Paul A Green
Shadowing the City
from Radial City
Do Not Enter This Room
Low-level Bureau employees glance furtively at the yellow stenciled lettering as they hurry past the massive door of the Operations Centre. They don’t linger. Something vibrates at low frequency beyond the cracked plaster-work or beneath the worn carpets. Processes vital to the future well-being of Radial City are ongoing and cannot be interrupted.
Such processes are not explained in the Bureau’s induction handbook, but as these clerks and cleaners wheel their trolleys around the dim curve of this windowless corridor they must sense - perhaps via a slight queasiness, a dull ache in their skulls - that they are passing through a danger zone. The pastel Neo-Futurist wall posters might seek to reassure them. “Radial City - Your Business Hub!” But despite the glimmer of recessed lights the shadowy alcoves between the cable ducts seem to darken momentarily as these minor operatives struggle to keep on track with their productivity targets.
And it’s only when the latest group have scurried past that a qualified Technical Officer strides quickly into view, produces his biometric card and swipes it through a discrete slit beside the door. He must prepare himself for his session before the Portals.
Clusters of monitors glow in the half-light. Officer Van de Graeff tries to adjust his eyes to the flickering gloom, and fiddles anxiously with his grimy wire-framed spectacles as he crosses the tiled floor to his Station. Unlike many Officers, some of whom have been recruited from local Psychiatric Institutes, he is not driven by metaphysical or mystical compulsions, but he is still over-awed by the responsibilities of his mission and his role in in Operation Cradle. He is tasked to compile weekly reports but he is keenly aware that he could be an unreliable narrator. “Multiplicity propagates across the Polyverse at sub-luminal speeds…” according to one of the standard Bureau manuals. But when events are unfolding in all their eventualities, how can he manage them as a single line of characters on a page?
Van de Graeff sits in the high-backed leather chair ( “the throne” in Officer jargon) and logs on. He believes his password is still “gnOmon*51” . He can’t help muttering it as he fumbles the keys, hoping that the scanners in the ceiling can’t lip-read.
The Portal interface opens on an image from a cam high on one of the concrete gargoyles overlooking the main concourse of the financial district. The Money Exchangers, in their traditional brown trousers, move in apparently random Brownian motion between the trading kiosks. They hurriedly swap slips of paper or key in data on the counter consoles.
The sun glares down through the plaza’s glass dome as they swarm back and forth. Their shadows are sharply defined, as if they’re being stalked by busy black homunculi.
No surprises here, for this is a default location. Officers have a special responsibility to monitor - or attempt to monitor - activities in this zone. If there’s the slightest blurring of certainty about actions and transactions here, any hint of alt-futures in the ghosting of a hand that moves away from a console instead of towards it, or the shadow of a doubt in the shading of a face perusing a share statement, then the Officer must track in fast and try to keep up with the potential meta-temporal mutation. Van de Graeff is all too aware of his responsibilities as he selects the on-screen menu that will trigger the Probability Waves.
The image shudders, narrows to a slit, darkens - and splits open again in a painful blaze of light. But the picture’s grainy now, pixellating around the edges; and the small figures darting around on the concourse like tiny fish in a tank emit a faint phosphorescent trail as they perform their ritual intersections. The Officer breathes deeply and tries to concentrate. But he will only know what he’s looking for when he’s found it.
Officer Van de Graeff doesn’t really understand how Probability Waves work. He only knows that they can be focused, for short periods of time, on a small area of the City. A practiced operator like himself can even zoom in and track individuals as the radiating Waves (supposedly) reveal the target straying into alternate time-lines, but the technology is in its early stages and only works intermittently, with curious side-effects. He’s even read a memo ( now deleted from the files) implying that Operation Cradle has already been responsible for some unpleasant accidents in public places. Yet right now as he strokes the console trackball and stares into the screen he’s more concerned with certain whispers circulating in the Bureau canteen - that the very act of witnessing events via the Rays could feed back to the observer, somehow destabilising their being-in-the-world, distorting their actual bodily framework perhaps…
Van de Graeff grips the arms of the throne, then reaches again for the console. He must control the sweats and remember he is here to do a job. He scans the scurrying figures - and zooms in on a stocky man with a moustache who’s carrying a briefcase. From previous forays the Officer knows that this is the CEO of Beaverdale Securities, although Van de Graeff has privately named him The Walrus, on account of his permanent expression of righteous indignation. The Walrus is always a prime target. Any hint of alternative outcomes of his behaviour might have serious implications for the market right across the Fatlands.
