State Of Unknowing
He regards me through his fine, silver framed glasses with a look of absolute neutrality. He makes no attempt to speak. It disarms me.
"It’s just... I’ve gotten used to a more hostile reception."
I reach for my drink and I’m almost reluctant to touch it. The glass, the pitcher, everything is too perfect. Almost unnaturally clean. Not even a fingerprint from the hand that deposited it. I take a sip and steady myself for a more measured approach.
"I mean, that is why there’s no audience for this correct? And I’m certain your studio isn’t usually located in... Well, in here."
He takes a quick look around the studio. It is an exact replica of his usual workplace, identical in every aspect but location. He adjusts his tie minutely, correcting an imperceptible flaw in it’s symmetry and, in a calm, measured voice, he speaks.
"It is fair to say your presence arouses passions within some people Professor Myers, but I have no interest in eliciting a scandal. What concerns me are the facts, and, for all the commotion your discovery has caused, the facts, it seems, are few and far between."
"That’s because the facts are inconvenient."
"Then this your opportunity to set the record straight. Let’s start with the expedition. Can you give us an explanation of your field and what brought you to the Antarctic?"
I take a final look at the unmanned camera and steel myself for what's to come. Here it is. People are listening.
"I’m an associate professor at UCL and I study the climate and man’s effect on it. Much like yourself I have no interest in being an alarmist. I am interested in facts."
"What was the purpose of that particular expedition?"
"The Antarctic glaciers offer us a unique opportunity to look at the Earth’s past. By drilling down into the ice and extracting the cores we can obtain samples that contain tiny bubbles of atmosphere from as many as 800,000 years ago. By analysing these we can look at the exact makeup of the Earth’s atmosphere from way before mankind became a factor."
"And it was within one of these cores that you made the discovery?"
"That’s right. I had the privilege of working on a brand new rig. A truly staggering piece of machinery capable of drilling at a larger bore and a greater depth than ever before. We were pulling cores dating back almost a million years, almost three miles in depth. It was an exciting thing to be a part of."
"Did you find it in the first core?"
"No. We had pulled 7 prior to that point. It was in core number 8, almost at the very bottom."
"And what did you find?"
I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. There’s no point in skirting around the absurdity of it.
"A red, electric kettle, manufactured by Delonghi with a European plug. It has a product number but it doesn’t match anything on record, and Delonghi themselves don’t recognise the model."
"And how would you describe it? How old would you estimate it to be?"
"Contemporary. It looked modern. It’s been examined pretty carefully and, as far as we can tell, you could plug it in right now and it would work just fine."
His face remains placid. He coughs gently to clear his throat.
"So you claim to have discovered a contemporary, electric kettle in the heart of a million year old glacier?"
I feel the urge to get defensive at this. It's usually at this point in the conversation that people have a tendency to devolve into hysterical disbelief. My suitability as an educator would be called into question, as would my general character. One interviewer had told me, live on daytime television, to 'fuck off'. Things had changed now though, and this interview was different.
"That is correct."
For the first time I see his guard slip, just a fraction, and he sits forward in his chair.
"You can see how that would be hard to believe?"
"Of course I can. It’s impossible."
"But still you maintain-"
"That’s the inconvenient part. Just because it’s impossible, it doesn’t change the fact that it happened."
"And how do you prove that?"
I sigh deeply. It had been a long road to get this far.
"At first I was just grasping for anything that would prove I wasn’t a liar. I had seen the thing pulled out of the Earth, I didn’t have the luxury of disbelief. I wanted answers as much as anybody, but who could take the questions seriously? I thought I could defend myself by pointing out the unknown model of the kettle. Nobody had ever seen one before, where could I have possibly gotten it from? Of course that just made it look like I had gone to extreme lengths to fabricate it."
"So what did you do?"
"After I was suspended from UCL I was forced to smuggle the kettle out of the labs. I knew that this seemingly innocuous object might be the most important artefact ever discovered, and the likelihood was that they would throw it in a skip. I contacted hundreds of academic institutions and laboratories, anybody with the equipment to try to date this thing. It was well over a year before I had a positive response. I don’t know whether it was out of pity or if they were just sick of the hassle."
"And the result?"
"Hah. They wouldn’t tell me. They handed it back and said that they didn’t want to have anything to do with it."
he leans forward with his elbows on his knees. His tie sits an inch to the left.
"What did you do?"
"Actually it seemed to help. When I told people about their evasive behaviour I think it piqued their curiosity. Soon I had a handful of offers. I was feeling pretty frantic by then. I didn’t know what the result would be either and I needed answers more than anyone. It had cost me too much to let it be."
