|A Mock Logo For An Imaginary Government Project|
In 1975 Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson published The Illuminatus! Trilogy. It remains a seminal work of conspiracy fiction. Today, The Omnivore begins a serial-fiction experiment: Illuminoimia.
Everything you're afraid of is true.
Chapter 1: The Edge Of The Rabbit Hole
May, North America
I was speaking to a man who told me he had survived Flight 93’s terminal descent into a field outside Shanksville Pennsylvania. He didn’t look like a man who’d survived a jetliner turning into a crater: he looked manic--and crazy--and the party-lounge upstairs in his outrageous mansion was filled with collectible firearms hanging on the wall and cocaine lines on the tables--and strippers. I was afraid “Marty” might kill me and I was two seconds from telling him he was full of shit.
Let me back up.
There are about 3.9 million bloggers. About 500 of them are considered “influential.” A successful blogger can make a six figure income if they hit the lucky combination of millions of readers (ad impressions), smart promoted products (Amazon’s logo is a friendly smile from A to Z), and, possibly, paid gigs (speaking), goodies (review our cookware), and requests (write some stuff for us).
I am not in the top five hundred. I’m not exactly sure—but I think I might have clock in at around the top 3.8 million—right under a restaurant review blog that hasn’t been updated since May of 2007. Most of my readers are machines—banks of spam botnets—which send me fake “phantom readers.” The hits to my blog appear to be either Internet advertising fraud authorities or real readers talking about my writing. But when I click the “referring link” to see what they’re saying, it’s a diet-pill page that tries to stealth download a trojan onto my system.
If they’d offered me fifty bucks I’d have gladly downloaded the trojan myself. Being badly out of a job at least, I’d have figured, my computer could be working. But then something was working or, to be more precise, I was pretty sure something had gone very, very wrong.
I’m a 29 year old laid off, overweight data architect who just lost his girlfriend and plays MMO computer games fueled by Mountain Dew. If you think that tells you everything you need to know about me you’re half right (I also got a minor in political science before deciding it wouldn't pay the bills—unlike database design—so the joke’s on me, I guess).
I was watching “Marty” do what I believed from my extensive research of watching movies was “snorting cocaine off a stripper.” At very least it was a thick line of white powder arranged more or less into a line across the tramp-stamp of an absolutely gorgeous almost completely naked (thong) girl obligingly bending over so that her back made a sort of table and his nose ran along the flesh of her buttocks before encountering the line where he snorted noisily and then WHOOPED.
“Marty” was running some kind of massive, apparently eternal, party (the girl who brought me in said they did this every night and the cleaning staff came at 1:00 PM every day) with an armada of floating pool toys in his waterfall fed pool, scores of girls who could easily be—and maybe were—porn stars, and various less attractive men who were all incredibly, incredibly drunk.
They were playing Peter Gabriel at obscene decibel levels on some kind of power rotation. When I say it wasn’t “my kind of party,” I guessing you could apply a stereotype filter to my abbreviated life’s story and figure out what I’m talking about. When I tell you was pretty sure something had ‘gone wrong’ it’s because I was brought out here in a stretch limo by a girl allegedly named “Kimmy” in a sexy business outfit, who was so far out of my league I was pretty sure I’d get shot down trying to masturbate to her. I was brought out here, explicitly, to meet him.
I hated this guy before I even saw him.
“Marty” with cocaine, strippers, actual prostitutes, a wall full of collectible firearms, a driveway full of restored Mustangs and GTO Judge muscle cars, and a really, really lurid Hawaiian shirt, wanted to talk to me.
“You want?” he yelled from about six feet away.
“What?” The music was thunderous. Peter wanted so badly to be my sledgehammer. Looking at the girls, I, for the first time, thought about the lyrics and wondered exactly who he thought he was talking to.
Marty waved—and a girl somewhere near a bar with lit consoles made it quiet. Quieter. I could still hear shrieking from the Jacuzzi.
“You want a line?” he asked, with a faint drawl. He wiggled his box of white powder. “It doesn't have to be off her ass,” he added, as though suddenly considering that I might have a hygiene objection.
“That’s OK,” I said—too loudly—then: “No—that’s fine. I’m okay.”
