full encounters with infinite nothingness
Midlands & West
A Book By Tony R. Cochran
For Alexander Verney-Elliott
This novel is a labor of love. Written from a kernel of a thought that occurred to me some six years ago, the work congealed from a cold, brutal and yet hospitable Warsaw. Poland was a place that I found both nurturing and alienating. In any case, in November & December of 2019, the work fully coagulated. The full text is below. I have made free, accessible to all, and without any commercial hinderances from literary agents or publishing houses. For those wanting and capable of viewing PDFs, here it is: Full Encounters With Infinite Nothingness. I accept responsibility for all editorial mistakes, and I encourage readers to point them out.
These are not easy times, yet when was ‘time’ easy?
With warm regards,
“Where’s the lighter?” asked Jeffrey as he closed the dark grey door of the Toyota Yaris. “I have it here, darling,” said Adam. Jeffrey, looking over at the passenger side, noticed Adam standing at the open door. Adam, a tall, lissom yet slightly muscular man with long legs, crawled into the compact car and sat down. His lengthy legs, with their bony knees, briefly bumped the dashboard. He moved the passenger seat back, slightly increasing the compact car’s legroom. These legs, underneath dark denim jeans, seemed, for Jeffrey, to contain sensuous miracles. Adam had an attractive, symmetrical face, a bit pale with darkish circles under his eyes, and was about ten years Jeffrey’s junior. Though, in terms of ‘life experience,’ as Jeffrey would reiterate several times during their drive from Denver to Chicago, they might as well have been decades apart. Adam wasn’t unpleasant; in the past several years he’d opened up and become less insecure; in fact, he was—on the whole—quite pleasing, even congenial; his mind, long ago thirsty from years of cultural isolation in Southern Oregon—and a short stint in Elk City, Oklahoma—along with occasional heroin and methamphetamine use, yearned for stimulation and inspiration. His intellect, dried out by endless rounds of social media feeds, long forgotten creeds turned into now obscure memes, active shooters and suicide bombers on ‘live-stream,’ and other inanities and horrors assaulting his generation, was somnambulant. This process so pervasive had become an indisputable rite of passage for two whole generations. His mind seemed as if it could almost find another world possible, yet the moment of escape never came, and it never would come. For his screen-addicted, attention-deprived generation, he was unexceptional, yet he held a unique quality that no social era, however abysmal, can destroy; his soul, supple and ready to be sculpted, found an oasis in Jeffrey, someone ever willing to mould a potential inamorato—or even a mere participant—into an image based on great simulations buried deep underneath mental caverns—caverns filled with furtive, shifty aims. Illusions luminating the smooth, stalwart granite interiors of Jeffrey’s guileful, feline mind, latched onto Adam with a force that propelled them both together, as a planet embraces its moon. However, Adam was erratic, and his anger could boil over at any moment. Jeffrey knew schemes for dealing with these ‘moments,’ but these remedies didn’t always work.
“Listen, you need to stop drinking.”
“Well, Jeff, you listen to me, I am not going to stop drinking anytime soon.”
“At least lay off the cocaine, meth and …”
“Yes, yes, I am done with hard drugs after the night before last—I had a bit of a binge before I flew to Denver. Can we stop at the next gas station? I need to piss.”
“You aren’t even listening; I said, can we stop? I need to pee.”
“Oh yes, darling, yes, I need to buy a map, I think we are lost. Meant to go through Nebraska, ended up in Kansas. Oh dear! Or I think we’re still in Kansas. Here’s Goodland! Well, look there, they have a 24/7 Travel Station, I need to buy a map and ask for directions.”
“If my mother hadn’t cut off my phone.”
“Listen, ‘if’ doesn’t get us anywhere we need to go, and besides, I like paper maps.”
“And, could you explain again, why you still don’t have a phone?”
“I told you when I landed in Los Angeles, and again when I picked you up, I need to buy one, and I wanted—and still want—to wait. Give myself some time away from—well, I left it on the plane for a reason. Ok, let’s go in…”
Jeffrey spoke with the shop attendant, an elderly man who spoke with a distinct, rural, almost Southern drawl—every syllable delicately dropped out, as when one mixes roux and daubs it on roast beef. He suggested they get to Nebraska’s Interstate-80 by some “backroads … if you don’t mind two-lane roads.” “No, I don’t mind them at all, sir, and it would be nice to take the backroads. See some of the local attractions,” Jeffrey said with hints of both condescension for the place and with gentle respect for the man. The elderly man’s face had beautiful lines, deep lines of age like that of an oak tree, which gave one the impression, at the very least, of being in the presence of something like wisdom. “Ok, go up Highway 27…,” the old man proceeded to give detailed instructions, guiding his sun-ripened white-brown hand—fully calloused and wrinkled and sturdy and firm—over the states of Kansas and Nebraska. These two states encompassed three pages inside a detailed national guidebook. The map cost an even ten dollars. At this point in his life, ten dollars wasn’t a lot of money for Jeffrey. Also, a year earlier it would have been mere change, something not to even think about. But several years before that, it would have been a considerable sum. And, again, a decade or so before the moment he handed the creased ten-dollar-note to the old man across a little white counter in Kansas that ten-dollar note would have been a treasure to behold. A piece of paper to be held onto as long as possible in the wild currents and winds called ‘the economy.’
Jeffrey’s personal inflationary rules were wildly in flux; a realm detached from the general economy of those who held down regular jobs for regular periods of time living in regular houses or regular apartments. Detached from the overall economy, where people don’t generally go from plenty to penury in matters of months, from homeless to the Hilton in matters of week, and so on. Jeffrey had lived life on the outer edges of regularity. But for the last five years, his situation—the condition of his personal economy—found root on a comfortable hillside, near its middle, slightly above the median, placed among those often called ‘Sir.’ While his root grew in this, more fertile soil, his trunk bent downwards, as always, toward the insolvent avant-garde, the demi-monde.
Such was the personal economic situation of an iterant college drop-out turned persistent union organizer. Jeffrey managed to crawl his way up the calcified labour movement bureaucracy during the Great Recession with tenacity, hypomania and doses of white privilege. Later becoming an unemployed picaro, and even criminal, he slowly, by degrees turning ever unhurriedly, almost imperceptibly, found his way, most unexpectedly, into ‘the world of literature.’ A career of imitation—imitating and ‘role-playing’ various ‘encounters’ with workers, then carrying out precise—although mutable—‘organizing formulas’ into the houses, apartments, garages, offices, nursing home, essentially, going anywhere workers to be organized existed. He fell into these scenes with gradations of great readiness; he just didn’t, unsurprisingly, enjoy the falling. Yet it would be the falling that would prepare, grind, and refine the ground for his imperfect, yet serendipitous slouching towards the bookish bourgeoisie.
The archives of catastrophe lived deep inside him; they remained like a curse pouring forth liquid gilded tar; unable to be dealt with, and so ignored, they had been wrapped for him and by him in lies; gift-wrapped and packaged for fixed delivery in counterfeit smiles, in glances of affection over cheap plastic covers at dining room tables of workers as they cried about the stresses of their shitty jobs. His listening experience, in short order, spanned an entire gamut of the misery of modern capitalism. Cleaning adult diapers for minimum wage at compounds for the dying euphemistically called nursing homes in Oregon; or delivering various sanitation services for the municipality called Salt Lake City; or, one woman, a social worker, unable to leave her home, suicidal from administering mandated quotas that kept the sick and disabled from sub-subsistence benefits in the cordial and cruel state of Kentucky; or, with another woman, an undocumented Filipino immigrant with a PhD in Biochemistry, forced to scrub hotel rooms at the age of seventy; or, the masses he encountered in their sublime singularity working at whatever undignified, malevolent, hateful, detestable, revolting, loathsome and under-paid rotten job capitalism so generously provided in all its prosperous, progressive and enlightened glory. Later wrapped into canonical literary narratives, Jeffrey produced other lies, other stories. Fiction being key to efficacious union organizing, he transposed this skill, one he had to learn years before any formal work; a skill that necessarily required, to be effectual, a perpetual curiosity, a desire to hold together various plotlines, a desire to hear, to listen, to see, to touch, to experience, and to scheme, yet all done at a distance that allows for—in quantities of the right proportion—a kind of rebellious and necessary alienation.
He’d given the same ersatz affection he had for workers, for unions and for lies, albeit mildly augmented, to almost any young, attractive skinny and preferably tall man willing to nakedly engage in his false yet sincere fiction; a fiction lost in a simulation, lost in an imitation, lost in a replication, lost in a fabrication; a veritable, absolutely real, authentic and genuine lie sat at the core of his becoming. He’d turned his afflictions into affections and advocations; leading him to write—as a mill produces lumber—books that would be held in the cold, icy hands of elderly men sitting in soft armchairs above the streets of Manhattan or Brooklyn; these books would later be passed down, for editing. Grammar, style and typos removed, improved and subtracted by youthful, newly graduated English major’s working for free or paying to intern as publishers’ assistants; in turn, the publishers paid the influencers, who popularized the work enough that literary critics and an assortment their varied entourages would later find Jeffrey’s tomes in front of them. Eventually, the general public, the end-user, would reach their many fingered hands onto screens or paperbacks, or the rare hardback; his books, handed down the literary pyramid from the nearly dead, cold men, would arrive in same-day delivery boxes or via audio download—a posh, British woman’s voice reading aloud each word. An embarrassment that paid well; the publishing of this compassionate, confused criminal sociopath, and his philosophies of nothing brought in enough profit to keep the old, pale men in their armchairs. Jeffrey R. Midlands mostly perplexed the literate public, and those who read his works avoided discussing them at large family dinners.
“Just throw it out the window. This whole nation is a trash heap anyways,” Jeffrey cynically though quite seriously remarked to Adam.
Jeffrey, interrogated his own ideas until they either held up both logically and intuitively, or until they dissolved, ready to be reborn in some other compilation later. Often, he discarded them: killing his darlings, his emotions, his dreams, his sanity, and his ideas. After a lengthy explanation—part soliloquy, part lecture—about green capitalism’s exporting of guilt onto the individual, the hypocritical corporate moralism of personal recycling, when the ruling elite had already let pass the previous decade’s agreements on carbon emissions, the vicious loop of so-called recycling, wherein the ‘recycled’ waste is dumped on places like Thailand, Indonesia and other so-called peripheral nations, and the finitude of life, Adam, convinced, and ready to be done with Jeffrey’s speech, although he enjoyed Jeffrey’s talking—or rather, his voice—finally decided to throw the box out the window.
A simple, yet troubling thought—a faint, roughly articulated, I wish, and I also don’t wish that he’d stop talking—passed through Adam’s body like a shudder; he felt goose pimples on the back of his neck and the tops of his arms when Jeffrey orated at length. Adam equally felt a keen sense of impatience with his rambling friend—and also, too, more profoundly—with existence in general. These conflicting reactions generated another shudder, a kind of serial wincing that chills the skin and heats the innards. Vocally agreeing to the logic of the argument, Adam flung the pizza box out the window; the cold early December air, rushing over and around the fast-moving car, grabbed the debris and threw it to the side of the road, on top of cigarette butts and broken glass. The ground beneath—below the pizza box, the cigarette butts, the broken glass, the concrete road, the pebbles—existed entirely disinterested in the goings-on of the moving vehicle, its occupants, their decisions or destinations.
Electronic, dubstep, and some classical music, frequently changed by Adam’s short attention span, vibrated out of the car’s speakers; the sounds, spread outwards as pure vibrations through the cold glass windows, rippling across the silent Kansas air. The Yaris, travelling along the two-lane backroads of Kansas, through flat fields peppered with gently rolling hills—a barren winter landscape extending out into the horizon—hummed gently. Grey sky met with beige, auburn and dark brown ground. The occasional farmhouse, tractor or grouping of cows abided on that open, eternal yet claustrophobic continental interior.
“What the fuck! What the fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Adam shouted.
“What, in hell’s name, is it?” Jeffrey placidly inquired.
“I dropped my cigarette, it’s lit.”
“Well, then, calmly look for it. Getting angry about some minor aleatory exigency isn’t going to help you stop it from burning a hole into the carpet, darling. Thankfully, it’s fire resistant. Resistant, not proof.”
Jeffrey slowed and stopped the car on the side of the road; after turning on the hazard lights, he looked to at Adam with a blank stare. “And now?” Adam, still inside flutily grasping under his seat, opened the door, popped out, crouched down and began looking intently at the floor, under the passenger seat.
“Found it. It actually went out.”
Adam jumped back into the car, and Jeffrey resumed driving on Highway 36. They entered the town of McDonald. As it was a Sunday, absolutely everything was closed. During the middle of the day, or more precisely 1:33pm when Jeffrey looked at the time on the dashboard, there wasn’t a person in sight.
“Agricultural and rural doesn’t accurately describe this place; I feel as though we’ve gone back to some uncanny version of the 1950s, even earlier. Look at that Post Office, darling! This is a sort of a scene out of In Cold Blood. Same state, and I wonder if it’s the same town … No, of course not, that town is further east, I think.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Adam, equally fascinated by these exotic flatlands and frustrated by his lack of knowledge; he’d only been out of Oregon once.
The sky, still weighty and grey, began to lighten a bit.
“Well, in the 1950s a horrible crime was committed here in Kansas. Richard and a guy named Perry, they planned to rob a family … I am trying to recall their … yes, the Clutter family, specifically the father, Herb, whom they thought had a load of cash in his house, in a safe. At least Richard believed this. He’d been told that Herb was quite a wealthy man—a farmer, a rancher, an investor—by someone that he had met at the Kansas State Penitentiary. So, after they both got out of prison, Richard sends Perry a letter, and they go on this wild journey, first robbing the Clutter family, which ends horrifically, they kill everyone, Herb, his wife, and two children, both of them teenagers. Then they head to Mexico and hang out for some time with a rich German guy—I think he was German—on some yacht in the Yucatán; weeks maybe, they’re there in the Yucatán, without any employment other than keeping this wealthy man from being bored. He’s paying them for company—although I suspect that’s not the whole story. And the rest of their post-murdering adventures were funded by writing bad cheques, pawning stolen items, etcetera. Inevitably they run out of money in Mexico. Richard doesn’t want to stay put; he doesn’t want to work at ‘Mexican wages,’ so they head back to the US. Perry is a short man, and with leg injury from a motorcycle accident. Abysmal family background. I mean truly awful, and he is easily susceptible to Richard. But what’s interesting is that in the end Perry confesses that he killed all four of the Clutters. It’s a crazy story. You have to read Capote.”
“Well, I would just look it up on Google if I had…”
“Listen, sometimes you just need to read a book, to get the full—how do I put this—the full, granular feeling of the story, of the process. It’s about the actualization of the possible. The creation of something out of nothing, a sheer field of possibilities. The sheer weight of absence conveyed by the words in a book, by words that are empty in themselves, but full when put together in a relation—a linear relation. Truman Capote is one of greats when it comes to this. Of course, making relations between things is what makes the potential, the fiction, and this collective hallucination that we call language, an actuality. Listen, we try to get to the full story of something, right?”
“Yeah, ok. Go on.” Adam remarked, patiently listening with a degree of rapt attention. He lit a cigarette, and rolled the window down a few inches to let the smoke out.
“So, for example, we are trying to determine something about a fight, a specific fight; two men punching each other, really beating up each other. No, better yet a crime—a better example. A man robs and beats another man. The Law, capital L, wants to deconstruct exactly what happened, the entire story—we even call reality stories. Anyways, the alleged perpetrator is apprehended, and the thing goes to trial; hypothetically, let’s say they have the right guy, and as the trial is proceeding, and the prosecution is going over every detail forensically. Each blow is analysed. The victim gives testimony. He identifies the perpetrator; there is even video footage of the whole thing; we cannot, even with all of this evidence, philosophically say we know the absolute truth of that encounter. We can hone into something, and then deeper into some other part of it, but there is always, always an absence of absolute data. All the sensory experiences of both men, individually, the interaction of the moment, cannot be replicated fully, truthfully fully. Even in the moment itself, each individual in their own body, in their own state, in their isolation and alienation, lacking omnipresence, for omnipresence would be no presence at all, as all presence requires a kind of particularization to a specific localization of experience, or to put it simply, a place. So, even in the very moment of the attack, each one is drowning in their own subjectivity. Yes, the shouts, the blows to the head, the feeling of the skull on the knuckles, all of these are felt, experienced and so on, but not in any sort of meta-totality, only in fragments, not in a whole. So back to the courtroom, any reconstruction of the events will be—even with the greatest precision—disoriented by the very nature of existence.”
“Is that what your first book was about?”
“In short, yes, my first not-published-by-myself book—and several of my others; the Actuality series. Truth-making, fiction, the way our senses both remove and connect us to experience by allowing for specific experiences of experience, or what is commonly called consciousness. One that is alienated, isolated but connected. The fiction of connection is maintained by an entanglement of bodies and languages, so therein lies the importance of language—one that goes beyond words, as with body language, signs and symbols, and so on—metatextuality; and language’s function is the production of a fiction that has a real material manifestation.”
“I need to take piss again, where’s the next town?”
“And I need coffee; damn, I am tired. Hand me a cigarette. One of these days…” And Jeffrey briefly slipped into that in-between space where one is driving and talking while also fantasizing; his fantasy involved turning the car to the side of the road again, turning his head to the right, leaning over and passionately kissing Adam.
“Yeah, ‘one of these days,’ what?” Adam curiously inquired.
“Well, uh…” Jeffrey, slightly embarrassed, looked down for a moment at the ungraciously inconspicuous physical stimulation brought on by the thought of kissing Adam. Jeffrey collected himself within a few seconds; looking out at the road, he brought something that had previously been on his mind to mind, and said, “I’ll go to Patagonia, and see the Darwin Frog. The male holds the tadpoles in a sack under his mouth, and when they have grown into baby frogs, he spits them out. What’s really adorable is that the Darwin Frog is already small, so the babies are tiny. I would love to see that. Even if I don’t, I am going to Patagonia.”
“Maybe I’ll come too.”
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Morph Zed, Untitled, 2049
Dark brown mud spread as far as his eyes could see, Jeffrey, drove through sludge into the distance in some sort of all-terrain vehicle with four seats and an open top. Rushing towards a tall, white metal tower, he stopped at its base. Stepping out he felt the soggy ground stick to what could be his feet. His vision of the surrounding terrain was clear, yet his body was dislocated from any particular place; he stumbled into a multi-storey stucco house. His grandmother stood in a kitchen with a large granite counter with multiple gas stove-tops; each one heating a different pot or pan. She asked him to come over to a cast-iron frying pan.
“Look at this!”
In the pan were blocks of lightly red-and-orange diaphanous butter, about four inches long, three inches wide, and roughly three inches deep. Inside the butter blocks were foetuses.
“Don’t they just look so delicious?”
Disoriented by his grandmother’s inexplicable cuisine, Jeffrey turned in the opposite direction and saw his mother coming down a long, wide staircase. She was in a white wedding dress and veil. She rushed over to a river partly coming inside the corner of the house, and pulled up a large fish. Jerking back and forth, she began chewing on the side of the fish; its entrails hung over her left hand. Suddenly, rushing over to the pan with the butter foetuses, she said, excitedly, “My, those do look delicious!”
At that moment, several dogs, overweight Pit bulls, came inside, threw up sections of huge worms several feet long, and then licked up their own vomit.
“The water is rising; we must get to the second floor!” someone said.
The three of them walked up the winding staircase and into a large shopping mall with endless escalators stretching upwards to a point beyond vision. His grandfather came out, “It’s never been so good for you, son. But then, nothing is ever good enough for you. You are…”
“That wasn’t him, darling. That was you,” Mary said to her husband.
A gunshot rang out.
“Papa, you killed her!”
“She deserved it.”
“How could you kill grandma? How?”
In an instant he was inside a cavernous granite space. He screamed, cried and scratched at the wall, which had a rectangular imprint of brownish red and black stone, covered by a pitch black and crimson-lined tattered tapestry. “Grandma! Grandma! Grandma! Why did papa kill you? Why?”
“Jeff, Jeff … hey, hey, wake up!” Adam pushed at Jeffrey’s right shoulder.
“Oh, darling, the dream I just had! These dreams, they are beyond nightmares, are with me every night. Horrid, revolting dreams.” Jeffrey, sleeping on his left side, rolled over towards Adam. Jeffrey’s face was puffy and he had dark circles under his eyes.
“I know. You were screaming. That’s why I woke you. I am sorry. And I need to eat. I know you drove from Denver to this shitty little town in Nebraska on what, two or three hours of sleep, out nearly two days?”
“No, I had a bit more sleep than that. I slept in Flagstaff. What’s open at this hour? I mean we’re in Kearney. I can’t imagine there is much. Although, at least it’s The Radisson, dahr-li-ing!”
“Actually, baby, it’s The Country Inn and Suites, which is, yes, owned by The Radisson!”
They both loved saying The Radisson in an accent reminiscent of a stereotypical—white, upper-class ‘gentleman’—1950’s BBC World Service presenter. Jeffrey, now out of bed, sprayed his feet with a powdery antifungal agent—a preventive ritual he had kept up for years, despite not having a fungal infection in the last decade—put on his socks, and began to giggle then laugh. It was the first time he’d laughed deeply—laughed the kind of laugh that reverberates through the abdomen, the intestines, the body—in several months.
“Ah, I got you laughing again, Jeff. I knew it.”
“Well, you could make me really happy if you…”
“Oh, I know, but you know I am straight. Well, at least, I think I am.”
“That’s not at all what I had on my mind.”
Jeffrey looked at the clock. It was past midnight. There must be some 24/7 fast-food joint opened in this forsaken town, he thought. The practicality of finding food sat alongside the fact that he had just seriously flirted with the idea that Adam was actually, really, truly, essentially, queer. For few moments after the effects of his bizarre dream, the incessant driving, and sleep deprivation, a light—the kind that only comes in moments of heightened sensation and dimmed awareness—seemed to illuminate some new ground around Jeffrey’s appreception; a fissure, a split opened between the reality of his fiction and the fiction of Adam’s reality; this newly lighted opening seemed now cleaved together by a nearly altogether tangible idea. What this tangible idea might be, where it might have come from, and perhaps more significantly where it might be heading, Jeffrey couldn’t surmise. A calming sense that he couldn’t—at this point in time—manage to figure out the idea, allowed him to sink into the practicalities of organizing himself. He put on his shoes, jacket, gloves and proceeded to open the hotel room door. Adam was already in the car, warming it up, and smoking a cigarette. Jeffrey closed the hotel room door, walked down the overly fragranced hallway, and out the front doors. His hand—cold—grasped the handle of the dark grey door. He sat in the driver’s seat and said nothing.
“The receptionist said there is a place called Perkins. Better than McDonalds. Open 24-hours. Probably could get you something like mashed potatoes. At least something vegetarian there. Maybe. Just turn out …” Adam proceeded to give the simple directions.
“Ok. Yes. Yes. Good.”
“Are you OK?”
“Well, it’s just my dreams are really strange; they have been for months now; I’ll tell you over dinner.”
“Consciousness—whether three or ten-dimensional—is at base, the experience of experience. Ultimately, all things, from atoms to rocks, from single-cell organisms to homo sapiens, experience. They are relational, discrete entities that exist on folded eddies of finitude—embedded in an infinite sea of nothingness.” Jeffrey, at the lectern, looked out at the crowd—so young—he thought about how he’d missed this part, this rite of passage, in his life. This going to college experience, the dorm rooms, the networking, the friendships, and then he returned to his notes. “So, some of these eddies of finitude might be called universes, and they might interact in some way, creating a multiverse—and, of course, here we are entering the territory of…” Jeffrey stopped again, and noticed an incredibly attractive young man in the auditorium. He might be a swimmer, or a runner—definitely an athlete. Clearing his throat, Jeffrey finished his address, Actuality: Systematic Studies of Nothingness from Buddhism’s Heart Sutra, the Kyoto School and the Virtual Reality Realms of Joanne Milner.
Jeffrey hated promoting his work, but he enjoyed the question and answer session because it gave him an opportunity to rethink his thoughts. He always allowed for an open-ended Q&A. Adam sat in the audience listening to Jeffrey speak; he listened as students posed questions about the moral implications of a systemic study of nothingness, Buddhism, Schopenhauer and one—a query by a timid student nervously holding the microphone—about Jeffrey’s controversial stance on paedophilia. They were in some hall at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. The purpose of this trip—or more specifically Adam’s presence—had been to make sure that Jeffrey did his book tour without having a complete mental breakdown. Jeffrey answered the student’s question, “I understand that this is a very emotionally charged subject. I want to make clear—very clear—from the outset, as I have on numerous occasions, that child sex abuse and child exploitation pornography are heinous, criminal acts that should be dealt with by the full force of the law. And, I want to add that not all child sex abuse, in fact about half according to Dr Milner’s extensive research, is committed by paedophiles. The point of Dr Milner’s work in developing virtual reality simulations where adults who have these desires can engage in them without harming children is two-fold; to reduce the risk of offending, by monitoring her subjects, and to reduce the demand for child exploitation videos. I think that this work is admirable.” The student took the microphone again, and asked, “Why did you say that paedophilia is a sexual orientation?” Jeffrey, sat at a desk near the lectern, placed his head in the palm of his right hand, elbow on the table, and curled his fingers into his chin. He thought for a moment. “Have you read the work on paedophilia as a sexual orientation? In 2022, the American Psychiatric Association agreed with Seto and Cantor that this is an actual orientation; it gives the subject a sense of identity because of its permanence. That does mean that it should ever be acted upon a real child—again, virtual reality is important here. And yes, this idea of adults engaging in this manner with virtual children, computer-generated children, does make many squeamish. However, the absence of an actual child is what is important—the absence of an actual child is the presence of prevention.” Two people shouted and threw eggs at Jeffrey, but they hit the wall behind him.
The last book tour—also through the US—had likewise led to severe complications according to emails scrumptiously devoured as juicy gossip by employees at Z&Z publishers. However, they weren’t leaked, as everyone in the employ of the Z&Z publishers had contracts with strict confidentiality stipulations—backed up by monitoring, tracking and ‘capture and kill’ technology on their messaging apps, phones and computers—even the ones they didn’t disclose to the company.
“Jeff has many friends—well acquaintances—he’s always saying he can’t get close to people,” Adam said to a strikingly beautiful college student, a young woman of twenty-two, a philosophy, physics and computer science major. They were both having a cigarette outside. Jeffrey’s brief talk and longer Q&A session had finished. Adam stepped outside after seeing Jeffrey circulating the room with a strained smile; he seemed distant from Adam, from the room, from the people in the room, from the campus, from Lincoln, from Nebraska, from the US, from the Earth, from the Solar System and so on.
“And what about you? Do you—are you—able to get close to people?” Jessica, coyly touched her bottom lip with her index finger, looked at Adam’s infinity tattoo on the side of his neck. “Oh, an infinity tat, nice.”
“Yeah, I actually got it because of Jeff.”
“Really, how’s that?”
“Well, he is always going on about infinity and nothingness, wants to write another book on it, but can’t get a mathematician to work with him for more than a few weeks. I guess now that he has more money, he can probably afford to. Anyways, I am interested in the concept. Well, more than interested. I feel an awareness of it. I had several encounters, maybe, with it, or not it—uh, while using LSD, and especially DMT, although they weren’t full encounters with infinite nothingness; Jeff said if they were—I’d … um … I’d be dead.”
“Yeah, I’ve tried weed a couple of times, but nothing stronger than that… Well, actually no, I did chew on some magic mushrooms at a party when I was seventeen, but I didn’t feel anything—probably weren’t real.”
Adam nervously reached for another cigarette, lit it and continued, “I think the best way to take mushrooms is in tea. I actually got the spores for them last year and grew some in my room. Really good stuff.”
“Interesting, a real Timothy Leary! So, how old are you?”
“I am thirty-two.”
“And…” Jessica bit her lip, then said, slowly, “Where did you go to school?”
“Oh, I did a welding degree at a community college in Oregon. I read, a lot of what I read, well, Jeff, he recommended it. And I love biology and chemistry, although I am just, um… My attention-span is limited.”
“My grandfather was a welder. Tell me, how’d you meet Mr Midlands?” Jessica, lighting her second cigarette, asked; leaning her back on the auditorium wall, she blew out smoke into the cold evening air.
“Oh, don’t call him that. He’ll feel ancient; he’s only forty-three. Wait, almost forty-four; I mean, I am kind of joking; you can call him that, but he had a crisis of aging as he called it, about six months ago. He said that forty-four is a cursed age—he thinks the number four is bad luck. He went to some Zen Buddhist Monastery in Japan for two months. Came back partially cured—but also still in process—he is always using these phrases. But I like his enigmatic weirdness. I mean, you know he has been in prison; he’s been banned from the UK, and not too long ago, he was banned from another country, Australia!”
“Um yeah, he’s definitely unusual.” Jessica chuckled, “You two seem really close?”
“I guess so. I mean, we grew up in the same town, and we met when he came back about six years ago. He always said he’d take me on a trip when he finished ‘the next book.’ I had to wait for six next books. But we talked all the time, from his place in Stockholm, then he moved to Norway, and he was, um, where—Tallinn, the capital of Estonia—for a year. When we met in Grants Pass, he lived in London, and I remember him talking about moving somewhere warmer. Of course, the middle of Norway is far warmer.”
Jessica made a short, soft laugh, the kind of laugh that makes one tingle; a gentle, adroit type of laughter that fondled Adam’s fragile soul.
“So, wait, you said that all a bit too fast, you met in London?”
“No, he was in Grants Pass, in Oregon, but only for a week; he came and stayed in hotel outside of town, actually in a town called Eugene; he hates Grants Pass—so do I, but I can’t seem to leave, not until Jeff pulled me out…” Adam paused, “Oh, yeah, so one day he was in town, sobbing on the street corner. I don’t why, but I felt the need to take for drink. We sat down, and asked me ‘Will you listen if I speak, I mean really listen?’ And I was shocked, no one had ever spoken to me like that before. I said yes. He was dealing with some issues he had with his family. Anyways, for me this is only my third time out of the state. Sorry, I have a hard time with…”
“It’s ok. I understand neurodivergence. Well, welcome to Lincoln.” Jessica waved her hand in front of her face as she giggled. “I am from Chicago, and I wanted to go to another school, but my family couldn’t afford it. They wanted me to stay in Illinois because in-state tuition is cheaper, but they approved of me coming here, as it’s not insanely expensive. They make just too much for me to qualify for a full scholarship at a place like Yale or Harvard, but they aren’t rich either. And I figured after living in Chicago all my life, I would see a more, rural agricultural part of the country. But damn, I mean, well, to be honest, this place is very white.”
“I can imagine—I mean, I don’t want to make assumptions—but do you have problems here as a Black woman?”
“Naïve, I see.” Jessica whispered, looking directly at Adam, the whites of his eyes bright from the fluorescent campus lamp above them.
“Yes, well, I am.”
“Oh, so to answer—in short, yes. From the locals especially, the white kids who all know each other, especially the ones who come from what they call Old Money here, the big, industrial farm families, the local professional class—kids of judges, you know—the ones who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave Nebraska. They are bitter. Well, not all of them, of course, just most of them. I have a couple friends who are locals. But most of them—they feel a sense of resentment, which is really weird because they are white, rich kids. I guess a new BMW isn’t enough if you have to drive it in Lincoln.”
They both chuckled loudly—they both wanted to touch each other, a flicker grew into a flash, and that grew into a blaze.
“Well, we’re only here for one night, maybe two. Depends, Jeff needs to rest. I told him this schedule is crazy. He said it is too much. But the publishers want him moving around. The whole in-person thing is fashionable right now. We need to be—ironically—in Chicago by Saturday.”
“Well, I was going to take a bus there, leaving Thursday, because I need to see my mom; she’s suffering from some health issues and it’s too expensive to book a last-minute flight now.”
“Oh, that sucks. I am sorry. I think, yeah, I think we could—if you want—take you.”
“You sure? I heard Mr… sorry, Jeffrey is very—umm, well, he’s amazing, but he’s a bit … Um, He doesn’t like people around?”
“That’s true, in fact, he gets his own hotel room—we don’t share, not even with two beds—I mean, we aren’t together—not in that sense. I am straight.” Adam realized he was rambling without cause—she knew he was straight, and he knew she knew. “Well, I think I am straight, but no one is fully heterosexual anymore. Anyways, he always has his own room, except for this one time in Kearney, a little town on I-80. The hotel was fully booked. But other than that, he always his own room. It’s something that’s weirdly—well—famous about him. His inability to move in with anyone.” Adam stopped himself, not wanting to betray Jeffrey’s trust, even if he did, in the main, live his life in full view, he also lived it masked. Adam stared quietly to side of Jessica for a moment, almost as if trying to decipher what he just said or meant. He continued, “So, you can stay in my room, if you want? Two beds of course.”
“Why, ‘of course?’”
“Well, I mean, I just didn’t want to … I don’t like to, make assumptions.”
Moving her hand onto his left arm, Jessica tilted her persuasive, gentle face towards Adam’s, leaned closely in, closely enough that he could feel her warm soft exhalation on his ear, and said quietly, “Listen, I think might just like you. One bed, I think, is enough. Let’s get something to eat, and then we’ll make the decision—one or two.”
“Um… well, oh, ok. We will likely leave tomorrow, and stop in Iowa City for one evening.”
“Ok, I’ll tell Jeff.”
Jeffrey hovered above the house as the scene from his previous dream played out, and he watched himself go upstairs with his grandmother; he seemed to be peering through the fourth wall as effected by theatre. Gazing, suspended by nothing—the perfect vantage point to see both floors—he saw his grandfather shoot his grandmother. Queerly he looked at himself, or where he would have been, and saw nothing. The whole dream-scene took place without him being visible to himself. Yet everyone in the dream acted as if they saw him. Everyone moved as if he was there. The entire sequence was the same as the night before—with the major exception that he was floating outside, disconnected. Suddenly he fell to the ground. His vision turned into blackness. The blackness had little tiny wires of light that grew into bands of light. He was awake. 5:48am. Artificial light, from the parking lot, softly soaked through the curtained window. He inserted a node into his left ear, said “Call Alex” and heard the strange, deep vibrating double-ring indicative of the United Kingdom’s phone-zone.
“Hey, I wanted to check-in, how are you?”
“I am ok, love, the weather is dreadful. I don’t know why I am in London, again,” Alex, his best friend, his legal civil partner for almost two decades, his non-sexual life-partner, affectionately said over the phone. Alex was pleased to receive this call; he always worried about Jeffrey. He loved Jeffrey, and he didn’t always know how to verbally express it. Autism is difficult to manage. Jeffrey felt his love after all these years, and the barrier of language—and the way autism sometimes so often closes one off to others—had been broken.
“Well, love, we are both in places that we don’t really want to be. I am in Nebraska. Nothing against Nebraska, it’s aesthetically quite remarkable—would be an excellent place to do some site-specific art, or make a film. I prefer it to, say some horrid state south of the Mason-Dixon line. The publisher wanted me to go to a few towns in the South: Asheville, Savannah, blah, and so on. I said, Atlanta only. So, after Chicago we are headed to Detroit, then down to Atlanta, then back up to Philly, and over to New York.”
“Your schedule changed. I thought you were stopping in Ann Arbor.”
“No, they had a petition at the University organized by some people who still think that paedophilia is not a sexual orientation, despite the evidence that it is, at least according American Psychiatric Association, an endogenous phenomenon—meaning that we shouldn’t be talking about castration or killing people, which is surprisingly still quite vogue. Of course, they have never read my work, they have never read Seto, Cantor or Milner. Because, well you know this, if they took the time to read my work, they’d know I condemn child sex abuse. My work with Joanne Milner—dear lord, I almost got stabbed, but anyways, my work in this field is very limited.”
“I remember, I was horrified. Australia is such a reactionary place.”
“Who made me the fucking patron saint of paedophiles? The Milner connection—yep, I think that was a bridge too far for the pearl-clutching, delicate souls of Ann Arbour—also Madison cancelled—both allegedly liberal or radical schools!” “Yes, of course.”
“But, on the total, it’s been quite wholesome. Boulder, in Colorado, was very welcoming. Both Naropa University—the one Ginsberg and Anne Waldman founded—and the University of Colorado had a good reception. And in Denver there weren’t any problems. Perhaps it’s because everyone was so high. Great weed. I just love the new weed cafes in Colorado. Smoking cannabis in public, so much better than a bar. Finally, a bit of Amsterdam in America.”
“Oh, we know the so-called left, sections of it, they shriek at you despite the fact that you have been on the left for years. It’s a good sign; you’re not an Orthodox Leftist. You embody the contradictions of—the time? I hate that phrase, ‘the time.’ How else to say it? Anyways, how is it travelling with Adam?”
“Oh splendid, he’s so young and fresh. He actually makes me feel, well, younger and fresher. Dear Zeus, I am only forty-three. To add to the young mix, he’s bringing a twenty-two-year-old woman with us. In fact, I think they are sleeping together at this very moment.”
“Does that upset you?”
“No, why would it? Besides I am still recovering from the multiple shock-terrors of the rolling break-ups with Tomek and Konrad … A decade apart and I realize how intertwined my relationships with them were, in their own specific ways, with my mother. I don’t want to fuck up this thing—whatever you might call it, I have with—with Morph. Can billionaires fall in love? Anyways, I am far from thinking about romance with Adam. He is quite straight, even if that’s just a fiction. You know, the reality of fiction is more powerful than the fiction that there is a reality!”
“Odd you should mention that, I am just reading Baudrillard on the Death of the Real. I was thinking, who killed this bloody thing, The Real? And then I realized it isn’t even there. Of course, there are facts; there are really existing material things, as you note in your new book Actuality III, the immanent field of actualization, but this has little to do with what is normally called reality—something inscribed later.”
“Precisely, I want to work on the idea further, darling, and take it to a cogent conclusion, but I am not in the mood to even think about writing at the moment. Z&Z publishers are engaged deeply in this ‘re-reality mov’—being in the flesh is so fashionable now. Just a decade ago, people couldn’t get off screens, they ran to anything that had a screen! Remember when GoPost was permanently deleted by a cyberattack—over a thousand teenage suicides were officially recorded as a result! Well, people still do run to screens, but the so-called educated, the elite, these people are moving their intellectual hobbies—their entertainments—away from the baser levels of digital and quantum computing networks. At least, they are moving away from it for themselves, in their so-called real lives. They employ it, deploy it, for profit, for control, for whatever… I think there is a kind of joy, or at least a negation of boredom, that they get from control—control on a mass level. But they can’t control mediation. Not in its entirety, all of this is some sort of queer revivalism. Except that the leaders won’t be Charles Taze Russell, Benjamin Wills Newton or John Nelson Darby talking rapture, but Elon Musk, Ma Yuankun, and so on, preaching a computer-generated blissful, virtual heaven.”
“Did you hear from Morph? Did you hear about what’s in happening China?” Alex, with a monotone, vulnerable voice, asked.
Jeffrey, in a hypnopompic state, continued, ignoring Alex’s question—he enjoyed exploring new ideas with Alex acting as some sort of blank canvas— “Except the problem always arises, or rather the fact: Mediation is a priori … These cyber-revivalists, let’s call them that for now, first they want to hegemonize mediation with entire armies—artificial and real, they hire the best programming aides-de-camp. Going further, later, they want to mediate mediation out of existence. Oh, did you hear about the app that allows you to hand over your social media profiles to someone—somehow certified and trained—in some office in Manilla—to respond and comment based on a sophisticated set of algorithms. According to the company, CreateSpace, they want to ‘give their customers the ability to float away from the incessant noise and distraction of social media without making their friends, colleagues and family feel like they don’t care.’ So, I guess you’ll get a ‘Happy Birthday’ message from your mother via a person in Manilla, who is also updating your feeds on multiple platforms, and responding to comments based on what deep-learning neural networks are suggesting. For a premium price, the app allows you to have ‘chats’ with your mediator, face-to-face, via Skype or FaceTime or Zing, and… madness, madness. Yesterday, I was speaking with Morph, he’s in Shanghai—he mentioned…” Trailing off for a few seconds, Jeffrey reached for a bottle of water. His hand knocked it to the floor. “Damn!” He picked it up and took several sips. “Oh, love, did you manage to contact our investor in Singapore?”
“Yes, more details when you’re back in Europe,” Alex replied, continuing, “you need more kip love.”
“Yes, I am going back to sleep. Talk later love.”
Morph Zed, a tall, lean yet muscular man—with thick, straight black hair—and a sartorial penchant for black, all black—socks, underwear, hats, shirts, jackets, shoes, ties—black on black, reflecting a sort of eternal wake, holding vigil for the dying of his species—physically and mentally floated through space. His unbelievably smooth, youthful white skin didn’t match his age, forty-six. A life well-lived, growing up as a vegan, on his grandparents’ estate in Switzerland and later on an organic weed farm north of San Francisco, then attending an elite school in the Netherlands, drinking only filtered water, staying away from major cities on ‘high pollution’ days and pandemics—along with regular detoxifying trips to not-so-certified laboratories in China, Chile and New Zealand. These laboratories were owned by his family’s company, Z. His grandfather, a wealthy telecommunications magnate from Mexico, had married an American socialite; they both changed their last names to Zed shortly before they had their only child, Morph’s father Anthony. Anthony’s parents then placed all their holdings into a newly formed company, (XX)Z, days after Anthony was born. Although born of an American mother and a Mexican father, he only—mysteriously—had Swiss citizenship, like his parents.
They all maintained permanent US residency, and by this simple fiduciary transfer procedure—namely, placing the entirety of their assets into the infant Anthony’s name, the Zed family sheltered several billions of dollars from taxes. All of this was done with the greatest discretion. The Zed family was so rich they were not listed on Forbes. The Economist never mentioned them, and even The New York Times—with its army of investigative reporters—took no note of them. The smaller, more aggressive and—often less scrupulous press—from The Intercept to Democracy Now! to various easy-to-bribe tabloids, hadn’t a single article written with the Zed name. Although, despite their personal anonymity, their money was always in the press, or rather the companies they owned—or held stock in—through opaque legal lattices layered upon abstract, non-representational, dissembling pecuniary matrices—their money, although all accessible to them, existed in a state not unlike haze, protected by disinformation campaigns, distractions and heavy investments in data control. They even managed to have anything relating to them on the deep web scrubbed out. Their company, (XX)Z, privately held—had subsidiaries for its subsidiaries; one of its ancillary ‘financial services’ businesses was listed on a part of the Moon the family had purchased. (XX)Z was managed ruthlessly by small group of people devoted to its purpose—and motivated by a combination of hefty salaries, a sense of anonymous elitism, and several God-complexes, all ensuring exacting loyalty. (XX)Z simply became Z after several years, and although Z itself had no public image, it owned, via its subsidiaries or their derivatives, the majority stock in many public companies, and directly owned and managed a dozen companies—from biotech to cybernetics to pharmaceuticals to computational data analysis to military training psyops for the US (and several other governments, not listed) to an extensive satellite and space exploration business, to a publishing business, and, of course, millions of acres of land. On paper, to the public, many people were far richer than the Zed family. In reality, the Zed family was as wealthy as some European nations.
