That morning new ad holograms appeared; the president had a profound, more concerned look and fuller lips. Nemanja twisted his face in resentment and tucked his hair full of care products behind his ears. The future is not immune to idiots or bad political decisions. We are living in someone’s future and look how that turned out. Nemanja took an e-cigarette and puffed out the steam.
In the message, he’d received an address and the name Boris. He stopped in front of building number 31 and rang the intercom with no name on it. He rang a couple of times without an answer, and when a lady carrying bags with the recycling exited, he stopped the door with his leg and entered the building. A child’s red electro scooter leaned against the wall with the mailboxes. Number 16 had no name plat and Nemanja thought he needed the 4th floor. The building was quiet, it smelled of food mixed with paint from few days ago. It was families who lived there. He started to doubt the address’s accuracy, but the guy who he got it from moved the stuff at BG University, and he seemed trustworthy.
A short period of silence, and then the door opened.
“Hi, get in the waiting room.” A girl with short hair and yellowish eyes let him in and nodded in the direction of several sofas in a big living room.
The place looked as if someone had inherited it from an old rich relative and it hadn’t been renovated in the last fifty or so years. The two green sofas and brown couch smelled as old as they looked. Two people were sitting there, and no one looked up when he entered. They moved their eyes away and lowered their caps over the faces. Okay, it seemed he was in the right place.
On a TV in a room next door, the news ran the politically pleasing chants of a ruling party to the leader. Every time Nemanja heard that voice trained for the manipulation of shallow minds, he immediately got goosebumps. Uncontrollable reaction. Again with the invented workplaces for a minimal wage, a phantom increase of GDP, the building of new roads or bridges, the terminology they randomly throw around as if they picked it from a dictionary without understanding any of its meaning. Luckily, he wasn’t the only one annoyed with the situation since someone else hissed at the president and changed the channel. Nemanja was thankful to that unknown person.
About fifteen minutes later, it was his turn. He entered a room that looked like a botanic lab. Along the entire wall were philodendrons and dracaena plants in big pots. Across from them stood two big shelves with micro greenery under the ultraviolet light. The room had a scent of metallic freshness.
“You’re a new face. Oh, right, Mihajlo’s guy?”
“Yes, he gave me your contact.”
Nemanja observed the short, bald, middle-aged guy who began to rummage through one of the closets. He took out two bags and gathered a few gadgets from them.
“I guess you came for this?” He showed him the new North Korean chips. “Faster and untraceable. Clean of the software junk and mainstream platform’s securities. Safe as it can get.”
Nemanja took one and brought it closer to his tablet. Nothing. No reading started.
“How often do you get them?”
“If you need more than four in one order, let me know a few days in advance.”
So, he’s got a larger quantity of supplies nearby, no need to wait for shipping from Asia. Nemanja wondered how this guy got the goods. He didn’t seem to be working for someone bigger. But who knew, he was dealing illegal software in a residential building, and no one seemed to care. He scanned the room again, but he didn’t catch the organized crime vibe. Nemanja was looking at him giving the commands for the transaction on his smart glasses. The guy put two bags on the table near Nemanja and brought a ring to make a charge. Nemanja got the order invoice on his lenses and accessed the encrypted transaction with the movement of his eye.
“That’s it. You’ve got the activation code,” the guy said, getting back to his plants.
Nemanja left the apartment. He pinned the location and waited for a cab. When the driverless electric vehicle arrived, there were no other passengers. He switched on the ad blocker as he entered. Still, part of the neoempiric ad went through: “You are the Creator, broaden your horizons and your evolutionary potentials.” Nemanja tacitly agreed. He took his tablet and checked the cameras around his apartment and building. Marko had not yet returned. He thought how cool it would be to bump into him again. Well, the last time, he didn’t really bump into him but had followed him over several cameras so they could meet. Unfortunately, that didn’t go well as he planned since Marko was burned out, returning from his work in a nightclub and carrying all his dancer’s gizmos. He’d approached him and helped him take the stuff to his apartment, but other than that, no fireworks. Not even sparks. Oh, well, tonight Nine would finally start, and he’d have a chance to see Marko at the festival.
