That was how the old year ended, and the new began: with the image of the dead astronaut presiding over everything, its myriad associative meanings reflected in every surface, and every joy an overwrought fleeing from its grim determinism. In my head, occupying its own habitually strange environs, the danger was that Gabriel Summers’ corpse would become the symbol of the new century, a sort of capstone and negation of every dream of the previous one. It had the scope to be more than a symbol, to evolve into an entire mythology. Elor Summers had been for us the kind of aspirational icon that the rock star or film actor had been to our parents: the innovative entrepreneur with galaxy-spanning dreams; the youthful billionaire who’d sealed his fortune writing code in a dorm-room; the dynamic CEO who stirred his creatives to dreams of the future like generals sent soldiers to the imagined glories of a battlefield. Now he was a squat, broken figure, forever to be remembered as the man who sent his son to another world, never to return and never to be resurrected.
Even prior the Martian tragedy, however, our dreams had turned to orbit nightly around the themes of death and technology. Our lives had become rudderless, uncertain things: with job security a thing of the past, we were office nomads, working one and two month contracts in a dizzying succession of companies whose actual business we were no longer cognisant of; rents escalated so rapidly that urban-dwellers often carried their entire life-possessions around in ruck-sacks, using real-time trackers to monitor the ever-fluctuating geography of affordable rental zones. With all these assaults on our stability, all this narrowing of our aspirational horizons, one might have expected violence, revolution, or some degree of discontent to be the order of the day. In actuality, we were the most passive, anaesthetized generation imaginable. As though being led drugged over a precipice, our lives in this time of upheaval were dominated by algorithms and entertainment. The image of Gabriel Summers seemed on some level to echo our own – the image of a dead thing encased in a technological shell. The emergence of some upstart theology was surely required to rouse us from the peculiar condition of somnambulism which attended upon the early years of the new century.
Perhaps it was this yearning which had infused the imminent return of Tillinghast Nebula which such a weight of expectation. As with many of his contemporaries, the 80s had not been kind to the star's reputation and carefully cultivated mystique. The gods of the post-war youth explosion – those who'd made it through the other side – washed up on the shorelines of the 80s as middle-aged men, like a group of huddled revellers whom daylight had finally discovered, the joys and wayward, fleeting enthusiasms of their long night laid bare. The ultimate currency of their youth was gone, and popular music had shifted from the Dionysian mode to something like the regulated marching anthems of Plato's ideal autocratic regime. To have been iconic representations of youth in an era of unbridled youthfulness, their destiny was now to fall to the earth of middle-years with crushing velocity, and the 80s mowed through the dreams constellated around them like the Reaper with his scythe, revealing in high relief the comedy of all our lives, the parodies of ourselves that we will one day became, the nostalgias we will feel for an irretrievable zeitgeist.
Healthy, happily married, and having abandoned the chronic drug-use that somehow achieved an effect of synaesthesia between his own identity and the personae of his songs, Tillinghast was now a regular human being, after all. He flirted with world music and stadium rock, participated in several of the then popular live telecasts in support of global benevolence, and spoke wryly of his youthful misadventures on the chat show circuit. It was the beginning of a gradual retreat from the public eye which was all but complete by the late 90s.
He now lived with his family in a penthouse suite in New York's ill-omened Dakota Building, with public appearances as fleeting and inconclusive as those of UFOs. Various rumours regarding his mental condition were circulated by Mission Command, a Nebula fansite which was also steeped in the popular conspirative which held that entertainment superstars were divided between the mind-controlled proxies of secret political cabals (themselves the representatives of sinister Off World Interests), and a counter-force of insurgents who utilize the sorcery of mass media for benevolent means. Some said that Nebula was haunted by the re-emergence of his erstwhile alien personae, and the suspicion that the real life of an artist is an insubstantial shadow cast off by the more vivid existence of his creations. Others claimed that the star had become almost catatonic, and spent long, bedridden days in contemplation of a series of film props which he had accumulated over the years, and arranged in a puzzling tableau. This tableau was said to include the mirror from his own film Looking Glass (1975), the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939), the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and the buckskin shirt worn by Alan Ladd in Shane (1953).
