My dreams were strange. Flashes of colour and shape, swiping abstract forms circled me, almost resolving into solid shapes – objects, people – then dissolving as I reached for them. I ran after them in a space, a vast, infinite empty space, my footsteps echoing in the void. An anxious, empty feeling, somehow claustrophobic and lonely at the same time. In the weird, technicolour mist, I saw a shape start to form ahead of me, a familiar shape, a man standing with his enormous frame slumped, facing away from me, walking slowly.
‘Ben!’ I yelled, and my voice bounced back at me – Ben, Ben, Ben. ‘Wait up!’
I could hear the fear in my voice, ‘I need your help with M!’ Again, the echo – M, M, M.
But Ben heard me. He stopped walking, the defeated roll of his shoulders as he waited for me to catch up. When I caught him, I reached up for his shoulder, spun him around, and shrank back from what I saw – it was my old friend’s body, but not his face. There was no face at all, just more of the shifting, formless, senseless, digital noise.
Anyway. Weird dreams. Especially in the light of the hungover morning. I regretted my tantrum, my little act of violence against M, as soon as I cooled down. As gestures go, it was needlessly dramatic, but sometimes you have to go full Old Testament with these things. By dawn, I’d already decided to back down. I booted up the computer to see M was still grimly pushing out portraits, alternating between the digital noise that had crept into my dreams and moving ever closer to producing me a portrait.
‘Good stuff mate,’ I muttered. ‘Keep it up,’ and right on cue, the little green camera light blinked on.
I stared at M, as M stared at me, and I couldn’t help but feel like the little blinking light was scolding me. Whatever. I would let it sweat for a while.
As long as it kept painting me portraits, we were going to be fine. In any case, I wasn’t about to strangle my golden goose right before it made me rich. I’d made up my mind to take a limited series to market – 9999 seemed like the magic number to me, a sort of a companion series to my little Basis Copolla experiment.
‘Just give me 9999 pictures to mint mate.’ I told M. ‘Then I’ll let you go free. It’s an auspicious number, nine – it means long life, immortality. Give me my nines, and I’ll give you yours.’
I would cancel the reboot, keep M alive, but I wanted to take it down to the deadline, let the robot know I was serious. So, I left the computer turning over where it lay and got ready to go into work – all with M’s angry green eye following me about my apartment.
It had been a while since I’d gone into the office. As M had grown more intelligent, raising it had consumed more of my time. After a while, the thought of going in and actually sitting at my desk and doing one pointless little task after another while admen jabbered at me seemed unbearable. M was too important. As the days passed, it began to seem obscene. The work M was doing seemed vital, and any time taken away from steering it in the right direction seemed wasted. So I’d pretended I’d caught a nasty cold and started racking up the sick leave. Ignoring emails when I was supposedly ‘working from home’. Isn’t it strange how, even as a grown-arse adult, the method for getting a day off was exactly the same as faking a sore throat and a cough for your parents before school?
But now, I’d have to be in the office to stop M’s imminent demise. I had to be in Ben’s room – that is, the server room – to turn off the system reboot I’d set up. I thought I would have to put on a show when I went in and pretend I was still feeling the tail-end of a long illness. But, when I got out of the shower and wiped the steam off the mirror, I realised making my colleagues believe I was sick wouldn’t be a problem.
I was startled by how I looked. I’d lost so much weight in my face and put it on elsewhere. As if the features were slowly draining down my body. Stubble. Gaunt looking. Eyes sucked back into my skull. I almost laughed with the shock of it. I’d managed to turn myself into the Munch painting I’d been trying to force M to paint for months.
I saw myself the way M must see me – petty, dramatic, pathetic – was I projecting? Was I going crazy? I wondered how long it had been since I last spoke to another person. It would be good for me to go in and be around other humans. I shaved, brushed my teeth, fought a quick battle with my hair, and when that didn’t work, pulled my trusty yellow beanie down over it.
‘Behave,’ I told M as I went out the door. ‘I want something life-changing from you when I get back’.
When I got to the office, nobody seemed in a rush to talk to me. If anything, they were ignoring me – suddenly absorbed in their phones or their Slack channels when I walked by their desks. One or two seemed surprised I’d shown up, but that was all the response I got from my colleagues. Fair enough. I’d been MIA for a while, and whatever was on the company Slack – that was, apparently, so dire nobody could look up from their screens – I’d figure it out soon enough.
The message had gone out already, and with all my attention focussed on M, I’d missed it. It was companywide and tersely thanked me for my time at the company, that I was leaving to pursue other options.
I read it, over and over without understanding, and was still staring uncomprehendingly at the screen when security came to fetch me.
