Shaking the Tree

by David Brookes


part 1 of 4

“Where the tree of knowledge stands is always paradise.” — That’s what the oldest and the youngest of serpents will tell you. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

LOUISE

The world went wrong a day ago, but their relationship has been broken for much longer than that.

He chooses now to do something about it. Stupid little creases under the corners of his mouth. Maybe he’ll cry. Eyes open and honest but distracted by the moving shapes on the other side of our carriage’s window.

She hates him for picking this moment, at the start of an air-shuttle journey on which they’re both trapped for two more hours. Stupid of him. Now that he’s said it, now that he’s ended things, he won’t look at her. The glances he can manage she avoids out of spite — let him feel that tightness in his chest, the worry that she might do something stupid. Like I care, Alex.

She cares. She cares enough to stand up and, silently, vacate the rattling pod. The door has closed behind her before she realises that her bag’s still up in the secure webbing above their seats, but she can’t go back now. She doesn’t want to look at him.

She hopes that he doesn’t follow her, check that she’s all right. But he Knows she doesn’t want that. I hope he leaves me alone forever. She hopes he Knows that as well.

The seat she chooses is lumpy and uncomfortable. The window vibrates against her forehead, forming a headache. The man opposite her winces in sympathetic pain, feeling it, his grimace reflected in the glass, the reflection marred by the refracted light of a hundred diagonal trickles of rainwater. Outside is grey. Did the world really go wrong only a day ago? she thinks.

Nobody knows what happened. They Know just about everything else. There are theories all over the news, of course, and the papers that morning were full of the most insane, unexpected headlines. Now that people don’t have to research or investigate anything, it is easier to get those headlines.

All we know is that everybody Knows everything, Louise thinks miserably. A day ago, simultaneously, every human mind ceased to exist as a single, isolated organ and became just a node in a vast web of knowledge, stretching across all cultures and languages, through all of history, like an online encyclopaedia waiting for the keyword that reveals all information on any given subject.

Everybody Knows everything now.

It only takes a look. No wonder Alex and I decided at the same time that it wasn’t going to work. That it was time to end things between them, for good. They thought of each other and then they had each other’s thoughts. She knew that his feelings for her had diluted to the weakest, most insipid kind of disaffection. He knew that she had trouble dedicating herself to a man who was as detached from them as their minds had been from the Knowledge.

Instantly he had seen the face of every other guy she’d been with, or looked at, or thought about. Instantly she had seen that he was angry at being betrayed — not, as it transpired, that their relationship was over.

They had slept on it, wondering like everybody else if it were only a weird mass hallucination, something in the water, or some bizarre genetic time-bomb that had gone off and confused everybody. Most, to begin with, thought they were going crazy or paranoid.

Then it was on the news. And in the papers, and on the stereos, all across the NewNet. The electronic billboards on every building displayed quasi-philosophical phrases like WE ARE ONE NOW and THE GRACE OF GOD IN THE MEETING OF MINDS. The smoggy streets were filled by the disoriented public, those who couldn’t handle the faster-than-light succession of images and thoughts streaming from those around them.

Every individual stood in the well of a black hole of information, with knowledge and Knowledge falling towards them. If you thought about a loved one, you touched not their minds but the information that had passed through their minds; their memories and the things they knew, all of which was stored in some vast structure somewhere, in or beneath space, waiting to be accessed by the awakened mind. It was overwhelming.

Alex’s parents called and told him that they desperately wanted to talk. He and Louise flew over immediately, landing in Michigan nearly two hours later, slightly dizzy from the high-speed air-shuttle. By the time they arrived, Alex already knew what his parents were going to tell him. He made Louise get back on the shuttle right away and took the return trip home. They never even spoke with Alex’s parents.

He’d chosen then to do it, to break up with her. Of course, she saw it coming. I Knew it was going to happen, and I don’t blame him. I can’t say I care much, either. There is too much going on in the world now, too much for people to understand or appreciate. Things are already falling apart. Everybody knows everything, requiring only direction and focus of thought. It is like subvocalising when you read.

