The morning after the initial revelation regarding Dies Irae, I came over Odious’ place at 11 like I always did, to while away the hours in my usual way--drinking endless cups of coffee and reading a few paragraphs here and there from their eclectic collection of books: Dr. Faustus, Glitch Manifesto, Book 3 of Lilith’s Brood, Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths” (in which I kept losing my place), and Twilight (the original, not the fan fic one with the genders switched, which they also owned). One by one they all ended up face down on the floor as I stared at my phone. Time dragged and then flew by. My spot was in the first bedroom, which was cozy and clean and smelled like Palo Santo and pine. I stretched out on the antique rose colored sofa, the springs pushing into my back with a firm support that bordered on discomfort. The apartment was a railroad so if I craned my head I could see into the kitchen and after that, the flickering light on the parquet floor that came from the big screen that Odious always had on mute in the living room, occasionally switching the audio over to their earbuds. I liked seeing the light, it gave me a sense of continuity and connection to Odious. It danced in the general darkness of the apartment, as the lights were either off or kept on very low settings. The curtains and blinds were always drawn, except for the kitchen window, where the blinds were pulled up just enough to let in a bare inch or two of light from the outside world.
I never changed it, I never dared touch the blinds no matter how dark it got, even in the middle of the day, regardless of how much I craved the sight of the sun. It was fixed in my mind as a bright Crayola yellow, but when I finally went outside to take a break or smoke a j, it inevitably revealed itself as an indistinguishable mass of glowing grey.
On some days, like this one I’m telling you about, I padded over to Odious’ collection of rare art and fashion books in the far corner—some still wrapped in plastic—and carefully unstacked them and placed them down around me like the tiles from a secret game, or the first layer of some new, private Stonehenge. They were mostly from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s—Mike Kelley, Maison Martin Margiela, a travelogue by Wim Wenders, the last Gianni Versace collection, a Patti Smith chapbook, and a Basquiat book that must have been worth more than everything in the apartment put together. Even though I knew Odious would of course let me look at them, I didn’t dare open them, fearful I would crack their bindings or otherwise mess them up. Instead I drank beer and stared at the covers, becoming enveloped in the mysterious promise of the secret worlds where beautiful people lived beautiful lives.
When I knew for certain I’d wasted too much time to start anything serious, I sat back on the couch and scribbled out bits of scenes, flashes of dialogue and character descriptions--nothing that would likely ever go anywhere, which is why it came out so easily and felt so perfect, in comparison to writing my show, which had taken years and multiple drafts before it even began to make sense.
Suddenly Odious appeared in the kitchen and surprised me by pulling up the blinds and yanking open the window as far as it would go. They lit a mapacho and leaned forward against the sill, as though their thin, bird-like body yearned to fly away.
I squinted at the evening light that beamed directly into my face. The cold air blew across to me in seconds. They didn’t usually emerge from their room until well after sundown and generally only smoked outside, so this change, not unlike their early morning phone call a week before, was flush with dramatic tension.
“Soooo… here’s the thing I didn’t mention yesterday,” they said, without turning to look at me.
“Not only did The Great C remind me of Moloch, but it’s eerily similar to a text in the W.I.P.”
“Ok,” I said. It was the first time they told me anything of any actual detail regarding their long standing “Work in Progress”, an apparently immense artwork that was meant to be a “fractal of everything in the entire universe”.
“I’ve been building a Chatbot who lives in the middle of an old school HTML page. The only way for anyone to find it will be by following clues on websites and pirated movie posters that secretly replace the real versions. You know, classic ARG stuff like stickers with 1-800 numbers on the back of ice cream containers (vegan of course) or geo coordinates dropped in the middle of exquisite poems written into a menu at a greasy spoon, which the counter person will give you only if you say the secret word.”
“The Chatbot was conceived as a closed system, filled with a finite amount of knowledge about specific subjects. The information would be stored on drives and NAS boxes. It wouldn’t be attached to the internet, so the Chatbot couldn’t, you know, crawl the web for information it didn’t already contain. The idea being that the player would have already drawn a card on an earlier level of the game that indicated one of the Chatbot’s subject areas: hand wound time pieces, Wittgenstein, or 90’s New York hip-hop. They were to think up three questions about that subject, and if the Chatbot couldn’t answer one of them during their session, they would win a ticket to the listening party that would be the only way to hear the soundtrack to the entire interwoven textile tapestry that is the W.I.P.”
They put out the mapacho and quickly lit a stick of incense.
“It’s wild, SWIM, it’s too specific to be chance. Someone or something is trying to get messages to me.”
By now they had turned to me and walked forward, and I had the sense they wanted me to do or say something, but I didn’t know what. The sound of their voice was higher pitched than usual, indicating either excitement or distress, both of which were unusual for them.
“The soundtrack,” I said, finally. “You aren’t going to stream it?”
“Nah, man, if anything I thought maybe a super limited-edition cassette tape drop way later. Maybe it comes in its own boombox.”
Ok, I told myself, I guess making it rare could work. But they had so many followers on the streaming platforms… I found myself thinking about these logistics instead of focusing upon the larger bomb they just dropped--that their dream had somehow led them to the novel, Deus Irae, a part of which was based on an earlier PKD short story called “The Great C”, which turned out to closely resemble a part of their secret magnum opus. In fact, the more it sank in, the heavier it became—the information implied either the actual intervention of an outside entity or power of some kind—one that had been able to hack Odious’ supposedly unhackable systems and read their notes and plans and lead them to an outside work that matched theirs to an uncanny degree.
Either that or Odious was making it all up—expertly stringing together parts of a story. This was still early in the process when I was willing to make such a leap of logic. As I described earlier, I was willing to slander and defame my dear friend just to stay within my precious reality bubble.
“So, you’re really building this Chatbot, like coding it out?”
“I started to. I even hired some folks once I calculated that it would take several months of working full time to learn the coding myself.” They laughed—a fluttery nervous sound.
“I had to learn just enough, crash-course style, so I knew how to direct them to do what I wanted.”
“Can I see it, is it up and running somewhere?”
“Ah, so it’s still being built.”
“No, I meant nope, you can’t see it.”
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Image: Andy Warhol, "Last Supper", 1986