“At least let me get you a fucking drink,” he said. “Hey Jessica—get Theo a drink!”
Apparently that was good enough—no one needed to ask me what kind of drink I wanted. She came back (dressed in a brilliant red bikini with unnecessary exotic straps to match its unnecessary southern exposure) with a tumbler full of amber liquid. I took the glass.
“Sit down—sit down.”
I did. I’ll admit: For one desperate moment I felt a sudden flash of desperate hope that Marty, just maybe, wanted a database designed. If anyone seemed to have excess capacity for employment, it appeared to be him. I was so broke--and he was clearly so--so--rich it gave me unwanted near-physical pangs of jealousy. I’m not normally a jealous guy.
I looked over at Kimmy in her charcoal gray jacket and above the knee matching skirt and she, with the circular librarian glasses and hair up (save for a few stray strands--she was like my iconic vision of sexy--and it didn’t occur to me until later that might not be a mistake), gave me an encouraging nod.
I sat. Whatever Marty was going to say I was going to listen.
“I’m a survivor from Flight 93,” Marty said. His smile was absurd—but it was also somehow sad, like it was forced—and there was something about the way he said it that took all the air out of my lungs. The sadness. I wasn’t at all prepared for that.
At that moment a teeny-tiny little piece of the puzzle slipped into place. Let me explain.
I write a blog. A political blog—which debunks conspiracy theories. You haven’t read it. I was going to call it The National Tattler—after the fictional name of the tabloid in Silence of the Lambs—but it turns out that name was already taken … by people promoting the Hannibal TV show, I think. So I gave it another name, which isn’t important because you haven’t heard of it either.
No one has. When I was working at Big Data the blog was a hobby—something I was passionate about--but mostly just read by my friends (and, uncomfortably, by my parents when I badgered them to). Then I got laid off and decided to really give it a go—to promote it.
Whatever Search Engine Magic these women who write cooking blogs and suddenly start making 10k a month working from home (you’ve read the comments, right?) bottled, I didn’t get it. Maybe it’s because I didn’t sign up for the FREE 7-DAY web course on monetizing your blog. Maybe it’s because I didn’t buy into various affiliate programs to Drive Valuable Traffic. Maybe it’s because I suck.
Whatever the case, by the time I was unemployed for four and a half months and approaching the event-horizon of the “long term unemployed”—the economic walking dead who find it almost impossible to get re-hired anywhere--I was more and more desperate and more and more sloppy and snarky. And then I stopped writing altogether. It was too depressing.
Then one day someone out there in cyber-land reached into the back part of my brain and turned on the FEAR switch.
It was morning and I sat down at my computer and checked my stats. You can log in to your blog and take a look to see who’s reading it. As I said, if you suck, it’s almost all machines—search engines, stat-warehouses, and, of course, spambots. These create a steady rolling wave of activity that would be reading you, literally, no matter what. What I saw wasn’t the steady even rain of attempts to sell me penis enlargement and diet pharmaceuticals. What I saw was Mount Everest.
Ten thousand people a day. For the past six days. Sixty thousand unique Internet addresses. Like everyone in a medium sized town had decided to visit my blog exactly once. No one had left comments. When I clicked on one of the referring links—and then, frantically, again and again and again--it was the same thing over and over.
It was a page with a painfully bright red border, with “blinking lights” in purple and yellow around a centered message centered: You Haven’t Been Writing. Marty Wants To Talk To You. 8:30 PM. The 17th. Marty Will Send A Car.
There were two blank spaces. Then: Have Fun, Theo.
If you’ve heard the expression “your blood runs cold” you probably, hopefully, don’t know what it really means. It’s a physical sensation of fear—of foreboding—it feels like—it really feels like—someone pouring cold water down your body from the inside and down the spine. It’s your blood. Running cold.
I started at the screen. The page was 100% spamarific. If there was a Viagra—or, more likely, Indian Viagra of unknown composition, at the center, I wouldn’t have been shocked in the slightest—infuriated (every time you click on a referrer-spam link it’s like “they got you”)—but not surprised. I wouldn’t have been scared.
The message itself was also not all that meaningful. The weird capitalization is nothing new to the Internet and there are plenty of message-meisters who think the best way to get your attention is to intrigue you. No—it was that last bit at the bottom. That was where my skin went clammy: They knew my name.
