One Off from Prime
David Niall Wilson
One Off From Prime
The walls of the shelter were dingy and gray. The paper was white, or had been white. Too many hours stuffed in the bottom of Angus’ bag had dampened the sheets and marred their sheen. Most of the pages were empty, windows and doors to places the words hadn’t yet taken him; even doors need a new coat of paint now and then – a hinge, or a knob replaced. Angus’ paper, as his mind, remained unhinged and without knobs or slots, collecting flecks of dust and smears of sweat and blood.
He wasn’t alone in the room, but he might as well have been. Angus stood adrift in a whirling miasma of images and words so thick they obscured the bland walls and walking, talking worlds that orbited him.
A thin, wisp of a woman sidled up sneakily and glanced sidelong into Angus’ vacant eyes. She eased along the table, trailed her bony fingers over its surface and watched with bird-like intensity for any reaction. Angus didn’t flinch. The woman’s dry, pale lips curled into a cruel grin. Like a striking snake her hand darted past the sheet of paper Angus held flat on the table and gripped the strap of his old, green duffle bag.
There was a blur of motion, and the woman screamed. Between her fingers, gouged into the surface of the table and quivering, stood Angus’ pen. It didn’t touch her skin, but it prevented the sliding of the duffle across the table. The plastic shaft of the pen was shattered, but the inner plastic tube and the ballpoint were intact, quivering from the impact.
Without a word, Angus worked it free of the table. The woman fluttered back and away. She sputtered words that died in strangled bleats of sound and a yellow mist of spittle. Angus paid no more attention to her departure than he had to her approach. He stared at the paper in front of him and willed the words to stop spinning and sort themselves. He had to capture them and bind them to the paper to get them out from in front of his eyes and behind his ears.
He thought – no, he knew – that there was one word among them that could set him free, if only he could unravel the rest and place it properly. He vaguely remembered others who had once helped with the placement, but though he knew there had been three, he couldn’t recall names or faces.
None of those around him saw the words. They saw a thin, emaciated man of thirty or so years with thick black hair that dropped over broad, muscular shoulders, their strength belied by thin, protruding shoulder blades. They saw wide eyes that stared at everything except what was directly in front of them and long, slender fingers perpetually wrapped around a pen, or a pencil, or a paintbrush.
One time the counselors found Angus in the alley behind the shelter with a piece of charcoal in his hand. He’d covered half the back wall with a single long, rambling sentence.
A young woman, thinner still than the insectile Angus, stood midway along the wall, reading. Her slender, beak-like nose was pressed so close to the wall that its tip was black from accidental encounters with charcoal and brick. Her hands were filthy from trailing along behind. She wore thick cats-eye glasses that slid down her nose and had to be pressed back into service every few minutes. This action streaked her face with more of the charcoal.
When the counselors led the two back inside she looked ready for a combat raid, camouflaged and intense. Angus looked confused and on the verge of saying something he couldn’t quite remember. He’d written it down, but she’d caused it to blur. She’d taken the words into her pores or her skin and the ridges of her fingers. The counselors took the charcoal, and by the time anyone thought to try and read what Angus had written, the words had faded and smudged.
Angus didn’t remember the wall. He remembered that there had been words, but not what they’d been. He remembered the young woman’s face. He remembered the dark swatches of charcoal embedded in the pores of her skin. He remembered her expression, and her eyes. He’d wanted to reach out, brush his fingers over her cheeks and drag the black, dusty smudges back into the proper order. He’d memorized her features in an instant and imagined them covered in letters, the words merging to one long statement encompassing everything he was unable to say. He thought she was more beautiful without the words, but had no way to be certain.
Now he stared at the blank paper, clutched the shattered pen and tried to bring her face into focus and transfer it to the page. He imagined the lines of letters, like soldiers, or the bricks on a wall. His lips moved, but before he could record the wispy words they slipped away and new ones took their places, always a step ahead. His hand trembled, but he didn’t touch the pen to the paper.
The girl sat in the corner of the room, huddled in a severe chair of hard wooden slats. She clutched her knees to her chest and her chin rested between them. She gazed in unwavering concentration at Angus’ profile. She saw the paper clearly, and the pen. She knew the tremble in his hand and the nervous shake of his head. She’d seen both so many times they’d become a part of her.
