Azibo hated his parents, and he was glad they’d died long ago.
His father, Antonio, was an imposing Italian-American man with arms like barrels and thick, black eyebrows often furrowed in anger. His mother, Kesi, was more gentle but also prone to fits of rage. She was Kenyan, and her name meant “born in difficult times,” which was indeed true.
Kesi’s home country collapsed into civil war, and she ended up in America as a refugee at a young age. She met Antonio when she was a teenager, converted to Catholicism, and gave birth to Azibo soon after, their only child.
The stress of American life, especially urban life, was tremendous right before Portia was born, and religious extremism ran rampant. Antonio and Kesi fell victims to conspiracy theory-based thinking, combined with a devout and strict religious observance. Azibo grew up in a home awash in fear and violence.
When Azibo was twelve years old, his father was shot dead on the street in broad daylight on his way home from work. There was little motive for the killing except for a few harsh words passed between Antonio and the gunman. Antonio bumped into him, an argument started, a gun came out, and in an instant, Azibo’s father was on his back in a pool of blood.
They had little extended family nearby, and Kesi worked three jobs to pay the rent and keep them from homelessness. That was, until the financial crisis wiped out the nation’s economy, leading to a mass wave of unemployment, addiction, and crime.
When Azibo turned seventeen, Portia was suddenly brought into the world amid the chaos of American life. He doesn’t recall his immediate reaction, mainly because he didn’t know how to read yet. He wouldn’t learn to read until two years later in night school.
Azibo’s mother declined government assistance, and she and her son lived on the streets for two years until she passed. Tent encampments had by this time formed throughout the city; tiny communities of the homeless that looked out for each other as best as they could.
Kesi developed a mysterious illness that killed her quickly. Poor nutrition, lack of medical care, and living outside in the elements did it to her. Azibo barely missed a beat, continued to live in the encampment, and began working government-assistance odd jobs. Eventually, he got lucky and landed a studio apartment that was fully furnished.
He never worshipped Portia though, as he’d absorbed his parents’ religious values. He’d heard about the Collective in vague terms, but he wasn’t yet interested in joining them. It wasn’t until he met Unity at work that he began to learn the Collective philosophy. Unity had been a new “member,” and she helped teach him to read, alternating between the Bible and Collective pamphlets.
Unity was nice to Azibo, and it was refreshing. Though his mother was not a mean-spirited person, his trauma early in life made him hesitant to trust others. Indeed, most everyone around him was traumatized.
But it was a new day, now that Portia was here. The American liberal parties coalesced and dominated politics, instituting widespread reforms that cleaned up cities with the help of new technologies. Just when things had seemed darkest, it was as if a light switch had been miraculously turned on.
Still, Azibo and Unity worked their crappy jobs, lived in their crappy dwellings, and worshipped the old God. Other people they knew now lived in luxury, got plastic surgery, and even uploaded their consciousness onto the net, thus living forever in cyberspace. All this appalled Azibo and Unity, who felt the bad old days weren’t as bad as this increasingly permissive society. It was then that they delved heavier into the Collective, becoming informants and attending underground meetings.
Now, Azibo had a chance to fulfill his life mission: disrupt the Machina Church, disgrace Portia, and become a martyr. All he had to do was convince Unity to come along, so they could die like all the Collective saints before them.
“What are you doing in there?”
Shura, Azibo’s boss, banged on the restroom door. He was only an hour into his shift, and the boss was already up his ass.
“I’m almost done. Just give me a minute,” Azibo replied.
“Open the damn door!”
Azibo opened it, saw Shura’s perfect, tanned face staring at him. He’d been cleaning the restroom, one of his duties as janitor at The Hog.
“Get out of the way,” Shura said, impatiently. “We’ve got a line of customers who need to use this god-damned bathroom.”
“But I’m almost done.”
“Do I look like I give a shit?”
Shura pushed Azibo out of the way, then moved the cleaning supplies out. A customer heaved a sigh of relief and pushed past them.
“I don’t know why we don’t have the cleaning bots do this. Fucking government jobs program is the worst.” Shura mainly muttered to himself, but Azibo could tell he wanted him to hear it.
Most people didn’t work anymore – the AIs did all the work. But the government still allowed token jobs for those who wanted them, such as the janitor position Azibo had at the fast-food joint.
“So, you want me to leave early?” Azibo asked his boss.
“No.” Shura ran a hand through his wavy blond hair. “Just go do something else and don’t get in my way. You know, be invisible.”
Azibo felt his blood boil, but bit his tongue. He stomped outside to take a break. He hated Shura, who’d been his boss for a year now. He was a typical modern-type: new Botox treatments every month, kept up to date with all the latest tech, slept with a different person every night. Azibo knew that last part because Shura bragged about his exploits to anyone who would listen.
Outside, the sky was a perfect light blue and a warm, spring breeze hit him in the face. He smoked an old-fashioned cigarette and leaned against the wall, daydreaming about being a suicide bomber. Portia Day was a month from tomorrow and, if all went well, that would be his martyr day as well.
To be a martyr, he thought. Thousands of Collective members would remember his name, maybe put his picture by their beds or carry it in their wallets. He thought of things he could do the actual moment the bomb went off, something to make it even more memorable. Maybe he could yell something that would go down in the history books, or leave a long note behind in his apartment. It would be just like Sebastian Fuller’s writings, how they circulated among Collective members. He could write his own manifesto.
“Hey!” An old man yelled at him as he passed by. “Would you mind putting that cigarette out? Some of us are trying to breathe here.”
Azibo snapped, flicked the cigarette in the man’s face.
“What the hell?” the man yelled, holding his face.
Azibo pushed the geezer to the concrete, stood over him, then stomped down on his knee. “Ah!” the old man cried out in pain.
“There’s more where that came from, you old bitch,” Azibo threatened.
He spit on him, then hustled off, away from The Hog before Shura came out to see what was happening. Azibo picked up the pace, and soon he was running through the streets, laughing and smiling, dreaming of martyrdom.
He saw a blue-skinned man selling Machina Bibles on the corner, and he briefly thought about punching him as he ran by. Instead, he came within inches of the man and kicked the stack of Bibles into the street.
The Machina man only watched as Azibo kept running, barely losing his stride. He began yelling, at the top of his lungs, “Fuck Portia!” People stared, but he kept running, feeling exuberant. Horace had said he was unassuming, but that was far from the case. He stuck out like a sore thumb, but he didn’t mind.
In a month, he knew his name would be forever known. In the meantime, he would live with abandon. Before he met his God in heaven.
Breathing heavily, Azibo opened the apartment door, then slammed his keys down on the creaky living room table.
“Azibo? What’s up? Did you run here?” Unity emerged from the bedroom, wearing only one of his old Bible Camp t-shirts.
“Yeah. So what?”
“I thought you had work?”
He slipped off his sneakers, threw them in the corner. His chest heaved up and down – he wasn’t used to sprinting like that.
“Shura let me out early,” he lied.
Unity stared at him, frowned. “Then why did you run home?”
“I wanted exercise.”
Azibo’s habit of lying about the most minor things drove her crazy; it was something she constantly got on him about. She liked to say he always seemed to be hiding something. He rarely opened up to express his true feelings or even express what actually happened to him on any given day.
Unity shrugged it off. “So … are we going to talk?”
“Az … about the mission. Suicide bombing.”
He stared off into the distance, lost in his head. He was dreading this conversation. He knew she’d try to talk him out of it, and he feared this could be the thing that broke their relationship for good. He needed her, true, but his desire to be a martyr was greater at the moment.
“I’ve decided I’m going to do it,” he said. “You can do whatever you want; you don’t have to do it, too. But I am.”
Her face twisted in anger and concern. “That’s not fair. What about us? You’re just going to sacrifice your life? What about me?”
“What about you?”
She choked up, fighting back tears. “I swear, Az. I’ve known some selfish people in my life, but you are one of the most self-absorbed I’ve ever known.”
