Cat, I Must Work!
I take the stairs in under twenty minutes.
I am going to the top-floor-but-one, where the philosopher lives. On the very top floor lives someone very spesh. Top Floor is a game designer and boy does she design them games. Her velveteen verbosity, her plush prolixity, is wallpapering those stairwell walls up and down, declaring her designs, and begging and wheedling and tantalizing and imploring and tickling all the other tenants to please, please, please drop by for a playtest sesh.
Every time I take a breather, I read some summonses from nursling games: Journey to the End of Pi, this one’s called.
The next ludic newborn asks: Can You Kill The Comet?
By the time I finally reach the top-floor-but-one, that is, the philosopher’s floor, I wish the staircase went up forever. Or at least, I wish my whole world were like this: every nook wallpapered into with weird words, describing dazzling, baffling, abstract struggles without consequences.
Just in case you’re me.
Just in case you’re someone who fairly frequently finds yourself leaning against some bit of the world — quite still, for quite a long time — with very little to leaven your thoughts.
I lean one last time. The philosopher’s buzzer is good and loud.
I’ve never been to the philosopher’s building, but I do know a bit about it. It is called Castle Kindness. Castle Kindness has almost completely emptied. The tenants of Castle Kindness have fled to the new world.
But the philosopher lives here.
And so does the game designer.
And a few floors down, there’s someone who invents musical instruments. I listen as he tries to invent how to play them.
The philosopher’s door opens. Just as I expected, she is knee-deep in paper. She comedy-blinks, and sticks out her hand. ‘I’m Soo-Jin Jones,’ she says. ‘And you’re Nia.’
‘And I’m Nia,’ I agree.
Neat stacks of A4 spiral-bound journals fill the philosopher’s apartment. Thousands of them. Every page is covered with close, tidy handwriting mostly in blue ink.
We venture deeper.
Stacks of loose A4 too.
‘Some of these stacks are taller than I am,’ the philosopher apologizes. ‘It’s not safe.’
‘You’re pretty tall,’ I tell the philosopher. ‘You go right to the top of you.’
‘I’m so glad someone’s helping me sort through this chaos,’ says the philosopher. ‘You must have questions.’
Soo-Jin Jones’s PhD was very heavy math and logic. She switched to political philosophy for her post-doc and produced a succinct, highly regarded monograph about liberal theories of consent and the distinction between regulative and constitutive rules.
As an early career researcher, she played the part of Sisyphus under a big tangled boulder of students.
She published no work more significant than ‘Argh!’ and ‘Help!’ right up until the time of her research leave, which was supposed to last for one year.
At which point she started to suffer from an acute episode of her medical condition, chronic, debilitating and — in my opinion — misdiagnosed.
‘Just one question,’ I tell the philosopher. ‘May I record everything? It’s for personal use. I won’t share anything.’
‘That’s fine,’ the philosopher says.
But I can hear her curiosity. Good.
The philosopher leads me deeper. I feel like a ball of twine, unravelling myself round every corner.
I tell my phone, ‘Quicklink: capture.’
The philosopher lifts a page between forefingers and thumbs, and reads from her magnum opus.
‘… or he may, tilting his left cheek by no more than four or five millimetres, as he last defined it, to the fringe of white fur that mittens this left paw of his, as he knows he would have last defined it, bring into view the fine aura of fur that does grow along the edge of his tail, and partakes both of his tail, insofar as it is one of the tails that he does not know, as yet, the which whereas he would have last defined it, and of the air, after which, and perhaps because of which, he might twitch his tail as he would have last defined it — do you see? I won’t go on!’
‘Thousands of pages, and all one sentence?’
‘All about some cat?’
‘Oh, definitely. If gibberish can be said to be “about” anything.’
I am pleased that the philosopher seems to have said her first philosopher-ish thing.
‘Nia,’ she adds. ‘I was coco-bananas.’
Her brittle smile makes me awkward. I snatch the sheaf from the philosopher’s hands. ‘So there are page numbers!’
‘But I lost count constantly,’ she explains. ‘I was coco-bananas, not coco-keep count accurately. We’ll use the page numbers as a guide. Try to check the handwriting, and pen thickness and shade. Match up the last words on a page with the first words on nearby pages. Ask if you’re not sure.’
‘Maybe you should have just got a real cat.’
‘Oh most definitely. Maybe I was trying to?’
The pages slip from my talons. My ribs rip apart, seashells shattering. The stacks of journals and sheaves coarsen and posterize, and the floorboards start doing their quicksand thing.
‘I can’t work any more today,’ I tell the blob where the philosopher once stood. ‘I could for a bit, but I wouldn’t be able to get home safely.’
‘Fine. Do you need to lie down for a bit?’
‘Oh, I’ll be okay. Same time tomorrow?’
The term ‘coco-bananas’ is used frequently on the philosopher’s health blog.
Whenever people start returning compulsively to a word, as if it has a specific, technical meaning beyond its everyday useage, that’s a promising sign to me.
It shows they’re ready. Waiting for me. Without knowing it yet.
About forty minutes to get downstairs. Bonus, on the last two floors, my reading vision returns.
Journey to the End of Pi.
Can You Kill The Comet?
Fossicking for Physick.
You Look Like I Feel.
The next morning, walking from the bus-stop to Castle Kindness, I pause on a flyover, propped against its parapet, to pursue my breath.
This means a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse.
While I pursue my breath, I peer down at the port below. Rows and rows of miniature, dewy pallet-trucks queue up to mount the space elevator. My gaze glides up, up, up, following the gleam, through the cobalt blue, of stent-weave diamond cable where it catches the sun.
And I tilt my chin farther up and see the still swarm of colony ships, sharp scraps of moonlight, white as the teeth of a bust-mouth lion, in orbit past the cirrostratus.