Anthony Zed, grew up in a hermetically sealed-environment at his grandparents’ roaming Swiss estate, away from news, television, and only allowed access to computers for learning purposes—early coding programs, later website design, and cyber-systems management. An introverted, precocious child, he didn’t mind the seclusion; he had a few acquaintances—and only two close friends. Anthony’s privilege and isolation gave him an entirely different take on the world; he viewed it as an organic whole—something to be held, sculpted and devoured, and later as a cyber-nature fusion. As a child, between five years of age until his seventeenth birthday, he was sent to schools so elite they called them not ‘schools’ but ‘experiences’ and ‘immersions’—and weren’t listed on any registry, couldn’t be searched for even in the darkest corners of the web. After completing a degree in mathematics and biology, followed directly by an MSc degree at the same university—Leiden University in the Netherlands—he moved to the US. Taking ownership of one of his parents’ successful weed farms, he’d eventually create his own Xanadu. Anthony had the last access road removed just after he finished the main, giant living and research complex; he called it ‘the Z-matrix.’ His entire estate, some 200 acres of the finest land in sunny Marin County, straddled Pt. Reyes-Petaluma Road. It sustained itself—with solar panels, windmills, parks full of seasonal vegetables, underground gardens with liquid light pumped in for a broader array of fruits, vegetables, nuts and herbs, two helipads, and a satellite internet connection directly and securely connected to his family’s own network. At the top of a knoll, some four miles from the nearest public road, a narrow Zen-garden pebble path—he raked it daily for meditation—led some 150 yards from a helipad, overlooking the hills and valleys below, to a glass door accessing the main ‘matrix’—a gargantuan glass and steel structure that jutted out—a giant cantilever protruding over the soft beige, taupe and khaki California landscape. The building, designed by a Finnish architect Anthony had met at the opening of a famous museum in Warsaw, consisted of some 17,000 square feet in the above section—which included an indoor pool, cinema, gym, oxygen bar, two kitchens and seven bedrooms, overlooking a gently sloping valley. The remaining 25,000 square feet of the structure, carved deep—about seven storeys—into fertile Earth, contained numerous laboratories, meeting centres, a nuclear fall-out shelter, a seed-bank, a small medical unit and a cyberoperations command centre staffed by two programmers.
The only other people allowed in the house on a daily basis included a housekeeper, who lived in the upper section and her daughter—both from El Salvador—the daughter attended college and assisted her mother, a woman of fifty-seven who had fled to the US because of domestic violence. Anthony had met Maria by chance, watching her clean at a neighbour’s house, immediately felt—’intuited’—that she would be loyal, and hired her on the spot. He worked his connections to secure her US citizenship. In the last several years of her life, she required round-the-clock care, and she lived these years in the Z-matrix caverns cared for by staff who maintained the compound after the Event.
Anthony was considered one of the key figures behind the ‘re-reality movement.’ His life in Marin County was inspired by a desire to get away from the increasingly digital, increasingly flattened world that his parents helped to maintain, develop and control for profit. Morph was born when Anthony was seventeen, and had been taken away to live with his grandparents until Anthony had finished his studies. When Morph was nine-years-old, he moved into the matrix with his father. Several times Morph’s grandmother visited, but after those initial few visits, she re-entered the obscurities, returning to her position—along with her husband—as a practiced eminence grise. Afterwards, it was just him and his father. His mother—a sex worker in Amsterdam who had developed a fondness for Anthony after he visited her regularly for a year—had been threatened, paid and told to stay away after she gave birth. The amount of money along with the threats, including the spectre of death, were great enough that she unwillingly acquiesced. In the delivery room, crying, she reluctantly handed her son, Morph, over to the pallid, cold and lifeless hands of his paternal grandmother.
Morph had a good childhood. For his first nine years on Terra, during the summer, he lived at his grandparents’ immense Swiss estate, with its several mansions to get lost in, play games and hide, learning a combination of Swiss, German, Spanish—from his grandfather—along with French and English. In cloistered, disciplined yet liberally creative ‘immersions’ during the school year, he excelled at computer science, mathematics, and architecture. By the time he moved into his father’s home, he had a well-rounded education—backed up with reasonably high emotional intelligence, due to his thrice weekly meditation sessions at a Zen Monastery his grandparents hosted on their land. These sessions were not compulsory, but Morph, a mature child, took to them with great alacrity.
Roaming the lands around his father’s estate, Morph loved being in the presence of the cool Pacific air; he loved the marine smell; in short, he felt at home. He walked—and later biked and jogged—the many footpaths around the property to the main road, where he enjoyed taking daylong trips to Point Reyes National Seashore. He would sit at Limantour Beach for hours, reading Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Henry James, Jaron Lanier, Balzac, Zola, Virginia Woolf, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, and Homer. The last author wrote a line that stuck with Morph, “There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” Morph, now fourteen, looking out at the boundless Pacific Ocean, could imagine the oceanic worlds of The Odyssey. Educated mostly at home and in private immersions, he hadn’t—like most wealthy children in his cohort—been to Europe since he moved to his father’s California compound. And the only part of Europe he had been to previously was Switzerland, flying privately and avoiding the major airports. His father took him, via helicopter then plane to Montana or Lake Tahoe for skiing and snowboarding in the winter. For his fifteenth birthday he travelled with his father and two friends—children of San Francisco-based employees of a Z-owned software company—to Alaska on a private jet. That July was the best month of his life. His father, increasingly obsessed with his work at the matrix, became distant, and the two of them—Morph and Anthony—grew further and further apart until neither recognized, by the sheer distance of character, the other.
“Jeffrey, did I ever tell you about that summer I went to Alaska with my father?” Morph queried, standing near a large steel table in the centre of his living quarters, a massive chamber on the second floor of a warehouse, overlooking a rather desolate street, excepting a few old cars and tents lived in by pauperized individuals and families. An entire neighbourhood representing just a minor sampling of mass poverty in the US—full of people who had been entirely cast under the full weight of an ever increasing, rapidly changing, capitalist imperative—in the centre of Los Angeles, known as Skid Row II. Jeffrey leaned his arms on the table in a triangle, with this chin resting on his hands. “No, I don’t think you have, Morph. And, I am glad to see you too.”
“Sorry, I meant to… Hello, love! I’ve always been terrible with reunions.”
“Not terrible, however you do tend to start off tangentially; or rather, shall I put it this way, one meets you for the first time in a year and—without a hello—immediately is asked if they’ve heard of your trip to Alaska with your father. I really am quite happy to see you.”
“As am I.”
“Well, do tell.”
“So, I was fifteen, actually it was for my fifteenth birthday. For some reason my father placed a great deal of weight, meaning, significance, whatever you want to call it, on this particular age, turning this age, and he wanted to take me somewhere. I hadn’t left the continental US, the lower forty-eight, since I was nine. Dad flew us up to Anchorage, then we took a flight to Fairbanks; interesting town, spent three days there, totally a must see; I mean this place is like—I hate this term—but it’s a Wild West melange of people. You know how people fly to Hawaii and live on the beach, there is this nomadic, quasi-homeless population? Yes, of course you do. So, Fairbanks is sort of this weird, cold inversion of that; it has a kind of nomadic, freakishly curious ambiance with that imposing, Alaskan backdrop. Anyways, we drove to Denali National Park and hiked a good distance, then we began to climb—with a guide—and climb. We got to an overlook, and there was this big grizzly bear sitting, perched, above a rockface; we are talking a cliff—steep yes—but only something like five metres above our heads; he looked at us for—several seconds, felt like an eternity—and then, he just turned around and walked off. I shudder now thinking about it. After he left, the wind started to blow furiously. I looked out over the other mountains, then tried to crane my neck upwards towards the summit—I couldn’t see it, the top, and I felt this sense of immensity, of smallness, that I was the mountain and not the mountain, the bear and not the bear. In that moment I felt—simultaneously—terror and comfort.”
“Dear Zeus! I’ve seen black bears in Oregon, but to be on Denali, in the middle of a vast wilderness, which is surrounded by an even vaster series of wildernesses, this mass of land colossal above you, those upper elevation winds, what a magical—inexplicable—mixture!”
“Yes, and you know what is the most interesting part of this experience? After about, oh say, ten to fifteen seconds, I feel my father’s hand on my shoulder, he leans over and says to me, ‘you are real now.’ I stood there for thirty minutes crying. Fuck, dude, I was fifteen, I had two of my best friends with me at the time, and there I was crying! Fortunately, they were raised by ultra-sensitive, cyber-Bohemian types, very Bay Area upper-class neo-neo-hippy … And they stood there, in silence. That night, when we camped a bit further up, my dad rolled this huge joint and we all got so high. I can’t believe it. I have never felt that alive, that happy and haven’t felt that way, that sense of presence, since. And about five years after that my father gave his now infamous speech to Silicon Valley types in Napa, ‘Why do we live in a state where sensation is mediated out of existence?’ Sometimes I wonder if what I experienced, he experienced too, if he knew that feeling of his son realizing reality and that somehow seeded an inspiration in him to—in his own way, he never used the term—germinate the ‘re-reality mov?’ Of course, this is all speculation because I know that dad was already moving in this direction—hell it’s the reason he moved away from that loaded term ‘the grid’—although maintaining a lot of the comforts, if not more, than most people have from being ‘on’ and ‘in’ the grid.”
Jeffrey pulled up a metal stool and sat on; he a glanced at the tall metal table—it nearly came up to his nose—and then he looked out the window. Morph lit a cigarette. “Want one?”
“Are they American Spirits? The Organic blend?”
Jeffrey stood, took a cigarette from the silver and gold holder that Morph had extended with his long, muscular arm—an arm with several tattoos hidden under his long-sleeve black shirt. Jeffrey loved Morph’s body, and Morph loved Jeffrey’s mind. The sexual attraction was mutual, but not equal. Morph loved Jeffrey, and so he loved having sex with him; Jeffrey loved having sex with Morph, and so he loved him. Sometimes the material that ignites the mutual ardour of affection differs, yet the fire consumes both sides equally.
“Morph, I need to ask you a question,” Jeffrey looked directly into Morph’s deep, brown eyes. Jeffrey’s dark green eyes, with yellow around the pupils, blinked several times. “I want to ask you to help me with something. I am putting together a sort of thought-object; it needs to become a reality. I have money, I am comfortable, you know that—the books are selling, mainly thanks to your father’s publishing company…” Morph took another cigarette from the pack, lit it, and then sat in a lime green armchair.
Jeffrey hadn’t lit his first cigarette; he’d placed it above his right ear. Now, removing it and placing it to his lips—a wordless gesture asking for fire—Morph got up and lit Jeffrey’s cigarette. Jeffrey, impressed by Morph’s boyish looks combined with his ability to almost always intuit his needs—and his peculiar, gentlemanly behaviour—felt almost as if he might be feeling himself quite happy. A moment with Morph was never a wasted moment.
Sitting down, Morph interjected, “No, your books sale, in the main, because they are good books. Remember, your first book, well, your second book—the one not self-published—wasn’t even with our company, and the publishing house didn’t even promote it, but it sold something like 100,000 copies in the first year. So, babe, trust yourself. Yes, the tailored advertising, the control of digital flows, and all of that nudging play a role, but there is work our publishing company has tried to promote in the past that didn’t sell. I want you to understand that. It’s not purely an algorithmic process. And I am sorry you had to go on ridiculous that long tour. The publishers…”
“Yes, well, the tour wasn’t too terrible. As for the book sales, I do understand. Or let us suppose I do. Nevertheless, I have such moments of anguish—perhaps that’s not the right word, melancholia, in this Freudian sense of not moving past whatever my lost object or objects are—and it’s affecting my being as a writer.” Jeffrey grabbed a scarf from his bag and placed it over his head, a preventive protective aegis against criticism. Inhaling and exhaling the smoke, he continued, “I feel that I am a fraud—and of course I am—I mean, what fiction writer isn’t a liar, a pathological liar? And philosophy, and the idea of the two together—Sartre pulled that off, barely, with large doses of drugs, and a community that nurtured him, and it was the middle of the 20th Century, before the real deluge of the spectacles, and, of course, of the horrors of the last decade. But I … I have you—I love you. That’s not the point though. Damn, that weed was really good.”
“Yes, your favourite, Blue Dream. And by the way, your anguish does affect your writing, it is part of the fuel, right?”
“Yes, and it acts as a suppressant—it’s fire and Earth mixed up! Ursula Le Guin said somewhere, ‘Don’t trust writers.’ She, of course, is right. One of the finest minds to ever grace the Occidental literary world; I met her daughter once, over a decade ago—in Portland, well in Multnomah Village, an enclave in Southwest Portland.”
“Yes, wasn’t Ursula meant to be there? And she was too ill? And then, some years later, you finished your first book several days after she died? And dedicated it to her. I know—I do remember almost everything about you, because you’re the only person… Ok, go on…”
“Well, so—I, um, as you know,” Jeffrey softly tittered, “I write about mediation, the epiphenomena of so-called consciousness, the simulation, replication, reproduction or whatever—actually multiple factors, all accreting into a major dissimulation—these are the products of experience being sensed via the body, and one of the major synthesizers of all this actualized potential becoming experience of experience is our neuroanatomy. And yet, I can’t seem to get beyond a certain barrier. I mean, I am trying to avoid a Sokal Affair, do you remember—from the last century? He was a scientist who published nonsense in a fashionable post-modern magazine, when post-modernism was still being taken seriously, and those ‘critical theorists’ and ‘cultural studies’ people all loved it, and they all freaked out when they found out their praise for it, it was for a joke, for someone who—well he took the reality of their illusions, their subjective projections—and wrote complete gibberish. Of course, the people who loved it—well, there is a strong subjective bias, a strong ‘authorial authority’ based on his background in the hard sciences, and so on, and these social narratives, the alienated exosphere of ‘subjectivity’ affected them—it affects us all. So, I guess my point is, I want to work with neuroscientists and mathematicians, full-time, create something like an Institute for Actuality & Absence Studies. I want to actually work within these arenas—but as a student, and then use that to change, challenge or even disrupt what I am postulating. The passions that drive one to something are also the desires that obscure the path.” Jeffrey found himself, quite surprisingly, blurting out, “I need money to make this happen.”
During their three-year relationship there had been a tacit, unspoken agreement that Jeffrey would never ask Morph for money. Jeffrey—with his financial and personal past heaving under the burden of what he called ‘the curse of the Midlands’—never managed to accrue a lot of wealth.
Morph leaned to the right, placed his elbow on the armrest, and his head on his hand. He seemed detached. Jeffrey, impatient and nervous about his hasty request, a request that seemed to go beyond the tacit contract that kept their deep yet fragile relationship alive, briskly asked, “Morph, Morph, darling … are you listening?”
“Of course, I am babe. I am sure you are aware that some sort of financial plan— what a terrible phrase—but some sort of implementation structure, whatever we want to call it, will need to be put in place. And there is the matter of names.”
“Oh, yes, I know I mustn’t be publicly associated with it, not with my history.”
“Well, publicly associated but not in a foundational sort of way. And there are so many moving parts to getting something like this going. Do you need to be in control of it? Could you live without a public presence? I mean, this is the best sort of power, something I learnt from my grandparents—as malevolent as they might have been, they knew systems of power, real power—well fictional power that has real effects; they knew how to generate wealth and power without coming under scrutiny. They relinquished their legacy for control. What is a legacy anyways? A name on a building? I understand authorial legacies. I understand the need to make a mark, to create a line, as you would say—this goes back to the cave paintings—and while the reason behind those paintings is still in dispute, they seem intended for roughly what we might call posterity. My grandparents didn’t want posterity for themselves, they wanted posterity itself.”
“Yes, I understand, I understand—please forget about it.
“No! We’ll talk with my father about it. If he authorizes it, then no one can stop it. I am meaning to meet with him tomorrow. I’ll update our shared calendar to put this on the agenda.”
“I appreciate that. I really need you to understand one thing…”
At that moment the bell rang. Morph went to the intercom; Adam and Jessica had arrived.
Walking up the stairs, Adam felt a profound sense of unease about meeting Morph—he knew about Morph, but had never envisaged meeting such a person. “It’s like meeting a Rockefeller or Kennedy! But even worse!” he’d said to Jessica in the taxi ride from LAX to downtown Los Angeles. “He’s just a person, with the same insecurities, with the same flesh, with the same blood, with the same … Well, yes, it is a bit strange for me too. Just take it moment by moment baby. You’ve been through so much with me these last few months. After my mother died, I felt like I couldn’t handle anything. I couldn’t get out of bed. My father—he’s no help, drinking all the time—and you stayed. You stayed. And now, look we are living together, we are married, we are going on our honeymoon, and—look at you—look what you’ve done, you’re working full-time. You’re in recovery. We can handle all that, so we can definitely handle Morph.”
Adam nervous, sweaty—his first time in Los Angeles, let alone a neighbourhood full of used syringes and precariously positioned tents—after being buzzed in through the metal door, felt his way up steep, thin metal steps, rising straight up to the second floor. Before Morph bought it, the old warehouse had been abandoned for some twenty-five years; Morph used it as a place to escape. No one from his ‘usual circle’—except Jeffrey—ever came to this part of Los Angeles. Jessica held Adam’s sweaty palm with her left hand, keeping notice of her legs on the hazardous, rickety stairway, and sliding her other hand, palm nearly flat, on the wall—there wasn’t a railing. On the outer side of the stairs a rift, which became deeper with every step, meant they vertically hung above the entrance’s hard-concrete floor. The stairs bent, groaned, squeaked and creaked with every step. Arriving at the top landing, Adam firmly gripped Jessica’s hand. Meeting a sliding metal door, half open, they entered.
“Welcome, welcome,” Morph said, hugging both Adam and Jessica at the same time; his tall, strapping torso holding them both for a couple of seconds.
“My this is an interesting place for a….” Jessica trailed off.
“For a billionaire?” Morph said, chuckling, finishing her sentence.
Smiling and nodding, Jessica took note of his comment, and—after looking around with a sense of bemusement—sat on a metal stool next to Jeffrey.
“Jeffrey, I wanted to thank you.”
“For what, my dear?” He held out his hand and she took it; they felt a sense of mutual bonding after she’d told him about her most personal details—about her abusive father, her loving and chronically ill mother—her lonely childhood, that cold day in Chicago, some eight months ago. And they’d been privately talking via Zing about Adam’s relapses and recoveries every couple of weeks since.
“For being you, and of course, for bringing Adam into my life.”
“Oh dear, I can’t take credit for either. I couldn’t be anything other than me; I suppose I am multiple selves somehow synthesized into this thing—this signifier—you call Jeffrey, but even then, I couldn’t be otherwise, or perhaps I could, but alternatively, we might’ve have met in such a parallel simulation? And as for Adam, the three-dimensional future-flowing interface called life manifested such a meeting; perhaps I was an appetizer in the affair, but surely, I wasn’t the main dish. The meal is in the cooking, the tasting and the presentation. The presentation is central, for it brings together both the preparation and the consumption. But I could only say, that perhaps, even at the upper-limits of my competency, I was simply the table, or the tablecloth, or even the napkin.”
“Or the dining room?” Adam timidly interjected.
“Ah, an even better analogy—we’ve got a real Bachelard fan here!”
Morph—placing boiling water over a pot of green tea—stood at the far end of the room, near the kitchen sink. Morph owned the entire building, yet this was the main room—it existed as a deep concrete and brick rectangle, thirty-five feet long and twenty-feet wide. As for its objects, they consisted of the high metal table, a sofa, several armchairs, two metallic silver desks with ergonomic chairs, two sliver Apple computers, two large bookshelves set against the inner wall, and some three-hundred books—topics ranging from geography, to philosophy, to a smattering of the literary canon of the Occident, to the famous Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, several original editions—one Look Homward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin—along with a smattering of books on everything from cults, coding and biology. Viewing the shelves, Adam asked to take a look at several of the chemistry books, a few of the books on cults and some biology books. “Mi casa es su casa,” Morph replied. After leafing through the technical books, he picked up an English translation of Dream of the Red Chamber. Adam sat in an old armchair, where he’d remain reading for next three hours.
Jessica, Morph and Jeffrey relaxed into the black Børge Mogensen 2333
three-seater sofa; in front of them sat a stainless-steel coffee table, recently purchased and shining brightly from the light outside; these new furnishings stood out in the otherwise stark room. A Japanese, round cast-iron teapot—a gift Jeffrey bought for Morph in Matsumoto the year before—four cups of tea, two ashtrays, three joints, and one, small cube-shaped speaker playing—very quietly—a Glenn Gould recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, all sat in their right positions; the divan facing the large floor-to-ceiling window; the tall steel table behind them, and—behind that—Adam reading in a chair next to the shelves. Everything subsisted in the right place; everything coexisted at the right time. Time itself moved gently in the near windless, warm room on that beautiful August day. For half an hour they sat without speaking—sipping on tea, smoking cigarettes and sharing two joints, and looking at the bright California sun as it began its afternoon arc towards the Pacific.
“We are leaving in two days for Hawaii,” Jessica said delicately, gently breaking through the Bach and silence. Morph was, by now, laid out on a bundle of soft, woollen blankets on the floor, a few feet away from the sofa, and Jeffrey—now likewise horizontal on the sofa—was enjoying Jessica’s hands rubbing his bare feet. “Oh, I think it’s exceptionally good idea,” Jeffrey faintly uttered. “I am sorry I missed the wedding. One must get off this damned continent. I can’t believe I came back—really, if Morph didn’t insist on living here. After I left you and Adam in Chicago, I cancelled Detroit and Atlanta, went straight to O’Hare and flew home, well, what I am currently calling home, a small studio apartment in Helsinki. I am only there for some two-months out of the year. I immediately felt a sense of relief as soon as the plane left the runway. Hawaii is technically, although not—shall we say, ontologically or culturally—a part of the US. Completely different élan exists there. Expensive, it’s quite expensive. I spent a week there—a glorious week it was—but a very expensive week.”
“Well, we’ve been saving up, my mother left me some money—we really didn’t have a honeymoon—you know, it was a speedy courtship; we are both young. I am a student, blah! Anyways, we wanted to wait for the right time, so when you said you’d be in LA—yes, I think you told Adam just after you left us in Chicago—we started planning. Well, we didn’t really plan the wedding—we almost eloped—but my father and my sister came to the civil ceremony, and then we started thinking of tying our honeymoon into seeing you. Because the flights are cheaper from LA to Honolulu, and we really wanted to see you. So, you confirmed the date about, what was it, Adam?” Adam looked up from his book, “About a month after you left, Jeff. We looked into flights, tracked them for a few days, found an amazing deal, and booked it. Also, neither of us has a passport—so it seemed like the place to go. We are using some of the marriage present money you sent; Jeff, thank you again, that helped a lot.”
“Well, I am pleased to hear it—for both of you it will be salubrious. Sun, beaches, the ocean breezes. Good to get away from the dreadful continental US. Although I always enjoy seeing Morph, I try to limit my visits to LA. But, Hawaii that’s an incomparable place—a different zone.”
“Yep, just like Alaska, different climates of course, but incomparable to the lower forty-eight,” Morph mumbled from the floor. The weed, potently affecting the entire room, and, more specifically, the hue and ambience of the mental states of these four distinctive, particular people, in this specific space, on this distinctly magical day, provided a gateway towards blessedness. A hypnotic mental state existed—separated by degrees only owing to the peculiarity of their singular bodies—nearly self-same in the four of them. Humming rhythmically synchronic, the afternoon turned to night, and beyond the words aforementioned, only the sounds of Bach, and a soft, kindly draft from an old ventilation shaft at the far end of the room, entered their cocooned space. They all needed this chamber, this entrance into near nothingness to escape from the crushing density that had brought them—for diverse, sole, differing moments, events and reasons—into creation; the narratives, the speaking, the incessant demands of establishing, re-establishing and constituting themselves as they were, as they are, as they will be on this orbiting planet, circling this star, circling this galaxy—in and on this eddy of finitude floating on a sea of infinite nothingness—a nothingness so present in its absence that it crunched in on itself, and led to this reality, this simulation, these actualities of traumas lived through ages, coded and reified into signs such as sexism, racism, homophobia, privilege, excess, access, scarceness—poverty and resource wedded and condemned to fly incessantly between the heavens and the Earth without rest, excepting in moments where the zero-point nearly occurred, where the nothingness negated its absence and presence cleared out, leading one just to the edge of beyond space, the verge—repose.
Jeffrey was the first to wake. The thin curtains let the early morning light shine in. Stepping over Jessica, he felt the soft, portable mattress under his bare feet. Woolen blankets, soft white linen sheets, and pillows filled the erstwhile empty space between the metal table and the sink. Next to the sink a sliding wooden door opened to a spacious—and clean—bathroom. “Oh, Morph cleaned the bathroom for me,” Jeffrey thought as he sat on the side of the antique bear-claw bathtub, running a warm bath. “And he even bought proper soap! My favourite.” After a night of sitting, talking and eating—Morph had gone to fetch vegan takeout from a local restaurant called Love Space, a relic of the last decade’s gentrification even near the now riotous Skid Row. And then, around 11pm, Morph went to the third floor, where he had a room built specifically to hygienically hold items for Jeffrey’s not-so-infrequent visits. There he procured the portable mattresses, linen sheets, pillows, soaps, a pair of black trousers, a black shirt, black socks, black underwear, black pyjamas and, of course, woolly blankets. During dinner, and while Morph was collecting the necessary items for sleeping, Jessica spoke to Jeffrey in hushed tones, near the far front-facing corner of the room; overlooking the street, Jessica let Jeffrey know of Adam’s recent relapses into substance abuse—the heroin, the meth, the pills—Adam maintained they were purely ‘recreational’—his fiction was not, in this instance, more real than his body’s urges. Everyone fell asleep almost immediately after setting up the sleeping area. Adam and Jessica slept side-by-side next to Jeffrey and Morph. Two couples, one giant puzzle, a bed made of several mattresses, spread like a cloud over the hard-concrete floor. Just before dozing off, Jessica put her hand on Jeffrey’s shoulder, looked at his closed eyes, and said, almost whispering, the words, ‘Thank you.” They had a peculiar, almost secret, special friendship—a friendship removed from the others through a clandestine vestibule, a passageway, to an alternative cosmos. She would call him a couple times a month—he paid her mobile phone bill—and talk about her life, her problems, Adam, and—especially, feeling free to be vulnerable, given Jeffrey’s intimate autobiographical third book—her father. Jeffrey would likewise discuss some of his deepest secrets with her, and he would solicit her advice on topics ranging from new trends in media, emerging nomenclatures, taxonomies and youthful argots. It wasn’t, of course, something they talked about amongst other people, for it wasn’t something to be shared. They had a deep solidarity, an abiding, platonic friendship.
Slipping into the bathtub, the warm water lifted to his chin; the deep tub held Jeffrey’s entire body. Melting into the lavender and eucalyptus infused H2O, he pulled a bar of soap—made with olive oil and cashew butter—from a small stand where Morph had carefully laid out a wide selection of bar soaps, shampoos and conditioners. Now awake, Morph was at the sink; he’d just boiled the kettle and poured the hot water into a strainer with coffee grounds. Slowly the chestnut-coloured liquid dripped into an earthenware ewer, infusing the surrounding air with that classic, ritualistic morning aroma. Opening the sliding door by a few inches, peeking in at Jeffrey in the bathtub, he said, quietly, “Good morning, babe.”
“Oh, good morning, indeed, indeed. I see you have procured all of my favourite bathroom things,” Jeffrey whispered in reply. “The others still asleep?”
“Yes, that weed really hit them, and I think they are also tired from travelling.”
“Let them sleep. Could you bring me some coffee darling?”
“That was my plan.”
“Good—my beautiful. What time is it?”
“About 9—I think.” Morph walked to the counter to check his phone. He came back to the door, opened it all the way, and came in, stroking Jeffrey’s forehead.
“8:45, actually. Today we will go to The August and start the process for your Institute.”
“Oh, no, I mean, yes—ok—can I think about it? Do I really want to do it? And your father, he’s such a challenge” Jeffrey noticed his voice becoming louder. Lowering the volume, he continued, “Sorry, I mean—I know—I don’t want to put you in a situation. You seemed to demur—well, you weren’t overly supportive of the idea yesterday. Or rather I simply don’t want to ask for this. But I already have. Alright, darling, I need coffee. I can’t think.”
“Yes, you need coffee. We will see what happens. You need to relax. You are always on edge.”
“Oh dear … I do so wonder why!” Jeffrey—partly disappointed in the laxity of his lover’s response to an idea that had been welling up within him for years.
Morph—by all accounts loving yet so completely detached—replied,
Morph pressed the ignition; the electric car started without a sound; a small green light and a display panel turning on were the only indicators that the car had been activated. Jeffrey came through the already open door—a sliding, rusted and partially corroded movable metal sheet that, along with a concrete wall, separated the main entranceway. The same main entranceway where Adam and Jessica had climbed harsh steps to the second floor living quarters. Opening the car’s passenger door, and sitting on the right-side, Jeffrey sat silently. Morph pressed his phone, and the retractable garage door, a grimy, steel panelled behemoth—built for the days when the building existed, in the early twentieth century, as a working warehouse, and later, from the 1970s to the 1980s as a neighbourhood auto mechanic’s shop—lifted upwards and arched over the car. Morph backed the car out, pressed his phone, watched the door close, and drove down the street. Directly outside of his warehouse sat three tents, roughly ten feet to the left of the main door. Two of them housed single persons—two, older white men. They were long-term homeless people who had never recovered from the Great Recession of 2008. The third, slightly larger tent, housed a family of four. Two women—a lesbian couple—and their three and six-year-old daughters lived there, they’d been homeless for four months after their landlord tripled their rent. Further down the street even more tents packed the sidewalks. As they approached a major intersection, it became impossible to see between the tarpaulin-to-tarpaulin ramshackle and makeshift homes; in fact, some of these were no longer tents, they were entire, complex shelters. Jeffrey looked silently out the window; the people of the streets, mostly awake, were milling about outside their meagre lodgings in the morning sun. Tent after tent, person after person, rolled past.
This almost endless track of misery, desolation, of resilience and resource threw Jeffrey’s mind back to the time when he too lived in a tent, on a Radical Faerie gay men’s commune in Oregon. After his grandparents said his gay “lifestyle” couldn’t be tolerated under their roof, they removed their sinful son from the family orbit—or whatever was left of it. They’d supported him as long as legally required, until his eighteenth year. He was already in his second year in college, and the stress of packing his small, 1989 Eagle Summit, a very reliable compact car, as all his things pressed down on its small frame, overwhelmed and excited him. The car filled with the weight of his life’s belongings heaved under the pressure; the stress of buying a tent with his student loans, of purchasing dangerous propane heaters to stay warm in the winter buckled and stretched his youthful capability; the stress of taking care of his friend, a lesbian who was also asked to leave her home weighed heavily on his shoulders, creating deep, tense root-like knots within his trapezius muscles; the stress of commuting forty-five minutes each-way to his college campus, to attend to a full academic schedule whilst working two-jobs burdened him into blankness; the stress of being abandoned again, the stress of hearing his mother, Cynthia, say warmly, tenderly and with her signature hidden sociopathic, sardonic humour that he was “welcome to take a shower” at her home “twice a week,” would leave cracks in his skull for decades; the stress of knowing that she knew, all-too-well, that her son had been disfellowshipped and disassociated from the only family he’d ever known—his grandparents, and knowing that her son was living in a tent, during the cold rainy season that began in October, which would only become increasingly more miserable throughout November, December, January, and February transmogrified his dreams into a narrow, myopic and survivalist way of being that sabotaged his ability to project himself into the future. It also did not go without notice, that Cynthia’s other children lived comfortably in her warm home.
The stress of seeing the dark impressions from the mould growing daily on his clothing, in the corner of his perpetually damp tent, left a mark that would always unite him with those at the edges, those who had fallen off the edges, of society; the irritation of his feet peeling and turning red, itchy and malodourous from chronic fungal infections, would later lead to his ritualistic spraying of the feet; the stress of not passing the required math classes to advance to his third year at a real university, not Rogue Community College, leaving him with an inferiority complex for some decades to come; the stress of a man of around sixty-years-old trying to rape him while he was facing the height of a full-on drug-induced meeting with emptiness, this man acting as if a blow-job from his rotten, nearly toothless mouth would ‘heal … chakras;’ all of this had the effect of turning the very essence of Jeffrey’s existence, the territory that happened to be his life, into a nearly full encounter with nothingness.
“You know what my grandfather said to me when I came out?” Jeffrey said, staring forward, as the car slowly progressed down the on-ramp to the jam-packed freeway.
“No, I don’t recall you telling me.” Morph lit a cigarette. “Want one?”
“So, what did he say?”
“He said something very strange, very unusual. He had never, never used language like that before; he never cursed; he never spoke of anything remotely titillating or salacious. Also, when he said it, he had been promoted to a rather high position within the local Jehovah Witness organization, something that requires even a narrower set of speakable expletives.”
“The entire Jehovah thing is a mystery to me; I mean they have been saying the end is coming, the rapture—sorry—Armageddon is on its way, with specific dates in the 19th Century with crazy Charles Russell all the way up to what, 1976?”
“1975, although they—of course—retroactively dispute that, despite the fact that, well, at the time they promoted it; perhaps recruitment was down. Nothing like a concrete date to get people motivated to turn over their life savings!”
“Yes, the whole thing reeks of a racket to me; but they are good at business, all that volunteer—ahem, free—labour, all of those eager pensioners, ready to pass into Paradise, signing their homes, their estates, over to the Watchtower Corporation. Quite a business!”
“Yes, indeed, so back to my grandfather, which really starts with my grandmother. As most things do. She found out from someone’s mother. A girl I was attending group psychotherapy with—of course with a strict confidentiality policy that clearly wasn’t adhered to—and my grandmother came home. I’ll never forget that day. She came through the front door crying, mumbling, snot coming out of her nose. It was dreadful, awful. She asked, ‘Is it true, is it true, is it true’—over and over again. I asked her, of course already knowing what she was talking about, ‘what are you talking about?’ She stared at me with such impatience, and asked, ‘are you gay?’ And I said, to my own surprise, ‘yes, and I am proud of it.’ I think she nearly fainted. My grandfather came charging out like a bull ready to fight. He could have hit me right there and then, but I’d done nothing actually wrong; he knew this too. I could tell though, he wanted to hit me, his face was so full of anger, red, his short teeth—ground down nightly over the years from protracted stress—normally kept quite hidden, flashed out. These hideous little yellowish, white pegs around thin lips, surrounded by a head like a block. He said, damn, and I will never forget this. He said …,” Jeffrey took a long, deep inhalation off the cigarette and flicked some ash out the window, “He said …” Jeffrey paused, taking another puff, his hand shaking, “And he asked, ‘So you want a man to stick his penis in your butt? You want to stick your penis in a man’s butt?”
“What? Really? That’s beyond …” Morph, looked in the rear-view mirror and craned his neck back to look left, moving the car gently into the bumper-to-bumper traffic, navigating into a space between a large semitruck and driverless Mercedes—no one occupied the front seats; several cars, decades old, sped past on the shoulder, spewing out black and brown smoke. “That’s beyond what you’ve written before, and your work has been incredibly revealing and personal, hell you detail so much in Rogue Picaro. What did you do? What did you do after he said that? Where did you go? What happened?”
“Everyone became quiet, or at least I didn’t hear them. I was loosely beginning to practice Buddhist meditation. I had a bamboo mat in my room, some candles, and I had painted my walls this lovely dark lavender, so I walked down the hallway, went to my room, closed the door, sat and wrote a poem. Ha! – yes, a poem about one-thousand monks meditating in calm, tranquil detachment. Of course, I felt everything and nothing at the same time, and these two countervailing forces—absolute presence and absolute absence—they cancelled each other out. Hmm, I think, for several hours? Yeah, for some time I can’t remember, I sat quietly, there but not there, diminishing into a sort of dull numbness. Dissociating, that’s what was happening, and would happen, over and over again. Rogue Picaro is about, centrally, this experience of becoming close to not being while physically existing. This experience of becoming, this mode of becoming—becoming is here defined as experience experiencing itself as experience, would continue, transmogrify and mutate into a type of habituated, lingering anhedonia. Freud’s lost object or objects, the epicentre of depression is the inability to feel, to really feel—which sometimes requires a fiction, fabrication to alleviate the friction between is and ought. I don’t think I experienced actual joy, or even perhaps the actuality of experience, until I was …”
“When you were writing Rogue Picaro?”
“Yes, well I wrote the Rogue Picaro just after—the memorial, so I suppose I felt alive before that, that feeling rushed over me and allowed me to write. You can’t write if you’re unable to feel.”
“That’s horrible my father, although in vastly different ways, your family is escapist, they run to religion; he runs to the mountains. My father runs off in search of escape through control and isolation—same underlying reason, he wants to feel safe, cocooned. And your family—oh my days, your grandfather, that evil uncle of yours in Klamath Falls—I remember meeting his dreadful wife, Katie?”
“Yes, she stared at me like she was Jeffrey Dahmer. Total Andrea Yates vibes. That funeral—memorial—for your grandmother. I went for you. Filming it with my glasses the whole time. And of course, I met your sociopathic mother and grandfather. Your brother, his partner Ashley, there three-million children and half of them twins! I joke, but isn’t he some sort of environmentalist? I thought he’d be more anti-natalist. Like wasn’t he a late teens’ Bernie-freak at some point? before the old man and his cult faded into the sunset? Nonetheless, I actually … Well, honey, I think all of your family is sociopathic. You wrote you even have these ‘sociopathic’ tendencies in Rogue Picaro.” Morph realised he was treading on tender Earth, but he breezed by it, as was his habit, bluntly putting the rest of his thoughts out like a hammer on a nail, “I don’t think you’re a sociopath. You were just raised in a sociopathic environment. I mean, we all are to some degree—I recall in the book, when you interviewed, who was it, Stacey?”
“Yes, one of my mother’s friends when I was very young, about three of four. I recall her vaguely. She later affirmed what Cynthia said.”
“That’s right, that you would comfort her, rub her head when she was dealing with her twin sister, Tracey, who was sleeping with her husband. Uh … oh, this classically, I am sorry, but this categorically stereotypical for what you yourself call, ‘poor white trash.’ Anyways, you were a tender child, and as you are a loving person—although completely misunderstood as a result of your erratic, unpredictable, dissociated, precarious, and by degrees, depending on the person, authentically counterfeit … yes detached, and—to some, illogical—way of existence.”
“Well, I am not entirely sure whether sociopathy is entirely endogenous—specifically genetically and neurologically predetermined—as is the case with sexual orientation or gender identity, or, rather if it is more genetically possible in some individuals and then actuated by degrees under certain circumstances, in certain environments, contexts, and catalysed by particular events.” Jeffrey said without emotion. Intellectualizing provided a good lubricant, continuing, he said flatly, “I think for most cases it is the latter; however, there does seem to be indicators that in some people the sociopathy is almost already activated and requires very little ‘stimulation’ to activate. Narrative has a lot to do with it; what bodies, what people, what stories get seen, heard, acknowledged, and what gets that eerie silence of indifference. We create these fictions, these simulations—called structures, right? And then use them to frame what matters; and they use us to frame what matters; and what matters frames the super-structures that frame the structures.”
“What you’re arguing, what you’ve been arguing, is that everything—almost like Althusser posits—is invested in the structure, from so-called everyday language, slang, to social movements, economic polices? Wait, let me rephrase that, that everything is participant to structures that predate any single individual? That social atomism is wrong because it takes this fictional, alienated, subjective—existential—idea of an individual as the substrate of everything? When in fact we are all incoherent wholes! Wholes with holes!”
“I like your holes!”
“Always sex with you.” Morph, aware he’d hit a nerve exclaimed.
“Always. I mean, there is a necessity to it; at least, some degree of it. Acknowledging that we are fissionable, like an atom, we can be split, but the effects are often, radioactive. The Euro-genesis of the nuclear family—oh what a proper name for it!—often is the epicentre of this split. In any case, radioactive or not, there is too much to fully ‘absorb’—the idea of some Absolute Presence or Absolute Knowledge is absurd—there are limits. We cannot absorb everything, but what we do absorb, the spectrum of content, is very narrow. We must expand the spectrum itself—how this is done, I can’t say. As for content the situation, this can be used as means altering the narrative, which in turn can expand the spectrum of the structure. The reality of fiction is greater than the fiction of reality!”
“That’s your best line!” Morph smiled, and put his hand on Jeffrey’s lap. Jeffrey put his palm on top Morph’s large hand, with its strong, long fingers. Jeffrey loved those fingers; he loved Morph’s hands. The traffic was at a complete standstill. A dozen or so helicopters buzzed above.
“There must be some sort of accident.” Morph mumbled, lighting another cigarette. He told the car to display road conditions; a faded but visible image projected near the bottom of the windshield showed a map indicating construction, bottlenecks, and two accidents, one involving a truck and trailer. The average speed of traffic within the next five miles was ten-miles-per hour.
“You’d think with self-driving cars, automated road controls, congestion charges, this type of traffic would have been finally relegated to the past,” Morph sighed.
“A lot of things we thought would be relegated to the past are still all-too-present, babe.”
Cars, trucks, concrete, steel entwined to create winding, zigzagging, snaking and ever-expanding solid, pulsating tendrils entangling themselves synthetically into an unabridged accretion; the great composition being the divinely sacrilegious city of Angels—a popping, catholic mishmash—one expansive, electric, psychotropic mosaic.
Several more miles down the twelve-lane concrete colossus, with another hulking freeway leviathan above, obscuring the sun, Jeffrey tensely remarked, “Morph, will you leave me?”
Jeffrey gripped Morph’s hand. As the car moved beyond the double-decker freeway, the summer sun streamed through the car’s windows. Jeffrey reached for his sunglasses in his backpack. His phone rang. It was a number he didn’t recognize. He answered to hear Jessica, panicked.
“Jeffrey, I, um, need your help.”
“Yes, darling. I am currently stuck in traffic with Morph.”
