This takes a little time to explain. Apologies for the long post.
The buzzer buzzed and let me in. Reception pointed me to the eighteenth floor. A hired suite, stripped and striplit office space. Grey carpet tiles ending at a cliff-edge of skirting-to-ceiling glass, and London below. The whole floor of the building appeared completely empty - apart from a trestle table bearing a laptop and, facing it from respectful distance, a plastic garden chair, in which I sat.
A familiar disembodied face appeared on the laptop, and spoke directly to me.
"Hello Overnight. Glad you could make it. Sorry about the old cloak and dagger act."
First name terms.
"How long have you been with us now? Since you transferred to the Office of National Interaction? Three years isn't it?"
This takes a little time to explain. It's been a long road.
I burn. Inside and out. Still, for her. Not a flame, not any more, but a smoulder. Poke it and sparksplit, red and glowing on the inside. The Girl Who. For once, not invented, a real person. Friend and colleague in difficut times.
Barely noticed her at first. It was only when she told us she was leaving the organisation that I realised how I had grown to depend on her. Professionally. Emotionally. Utterly. And so began my total, ridiculous infatuation.
I once thought my blog only featured one character - me. I was wrong. She has been here too, unspoken in very word. Thinking about her every minute of every day. A consuming obsession, consuming like fire is consuming, with all else ash, including my mental health.
If I saw another man so much as speak to her, I shrivelled inside. My chest an urn for a heart's cremated remains. I'm told it's the hardest piece of the body to burn. And this, this blog, was where it spilled over.
"This takes a little time to explain, pun intended."
I leaned forward across the table, through the raised voices. Sleevesticky, jacket and lagerslick. He should've known better than to ask me what time was.
"It's, um, nearly kicking out time." I brushed over my watch in the dark.
"Very funny. But can you explain time itself? The concept of time I mean?"
"Well... one answer would be... it's what stops everything from happening at once."
"Cute. But I was hoping for something a bit more scientific, involving magnetic fields or something."
Once we were sat outside at the pub with colleagues. Lovely sunny day and her summer itself, like the Earth had dipped to show her off to the sun. At that point I was still deluded, still thinking there was a chance. That something might happen between us. That I'd left it a bit late yeah, but get her alone, tell her stuff, ask her stuff.
"How time flies; I can barely imagine the Special Randomness Directorate without you. Coffee?"
I had been expecting an interview *without* coffee. He flicked his onscreen gaze as if catching a waiter's eye. A previously featureless wall cracked open and two - real - people, carrying the components of coffee, filed out.
"Well, while they're getting that, I'll make a start. Sorry if I'm teaching your grandmother to suck cocks. From the beginning - what's the driving force of a knowledge-based economy?
My voice croaked. "Ah, well research shows it's-"
"Creativity! Without creativity, London is sunk. So, the government asks itself, what *creates* creativity?
He interrupted me - it's not a live link. It's a fucking tape.
We were in the bar of last resort, under Earlham Street in Covent Garden.
"OK - Try this. Imagine I hit a cue ball six inches across a snooker table. There's nothing to stop me walking around to the other side, holding the cue in the opposite direction, and hitting the white exactly six inches back across the table where it came from, right? A snooker ball can travel across the table one way as good as it can the other. There's nothing to stop it going backwards as well as forwards."
Then time was and she had to go. Got up, kissed him and they walked together to the tube station together.
Watching and his arm his arm HIS ARM and pretended everything HIS ARM was fine. Keep it together KEEP IT NO
"Um - sorry... gotta... getta... train..." Just made it round the corner before the pressure burst the cheek-seal AND-
I threw up on the pavement. Suit and tie, in summer daylight, on a busy London street, after one orange and lemonade.
"Not education. No. Most European countries have better education systems than the UK. But so far London's done OK. It turns out creativity comes not from education, but from interaction - throwing people and ideas together, random noise."
"Look at America - a nation of immigrants. Complete melting pot. LA and NY the most. Result? The world's largest economy. Japan, they make everyone live on top of each other, scram them all together. Dropping the mean separation increases the number of interactions. Basic physics."
Actually, literally vomited at the thought of her being affectionate with anyone. And that was when I first tasted the acid and teethsqueak of crippling love, which I later gave the name The Peoplehack.