"My job. Maybe my family. They didn’t believe me either, didn’t like what it did to me. The worse thing is that I can’t even blame them. It was the rational response. All they could see was the hurt that my ‘lie' had caused them. That I had caused them. Now? I don’t know where we are now."
I see the pity in his eyes, and I feel the emotion well up inside of me. I fight the urge to cry. Not for my pain, not for my loss. I want to cry because for the first time I can see he believes me. This is why I'm here. He's done his research. He asks softly:
"So, what did you find?"
"It was 980,000 years old. Confirmed. Confirmed again and again. A lot of these places, these institutions, they didn’t know how to say it at first you know? They were feeling what I felt. Staring impossibility right in the face."
He pauses for an eternity before falling back into his chair. He removes the silver glasses and places them into his jacket pocket.
"Can you pinpoint the moment when this first entered the public consciousness?"
"I honestly don’t know... The first time I heard of it outside of an academic context was Brampton."
"Can you explain to us what happened there?"
"A group of people, 12 of them I think. They had caught wind of it somewhere. They had been cultivating this idea that life was some kind of simulation, an artificial fabrication, and to them the kettle was proof of that. An impossible object that could only be explained by a glitch.”
The memory makes me feel numb.
“Anyway, it was a suicide pact. They thought they could wake up from it all. Hell, I don’t know, maybe they did."
"That’s when it hit the news?"
"Yeah, in a big way... a very big way. You know the fallout. More suicides, a riot in Bordeaux, endless public meltdowns... just... just the understandable response of billions of people grasping the magnitude of the impossible and trying anything to reason with it. Aliens, magic, a trick of the Devil, a test from God, time travel, conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory. It's the Government trying to distract us. It's a shady cabal of scientists trying to secure the funding jackpot. It's a marketing ploy by Big Kettle. Hell, the thing itself is basically locked in Fort Knox right know. People have literally died trying to get it, or destroy it or whatever. Yesterday I had to run from a man in the street who was clawing at me like a lunatic. He called me a ‘prophet’... Jesus."
"Could it be Jesus?"
He stares at me from his slouched position on the chair and laughs. He scratches his scalp, ruining his perfectly set hair.
“It's an extraordinary reaction to a kettle.”
“Believe me I know... but it's not the kettle, it's the mystery it represents. People go to extreme lengths to explain what they can't understand. Philosophy. Religion. Science. I guess when something challenges everything you thought you had figured out...”
He gives up on the tie entirely and takes it off. He loosens his collar. He notices my reaction to his changed demeanour and gives an exasperated smile. I can relate.
"So... How do you think it got there?"
She ran and ran and ran until her throat burned and her legs felt like they were about to buckle underneath her. It was early. The sky looked as blank and crisp as a sheet hung out to dry on a cold morning. A delicate frost cloaked the parked cars lining the suburban streets. Everywhere was still, everything lying in wait.
The silence was eerie. She tried not to flinch every rustle of leaves or snap of a branch. She had to stay focused. No one knew her here in this town, the knock at the door meant they had found her. Climbing out of the bathroom window of her flat and down onto the roof of the shared bin store, she made her escape quickly and quietly, past the private garages and through the maze of the neighbouring housing estate. Now the roads were more open, the houses bigger and the streets wider. She felt exposed. She needed to get on the next bus she saw. The map was nestled safely in the inside pocket of the small rucksack she had on her back. The bag had been packed months ago for this very moment, and had sat by her bedroom door waiting like a loyal pet. She ran through the contents in her head as she looked out for the warm glow of approaching headlights.
Every bit of information she carried was written down on paper. She carried no phone, no data, nothing that could be traced. Refusing to carry a phone was one of the first things that initially singled her out for observation at work. The office approved mobile devices were like an extension of the body: her colleagues were never seen without them. When she declined the ‘voluntary’ implant, that had been offered free of charge by the company board of directors, she knew that her details had been submitted to higher more official channels. The implant was marketed as a safe technological interface that would seamlessly incorporate itself into the brain to benefit the ‘user.’ This convenient tool allowed the recipient to access anything from the office coffee machine to their data files, wirelessly. Her colleagues hadn't realised how easily they had handed over their body, their mind, their autonomy.
