The Auspicious Hour
by John K. Peck

The knife cuts through the hand just below the wrist. The audience gasps, then applauds. 

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Ninety minutes later, the overhead lights are faded most of the way down, with a few left on high to keep any stragglers from losing their footing on the multilevel soundstage. The set and its surroundings have a strange smell, a mix of wood glue, sawdust, and sugar. It’s like no other set he’s ever been on, and he pauses for a few seconds to inhale through his nose and hold his breath.

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Unless it’s pitch black or raining hard, he generally tries to take the path through the park on his way to and from work. It makes his walk slightly longer, but he figures the fresh air and extra steps make up for it. People walk dogs, jog, play with their children. A few older people sit on the benches on either side of the main path, feeding the pigeons or just watching the younger folks go by. 

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They usually guess right, and have even started getting smarter about it, choosing what would have previously been the no way, no way! option. The producers respond by setting up meta-puzzles, where all the things are edible rather than just half of them or one of them. Most importantly, they keep bringing in advertising revenues week after week, and already have solid offers from the major streaming services.

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His producer, a tall, attractive woman with long blond hair and a broad, toothy smile, sidles up to him after the show and grabs his upper arm in her hand. She’s effusive: they loved it. You’re so natural. She doesn’t move her hand, instead adjusting her grip and occasionally rubbing his arm as she talks. Everything about her looks rich: rich hair, rich shirt and shoes, rich skin. She smiles broadly at him: her teeth are perfect, apart from a slightly pronounced gap between the top center incisors. Let me buy you dinner, she says. I’m starving. He smiles at her and says sounds great, though he’s not hungry in the least.

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The Chinese Room experiment poses a scenario where text in a foreign language – here Chinese, though it could be any language real or imagined – is fed into a hermetically sealed room. An agent within the room runs the text through an automated process, producing a translation into English that is then sent back to the person outside. 

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This time of year, the park is full of birds: pigeons, of course, but also crows, magpies, a few seagulls. He approaches a group of pigeons gathered near the path, but they don’t scatter as he expects them to, and instead simply stare at him as he walks past. A teenage boy runs past on his way to catch a frisbee, and the pigeons scatter and fly away.

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He wakes up, not sure at first where he is, and looks around. Daylight glows behind expensive-looking curtains. The sheets feel expensive, perhaps satin. He turns to his left and sees her there, her expensive blond hair spilling off the pillow. Her eyes are closed, and though she appears to still be asleep, he can see the muscles of her jaw tensing and untensing behind her cheeks. 

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Several days later, after recording an episode, he goes to the Intimes to catch one of their free daytime movies. Today it’s a silent German Expressionist film, which seems like a perfect fit for his black-and-white-and-gray mood. He considers buying some popcorn, but finds the idea of eating repellent, and instead simply slips a five-dollar bill into the tip jar when the girl behind the counter has her back turned. Later, sitting at the center of the nearly-empty theater, he watches as the rabbi raises a wooden hammer over his head to shatter the clay form lying on the slab, only to be interrupted by a visit from the elders before he can finish the task.

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Knives cut through things they should not – logs, bowling balls, even a 500cc motorcycle engine – revealing the multicolored, striped layers within. The audience loves it, and the critics find it unassailable: it’s a show that exactly delineates the boundaries of what it promises to deliver, and claims nothing beyond them. 

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Her intimate talk begins to increase in intensity, albeit remaining on its ultimately conventional track: I want to taste you. Her mouth at his ear, hot breath against his neck. He’s not sure whether the phrase has aroused him or whether he’s simply noticing her own arousal at what she imagines he feels. Her mouth draws even closer: I want you inside me. She bites his earlobe as he watches a fly walk across the ceiling, zig-zagging in quick starts and stops.

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The season finale is three days away but everyone on set is talking about the writeup in that morning’s Times. The article is a standard page-bottom featurette, essentially a copy-paste from marketing. It’s the photo published with the article that has everyone talking: a close-up shot of a group of three women in their early twenties, one – with a particularly low-cut shirt – biting her lower lip as she looks over her shoulder. They’re on one of the pathways that runs through the park, and have turned their heads to look at someone standing about fifty feet away in the central meadow. At him. It’s clearly him, standing straight and still, arms at his side, looking skyward, mouth hanging open. Impossibly, a crow sits on his shoulder, clearly visible in the photo, looking intently at his neck as if about to peck at it. 

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The Chinese Room can be summed up thusly: if an inanimate object performs like an animate one, it can give a perfect impression of life without itself actually experiencing anything that could be called “life” – in fact, without “experiencing” anything at all.

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What the hell were you doing in the park? she asks, indignant. Three days away from pulling this off, my god, and you do that weird tabloid-bait shit. She throws her small clutch-purse onto his couch so hard it bounces off, then undoes the silk scarf tied around her neck and throws it toward the couch, though it falls short and lands on the rug. I don’t remember, he says, truthfully. When he first saw the photo accompanying the article, he assumed it was a prank, some sort of simulacrum of him. But looking at the picture, it’s clearly him.

