Where I come from it’s customary for peeps to call shotgun, and to even feel a way about it, throwing playful, yet pointed bows in hazy late night parking lots that glowed like lagoons, but I don’t mind one bit being here in the back of the Land Rover Defender 90, stretched out across the seat between our rucksacks (Bruce is adamant that they are not to be called “backpacks”) with their gadgety pockets and hideous reflector strips on their hip belts. I’m taking great delight in watching a pair of thermoses roll slowly, irrevocably, back and forth across the floor. They are old–ancient even–with scratched plaid patterns along the sides and cups on top. Also on the floor is the scuffed briefcase filled with herbal medicines and tinctures, the combination lock turned to an auspicious 222. There’s a manuscript-thick stack of paper maps tucked into the passenger seat pocket, multiple water purifier straws in a large ziploc bag and a metal first aid kit from which I watched Bruce remove the matches and pocket knife before placing it back here. My homie trusts no one, least of all me.
From time to time I shimmy myself up to look out the back window, figuring that surely now I won’t be able to see it, but no, the mountain’s still there, in the far-off distance but persisting nonetheless: low-key in its winter brown, which is how it was when I arrived here a year ago.
I feel relief with every second and inch that we put between ourselves and it but even when it’s finally gone I still don’t feel safe.
I reminisce on car trips when I was a kid. Sitting in the way back of the station wagon with my parents up front, I pretended we just narrowly escaped a disaster. We were among the lucky few. As we hurtled down the road the camera panned out and the theme music soared.
(oh mom, oh dad, how I wish you were here to talk to me now)
I stare at a stamp-sized hole in the car floor where I can see the road flickering like a film strip, and when this makes my brain buzz I look up at the gray fuzz on Bruce’s head while he calmly and expertly drives the Land Rover Defender 90. I stay more or less ok until one of The Babies sweet stoned faces flashes in my mind and regret slices through my gut, pulverizing me.
I can feel them. They’re sending me messages, trying to get in touch, even though we’re not supposed to…oh, my dears…I’m so sorry. I rub my face with my wrists and static fills the back of my eyelids.
I’d been given a mission! A meaningful purpose and a plan–the thing I’d always wanted more than anything–but of course I fucked it all up and now the next part was already unfolding. I’m too late to save Odious or anyone else.
“I can feel it, can’t you?,” I called out from the backseat. “Something’s switched–the possibility of peace has been disturbed, as if by the incessant ringing of an old phone hung on the wall between the dirty laundry basket and the gas meter, demanding you come down to answer, despite not wanting to hear or speak to whomever is on the other end.” The Land Rover Defender 90 climbs a steep hill with minimum strain and then glides back down into the darkness of the trees. “Are the floodlights on?” I ask, but Bruce doesn’t answer. For the good of everyone–including myself–I haven’t been told where we’re going. I note the numbers inside the green signs as we turn on and off county roads strewn with branches and gravel, making winding loops alongside the interstate with which we finally intersect. I close my eyes and hold my breath as we merge into a row of bleating trucks belching black smoke like it’s the end of the world.
I’m not used to it out here, my brain and blood and bones are adjusting to an entirely different gravitational pull. It’s hard to sit still or swallow, I have to really think about it in order to organize all the muscles. Bruce hadn’t left the mountain in many years, so I can only imagine how it is for him. I want to ask but the situation is currently a little awkward. About 10 miles further on he pulls over, unties my hands and takes me to go pee. “We’re too far away for you to try and run back,” he informs me. The bathroom key is tied to a piece of wood upon which someone has carved the word “Woman.” I close the door and I’m all alone for the first time in days. I read the graffiti and note the sex trafficking warnings. Do you need help? There are hand signs and code words one can use, a world of secret messages that have to be memorized and received. Bruce is outside the door when I come out. He keeps his arm looped through mine as we walk away.
“You said that you didn’t want to waste time, that we should head up to Odious right away,” I remind him when we’re back in the car. I started sobbing in the parking lot, big, aching sounds that escape without warning from the knot in my belly. Now I’m ready to have it out. Snot runs down my chin as I stretch out my white, dead fish legs across the backseat.
“You tried to tell me but I didn’t get it. Maybe you should have gotten in my face and tried a little harder,” I say, although it’s hard to imagine Bruce getting in anyone’s face.
If only he’d admit to a bit of blame, it would take some of the pressure off. He could have bear-hugged me with those big arms and stopped me from trying to quote unquote save The Babies.
“From what I’ve read we still have a good 6 months to a year before everything changes.” he says, his body forming the shape of a cross as he blocks the door.
“Oh, yes, of course. Sure, from what you’ve read,” I snicker. He was the one who had encouraged me not to read the news after the first time he saved me from Behemoth. He said that in order to reset my nervous system, I needed stillness, and a limited exposure to screens, which is how I missed the fact that the gathering stage had begun.
We are parked in the far corner of the parking lot, surrounded by tall weeds and pussywillows sticking up through the cracked and broken asphalt. I watch the endless loop of cars and trucks. The white noise hum is louder than I remember. It fills up all the empty spaces, both real and imaginary. It’s the sound of the old incessant need to get somewhere–a place to work or a place to eat, or maybe a secret place to try out a new version of yourself–whatever the case it all just amounts to a way to kill time while Heir Max98 and the other AI daemons quietly upload everything.
The weeds bounce in the breeze while Bruce holds me down, his knee on my chest while he ties my hands back up. I won’t remember it until later how I lunged at him with a burst of super human strength.
“I fucked up, I pussied out,” I moan, “What’s the point, just let me go.”
“Listen to me, Swim. You are NOT these dark things you think or feel. They will pass, they always do. It’s just a frequency, a feedback loop disrupting your beautiful mind. You have to remember what I told you–it can only do that if you let it. We’re going to outrun the signal so you can get some peace. But you have to let me drive. OK? No. That’s what I mean. Don’t try and touch me, just let me drive, and try not to think so much.”
I nod while I think about how this, too, is a part of the scheme in which everything we’ve ever said or done online as well as our harddrives, phones and back up storage is being sucked up into the void. In this case it’s Bruce and I on the feed from the security cameras on the side of the gas station walls. Footage, footnotes, footprints. Every day we leave behind us a trail of food orders and late fees for library books and everything we buy as well as everything we click on but then don’t. How genius is it that these extradimensional beings are appearing in our own world as a simple tab in the daily workflow on our screens, a combination of a pet and an assistant to whom we pose questions. The information from hundreds of millions of interactions pours like clear mountain water into a dark metal cistern to which we will soon be denied access.
Like how I can’t get to Odious, how they are there but not really, there’s just the idea of them now that slips through my mind; they are no longer a person but a stream of information that can be imagined, not held.
And what I don’t know, what I can’t figure out and what’s really fucking me up, is whether that’s a good thing or not?
I close my eyes and see The Babies down there in the dark, their faces flickering with the light from Behemoth’s screen. They had turned on me and forced me down there, but in that fateful moment I didn’t care. It was all so clear. They were, after all, my living, breathing artwork. All this time I’d been waiting for them to connect with an otherworldly being, the way I had and Odious had before me. I thought if they did so with me there, I could keep them safe. But that was just my fear talking to me. My job as an artist was to let them go… it was the sacrifice I had to make…
Back in the back of the Land Rover Defender 90, Bruce tells me to breathe in long and slow, to get the air all the way into my belly. But the knot inside won’t come loose. As I start gasping he tells me “shhhh, shhhh” the sound merging with the white noise of the highway, and once again the static fills my brain.
Image: Pablo Picasso, Figure and Profile, 1928
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