The port hurts. I have only just met the philosopher in the flesh. How can she be leaving already?
But it’s only later, when I’ve left the flyover, that I realize what I’ve just done.
I realize that, without even worrying about it, I have stared straight up into the sky.
When you live with Nia’s Syndrome, that can be a big deal.
And so it is that, with the help of a little spring wind, I cry happy tears all the way to the foot of the philosopher’s stair.
Dearest neighbours! I have a new game about a restaurateur with schadenfreude. It feels like SO long since any of you have visited me.
Knock any time.
I’m always in.
‘Still okay I record everything?’
‘Fine, Nia. Listen, Nia — the point isn’t putting all these crazy cat lady pages in order.’
‘No, of course not. Wait, why not? Quicklink: capture.’
‘That’s a means to an end.’ The philosopher smiles dramatically. ‘We seek the source. The first twelve pages. The wellspring.’
‘The catflap,’ I suggest.
‘You got it, Nia. The preamble to this epic example.’
I wave at the tens of thousands of pages that fill the philosopher’s flat. ‘The sentence about a cat is an example of something?’
‘Aha!’ says the philosopher. ‘Probably? But I can’t remember what it’s an example of. I got ill. I got stuck. I was —’
‘Coco-bananas,’ I finish, regretting it a little. ‘Soo-Jin, if it’s not an example of something, what else could it be?’
‘An example of nothing. An illustration of nothing. Gibberish. A nothing metaphor. But I owe it to myself to try, before I —’
‘Before you leave us,’ I say.
I take the sheaf from the philosopher.
Life lifts off.
Pages scatter all over my arms and legs.
It’s like my field of vision is caught in a snare.
This is Nia’s Syndrome.
My field of vision jerks, tentatively seeking freedom, and the snare just tightens. Now my chest is caught in it too. Null interlude. Now again: jump, tighten.
My voice sings, ‘Soo-Jin, I got go to lie down. Can you help? Hasn’t normally two days was in a row.’
She will understand.
The philosopher’s arms come and take from me my weight. ‘That’s fine,’ she howls. ‘I know it’s hard to say what “normal” is.’
‘Part of why I wanted to work for you,’ I yawn.
‘Partly why I chose you,’ the philosopher bellows, as she leads me through solid, drilling light. ‘Not because you know what it’s like for me, exactly. More like . . . we both know that we don’t know what it’s like.’
‘That’s some . . . real Socrates-level shit,’ I croon.
She puts me to bed, but I can tell she’s impressed.
She shrieks, ‘And because we’ll never tell each other, “But you don’t look ill.”’
I don’t nap. I rest, hearing the philosopher pottering, for an hour.
Dogs or Death? In this new kind of Gaming Experience, you meet different dogs. But just like Life, once per game, you die. What dogs, will you have met? Who will be the last dog of all you meet? In case you have forgotten I am on the top floor.
‘Still okay to record, Soo-Jin?’
I wave my phone. As usual, I wear my phone as an amulet, strung on a silver thread. Bouncing against my breaths.
‘Sure,’ says the philosopher, still too polite to ask.
A hex on the politeness of certain philosophers. I grit my teeth. ‘Quicklink: capture.’
That afternoon I find the missing twelve pages. 1, 2, 3, 4 . . .
I bite down a yelp and walk as calmly as I can toward the living room. I have to go past the door to the little kitchen, where the philosopher is rustling around. My heart is racing and that’s a bad sign. I know my vision could go any moment. Being scared of Nia’s Syndrome can trigger Nia’s Syndrome.
The philosopher comes out of the kitchen. She looks at me, and looks at the pages in my hand. They’re shaking.
I smile vaguely.
So does she.
I go past into the living room and tuck those twelve pages away safe, among the stacks we sorted and labelled that morning.
Where she will never find them.
In this new game the aim is to become an owl! In my flat I have endless wine.
This morning the philosopher’s door is ajar.
A shriek of shower-curtain floats over the stacks. She comes tumbling round the corner in taupe towels and a tangle of brown limbs and giggles.
‘Have you ever been upstairs? To the game designer’s flat?’
The philosopher holds up a hand, commanding silence. ‘Do you know the history of Castle Kindness?’
‘No,’ I lie.
The philosopher shifts some fuzzy taupe towel and a dark ringlet splashes out. She smells coconutty. ‘It is incredibly boring,’ she summarizes. ‘But the point is, the communal staircase used to be a community space. The walls were once covered with all kinds of stuff. Silly graffiti banter, politics and activism stuff, art . . . notices about all various events and workshops and stuff that went on here . . . rotas, requests, poetry. Nia . . .’
She looks terribly sad suddenly.
‘It’s all still under there. Messages about me too, actually. I was the resident crazy before she showed up. Some amazing people once lived here. This community was the reason I could live independently. Nobody had to do it, nobody owed me anything. And yet. Anyway, soon after Antonia arrived upstairs, she started plastering everything over with her own notes. It was like she couldn’t see anybody else, except as a potential player of her games. She just poured this big, sludgy, papery waterfall of . . .’
The philosopher shudders, or shivers.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘That’s rude.’
‘Antonia’s behaviour has been problematic,’ says the philosopher briskly. ‘But she’s sick, Nia. Turns everything she touches into games. Cursed with the Ludos touch — I don’t know! Also people also felt that her “games” — if you can call them games? — they often seemed to obliquely reference the other people who lived here. It was . . . grandiose, querulant, fanatic. I’m not sure.’
‘That must have been . . . unsettling.’
‘Nobody knew what to do, what she needed from us.’
‘There’s one where she wanted everyone to turn themselves into owls.’
‘True. It was the beginning of the end of Castle Kindness. She has gone now, along with the others. Into the most recent recolonizing wave. Now I’ll get dressed. I’m getting goosebumps.’
