"The Geheimnisse," Chris’s muffled voice echoed through her gas mask. She had fading blue hair with swoop bangs and was pointing to the circle stenciled on the tunnel wall.
Loo and Steph were also wearing gas masks. Loo had seen the stencil in both Oakland and San Francisco chinatowns. She first saw it near the side entrance to the Furnace of Beautiful Writing, a historic building where she liked to sit outside and read because so many books had been incinerated there. She met Albert on the bench. He’d come up to her, pushing his scraggily hair out of his face, staring down at her shoes, babbling about the experiment in the tower, the threat of implants, Kulturkamf, and mysterious calls at coffeehouse phone booths. Had she received any texts or emails? She’d known about the Geheimnisse but hadn’t sought out any of its mysteries on her own. What did she think of it? That all of it was real? Hadn’t she considered the truth? Of course she had. But who was she to become some kind of detective. Didn’t she know the cops weren’t to be trusted? Truth had to be discovered by those not under the auspices of agents. She had been sitting there reading a French novel about memory, then closed the book, taken in by Albert’s sudden compassion to a stranger of all people.
She followed Albert to the tunnels with her friends Steph and Chris. Both women knew about the Geheimnisse, but like Loo, hadn’t acted on any impulse to see for themselves. Just past the entrance to the tunnel they became separated from Albert’s friends who went chasing after a noise. Something like a scream, they said. Albert, looking like an apologetic bug in his gas mask, shrugged and ran after his friends. Loo thought Chris and Steph were going to question why the hell they were in gas masks in a tunnel that could suddenly drown them all, or infect them, or cause them to convulse and die from some kind of nerve agent the Geheimnisse might release. After all, they were intellectuals, especially a freak like Albert, and intellectuals were the targets. This was of course weeks before Loo slept with Albert.
Loo noticed nine circles within the main circle. “Circles within circles,” she said. She was about to touch the stencil when Steph grabbed her hand.
“Don’t touch anything in here. They could have put a virus in the paint or on the wall. Look how slimy it is. Didn’t you hear what’s happening to the intellectuals? Professor Piot says people really are disappearing.”
“They are,” Chris said. “They fall ill and end up being carted away. No one knows where they’re being quarantined.”
Why hadn’t Professor Piot fallen ill? He’d supposedly seen everything. He seemed fine. Loo doubted anyone was being quarantined.
Loo’s headlamp lit up the wall. Around her feet an inch of water trickled past. She thought she saw a salamander or a frog. They were far in the tunnel, having squeezed through the grate on the side of a hill mostly covered with pine trees at an abandoned water station. She studied the stencil and began drawing it in her journal. There was something different about this particular stencil as if it were bloody around the edges.
“I met Professor Piot at the university a month ago at a gallery show in the warehouses,” Loo said. “There were people in the treehouses—you know those buildings on the catwalks? They were experimenting with sound through oscillators. Sound-field characteristic studies, chaotic oscillators, sound-bending, embeddable tech implants. All of those sound benders and biohackers were showing off their scars. They were using their implants to make digitized sound react to gyrating around wildly like some kind of fucked up cyber-ravers. Everyone’s smart phones were going crazy. And that one guy was there—Peter Venfinkel He has an art gallery implanted in his skin that shows up as animations on your smart phone when you scan the chip in his arm. I don’t really understand all of this. But there was Professor Piot surrounded by Augmented Reality junkies. He said the Geheimnisse was a game, and that all of it could end up becoming an implant game, meaning we’d have to eventually get chips embedded in us, maybe somewhere in a tunnel like this or in a tattoo shop.”
Finished with her sketch, she stuck her journal in her bag. The three of them looked like insects lost from their colony, creeping in a hole in the ground.
“You’re the one who told us about this place,” Chris said. “You said there were all these weird stencils around town. I mean, I knew about some of them.”
“Albert knows more about it,” Loo said. “Let’s catch up to them. I doubt if they found anything.”
“There was a noise,” Steph said. “Probably some homeless asshole wanting a fix. I don’t know if it sounded human or not.”
Loo started thinking about her mother. She half expected Yi Min to appear in the dark tunnel and scold her for chasing after Albert. What would she say? That he looked like one of the druggies from Chinatown? That he would never amount to anything because he couldn’t look anyone in the eye? Loo wanted to see her mother’s ghost. She wanted everyone to see her pale skin, to feel the blackness of her eyes. But the only thing that came into view was a man lying in the water, eyes staring into the void. He wasn’t wearing a gas mask.