As the Walrus target strides towards the walkway leading to the Beaverdale Tower, Van de Graeff notices a shadowy form budding off from its corpulent abdomen, that inflates into a grayish semi-transparent clone. The Officer immediately recognizes the alt.time leakage as the Walrus time-clone turns away from the walkway and veers back in the direction of the trading kiosks.
At the nearest one, Van de Graeff recognizes the indistinct form of “Johnny” Haruni, marketing guru of Astral Corp, Radial City’s biggest media conglomerate. “Now you see him, now you don’t, “ to quote the hookline of the Invisible Girls’ greatest hit. The smoky image of Haruni is casually- too casually - leaning against the counter reading The Daily Telegram. If The Walrus could conceivably enter some kind of deal with Haruni ,the divergent futures market could move into a new phase of exponential fission.
Van de Graeff tries for an extreme close-up on the clone’s face, in the hope of reading its lips. This could be his big one, that will give him a bonus and special privileges in the Hospitality District. But, as so often happens when the Rays open a time-slit, the mustachioed face morphs and a new head pops out of its fat cheek, to drag its torso off in yet another direction, or dimension; and then everything blurs into multiple over-exposure; and collapses into a single portly shadow, now stomping urgently towards the men’s room. Then the screen blanks. SYSTEM ERROR!
I can’t be blamed for losing the information flow. Technology failed again. They always fail to listen. I was instead consulted. “Perhaps you’re not cut out for surveillance.” They repeated it nicely and quietly. They were sending the message to me appropriately. “ We need to observe your operation.” They have planned the action to happen in three days. I have no plan. Their observations are ongoing, again.
I decide to walk home instead of taking the tram with its package of Bureau people, all those jolly but garrulous operatives from Domestic Services or Data Reclamation. For I have decided to use longer sentences that can’t be interrupted. “Of course, “ said a Data Reclamation man clutching a box of chocolates, “ we know as a Level Seven you can’t really talk about work. But you can make light conversation.” I wanted to make heavy love instead but no-one was available.
I walked up Progression Avenue under the dusty trees. The hot pavements were striped diagonally. The shadows were rich black, almost too rich, and I had to adjust my glasses yet again. This sense of something dark flickering at the edge of one’s vision - or visions. So many residual side-effects - special effects even - from working In the Operations room.
Perhaps this chiaroscuro phenomenon contributed to my confusion when I arrived at the junction by the Retro Tyre Plant, where Progression Avenue bifurcates into Mandrill Parade and Dworkin Road. Normally I’d alight from the tram here and take the right hand route up Dworkin Road towards the Bungalow District and my modest realistically priced dwelling in Hengist Close.
But I’d perhaps had an overfill of modesty. The thought of treading this predictable path suddenly repelled me. I stopped, keeping calm, trying to sustain long sensible sentences in my head, staying stable, feet on the hot asphalt. No need to be so random. At my age. My wise words would control me. I stared at the white hyphenation of the road markings.
Then, with a flash and crackle from its overhead line, a tram drew up behind me. The usual persons streamed out, several men in Bureau uniforms laughing at the punch-line of some obscure joke, a woman carrying a plaster religious statue in a miniature shopping trolley - and a young woman in dark glasses. I couldn’t place her for a second. Or maybe there was a longer time-lapse as she adjusted the strap of her canvas bag. I’d seen that pert profile and its bob of dark hair as a grey image in The Radial Times. I was glimpsing the artist Amelia Brunskill in the act of turning her head away as she swung off left towards the Parade.
I followed her swinging bag, with who knows what cargo of subversive manifestos. For artistes were part of the business model, hers might be a future pathway to trace. I followed her legs in their dark stockings and maroon pencil skirt. Or I followed those eyes concealed in black perspex, hoping for a glance, a flash…
After a couple of hundred meters, she turned into the entrance of Tompion Mansions, that huge decaying block of peeling white paint and collapsing balconies. A suitable refuge for bohemian riff-raff. Mrs Van de Graeff insists its proximity has affected property values in the Bungalow District, she’s talked about it to Jack Hague on Astral FM 93.7. Please, somebody, note I do my best to normalize my excessive peaks and troughs when logging these events. The young woman was turning, that’s all. I was not stalking, not staking anything out. Merely following a moving body.
Then her profile seemed to fragment, as if it was made of dried pigment, cracking into an irregular mosaic across my lenses. Her fractions, her fractal selves just floated away into the blur of overgrown shrubs that obscured the entrance. She was all gone.