She didn’t have to huddle in the shelter. She didn’t have to watch this skinny man stare at his paper and chase the words flitting through his head. She had a home, and a name, a family who wondered where she had gone, and friends – acquaintances, really – who noted the empty spaces she would have filled in their own small worlds. But none of that was real. They knew the thin, wispy shell of her, but her connection to Angus was much deeper. Given time, she’d fade from their minds as surely as angus’ words had faded from the alley wall.
Angus knew she was there. He felt her. He sat, and he tried to imagine the lines of her face on his paper, but he refused to turn and watch her watching him because it was no good. The face smudged with charcoal had been cleaned. The words, if they were still there, were hidden too deeply for him to recapture. If he looked at her now, the earlier image of her would dissolve, and be lost. He would still have her eyes, of course, and that was a temptation. They were eyes that had watched him without guile, and without judgment. They were hungry eyes as eager to see him find the order in the words, or behind them, as he was to provide it. They had seen the words, if only for a few intense moments.
Others watched, as well, but not for long, and not with much interest. An old Italian man in a faded army uniform shirt covered in colorful patches shuffled by. He looked like an ancient, rotting parody of a boy scout. He wore two pairs of pants and had a variety of odd items tied to his belt, protruding from his pockets, and slung about his neck. His hair, which would have been a fine blend of white and gray had he bathed, was dark and greasy and clung to his liver-spotted scalp in sparse patches. The man glanced over Angus’ shoulder at the blank page and snorted.
“Shouldn’t write it down,” he said. His voice was weak and formed of shrill, reedy tones that shattered in the air like thin icicles. “They’ll read it. They’ll know. Never write it down.”
Then he shuffled off with his hands covering his pockets as if afraid the things he carried would leap out and escape. Angus didn’t look up. He sat with his hand hovering over the page expectantly.
Some spoke as they passed. Some stared at the paper, or at the back of his head. Some made faces behind his back and then walked on. A tall black man walked around to the far side of the table, directly across from Angus and stared down at the point where the pen had slammed into the tabletop. His lips moved constantly. Now and then his shoulder dipped, or he shuffled his feet. His hips swayed to music no one heard.
He leaned in and inspected the table. A small pile of dust and shattered plastic circled the point where Angus had slammed his pen into the wood. The black mans studied it. He cocked his head, checking perspective, and then seated himself in a chair. Angus didn’t look up. The black man reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pouch. From this he extracted a razor blade. The cold steel glittered like fire in the dim light, catching stray flickers from the bare, yellowed overhead bulb that illumined the room. It was the kind of blade used by artists and carpenters, braced on one edge with a rounded shield to protect the fingers.
The man’s hand darted out. He smacked the blade loudly on the table and drew it toward himself. The razor swept the plastic shards and dust across the surface, his fingers nimbly dropping and dragging, scooping the remnants into a pile. He was careful and he missed nothing. When he had it all in a heap in front of him, he raised the blade and chopped at the pile.
Everyone in the room except Angus, and the girl, looked up sharply. The man brought the blade up, and down, up and down; his fingers flew and quickly pulverized the larger shards of plastic, cutting them to dust, reshaping the mound, and cutting again, each run through making a finer powder. No one in the room spoke. The black man’s lips never stopped moving, but if he spoke, there was no sound to accompany it, and if he was answered it was not from within the room.
When the plastic was reduced to glittering dust, the man stopped and studied it. He drew the blade through the center, split the pile, and then split those piles. He cocked his head again. His shoulder dipped. He squinted with one eye and shivered, as if a particularly beautiful rhythm had rippled through his long, lanky body. The ripple ended at his fingers and they danced.
When he was done, there were six lines on the tabletop. Three of them were broken lines. Each of the six lines was of equal length; all were perfectly parallel with one another. The man carefully returned his blade to its pouch, rose from his chair, and did a careful quickstep in place, dropping his hip and throwing his hand out to one side. He turned and walked away.
Angus looked up. The girl rose, came to stand beside him, and stared down at the lines.
Behind them, the door to the room opened and the world poured in. The sudden shift in air pressure sent the dust whirling off the table and away, erasing the trigram.
