It was days like this, when the heat was sweltering, that the stench of death was especially prevalent.
“Uh, what the fuck are you reading?” Jai’s tiny, copper coils breach Nailah’s field of vision, calling her attention away from the book laying across her lap. Nailah jumps at the sudden person leaning in over her shoulder.
“I’m doing research,” Nailah says, composing herself. “Some of us still have school.” Her slender fingers stay poised over her laptop but don’t actually type anything. She feels Jai rest her chin on her shoulder.
“First of all, don’t try to play me. I’m only suspended for the semester. Secondly, research for what?” Jai’s voice makes Nailah’s shoulder vibrate. Nai taps her fingers on the only words written on the screen of her laptop, her shock white nails a stark contrast to her deep, dark skin tone. “‘Atlanta’s Organ Black Market?’ Uh-huh, I’ll just let you have that . . . Your nails are so cute though. Where did you get them done?”
“I finally gave in and bought one of those MiniMani things they been advertising. Where you just stick your hands in the machine and it does a full set in 10 minutes. What they don’t tell you that you gotta buy these acrylic cartridge things for it to actually do shit. But it’s better than going to a salon and hoping that the stations have been programmed by someone who actually knows something about nails. I told you about how I went to that one on campus and it was programmed by some guy who used to be in the military, so all it did was file my nails down? A waste of $40. And you know my nails have to look right . . .”
Jai flops down on Nailah’s bed. She could really just relax at this point. Once Nai got off on a tangent, she could talk for hours to herself, telling stories wrapped in stories, without ever reaching the point she started talking to make. She would completely forget about the creepy book in her lap, and her computer screen would go dark after going so long without typing anything. Jai could close her eyes and throw in a “girl, yes” here and a “fuck that” there, as she snuggled into the plush wine-red comforter. At some point Jai would pull her cellphone out of her pocket and double tap the plexiglass screen, checking for new text messages.
“Jai. Jai! Are you paying attention?” Nailah rolls her desk chair over to her bed, as Jai fumbles with her phone.
“Of course I am.”
“Sure. Look, I’m trying to do this investigative journalism thing with my degree, so I have to get this article written for my thesis project. There’s evidence of this shit everywhere, so I doubt it’ll be that hard.”
“Wait, evidence of what now?”
“Black market organ trafficking. See? Not listening.” Nailah wags her fingers in Jai’s face.
“So what? Are you gonna go undercover or something?” Jai asks. Nai fidgets in her chair.
“Uh . . . I’m not really sure yet. It’s kinda creepy, to be honest.”
Jai pops up, sitting straight up on the bed. “I can help, and you won’t ever have to leave the comforts of this bedroom,” she says, leaning into Nailah’s face, a serpent’s smile spreading across her lips. Nailah softly pushes Jai back, rolling her own chair backwards in the process and crosses her arms.
“. . . Are you not on suspension right now because of that silly shit?”
“A lil hack never hurt anybody. All I did was round a B up to an A and everyone freaked the fuck out. I’m just tryna help you get your hands on some real information. Not some conspiracy theory written by some crazy old White guy back in the 90s.” Jai shrugs and lays back down on Nailah’s bed. Her phone vibrates almost inaudibly, muffled by the comforter.
“Let me guess, Izzo needs you?” Nailah rolls her eyes and turns back to her laptop.
“Yeah, actually. I promised to help him with the new version of that thing he stuck in his ear last month.”
“You should probably pay attention to the nerdy shit your boyfriend’s getting into. Everybody else is.”
“Relax, relax. It’s just a Bluetooth or something. People had them back in the day. We’re still going out tonight, right?”
“You just need someone to drive, huh?”
“It’s way more than just a Bluetooth, babe.” Izrael stands in front of his work table making a few last-minute adjustments to his tiny invention. Jai was relaxing into the RestrainT Izzo had junked and refurbished at the beginning of the semester. They were mostly for doctor’s offices and asylums, and the occasional nursing home. Honestly, people were starting to think they were inhumane, because whenever they sensed tension, they clamped down hard on your wrists and ankles to keep you still for shots or medication. She couldn’t understand why he would need one of these, but apparently, he had overreacted at his own Integration so he assumed he would need a RestrainT if he ever wanted to implant it in anyone else.
