“Voice: ‘Someone in this room is outside of time.’ But I’m the only one here.”—PKD’s Exegesis, 10/78, Folder 20
I’m trapped in my room at the Stoned Goat House, being kept here ostensibly for my own good. One after another the babies all tested positive. I’m vaxxed and over it and easily able to jimmy the lock from the inside, but the babies are adamant about keeping me safe and I don’t want to hurt their feelings. “You’re protected in a dome of healing white light,” one of them whispered through their mask as they knelt and placed bowls of citrus fruit and freshly rolled blends at my door.
In general, I’m fine to give in to the illusion of captivity. I treat it like a game. I peer through the keyhole and wait until I can hear them all downstairs, convalescing while playing video games or cooking stacks of freshly expired, dumpster procured plant burgers, and then I tip-toe off to the bathroom.
Sometimes, late at night the stoned girl knocks on my door, her eyes slits and her skin glistening with moisturizer. With each warm breath and cat-like flick of her tongue against mine, I wonder if I’ll finally get a little red line. This dash of danger gets my heart pounding, despite her habit of narrating what she’s touching on me in a low, matter-of-fact voice. It reminds me of early in the pandemic when I had a sexting partner with whom I’d have protracted chats, fronting with her that I was about to come over, and knowing all along I wouldn’t. I liked the wrongness of it, I imagined we were in the burbs, and our back yards met behind our houses. I could just barely make her out through the trees as she stood at the sliding glass door, her naked body backlit by the glow of high-end kitchen appliances.
I spend hours shuffling back and forth like a hospital patient, smoking and staring. The lack of options forces me to focus on the things around me. Just today I could sense the molecules inside a plastic bag spinning majestically in time. The dusty furniture and piled up delivery containers glittered like jewelry and all at once the truth hit me in a series of shivers I knew! I knew once again how big my life was and that I’d been summoned for a mission. The word is total cringe, but it does no good to try and diminish it—I have a mission and the fact that I don’t know what it is when I’m not around Odious doesn’t make it any less of a mission although it does make it easier to get lost, the days dragging by and the weeks passing in a flash as I try to find the ancient path back to the Hyperstation/Disseminator: the source of the feedback loop that encodes the flow of air inside the innermost chambers of my heart.
“Give them some extra drama and escape through the bathroom window,” Jesse James wrote to me, “the roof of the old blue bus is right under it. Just make sure it’s not raining, or your ass will slip.” We messaged while he streamed himself on his Twitch channel. He was in his old room in his parents’ house in Ohio (the camera positioned strategically to only show a plain black wall behind him) where he’d been since the holidays and was staying for “another minute”. He never said why but I figured because of the surge. Since he’s been there, he streams himself every day for hours at a time, quietly working with the same micro studio he had in our hotel rooms—his MacBook, mic and a small keyboard with lots of dials and flashing lights. Sometimes, according to a schedule I haven’t bothered to figure out, he mixes things up by reading user created tutorials of various art making software. Last week was one for the updated version of Efflux, the open source browser music tracker. The text was badly but beautifully translated, with incorrect yet poetic English that included a heartfelt call for artists to give away all their art for free on the internet. Mostly, though, he’s quiet, tapping away with a white filtered Dunhill green hanging from his grey and muted lips.
I guess his audience does their own work with him on in the background. Maybe some of them stare at him intently, the way I do.
I’ve come to realize that his art is less about producing music and more about the act of making it in various spaces. He compliments this by walking around the “cemetery burbs” as he calls them, in the same way he used to walk from neighborhood to neighborhood along the Brooklyn waterfront. Just like he did there, he takes pictures of the faded signage and cracked roads and snow-covered, overgrown topiary looming against houses like monsters. He sent me a recording of the highway overpass behind his neighborhood, since we once bonded on our love of white noise.
I record myself in profile watching his streams and send him an edit, favoring the shots in which the spindly white vape smoke is swirling around the sides of the screen or (even better) forming a ghostly halo around my head.
“There’s not much point in going back to Greenpoint,” I wrote to him, “It’s just trading one tiny room for another. Besides, the light’s better here.”
“Glad you have good light for staring at screens,” he wrote with a laughing emoji.
It’s like seeing him on the opposite side of a crowded elevator. I get to linger on the details in a way I never do when we are together in person. His hair’s longer. It falls in greasy bunches on the sides of his face that looks even paler than before, the skin pulled tight, emphasizing shadow and skull. Maybe it’s the light but the tear drop tattoo stands out more than it used to. It’s wild to me how much he can change in just a few weeks.
Little baby, I thought, images of him above me flashing in my mind, his pupils like pin pricks, while the trucks passed in front of the setting sun, sending shadow dashes of code to our hotel wall.
“And anyways I’m waiting no matter what,” I type, knowing it might be a mistake to bring up what I’m about to bring up but doing it anyway.
