My Mind On the Screen
The death of a suspect in custody,” says Inspector Neith of the Witness, “is a very serious matter. There is no one at the Witness Programme who does not feel a sense of personal failure this morning.”
She is looking straight into the camera and her sincerity is palpable. A dozen different mood assessment softwares examine the muscles around her mouth and eyes. Her microexpressions verify her words. As a matter of course, the more sophisticated algorithms check for the telltale marks of Botox and of bioelectric stimulators that might allow her to fake that painful honesty, but no one really expects to find anything, and no one does.
Polling data streams across the screen: 89 per cent believe the Witness was not at fault. Of the remainder of the population, the overwhelming majority believes that any culpability will turn out to be negligent rather than designed. Neith’s own figures are even better: she has been called in to investigate the matter precisely because her personal probity is the highest ever measured. All but the most corrosively paranoid of the focus groups accept her good faith.
It is a very good showing, even granting that the Witness has consistently high approval anyway. All the same, the discussion of Diana Hunter continues in the Public Sphere—as it should—until it is eclipsed by the next of the killings.
Ninety minutes before, Mielikki Neith stares into her morning mirror, feeling the vertiginous uncertainty that sometimes comes with viewing one’s own image, the inability to understand the meaning of her reflected face. She repeats her name, quite softly but with growing emphasis, hearing the noise and yet unable to connect it with the self she feels. Not that she is anyone else: not that any other collection of syllables or features would be better. It is the intermediation of physicality and naming, of being represented in biology or language,that doesn’t sit with her in this disconnected instant. She knows it is simply a lingering trace of the dream state, but that does not alter herconviction—inappropriatelycellular, felt in blood and bone—that something is wrong.
She is correct. In a few moments she will start work, and the day will set her inevitably on the path to the involuted Alkahest. She is just hours from her first meeting with weird, cartilaginous Lönnrot, just over a week from her loss of faith in everything she has believed in her life. As she steps out of her slippers and begins to wash, finding in the animal business of grooming the growing understanding of her body and its place in the process that is her, she is stepping not only on to the cracked white shower tray but also on to that road, the one that conducts her without let or hindrance to a point of crisis: to endings andapocatastasis. She apprehends this now with knowledge she has, from her limited vantage point inside the flow of events, not yet gleaned—but that knowledge is so significant that its echo reaches her even here, gathered in the slipstream of the Chamber of Isis and the most complex and saintly murder in the history of crime. Neith’s consciousness is etiolated this morning because it touches itself irregularly along its own extension in time, a contact that makes her almost—but, crucially, not quite—prescient. Instead of foresight, the Inspector gets a migraine, and in that small difference she sets her feet on the pattern that must eventually lead her to all the things I have already mentioned, but most fatefully—fatally—to me.
***I can see my mind on the screen
The Inspector awoke this morning, as she does almost every day, to the sound of technological obsolescence. Her residence, provided by the System to employees of her grade, is an airy one-bedroom flat in a period building in Piccadilly Circus. The ancient neon light directly outside her window is faulty and makes a noise when it switches on: the death rattle of twentieth-century advertising. She has complained about it, but does not anticipate any change in her circumstance. Machines these days are somewhat perfected; a visible glitch in a high profile space such as this has been found to project a reassuring fallibility and evoke a sense of well being which endures for several days. It conveys the continuing humanness of a nation under digitally mediated governance. The figures are unambiguous.
She listens now, in the quiet aftermath of her public statements, to the hum of the light at full function. When she goes close to the window, she is sure she can feel the hairs on her arms plucked by a static charge, but knows this for a psychosomatic illusion. She turns back to her desk, palms to forehead, then cheeks, and down the line of the nose. Broadcast lights make her eyes itch in their sockets.
Here, then, is her new case, MNEITH-GNOMON-10559. The name looks like nonsense until you know the framework into which it fits. Framing is everything, in filing as in investigative work. First of all, the label acknowledges that it is her case by logging it under her name. The actual ID number is the last part, “10559,” but human beings give things names rather than numbers and this way the Witness can control what that name is, avoiding the inadvertent compromise of operations. The specific term, in this case “GNOMON,” is randomly assigned from a list. “THE HUNTER CASE” would be less cumbersome, but there might be another case involving another Hunter, and it would not be appropriate to conflate them. “GNOMON” is there to avoid any kind of confusion: an incontrovertible statement of identity. Beyond that, it apparently means an early geometer’s tool for marking right angles, a set square made of metal. By extension it means something perpendicular to everything else, such as the upright part of a sundial. She finds the name itchily à propos, a handful of sand in her cognitive shoe. The Hunter case does stick out. She said that in the interview earlier, but only the channel known as TLDR is actually hosting the whole segment and so far no one has accessed the file. TLDR is basically an archive, paid for by donations from high net worth individuals who believe in archiving.