A voice called out, “Angus Griswold?”
The room they put him in was white-walled. The table he sat at was covered in white Formica. There were windows, but they were the kind that was only transparent in one direction. On his side, they were mirrors. Angus stared at one for a long time, intrigued by the lines of his own face staring back at him. He wondered briefly if, on the far side of that mirror, the words made sense. He had the odd sensation that he recognized himself, and then it was gone.
They had the girl too. She was in another room. He felt her presence, though he hadn’t seen her since being closed off. He hadn’t seen anyone, in fact, since a very stiff-backed young man in a white jacket had brought him a white cup. He half-expected it to be filled with milk in the colorless void, but it was coffee. Angus loved coffee, but he hadn’t touched it. He wasn’t afraid of being poisoned, he was concentrating. The room was white, but the coffee was dark, like the words, and it distracted him. He watched the white walls and day-dreamed that ink might sweat out through hidden pores in their surface and flow into words and phrases.
In another room, not so bright, and not so white, the girl sat. On the desk in front of her was the remnant of a day planner. The spine had cracked and worn away and the pages were loose. She kept them bound in a pair of large rubber bands she’d stolen from the post office.
She glanced up as the door to the room opened. A tall black man in a dark suit entered, closed the door behind him, and crossed to the far side of the desk. He took a seat and placed a folder on the table in front of her. His eyes were dark brown, so dark they seemed black, and she saw that the cuticles of his fingers were meticulously groomed. He steepled his fingers.
She glanced up at him. He wore thick framed glasses. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes looked as though they might be accustomed to humor, but in that moment his gaze was flat and serious.
“Why am I here?” she asked.
“I think you know the answer to that.” He replied. “I am Mr. Johnson. You don’t know me, but I believe you are very familiar with a former associate of mine, Mr. Griswold. You may also have heard of my employer, Mr. King.”
“I don’t know anyone named Griwsold,” she said.
“His first name is Angus.”
She didn’t answer.
“Do you have any idea what Angus did when he worked for us, Miss Prine?”
Her head jerked up. She had not known that they were so close to knowing her name. She smiled, but she tucked her head to hide it, and she didn’t answer.
“That’s unfortunate. It seems that Mr. Griswold has also forgotten.”
Johnson fell silent for a moment, then flipped open the folder on the desk.
“Angus Griswold was a financial analyst. He was very good at his job. Possibly too good. He and his team had the task of scanning pages and pages of computer data and…anticipating.”
“I think that’s the best way to word it. Angus had a way of seeing a very large amount of data at once. This ability of his allowed him to anticipate trends, predict problems, and circumvent inefficiency. One thing my company loathes beyond all else, Ms. Prine, is inefficiency.”
A sharp jangle of sound cut off his reply. Johnson slid a thin cell phone from his pocket.
She watched his face, but his expression never changed.
“You’re sure,” Johnson said. “Four hours, then? I see.”
He flipped the phone closed and turned back to her.
“There’s not much time. Mr. Griswold has been working on something very important for a very long time. He indicated to us that he’d discovered something big – something profound. That knowledge could prevent a very large disaster from taking place, and Mr. King is very interested in obtaining it. Mr. Griswold told us the nature of the disaster, and even gave us a rough idea of when it might take place. Unfortunately, we did not immediately see the importance of what he told us, and at that point his behavior had become…unstable. The file he left behind is incomplete. The single data point he failed to mention before disappearing into the streets was how to stop it.”
“He doesn’t know,” she said. “He’s been trying to figure it out. He believes that he will be able to write it down.”
“How do you know?”
“He wrote it on the wall. I read it. It was too much to take in at a single reading, and they came and took us away. The words were gone, smudged and ruined. I had them…but they slipped away.”
“Do you remember?”
“No. Not all of it. I’ve written some of it down, but it’s not perfect. There was a design.”
“Six lines. It was a trigram, like in the I Ching. I drew it.”
She fumbled at her ruined day planner. Her hands shook, and she had trouble spreading the pages. When she found it, she slid it free and turned it to face Johnson.
“What is it?” Johnson asked.
“It’s a Hexagram. I looked it up at the library. It means Obstruction. Stagnation.”
“He wrote this?”
