The Lamp of the Body
by Joe Pitkin
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Sandra went home in a fog, and the next day she was scarcely able to bring herself to write any tickets. At the end of the day she spent nearly three hours wandering downtown on foot, growing slowly hungrier and lonelier, hoping that she might catch a glimpse of Dora Martus wandering in her wounded way through the streets. The city smelled of soot and used-up rubber.
Early the next week, the door to the computer room swung open while Sandra sat at her station. One of the technicians was wheeling in spools of something, maybe tape or cable, which looked like plastic-covered platters of room service food being carted in to feed Nemesis’ endless clacking, chitinous jaws. The heat from the room buffeted her, so much so that she had difficulty focusing for a moment on the feeds in front of her. But there on the 2nd and James Street feed was Dora Martus.
Sandra only glimpsed her before she walked off camera. The anomaly that Nemesis had sent her apparently had nothing to do with Dora Martus; a driver in the feed had bumped into another car while trying to parallel park.
But Sandra rewound the feed and looked again for Dora Martus. She appeared for less than a second at the beginning of the clip, walking up James with the same frail stride Sandra had seen before. The stride was how Sandra recognized her.
Sandra requested the camera feed for the thirty seconds previous to the fender-bender; she requested the other feed from James and 2nd, as well as feed from James and 1st, James and 3rd, James and 4th.
For the next twenty minutes Sandra watched for Dora Martus in the feeds she had requested. But Dora Martus was not there, or if she was there she was always obscured by a line of cars or a tree or a crowd of pedestrians on the James Street sidewalk.
For the first time in her career, Sandra only pretended to look at other feeds, the feeds Nemesis had sent her and which she was supposed to be inspecting. Sandra let them run on the other monitors and checked them off as “No Citation Warranted” without even looking. But, at the end of the search, she was no closer to Dora Martus than before.
The next day, for the first time in seven years, she arrived late to the Panopticon. Her train arrived on time, but she dawdled fifteen minutes at the train station, watching house sparrows skitter about on the sidewalk.
When she arrived at her workstation, a message from Nemesis was waiting on one of her screens: Sandra, our records show that you failed to recognize anomalies in two benchmark feeds yesterday. Please make an appointment this morning to discuss a continuous improvement plan.
Sandra had never received this message before. She knew that sometimes watchers would be given a feed where a ticket had already been issued, to ensure that each watcher remained productive. Nemesis had watched her and found her wanting.
Sandra felt less upset than she had once imagined she would have been. But still she looked at each feed that morning with renewed clarity while she screwed up her courage to go into Springer’s office to talk about a continuous improvement plan. She was honest enough with herself, however, to admit that she was inspecting each feed for only one thing, for a single person.
Lieutenant Springer was inspecting a monitor with alacrity when Sandra came in. He was spare as a monk, his balding head close-cropped, the skin of his face drawn and flinty. He paused the feed he was watching with a single keystroke, and his face took on an expression of studied compassion that Sandra had never seen.
“Thanks for coming in, Sandra,” he said, and his use of her first name paradoxically put her less at ease. In the past he had always called her Ms. Bailey.
“I’m sorry that you found reason to call me in,” Sandra said as she perched herself at the edge of the open chair.
“Sandra, what’s happening?” he asked with fatherly concern. “In seven years you never missed a single benchmark; yesterday you missed two. Today you were late for the first time ever. Are you sick?”
The truth was that Lieutenant Springer’s questions filled her with terror. But she mastered it, or felt she did, and answered with great dignity: “I’m all right, Lieutenant, and I won’t give you any more trouble. I hope you will view my behavior of the last 24 hours as an anomaly.”
Lieutenant Springer looked across the desk at her in such a way that Sandra imagined he might burst into sobs at any moment. “I will, Ms. Bailey,” he said gravely. “I trust that Nemesis has no more referrals for me with your name on them.” He gave one more paternal smile, and Sandra left the office feeling as though she had been absolved of a mortal sin.
As soon as she sat down at her workstation, Sandra saw Dora Martus again. She was walking over the Hawthorne Bridge with a long-handled pruning saw and a sack slung over her shoulder, looking like a malnourished peasant with a scythe. She was walking directly towards the camera among tourists and joggers and midday bike commuters, all of them giving her a wide berth on account of the saw she carried.
Sandra immediately authorized further investigation of Dora Martus, knowing that Springer would approve the decision since Nemesis already had Dora Martus in the memory banks of its facial recognition software.
