The Gnomon
By: Matthew Battles | Categories: Original Fiction, Sci-Fi, Serial Fiction

Inside the conference hall, it was all buzz and business. Vaporous lights girdled the high rafters; queues formed and broke, stirring with restless energy; sandwich wraps and skewered fruit arrived on platters. T-shirt tycoons and skittle-eyed wannabes trolled the floors, their IDs windmilling from multicolored lanyards. Sunlight filtered in from on high, beyond the banks of escalators giving on broad atriums that pattered with the sound of soft shoes and falling water. And for awhile at least, it seemed as if the hungers of the mundane world could be held at bay — as if possibility still reigned — as if the vexing present, too, were unevenly distributed, and the horrors, biding their time, receded beyond the horizon of the week.

I had joined the swishing queues and collected my badge; now I wandered aimlessly, fiddling with my lanyard, trying to puzzle out the meaning behind its pleasant purple color, wondering what inscrutable caste it signified. My presentation (on crowdsourcing distributed libraries of emotional solidarity) was scheduled for the next day, which left me with a night to kill. I could wander the city’s tourist district, check out the trade show exhibits, or return to my room to see what was on cable. I was on my way to the escalators when a friend, Dirado Z_., caught my eye through a crowd of nerdcore groupies and waved me over. When I told him I wanted to head back to the hotel for a nap, he feigned astonishment, reporting that he planned to have a look at something called “The Gnomon” before the show floor got too busy. When I only cocked my eyebrow in reply, he grabbed my shoulder and steered me towards the exhibits.

The exhibition booths were contrived of the standard vanity fair — spike-haired suits stood in carpeted booths extolling the virtues of server racks and search engines, HD webcams and ergonomic furniture. One booth featured a kind of foam-block recliner wired up to record an impression of your body, to be transmitted as a sketch-up to a factory in China, where a bespoke office chair would be extruded from massive 3D printing machines. I watched Dirado recline in the spongy block for a full minute while his bodyform was recorded, soft techno sifting from expensively small speakers overhead.

After a meandering search, we found our way to “The Gnomon,” which sat on a sleek pedestal in a small untenanted exhibition booth near the center of the hall. A black cube — though “black” is a term entirely inadequate to name the uncanny depths it expressed — it appeared to be fashioned of some kind of mineral, more likely living stone than any manufactured composite. The thing measured perhaps a cubic foot, and appeared for all the world perfectly solid — although its solidity seemed to signal a daunting weight balancing there upon the narrow column of the pedestal. Its Euclidean solidity was dizzying, almost horrifiying; into its perfect planes one felt or dreamed oneself beginning to fall. I leaned in close, my toes cantilevering beneath me to hold my balance: the surface appeared not precisely uniform, but scaled, dappled with interlocking aureoles of obscurely crystalline difference. The scaling seemed to drop away inward, and my eye wanted to slide down through the subtle striations forever. Transcending the fuzzy aureolar array were larger patterns — fluid deltas, glacial black tides compounded of depths and time beyond reckoning. It was as though a prism from the core of a future earth — a planet whose ancient fires were banked, whose torsions of magma had stilled and gone dark — had been sectioned away and deposited here upon a pedestal flanked by two potted palms, which rustled and toiled in the center’s turbulent forced air.

We wondered if it was some new kind of server configuration, perhaps a cloud storage medium or wireless technology. But the thing seemed to have no socket or dock, no antennae or proximity hubs, no interface, no display. It didn’t even seem to draw on any external power source. The booth was similarly inscrutable, offering no indication of purpose, no documentation at all besides the riffling ripstop banner with the word GNOMON emblazoned in tasteful type hanging overhead. But something about the abyssal, faintly sparkling quoz of the thing kept Dirado and me transfixed there for — for how long? Time slipped. Others arrived. When I tore myself away, a sizable crowd had formed; I stalked back to the escalators with the heat of many bodies soaked into my clothes. Only when I had reached the upper-level atrium did it strike me as strange that no one had dared reach out to touch The Gnomon.

The rest of the evening passed as I had expected: dinner and drinks with people I knew only from the web, followed by a desultory rave. At dinner, a woman checking her phone murmured that The Gnomon had friended her. And by the time we reached the party, it seemed everyone was checking to see whether The Gnomon was friend or follower; whether the stream of speculative #gnomon tweets contained any plausible information; and who was currently sharing location with the enigmatic black cube. It was the kind of buzz I recognized from other conferences, and it gave me a headache; alone, I made my way back to my room.

That night I lay beneath a heavy hotel duvet and listened to the hum of the air conditioner — a low oscillation, which contemplation revealed to be a work of parts. The dominant voice was baritone, throaty and sharp-featured, which rode a basso continuo that throbbed in the jaw. In their midst, weaving in and out of the waveforms, blew an airy, rattling descant of white noise blended with the faintest whiff of pitch. As I continued to lie stiffly beneath the covers, sweating and listening, a long polyrhythmic theme began to suggest itself. There was a pattern to this braided oscillation as low tones caught up with high and passed them, only to close in on one another again. As the patterns merged and the long periodicity drew to a close, a figure seemed to coalesce out of the glowering darkness — an image of blackness beyond the night, of plane converging on plane over uncanny depths. The Gnomon! As if the air conditioner music had summoned it, there it hovered — faint and transient but distinct in my mind’s eye. And now I rolled and twisted; I fluffed the pillow and stuffed it between my knees; I flicked on the nightstand light and stared at the plaster overhead. But wherever my eyes came to rest, The Gnomon burned like an afterimage in black light.

