In 1946 the Marcel Duchamp collection is moved into the Philadelphia of Art, with the help of negotiations between Walter Arensberg and Kimball Fiske, the museum’s director.
In 1947, according to their agreement, a secret area is built beneath the museum, to allow Duchamp to use it as a live-work studio. Duchamp begins work on his final piece. A young Richard Corless (later the Priest) starts working as Fiske’s personal assistant.
After Fiske dies, in 1955, Corless finds a key, which he uses to gain entry into the secret area. There is finds Duchamp in his underground studio, apparently waiting for him. Duchamp takes him on as his assistant, but never shows him what’s in the room. Corless is loyal to him to the end.
In 1968, after Duchamp dies, Corless takes the key from Duchamp’s body, the one he knows opens the door he’s never been allowed into, and finds Duchamp’s last work. While Corless oversees the installation of Étant donnés, according to Duchamp’s instructions, he begins trying to decipher Duchamp’s true last work.
Corless spends the next 30 years pouring though Duchamp’s notes, wading into quantum physics and alchemy texts, trying to unlock it. The closer her gets and the more he thinks he knows, and the less he knows he knows. But he becomes more and more sure that it is meant to reveal something huge. Something consciousness changing on a global level. But Corless is getting old, and time is running out.
In Duchamp’s journals Corless discovers a more human side to Duchamp, in which he describes his lost (and ultimately unrequited) love, Áille Trivette. Much of his later work (and almost all of Étant donnés) references her, if only obliquely. There are several pictures of her, as well as an indication that Duchamp went looking for her after the war, but that she had disappeared. Corless becomes convinced that not only is she the woman in Étant donnés (the real mannequin in the sculpture is headless, but Corless finds a plaster cast of Áille’s face that was originally supposed to go there (Duchamp left it out as a kind of very private joke to himself, playing on the ideas of loss and invisibility)), but she is also the model of The Bride from The Large Glass (which of course is the blueprint for the machine that Corless is attempting to get running).
In 1998 Corless begins looking for people he can recruit, people who will recognize the magnitude of the discovery. They include physicists, engineers, chemists, and artists.
By 2001 he has the core group on nine. They become enthusiastic about reenacting early 20th century avant-garde happenings and performances. Here they hit upon taking on the roles of the Nine Bachelors.
By 2004 they realize they need more money to be able to afford their research and to perform the kinds of tests they need to do. Josef Meinhoff (the Station Master) starts manufacturing drugs. Initially it’s meth, common psychedelics, MDMA, etc. They’ve already set up a kind of party/rave network around their performances, so they have a built-in customer base. Money starts coming in. A lot of money. Lajos Bakó (the Undertaker) uses it to buy and renovate a derelict Atlas IV missile silo, where the group starts throwing parties and raves. The Priest is against this new direction, but he also knows that they do need the money if they want to continue their research.
In 2005 an explosion in the lab (the rooms beneath the PMA) kills the original Busboy and takes out The Priest’s legs. The Priest stays there, keeping up with his research, while the rest of the operation (drug lab included) moves to the silo.
2005-07: The Undertaker further renovates the silo, including a kitchen, a dedicated costume room and a space for S.A. events, a dorm for kids to sleep off the drugs and to house the long-term residents, a room for himself, a circle of nine small rooms, one for each central S.A. member. (The Undertaker has his own room, but wants it free of anything modern, so he keeps a wedge-room as an office with a computer.) There’s also a maintenance room and the drug lab beneath that.
Kyle Giannetti (the new Busboy) is recruited. He’s a very bright computer science student and quickly becomes an acolyte of the Priest, who asks him to keep an eye on the Undertaker.
The Station Master begins focusing on certain “consciousness-expanding” drugs and moving away from others. He engineers a new psychedelic drug that makes LSD look like pretty good hashish. But there are a few early casualties. One of them is Jonathan Morrow, the Flunky. The drug doesn’t obliterate his consciousness, but it does make him into something of a hulking simpleton.