She shook her head. “No. He caused it.”
Johnson stared at her a long moment, then made some unspoken decision.
“You have to help us. There is not time to explain the entirety of what is at stake, so I will be brief. I believe that you understand a lot more than you let on.
She held her silence.
“If we do not find the answers we seek, a few tiny calculations in a very large algorithm will return bad data. At first, no one will see. It won’t even matter. Over time, the errors will multiply. There is a critical point after which, even if we were to discover the original error, nothing we could do would halt its progress. That error is embedded deep in the database behind the world’s largest finance and credit system.”
“What can one tiny error do?”
“One error is incorporated in a thousand calculations, the results of which will fuel a hundred thousand more. The integrity of the data will be compromised within minutes. When the world gets the first hint that we do not have control of the system – that their millions of dollars are suddenly in question without even a good direction to point their finger, there will be anarchy. Mr. King believes that within only a few moments, automatic fail-safes and security protocols will shut down everything.”
“Everything?” she asked. “Surely there are backups? Contingencies?”
“Also corrupt. We do not believe we will be able to pinpoint the entry point of the error. We believe it is possible that Mr. Griswold can, or already has and has forgotten. We believe, in fact, that he’s been trying to put what he already knows in words that others can understand. Even if we found the error and returned the system to its current state it’s likely trust and confidence will have eroded sufficiently by that time to cause worldwide panic.”
“Where is he?” she asked.
“He is safe, for the moment. As safe as any of us can really be.”
She stared at Johnson for a long moment.
“I need to see him.”
“He needs to remember. He believes that I can help. He won’t look at me, and I think this is
because, in his mind, he will either find what he is looking for in the lines
of my face, or will find that it is lost forever, and he’s afraid.”
“I see,” Johnson said. “We will give him time, then. The room we put him in is one giant blank canvas. The walls are made of dry-erase white board. The windows are mirrors. The table is white, the floor is white. Soon he will be given markers. We have, at the best estimate of those who have an inkling of what Mr. Griswold has seen, about four hours. If he can’t write it down before then; if we get so close to the deadline that there is no hope, I will take you to him. You may be that hope.”
She continued to stare at him. Johnson remained unruffled.
“Coffee?” he asked.
She nodded, and then looked away, trying to see through the walls to where Angus was seated. She had visions of her own, had been having them since the first time she laid eyes on him so very long before. In her dreams, the angels warned of fire. They warned of destruction. Each of them wore a very large, ticking clock on a golden chain, and the clocks were winding down. In those dreams, men worshiped idols made of shifting symbols and scrolling numbers, falling away to dust.
Johnson slipped out of the room without a sound. The door closed behind him and she stared at it, just for a moment. He had not hesitated, or fumbled with the knob, but she knew it was locked. Less than four hours. The room didn’t even have a clock.
Johnson stood behind a row of three chairs. The chairs faced a bank of huge monitors across which columns and patterns of numbers shifted and scrolled. Each screen was divided into terminal windows, and different events triggered flashes of color. In the chairs, a young Asian woman, an old gray-haired man, and a boy of about sixteen sat. On the backs of their chairs, the names Meshe, Shad, and Abe had been scrawled across white nametags. They watched the scrolling numbers, working keyboards, trackballs and a bank of peripheral controls without once glancing away from the screen.
Johnson wanted to question them, but he knew that either they would ignore him, as per their instructions, or he’d likely cause a new set of problems by his interference. When Angus had worked with them, there’d been a fourth chair. Mr. King had removed it when the prodigal walked out.
Johnson watched the numbers for a moment, but they meant little to him. When they had been sifted down to spreadsheets and balanced equations, he’d understand them well enough. In their current raw state, it was beyond his ability. That was fine – it wasn’t his job. His job was to be certain that the numbers did balance. In the upper levels of the company, they joked that every transaction since the beginning of time flowed across those screens – that the Templars had kept records, and the Egyptians had been meticulous
The woman, Meshe, gasped suddenly. She didn’t stop working her controls, and she didn’t look away from the screen, but he knew that she’d caught something. Her distress passed, and he knew it couldn’t be what Angus had seen. These three were very good. There had once been more than two dozen “watchers” working in shifts, and they had all been good. None of them had borne Angus’ singular gift – or his neuroses. Now there were only three, and though Angus had spoken to them before leaving, none of them could find the fault, though they would no doubt remain vigilant.