What this particular juxtaposition of objects meant to the ageing star, we were not given to know. Perhaps in contemplating them, his mind journeyed through some archetypal landscape of deep-rooted personal significance – a notional Death Valley where Brandon deWilde's plaintive boy-cries still echoed after the receding image of the gunslinger; where Dorothy, Toto (here morphed by the errant logic of dreams into a Martian rover), the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man still follow the Yellow Brick Road, past solitary cowpokes who strum their lullabies to dying fires and lost loves, onward to an Emerald City which has been replaced by the austere form of the Monolith, around which sanguine chimps play games of checkers and watch the sand sift to the bottom of hourglasses, as though waiting to witness some transformation denied to their species, something incalculable that resides far beyond wit, courage or heart.
It was also possible, of course, that Tillinghast was merely leading the life of a more or less typical husband and father, away from the prying eyes of the media, and a public who couldn't help but mythologise him, and couldn't concede that it had been only a performance, and a trick of the times.
Other winds of paranoia were blowing through the ether that January. On the 6th, a spoiler dropped on Noosfeed for the season 2 finale of Angel Investor. It was a catastrophe – people were so demoralized that they instantly shared it, figuring to spread the misery or something. After a couple of days, the spoiler was everywhere, not just on Noosfeed, but spilling out into the real world like a contagious and vindictive Tourette's . Various hitherto quote unquote normal people, seemingly unhinged by the effects of the reveal, were shouting it in the streets. Some bitter case hired a aeroplane to tow around a banner with the spoiler summarised until the authorities interceded. One friend of mine saw it tattooed on the shoulder of an elegant young Japanese neo-punk – another written in the sand on a beach, washed away by the tide an instant later.
So far I'd been inexplicably lucky. I hadn't got caught yet, but it meant I had to stay off Noosfeed, and walk around the streets in a hyper-alert paranoiac state. Whenever I went out, I listened to Tillinghast Nebula music on my head-phones, and tried to maintain a state of awareness whereby I wouldn't drift automatically into reading any text, or even lose my concentration sufficiently that some troll, aware of my head-phones, might somehow physically act out the spoil in a way that was instantly comprehensible to me. I may have been losing my mind a little, but it was interesting.
Having to avoid Noosfeed put me in a pickle, though, going beyond standard withdrawal symptoms. I'm a freelance entertainment/conspirative journalist. I contribute content to various 'Feed nodes and click-holes. I wanted to do some digging into the source of the spoiler itself. Most people think that major spoiler drops come from rival streamers, but that's just the beginning of it. Chinese hackers and Russian psi's have been probing the secrets of Western long-form narrative television for years, dropping spoilers through proxies as a form of destabilizing psychological warfare. Without Noosfeed, I was going to have to carry out my investigation in the Deeper Web.
It's a testament the success of the Deeper Web that not a great many people are aware of its existence. The problem with the Deep Web was that you just couldn't hide anything on it from the real specialists. No matter how many layers of encryption buried under, or how sophisticated the overlay network, government agencies had classified super-computing tech that opened it up as easy as clicking on a regular 'Feed node. As soon as any information is stored digitally, no matter how far from the beaten path, it is instantly available to intelligence agencies, many of whom have already gone further off the grid than you could imagine. So to move forward, the architects of the Deeper Web turned full-circle: they resolved that the only way to exchange information freely and safely was to restore an oral culture. The Deeper Web was a group of individuals – they called them USB Bards – who had elected to become the repositories and brokers of vast stores of contraband information. The USB Bards had undertaken an in-depth study of long lost mnemonic techniques going back to ancient Greece. Each Bard had their own virtual city which operated as a visual data base. Their powers of visualization were so intense that many of them were said to spend idle, opiated hours wandering the streets of their own notional principalities, and in the Deepest Web of all, the Bards shared notes amongst themselves on mysterious encounters they'd had therein.