I flung off the covers and paced the floor. As if riffing on the change in pressure, the air conditioner opened a fresh movement, a belching, didgeridoo drone. I stepped to the door and peered out into the hall; several people paced in their private nocturnal turmoils. I quietly pulled the door to and stood with my ear pressed against its cool enameled surface, wondering if they too were seeing The Gnomon. When sleep finally came, it was fitful and humid.

In the morning I made a tiny pot of coffee, pressed my shirt with the hotel iron, and strode from the room feigning refreshment. I was fine until I reached the conference hall; having arrived early for my talk, I stopped in the atrium to look out upon the show floor. A concentrated, corpuscular bustle seemed to be gathering amidst the exhibits, centered (surely, I thought) on The Gnomon. I watched, letting my eyes swim out of focus, until the phone in my pocket chimed its alarm, letting me know that it was time for my talk to begin. I shook off the stupor and headed for the upper floors where the conference rooms were found.

The talk started out in promising fashion. My co-panelists were compelling and popular figures in the world of crowdsourced emotional solidarity, and from the sound of key-tapping in the room I could tell our audience was engaged in the presentation. But as our talk wore on, I found myself fighting to remember the topic. The room was warming, and seemed to hum; the key-tapping died off to a trickle. Noting a sudden darkness filling in my peripheral vision, I looked behind me: the screen, which had a moment ago been filled with bright, text-laden slides, had gone black — not the slack gray of an unlit screen but a projected black. A scaly, aureolar black of numberless depths.

At that moment a great tone rang throughout the building, clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that everyone paused while its last overtones played out. And first by ones and twos, and then in a general throng, the audience wandered towards the door and streamed into the halls. Again and again the tone rang out, exciting the very finest hairs into sympathetic vibration. We presenters found ourselves drawn as irresistibly as our audience.

In the hall I found Dirado Z_. He was standing in a corner where the hall turned towards the show floor, cringing in an eddy of the human tide that filled the corridor. It’s throbbing, he said, gripping my shirt with a wild look in his eye. It’s calling to us! The tones seemed no longer to ring or tintinnabulate, but to blare; there was a harsh note mixed in that grew with each distinct pulse of sound. Dirado looked towards the exhibit hall, and his eyes goggled in horror; he clapped his hands to his ears and staggered off, slowly battling the current of conference goers now streaming towards the exhibit hall. I watched his half-bald head lurching in the patterned gloom, seeming to gather speed as Dirado made his way towards the atrium and then out-of-doors.

Following Dirado’s example, I plugged my ears with my fingers, digging in until they were sore. The tones still reached me through my bones, but their power was diminished. And yet unlike Dirado, I fell in with the crowd, compelled by curiosity mingled with some residual compulsion. Shuffling with the horde, I turned a corner that gave on the landing from which the escalators dropped into the exhibit hall. There I stopped, transfixed by the scene that played out below me.

The people streaming down the escalators joined queues that bent themselves into arcs, forming a great churning spiral of humanity spinning slowly on its axis at the center of the hall. The exhibits themselves had been trampled; coils of crepe and drifts of royal blue fabric caught on the wreckage of shelving and folding chair, of splined plastic and shattered veneer. The spiraling crowd shambled on through the ruins, dragging it with their feet, mixing it into so much particolored flotsam. And in their midst The Gnomon glowered: still erect upon its pedestal, a throbbing core of darkness dragging all towards it. In the spiral’s innermost circle, hands reached out to touch the Gnomon, a wickerwork of arms turning slowly like the spokes of some inexorable wheel. Outward from the Gnomon jetted pullulating ribbons of black as if driven by some nameless wind; they whipped over the heads of the pilgrims, who raised their arms in supplication. The urge to follow was unbearable; I shut my eyes against it, knelt down and touched my forehead to the cool glass beside the escalator. And amid the terrible tolling and the rank odor of compulsion, the lights of the hall began to shut down, one by one; and the fascinating darkness grew until it held illimitable dominion over all.

***

Help HiLobrow start a Twitter meme that promotes this story! Type #gnomon, then bit.ly/HiLoGnomon, then a few words and/or URL explaining how The Gnomon is currently forcing you to waste time online. Examples:

#gnomon http://bit.ly/HiLoGnomon browsing gardening sites, aka flower porn
#gnomon http://bit.ly/HiLoGnomon Geeking out over cameras: http://www.flickr.com/cameras/
#gnomon http://bit.ly/HiLoGnomon Sig Obj stories about bad parents: http://significantobjects.com/tag/bad-parents/

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Matthew Battles, Hilobrow's cofounder, has written about language, history, and the natural world for many publications. When he makes poems, he puts them here. A fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, he's also the author of Library, An Unquiet History.