I rarely write fiction, but, after a ‘bracing’ walk on Ilkley Moor this afternoon, I decided to upload this old piece. It was originally written in 2010 and published in the first issue of the Wyrd Daze zine in 2013. Obviously technology moves on apace, but some things that influenced the story were the then nascent Google Glass project, and Blaise Agüera y Arcas’ presentation on augmented reality mapping. I’d also been reading too many old Moorcock-era New Worlds anthologies at the time. So, even though the Internet probably doesn’t need any more bad fiction posted to it, here it is regardless.
Only the Pulsing Void
Christine strode through the long grass, regularly glancing up at the path ahead and down at GPS locator on her mobile phone. “Nearly there,” she thought, “I just need to head a little bit to the west.” A couple of minutes later, as she came to the edge of a small stream where the first golden rays of the rising sun caught the spray, her phone buzzed. The correct latitude/longitude coordinates had been reached.
She took off her backpack and began to configure the system. The bipod was extended two-and-a-half feet from each shoulder-strap of the pack and the spherical camera screwed on to the top. She booted the computer, logged in with her user-name ‘Xine1981’ and began the session. This one was going to be straightforward. The unrecorded terrain was all relatively flat, the occasional hill, but no steep gradients or other geographical headaches to contend with. Christine had worked out that if she started at the centre of the moor and then progressed outward in aa spiral then she could hit about 90% of the required nodes. She could drive within a reasonable distance of the remainder, mainly on the north-western periphery, and photograph them on a subsequent day.
After strapping the cumbersome backpack on again, Christine fumbled around in the pockets of her leather jacket for the headset – a pair of modified glasses that projected a HUD onto the retina. They had a number of features, most vital of which was their ability to provide instant previews whatever 360-degree panoramas had been taken with the camera. She’d hated them at first and found that the technology induced awful migraines midway through both of her first two assignments. Now that her eyes had finally accustomed themselves to the mechanism, it was second nature. Having adjusted the straps as appropriate she took a test image. It appeared before her eyes as a thumbnail preview, it seemed to float in front of the landscape in mid-air. It looked okay, maybe a few strands of her wind-blown hair visible on the lower section of the image, but that would be cropped out anyway.
She was just about to put in headphones and crank up her MP3 player when she hesitated. Perhaps it would be better to keep the music for later – it was, after all, the first day of spring and she could hear wood pigeons, warblers and natural sounds all around. She could listen to music any time, but might as well hear what the moor had for her, at least until she got bored. However, she did, out of habit, enable her headset to dynamically geosource antecedent visual material. As she walked, the computer would scour the Internet for photographs taken in the same location, using the headset to superimpose them on the scene in front of her. It often threw up surprises: in her previous outings she’d found herself walking through flashmobs, dogging hotspots and accident scenes. More often it lent the immediate view a surrealistic effect as images taken in different seasons overlapped. Phantom figures of earlier visitors faded in and out of view as the loci of their poses were surpassed. Beautiful and intriguing, but admittedly a distraction on occasion. Christine had become adept at making the making the necessary ocular signal to toggle the imagery on and off.
Okay, one photo taken; a couple of hundred to go. She crossed the stream and set off south-west until the phone buzzed, at which point she shot another panoramic image. Then south-east, north-east and so on: a counter-clockwise circumnavigation around the central axis. All things considered, this was pretty nice work – it certainly beat being at the office searching for bugs in the software all day, even if her colleagues thought she was insane for volunteering to go out on these solo expeditions. After all, one never knows what might happen to a woman alone in a remote place. Especially one carrying a few thousand pounds worth of cutting-edge hardware on her back.
She continued her circumambulations, antecedent imagery streaming through the headset: stepping through a mist of temporal cubism as seasons, sunsets and smiling strangers coagulated and dissipated every few steps. By her twentieth photo Christine was getting into the rhythm, she could almost instinctively tell when the next node would arrive, accurately predicting how much the distance was between each node and each turn about the axis. Since the corporation had made panoramas of almost every spot in the UK accessible by road, the next logical – or competitive – step was to try and expand coverage to those places inaccessible by car or trike. It was all a bit scatter-shot at present. Some clients had paid for their buildings to be included in the beta programme, but Christine wanted to push the project toward the documentation of wilder places. If the future held some environmental catastrophe, she felt that she might have at least played some small part in preserving a record of the landscape as it was in the early 21st century.
By node 111, however, she noticed that something was amiss. There was an image on the overlay that clearly showed herself stood on a small hillock in the distance. The arms of the bipod, in stark contrast against a huge white cloud, were unmistakable. How on earth this could happen? That was a good question. The only possibility that Christine could come up with was that someone with a telephoto lens must have taken the image and uploaded it onto the web within the last half-hour. Whether the geosourcing algorithms would have indexed it to the database in such a short time was debatable, but it could be just about possible.
Although she was somewhat unnerved by the image, stopping to investigate would throw her off schedule. It was going to be a very tight thing indeed to get at least half of survey complete by sunset, after which the light would be no good. She’d have to walk back to the car and either find somewhere to sleep in town or bed down there for the night.
By node 222 she gasped. She was practically face to face with her virtual doppleganger. The image that superimposed itself before her had obviously been taken just after sunrise when she had been on her blear-eyed way to the centre of the moor. The sky was an early morning gray, dramatic against the blue mid-morning sky that now turned overhead. Another telling feature of the photograph was the lack of the bipod and headset. Yes, this was definitely taken just after she’d arrived. It freaked her out, although she would have been even more unnerved if it was a more recent image – presumably whoever had taken it was long gone now.