The cab dropped him off a bit away from his place, as Nemanja didn’t like to leave his routes’ digital traces. Even with hard-core security, you could never be too careful. The building’s entrance lock was stuck again, and he needed more than a few seconds to open it; after that, he took an elevator to the seventh floor. As he was approaching his door, a meowing sound grew louder. Mr. Cat was fat and ever voracious and a quite contrast to skinny Nemanja. Whenever he’d go to the kitchen or pass by it, Mr. Cat was so loud, as if his survival depended on a feeding in that exact moment. Nemanja gave him his Meow Mix and changed his water. Chubby was satisfied and purred happily.
It was a bit cold in the apartment. The temperature had to be lower than 18 degrees Celsius because of the servers he had working there. It was part of his security system; he didn’t keep anything of importance locally, but he needed those to have secure access to other external servers. His living room was also his workplace. Nemanja had his desk with a big computer screen away from the windows, and next to it, a shelf unit for various hardware he’d worked on. He inserted the new gadgets into the server and, using his tablet, performed necessary compatibility adjustments. They should increase the data speed between the cloud and the other servers.
Nemanja received a notification. A customer had inquired about the progress of some service he had to pimp up. It had totally slipped his mind as it was easy money, and he’d almost finished it as soon as he started a few days ago.
He started the data access with his ring finger touching a labeled part of the digital desk. The fingerprint and the thermal print were enough for the identification, so the six-digit passcode fields appeared on his monitor. Using his tablet, Nemanja checked if any listeners and blockers in the apartment were on. Satisfied with the unchanged state, he accessed the project code using the voice command. In Code Studio, he looked where he’d left off and ran the build to check the code’s state, but the build failed, and he had to devote himself to it unplanned.
Several working sessions were active on his computer screen: the Code Studio software he used for coding, many browsing tabs in Qwant which he simultaneously checked while taking small breaks, the video stream of two cameras that looked at the building entrance and his apartment, a music video minimized in the upper left corner, an algorithm-recommended playlist that had been on repeat for a few days now. Mr. Cat was persistent in placing his furry ass on the part of the desk Nemanja needed for work as if he knew that and did it to deliberately draw attention to himself. “Fatty, get lost,” he said several times, but he never pushed him away.
Someone’s presence in front of the building distracted him. Marko. He straightened up in his chair and got closer to the screen. He must have gone shopping; Nemanja was looking at his bags of fruits and water. After several dozens of seconds, the elevator mechanism started. Marko lived two floors below, but he had no cameras installed there. Unfortunately. Up until recently, Nemanja had an inner struggle between the white and the black hat hacker. However, he decided not to cross the line this time. He liked the guy. Nemanja carefully listened to catch the door lock’s sound; he imagined Marko entering his place, dropping the bags, and going for the showers. The idea of his nudity tickled his mind, and he dropped his right hand into his jeans. He imagined a water trail going down Marko’s body, his face tilted up toward the showerhead. And just as he started the film going, a call interrupted him. Mr. Mitar.
“Hello, Nemanja, I need you for a couple of things. When is the earliest you can come here?” A deep voice came from the speaker.
“In an hour.”
“See you then.”
Nemanja got back to the project, inspected the part of code he had his suspicions on, changed a few lines, and after the build was successful, he switched on the automatic test to run while he was away. He activated the script to push the code to production after the successful test, then test it again in the new environment and notify the client of the completed gig. Of course, he could follow every step of the process from his tablet.
Nemanja was curious about those couple of things Mitar had mentioned. He checked the date and realized it was the time for a new batch of the substance and wondered about the changes Mitar might have. The man wanted to perfect the medium that would bring people closer to the new idea of evolution. Many folks worked with designer-coded substances, but Nemanja was among the first ones to do it. As he had a few hits, Mitar got a recommendation for him. Actually, for three guys, but he liked Nemanja the most.
Neoempirist quarters stood on the top of the National Library in Skerliceva Street, and it took him about twenty minutes by bus to get there. After the place became the Center for Lifelong Learning and Training, from the citizens’ initiative with a strong follower base, they’d grown into an institution with a religious vibe. However, neoempirists have always confronted that role. They were academics with multidisciplinary backgrounds. Initially, they were called neohumanists, as they aspired to raise humanity’s consciousness and bring it to a higher evolutionary level. They advocated for greater engagement and further flourishment of art and science. According to them, religion contributed to their believers’ rapid extinction on the evolutionary ladder due to their innate apathy towards life. They were missing out on various experiences and desires because they’ve been held by the thought of sin or the temporality of this existence with the idea that a better life awaited them only in the afterlife. Incorrect. One life per universe and consciousness is authentic to each of them. Atheists and adventurers are the best ranked. Death to apathy.