2008: The Station Master perfects the drug, and everything is running smoothly (the drug takes on the street name of “Thrumm,” due to the intense vibrations within the user, as though one syncs with the vibrations of the universe. But then one batch goes horribly awry, and everyone who takes it turns into a large-eyed, mindless vegetable, incredibly open to suggestion.
The S.A. tries to contain it, and keeps the eight or so kids holed up in an abandoned building (what will become the Crystal Castle). But some doses of the drug make it out, and there were some “Thrumm kids” who just appear, wandering the streets. They are either taken home for their parents to care for them or taken to public facilities to care for them. A few fall into the hands of pimps.
Meanwhile, the Station Master has perfected the Thrumm manufacturing process, and can now make either batch—the kind that leaves the user intact and the kind that hollows out their consciousness. A Thrumm kid. Willing to follow simple commands and perform any order given. He realizes the money-earning potential of this kind of human slavery, and starts the Crystal Castle on the side, recruiting kids from the streets, kids who wouldn’t be missed, and turning them into Thrumms.
While both the Priest and the Undertaker proclaim that they see the decoding of MD’s final work as a way toward an expansion of human consciousness, each has a personal agenda: The Priest sees in it a means toward immortality, while the Undertaker sees it as a means toward wealth and power.
An unspoken schism is beginning within the S.A. On one side is the Priest, the Delivery Boy (Tomi) and the Flunky. The believe that the Busboy is with them as well, but he has been spying for the Undertaker this whole time. The Undertaker, the Station Master, the Gendarme, the Cavalryman, the Policeman, the Busboy make up the other side.
2010: Lee is spotted in a café by the Gendarme, who sees in her a perfect doppelgänger for Áille Trivette. He gives her a flier, in hopes that she will come to the silo. Just in case, he also follows her home. Lee doesn’t come to the S.A. event, so the Priest has the Flunky follow her to get her picture and confirm the resemblance.
Meanwhile, they keep tabs on Lee and begin collecting as much information as they can. But then Lee is busted and goes into the JDC. They can’t do much, but they do pay Maria to keep an eye on her.
In August 2011 Lee escapes. The S.A. get wind of it and track her through the city, until they can funnel her to the Crystal Castle. Once at the CC, the Station Master tries to cultivate her as part of their group. He has no intention of turning her into a Thrumm kid. (The S.A. believe she is significant to their project, they just don’t understand how, yet.)
Meanwhile, the Priest has used Duchamp’s unsolvable chess problem to point to the lacunae in With Hidden Noise, which makes him realize that this is where the key is. He assigns The Busboy to go and steal it from the PMA, but instead of returning it to the Priest, he takes it to the Station Master instead. The schism within the S.A. widens.
When Lee leaves the CC, almost inadvertently stealing With Hidden Noise in the process, the Priest sees this as a merging of the two final pieces of Duchamp’s last work (Lee and whatever is inside WHN), and he sets out to find her. Meanwhile the Undertaker also wants to find her and bring back WHN.
Lee has disappeared at this point, and no one can find her. So the Undertaker has the Busboy make the Edie Missing fliers to try and lure Lee to the Silo. It works, but the Priest catches wind of it and sends Tomi to intercept and protect her. This opens the schism wide open.
While Tomi keeps Lee close for the Priest, (who also wants Tomi to get WHN from her but is afraid that just bringing her to him might spook her), the Undertaker uses Derrick to spy on her and Tomi. On his own volition, Derrick tries to turn her against Tomi by planting a message for her outside the window, but it backfires because she runs away and disappears. Still, Derrick follows her as far as the pier, where he sees her commandeer a motorboat and head out toward Petty Island. He reports this back to the Undertaker, who sends the Policeman out there to plant the photo of Áille Trivette, along with Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise cryptogram. The idea is to give Lee an idea of her connection to this long-dead woman, to let her know of the metaphysical forces at work here, that there are things at work much bigger than she is. Essentially, to make her feel important, connected, but small at the same time. To have her come seek out answers from someone who understands. But it just spooks Lee and she leaves the island and disappears.