Christine pulled out her phone to give the office a call. Drew, the new junior developer, answered. He was adamant that no tricks were being played on her by “the guys at the office” and sounded concerned for her safety, admittedly, in a sort of vaguely patronising way. He said he’d check the database at his end for images recently indexed from the moor and see if there were any matches.
Node 333. Drew had not called back and the phone and web connections were intermittent. Coverage was bad here, but amongst the images that were downloaded to the headset she noticed, with not a little curiosity, that an extremely decrepit tree that stood only a few yards away from her was absent from one of them. Perhaps it had been replanted from somewhere else recently, she mused. The image was definitely a recent, digital one, certainly not an old archival photo with supplementary geotags added.
Fourteen photographs later, Christine was overtaken by a sense of otherness. She hoped it could just be put down to some sort of mild trance due to the repetitive nature of her stopping, starting spiral path. However, as she approached node 393 her worst fears were confirmed. This dislocated, unreal feeling had been, as it always was, the herald of an oncoming migraine. It had started – a blindspot had begun to manifest in the centre of her vision, coming and going almost at random. Damn, she thought that she’d got over this once she adjusted to the HUD. Obviously the stress of coming across the images of herself must have been the cause, she mused. If she sat down to take deep breaths and forced herself to relax then maybe it would pass. She switched the HUD off and sat upon the heather, head between knees, back propped against an ancient, lone gatepost. While taking deep breaths, eyes screwed up tight, the phone rang.
Christine felt her speech slurring as she explained the situation to Drew, who recounted that he’d been unable to find any images taken today on the moor, save for those that Christine’s system had uploaded. Christine mumbled some words of thanks and told him to to worry about her. If it was bad then she’d manage to make it to the car for a rest – it was not like the landscape was terribly challenging to walk – she could have done it with her eyes closed.
After half an hour in the foetal position, Christine decided to try and stand, either with an eye to continuing the survey, or, if she felt really terrible, heading back to the car. She held the gatepost to steady herself and, as she straightened up swiftly cupped a hand to her mouth in surprise. The HUD had switched itself on – she was once again standing in front of her spectral double.
She flicked the HUD into standby, but no change. Removing her glasses, the figure remained. She literally rubbed – then scratched – her eyes in disbelief. The phantasm stood before her – silent, its eyes on some distant horizon. At this point, Christine did what most other people on her situation would do: she swore moderate volume, then turned away for five minutes more close-eyed, deep breathing, before turning round to rehearse another chain of expletives.
It occurred to Christine that the reality of the phantom could be confirmed by touching it, but the notion filled her with an overpowering revulsion. What if it was not real? What would that mean for her sanity? Even worse, what if it were a real, physical thing? What on earth would that mean? For her sanity’s sake, she told herself, she would have to remain uncertain. She clapped both hands to her forehead and mumbled ‘Fuck, I really need a head-pill!’
Any sort would do – Anadin or anti-psychotic, it didn’t really matter at this juncture. The double remained silent as the rummaged through her jacket pockets. Now the migraine was definitely under-way as flickering tessellated forms began to crowd the periphery of her vision. She found only a half-eaten chocolate bar – “That might help,” she mused, “I’m sure it’s all a blood-sugar thing, really.”
As she finished her chocolate Christine circled around her double. It was definitely a three-dimensional object, perhaps a little distorted in some respects. The eyes seemed somewhat higher than her own – or perhaps the forehead was not tall enough. The features were all, she mused, a little on the small side. Like a sort of subtle caricature – it had something of the naïve way a non-draughtsman draws his own portrait. “Fuck it,” she thought, “I’ll just continue the route. If there’s anything on the photos I’ll deal with it then. If not, then I guess that just means I’m mad and I’ll have to deal with that too.”
Although small lozenges and tubules of flickering colour competed for her visual attention, Christine continued on the prescribed route. At node 444 a twinkling haze of yellow, red and blue-green fragments danced in front of her eyes and the terrible pulsing, wet-finger-on-wine-glass tinnitus began. She could still see after a fashion, and just about hear, but it was a rather annoying distraction. Still all she needed to do was head in the prescribed direction each time until the GPS beeped, take a picture, then turn left 60 degrees if required. So long as she paid attention to what she felt underfoot, she could do it with her eyes closed.
Node 555. The disparate flickering areas had now grouped into a series of nested, scintillating zig-zags of rapidly cycling reds and yellows. They looked not unlike the walls on the plan of an ancient fortress-city she had visited as a child on holiday in Italy. She kept to the schedule, despite hardly being able to concentrate on anything in front of her eyes. She was aware that this was probably slowing her down, but, ever stubborn, refused to be beaten.
As she approached the six-hundred-and-sixty-sixth station, the fortificatory lines that had obscured her vision seemed to have collapsed outward, lying upon the landscape, passing underfoot. She was walking along wildly corruscating causeway. She fancied she saw a many-coloured figure in the distance, slowly descending from far, far above her and passing through the earth itself. As it fell, her tinnitus reached a new intensity. Perhaps that was its song?
Beyond the boundary of node 776 the world ceased to be. She paused. Only a luminous, pulsing void beyond invited her to catalogue its singular panorama.
Dedicated to the memory of Christine Hildegard, 1981 – 2010.