The National Library had been remodeled and equipped with the latest technology. The interior retained only the spirit of its former national character, which was enough. Access to both the digital and print editions and archives was available to everyone, without a fee, as knowledge has no price and humanity needs to grow.
Mitar’s office was on the third floor. Nemanja decided to go up the wide stairs to view new works by local talent. In particular, one sculpture caught his attention: several baby heads connected, with their faces twisted in various emotions. The material was ceramics and white except for the mouths in the color of meat. He remembered that Mitar once told him they supported creativity in the community contrary to the church with one creator. He passed by several smaller installations and paintings with various motives before he knocked at the door.
“We have a problem.”
Mitar started seriously. He looked like he’d just gotten back from a chess tournament, wearing a grayish tweed with a pale-yellow shirt underneath it, in contrast to Nemanja’s dark unzipped hoody and jeans. He was also much bigger than Nemanja.
“The last product was fatal.”
“What do you mean?”
“A member died a day after consumption.”
Nemanja was dumbstruck. He wasn’t expecting this. It had never happened before that his product had killed a person.
“Are you sure the substance is the cause of death?”
“Everything points out to that.”
“Did the person suffer from any chronic disease?”
“No. We looked into her medical history. An autopsy is still pending as we’re waiting for my preliminary investigation.”
“How many members consumed it?”
“Three. We still can’t get ahold of the other ones.”
Mitar stood in front of the window. His arms were crossed, his large body casting a shadow with the marble of Saint Sava’s temple rising in the background.
“The last batch we made didn’t contain any significant changes,” Nemanja said and took out the tablet to compare the last two versions of the substance.
“As far as I know, none of the changes should be lethal.” He looked some more and shook his head. “No, the problem is not here. Where is the printer that printed it?”
“This way.” Mitar gestured towards the door, and they headed to the office down the hall. “Only a few of us have access to it,” he said, pressing his index finger on the lock.
Nemanja connected his tablet to a keyboard on a desk near the printer, accessed the printer’s network settings, and started debugging. He found the last version code of the substance, pulled it to his device, and then started the script to compare the printer version to the one he already had. It didn’t even get to finish before it started throwing multiple errors.
“Wait a second. This is not my code.”
He inspected it line by line. A big part of it was his code, but with many modifications that were not his coding style, nor would he put those changes in for the purposes Mitar needed. Mitar looked down the empty hall and locked the office door. It was clear to both of them that someone had tampered with the data and committed a murder. Nemanja suspected someone wanted to clear him off the market. However, the code wasn’t clean enough, plus it looked as if more than one person worked on it, and he wasn’t aware of any team that would want him removed.
“Check who used the printer at that time.”
Nemanja went through the logs, and the only user that day was Mitar. He opened the logs from three weeks back and showed them to him.
“Does anyone from the list look suspicious?”
Mitar looked carefully through the list and then shook his head.
“All those people have cleared access.”
That didn’t satisfy Nemanja, so he opened all the codes for the projects those people had printed. But looking at it, nothing suspicious popped up.
“I’ll connect to your security cameras.” Nemanja hooked up his tablet to a computer screen on the desk to have a better look at the videos. He accessed the two cameras with a view of this floor. They observed in silence. The hallway was empty, so he fast-forwarded the recorded video.
“That’s strange. How could the hallway be empty the whole day when I went into this office?”
Nemanja checked the print’s timestamp and tried to rewind to that time. The image on the screen jumped a bit. He tried rewinding it one hour before, and it jumped again.
“Someone played with security camera’s memory,” he concluded and moved to the next cameras to catch anyone looking remotely suspicious around that time. But most of the cameras were useless or tampered with.
“This is not good.” Mitar was too calm and serious.
“I am accessing the cameras outside of the building.”
Mitar wondered how but didn’t ask as he watched Nemanja going through the police server’s multiple authentication levels. Nemanja realized the city cameras have acronyms of streets and municipalities, so he downloaded a list for Vracar. When he found the serial numbers of the cameras he needed, he accessed the server that stored the camera memory data via terminal. Soon he got the video.