Can goosebumps be a sign of lying?
‘So you knew her well? You played her games?’
‘Oh,’ says the philosopher vaguely. ‘I think I played one where you were a seahorse, and you had to hide all the time.’
I make what I think of as my “seahorse” face.
Here you play a Toddler who can Hopefully fall asleep anywhere. At the start of the game, the King hears of your talent. To succeed, you will have To Fall Asleep in many exotic locations . . . including deep behind enemy lines!
Even I am not sure about this one.
The philosopher has probably never been upstairs. I very much doubt she knows what the game designer even looks like.
I know, because every story has on average 4.657 sides.
And I’ve read the game designer’s side of this story.
About how alone she was. About how she thought she wasn’t even human. About her journey. About her long, dangerous journey through the darkness.
None of that is a metaphor.
About how she heard about Castle Kindness, and its ‘incredibly boring history’ as a residential community. Heard that it was also a sanctuary, and a thriving if somewhat argumentative and fractious hub of arts and activism.
About how the tenants welcomed her, awakened something in her. Let her curate the staircase space. Tried to understand her on her own terms.
All but one.
All but the philosopher.
The next morning, from my flyover look-out, I see my first actual specklike colonists. The car park is spangled with bright little brave people and their possessions. The colonists look like they’ve been kept waiting a long time. Some of them nap tucked into their suitcases and baskets and boxes and sacks. I should float down there to give them tips. I am the maestro of the improv pillow.
Where are they going?
They’re colonists, but they’re also recolonists.
They’re going away, but away is here.
A few years ago, the planet Earth, including its moon, but not including most of its inhabitants, was sent six months back in time.
Every time machine is also a matter copy-paster.
Against the Grain is a dark, Evocative Story-Driven Casual Gaming Experience. Billions of Settlers are coming this way. But YOU want to go THAT way.
Today’s the day the philosopher finally bites.
‘Still okay to record?’
‘Yes. And Nia, you needn’t ask every single morning. What do you even use the recording for? Never mind, I shouldn’t pry —’
‘Oh, Soo-Jin,’ I sigh benignly. ‘Not at all. It’s to do with my machine-learning-supported healing practice. Let me ask you a question. When you visit your General Practitioner, what’s the first thing they ask?’
Oh, I sound so studied. She gives me a hard glare. I worry I’ve pushed my luck, transgressed some invisible boundary. But the philosopher’s look softens, and animates. ‘They ask for your diagnosis,’ answers the philosopher, almost excitedly now. She must smell the importance of this moment. ‘They go, “What do you think you’ve got?”’
‘But it wasn’t always like that, was it.’
‘Nope, no way. When I was a little girl, they would always ask you about symptoms.’
‘Then came the internet. Soon it was silly to pretend that people weren’t using digital tools to diagnose themselves. General Practice had to shift emphasis. It became about teaching people the limits of the tools, teaching them how to use those tools better.’
‘And? What’s that to do with constantly recording everything, Nia?’
‘Because I’m the next phase in that evolution. I’m an indie medical condition designer.’
The philosopher snorts, then looks shamefaced. ‘Wait, really?’
‘Really,’ I say dryly. ‘I use a free app called DiversiME. It’s a front-end framework for user-led medical research. It runs in the background, pulling data about how I live my life. But it doesn’t prejudge that data, or try to shoehorn it into existing conditions. It spots patterns and gives me the tools to design new conditions, so that those conditions can be experienced, managed, and even healed.’
‘You make up medical conditions for yourself?’ says the philosopher.
What she does next fills me with horror.
The philosopher picks up nearby page of cat sentence and starts idly scanning it.
And her brow is nowhere near as furrowed as it’s supposed to be.
I know what’s wrong with her, but the diagnosis no longer feels like a grand and magical secret.
The sitch is nebulating. It feels like some doomed inside joke I’m tragically trying to make happen that probably won’t happen. An inside joke I’m trying to enforce on a squirming, indifferent crush object.
‘Conditions for myself, and for others,’ I half-yell, resisting the urge to grab the paper from her hand. ‘DiversiME is a social suffering and social struggle platform. With this app, I can overcome the distinction between “individual quality of life” and “agitating for systemic change.” Between “physical” and “mental.” Between “person” and “world.” Between “self-knowledge” and “other forms of expert knowledge.”’
She glances up from her page, and there’s a mocking light in her eyes. ‘The distinction between the quick and the dead?’ she enquires. ‘Nia, I gotta say it all sounds a tidge reckless. Though I’m sure you kids know what you’re doing. Anyway, we’ve got a lot to get through. Shall we start in the hall today?’
Swap vegetable ocarinas and try to stay alive in this fast-paced vegetable ocarina swapping game. Mannerpunk.
This is a disaster. I’m running out of time.
Every morning for the last few mornings, fewer and fewer pinnace ships have filled the sky.
About a billion of us have left already. Lifted on diamond ropes to the waiting pinnaces. Billions more will soon depart, and the philosopher is one of them.
She hasn’t told me when. I know it’s soon.
They won’t let her take all this cat sentence with her. Mass.
Cats vs. Acts
You Look Like I Feel.
Codename: Snooze Child.
Four Philosophers Who Fought to Fold the World & The Fifth Philosopher Who Forgot
Dogs or Death?
The Twin Who Wasn’t In
Callout 4: The New Intersections
Decision: Owl Time.
Miaowdic! 2: The Purr-macon
Against The Green
Against The Groin
Against The Grain
Work is snug today. We grow collegiate.
She says, ‘What if I played music?’
The philosopher prefers her pop songs plangent and plaintive. I prefer my pop songs plaintiff, and plain tiffing: I would eat a grenade for yoooo! But you won’t do the saaaaame!
