RJ Brewster — 2112
The theater purred. It hummed to itself. It stretched and reclined. It relaxed. Unwound.
RJ and the room let out a slow, long-held breath together, feeling muscles and wires relax, nerves and current disentangle themselves, slowly, slowly.
“Alright, everyone. It’s midnight, time to start packing up,” Johansson was saying from down in the front row. “Ross, we’re short one. Can you start pulling together all of the mics? RJ will help you get them sorted.”
“Mm,” RJ offered through the sound system. Ey was busy putting the theater to bed, and couldn’t spare more than a meager few syllables to the rest of the cast and crew. “Get a headset, Ross, so I don’t have to talk through the speakers.”
Those speakers were signing off, going to bed one by one through RJ’s gentle ministrations. The physical back-up board set about the task of returning to neutral as RJ worked, all of the gain knobs orienting themselves, then all of the monitor knobs, the sliders, the whole system ticking through automated checklists as it cooled down. All minus the channel ey’d need to keep open to Ross.
“Hey boss, got a headset. Where do you want me to start?”
“Grab the leads, first,” RJ murmured. “Then Sarah and Catherine, they’ve got the nice mics. All of them should have a tiny number painted on the costume side that matches up with their box. The boxes are stacked in the pit, by the front wall, you should be able to get them out in one load, though be careful taking them back.”
“Got it, heading down to the pit now.”
RJ left the channel open just in case. The soft sounds of breathing and the occasional curse as Ross bumped his head on the pit cover were distracting while ey set about going through eir notes with the dozy theater. Best be available, though. The next night’s rehearsal was the last before they went live.
Ey knew the show better than most of the cast. Em and the theater. The two had to learn everyone’s lines, plus a few cues besides when they’d have to take care not to pick up any of the sound effects. Gunshots. Chairs scraping. A scuffle. The clap of heels on the matte black of the stage itself.
The theater’s job was to simply work with RJ and the lighting crew, responding to their knowledge of what was going on in the play, while RJ and Caitlin’s job, as sound and lights respectively, was to respond to the stage manager’s encyclopedic knowledge of the play, her view of the house.
All sound was under RJ’s jurisdiction. Cast and crew both: ey spent as much time managing communication between the hands, the manager, and emself and Caitlin as ey did maintaining the sound from the performers. Private jokes kept on the down-low.
They had to be ghosts in this. Even the theater.
Their jobs were ones that should be invisible to the audience, because it would only become visible if they fucked up. No one wanted to fuck up. Even the theater seemed to feel a sense of pride in doing its job and doing it well.
RJ soothed the room with gentle cooing and reluctantly started the process of pulling back. Ey closed the channel with Ross and put all of the headsets to bed last of all, before ey slipped back from the interface. Felt for that cool breeze of reality on the back of eir neck — or whatever passed for a neck so immersed — and backed out. Blinked as ey adjusted to seeing the cavernous hall with eir own eyes. Lifted eir fingers slipped from the contact points and leaned back from the headrest.
Ey shook eir head to clear it and stood, stretching, before ambling from the tech booth down the stairs towards the stage. Letting gravity carry eir lanky form down two steps at a time. Breeze against eir face. The treble note of dust and conditioned air only added to the newborn feeling of pulling back.
Ross was in the front row, standing still and staring at the floor, muttering agitated questions into the headset.
“Hey Ross, I’m here. The house is sleeping now.”
Ross jumped, then looked embarrassed as he tugged the headset off his head. “Sorry, was wondering where you’d gone. I just heard a beep.”
“Yep, signing off from above. Did you get all the mics gathered up?”
“Oh! Yeah, that’s what I was trying to tell you. I wasn’t sure what to do next.”
It only took a few minutes for RJ and Ross to get the last of the sound gear settled. Headsets from all of the hands socketed into numbered chargers on the wall. Everything would sleep tight until the next night on sound’s end.
Caitlin and Sarai, the stage manager, joined them with the rest of the crew. They sat on the edge of the pit cover, unwinding from the tenseness of rehearsal. The actors were slow got out of their half-costume and clump together on the stage.
“Gather ‘round, children”, a voice boomed from out in the darkened audience.
“Yes, Mister Johansson,” one of the actors singsonged back. Tired laughter.
“Good job, I think we’re there. Still, a bit more polish never hurts. No flubbed lines, and mostly relaxed, but Sarah, you gotta loosen up. It’s not Shakespeare, you can chill out. Crew, you guys got a little sluggish toward the end. I know it’s late, but so are our shows. Don’t work yourselves too hard, but keep on top of things, okay?”
RJ, Sarai, and Caitlin nodded their assent.
“Tomorrow night, back here at four.”
“Early,” RJ murmured. “How come?”
Johansson grinned. “There’s a school production that winds up around then and I want you all back here to make sure we still have a theater.”