“From this one, we can see the entrance to the library.” Nemanja then opened several other videos. “And this camera from the park is looking both at the main and side entrances.”
He sped up to the time erased on the library’s security cameras. Still nothing suspicious, but then the image suddenly jumped, and the timestamp didn’t match. Nemanja looked at Mitar.
“Someone seriously wants to frame the murder on you guys. They’ve gone through a lot of trouble to clean both yours and the police’s security cameras, and that’s not an easy job.”
“It’s probably tampered with so it could hide the perpetrator who left the library at that time.” Mitar thought aloud. “Let’s use that as our starting point.”
“The recording of the main entrance has three minutes cleared, and this one that sees both entrances is missing ten minutes. So, let’s assume the person went out the side door, then where could they have gone?” Nemanja opened a street map in a new browser tab and zoomed in on the area around the library.
“If he went out through the side door, why would they erase the view of the main entrance?” Mitar looked at the recording closely. “Maybe they went to the parking lot and then with a car exited on a street that is visible from the main entrance.”
“Let’s check this one. It overlooks the temple and part of the parking.” Nemanja rewound the recording. The timestamp was correct, so no one had tampered with it.
“Maybe it’s this vehicle?” Mitar pointed at a black sedan, which was leaving the parking lot.
“The time matches. I’ll look for the owner.”
Nemanja slowed down the recording to catch the license plate and lucked out. He checked all the streets the vehicle could have gone on and accessed the storage of those security cameras. The rest was easy as he already had the license plate database on one of his clouds, the legacy of an old gig.
“Sinisa Vucic, does that ring a bell?”
Nemanja pasted the name in the search engine and went through several social networks.
“It’s probably this guy.” He pointed to a man with short hair and rosy cheeks in the picture taken for some political celebration.
“Next to him is the Deputy Minister of Health. The man associated with the Serbian Orthodox Church,” Mitar said.
“You think the church had something to do with this?”
“We've had a lot of pressure lately. The current government and SOC have good relations, and we’ve had various financial losses as a consequence. The growing global neoempiric movement and the expansion of the local educational centers have aggravated some so-called patriots that see SOC as an alternative to us. Apples and oranges.”
“The news recently yapped about the tax evasion incident and boycott of your latest building.”
“Our growing members bother them.”
“But to frame you for a murder…” Nemanja didn’t like the idea.
“Upload all the videos you’ve shown me, including the data on the car owner to a cloud and send me the link.”
Mitar was pleased that the case’s initial investigation resolved quickly but equally dissatisfied that his suspicions were true. He organized the meeting with his bosses for a later afternoon to present the preliminary investigation results. They needed to decide on the next steps and how to avoid the media spin.
“On the other matter, we need a new batch of the substance,” he said.
Nemanja wanted to point out that maybe now was not the best time to make new supplies, but it was easy cash. A gig’s a gig.
“The police will probably take this printer for their investigation, so we need a different one.” Nemanja considered the options. It wasn’t easy to find a printer for the liquids, but he knew a guy. Every printer leaves its mark on the products for tracking purposes in case of illegal activity. Nemanja knew that was hackable too, but it wasn’t as easy. “Are there any new changes?” he asked.
“Yes.” Mitar read the email with the approved changes.
“Okay, give me a sec.”
On his tablet, Nemanja opened the user interface to increase or decrease each component’s level. Every element led to a different mental state. This time they didn’t touch the hallucinogens. However, they reduced the emotional intensity, psychostimulants. Amphetamine was already low, but they lowered it a bit more. Nemanja adjusted all the required changes and saved the new version.
“Is it possible to have it today?” Mitar planned to bring the substance to the meeting.
“It looks like it.” He received the confirmation message.
They passed by numerous green areas that had changed the look of the capital. A while back, neoempirists took an initiative to green the city, which sunk into complete grayness. Gray streets, gray buildings, the skin of poor retirees, gray news, gray economy. It was a long fight to bring back the trees and parks to the city at the expense of new buildings and shopping malls that had filled the pockets of those in power. But, thanks to the neoempiric’s strong economic connections, the matter was resolved in favor of the citizens and their health, as pollution had become unbearable at one point. Now the city finally had a different scent. On a sunny day in a park, you could actually smell joy.