We both like Patti.
Just before I go, I try one last time.
‘Tonight,’ I say casually, ‘I might work some more on my latest syndrome.’
The philosopher laughs, like it’s a fabulous joke. ‘Boy do I need a syndrome! Cooped up here, coco-bananas. I bet I’ve got In-Grown Growing Up Syndrome.’ The philosopher frowns. She doesn’t like how she has expressed herself. ‘Years go by . . . you discover desires . . . live through them, get altered by them, gradually shrug them off again and feel free . . . but in my case, it is all done in the medium of a long sentence about a cat. It is,’ the philosopher finally admits, ‘too long a sentence for just one cat.’
‘Don’t say that.’
‘It is. It is. See you tomorrow, Nia.’
‘You know, Soo-Jin, in the syndie community — indie syndrome — we have a saying. We like to say that what ails you is never just a malady that runs through your body.’
‘It’s always a melody that runs through your life.’
‘Likewise, a diagnosis isn’t just some hollow cubbyhole for humans. A diagnosis has a shape of its own. It has a life of its own, drawn from the life of its hosts, but different . . . a diagnosis does things, it has complex inputs and outputs.’
‘Nia, you have an intense manner when you talk about this.’
‘Can you blame me? Till recently, only the medical profession had the power to develop new diagnoses. But that’s changing. Soo-Jin, do you mind if I use an analogy?’
‘I don’t mind,’ says the philosopher. I choose to ignore her testiness.
‘Power up a phone or any device,’ I tell her. ‘Boom. It’s full of apps and software, and they let it do certain things, but not other things. Am I right?’
‘Ish,’ concedes the philosopher warily. ‘But if you want a function that’s not there, you just browse till you find the software that can handle it. Then you install it or subscribe to it.’
‘Or what if you want to do something, and there’s just no such software out there?’
‘You place an order for an artisan app.’
‘Exactly. Kind of expensive and you might have to wait a while, but, yeah.’
‘Nia, I’m . . . lost.’
‘Do you think it’s always been that way? How is it that so many people make software nowadays? Enough to sustain a market in artisan code?’
The philosopher hesitates. ‘Education,’ she says, and I can sense she has a complex relationship with that word.
‘Not just education,’ I say carefully. ‘Also the tools that are available. Back in the day, you had to know machine code. You basically — talked to the machine in the same way it talks to itself.’
‘Programmers had to think the machine’s thoughts for it. Where is all this going?’
‘You make me feel like one of your philosophy students.’
‘So do you.’
Rather agreeable flames rage up my cheeks. ‘Whatever,’ I mutter. ‘Thing is, it gets easier once we invent assembly languages and high-level programming languages. At that stage, code starts looking like weird witch recipes with lots of maths in them.’
‘Easier for humans to interpret than screeds of zeros and ones.’
‘Exactly, and from then on it gets easier and easier. Before long, we’re using What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get editors, and frameworks like Bootstrap, and games engines like Unity. Lots of pre-made elements. Lots of cleverly chosen defaults you can tinker with, once you know what you’re doing. The latest generation of user‑friendly frameworks, you know what? It’s like you’re not really even coding anymore. It’s more like you’re answering a big quiz, and at the end it burps out the thing you need. Are you seeing where this is going?’
‘Frankly no. The analogy maps onto . . . alternative medicine?’
I let the slur go by unremarked. ‘Diagnoses do things, remember? So just imagine every diagnosis is like some fragment of software. Of course, only basic functionality is installed on your GP clinic. The GP clinic can only do, let’s say, the equivalent a word processor, a browser, something to play music, something to edit images, plus a spreadsheet program. Enough to cover most people’s day-to-day ailments.’
The philosopher flares an eyebrow. ‘What Nia, no antivirus?’
‘Alol,’ I smile. ‘But listen, when your GP can’t help you, you’re referred to specialists packing more niche software. Eventually, if you’re really unlucky and really lucky, maybe you’re referred to a cutting edge clinical trial. Now do you see where DiversiME fits in?’
‘The GP is the basic software,’ hazards the philosopher.
‘The consultant physician is the equivalent of niche software?’
‘The clinical trial is the artisan software.’
‘You’ve got it! Medical science is like a bunch of programming languages! And so then DiversiME is —’
‘No, Nia. I give up.’
‘DiversiME is the user-friendly game engine aimed at the general public, people like you and me. It lets us make our own stuff.’
The philosopher stares, teeters.
It hasn’t been a good day. I’ve been shuffling around the forest like a humped fawn, orphaned and distorted. The long and short of it is, I am being valiant.
Her lips spread dark and wide. It’s still just a joke to her. She laughs long and loud. It’s still just a joke.
To the philosopher, it’s still just a joke.
So is Nia’s Syndrome.
So is Nia.
Hello there, cruel neighbour!
I have a game called You Look Like I Feel.
All it is, it’s a game all about looking like you feel!
Let’s provisionally call it Cat Sentence Syndrome. Actually, it has another name. But let’s just call it that for now.
The philosopher was writing that sentence about the cat for about ten years. I would have been about twelve years old the day she began.
Actually that’s a more complicated calculation than you might think. A few years ago, the planet Earth, including its moon, but not including most of its inhabitants, was sent back in time six months.
The largely-unpeopled world then waited around for a while, and nudged itself back in time once more. So if you’re counting, you might there were three Earths orbiting the sun, two of them largely unpopulated.
One largely unpopulated Earth was manoeuvred to the time and place and modality when the ‘first’ Earth vanished. So it sort of reappeared beneath the feet, and inside the lungs, of all those people who were just hanging there in space. But they were only hanging there for zero seconds, so it didn’t do them much harm.
If you’re counting, you might say that that still leaves two Earths orbiting the sun.