She reviews the case preamble: Hunter, awake and obdurate, a cranky old lady with round cheeks and a bad attitude that must have been fashionable when she was in her twenties.
“Do you wish at this time to undergo a verbal interview which may obviate the need for a direct investigation?”
“I do not.”
“Do you wish at this time to make a statement?”
“I’ll state that I do not submit to this voluntarily. I consider it a baseless intrusion, and very rude.”
“We are committed to affording you the maximum of dignity and care during your time with us. All staff will treat you with the utmost courtesy within the boundaries of their assigned tasks.”
She sighs. “Then please record that I am a woman in the prime of life, whose powers are severely limited by authorities perishing with thirst, and now demanding that I make a gift to them of the waters of memory.”
“Noted,” the technician says, bland in the face of unexpected poetry.The Inspector can hear something in his voice, a mild frustration with this uppity biddy whose interrogation will surely yield nothing more than the misanthropy of the hermetic old.
“Yes, indeed,” Hunter agrees. “Everything is.”
The medical staff come in then, and Hunter goes limp and makes them lift her on to the gurney: old-fashioned passive resistance, pointlessly antagonistic. Once, she screams, and they almost drop her. That makes the restraint team visibly unhappy, and she laughs at them. Her teeth are very white against her skin.
Finally they get her into the chair and the needle goes into the back of her hand. Hunter scowls, then settles back as if getting comfortable for a very boring and time-consuming argument she has determined she must have.
The Inspector touches the terminals, jolts as the dead woman’s mind settles over her own: Diana Hunter, deceased. What is the flavour of her life? Sixty-one years of age, divorced, no children. Educated at Madrigal Academy and then Bristol University. By profession an administrator, and then later a writer of obscurantist magical realist novels, she was apparently once celebrated, then reclusive, then forgotten. Most successful book: The Mad Cartographer’s Garden, in which the reader is invited to untangle not only the puzzle that confronts the protagonists but also a separate one allegedly hidden in the text like a sort of enormous crossword clue; most famous arguably the last, titled Quaerendo Invenietis
, which received only a very limited publication and became an urban legend of sorts, with the usual associated curiosities. Quaerendo
contains secret truths that are downright dangerous to the mind, or an actual working spell, or the soul of an angel, or Hunter’s own, and the act of reading it in the right place at the right time will bring about the end of the world, or possibly the beginning, or will unleash ancient gods from their prison. First year university students in the humanities pore over the accessible fragments and consider they are touching some fatal cosmic revelation. Copies of the book, of which only one hundred were printed, are now almost impossibly expensive, and Hunter somehow contrived to extract from each purchaser a commitment not to scan any part of what they had, with the result that even now there is no online edition, and indeed no verifiable text at all.
It all added up to a remarkable frenzy of excitement and localised notoriety, then went quiet when the book, read by various people in various times and places, failed to end the onward march of time or drive anyone mad. In other words, the Inspector is inclined to believe, Hunter was a purveyor of educated and ultimately meaningless literary flim flam who got bored of the joke and retired. Since then, her only contribution to the body of English literature has been a series of rambling and condemnatory letters to the local paper. If she was, in fact, a dangerous terrorist, her cover was as fully realised and performed as any in the long and unglamorous history of subversion. More likely she was the lonely algorithmic victim of a perfect storm—and yet despite its improbability, the notion that she may somehow have been more than she appeared is ineradicable.
Neith begins again.I can see my mind on the screen
Hunter’s first thought during the examination is like the barb on a fishhook, and Neith instinctively loathes it. These eight unremarkable words cause her to tighten her jaw as if expecting a blow. The phrase is, to be sure, unusually clear and strong, quite ready to be vocalised. One must assume that Hunter was deliberately recording a message, in which case: to whom? To Neith, as the investigating officer? Or to an imagined historian? Why does the tone, the clean, discursive flavour of Hunter’s mind, trouble that part of the Inspector that is devoted to a professional mistrust of appearances?
Copyright © 2018 by Nick Harkaway. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.