“Well, this morning Adam, he went out, and he …”
“He bought drugs. I don’t know what he purchased. Whatever it was freaked him out. He came back here; he couldn’t remember to put his index finger on the biometric entrance panel, and began to scream and kick the door. I didn’t hear anything. These walls are so thick, and the … well, each floor is so tall, being on the second floor, I just didn’t …” She began to sob. “I couldn’t hear him. The cops picked him up … I think the security system automatically notified them after it registered someone kicking and beating at the front door. I had left for the corner bar and store, thinking he might be there. I was worried because he had a relapse two weeks ago, in Lincoln. Bought some heroin, some speed, and had to be hospitalized. I left the corner bar, came down the street and saw him cuffed and pressed against a cop car. I tried to explain the situation, to explain that we were married. They didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe me. They acted like I was just some fling, or worse … some. White guy, Black woman. Fucking racists. Anyways, they nearly arrested me for just asking questions. Fortunately, this hippie guy, some sixty-year-old white guy—some member of one of those neo-cults that bought up space on the street—well, he came out of one of the apartments nearby and started filming. The cops backed off—started to act more professionally. A few minutes later, they took Adam. He took all our cash, and our debit card.”
Jeffrey turned to Morph, shook his head, and said, “Ok, let’s organize ourselves. Go upstairs, you will find one of my credit cards, use the American Express. I am adding you as an authorized user. Take a taxi to Morph’s office. Morph has some connections to local politicians.”
Morph interjected, “Yeah, I helped get the DA elected. She’s ok.”
“Did you hear that? We will locate Adam’s whereabouts, his pending charges—probably drug possession and disorderly conduct. Please come directly to Morph’s office … What’s the address darling?”
“Actually, we’re meeting him at серпень Café. And the address is … off the 8000 block of Melrose Ave. The driver will know.”
“Did you get that?”
“Yes, wrote it down.”
“Traffic is atrocious, so it may take you awhile to get there. We’re still soe forty-minutes out.”
“Traffic is the least of my worries … Sorry, I am not myself. I’ll see you soon. Thank you.”
“Don’t apologize. Adam’s problems predate all of us, likely even himself. See you soon.”
Jeffrey disconnected from the call. This call reminded him of the call he received two weeks after his sister died. His grandmother called to tell him, and she said only a few words before Jeffrey cut her off. Jeffrey repeated that he wanted nothing to do with anyone in the family, that he didn’t care to speak to her, and that he didn’t care in general. After that call he disconnected from himself. Untethered from reality, he walked straight in front of a car on a busy Parisian street. He remembered the slamming of brakes, the car stopping a metre or so from his leg, the car behind it slamming into the first car, and three other cars hitting each other. He recalled the driver getting out, shouting curses in French, trying to hold him in place. He recalled waking up in his apartment with a bruise on his left arm. Suddenly, the space inside Morph’s car became disorienting, uncanny—too real. Jeffrey disconnected from the car, he disconnected from himself, he disconnected from the freeway, from the destination, from the reason for the destination, from the city, from the state, from the planet, from time and space itself. He sat, looking out the window at the cars lined up like a Chris Burden kinetic sculpture; he sat, looking, perceiving, and feeling nothing. Morph sensed this and turned on some music—Alice Coltrane. Morph said nothing. He knew it was the best thing to say.
серпень Café, referred to sometimes in English simply as The August, always full to the brim with the well-heeled and neo-hippy privileged, who oozed smugness and affluence. It represented the paradoxical centre of both the digitally entrenched and the aesthetically sensitive—samadhi isolation chamber-dwelling—disdainful, urbane elites of the ‘re-reality mov.’ New and old monied classes mingled over avocado toast, herb-roasted organic turkey, $30 bowls of grapefruit slices, and other absurdities: lavender-infused water from Antarctic glaciers, a haughty $50 litre carafe served to power-and-status-hungry (‘PASHS’) venture capitalists, producers, directors, actors, scions of software, VR space rentiers and an assortment of programmers, trust-fund ‘kids’—some in their forties—stoners smoking in the ‘cannabis-friendly zone’ in a specially ventilated, glassed off section on the second floor, and Tibetan monks ringing bowls and chanting in a special mini-monastery built in the centre of the main room. Several adjacent rooms housed ever more elite clients—regulars able to fork over $100 for a watermelon salad, which consisted of watermelon shredded into a bowl over Antarctic ice—the latest craze was liquid from the poles. Influencers live-streamed their ‘involvements’ and ‘engagements’ with other influencers, in realer than real time to millions of eager viewers; some—the more established influencers—charged a ‘paywall’ to view their ‘lives.’ Most of them were sponsored, in one way or another, by a brand, a politician or a series of both. Some people sat alone, with light RaySpot VR glasses on, fully immersed in a partly real, partly virtual world. They would sit having conversations with people not there; some of these people were family or friends; however, most of them were speaking to self-directed artificial intelligences designed for tailored, user-specific conversations. A disgruntled screenwriter spoke with a ‘digital’ amalgamation of various screenwriters, playwriters and dramaturges taken from contemporary profiles and historical figures. Another man spoke to ‘digital’ women with all the specifications he’d designed for ‘the perfect user experience’—meaning he spoke most of the time, and the women, serially changed with his short attention span, agreed with everything he said. Jeffrey and Morph passed through this melange of haute société, and passed to Anthony’s usual partially-cocooned room, 9015. Morph opened the glass door, and the light in the room, dimmed for Anthony’s daily five thirty-minute meditation sessions, softly brightened.
Anthony, hair as white as newly fallen snow, stood up, hugged his son, and shook Jeffrey’s hand.
“So good to see you again, Jeff.”
Jeffrey shook his hand, but said nothing.
“Would you two care for anything to eat?”
“Just an oat latte for me. Jeffrey will have the same.”
“I’ll take the vegan scramble and some avocado toast,” Anthony said. He selected his order from the tablet on the table. A ‘user experience expert’ came a few seconds later. “Is everything acceptable, Mr Zed?”
“Yes, please tell them to make the toast gluten-free; and unleavened if possible, with sesame seed—all organic ingredients.”
“Surely,” she nodded and closed the glass door. It frosted over, giving the three of them solitude.
Anthony, clothed in a long white, linen dress and simple bamboo sandals, turned to his son, “What’s wrong with Jeff?” Morph put his finger to his lips. “Morph, listen—no, no, no—communication is essential. Dialogue. We can’t let him just slip off, again.”
“Jeffrey, you seem to have less alacrity, enthusiasm than Morph, and your first book was indeed good. I enjoyed it—hell it’s the reason I invested in your next six books. This systematic study of nothingness. In Actuality & Nihology you managed to bring the Kyoto School together with contemporary art—what’s that artist you interviewed—the Australian woman making VR pornography for paedophiles to prevent them from consuming child exploitation videos, or harming children? Joanne Milner? And the way you wrote—broad-strokes—about everything and everyone and nothing. John Cage and Audre Lorde—and now you seem, well, where are you?”
“He’s just found out his friend was arrested.”
“At my place downtown.”
“Drug use and disorderly conduct. Jessica is on her way here.”
“His friend’s wife.”
“Well, this is most disconcerting. Morph, do you know who these people are? And why must you live down there? I mean Los Angeles is bad enough, the pollution! I can’t be here for more than two or three—maximum!—days at a time. But then you had to go and buy a disused warehouse there. Frankly, it’s not safe. Not with what’s happening. Why don’t you both come up to Marin County with me? Take some time to meditate—in peace, with air that one can breathe. We’ve eliminated all wildfire threats with heat-seeking drones that direct immediate resources to any potential fire-threats. We’ve banned all petrol and diesel cars from Marin County—that’s right—only electric vehicles can enter. We’ve not had a major fire in over three-years. The pollution levels are decreasing. The systems we are developing are perfectly calibrated. I worked for over…”
“Father, please. Not now.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Please no third person. Jeff’s disassociating. He will be back with us shortly. He took some medication in the car.”
“Disassociating—he needs to settle down, find some roots, find himself some stability, start some daily biofeedback. He can work with my psycho-nautical transferrer, she’s totally up-to-date with cyber/AI-integrated and enhanced, psilocybin treatment. Well damn, son—those last century psychopharmaceuticals aren’t a solution.”
“Dad, the situation is complicated. And please don’t talk about him as if he isn’t here.”
“Well, I can’t tell. He’s just staring … Hello, Jeff!” Anthony, from the other side of the table, waved his hand in front of Jeffrey’s face.
“Father, stop it!”
“Why must you spend your life with …,” Anthony, pausing, breathed in deeply, “… No, I am not going to judge. I am just going to focus on what I am grateful for. Did you know, we recently had several meditation pods installed in the Seattle office? They are designed to mimic the experience of being in the womb. Warm, slightly humid, slight movement, firm but gentle; you simply get in, and the pod contours to your shape, your mood, taking into account your vitals. It’s exceptionally good next gen biofeedback. Two are being installed in the Marin matrix as we speak. We’re installing more deep brain stimulation machines in Seattle, San Francisco and also in the Christchurch offices. I’ve had several treatments this year, my memory has improved significantly, and my IQ went up ten points. That along with my trip to Bhutan. Oh, you must go, son. When is his medication meant to work?”
“If you speak about my … please be respectful.”
“What your boyfriend? Why don’t you marry? I know! I know! Because he’s already married to a man my age in England! For what? He certainly can’t get residency there.”
“Father, we are leaving.”
“Actually, we can’t, not yet—,” Jeffrey said softly after turning his head and looking directly at Morph.
“Oh, right babe, Jessica is coming here.” Jeffrey stood up, exited the door and went outside. On his way out, he said to Morph, “I’ll be right back; I need to sit… outside.”
“The drug addict’s wife is coming here?”
“Listen, we can’t leave, but you sure can dad.”
“Morph, you listen to me: your life—your sybaritic life of derelict luxury, of pleasure, or leisure, of doing whatever you do, is financed by me, I can and will stay. 9015 is my room. Mine. You know, I only use this space several—maybe ten, at the most—times a year, but I have it permanently reserved. Why, because we are the types of people who need breathing room. Away from the ordinary. Life is, for now, a one-way trip from nothing to nothing, as Jeffrey would say, and you’re not embracing the full experience. Be my guest though, if you want to sit out with the general public—go ahead. But I am sure you’ll be hounded by the fucking influencers who want to get a Zed on their ‘live chats.’” Anthony touched his tablet. A glass door, previously completely darkened so as to resemble a black and grey wall, became transparent. On the other side, a small pebbled Zen garden, measuring some seven by ten feet, with a skylight allowing the bright sun of Southern California to stream in, sat undisturbed. Several Bonsai trees abided, calmly, in the centre. Anthony, looking away from Morph, stood up and slid the glass door open. He straddled the space that separated his private booth from the garden. He stepped his left, bare, foot onto the warm pebbles. Looking at this son, he said, “Why did you want to speak with me today? To bring him here? I read your message. He wants to start an Institute to study nothing. Brilliant—and what, he wants me to leverage my weight on various universities and research centres to lend him some of their faculty? What other reason would you want to see me for? It’s not like you don’t have plenty of money, the trust I set up for you is worth… What, something like…”
“Father, I know, I am a billionaire. And yes, he—we—would like your help with his idea. However, you can’t keep acting like this—and, as for my trust, it’s not financed by you. Your parents were rich, and they became even wealthier as they aged, until they were so wealthy that…”
“Don’t say anything more, Morph, not here. You, of all people, should be well aware of the sensitive nature of keeping well outside the realm of scrutiny. I am doing work that will radically change the very foundations of the global economic, social and political system; it will alter, fundamentally, consciousness. Jeff writes about it; I do it. People like me, Peter, Elon, Q.M.T. and the others. And you’re spending—wasting—your time with people who can’t even manage basic motility—basic vocalization. With drug addicts—oh, I am sorry—people with substance abuse problems.”
“Oh, how liberal of you father, how gracious—what an enlightened being you are!”
“I am not going to engage in this toxic discourse. The problem with you, Morph, son, is that you turn your little projects into some sort of personal obsession, some affectation, that’s really what your—relationship—with Jeff is. Listen, Jeffrey is a good—decent—writer. His work on mediation has helped us rethink a few things. He’s had a moderate effect on some aspects of art criticism. His autobiographical novel was less than stunning—less than credible. His book, Polina, well Hollywood ate that up, with all this politically correct pro-immigrant, intellectual furore—understand I am not against immigrants or refugees, look at Maria—and her daughter. You know, I am paying for her Master’s degree. I love immigrants.”
“I am sure you do, dad.” Morph sighed.
“My point is that Jeff has had an influence, he found a niche, a place that is embraced by some freaks willing to fork out bits of cash to read his stuff on their readers or—if they are older or more classic—on printed page. Jeff certainly has support from some sections of the younger—much younger—members of the new liberal intelligentsia. These people, though, have no idea—they are totally drowned in the web—digitally drowned. The Internet, hyperconnectivity, VR, media—all of it—has killed off any critical thought. No wonder—and his remarks on paedophilia! Did he really have to work with that crazy Australian VR designer?”
“He doesn’t do anything he has to. He does things because he wants to.”
“And that’s why he needs your money. He’s a layabout—one of those people living on the edge of respectability and criminality”
“He’s never—I’ve never given him any money. He needs my care. He knows he needs to work—he doesn’t expect—and I have never given him the impression that he can have any free access to my gilt. Oh, and the homonym applies here as well.”
“Your guilt? Whatever have you to be guilty about?”
“Well aside from all the unearned gilt I have… The fact that is—you know father, we do quite literally live at the top of an economic pyramid that is crushing people, quite literally, to death.”
“Whatever,” Anthony rejoined, feigning indifference. Morph, his only son, represented his legacy; he wanted Morph to take over the Z-matrix in Marin, to engage in the building of a wide, multidimensional, complex network of power and knowledge that would hegemonize all transactions—medical, fiscal, emotional, spiritual, mental—into a quantifiable, neo-cyber future. Anthony felt deeply that the only way beyond cybernetic submersion was through it. He wanted to be the captain of the submarine that would transport a selection of the reformed masses to paradise, and he wanted Morph to be his number one. Instead his son, too busy delivering the deprived from their wretched, numerically insignificant lives, couldn’t be bothered to even enter Anthony’s thalassic hallucinations. The link between this world and the new world, for Anthony, was his great ship—the physical and spiritual nucleus that would get him and, at a minimum, a select few through the tribulation—the Marin Z-matrix, a place Morph hadn’t visited in over a decade.
Jeffrey entered the booth with Jessica. Her eyes, red from crying, met Morph’s. They hugged. Anthony coldly shook her hand.
“Have a seat, shall I order you anything to eat?”
“No I am not hungry, thank you,” Jessica, holding back tears turned to Morph—he sat to her right, Jeffrey had tucked her between them on wide sofa-style seat by sitting her left side, near the door. Jennifer queried, “Morph, can we get Adam out? Now?”
“First we must find out where he is being held. I called the DA’s office on the way here, and she is meant to get back to me within the hour. For now, we must wait—ever since the budget collapsed for Southern California, under the weight of the New Economic Framework, she’s been very busy.”
“Locking people up?”
“Yes, it’s not a pleasant vocation, and I wouldn’t want it. I actually donated to her campaign only because her opponent was to the right of—do you remember that crazy, racist sheriff in Arizona?”
“Yes, I read about him in one of my sociology classes. So, what exactly can she do?” Jennifer said, looking at Morph pleadingly.
“Well, she can grant him bail—and he’ll be released to a rehabilitation centre. It’s mandated by Southern California law that he be held, as someone with substance abuse issues who has been arrested, in some form of rehabilitation for up to two-weeks, depending on the charges. Could be as short as 48-hours. It’s a matter of what exactly he’s being charged with. Has he ever been violent?”
“Not towards me—but around me, yes. He has punched the wall, broken things, thrown things out the window, smashed the car windshield once.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, why did you marry Adam? You are a smart, talented young woman—in your last year of college, majoring in an important interdisciplinary program, and…”
“It was really—cliché—love at first sight.”
“A fateful meeting that led to a classic case of coup de foudre.”
“Yes, that’s what Jeff here calls it—the lightning bolt. What is it, Heraclitus, ‘Lightning stirs all?’—I read somewhere, probably in Jeff’s book on Heidegger’s Hut and the Holocaust, well, didn’t that Nazi have that inscribed in his hut?”
“I am not sure, perhaps.”
Jessica, now slightly smiling, giggled a little.
“Listen, Morph, I love Adam. But I am not naïve. I want him to get better—he’s a very tender person, incredibly sensitive.”
“Sexy too, I imagine that played a role.”
“Well,” blushing, Jessica chuckled, “Yes, of course there is a very … um, carnal relationship. I am twenty-two, and I can’t be the strong one all the time—I can’t be a substitute for his mother. His anger issues, his persistent problem with drugs, his crisis around…”
“Well, his crisis—crises—are around his sexual orientation and gender identity. He can’t seem to comprehend that he needs help.”
“I wasn’t aware of this. Jeff, darling, were you?”
Jeffrey looked at them both blankly. “No.”
“So, his crisis is about what, aspect, specifically?” Morph said without any hint of judgement.
“He’s bisexual—pansexual—and he also feels like he should be a woman, but only sometimes, and he loves having a penis, and he’s also very masculine and hates the idea of people thinking that he’s queer. We solved this problem, in part, because I bought a strap-on—”
“Don’t be shy.”
“Well, you can leave the rest to your imagination. Regardless, none of this is helped by where we live, of course, although Lincoln is a college town—it’s still very, well, behind the ‘20s. It’s stuck in the 1990s, or early 2000s. Adam felt—feels—as if he is not supported. He tried to reach out, I think to some people; the only people he really knows who are—um, advanced—progressive, I guess, enough to process his multiple identities, his sexual confusions, these dreams he’s been having about his mother.”
“Dreams about his mother? What types of dreams?” Anthony, not attentive to the rest of Jessica’s discourse, perked up at the mention of nocturnal illusions.
“Well, Mr Zed—sorry I didn’t introduce myself; as you might know; I don’t know how much you’ve been told, but it’s been a terrible day.”
“Please don’t apologize. I am well aware of the facts—some of the facts.”
“Adam has been dreaming that his mother, who was recently diagnosed with dementia—early onset—that she is eating his leg. He has this recurring nightmare. He has it almost every-night. He says he doesn’t want to sleep because of it. He takes speed, Dexedrine, meth, whatever will keep him up—plays video games for days at a time—he lost his job. I wasn’t going to say anything. He’s been so ashamed. He wants to provide for me, yet I also get the feeling that—um, he’s more of a child than a husband. Love at first sight!” Jessica began sobbing and put her hands to her face. “My father, he’s like a child too. Drinking his life away. And then I married Adam. My father hates Adam; in part, I think, it’s because he reminds him of himself. Also, there is the fact, all too obvious, that Adam is a poor, white guy from nowhere. There is an expectation that someone like myself, a soon-to-be college graduate, a Black woman from a middle-class family, would marry a professional—preferably, a Black professional. I am majoring in an advanced interdisciplinary program, the first cohort to take part in the University of Nebraska’s Philosophy and Cybernetics undergraduate degree; I am at the top of my class. I am already getting invitations to visit places, offers of money even. And everything is so damn competitive; I can’t slow down. I can’t—not for a second. I’ll end up homeless. The world is moving so fast. I haven’t said this to even Adam, but MIT and the newly opened Association of Cybernetic Studies program in New Zealand have provisionally offered to accept me. I just can’t do that and take care of Adam. And I also love him. Perhaps we married too quickly? Was I rebelling against the wishes of my father? Or in the grips of despair because of the grief of my mother dying? Adam was there with me when she died. He was there. Adam just happened to be there. To be there. He just happened to be there.”
Morph’s phone rang. “It’s DA Gardner,” he said. Morph swiped down on the screen, immediately linking the audio to the room’s internal sound system.
“Hello, DA Gardner. We are concerned about a friend, and the husband of a friend of ours, who has been arrested. His name is, Adam Atkinson. Any information.”
“One moment, Morph. Sorry, I’ve been busy all morning, and I have just a few… Wait. Did you say Adam Atkinson? He’s a thirty … yeah, white male?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“OK. Let me double check this. One minute, I am going to place you on hold.”
Waiting more than a minute, the three of them, Jessica, Morph and now—medication kicking in, suppressing most of the symptoms of his recently diagnosed dissociative affective dysregulation, that led to these ‘brown outs,’ which had by now become almost weekly occurrences—Jeffrey listened carefully, in nervous silence. Anthony had retreated to the Zen garden, where a wooden bench extended from the far side wall. He had closed the door separating the booth from the garden after the call came in, not wanting his ‘mental space’ contaminated by the quotidian, miserable legal troubles of the banal multitudes. He never cared for people—except his son, a vehicle for his legacy—and he never engaged in what he considered to be his son’s penchant for impecunious, unprofitable parochial pastoralism.
Three minutes passed. Then five. Then ten. Then fifteen. Finally, as the call reached its sixteenth minute and twenty-third second, DA Gardner’s voice crackled through.
“Yes, we are … we are all here,” Morph quickly replied.
“Is Mrs Atkinson there?”
“Yes, I am here.”
“I …” breathing deeply, “regret to inform you that your husband has been killed. It happened, to the best of my knowledge at the municipal police station. A razor blade from a fellow inmate, following an altercation, the other inmate cut Adam’s wrist, and then his neck, puncturing his carotid artery, and Adam was rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital. I have little details from the medical side of things because of medical confidentiality laws. He was pronounced dead at 13:45.”
Jessica stared at the thin, translucent phone. She said nothing. She felt her entire body begin to physically shake, but she felt no anxiety, no fear, no sadness, no emotion—she felt her legs tingle, and—by degrees—become numb. She felt herself falling, sliding, onto the warm tiles underneath the table. She felt Jeffrey’s hand under her shoulder. She heard his voice. She heard Morph calling for ambulatory services. She heard Anthony at the door. She felt the paramedics placing her on some sort of plank, as though she was about to be either carried up a mountain or served on a platter. She felt the cool air at the private hospital. The oxygen mask placed on her face. She saw the doctors instructing the nurses. She felt the needle going into her arm. She felt her eyes getting heavy. She felt her body. She felt her conscious self descending into a warm void. Slowly her awareness became negated further and further, and she no longer knowingly felt. She rested. She rested a rest that she’d never rested in her entire life. She rested like this for twelve and a half hours. For the first time in her life, she had had a rest.
“How did you two meet?” Jessica, face ashen and gaunt with weary eyes, softly uttered to Jeffrey across the table. They were at a dive bar on “H” Street in Grants Pass, Oregon; an alphabet arranged, Mondrian-grid, this part of the city had linear, 20th Century streets, filled with apartment complexes, cheap shrubbery that smelt of cat piss, flowers and faint smoke from a massive wildfire some fifty-miles outside the city. Outdoors, the quiet, dry warm September air didn’t move. Some sparrows, in a small bush across the street, moved in frenzied spurts; an old man, back bent, wearing an old pair of dirt clad overalls, pushed a shopping cart full of his life’s belongings, passing by these spritely, chirping animals. The “H” street bar had several other customers; inside, sat three additional people—two old, white men drinking beer, and a young, thin and pallid woman, missing most of her teeth. The woman talked incessantly, nervously, loudly, she itched and scratched at her face; she fidgeted with her watch, sniffled every couple of seconds, and drank two double whiskies in the space of ten minutes.
“Actually, the reason I brought you here, to this—establishment—is precisely the answer to your question. We met here some seven years ago. Yes, about that time, right after my grandmother died, and I came back here. Morph filmed the memorial service, and I told him I was going to watch it remotely—from Europe. But I was here, in old Grants Pass. And I watched it from a nearby café. I came out for a cigarette—I didn’t think—well, I started crying. I fell to the ground. I was sobbing; I have never cried like that. Never. I literally fell to the ground. I didn’t pass out, thankfully. Adam was walking past, in that old denim jacket that always smelt of cigarette smoke, wearing that beanie—that fucking green beanie he wore for years; he never left home without it, and I don’t think he ever washed it. He lifted me up off the pavement, walked me to this bar, and sat me down. Moments later, a vodka and soda presented itself to me. He sat opposite, and said ‘Man, what’s wrong?’ I told him almost everything, asked he would actually listen. I told him my life story really. We sat here for six, maybe seven, hours. Our conversation went deep. He told me about his problems with meth, speed, his doctor prescribing Dexedrine as a less harmful substitute; we went out to—across the street, there was a bench, and we sat there. I touched his hand; he retracted it—said he wasn’t gay—that he didn’t like to be touched. He started to cry. I could feel the demons flying around him. A trio of hellish ghouls trying to tear his soul apart; they were palpable presences if one could perceive them. He seemed a man possessed by so much trauma, and it didn’t have any real source, outside of himself. His family is comfortably petit bourgeois—sorry they were. Small business owners, as you know—they owned a local chain of mobile phone repair shops. That all ended after his mother, the main accountant, was diagnosed with dementia, some five or so years, right after we met. She thought he was leaving her permanently, cut off his phone and acted insane. She began screaming the worst racist garbage—”
“I know, she called me a n****** at the funeral, twice.”
“Yes, that sounds about right. I always had this odd sense, and impression, that she was a reincarnated, erstwhile Nazi prison guard at some death camp. She had such a—well, she was just dull—but something hidden, evil lurked there. And his father—always trying to climb that ladder of success, running around the country trying to expand his little business. He even opened a mobile repair shop in Elk City, Oklahoma. For whatever reason he picked that locale, I will never know. I think they had some distant relatives there willing to rent out store-space cheaply. Adam spent a year there helping out—I was wandering Europe writing my third, then fourth, then fifth book, and by the time my sixth book was ready, I asked him if he wanted to come with me on a little tour of America. He was back here. Living in his parent’s house, tinkering with his perpetually broke truck, getting high in the garage, and so he was really ready to go. His mother, already showing signs of decline, though she hadn’t been officially diagnosed, she thought he was running off with some homosexual, paedophile-supporting, criminal. Mostly right, although the paedophile thing is complicated. You and I have never really talked about that—but you know the story from Adam. That interview with Joanne Milner, the psychiatric researcher and VR designer, in Australia nearly killed me. Seriously, in Sydney, someone tried to kill me at a bookstore where I was meant to be talking about Rogue Picaro. The conversation veered to a small part of the book where I talked about my cell-mate, a man I met in prison, a Hungarian living in England, a former cop working at an Amazon warehouse—well, I spent a lot of time with him, as one does when they are locked in a space the size of a bathroom for up to seventy-two hours on end with someone. Anyways, someone asked about an article, that had tangentially to do with this part of Rogue; I had just written a piece saying that Milner’s work was courageous and necessary—to reduce demand for child pornography, to open the conversation and get paedophiles to come out of the shadows, get treatment and so on. Anyways, I was standing on stage, and this big, hulking skinhead Australian man comes up and pulls out a long knife!”
“What the fuck?” Jessica said, rolling her eyes and sighing.
“Fortunately, his knife missed my flesh—I am like a cat! I jumped out of the way, and he ran straight into the wall behind me—I was immediately, well, promptly deported from Australia the next day! Adam laughed so hard when I told him that story. I loved that about him; he understood the blending of the tragic and comedic in life.”
“He certainly did understand it, and I think that he understood it in a such a way that it overwhelmed him. His mind was always racing, trying to grasp everything, trying to hold onto the ideas as they passed through. He’d hold me in bed—we’d spoon—of course, I was the little spoon. We’d talk like that for hours on a Saturday morning. Just lying in bed, tucked together. He’d talk about how—how crazy it is just to be alive. He went on about the oddity of the body; he thought … he thought … He’d say ‘Why do we have these bodies?’ He’d get freaked out about having a face, hair, eyes, and about the structure of heads. He kept asking me one night—stone cold sober, I knew when he was sober and when he wasn’t—‘Why do we have faces? What is their purpose?’ I am a lover of philosophy, and I’ve read as many texts on the body—Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Audre Lorde, Ginsberg, Reynolds, Zhang—all I could, and I didn’t have an answer. I said, ‘Why do we have a damn face?’ And we just stood in the hallway screaming this question to each other, taking turns and jumping up and down, for like twenty fucking minutes. Afterwards we laughed, smoked some weed and had sex. We always had the best sex—even toward the end. He bought me this strap-on that had a clitoral stimulator. I would—you know—and it was magnificent.”
They both started laughing. The other three customers looked back at them from the counter. The white woman came over—visibly irritated that the men weren’t paying her any mind, and said to Jessica, “you fucking monkey-faced bitch, get out of here!”
“Excuse me?” Jessica remarked, with a strong, deep voice that resounded throughout the grungy dive.
“You heard me, n*****’s ain’t welcome here.”
“And this is why … I left, darling,” Jeffrey said, not looking at the angry white woman; slowly, he turned his head up, looked at her straight in the eyes, and said, “Hey, you’re a racist piece of trash. Listen carefully to the words coming out of my mouth; this woman just attended the funeral of her deceased husband, and she has no intention of encroaching on your disgusting little layer here; furthermore, she is vastly more intelligent, more caring and more reasonable than you will ever be—and that is the only thing she has in common with a monkey.”
The barkeep came over and told the angry, white woman to leave. She grabbed her purse, stuck out her tongue at Jessica and turned, pressing the dark, wooden door open, leaving the bar with a tense atmosphere, and letting in some stagnant, sunny air.
“Well, that was extreme. Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”
“What? Blow the popsicle stand?”
“It’s something my mother used to—perhaps still does—say. Alright, shall we get to the airport? I know it’s a bit early, but it’s safer than anywhere else here. Dear Zeus, help us.”
“Yes. Called the n-word three times in one day. I am done.”
“And you just buried your husband. I apologise for the people of Southern Oregon. Worse than Lincoln?”
“Uh—yes, but this is America. Let’s go.”
Returning to Los Angeles, Jeffrey and Jessica were met by Morph at the dilapidated, ageing Los Angeles International Airport—people passed with N95 masks on through this sprawling connective tissue like electrical pulses in a brain, as quickly as possible. Since the New Economic Framework, Southern California experienced a massive influx of migrants—people escaping failed states in Central and South America, climate change catastrophes, subsequent food shortages, emerging factions controlled by brutal warlords who—at the behest of outsiders—managed to control resources, sometimes gathering territory the size of half an entire nation—most of Honduras lived under such an ‘arrangement.’ Predatory investors, vulture capitalists, raking in cash from the likes of Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—nations now resembling, de facto, the 21st Century ‘Somalia-model’—now made even more of a killing off the killing.
Entire villages, and even towns, from Chiapas to Manaus, would be ‘removed’—all the inhabitants killed—for multinational, undisturbed access to oil, gas and precious minerals. The New Economic Framework meant, for California, a fracturing into three ‘economic zones’—Southern, Central and Northern. The wealthiest zone, from Silicon Valley up to the Oregon border, required ‘clearances’ to live there. And even then, prices kept most people out. A subsidized, middle-to-lower class remained to maintain the necessary infrastructure and services needed to keep this partial paradise running. Marin County, now owned by three billionaires, was the most exclusive enclave in the ‘northern zone.’ San Francisco remained a hodgepodge of upper-middle class and heavily subsidized working-class residents; homelessness had been progressively ‘abolished’ from the city, with everyone without a home forcibly sent away by bus to wherever, into the great void of anywhere. Central California, from Bakersfield to Sacramento, including the Sierra Nevada mountain range, remained an important, middling zone—largely owing to agriculture, and its role as a passage for goods. Most of Southern California, the designated ‘zone’ for incoming refugees and migrants, hadn’t seen any real public investment outside certain ‘economic development zones’ in over a decade. Old, smoke-belching cars, huge semitrucks, snarled traffic in a weird montage of misery, alongside expensive self-driving cars; some freeways had special-access lanes that required hefty tolls, but these were few and far between, connecting the wealthiest neighbourhoods.
The wealthy still loved Los Angeles, and they took refuge in their usual spots, Bel Air, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Silverlake; all roads leading over ‘the hills’ up to Mulholland Drive and down into the San Fernando Valley, were strictly controlled by the heavy presence of roadblocks, sensors, fencing—all paid for through public-private ‘policing partnerships.’ Everywhere else, on almost every street from downtown to South Central, from East Los Angeles to El Segundo—with a few private exceptions—a mass of tarpaulin, tents, humanity, inhumanity, violence, substance abuse—a mass of the forgotten, of the dispossessed, of despair and resilience multiplied. Raw sewage, overcrowding, and a lack of any public services, brought back serious illnesses from Hepatis A, B and C to cholera and tuberculous. Occasionally, wealthy teenagers from La Jolla or another rich, conservative suburb—bored, angry and sheltered in glass and steel mansions—would drive their armoured cars into these areas playing target practice with the inhabitants, leaving entire blocks full of dead bodies. Often entire hours would pass before the city sent out ambulances to take away the victim’s corpses. Investigations led nowhere, for no one investigated what the press called, repeatedly, ‘inexplicable random acts of violence, and horrific incidents without any identifiable perpetrators.’
The New Economic Framework came into being as a result of border states—from Texas to Arizona—all implementing the most draconian anti-immigrant laws. A corridor via Tijuana into Southern California existed to, according to the US’s new Department for the New Economic Framework, “maintain the orderly processing” of immigrants into the US. Once entering California, these refugees and migrants had no ability to move beyond the ‘southern zone’ of the state. Microchipped, biometrics taken—DNA, finger prints, retinal scans—they would be stopped from any form of employment or housing outside of the zone. Huge amounts of data collected over vast amounts of space and time ensured an almost impenetrable, all knowing system of social, economic, psychological and sexual manipulation. Getting to beyond the multiple state and federal checkpoints, physical and otherwise—California was paid handsomely for “housing” these poor souls in its southern regions—proved dangerous, deadly and nearly impossible.
“Hey babe, hello Jessica,” Morph said tenderly.
“Darling, it’s been…”
“It has been a fucked-up trip,” Jessica completed the sentence from the backseat, “I am done. I am so done. I don’t know if I can even—” and Jessica, not one to become emotional, much less in front of others, began to scream, and scream, and scream, and scream, and scream—her screaming went through the bodies of Morph and Jeffrey, the car, the road, the Earth, the sky, out and beyond the stratosphere, the solar system, the galaxy. Then it stopped.
Everyone, silent, sat as the car crept with unrelenting, heaving traffic. The sky, auburn, brown with black plumes from fires in multiple areas, used for cooking by the cities over one-million homeless—and much of the penurious, though housed residents of the city—had little to no access to reliable electrical services. From the traffic, the heavy, polluting industry still allowed in this disremembered zone, the air—hazy, brown, red and smelling of chemicals—produced an even more oppressive feel on the three as they floated along, noiselessly. Arriving at Morph’s place, the garage sensed the car and allowed access. First out, Jessica slammed the door and made her way up the stairs. Morph and Jeffrey sat in the car.
“Let her have some time alone, darling.”
“Yes, of course.” Morph replied, pulling out a joint from the glovebox.
“And we need some too.”
Lighting the joint, he inhaled deeply, pulled Jeffrey’s face and mouth close to his, and blew out. Jeffrey inhaled the moist, relaxing smoke. He felt a tingling in his right leg.
“I need to know when this will be over.”
“When all of this, this suffering, this misery, this incessantly terrible world—when will it be over?”
Sitting in the car for half an hour, the two fell into a deep lacuna of silence. Jeffrey’s question, one asked by his grandmother some seventy years earlier, echoed in the body, then vibrated, then prickled, then burned. The high was a low, and there was no escape, nowhere to go, no exit door.
Roused from the void, Jeffrey replied, “Yes?”
“Oh, I don’t know what to say. My life has been so … privileged, coddled … ridiculously so. And I have seen the world, this place we call reality with all of its hallucinations, roll past me. I feel—I see—I know what’s happening. I am here. I moved here specifically for that reason—to get away from the isolation of my father; although I didn’t know it at first. But I am still isolated. The pyramid is set. It’s like we are encased in stone. No one is moving up or down. There is no movement—no vertical movement. Our parents and grandparents, and part of my generation, maybe, saw it. But we don’t see it anymore, much less those like Jessica. Her generation—I don’t know, maybe it’s always been so concrete, so—what’s the word?”
“Social stratification, baby.”
“Yes, C. Wright Mills and all of that, and I know this intellectually, and I know it, oh shit this sounds awful, ethnographically, but I don’t know shit.”
“You know that you don’t know shit; that’s a start.” Jeffrey leaned over and grabbed a cigarette from Morph’s packet of cigarettes sitting on the dashboard. In silence, he held it in the air, between his right index and middle fingers, for a few seconds.
“What is it that your father is working on?”
“Something that he won’t tell me unless I go up to the matrix. He’s paranoid. He lives in that place. Parts of it are like a Faraday Box. Nothing—not a signal or a sound—goes in or out. He’s sealed off, except for when he has to attend to business and he can’t do it via video. Even when he travels, it’s a helicopter to an airport to a helicopter to an armoured car. It’s the paranoia of being, well—you know.”
“Yes, I know. That amount of wealth must really warp someone’s mind.”
“It does. He was much—well, he was kinder, he was gentler, more open, before he inherited the entire set of businesses. Now, he’s … some megalomaniac, I don’t recognize him anymore. And of course, there are real risks, kidnapping and that sort of thing, but he takes it to the extreme. I can’t—I won’t—live like that.”
“We both rejected the isolationism, the certainty, the fundamentalisms—be they religious or economic—of our parents, yet we are left with nothing. Not complete nothing. You have money, security, privilege, and I have turned my life into a narrative, fuck a—feature-film like fantasy—a … prostituting of myself, my … being, for money to survive. I feel like I am waking up from a hyper-real dream, one more vivid than reality, than being here, right now, talking with you, and I am deposited, awake, upright—everything is OK, but it is not as OK as it was in that dream.”
“The idea that I have been living on credit. You know, you know … actually you don’t, I am almost out of money. Yep, that’s right I am broke. I spent it all, and n what? Living in hotels to avoid myself? Driving around? Endless, mindless consumerism? I would get depressed and go and spend a month’s worth of income in a day. I would get depressed and book a flight somewhere. Get to my ‘destination,’ and ask myself, unpacking my things in some hotel room, why am I here? What the hell am I doing with my life? And then I would get another payment from your family’s publishing company and do it all over again. Of course, people said ‘you must save your money.’ For what, I really would ask that? For what? The planet is turning into a hellscape. I will never ‘save’ enough money to be one of the chosen ones living in remote, self-sustaining complexes. So, I figured, let me enjoy the middle, a bit of the upper-middle, straddle the lines, enjoy my time. Burn through any good ‘karma’ I may have. How ridiculous. We are both privileged, the degrees of privilege are different, but two—white—dudes. One Bohemian Billionaire and one insane writer who got lucky. Look at Jessica. She’s brilliant. I mean, really fucking brilliant. She’s working on philosophies of code and even doing a dual major with retro-causation involved. Time! She’s technically, theoretically and emotionally together, and she is a Black woman studying in Lincoln-fucking-Nebraska. And then, her husband, Adam … murdered. I can’t believe it. She’s going back to school; not a day off. She leaves tomorrow.”
“Yes, that’s what she wants.”
“No. I already said it. If she hears it from you—no. And I am done. I don’t want to start an Institute. I want to… Keep writing.”
“For now—yes. But I need you too. I can’t commit to anything.”
“Would you—will you—stay for a bit?”
“I think I need to fly Jessica home, to Chicago; she wants to see some friends and her best friend that’s like a sister to her, and then I want to—she asked me—to take her back to Lincoln.”
“Listen, I want you to come back here.”
“Morph, I am not coming back here. Los Angeles is dreadful. America is dreadful It’s horrible. It’s depressing—Southern California was once a place with some, at least pretend, liberal decency. This New Economic Format … Framework, whatever, it’s an apartheid regime. I am leaving the US again; I can’t be here.”
“You want me to tell you I will never leave you, and yet you won’t live in the same place with me for more than a week?”
Jeffrey stared out the window at the concrete wall. The garage seemed smaller. The car seemed smaller. Escaping this place became imperative. His heart raced. He reached for the door. Morph held his left arm. “Wait.”
“Wait for what? I can’t love. I’ve tried it. Not like this. Sex, love, couple, romance. You know how many times I’ve tried it? I can’t do it. I can’t. I am cursed. Cursed to be poor. Cursed to be fucked up. Cursed to be alone. And you, you know I need money, do you want me to ask for it?”
“You bear your family curse. You’re bitter. You’re angry. You’re—entitled.”
“You are so helpful. And I am entitled?” Jeffrey began to laugh, laugh so hard his guts hurt, his intestines might’ve pressed straight out of his bellybutton.
“I am entitled? I am entitled? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Right, I am entitled. And, what about you Morph. Slumming it down here with the homeless, the refugees, the migrants, the drug addicts, in your Fort Knox warehouse? Do you ever think to just give your money away? Be vulgar—no let me be vulgar—give me some money. I want a couple million. I am sure you can handle that, no problem. Just wire it to me. Next day—oh, you’re a premium account holder—same day, no fee. I’ll take my money in Kuwaiti Dinars, please. Greatest currency.”
“You’ve always wanted money.”
“And you never care about it, because you have it. But you won’t give me a penny.”
“Because you must work; your writing is a gift and if I just give you money, you’ll have no purpose left.”
“Oh, so you think that I write because I have no money? I need the motivation of perpetually looking into the face of penury to produce? To make just enough to continue to disassociate, detach, and then get close to someone until the money is gone only to isolate myself from anything or anyone who loves me? Because I need to wander around in nothingness? This is somehow existentially fulfilling, right? Makes me more interesting for you—when you have your dinner parties in Manhattan or Shanghai—’oh, I am dating Jeffrey Midlands’—I am dating that always wandering, always empty, idiot savant who writes about nothing.’ And then the men who want to sleep with me; it’s not because I am caring, or smart, or intelligent it is because, quite simply, darling, the reality of fiction is greater than the fiction of reality. And when the royalties from your publishing company, which are quite low compared to what I get paid for even a single article, are gone, so are the men. And then I am ‘compelled’ to make another ‘masterpiece’ about nothing, just for you. Dedicate it to you. ‘Oh, baby, please come live with me in my warehouse?’ Really? Is that what you want from me? No, it’s not. And, as you already know, although it has been unspoken, I am not with you for money—you’ve never given me a penny; I actually like having sex with you; more than you like having sex with me. I know, you prefer the guys with the muscles, those gym buddies of yours, working out day and night.”
Jeffrey paused his increasingly loud oration, and put his cigarette out on Morph’s dashboard.
“I am just a—I am just a part of your collection.”