One Earth, this Earth, had people on it. If you’re counting, you might say that it had too many people on it. Not enough soil. Not enough rain. Not enough ice.
The other one was empty.
Consider Yourself. On the first level, you look upon your forepaws to see if they are clean. On the second level, you kick up behind to clear away there. On the third level, you WORK IT . . .
‘Nia, it’s time I face the facts. We’re not going to find those pages, are we?’
‘Don’t say that!’
‘If they even exist. But never fear, there’s good news. You’ve awakened something in me.’
‘It’s DiversiME, isn’t it?’ I blurt. ‘You want to try it out.’
‘Absolutely out of the question.’ The philosopher smiles thinly. ‘You can keep your little “placebo-t,” thank you very much.’
‘What else — what else could I have awakened?’
‘Nia, this whole process has focused me, energized me. And just maybe, it’s kicked loose some memories.’
‘Oh,’ I say, hiding my disappointment. ‘You mean, you had the twelve pages you needed . . . inside you all along?’
She nods slowly. ‘I believe the genesis of this project related to Leibniz’s Law and the Identity of Indiscernibles. I think I started with Max Black’s two spheres. Or a single sphere with two locations, as Hawthorne puts it. Imagine a universe containing nothing but two spheres that exactly resemble each other. The universe is perfectly symmetrical. The two spheres would be indiscernible, right? But not identical. So things can be indiscernible but not identical, and that disproves Leibniz.’
I feel out of my depth. ‘Leibniz thought if the sphere didn’t look ill, it wasn’t ill.’
This is so obviously horribly wrong the philosopher can’t even pretend otherwise. ‘The details don’t matter. It’s the sort of topic that only interests philosophers. Anyway,’ she adds gently, ‘somehow I started writing about that pesky cat . . . and I haven’t been well, and . . . I got stuck. That terrible phrase. “Crazy cat lady.”’
Suddenly I feel weirdly shy. I don’t know what to say. I’m just smiling awkwardly at her.
Eventually I say, ‘If you’ve remembered that much, maybe you’ll remember more.’
‘Oh, Nia. I don’t want you to think I’m disappointed! You have been so amazing. These are my last days on the planet. I feel so happy to have spent them with you.’
Just say it.
‘I know what you have,’ I tell her. And it’s too late to go back now. ‘You’ve been misdiagnosed, Soo-Jin. In reality, everything flows from one condition. The mental stuff, the physical stuff, the other stuff. You won’t have heard of it. It’s called Nia’s Syndome. You have what I have, Soo-Jin. I have what you have.’
Ah, I have misjudged.
‘It’s irresponsible,’ snarls the philosopher, ‘to be diagnosing yourself with digital toys. Let alone trying to tell me what’s wrong with me, Nia! What you’re doing is incredibly dangerous and arrogant.’
‘Machine-learning-supported indie diagnosis is not self-diagnosis,’ I correct her firmly. ‘It expand the limits of diagnosis. Our work is reflexive and accountable in real-time. There are standards and we comply with them. We still retain the traditional safeguards of the medical profession, only we add new ones. No more linking acne to green jelly beans with 95% confidence, thank you very much.’
The philosopher sucks her teeth. ‘You’re so, so wrong. Even if it worked as you describe it, at a social level it jeopardizes people’s faith in evidence-based medicine. It puts a false scientific veneer upon crank alternative medicine. Do you want to be responsible for putting white coats on witches?’
My temper flares in furious sympathy. ‘Don’t give me that. Any medical condition I spin using DiversiME is evidence-based. DiversiME just has a more nuanced and holistic approach to what counts as “evidence.”’
‘A more nuanced and holistic approach to what counts as stupid and reckless.’
‘No, you come on!’ I say. That’s an arguing trick from arguing with one of my old girlfriends. ‘You know, the medical profession is already moving that way. Maybe if it had moved sooner, it wouldn’t have so many mass graves on its lack-of-conscience.’
‘Oh dear. Nia, I don’t mean to sound condescending —’
‘Deworming with quicksilver,’ I interrupt the philosopher, and I raise my phone on its silver chain like an amulet. ‘Insulin shock therapy, or radium for arthritis, or heroin for a cold, or tobacco for asthma, or slosh the clitoris with carbolic acid to treat masturbation —’
‘Beryl crystals for bronchitis,’ scoffs the philosopher, ‘borage cordial for cancer —’
‘— lethal hysterectomy without any anaesthesia to treat the malady of being a woman who’s annoyed about something. ECT or a lobotomy for being an annoyed woman or gay or a teenager. Or bloodletting —’
‘Nia, please!’ the philosopher gasps, drowning in my sea of indisputable reason. ‘Medicine isn’t perfect, professionalism isn’t perfect, and the medical profession certainly isn’t perfect. But progress is meaningful. And this?’ She flails at my phone. ‘This is burning one’s ships to save them from the storm.’
She says that as though it is a well-known platitude, which I don’t think it is.
The philosopher glares at me.
The ceiling creaks.
A few years ago, the planet Earth, including its moon, but not including most of its inhabitants, travelled back in time by six months.
A few of us did go back deliberately. For starters, a skeleton crew was necessary to cope with the next phase.
But there were also those who were — can I say ‘accidental stowaway,’ is that the right term?
To make sure that it was only the planet propelled back in time — and none of its people — we had to use a scanner programmed with a smart selection tool.
An important part of the plan, the smart selection tool.
But the smart selection tool wasn’t so smart, or it was differently smart. What is the difference between the Earth and its people? Where does one begin and the other end? The tool had its way of deciding, but like a lot of algorithms, it operated opaquely.
And so it included a bycatch. About ten thousand people, in all, who were never supposed to go.
Just like when an image is cut from its background, but a zigzag halo of background still clings to it.
