamed as they left the housing project and walked back to the apartment. As usual, when Unity was upset, she stayed quiet, and they walked the streets in silence. She told him they’d talk in the morning; she felt drained and wanted to rest. Azibo skipped sleep again and stayed up all night reading Fuller’s biography. He couldn’t believe his luck – to become a martyr for the Collective, to be immortalized and meet his God in heaven.
During his prayers that night, he took off his belt and, like he did every so often, whipped his back fiercely. The scars opened, and blood trickled down into his lower back; sweet pain, sweet pain for his Lord.
To be continued
Check the following links to see previous installments of Mother Portia: