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vitally viral

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When Jake Dillinger wakes up, the first thing he notices is his head flashing red. His temples are throbbing, and he lets a small groan slip out of his chapped lips as he sits up.

The second thing, he notices, is that he’s completely naked. His mask is gone.

The room he’s in is littered in tattered posters, windows frames with barbed wire and bars. The roof looks seconds away from collapsing, empty bottles hide the floor. Dull yellow paint crusts on the walls whilst a lonesome arcade machine sits in the corner, a gross looking zombie drooling on the side. Figures.

And finally, the bed. Layers and layers of blankets and- is that a rug? Is that a body?

At least they’re breathing. Rhythmic and silent.

Jake rubs the bridge of his nose, prompts his brain to recover the memories from last night. Apparently, they’re too horrific. Maybe his mind is doing him a favour by keeping them locked up.

Hesitantly, he leans back, tries to capture a glimpse of the other. All he manages is dark hair that’s tousled- the rest hidden under Mount Blankets.

Yeah, that’s his queue to bail and move sanctuary.

He really thought JS016 would be different.

He kicks his legs out of bed, scans for his clothes. He locates his jeans sprawled over the floor. His shirt is abandoned on top of the arcade machine.

He tugs on the jeans, attempting to be silent. As soon as he reaches the machine, however, it blasts out some 8-bit tune and zombies groaning. Jake facepalms.

He scrambles to pull his shirt on, the shuffling in the blankets making his movements more urgent. No sign of his mask. Shit.

As soon as his head pops up from the shirt, the boy’s staring back at him from the bed.

“Leaving so soon?”

“I have a date with.. Destiny.”

“She sounds nice.”

“Yeah she is.” Jake grins. It’s forced. Not that anyone else ever knows the difference. “Listen, I don’t know what happened last night but. Uh.”

“You’re leaving.”

“Yeah. Listen- I’m really sorry. I’m a changed man, these days, yknow? And my head is killing.”

He hesitates, then goes to open the door, except his limbs seem to falter on him.

The stranger doesn’t look surprised. He nudges up his glasses, and says something. Not that Jake can hear it. Ringing in his ears too loud.

He croaks in pain, doesn’t even manage to twist the handle before his vision frames with black.

He doesn’t remember hitting the floor.

* * *

Michael Mell found Jake Dillinger stumbling around Bar 66 at exactly 4:36am the previous night.

Now, working in a busy city in this day and age meant a lot of messy situations and bloody noses and purple eyes and people drowning their sorrows in too much alcohol and toxins and drugs.

The complex Michael lived in was no exception. The bottom floor was a club. Piercing neon lights, people grinding unattractively against each other and, naturally, people throwing punches before getting thrown out in a heap of excuses and ramblings. Michael had sworn on numbing himself to it all. He played tunes. He enjoyed life.

‘Give a wham give a bam but don't give a damn,’ as Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael always told him from the safety of his headphones.

Except, when he found Jake, something changed.

The stranger had downed countless shots, beers stumbled into Michael and apologised. In any other scenario, Michael would have stepped past, tugged his hood up.

But Jake looked so lost. Scared, even. And Michael knew what had caused it. A cocktail now known as Upgrade, because folks nowadays were ironic and bitter all at the same time.

It had been only seven years since SQUIPs almost controlled everyone, and it hadn’t been the same since. Never would be, actually.

Anyway, the Upgrade Cocktail.

Devils Tease, as some called it.

As soon as Michael had smelt it on his breath, he’d guided him back to his room, away from the confusion. It took an elevator trip that occasionally jerked to a stop, Jake vomiting pea green several times as his body refused to accept the cocktail, and a long trek up eleven sets of stairs.

And they’d made it.

Jakes fever had spiked up, and Michael could only groan as he watches him take off his shirt, throw it, and wobble out of his jeans.

“Too hot,” Jake breathed, trembling on the bed.

“Lay down.”

“Hot hot hot.”

“I know, just give me a sec.”

Jake flops on the bed. Michael focuses on trying to mix the mountain dew red with honey, then mint powder and milk. Tries to mimic the Upgrade. He sips it. Grimaces, then hands it to Jake.

Who merely chugs it. Smashes the glass on the floor when he’s swallowed the entirety of it.

Michael basically whimpers as he stares at the shards on the floor. “Not cool.”

Jake snorts a laugh. “What’s your name?”

Hesitation, “Michael.”

“Jakey D!”

Michael nods.

“What did you just feed me?”

“The opposite of what you had downstairs.”

“What’s that?”

Michaels too busy inspecting his face and hair that’s still somehow managing to defy gravity. His eyes are stormy.

The freckles splattered on his cheeks and arms remind him of Jeremy. He looks away. “Try and rest, yeah?”

Jake buries under the blanket. Let’s out a long groan, “Feel bad.”

“So you should.You just murdered E.T. That glass was limited from Pizza Hut, all the way back in 1982.”

Jake stares. “Stomach feels bad.”

“So does E.T’s.”

“Sorry, E.T.”

Michael starts scooping up the smashed shards of glass on the floor, occasionally feeling a sharp pinch when his trembling hands caught the sharp edges. Tries to ignore the fact Jake’s staring at him from the bed.

He breaks exactly six seconds later, “What?”

Jake whines, “Where’s my mask?”

Michael looks at him.

“Mask for my face.”

“You didn’t have one.”

“Did too!”

“Okay- Well uh. How ‘bout we find it after you’ve napped?”

Jake seems to contemplate that, then, “We better.” He hums.

So, Jake had a mask. Not a great sign.

Granted, masks were common. People wore them all the time because your identity was sacred nowadays.

Someone has your face, someone, technically, has you.

Just like that.

This is what the worlds like, now. Based on impressive technology with not so impressive people. Hiding yourself because one day you might have even that taken away. Day and night. Fight technology with technology.

You’re not you.

Yeah. Definitely not a good sign.