A railway led up a steep foothill; the train creaking, groaning, clacking along upwards past cheap, wooden houses built into the side of the slope. He looked around, out the window of the train—nineteenth century design—and he was terrified. “This train barely made it up the hill one year, that year it snowed,” said an anonymous shadow of a passenger. Immediately he knew his location—Ashland, Oregon—an albeit distorted version of it. Southern Oregon University sat at the bottom of the railway. Upwards, to the northeast, partially desolate foothills rose towards steep mountains; barren hills, a remnant of over logging, surrounded the little town. Cast into a room, he found himself pursuing a serial killer, a young version of his grandfather. He recognized the man immediately, recalling old photographs. The man must be stopped. An older version of his grandfather, a man of some fifty or sixty years, pulled up in a long, 1990’s limousine. Mary, his grandmother, the age he’d seen her last, in her late seventies, sat in the back. “He’s a good boy, he won’t hurt anyone,” she said of his younger grandfather. In a large Catholic Church, with multiple escalators like a shopping mall, he saw the young man—now a little girl, of some twelve or thirteen years. He’d seen the blood; he’d seen her, as a large, middle-age man eating ice cream in Bali, near a refrigerator, stomach distended in several places, revealing fat intermingled with a hernia. He’d seen the damage she’d done. She had to be stopped. Lying on the ground colouring, she said with a sweet malignancy, “I am not a bad girl.” He knew differently. She ran, hiding behind an escalator. He ran up a spiral staircase that overlooked the opening of a main chamber. Dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses—from his early childhood congregation—came out. Hugging each other near a priest, a bishop perhaps—an absurd man with a large hat that came to a tip at its top, wearing the garments of a Catholic patriarch. Fear and trembling overcame him.
Jeffrey awoke in his room, cold, unheated—he’d been out of the habit of chewing on gum at night. After arriving back at his transitory home, he took up the habit again, and he’d swallowed an entire gob in his sleep. He felt it in his throat. He took some medicinal charcoal pills, shivered and returned to his hard bed. The late autumn night had finally given way to some late morning sun. He had an appointment at 11:30am, the time, presently, was 10:30am. He knew he might be late. He vacuumed—running two vacuums at the same time to ‘clear the air’, he cleaned the walls in the bathroom, and he wiped the surfaces. He scrubbed the small kitchen divided by nothing from the rest of his studio, the plain table that served as a desk and a dining table, and dusted the dresser surfaces full of books. Langston Hughes’s Not Without Laughter, a small soft velvet pig he’d recent acquired and a book of poetry by Yeats sat precariously the dresser. He didn’t have time to take a shower. Putting on black trousers, a black turtleneck, and an old black jacket, he opened the red door, closed it, locked it, and entered the private hallway that opened from the main foyer on the fifth floor. The building, delipidated, cold and concrete had a small elevator. He slid the door open, entered, pressed zero and descended. Entering the main courtyard, his pocket began to buzz. Looking at the phone, he saw Morph’s name across the screen. He answered.
“Hello, I am—I am late.”
“Well, I am calling to say that we—that I—managed to get the publishers to sign onto your next book. They’ll be wiring the money tomorrow. It isn’t much.”
“What is‘isn’t much’?”
“Only—let me see. Hmm, well, it’s an advance, and your last book sold—below what was expected. The quality of your writing has gone down. You spent too much money. I can’t bail you out, because you refuse to—”
“I am not going to divorce Alex.”
“Why are you married to that old man? I know, I know, he was there for you when you were a hapless twenty-something, when you were in prison, but, seriously, you’re forty-four.”
“Morph, are you seriously saying that the reason you’ve withheld any support for me is because I am married to Alex?”
“I have given you so much—I have made sure your books sell; I have secured you money based on your work.”
“Yes, my work, and the way I stimulate your mind in that dreadful milieu of people you call ‘friends.’ Listen, Morph, I didn’t sleep well—I had a terrible nightmare, and I am late for an appointment.”
“I am getting my hair cut, and coloured.”
“Again? What does that cost? See this is why you are always broke; you don’t know how to live within your means.”
“So now I am being lectured about my budget—my finances—by a man who spends…”
“Morph, you’re a billionaire, don’t lecture me about money.”
“Jeff, I am not a billionaire, my family is wealthy, my father is a billionaire, but I am not a billionaire.”
“Really?” Jeffrey knew this to be untrue because he’d see Morph’s personal accounting records one day in Los Angeles, when Morph was out. Morph’s total net worth ranged, depending on certain fluctuations in stock, the derivatives markets, and property prices from around three to four billion dollars. Of course, this money couldn’t be accessed immediately, but who would ever need to access these sums immediately? Morph’s allowance, one he had set for himself, flowed from this bottomless nexus of accounting magic—including numerous quasi-legal mechanisms for tax evasion, off-shore accounts, and several ethically dubious, data-surveillance ‘public-private partnerships’ in Shanghai—at the rate of $150,000 a month.
“Morph, please just tell me what I am to be paid?”
“We’re sending you—your account is in Poland, right?”
“Yes, but I am living in Helsinki, as you know.”
“Well, the total is 5,000.”
“Oh, Morph, you’ve really been quite generous, quite generous indeed, and how much did that film make? And what did I get for it? Nothing.”
“You received royalties from all the sales within the timeframe under the contract.”
“You sound less like a lover and more like an accountant every time we speak. So, you’re sending me about $4,500. For an entire book.”
“That’s what they are sending you—as an advance. I wanted to hear your voice, so instead of Linda calling you—I am.”
“How thoughtful. You know, I am completely broke. If you saw where I am living.”
“Are you back in that old place? Where you wrote your first book.”
“No, another old place. I am not in Warsaw. I am in Helsinki! Do you pay attention to anyone but yourself?” Jeffrey, exasperated, disappointed and depressed, from recently recurring all-too-familial nightmares, to the gum stuck in his stomach, to the fact he was late to an appointment to get his hair cut and coloured so he didn’t look like a penurious over-the-hill, ageing and bitter writer. He tried to maintain some simulation of being a successful, content member of the literati—for no one in particular—except for his own need to coat reality with a hard dose of fiction, fabrication, invention, narrative and—creating a simulacra of the latter to paint over the solidity of the former, this necessity itself was kind of a personage. And like any personage it had a psychology of its own, desires of its own, a schema and a voice; Jeffrey suspected this personage, hidden within him and expressed all around him, effervescent in his subjective grappling with the world of facts, to be that little serial killer, that girl, that fat man eating ice cream, and ultimately, if one traced the line, followed the thread, read the image itself backwards, his grandfather—and by extension, his grandmother. He hated his grandfather because his grandfather sat at the core of his being. He hated his grandfather because his grandfather came to him in nightly waves, wailing, screaming and berating him in formations as diverse as a multiple murdering little girl, a fat man, his mother, a dead planet, a severed head, a shopping centre-style Catholic Church, dogs vomiting—and during the day Jeffrey held onto a certain fixity, a certain degree of his own selfhood, by threads of words, lies and mendacities, with doses of Obsessive-Compulsive cleaning rituals, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors from the last century, and benzodiazepines.
Jeffrey nearly fell asleep after the hairdresser applied the metallic silver dye to his curly hair, wrapping it in plastic. “About ten minutes,” she said, walking off to greet a customer coming into the brightly lit studio. Vibrating, still, vibrating, still, vibrating again—his phone kept receiving calls. Was it Morph? Jeffrey had—he thought through his walk to the hair studio—hung up in mid-conversation. He couldn’t remember how he got the kilometre or so from his apartment to the hair salon. He knew he walked, for it was close, but he couldn’t recall the walk, or what happened after he began thinking about his grandfather, the nightmares, the terror of being back in a flat that felt—although by degrees far removed—as a prison cell. Recalling prison always had an ambivalent effect. He felt strong for getting through the experience, grateful for his marginal success after, and also horrified by the scars it left—memories of sexual assault, the fear of enclosed spaces, the renewed terror of being in one place for too long, the fear of being alone, the fear of being with others, the fear of running out of toilet paper—a fear that led him, when not at a hotel, when at his so-called home, when running on his own steam, to stockpile toiletries: toilet tissue, toothbrushes, tubes of toothpaste, every cleaning supply, microfiber wipes, paper towels, and so on filled his flat.
“Someday my dry-cleaning will bankrupt me.”
“Well, it’s the beginning of a poem I am writing; you see I’ve been taking all my clothing to the drycleaners because my landlord, a real slumlord, won’t replace the disgusting, out-of-date washing machine. It ruins every garment that goes into it. I use it—for the cheapest—towels, socks and that sort of thing, but I am spending a fortune on dry-cleaning!”
Jessica laughed, “Jeff, don’t they have laundromats there?”
“Well, you need to figure something out.”
“I know, I need to move. How’s school?”
“Oh, just grand darling.” Jessica had picked up some bits of Jeffrey’s camp—and what she thought of as old-fashioned—endearing early 21st Century humour. “Let me tell you, I am excelling at all my classes except one. We are studying Kant’s Critique, and this shit is messing with my mind.”
“Critique of Pure Reason.”
“Ah, the only one of the three that I’ve read. Some years back, I was obsessed with it. Representation, phenomena, noumena, all of that—the bounds of reason, and the agnosticism at the end. I can’t recall much more than that, but I do know Kant set—well, he, I think, synthesized Hume and Leibniz—and threw philosophical discourse ahead a few centuries, brought it closer to his own time. European philosophy was essentially a hodgepodge of otiose speculation, religious fundamentalisms, Catholic versus Protestant debates, and it seems that Kant revolutionized that, inverted it, moved it forward. So many philosophers since then have tried to do it, but you can’t reinvent the wheel. He made a tool.”
“Yes, that’s what I am seeing. I think Angela Davis did her PhD on his Categorical Imperative. Anyways, I am struggling with categories, the way that he uses mental operations—well, his taxonomy.”
“I think anyone who is honest struggles with that. Some throw it out, focus on some specific thread.”
“Yes, like causality. This question of radical scepticism by Hume, Kant really figures out how to get around that, and brings temporality and space into place where cause and effect are housed. Or at least, that’s what I am seeing as I read this. And the way he constantly refers to the mediation of the world through the senses. It’s helping me integrate my work on two-state vector formalism—I have made a neural network that is taking in massive amounts of data, working on the mathematics of reverse entropy for my final thesis.”
“Fascinating—you’ve gone above and beyond me. I am pleased. A lot of my work is influenced by this very simple, but very crucial function of mediation—of course, there is an entanglement, far more complex. I think if Kant were alive today, he’d be looking at quantum physics and neuroscience. Poring over the works of Patricia Churchland and Karen Barad. He’d likely be working with you!”
“Oh, I wanted to tell you something else.”
“I am listening.”
“I… I am…”
“No! No! Oh god, no. Why, that would be a tragedy.”
“I am getting some money from the City of Los Angeles for Adam’s death. Actually, quite a bit, they wanted to settle out of court. He was killed on camera! It took the guards ten minutes to just come to the scene, according the lawyer who represented me in court. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video. It’s disgusting. What negligence—apparently this sort of thing happens all the time. Or quite often. They just let the prisoners ‘fight it out.’ We truly are living in some Mad Max shit. But, Black people—we’ve been living it for centuries. I mean, the arc of history is long but bends towards justice, right? Well, I am not feeling that vibe right now. I agree with the first part, yes the arc of history is long, too damn long, and where it bends, I am not sure anyone knows at this point. But then, that optimism—any optimism—seems to have died a long time ago. Did you hear what’s happening with the New Economic Framework?”
“They are now rationing electricity in parts of the southern zone of California. Of course, the wealthy aren’t affected—solar panels, back-up generators, private windmills—but the power grid has failed several times because of this late season heatwave, growing wildfires from downed powerlines, and people using fires to cook. Just yesterday LA hit an all-time high for November. How’s Morph?”
“I am sure, of all people there, he’s fine. He has solar panels on the top of his warehouse manor, and two back-up generators, along with a satellite Internet connection. He probably feels ‘edgy’ living near Skid Row during these times; apparently, it’s quite hip. There’s a new poet—living near Morph—who is publishing Notes from the Row—of course he’s a white guy, trust fund kid from Austria. He doesn’t live on Skid Row, but in one of the refurbished lofts that were built at the end of the last decade and abandoned in the middle of this one. Yep, they were really gentrifying that space, before the market crashed, and the International Monetary Fund mediated the New Economic Framework between the US, China and Mexico. Anyways, the shock, the violence, the influx of homeless people being relocated to Southern California—to certain ‘economic zones’—all of that you know well. It’s led to most of the hipsters moving out of downtown, back to Silverlake, or—if they could afford it—West Hollywood, Westwood, Santa Monica and so on. Some even went to the suburbs. So, the poet is being taken seriously, despite the fact his work, which is both visual and textual, is essentially poverty porn.”
“What’s happening there makes Chicago look safe, and I say that without an iota of irony or sarcasm. The gentrification of South Chicago has led to a fall in crime, but also, a major displacement. I am sure some of those people have been moved to the more homeless friendly, sunny weather southern zone. It’s sick. And Black and Latinx people are—once again—paying the price. Rich Europeans are buying up tracks of land. The Russian, Chinese and European monied live in newly built skyscrapers—built tall and thin—in my family’s neighbourhood, Calumet Heights! Used to be a quiet, middle-income neighbourhood, a place where the Black middle-class lived. Now, predatory property developers are trying to get my father to sell. He’s considering it. The place is starting to look like it’s fucking Manhattan. Oh, I went to NYC last week to see my sister; it has become so expensive—even up on 142nd, where you lived; she’s on 143rd and Convent, pays $2,000 a month for a room that barely fits her bed. It’s so precarious there now, with the flooding. The subway system is collapsing, and they had two major blackouts in the last three days—the super-rich are flocking to Chicago, Seattle, Denver and also their usual haunt—the Bay Area. Anyways, so much shit is going on, I turned off my newsfeeds today, silenced my phone except for calls from family. I am so glad my father stopped drinking. He’s getting older now, and he’s feeling the effects. I think it scared him—he to had go to hospital—something to do with liver function. Thankfully, he’s being treated with an advanced form of epigenetic therapy, that alters the liver tissue at the sub-cellular level. I have no idea about the biology of it; I am a computer and science person.”
“Jessica, I need to tell you something. I am so sorry.”
“I don’t know, I have a feeling—a feeling of guilt—about Adam. I should have been more present, more available, more helpful. He helped me when I was going through so much, and I just left. And then I came back, and I left again. For the eight months you two were married, I never visited, I never really inquired if you were both alright? I mean, I asked about you, but I never really asked about the two of you. You told me so much, but I had no idea, or maybe I wasn’t listening; hearing, yes, I was hearing, but not listening. It’s hard for me to get close to people, I am afraid…”
“Of losing them? Abandonment?”
“That’s incredibly understandable. You know, I just finished reading Rogue Picaro, you’ve had a hell of a life. And I don’t think you need to apologize. You helped Adam grow; you helped him get out of that small, provincial life. He always spoke highly of you. And, as for me, you’ve been … You’ve been wonderful. You’ve been my one constant since …”
“Yes. I really appreciate that you took me to Chicago and then drove me back here to Lincoln. I want you to come here, but I know you hate the US. I do too, I just don’t have the momentum—yet—to get out. I am looking at various MSc programs that blend computer science with philosophy and physics. Actually, one is being taught—actually guided and founded by—ha! you won’t believe it—no, no, guess who?”
Belly laughing, Jessica replied, “Correct,” letting each syllable come out distinctly enunciated, with the ‘rect’ gliding off her tongue.
“Where else? The Association of Cybernetic Studies program in New Zealand.”
“Q.M.T. founded that school. He’s a rival of Morph’s family. Hates Anthony, but Anthony—with all his inflated notions of himself, bent and mirrored back to him through a world of excessive privilege—thinks they are friends.”
“Who is, Q.M.T, I mean, I know he’s some twenty-two-year-old Ukrainian billionaire; he owns that café we went to in Los Angeles, The August, right?”
“Yes, he’s truly an interesting character. He hacked into Goldman Sachs when he was—I think thirteen—and took a good chunk of change. Now, what’s fascinating, remarkable even, is that instead of seeking to prosecute him, they made him an offer to work as an assistant to the VP of Cybersecurity; he attended university as a teenager, finished a Master’s degree by the time he was nineteen. He’s some sort of cybersavant. Also, as he was a minor at the time of the crime, his name was kept hidden. Goldman secured him German citizenship after they merged with .de Bank. They kept him out of public view; very little is known about him, except from the files that Cambria managed to publish. His net worth, his name—still redacted even in the leaked internal Goldman/.de documents—is simply a cipher. But he also has this oddly public personality; he rarely gives interviews, but that fact that he does give interviews is remarkable. He’s got some ju-jitsu skills in terms of public perception; quite likely linked to his years of coaching in the financial world, with old money oligarchs, and so on.”
“Yeah, he’s got Ukrainian-German dual nationality, I read that on Cambria. It’s really the only thing I know about him, beyond the fact that he’s rich.”
“Cambria, what a brilliant, spunky news-source they have become! Actually, they are investigating the Zed family too. Now that should get interesting.”
“You don’t want anything to happen to Morph, surely? Aren’t you two still … together?”
“Let’s put it this way, he just ever so generously sent me a little less than $5,000 for a book. A man I’ve dated for years, a billionaire, who gives himself a set allowance of $150,000 a month…”
“Wait, what? How does he spend all of it?”
“Oh, there are ways.”
“But he seems to live so, well, not like a super-rich person.”
“That’s the key: the ‘seems not to’ part is the key. Obscurity, misrepresentation, these are the waters he was born to swim in. I want to know, I really want to know, mainly because Morph has … tested my limits … what his father is up to in Marin. Perhaps I should take Morph’s father up on his offer, to visit the Z-matrix. I am sure I could write something for Cambria. My credibility is a bit tarnished, so I will need to find a way to record what I am seeing, but that place is more secure than the Pentagon. Almost. It’s like entering NORAD.”
“Now that would sell.”
“I do need the money.”
“And I am curious too. Will you do it? I mean, really, or is this just another one of your—well—you have a lot of unrealised plots?” Jessica caught herself chuckling because she knew Jeffrey to be a chronic procrastinator, “You serious?”
Joanne Milner greeted Jessica at the Auckland airport. Giving her a big hug, Joanne said, with a ‘cultivated’ Australian accent (sounding to Jessica like an actor from an old film, she vaguely recalled—the classics, Cate Blanchett … Nicole Kidman), “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” The flight, a super-haul direct from Chicago to Auckland, had taken twenty-two and a half hours. Jessica felt a need to run. The warm, moist December air felt refreshing after the bitter cold of Chicago. “It’s been a difficult year for you, and you are—well—you’re the most promising student I’ve seen in years. And you’re not judgemental or afraid to try new things, things that might, go against the grain. In any case, I’ve arranged for you to stay at my home; I have an extra room, well several. And I live alone. Well, not entirely, I have a dog—Lavender—she’s a labradoodle. Oh, I do hope you like dogs, and she’s hypoallergenic!”
“I don’t mind dogs. Thank you, Dr Milner…”
“Thank you, Joanne for letting me stay with you while I examine the campus, the program and what the Association has to offer.”
“Well, I do hope your examination leads to matriculation!”
Arriving at the beautiful, palm-lined Stack Street, Joanne pulled her car into a charcoal-black garage that sat elegantly below a floor-to-ceiling glass window opening onto a terrace encased in a one-metre tall steel and glazed-glass balustrade. Jessica, getting out of the car and stretching, moved towards the road, and as she looked at the serene, pacific stylish street, she felt a sense of peace. A little piece of peace, like a shard of cold ice on a hot day, or a warm blanket in a cold apartment, calmed her. She felt ennobled. The large palms gently swayed in the summer breeze. She removed her sweater. Joanne took her suitcase out of the trunk and rolled it to the door. The obscure door sat on the left side of the house, adjacent and facing the garage. Upon looking—even at length—one couldn’t tell if this house had a door at all. The entire charcoal-black home sat like a unit detached from its surroundings. Entirely different than the light, bright and white Victorian-style homes on the street, it remained both visually abstruse and singular. Exactly the kind of ‘inside-outside’ invisibility that Dr Milner, long a target of death threats, knew she needed. She always walked from her car, parked in front of the garage, to the door, several meters away. The door blended perfectly with the wall. In fact, aside from some faint lines outlining its rectangular shape, it was nearly imperceptible. Joanne touched the door, and it immediately recognized her right index fingerprint. She then, quite simply, used her hand to push the door in, and slid it to the right. It moved effortlessly.
“Come, come, darling!” she said excitedly to Jessica.
“Yes, this is such a beautiful street!”
“Well, you, or rather I, or both of us, at this moment can thank … Well, I am not sure—perhaps luck!—for that! Sorry, I am being loquacious.”
They entered the main foyer, a room that had several variations of light-coloured Hickory hardwood floors. The hardwood continued into the main sitting room, equipped with a large, comfortable sofa, two light grey Grant Featherston R160 contour chairs, a large wooden coffee-table and three cordless, Mantis-style lamps. Behind the large sitting room, in an open floor-design, sat a large kitchen, with a cooking island, soft marble countertops, two large sinks and two, vertically situated ovens. “I do love to cook,” Joanne said as she noticed Jessica staring at the remarkably large kitchen. “And you must see the dining room. I throw the best dinner parties!” Down a hall, to the left, a doorway opened to a large, rectangular room with a beautifully adorned rectangular table, seven chairs on each side, and one chair at each end. The ceilings were high, and—in this room—a minimalist chandelier hung, as if on an invisible string, floating a metre above the centre of the table. On the inner wall hung Georgia O’Keefe’s 1918 Music, Pink and Blue No 2. On the far wall opening to the outside, several windows, small, rectangular and near the top let in bits of light that glimmered on the table, danced on the O’Keefe masterpiece and twinkled on the porcelain plates, set out for tonight’s dinner party with Q.M.T.
“I am so glad you get to meet him,” Joanne remarked nonchalantly as she walked Jessica up the long, wide concrete cantilever stairs that protruded over the main room. Jessica’s new chamber—a large, spacious room, nearly the size of her little apartment back in Lincoln, furnished with a large, body-contouring mattress set on a wooden, neo-Bauhaus design bamboo and steel frame—readily impressed. Two nightstands, three lamps attached to the wall above the bed, one in the middle, two on the sides, a large interactive screen attached to the wall opposite the bed, an iPad-Z charging on its standing port, a glass refrigerator displaying bottled water, juices and ice, and a large desk and ergonomic chair all amply supplied the space; the entire area—from this room, to the dining room, to floorboards beneath the house, to the neighbourhood—it all had a sense of fluid luxury. Light lavender curtains, duvet and pillow-cases matched elegantly with the thistle coloured walls. Jessica walked into the bathroom—exclaiming, “Oh, my this is an engineering masterpiece!”
“Yes, the waterfall shower design, that was my idea; I had it installed just three months ago, I love how the water falls—from three directions—ever so gently onto the slightly corrugated tile-slits, with the pebbled-side being an option—you know they are exceptionally good for the health of one’s feet.”
“I am sure. I am sure this entire house is—as you say—exceptionally good for one’s health!” Jessica slightly teasing, continued, “Um, hmm, I could definitely …”
“Get used to it!”
“Of course, apologies, I am not usually so—well it was a long flight.”
“Oh, please, you mustn’t apologise. I hope you do get used to it. It will be your home when you—if you, sorry—decided to stay and study at the Association.”
The bathroom had a darkened glass wall facing the backyard. Upon touching it, the glass became transparent by degrees, until it was entirely clear. Jessica looked outside with great enchantment at the large pagoda standing at the centre of a large and verdant garden with several hefty old trees, and a plethora of small ferns mixed alongside several winding pebble pathways that ran through small knolls full of untamed grasses and wildflowers. A concrete wall, entirely white and standing some three metres tall, surrounded the private rectangular garden. Several little ponds dotted the landscape. The world, for that moment, seemed to be entirely contained, safe, and Jessica felt herself protected inside Joanne’s domain. Placing her hand on Jessica’s shoulder, Joanne waxed poetically about her garden. She was not at all like the woman that the media had presented—a vision of cold, austere and harsh rationality with a penchant for liberal, progressive domination—sighing, she spoke intently, slowly, soothingly, “I spend a lot of time, when I need to relax, in the garden. It’s an excellent place to escape; it’s quiet, and one must be in nature if one works all day—and sometimes night—amongst code, amongst the virtual, in cyberspace. I feel—I intuit, that the necessity of bathing in the natural world is incredibly indelible in our evolutionary biology; it’s inexpungible for reasons of deep history—the entire evolutionary biology of any species rooted in—or from—a place; in our case, that’s Terra! Of course, carbon-based life is exceptional in its adaptivity, and perhaps someday we will find ourselves—or something like us will—living in space beyond place. Until then, I will take to my garden.”
Lavender—a large, black labradoodle—pranced from behind a tree, fruitlessly chasing a bird. “Oh, here she comes!”
“She’s really a very gentle and kind dog. She is the only one here besides me. Well, she sleeps with me and the house is quite sizeable so you won’t have to see her if you don’t want to—”
“No, I think I’d like to get to know her.”
“Very well, let’s go outside, she needs to ‘get your scent’ and begin to recognize your face. We don’t get many people staying—well, you will be our first long-term guest. If…”
“Yes, I know, if I decide, although I must say, I think I need to rest.”
“Indeed—I didn’t even think. Sorry, I must let you rest, and I need to make several calls. Please, make yourself at home. In the kitchen you will find food—all vegan—in the pantry and cold-storage unit, teas, coffee—organic, of course, and dinner will be tonight, around 19.”
After a lengthy nap, some two hours of complete, unconscious obscurity, Jessica awoke, washed her face, and began to unpack her luggage. Unfolding and folding sweaters, trousers, jeans, several suits, and ironing one evening dress, thoughts passed through her freely; she placed almost everything where she wanted it to be. She needed to feel settled, to feel nested, before venturing out into the wider world of the infamous doctor’s house. She knew Dr Milner had originally studied and worked as a neurologist in her early twenties; later, she recalled reading that the good doctor—hospitalized for a suicide attempt—retrained in psychiatry; some three years after practicing psychiatry, the professionally peripatetic Milner studied art history, aesthetics, and computer science, and she began developing cybernetic treatments for those deemed ‘untreatable’—in particular paedophiles, and a few people diagnosed with sociopathy; some of them had been charged and found guilty of war crimes at the International Criminal Court. Despite treating people who’d commanded their followers to ruthlessly hack off limbs, systematized entire armies of drug-controlled child soldiers into killing machines, ordered aerial bombing raids on hospitals, refugee centres and oversaw mass war rape—it was the treatment of paedophiles, some fifty-percent who’d never abused a child, that led to Dr Milner, at the age of fifty-seven, fleeing Australia for New Zealand.
The knife attack at Jeffrey’s allocution about the benefits of her work happened to be one of the less violent events. Her car had exploded—fortunately she was not inside when the bomb went off—in the parking lot of her dentist’s office. Getting her yearly oral cleaning, she heard and felt the explosion in the examination chair. Her cat had been decapitated. Her offices—one at a private university in Sydney and one at a cybernetics lab she ran—had both been firebombed. Her house had been burnt down. She was a risk to herself and others. After she moved to New Zealand, she found herself running out of money quickly. Funding for her research on VR sexual encounters and stories for paedophile adults dried up; research and technology meant to lower the demand for child exploitation videos and reduce the risk of abuse, although largely proven successful as a method of treatment and prevention, brought her within a few cents of outright penury—she’d been disowned by her entire family, and her wealthy sister, having inherited all of her late father’s estate, refused to speak with her. Despite making the participants of her VR studies adhere to strict regimes, including having their computers monitored at all times, she was vilified as enabling—and normalizing—child sex abuse. Q.M.T. had surreptitiously followed her work for several years, and he was intellectually fascinated by her broad and deep resume. Finally, after inviting her to a meeting at his private estate in New Zealand, he became fully taken in by her resolve, and made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. She became the Director of Applied Cybernetics at the Association of Cybernetic Studies; a position that came with a neuro-VR laboratory—including the latest neuroimaging technology—a plum house on the tony Stack Street, and round the clock—discrete for she liked her privacy, or the illusion of it—security.
Dr Milner, Joanne—Jessica forced herself to remember she didn’t like to be called doctor—was a potent, dynamic and almost scary force. Yet, also—Jessica noted with a moderate level of amazement—Joanne to be a very friendly, very gracious, very welcoming, very—yes, even—sweet and humble person. It was hard to reconcile her public image—always littered with images juxtaposing her next to child rapists, charred cars, scorched offices and that infamous, viral video of Joanne—standing in her white nightgown, as the morning sun rose over her suburban Sydney palisades—screaming in front of her burning, white house—of “Dr Milner” with the tangible person of “Joanne.” Something about this disconnect between the public celebrity—public infamy—and private, unassuming and pellucid perspicuity disconcerted and excited Jessica. A person, so clear and yet so opaque, Joanne had become Janus-faced and preserved in a shelter of duality for her own protection. Safeguarded from a cruel and misunderstanding society, Joanne’s selfhood required a hard shell; like the snail, or the turtle, she could retract her soft fleshy personal peculiarity inside, keeping the outside slayers of reason at bay under calloused layers held together by academic fortitude, obsessive jogging, and constant surveillance. Approximating the real thing—the person—in-between this gap motivated Jessica to get closer, as one cranes their neck at a car accident from a safe distance, window shut.
Jessica felt herself in a kind of queer kinship with this upper-class, Australian white woman. She felt that, as a Black woman, she too was seen as something she was not, that layers of fiction, layers of expectation, layers of malignancy, projections, fantasies and cultural hallucinations had always obscured her singularity, her uniqueness. Of course, Jessica noted, as she mused over the ironing board, as she placed the socks in the drawer carefully, in a rightward chevron alignment that always made her feel, well, she couldn’t describe it, but—whole?—as she did these seemingly insignificant things of the upmost importance, she noted that difference indeed existed by extreme degrees—even if the extremity of the differences heightened the cohesion. Jessica, despite the feeling of some mutual solidarity with this privileged professor, knew that she—Jessica—was without an inch of consent and only out of imposed necessity, masked. And this mask had very little, if almost nothing, to do with anything that she might’ve ever done, but because of who she was. Regardless, she felt a kinship with Joanne; simply being in her home felt—maternal? Her thoughts returned to her mother, how much she missed her, and how she longed for her reassurance. “You will always be able to do what you want, as long as you work for it. You have what it takes to become great. Follow that path,” her mother had said this to her many times as Jessica dealt with a difficult home life, habitually hostile peers and consistently indifferent teachers—of course, with a few salubrious exceptions. Jessica had a good circle of friends; yet High School and University—especially those first two years—had been hell. She finished her degree early, having taken so many credits at Chicago public schools’ advanced placement program that it only took her three years to finish a double major in philosophy and cybernetics. And here she was, at the home of one of the most prestigious and vilified polymaths alive, being offered—being almost courted for—a position in the Master’s program at the Association of Cybernetic Studies.
These thoughts lingered as she walked—barefoot—through the hallway, past a guest bathroom to the left side, and two smaller bedrooms to the right—one serving as Dr Milner’s office. Approaching the stairs, she felt a sense of vertigo. The flight had been long. She needed to eat. In the kitchen, she found fresh blueberries—her favourite food—placed on a tray with assorted fruits. Kiwis, oranges, strawberries, raspberries, and honeydew melon sat under a chilled glass lid. Opening the lid, taking a nearby plate, she selected some sliced honeydew, half an orange and a pile of blueberries mixed with raspberries. In the refrigerator, she found vegan yoghurt and mixed the berries in a small, white bowl with thin blue outlines resembling catfish at the bottom of its interior. Lavender came around the corner and pressed her head into Jessica’s stomach. The large, black curly haired dog rubbed her face back and forth, then made a soft, sad ‘wolf!’ “What do you want? What is it?” Jessica said, rubbing the dog’s scruffy head. After a minute of this needed check-in with her new visitor, Lavender walked to her circular dog-bed near the sliding glass doors, circled a few times—as dogs often do—around and on top of it, then settled onto the soft, downy pallet. Yawning, she sat like the Sphinx, then laid her head down, made a large puff—as dogs often do before falling asleep—and closed her eyes. Jessica sat on a bench, resting her arms on the counter; she slowly spooned at the mixture of berries and yoghurt, plucked her fork at the melon, and watched the sleepy, coiled doodle fall off into canine unconsciousness.
Strolling into the stylishly set dining room, Q.M.T. struck Jessica’s eye immediately. He wasn’t anything like she’d imagined. Her perception of this individual, an individual so remarkably both anonymous and ubiquitous, had been based almost entirely on stereotypes—often true—of Peter Pan boyhood hackers. Tall, lean, with a strong, angular face, broad shoulders and jet-black hair with dyed blood red tips—short on the side, with the top four or five inches long, falling to his left side; the pairing of his multicolour hair with thick, dark eyebrows over soft, gentle chestnut brown eyes completed an odd, attractive visage. He clearly went to the gym often, and his face—which Jessica found quite remarkable—had a perfect, harmonious symmetry, gradually meeting at a moderately slim chin. His skin, a bright—almost luminous—white hadn’t a freckle or a spot. Wearing a form fitting black shirt, with visible contours of strong abdominal muscles, and a pair of tight, crimson trousers, and black shoes that were matte and unremarkable. A white—out of place—silk cravat gently hung on his long neck, and seemed to Jessica an odd, even old-fashioned accessory. Yet, Jessica approved of this oddity. Q.M.T. said nothing when entering the room. He sat, the far end of the table, near the wall with its small, high slit windows facing the garden. Two men—both large, bald ex-military security types—stood behind him on each side. With a wave of his hand, they left the room.
Joanne entered, along with two other people. Dr Dilbert McKean, a plump, pale fifty-something professor of computational sciences and quantum physics working at Yale—Jessica immediately recognized him from his numerous interviews, and his books had become, in the last five years, required reading for most undergraduates in her field. She also knew—from his multiple media appearances, the other man, a Dr William Grant. Fawned on by anyone with respectable taste, this brawny, gorgeous Spanish-British professor of neuroscience and semiotics, in his late thirties, hosted weekly debates on Polymath—a hugely popular live-streamed, VR-optional one-hour cast; he’d recently been given tenure at the newly opened and highly esteemed Association of Aesthetics in Brussels. His rich, tan, chocolate brown skin, large build, and strapping comportment cohesively adhered to his deep, authoritative voice; his presence raptly absorbed Jessica’s attention. Joanne sat at the chair on the end of the rectangular table nearest the entrance, directing the room like a maestro. “It gets the pallet ready; would any of you care for some wine?” Joanne queried the room, firstly turning to Dr Grant. “Yes,” he said, sitting on the same side as Q.M.T. Meanwhile, Dr McKean, moving—shuffling—almost like a penguin, had taken a seat next to Jessica on the interior side. Jessica sat directly across from Q.M.T.; h Dr Grant sat to her left opposite the table.
“Grab another bottle of the 2025 Pinot Noir, Meredith, it’s going to be a necessity.” Joanne said tenderly. Meredith, Joanne’s housekeeper, cook and occasional sexual companion brought the first course, a cucumber sorbet.
“Now, firstly, I must propose a toast; a toast to my—our—latest collaborator, hopefully, Jessica Atkinson. Oh, apologies, darling do you want to go by your married name or maiden name?”
“My name—before marriage is fine.”
“Well, I would like to welcome Jessica West. She’s been a most interesting person—and whilst we’ve yet to speak in any great detail, I have been most impressed with her work on merging Kant’s ideas of mental functions with cybernetics. Also, she just published an excellent article extrapolating the non-linear, or rather, the possibility of counter-temporal realities, in Cambria. And we all know that Cambria is the new New Yorker of the intelligentsia. In fact, all of the cognoscente are discussing her essay. She’s taken a theory from physics—two-state vector formalism—and applied it to quantum computing… Well, I’ll let you explain, Jessica. Apologies, I do have a tendency to hegemonize the conversation. I guess it is because I am used to being the only one in the room saying anything of controversy, and people either sit in some state of rapture or quiet, shocked disapproval!”
Small, soft balls of emerald green sorbet sat in Jessica’s gleaming porcelain bowl. She demurred from Joanne’s invitation to explain the essay she’d published, “I am very tired—you all—I apologise. I am…”
“You’re jet-lagged, Ms West—quite simply—damn tired from these ridiculously long flights. I’ve been here for three days, and I still haven’t adjusted; I think I slept at least fourteen hours upon falling—yes, falling—onto the hotel bed,” Dr McKean interjected. “I must say, New York to Auckland! What a world we live in—I can recall when there were three connections to get here! And now, the super-rich are flying sub-orbital—Mr. Q.M.T. over there—how long does it take you?”
“About ninety-minutes with take-off to orbit and landing time.”
“From where?” Jessica, moving her elbows onto the table and leaning forward asked.
“From Berlin, well some thirty kilometres outside of Berlin, where there is a general spaceport. Sub-orbital flights are a luxury, and they currently are much more carbon and fuel intensive than the solar jet hybrids you now take commercially.”
“Ninety minutes from there to here?” Dr McKean said, shaking his balding cranium, beads of sweat building on his forehead. He wiped his face with a linen napkin, continuing, “What a luxury! What a time!”
“Yes, once one is orbiting the planet, as you know, it’s just a matter of falling—continuously around the sphere of the Earth—and, well then placing oneself down at the right spot,” Q.M.T—unperturbed by Dr McKean’s class antagonism—remarked with a bright, charitable smile.
Dr Grant, elbows on the table, finishing his sorbet, and asking for a second glass of wine—this time white—swallowed the last drop of his Pinot Noir, and spoke, “Q, don’t you think that rampant economic and social inequality, the destruction of the biosphere and mass dataveillance are problems? I want to ask you this directly. I am not a rich man—I am comfortable, yet we can’t ignore the riotous conditions, the New Economic Framework is devastating parts of the global economy, and didn’t you support this new IMF arrangement?” Q.M.T. began to speak, but Dr Grant, said, “Wait, let me finish, I know too that while the economy of the New West African Alignment, the two Federations, is growing, the Europeans continue to have the advantages of both accreted—stolen—wealth and cheap labour. And of course, with the European Union banning all ‘non-essential’ migration in the last two years, the situation has become worse.”
“Yes, of course, I acknowledge that—fully. For me money is not an end in itself. It is a means—a vehicle—a mobilizer—isn’t that how your friend, Jeffrey Midlands describes it, Jessica?”
“You know we’re friends? Well, we are—of course, but I didn’t know that this existed as public information.”
“Data is a substantial part of my operational capacity, and I research all my students.” Q.M.T remarked, with an accent—a combination of Ukrainian and something else—that made Jessica feel entirely welcome to speak her mind.
“Potential students,” Jessica said, bluntly.
“Yes, you’ve yet to decide, Joanne tells me.”
“Correct … And I understand it—the need for data collection, especially with self-directed AI. And particularly for sentient SD AI. Yes, Jeffrey did write that wealth is essentially about mobility; it is both vertically integrated, meaning moving abstractly through levels of power, access to information, or horizontally incorporated allowing for the ability to physically mobilize resources, as with your sub-orbital trip here. Usually these two are inextricably intertwined, but economics is not my forte.”
“None of that,” Dr Grant, without noting Jessica’s presence, continued, “none of that, none of what you, Q, has ever said justified this economic apartheid.”
“Apartheid it is! Quite right!” Dr McKean chimed in with great zeal.
Q.M.T.—as relaxed as a person sitting on a beach in Hawaii—said gently, “I agree.”
“Then why, pray tell, aren’t you doing something about it!” Dr McKean barked.
“Now, now, let’s not fight, not at my dinner table; discuss, but please, no bearing of teeth, gentlemen,” Joanne interjected softly as she served the second course, which consisted of gluten-free, organic noodles, tomato with basil sauce, and cashew-nut cheese. Continuing, graciously, she remarked, “And, you will be happy to know that the tomatoes and basil, I grew myself.”
Q.M.T, persistent, wryly said, without an ounce of frustration, “I suppose I could be like the philanthropists of the 20th and early 21st centuries, giving away money to help vaccinate this or that group, to feed this or that group, but what would that fundamentally change? In point of fact, it would change nothing. The structure itself is designed to be malignant. Charity is wicked, to take from Oscar Wilde.”
“A good excuse!” Dr McKean, turning red, exclaimed.
Dr Grant stopped Dr McKean—“Dill, I know you’ve been a left-wing activist since you were—well, born—but please don’t shout.” Q.M.T. continued, “The framework—the structure—the very way economics has been thought about needs to change. He could save a few million starving children, yes, and the commons have long been abandoned, despite being a fashionable idea about ten or so years ago; the New Economic Framework, African Integration Initiative, the Doha Agreement, and so on, these are all meant to push the widest possible amount of wealth into the hands of the already wealthy. A dramatic reversal from the spirit of 2020. The problem, for you, Dr Grant, is that you think I supported the New Economic Framework for my own advantage alone.”
“Well, what other reason would you have to support it,” the gentlemanly British professor replied.
“Don’t get me started on that—2020 what a year. What they did to her!” Dr McKean said, slightly shaking.
“Dill, let me get you something to relax—something a bit stronger than wine.” Joanne glided over to a small chest sitting on a stand at the far side of the room, pulled out a joint, lit it and handed it to the sweaty doctor.
“Why did you support the NEF?” Jessica inquired rather bluntly—to her own surprise—looking directly at Q.M.T.
“The long-term benefits outweighed the short-term pain. I needed the capital that the NEF provided.”
“You needed money? And who bears this ‘short-term pain’ for your so-called ‘long-term gain’,” Dr Grant remarked, using sarcastic air quotes with his long fingers.
“Yes, the capital raised from the loans provided the necessary liquidity for the project, and yes—the benefits of this project will outweigh the costs, to put it in more classical economic terms. Or, if you prefer, the needs of the many do out way the needs of the few, to take a quote from your remarkable visual literature.”
“So, you receiving extremely more money than anyone could spend in a lifetime, despite being a billionaire, is somehow a net-benefit to the masses of people who—as we speak in this posh environment—don’t have access to enough food, clean water or anything that resembles a dignified life?” Dr Grant, leaned back in his chair and sighed.
“Yes. If you think outside the temporal dimensions of our meagre subjective experiences, then yes.”
“What does that even mean?” Dr McKean said, smoking the joint with great rapidity.
At that moment the bell rang. Mr Foo had arrived.