There was a bit more grumbling, but RJ knew they’d be there on time. It wasn’t too much of a stretch. Those with second jobs would make it.
“Back to base, then. Get some rest tonight, and I’ll catch you all tomorrow. Remember, you can drink tonight, but tomorrow night, Das ist streng verboten.”
The troupe laughed and started to disperse, the tech leads lingering on the pit cover for a little while longer as they reoriented themselves to the real world. A world bound by spatial constraints, limited by two eyes, two ears, two hands.
Eventually, RJ made eir way out onto the chill of the street, pulling on eir thin waterproof gloves to keep the contacts on the middle joints of eir fingers clean and dry.
Midnight on a weekday, and not much going on. People visiting the pubs to catch up with their friends after work. Black cabs, night buses.
The idea of a warm pub and one quick pint before heading home tugged at em, but the pull of home was much stronger than that of beer. There would be a pub of a different sort waiting for em.
Ey trudged instead up to Oxford Circus. Central line up to Benthal Green, walk the few blocks from there to eir flat. Stopped to pick up a take-away carton of curry and rice from one of the more trustworthy shops along the way.
Once home, ey slipped out of eir jacket and welcomed the warmth of eir little flat after the damp chill of London outside. Eir cat trotted up to em, twining around eir ankles. A little ginger thing of a few years that ey had rescued from a friend who was moving deeper into the city. She was the only one to share eir space with em after eir last flatmate had left for somewhere cheaper.
“Hey Prisca, let me put my shit down before I get you food.”
A meow, indignant, followed em to the kitchen.
Ey set eir take-away on the counter and scooped a cup of dry food into a fresh dish, setting it on the tile for the delicate cat. Indignant meows replaced by purring and crunching.
Ey thumbed eir phone to start music playing. Some of the stuff that reminded em of eir dad to go along with the curry that reminded em of eir mom. Quiet, but present.
Dinner was no more or less exciting than usual. RJ ate alone at the kitchen table with the carton spread out before em, baring orange curry and the soggy samosa that had come with it. Ey left eir gloves on just to be sure. No sense in having to clean eir contacts more than ey’d already need to after a long rehearsal.
Ey finished, scooped the last of the curry into a plastic container for the next day’s lunch, promising emself that ey’d cook an additional pot of rice before heading out in the afternoon so ey’d have more calories to keep emself running. Clean up as easy as tossing the container into the compost bin along with all of the others. Cooking much more than rice was for times other than crunch.
The rig in the corner of eir bedroom was exerting subtle gravities on RJ. As ey ran through the motions of the post-recital evening — eating, cleaning, storing leftovers, using the toilet — eir orbits grew smaller and smaller. Eir gloves were itching. Ey could feel phantom breezes brushing past phantom fur.
Phantom fur. Phantom ears. Phantom tail. Phantom realities teased around the edges of eir perception.
Ey finally allowed emself to sit down at eir rig, relaxing into the familiar curves of the chair. Even with the draw so close to em, ey took eir time. Ey picked up Priscilla and stroked her smoothly from ears to tail a few times until she started purring up a storm, informing her that, in fact, she was the prettiest kitty.
Peel your gloves off one finger at a time, ey thought. Relish the anticipation. Get caught up in it. Hell, let it linger.
Cat settled into eir lap and curled into a small crescent, ey set about cleaning the contacts on eir hands with lint-free paper and rubbing alcohol. Those done, ey wiped down the headset, removing the negligible residue of sweat and skin oils that had collected there. Clean enough as is. Ey had recently replaced the soft, padded headrest where eir forehead would lay.
Eir gear at home was more elaborate than the stuff in the tech booth at work ey shared with Sarai and Caitlin, Ey had drained eir savings to acquire it. The rig, as well as the contacts on eir fingers, the interferites — nanoscale implants that took over eir optic and auditory nerves, and the electroparalytics to keep em from acting out in reality what took place online — the NFC connections implanted just under eir hairline and their ramifying tendrils, all of that painful work down eir spine that helped em more fully experience the connection.
All worth it.
Connections and gear cleaned, RJ finally felt complete enough to pop open the lid on eir rig. The screen, all but vestigial when ey was inside, still served its role during boot and login.
Ey quickly keyed in eir passphrase and then rested eir right hand on the curved pad, fingers finding familiar grooves that held eir hand in place. The connection from eir contacts the other half of eir two factors of authentication.
“Gonna head in, Prisca,” ey murmured to eir cat, stroking over her ears, fingering the soft, velveteen folds until the cat shook her head away. Purrs nonetheless ratcheted up a notch. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
Ey set eir left hand into its cradle. Tilting eir head against the headrest, feeling the comforting touch of cool microfiber and the little twinge of recognition from the NFC controllers, ey nudged the button beneath eir thumb.
The rig went immersive. As RJ delved in, the soft hum of a cooling fan picked up to handle the waste heat of countless computations.
Ey could no longer hear it.
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