That’s why a few of the colonists, when they make planetfall upon the largely empty Earth, will be welcomed by their twins.
‘I know some leeches are maybe legit,’ I concede wearily, lowering my amulet-like smartphone. ‘And some ECT. Like acupuncture.’
The philosopher shuts her eyes briefly, as if in gratitude. ‘See? You’ve just argued my point. When something gives the impression it’s a substitute for proper evidence-based medicine, it is going to be harmful, whatever the incidental benefits. Your mistaken idea about leeches may be a sign how stealthy and insidious DiversiME is. Leeches are never “legit.”’
‘Leeches are legit, wanna bet? So is Nia’s Syndrome, open beta. And you have Nia’s Syndrome, Soo-Jin, and if you calm down, I can prove it to you.’
‘Oh, Nia. You’re like some pushy loan consolidation shark. Only it’s suffering you say you’ll consolidate. Go on, I can see you’re determined. What’s your “proof”?’
‘Because Nia’s Syndrome is partly based on you.’
‘You told me it was based on you.’
‘Yes and no. Why am I here in the first place, Soo-Jin? How did we meet? See, DiversiME works by constantly crawling the net to update its pool of useful ingredients. Not just medical journals and medical records, okay? Also people’s folk understandings of who they are and what they can do and what they need.’
I hesitate. I can’t tell her what’s upstairs. I have no idea how she’ll react. So instead, I edit a little as I go.
‘Anyway,’ I continue, ‘this was the first time that I spun a condition that really, really, felt like it was about me . . . obviously I was super-excited. Obsessed. Just out of curiosity, I looked at a breakdown of the condition’s source material. Most of the language and the ideas were scraped from just one place. Your health blog, Soo-Jin.’
Almost true, and I feel pleased at how I handled it.
But a frost has fallen on the philosopher.
‘And . . . that’s why I had to meet you,’ I add, with a great big smile. ‘Your whole online presence is just fascinating, Soo-Jin. I’ve read both your blogs, all the way through. I’ve seen your history on Hex Nexus, on Twitter —’
The philosopher is looking positively glaciated. To be frank this isn’t how I imagined this revalation going at all. People are resistant, yes, but this?
I remember something the philosopher said to me. We’d only just met. She was helping me through a melting jungle to a cool bed.
She said: we both know that we don’t know what it’s like.
‘— I mean, ’ I say falteringly, ‘I saw you’d been misdiagnosed. I wasn’t cyberstalking you or anything. Just honest-to-goodness arm’s-length indie-diagnosing you in a definitely “no obligations” kind of way. It kind of killed me, to be honest, when I saw you’d be leaving with the next wave of colonists. But when I cross-referenced some of the handles you use online, I found your advert for an assistant. So it was like fate, right? Uh, evidence-based fate. You know what, this is coming out wrong.’
‘Nia, I think you should go. I’ll — I’ll message you.’
‘You don’t understand! This past week, I’ve been working on Nia’s Syndrome every night! I haven’t just been recording me, have I? I’ve been recording you too, so there’s all this fresh data — and I’ve mined that and tweaked the condition a bit, and now it’s definitely what we both have! Listen, it doesn’t have to be called Nia’s Syndrome. Is that what’s bothering you? Soo-Jin’s Syndrome sounds even better. It rolls off the tongue. Soo-Jin’s Syndrome. Soo-Jin’s Super-Duper Syndrome.’
‘Nia, please go. Please go and — just go please, Nia.’
So I go. It was my one chance, and I blew it in style.
People used to say, ‘Look after the planet, dot dot dot, it’s the only one we’ve got.’
We’ve got two Earths now. One’s on the other side of the sun.
Neither dot is that spesh. Neither of them really has much of a Bangkok, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh, Hong Kong, Kolkata, Manila, Miami , Mumbai, New Orleans, New York, Ningbo, Shanghai, Shanghai, Tianjin or a Yangon to speak of anymore.
Still. One planet wasn’t enough.
Maybe two will do, though I doubt it.
You play a dragonfly searching the forest for a drop of water. The drop of water is evidence in a murder trial. This game is in its very, very early stages of development.
It is very quiet here this afternoon.
Dearest neighbours, so many of you have left now. My heart goes with you on your journey. I’ve done it myself, or at least one like it, so how hard can it be???
I am not a “good clamberer,” but I can “fly” . . . !
‘Oh, Nia.’ The philosopher stands in the doorway, and wraps her bathrobe tighter. ‘I asked you not to come here.’
‘Good morning, Soo-Jin. I see you still have Soo-Jin’s syndrome.’
The door stirs briskly toward my face.
‘I found the pages we’re looking for!’
The door jerks open.
‘I found the mystical catflap,’ I soothe. ‘I know where the first twelve pages are. Thought you might like to know.’
The philosopher purses her lips. ‘Nia, I don’t feel safe around you. You’ve lied to me —’
‘I sure did,’ I say. ‘I even hid the pages from you. I was waiting till we could talk. About, you know.’ I shrug. ‘But now we’ve talked.’
The philosopher laughs timidly.
‘Come on!’ I widen my eyes, bite my lip. ‘We’ve both told some porkies, Soo-Jin, but I’m done now. I promise not to talk about what we could have had together. Come on. Don’t you want to read them? I do.’
‘I want to,’ she says.
‘What then? There’s nothing to be afraid of!’
‘It’s not just you. It’s the pages. I’m afraid to read them.’
Set a fear to fight a fear. I peer through the philosopher’s catflap for her.
What I mean is, I read the pages that she wrote, the only ones in the whole flat that aren’t about that damn cat.
I do it nestled in the living room. It takes about half an hour. Only 10% of it makes sense to me. But as usual 10% is enough.
Away in the bedroom, the philosopher occasionally moans or laughs to herself.