Mr Foo—who never allowed anyone except his wife to use his first name—a Chinese official and investor living in Singapore, with a penchant for the extremely expensive, considered Joanne’s home, in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Auckland, less than suitable for his attendance. However, the presence of Q.M.T.—and Jessica West—had brought him here. “What a—lovely and humble little abode—you have here, Dr Milner.” Mr Foo, a man of seventy, had grown up on the ragged-edge of the working-class during the rapid 20th Century industrialization of China, in Quanzhou. His parents both worked in textile mills, his father later worked in a microchip development factory. They saved for years so that their son could attend the best private schools—they sent him to Beijing, through a family connection with a Party member—to learn English, German and French. Later, he attended Oxford, receiving a dual degree in computer science and economics; afterwards, he returned to China, ingratiated himself with one member of the ruling party who would later become the Chairman of the People’s Republic. Appointed to lead the clandestine cybereconomy development unit—essentially laying the foundation for the New Economic Framework—he exerted a studied, powerful force within and outside China. Using his position as the director of China’s most powerful, most secretive government agency as a base to build an economic scaffold that would leverage China’s massive data gathering, centralization, AI development and China’s ownership of US debt to stealthily move, within a decade, the IMF against the US. Mr Foo was the architect and chief negotiator of the New Economic Framework. China had become the world’s only superpower within seven years, largely in part owing to Mr Foo’s work. Rewarded with immeasurable wealth, power and status, he moved his family of four to Singapore, while maintaining homes in Shanghai, Beijing and Brussels.
“Welcome, welcome, Mr Foo, please have a seat. I suspect your security is at the door. Along with Q.M.T.’s and of course, whoever is watching me, so we are quite safe tonight,” Joanne, slightly stoned and a little tipsy from the wine, said with a tinge of nervousness; rarely edgy, Joanne—in her second meeting with him—always felt fissionable around Mr Foo. “Yes, we commoners fortunately don’t require such accommodations,” Dr McKean said. “It must be a gilded cage.”
“A gilded cage is still gilded, Dr McKean,” Mr Foo said without changing the tone of his intonation by even the slightest degree.
“No, Joanne, I am fine,” Q.M.T. sat back, “Let’s talk business now that Mr Foo is here.”
“Well, I’d love some,” Dr McKean said, seconded by Dr Grant. Jessica, feeling serious imposter syndrome, and too uneasy to even finish a quarter of her small pasta dish, mumbled, “No, no thank you, Joanne.”
“Ms West, I am here because of you,” Mr Foo bluntly said. The table went completely silent.
“Because … of me?” she said, sipping water between words.
“Yes, I wanted to ask you about your essay Stranger Than Familiar.”
“Umm… Ok. What would you like me to… What specifically, I mean, what type of question?”
“Please, explain it for the table. I found it an interesting read.”
“You found it?” she laughed. “I mean, you found it? It was published in an obscure … well, Cambria, I didn’t think that. You know … Wow … it was buried in the aesthetics section. I didn’t think you…”
“I read everything pertinent.”
Everyone, except Q.M.T., sat slack jawed, with blank stares and bewilderment. That a world leader—perhaps the second most powerful man in the world—would have read this little paper published in Cambria, and arranged a visit to meet Jessica, left almost everyone thunderstruck. Dr Grant leaned back in his chair, letting the back two legs support it, and Dr McKean took off his glasses and stopped eating his blackberry pie.
“Well,” Jessica, gaining confidence, continued, “the central theme revolves around my husband—my deceased husband, Adam—I felt strange when he died. I felt that he was a stranger to me, despite being intensely involved for almost a year, married, and just about to leave for our honeymoon—late honeymoon—and that feeling grew more and more after the…” Jessica looked down and then back up, directly at Mr Foo, continuing, “Anyways, ‘It’s strange to miss a stranger’ I thought to myself the night after Jeff dropped me off in Chicago. And so, I sat down and started to write. In semiotics, the stranger can be said to become only ostensively familiar. The sign, the hand, the gesture pointing at ‘the stranger’ and—through proximity, association, whatever, converts this stranger into a familiarity. The gesture that indicates ‘stranger’ and ‘familiar’ is the same. It remains in its place, even if the place changes, the position of the original place, the self, is still itself. Or, at least, it is something coherent; the place being, in this case, our subjectivity. By saying ‘the stranger only becomes ostensively familiar,’ what is being said is that only through a demonstration of friendship or—more broadly—knowness, the acquainting of oneself, of one’s place with this particular thing, which becomes a person to and for us only by their being known. But just how known is this stranger? He seems to be the limit of knowledge, on the edge of the event horizon, at the same time full of danger and possibility. The male signifier here—he—is appropriate because danger is almost always associated with the masculinity of the signifier stranger. The stranger also has a double meaning. It’s a verb and a noun, and it works as such simultaneously. Something is awry or wrong with those at the peripheries of knowness, especially complicated when this idea of knowness is used to extrapolate entire groups of individuals. For example, refugees, Black people in America and Europe, Native and Aboriginal Peoples, and so on. But I argue that something is even more disturbing than this aggregated mass strangeness. When, say, I use the example of the recent spate of women, who have been in neo-environmentalist cults with codes of secrecy, who end up killing their children and themselves. Almost all of them are in heterosexual relationships, and all of them are white and upper-middle class. In interviews afterwards, their husbands usually make a remark … Something along the lines of, ‘it’s like as if she has become, or was, complete stranger.’ Note, and I have watched hours of these post-murder/suicide discussions, the husband often—most often—well, uses the present tense, even though his wife is dead. There is a deep presence in her absence, the complete negation, self-negation of her existence, and of course, tragically, her progeny. Here we have the intimacy of motherhood, turning into a real, live stranger. A danger that haunts. What happens when the stranger is near and known? When the familiar breaks down? When the systems—the narratives we feed on—begin to no longer produce the familiar? When layers of distance reveal themselves—or are revealed—about something we take for granted, at such close intimate proximity? I assert that the stranger does not lie at the periphery of the known; the stranger lies at the heart of the known. The stranger-in-us, the most uncanny, closest stranger is at the core of who we are. We do not know ourselves—to any greater or lesser degree. All levels are obscured. The car passing by, the foreigner walking down the road, these are all obvious examples of the unknown—the passer-by—the stranger. But even if we follow this person on their route, he continues to disappear in the horizon because of the sheer mass of representation. The sheer weight—heaving on all of, well, us—of fiction. It’s a mirage. We’re a mirage. We are empty of any authentic content; it’s all fabrication. Jeffrey’s book Nihology, starts with the line, ‘The fabrication of the self is a necessary fantasy for existing as an experience that experiences itself experiencing experience.’ How true—or untrue—that is? Did I really know my mother, her sufferings, herself? Probably not. Did she even know? Mr Foo—you’re a man of great power and perspicacity, acuity—a paragon of discernment—but I would dare say you, and I say this with unpretentiousness and humility, but logically, you know only fiction. And the fiction you know is useful, it manages to work—but it is still fabrication, a fabrication of your social status, your neuroanatomy, and so on… That is why I am working with cybernetics, the significances of a fully self-directed AI will be not a replication of human understanding, not a duplication, but perhaps—dramatically—an entirely new way of thinking. What happens when we generate sentient beings who think, perceive, outside of time and space?” Jessica leaned back, feeling unusually assured, and—for the first time in her life—she actually felt herself authorised to be here.
A speechless dining room in a house on Stack Street, on this island in the Pacific, sat—for many moments—silently silent.
“Jeffrey Midlands is a … charlatan!” Dr McKean, breaking the silence without much thought to the insightfulness of what Jessica had just said, exclaimed. “That may very well be your idea of him, Dr McKean, but again, is your notion likewise a fabrication—or at least layered in bias?” Jessica hit back. “What, young lady, do you mean by ‘bias’? He’s objectively a conman—he even wrote about his fraudulent behaviour in that horrid little tome, Rogue Picaro. Of course, I never read it, but I read reviews! And they all cited the multiple instances where he confesses; some neo-pastoral confession wrapped in pseudo-philosophical garbage! He’s never even achieved a degree. How can you cite him? You’re sullying your own budding career!” “Perhaps, but—let me be direct—I am not too concerned about my career; I know where I want to go, and my work is quality. Jeffrey knew my late husband. I read Jeff’s work in college before I met him. He’s flawed, but aren’t you?” “There is a difference between flawed and … oh, it’s no use talking to you people.” “Excuse me? What is that supposed to mean? Yes, yes—let me shout, bellow, roar and thunder it from the mountaintops, I am a Black woman who went to a public university in Nebraska. I am from Chicago. I didn’t go to Yale. Or Harvard—where you did your doctorate. I didn’t have two parents who were famous millionaires. I am—as Gramsci famously remarked—an organic intellectual, and I am, more importantly …” Jessica felt tears welling up inside her, and she blurted out—quickly, almost as if these four words were one, “I am the future.”
Mr Foo, who’d been sitting in silence, silenced the room by standing up, “And you will be more than that, your work on linking two-state vector formalism with AI is essential for the project. And I am glad Q.M.T. brought you here, with these two—distinguished—thinkers. Some of the best professors in academia today.” Mr Foo sat down, rested his white, bowler hat on the table. “Ms West, I, too, come from humble beginnings. This needed to happen. Tonight, has been a success. Gentleman, Dr Grant and Dr McKean, your services are no longer needed. You will be paid for consultation work—the year of work Q.M.T. promised you, but you are free—you are advised—to return to your normal routines. Please leave.”
“What in heaven’s name is this?” Dr Grant, visibly angered shouted. Dr McKean mumbled to himself. Two large, Chinese men—state security agents—entered the room. “Please leave,” Mr Foo repeated. They reluctantly complied. Moments after the two professors left Joanne’s house, she said, “Well, that was interesting; mind filling me in, Mr Foo?”
“We brought together the three candidates for a new position I created—something of the upmost importance that Mr Q and I have been working on—and we wanted to test their responses. Get a sense of their ability to think outside of non-standard temporality, and to see if they were ready. Dr McKean, being a cyberneticist and a physicist has been on my list for some time, but he’s entirely unsuitable for what’s coming next.” Smiling, Mr Foo interjected, “Or what’s already come next.” “Indeed, and Dr Grant is one of the best neuroscientists working at the intersections of neuroanatomy and language, but he is likewise incongruous with the future. He’s antiquated! Did you notice how he ignored Jessica?” Joanne nodded, prying Mr Foo to get to some point, “Yes, go on.”
“So, Mr Q and I, have decided that you two shall work together; Ms West you aren’t here just to be a student. You two are here for something far more vaticinal; and, of course, we would like you, Ms West, to teach part-time.”
“Teach? And, for what, do you mean by—me being here for predicting events, isn’t that what you’re implying? What does that mean exactly?” Jessica said, feeling overwhelmed, excited and confused.
Mr Foo sat silently for a few moments looking at the table cloth and rubbing it with his left hand; he said nothing in response, and after a minute, got up and left with Q.M.T.
Looking from the second floor of his warehouse to the street outside, Morph watched the uncannily silent street below. Despite widespread reports of riots in Southern California, his street—adjacent to Skid Row—remained calm. People milled about outside their tents, cooking over small fires. The air was more acrid than usual; smoke engulfed everyone and everything from Ventura County to northern parts of Mexico. Morph sat, and positioned his body flat on his sofa, and opened his paperback copy of Rogue Picaro: An Autobiography In Third Person by Jeffrey R. Midlands. Despite knowing—and loving—him, Morph had never actually read this—Jeffrey’s most personal detailing of his life. He felt it strange that Jeffrey had decided to write it in the third person, and even stranger that he took inferences from news reports and meshed them into the realm of nonfiction. “Truman Capote did it with In Cold Blood,” he recalled Jeffrey saying one time. “But Truman wrote about people other than himself, even if he injected himself deeply whilst remaining an ersatz removed observer,” Morph had inconsolably rejoined. Morph had argued that despite some similarities, one couldn’t write about the details of one’s life without using “I”—something about this dissociation disturbed him. Something about the fiction in the nonfiction disturbed him. Jeffrey, not one to shout at Morph, had on one occasion, in the early stages of their relationship agonizingly bellowed, “Don’t we need a degree of fiction to lessen the harsh friction of being up against… THIS!’”
Morph had, of course, leafed through the book, but he’d never fully read it. He’d always been nervous, even afraid of it. Today, on the first of January, he committed himself to reading it. The power remained on, owing to the solar panels, battery reserves, and—as a last measure—back-up generators. The water ran normally, as Morph had a personal reservoir installed on the roof. A cup of hot green tea, a packet of cigarettes, and a joint sat on a table next to the sofa. Morph laid out on the sofa—under a thin blanket—opened the book, took a puff off the joint, put it out, and began reading.
The curious history of the Midlands cannot be taken either as a whole or in fragments, yet to proceed, the fragments must be made whole. And like most families, the Midlands, whilst carrying the name of the father, dawns with the mother; and in this case, the mother Mary, born to a pious Catholic family, would bear and transmit scares that superseded and predated her.
A mother starts out as a child, and Maria Theresa Cotta, born to what would later be called The Lost Generation, came from prosperous, orthodoxly conservative and slightly adventurous stock. A mix of European merchant-class snobbery and homespun, immigrant aspiration propelled the patriarch of the Cotta family to move to America before his wife gave birth. His daughter would be a citizen of “the greatest country on Earth,” a phrase he often repeated. Mary’s family moved from the Azores Islands, Portugal to Costa Mesa, California almost six months before she was born; they lived amongst orange groves, and dusty roads that led to clean, white and beige sunburnt beaches. Her father, a Portuguese industrialist, involved in many lucrative businesses from the trade in antique watches and clocks to investments in railways, an owner of orange groves, two dairy farms and a commercial fishing ship, treated Mary to every luxury possible. A miser in marriage, his wife died from overwork, or to be specific a stroke on an incredibly hot August day. Two days prior to her mother keeling over in the kitchen, Mary had just turned fourteen. Within a year, Mary’s father remarried a woman some twenty years his junior. Mary hated her stepmother. Her mother had been her guide, her rock and—after that day, her only ray of light. Her mother was the only person in the world who knew Mary had been raped by her three older brothers. Mary’s mother knew that revealing this would destroy the family, and while she “had strong words” with her sons, she also ordered Mary not to speak about it with anyone.
A corpse was found on the Cotta’s lawn three days after the rape, compounding Mary’s trauma. The body belonged to a prostitute who’d been killed and carefully deposited on the manicured lawn that formed a scalene triangle which gently rose toward the Cotta’s large, white house. The house sat between two small intersecting roads; the smaller road was so narrow that cars had to sit on the side of the road to let the rare oncoming traffic pass. Away from the front of the house, some twenty yards, sat the corpse, another twenty yards onwards, the intersection. The body lightly floated on the forest green grass, and a bird chirped from a palm tree. Mary’s father lit a cigar and called the local police, who took the body away. The body, that of a thin, white female clothed in an elegant white dress, seemed angelic and staged: the arms laid stretched above the torso slightly to the left, the legs laid slightly to the right, face up, sunglasses on, red lipstick seemingly just applied; it could have been an image from Look magazine.
The three-storey white house with large columns sitting elegantly on a knoll at the aforementioned intersection, that of Laurel Drive and Daisy Lane, produced an image in the mind resembling a petit bourgeois replica of Greek revivalism embodied in the likes of South Carolina’s Milford Plantation. The veranda, maudlin, overlooked the dead body. It was a warm morning, one of those August mornings in Southern California that upon walking outside one feels both reassuringly warm, as if a transparent duvet covers the entire body, and also mildly oppressed, closed off and alienated from others inside sweaty flesh-sacks. On these days, stinging light hits the skin like shards of glass, leaving physical and mental lines, demarcations, marks and wounds. South Carolina and Southern California, in August 1952, were not mentally or meteorologically that different. Orange groves covered some two miles behind the house, and the people who picked them in the hot sun were mostly Mexican immigrants. The Irish-American “Okies,” so widely derided and celebrated (in a literary, albeit not literal fashion) during The Grapes of Wrath dustbowl days, had largely moved on from tedious agricultural work to construction, clerical or shop attendant positions. The smells of sweat and tobacco lingered in the air as Mary braced her father. She could still remember the taste of her brothers’ semen in her mouth.
They had all decided—a choice made in that sudden, impulsive, deleterious manner of entitled teenage boys—to ejaculate on her face. Looking up, she recalled them panting. She stared at each one, seized with a feeling of great nothingness, a void she had become. Her eyes—panning from the fatter George, fourteen, then to the tall and lanky Jose, fifteen, and finally to the athletic and broad-shouldered, Rodrigo, eighteen—noted nothing. Her eyes couldn’t relay the images to her mind, and so—despite being able to see, she was blind. They all stood above her in a triangle of excitement and laughter. Each one, after holding Mary down on her bed, with floral blankets, had placed their erect penises of varying lengths into Mary’s face. George and Jose released their warm goo onto her within a minute of each other: George was the first, then Jose. Rodrigo, her eldest brother and arguably the most attractive of the lot, did something different, he reached his hand down to her genitals and for a second, made her feel pleasure; he even kissed her as his fingers penetrated his sister of thirteen. Then he too stood up and repeated the action of his brothers. Mary, sat on her bed for twenty minutes after they left, then went to her bathroom, ran a bath, washed her face, and began to cry. She cried because she felt nothing, and because she felt nothing, she felt guilt.
The corpse made Mary, a precocious child with an intelligence that would not last owing to uncontrollable externalities, note that sex felt much like, and produced the same results as, death. This intermingling of sex, children and dying carved itself into Mary like the knife wounds the police would later discover on the body of “the lawn lady” (Mary’s father’s name for the victim). Some decades later, someone would stare out a window in a psychoanalyst’s office, far away from the orange groves, and aver that this might explain Mary’s masochistic attraction to Robert Midlands, whom Mary would meet some four years later.
Robert Ray Midlands’ parents left Oklahoma in 1944 for California with nothing more than several flea and lice infected canvas bags, two guns and some water jugs. Their clothing consisted of overalls, simple white shirts and shoes with more holes in them than Herbert Hoover’s economic policies over a decade earlier. They didn’t even have a car. Getting a train ticket cost too much, so they quite literally walked. The heaving, oppressive and thick sun poured onto and into every single one of their orifices. The inner cavities of their anuses became sunburnt. Stopping along the way, this family of three: Robert, his father and his stepmother, cooked under the stars on open fires spits of rabbits, squirrels and other animals found and shot with a small gun. Resource and poverty, if as Socrates said, created love, had also created the Midlands. This journey of resourceful, impoverished “rednecks” – with constantly burnt backs from the sun – constituted love, that fragile and volatile type of love that the bourgeois cannot comprehend. Love for the middle classes and above is too supple, too deferential, too light. Robert Midlands knew calloused, corporeal and sensuous love.
He’d quickly learn to defer love into the purely calloused category.
After arriving in Orange County, he fell in love. He fell in love with his best friend, Tom. Tom had met Robert at school and defended him against the older boys. Several years passed and they never spent a day apart. After a night of playing cowboys and Indians, Robert threw himself on Tom in the small claustrophobic sized room that constituted his bedroom. Tom approved of Robert’s advances; pulling down jeans, underpants and taking off their white shirts, the two thin, pale teens merged into one, with Robert’s penis firmly inside Tom. For a moment they stopped moving hectically for pleasure and looked directly into each other’s eyes. Facing the other, Tom sitting on Robert’s erect penis, Tom’s erect penis rubbing against Robert’s abdomen, they represented what Jean-Paul Sartre was exploring some six-thousand miles away on the Left Bank in Paris: Being and the ability to transcend alienation through connection with the body of another. Existence does precede essence: as cause does precede effect, for when Robert’s father entered the room at this exact moment when Robert was physically, mentally and emotionally inside Tom, the existing reality that ensued shaped, forever, Robert’s essence to its core.
Robert’s father pulled the two lovers apart. Screaming, he called them both sodomites. He dragged Tom, only fourteen and same age as Robert, out to the woodshed. Robert quickly put on his trousers and followed, attempting to shout at his father, but he was incapable of uttering even a single word. He looked at his father as Tom was thrown onto a stack of firewood.
“Faggots! Faggots! Faggots!”
Robert’s father proceeded to take out his gardener pruning shears he used as an itinerant landscaper. With his right arm he hit Tom on the head, making him tumble from the pile of freshly chopped wood and fall to the ground. Tom attempted to run, getting a few feet outside the shed, when he was hit from the back. Robert attempted to lunge at his father, but it was of no use. Robert’s father was massive man and threw Robert to the cold, dewy ground. It was January in Costa Mesa. The sun had just set, and from the Midlands’ remote cabin in the orange groves, the screams of Thomas Eugene Williams could not be heard as Robert Ray Midland’s father took to chopping, using the pruning shears, off Tom’s genitals. Tom’s cries, then whimpers, echoed out. Blood splattered on Robert from his lover’s dismembered sexual organs. Robert’s father stuck the shears, now joined into a dagger pose, deeply into Tom’s left eye. Coldly, the father demanded Robert help him dig a rather deep grave, so as to prevent coyotes from unearthing the body. Tom was buried that night. Just another poor faggot given over to manure the Earth. Persephone, as it was January, greeted Tom in Hades; her hand caressed his wounds and he was healed. Where he went after that is matter of pure metaphysical speculation.
Since the night his first love was murdered, a frigid coolness settled upon Robert; from his intestines to his outward comportment, Robert felt a smooth nothingness holding him, as though he was looking at the world hanging by a thin filament, slightly detached, slightly removed, slightly alien. Since Tom’s murder, which was barely investigated, Robert became and remained a man alone. The Midlands didn’t speak of it – only Robert and his father knew of the events on that dewy January evening. A desperation to be what his father called a “real man” grew in Robert. Now sixteen, Robert decided to, as he told a friend, “find some cunt.” This decision was avidly, though wordlessly, urged on by his father’s incessant disapproving glances; Robert didn’t have money to hire a prostitute. He needed to obtain one without paying. And while the idea secretly sickened him, on a hot August day, he walked down to the dock, noted a woman applying bright red lipstick and wearing an elegant white gown. She clearly didn’t belong there: either she was working or waiting for her husband or boyfriend to leave the docks. Robert approached her; being shorter than her at a slightly stocky five feet and nine inches, he suggested they go around the corner. She said: no, I have a car. They took the old coupe up a dusty road into an area where large houses sat comfortably away from each other on estates of plenty, with swaths of orange groves between and betwixt them.
She halted the car at the top of Laurel.
“Is this alright?”
Robert took out a knife and shoved it into her pubis. She screamed, yet the isolation of the place, the insulation of its geography, being in the middle of ubiquitous orange groves, meant her cries had little chance of reaching anyone. Robert lunged the knife again and again into her.
She attempted to hit back, but he held her left shoulder with one arm while thrusting the knife into her repeatedly. Some fifteen times until she fainted; rushing blood began to pool on the floor on the coupe. Robert had giant globs of blood on his trousers and hands, and crimson splatters on his shirt. She stopped breathing. Tom, I love you. Tom, I love you. Tom, I love… He said these words as a monk repeats a mantra or prayer. Leaping out of the car he walked a few feet into the orange groves; he’d taken a cigarette from the corpse’s purse. He smoked it. His first cigarette; his third murder: Tom, himself, this woman. He blamed himself, erroneously, for the first two murders, yet he felt nothing about the third.
Driving the coupe down the hill, now around 8pm, he reached an intersection. A large estate sat behind a hedge that semi-enclosed a carefully manicured lawn. He dragged the mutilated woman out of the car, placed her carefully on the lawn in a pose that reminded him of some images he’d seen on shop billboards. He drove the coupe to the ocean, left it out on a sandbank where he knew the undercurrents of the hightide would drag it out into the deep blue Pacific within a matter of hours. Despite the events of the evening, the actions that he claimed conscious responsibility for, the blood on his clothing leaving marks of his guilt, Robert felt nothing. Feeling nothing, he marched the eleven miles home, burnt his clothes, and fell asleep.
On February 16th 1852, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Charles Taze Russell entered into existence. The life of Mr Russell altered the entire psychological trajectory of millions; yet dealing firstly in particulars, it dramatically changed the entire course of what would become the first fully American Midlands family.
Mary’s father unenthusiastically approved – despite the class differences – of his daughter’s engagement to Robert. Robert and Mary had met some four years after the Cotta’s veranda looked over unpleasant things best forgotten. Persistently pursuing Mary, Robert courted her at the local skating rink, where they met every Wednesday night. After six months of milkshakes and heavy petting, Robert and Mary married.
The ceremony was held in a beautiful Catholic Church, the stained-glass windows colourfully illuminating the faces of the guests from both families. Portuguese, broken English alongside Oklahoma and Arkansas drawls mixed with cigar smoke and perfume. Mary’s father insisted on paying for everything. A massive five-tier wedding cake with a bride and groom on the top produced the centrepiece, along with several piles of gifts, mainly from the Cotta side. Robert hated his father-in-law. He hated his money. He hated the control it gave him. He hated his confidence. Most of all, he hated feeling small, a man with no control over his surroundings, no word in this world over what occurred or didn’t occur. By no means short, at 5ft and 10in, he did however stand shorter than his physicality. Moreover, he really did come up short in the eyes of Mary’s father.
Poor. Repressed. Homicidal. Homosexual—Marrying Mary would right all his wrongs, bring him a degree of respectability and assure his secret would never get out. It would also give him someone, or something, to dominate continuously, without question. Robert’s father attended the ceremony; already deliriously drunk when he arrived; he ended up falling into a nearby duck pond and had to be rescued by a passing Mexican teenager. He cursed his saviour with racist vulgarities.
The marriage acted as an epitope to the disease of homosexuality. Robert began to think less and less of men. He refused offers of money from his father-in-law. He pulled Mary from her bourgeois life-style into the heart of trailer trash Americana. Moving from Costa Mesa, the Midlands settled in a dusty old house in Anaheim, California, where Robert had been offered work in the construction business by a friend of the Midland family. They lived just two streets from Disneyland, and every night the fireworks shook their one-bedroom dwelling. A simple, detached house: white walls with beaten wooden floors; in the corner, the white wall turned black near the wood-stove used for heating and cooking. Mice frequented the pantry so often that the traps Mary set for them were so full that the mice passed over the corpses of their comrades to get to morsels of bread.
Mary spent her days in macabre sadness. Why had she married Robert? There had been many other, more intelligent and well-off suitors. The answers being clear as crystal bobbed between and betwixt those mental spaces we can’t touch yet vaguely know exist. Robert with his always and ever slightly sadistic authoritarianism, made her feel her penance. A good Catholic, Mary needed to be punished, and punished she was. “Why Lord, why?” she cried out one afternoon from the pews of a local Catholic church. Fortunately, the church was mostly empty. The immediate, physical conditions of bare living would soon slow these waves of self-reflection until they no longer came.
“We need a new…”
“But father has offered to help.”
“Your father can go jump off a cliff, no.”
And so, they lived like this, in poverty, together, alone, across from the happiest place on Earth. Robert worked sporadically in construction, mixing concrete and working as a hod carrier. He spent his days, usually from 6am to 3pm, back bent, in the sun, being yelled at by foremen and bitten by insects. New housing and commercial building developments were springing up all over Southern California; yet this swinging post-War prosperity meant little to the Midlands’ finances. Meanwhile, at home Mary cleaned the floor obsessively, chain smoked cheap cigarettes, drank copious amounts of coffee and washed the household clothing on a metal washboard with boiled water from the wood-fire stove.
Mary, heavily pregnant and into her second year of marriage, found out two weeks before his departure that Robert had joined the Navy, thereby leaving Mary to birth their first child alone. Her mother and father had died, and her mother-in-law, only ten years her senior and an erstwhile domestic cleaner imported from Lisbon to ameliorate her father’s loneliness, inherited the entire family estate. Mary did not contest the will, which her father had signed after several strokes. The will left her $400. She bought a wicker couch and chair set, and put $100 in the bank. She didn’t even kiss Robert goodbye, but he kissed her. His lips repulsed her. Everything about him, his life, his inability to provide even “a basic standard of living”, his presence, his departure, his smell, his skin, had turned her against him. His arrogance stopped her from pursuing a career of her own. As he leaned over to kiss her, she heard herself saying “Fuck You,” and momentarily her heartbeat quickened until she realized that she had not said this aloud.
Robert had several affairs with women while at his post in Hawaii. He served as a cook. Cooking became a passion for him; a strangely feminine position that enjoyed great respectability in the Navy, especially as he came to cook for captains and admiralty. He spent most of his time working as a steward, after his food, served in the commissary, began being noticed by the captain. Robert had a flair for taking standard Navy staples and working a kind of alchemy on them, inventing new tastes from a very simple range of ingredients. He had even more latitude and more ingredients when he was promoted. Entertaining, happy, content and living in a structured environment, he began to feel a sense of belonging that he had never known. His enlistment lasted four years. Each one of them passed faster than the last. He dreaded returning to domestic life, to the world of searching for work, to the world where he had no control. He secretly always felt that world was Mary’s world, after all she was born “on easy street” as he said to his shipmates, and this meant she needed to be “brought down to reality.” The world, Mary’s world, the world of business that her father—always dressed in Old World elegant attire—represented and Robert’s reality were separated by a gap in his mind, and as he could never cross that gap, he would bring Mary down to the hard, wooden floorboards of bare living. Just after they were married, Mary had an audition to be in a Hollywood film, and Robert came with her. He despised the entire experience, and noticing the costume assistant’s hands adjusting Mary’s sweater for a second take with the director of the picture, used this as an excuse to pull her out from the nascent stars, down from the clouds, and back to Anaheim. “Never again will you work in that filthy business, you hear?” he roared as they drove back in his boss’s 1954 Buick Skylark. The car had been given to them for the day because Mrs Newcastle, Robert’s boss’s wife, had found out that Mary had received a reply from the studio asking her to come for an audition. “Oh, how exciting, how lovely, how wonderful,” she had said at the company picnic. “Why, Richard, we must let them take our car. Their old thing won’t make it past Buena Park! Gee, the movies! Fame, glamor and a ticket out of here.” These words made Robert shudder. He couldn’t lose Mary.
At an elderly neighbour’s house, Mary gave birth to Randolph Ray Midlands at midnight, on a large mattress sitting inside a sturdy oak frame, covered with hand-made quilts. The neighbour, an old woman of seventy, had deep lines like beautiful canyons on her sunburnt skin; her skin was thick and hard, beaten by Time. She lived alone and had never married. She had been a midwife until she retired under a government scheme for the impoverished elderly one-decade prior. Handling the messy business of birth, this woman, so close to death, provided Mary with immense comfort. The old woman’s presence was that of solid rock, capable of withstanding even the wildest storm.
Returning from the Navy after four years, Robert was restless. He sought out women, women and more women. Now his libidinal urges had been completely honed into heterosexual promiscuity, infidelity and drinking. Glowing towers haunted his dreams, and he’d often awake in full-body sweats, shaking, but at least, for now, the rivers of his conscious sexual desire flowed toward women. After three self-induced, secretive abortions, helped by her stalwart neighbour, Mary gave birth to Cynthia Midlands, on July 8th 1962, eight years from Randy’s birth. One year later, the Midlands moved from Southern California to Klamath Falls, Oregon where they rented a log cabin and Robert gained full-time employment as a bricklayer. Little house on the prairie it was not, but financially times seemed to be on a slight upswing.
Robert’s aunt – a cruel woman named Violet who lived on the Oregon coast – colluded with Mary to bring Robert to heel. The religious legacy of Mr Russell would soon intersect with the life of the Midlands. Mary cunningly saw religion, in particular one that had already attracted members of Robert’s own family and one that was incredibly strict on behaviour, as a containment mechanism capable of reining in her violent, beer drinking, philandering husband. She telephoned Violet asking her to come, after an autumn night when Robert’s temper boiled over, “Violet, come quickly, he hit me on the back of the head with a skillet and then … held me down, and burnt my back with the hot iron.” Violet came the next day.
Working to ensure that her husband felt something akin to guilt, Mary worked with Violet to begin the conversion process quickly. The day after she arrived, Violet contacted the local elders at the Klamath Falls’ Kingdom Hall, and they contacted Robert. Violet relayed what had happened to the elders. They met with Robert the next morning, a Saturday. Of the two elders who came to visit, Mr Reed, a man in his late 40s, knew Robert from previous times he’d come to Bible Study. “Hey Bob, how are you? I heard from Violet that you want to get started on the road to baptism. You know we are in the End Times.” The other elder, a Mr Salinger, a man of 70 or more, said little beyond the necessary introductions. At one point he fell asleep in the old rocking chair Mary had found outside an abandoned cabin about half a mile up the hill during one of her walks with the children. They never mentioned Robert’s violence against Mary directly, but kept up the messaging that Jehovah wanted Robert to be a provider, a protector, a good husband. Finally, after a year of meetings and studying, he was ready; Robert Midlands became a baptised member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A week later, Mary, too, renouncing her inherited, now lapsed, Catholic faith, “followed” her husband and became a baptised Jehovah’s Witness.
Andy Warhol, Black Liberation, COINTELPRO, sexual revolutions, LSD, 1968, the Summer of Love, the Nixon presidency, impeachment inquiries, Vietnam, the anti-war movement, the War on Drugs passed through spaces and places and Time itself, marking and carving out the future of the USA and the world. A sort of malaise sunk over the nation, epitomised by president Carter’s depressingly honest speech and the ascendency of an actor into the White House, yet a calm descended over the Midlands’ home. By the time Reagan assumed office a second time, talking of Star Wars and space aliens at the United Nations, Mary had two other children, one of whom was her grandchild. Mary had given birth to Robert Jr. in 1972, and Mary’s second child, Cynthia, birthed a child, Jeffrey, on a cold day in late February, 1987. By the time Robert Jr was 15 he already had run-ins with the police, mainly for breaking and entering, and Mary was ready to let him leave the nest. But Robert Jr. wouldn’t leave for some time, joining the Navy when he was 25, and even after a stint in the Pacific, like his father before him, returned to mother Mary.
Such was Mr Russell’s influence on the family that by the time Jeffrey Midlands looked out the window of the small shack he inhabited with his grandparents, twelve years after his birth, the intrusive thoughts of genital self-mutilation obscured the rare sight of heavy snowfall in this part of the Rogue Valley. Heaving under the weight of knowing himself to be a bad boy in the eyes of the all-knowing Jehovah, Jeffrey had – since that day – some two weeks prior, the idea of slicing off his balls and penis with gardening shears stuck in his mind like a giant splinter. Even his dreams contained these terrifying, horrent images almost endlessly,
repeated, repeated, repeated.
Learning several years later that, “intrusive thoughts are a key feature of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,” this seemed less like an intrusion and more like an invasion: or, a possession. On that day, with the smoke billowing from the wood-fired stove’s slender, rusty pipe that ran up the side of the wall and a few feet above the roof, and the smoke hugging the small knoll that rolled softly down from their grey shack, Jeffrey had been outside with his grandfather. The sky above was metallic grey. Earlier in the day, he’d wrestled with his grandfather, and he got an erection from the friction. Wrestling with his grandfather, wrestling with his conscience, wrestling with his defiant penis, horrified at himself – he’d walked outside to the shed. Inside a pair of gardening sheers, about three feet long, hung from the wall like some medieval torture device for deviants. Immediately the idea of slicing off his scrotum, penis and allowing his testes to fall to the floor flooded into that queer space where thought objects arise and fall. Yet this thought object wasn’t like any other; it had no kin, no relation, and no affiliation with any idea that this precocious child could imagine.
For about a year and half the thought of genital self-mutilation controlled everything; going into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal, the thought found itself in the milk pouring from the plastic gallon bottle; walking, Jeffrey stared at the large pine trees that covered the fecund land around the autumnally wet mud-road that led to the school bus stop, and the thought slid off the evergreens in dewy formations that covered Jeffrey’s eyes for the rest of the day; holding the microphone and taking it up and down the aisle at the Kingdom Hall so that elderly parishioners could inanely answer pre-baked questions which contained their own answers, the image of carving off his external spermatic fascia fell from the lips of the religiously idiotic. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not idiotically religious, he’d later discover, but rather religiously idiotic. Jehovah’s Witnesses represented an extreme fanatical wing of the religiously idiotic. Their religion itself, Jeffrey only later could fully surmise, praised idiocy and willed ignorance as the ultimate sublime reality.
Slashing himself, or being invaded by the mental image of it, for a about a year and half, over and over, Jeffrey collapsed into depression. Psychotic depression, at the age of so-called reason, thirteen, arrived as naturally as the weather, intersecting with puberty as rain arrives with Oregon winters, or tweets emanate from sparrows. During this time, after arriving home from school he would immediately go into his small room, to lie in bed staring at the wall in semi-darkness. His grandmother, Mary, had after so many years of suffering from abuse, poverty and regret, and seeing her grandson nearly catatonic, collapsed into a kind of desperate, hypomanic depression.
He’d never been able to pinpoint what made her do it that day. He’d come home to sleep, as usual, till dinner. A stern Mrs Midlands would scold her grandson, “You’re sleeping your life away.” Only on nights when he had to attend one of Mr Russell’s legacy meetings did he stay up. She woke him around 5pm, and abrasively said,
“I am removing your bed. I have found a better one.”
“But I don’t want another bed, I like the one I have.”
“No, the decision has been made, now get out!”
Mrs Midlands voice, usually quiet now booming, alongside the rattle of the mattress as she began to pull Jeffrey’s bed apart, woke Robert who was napping in the adjacent bedroom. He came into the living room, where Jeffrey was sobbing.
“What is the problem? Mary … what’s going on?”
“I am putting in this new bedframe and mattress, and no one, especially not a child, is going to tell me no, do you understand, Robert?” she shouted from the room. Robert, shocked by his wife’s unfamiliar anger, turned to Jeffrey, stupefied.
“Grandma wants to remove my bed and replace it with this moldy bedframe.”
“It’s better!” she retorted.
“Son, come with me…” and Robert took Jeffery outside.
“Listen, I don’t know what’s wrong with your grandmother. I agree with you, but this isn’t something, well, it isn’t something I can fix right now. I need some time; I need to talk with her. Perhaps you should stay at your mother’s house for a night or two?”
Jeffrey, being thirteen and not knowing his mother very well, except that she generally disregarded him as “not my child,” found himself crying as he thought he had to make the arrangements himself.
“Do I have to call her? I want to stay here.”
Sobbing and incoherent, Jeffrey stood looking at his grandfather. Robert felt a sense of guilt jolt through his body. Jeffrey was his son, legally and literally, although the latter would never be revealed. Robert looked around for the phone, dialed Cynthia, said a few words into the receiver, and drove Jeffrey away from that house. The house had a haunting about it; an evil that lived in it and poured around the entire property it sat on. Even the grass wouldn’t grow near the little shack. Everything in Jeffrey’s world turned around that small hideous little shack, the extreme poverty that was so visible his classmates made fun of him, ostracized him for being both “a Jehovah” and wearing sweatpants and sweatshirts all the time. The faraway grave of Mr Russell churning out guilt on an industrial scale dispensed its goods directly into the pubescent mind of Jeffrey, in the form of express delivered images of chopped spermatic cords.
The horse ranch off Sleepy Hollow Loop, with its pine forested, rocky geography, and long ambling driveways, had provided Jeffrey space for some very special childhood moments of awe, boyish intrigues and lots of exploring. Also, the Applegate River was directly accessible from the property. A sprawling estate located in a valley, with a steep hill leading from the modest Midlands’ home to a grand mansion near the top via a winding road going up a precipitous cement grade–the only cemented driveway for miles around. An ostentatious gate stood between the longer, two-mile shale and white rock road that led from Sleepy Hollow Loop to the Kurosawa Ranch, with its short-cemented driveway. Despite having to drive on dirt and rock roads for most of the trip from the main road to their home, the Kurosawa family prided themselves on their cement driveway. It gave them a certain distinction from the mostly poor, white and racist locals. Jeffrey’s grandparents raised him on the Kurosawa ranch after leaving the high desert of Klamath Falls, Oregon. His grandfather had found work in the area, and there was no rent for living in the second, small house. For tending the land, managing the horses and generally watching over the place, the Midlands, who lived in the property’s lowlands, were “caretakers”. Mary found the job through a friend of a friend, who had seen an advertisement in the local newspaper. The Kurosawa family was keen to employ Jehovah’s Witnesses, known for their honesty, hard-work, and—most importantly—not stealing. For 5-months out of the year, usually beginning in June and ending in October, they lived up the hill, beyond the large metallic entrance with its strange gold crest that formed a whole when the two tall gates conjoined, not so obliquely closing out the poor.
The gate didn’t work too well, for Robert Jr. Before departing for active duty, managed to get beyond the gate, the dogs, the security system and the Buddha statues, he managed to steal a very expensive family heirloom, a kimono, from the Kurosawa family. The man of the house, a twenty-year-old sushi chef with long jet-black hair tied into a ponytail, named Richard, who was also the son-in-law of the matron of the estate, Yoko, came to say that this couldn’t be countenanced and the Midlands had two-weeks to find alternative housing. Robert Jr. returned the kimono to avoid jail, but the damage to the credit of trust, a rare and precious commodity, had been done. Disbanded from his childhood home, Jeffrey, newly purged from his already out-of-focus childhood, at the age of 12, felt the fallout of rotting dreams mixed with the radioactive decay of a broken nuclear family come through in different waves into that multi-layered unconscious so susceptible at in youth, these waves would cause the floor of his mind to cave in. Meanwhile, his grandparents were working on finding new housing, in the world of adults, in the world of practicalities, and focused on this with their collective might. Turning to their local Jehovah Witness community, they secured housing. The Masters, a respectable and financially comfortable Jehovah Witness family with several properties, “generously” offered a dilapidated 500sq feet shack above the intersection of Redwood Highway and Round Prairie Road, for the “low price” of $350 a month. The other stipulation included an order, tacitly given on several occasions by the local elders, that Robert and Mary begin to engage more, to come to all the meetings, to participate in the door-to-door work that so marks the Jehovah’s Witness tenacity to smugly save souls.
From the age of two to twelve, Jeffrey had lived in that house off Sleepy Hollow Loop, near Ichabod Lane, a venerable nod to the macabre literary genius, Washington Irving. The gaping wounds of lying, moving, wrestling and avoiding: violent thoughts and queer conflations chewed on him more after the move from the Kurosawa estate. As a child of abandonment, he disliked change. When he had stayed with his mother, some three years prior, her husband, during an alcohol-induced blackout, tried to kill everyone in the house, Cynthia, her couch-surfing younger brother, Robert Jr, and Jeffrey’s two younger siblings, Ricky and Shelby, three-years-old and two-months-old, respectively. Wielding two knives he slashed the tires on Cynthia’s car. She locked the doors, but the sliding glass door in the old rat-infested house wouldn’t lock properly, and the stick she used to hold it closed broke and Michael furiously pulled at it, and slid it back and forth. Eventually he came in, held a knife to Cynthia’s throat in the hallway. “Run to your brother’s room,” Cynthia shouted. Jeffrey ran in, saw a lamp, and considered, quite unrealistically for a nine-year-old, using the lamp as a weapon of defence. He looked out the window and saw flashing blue lights coming through the cheap plastic blinds, which were partially shut downwards. Michael ran out the back door; escaping into the October night. After the police arrived, his grandparents appeared taking everyone to their small home for the night.