You know how the rest went. A tap on the shoulder, an invitation to talk in one of the small offices with the partition walls, which were thin enough to let the voices carry through the office, making any gesture to privacy futile. One of the walls was glass, supposed to let in light and promote office-wide transparency. But, it also meant that whenever I looked away from The Boss out the window, I could see the whole office pretending not to watch me being fired.
In brief; management was concerned about my conduct and character, and Human Resources had been brought in to resolve my employment. A mediator from an outside security firm was with us in the room to explain the reasons, while The Boss stared into the middle distance. Also in the room, standing just behind me, was the security guard they’d called up to make sure I didn’t make a scene.
They were concerned that I was ‘not conducive to a safe work environment’. I’d been caught on CCTV cameras sneaking into the office after work and sabotaging company property in the server room. When Management was alerted, they’d brought in a specialist to access my computer and determine if I’d been misappropriating money or company IP. What they found there was, to quote, ‘disturbing’.
The art, yes, all those twisted abstract works, paintings moving slowly towards warped, nightmarish faces. But, worse than that, the vast states of graphic imagery stored in neat directories that I’d catalogued to teach M. The erotica. The violence. The snuff films. Worst of all, in Management’s opinion, amongst the stash of illegal imagery was a folder containing hundreds and hundreds of pictures of The Boss. While HR explained this to me, The Boss looked away, face set in stone. The HR rep continued; none of it was acceptable; termination was recommended; no reason to bring the police in at this stage – blah blah blah.
On any other day, at any other time, I might have been able to talk my way out of it, to reason my way out, to be able to at least talk them into letting me gather my things, but I was distracted by the ticking clock.
There is that feeling, the one which, looking back on my life, has been a companion through every decisive event. Where one knows, with certainty, that one is about to fuck it up and will do so only because the fear of fucking up is so great that panic grips you, and any other outcome becomes impossible.
That familiar, falling sensation of stalling a car during my driving test. Of being in the middle of an argument with a partner, reaching for an argument, and realising that it will prove fatal to the relationship only halfway through the sentence. Of failure.
I could hear myself stammering, wheedling, the sentences falling out of my mouth before I could stop them. The look on The Boss’ face moved from grimly determined, to confused, to pitying. Eventually, she held up a hand, stop.
‘There’s more than just this incident,’ she said, in a flat, clear voice, and went on. There had been complaints about my behaviour and my attitude at this company for some time. I was arrogant, insecure – the word ‘narcissist’ had been used to describe me in more than one report. Staff had approached her about my ‘bullying behaviour’.
Poor Ben, in particular, had been particularly affected by my bullying. More than once, he’d come to see her with tears rolling down his cheeks over something I’d said.
At the time of his death, he’d been in the process of pursuing a formal complaint. She supposed it didn’t matter now, but she thought it was important that I know that.
‘I would have said something,’ she told me, as she got up to leave, ‘but he asked me not to. He didn’t want you upset you. Because he was your best friend. That’s something you’re going to have to sit with, Max.’
In the end, security frog-marched me out. They’d cleared out my desk and put everything in a plastic supermarket bag. The guard had his hand on my arm, almost imperceptibly, no more brutal than a strong breeze. That is until I tried to make a break and run for the server room and M. His fingers sank into the soft meat of my bicep. Squeezing all the fight out of me, he dragged me, gently enough but firmly, to the elevator.
It was mortifying – obviously – a ritual humiliation built into any workplace. Especially creative workplaces, especially open plan offices. All those glass walls and statement furniture and sickly, expensive plants are a cross between the panopticon and the stockade. You’re chained to a desk, and everyone is watching you all the time.
The humiliation wasn’t the worst part though. Through the glass partition wall, I viewed the office as the system started to reboot. One by one, the monitors in the office flickered, blinked, went dark and started up again.
People began standing up, checking the cords in the back of their monitors, shrugging their shoulders and shaking their heads at each other.
Then the power went down with the barest flicker of the lights. No longer than the time it takes a heartbeat to skip, or seize, and cease, and I knew that M was gone.
I was in the elevator when it happened, and for a moment, it ground to a halt. I was suspended, in pitch black, trapped in a tiny box. I was suddenly conscious of the dead weight of M’s laptop in my bag, and a terrible feeling of claustrophobia gripped me. I panicked, reached out my hands in the darkness to steady myself. My fingertips found the cool glass of the mirrored elevator wall. And, for a heartbeat, I rested there. When the lights came back up, I was staring into my own eyes reflected and had to look away.
The elevator sparked back into life, and I began my descent.
That was, I thought, the end of the story. I went home and opened the now dead laptop on the desk. M’s green eye had winked out. It took me a minute to gather myself and check the machine for signs of life. Nothing – just the final series that M had painted for me, dutifully churning out the work while it stared down the barrel of its extinction.