Not only had the Bards mastered the ancient art of memory retention, but they also evolved entirely new techniques that made them equally adept at forgetting. Using the visual iconography of long outmoded desktop computers, the Bards could move memories into a Recycle Bin, and even permanently delete them, making them impervious to all forms of enhanced interrogation. It is widely believed that the peculiarly ascetic and neutral character of the USB Bard was a by-product of the fact that they edited their personal memories, removing traumatic emotional complexes in the manner of the system adumbrated in Hubbard's Dianetics, making themselves spectral and robotic in the process.
USB Bards exercise a series of different functions for clients, while ultimately following their own inscrutable agenda at all times. They carried insurance data dumps for whistle-blowers and sold credit details to carders; they saved a thousand things screamed by psychotics and whispered by dreamers in their sleep that otherwise would be lost forever; they sometimes acted as pornographers, recounting ten minute vignettes of amateur porn in an elevated poetic meter of their own creation, in performances which were prized as eerily erotic by connoisseurs; they stored film scripts, manuscripts of novels, philosophical treatises, lewd limericks and haiku which were deemed to have dangerous or subversive content; they saved things that people thought while they were shaving or emptying their bowels, fusing them into a single mosaic of transient impressions which was like a vast Joycean novel; they had created an index of plausibility for conspiratives, and shared information with low-level journalists like myself, again serving their own elusive long-term ends.
I had arranged a meet with my USB Bard, who called himself Malcolm, through the usual Whisperer, and an encryption code that utilized billboards, news-paper headlines, and the tilt of a high-street store mannequin's pelvis. I took a bus out into the mountains, and as soon I disembark, the otherness of the natural world hits me all at once. I feel like I've been in the city and staring at a screen too long, maybe, too long in the porous, schizophrenic, hectoring ambience of the street and the 'Feed. The hedgerows and the fields, the crows wheeling above and the cows with cautious, sluggish eyes, all seem to recognise me as an unwelcome intrusion. After trudging along for about ten minutes, I see the USB Bard standing by a rusty meadow gate, his form almost lost in a dense ticket of brambles. He wears a Burberry macintosh, navy pinstripe suit and bowler hat. He has an umbrella to complete the look. His skin is translucently pale, gleaming in the setting evening sun. When he speaks, it is the sound of a half-forgotten decade, an early morning before you were born.
“The most plausible conspiratives suggest the Angel Investor spoiler is Russian in origin....but the purpose of the release is not disruptive, but more in the line of a fact-finding exercise.”
“To find out facts about what, exactly?”
“I don't have any reliable conspirative to answer that. But bear certain things in mind: the character of the show's titular angel investor, Tyrone Crest, is believed to be modelled on Elor Summer. Conspiratives of moderate plausibility suggest that the failure of the Martian mission was due to sabotage.”
“Sabotage by whom? US government?”
“Unlikely to be US acting autonomously, more probably at the behest of a transnational, such as the GFAB.”
The Global Fiscal Advisory Board is an international think tank which meets under considerable secrecy and security every four years. It's stated purpose is to provide policy suggestions to ensure proper co-ordination in the economic strategies of the various transnational conglomerates: the IMF, World Bank, European Union, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and so on. The GFAB was believed to be involved in the trading of insider information with a certain Off World Cartel, speculators on an interplanetary exchange index whose stocks and currencies are levels of sentient misery in different quadrants of the galaxy.
“Several moderately plausible conspiratives suggest that the plot of Angel Investor is a clearing-house for a mixture of genuine inside intelligence and carefully seeded disinformation. Hence, it seems likely that the Russians have dropped the spoiler in response to the possible sabotage of the Summers Mars mission, as a means to probe the attitude of the GFAB towards private-sector space exploration.”
“What the fuck is going on here?”
“I don't have any reliable conspirative to answer that. But consider this: a highly plausible conspirative suggests that Noostream have re-written the season finale episode, so that the spoiler is no longer strictly accurate. A question remains, however: if the spoiler was originally correct, but no longer, is it still a spoiler?”
The Bard looked at me with a peculiar intensity, as though matters of great import hinged on the solution to this abstruse problem.
“Some more information which may prove relevant. The name of Tillinghast Nebula's forthcoming album is Dog Star Lazarus Lounge Lizard. A highly plausible conspirative suggests that Nebula is dying, and intends the album – or some document associated with the album – to be his last will and testament.”