Change always seemed to be entwined with, even equal to a kind of terror or loss. Lying in his bed, sometime later, in the shake off the highway, in his room, where he could peer through a slight aperture between the wall and the floor to the outside, he thought restlessly and relentlessly of nothingness. Already an existentialist-in-the-making, an embryonic neurotic, lying in bed looked into an endless black void that captured his mind and arrested his body. He embodied melancholia.
He was about to turn fourteen.
His earliest homosexual desires came from games he played as a seven-year-old with his ten-year-old cousin, Christopher. That’s when Jeffrey learnt the artistry of the lie, the story, the fictive. He learned to lie to save his soul, as an aegis against reality, and paradoxically as a way to access the world. Lying became a central part of his identity. He later lied for seemingly no reason, yet anyone who cared to look would find the logical string of causation for this phenomenon. Propelling this art, the only one left to Jeffrey, was religion, a lie of its own, but one often far crueller than anything that the Marquis de Sade himself could write or do. After listening to the evils of homosexual behaviour, always mentioned at least once a month at the at thrice weekly meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, held at the local, windowless Kingdom Hall, he decided at the critical age of nine, to confess. He did confess, but with a caveat, he only told his grandmother, Mary. Mrs Midlands received the story with horror, but because of his age and competently believable delivery of the message, did not punish her child. Jeffrey never knew his father, let alone his father’s parents, in fact his “father” was an enigma; on paper, a man named Antonio, a Sicilian, listed on Jeffrey’s birth certificate. But another man identified as an itinerant roofer, a white, American man named Damon, from Reno, Nevada was also said to be his father, or at least Cynthia said he was. The Midlands represented an incomplete whole, a familial fragment archeologically significant, as it was all that remained. And it remained bare, splintered and queer. His identified father— “identified” by Jeffrey’s unreliable mother, never wanted to know Jeffrey; the father had allegedly injected his sperm via the usual process of heterosexual sex. The event had been consensual, albeit less than enjoyable for both parties. It took place in a hallway closet at party, and the sperm donor would later float off, becoming “anonymous”—Cynthia couldn’t recall the details, mostly because she really didn’t care to try. As for his homosexual encounter with Christopher, Jeffrey carefully developed the story in his mind for several weeks before telling his grandmother. Simply it went something like this, Christopher had threatened him with death to not tell. Mrs Midlands forfeited an innate feeling that her grandson was different, her pious conscience, and her keen sense that he might be lying, by assuring herself, fortifying herself with the thought that, in reality, Christopher wanted it, not her good boy, Jeffrey. Knowing that desiring something sinful is worse than participating in it against his will, Jeffrey had spun a good-enough lie.
He also developed a ruthless sense of self-hatred, perfectionism and guilt (a super-ego) akin to a cruel dictator that had free rein in overseeing the mind of one, singular individual, a child. All those sinful vilified thought-objects, those stupid yet abjectly envied things that make one vulnerable, must be exterminated from his mind. And so, Jeffrey committed genocide against his own mind, suppressing all of those intimate, sensual parts of himself that conflicted with Jehovah’s will, and his family’s dogmas in an orderly, determined, obsessive manner. His mind must be vacuumed out, cleaned relentlessly. This “cleaning” also removed almost all the stains, dust and residue of his earthlier desires. And so, his early passions for painting, drawing, architecture, meteorology, geography, film and even fashion would not fully reveal themselves to Jeffrey until his mid-twenties, and, in the major, would remain dormant until his thirties.
He despised her. She didn’t have any attention for Jeffrey. Constantly consumed with “moving on,” a phrase Cynthia obsessively repeated from her early twenties to her early fifties; her first son came last to mind. Boyfriends, new children, an alcoholic husband she had married—with the proviso that Jeffrey be left with her parents—television shows, her mobile phone, her children’s children, etc. There were always too many interruptions, many of them created as a way to wall herself off from Jeffrey, from her firstborn son, from the memory of being raped by her father.
After that day, one of only three days she was visiting her parents after moving to Reno. During the day after the night it happened, she felt nothing; she looked at the mountains, the barren mountains surrounding Klamath Falls, and she felt as though she didn’t exist. She went to the bathtub, ran a bath—slipped in letting the water come to her chin. On the side of bathtub, just above her left arm, her mother’s razorblade sat. She must have shaved that morning before going out to preach, door-to-door, the good word. Cynthia looked at the razor for a long time. She reached over with her left hand and took the razor. She held it to her wrist. She didn’t cut into the skin. She just scratched at the surface several times. She still felt as though she wasn’t materially present. Who was she? Where was she? What was she? Nothing? She left for Reno the next day and never came back to Klamath Falls, a place she would hate for the rest of her life. It was rape, it was a violation, and compounding the abuse with perplexity, Cynthia had had—on that night—slightly ambiguous amorous feelings for her father.
On the night of the rape, she had come home slightly drunk, around 11pm, and took off her blouse and bra in front of her father as he sat on his big recliner. “Come sit on my lap little girl,” he said with an uncanny smirk and yellow teeth ground down. She obeyed, giggling, and he took off his shirt. She kissed his neck, and he unbuttoned his trousers, and pulled them down revealing his penis. She sat pulled down her panties and sat on top of him. He grunted, moaned slightly, and within minutes discharged his semen inside of her. She immediately got up, crawled into her childhood room, curled up on the bed, and fell asleep. She woke at 7am, head and heart pounding, wrists burning, waves of panic turning from her stomach to her bosom, and laid in bed until noon. Afterwards she left the house, walked up the hill at the end of the road, and looked out over the infertile landscape, forever changed. She never forgave herself, she sat—turned into a pillar of salt—frozen in guilt, shame and anger.
Two years later, when her parents moved to Grants Pass, she moved there too, to be near her mother. She had been living with her first husband’s Sicilian parents in Placerville, California, where Jeffrey was born at Marshall Hospital, a place he’d later visit. Mrs Midlands was still, in spite of years of suffering, a kind woman. And excluding the factuality that her father had raped her, Cynthia forgave him. She felt herself again, and yet the scars had not healed and would lead her to pursue men that would punish her. Neither Mrs Midlands or Cynthia Addington—bearing the name of her second husband, an abusive alcoholic—ever fully managed to confront, much less release, their interior, suppressed hatred for Robert.
[Removed for legal reasons]… One of Cynthia’s co-workers, Sandy, would become her best friend. After knowing her for over a decade, Sandy left for Pismo Beach to attend to her dying mother. Although close, Cynthia never developed a deep friendship with Sandy, or anyone, not even her partner, Travis, a man some many years younger than her. They’d had an on-again-off-again relationship, but by the time he turned thirty-seven, their relationship quieted into quotidian domesticity. They never married because he had a great deal of outstanding debt, and she, thrice married and three times divorced, didn’t want to jinx it with matrimony. Raising a family of three together, Ricky, Shelby and Madison, the last being Travis and Cynthia’s only child together, a child they cherished and tended to like two penguins looking after an egg in the glacial Antarctic, Cynthia, approaching her fifty-ninth time around the Sun, felt a sense of tranquillity she’d not had since her childhood. Actually, it was deeper, better, hard-won and though prosaic, plebeian and isolated—she didn’t know they celebrated Christmas in England, something she’d only learn when her eldest son moved there—it was, at last, a life of her own. She felt little for anyone outside of this circle, and the little she felt for those inside her small familial circle was diluted, attenuated, shallow. In shallow water she rested.
Some two days after her second grandchild, Ze, turned two, Cynthia’s world of thin domesticity—already melting and twisting, bending under the weight of Shelby’s addiction, several stints in rehab, and Shelby’s boyfriend’s recklessness, careless enough to try to rob a pawn shop, for which he was nearly shot but escaped—masked—without prosecution—fell into the void she’d felt at an earlier age. Shelby produced Cynthia’s third grandchild; the first two, Ricky and Andrea’s twins, lived comfortably as her son had pursued a well-paid job as a factory worker at the local cabinet factory, working his way up to shop-floor manager and then regional distribution director. Shelby, a child seeking perfection, had fallen into a state of restlessness around the age of sixteen, and by the time she was eighteen, she had fallen from the top of her class to a High School dropout.
Days before Child Services were set to take Ze, raindrops fell softly on the stationary car, an old Volkswagen Rabbit, with Ze, a toddler, sitting in the backseat behind her mother who occupied the passenger’s seat. As the needle pierced Shelby’s epidermis, entering the vein, it delivered a dose of heroin—tainted and unbeknownst to its new host—lethal. She held her boyfriend’s hand as he smoked a cigarette, already feeling the effects. She looked back briefly at Ze. Her vision blurred; her head reclined onto the cool window; her body’s humid warmth formed a ring, a semi-circle of steam on the glass. Dusk slowly turned to night; they were parked near a forested area just south of Grants Pass. The feeling of a crystalline tranquilised reality encompassed her like a cocoon for several minutes, as she moved towards her boyfriend’s shoulder, not realizing his body vacant; her body slouching sideways toward Bethlehem, she fell into an unconscious state, followed by heart failure. Her boyfriend and father of her daughter, Alex Gardner, already drifted off from being into nothingness, his corpse now hugging the steering wheel. Sadly, that steering wheel gave him more affection than anyone in the world, and detached from the car, detached from the world, he floated with it, it guided him, suspended in Moon-lit clouds to the River Lithe, where he forgot all the accumulated pain of being serially beaten by his father and disregarded as so much flotsam by a society bent, equally, on its own destruction and perpetual forgetting. Ze, found by passing hikers the next morning, spent that night with the two corpses of her parents. The coroner ruled the cause of both deaths to be by overdose, and the couple were promptly cremated. Shelby’s ashes were returned to Cynthia, who, after the funeral, on a rainy November day, indignantly shouted at the ceiling of her car, a beige Honda SUV, several times before the thirty-minute drive from Medford to Grants Pass. During the ceremony she had said nothing. She looked at no one. She normally pretended to like other people. Not that day. There was nothing of pretence, nothing of dissembling, nothing of simulation, nothing of the façade she normally wore as a thin mask to mask her thin life, nothing of acting left in her, not for that day.
Taking a week off of work to mourn, she stayed in bed mostly, in a state between horror, panic and depression. Spiders that didn’t exist ran up the walls. She heard people whispering in the hallway. She felt her dog, a pug, long dead, jump on the foot of her bed. She turned on the television for background noise, until her ears could take no more. When Travis came home from one of his double shifts, back-to-back shifts he’d taken up to compensate for her unpaid time off work, he cuddled with her, she held onto him like a rock. He brought her McDonalds for dinner, the next night Taco Bell, then the next, Subway, and so on. He cooked on the seventh night, something meaty with heavy BBQ sauce, mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. She had asked her friend Sandy, who had stayed for several days after the funeral, for Ambien. She took it religiously at 10pm, hoping for a death-like sleep. Yet, for months, her sleep was full of night terrors, containing screaming pallid creatures with small mouths, large bellies and bulging eyes, burnt corpses and violent hippos, attacking and gnawing at her body. During the third week after Shelby’s death her tired, elderly parents returned their great-granddaughter to Cynthia. Ze’s cries woke Cynthia into a world hideous and frightening. She couldn’t move on from this, and the entire, accumulated, ignored weight of her life, her body – now grown heavy, plump with flesh falling over her elbow as she stood – tumbled upon her in waves of churning concrete followed by all-too-brief moments of repose. At other times, shocks, pulling sensations, ran from her ankles to the lower part of the back of her head; she felt as though her body was occupied by slithering electric eels.
Waking up with cold sweats, shivering, crying, Morph felt his face, his mouth, the drool on his lips. He went to turn up the heat. The overnight temperature must’ve dropped, and indeed—upon looking at his phone, the outside air was a chilly—for Los Angeles—10 degrees centigrade. Inside the warehouse, the main room felt stony, icy, callous and cold. The time had just turned 2:32am, and Morph realized he fell asleep not from physical tiredness, but from emotional exhaustion from reading, he’d been reading, yet he couldn’t remember falling asleep. Morph washed his face in the bathroom. “Damn, I should have read this years ago! Or perhaps now is the right time!” he said, speaking to his wet face in the mirror. He said this with a mixture of renewed affection for Jeffrey and excitement to speak with him straightaway.
What he didn’t realize, what he couldn’t have known, is that just moments before he woke, as he thinking—eagerly—about to calling Jeffrey to offer him a regular income, to offer it without reservation, without requirements, without association or remembrance of things earlier, without an iota of patronization, what Morph couldn’t have known, what he didn’t know, what he would only find out hours later, was that Jeffrey had taken a large dose of benzodiazepines, ran a bath, turned on Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, sat in warm, lavender-scented water, took a surgical knife to his left arm, sliced the skin in a vertical line from the midpoint between the elbow and the wrist, and had a full encounter with infinite nothingness.
Blankness, silence, compression stilled themselves over the warehouse’s main living area. At first, the news dripped acidly through rumours—and some foul remarks of celebration—on social media. After three calls to Jeffrey—all going to voicemail—Morph, frantic, turned on the television. “The controversial Jeffrey R. Midlands was pronounced dead at 13:30, local time, in Helsinki” ran at the bottom of the screen. The message was mixed with announcements of a new album by a Norwegian influencer and something about a “scandal involving King Charles.” An incredibly prominent social media influencer—who actually had made a documentary ‘exposing’ Jeffrey—posted “Finally, Jeffrey R. Midlands has taken my advice. Best decision he ever made.” It received millions of ‘loves’ and ‘likes.’ Morph turned to Cambria’s site, which provided some early details. Jeffrey had a consistent meeting arranged with a young man—a local Finnish student of twenty—for sex. The young man came in, took off his clothes, and—as per their usual ritual—went to the bathroom to join Jeffrey in the bathtub. Upon entering, and seeing Jeffrey’s body floating gently in crimson water, he fainted; waking up some fifteen minutes later, naked, cold, on the tile floor, he dressed himself—shaking uncontrollably—and called for an ambulance.
Within hours, Z&Z publishers issued a simple statement,
“Whilst many people found Jeffrey R. Midlands’ work controversial, painful—even criminal—his work will remain and endure, in its various forms, far beyond that of his detractors.”
“I am beside myself; I can’t believe it.” Jessica said from the other side of the globe.
“I know. I am staring—I have been staring—at my wall for the last … what time is it?”
“There, it’s noon.”
“Well, since about 4am. I can’t—I am just unable to bring myself … I was just reading it for the first time. I was—”
“Did you get to the end?”
“No, I fell asleep about a third of the way through; it’s an exhausting read. I never knew. If I’d known—really known—I would have…”
“Morph, read the end.”
“Do you want me to tell you?”
“Well, yes, but first of all, how did he … how could he have known so much? It’s nonfiction—but it’s…”
“There are too many details he could not have possibly known.”
Jessica, calmly said, “Listen—Jeffrey, Jeff … throughout the book, uses a detached third person, and mainly sticks to facts that he pieced together through interviews, old news stories and maps. Anyways, he told me something very, very odd…”
“Well, I can’t say over … now. Listen, in the final chapter, there is only one paragraph. Let me pull up my reader. He writes, ‘And then, at the end of this, the curse came raining down upon him like arrows out of Mara’s mouth. But, unlike Buddha, he couldn’t turn them into flowers, and they slit deep into his skin. In a lavender field, in a pond of water, on a cold winter’s day, the crimson life ran out of his body—finally ending the curse.”
“Morph, are you there?”
Jessica sat quietly letting Morph’s sobs come through her earphones. Lying on her bed, she silently waited there, listening to him for some ten minutes. She couldn’t cry. She wanted to cry, or perhaps she wanted to want to cry. But she couldn’t cry. She couldn’t feel anything. A stony emptiness removed her from this terrible condition, a part of her did weep; deep down, in a place buried far away from the cruel, insincere and manufactured world.
His crying turning to whimpers, Morph said softly, “I want to thank you, Jessica.”
“You’re the first person to call me after … this.”
“Morph, Jeffrey helped me—he didn’t give me confidence in myself or any of that bullshit people say about someone like him—but he created a space for me, and that is remarkable, considering the times we live in.”
“Yes, yes, it is.”
A week after Jeffrey’s suicide, Morph returned to his Manhattan apartment. He met with his psychotherapist several days later. During the session, Morph noted, with great clarity, a lucidity that comes from consuming psilocybin, “In the past several years, since the release of his first—actually, second book, no third, book, Actuality & Nihology, Jeff had managed to accumulate a substantial … Well, but not an extraordinary sum of money. He spent a lot of it. I felt that giving him money would be a burden for him … You know that he once said to me—this was right after he got something like a couple hundred thousand dollars from Polina—that he felt intimidated by the money.”
Morph’s therapist said nothing—the typical responsibility of one trained to sit in near silence for $500 per fifty-minute session—he was thinking about what time he needed to pick his daughter up from school. It was a cold day in Manhattan, and her nanny had called in sick. He sagely nodded. Morph projected a great intensity of empathy onto this actually elsewhere being.
“Having been deprived as a child, then a crazy post-Jehovah’s Witness twenty-something, Jeff remained largely, with several—short—exceptions, either quite or relatively poor into his early thirties; a part of the precarious, working-class that came to adulthood during the Great Recession. I think he felt, in equal measures, perhaps, entitled, anxious and guilty about spending money? He spent money on clothing, on hotels—he never liked to settle in one place. He spent money to maintain a distance, a void, between himself and others.” Morph, lying on the soft divan of his therapist’s office, drifted off for a few seconds, then continued. He stared at the light coming through the large brownstone mansion’s street-facing window; light slid through the partially open wooden-blinds, fell over a small, potted green-leaf plant Morph couldn’t identify. As the sun emerged from the frigid, grey sky it lit up bits of dust floating, suspended in air, around the window, the plant and Morph’s feet. He looked at his feet, encased in thick black socks. Watching a particular piece of dust go up, then move ever so slowly down towards the plant, Morph returned his gave to the ceiling. “Yeah, I think he spent money to create a living, animated space in the Bardo. In the between—between death and rebirth, between stranger and intimacy, between close proximity and remoteness. Moving with the flow of the time, or in it, like a fish swimming amid alternating yet complimentary currents. This itinerant, ambling state … he felt comfortable and irritated there. Driving around in rented cars, sometimes for entire months, oftentimes without a specific destination; he always found solace in movement. Why didn’t he invest the money from that movie option for his second book, Polina? Did you see it?”
The therapist nodded.
Morph, gave a sigh, sipped on some water from the coffee table, and continued, “There is something about him in it; he makes one cameo—in a hotel—you know, it’s a love story based on the life on a Ukrainian immigrant housekeeper at a hotel; she’s living in Poland. That should have generated enough to keep my little fish swimming. I didn’t want to—undermine his creativity with huge sums of money. Doesn’t it take a degree of poverty and resource to be creative? No, it doesn’t. No, I was an idiot. And his book Rogue Picaro, it is so detailed about things he possibly couldn’t have known, even from exacting research and interviews? And how the fuck did he know all of that? Did he make it up?”
The therapist—a man in his late fifties—put his pale, white hand up to his chin. This motion signalled an intensity of thought. No such intensity actually existed behind his blankly staring eyes. Morph felt heard.
Milling about her garden on a warm, humid March day, Joanne felt a light breeze, looked up and decided to go inside. The sky, turning from light grey to leaden, gave signs that it was about to rain, and indeed some ten minutes after she came inside, the heavens opened up and heavy rain poured down. A few minutes after the rain started, lightning strikes flashed like cameras in front of a famous influencer or traditional celebrity. Thunder followed, shaking the eardrums. Autumn—that time of restorative darkness—began; the temperature dropped several degrees as the winds picked up. Drinking a warm cup of goji berry and green tea, Joanne looked out the sliding glass wall; Lavender sat right beside her, her head on Joanne’s slipper-covered foot. Lavender, like most dogs, didn’t like thunder and lightning. Joanne bent over and rubbed her black, scruffy doodle-hair head.
Jessica, waking late—the time had just gone 11:41am—came down the stairs and instructed the home barista machine to make her an oat latte. A black tile lifted, revealing a perfectly mixed, double-shot oat milk latte in a large porcelain cup. Taking the cup over to the kitchen table, she looked at Joanne and Lavender. Joanne often looked out the window in silence, and she often wouldn’t notice Jessica’s entrance. It wasn’t out of rudeness, Jessica knew, but sheer dissociation. Jessica had always thought about what this woman had been through, and how she managed to keep smiling, most of the time. Her breaks consisted in these moments of flight, these moments of being otherwise than herself. Of being folded over herself, and out the other side. Jessica respected and understood this, for she had come close to these states many times herself.
“Oh, darling, I didn’t see you there, apologies, this thunderstorm reminds of some of the big storms I encountered as a little girl, when my father and mother took me to the Congo—the DRC at that time—and we would go on what they called eco-tours. Was a way, I suppose, for the upper classes to feel—well, to just feel. Full stop. Anyways, one day my father and I were going up this steep mountain, with a very large ravine on one side and wall of dirt and plants on the other, and the thunder started. I couldn’t move, but my father—a real rugged individual, a CEO, but a still preserving his working-class outback type origins, the class opposite of my mother—he said to me ‘don’t be afraid of the Earth, respect it, be aware of it, but don’t be afraid.’ And I got up and we climbed and climbed. The view at the top… Oh, I am rambling. Anyways, did you manage yesterday, these classes are becoming quite tedious, and what is this project? We’ve not heard a word from Mr Foo since his visit.”
“Yeah, I am managing. It’s hard because a lot of the students have their Master’s degrees and I am teaching them. I didn’t expect to be faculty. That surprised me. Although, I am glad I decided to stay. I am very grateful—I just sometimes feel as though—” Jessica paused, taped her bottom lip with her index finger, “as though I am not ready.”
Joanne sat at the end of the rectangular table allowing her to look both outside, to her left, and at Jessica, to her right. Jessica, likewise, looked between Joanne and the garden. “Darling, it’s work-study. You are more than capable to teach the classes you’ve been assigned, and you’re doing your terminal degree at the same time. Two more years, and you’ll have a doctorate. That’s not bad for … what twenty-six! Oh, I admire you. The ability to focus. My career has spanned too many fields and not enough… Not enough, focus; although lately, I am feeling more and more fulfilled, and old. I feel old. I feel spent. Yesterday, I dismissed an entire class. Just said, go home and read something. Anything. That’s right. These are serious students. Their parents pay … lord knows what they pay. And they come trained for the most rigorous education on the planet. And here I am…”
“You are an amazing teacher. Your wide experience is what makes you a vastly better teacher than some specialist who can’t think outside their own small corner of academia. I recall attending you lecture—last month—you remember—the big lecture you gave.”
“Yes, I was in a bit of a haze at the time,” Joanne said giggling. Her face, wrinkled by time, brightened at the mention of her debut public lecture at the Association of Cybernetic Studies, Paedophilia as Paedosexuality: VR and Policing. Joanne took a sip of tea and smiled. Continuing, “I do think we are witnessing, finally, a culture change in the way we treat people who have a sexual orientation that is age-based, minor attracted persons—or as I call it paedosexuality. We have successfully mapped the brains of over six thousand paedophiles, and the VR-lab has a success rate of reducing the use of child exploitation videos on the deep web by over eighty-percent. We implant the users’ computer, phone, server, etc with a dataveillance program. None of them know about this; in fact, it’s—or was—the most secretive aspect of the program. Ethically, I don’t think it is wrong. If they are caught once, we send them a very frightening message on all their devices. A second time, the information is sent to the police. Most of the people don’t attempt the second time. Two men did, and the police arrested them. Of course, they think it’s a policing tool, but it’s a part of the therapy. I am quite liberal; I am making—I am developing the most interactive, realistic sexual experience an adult can have with a child. I am not doing this for my health! I am doing it because … There are many reasons. It’s intellectually stimulating. And … When I was a little girl, my uncle used to play ‘scrambled eggs’ with me. He’d have me hold his penis, until he …. Well, I know that if I could reproduce—in VR—that experience for men like him, they’d have a chance—a chance—to know there is an alternative. I spent years in therapy, spent years changing my career, spent years without having an intimate, sexual relationship with anyone—except Meredith, and that’s an odd situation. She’s younger, she’s technically my housekeeper—like it’s the 19th bloody century; isn’t this kind of sex work for the bourgeois? No? Don’t answer.” They both laughed, and Jessica knew that Meredith actually loved Joanne; as Meredith had discussed their unusual relationship over several nights with Jessica when Joanne was at the lab.
Joanne, sipped her tea, chewed on a goji berry, sitting straight in her chair, continued her chain of thoughts, “Regardless, I think that finally we are breaking down barriers, and what’s more is the tertiary impact. If people—the public—can finally have a frank, open discussion about paedophilia—a discussion without all of the talk of castration, the death penalty, and torture chambers, ugh that sort of talk sends shivers up my spine—then we are expanding the discursive metatextuality of empathy. Isn’t that something? Of course, we must not tolerate child sex abuse, and I am working with Q.M.T.’s team at the lab on deploying sophisticated AI into the deep web to capture, delete and block all child sex abuse videos being traded. Furthermore, we are going to the source; the technology allows us to find—geolocate— these ‘video mills’ where children are being exploited—often in places like the Philippines, a country we’ve so far identified with the most content generation, and expose the makers of these videos to either the local police or media; this depends on the intel we have about them. For example, in one case we discovered it was the local police, or a subsection of the department, making the videos for money. So, I was pleased to announce all of that at that lecture. The public didn’t know about the stick, only the carrot; now they know both, and I am pleased that even the conservative papers wrote a few positive words. I think that exposure of the police child pornography ring in Manilla, that changed a lot of opinions about my work.”
“Yes, it most certainly did. I remember people gasping when you revealed the details, and hours later the government had arrested—what some fifty cops, even a senior commander?”
“Yes, the second in control of the narcotics division; he was sort of the director of the child pornography program—absolutely horrendous—children held in basements for—oh, years! I am so pleased that he’s been caught. We must root out the supply and demand! I can focus on my VR-work, which aims to reduce the demand—it’s nearly impossible, at this point, to stop all the production. But to make it less profitable—that’s where we will make a difference. We are also looking at the ways in which neuroanatomical structures—for example, white matter—could be altered to stop or inhibit the sexual orientation. But this will only help with preventing some fifty-percent of child sex abuse, as the rest is situational, power-based, opportunistic, and so on. People who don’t have any real sexual interest in children, people who use—take advantage of—a given situation, as with war rape, or more quotidian examples. I mean, my uncle was a married man—he had four children. I don’t think he actually was a paedophile. But I was an opportunity. And that requires discussing bodily and sexual autonomy, consent and challenging the culture of cis gender male entitlement—we know these, heterosexual cis men, are the biggest groups—both in terms of acting on paedophiliac urges and situational abuse—who engage in this behaviour. That work, that larger work against the patriarchy—god, can’t we come up with a different word for it, I feel like it’s been used until it’s meaningless—but yes, that work is for another woman, not me.”
“I think you are the embodiment of that other woman,” Jessica said, as she finished her coffee. Saying nothing else, they softly smiled at each other. Joanne put her white hand, with its blue veins and papery skin on Jessica’s dark, smooth knuckles. Jessica returned the gesture by turning her palm up and holding Joanne’s hand. Jessica looked at the clock on the wall, jumped up, parting ways with her friend, bound up the stairs. She had to get ready for her afternoon class—taught by Dr Sergei Yeats, a popularly revered British-Russian professor.
Dr Yeats, had pasty and ashen skin, partially a result of the two years he had recently spent in northern Scotland, at the European Cosmology Reasearch Institute. Dr Yeats had had a rather idyllic childhood and life spent between the less-than-sunny cities of St Petersburg, Russia and Manchester, England. He confidently, quietly came into the lecture hall. The hall was more like a pit. At the bottom, on a slightly raised platform, stood the lectern, on it a plant-based plastic bottle of water; rising upwards in three angles, the student’s desks sat—stair like—above the good doctor. These stairs had twenty rows, going steeply upwards. The room, designed to be dramatic, felt more like a theatre than a classroom. The light, dimmed, and Dr Yeats stood behind the lectern; he, lit by a mild spotlight, pulled out his notes and placed them, one-by-one in a neat stack on his resting post. Turning upwards, he scanned the darkened room; a select class—simply titled Advanced Temporality—sat in silence.
“Two-state vector formalism.”
Jessica immediately straightened her back; this one line—spoken, hanging over the stage—woke her from her daily daydreaming—she always paid attention, yet she didn’t usually need to pay close attention. She hadn’t heard these words since the night she met with Mr Foo, nor did she pursue the idea after her undergraduate degree.
“Two-state vector formalism. Who here can describe it?”
Jessica—partially out of pure shock—pressed her ear node, indicating she wanted to answer.
“Ms West, thank you. I am pleased—albeit not surprised—that you decided to answer this.”
“Yes, Dr Yeats, thank you … Well, my work on two-state was entirely at the undergraduate level, but I can give a brief explanation.”
“Essentially, a physicist Satosi Watanabe, proposed that data, what was once called information—at the subatomic level—cannot be given only by future-oriented evolving quantum states; one must use both future evolving states and retro evolving quantum states to properly and fully describe the present quantum state. A first state vector evolves the initial conditions towards the future, and the second state vector that evolves backwards in time. In essence, past and future measurements, taken together, provide complete information about a quantum system. But what’s more is that what we call ‘the present’ is actually caused by quantum states of the past and of the future taken in combination. Dr Alastair Reynolds, in his ground-breaking work on temporality, expanded on this calling his proposal N21, and said that both time asymmetry and time symmetry could be removed if the observer…”
“And what application could this, hypothetically, have?” asked Dr Yeats; the spotlight following him as he walked up the stairs to the desk near the end of the row where Jessica was seated.
“Well, as you have asserted in several papers, doctor, the implications go beyond the quantum level observations. In fact, if one could isolate the particular properties of a certain range—within the boundary conditions of a huge set of data—then…”
“Um, I know it seems—beyond the bounds of empirical, testable science is putting it mildly—one could, hypothetically…”
“One could orient—or detach actually—themselves from causality, from the three-dimensional entropic conditions of future evolving states, from Eddington’s arrow of time, from…”
“From time itself.”
“And what if, speculatively, a species managed to live in such a state beyond the flow of our future evolving state, the macro-aggregates of mass, gravity and spacetime that make up what we call ‘reality’?”
“They would—as Jeffrey Midlands wrote in his sci-fi book—Dr Reynolds taught it at MIT as a thought-experiment to elaborate on his N21—they would experience every event almost simultaneously. Perhaps every possible universe…”
“Dr Reynolds personally inspired you to take up the subject?”
“Yes, he actively encouraged me to, after I took study abroad—although it was Massachusetts—for a semester, simply to study with him, during my second year.”
“Your second year at the University of Nebraska?” Dr Yeats rhetorically asked this question with notable hints—hints Jessica picked up on through his gallimaufry Oxford-Mancunian-Russian accent—hints of an inquiry asked with a combination of odd pretention and surprizing jealousy.
“Yes, the University of Nebraska in Lincoln; that’s my alma mater. Anyways, Jeffrey wrote in Beyond Connexion—that such beings, well, they would experience time itself as we—to use a poor equivalent—experience space. It would be like looking down a hallway with grids showing each event, and the events would grow in their specificity as the observer moved closer; they would have more clarity, more detail, and the event itself would be… Could be…”
Dr Yeats continued, describing the full history of two-state vector formalism from Wantanabe, Hugh Everett’s many-worlds theory, Yakir Araronov—the Israeli physicist who relaunched Watanabe’s work—and others, Peter Bergmann and Joel Lebowitz. Lastly, he mentioned Dr Reynolds, and dismissed the class for the day. Before she left, Jessica heard her name called—Dr Yeats stood, in the now normally lit room—at the lectern. “May I have a word?”
“Yes,” she said, turning around and walking down the steps.
“I am quite confident you are capable of being an excellent post-graduate student. I am not yet convinced—as Dr Milner or Q.M.T. are—that you are ready to teach. However, I must admit that your work on time is very interesting. I have read all of your published works. Have you anything more contemporary?”
“Well, on this, no. Not on N21. I stopped researching two state vector formalism and its spinoffs after my undergrad degree. I am more focused on the way we interface with spacetime—and yes, that’s a less theoretical question; it doesn’t go into what potentialities might be outside of that, but it opens the door.”
“So, you’ve become more practical?”
“I am more engaged with praxis at the moment, Dr Yeats.”
“I see. I see.” Dr Yeats repeated these words with diminishing energy. Jessica, feeling the silence bearing its great weight of absence upon the two of them, huddled almost in secret discussions of things gone past, remarked, causally, “I really must be going, professor. I will see you next week.”
“Of course, … and do consider…!”
Jessica having already made her way halfway up the stairs, with her back to Dr Yeats, said nothing and left.
Later that evening, Jessica’s thoughts turned to her encounter with Dr Yeats. She sat at the kitchen table awaiting Joanne’s return from the laboratory. Jessica, since she arrived home after class, had been compulsively cleaning. She cleaned the floors, the walls, her toilet—twice—serially dusted every item in the house, vacuumed until her side ached from the back-and-forth motion; she vacuumed some more until her other arm—the left—began to hurt. She turned on the auto cleaners, the air-purification system, and the internal antimicrobial system—a system designed to remove all fungi, bacteria and viruses from most surfaces. She took a shower for an hour. Meticulously scrubbing every part of her body with a variety of soaps, balms and conditioners. After that she sat at the kitchen table, exhausted. She hadn’t—in years—had an episode of obsessive cleaning. Something about Dr Yeats, being talked to like an imposter, yet also being used as a receptacle for information, activated a deep sense that she was dirty, impure, factually wrong to be in this world.
“Joanne, thank god you are home!”
“Darling, god had nothing to do with it, did you hear?”
“No, I wanted to talk to you about today. I had my first class with Dr Yeats.”
“That pompous bastard!”
“Yes, indeed, he is. And something—something I can’t put my finger on—made me feel so ill. Not physically—not even mentally—but existentially ill. He said I shouldn’t be teaching—or that he didn’t think I should—but then began digging for information about my research into N21.”
“The two-state vector research you did?”
“Correct. Almost like he wants to use my research. I have—I have been used without citation before, but he was so explicit. Treated me like Wikipedia. A sort of intellectual housekeeper; please arrange my theories dear.” Jessica said the last sentence mocking his hodgepodge accent.
“He’s atrociously racist—and sexist. He’s … Oh, I need a joint. Did you hear what’s happening?”
Joanne went to the cupboard and pulled out a large pyramid-shaped vaporizer. It heated and filled a clear plastic bag; the bag expanded with the potent, pure tetrahydrocannabinol-infused air. She lifted the bag, and stuck her mouth to the dispersal valve. Breathing out, she sat down next to Jessica. She sucked on the bag again. “Here, have some, darling. You look like you need it, and—be forewarned—you’ll need it when I tell what is happening.” Jessica took a small puff. After a few moments, Jessica felt a sense of ease; it was the first sense of ease she’d felt since her encounter with Dr Yeats.
“We are going to Shanghai, tomorrow, for a convergence—yes that’s what they are calling it.”
“Wait, a what?”
“Yes, Mr Foo and Q.M.T. want us there, all of my classes—and my lab research, which is just beyond me considering the progress I am making—well, they’ve been cancelled, and you’ve been excused from your studies for the time being. That’s why I am back at this abnormally early hour. I can’t remember getting home before 20, on a Monday, in years. Why are you back so early? That troglodyte-charlatan dragged out from under the haze of academic obscurity got to you?”
“He is considered…”
“What? What is he considered? And by whom?” Joanne—her age and her life experience—buckled under what she considered Jessica’s naïve slight deference.
“Oh, trust me, I am not defending him. His work is considered…”
“Yes, his work, right. You know about his wife? She was a brilliant scientist—one of the greatest interdisciplinary researchers I knew. And she…” Joanne, leant back and sighed, “She died before anyone took real notice. Sergei has taken most of her ideas and cannibalized them. He doesn’t have anything left to work with, so he’s using the best students he has to do the heavy lifting. Stealing their work—sometimes quite blatantly, oftentimes more subtly, like with his prying into your research. He’s interested in one thing—himself. He’s unoriginal. He’s considered a polymath—he’s in all the big popular science magazines; the public adores his bizarre upper-class British accent mixed with Russian—like some fucking scholarly martini. But other than that, what has he actually produced? His wife, Shirley, she and I were friends. She told me, about a year before she died, that he would often ask to borrow some of her findings—neuroscience and time, as you know, were her fields. The perception of time, the reality of time, and so on. And what does the great Dr Yeats do? Well, ha! he writes about the same thing! Surprise, surprise! You know, his doctorate—well, I know—she wrote it. Yes, she did. And, it wasn’t even her field; haptics! He has a PhD in haptics. And the man doesn’t know anything about user-interfaces. Oh, please tell me you didn’t discuss your work on spacetime and interfaces?”
“No, we didn’t get that far; I left before … I had a terrible panic attack when he was talking.”
“A natural reaction. I think he killed her. I really do.”
“Who? What?” Jessica reached for a joint on the table and lit it; she inhaled deeply—her eyes focused on Joanne’s.
“Shirley … his wife! She refused to take his last name—real independent woman. Dr Shirley Krauss. One of the best researchers. She died—supposedly—of a fall at the Grand Canyon. Can you believe it? A woman who is so careful, so dedicated to her work? I mean, I am a bit of a daredevil, but to just fall—and there are so many precautions one knows to take. He was there; he said she just lost her balance! I am sure she did; after he pressed her back ever-so-firmly! If only there’d been clearer drone footage, but this was a decade ago, before the Grand Canyon rapid response system, and all of that is history. But I will never believe she accidentally fell. Never.”
“When do we leave? I am … I can’t process all of this now. Why us? Nevermind, I am exhausted.”
“The flight leaves at seven, in the morning. And I haven’t a clue why he asked for us, this convergence has been planned for over a year, and—well—it’s all last minute, and on the whole peculiar.”
“Non-stop? First class?”
“Ah, finally, the right questions! And yes, dear, these people are billionaires—they’d better know how to treat us! It’s a little over eleven hours flight time. Sleep on the plane. Sleep now. Just sleep it off. Get stoned and sleep, that’s what I am going to do. What a hell of a day. You with Dr Yeats, and … then this!”
Jessica couldn’t sleep; she reluctantly took a sleeping palliative, prescribed by the school’s physician, she had hidden in her bathroom cabinet. She felt a tense, shaking panic welling up from deep within her. A complete detachment, disinterestedness, and dissociation from the room around her engulfed. Her bedroom became uncanny, her memory blurred; she tried to keep calm; she tried to remember numbers, her Social Security number, specific dates—and found herself even more frightened when she couldn’t remember her birthday; she felt, in short, at the edge of insanity. She suddenly recalled her birthday, February 26th. She recalled—by deduction—the date of her marriage to Adam, thinking to herself, “Yes, it was just after mom died; she died on January 3rd, and we married about a month later—in February.” Abruptly the memory of hearing her husband had been murdered in that tony café in Los Angeles rushed back. Lying down, her beautiful, black locks spread out—like the shape of a starfish—from her head in dramatic, stunning contrast to the large white pillow. She felt her hair. “I am here. I am here.” The panic slowly abated; the medication—a remarkably strong sleeping treatment—began to work. In moments she’d be asleep. Just before she fell into an anesthetized sleep, in a hypnogogic state—this in-between place—she began to think of cartoons from her childhood, of a train station where all her thoughts got on and off like passengers hurriedly moving for destinations unknown; she—the budding philosopher and scientist of the uncanny, the author of Stranger Than Familiar, an essay she planned on making into a book for her doctorate—felt ever and ever stranger to herself. It mattered not, she slept.
“Time to go, darling. Coffee’s in the car!” Joanne said, peeping through the half-open sliding door that connected and separated Jessica’s bedroom from the hallway. Jessica—awake for some twenty-minutes—readied herself. The disquiet from the previous day and night still sat with her, draped around her shoulders like a concrete silk scarf. The accretion of death, marriage, mortality, moving and moving again—the accumulation of so-called cultivated, sophisticated, refined, distinguished white men treating her with barely concealed indifference or contempt, marginalizing then appropriating her being, her work, her ideas—all of this began to make itself, already conscious, all too conscious.
“I am coming, Joanne.”
The self-driving car took them to the airport. Skipping the queue, passport control and security, they sat in first class before the plane had begun taking any other passengers. Two tall, burly Chinese men in dark blue suits—likely from Mr Foo’s department—had given them diplomatic passports upon their arrival at the airport. The men accompanied them to the plane, easily passing the usual routine. Sitting down, Jessica leaned over and whispered to Joanne, “Why … um, do we have diplomatic passports? From the Chinese government? Is it necessary?”
“Because, we are going as Mr Foo’s guests. I actually have never been to China as a guest of Mr Foo, and the last time I went to Beijing—a place that is surprisingly pragmatic, let’s just say that they like the surveillance implications of my work, and therefore I had, before Q, received most of my funding from Chinese-backed foundations; of course, it wasn’t a lot but it kept me going until…” Joanne took a sip of grapefruit juice, freshly squeezed and placed on the spacious table in front of them, “Well, now that Q provides most of the funding. Anyways, it’s probably standard protocol to be given diplomatic passports when visiting—as guests—the second most powerful man in China, and likely the world. Speeds things up for him and us—makes the process of getting in and travelling around, accessing resources easier. Yes, don’t get me started on the ethical implications. The Western hypocrisy is … Well, I needn’t tell you.”
“No, you don’t need to tell me, but I am not comfortable with it. I am not a diplomat for China, and I don’t want to be recruited. I am not—well, I am not—”
“I am not sure what I am, but I am not that.”
“Darling, no one is asking you to sell out old broke Uncle Sam…”
“That’s not what I mean, I meant …” Jessica, lowering her voice even more, leaning close to Joanne’s ear, “I just don’t feel entirely comfortable with this situation; perhaps it’s related to… Never mind, I just haven’t been feeling myself lately.”
“I know, darling, I know. And to be discomforted by going to a…” Joanne likewise lowered her voice to an almost inaudible, monotone, “…One of the most draconian and technologically powerful regimes in the world. Well, your response is quite reasonable, and savvy. I am not awkward about it—seen enough in my day—but I am certainly under no illusions that Mr Foo is doing this out of some incandescent altruistic penchant for representing Communist virtuosity.”
