by David Stevens
Listen to this story
Narrated by the author
Tonight, we shall demonstrate that categories can be usurped by force for a most dramatic effect.
Transitions are mundane: they occur all the time. They are also liminal: suffused with ambiguity, and hence opportunity. Think of this: a woman locks up a shop. It is early evening. It is dark and cool as she leaves the warmth and light of the premises. At the same time, she is comforted by the feel of the woolen scarf around her neck, brushing her skin, not because it warms her in the present, but because of associations with childhood — an adult caring for her, tucking her in, ensuring she is dressed properly, fussing, making her the center. Outside the door, there is the shock and reassurance of a new but familiar smell, the hint of wood smoke. She must turn to lock the door, so that she faces that which she is leaving. The keys mark her possession and control, but they are used only as she stands outside her domain. The street exists for traffic, but though her hands fuss with keys, on a macro level she is motionless with respect to the street itsel —
Yes, I understand your impatience. You have lost an important man who was carrying a valuable item. You have film of him until just before he disappeared. Of course. If you had film of him after he disappeared, you would not be here.
Look. A man wins the lottery. He is excited, this changes his life. What are the odds? Another man is a courier, who each week delivers a check to the latest lucky lottery winner. One man is leaping up and down, the other is a little bored. You see? Except, we are not bored — we enjoy our work.
I shall get to the point.
The lady at her shop — this sort of event occurs all the time. This particular evening, though, is different. The energy of the city and a conspiracy of traffic lights throw up an attractor in the murmuration of commuters. It is one of those rare but real periodic pauses in busyness that, when they occur during a working day, may generate an otherworldly sense of peace and relief in those caught within their field.
However, it is night. And another way of describing a lack of traffic is: an absence of witnesses. She hunches with keys at the door over the lock with her back to the street. Silent and unseen, a man stands behind her. He is very much within the boundary of her personal spa —
You would move the event further on? Delay does not reduce liminality. A woman leaves a shop late at night — even more profound. Or, a woman does not leave the shop at all. Fearful, she remains after hours. She is in a place that is not meant to be occupied. The strange noises. Passing voices. What is a shop? A place for people to attend during business hours. But in the twilight afterwards, as the floor is swept, the money counted, stock returned to its place — a legitimate extension, but increasingly fraught. To push that boundary further though — have you never felt it yourself, in the office on the weekend, with nobody around, each ringing footstep a condemnation of your presence?
Do you feel it now?
Transformation by force: a man enters the shop at noon. He walks through the door to the tinkle of the bell. Once inside, he reaches around and throws the bolt of the lock. He twists the sign from Open to Closed. He faces the woman in the store as she stands alone — the power of the words ‘in broad daylight’.
Others with whom you have consulted — I know them, they do not know me — will express to you that categories are only a tool of modeling, that in fact all places are on a continuum. No. Transitions may occur over time, but is noon twilight? Is a full moon a new moon? For the person proffered a cup of tea by a sinister old lady, is there a spectrum between arsenic and cyanide? Please. Analysis requires rigor.
Once upon a time, there was a man. He walked down a corridor in a busy airport of a major city. No, this is an appropriate way to describe it. Yes, I will use such language in my report. Everything is a story, and we must not fool ourselves otherwise. He was a handsome prince, forced by circumstance to carry out a task he could not trust to a courtier. Over his shoulder he carried a battered and worn satchel. In this way he hoped he would not alert anyone that within there was treasure.
The prince walked a corridor devoid of doors. It is a utilitarian walkway. The wall on the left hid from view, in order: some toilets; a janitorial supply room; and a series of offices of airport personnel. These offices in turn fronted another corridor, access to which required a security card, and a tolerance for boredom. The wall on the prince’s right was the back wall of inter alia, offices for several car hire agencies; a store selling metallic balloons and similar items to welcome weary travelers; and an information kiosk. All were entered from the front; none had a back entrance.
Naturally in this information-rich age of terror, there was a security camera at each end of the corridor. The images from the camera in the east show the prince entering. We see the people who entered a few minutes before him, and those who entered a few minutes afterwards. From the west end camera, we see the same folk traipsing along and emerging at the exit. All except our prince.
Of course we find this intriguing. We appreciate that for you, this is no cozy Agatha Christie locked room mystery. A prince and his treasure are missing. Heads and other body parts have been lopped. (The liminality of those places of parting, those dingy back rooms and midnight industrial areas!) Several organizations are on war footing. Rumbles normally subterranean are rising to the surface. But we are scientists. We must be dispassionate.
This is a First World country. Certifications are required. The security installers have passed certifications. There are stickers bearing dates and signatures. There can be no blind spot that is beyond the reach of the cameras. And there was not, at first. They were calibrated to overlap. Somewhere about the midpoint, we should be able to see the travelers from both cameras.
Who is to blame? That question assumes agency, and human free will does not assume a position of prominence in our theories. Everywhere we make spaces, defining volume with our constructions. Modern glades within groves. Rows of pallets. Stacks of cardboard boxes. Office partitions. Crawlspaces. Alleys. Pipelines. Warehouses. Graves. Storm drains. Wardrobes. The special place between the floor and the bed. Lines of cornstalks, the spaces between the fields. These are the contributions of agriculture, civilization, industrialization, urbanization. None of these developments were in the interest of individuals. Hunter-gatherers were always healthier than their sedentary counterparts. Longer lives, better teeth, less parasites. Villages and towns were death traps and plague pits. Before the rise of agriculture, the only corridors our ancestors constructed were lanes to concentrate migrating flocks and herds of animals to fields of slaughter. What installed this desire in us to create abattoir corridors for ourselves?