Mitar drove down Ruzveltova Street and checked every now and then in the rearview mirror to see if anyone was following them. At the Seminary, both glared at the big red brick building.
“According to Mircea Eliade, as per Kolakowski, technology has ruined the mythical space and has embedded it in the rational structures, and without that space, the universe can’t reveal its hidden meaning. We already live in the Cartesian space; our village is no longer the center of the universe,” said Mitar.
“What exactly is the problem with them? Local versus global, or is it something else?”
“Both the SOC and the governing party obstruct us based on the same reason. They are led by consumerism, the citizens’ consumption of their information, which may or may not be true, but certainly is tailored to their advantage. Suppose you tell people to give up pink television programs and push them to unknown ground. In that case, the party is at a loss because it no longer has the mouths they used to feed. And they are necessary for their survival. You already know that neoempirism bases itself on encountering as many experiences as possible. People with diverse interests in their lives have multiple forking paths and thus many parallel universes behind themselves. On the other hand, for ordinary people who are not overly interested in the world around them, the number of their universes is considerably smaller. In the future, the total sum of the universes will crystalize, and those people who have more will prevail. At that point, the human race will enter the new evolutionary phase. Having that in mind, how can the party approve when we push people to go outside of their comfort zones, towards the unknown, those new experiences?”
“They should work on a better experience of themselves,” said Nemanja. He tried to imagine what kind of reconstruction of the church and the state was necessary for it to happen, and he didn’t know whether to laugh or get even more irked.
“This would require parting with the inherited values. And tradition is what they based their values on. Ancient myths of Heavenly people and bad political decisions.”
Nemanja took out his e-cigarette, a habit Mitar disapproved of.
“Not in the car, please.”
Nemanja returned the package in his pocket. “I guess they will, at some point, redefine the notion of tradition.”
Mitar laughed. “It seems to me that redefining things is becoming a trend,” he said, getting out of the car.
Neon advertising of a travel agency, scarcely visible, went out. That sudden cessation of a previously imperceptible state made Nemanja look. On the windows, a digital display presented various adventures: a smiling man jumping with a parachute; a young woman with joy on her face losing herself in the labyrinth of beautiful Chinese book store architecture; one elderly woman flying in a balloon towards Cappadocia’s sunset, and then the lights inside the travel agency went out. End of working hours.
“Doesn’t it seem to you that empiricism is starting to look quite like consumerism? You can find experiences being sold on every step nowadays, and people buy these contents en masse.”
“Nor did consumerism pose a problem until it spiraled out of control and began to dictate our lives. The crucial difference is in the approach and moderation, and that is what we always emphasize.”
To Nemanja that we sounded like “we” the corporation, or “we” the religious ones. The Greek choir in the tragedy that’s written in Cyrillic.
“And what about the substance, how is the analysis progressing? Do you give it only to members or to others to whom your idea of evolution is not so close?” Nemanja asked.
“The plan is for several test groups use different versions of the substance. We enter observations into software and based on its algorithm and my conclusions, I suggest changes. It’s too early to know where we’re at, but the first two versions made participants too susceptible to information, and since passive acceptance is not our goal, we’ve continued to experiment with the dosages. We’ll see how this new batch turns out, given the incident.”
Nemanja thought about the incident assuming that he’d hear the outcome on the news. He wondered if the police would knock on his door, and he weighed his options if it came to that.
The guy they went to was in the animal printing business. His holo ads were all over the city: “Your favorite pet for a week”. Consciousness algorithms were not yet available in the required form.
Branko, a man in his late fifties, dressed in a summer suit perhaps too modern in cut, welcomed them in the lobby of the two-story building that was his printing house as well as a pet shop. Everything was in light and pastel colors with numerous animal holos. The business was thriving.
“As I mentioned, we need clean printing.” They shook hands.
“What kind of print do you need?” Branko asked.
“Liquid,” said Nemanja.
“Then let’s go down to the basement.”
“How did you get ahold of a clean printer?” Mitar asked.
“I’ve got a printer farm because of my line of work. All the ones we use are properly registered, but some I run as broken or still unpacked, so I rotate them. Of course, I clean them every time.”