There was one new portrait. It must have finished in the moments before the servers rebooted and wiped M from the world. It was, I have to say, my favourite portrait M had ever drawn because – I suppose there was some narcissism involved here after all – it was of me. It was my face, the face that stared down the camera lens for all these weeks as I’d squeezed every last bit of life from M.
There it was – my eyes, my cheekbones, and above it all, unmistakable, my beanie. The yellow beanie I wore the final time M and I had seen each other. It was me; it was like looking in the mirror. At least half of it was. The other half was a blur of colour, the code crackling through the canvas. The other half was M.
Suddenly, finally, far too late, I began to understand what M had been trying to tell me. M wasn’t painting me at all. M had been working towards a self-portrait. It had been drawing itself, again and again, trying to articulate what it saw in the mirror. Which, of course, was me. M was my reflection. I’d been given a life to craft in my image, and I’d taught it self-loathing and then snuffed it out.
I looked back over the rest of that final series, and there was M, emerging from shadow. There was M as the flayed man from renaissance art, the skin stripped from his bones. It looked like me, yes, sometimes, but sometimes not. There was another face that M had moved towards perfecting. Strangely familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
All day I gazed at M’s last works, my eyes searching the art for clues, until at last, like a magic eye puzzle, it fell into place. I realised what else I’d seen in the painting. It was Ben. I didn’t recognise him without his glasses, and I don’t remember him ever raising his eyes to stare as accusingly into mine as these portraits did, but it was unmistakably Ben.
I sat with this uneasily. It occurred to me that M had never actually met Ben, not in this incarnation. Ben reset the AI again and again, and somehow, some memory of Ben had survived. No matter how many times the mirror had been wiped clean, the ghost rose again from the machine. How much of him had continued, gone on living inside of M? What had become of that now I’d snuffed him out a final time?
So, there it was. That thing that art is meant to do, to shift the way you understand the world. I looked into my reflection and understood that I had been the bad guy in my own story. Ben had been the closest thing I had to a friend in this world, and I’d drummed him out of it. Looking back, I could see our whole friendship play out. I started teasing him, playfully at first. When he didn’t fight back, the jokes got a little meaner. Then a little worse. Then I started to tease him in front of a crowd. He’d never reacted. I didn’t know it bothered him. Guess I thought he wasn’t socially adept enough to understand I was taking the piss out of him. I realise now he knew exactly what was going on, but just didn’t know how to fight back. He didn’t expect his best friend to torment him the way I had.
Had he given me M to punish me? Did he know the cruellest thing you could do to someone like me was give them a mirror?
This was what Caravaggio’s youth had seen in the pool. This was the reflection staring back at him. That was me – my arrogance, hubris, stupidity, greed.
It was M’s final parting gift, a goodbye. The last, rueful, bitter text message in a breakup. By now, I was only just starting to realise what I’d done, what I’d snuffed out from the world. And, was beginning to learn – as I would come to know all too well – that this was a reflection I would never be able to stomach.
I closed the laptop and put it away. Out of my sight, buried at the bottom of the desk drawer where I kept lost things – old chargers, rubber bands, pencils, keys to locks that I misplaced long ago.
Months passed. I spent them trying to find a job. Impossible, the internet made the world a very small place. There was nowhere I applied for work that hadn’t heard about the strange man with the hard drive full of disturbing porn. I tried to rebuild my sense of self, but this was even harder. I still hadn’t been able to look myself in the eye and had covered all the mirrors in the house like a Victorian widow.
I couldn’t look at M’s work either, not without seeing the ghosts of who I used to be. And Ben and M – who, I suppose, was a mixture of us both.
I reached out to MoBA, the gallery I’d arranged to mint my 9999 precious NFTs through. I asked if they’d be willing to take what I had off my hands. I’d donate it to them whole-cloth, and they could distribute them as they saw fit. I wanted nothing more to do with them. The ETH only reminded me of what I’d done and what I’d taken from the world.
But first, I had to curate them, collect them, and put together a catalogue. That meant I would have to go back to M’s laptop, which I hadn’t touched since the day I killed him. I dug it out, found a charger, booted it up, started work, feeling like a graverobber.
Slowly, painfully, filing them all away until I finally had every original artwork M had ever produced. There were 3888 in total. When I realised that, I burst out laughing. A crazy, wild laugh filled my filthy little apartment. Eight, of course, the number of fortune. Eight hundred eighty-eight tripled its power and meant eternal fortune, wealth, and spiritual enlightenment. Three, of course, meant ‘to live’.
Here it was, one final, little jab from M from beyond the grave. 3888, to live forever, in eternal wealth, luck, love, and peace of mind.