If there is to be blame, look at the universe, with its physical laws. At any temperature above zero Kelvin, nothing is truly at rest. Brownian motion, the transfer of energy between particles. Over time, the camera mounts at each end of the corridor shifted slightly. It would have been detected eventually, there are inspections for such things. But until that happened, the result was a blind spot. We measured its length. For your prince, it was six steps long.
Why assume enemy action? What enemy of yours is subtle or smart enough?
Yes, we knew it would be something like this. In a massively over-surveilled high-technology world, where else would someone disappear, but in a blind spot?
Consider: a woman walks home alone at night. She is grateful for the development of technology which means that her way is well lit. Electricity flows to the street lights above her head, installed by local authorities over many years. Expectations of these companies should not be high. After all, we see blunders at NASA and the NSA, which are much better resourced in PhDs and funds. The local agencies are purchased by conglomerations, wages are reduced — you see where I am heading. The lamps are not perfectly placed. Sometimes they are vandalized, or simply fail. The perverse result: gloom gathers like water in a deep pothole, for the darkness expelled from the other segments of her commute has been left a place to pool. When we dam, do we reduce the amount of water in the world? Not a jot. We simply increase the concentration of it in one area.
So then. The prince in the airport corridor. We have inspected the walls, the ceilings. There are no hidden exits, no rotating panels in the walls, no sign of disturbance in the structure, no challenges to the integrity of the fabric of the hallway. Our examination is thorough. There are no secrets.
Hmm, a conundrum. Come, let us reason together. The corridor is a continuum, just like a footpath: a series of stones placed in mud or water to ease traversal. The path is made up of the stones, not the spaces between. May I suggest for your consideration, an intersecting continuum, one composed of weakest links and blind spots? In the absence of perfect uniformity (see above: physical laws of the universe), there will always be a weakest spot in any system. Usually it will not matter — we are speaking relatively. The weakest spot may often be pretty damn strong. But here, a gap of six paces was enough.
You shake your head before I finish. What, do you picture the ceiling opening? Overhead tiles slid roughly across, the massive arms of a bull-headed man reaching down, crushing your prince to his huge leather chest to smother his screams? Do you think if there was just one more camera, you could have caught the image, and the mystery would be solved? You miss the point. The black hole of concentrated tenebrosity between the streetlights, where the shadows run thick and gather like molasses — it is denser darkness because of the streetlights. An extra streetlight would simply mean, this is not a place where the darkness gathers. But it would gather somewhere else. There is always a weakest link. And then the links are linked.
Something travelled through, passing from gap to gap, just as the handsome prince was there. Of course.
It is not a tiger. It is not just appetite and the transfer of energy from one creature to another. It is not an alien maw descending from the ceiling like an anaconda penis tipped with vagina dentata.
If the prince could be fished out of that oblivion, if he could be reconstructed from where he is spread over eleven dimensions, what could he tell you? The garbled meanderings of a tourist returned to Flatland from your world? See him stretched, ratcheted out of time, in a spectrum previously undreamed of. To capture all of that, well, that would be some security camera.
Perhaps I am too harsh on our ancestors. Maybe it was all inevitable. Early hunters adopted for themselves paths they thought created by animals tracking to and from waterholes. And so it began. A reasonable assumption, if not always correct.
Revert to the simple life. Lie naked in a field. Think yourself as safe as humans were before the first lean-to, the first crude copy of a cave scratched out of clay. But eventually you will fall asleep, and the dreams you dream are human constructions, tunnels through the mind and id: difficult to navigate, but the Minotaur is persistent.
If you were not bound and gagged — and if you were smarter — you might say something like, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We agree. That is why we are here tonight, in this particular building. Yes, we know that it is owned by your organization — legend says that a very long time ago, our group commenced as a cabal of financial analysts, tracing the movements of funds and changes in ownership of property. The channeling of such a quantity of numbers is guaranteed to take you to esoteric and forbidding places.
We waited, analyzing the chaotic dynamics around a number of your properties. Increased traffic flow, divergence of aircraft overhead, a spike in wrong telephone calls, the birth of two-headed calves — all the classic indicators.
Did you listen to the beginning of my report? Think of it: we stand unobserved — in your monitoring room. Unseeing eyes gaze at screens. We crunched the numbers, there were options. Not all of the scenarios required your men to die. They could have disappeared, but we have to be careful of our own disposition to irony. There is tradition, even for scientists. Spilled blood pays strange bills, and we have our fingers in so very many pies…
You cannot see the monitors. They reveal pandemonium. Things crescendo. Earlier this evening, I said scientists must be dispassionate. Do not be mistaken — I do not lack passion. I am a romantic. I stand in awe of mystery.
I need to know. I need to see. Even if imagination must fail, so that I could not even describe it to myself, even if I retain my identity for only a moment.
Shhh. Do not be afraid. You will not stare the gorgon in the face, I won’t let that happen. That is the point of you. A king, helpless in his own castle. His royal blood spilled, like so. Betrayed by, well, a nobody. You understand — the liminality.
• • •
The noise of a door opening where there is no door. A draft ensues. Air moves to solidify. Shadows shift to make shape. The floor creaks to signify mass. I hear deep breathing two feet above my head, creating a sense of size.
Something is standing behind me, something passing through. I turn, to provide meaning. I have to see.
please find enclosed, for your earliest attention, our memorandum of fees for services rendered.
© 2018 David Stevens, all rights reserved