Azibo stayed silent, sulking on the couch. He didn’t want to hear it; this was the greatest opportunity of his young life, to him, and he wasn’t going to let it past by. Martyrdom was a chance at a kind of immortality.
“I can’t take this much longer, Azibo. You barely even talk to me. And you’re grumpy all the time – aren’t I enough for you? Are things really so bad that you want to end your life? And for what? For the Collective?”
“Yes!” He shot off the couch, his voice raised. “For the Collective. To stop Machina, and Portia, and this terrible world we live in!”
“It’s not that terrible! We have each other.”
“It is terrible! This world sucks, and I’ll be glad to screw up more before I leave. What do we have to live for? There’s no such thing as family anymore. My family’s gone, and so is yours. It’s just endless bullshit out there; mass consumerism on an unprecedented scale, total depravity.”
They gazed at each other in silence for a moment, Unity wiping tears from her eyes. She picked up a framed photo of them, held it up.
“Then this means nothing to you. Us – we mean nothing.”
He didn’t reply. Instead, he sat back down and looked away.
“I’m going to stay with a friend for a while,” Unity said, regaining her composure. “I’d been thinking about it for a while now, but it’s obvious now I have to. Please don’t call me while I’m away.”
“Which friend?” He began to panic.
“It doesn’t matter.”
She walked into the bedroom, and he could feel a different energy in the air. It was the energy of a breakup, the way her tone of voice change to note some kind of inner-resolution and finality.
“Take care of yourself, Azibo. Don’t do anything stupid.”
He had too much pride to beg, but he felt like doing so. It was his worst nightmare to lose her, yet he kept pushing her away. His knees began to shake, so he headed to the bathroom medicine cabinet and popped a downer.
Unity left with an overnight bag an hour later, not even popping her head into the living room to say goodbye. He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t. He hadn’t cried in years, probably since the day his father was murdered. There was a place of immense hurt, which he located in the center of his chest. It was a physical feeling, one of tension and soreness, and it was something he never knew how to deal with. He laid on the couch that night, flicking through the stations on the net.
He thought about martyrdom, the Collective, and it didn’t seem as appealing now that Unity was gone. But he reassured himself he was making the right decision, doing what he had to do to stay pure.
When Azibo woke up the next morning, his head ached from all the drugs he’d taken. For a moment, he’d forgotten Unity left, and he felt a pang of longing as he slumped through the kitchen searching for something to eat.
He turned on the net and was greeted by the blue-skinned, perfectly symmetrical, and beautiful face of Iris Greene, the star host of NetNow News. He turned up the volume when he read the caption on the screen: “Gov’t confirms rumors of Collective hit-list.”
“The Anti-Terrorism Ministry has confirmed rumors this morning of a hit list circulating underground among ‘members’ of the fanatical terrorist group, The Collective. An unnamed source says Oswald Chambers, Machina member and presidential candidate, is at the top of the list …”
Interesting, Azibo thought. He searched the net for more sources and discovered the Collective had, indeed, kept a hit list and passed it around identifying top assassination targets. They used a point system – killing a Machina high priest earned twenty points and killing Chambers netted a whopping five hundred points. It was undoubtedly bad the government had discovered this list and the secret Collective communications.
Azibo knew intelligence gathering and policing would tighten up; there would be more eyes in the sky and on the street. Security detail at Portia Day events nationwide would be massive. Still, he felt determined to continue with his plans to carry out his suicide mission.
Speaking of which, how would he get ahold of their contact? he thought. Unity had been the point person for everything; she received and sent all the reports. Just when he began to worry, he heard a knock at the door.
He opened it, and a teenage punk with pink hair stood there, with an envelope in his hands. “Yeah?” Azibo asked.
“For you.” The punk handed over the envelope, then quickly darted into the street. Within seconds, he was gone.
Azibo opened the envelope – it was a handwritten letter from Horace. He asked if they could meet at the park tomorrow night, just him and no Unity. He made a note of the time, then burned the letter.
He had a slice of cold pizza for breakfast, then sat around the apartment all morning. He opened Sebastian Fuller’s biography but got distracted and put it down. He was anxious about the meeting with Horace.
To be continued