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Read runner-up surveillance story The Threat

Chris Newlove Horton spins a tale of unexpected errors and creeping virtual hazards

Back in January we put the call out to our readers to send in a short story based on surveillance. After a mammoth number of submissions we published the winning story, Twitch by Barry Lee Thompson this week. Now we're showcasing the four runners-up, here's Chris Newlove Horton with his twisted tale of hidden, imminent danger. Check back here throughout the week to read all five stories. 

You sense the threat before you see it. You sense that there is a threat before you think about what you’re seeing, before you’ve actually seen what you’re now thinking about. The threat, you sense, is imminent, but it hasn’t occurred, you’re not yet actually watching it, thank God, on the foggy monitor in front of your face. The monitor makes a sound, not unlike air-conditioning, a low hum, atonal, constant, casually oppressive. You’re rapping your fingers on the desk, staring at the monitor, trying to make sense of it, willing it one way or the other. You’ve followed procedure and now you’re waiting for the callback, willing that, too, hoping they take their time, the time you need to think.

In front of you is the perceived threat, frozen in time, hazy and glowing. The image is a low quality zoom from a live video delay system. You’re looking at two minutes ago. But, given the delay, that was already seven seconds into the past. It was two minutes ago when you perceived the threat, two minutes seven seconds since the threat went live.

You reach to the playback controller and rewind the recording. The image jerks in rhythmic lines, like waves crawling up a beach or a long train passing slow. You click resume and the jerking stops and the familiar arrhythmic motions of life return. In front of you, a rush-hour inner city transport terminal, the threat currently out of frame. Men and women in suits are talking, laughing on the concourse. Others, suited and unsuited, are on phones or not on phones, with or without bags, alone or with friends or with people who look like friends, reading or pretending to read newspapers and books and magazines, walking by or stood looking, some looking at the departures board, also out of frame. This is only the second time you’ve watched it through, you realise, having paused sometime during the original stream, when the threat was perceived and the follow-up procedure began. Paused, the moment seemed to throb, the threat moving in micro-measurements that don’t actually exist, curious gestures that are fictions of the machines. You remember that glitch comes from the German word for slippery, but you can’t remember the German word. All the machines in the room make a sound – the monitor, the computer, the digital recorders, the relay equipment and motion analyzers, the wall-clock and the overhead lighting. The sounds rise and fill the surrounding atmosphere – the machines speaking their language of claustrophobia.

Paused it seemed all options were possible, made the threat seem more viable, more real. It seemed entirely possible, likely perhaps, that anything would happen, especially the kind of anything that you’re supposed to prevent. The still, hovering image implanted menace in the threat. But now, now the video is moving and you’re watching it move, you can’t see where the threat, the perceived threat, could appear. It seems impossible in this everyday vision, this world where people read newspapers and hustle for space near the doors.  

You’re watching and making connections between the strangers in the scene, seeing patterns in coincidence, momentary alignments across the entire visual field. You see current trends in clothing styles, haircuts in and out of fashion, white-collar women in merciful sport shoes, men in two-button mohair of grey, charcoal, navy, ink. Drawing imaginary lines between colours creates wild abstractions. There is music here, you say to yourself, in a range beyond the human ear. The frozen image dared you to make sense of it. But in motion it makes only sense. It sweeps into and over you, easy and irresistible.

You’re looking for you don’t know how long and the phone rings and you spasm and hit your knees under the desk and put your left hand into the remains of your lunch, on a plate beside the keyboard. Grabbing the phone with your clean right hand, you hear a woman’s voice right away, on the other end of the phone.

"Asset Monitoring?" asks the voice.

You pause, gulp, then say, "Yes."

"Do you perceive a threat?" asks the voice.

"Yes," you say, "Yes, I perceive a threat."

"Asset Monitoring, can you confirm the threat?"

"No," you say, unsteady, "I . . . don’t think I can."

There is a long pause and you notice the threat has entered the frame, must have been in frame for half a minute or so and you’re past the moment when you first froze the scene. What are they doing? They’re moving against the flow, making their way from one end of your screen to the other, edging and dodging among the crowd, mildly frustrated. They match the description, as far as you can tell. Their movements are unusual; their behaviour is unusual. There is a deep incoherence, you sense, in this person and their activities. But now you notice other irregularities, other misshapen movements on the concourse of the transport terminal. Either something is going on, or nothing is, and this is what life looks like – loose and shaggy, open to apophenic abuse.   

"Can you," the voice returns, "confirm the threat?"

You begin to describe the scene, speaking quickly, going into great detail, listing the aesthetic qualities and also your sensory reactions and impressions, your analysis of the world as contained within that frame. You’re saying all this and trying to ignore all else, looking carefully at the monitor, talking to the woman and waiting for her voice, clear, on the phone.

"Asset Monitoring, can you confirm the threat?"

Can you confirm the threat?

The words crest and break inside your head, meaning pitching like a troubled ship – question, accusation, declaration, demand – and it’s making you dizzy, you think, no, it’s making you feel trapped, trapped in your own skull, like you’re a person within a person, hidden and captive within your body, and you say something, because you have to say something, because, really, there’s nothing else you can do.