The Coming of the One Great Vision
A figure hunched in a rain soaked doorway. Nothing but a silhouette, black on brown, and the rain so heavy the street looked like a poorly-tuned TV. Detective Nelson Art was a pair of eyes behind a newspaper: headline, “50 Millionth CCTV Camera marks Victory for Surveillance Society”. It’s all about knowing how to read the situation.
As the figure makes a dart behind the cover of a bus, Art makes his move. The newspaper drops between the fallen autumn leaves. The camera comes out from the overcoat, a leaden grey weight, and whirs into life. Just one shot of this face and Art’ll be five hundred pounds the richer. A car horn, a revved engine: too late, the road is crossed already. Art, loaded, focussed, fires. The taxi roars away into the monotony of evening traffic as Art runs into the shelter of a café. He shakes out the rain, orders a coffee and waits for the Polaroid to clear.
The darkness is slow to withdraw, clinging to the last furrows of an unrecognisable face. The coffee arrives and Art sips, waiting for the face, the face that will resolve this issue once and for all. Then the cloud finally lifts and there she is; in the space where Art was supposed to see the most elusive inside-trader of recent years there was nothing but a puzzled-looking old woman with inch-thick glasses and a crooked nose. “Not crooked enough”, thought Art, slamming his hand onto the table, “I should have gone to Specsavers”.
Too many late nights trawling through government databases, too many week-long stakeouts spent between binoculars and newspapers, too many secretive glances… no matter what did it, Art had screwed his eyes for good and now they’d screwed him. He’d made an appointment at the opticians for half past three which, checking his watch, made him an hour early. Throwing caution to the wind, Art decided to try his luck. He swung through the doors and into the heavily made-up face of a store assistant,
“Good afternoon sir, how may I help you?”
“I’m afraid I’m early. I have an appointment. Half three… that’s when it’s for.”
“Don’t worry sir, I’m sure we can fit you in earlier.”
The smile she wore was fake in more ways than one. Art could see the hate behind her eyes, that especially intense annoyance that can only come from behind a smile that is being worn for money.
“Okay sir, if you could take a seat then someone will be right with you shortly.”
Art picked up a magazine. There was something in it about George Clooney, an actor he wasn’t averse to, yet so much time pretending to read had left him incapable of focusing his attention upon the printed page. Instead, he stared into a meaningless spread of glossy images and listened to the aggravated whispers going on around the corner. The optometrist wasn’t happy about his unexpected appearance and she was making sure the shop assistant knew it,
“…but can’t you see? This completely messes up the system!”
“Can’t you just hold on to it and then put it in after the others?”
“What? Of course not! Don’t try and meddle in things you can’t understand!”
“I was just saying…”
“Well don’t! I’ll have to do a whole new set of preparations before I can even consider it, and if the other optometrists find out about this, well, I can’t be held responsible for what happens.”
“Yes, yes, I guess nothing can be done now. I’ll begin the preparations and you send him in after ten minutes.”
Art mindlessly turned a page as he heard the click of heels coming in his direction. Out of the corner of his eye he could just make out the assistant re-applying her smile as she headed back out onto the shop floor. He couldn’t help feeling sorry for her. Even if she did take an instant dislike to him, many people did, there was no need for the optometrist to go off like that. Still, that voice sounded rather eccentric, perhaps it was just a quirk, common within the medical profession. The desire for perfect punctuality, yes, that sounded like something that could consume a scientific mind to Art. And there was something about the way she had said “preparations”, something disconcerting in the tone.
“Yes”, Art considered, “Yes, she’s definitely a little odd this character, have to tread lightly come the eye test…”
“Come in please Mr Art. We’re ready for you now.”
“Hrm? Oh yes, of course…”
He entered, sat himself down. Should he take off his coat? She still had hers on, the long white robe, the obligatory glasses. Need all staff in the opticians wear glasses?
“Now, Mr Art, you say you’ve never had an eye test before?”
He coughed and she visibly jumped, “No… no I never have.”
“And why have you decided to get one now?”
Why all the questions? What was she after? Art decided to play it cool this time, no need to go too far and make up a story, just keep the gory details out of the way…
“Well, it’s a… work thing”
“I see, and what is it you do?”
She was rummaging through files now. One hand flicking through the varying shades of burgundy and lilac filling a cabinet beside her, the other scribbling on a paper she was careful to keep out of his sight. Not that his sight was worth much nowadays…
“It’s complicated. I guess you could say I’m in surveillance, security, that type of thing.”
“Counter terrorism?” Her hand had stopped.
“No. Nothing like that.”
“I thought that was what all this surveillance was for… to keep us safe from terrorists?”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you see in the newspapers.”
She seemed relieved, the hand started squiggling around again, the files flicked left and right beneath her fingers, “Quite, Mr Art, quite. I always say, you can’t trust your eyes.”
“That’s a funny outlook for an optometrist.”
“Not as strange as you’d think, Mr Art. Now, if you’ll kindly look through here.”
