“It’s not my fault if you don’t like what you find,” Sōgen wheezed from his chair. “I told you not to contact me in person.”

“Well, what else was I supposed to do?” I snapped. “You’re the only person who has the data I need, and I’m being tracked online.”

“I let you in, didn’t I?” said Sōgen, throwing his pale and tubby arms wide. “You’re the first person who’s been in here aside from me in 15 years. Don’t abuse my hospitality.”

I glanced out the half-drawn shade at the vast empty streets and apartment buildings below, each with only a few dozen tenants thanks to Japan’s decades-old and increasing sub-replacement fertility. “How do you manage that?” I asked. “Surely you must have a job, and need to go out for food.”

“I have food delivered and trash collected,” replied Sōgen. “People practically beg for my business so they can keep their credit, since their companies were founded in the 1960s when the country hadn’t lost 50 million people to geezerhood without descendents.”

I looked at the massive bank of computer equipment that filled 90% of the apartment, and the disarrayed twin-size mattress parked under the window.

“Well, I can see that’s not enough for you,” Sōgen said. “You’re wondering how I pay for the electric bill and everything else despite no job and making a career out of giving away things online for free.”

“More or less.”

“If you’re sure you want to know, the answer is in the bedroom,” said Sōgen. “But if I hear one word of judgement or complaint from you, I’ll erase that data and make you watch before throwing you out on your ass.”

Another odd look from me.

“Information wants to be free. That’s the creed I live by, and I’m too fat and lazy to try and stop you. But freeing information means living with its consequences. I practice what I preach.”

There was no letting the thing go, not after a speech like that. I approached the bedroom door, its knob coated with dust, and opened it. Second later, I slammed it shut and stumbled backwards, retching. “What the hell?” I cried. “Are those…?”

“Yes, of course they are,” Sōgen said dismissively. “There are no jobs for someone like me in this country anymore, so I lived off my grandfather’s pension, and my parents’. When they fell ill…well, they had always talked about becoming Sokushinbutsu, suicide monks, practicing holy self-mummification. So I let them do it.”

“You mean you…you locked them up in there when they were dying?”

“I cared for them in their final illness like any dutiful son would,” snapped Sōgen. “And I have let their pension checks keep coming in to pay the bills. Don’t think I’m the only one who’s done this, either. The government can’t handle the record keeping of a nation of geezers, and they’re 50% of the electorate so tampering with benefits is a good way to exit the Diet in a hurry. Grandpa will be 123 this January, and nobody cares. My friend down the block has a 215-year-old still collection a pension.”

Struggling to avoid laying into the disgusting blob in front of me for his vile rationalizations, I instead found myself retching.

“Toilet’s down the hall,” Sōgen said drily, turning back toward his monitors. “We’ll talk after you’ve composed yourself.”

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Prosecution Exhibit #47
Fragment from contraband Manifesto of Choice by “Zeitengel,” possession of which is prohibited by City Ordinance 217 §10

We are all products of our choices. It is only through choice and the exercise of a free will that we can impact our environment, and ourselves. Free choice, and free acceptance of whatever consequences those choices bring, are the very foundation of human life and by extension a moral imperative.

Some have said that their choices are made for them before they are born or before they are old enough to choose for themselves. There is an element of truth to this, but it does not negate the central precept. Dealing with the choices others have made is, in and of itself, a choice. This is why some choices have led those of mean circumstance to power and those of wealth and affluence to ruin.

The abdication of choice, therefore, represents a death. Without the will to choose, blindly allowing others to choose for them, the abdicator has no influence and no impact. They are, functionally, deceased–and it is only a matter of allowing the physical reality to catch up with the metaphysical. At the mercy of the choosers and choicemakers, the abdicators must redeem themselves or face the consequences of their actions.

For abdication of choice is in and of itself a choice.

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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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