A Thousand Tiny Screens
New Rise City. Recreational district. A journalist sets out to expose a government conspiracy. Her contact is Harlan Flynn. As the pair meet and sit down outside a white-painted café, a thousand tiny screens blink in and out of life, all spreading the good word.
‘I’m a recorder,’ Harlan said. He set his teacup down on the fine china saucer and fixed the journalist with a serious gaze.
The city went about its business around them, people dashing this way and that, never stopping to appreciate their short, hectic lives. The faint electric hum of the cars going past was disconcertingly silent and yet the noise of countless advertising screens with their pristine voices and pre-programmed charm was suffocating. What the hell had happened to the world?
Ms. Porter smiled, brushed back the flaming red strands from her face and leaned in closer. ‘W-what’s that?’ she asked, stammering a little. Her hand was poised over a notepad, pen at the ready. She was pretty, for a journalist.
‘I investigate deaths, make some notes and log them in a government database.’
‘You mean, like a detective, right?’ she said.
‘No,’ Harlan replied, chiding. ‘Not like a detective. Not murders or suicides. Natural deaths.’
Ms. Porter made a small sound in her throat and threw down her pen. Her cheeks flushed and she started gathering up her things. ‘I think I’ve made a mistake. I thought you had something worth telling me.’
Harlan lurched across the little table, ignored the looks that passers-by gave him. He put a firm hand on the journalist’s arm and stared her straight in the eye. ‘Please, Ms. Porter,’ he said. ‘I’m not a time waster.’
The journalist froze for a moment, her bag hanging half-packed over one arm. After a few seconds, she set her notepad back down on the table and poured herself a cup of tea. ‘Go on,’ she said.
Harlan slumped back in his chair and closed his eyes. ‘Back at the turn of the century, thousands were dying each year from seemingly preventable causes. A heart attack for a guy who’d never tasted a vegetable in his life, a fatal trip down the stairs for someone whose shoelace was untied, cancer for a woman who’d survived if she’d known the health benefits of nuts and green tea. All preventable things, but so easily overlooked by most. So, the government decides to start recording the cause of so-called “ordinary deaths” and then it starts sending out advice based on this data.’
‘What’s so bad about that?’
‘Nothing was,’ Harlan said. He sat up and started stirring his tea absently. ‘That is, until the companies got involved.’
Harlan nodded. ‘I’d been doing this job for six years and then one day I go to record the death of a big-time banker in the city. His car swerved off the road, he hit a traffic signal and went through the windscreen. The cause? He was trying to read a billboard advertising life insurance. Ironic, right? It turns out that only half of it was visible from the road and he must have been trying to see the rest. So, what’s the message? Focus on the road and don’t look at advertising. It should already be commonsense, but the advertisers and corporations know how the human mind works. As soon as the government starts aggressively tackling this tendency, they have a riot on their hands. They lose their sponsors’ funding and their ratings plummet.’
Ms. Porter rolled her eyes. ‘So what? That’s not news, that’s life.’
Harlan smiled knowingly. ‘You’re impatient, aren’t you? Anyway, I start getting handed investigations into deaths where the scene’s been tampered with. Time and time again, objects are removed and crucial elements don’t slot together. A housewife dies of electrocution in
the bathtub. Her hair was mostly dry when we found her, so she must have dried it, but where was the hairdryer? Nowhere to be found—it had been removed. Another case of a child dying from suffocation while asleep at night. No sign of a forced entry or a struggle. The child always slept with a mountain of stuffed toys, according to the parents. They were gone by the time we arrived.’
‘That’s… suspicious,’ Ms. Porter said, feverishly scribbling down notes.
‘It’s more than suspicious,’ Harlan said. ‘It’s damn twisted, that’s what it is.’
‘What exactly are you saying, Harlan?’
Harlan stood, collecting his coat. He lit a cigarette in cupped hands and blew out a puff of smoke. ‘I’m saying don’t fuck with the people in charge. Government, business, whatever. You’ll wire the money to my account?’
The journalist nodded and started tapping a number into her phone. ‘Thank you for your time. I’ll get this online first thing tomorrow.’
‘See that you do.’
Harlan hailed a cab, took a few deep drags on his cigarette and extinguished it on the pavement. Seconds later, somewhere in the city, a camera would spot the litter and add a fine to his account. As Harlan climbed inside the cab, a screen burst into life and a government message started playing, the artificial voice smooth and flawless:
‘Good day, citizen. Smoking tobacco once accounted for millions of deaths each year. Thanks to your government’s dedicated efforts, you can still enjoy the great taste of tobacco without the risk of death. Next time you light up, take a moment to appreciate your disease-free lungs and donate to the government that cares. Why, just last year—’
Harlan groaned and muted the display. ‘Commercial district, please,’ he said to the driver. He put his feet up on the headrest of the seat in front and tried to get some sleep. As he was conveyed smoothly across the city, a thousand tiny screens blinked in and out of life, all spreading the good word.
‘Good day, citizen. Did you know staring at a screen for excessive periods can cause eye strain and lead to undesirable effects such as blindness, obesity and even death? Just last year almost six million people died from preventable diseases such as these. So, that’s why we created Eyesavers, the revolutionary new way to protect your vision and your brain. Next time you’re online, remember to purchase a pair of Eyesavers, provided for your well-being by the government that cares. If you found this advice useful, please consider making a donation. Be safe and stay alive!’