There was then an aftershock when I went back to the list of URL’s that had ‘visited my page’—thousands of them—and frantically clicked on them at random, hoping to see something—anything else. I’d have welcomed Make Your Penis The Hammer™ at that point. I’d have welcomed Fleshlight. I didn’t want to see that carnival-colored page with my name in it.
At the time I was damn sure there wasn’t a car coming. But two days later, as the night grew darker, I ceased to be certain. When it showed up, it was only because the name “Marty” wasn’t especially threatening sounding that I got in. That and the incredibly hot looking girl. I’d thought, maybe, it was a drug deal or something.
That was, it seemed, about a quarter right: there were plenty of drugs. It just wasn’t a deal.
Marty looked at me.
I looked back.
For a few moments we could hear girls pretending to like the men pawing them—and I could see women, up here, pretending that slinking all over Marty or lounging around the large room was something they’d love to do even if there weren’t drugs and money—but I couldn’t—I just couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Let me tell you,” said Marty, after a moment, “how it happened. The plane landed in Columbus.”
I wanted to get up and get out of the chair—and go—down the steps and out—but my beat up Civic wasn’t outside—it was back at the apartment. I’d taken a limo. With ‘Kimmy.’
I forced myself not to glance her way--but I knew she was there watching us. And I could only guess what she thought about all this stuff. Of me being brought here--having to deal with this maniac. I felt a flare of indignation at Marty: rich, high, effortlessly buying girls? Spewing this nonsense. Fuck him.
“Nobody lived,” I said. “At the end of the day there wasn’t even much of a plane left.” I took a gulp of my drink and struggled with the sudden burn. Despite my best efforts, I glanced over at Kimmy and saw her on a bar-stool watching us. Inscrutable.
“No,” he said—“that’s right—except for me. I’m the only one who made it. And the plane was fucking fine.” He reached across—took my drink—and sat back, looking at me evenly—more seriously. He took a sip—and waved ‘Get him another one.’
I didn’t want to look at the girl: this bully just took my drink--never mind that he was bringing me another one.
“How did you live?” I asked carefully. He’d already made one mistake, I thought. He would make another one--then I’d have him.
I’ve interviewed kooks before. Let me ask you a question: What’s the difference between a Tea Partier and a guy who thinks the Federal Government is too powerful and taxes are too high and badly managed? The difference is that the Tea Partier can’t shut up about it. The more you believe a kooky conspiracy the more willing you are to tell anyone—even a blogger with more machines reading it than humans.
When you believe something crazy the crazy is like a virus: it wants to spread. When you are infected you want to spread it. Marty, I could see, was infected: he wanted to spread it. He wanted to spread it to me.
I let my weight shift so I was no longer about to bolt. Marty had a collection of guns—things like gleaming silver Colt Python .357 magnums on the wall behind him. Marty, in his blinding Hawaiian shirt, might be one incredibly dangerous dude but I was most definitely going to interview him. Even though I’d been so embarrassed about being scared by the message and sure no one was going to show up that I hadn’t told anyone about it. No one knew I was here.
“They let me,” he said. He took another drink and amber liquid ran down the side of his chin. “They let me live.”
He put the drink down. The cocaine wasn’t working for him: his eyes were dead cold and serious. He didn’t look so manic now.
“They brought it down--landed it Columbus International and rolled it into this giant hangar,” he said.
He looked at me--and I could see he was actually a bit surprised that I wasn’t buying it. Does everyone just believe all the bullshit he tells them? I wondered. I glanced at Kimmy and I caught her eye. She looked … kind of sad too--watching us there.
I realized with a sudden flash of anger she was pitying me.
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “What about the crater in Pennsylvania? Did that just magically appear?”
Marty, now, was actually shocked. I could see him scramble mentally. “I--” he said, on unfamiliar ground for the first time in … how long? That’s my home territory fucker, I thought. Unfamiliar ground--that is--not just the conspiracy stuff. “I understand,” he said, emphasizing the word understand, “that They trucked out a bunch of aluminum scrap and shit and a few random body parts. Didn’t, like, the first guy on the scene say there were no body parts to be found?”
It was an honest question--he was asking me.