Johnson turned away and left the room as silently as he’d entered. He headed down a brightly lit hall and entered a glass-doored office at the far end. An elderly man, grey at the temples glanced up from where he’d been scouring reports on his desk.
“What has he said?” the man asked.
“Nothing. He’s confused and barely coherent. The girl isn’t much better. I think it’s time to put them together and see what comes of it.”
“It’s our last shot. If they can’t get it back in time…”
“I know,” Johnson said. “Don’t think I haven’t considered walking out, buying a bunker in a survivalist camp and stocking up. We haven’t got much time. For all we know we don’t have any time at all. We have to try it now.”
“Take her in,” the man said.
Johnson turned, hesitated, and looked back.
“It’s been good working with you, Ezekiel.”
The older man smiled. It was a fleeting expression that looked lost in the patchwork of stress-fractures that made up his face. Then he turned back to the papers, and Johnson slipped into the hallway, closing the door quietly behind him.
When the door opened, Angus didn’t look up. The girl entered, and the door closed behind her. She sat opposite him at the table. He stared at the white surface, refusing to meet her gaze.
“You wrote it down once,” she said. “In the alley. You wrote it down, and it was all there.”
Angus twitched, but did not look up.
“I knew you’d get it. I knew you’d find the words. It’s why I watched, and why I read. “
“They’re gone.” Angus said.
She shook her head. She rose, circled the table, and stood directly beside him, but still he did not look up. She reached out and stroked his cheek. He didn’t pull back, but she felt the inner struggle. He quivered as if unable to decide whether to press into her fingers, or to lean away.
“The words are not gone. If they were gone, you’d be at rest. They are there, buzzing and crackling with energy, and you need them to stop. We both need that. The world needs that. You started it, and only you can finish it. It’s up to you.”
She stepped behind his chair, pulled it gently away from the table, then slid around and straddled him. With one hand on each cheek she raised is head until he stared directly at her.
“It’s time,” she said.
Angus shivered, but he didn’t look away. She leaned closer, and her features blurred. At the end, he saw her lips, red and moist, and criss-crossed with tiny veins that shifted and rearranged. They kissed and those crooked, wretched lines clarified. Angus pulled back, just for an instant, but she held him fast.
His mind flooded with memories. Lines of figures flashed past on mental monitors so fast it should have been dizzying, but he already knew them. He felt each ripple and saw the tiny bugs nibbling away at the heart of the pattern.
He was vaguely aware when she began stroking her hips up and down. He rose to meet her and wrapped her in his arms. He was so close. He had walked so long in a world that buzzed and whirled that the clarity was painful. The haze beckoned. He itched to hold his pencils, or a piece of chalk. The white walls streamed with row after row of symbols and numbers and he wanted to fill them in and trap them. He felt her unbuttoning his shirt and then the hot touch of her flesh and then…he let them go.
Johnson and Ezekiel stood before a huge video monitor. On the screen, Angus stood, disheveled and coated in sweat, before one of the white walls. He held a dry erase marker in his hand, poised. Behind him, the woman lay back across the table, spent. It was difficult not to stare at her; something in the aspect of her pose gave her a sensuality her street-urchin attire and schizophrenic actions had hidden. She did not look at Angus, but instead stared back at them through the monitor, as if well aware her naked flesh was on camera and reveling in the attention.
“My God,” Ezekiel said. “Who is she?”
“You know who she is. You know what she is. What neither of us knew was how profoundly … real … she would turn out to be.”
“She calls herself Prine?” Ezekiel asked absently.
“I think we may have been mistaken. It sounded like Prine, and we have assumed that to be correct, but upon closer examination of the original document, I believe she is called…Prime.”
“It’s her last name?”
“It’s her only name.”
“Not exactly, but…wait! He’s writing.”
On the screen Angus reached out with the marker. He started drawing horizontal lines. After only a few seconds work the hexagram was complete. “Obstruction”. He stares at it, and then turns.
“There is no new flaw in the numbers,” he says.
It’s not a question, but it’s directed to the girl.”