When I go through to her, the philosopher is balled on the bed, fist comedy-clenched at her mouth.
‘First of all,’ I tell her, ‘the title is terrible. The Ambiguous Edens: Applied Humanism, Contra Human Extinction.’
‘My, that’s a high-flown oath.’
‘Give it to me straight, Nia.’ She’s still all foetal-baby on the bed. ‘It’s more gobbledygook, isn’t it? Only less feline?’
‘I honestly can’t tell. I don’t think it is gobbledygook, Soo-Jin. Mostly it’s a method — an algorithm? — for selecting everything that isn’t human within a sphere with a radius of one parsec.’
The philosopher’s eyes widen to saucers with a radius of one parsec. ‘This feels really familiar,’ she says. ‘It’s nothing to do with Max Black’s spheres, is it? It’s actually a meditation on what it means to be human.’
‘Yeah, but you really need to read this yourself.’ I thrust forward the sheaf and she squeals, buries her head under her pillow. ‘Come on Soo-Jin! It looks crazy smart! There’s all this, uh, Whittaker–Nyquist–Kotelnikov–Shannon stuff, and like, Riemann integrals, and clipping and aliasing. The focus is really practical and mathematical and — ecological! The spheres you thought you remembered? I think they were planets. Soo-Jin, I think that they were Earths.’
Slowly the philosopher emerges. She uncoils, sits up, and takes the bundle I’m proffering. But then she hugs it to her chest.
‘Humans,’ the philosopher whispers. ‘For all that we pollute and poison and ravage, we’re also woven into the ecosystem in good ways too. Good for things that are us, and good for things that aren’t us. And that’s how I got into . . .’
‘Yup, the whole cat thing. The distinction between “self” and “world.” A pet, I guess, is somewhere on the border. Just like a diagnosis. Or a doppelganger. But Soo-Jin, there’s more, okay? There’s actually stuff in there about macroscopic closed timelike curves and astrodynamics. Do you get me, Soo-Jin? Do you understand what you were maybe actually working on? More than ten years ago?’
‘You’re kidding me.’ The philosopher’s eyes narrow. Suddenly she remembers she doesn’t trust me. The sheaf she’s hugging to her chest shoots out to arm’s length, but she’s still not looking at it.
‘It’s all there,’ I say. ‘And if it’s real, you nailed it. Before anybody else was even thinking about it. Your own smart selection tool. I bet it was different from the one they used in the end. You could have been God. But you missed the application deadline.’
The philosopher’s eyes brighten and fall. Her gaze is already reading when it hits the page.
‘If they’d used your version, Soo-Jin, there would have been a different set of stowaways on New Earth.’
By now the philosopher really isn’t listening to me.
‘Maybe if you’d published,’ I say quietly, ‘there’d only be one of me.’
We copy-pasted a lot of things. The Congo River, the Rhine, the Amazon, the Finke, the Meuse, the Nile, the Yangtze. Coal. Batteries. Bridges. Blowtorches. Locusts. The broken duct temporarily patched with an old pamphlet of official haircuts in Seh Godar near Lendeh. A wrapping all shining with fish batter, floating on a breeze toward Kitt Peak National Observatory in the Quinlan Mountains. Eleven white and orange hens sparring and scratching between the hay‑bales and the white stone farmhouse, next to the thin straight tree-lined road to Hajdúdorog. Amala Narang’s black-lace blouse folded upon the ledge of her orchestra pit. The nine orange and white traffic cones in two towers in the tall grass by Shek Tin Road in Hong Kong. Messy back seats, deep with dog hair. The breakfast congee tipping from Xun Xu’s pot in Xinxing, Yingkou. Modern Theatres studio in Salem. Porcelain. Manual breastmilk pumps. Kilns. Accordions. The ambulance tearing up the southern approach to Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park. Lines of rhododendrons left by the lake-tide. A spoon sticky with tickly cough cough syrup, sitting on the walnut Ikea bedside unit, with a lock of white Labrador fur pasted to its handle. Zoos flung open or on staggered timers. Autopsy tables. Hilltops tiered with tea crop. The long heap of fresh lumber outside the metalworks shack on Uringi Cres road in Entebbe. The chevron-spangled sand mover belching sparked black smoke behind the dazzling white hoardings on Tanah Merah Coast Rd in Singapore. Hoof picks. Hen Cups. Hymnals. Flecks of mica. The upturned hummus lid with three hummus smudges like a smiley face. A hammock snapped into a helix by a dust devil. The neatly cordoned off cracked banksia tree outside St Christopher’s Cathedral in Manuka. A basement radiator corseted with dog leashes. A front of pollen gliding from the hill toward a circle of six grass and sapling beehive huts. It is behind the sun now. A scarab beetle slowly franked to scarab beetle fudge by the peristalsis of the heavily scratched pink kayak sloughing up the steep bank. The red-roofed information board beside the red-roofed bin in the rapidly emptied carpark in Kľačno, surrounded by forested mountains and thunderheads. Windows. Tampons. Plates. Glasses. Bowls. Tweezers. The E. J. Ourso College of Business of Louisiana State University. Boleslava Taťána Vesela’s new crowdsourced kulajda cart neatly and ingeniously chained into the bollards at the edge of the main square, tucked way up in the mountains in Janské Lázně. Scandinavia House on Park Avenue, and the rest of New York City. Coffins. Bones. Mirrors. Clothes.
It’s half an hour before the philosopher looks up again. Her eyes are brimming with gratitude.
So I say, ‘Hey, you know what else is a meditation on what it means to be human? Uh, a little something called Soo-Jin’s Syndrome?’
Her gratitude dims only a shade, but the tears at the edge of her eyes slip down to the corners of her mouth. ‘You promised,’ she says.