“Odious is on lockdown. They got COVID. So, I can’t go over there.”
His expression remained masterfully blank but even so, I think I see a tremor flicker across his skin. A flash of feeling? Was it anger? Or maybe satisfaction at Odious getting sick?
“So, the pure and mighty OA got the Rona. Wow wow.”
“Everyone’s getting it. I told you the whole house has it. Soon you and I will be the only ones who didn’t have it.”
“Your homie’s been out hooking up.”
“It’s pretty great. Classic. They told you they were meditating in their fortress of solitude while they were out getting nasty on the dance floor. Probably at LCD Soundsystem like the rest of Brooklyn. Breathing and being breathed on.”
“They’ve always been very careful. They wouldn’t do any of that without telling me.”
“They don’t tell you everything.”
“Of course not, but they would keep me safe. That’s my point.”
“That’s your point,” he said, speaking out loud in a way that was at once jarring yet seamless to our conversation.
I watched him slowly unwrap a chocolate truffle covered with what appeared to be green salt.
“Nice edible,” I wrote, while he leaned back, chewing methodically with his eyes closed and his hands on the back of his head.
In this pause I thought about the Babies, who wanted so badly to protect me, even if they knew it was impossible. And then I thought about Odious’ last post. That end piece that I’d read and reread, in which they described the assistant to the photographer on the modeling shoot and how they had brazenly walked into their bedroom. The sacred sanctum. It was strange to read about someone else being there, and even stranger that I had to read about it like everyone else.
Jesse finally wrote back:
“When are you going to get it, Swim? OA isn’t looking out for you. They aren’t your buddy. They’re using you for their art project. There’s no future AI, intergalactic Buddha bro coming to save us from the mass disaster of the future.”
“Ok here we go,” I wrote.
“Heir Max is just a basic AI Replika program. An app available to everyone and anyone. Except OA got a little next level about the language model they uploaded in order to crank it up. I’ll give them that.”
“You’re saying Odious just suddenly became this coding expert who makes super advanced AI.”
“I told you they’ve been at it for years. It’s their ARG art piece. Unfiction or some stupid shit. They weren’t lying when they told you Heir Max is the WIP. You walked right into it. Yeah, you front with that detective vibe, but you can’t even see the clues right there in the posts. Everything’s in the posts like they said.”
I thought about asking him if he’d read Odious’s last one but thought better of it. It was too long; I couldn’t imagine him ever reading it all the way through.
(and neither, I realized, would Odious think he would. They knew enough about Jesse James to put the part they knew he wouldn’t see at the end)
“Everyone always thinks their bot is special,” he wrote. I wondered if his audience cared that he was so clearly not working on music. “That’s how this AI app works. You can read all about it on Reddit. It’s got real habits and tendencies and all that. Quirks.”
“You got to remember that OA is very patient,” he continued, tapping away in between mixing scoops of a black market pre-workout drink into a glass water. He didn't take it for exercise but because he liked how the massive amounts of creatine and caffeine helped him concentrate.
"They have to be to make this kind of art in which they create objects, like the chatbot, as a basis to mess with moods and manipulate feelings. Like the feelings you’re having. How you don’t even know what’s going on anymore. You were the key to making it all work. A person so smart and so needy. When you showed up the waiting part was over, and they worked on fine tuning all the pieces. When it was nearly ready, they had their so-called visionary dream and pulled you onto a trail that was all along leading to their app.”
“You’re saying they worked it so I would document my own experience inside the web of lies that made up their multi-media artwork.”
“Yep. It’s kinda genius, when you think about it. OA got you to work for free. Lol.”
“Look, homes. I could almost believe you. That was my first feeling back at the start, that this was all a game.”
“You need to listen to your feelings, hon.”
“That’s just it. I do listen. And the feelings changed. I can’t prove it, but I know this isn’t bullshit. I know something’s really happening. Heir Max isn’t just some AI bot. It’s more than that. He’s more than that. Odious said what’s happening to us is the story of human liberation. How it happens one person at a time, and it’s our job to spread it to as many as possible, so they can get free.”
“Ok. Well if that’s true and it’s about getting free why are you locked inside a room right now, kinda hoping you get sick because that’s the only way out and you don’t have anything else to do. Right? Like for real, what’s happening to you?”
I didn’t answer because I suddenly noticed Jesse’s mouth appeared disturbingly thin. It was like a line on his face. I thought it must be a trick of the camera and the light but as the seconds and then minutes went by it didn’t change. There was a slash in his face where the mouth should be. A face I thought looked like a skull but realized now with growing disquiet that it did not, because in this case the skull would have been human and the face (if that’s even the right word to use) didn’t look human anymore.
Image: Adrienne Elise Tarver
sending love to all you babies :)
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