A large machine swung in from the wall. Art fought the urge to check it for traps before he put his eyes to the holes. Across from him he could see a set of four blurry objects.
“What do you see?”
“I don’t know, it’s too blurry.”
Click. The images got fuzzier, “Now?”
“Still just blurs. More blurry than before if anything.”
Click. The shapes were clearer, noticeably letters but he couldn’t tell what they spelled yet, “Now, Mr Art?”
“It’s a word right? I can’t quite make it out but I can sort of tell that it’s a word.”
There was a silence where he had expected the same bored voice. He noticed the hand that was operating the other side of the machine had started to tremble. There was something up. Had he said something wrong? Surely she knew what was going on? It was her job after all…
“Is everything okay?”
“Erm… yes, yes, sorry Mr Art,” she fumbled with something and the image clicked again, perfectly clear this time.
“Yes! I can see it now, that’s perfect. Guess it wasn’t a word after all…”
There was a rather too obviously disappointed sigh from the other side of the machine. Had he said something wrong, “Well okay Mr Art. No I guess it isn’t a word no. Just read out the letters please…”
“N, J, P, V… or maybe that’s a U? No, it’s definitely a V.”
“Thankyou Mr Art.”
As his hand held the desk he could feel the vibrations of her movements. She had just taken out some large folder, or book, and was writing in it very carefully. Perhaps just part of the test? Art just couldn’t work it out, he longed to take his eyes away from the series of patterns and letters that kept appearing in the machine but he couldn’t, there was no excuse… the test carried on.
Ten minutes later and Nelson Art found himself ousted into some sort of secondary waiting room deep inside the building. Apparently the test results needed to be run past some other optometrists, something was mentioned of a second opinion. It had all been a little baffling so far, and that sort of thing gives a natural-born-detective the heebie-jeebies.
As for the waiting room, well, it wasn’t as sterile as a hospital but it wasn’t anything you’d call comfortable. It seemed the optometrists had tried to go more casual than that other private medical operation, the dentists, but it couldn’t bring itself to go full Boots in case it lost its aura of scientific authority. It was the kind of place that made a man dressed in a rain-stinking overcoat feel obtrusive and unclean. The man across from Art seemed to be feeling the same.
There was only the two of them in there and they were sat directly facing each other. The man had a small computer device between two gloved hands that, despite his best efforts to keep hidden, kept giving him away with loud, tinny beeps. The man’s eyes darted around the entrances to the room. He was expecting an ambush, Art could tell. Whatever he was doing on that phone, he certainly wasn’t playing snake.
“The cock crows at midnight” The man whispered.
“I see…” Art couldn’t help being rather taken aback. Was this all part of the eye test or what?
“The cock crows at midnight…” The man seemed adamant that Art knew what he meant. He was making a circling gesture with his hands, willing him on, “Come on! The cock crows at midnight…”
“I don’t know. They’re in the arctic circle? Is it a thing with time differences?”
“Jesus. Look, the cock crows at midnight!”
“Crows? Is it a pun or something? Now I’m more lost than before…”
“The cock crows at midnight – there’s a fox in the hen house!”
The man was staring at him now, shaking his head. The device was stuffed in his pocket, muffling the continual beeping. Art wasn’t quite sure what to do, part of him still thought this was part of the optician experience, “I would never have got that I’m afraid. I’m not one for puzzles.”
“Au contraire, Mr Art. You’re just the man. Just the man we’ve been looking for. Looking for a long time…”
“Are you here for glasses too?”
There was a disappointed look on the man’s face now, “No, I’m not here for glasses. Look, how do you think I knew your name?”
“I gave it in when I made the appointment.”
The man lowered his face into his hands and groaned. He seemed fully exasperated and once he began talking again his voice had lost its leading tone. He spoke with the patronising air of an overworked teacher with a rather slow student,
“Alright Mr Art, you win. I’m from the government, don’t ask which agency. I was sent here to enlist you in the breaking open of a conspiracy which has been going on under our noses for a long time. How long? Since the middle ages, Mr Art, or should I say, Agent Art. You may not know it, but we’re in the belly of the beast here. It’s not safe to talk, so here, take this,” he passed him a datastick, the words TOP SECRET written across it in white tip-ex, “All the information you’ll need is in these files. We’ll contact you soon. Good luck, Agent Art.”
The frames Art wanted weren’t in stock so he booked an appointment to return within the week. He rode all the way home on the train pondering the contents of the data-stick, perhaps just a crazy man’s nonsense, maybe a virus? You can’t be too careful. Still, it wasn’t in his nature to leave a mystery unsolved, so as he got back to his apartment the first thing he did was slide back the top of his roll-top desk and turn on his computer. It was lucky he did, else he never would have found it out, and maybe he’d have always remained within his own naïve, empirical world.
In the remote village of Avon Murray, in 1473, the first pair of spectacles was created and worn by Elgar Nisferdanus, a prominent alchemist. This was not his first great discovery though. That honour, according to his book Occulens ad Purgatoris Specularum, was reserved for the material Naserium, his own personal philosopher’s stone. The spectacles were purely a device created for perusing his great discovery.