“How did you get the license for the farm?” Mitar thought about the chain of problems they had to go through to get the one they had.
“I know the right people.” He smiled without going into the details.
Branko took them to an office with three unpacked printers. Or they just seemed that way until he removed the mask and the box from one and switched it on. Nemanja connected to it via tablet, checked the file with the changes they had made, and pushed it to print. A hundred milliliters in a bottle got printed quickly. Mitar found it surprising how much faster the machine was than theirs. Nemanja brought his ring closer to Branko’s and completed the encrypted money transaction. For getting rid of the evidence of Mitar’s involvement, he’d be generously paid.
On their way out, the sound of gentle meows and barks followed them.
“Doctors are tuning them for the owners. Nowadays, nobody seems to like the real animal sounds; they say they're too loud.” Branko shook his head. “Their money.”
Nemanja thought how it would sound if his cat’s meow got pleasantly tuned. He imagined boring meowing and replaced it with the new and melodic one. The idea disgusted him. Branko gave them promotional flyers and flashed them with his whitened teeth in a broad smile instead of a goodbye. He glanced after them on the street; there didn’t appear to be any suspicious vehicles or faces.
“Are you hungry?” Mitar asked.
“Nope, my fuels are coffee and cigarettes,” Nemanja said, escorting Mitar to the car. “Here, we diverge.”
“Thank you for everything.” Mitar executed the agreed transaction, and they went their separate ways.
Passing by the president’s holo, in which he pointed to the upcoming elections with a tense expression, Nemanja hoped there would be more opportunities to work for Mitar. That the neoempiric global influence would be stronger than the local political hooligans and the church. It would be a shame to lose such a customer.
Nemanja’s place wasn’t far away, so he walked through the playgrounds and the buildings’ parking lots. He received a notification regarding the gig he completed that morning. The customer was thrilled and already had some new ideas for additional collaboration. Nemanja didn’t reply. He hooked to the channel that streamed his camera inside his building and rewound it. Almost an hour ago, Marko had left for his job, carrying a big bag with stage clothes and equipment. Nemanja noticed orange feathers and something phallus-shaped sticking out. So, he’d already gone to the Nine.
Approaching his building’s parking, Nemanja noticed a fancy, dark sedan on the street with the lights on. Nemanja stopped, returning to a deeper shadow of the passage between the building entrances. The store was lower down the road, so the car hadn’t stopped for it, and there wasn’t any turn nearby. Nemanja entered the closest building, took out his tablet, and checked his security cameras: two more dark sedans and several guys in black suits were approaching the entrance of his building. Shit, shit, shit.
He accessed his home network and severed all the connections between his home servers and the clouds. Cut all API calls they could have used to hack him and destroyed all the evidence of his work. However, they could find the cameras he installed inside the building and the new chips, which could get him three to five years for the invasion of privacy and illegal technology. Also, they would have his genetic material.
It was clear this was most likely Sinisa’s crew. Nemanja threw his head back and closed his eyes for a second. His movements were hesitant. A wish to recheck cameras grew strongly, but he burned the call to their channels. Nemanja turned back and, carefully avoiding his building, went three streets above it. There was a hairdresser, hopefully for men.
“Good evening, are you open?” The place was empty.
“Yes, until nine.”
“Could you do a clipper cut very short, one length all over?”
“Of course, please take a seat.”
A polite barber with a neat mustache showed him to one of three available chairs in the shop. During the process, Nemanja felt the barber’s stomach touching his shoulders a few times. He found it bothersome, so he wiggled, not knowing why he focused on that detail alone.
He loved his longer hairstyle, and it’d been a while he’d let it grow that way, always taking care of it with expensive hair products. Now he looked at it being mowed off, falling on the black and white tile floor, with great annoyance. And those tiles, as if he were in some Lynchian movie. Are all black and white tiles always the same dimensions? Probably not, but he’d never seen them in different ones. The figure in the mirror looked less and less like him, and in the end, he liked that. Not to mention it was practical. He used his tablet to move all the money he had in local banks to a different online account outside of the country. His reflection looked strange to himself. He even seemed skinnier but in a model kind of way. Nemanja moved his head left and then right, looking at his cheeks, eyebrows, and eyes. Now he looked like an Ivan.
“Thanks. How much?”
“One thousand dinars.”