“Of course not.
There is only the one flaw. You
knew this once.”
“I know it again,” he said.
He dropped the marker on the floor and it rolled under the table. He walked to the table and lifted her to a sitting position. She smiled into his stern gaze. Angus leaned in and kissed her, and then turned toward the cameras.
“Numbers are pure,” he said. “The system by which you calculate them is a language, and it is the closest to perfection man may ever come, but there are flaws. There have always been flaws. You have built a world on numbers, filled in the cracks when the foundations shifted, and applied new paint, but the central flaw was always there. It’s eaten at the foundations since the first dollar was saved and reinvested. It’s the root cause of all the tiny cracks I patched for you, and the thousands more rising to the surface.”
“Tell them aboutSchrödinger’s Cat,” she said.
He turned and frowned at her, and then the frown cracked into a crooked smile.
Ezekiel turned and started to ask Johnson a question, but Johnson held up a hand. He focused intently on Angus.
“I spent my life looking for flaws in the perfection of the data. No matter how many times I found and fixed a problem, the imperfection screamed at me, and I had to go on. All I was doing was plugging holes in a sinking ship. There was never any perfection to mar, only a crumbling façade.”
Johnson stepped back from the monitor. Behind him a red light began flashing slowly, and then another. Alarms sounded. Ezekiel turned and glanced at them. He touched Johnson on the shoulder, but Johnson shrugged him off.
“It’s too late, Ezekiel,” he said.
Johnson reached out and pressed a button. He leaned down and spoke into a microphone on the desk beside the monitor.
“Angus,” he said.
Angus turned and looked directly into the camera.
“I cannot speak to you,” he said. “I have a message for Ezekiel.”
The old man stood very still. Johnson turned to stare at him, and then pressed the microphone button again.
“Ezekiel is here.”
“Now is the time, old friend. You must remember. Mr. King and his minions have built this false idol of greed and gold, this mountain of numbers. You know what will happen should it crumble, and yet, the choice remains yours. Worship, or be taken by fire.”
“Your name is not Angus,” Ezekiel said. His voice was soft, as though he was forcing memories from somewhere deep inside.
“What are you talking about?” Johnson said. He shook Ezekiel hard. “What do you mean he isn’t Angus? Who is he?”
“Call the main office,” Ezekiel said, ignoring the question. Get Nebbu…get Mr. King on the line. Tell him … tell him that we choose the fire.”
The blinking lights and alarms lit the wall behind them like a holiday celebration. Johnson ignored them. He stared at Ezekiel, and then turned back to where Angus still stared through the camera and into his soul.
“Who are you?” Johnson asked. “Who, in God’s name, are you?”
“Names are only patterns,” Angus replied. Then he smiled. “I am many, and I am one. I would tell you that I am the way, the truth, and the light, but she – pointing at the girl – would tell you I am Hermes, or Mithras, or Odin, and she cannot lie. It does not matter who I am. What matters, and what has always mattered, is who you are, and what you will become.
“The numbers have failed. In the beginning, there was the word – and that is all there has ever been. Plurality is divisive. Heaven isn’t a chord, it’s a single, pure note. Go, and learn to sing.”
The monitor went dark. Power in the building flickered, and then dropped. For a long moment auxiliary power tried to kick in and bring it back to life – and then died. Ezekiel had gone. Johnson’s sifted through unfamiliar memories. He thought of the three in the other room, staring at blank screens that had been filled with numbers only moments before. He mouthed their names, and almost laughed.
“Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego,” he said softly. How had he not seen?
It didn’t matter. Without a backward glance he turned, left the room and the building and walked out into the world. Behind him the monitor blinked to life without external power. Angus and Prime stood, wrapped in a tight embrace. Dark flecks danced up from the floor, peeled off the walls, and began to whirl. The flecks grew, diving and dancing through the air until they enlarged to numbers, and words, letters and symbols. The cloud whirled faster and darker until the room was obscured by a tangle of dark images and shifting patterns.
And then it was gone. All that remained in the room was a battered spiral notebook and a number two pencil. On the top sheet, the Hexagram symbolizing “Obstruction” had torn down its center. On the streets beyond the building, men and women stepped out into bright sunlight…so bright, it burned.