My eyes are trained on the lithe, dark beauty standing at the bar, set apart from her friends, but eagerly watching them take shots of swirling color. You can always tell the D.D. from across the room. Her dense afro had been constrained into two bold puffs at the top of her head, standing in defiance to the otherwise overwhelming domination of gravity. A shorter, more energetic girl made up of tiny bundles of muscles packaged in a skin-tight denim dress tugged at Afropuff’s hand, her short, copper coils bringing out the redness in her skin that the blaring, fluorescent lights tried to drown out.
“Who’re you staring at tonight?” a sigh followed by a smirk as Nega drops into the couch beside me, a thick manila envelope in one hand and a quarter-full glass of some dark bourbon sloshing against ice in the other. A rotating floodlight behind his head briefly disappears his face, but I still knew it was him from the low cut, the light ridging against his carefully maintained waves. I lift my drink in the direction of Afropuffs and Denim Dress, now joined by . . . someone who had to be a football player, with long, draping dreadlocks, and another man, with shorter locks and a smaller chest. I can see the glinting gold of his eyes from here.
“Oh shit,” Nega murmurs, as he leans forward, following the sight line of my strawberry margarita.
“What,” I ask. He carefully places his Bourbon on the table before fumbling with his envelope, pulling out a holographic picture of Gold Eyes standing on a stage, holding some milky, white orb. The hologram then zooms in on the orb, which seems to have small, worm-like tendrils protruding out from its . . . skin. Gold Eyes shoves the orb in his ear and clutches the side of his head, his face contorting in pain. Suddenly, the hologram is blocked by someone appearing to stand to applaud. The hologram loops back to Gold Eyes standing on stage holding the orb.
I snatch the holo-pic from my brother’s hand and watch the loop several more times while he pulls documents from the envelope.
“Izrael Mann. 22 years old. 4th year senior at Howard University. Majors in Bio-Mechanical Engineering.”
“You’re rattling off facts as if he’s a target,” I mutter. “That wouldn’t make sense though, because I know my brother brought me here on vacation.”
“All I said is nothing happens in D.C. anymore since they moved the capital to New York in 2030. It seems that my brother can’t help assuming things.”
“Explain to me how that doesn’t sound like time off.” I stand. My margarita is empty and Nega is preparing to ruin my night.
“Poz, if it makes you feel better, he’s not a target,” he says, lowering me back down into the couch.
“So what? You planning on asking him out?” Nega glances back in the direction of Gold Eyes and his group. They’d migrated to the dance floor, except Afropuffs, who’s still leaned on the bar, ignoring the bartender’s attempts to flirt. The Football Player had found another tall, dark beauty to grind on, this one with more restless curves. Gold Eyes and Denim Dress seem to have found each other.
“I don’t think I’m his type,” Nega hisses, and turns back to his documents. “He’s a recruit.”
My eyes linger on Afropuffs. “I’m listening.”
“Well, you saw the holo-pic. That thing he stuck in his ear is called the Oracle. It’s supposed to be some new organic tech that integrates with your nervous system so it can communicate directly with your brain.” Afropuffs was starting to look uncomfortable with the bartender’s advances and had her eyes fixated on Denim Dress, willing her to notice. The bartender was reaching for her afro.
“So, what’s it do? Help the deaf hear? Let the blind see?” I’m getting impatient, but I can’t just go over there. No girl wants to be rescued from a creepy stranger by another creepier stranger who would have to admit that he’d been staring at her all night.
“Nothing so heroic,” Nega continues. “I think he wants it to be some commercial thing that eventually makes cell phones obsolete—“
“It’s supposed to help people with Oracles communicate non-verbally and also access the internet. He said in his presentation that ‘she knows everything Google knows, and once she’s in you, you do too.’” Denim Dress finally noticed her and was tugging Gold Eyes—Izrael—back towards the bar, grabbing the Football Player on the way.
“So why does the Battery care?” I ask, finally relaxing again into the couch.
“The Battery cares about information; you know that. This thing—“
“She. He called her a she.”
“Fine, she can access information.”
“Anyone can ‘access information.’”
“But can everyone access information and process it, presenting you with several plans of action and blueprints. Not to mention the nonverbal communication. You should be excited. This thing could take all the guesswork out of being an agent.”
“Isn’t being a spy all about the guesswork?” Afropuffs’ friends had come to her rescue and were escorting her out of the club. I’m finally ready to actually give Nega my attention, but he’s already standing up, ignoring my last question.
“Come on what?”
“You’re the one who’s been staring at them all night. Let’s go introduce ourselves.” Nega downs the rest of his bourbon in two quick gulps and gathers his files back into the envelope, tucking that into his cardigan. I hesitate for a moment, then stand up as well. After all, what did I really have to lose?
