Monday, 6 February 2012

Camera obscura

Black and white.

A moment, frozen in time. The brilliance of the sheet of light from the flash-bulb, firing through the air, striking the tableau.  Like lightning, like divine fire.  Desaturating the scene, stealing all the colour, the life; freezing everything in black and white for a moment in time.

Literally freezing everything for a moment in time.
The camera now sits in an evacuated bell chamber on an ornate wooden pedestal, where the museum-goers can see it but very definitely not touch.  There is a weight-sensitive plate at the top of pedestal that controls a steel cage.  Pick up the bell jar, even break the bell jar and let air in, and the cage will fall from the ceiling and slam down against the floor.  The cage is actually two cages, one inside the other, so that the camera will be protected from touch even when the cage has fallen.  There are lasers criss-crossing the area around the pedestal, and breaking them will set alarms off and bring security guards running from hidden corridors and unsuspected recesses.  There are, in total, eighteen well hidden traps to protect the camera from anyone trying to get close to it, and over half of them are lethal.  One of the conditions that the museum must abide by to keep exhibiting the camera is that nothing, not ever human life, is more important than making sure that the camera is never used again.
Why exhibit it at all?  The question is regularly asked in newspapers, and agony aunt columns.  Whenever someone else dies because they can't obey a simple Don't touch order, people start demanding to know why such a temptation was put in front of them to begin with.  The right believe that it is part of a left-wing plot to kill off people who believe that tools were meant to be used, not waved around as a deterrant.  The left believe it is a right-wing plot to kill off people who believe in civil liberties.  The centre believe that it is a clever plan to increase government control and get the populace suitably cowed and obedient.
The real reason was listed in a now-censored paper written by Professor James DeWitte and published in the Journal of Occult Paraphernalia by the Arkham University Press: there is no knowing, a priori what will happen when the camera is destroyed, and the potentially outcomes are ineluctably catastrophic.
David  looks at the artefact in front of him.  It looks like a large, dirty chunk of ice, though there are no signs of it melting despite the warmth of the museum's Small Workshop.  He walks around it twice, noting the size of it – a little over six feet tall and three feet wide –, its rough-hewn appearance and jagged edges, and the fact that on one side only, call it the front, there appears to be a black and white picture of a street scene.
"Arkham, in the mid 1890's," says James DeWitte.  He's sat down on a claw-footed chair with a carved wooden back that's probably a valuable museum exhibit in its own right.  As far as we know, it's the last time the camera was used.  It froze a moment in time, and that's what you have there right in front of you.  Coalesced, solidified time."
"What happened to the street?" asks David.  He reaches out a tentative hand and touches the ice; it's warm under his hand and feels soapy.  He doesn't see James flinch as he touches it.
"It's still there," says James, nodding.  "We think it had been there for long enough that it could persist in time around the moment when it was taken."
"That means that the people...."
"Finish your sentences, David.  It's a bad habit to get into, expecting other people to follow your train of thought like that.  Yes, the people all vanished, all locked into this frozen moment.  Horses vanished too, and some newer buildings suffered damage.  You can go and inspect some of it still if you like, the street still exists."
"Still exists?"
"The name's been changed, but that's a precaution.  We don't know what would happen to this frozen moment if the street stopped existing."
"It seems like there's a lot we don't know."  It sounded accusing, though David hadn't meant it to.  James nodded, more slowly.
"There is," he says.  "That's why I'm inviting you to research this."
"What do you hope to get from my research?"  David's eyes narrow and he studies James more carefully now, noting the slightly fussy dress: a full three-piece suit with a gold fob chain, a white shirt with heavily starched collar, the highly-polished shoes with pointed toes that are surely three inches longer than necessary.
"A decision."
"As to what?"
There's a longer pause, and then James looks David straight in the eye and holds his gaze.  "As to whether it is safe to destroy the camera or not."
"Why not weaponize it?"
Now James's gaze drops, all the way down to his shoes.  Another long pause, and David repeats his question.  Finally James answers.
"That's the alternative," he says.  "There is a man, let's call him General for now.  He would like to deploy this camera as a weapon.  If it's useful, he'd like to make more of them and deploy them also."
Now David looks a little concerned, and he steps in closer still to the block of ice, caressing its surface as he speaks.  "More might not be a good idea."
"But we don't know how bad an idea it is.  Yet."
"Do we know how to make more cameras?"
"Oh yes.  And that's the problem.  That's why this research needs to be done."
"Why don't you do it yourself?" asks David, his fingers finally coming to rest on the black and white picture that the ice has solidified.  Before James can answer David is pulled inside the picture, disappearing into the block of ice so quickly it seems as though he's just faded away.
"Because I'm too sensible to do that," says James, but there's more sorrow in his voice than anger or rancour.
The horse is startled by his sudden appearance on the street and rears, striking out with its hooves and hitting David twice on the head.  Iron shoes connect heavily, denting his skull and rattling his brain into darkness and he falls to the ground, unaware of the horse screaming and raging above him.  Light sleets around him, passing him by, and his last thought is an awareness that he's been left behind, in black and white.

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