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She’s been on his computer again, ostensibly checking her email, but there’s a tab open to an article on a site called Necro Answer. He clicks over to it. Vacbed, vivisection, vorarephilia. He scrolls through the articles, past increasingly repellent images. 

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It’s strange: he remembers having left the studio that day, and remembers arriving home, but nothing in between. One more day, she says, nearly crying, pulling off the last of her clothes before walking to him and planting her face against his neck. Just hang in there, kiddo. After a few moments, she becomes quiet, and he can feel her warm, naked body against his, hear her inhaling deeply, her nose pressed against his skin, just below his ear. 

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Birds no longer move out of his way at all, and in fact begin to approach him if he stands in one place too long. He begins specifically avoiding the park on his walk to work, instead sticking to the more populated sidewalks of the city.

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The season finale goes even better than anyone could have expected: laughter, shock, plenty of applause, and though most of it is cued via the light-up sign over the stage, it nonetheless feels genuine. Once the audience has filed out and the contestants have been shuffled away to receive their prizes and sign their NDAs, the crew gathers in a loose group around the central table. I was shocked by some of those last ones. There’s talk of drinks, a wrap party. Let’s eat first. Hearty laughter.

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Stargazing is a condition that occurs in snakes and other reptiles, where the animal juts its head upward and appears to be gazing at the sky. It is not an illness in itself, but rather an indication of some other secondary condition, which can include bacterial or viral infections, trauma, exposure to severe heat or cold, or some other unknown source.

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Laughter, yelling, the pop of a champagne cork. She’s sitting next to him, but gets up when a group arrives. Like her, they have rich clothes, rich coats and shoes, rich hair and teeth. She walks them over. So this is him, says an older man. Probably the higher-ups from the network; he hopes they’re just making a quick appearance and won’t stay too long. He catches a woman to his left, who he’s seen before – wardrobe? Set runner? – staring, and she immediately looks down at her feet, her cheeks flushed. He assumes it’s standard embarrassment, but then sees something unexpected: a tear hanging from one of her lashes, quivering, lacking the volume to fall to the floor. She wipes it away but doesn’t raise her eyes.

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The fundamental argument of the experiment is that, flawless as the translations may be, they are not an indication of any particular knowledge or consciousness on the part of the agent within. It is sometimes considered a counterargument to the Turing test, and can be summarized as: even a perfect simulacrum of consciousness is not consciousness. 

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The clink of bottles rises over the laughter. The producer is back at his side, one arm around his torso, both of them sitting on one of the high counters at the edge of the soundstage, their legs kicking as they swing back and forth. He looks up at the lights above, and lets his eyes unfocus as she leans in close, her lips to his ear, and says, I’m going to bite you, and this time, I’m not going to stop. 

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He thinks back to earlier in the day, when he turned a corner and a dog was standing in the center of the sidewalk, staring at him. It didn’t attack or growl, nor did it move out of the way; it simply stood and watched him as he continued on his way, opening its mouth and tilting its snout upwards to sniff the air as he passed.

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She leans back to regard him and smiles, eyes half-squinted from a combination of the overhead lights and the champagne. Then she puts both arms around his neck, and calls to the room: I promised you a party! A general cheer goes up, and she kisses him on the cheek before placing her mouth back by his ear. She continues speaking, in near-silent whispers meant only for him, and though he should recoil in fear or disgust, he instead simply tilts his head upward to stare at the lights over the soundstage.

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He sees the network executives, still there, smiling, smiling. One, an older man in a tailored black suit, smiles wider, showing his teeth, looking right at him. The man winks at him, almost conspiratorially, before turning back to the group.

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He recalls an intertitle from the film, sepia letters shaky against a black screen: The auspicious hour has come to – to what? After a few seconds it comes to him unbidden: to summon the dread spirit Astaroth, and compel him to reveal the magic word. 

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He waves his hand to shoo a fly away from his face, then lets his eyes unfocus as he stares at the bright lights above the stage. At the periphery of his vision, outside the strobing halo brought on from staring at the lights, he can faintly make out the girl from before, the set runner, staring at him with a pained expression on her face. He refocuses his gaze on the lights, feeling the producer’s body beside him, pressing against him, one hand wrapped around his upper arm, just like the first time she touched him. She leans in to whisper in his ear. He hears her soft, breathy voice mouthing syllables, the syllables that will coalesce into a word he does not know but knows he has heard once before, decades or perhaps just days ago. She pauses before the final syllable, then speaks it with a breathy whisper, quivering with excitement.

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All is darkness, profound and endless. He strains his ears to hear any hint of a sound, but the silence is total. He can still feel her hand on his arm, and soon it is joined by other hands, gripping, pulling, exploring. He feels a hand make its way up his chest, where it pauses just a moment before pushing through his ribcage. He feels it grasp his heart, or the place where his heart should be, and then he feels nothing.


John K. Peck is a Berlin-based writer, printer, and musician. His writing has appeared in Interzone, Salon, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Jubilat, Nerve.com, Last Exit, VOLT, SAND, and various anthologies, and he is the editor of Degraded Orbit, a website covering travel, abandoned places, architectural curiosities, and underground culture.

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