Nega weaves his way through the mass of people dancing, masterfully avoiding bumping into any drinks or parting any dancing couples. The flashing lights make it difficult to follow his path, and the heavy bass of the deep house/synthetic funk mixture the DJ was spinning drowns out any hope of conversation as we make our way through the club. It still baffles me that we’ve evolved to the point of using machines for most of our day-to-day activities, from automated self-checkouts at grocery stores to self-driving cars and planes, but we can’t escape the human touch of bartenders, strippers, and nightclub DJs.
When we finally make it outside, into the bone-chill of the October breezes, we see Gold Eyes and Football Player huddled together against the cold, talking to themselves and apparently waiting for Afropuffs and Denim Dress to return with the car.
“Izrael? Izrael Mann?” Nega had suddenly adopted this needlessly charming, infectiously personable attitude and was unashamedly approaching the group of friends.
“Uh . . . yeah? Have we met?” Gold Eyes shivers at the cold and at this stranger addressing him out of nowhere.
“No, but I was at Howard’s Innovator’s Summit last month. I gotta say I’m a fan,” Nega replies, reaching his hand out for a shake. “I didn’t mean to walk up on you and your peoples out of nowhere, but I saw you and had to introduce myself. Dane Woods.” Izrael seems set at ease by the realization that Nega was a fan, and not a stalker, probably. His shoulders relax, and he grips Nega’s hand and gives it a firm shake. The little ego stroke Nega gave almost made Izrael’s eyes shine brighter.
“Nice to meet you man. Always good to meet someone who appreciates the vision.” Football Player rolls his eyes. “This is my friend, Oleva.” Izrael gestures to Football Player who smiles and reaches out to shake Nega’s hand.
“This is my brother, Nick.” Nega turns and pulls me into the conversation by my elbow, a bright grin shining from his mouth, but his eyes darkened with the threat to “play along.”
“Uh, yeah. Nice to meet ya’ll too.” I shake both of their hands and stuff both fists into my pockets to block out the cut of the night air.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a Black guy named Dane before.” The comment comes from Oleva, his fingers stroking his well-groomed beard, while his eyebrows burrow in confusion.
“Honestly, my name is O’Dane. My people are from New York, by way of St. Lucia, and it’s pretty common down there,” Nega says. “It’s wild, but I still gotta drop the ‘O’ to make my name business formal.” The three of them laugh and I try to join in, but I’m more focused on not blowing the moment by asking about Afropuffs. I just have to wait patiently.
As that thought crosses my mind, a red SUV pulls up on the curb next to us and rolls the window down. Heat radiates from inside the car, driven by Afropuffs, Denim Dress in the seat beside her, fiddling with the music on her phone.
“Oh hey, you made some friends.” Afropuffs’ voice carries a soothing, inviting melody when she speaks.
“Yeah. Dane, Nick, meet Nailah,” she waves her white nails at us, “and my girlfriend, Jai.” Denim Dress’ head pops up, looking at both me and Nega with probing eyes.
“Dane and Nick?” Jai asks leaning out the window to get a good look at us, her head cocked to the side. She takes in Nega’s short, jet-black hair, dark brown eyes perfectly framed by faux tortoise shell glasses and bushy eyebrows. Her eyes work their way down his lean body, subtly approving of his all black cardigan, wax denim jeans, and loafer combination. When she looked at me, she seems struck by how my platinum blonde hair, that shoots out in every direction, in a short, kinky afro, contrasts with the bushy eyebrows and dark brown eyes I share with my brother. My light, acid washed jeans cuffed neatly at the top of my winter boots and turquoise and orange tribal sweater to hide my chubbier frame is not quite the sober, mature image that Nega presents, but I’m still pretty proud of this look too. She gives a little frown and head nod.
“Yeah. Nice to meet you. We were just paying some respects to the Crown Prince of A.I. here,” Nega says, grinning broadly. He looks back at Izrael. “It was great to meet you. We should get coffee sometime.” He pulls a black card out from the back pocket of his skin-tight jeans. When the warmth of his fingertips activate the card, his name “Dane Woods” appears on the face of the card, in dim lit white letters, followed by his phone number. Izrael takes the card, proud to be the one singled out for the honor.
“Of course. I’ll call,” Izrael answers, his eyes still transfixed on the card. Oleva waves and ushers him into the backseat of the car. All four wave again as they drive off.
“Flirt.” I elbow Nega in the side as the car disappears into the darkness. A smile works the corners of his eyes, but he returns to his sober demeanor.
“I’m just doing my job.”