Prose Header

The Lamp of the Body

by Joe Pitkin

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

part 1

When she was a little girl, Sandra thought that the Panopticon was the tallest building in the city. It made sense to her that the agency that watched over everyone would be perched like an eagle’s nest above the whole world.

In fact, she was a sophomore at Bart State College before she learned that the tallest building in the city did not house the Panopticon but rather the corporate headquarters of the Lighthouse Insurance Group. This building, called the Pharos, had stood mostly empty since the commercial real estate crash of the last decade.

Sandra’s confusion had been compounded by the fact that the symbol for the Panopticon, and the badge that Panopticon agents wore, was also a lighthouse, bearing the motto The Lamp of the City.

What Sandra had most wanted in life was to become a Panopticon agent. By the time Sandra learned that the Panopticon was mostly underground, beneath the stout little Art Deco building that had served as the Metropolitan Telephone Exchange in the previous century, she was studying double majors in archivistry and criminological inquiry.

The idea that she would be working underground had dulled her enthusiasm in a way that she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but by then she had finished her first two years of college and couldn’t bring herself to think of changing her majors.

Now, after seven years in the Traffic Safety Department, it was hard to remember how she had ever had any enthusiasm at all. She still took great care with her work, arriving a bit early each morning in her pressed suit and seating herself before the broad array of goggle boxes. But, each morning, her study of the traffic cameras had become a little more grim and fatalistic, and now she reviewed the screens as though she were a seer drawing a fortune from watching a flock of birds in flight.

Of course, much of the work in the Traffic Safety Department was carried out by Nemesis, the gigantic clacking computer that took up an entire room behind Sandra’s little office. Whenever a technician would open the door behind her, Sandra was overwhelmed by the horrible snapping and clicking racket of the computer’s decision shuttles like the sound of a thousand great mantis legs and mouths. A blast of heat would also emerge, momentarily overcoming the labored air conditioning in Sandra’s room.

Ten thousand cameras around the city deposited their findings with Nemesis, which would apply its mysterious algorithms to each image and decide which were anomalous. These images would appear on one of Sandra’s monitors.

Sandra had little background in informatics and was largely ignorant of the process that Nemesis used to decide which images were anomalous, insofar as a computer can be said to decide anything. Most of the images that Nemesis served her did not seem particularly anomalous: a bird entering the camera’s field of view; a car at a stop light flashing its headlamps at another car, perhaps in code but probably not.

Sandra made her own decisions about what was anomalous and what was not, using a mix of intuitions and common sense that, like the computer’s decision-making process, was mostly mysterious to her.

On one screen, a green Hudson Streamline Moderne had made a right turn onto Solomon Street without making a turn signal. The camera had gotten a good glimpse of the license plate; Sandra ran the numbers back into Nemesis and authorized a fine to be sent to the owner’s house. Sandra would sign off on twenty or thirty such fines today. This was perhaps the only part of her job that she enjoyed.

She enjoyed it perversely, knowing that the fine would arrive at the driver’s house as a nuisance or even as a hardship. The driver was only human, and Sandra authorized the fine without malice, perhaps even with a passing thought to the driver’s frailty. But it was also not so difficult to make a turn signal. The driver would never be perfect but he could be good, if only he really wanted to be good.

Then a new feed appeared on one of the monitors among the screens showing birds and flashing headlamps. The camera showed an intersection at the very center of the city, the crossing of Clay and Lukas Streets, where the Pharos Building stood.

The intersection was strangely empty for a moment, as though the traffic lights on Clay had failed to synchronize with those on Lukas. The only human figure on the screen was a young woman walking up the sidewalk of Clay. From the video feed, Sandra could not tell whether the walker was slender or scrawny, hipster or homeless.

The Pharos did not occupy the entire city block on which it stood: between the street and the skyscraper a line of dogwoods had been planted and overshadowed the sidewalk. Sandra had always regarded them a nuisance in her work.

If they did not stand there, the intersection cameras would give her an unobstructed view of the whole street. They had been planted decades ago when the Pharos had been erected; now, their twisted forms and sinewy bark suggested that they predated the Pharos, and indeed the entire city. They seemed the only living things to emerge out of the concrete at Clay and Lukas.

The young woman faced the camera in the video feed, standing across the street, partly shaded by the tree to the right of her. Then everything changed. The balance of light and shadow broke: the shadow of the tree seemed to grow in an instant to envelop the woman; an orange brightness rose around the edge of the video, as though a tower of fire had sprung up behind the tree, or the sun had descended to earth.

For a moment the brightness overtook the entire video feed and Sandra could see only white. As the light began to dim again, Sandra knew that an explosion had occurred, and she had already steeled herself for the horror that would appear when the brightness faded.

Yet what she saw was not what she had expected: the light dimmed as quickly as it had appeared, and the scene appeared exactly as it had before, with the exception that the woman in the video feed had clearly seen something as well. She appeared crouched at the edge of Sandra’s screen, sheltering herself behind the trunk of the dogwood nearest her. She remained that way a few seconds, still as a rabbit. When she rose again and began to walk shakily on her way, her face bore the marks of deep pain.

Sandra repeated the feed. Whatever disaster had occurred just off-camera, it had happened at the very center of the city. From Nemesis she requested the video feed from Lukas Street at the same intersection, as well as all of the feeds from adjacent intersections.