“They did,” I said. “Wally Miller--the coroner they brought out there--gave one interview about thirty minutes after reaching the scene. That was before he found all the bodies--all they were going to find: 93 hit at maximum speed. Usually you get about 17 to 30 percent recovery. At max-speed straight down you get the eight percent they found. It was bullshit and he retracted the quote. So did the AP reporter who reported the plane landing,” I said. “All that shit has been discredited.”
I gave him a ‘So There’ with the eyebrows. I could feel Kimmy’s eyes on me. I didn’t give a shit about his wall of guns for that second.
Marty … looked frustrated. He took a gulp of the drink and downed it easily. Like a pro.
“Why did they let you live?” I asked.
“To—“ he took a deep breath and spread his arms “—to—I don’t know.” He put his arms down. “To tell the story?” He said--but I could tell he maybe wasn’t a hundred percent sure. “But only to people who are ready to believe it.”
“I don’t believe it,” I told him.
“I know,” he said, “I’m breaking the rules! They told me I could live. That I could tell anyone who came to me. They made me rich.” He looked around at the house—the girls. They were lounging like poets and they, too, had a sense of sadness to them, watching Marty do this. And I realized: he’d done it before. They’d seen all this before.
Marty was rich—and delusional. I suddenly felt bad about hammering on him. This guy, I thought, is broken.
“Here’s how it went down,” he said, suddenly coming forward. Intense. “Flight takes off and there are these men—dark uniforms—compact guns—German, I’m sure of it—but I’ve never seen them before or since. Small sub-machine guns—fold up small. Low caliber—but trust me: plenty deadly. There were maybe twelve of them—they came up from the back. I don’t know—pulled over their uniforms on top of civilian clothes? Two went up front. The stewardess were sat down—and they were in the cockpit. I couldn’t see up there.”
He shrugged. “The plane … rose. And they started collecting cell phones. People were moaning—crying—they were … maintaining order. Gathering phones, blackberries—anything with a transmitter. The had packs that they put them into—with pockets—a separate slot for each phone and a sticker on it—the seat number. This was—they were highly prepared.”
“Some of us had to talk. They would have you talk into this recorder device. They had you read a card. It was …”
He paused. “It was JFK—Talking about putting a man on the moon.”
He looked at me.
I looked back, imagining them going up and down the aisle with their guns and their recorders.
I prompted him: “And then?”
I knew what then—the story goes that the recorder was a voice analyzer and replicator. The technology does exist, to a degree. They were, I knew, sampling voices for “the phone calls”—the phone calls from the plane to their loved ones. Marty didn’t say that—but I’d read about the theory. Apparently they ‘did this’ somewhere he couldn’t see it.
“The plane came down. They told us they would land, make their demands, and we would exit.”
“But these guys were one hundred percent American,” he said. “They weren’t Arabs. They weren’t even … Terrorists. There were no demands.”
“We came down,” he said. “They had us close the windows and stuff—but we came down—and the plane rolled.”
I sat there, imagining the tense, tense moments. The frightened passengers. Hoping.
“And then they stood us up—and we got off. Off the plane—down a staircase inside this huge hanger.”
He shook his head.
“And there were these big black plastic … containers. Mostly stacked up—but plenty of them were laid out too—“
“Coffins.” I knew what these were too. I had a ‘contact high’ from all the conspiracy theory. FEMA Coffins. Those really exist too. Some people from Jesse Ventura’s TV show went out and filmed them. If a big enough disaster hits and they send FEMA in to clean up? They can come with truckloads of black, stacked plastic coffins.
“They pulled me out of line,” he said. “And then they—started.”
“Started shooting,” he said. His eyes were haunted. “It was really quiet. I mean really quiet like movie quiet.”
“The guns were silenced?”
He shook his head. “Sub—“ he looked back at his wall of collector’s items. “A silenced gun still makes a shitload of noise. Subsonic bullets. Special ammo. Quiet.”
I sat there—imagining the sudden explosive carnage—passengers and stewardesses reeling backwards in a red spray—abbreviated screams. Heavy impacts. If there was one thing Marty could do it was tell the story. In his face--In his eyes--I could see the real terror reflected back at me.