Jessica, exhausted, shook her head in agreement. Other passengers began to board. Joanne looked at her phone. An alert came through; Cambria had just published the first in a series of files somehow obtained from the Z corporation. The first tranche included detailed information about the Z-matrix. “Look at this,” she showed Jessica, who also pulled out her phone. The title of first report, The Z-Leaks: Anthony Zed and His Hidden Fortunes, immediately sent a smile across Jessica’s face—recalling the public and private image she had of Anthony; she knew him to be a self-righteous, rich white man with god-saviour complex masking a deeper need for control. Gobsmacked they both began reading the article,
“MARIN COUNTY, CALIFORNIA—Anthony Zed is a man wealthier than the entire nation of France, yet he pays almost nothing in tax. In this comprehensive, multiform analysis, we examined, over the course of the last month, internal documents from the core of Z corporation. These dossiers, memos, messages, and other electronic and paper communications reveal a network of wealth vaster—and more hidden—than that possessed, collectively, by the world’s most publicly wealthy people. After an exhaustive review of Mr Zed’s personal net worth as revealed in these leaked documents, multiple accountants and investigators have determined that he is the first confirmed trillionaire in history—worth approximately an astounding $3.5 trillion.”
As the plane began to fill, the two women sat reading in shock at the details of Anthony’s Z-matrix, and the unorthodox—and illegal—genetic resequencing he was doing on vulnerable, homeless people, coerced by poverty to, as Cambria reported, “sign up to one of Mr Zed’s many unregulated, unapproved medical experiments. In one particularly egregious case, his staff conducted a test, giving an ‘injection of a female infant from [redacted] suffering from Tay-Sachs disease with an experimental [redacted] substance meant to cure the genetic condition.’ She is reported, in a medical report obtained from documents at the Z facility, ‘to have died within three hours of the injection from complete organ failure.’”
Another news agency reported, “Mr Anthony Zed, CEO of Z corporation, has been arrested at his home compound in Marin County, he has been charged with…”
Joanne, cynically remarked, “It’s a damn surprise they arrested him—surprised he didn’t get an award. That level of graft usually merits—at a minimum—a promotion. Remember Christine Lagarde?”
The plane took off.
Arriving at the newly built Xi Jingping Shanghai Air & Space Port, the two women deplaned. A gargantuan cylindrical building completely made of glass—without any traces of other support—formed terminal seven, where they found themselves. Rain fell heavily on the clear crystal some thirty metres above their heads. Several holograms welcomed guests in a variety of languages—English, French, German, Mandarin, Kiswahilli—Jessica could hear the various sounds in the large transparent terminal. Biometric data—from blood pressure, to heart rate, to iris identification, to facial expression and eye movement behavioural analysis, to skin saline and humidity analyses, to blood type, and a full fMRI+ scan—along with fingerprints, a quick blood test for pathogens—all took place within a matter of minutes upon reaching customs. Strikingly, no one felt a thing, needed to touch or be touched. They simply passed through a series of scans, completely unaware of the fact that their interiors had been swiped for health, safety and the good of the nation and the individual. Miniscule, airborne nanoprobes entered, retrieved and took blood tests for near immediate results—without anyone noticing. Joanne knew partly—but not in full—what was happening, for she had help developed some of the technology employed. A hologram appeared—a young, beautiful Chinese woman slightly shorter than Jessica; she’d been flagged for a secondary evaluation. “Come with me, please, just about fifty feet—or do you prefer the metric system?” Jessica, speechless, walked with the hologram. She immediately became invisible and inaudible to the rest of the group. She heard nothing and saw nothing other than a bright, white room. “I didn’t know that this type of sight and sound cancelling technology existed at this scale and complexity—” Jessica thought to herself. A doctor holo-projected into the room. An older Chinese man, he bowed and introduced himself.
“I am Dr Zhang, and I want to perform a test on you, may I have your explicit consent?”
“We noted an abnormality in your left lung, and…”
“You noted? How?”
“All travellers are monitored for their health and wellbeing, and the health of the individual is the health of nation.”
“How are they monitored?”
“Well, I guess you don’t need my consent, so…”
“Oh, I do.”
A sharp, laser-focused single purple beam of light came from the top of the isomorphic hospital examination room, passing over the left side of Jessica’s chest. After minutes, that felt like hours, the beam stopped. The doctor, whom Jessica hadn’t noticed had left, returned.
“You have a cancerous growth on your left lung; it is small, we can treat it—we will need to take you to—you are listed as a Priority—we can take you to the hospital unit Priorities. The treatment will only take a matter of hours, maybe less. It’s an routine procedure.”
“Removing a cancerous growth on my lung is routine?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Please, when this room dissolves, follow your friend Joanne; she’s already been informed.”
Moments later Joanne stood next to Jessica. “Oh, darling—I am so glad they found out now, here! Dr Zhang explained everything.”
“Everything?” Jessica felt nothing. She couldn’t feel—the entire situation felt unreal, felt impossible, unreasonable, dreamlike in the haze of jetlag, culture shock and her recent health diagnosis clouding all. “Joanne, a cancer diagnosis—even after years of research and development, even with the best medical facilities—in the United States this is still most certainly not a routine concern!”
“It is here. I always come to China for healthcare—at least when you know people, it’s just a matter of access.”
“A matter of access? Even the best hospitals in the US have a hard time with—fuck, Joanne, I have lung cancer!”
“Don’t shout darling, it will lower your social credit score. Xi Jingping Hospital is where… it’s…” she lowered her voice, knowing that she could still be heard, her lips being monitored, nanoprobes presumably circling and recording data, but whispering out of habit, she murmured, “it’s where they treat the highest-ranking officials. You will be fine. Trust me, they have technology here that is a good deal more advanced than anything we have in the West. In point of fact, it is due to their data collection, massive health, psychometrics, and other information—massive aggregates of data fed into the maw of their field-specific AIs—that has allowed them to become… We must go.” A man—in person—approached, Mr Foo’s son, Jack. Jack stood tall, a brawny regular at his family’s many gyms, his tall prepossessing presence and lively clothing would, under normal circumstances caught Jessica’s attention; he had an abnormally gorgeous appearance. Joanne knew he’d worked as a model for several Chinese fashion companies, and that he was also a man of literature. She liked Jack, having met him on two other occasions in Auckland.
Jack greeted both women with a handshake. “Please come with me.” He walked in front of them, wearing a perfectly tailored red suit—with subtle multicoloured floral designs etched gently into the fabric, each flower delicately crafted from silk. His shoes did not demur; they were loud, red and glossy. As they walked past multiple checkpoints—stands with security guards taking passengers passports as a mere formality—they veered off into a side chamber, where a ramp sloped down to a large, black car. The car had no front seat, no steering wheel, no doors—it resembled an oversized, monochromatic ladybug. Two doors—imperceptible at first—slid open revealing a spacious interior. Jessica went in first, sat on a large cushioned seat facing inwards. All the seats faced towards each other, and after Joanne and Jack entered the doors closed. The car lifted off the ground, by about a metre; only the sounds of the wheels retracting could be faintly heard.
“In the city we no longer rely on tyres.”
“I see.” Joanne said, yawning loudly.
Jessica, reluctant to say anything, sat motionless; she held the palms of her hands firmly on the seat. Within minutes they arrived at the sprawling Xi Jingping Hospital. The car attached itself to the side of one of the buildings, its doors opening directly to a long, softly lit, lavender hallway. Amethysts—ranging from three to five metres—sat throughout this commodious wing of the hospital. The Amethyst wing—also known as the oncology treatment unit—sprawled over some fifty square kilometres.
“I’ll leave you two here, see you this evening.” Jack, having taken the women to the main nurses’ station, said, returning to the car.
“Ms West, I am Dr Zhang. We’ve met—in a manner of speaking.”
“Your holographic self is quite accurate.”
“Yes. Well, let’s begin. Really, I do understand that this type of diagnosis for your people … I mean people from the West … particularly the United States, can be devasting. Here, it is really—what you have—I have examined further, a very routine matter. Have you ever had a wisdom tooth removed? Of course, you have, I know. Remember the experience?”
“All too well.”
“Good, it’s nothing as painful as that. You might experience some odd sensations in your chest for a couple of days—pins and needles, warming, that sort of thing, but the procedure is not invasive.”
“What? Not invasive? Is it a type of immunotherapy?”
“No, we are not going to remove the cancerous tumour, nor are we going to use your body’s immune system to counter it—although that is becoming standard practise in most places, it is out of date here. We are going to alter chronotherapy; a basic, isolated retro-caustion at the chromosomal level; and then reintegrate its cellular debris into your body. Essentially, it will stop growing, dissolve and be absorbed back into your body. This is where the secondary effects may occur. You will feel—what’s the best word—sluggish and perhaps, as though you have flu, for a couple of days. After that, you will be cured. I am also going to give you a vaccination—if you want it—that will be specially tailored to prevent this type of excess growth in the future. Do you accept that?”
“Chrono… what? Temporal alterations? I have more questions for you Dr Zhang, later. But of course, yes, yes, I do consent.” Jessica mumbled softly—thinking, “What the hell—what the hell.” Her mind raced back and forth, trying to understand how this lifesaving technology could be available after her mother had died of cancer—her aunt, her cousin at only twenty-two, and she became angry, furious that her government, her backwards nation, her hateful, vile ignorant nation had spent all its resources on waging wars, until finally bankrupt, conclusively and irrevocably spent—morally and financially—it begged the world for more, more, and more. And that more came at the price of the majority of people—came at the price of mass displacements, rolling blackouts in Southern California and Arizona, some three million people officially living in tent cities, and—as she had just learnt—the birth of the first known trillionaire. The New Economic Framework had been the price that Uncle Sam didn’t pay, but he made the least among him pay for it; pay for the sins of decades—centuries—of rapacious greed, imperialism, slavery, genocide, endless wars and military spending so large it bankrupted the wealthiest nation on Earth, a place where even the real simulacra felt the wrath of actuality—Disneyworld in Orlando having been wiped off the map by a Category 5 hurricane. Jessica’s anger welled up into tears, yet she held back the majority of her possible tears.
Jessica found herself being guided to the healing chamber—a small circular space that comfortably held one person at a time, put on a thick, warm white linen gown, lied down on a soft, round bed—bathed in a white and lavender light, and breathed in deeply as instructed by a friendly nurse, a woman about Jessica’s age. After the door closed to the small rotund room, Jessica immediately fell asleep.
“Success.” Jessica felt a cool, soft breeze as the warm air of her pod slipped out into the general operational facilities. “Absolutely successful, and under two hours.” Jessica heard these words, but she didn’t recognize where or from whom they were coming from. “Complete recovery, I would say, two days.” “Oh, that’s quite good, thank you, Dr Zhang. Jessica darling, take your time, you will feel a little tired, a little confused perhaps. That’s some strong medicine!” “Please make sure she gets plenty of water, and I recommend green tea with turmeric to help with any tertiary inflammation.” Jessica slowly rolled herself out of the chamber. She held onto Joanne’s arm. “I am … I am thirsty.” “Yes, your body is absorbing the cellular debris; you will be extraordinarily thirsty; here, drink this … it is a bit salty, but you need the electrolytes. I am prescribing you a turmeric and green tea diet for the next week. I am sure you will be fine to make it to your engagements at the convergence tomorrow. If there is anything you need, I am available.” “Thank you, doctor, I do think we will be alright. Jessica, Mr Foo’s son will be here in a moment. He will take us home. OK?” “Yes, Joanne, I just need more water.” “Yes… nurse! Please may we have more water? My dear, we might need several litres.” Jessica felt weak, achy and tired. She also felt disoriented. But slowly, by degrees, walking down the hallway to the car attached to the Amethyst ward, she began to awake—“Fuck, I am going to be OK, right Joanne?” “Yes, yes, you are.”
After thirty minutes flying on a road dedicated to driverless, electronic cars without tyres—the technology that allowed for near frictionless travel tightly guarded—the retracted wheels descended and the car began driving on a newly built, smooth road. The resistance with the road barely noticeable, given the flexible neo-concrete design, didn’t wake Jessica. Immediately, after lying down on a spacious seat inside the hovering shell, she had fallen into a deep sleep. Another twenty minutes and the car arrived at an open gate, moved up a gently rising hill and stopped in front of a large square house. The house’s exterior made entirely of glass, sat as a container of prosperity and elegance on this artificial hillside outside of Shanghai. Lights in the distance indicated a highly populated nation, but this estate remained well removed from the hustle of the cities. One steel beam on each side of the box reached up five-storeys holding huge panes of thick glass—it resembled a Donald Judd cube scaled up—a veritable realization of a concept, revealing majestic orders of magnitude. The advanced architecture of the building included both the exterior glass wall and a garden enclosed inside the four sides. Five interior levels, with some rooms visible from lighting inside, were each discernible. The car’s wheels retracted, a large wall, facing the sky at an angle, slid smoothly open; the auto descended, the wall closed, the passengers exited. Jessica felt bewildered. “Where are we?” “This is just the garage, Ms West.” Jack took her hand. “Please come with me. The elevator is over here.” “Mr Foo, welcome home. Dr Milner and Ms West, welcome to the main residence,” and the wide elevator door spoke as it opened. Reaching the fifth floor, the three entered a room full of antique Chinese pottery, furniture, and colossal, picturesque ink and watercolour canvases held by tight, nearly imperceptible wires. Recessive lighting gently bathed the concrete walls, the dark tiled floor, the antique cabinets, bureau desks, chairs and lavish carpets with intricate designs, in shades of colours so peculiar Jessica couldn’t—despite her training in colour theory, a part of her cybernetic work at the Association—completely discern; Old and New Sino worlds mingled together in complete and utter perfection.
The sprawling room—some 2000 square metres—encompassed the entire fifth-floor. Large plants reached high up to the glass ceiling; Jessica looked up and noted raindrops silently beating against the ceiling. The fifth floor held a partially partitioned off—obscured with a combination of dark rustic, wooden Chinese doors and paper screens—kitchen, two sitting areas, with several plush divans, several alcoves acting as offices, and a staggered bookshelf that measured some thirty metres long and ten metres tall. Despite its height, it was still shy of the glass roof by another five metres. “What a wonderful home your family has, Jack; incredibly elegant and so … spacious.” Joanne said with a bit of astonishment. She’d seen the homes of great wealth before, but nothing compared to the Foo family’s main residence.
“Dinner will be in half an hour; may I show you to your private alcoves?”
“Yes, please do.”
“Here, this chamber is for you, Ms West,” Jack, after walking them to the far northern side of the house, opened a glass door and stood outside. The spacious, rectangular room, entirely encased in glass, had a plush, enormous bed, a bathroom overlooking the interior-exterior garden, a desk, an ergonomic chair and new, not-on-the-market Apple computer. A Huawei Q+, the updated and advanced take on the Apple iPad, sat on a wooden bedside table. “Don’t worry, you can glaze, or completely black out the glass, as you wish. This isn’t entirely a fishbowl! Although, my father might prefer it that way.” Jack looked at Jessica with tenderness, deference and a melancholic sense of wanting to hold her hand, to comfort her. Of course, he did nothing of the sort. He bowed and took Joanne to her room, a complete replication adjoining the first. “Dr Milner…”
“Please, Jack, Joanne is fine.”
“Joanne, um, I am interested in your work on interfaced reality. You are also a colleague of Dr Yeats, his work on haptics has advanced our isomorphic sight, touch and sound developments. This has allowed us to develop the holographic spaces that are entirely independent from—but completely mimic—reality. It is beyond virtual reality; we are creating reality.”
“Yes, I see. And that’s not Dr Yeat’s work—his late wife—Dr Krauss wrote his doctorate, so thank her—if you could. Damn with the technology you’re developing, I might almost surmise that you…”
“Could thank her, in person—as a simulation, of course.”
“Uh huh, I meant—what is your interest, what is—to be closer to the point, the interest that seems so consistent and is becoming more and more in persistent months, with reviving retro-causation?”
“What do you mean, specifically?”
“Oh, Jack, I have been around the sun enough times to see clearly that Jessica’s work on reviving two-state vector formalism, and N21, as an undergraduate caught the attention of your father, of Q, of many others. I am no physicist … ahem,” lowering her voice—as she often did when trying to get other people to pay attention, a trick she learnt long ago— “however, does this have anything to do with time?”
“Yes, don’t exploit my ignorance of certain fields, Jack. I know you’re an educated man. Please, don’t make me come across as impetuous. I am a daredevil, but I am not reckless. So, I will reiterate, does this have to do with time?”
Jack stroked his chin while slightly tilting his head back and breathing in deeply through his nose. “I am not entirely sure it’s the right occasion for me to say anything about my father’s interests in the subject of time.”
“He certainly has a great many clocks in this house—all of these beautiful antique and modern clocks. And, I noticed all twenty-four time zones on the screen near the lift.”
“Yes, that isn’t hard to miss—and his work involves the world—and time is what makes the…” Jack again placed his right hand on his chin, running it halfway down his neck whilst tilting his head back and breathing in deeply through his nose. “Is what makes the…”
“World go around?” Joanne said with a laugh. “I need to sleep. Thank you for your hospitality, and goodnight, Jack.”
Jessica awoke to a completely dark room. The glass, on all sides and the ceiling some fifty feet above her, had turned black. As soon as she sat up, the ceiling began to slowly turn from black to a moonstone grey, allowing a bit of the morning light to softly, evenly enter the room. She put her feet on the tiled floor. It felt warm, supple even. Walking to the bathroom, the ceiling turned a hazy olive green, and several round, subdued lights illuminated the floor. “Good morning, Ms West,” a voice said. “Who’s that?” Jessica, thought, then quickly realized it to be the signature voice of Huawei Aware-Space technology, designed to anticipate every need. She’d read about this technology, only now coming available in Europe, and still banned in the United States. “Would you like your morning bio-readings?” “Yes.” “Blood pressure, one-hundred and twenty-two over eighty; body temperature, thirty-seven point one degrees; inflammation markers, within normal range; weight sixty-seven kilograms; height one-hundred and seventy-three centimetres; post-operational analysis … in full or summary?” “Summary.” “Complete absorption of cellular debris, full recovery, recommendations: hydration, green tea—three cups a day—and turmeric supplements. Green tea with turmeric infusion available at kitchenette station.” Jessica peered around the glass door—now transparent—of the bathroom. The glass walls of her room, once black, now resembled concrete. She noted the small kitchen alongside the wall that separated the bathroom from the main bed chamber. A machine—not unlike Joanne’s home barista, but more sophisticated—sat on the counter. Its black tile door slid open; inside, a warm, turmeric-infused cup of green tea sat, placed serenely at the centre of a large glass plate, alongside a bowl of blueberries.
Jessica—in white linen pyjamas she somehow managed to slip into before falling asleep—stood sipping the tea, her bare feet on warm tiles, looking up at the ceiling as it became—slowly—more and more translucent. Her was mind unperturbed, tranquil, and serene. She inhaled deeply through her nose, feeling the air enter and exit her repaired lungs. Her cancer had largely been asymptomatic; she hadn’t noticed its effect on her body until it had been removed—or dissolved. How it had been dissolved, so quickly, so efficiently, made her felt a sense that a dream had imprinted itself on factual, brute existence. The idea of the fragility of the body had always weighed on her; and, she had avoided anything close to a meticulous encounter with her own fragile body—her body, her flesh, her form—through a kind of interminable intellectual escapism. Dawning into the day, she knew that her body, the organs and tissues that assembled themselves into her were not an illusion or an abstraction to be ignored trancelike in the world of academia; her body was not a detached Cartesian thing, a caricature of the bookish bourgeoisie she both dreamt of being and despised in equal measure, but rather something to be embraced, consciously embodied.
Rubbing her face and neck, she winced. Cracking through the ever-widening aperture of this phenomenon experiencing itself experiencing experience, she gazed at infinite nothingness. Satori. She recalled this word—the perception of Buddha-nature or emptiness. “Where did I first…” thinking to herself, she went over the Q+ and brought up Jeffrey R. Midlands’ book Actuality & Nihology. Hitherto, she’d never read it; she’d read fragments, quotes but not the entire book. She went to the chapter where he quoted the Heart Sutra, then talked about how this inspired him to take on nothingness as his life’s goal. His life, emptied out, had always seemed hollow, alien, cold and remote to Jessica. She realized that there is a great deal of presence in absence. And with this insight—an understanding she couldn’t explain—led her to think that this was a reason Jeffrey could never rationally expound on what is an ineluctably ineffable experience. Reading, randomly, from page one-hundred and twenty-three,
The systematic negation of nothingness is in itself the a priori condition of the actualization of possibilities into conditions, events and phenomena. How is nothingness systematically negated before any ‘thing’ arises? Nothingness itself is simply absolute absence, and therefore it cannot exist, does not exist, does not animate or produce. However, because it cannot exist actually, it exists in absolute relation to absolute plenitude. There is not either nothing or something, but rather a no-thing. For if there existed something, it would be monadic, it would be isolated, it wouldn’t be a field of immanence; it would be some particular thing without relation. Conversely, if there existed only everything, then all would fall into indistinguishable plenitude—akin to absolute absence; the entirety of the immanent field of possibility actualizing into possibilities, then probabilities then actuality, requires nothingness—of absence—as an allowance for some-things to exist in relation to each other. Therefore, nothingness itself is an a priori condition of what is commonly called reality. In a sense, there is an important—almost imperative—necessity to study the literature, knowledges and experiences of what is called satori.
Jessica sat the Q+ down. She went to the bathroom, turned on some data-synth music, took a shower, brushed her teeth, washed her face in the pebble-filled sink, and went back to her large bed, sat down and pulled up the notes on a paper she’d been working on. She couldn’t access Cambria’s site, and she didn’t want to access it. Relieved from the world outside China’s great cyber-wall, she focused her attention on her breathing. Splashing over the past, she found solitude in forgetting Auckland, in forgetting the Association, in forgetting Dr Yeats, in forgetting Morph and his foul father, in forgetting even—for an hour or so—the entirety of the burden of the events that constituted her life.
She heard a bell—the time had just gone past 11am—and she remembered the convergence would start at 14:00. Three hours—who could it be? Answering the door, she was greeted by Joanne. “Let’s take a walk, shall we?”
“Sure, I just need to get dressed, five minutes.”
Outside, in the exterior-interior gardens, Joanne and Jessica—after a short elevator ride to the first floor, wherein the commodious transport box moved sideways and to one of the many portals leading outside, skipping by the rest of the ground floor of the Foo residence—walked in that space between glass and glass. Looking up they noted that that gardens also had a glass ceiling, a great distance above them; forming a giant rectangular greenhouse, enclosing the estate, and allowing for a variety of plants, herbs and small trees to grow. This space encompassed the entirety of the mansion’s four sides, and a concrete path meandered throughout, passing small knolls, ferns, pines, and other vegetation not native to this part of China—including several Joshua trees, large cacti and a small strawberry patch. Butterflies flew gracefully, landing on the two women’s shoulders as they walked in silence for several minutes.
“Rather remarkable, isn’t it?” Joanne said after they both sat on a wooden bench adjoining the path.
Sighing, Jessica, turned.
“Yes, extraordinary, astonishing, incredible, remarkable—there are many adjectives to explain this … this New World!”
“Indeed, the future is here, in China, but at what cost? I am not sure. I mean, of course, at what cost to freedom, to privacy—I remember a time when…” Joanne, paused.
“Before all of this. Before the constant monitoring, the ever-present data collection; before the all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipresent virtual world became implanted and more real than the world that birthed it. I am not romanticising this period; no, not at all—I am no Luddite—god help us. Bear skins and bone knives, what would we do? I mean people like us—so embedded in all of this. We couldn’t … well, we wouldn’t have any purpose, would we? We’d be antiquated!”
“I suppose so. Although, with all of this, I don’t really feel that I have a purpose.”
“My dear, you are a brilliant, young successful academic working on incredibly important undertakings; you may not feel that you have a purpose, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have one—or several. Why do you suppose Mr Foo brought us—you—here? I don’t know, but the questions about two-state vector formalism, about N21, about your undergraduate work on the inter-relation between backward causation and quantum computing…”
“You read that!”
“Yes, I read everything. When I was a child, I would read the ingredients on the cereal boxes as I ate. I read in the morning, in the evening, and it the middle of the night. Yes, I read your capstone project—really doctoral level work. It’s one of the reasons I recommended you to teach. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I think you’ll be finished with your doctorate within the next year or so. What’s more interesting, however, is why everyone—and, I admit the work is theoretically brilliant—seems to be buzzing around it. I mean, it captured my attention after I was forwarded it by Mr Foo—no, wait, after Q.M.T. sent it to me—then Mr Foo’s office sent it to me. I’d read it in full by then. But I did wonder, why on Earth are these two incredibly powerful men asking me to read this undergraduate thesis? I do see its complete speculative brilliance. These are practical men. They are not dreamers—not like Anthony Zed who intended on, well, using whatever nefarious practices, whatever means he could with the substantial wealth his family amassed to create a ‘re-reality movement’—no Mr Foo and Q are simply more practical. They don’t care for movements, for influencing the public, for any of that. I mean there is a difference between influence and control—a difference separated by a small space, but that small space contains substantially different content and outcomes; however, I know that they have an image problem. Despite Anthony’s eccentricities, his bizarre obsession with remaking Marin County into some Eden-Xanadu, he largely remained hidden. ‘Masked, I advance,’ as Descartes said. Mr Foo cannot—for obvious reason, because of his position here in China—remain so camouflaged as Anthony, in the mists of social movements. And Q, well, he’s going to be outed—his name—at some point. He’s so young, people are obsessed with his early years—his parents have been given special protective status in Switzerland. The whole thing negotiated by…” Joanne smiled at Jessica.
“It’s funny, Christine Lagarde—the first International Director of the New Economic Framework. You probably don’t remember, but I mentioned her just after we learnt of Anthony’s malfeasance, his predilection for perfidy is related no doubt—no pun intended—to his being the progeny of a Mr Carlos and a Ms West.”
“I thought his family—the Zed family?”
“No, that’s all an illusion—or rather it was, now there really is a Zed family; even if it’s just Morph. But after Anthony was born, his parents—no just before—they changed their family name. Big fish in a bigger sea looking to get bigger. Mr Carlos came from a poor family in Tijuana, moved himself into selling satellite dishes when that was still novel, to people in remote areas. And then, progressively grew into a telecommunications magnate. He married Ms Diane West—a New York socialite with enough money to feed the planet several times over.”
“How do you know all of this?”
“Q told me; he had hacked into Anthony’s files a couple of years ago. We talked about it one night, stoned at my house. He was surprised at how well they concealed themselves. How well they shielded themselves from the then burgeoning information economy. And how they maintained that, and then of course Anthony kept the legacy of hiddenness going; although he couldn’t quite help himself. He wasn’t content with just raking in piles of cash. He moved to Marin and set up his Z-matrix as a way to both—it seems to me—get away from his parents whilst also centralizing his grip on his family’s power, and that brought some attention to himself. So, he rambled on some incoherent back to nature nonsense. All that in the flesh and authentic experiences movement crap turning into what we now know as the re-reality mov—why mov? Are people so lazy they can’t elocute movement? Of course, the ‘mov’ videos and such were a part of the early days—he wanted it to go, as we used to say, ‘viral’—such a funny time! That transition from post-industrial finance capital to information capital. Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and many others too, of course, wrote brilliantly about the upheavals, novel conditions of their own industrial revolution and its effects. Yet we are still grappling with the transformations of the last several decades; hurtling toward the middle of the 21st Century, and we’ve not a clue. We’ve not a clue what or where we are going, or even who we are. You must know where you are going, and for what reason, to have some idea—even if you are going wandering—some hint of an awareness of who you are.”
Joanne stopped talking, and Jessica said nothing in reply. They sat silently on the bench. They sat in temperate quietness of warm solidarity that comes from sharing a life, platonically or romantically, with another person. They sat for over an hour, saying nothing, doing nothing, and being almost nothing. And then Jessica rubbed the back of her neck, rolled her head around, and said, “I am thirsty, and I need to stretch, perhaps even go for a jog.”
“I am sure they have a gym here. Let’s go inside. The convergence is nearing! How exciting,” sarcastically, Joanne rolled her eyes, and Jessica laughed. They took each other by the hand, and walked to the portal from where they came. Entering the transporter, they asked to be taken to the gym, and so they were—the guest gym on the fourth floor. Joanne—herself eager to move after flying—put on exercise and training attire she’d found in a large walk-in wardrobe—located off the gym—for visitors. They both began walking, then jogging, then running on two treadmills overlooking the landscape around the property. After a five-kilometre run, the two women returned to their rooms, showered and prepared for the convergence.
Mr Foo’s second floor, a wooden-steel structure designed to resemble a great conch shell, twisted, spiralled and bent along irregular lines, enclosed within the symmetrical four glass sides, held various alcoves, chambers and a large hall where some one hundred and fifty people circulated. These people represented the upper echelons of the elite—from the Chinese Communist party, to Silicon Shenzhen techno-futurists, several executives from the old, yet still important Silicon Valley, leaders from the European Union, three billionaires from Africa—two mining magnates and one continent-wide telecommunication monopolist—and, of course, a team of the all-important designers, organizers, implementers and developers employed at the office of the Director for the New Economic Framework. The New Economic Framework was more than a trade, debt mitigation, migration and supply-chain arrangement. It had its own offices, removed from states, headquartered in several cities in Switzerland, Tokyo and Beijing. It maintained an ancillary—mainly consular—office in Washington, DC. Though not a nation, or a body of nations, it acted much like a state without space, and neither a corporation nor a government, it transcended the old 20th Century notions of governance. The NEF—founded as an amalgamation of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organization and the former United Nations—acted as a technology, pharmaceutical, epidemiological research, development and peace-keeping deployment global Leviathan. The main members—China, the European Union and the two African Federations—gave major leeway to the nascent organization’s second director, Dominic Marchand. Dominic, a lean, silver-haired thirty-three-year-old from Alsace in France, spoke Mandarin, French, English, German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and Arabic. Growing up in a digitally submerged, culturally perceptive environment—his parents were both professors at the Sorbonne—and later chosen and trained by his ruthless technocratic predecessor straight out of university. Dominic commanded the NEF—and the room—similar to the way a gentle breeze blows portending a mighty thunderstorm.
Joanne and Jessica entered the boundless hall; dressed in a thick, rich and flowing, white kaftan with light blue threads stitched into floral patterns, Joanne looked elegant and refreshed. Jessica wore a stunning one-piece pumpkin-coloured leather jumpsuit with a zipper that went from her naval to almost the bottom of her neck; she zipped it two-thirds of the way up, allowing the asymmetrical stand-up collar to fall smartly to her right side. Large patch pockets, with visible stitching, sat astride her waist. The two women held each other by their hands, stepping off the transporter and walking—in silence—through the vast expansive cornucopian hall filled with a varied, ecumenical mixture of worshippers of wealth and power—the devotees of lucre, control and dominance.
Jessica had never felt so dispossessed in her entire life. Despite—and because of—being in the inside of the inside of power, she felt as if she could never quite get away from the circle, the spherical object that exerted—in equal measures—a push and pull on those born who climb mountains. The valley’s inhabitants, and the inhabitants of the underworld, those from the small, the fallen, the quotidian, the plebeian existence experience a kind of vertigo upon realising that—by movements ever so subtle—they have climbed a mountain, or, at least, that they have climbed part way, and they fear, as Jessica did with great trepidation in her heart falling. She stood there with Joanne, an absolute, original mountain inhabitant who therefore experienced none of this upward, downward dizziness, none of this class vertigo. Jessica’s hand—her palms becoming increasingly damp from this self-conscious sense of hanging from the side of a very steep precipice—feeling for and gripping Joanne’s soft, white and wrinkled hand, a hand with one ring, a ruby sitting on a gold band—Jessica’s hand acted as an anchor in the world, holding her against the walls of a great abyss with centrifugal force, as when one enters the carnival ride and the spinning machine pins one to the side, the floor giving way to the distant ground. But this was no carnival, and there was no ground. The space beneath Jessica seemed endless, as when she was a little girl—standing at her grandmother’s house in rural Illinois, looking at the night sky—trembling at the barely conceived, yet very real thought of eternity, or at least vastness. She felt her neck tighten, and Joanne looked over at her. “Darling, you are clearly still feeling the effects of the treatment … Let’s get you some tea.”
Joanne guided Jessica to a wall that had several dozen tiles that opened, dispensed an order, and closed. She ordered green tea. “With turmeric?”
“Yes, thank you. Um, Joanne, I am not sure… Why am I here again?”
“Oh goodness, the imposter syndrome strikes again! What a horrible feeling—I had that when I was retraining. After being a psychiatrist for a mere three years, I had the insanity to transfer into neurology, then into a very different world, VR—it gets easier. You are here because you’ve earned the right to be here; frankly, unlike many of the people who are here. In fact, those who are here because they know they should be here are most often the ones who, well, how shall I put this?” Joanne ordered a hot goji berry and green tea for herself, sipped it, and walked Jessica to a corner table.
Sitting, Joanne ran her hands through her silvery white hair, and continued, “Many of the people who are here—they have no idea what to do here; yet they are here, and they think they are somehow chosen, gifted, and so. But here’s the secret—most of these people, maybe two-thirds, are here simply because they got incredibly lucky, either by birth, proximity to… Well, ok, for example, you see that man over there?” Joanne subtly moved her arm, making it look like she was merely stretching. “Yes, the young guy with the silver hair?” “Recall what I said about that Christine Lagarde—convicted of fraud, served not a day in prison—he was trained by her. Trained by her since he was twenty-two—probably younger.” “That’s Dominic Marchand!” “Not so loud—although we are probably without privacy at any volume, but one must at least act as if there is something like privacy. Yes, that’s Dominic Marchand; the silver-fox, a real man of the world. Hell, he’s probably the most powerful person on the planet. Frightening isn’t it? He graduated—don’t ask me how I know this—with the lowest possible marks from the Sorbonne, where incidentally his parents both teach. And yet, when one looks at his biography today, this has been altered. First-class academic rating—by what means, one can only speculate—given to him by…” Joanne again ran her hands through her hair. “Given to him because he was a close—intimate—shall we say, associate?” Joanne, given to lowering her voice, an old habit, continued, faintly saying, “Yes, friend of Ms Lagarde. I won’t say anymore. I am a foolhardy, but I admire a dab of propriety with my gossip.”
Jessica quietly laughed; feeling more at ease, she finally took several large swallows of her now perfectly warm tea. “Nevertheless, I will say he’s a complete megalomaniac. No one—no one—ought to be able to restructure the global economy at thirty—or really any age. No one person—I am old fashioned; can you believe, I still think democracy was good idea. Yet, as you well know, this is public knowledge, that when America’s sovereign debt crisis began to spiral, and China began to slowly, then quickly, ask for returns on its bonds—the drip, drip, drip—and finally the big drop—Uncle Sam’s head popped off. Of course, none of the then existing global mechanisms available, only three years ago, although it feels like centuries, were capable of dealing with the fallout. Enter stage left and right the technocrats, financed by the plutocrats, organized by the…” Joanne noticed Dominic approaching their table. She gave Jessica a knowing look, a slight nod—and Jessica could feel a shiver; her back tingled as the icy, callous authoritarian approached.
“Good afternoon, Ms West and Dr Milner. Please, please, stay seated. I am Dominic Marchand, and I wanted to make your acquaintance, Ms West. And, of course, it is lovely as ever to see you, Dr Milner. Your work on harm reduction VR is of acute interest to the NEF, and Q.M.T. has given me several updates on your progress, along with the detection of the paedophile ring in Manilla.”
“Child exploitation and sex abuse cartel, Mr Marchand.”
“Ah, yes, one mustn’t call a spade a spade anymore!”
“No, one must call a spade a spade, and as you ought to know from Q—dear lord, from decades of publications on the matter—there is a major difference between those who sexually abuse children and those who have a paedophiliac, or paedosexual desire, and those people—the ones who have the desire they can’t simply stop…”
“But you intend to work on revising them, correct?”
“Revising? I intend on using a variety of non-invasive tools—some of which include modifying and altering very delicate and intricate anatomical, biological and chemical mechanisms.”
“Castration! I joke! I joke! You liberals!”
“Well, it’s certainly not funny at all, and it has nothing to do with ideology. It’s based on facts, the actuality of discrete brain chemistry and structures, for example, with white matter…”
“Ms West, I hear you must live with all this talk of child sex, and helping paedophiles?”
Jessica, finding herself in a very odd and uncomfortable position, seeing Joanne roll her eyes after Dominic abruptly ended her speech midsentence, said something that surprised the entire triad—especially Mr Marchand. “I can assure you, Mr Marchand, it is far less insufferable than these several moments with you have been.” Joanne began to laugh uncontrollably; she nearly fell off her stool. Dominic—face red with embarrassment and anger—said nothing. He quickly turned around, put a smile on his face, and greeted some eager boot-licking, mere millionaires. These plump men, with sweaty foreheads, were investors from Montana. In the company of these young men—the descendants of families of homesteaders turned wealthy ranchers turned investment bankers—Dominic became reassured of his superiority. The four of them walked off to a small glass alcove, where a large, semi-circular divan sat next a table full of various alcohols. A private waiter made drinks and served. The men laughed; one took out a cigar. The glass became cloudy.
“That was unexpected.” Joanne, looking directly into Jessica’s eyes, noted. They both smiled and began to laugh.
“Joanne, I don’t think I could have—I mean, I don’t believe I did—but I couldn’t have said that without knowing his history. He is entirely unbearable.”
“Dumb as a rock, and that’s an insult to rocks. Fortunately, since we are here as guests by the invitation of Mr Foo himself, we have a degree of latitude, a bit of freedom, to speak out minds. Although, as much as I loved that—” Joanne couldn’t stop giggling, a giggle that came from her earlier belly laugh in front of Mr Marchand, “—well, as much as I loved that we probably shouldn’t antagonize anyone else; and, dear goodness, let’s leave that awful Dominic alone. I shall not speak with him again. We are not here to act as his entertainment. I can only imagine what his tiny … um, cerebral sphere thinks of us! The crazy pedo doctor and the Black cyber-physicist from the University of Nebraska. I can only imagine—no, I know—what he and his little clique think of us. Fortunately, Q is a great advocate, and largely—given his deep pre-teen connections to old finance—likely a bit more powerful than Dominic pretends to be. You see, some of these people are all thunder, no lightning.”
A general announcement—made in several languages—stated that the guests were instructed to the main seating area. Given how large this conch-shell structure inside a mansion—a mere one floor of a much larger rectangular complex—with multiple rooms, dotted asymmetrically throughout the long twisting casing of the second floor—given this grand immensity of space, it took the two women about fifteen minutes to walk to the large indentation in the floor. At the far west end of the massive space, the room’s floor dropped into rows of seats. At the centre stood a stage large enough to hold an entire symphony orchestra, which incidentally it sometimes did. Behind the stage stood the flags of China, the European Union, the two African Federations, and the solid lavender coloured flag representing the NEF. Everyone was instructed to put in their ear node—for immediate translation of the speech Mr Foo was about to give in Mandarin. Finding their seats, holographically projected with their names as they approached the great indentation, Jessica and Joanne sat down in silence. The seats around them filled. The lights dimmed. Mr Foo appeared onstage, behind an enormous Maplewood lectern. Dim mauve coloured recessive lighting lit up the aisles. The stage, lit brightly, turned a crimson red. Mr Foo’s distinctive face, well-known, sat above his slender body. He raised his right hand slightly. The room fell silent. He began speaking in English.
“Good evening. I am here tonight to deliver a simple message about what may be the most complex problem facing our time. I am here to talk to you about what it means to bring the interests of the powerful into alignment with the interests of the powerless. I am here to unveil something that many of you—in fact all of you—including our esteemed guest, Director Marchand, will find, perhaps, at first disturbing, even intellectually excruciating—but it is my hope that you will come to understand that knowing and understanding is better than not knowing and not understanding. Of the many guests here tonight, we are delighted to have sections of the business community, world leaders, scientists, politicians, linguists and a few writers. On the note of writers, I want to express my sadness at the death of Mr Jeffrey Midlands, who—despite only meeting with him a few times—I counted as a friend of the family. Some of you here knew he was an odd man; others called him a criminal, a charlatan, a deviant—let’s these awful words never be spoken of him again. Early on in his career, when he was in his mid-thirties, he helped my son Jack. They met at a café in Warsaw. Afterwards, some years later, Mr Midlands came to our home in Singapore, and then later he came here. Jack has asked me to reveal these intimate details; he has requested it, and despite my characteristic for discretion, I have consented. Back in Warsaw, my son, was studying in Europe at the time he met Mr Midlands, Jack was considering suicide. and Mr Midlands said something to him—I will not say it here—that saved his life. Disrespecting the memory of Mr Midlands, who, unlike most, argued with me in person on several occasions, an old Western liberal affectation he had.” Mr Foo smiled and paused for a moment, looking at the top of his lectern. He looked up, scanned the audience from left to right, and continued, “I will not be allowing his memory to be defamed in this nation. As for the man who called on Mr Midlands to kill himself, that man, and I will not say his name, calls himself a social influencer. He has been, as of today, arrested after being invited to this convergence. The Chinese judiciary system will seek to prosecute him under the aegis of what is most commonly called—in the West—involuntary manslaughter.”
The crowd sat in stony silence. Several people, who had not surmised that invitations might have been sent out as trap, breathed deeply and squirmed in their seats. Amongst those most concerned, a prominent literary critic, was a man who had once written of Jeffrey Midlands’ works that they were, “a dross of self-pity, a rubbish heap of indulgence, and the signature of a charlatan, a fraud and an unrepentant criminal pretending to be a philosopher. What’s worse is that he turned into a paedophile advocate or that he exists in our literary canon at all, considering that the talent of literature—the real talent—is waiting in line like the rest of us? Who does he think he is fooling? The existent crime here is that he is published at all, and this is entirely owing to his personal relationship with one Morph Zed.”
Mr Foo paused again, and looked straight at the literary critic, Dr Plumstead, and asked, “Dr Plumstead you do realize that Mr Midlands was published before his contract with Z&Z? Because, you once wrote his career was ‘entirely owing to his personal relationship with one Morph Zed.’ Did you write this?” Dr J. Plumstead, a stout man of sixty-five with a bright red nose, a typical provincial English commentator, and a Cambridge-educated resident of St Albans, sat for a moment in complete silence. Dr Plumstead had never experienced fear as he did in that moment. Jessica and Joanne, sitting two rows behind him, slightly to his right, looked on in bewilderment. “No … No, I suppose … No, I did not realize that Mr Foo.” Dr Plumstead said these words with a countenance born of privilege barely concealing his terror. “And then who do you think helped him, if not Mr Zed—Mr Morph Zed?” “I am unawares of the events of his early career.” “And yet you wrote as though you had great knowledge of it?” At that moment, Dr Plumstead dropped dead. The attendees gave a collective—but hushed—gasp and medical staff immediately came to give the impression that they were trying to resuscitate him. The cause of death—a matter of much speculation, especially in the British press—was listed as a heart attack. Many later speculated that Mr Foo had given Dr Plumstead a time-released toxin, so that this dramatic spectacle could unfold exactly as it did. And the effect of this spectacle, beyond just showing loyalty for a friend of the Foo family, had a chilling—prophylactic and precautionary—effect on the gathered superior classes.