"So what's London's secret? Well, some built-in advantages; spaghetti streets with mis-numbered houses. Chaotic local government, haphazard public transport, dodgy post. A thousand splintered tribes bumping, grinding, cross-fertilising, inventing."
Be clear - we were never intimate. We never HAD anything. My obsession had no basis in fact, no rationality at all.
"But we can't rest on our laurels - India and China are coming up on the rails, and fast. And how are they doing it? Utter fucking random chaos, that's how. Did you know that last year there were more misprints in the Taipei phonebook than there were correct entries in London's?"
I figured it was best just to listen.
"If we're going to compete creatively in future, we need to raise our game. We need to MANUFACTURE randomness. Or something close to it.
We'd tired of gothmocking at the new Intrepid Fox, and the Lincolnshire Poacher was shut.
"I 'spose. So theoretically, time can run either way?"
"Yes. I mean, no. Theoretically it can, but in practice it doesn't. I suppose it's not entirely rational."
But then love? It's not entirely rational.
"It's not entirely rational, I grant you. But it works. And that's where WE come in."
"As you know, in essence the mission of the Special Randomness Directorate is to out-random the oppostion. Hush hush, obviously. Wouldn't work if people knew. We operate behind the scenes, looking for patterns, then destroying them, creating new ones."
Once, I had met him for real, in the flesh. If you looked at him with the edge of your vision, he flickered, like a computer monitor.
It was the sort of place people wash up at the end of a long Friday evening. You know - Flotsam WLTM Jetsam, taxifare and GSOH essential. Or, to put it another way, a typical Overnight Editor setup.
In fact I was exactly here before, two years and three pints drunker, saying irreversible things to a girl I'd once cared for. Some long-time readers might even remember.
And if I could have had one wish, I wouldn't have wished her to love me; I hated myself too much. I'd have wished me to stop loving HER. But there's no such thing as wishes-come-true; do you remember that childhood pain-rage? On learning you are not God?
"SRD are the random-makers. Whole call-centres deliberately dialling wrong numbers and leaving cryptic messages. Made to LOOK like pure chance, but actually designed to create connections between people who wouldn't otherwise meet.
"Putting the Spanish Man in touch with the Czech lady, who accidentally texts the Russian man, who triggers a Moscow coup attempt, et cetera."
Then. One evening I was lying on the sofa, as I usually did. Some pointless shit on TV. Been fiddling with something electronic, taking it to pieces. The sharp little screwdriver slack in my hand. Started - absent-mindedly - to press it into my palm, see the mark it made. Just idle boredom you understand, just a step along from biting your nails.
But then I noticed how that tiny little pain had taken me away. For a few minutes, taken away the bigger pain. My mind elsewhere.
"Or just calling in the middle of the night, breathing into your answerphone, and hanging up. That's us."
"I mean, it's like this. As I said - If I hit the white ball a little way, I can easily go round the other side of the table and hit it back."
"But what if I hit the white ball into a red, so both balls move. Could I go round the table, hit the red back into the white, so they both end up exactly where they started?
I pressed harder; this is insane, I thought. Teenage girls do this, not men the wrong side of thirty. Now... where can I hurt myself that won't show?
"We've rooms full of people scribbling phone numbers on banknotes. Swapping the postcodes of temping agencies for those of escort agencies. Jumbling the bookings for restaurants in W1. Our operatives sabotage street lights so they keep switching on and off. Until gullible people start believing it means something."
And now the most difficult part. Only now am I able to write it. And only a little of it, and only under this, the heaviest camouflage I can manage. From the screwdriver, things got worse. I started hurting myself numb in other ways; taking deliberate risks.
"Um, yeah. But it'd be harder. You'd need to get the power and the angle just right."
"Right now, We've got Iodide planes making clouds look like dragons. Covert agents out scrambling train timetables. Making sure only undeserving people win the lottery. Growing root vegetables in genitalia-shaped moulds then leaving them round supermarkets."
"Poor saps think it's luck... their imagination... fucking Karma!"
He laughed himself into a rasping cough, and had to pause before continuing.
"Exactly... It's possible, but it would take a few goes to get it right. Now imagine, what if I hit the white ball harder, into maybe two reds, so they all bounced off the cushions? How would I hit the balls to get them all back to their starting positions?"
Over the next few months I found myself thinking about actions, consequences... Methodologies. Yes, that's the word I'll hide behind; methodologies.