‘I can’t keep that promise. Not if it means you keep accepting a world in which the sickness is always inside you. When you know it’s not, you know it’s in the world as well. When the sickness is in society, in culture, in nature, in the economy. In the doctors who poke and prod you.’
The philosopher wipes her cheeks. ‘Right now,’ she says. ‘I have never loved somebody so much. And simultaneously been so totally grossed out, upset, insulted and slightly afraid of somebody. Never, ever in my whole life. How interesting. Maybe new emotions emerge, when one walks one’s final days on any world.’
‘I’m kind of in a web of lies situation here,’ I admit. ‘That stuff I told you yesterday? It wasn’t just a random crawl with DiversiME that turned up your blog. It was the other way round. I knew all about you already, Soo-Jin. I found your blog through — you know, like through the game designer’s blog? So I deliberately seeded my DiversiME syndrome with your story. We still could have the same thing. Just give it a chance.’
Now my eyes are edged with tears. Oh body and soul, you never cease to surprise me. Can we just hug this out? The philosopher does not just hug things out.
And I say, ‘I’ve messed this up, I know that. I’ve messed it up so bad! It’s not like I had a crush on you, it’s not like that. It’s different. Maybe there are new emotions. Maybe the people around you can feel them too. All that matters is that you take a copy with you. Just take a copy of Soo-Jin’s Syndrome, and then at least — there’s a chance.’
‘I don’t have “Soo-Jin’s Syndrome.”’
‘Take it as in-flight entertainment on the colony ship.’
‘I have atypical forms of bipolar disorder with graphomania and I also have an atypical form of Postural Tachycardia Syndrome —’
‘And I’m not some crank weirdo stalker. If I’ve been stalking anyone, it’s the game designer, and I’m entitled to do that. Nobody can tell me I don’t have that right.’
‘— and right now I am in remission, remission, remission, and remission means trips to the toilet without a nap there and a nap on the way back, and remission means my skin knows it’s allowed to sweat when I’m hot. Remission means sitting up in the morning, just simply sitting up. Remission means language, a proper self, proper others.’
We both wipe our faces on our sleeves. Soo-Jin laughs, and that makes her start blubbing seriously.
‘I used to sound like you,’ I tell her. ‘You think you have to shut up about it. You haven’t realized yet that your suffering is already protest. Suffering is always protest. So much suffering is still invisible, is the riot of the ghosts —’
‘So much suffering must be led to where its hands and legs are buried. Taught its placards and its petrol fires.’
‘Remission means I can raise my gaze higher than fifteen degrees. It means I can see my ceiling. Nia, there are so many times I can’t even go to the toilet. But in a few days, I’m going to go to another planet.’
‘I know you are. And that makes me . . . so happy. It doesn’t ever go away. The obligation to name the unnameable. Not even the day we leave this world.’
It does make me so happy.
‘I’m getting on a spaceship and going to the back of the sun. And how — how can I — can I not — not be terrified — that the day before I do that — the day before I — ’
The philosopher shakes her head. She doesn’t want to finish that sentence.
I look at the ceiling. ‘We’ve both been lying,’ I tell the philosopher. ‘You never had to pretend to be a seahorse, did you?’
‘You know what?’ Soo-Jin’s laughter shakes loose fresh tears. ‘I demand a copy of Soo-Jin’s Syndrome! What else could I possibly take to remind me of you, Nia? And I will read it, I promise. And think about it.’
‘Am I right?’
‘You got me, Nia. I did lie about Antonia. I’ve never even introduced myself. At first the new person scared me, and then — honestly, who has that kind of time?
‘I can hear her creaking around up there. I’ve been hearing it all week.’
‘But it was only half a lie.’ Soo-Jin sighs, rubs her face vigorously, and stares to one side. ‘Antonia did leave for her other Earth. Only her other Earth is here, if you see what I mean? She’s one of those funny ones that did it the other way.’ She holds my gaze again. ‘She’s one of the few that the smart selection tool left out. One of the very, very few that decided to come straight back. I think that’s part of why everyone . . . treated her the way they did. The way I should have.’
‘She’s led a different life from me,’ I say. ‘She never found DiversiME. But she found her games instead, and she crossed the darkness, and she found something pretty amazing. Castle Kindness. Your neighbours all supported her, one way or another. Only, now they’re all going. The inventor of musical instruments, the tree surgeon, the sculptor who works in peppermint, the theologian, the ostrich whisperer, the kite historian, the insect therapist, the flamewar re-enactor, the geisha, the maharajah, the communist-for-hire, the acrobatic accountant, the retired caryatid, the doctor, the archduke, the Pi truther, the disgraced pastry chef. Going, or gone already. All except her.’
‘She’s not budging.’
‘No. They played her games, and she played theirs. All except you, Soo-Jin. She’s a little obsessed with you, you know. Just a little.’
Soo-Jin shrugs. ‘Yeah. I feel terrible.’
‘All those messages out there, all that begging . . . it’s mostly directed at you. All those games. But it’s not the reason you think. She doesn’t need you to stay. She just feels like Castle Kindness is deserting you. She feels like it’s up to her to help. If you need her help to leave this place, to go to the other side of the sun . . . she wants to be here for you.’
‘I don’t need somebody for that.’
‘I know that now.’
‘I didn’t when I met you.’
‘No. You should go upstairs and say hello, Nia.’
‘I think she would be more interested in your DiversiME thing than I am.’ Soo-Jin purses her lips, frowns, stares at a spot on the ceiling. Again it creaks. ‘I really do,’ she says thoughtfully.
‘Actually,’ I say, ‘I think you’re right. That’s me up there, Soo-Jin.’
‘Of course it is,’ says Soo-Jin. ‘I think I’ll come with you. Wait just a tick while I find my shoes.’