Sandra also knew that if Dora Martus had no fixed address, an investigation of a woman carrying a long-handled pruning saw was unlikely to go very far. But she wanted Dora Martus in Nemesis’ sights.
Sandra looked at the time stamp on the Hawthorne Bridge feed. It was less than two minutes old. The feed she was watching had come from the eastern side of the bridge, and Dora Martus had been walking westward towards downtown. That is, she probably had not even finished crossing the bridge yet. The Panopticon building was less than three blocks away.
Without even a passing thought to the assurances she had just given Lieutenant Springer, Sandra abandoned her workstation and rushed to the elevator. She felt a thrill in her blood as she ascended towards the surface, an excitement that she had not experienced for a very long time, if she had ever experienced it.
She ran down Hawthorne towards the river, imagining that she would see the long-handled pruning saw from a long way off, like a flag. When she didn’t see it, Sandra despaired briefly as the bridge came into view. Had Dora Martus already crossed over and turned down a side street?
Sandra realized that she might have jeopardized her career or, at least, her sterling reputation at work, and that she would nonetheless fail to find Dora Martus. Then, as she reached the bridge, she looked down the pedestrian stairs that led to the base of the bridge and the esplanade on the river. Sitting on the stone railing with her feet dangling over the river sat Dora Martus, eating a sandwich and looking far off at Mt. Wy’East on the horizon.
As though she were approaching a browsing deer, Sandra descended the stairs with ginger, silent steps. When she came to the esplanade, standing about a dozen feet behind Dora Martus, Sandra felt she could approach no closer. She hesitated even to breathe. Dora Martus sat hung-shouldered, regarding the silent great mountain that looked over the city. Her saw and bundle lay in a pile beneath her seat.
Sandra lifted a hand as though to hail Dora Martus, as though this gesture would somehow serve as the word that she wanted to say. Sandra felt a strange desire she had never felt for another human being before, to take Dora Martus in her arms and whisper in her ear that everything would be all right.
Dora Martus noticed she was being watched and looked over her shoulder in alarm. “Please, Dora, don’t be frightened,” Sandra said.
“Why are you following me?” Dora Martus asked, horrified.
“I won’t hurt you,” Sandra said, taking a step towards her. “What did you see on Clay Street last week?”
“Why are you watching me?” Dora Martus vaulted up to the stone railing, facing Sandra. “What did you see?”
“I don’t know,” Sandra said. “A light.” Then it occurred to her that Dora Martus may have been referring to something else. “Please, I just want to talk.”
“Stop watching me,” Dora Martus said.
Sandra thought that just then Dora would cast herself off the railing and into the river. Instead she leapt forward like a gazelle past Sandra, who reached out to grasp the girl’s sleeve. But there was only a tearing sound of the rotting fabric before Dora was gone.
The pruning saw, now that Sandra inspected it, hadn’t been used in years. The sack held only a stale wool blanket and a denim jacket stiff with grease. Sandra thought of leaving the goods where they lay, but she couldn’t bear to think of Dora losing these possessions on her account. She picked them up and began to climb the stairs Dora had taken, though, after a few steps in her work heels, Sandra knew that catching Dora was a fool’s errand.
Then began an hour of desolation for Sandra. Dora had disappeared at the head of the stairs, and as Sandra climbed to the top holding the saw and the sack, she knew that at some moment, perhaps very soon, she would have to face Lieutenant Springer and the judgment of Nemesis.
The belongings she carried were worthless, perhaps even to Dora Martus, and yet having once picked them up she felt powerless to leave them. She was an officer of the Panopticon, and yet the bankers and grifters and haulers in the street regarded her and her bundle with disdainful curiosity.
She searched for Dora as long as she felt she could. Actually, she searched a good deal longer than that, until she told herself in despair that things would only get worse for her if she didn’t go back to the Panopticon. Yet once she decided on returning, she wandered back like a dawdling schoolchild, telling herself at every street corner that it didn’t matter whether she went back, that she had already lost her job.
She left Dora Martus’ bundle next to a garbage can around the corner from the front entrance to the Panopticon, though she knew as well as anyone that dozens of cameras had recorded her carrying it, that every moment of her thoughtless pursuit of Dora had been recorded.
The back of her damp neck felt as though it had picked up a thin film of the grime of the city. As though nothing had happened, she walked into the entry hall and descended the elevator to her workstation. Within a minute of her having logged in again, Lieutenant Springer came to her desk and wordlessly motioned for her to follow into his office.
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Copyright © 2015 by Joe Pitkin