For you see, the material Naserium had one property that separated it from all the other solids that were known to exist at that time, and that was its inability to be seen by the naked eye, a very specific quality of transparency. Nisferdanus believed that this therefore meant that Naserium held the key to deciphering the riddles of the Kabala and bringing about the resurrection as foreseen in Revelation. The great key with which he would open up the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven was indeed these very spectacles that he constructed for himself. Only with these spectacles could he read the series of letters that appeared upon his slate of Naserium with any clarity.
Yet these letters, he realised, were not enough. The Kingdom of Heaven could only be obtained by the unifying process of converting his fellow men to his church. As each new initiate stepped forward, he placed numerous sets of spectacles before them until they could read letters from the Naserium. After many tests, Nisferdanus found that each reading found a different set of letters; a set that was specific to each individual. Upon this evidence he began his Church of the Opticia, through which each person’s readings of a slate of Naserium could be taken and added to the Holy Tome of Optic. The monks, called Opticians by the people, could be distinguished by their eyewear and their constant mumbling. It was hoped that one day they would discover the language of God and finally decipher the messages written in the Holy Tome of Optic; upon that day, all those that saw the world through His glass would take part in the One Great Vision and leave this world for the next.
“Thys werld be not what be sene,” Nisferdanus finishes his Occulens by saying, “It lieth betwixt lite and prisme”. It was in this way that Nisferdanus saw the alchemical archetypes of the square, circle and triangle as but the symbols of a world corrupted and it was beyond this, within the soul, where the world truly exists. Following the teachings of Hassan I Sabbah he saw how this world was but illusion, the scatterings of light through prism. That is why, to this day, his monks wear their spectacles and the long, pure white robes of their Church of Unrefracted Light, the prime mover of Optic.
It was the day before Agent Art was to go and collect his spectacles. His head was filled with misaligning ideas, suspicions, doubts and anxieties, so he was on his way to meet the man who’d got him in this far. The man who’d started all this.
He was sat behind his desk, paring his fingernails with a Machiavellian glint in his eye. The shadows hung around the room like modernist paintings. There was something not quite right about the whole thing.
“I read the story. It was quite good, almost enough to fool me. But tell me this… why would they hide this away? Why keep it secret? That’s the only thing that sticks in my throat, and that’s why you’ve got to be spinning me a yarn here.”
“It’s an interesting story, Agent Art. I can’t give you the full history here, but needless to say it all began about the time when alchemy began to fall from grace within the intelligentsia. You see, with the development of Enlightenment thought on the way the Opticians had to find some new way of capturing the imaginations of the learned. They had to combat the Cartesians, Calvinists, Lutherans, and all the rest. So they enlisted the greatest thinker of the day, Newton.”
“Newton was an Optician?”
“No, but tell me Agent Art, have you ever read Newton?”
“Well, no actually. I have other things to do…”
“Exactly, so did people back then, they just read a potted version and carried on with their lives, assuming the powers-that-be understood it so they didn’t have to. It was that trust that the Opticians utilised, mixing their beliefs into the scientific textbooks of the day. It paid off no end, especially with the fall of religion. Nowadays we have people all over the world following the teachings of Nisferdanus and never knowing it.”
“Simples. Come the day that they complete the Holy Tome of Optic, the world will be destroyed, buying the Opticians their ascension so they can finally sit on the right hand of God for all eternity. That’s why we need you, Agent Art, to disrupt the process of translation. The government needs you, the world needs you!”
“But why me? Why now?”
“Enough questions! I must go. I trust I can leave you to investigate this yourself. We need to know how far they’ve got in writing and translating the Tome, and we need to know quickly. For now, good day, Agent Art.”
The man stood up and made a slight bow from the waist. Art was annoyed, none of it made sense… and when he’d tried to clarify it, just more baffling data, just more nonsense. The thing that really struck him was the man’s unwillingness to explain why Art was necessary. Surely the government could handle this thing itself? Why go to an outside source? Why would anyone use a source that knew less than they did? In fact, all he knew of the conspiracy he had been told by this agency. There could only be one explanation…
The man had pulled on his overcoat and hat and checked his watch. He nodded, expressing his desire to be gone swiftly and without a fuss. Art lay back in the chair, fixed in an attitude of deep reflection. Seeing the interview was over, the man headed to the door, ready to make off sharpish. He was almost there when he noticed Art’s leg stuck out, beneath the table, wrapped in shadow, but it was too late. The man tripped, lost all balance and collapsed forward onto the floor. Art stood up slowly behind him, walked over to where the man’s belongings had scattered across the floor. He leant over and picked something up.
“I’m afraid Detective Nelson Art doesn’t work for double-agents. Find some other stooge to blame your failings on… Mr Government.”
With that, Art stepped out of the office and away from the whole mixed-up, sordid little operation, dropping the man’s fallen contact-lens back onto the carpet as he walked away. Art wasn’t the type who could look the other way for money, he wasn’t that short-sighted.
Return to Short Stories