"Nowadays we're doing more and more online stuff. Not just the old spam from random names - which aren't random at all, of course - social networking has massive potential. The churn-rate we're achieving in people's personal relationships is amazing, more than anyone would have believed even five years ago."
Nothing real, nothing actual, just daydreams. But plans nonethless. Ways, means and ends. Ends; what a world without me would be like.
"Pretty much impossible. You'd need a team of people, all with cues, hitting all the balls at exactly the right moment."
"Aha - not impossible, just very very unlikely. Scale it up - What if there were a thousand balls on the table, all whizzing around and smacking into each other? What'd be my chances of hitting the balls back to the way they were just five seconds before? Essentially zero."
"Because of us, London has the edge. We're why other European cities are so clean, so tidy, but so DULL. It's like the way animals propagate seeds. London is a cherry, ripe for eating. We make sure we spit the pip as far as we can. And no-one even knows we exist.
I'd have left a note. It would have been addressed to her. It would have read "http://overnighteditor.typepad.com"
The random pop suddenly offs and the lights come up. No more service at the bar.
HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME
"Which brings us to you, Overnight. Your background in information warfare marked you out as a suitable candidate. SRD's work is about creating, not destroying, nNonetheless I've already been impressed with your work so far."
"Scale it further. Think when they put the blackcurrant in your snakebite at the Intrepid Fox."
"Bit of a blast from the past that drink."
"Yeah. Now at first, the shot of blackcurrant sits there in a purple puddle in the middle of the lager. Then the barman stirs it three times clockwise, mixing it from a concentrated purple to a pink, spread evenly throughout the glass."
"Let's see... Leaving numbered biros about the place... False WikiNews entries reporting the end of the World... Fictional organisations threatening to disrupt the newspapers... Counting in Polish with Chinese numbers on the back of toilet doors; quite a feat.
"I especially liked the way you crashed the Glastonbury ticket servers, so no-one could meet up with their friends - and had to make new ones. Quite the artist. And I see the mysterious graffiti you've been leaving round the city has already started to pay off."
But here's the thing. Writing things down changed them. Made them silly, whimsical, small. It got better, Two years and the flames die down.
"Hopefully your algorithm for generating missed connections on Craigslist will do the same. Miss Bakerloo - You smiled at me on the Northbound escalator... Almost wish I was still a street agent."
"What's to stop him then stirring it three times counter-clockwise, drawing the pink colour back together into the purple, and reversing the mixing?
"So, chase, cutting, et cetera. I wanted to be the one to break the news. We want to offer you a promotion. Entropy Fund Manager, backdated to February 29th. There's just one concern."
She can't be erased; all the girls I've ever been in love with, I'm still in love with. If this were a book it would be dedicated to her. But that's all the frontispiece needs to do; start the story.
"I'm afraid one of your recent reports contained an omaly. The opposite of an anomaly; something that looked deliberate. A series of encounters between yourself and a certain young woman. Engineered to appear random, when in fact, they were anything but."
"Nothing, except the enormous probabilities against it. It's like a trillion trillion red and white balls bouncing off each other in a giant bucket. And that's why time only goes in one direction. Processes like that don't go backwards. It's not impossible - just vanishingly improbable."
HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME
"You know you're not allowed to aim for specific outcomes. Firstly, it's unprofessional. Secondly it's against regulations. And third, as you of all people should be bloody aware, it simply won't work. As soon as you apply deliberate intent, you're adding human intelligence to the mix. You only end up SUBTRACTING randomness, not increasing it. So play the game."
"So - what you're saying is, mixing is one-way, and something that burns, stays burnt. "
"No-one wants the boys from Coincidence Audit sniffing around, least of all me. So no more freelancing."
So now I've told you.
"I'll lay it on the line. If you ever try to engineer contact with her again, your license to random will be revoked. You'll be expelled from the Directorate, and returned to life as a civilian. Trapped forever in a plain, ordered world of cause and effect. I know how much you'd hate that, and I don't want to lose a talented operator."
"So what's it to be, Overnight? Up or out? Choose wisely. I hope your decision is easy."
From now on I hope she will appear a little less. Thwarted love is not irrecoverable.
But it is irreversible.
"Yeah - it's irreversible."
"But be in no doubt - it is irreversible."