However, it was her open criticism of the escalating presence of artificial intelligence in the company that eventually got her fired. She was not alone, anyone who refused to work with AI colleagues or refused to incorporate the increasingly experimental technologies into their own bodies were fired. A term was quickly established by the state to describe those people who questioned the officially sanctioned technology: ‘the unknowing.’ They dismissed people like her as cowards who wished to remain wilfully ignorant, choosing to deny advancement by denying the increasing melding of human with machine. When she wrote her first article on the subject in a small independent zine she had hoped to connect with like-minded people, she had never imagined how dangerous her opinion would be, or how far her research would take her. Since then, she has tried to publish anonymously, but she knows this is almost impossible. It was only a matter of time before they found her.
Many of her friends and contacts had disappeared. One such friend had given her the map. He claimed it was a map to a location ‘off the grid,’ where an underground community was building a network, a resistance. At the time the story had seemed far-fetched to her. He had nervously whispered the information just before they ordered their desert at a small but busy Lebanese café around the corner from where she used to live. No one appeared to pay them any attention. The room was filled with the sound of other people’s conversations. Waiters hurried around them as chefs called orders from the kitchen. Her friend had pushed the folded map towards her under his napkin. His eyes had widened: he had looked hunted. “If things get dangerous,” he said, “try to get to this place. They are trying to set up a new territory, a new set of rules, a new state. They are starting again, from the beginning.” She leant forward as he whispered to her, “they call it the State of Unknowing.”
‘You should relax more, Suzie.’ Hendron took a large toke and offered her the joint, but she batted his hand away.
‘No Hendron, you should relax less.’
Hendron shrugged and picked at his guitar. ‘I’ve started writing a new song. Do you want to hear it?’
‘Hendron, you’re always starting new songs, but you never finish them. Can you stop a minute? We need to have a serious talk.’
Hendron looked wistfully at the photo on the mantelpiece. It showed them and their friends from the squat, taken in the days before little Kurt had come along. In his heart he knew that Suzie had been right when she argued that they couldn’t look after a baby in a house where the roof leaked and there was a party every night, but that didn't stop him longing for simpler times. Suzie had secured the Council flat, got a regular job at the hospital and her Mum provided childcare, but she needed Hendron to pull his weight.
‘Why aren’t you at work?’ Hendron shifted uneasily in his seat. ‘You’ve lost it haven’t you?’
‘That manager, man, he never liked me. He…’
Suzie threw the empty mug she was holding at his head. He ducked and ran into the hall.
‘I’ve got to run Suzie.’ He pulled on his denim jacket. ‘I just remembered, I’m meeting Mad Dog. He said he had some work for me.’
Dressed in black leather and wearing shades, his white skin elaborately inked, Mad Dog was barely visible at the back of the Carpenter’s Arms. He bumped fists with Hendron and then bought him a pint.
‘I heard you were flipping burgers in McDonald’s’ he said.
‘I couldn’t stick it. The Man made me put my dreads in a hair net.’
‘No-one likes a hairy McMuffin, Hendron. So you told Ronald where to stick it?’
Hendron agreed, but in reality he had slept in one day and had never been back. ‘So what’s this job you mentioned?’ he asked. ‘Are we getting the band back together?’
‘Yeah, The Flaming Gerbils. I’m still in touch with Tommo and Wavy Davy. We could play the local pubs. Make a few quid.’
‘Jesus, Hendron, when are you going to grow up? We could barely make it through a couple of Oasis covers at the Student Union ten years ago.’
Hendron muttered into his pint. ‘I’ve been working on a new song.’
‘That’s great Hendron, but that’s not why I got in touch. I’ve got a big deal coming up a week on Monday with a guy called Uri, but I’m going to Amsterdam next week.’
Hendron sniggered. ‘Love the cafes man.’
‘Yeah, so the thing is Hendron, are you any good at gardening?’
‘Yeah. All I need you to do is pop into my flat once a day and water my plants. You can use a watering can can’t you?’
‘I suppose so…’
‘Look, I’ll give you three hundred quid and we can forget about that fifty you borrowed a couple of months back. How does that sound?’
‘That’s right. Just make sure the soil’s damp – don’t drown them.’
‘Keep the soil damp?’
‘That’s my boy!’ Mad Dog patted him on the shoulder and placed an envelope on the table. ‘That’s my spare key and the address. I fly out tonight. You have to take care of business, Hendron. Don’t live in a dream world.
‘And one last thing, this is just between us, OK? No one else needs to know. Not even Suzie.’
Hendron arrived home to find his rucksack and guitar case on the doorstep, together with a note.
"We can’t go on like this. I’ve changed the locks. Let me know your new address and we can discuss access to Kurt.