I know this was an illusion, a mere side-effect induced by those long hours in front of the screen. But I wandered home the long way, close to tears. The imagery presaged her inevitable bodily decay and trans-dimensional death.
TIME OF SESSION: 1.30 AM.
OPERATOR: VAN DE GRAEFF@STATION 42
OBSERVED BY: **************
SESSION OBJECTIVE: ALERT BLUE (STANDARD) - MONITOR/REPORT PROBABILITY ANOMALIES IN LOCATION 23.878.005.94.9 (FINANCIAL PLAZA)
TARGET PROFILE: “WALRUS” (SIC) RE BEAVERDALE FUTURES, REPEAT ATTEMPT.
SESSION PLAN: PENDING
Night shift. Officer Van de Graeff sits awkwardly on his throne. His fingers hover over the keyboard, but he doesn’t know where to start any more. He cannot even begin to file the mandatory Action Plan for this session because all actions are possible, even probable, in the grand un-peeling of divergent time-slips, so what’s the point? The times they are a-shifting.
But Observers won’t take the point, the point that keeps scattering itself across space-time into infinity... He knows their cams are on his case, that the system is logging all his on-screen activities in the belief that he’ll discover more evidence of the Walrus’s hypothetical alt.world transactions. No detail is too tiny for the Bureau. Anything - a wink, a wank, a smirk, a phantom handshake - can be factored into the Bureau’s long-range financial models. If the Walrus was even considering a Beaverdale sell-off…
Van de Graeff gazes into the screen, with its quivering image of an empty plaza. A cleaner trundles his cart around the trading kiosks, or rather various pale permutations of him take alternative routes , flickering in and out of existence like phantom dots in a moire
pattern. Van de Graeff still has to tell himself that this isn’t an optical or digital special effect, somehow inserted between the scene and the screen. This is real-time.
Then he sees his artist-in- residence hovering on the steps of the Beaverdale Tower. Her face is reflected in its black glass frontage. Correction: her faces are reflected in its black glass frontages which tremble at the edge of focus. What is she doing or undoing here? Filaments extend from the finger tips as she walks into a second life. Or a third way. The paths split and he feels that individual photons are bouncing back through the screen like bullets bombarding his forehead, smartly targeting the pineal gland. No, he must focus on his field work, keep spellbound by his quantized voyeurism.
She enters the dim-lit lobby via a revolving door; and another edition of her swings out and exits. He decides to focus his attention on the escapee, this sudden mind-change is more exciting. Perhaps she’ll return to Tompion Mansions, light candles and dance in front of the mirror. As he realigns the coverage to focus on this receding figure, he scarcely notices the recurring ping in his headphones that warns him against over-riding the default location settings.
En route to the Mansions there were a few minor diversions as if she had been tempted to turn back but I kept the trackball steady on her glowing path through the sea of possibilities. She’s entering the Mansions. For a few seconds there’s obstruction, amorphous clumps of darkness - is her building destroyed in some darker mix of probabilities - but I’ve managed to keep deep focus, into an attic. She removes her jacket and has started to unzip her skirt.
They - all of you - must know my surveillance is protective, I want the best possible lives for her, she has nothing to fear. Door opens, quick shot of a narrow white bed. Will she touch her ghostly body with cautious fingers? My thought-spasms shame me. Lust is an instability factor across the whole City.
But she’s re-emerged, in paint-stained jeans. She’s taking spray cans and brushes and tools in a holdall. All this is sharply defined now, no blur at the edges. She’s off into the City again.
She’s moving down the Parade, crouching in the centre of the road, making a silvery dotted line of cyphers across the asphalt - a line that forks - and loops - and forks again. Within minutes the whole intersection of Mandrill Parade and Dworkin Road is covered in an intricate pattern of lines and spotty intersections like neural networks in a great brain.
But my connection is terminated.
END OF SESSION: 2.23
SESSION PLAN: NOT FILED, NO INTENDED OUTCOMES, NOT RELATED TO STRATEGIC PLAN
TARGET: NOT LOCATED
COMMENTS: DEVIANT OBJECTIVES, UNAUTHORIZED LOCALE CHANGES
GRADE: UNSATISFACTORY. SUGGEST VAN DE GRAEFF UNDERGO PROFESSIONAL REDEVELOPMENT
Mrs Van de Graeff is enjoying the opening of the Radial Artists Circle exhibition at the Medusa Galleries, opposite the Polyphonic Hall. She relishes her role as Committee Chair, briefing the journalists from the Radial Times and Astral FM. They follow her with microphones and notebooks as she strolls between the exhibits. “Here we have one of Arnold Toobey’s orb-paintings, spiritual containment executed in pastels, all souls as rolling eye-balls on fields of dark green…”
Officer Van de Graeff hovers near the door, sipping a flute of champagne. He’s trying to stay inconspicuous. This is Hermia’s moment. Anyway, he doesn't want light conversation about his workplace. The Bureau has advised him to take extended leave on half-pay, to prepare him for re-training, probably as a mere Data Reclamation Officer, but that doesn’t worry him any more.