“I was on my knees,” he said. He took another drink—deep. “I was begging—I don’t even know.” He didn’t look at me. He came back. “They got me up—told me to shut up—and clean up.”
“I was in this little room. There was a seal on the folders. Homeland Security? I’m not—“ he shook his head. “I can’t remember. There were papers and I signed a bunch of them. They took a swab of my mouth. Fingerprints. I looked in a scanner.”
“And then they gave me the needle and that was that.”
“That was what?”
“I woke up—you know … rich.”
He looked around. I did too.
“You woke up here?” I asked. Surrounded by girls, I thought. Like the Jihadi version of heaven.
“No—another house. There are … a lot of them. And I keep moving around.” He shrugged. “I don’t want to talk about that.”
I nodded—slowly. “What do you want to talk about?” I asked.
He examined me. “Do you believe me?” he asked. It was challenging—but also curious.
I sat there. Marty was clearly damaged--but I didn’t want to just lie. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to disrespect him by condescendingly telling him that I’d changed my mind and bought this bullshit. Maybe it was because--I don’t know--because he was handsome? Because he slept all day and partied all night and I hadn’t had a bite on my resume in weeks? Maybe it was because one of his dark-haired prop-girls was the date I’d never get and he could have anything he wanted?
“No,” I said. I got up. I think this is what Tom Cruises’ character in A Few Good Men would have felt like in that courtroom scene at the end. “Firstly it was Delta Flight 1989 that landed in Cleveland Ohio. Not Flight 93 in Columbus. Even for the conspiracy theorists you didn’t get the story right.”
“Secondly, it still doesn’t make any sense: if you were going to disappear all the people why not just crash the plane? It’s not like ‘They’ didn’t crash two planes into the World Trade Center towers already. What’s the point of landing it and getting the people off it? So you could live? What sense does that make?”
I felt the venom in my voice--and I didn’t like it. But I kept going.
“If you’re going to try to convince anyone,” I said, “you need to remember something.” I let it hang.
Marty looked at me. He looked shocked--he was sitting back and his eyes were … big.
“What?” he asked. It was kind of quiet.
“They didn’t have Homeland Security Agency seals in 2001. That whole agency was put together in 2003 because of 9/11.” I said. My tone added doofus.
And then I felt like a complete shithead: Marty looked like he might cry.
“You’re Theodore Odell, right?”
I nodded. Dumbly. This was the mistake—was I the wrong Theodore Odell.
“With the blog, right? With the conspiracy blog?”
I … nodded. I debunk conspiracies, I though. I don’t promote them. I was pretty sure this was what he’d gotten wrong: Marty clearly wasn’t much of a reader.
But he was desperate: “Do you want … fingerprints?” he asked. “Dental records? I’ve got some clay—“ it was true. He nodded over to the bar. There was actually a small gray block of clay—like a stick of butter. “I could bite into it?” he offered. “You could check them.”
“I--I--no,” I said. “I--it’s--” I got up then. It was automatic. I just wanted to get out of there. “I’m not your guy,” I said. “I don’t believe in that shit.” I looked over at Kimmy and I felt my heart shrivel. She’d gotten up too--to take me down to the limmo.
“No,” Marty said. “No--look at me--I’m not using my old name--but if you go through pictures. If you check my prints--my teeth--my--fuck, I don’t know--DNA? You can check it--” he was emphatic. “You can tell your readers you met me--that I’m real.”
“Come on,” Kimmy said, taking my arm. She was … disgusted. “Let’s go.”
“No--hey!” Marty said. “There must be something--just check--” but she was taking me down the stairs. I was dumbfounded.
“He tells everyone that story,” she told me--hurrying me out past the happiest people in the world. “He’s a harmless guy who just wants to help people and he keeps hoping someone will … I don’t know … tell the world? He keeps hoping he can get his story out.”
I felt the hot air outside the house and saw the car--escape--and wanted, more than anything to be gone.
“You didn’t have to do that to him,” she said, opening the door. “You didn’t have to go off on him like that.”
I got into the cool interior, sliding across the exquisite leather seats … in case she wanted to get in after me. “Sorr-” I started. But she shut the door.
I went home and went to bed. I slept in my clothes and I woke up with a terrible taste in my mouth and smelling like sweat.