The Priest has for years been convinced that if the Unified Field Theory can be solved (through Duchamp’s last work), the quantum leaps in computing power unleashed by this discovery will allow him immortality by allowing him to cryogenically freeze himself and then create an exact neural simulation of his brain, which he can transfer to a young, living host. He’s come to believe that the significance of Lee’s looking like Áille is that she will be his host. It will be a perfect marriage—scientific, alchemical, celestial—perfectly destined.
So when Lee disappears the Priest is stricken. Tomi doesn’t know where she’s gone to, either, but he uses his contacts within the Subnet to track her down through her computer usage and locate her at the Orbisons. She has to flee there as well, but he’s there to follow her. When she goes to the derelict hotel, he knows she’s too exposed and goes to see her there.
He convinces Lee he’s found her by chance and that the best thing to do to stay underground is to squat suburban homes. He settles her down in one and leaves to confront Derrick, who Tomi has figured out was the one who left Lee the note. They have a falling out and Tomi moves out. He returns to the squatted house to find Lee has gone, but he knows the places on Lee’s list and eventually tracks her down again. He keeps an eye on her from a distance as she moves from squatted home to squatted home.
But on the Priest’s urging, he plants the Three Standard Stoppages strings in her current squat as a way to spook Lee and drive her back to him. It works. He convinces Lee to return With Hidden Noise, but once back in the room beneath the PMA he starts to piece things together that make him no longer trust the Priest’s intentions toward her. Tomi vows to protect her himself.
He’s fallen in love with her, and his allegiance has shifted. Tomi has become dedicated to her, and is intent on figuring out (with her) everything that’s been going on. (Only the Priest, the Undertaker, and the Station Master have full knowledge of all the working pieces). He takes her underground with him. It’s November.
The Undertaker realizes he’s lost her, but also that she’s with Tomi, so to flush her out he personally murders Derrick (who unwisely tried to blackmail him with what he knows), plants her pregnancy stick on him, and emails her (via Tomi) a vine of it. When she goes to retrieve the stick, the Undertaker has a half dozen different Crystal Castle kids planted outside Derrick’s apartment there to follow Lee to Mr. V’s.
By the time they get to Mr. V, he has already hidden With Hidden Noise, and won’t give up where. Mr. V doesn’t take well to threats and tries to grab the Undertaker around the neck, but the Undertaker has a knife and stabs him in the heart. He and the Policeman ransack the storage room but find nothing. Desperate, he emails Tomi again to try to get them to bring WHN and end it. He goes to the aquarium to wait. The Undertaker murders Tomi at the aquarium, but takes a bullet in the arm. Wounded, and with Lee firing at him, he leaves.
The S.A. loses track of Lee again, until out of the blue the Busboy (DreamClown) sees her log in (as Tomi) to the Subnet. Another Subnetter, Teutonik23, has also seen Tomi log in and out of curiosity comes on as well. This is inconvenient, but manageable. The Undertaker has DreamClown cultivate an online friendship with Lee. Meanwhile, they track Annie and get an S.A. flier to her, hoping she’ll come to their new year’s party and Lee will follow. It works and DreamClown agrees to help Lee get the silo to rescue Annie.
Once there, the Undertaker has Xenia dose Lee with the benign version of Thrumm, in hopes that it will open her to the knowledge of who she is and her role in all of it. But when Lee attacks him, he loses it and decides that once he was the key (the Calabi-yau space from inside WHN) he has to just kill her.
Meanwhile, the Priest has sent out the Flunky to try and find Lee (by following the Busboy). The Busboy, after planting the gun (with blanks) and trackable phone in the library, sees the Flunky following and confronts him. They have a brief struggle and the Flunky breaks his neck and brings his body back to the Priest.
When Lee shows up to the Priest’s rooms, after killing the Undertaker, the Priest is surprised but delighted that she’s come to him. To him, it is just more proof of their destiny to be ‘married.’ He’s got the key now, and only has to run the machine. Lee was meant to be there, by his side, while he does.
But sometimes destiny has other things in store for us.