Hendron rang the doorbell and looked through the windows, but Suzie had gone to work. He sat on the step and searched his pockets for a joint and the zippo, but he found Mad Dog’s envelope instead. Well, at least he would have a roof over his head for the next week. Mad Dog wouldn’t mind.
When Hendron opened Mad Dog’s front door the blast of heat almost knocked him off his feet. In the living-room he found an array of lamps humming and fizzing above his head. The heat bounced off the Bacofoiled walls onto row after row of tall, verdant plants. It was a big maisonette and each of the three bedrooms had the same arrangement. Hendron had never seen so much weed in his life.
Hendron sat down at the kitchen table, lit up and wondered what he should do. He had made a commitment to Mad Dog, but the dude hadn’t told him he would be tending a weed farm. On the other hand, if he walked away the plants would frazzle and Mad Dog would kill him. What’s more, he would have a roof over his head. Suzie had said he never finished anything and Mad Dog said he needed to take care of business, maybe they were right?
Over the next week Hendron watered the plants in the morning and worked on his song in the afternoon. Each evening he sent a text to Suzie, but she never replied. On Wednesday he ran out of food, so he pawned his guitar and concentrated on the lyrics. Saturday came and went, but Mad Dog didn’t return as planned. Hendron was sure he would be back on Monday for his big deal.
When there was a knock on the door, the peep hole revealed a dapper middle-aged black guy with a goatee wearing a business suit. Behind him stood a white guy with a shaved head, whose muscled physique bulged through his sports gear. What should he do? Hendron dragged on his joint, but it caught the back of his throat inducing a coughing fit.
‘Hello? Is that Mad Dog?’ The black guy called through the door.
When he had recovered, Hendron asked who wanted to know.
‘It’s Uri and Marley. We have an appointment.’
Hendron opened the door and showed them into the kitchen. The black guy sat down and the white guy put a metal briefcase on the table in front of him. Hendron offered him the spliff.
‘Nice weed. Did you grow this?’
Hendron shook his head and took back the joint. ‘Are you Marley?’ he asked.
The black guy shook his head. ‘I’m Uri, he’s Marley.’
‘Are you Russian, then?’
Uri threw back his head and laughed. ‘Yeah, from Kingstongrad.’ Hendron liked these guys.
‘To business.’ Uri flipped the catches on the briefcase, opened the lid and span it on the table so that Hendron could see inside.
‘One hundred grand, used notes, as requested. Please feel free to count it.’
Hendron took another toke to steady his nerves. ‘I’m cool,’ he said, ‘I’m sure your word is your …whatever.’
Uri laughed. ‘I like you Mad Dog.’ He stuck a thumb over his shoulder. ‘We need to check the stock.’
Hendron led them around the flat. Uri took samples from the plants and carried out some tests with a kit he carried in a small shoulder bag. Marley looked at Hendron and nodded towards Uri.
‘The man from Del Monte.’
‘This is good quality,’ was Uri’s verdict.
‘You have to keep the soil moist,’ said Hendron the horticulturalist. He transferred the money into his empty guitar case and pushed the key to Mad Dog’s flat across the table.
‘It’s been a pleasure Mad Dog.’ said Uri as they clasped hands.
In the train station Hendron took the £300 that Mad Dog owed him and put the guitar-case with the rest of the money in a left-luggage locker. Then he headed to the pawn shop to liberate his guitar. In the park he bumped into Wavy Davy’s teenage brother. In exchange for a joint, the teenager used Hendron’s phone to video him singing his new song.
‘This is for Suzie. It’s called Love Garden,’ he said as an introduction.
Then Hendron went to McDonald’s and used their wifi to upload the video to Youtube. He sent the link to Suzie by text. He was celebrating with a pint in The Carpenter’s when Tommo walked in.
‘Hey Hendron, did you hear about Mad Dog? He ate one too many hash brownies in Amsterdam and fell into a canal.’
‘No way! Is he OK?’
‘Nope, he drowned, man.’
‘Bummer. Did he have any family?’
‘Nah, his Mum passed last year.’ They sat in silent contemplation for a couple of seconds, then Tommo shrugged. ‘So what’s new with you Hendron?’
‘I was thinking about getting the band back together. You know, play the local pubs? I asked Wavy Davy’s brother to pass on the message. You interested?’
‘Great idea Hendron, but I sold the drum kit ages ago.’ Hendron fingered the locker key in his pocket.
‘No worries Tommo, I think I know where to lay my hands on some kit.’
Just then, Hendron’s phone began to ring. It was Suzie.