She loses Alex somewhere in the manic furor during departure. Gripping her flight pass in one hand, the handle of her hold-all in the other, jostling with everybody else in an attempt to get out first. I don’t care if I never see him again.

ALEX

I Know that isn’t true. Louise might hate my apathy, my disinterest in her, but she doesn’t hate me. She knows that when it comes to the things we did rightly and wrongly in this relationship, that she has done the worst. Those other guys — how could we go on as before, me Knowing what I do now? Forget her.

Alex Knows that she’s already in a taxi, having checked out at the air-shuttle terminal and shuffled off as fast as she can manage. He doesn’t need that kind of hassle. Watch him let her go.

I guess we all have bigger things to worry about now than Boy Meets Girl, he thinks. Take my boss: he’d been fired for indiscretion and insider trading. Who told on him? Nobody. The Board just Knew all of a sudden, and he gets the golden handshake even though the Board doesn’t like it, but there’s no way around a contract. One minute he’s a fatcat from Brooklyn pulling a hundred K a year out of some sinecure, and the next he’s jobless and forced to spend the next forty years with a family he hates. Serves him right, I guess, and does me no harm, being next in line.

The Board had called while Alex was on the flight. The HR girl said she couldn’t tell him why the Board wanted to see him, but they both Knew what it was about and he could hear it in her voice, the sound of a smile. He is to get promoted, but the company has to go through the motions until they know for sure whether this... change... is permanent.

He’s just surprised the media hasn’t come up with a name for it yet.

He’ll need a suit. A decent one, this time, not the eighty-dollar jizz he settled for three years ago. This place — China’s — he’s never been in before. Should maybe go for Saville Row, if he’s gonna do this properly, but it looks fine enough to him: some bloke in a blue suit at the entrance, rows of people streaming in and out the glass doors off the sidewalk, and inside there’s polished floors and huge electric chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling. Opulence reflected in every chrome hanger. Suits me.

Straight away: ‘May I be of assistance, sir?’

Alex is barely inside. He opens his mouth to speak:

The assistant says, ‘A suit, sir’ — S’yoot, like some British fop — ‘and I agree, no pinstripe, sir, if I may. But I’m afraid we’ve no blue shirts in a sixteen-inch collar, sir, but perhaps a violet ensemble would be fitting. We have some striking items, if you’d be so kind...’

Alex lets the assistant pick out the exact suit Alex has in mind, a few shirts as close to Alex’s kind of blue as the store has, and two ties that near as dammit were hanging in Alex’s mind not two minutes ago. He’s at the counter in five minutes with everything that he came in for. These guys have caught on quickly, turning the world’s turmoil to their advantage, fixing a bit of the world that’s gone wrong.

The cashier hands Alex back his plastic. ‘I’m sorry, sir.’

Alex looks her in the eye. ‘What?’

‘It’s been declined, I’m afraid, sir. Might you have a second card?’

Slinging his coat over his arm, pulling out his wallet, all he can think is damn damn damn... He hands over his other credit card. The cashier swipes it, looks at the screen a little too long.

She hands the card back. ‘I’m sorry, sir.’

‘I have a debit card — just a minute.’

‘I’m reluctant to try another card, sir,’ she says, and she looks through Alex as though without plastic he is without substance, not even worth the energy it takes to focus her eyes.

In the street he feeds his debit card into the ATM and waits. Beside him a man is yelling into his visor’s mic: ‘What the hell do you mean, I’ve maxed my overdraft? I got paid last week!’

The rain clouds have blown over the city, but the wind that pushes them is cold and laden with leaves and litter. Alex pulls up the collar on his coat; the ATM rejects his card, sticking it out of the slot like the rigid tongue of a stone fetish.

‘Last week, you hear me? Who has my account details? You find them and stop them! Are you listening? Stop them taking my money!’


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by David Brookes

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