“The Oracle is the single greatest piece of technology I’ve ever invented. I’ve been working on her since sophomore year. You should really pay more attention, babe. She’s beyond any type of A.I. anyone at this school’s ever even thought of. The engineering department’s been on my ass about developing a new version ever since I Integrated with the prototype. Basically, everything Google knows, she knows, and then some because she has the ability to learn. She can even communicate. Mostly, she just talks to me and my computer, since I’m the only person with one, but now, since you’re letting me use you as a test subject, our Oracles could talk to each other, too.”
“Okay, so when you put that thing in me, will it hurt?” Jai feels the RestrainT tighten around her wrists. It was barely noticeable, but the cuffs had sensed her apprehension and were making sure she couldn’t run away. Izrael doesn’t respond; he just approaches her with a tiny bauble in the palm of his hand. He’s careful not to drop it or even shake it as he walks over.
“Remember, it’s biomechanical, so it’s gonna respond to you. Once it’s in, you won’t even notice it’s there. Are you sure you want to do this?” Izzo asks, his orange-gold eyes blazing against his dark, umber skin, burrowing through to her soul. She nods, not wanting to speak. She knew that if she spoke, it would be real and she wasn’t ready to be responsible for that decision. “The Oracle can’t work without a verbal response.” His hand strokes her chin, then traces her jaw up to the ear, adjusting the milky, translucent orb so it sat in her ear canal correctly.
“Yes. I’m ready to Integrate.” she whispers, but she knew it heard her.
“Aight. It might pinch a little.” And she definitely felt it. The Oracle opens in her ear, thorny tendrils digging their way through her ear canal, pulling itself deeper into her ear cavity. Suddenly, everything was on fire. Then it went black. She goes to claw the damn thing out of her head, but she’s shackled to her seat, wrists too tightly bound to be wrung out of the RestrainT without breaking something. Her ear was bleeding; her eyes were bleeding; she can feel it. Then, suddenly, everything was silent. She closes her eyes and can only hear a low buzz.
“Jai, open your eyes,” comes a voice deep in the back of her mind, no higher than a murmur, inexplicably male, but undeniably female all at once.
“What? WHAT?! You didn’t say there’d be a voice!” Her eyes shoot open, targeting Izrael with her shouts, but he was out of sight.
“It’s up to you, Jai. It can sound like a thought if you want it to. Or it can sound like anything at all. But I did say she would talk to you.” His voice was coming from another room. “If you relax, the chair will relax and let you up.”
“You’ll grow accustomed to me soon enough.”
“And maybe you’ll talk like a normal person,” Jai mutters aloud, trying to ease herself back into the chair.
“Doubtful. And I resent being called a person.”
“Oh great, you have a sense of humor,” she says, regretting it immediately. Well, maybe it hadn’t registered her attitude, or had caught an attitude of its own, because it doesn’t reply. The Oracle was shaping up to be a piece of work, but it was definitely an amazing piece of technology, just like Izzo said.
“Jai, can you hear me?” Izrael’s voice fills her ear, but he hadn’t come back into the room yet.
“Izzo?” she asks, out loud. Jai rubs her wrists as she stands up.
“See if you can reply through the Oracle. Uh . . . you just gotta think a thought in my direction. Like we’re talking, but we’re not.”Izzo’s voice echoes in my ears again.
“This is so fucking weird. Oh! I did it!” It was the strangest feeling, hearing her own voice in her head. It was a little louder than a thought, more involved.
“Yeah, good job. Honestly, we probably won’t have to use that much, unless you really can’t help thinking to me while you’re at work,” Izrael says, smirking as he walks back into the room. “Shit, I’m just glad it works. Mine was glitchy as fuck when I first used it, but, I mean, this is the first Oracle ever.” He taps his ear, and laughs to himself, as if his Oracle told him a joke. “And yours is only the second. I’m gonna change the world, babe.”