As the body of Dr J. Plumstead was removed from the hall, Mr Foo looked down at his Q+ pad—reading a few messages he received during the interval—never a man to let a little matter like death interrupt his daily routine. “Let’s continue.” He scanned the room again. “Ms West, thank you for your attendance, and equally to you, Dr Milner.” Jessica nearly fainted. Joanne held Jessica’s now trembling arm. “I am pleased to welcome you to our second convergence. And I know we shared a mutual friend in Mr Midlands.” Jessica apprehensively nodded—with horror—in agreement. Her eyes opened wide; her brow pressed her forehead into deep folds of skin. Mr Foo simply said, “I am pleased you are here.” And he continued, this time speaking in Mandarin. The translation came through the node in Jessica’s left ear clearly and almost simultaneously as he spoke.
“We are here to discuss the future, or perhaps more appropriately, the past, present and future. These concepts have long hindered our abilities. Of course, they are rooted in our evolutionary biology, the very structure of our brains, as Dr Krauss wrote along with Dr Milner and—here in China—our esteemed Dr Zhang. The importance of the fourth dimension that we experience as a one-way trajectory is its personal meaning. We wake up, we engage in this and that activity, we sleep, we dream, and so on. And dreams are often not linear—this is our first clue that whilst time is, due to the second law of thermodynamics, a unidirectional arrow for us, it is not necessarily so for all beings that experience. For example, despite entropic forces, does a rock experience the fourth dimension? It undergoes processes, yes; it experiences—at a basic level—the barest level. That is, it exists as an entity. But not independently, and the forces within it—deep inside it, if you will—at the subatomic level intermingle with what Mr Midlands so beautifully called an immanent field of finitude on a sea of infinite nothingness. Why nothingness? In the West, the problem with plenitude, with some-thing, has concerned philosophers, writers, and many others for centuries. However, we have—owing to Buddhism in part—an understanding of the power of emptiness, and more importantly nothingness, here in what Western scholars used to call ‘the Orient.’ They used this word ‘Orient’ as if we—our cultures, our histories, our civilizations—were some sort of marker helping them orientate themselves. A mere spot on the map. Of course, there are exceptions, Schopenhauer opens his magnus opus with a great nod to the East.”
Taking a sip of water, Mr Foo lingered for a moment in silence; he took a moment to look at various members of his audience. “I can tell I have lost some of you—you are free to leave. Please, do leave—those who haven’t followed so far, must leave.” About a dozen or so—including the investors from Montana—left. Dominic sat in pure incomprehension, yet he remained. Speaking in French, Mr Foo turned to him, “Mr Marchand, you have no idea what I am talking about, please leave.” Speaking in English, Dominic responded, “Excuse me, Mr Foo, but I am the director of…” Jessica and Joanne, slightly disoriented from the translation and then the return to their native language, fixedly followed this back-and-forth. Dominic sat in the front row, a mere several metres from Mr Foo. He moved—walking back and forth behind the lectern, hands clasped behind his back. “Mr Marchand, you are the director of nothing. The NEF is no longer necessary, and neither are you.” “You can’t simply … it’s the most powerful…”
“Most powerful, where?”
“Most powerful organization on the planet. I am the director of the most powerful organization to date!” Dominic, still speaking in English, realized he was shouting and sounding imprudent, even childish.
Mr Foo returned to the lectern. He looked at his Q+ pad and placed his right index finger at its centre. Six large Chinese security officers came and removed Dominic from the room. He screamed, her cried, he begged—his screams could be heard as they took him down the long concourse to an alcove that led to a transporter.
Joanne exhaled deeply. Jessica looked over at her, and held onto her arm. Chinese security descended in rows of black-suited officers, taking most of the others out. The screaming—from members of the Communist party, associate directors and organizers with the NEF, several prominent European Union leaders, two South African oligarchs and one Nigerian plutocrat—became almost unbearable for Jessica. Joanne had seen many strange events in her life, yet even steely Joanne was disturbed. She later would say, with a hint of respected regard for Mr Foo, upstairs in her room with Jessica, “that was perhaps the most gruesome event… The sheer terror inspired, nothing short of mastery!” After the great moaning, the great removal finished, the convergence seemed almost empty except for the dozen or so people remaining.
The American investors, unskilful spies for their besieged government, had already left to find their cars disabled in the garage. They attempted to find a way out, but there was no exit. Arrested, they both said nothing; they looked at each other knowingly; their general destination in the event of capture—that is a place where information is extracted—had been a part of their briefing. No one—excluding the security forces—heard their wails later that night, in a warehouse some ten kilometres from the Foo residence. Mr Foo received a message on his pad, and he realized that the day’s events had tried—and probably terrified—his remaining guests. “No one else will be subject to detention. You—if you are still here, and you are—are counted as friends. Never trust an associate; always trust your friends. Some of you, I count as friends of the family. Ms West, you knew Mr Midlands; you are a friend of the family. And Dr Milner, you are likewise a long-time confidant; you can be trusted—I know this from over a decade working with you. Let’s have a less formal, and less distracting, meeting later this evening. Everyone needs a rest.”
Joanne sat on the large sofa in her room. She darkened the glass walls. “Jessica, listen, the situation is difficult.”
“Difficult? Difficult! Isn’t that a bit of fuck! Joanne, isn’t that an understatement?”
“Well, what I am trying to say is that it could have been more difficult. In any event, I feel little sympathy with most of the people Mr Foo had detained. They’ve unleashed every manner of horror upon the planet, and, yes, that was perhaps the most gruesome event… The sheer terror inspired, nothing short of mastery!”
“You almost sound like you enjoyed it, Joanne!” Jessica paced back and forth.
“Please sit down. I can assure you I did not enjoy any of it. I was horrified too. That was the point, to show us—the remaining people—the power that Mr Foo has. In the matter of an afternoon he has decimated a great portion of the global ruling elite; that was also—I am sure—his point. I am sure news is trickling here and there—outside of China—considering that these men, all of them men, had families and partners, and those people would be expecting something like a call from them. Many of them were likely due to depart from the spaceport today, meaning they’d be back in their homes this evening. So, I am not at all—oh, dear what type of person do you think I am—I can be impressed, yet being impressed is not the same as approval. I can see why your president—however, powerless he may be in the current situation—wasn’t here. But the EU leaders… That is odd.”
“Joanne, we’ve got to leave!”
“Jessica, please—don’t shout—and sit down. We can’t leave until we can leave. That’s the point of this. Now please, here…” Joanne ordered some green tea and a sedative. “Drink this and take this. I’ll sleep here, with my blanket, and you can get into my bed. Here is a bathrobe, have a shower, and then sleep.”
Jessica felt imprisoned and also protected. A great ambiguity of mind came over her. She stared at Joanne then the floor; Jessica, held her hand out for the tea, sat down next to Joanne and began to cry. Lying her head in Joanne’s lap she sobbed uncontrollably, the tea cup fell to the floor. Joanne rubbed her dark, thick locks and placed the sedative in her mouth. “Take this, relax. Jessica, you will be alright. This is reality—or whatever we call things that do factually happen—and we must deal with them. People deal with trauma all the time, and they carry on. We must—we will—continue. The only way forward is through. There is no escape. Not just in the sense of leaving here at this moment, but also from life, from the constant bombardments we experience. The radioactive isotopes in the air from the Cold War, the rising seas, the ever increasing Co2 in the atmosphere, the millions of people starving, the wars, and the ever-present fragile and failing body. We must learn to live with these facts as best we can. You know, my grandmother, when she was a little girl, lived through the siege of Leningrad. The horror of that—as a child of ten, when it started—stayed with her. After she left Russia, married my grandfather—the future Australian mining millionaire—despite leading a life of great luxury, she always remembered those events. Once a year she would take my mother, during the 1960s, to America. And on those trips, they would visit Native American reservations, and my grandmother would have various tribal leaders talk to my mother about the genocide, the histories and resistances—the resilience—of their peoples. I think that’s what turned my mother into such a fervent activist. And, as you know, she was killed documenting human rights abuses by the government of Brazil against tribal communities in the Amazon. The money from mining off stolen land in Australia—paid for my mother’s activism. The world is an ouroburos. Growing and eating itself endlessly.”
Jessica had fallen asleep. Joanne stood up, moved Jessica into a more comfortable position on the couch, put a pillow under her head, took off her shoes, placed a blanket on top of her, and went to take a shower. Showering, she recalled her mother—the intrepid journalist, the idealist, the optimist—a woman without an ounce of cynicism. She recalled the many times she had waited for her to get off a plane from some distant war-zone or conflict area. She recalled her father, working as an executive at a financial investment firm devoted to aggressively expanding fossil fuel extraction in Australia—a job he inherited from his father-in-law—reading the newspaper and human rights reports her mother had published. He never showed disapproval or support—just a blank, beige neutrality. Washing her feet, Joanne recalled the day she read that her mother was found dead, her limbs hacked off, near a remote village in the Amazon. Her father’s blank neutrality greeted the coffin at the airport, as he, countless other times before, had greeted his wife’s return.
What neither woman could know was the gravity of the day’s events. Joanne—asleep—dreamt peacefully. Jessica, sedated, slept the sleep that has no content, no memory nor impression. They had seen the show without the trial, yet they did not know that the, now former, Chairman of the Chinese Communist party had been amongst those arrested. Nor did they know that all of the people collected by the security forces would be dead by the time they woke. “Joanne, wake up, wake up …” Jessica gently rubbed her hand on Joanne’s right arm. “Yes dear, I am here—still alive.”
“Please don’t joke.”
“I wasn’t—being alive is quite a serious matter, but as Oscar Wilde said, ‘Life is much too important a thing to ever talk about seriously.” Joanne smiled, and placed her hand on Jessica’s. “Listen, we will be fine. You have witnessed, first hand, what some might call world-historic events. Take your time, collect yourself, organize your mind, and, yes, that’s it, we must—let’s eat.” She walked to the food and beverage dispenser in the kitchenette, and Jessica’s eyes followed her. “What a remarkable woman—she’s either insane or the most balanced person I’ve ever met,” she thought to herself as she looked at Joanne’s snowy, silvery white hair that went to her neck, her dark purple nightgown and matching slippers.
“Come, come—we must eat. I am starving. We didn’t eat yesterday, did we? Running, then that … um, situation. Then sleep. Oh, at least we had that lovely walk in the garden.” Joanne ordered a bowl of blueberries for two, two green teas with turmeric and a multivitamin supplement. “You need vitamins.” She ordered another for Jessica. They sat at a small table overlooking the garden; the glass, now transparent on the exterior wall and ceiling, let in the drab, murky light. Low clouds moved quickly across the landscape, and rain fell. “It never stops raining. Or, rather, at least it’s been raining since we arrived. I have never been to this part of China; I always visited Beijing—and once I had a conference in Shenzhen. Oh, and Hong Kong before the…” A bell rang.
“Who could it be? Door, open.”
The moonstone glass door slid open.
“Jack!” Joanne said with an excitement that alarmed Jessica. “Thank heavens you’re here. Dear Zeus, we’re certainly in an odd situation. Do tell me, since we … witnessed … saw what happened yesterday are you obliged to kill us?” Everyone, except Joanne, stood in uncomfortable silence.
“No, no. Please, don’t make such odd assertions, Dr Milner.”
Joanne began to laugh, and tapped her hand on his chest. Jessica sat at the table, staring at this bizarre encounter, her mouth wide open.
“Please … oh, call me Joanne. I think we are close enough now.”
“My father wanted me to come personally, so that you wouldn’t be—overly cautious—about coming down to his office.”
“Great, let us get dressed and we’ll be out—we need half an hour, can you spare us that, Jack?”
“Yes, of course, I will sit over there—” he pointed at a large settee some ten metres from Joanne’s door. Jessica walked past him and returned to her room. She showered feeling and showing no emotion. The general sentiment inside her was blank canvas.
Joanne arrived first. She sat next to Jack, allowing a bit of space between them, but not enough to make him feel relaxed. An extraordinary life full of the unprecedented prepares one for the extraordinary and unprecedented. “Jack, your father, is he planning on telling us what exactly this whole situation is about? Frankly, I find it troubling to have people taken out like that in front of, well, we are ostensibly, friends of the family. And Jessica, she’s terrified. Whatever your nation’s internal politics are, they are none of my business, and in future… I will say it directly to your father.” Jessica arrived. She did not sit.
“Let’s go.” Joanne directed her command at Jack.
The quiet, uneasy walk seemed to take hours, days, weeks and months for Jessica. Apprehension, desperation and a queer sense of calm intermingled. Was she becoming emotionally weathered? Or wasn’t she already prepared for this? Growing up in a society that had enslaved generations of her ancestors, in a society that killed people like her for no reason and with impunity, growing up with an alcoholic father, a chronically ill mother; growing up without the solidarity of poverty or the privilege of wealth—right in the middle—too little and not enough. As a child, left largely alone, she reflected on herself—a mirror in a mirror. And, now reflecting on those reflections of memory resurfacing on the smooth crystal of consciousness, she felt a tremendous power well up inside her. The door to Mr Foo’s office opened.
“Joanne and Jessica, I want to apologize for yesterday, and to take note that I should have counselled you both right afterwards. You see, I had many tasks after—after—the anti-corruption arrests. I have been honoured with the privilege of a five-year Chairmanship of the Communist party.”
“You are the leader of China, now?” Joanne interjected.
“Don’t sound so surprised, Joanne.”
“I am not surprised, but I am rather impressed. I haven’t been in the company of many heads of state! Actually, once I met the prime minister—ages ago—of Australia. Do you recall Julia Gillard? She was one interesting woman; we met in … must’ve been 2013, just before she was brutally ousted by the horrid Australian political system.”
“Of course, I remember Prime Minister Gillard. I also had the pleasure of meeting her, when I began working for the Ministry… Well, that’s a long time ago. In any event, you both are free to leave or stay; although I do recommend you stay. I am going to talk about something we’ve been developing that is revolutionary—Jessica, your work on two-state vector formalism and N21, some of the theories you proposed, they just needed a little improving, but that paper you wrote for your undergraduate degree helped us decide that you were ready to see our project. I would like you—both—to stay. You have the full—appreciation and protection—of the Chinese government.”
“Why would we need the protection of the Chinese government? Aren’t we already here, alive and well—friends of the family?” Joanne, knocking on the back of the chair she was meant to be sitting in, standing over Mr Foo’s desk, asked.
“Well some in the Western media are reporting that you two have defected, as you are both still alive and here, and of course, I have ordered the Foreign Ministry to deny…”
“To deny…” Joanne continued, “You think that will help, Chairman Foo? I doubt the credibility of the Chinese Foreign Ministry will pass the smell test of our respective governments.”
“You can give a public announcement yourself. Tell the world what you witnessed. Tell them what I said. Say you are just reporting. I will have it arranged. Likewise, Jessica, I have spoken with your president, and he is—he is—agreeable to letting this whole business pass. He will issue a statement in your defence, along with announcing that there will be no prosecution. Dr Milner’s situation is different, as Australia and New Zealand are still—”
“Not entirely dominated by some form of foreign power?”
“Domination is such a strong word. How long did your people—the British who colonized Australia—on your father’s side … How long did it take them to dominate and destroy nearly all of the Aboriginals? And your mother’s father, the British-Australian mining magnate, how many people did he dominate extracting resources stolen from those few remaining, impoverish Aboriginals? Don’t talk of domination without talking of colonization. The United States is a sovereign nation. They borrowed excessively to pay for a military apparatus that became antiquated not because they fell behind technologically, but because their entire society lost any sense of cohesion, they couldn’t agree on how—or why, or when—to pay off their debt. Despite years—over a century—of US aggression against China, we helped them restructure, reintegrate and regenerate.”
“The New Economic Framework?” Jessica, seated, mumbled.
“Precisely, Ms West.”
“But the chaos it unleashed…”
“A little chaos is sometimes needed to stave off a greater chaos.”
Joanne sat down, sighed and placed her elbow on the Chairman’s desk. “Chairman Foo, I am confident that you have the ability to make great things happen, and I am confident that you trust us, or we wouldn’t be sitting here now—in this knowledgeable comfortable position. I have no interest in the internal or foreign policies of the Chinese government. I am trying to reformulate the way we think about paedophilia—paedosexuality—in order to protect children, to perhaps, maybe just perhaps, allow for a conversation about prevention over punishment—”
“Precisely, prevention over punishment, this is effectively the fundamental policy of the Chinese government. Social credit, re-education facilities to combat extremism, surveillance to protect the health and safety of the individual and society. Do you know, Joanne, how many people we’ve managed to pull out of poverty in the last three years alone? Over three hundred million people. And not one person is without a home, electricity and access to drinking water. We have a long way to go, but the implementation of aggregated data gathering has allowed for efficiencies, improvements and decisions that are far superior to the best human guesses or intuitions.”
“I applaud your sagacious self-directed AI program, and I think the technology being built in China is nothing less than revolutionary. Two operational cold fusion reactors, a moon-base under construction as we speak… There are, however, costs…”
“Ask Ms West—she had lung cancer. Treatment for that—even with the best care, targeted radiation, barbarism! And with, what’s considered more advanced immuno-therapy, in her nation would be, at best, painful, long and difficult. We’ve jumped past that, and we wanted to share this technology with them. Ms West, do you know what your government leaders said? They rejected it. Their funders in the pharmaceutical industry, the oncology-industrial-complex as your friend Dr Krauss, called it, Joanne—their nativist prohibitions on Chinese technology—all of this prevented them from saving the lives of their own people. We’ve had this treatment for all types of cancer—dissolution of the disturbed tissue at the genetic level bypassing the entropic—”
“Bypassing the entropic state?” Jessica said with a great deal of curiosity, squinting her eyes and tilting her head to the right.
“Yes, at the quantum level. Isn’t the present a combination of past and future states, Ms West?”
“Theoretically, well, yes.”
“You’re quite here—with us—that’s not a theory. That’s proof. We offered it with a condition, that they—any government wanting to use it—had to allow Chinese scientists and doctors to operate the technology. The consequences, the implications of this type of technology outside of the realm of medicine are too much to hand over, but we offered it freely, with only the aforementioned caveat. However, the United States would rather its people live in tents, hunting small rodents and living in squalor than have any assistance from the Chinese government. How many of our students were killed at the NYU massacre? What did the government do to stem the tide of white-nationalism? Nothing. The anti-Chinese sentiment is so high in the US. We had to pull out all our students—repatriate over three-hundred thousand students within a month after that massacre. We stopped negotiating and started commanding—three years ago, as of tomorrow. The New Economic Framework allowed for a global restructuring of supply chains, a coalition of non-aligned nations, and a reining in of US military adventurism.”
Joanne stood up, looked at Chairman Foo and at Jessica. “Well, show us—tell us, what is it? Time keeps coming up, yet we are being constantly delayed. This never-ending game of intellectual flirtation must come to an end. And I want to make my statement that I am not aligned with the Chinese state, I am here as an academic. Jessica can too, although she’s less at risk, given her status as a student. You know, Mr… Chairman Foo, I have a huge target on my back already, and this is—” sighing, “this complicates matters for me.”
“Which is precisely why you will always have the protection you need. Q has assured you of that, and he’s the reason you’re still here today. How many times has his security—working with our intelligence agencies—intercepted active threats against your life? You don’t know; you have no idea—do you? I suppose that’s the point of correct security measures—it’s always present but invisible. The costs have been borne by the both of us, and recently, as your work has expanded to threaten certain officials, certain officials found with child pornography in the Philippines, even Q’s security would have had a hard time protecting you. Yet you stand here, without a scratch. If only your mother had had the same level of protection.”
“Indeed, she never relied on the snakes to protect her from the other snakes.”
“How ungracious of you, yet this is to be expected. You are a strong-willed person, Dr Milner. But you mustn’t forget that the strength of one’s will is only as good as the collective unification of forces behind it. Will alone is not enough. Cooperation and coordination are required. We are social beings, are we not?”
Q.M.T. entered the room—standing quietly behind the two women—he placed his hand on Joanne’s right shoulder, he interrupted, saying “Joanne, please, this is not the time. There is something you must see, or rather … experience.”
Joanne turned and looked at him. She stood up and gave Q a big hug and began to cry. Jessica sat on silently looking at Chairman Foo, then Q and Joanne. A sense of purposelessness, meaninglessness—a void—opened inside her. The space between her and terror rapidly closed. She became tired.
“Please, everyone—I need a nap. I need to lie-down.”
“Of course, Ms West… Jack… please take Ms West to her room,” Mr Foo, calling on his son in the next room, finished by saying, “What you are experiencing is temporal disorientation.”
“From the treatment … A minor side-effect. You will reintegrate.”
Jessica could no longer keep her eyes open. Three spindly spider-like robots entered the room, along with a drone-assisted gurney. The spiders delicately used their eight slender metallic arms to release a soft mesh around part of Jessica, they lifted her onto the bed. The mesh retracted, and two of them left. The third guided the trolley to Jessica’s room. Jack walked beside Jessica as she lay flat, now sleeping. Once in her room, he placed her on her bed, and brushed his hand against her forehead. Jack’s emotions ran between relief and fear, for he did not know where he stood in relation to the world. He struggled—incessant isolation from his family, a calculated, highly tactical father, a distracted mother—to find even one friend. And the one friend he had found was now dead. Jessica represented the last mortal connection to Jeffrey. As he walked out of the room, a pressure built inside of him; a pressure pushing him to think beyond the confines of the Foo family dynasty; Jeffrey had told him, years ago, that he must find a way to amputate the infected limb; that limb that connected him to his family; infected with money, power and despotism that causes terror and boredom—often in equal measure. These countervailing forces—of fear and desire—intersected into a flat affectivity—a feeling of near nothingness. He stood for a moment in Jessica’s room, looking out her window, beyond the interior and exterior glass. The rain had not ceased.
Joanne woke Jessica. “It’s time.”
“For what?” Jessica, yawning, grasped a glass of water on the nightstand—she drank it all without pause.
“We are going to see what Mr… Chairman… Foo brought us here to see. We are expected on the third floor in twenty minutes. You feel alright, darling?”
“I’ve been better. But I feel rested. Did I fall asleep in Mr Foo’s office?”
“Yes, and please use Chairman, he’s—a little—never mind his psychological profile, let’s just get this over with.”
Jessica went to the bathroom, brushed her teeth, washed her face, put on a light red dress that went to her ankles, a golden bracelet on her left wrist she had from her mother, and walked to the transporter. Joanne was sitting next to the door. “Let’s go.” Jessica said these words without trace of emotion on her face. Inside she felt uncanny—as though history itself flowed through her veins in a way that was so visible, so tangible, that her personal history, biography—as though her being here now meant both nothing and everything. The transporter took them down to the third floor, then over to the East Room.
The doors opened to a room that was entirely white, brightly lit and enclosed in glass. They stepped inside. The transporter doors closed. A whoosh of air seemed to suck every speck of anything off their bodies. The glazed glass in front of them became transparent, and then slid open to another, larger room. Fully concrete it formed a giant square, with a semi-circular desk overlooking a very strange looking blue orb. The blue sphere, almost as tall as the room, about six metres; its depth was difficult to determine. The two women estimated it was as equally deep, given geometrical principles. Three technicians sat on nimble, gliding chairs, floating around and examining readings from about seven large screens on the desk. They all wore white; they didn’t greet the women, or even take any notice of them. Their faces were covered with thin, tight white masks that obscured everything except their eyes, ears and mouths. Dr Zhang arrived, wearing the same white uniform but without a mask.
“It’s time.” Dr Zhang took Joanne and sat her on a stool near the desk. The technicians kept monitoring various lines on the screen; Joanne noted she’d never seen any language, code or program that looked anything remotely like what she was seeing here. Dr Zhang approached Jessica. “You know what to do? Simply walk in.”
“Walk into that?” She said, pointing at the sphere.
Jessica at this moment felt that she must walk into that sphere; she instinctively knew that there wasn’t anything to fear, and knew that her whole life had led to this very strange moment—in this concrete, sterile room with faceless figures looking at alien script and code. She could feel the moment as it passed through her. The moments themselves, tidal, passed through her body. She felt time. Her skin pulsed gently with the vaticinal sensation of feeling the future as it moved through her. She walked to the sphere, took a deep breath, and stepped in.
Immediately her body moved into a horizontal position. Her arms wrapped around her. She saw nothing but endless, bold blue light—an eternal field of azure. Her arms twisted behind the left side of her back without causing any pain. Her left arm came off. Her right arm came off. She began to spin—faster and faster—and fall. And fly. And fall. And fly. Her limbs reattached and came off several more times in the space of seconds. Her head disappeared. Conscious, she could perceive in all directions no longer confined to bifocal vision. She could see her torso twist and disappear. Finally, as completely disembodied pure consciousness, she could perceive the entire spectrum of radiation, gravitational waves, neutrinos being emitted by the sun, particles she’d never read about but immediately and intuitively knew their purpose, function and destinations. She looked toward the sun, seeing it clearly through the fading blue field surrounding her that had now turned nearly transparent, leaving her suspended in blackness, with the great canvas of all existence before her.
She modified—by means known yet uninterpreted—her perception to see the sun close up. Zooming into the corona of the sun, she witnessed several eruptions. Emotionally, harmony—pure unmitigated peace—the peace that comes from existing beyond finitude, swelled throughout her knowing. She no longer had a sense of being one. She felt multitude. Slowly, she allowed herself to focus, assemble—she became less amorphous—and filter what she perceived. Her perception, becoming more and more acute, noted the presence of dark matter and energy, black holes, and distant galaxies, all of which came to her awareness through an imperceptible intention. She descended on worlds. She moved like a fish through time itself. She thought—but thinking wasn’t the right word for—she actualized, “Time isn’t even a reference. It’s not a substance of interactive cohesion, it’s the ephemeral residue of the actualization of possibilities!”
She experienced a myriad of spaciotemporal dimensions, some overlapped, some entirely separate. She knew universes of reality that had their own phenomena, and she immediately knew without discerning each and every single universe: how it operated, its history, its future. She still could not interpret her all of her knowing. She witnessed the birth of her mother, her father, her grandparents and great-grandparents. She witnessed the toil of her ancestors—great, great, great grandmother and grandfather—in the cotton fields of Mississippi. In less than a single moment, she observed their entire horrendous journey across the Atlantic. She witnessed them captured from the African inlands, and taken to the ocean. She perceived them before capture. She beheld her ancestors before the European invasions. She watched them entering blue spheres like this one. She observed them travelling through spacetime, multiple dimensions, and noted their presences.
She beheld the birth of experience knowing itself as experience. It wasn’t a moment, but a series of moments; several acts of groups of individuals, from different species, in different places and different times, on different planets, in different solar systems, galaxies and diverse, dissimilar dimensions. She concentrated on homo sapiens. She keenly noticed the joy, the ecstasy of experience knowing itself as experience, of experience experiencing itself as experience—of self-awareness.
She happily watched the elation of several groups finding themselves as themselves; then came the orgies, the rituals, the paintings in caves, on ledges, the dancing, the birthing of consciously referential harmonic-sound making, music and multifarious, diversified languages. Each being entered not as a single entity, but as a fusion of pure being and pure nothingness, turning into becoming producing duration. Duration of the being becoming collectively became proto-time, and over intervals—in varied manners—became time. Distinct from space, time became a phenomenon, a living entity itself, and it split, perceptually, for a great many of species, from space. Other species lived in spaciotemporal unification, perceiving both space and time. This Jessica knew, but could not yet understand.
In moments less than a second, she spotted possibilities of her own spacetime; alternate decisions that could have been made in her line of time faded into shadows, then moved off into opaque yet knowable parallel experiences. She observed the zero-point of actualization that ceaselessly generated itself as her reality. This is what makes realities—the pooling of possibilities, as with gravity, attracting more possibilities, generating probabilities then actualities. ‘I’ exist as in a pool, a congealing, a convergence of possibilities turned… my reality.
She observed the Earth. People, in various possible worlds, made divergent decisions, nations both did and did not exist, she did and did not exist, asteroids hit and did not hit the Earth. Spinning off into every direction, these alternate conclusions could be seen fading off as when rabbits scamper into the horizon on a flat, hot surface of a barren desert. The lattice of her contour of time became extremely discernible. She moved her awareness through it as one would drive a car through a tunnel—if one could see in every direction whilst driving.
As she concentrated time began to congeal, band together, length into moments. She no longer took in everything at once. Her experience of time became like that of an accretion disk around a star. Slowly, her body over, inside and around the Earth, slipped into days, and she began to note specific people moving about in each day. She picked a day. She saw her father and mother getting married. She picked another. She saw her father coming home inebriated and falling down the stairs, urinating himself. She saw herself sitting at a café in Manhattan, penning Stranger Than Familiar, after she met with her sister and some old classmates, feeling as though she’d been a singular, pool of pure alienation. She wrote it because she couldn’t understand why she felt so different from her confident older sister—who had been able to attend New York University and graduate with both a BA and MA in English Literature. She realized that she was jealous. Her sister, older than her by some ten years, had benefited from a trust-fund their father setup. Before Jessica could use any of it, he’d spent it. She felt anger, pity and love towards him. Moving away from herself in that café, on that day, she picked another day, and another, and another, and another, and another.
Flipping through days as one might flip through a book, she came to the beginning of something—oddly, December 4th—and here,
“Where’s the lighter?” asked Jeffrey as he closed the dark grey door of a car. “I have it here, darling,” said Adam from the outside, jumping into the passenger seat. She observed them before she met them. She knew this was just before she’d meet them. She recalled Adam asking her “Why do we have a face?” She saw them playfully—but in all seriousness—screaming this question at each-other several times in their little hallway.
She laughed—but she did not recognize this laugh—it was a surprising laugh. Her knowing returned to the car, she laughed more, a kind of laugh one resonated, unknown to the two passengers, throughout the car, throughout the state of Kansas, and throughout time itself. Her awareness had made itself particular; her sentience itself assembled in the back seat of the car.
“Just throw it out the window. This whole nation is a trash heap anyways,” she heard Jeffrey remark—she heard him think—“And it doesn’t matter anyways … the whole thing is coming to an end!” She laughed again. She didn’t quite know why she picked this date, this moment, to view in such coherent focus. “Let me linger here for a moment.”
“What the fuck! What the fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Adam shouted.
“What, in hell’s name, is it?” Jeffrey equably inquired.
“I dropped my cigarette, it’s lit.”
She laughed again, and moved away.
Jeffrey split in two. And as one of him floated through above the car, she followed him up. He sat in a blue field. She knew he was looking at his family history in detail. It was laid out like a symphony, and he was reading each note. That’s how he wrote Rogue Picaro, but that was years ago! Changing her knowing, she knew herself—one of them—in the future. She noted multiple choices she already had made in the future leading in different directions, each one actualizing into a different reality. She progressed to the point of her death—one of them—placed her entire amorphous awareness over her timeworn body, and whispered, I love you.
She saw Morph visiting his father, with ulterior motives, accessing the Z-matrix compound’s main internal computer, and—with two movements of left and right index fingers, secure-dropping internal documents to Cambria. She saw him leaving for the monastery where Jeffrey had spent his 23rd birthday in northern Oregon. She saw Morph meditating, clearing weeds from the back of the old Middle School turned into The Great Zen Node. She saw Joanne sitting outside the blue sphere; impatiently holding her index fingers and thumbs together in a triangle touching her chin; Joanne got up in that cold concrete room, ran past the masked technicians, who made no attempt to stop her, and stepped into the blue sphere.
Jessica became aware of the technicians; she became cognisant of their separateness, their aloneness; a sense of the alien—a sense that they weren’t really there—she knew they were not what they seemed, and yet they seemed hidden even in this place of great revealing. Her awareness passed over and towards life outside of Earth. Into microbes that existed on remote comets. He consciousness traversed the entire cosmos as it existed for her before she left, but she became aware of over societies of creatures—millions of lightyears away from Earth—with massive Dyson Spheres around their suns. Entire artificial planets spun through interstellar space, with populations of billions, harvesting energy from tiny, controlled black holes, on scales unthinkable to her formerly contemporary understanding of physics. She passed over other beings—past, present and future—also entering and exiting this Blue Field.
Jeffrey’s visit—of particular interest—came into deeper focus. Her keen awareness of him became mutual. Jessica thought, How is this possible?
“Darling, welcome … it’s about, time. I entered here, according to our Earthly-time reference, some three and half years ago, and I left. But I made a choice to split—to stay here and there. It’s possible, but there are consequences for the one that left. Dr Zhang calls it chronic spaciotemporal dysregulation syndrome. As the disease progresses, one begins to know without interpreting. You will experience it when you chose to leave as a singular being, but only the in an acute and not chronic form. It will go away after sometime, within several of our hours. Knowing something isn’t the same as being able to assimilate it into one’s—what’s the word—remember we discussed Kant together? In his first Critique, he held, that ‘transcendental logic also considers [unlike general logic] what may be the worth or content of a logical affirmation … There is, therefore, in a disjunctive judgement a certain community of the known constituents [of knowledge], such that they mutually exclude each other, and yet thereby determine in their totality the true knowledge. For, when taken together they constitute the whole content of given knowledge.’1 Well the process here takes away that transcendental logic for the one who returns to the immanent field of finitude. Essentially, how can one confront the absolute possibility of death whilst knowing their own death? And not just one of their deaths, but the multiple possible ways of their death? And not just that… Oh, it must’ve been terrible on me—him.”
“So, the Jeffrey, the one I always knew and loved—was experiencing this … And you were here? This inability to engage in a synthesis of knowing, what did you call it—yes, I remember, in Actuality and Nihology—the fifth-order property of self-awareness, beyond representation and concept: interpretation. This inability to synthesize a manifold of differing representations led him—you—to kill yourself … himself?”
“Yes, imagine things feeling as if they should not be happening as they are? As if—not on some moral level—on some ontological level, that people were getting on and off the train at the wrong stations, that the cars were going to the wrong homes, or that people were there that shouldn’t be, and not there when they should be? Compounded with my early childhood traumas, I am surprised he made it so long, but he had to write Rogue Picaro. I had to, likewise, stay here. So—I—we made a decision to split. It’s a horrible feeling for the person who returns to so-called normal spacetime. He was in bed for over a month. Jack Foo nursed me. Poor man, straight as a—well, he’s heterosexual. But he loves me, and he so wanted to be in a relationship. Existence is bizarre, beautiful and sublime. Sublime.” Jeffrey paused for a moment. “We must make this easier—let’s go to my concentration room”
They merged into a semi-total mutual awareness. Their ability to converse became less fluidic and more concrete, as if they were back on Earth, yet the background awareness remained vast. “That’s better!” Jeffrey’s face—like an icon on a screen of azure—smiled. They both had bodies, they both were in a small, barren concrete room with one table between them, a packet of cigarettes, no windows and two fluorescent lights. They sat on metal chairs. “What is this?” Jessica said, jolted by the sudden shift from the heavenly to the extraordinary banal. Jeffrey took a cigarette from the little card table between them and lit it.
“Sure, why the hell not! So, tell me, how did the Chairman get access to the sphere; I couldn’t see the events leading up to that.”
“Yes, the information shielded no doubt by his little visitors. Well, in developing post-entropic—or meta-entropic—I am not a scientist—in developing their retro-causation devices, they opened spacetime enough that they were gifted—and yes that’s the best, or closest word for it—with the blue sphere by Being. This is difficult to explain. Only a few people can deal with this type of spaciotemporal annihilation and keep their wits, even if they fully reassemble back into their own actuality. In any case, our minds, or knowing, as they call it. Aside from the fact that a gross error of language, for communication with them is so limited that stating they ‘called’ something ‘X’ is absurd, but that’s what we interpreted as a message. We were ready—and several others too. For some reason, well, our visitors—the technicians, they needed to test you. You didn’t have lung-cancer, that was a prelaunch sequence, as Dr Zhang, the director of the Blue Field program—brilliant man—likes to call it. Chairman Foo won’t step into the blue sphere himself—he’s far too practical. Well, you did have lung cancer, or rather would have, or … Well, but not yet, but now—in this time sequence—you don’t and won’t have it. They stopped the disease from after it happened, before it happened. A bit confusing, the future causing the past, but that’s your speciality. Anyways, China has sent in dozens of scientists into the Blue, and they are trained on how to create little concentration rooms to filter out of the vast amount of knowing. Yes, yes—and observe over there.”
A hole opened in the wall. “That’s our universe moving in a reverse causal direction, from our perspective. Two-state is correct! Or at least, it is a possibility that did actualize. So, after a few scientists—directed by Dr Zhang and Dr Alastair Reynolds, who happens to be here—well somewhere here—entered about five years ago, the unusual visitors arrived. I have no idea what their intentions are, or why they chose Earth, myself, you or any of us. They shield themselves well from the knowing. That’s the best way to explain all of this. Foo tolerates them because he has no other choice. I suspect they view us as we might view—chimps or, even less remarkably, bacteria or fungi. But beware, chimps, bacteria and fungi are mighty. Likely the reason they are there—a monitoring expedition.”
“So, these interdimensional, highly advanced beings are on Earth, and we—despite being able to know multiple universes and dimensions within them, can’t tell what they are, where they are from, or what their intentions are? What the fuck!” Jessica shouted.
“Indeed, what the fuck. I agree. As for the givers—they are just another formation, with critical one divergence from us. They are an actualization existing without Becoming. Essentially, it—or they`—are Being that needs no Becoming. Did they evolve this way, perhaps? I don’t know. I am just glad to do my research here.”
“Quite interesting, so they don’t experience duration, time or even movement? They are quasi-dimensional?”
“Not exactly, they seem to experience it all—and yet whatever they make of it is far beyond …” Jeffrey suddenly had a lit cigarette in his left hand, held between his index and middle finger, pointing at a hole in the table top, “Look—there—at my grandfather and his lover Tom, they were just young lovers. Atrocity born atrocity—see, his father killed my grandpa’s lover. And that altered a whole course of events.”
“Of course, but it doesn’t excuse what he did to that woman! Oh, no stop that I can’t watch that part.” Jessica shook her head, already knowing what would happen next. Jeffrey moved his hand scrolling past years of his grandparent’s relationship. Jeffrey continued, “… the man was a monster towards my grandmother too. Do I forgive him? What would that even mean? Yes, I can say I understand, but that’s not the same, is it?”
Jeffrey—having finished his first—lit another cigarette. A round hole opened on the other wall displaying the life of the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jeffrey moved right hand toward the hole. Blue smoke rose softly from his other hand under the fluorescent lighting. “Charles Taze Russell, a genuine, but not very intelligent man. You can see—yes there—he had an accident. Some moderate brain damage from falling. He would go on believing. He spent all of his energy and money into finding out, and that finding out, that project would become the Jehovah’s Witnesses. His obsession led to a divorce. His wife suspected the head injury caused his hypervigilant obsession. See, see there—how that intersects with the Kennedy assassination? Weird how events folding into events—causation—work,” Jeffrey pointed out events in rapid succession, as they moved in front of Jessica’s knowing, she immediately understood.
Jeffrey turned to Jessica and she looked at him. She said, “I saw that Morph did the right thing eventually. I am glad he turned his father in.” Jessica sat, her back erect, in the stiff metal chair. “Could you tell me again, just why did you create such a dull, creepy actuality?”
“Darling, I am not creating this alone—it’s about what our minds can collaborate on, what we can agree to. Your theory on inter-actualization … very brilliant. Anyways, like I said, it helps one from getting overwhelmed in knowing.”
“I know, I … I saw that a Carrington Event will happen in one month, two days and twenty-seven minutes from the time I entered the sphere.”
“Precisely, and all the technology on Earth—almost all of it—will be destroyed, useless.”
“I couldn’t see the outcomes; so many possibilities veered off—I knew them all, but couldn’t interpret what I knew.”
“Yes, that’s precisely why I—with your help—created this small, boring room. To cut off—to be able to focus and select—and to be able to interpret. We may be in…Look, here comes Joanne!”
Joanne opened the door behind Jessica; it hit the back of her seat. “I am sorry dear, but damn, there are so many corridors in this magnificent place. I tried to find you … But I was distracted by the experience when you first enter the sphere! Miraculous doesn’t describe it. I quickly realized that like with any interface, I needed to be judicious about what I would perceive, and I went looking for you, Jessica. Took a long to time find you, hidden in this damn room, with so many damn corridors!” Jeffrey looked up at Joanne, “Yes, the corridors … I like quiet when I am studying.”
“Aren’t you meant to be dead? I am not trying to be vulgar, but…”
“You are correct this is neither the place nor time for propriety.” Jeffrey, beginning to slip into another non-place, “and concerning my mortality, Jessica can explain.” Continuing, “Go to 53°25’05.5″N 132°20’33.5″W. As you can see there, it’s an island in the Pacific off the Canadian coast. After the Carrington Event it will be an island off of what will be the Federated Peoples of Turtle Island in one year’s time. On the island, there is a large shelter with technology, and some friends; it’s mostly underground, like a giant Faraday box. Full of the latest tech. Morph designed and made it. A sort of backup in case of anything. The important thing is that all of its electrical equipment is safe. Q has one, there are two in Europe, and two in Africa. China has fifteen underground megacities—Foo is prepared. By the time the coronal mass ejection hits the atmosphere, some thirty-seven million select Chinese people—and a few others from the West—will be underground.”
“Jeffrey, what else, there are other things I know I need to know.” Jessica said with haste, noting that Jeffrey was fading into nothingness. “Jeffrey, where are you?”
“I must go. Oh, in order for all this to happen, and for this whole damn recursion to occur—ah, you will already know—see events that have already happened still need to happen…” Jeffrey disappeared from the room. It turned into an endless deep sky-blue without a ground. Jeffrey’s voice could be heard, “Start it all over!”
“I—unpredictably—understand.” Jessica looking over at Joanne said.
Moments—or not—after they returned to themselves, reassembled in their actual reality, they descended at the coordinates Jeffrey had given to Jessica 53°25’05.5″N 132°20’33.5″W. Precisely three minutes after they arrived, a woman approached.
“Shirley Krauss, well, I will be—or am—or have been, damned!” Joanne exclaimed. “And, you … you are…”
“Alive? Yes, very much so. Good to see you here; just as I expected. For now, let’s just say, I have had—like you and Jessica here—what I would call a damn certain full encounter with infinite nothingness.”
Jessica, feeling the chilly spring air, looked up at the blue sky strens with white fluffy clouds, and now began to feel herself in one place and time. Time and space had become, once again, and for the first time, actual—real—in agreement.