For he feels hollowed out, almost burnt out by the sheer intensity of his old role. Even now, scanning the room, he fears the outlines of the women in their floaty dresses will start fraying at the edges, first signs of an alt.time leakage. He hopes wealthy patrons like the Walrus and Haruni will stay away this year. Their very presence could collapse his space-time continuum. The raw phenomenology of his minute-by-minute existence looms over him. A random childhood image flashes past: the skeleton of a small raptor swaying in a dark kitchen doorway. Random. The adjective of choice.
Now Hermia has finished her briefing and is sweeping towards him, hand in hand with a figure in a green gown. Confused for a second by the formal attire, his recognition falters. “ Esmond, let me introduce Amelia Brunskill, an artiste with a very select following. Did you know she’s been commissioned to make a series of time-tableaux all around the City? Wonderful!” Then she catches sight of the Walrus, who has just entered, looking bemused amid the canopes and wickerwork sculptures. “Ah - our dear Trustee…” She’s off, leaving Van de Graeff staring absently at Amelia’s silver shoes.
“Your wife is exaggerating, I’m afraid, “ shouts Amelia, over the increasing chatter. “It’s just some little plaques. About things that may never happen.” She gestures towards the door; and Van de Graeff follows her on to a small balcony overlooking the ornamental lake in front of the Polyphonic Hall, where two old men are fiddling with model steam-boats in the sunshine.
He can’t make small talk. He wants to say I have no character I am a void through which fuzzy images slide in silence. He wants to look deeply in her grey mascara’d eye, and can’t, so peers over the balcony rail. “What do you think those Elders are doing? Are they doing their “thing”?”
“They’re re-enacting a battle,” she says absently, after a few seconds silence. “The Battle of Radial City.”
“But we’re many kilometres from the coast, “ he responds, suddenly feeling boorish for his scepticism.
“You don’t get it.” She’s brightly dismissing his fogeyish literalism. “There was a battle for Radial City at the end of the last century. Between the Factories. Before the Bureau took over. Gunships came up the North Wharf Canal and bombarded the old powder-mills. Where the bungalows are now. I’ve seen the memorial.”
“I’ve never seen a memorial for any such battle.” He’s surprised by the vehemence of his reply.
“Perhaps it’s an alternative retro-scenario.” Amelia smiles.
“What do you know about alternative scenarios?” It’s very bright on the balcony, he can’t stop blinking and it’s getting very hard to concentrate, he’s confused by conflicting desires, he has to be very careful to give nothing away about operational matters. Operation Cradle. Who gave it this absurd name? What’s being nurtured here?
“I’ve witnessed them. Odd moments. My split-level moments. Usually brief superimpositions - maybe retro, or slipping sideways, I never know for certain, because I’m an artist, not an historian.” She notices the flicker of his upper lip, the rictus in his jaw and pauses.
“You need to be very careful.” This is dangerous and extraordinary. An involuntary slippage into alt.time perception - minus the elaborate tracking technology of the Bureau and its deadly Waves.
A mass of whitish cloud is moving slowly across the sky, obscuring the glare, fading that precise definition of Amelia's silhouette against the gallery’s stonework. He tries to frame a further question, but Amelia’s glance swings towards the door, where the Walrus has suddenly appeared, as if teleported.
“Hermia says this is an important patron and I need to entertain him. Excuse me…” The Walrus, ignoring Van de Graeff, grunts importantly in her ear and grips her arm as she guides him back into the salon.
I’m in a state. I’m signed on the dotty line between two worlds. They keep shifting the shapes, losing my plot. They’re in it for the money, up their own bifurcating arses. There will be voices from a megaphonic time-cone across the blur of generations, worlds generating madly across the screens. I dabbled in the ergonomics of multiple universes from my plastic throne, as the identities stole up on me. Again and again Amelia is deeply fluxed by bogus execs, multi-tasked into concubinage by the hyper-cubing of all possible dimensions. That’s a perversion of event horizons. I am only the scrabbler of the shadow realms.
Paul A Green © 2009/10