Interval XXIII – A Matter of Tim

The room, which was barely big enough to call a ‘room’, contained a single small bed, a chair and a toilet stall. Besides the door on the other side of the glass wall, there was no obvious exit to the room. He remembered seeing some lights inside the university library, finding that the automatic door was open and then… he woke up here. He had vague memories of figures moving in the dark. He’d tried to find a way out, earlier, to no avail, and now he sat in the chair, watching the door through the glass, waiting to either get bored or until someone turned up.

He was nearly dozing off when he heard a scrape, and the door slid open with a clunk. The tall man who entered was unearthly pale, dark veins visible through his ashy skin, contrasting with his incredibly neat charcoal suit and black hair. He moved to sit by the intercom on one side of the glass wall between where the prisoner was kept and the door.

“Ah, hello. Tim, was it?”

Tim looked up. “Do I get, like, a phone call or something?”

The man raised an eyebrow. “I think you’ve been watching too much American television. Were you in police custody, I would have to tell you your rights, and allow you to tell someone where you are. Since I am not the police, however, I have no such obligation.”

“So I’ve been kidnapped?”

“Legally, yes.” The weird pale man scratched his chin. “You’re being mightily calm about this, by the way.”

“I’m tired out from doing a lot of yelling and throwing things earlier.”

“Mmm-hmm.” The man looked around, at the entirely undamaged room. “It was probably overkill to put you in Humanoid Containment, even the minimum-security one.”

Minimum? I threw the chair at the glass, and it didn’t even scratch it!”

“I fail to see the sense in giving you a chair that isn’t bolted down and also a window that could be broken by throwing said chair at it.”

“Okay,” Tim admitted, “that does make sense, but still. Bulletproof glass?

The man’s smile was deeply unsettling. A small furry animal, buried deep within Tim’s brainstem, was shrilly insisting that he get as far away as possible.

On the other hand, the more rational part of him pointed out, bulletproof glass is equally bulletproof from both sides.

“Not glass, actually, and not just bulletproof,” said the man with the ever-so-sharp smile. “I’m Silas, by the way. A shame that our first meeting is in such a poor setting, but I’m afraid you’re a person of interest in a… well, let’s call it a disappearance.

“You mean Alice.”

“Unless you know someone else who disappeared, which would be somewhat worrying, yes. I am referring to one Alice Huang. According to all records apart from ones we have specially treated, she doesn’t exist. It’s really quite interesting.”

“So you think she’s real? I was worried I was going crazy. Or that I’d imagined it, like people sometimes do with those bear books, or—” he trailed off. “Wait, I’ve still been kidnapped.”

“Perceptive.”

“Why am I here? Will you let me leave? My family will be worried! They’ll come looking for me!”

“I very much doubt that they’d be able to find you, however.” Silas opened a notebook and placed it on the table, then placed a pencil next to it, adjusting it slightly so it lined up precisely with the edge of the book. “You are here, mister Jacobson, because you are a human being who has been acted on by paranatural forces.”

Paranatural?

“Correct.”

“No, I mean, what does that mean?

“I know what you meant. As a paranatural creature, you are now here, and will remain here indefinitely, at our discretion.”

“Where’s here?

“Minimum-security Humanoid Containment? Block nine?”

“No, I— are you doing that on purpose?

“Doing what?”

“Answering my questions in the least informative way possible!”

“I mean,” said Silas, “surely I’m the one who should be asking the questions.”

“Would that get me released from here?”

Perhaps.

Tim folded his arms. “You’re really bad at making me feel obligated to answer.”

“It might interest you to know,” said Silas, “that we are very interested in securing Ms. Huang alive and well, and restoring her to this world unharmed.”

He had to run what Silas had just said past his brain a couple times before he could react.

“She’s still okay? Really?

Silas flipped through a few pages of his notebook. “She has been sighted. As far as the agent was able to determine, she was alive and well. Unfortunately, we have yet to be able to retrieve her, but we are working towards that.”

Where?

“That is classified, and also very hard to explain simply.”

“Classified?”

“Information about the locale your friend was sighted in is restricted from beings or artifacts of your clearance, yes.”

“Beings or artifacts? And how do I get enough clearance to know where Alice is?”

“Your friend was affected by a paranatural phenomenon of unknown severity which has apparently removed her from the world, and removed knowledge of her from everyone else, except you. That makes you a paranaturally affected being of at most two degrees of separation.”

“Degrees of separation?”

“A term of art. The incident or artifact that caused Ms. Huang to, for lack of a better metaphor, drop out of the world was at zero degrees of separation from itself, of course. Alice herself, as the being directly affected by the event, is at one degree of separation from the cause, and you are probably two degrees separated, since you weren’t directly acted on by the event, but it still had an effect on you.”

“Right, okay.” Tim mulled it over for a second. “If I’m the only person who remembers Alice, why are you asking me about her? You remember her too?”

“We treat our records specially, in a number of ways that are both classified and also not particularly interesting. We also use other classified techniques to compare our various data as changes to the world’s, hmm, state happen. In fact, the reason you have clearance at all is because you are a paranaturally-changed being. If you hadn’t, we wouldn’t acknowledge your friend to you.”

“Huh.”

“It wouldn’t really make sense to tell you about her if you were oblivious to her existence, after all.”

“Right, right. Actually, question. Who’s ‘we’, here?”

“Ah, of course. Myself and my colleagues are members of an organisation dedicated to monitoring and neutralising paranatural threats to the ontology of the world.”

“Ontology of the world?”

“Something of a term of art — we have quite a few of those. If left to run rampant, almost any paranatural entity or artifact could end the world. They are the very definition of outside-context problems.”

“So Alice disappearing could end the world?

“It’s more likely than you might think. After all, if one person can disappear, what about two? Ten? A million? Just dropping out of the world, vanishing from everyone’s recollections?”

Tim’s eyes widened. “Would that happen?”

“Hard to say. These are, after all, things that do not necessarily act in ways that ‘make sense’.”

“I can’t say that makes sense, but that certainly follows.” He paused for a moment, looking around the cell. “Is the location of this place classified too, then?”

“Not so much classified as irrelevant. If I told you where we were, you wouldn’t believe me, and it wouldn’t change anything. You would still be unable to escape this cell — and what would that then mean? We’re in a decommissioned Maunsell fort, in the middle of the North Sea. We’re five miles underground. We’re on the Moon, for all you know. None of this is relevant, because the cell is inescapable.”

“Wouldn’t I know if we were on the Moon, because of the gravity?”

“Good point. Maybe one of my colleagues could cook up some artificial gravity, or a spinning space station or something.”

“Your colleagues sound more and more interesting. Can I meet them?” He snorted. “Would they answer my questions better?”

“Well, you see,” said Silas, “I was selected to talk to you because I look the least unnatural and threatening of the staff who are currently available here.”

Tim looked at him, at his ashen-translucent skin, at his smile that carried neither mirth nor comfort, and the way his eyes gleamed redly in the light. He was suddenly a bit less confident in the strength of the glass — or whatever it was — that separated him from Silas.

“Answering your questions has been interesting, Mr Jacobson, but my patience isn’t infinite.” His smile widened, teeth too sharp, eyes too red. “So, I could get my colleagues, or you could answer my questions, now. I assure you that you’d enjoy answering my questions more.

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