She spent the next hour poring over each video. But there was no anomaly in any other feed, except for the strange fact that the walking woman appeared entirely alone at the intersection of Clay and Lukas in the middle of the day. In no other video feed did light appear, or shadow; the woman herself was not even visible from the vantage of the Lukas Street camera. No calls had been made to the Panopticon regarding an explosion or fire or any other anomaly at the intersection of Clay and Lukas.

If the woman in the film had not been there, if it had not been clear that she had seen something, Sandra would have doubted that there had been anything there to see. In fact, despite the evidence of the walking woman, Sandra requested the entire morning’s video feed for the cameras at Clay and Lukas, on the assumption that the Clay Street camera would prove to be malfunctioning. Yet the rest of the feed suggested that the camera was working perfectly: the intersection was full of cars, the sidewalk full of pedestrians. The line of dogwoods bordered the street, still impossible to look beyond.

On one of her monitors a message arrived from Nemesis in the antique ASCII character set, like a communication from the previous century: You seem to be focusing on a specific camera feed. Would you like to report an anomaly? Y/N.

Sandra hit Y and began filling out the tedious form requesting that a supervisor investigate. Yet what was there to see, she thought to herself as she worked on the form. Sandra imagined Lieutenant Springer looking over the feed, declaring that the camera had malfunctioned, and deciding that Sandra was an alarmist or, worse, an unreliable witness.

She abandoned the form and returned to her observations of other cameras around the city, to whatever Nemesis had decided was worth human attention. A mousy woman on a cell phone drove through a red light on Plaisance Street; a plump, distraught-looking man sped through the McLoughlin Boulevard work zone at 18 miles per hour above the posted limit; two crows squabbled over a castaway hotdog on the corner of 2nd and Market.

Yet now all the scenes that Nemesis sent to her seemed trivial by comparison with what she had seen, or not seen, at the intersection of Clay and Lukas. She felt as though, confronted by that mysterious sight, she could no longer see anything for what it was.

For the rest of the day it was difficult for her to discriminate between the vital and the trivial: nothing in Sandra’s mind distinguished the running of a red light from two crows fighting over a hotdog. She wrote tickets for infractions that seemed now to weigh nothing in the cosmic balance. Or, rather, it felt as though there were no cosmic balance at all.

It occurred to her rationally that the woman running the red light could have killed somebody or been killed herself. Yet Sandra recorded the infraction as a kind of despair at the futility of recording it, as though she were authorizing a fine against an ocean wave or an early frost.

And, even after having lingered more than an hour on the sight of the strange woman and the light in the street, by the afternoon she couldn’t resist calling up once again the feed from the intersection of Clay and Lukas. She focused in on the face of the solitary woman. She asked Nemesis for a facial recognition.

The city had not yet completed its facial recognition census of the entire population. In those days, a citizen might still live anonymously, or as anonymously as anyone could hope in a city with two Panopticon television cameras at every intersection.

But Nemesis returned an answer quickly: apparently this woman was one of those criminals, or criminal suspects, or mentally ill, whose faces had first been archived in the database in the interest of public safety. Her name was Dora Martus, twenty-two years old, diagnosed on different occasions with schizotypal personality disorder, bipolar schizoaffective disorder, hysteria, paranoid dementia praecox with underlying hebephrenic subtype, psychasthenia, psychoactive substance abuse with acute hallucinosis, non-specific glossolalia, and involution melancholia. Her last known address had been Lundstrom Hall at Bartimaeus State College — the honors dormitory — four years ago.

Dora did not look familiar to Sandra, who knew most of the long-term homeless of the city by sight. They appeared in her monitors daily, several times a day, shuffling through her scenes like phantoms. Dora Martus, whoever she was, seemed to Sandra to be a visitor here, even though she had apparently been born in the city and had lived here at least until she was 18 years old. But Nemesis was of no more help in telling Sandra who the woman was.

The sky had clouded over when Sandra took the elevator back up to the surface at the end of the day. Sometimes, at the end of her shift, she stopped in at Mercury Retrograde for a drink instead of boarding the train north for her apartment. She thought to do that now; but, when she saw the real or affected happiness of the bar patrons in the front window, the thought of going in became unbearable, and she walked on in a barely perceptible despair, like a low fever. She walked aimlessly, or so she thought, though in the back of her mind she knew that she would wander to the intersection of Clay and Lukas.

Clay crossed Lukas only about twenty blocks from Panopticon Headquarters, and Sandra found herself at the intersection with a kind of surprise that was not really surprise, except that it surprised her how adept she had been at lying to herself about what she really wanted.

What she really wanted was to see the thing that Dora Martus had seen. But the intersection was unremarkable. Sandra found the dogwood that Dora Martus had crouched behind; Sandra had hoped that there would be some sign, even an ambiguous one, that whatever she and Dora Martus had seen there had really been something.

She thought of the many reports of UFOs during the Cold War, and of the stains and burn marks on water tanks and railroad cars that suggested the Virgin of Guadalupe. Sandra realized that she devoutly wished for such a thing here: a mark on the tree that would tell her what she had seen.

She had imagined on her walk over to this intersection that the tree might be the Gum Tree, one of the trees on this block where people left their chewed gum on the trunk as they passed. Perhaps she would see in the mosaic of chewed gum a vision of something, a message from the universe that no one had ever noticed before. But now that she was at the intersection, Sandra realized that the Gum Tree was at the other end of the block.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2015 by Joe Pitkin

Home Page