“Here you go. All the best.”
Nemanja could breathe a bit easier now. He couldn’t complain much as he’d expected this to happen sooner or later, getting caught. He considered going to the place where his backup stuff was, but he felt lazy. Tomorrow would be okay too. Walking down the dimly lit street, he checked his looks in the windows to confirm how much he didn’t look like himself. The question of identity emerged at the wrong time. He looked through the latest news to see if his public crucifixion had started and if anything was out yet about Mitar’s case. So far, online silence. They probably weighed the options; not even the main players were sure of the strength of political decisions. Nemanja hoped that the European neoempiric movement would step in so the local hooligans couldn’t make a big fuss out of it.
The Festival was not far away, and he didn’t mind walking there. After the gentrification had happened, he liked living in that neighborhood. Perhaps these last two years were the longest that he stayed in one place. The art and clubbing scenes had developed surprisingly well. Besides the clubs, he regularly visited various exhibitions and some lectures, the latter he preferred following online while working. Nemanja felt the notification vibration. An old client, a new gig. He pondered whether to take it now or wait for the chase-after-him outcome and postponed the action for later.
Walking on a dusty trail between bushes in the dark, a flash of light from the nearest stage, made him blink. As he approached, the music became louder and louder, and vibrations in the ground gently caressed his feet, almost as gently as the sound of minimal techno coming from the stage. A woman dressed as a Chinese lady from the beginning of the XX century lightly stroked him on the face with her big red fan. Nemanja felt the roughness of its fabric and joyfully leaned his head back, smiling at her. Further on, he passed by two girls and a guy dressed in cat’s costumes with swaying tails; he tried to reach for the one with tiger stripes but failed. Nemanja followed the traces of lights playing on the ground.
“Hi.” A voice near his right ear. “What’s your name?”
“I am far away.”
Nemanja smiled at a guy who came close to his face and licked his ear. He wore steampunk glasses with oversized frames and had beautiful white teeth. Dancing, the guy continued on his imaginary path.
Nemanja walked to the edge of the crowd looking for Marko. He saw many hands in the air, those that cut ether with their fluid motions, and others that let the sound take them everywhere. He approached the drink machine and grabbed a bottle of water.
“Can you get me one too?” A voice asked next to him.
He glanced at the girl in the peacock costume.
“Same as you.”
Nemanja observed how the feathers from her tail tickled the faces in the row behind her. He gave her his bottle and got himself another one.
“Thanks.” She treated him with a smile.
Nemanja felt the shift in sound volume as he went closer to the next stage. He walked next to a group that found everything funny. They pointed their fingers at every color and trailed the air following every sound they became aware of. He approached the art installation made of twisted metal parts that, like the hands in the crowd, aimed upwards. It looked like some mutilated body parts were trying to do something even though they couldn’t. Nemanja wondered if it represented hope or hopelessness. He went to the next art installation presenting three intertwined bodies twisted into bridges. The light from the stage gleamed through its gaps, changing the color from green to blue. He eyed it to the point where it hit the ground, creating various abstract shapes, and wondered if that art made itself.
Nemanja continued to wander around until he finally found Marko on a smaller stage dancing in green leather shorts with the orange feathers from his helmet falling down his back. Stepping in Roman sandals which came up to his knees, he gave a beat that Nemanja followed. Marko’s face reflected the ecstasy of his movements that broke out so naturally. He was where he belonged. Nemanja thought he should find Marko again when he was off the stage. He must somehow get him to take care of Mr. Cat for a little while. Nemanja stayed there a bit longer until new vibrations overwhelmed him.
A new DJ was on the stage he’d come from, and the crowd greeted him enthusiastically. Vigorous screams continued. Nemanja approached, lured with the masses, and discovered the spectacle of the night. A big wooden star was waiting for the drop. As the sound smoothly shifted, it was evident that something big was about to happen. Nemanja took a vial from his pocket and drank its colorless content. It wouldn’t take long until it kicked in. The melody was driving, and when the drop finally came, the star lit up and burned with the significant redness of Marina Abramovic and the collapse of SFRJ. The crowd screamed, enchanted with the powerful beat. Nemanja took his shirt off and, with a blissful smile, walked into the mass of other half-naked bodies entwined in ecstasy. That’s what he needed tonight.