I was thrust into a back room, illuminated only by a single overhead bulb. I think Œ sat casually slouched on a folding chair directly beneath it; I’m not sure because the figure there was clad in baggy cargo jeans, an oversized hoodie, a ragged baseball cap, big dark Ray-Bans, and a drawn bandana with a skeletal grin printed on it. It was impossible to tell their age, gender, or anything else about them, other than the fact that some kind of flesh filled those tattered raiments.

“A little theatrical, don’t you think?” I said. One of the others, dressed similarly to Œ, set out a folded chair for me and I took a seat. “If you really wanted to be anonymous we could have talked more on the phone.”

“But you want theatricality, Mr. Cummings,” Œ said. Their voice was distorted by one of those vox boxes you sometimes hear in cheap horror movies, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disconcerted by it. “You’re enough of a narcissist that you have to see your little investigation as a titanic struggle between you, the hero, and us, the blackest evil. If I were sitting here, ordinary and unmasked, you’d be devastated.”

I stung a little from that observation. “I just want the truth. What is this ‘Project’ you’re working on, and how do all these little bits and pieces fit together?”

“The truth?” Œ’s laughter was modified into an ominous chuckle. “It’s never been about the truth. It’s been you tilting at windmills from the start, sacrificing what little journalistic integrity you had for the sake of bad puns. The fact that you can’t see the bigger picture is indicative of your failings as a person: petty, narcissistic, lazy, with a latent but distinct fascist bent.”

Who was that rag-clad hobo to call me all that? I was trembling by now, the way I always do during any kind of a confrontation. “If you wanted to insult me you could have just sent a letter to the editor. Now either give me something about your ‘Project’ or crawl back into whatever hole you came out of and go back to sharpening your hammer and sickle.”

Œ laughed again. “The Project is the perfect small-scale experiment. What is a university but an ironclad despotism, with a vast disenfranchised population at the whims of a privileged few, just like any other system? Those people have the power to be awakened and moved to action. That’s what we’re doing, and it’s just the start.”

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