*This is part 1 of a 5 part series.
On the morning Zizek contacted me, I’d already noticed the strange emails in my inbox. He told me that I had no concern for alarm, but that I should meet him at, “a coffee shop that doesn’t have wifi”, which sounded more like a nonsensical riddle than an actual location.
There was a place in Bushwick I’d used before that fit his requirements. It was a nicely furnished, unusually well-lit coffee shop tucked between two vacant stores that were caught in the cyclone of urban renewal that had swept the rest of the block. I’d spoken with Zizek only two times previously, neither of which was in person. He knew me as Aquinas, a name I’d chosen after seeing his own username, SlavZizek, on our .Tor message board. I thought a play on philosophers names was interesting, and so I mimicked his gag, even adding a Photo-shopped version of Aquinas wearing a pair of Ocolus goggles as my thread image. He responded in like fashion, adding a picture of Slavoj Zizek smoking a joint to the thread. Since then, Zizek had become a minor contact of mine. I’d reached out to him several months previously after I’d came into possession of a few lucrative American Express accounts, but since then our relationship had stagnated. It wasn’t until we’d both been the targets of random malware dumps in our private MailTor services. The service was otherwise secure and rather hard to breach, making the situation worth investigating.
When I saw Zizek enter the cramped, uncomfortably intimate coffee shop, I knew he’d spotted me. It took only one look from the young Slovenian for me to recognize his face. I’d only seen digital thumbnails of him on his Facebook account, but once he began walking towards my booth, we became instantly acquainted.
“Aquinas,” He said as he shook my hand. His hand shake was more sturdy than I’d expected from someone his age, even if he was an exchange student.
“Slav, it’s a pleasure.” I said with a smile.
We sat down and a waitress came to our table. I decided on a cup of ice water while Zizek ordered black coffee with two sugars. When she left, Zizek turned back to me with a smile.
“I had an argument with my roommate this morning that gave me an epiphany.” He said.
“Yeah?” I replied.
“Something quite shocking occurred to me during our discussion. It was about whether or not we’re living in the end times.” He said and then stopped to blow on his coffee in an attempt to cool it down. “I believe that we are, but my roommate disagrees. He pointed to all the advancements in technology and the growing demand for innovation as the saving graces of our species,” he started to laugh as he recalled the conversation. “I couldn’t have explained why we’re doomed better than he did!”
“I don’t follow,” I replied, my smile fading.
“It’s technology that reveals our dire situation. Here we are, at the very precipice of evolution, right on the brink of becoming the Gods that we all want to be, and all there is anywhere is conflict and oppression. On every corner of the Earth, our primal concerns are proving more important to us than any transcendence we might achieve with technology.” Zizek finished, almost out of breath. He continued smiling for a moment and then looked down into his lap. “That’s why the Net is so important, you know, to preserve us.”
“You think so?” I say, watching the waitress come towards us with my ice water.
“I don’t have to know, the proof is all around.”
The waitress put my drink down in front of me, and I noticed Zizek attempt to take out a pack of cigarettes.
“No smoking,” The waitress said with a smile.
“Sorry,” Zizek slowly put the pack back into his coat pocket.
“This country is obsessed with keeping you healthy.” He muttered to me.
“I’m sure it takes some getting used to.” I said as I took a sip of ice water.
Zizek smiled courteously, almost like he didn’t understand what I’d said.
“Anyway,” Zizek stirred his steaming coffee. “I got your message about backtracking the coding in those emails.”
“And it’s bunk. There’s no way to track the source of all that malware. In fact, it gets worse the more you try to manipulate it.”
“So it’s active?”
“Yeah, I’d advise that you delete anything that might be infected. And of course, start a new account with MailTor.”
“Already done,” I said.
“Such a smart surfer, this one.” He smiled. “I have to say, you are a little older than I expected.”
“You expected another student?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Zizek smiled wide, showing off his Eastern Block dental care.
“Not all of us are bedroom programmers, you know.”
“Did you try anything with the emails?” Zizek said after finally attempting to drink the smoldering coffee.
“I have one Quarantined, I’m still trying to figure out the meaning of the message that’s embedded in the jpg files.”
“What, you didn’t find it?”
“Where was it?”
“There was something about the font in the advertisements for local hook ups that tipped me off. I broke up the image into layers and found it. Something about ‘black hallways’.”
“What was it, exactly?” Zizek responded with a change in tone. His inflection was much more precise, signifying the added weight to the situation.
I shifted in my seat. “I don’t want to misquote,” I replied, “Something like, ‘you will find yourself in the black hallway’, something weird like that.”
Zizek put his coffee mug down. “I don’t want to alarm you, but this may be more serious than we anticipated.”
Getting back to Manhattan in the town car that serviced me was an unusually brisk procedure, resulting in Zizek and I arriving at my apartment in midtown rather quickly. He insisted on checking out the message for himself. I pulled it up from my infected MacBook Pro and displayed it on the 47-inch LED panel that was mounted to my living room wall. Zizek studied it intently and then took a picture with his smartphone.
“I can just send you a screen shot,” I said.
“No, that would be too risky,” He replied, still staring at the duplicate image on his phone.
“This is complicated, but the type of malware that was put into these emails might be far more sophisticated then they appear.” He replied, typing something on his phone.
I walked over to him and peered over his shoulder. He was using a home-made app to analyze the source code of the email.
“This is authentic,” He said to himself.
“The black hallway. It’s the sign-off poem of,” He showed me his Notes app, in which the word “Baphomet” was typed. “It’s like his digital signature.” He quickly took his backpack off of my couch and began heading towards the door. “Trash that MacBook.”
“Who is Baphomet?”
Zizek swirled around and sprinted up to me with his index finger pressed to his lips, “Ssshhh! Don’t speak the name aloud. He might already have access to your microphones.”
“What?” I replied.
“Don’t say the name, if your computer is already infected he might be watching us now.”
And as if by some unheard alarm, my Macbook and NES displays switched off, plunging my apartment into total darkness. Before our eyes could adjust, the displays switched back on, this time loading directly to my word processor. In a cartoon-ish, horror-film inspired font, some foreign agent began typing a message onto the digital page.
It didn’t take long for the full message to materialize. It read:
“YOU WILL FIND YOURSELF IN THE BLACK HALLWAY.”
My computer died again, this time permanently. I saw sparks fly and heard the distinct electronic crackling of a circuit board shorting out.
“Fuck,” I said involuntarily.
Zizek turned pale. “It is time for me to go,” he announced.
“Wait! Tell me about this, you obviously know who’s responsible.” I said.
“Not here. Come, there’s somewhere safe we can talk.” Zizek said, still half-whispering.
Adam Albaari is a writer, originally hailing from Columbia, Maryland. He attended Loyola University New Orleans, graduating with a BA in English with a Writing Concentration. He resides in the Uptown area and has spent over five years writing both journalism and serial fiction for local publications. Adam co-hosts NolaFilmCast with Mike Hogan, a weekly program featuring interviews and film-talk with natives working in New Orleans booming film industry.