At 1:26 there are eleven of us. We three- Rhetorician, Linguist and I, Logician- wish luck to they eight and they enter the Dais in the damp stone vault beneath the old Forum Romanum. They are uniformed, clutching ugly weapons (their knives are sharp, their grips are firm. Do they really need eight for this?), their jaws clenched behind dark visors. One of the eight assures us that all will be well. The Linguist frets, intimidated by their bulk. She seems on the verge of asking a question, but hesitates and loses her chance. The Rhetorician stays (toad-like) in the corner, watching. The ugly brushed-metal door hisses shut behind the eight.
It is unusual for us to be this close to the danger, this close to (the point of the spear) the men and women with weapons. If the (forced and involuntary) recruitment of the Rhetorician and the Linguist were anything like mine (waiting alone in a sterile chamber until a man with a forgettable face and an unforgettable dossier made a proposal) then they were promised that their lives would never be endangered. Prior to this occasion, the organization seems to have remained true to that promise.
At 1:27 there are three of us, alone with the blinking lights of the cameras in the ceiling, a stack of eighteen paper cups, the almost-full industrial thermos of coffee. My mind is still hazy from being awoken (shouted orders, the stomp of boots upon the stair. I am needed once more) so abruptly. I glance over the three-page briefing (smudgy type-written, crooked staples) for the fifth time, learning nothing new. Clipped to it is my temporary security badge, my name blanked out with a thick stripe of marker. Beneath it is “Logician”. It is the same for the other two. We are not permitted to know each other beyond codes that someone from the organization considers (pithy) appropriate.
The Linguist is toying worriedly with her shawl, fluttering to and fro about the chamber. She seems preoccupied by the walls, touching them with spidery hands. At 1:02 she exclaimed with joy at the prospect of seeing the Forum, but that enthusiasm is gone now. This is my first meeting with her. She shook hands at 12:55- gently, a light touch, and stumbled over her own name, self-censoring (just in time).
The Rhetorician looms in his corner. He is a large man with small eyes, focused (beadily) at a specific point on the floor approximately one meter from the tip of my left (black, scuffed, hastily tied as I blinked sleep from my eyes) shoe. I know his real name, but will not dignify him or irritate the organization that brought us here by recalling it. We have worked together before on various other (Unusual? Supernatural? Forbidden?) projects. I respect him professionally, but he remains a toad, swollen with his own importance.
At 4:25 the thermos is empty of its bitter brown liquid and three discarded cups lie strewn about. I have found a pattern in the blinking of the camera lights, and track it idly. North corner beat beat south corner west corner beat east corner beat beat north corner repeat ad infinitem. I have been told by those with a talent for clever wordplay that I am blessed with an (over)abundance of patience. That may be true.
At 4:26 the metal door opens and there are eight in the room. We three- Rhetorician (paling), Linguist (gasping), and I, Logician (puzzled)- stand aside as they five step out of the Dais. They are missing three. None of them are injured, but their helmets are absent (eyes staring, beads of sweat trickling down, and the ragged sound of uneven, exhausted breaths) and they stagger, sleep-walking.
"Good God," booms the Rhetorician, all jowl. "What happened in there?"
One of they eight- correction, they five, gives a trembling gesture which might be resignation or an ironic wave. Her expression is unreadable. She speaks in near-whispers, hollow.
"The Dais is clear. Good luck."
At 4:27 they have left the room, leaving behind the echoes of the missing three. What happened? The unvoiced questions rings deafeningly.
Softly, the Linguist: "Should we go?"
The door is still open. The Dais (Calls. Howls. Roars. Whispers.) deserves further investigation.
The Rhetorician, unhesitating, steps through. I follow. The Linguist hesitates and joins us, the door hissing shut behind we three.
I recall the briefing: the Dais (they all use the capital letter) is a circular chamber, 10 meters across. Walls are locally-sourced Italian marble, slightly newer than the rest of the Forum. The floor is-
"Beautiful," gasps the Linguist, eyes wide. We are lit from beneath by the mosaic (green, blue, red, sparkling in the glare of the artificial lights they've set up). It has no discernible pattern. The light hurts my eyes. In the center of the room, a low rostrum, a duplicate of the one in the ruined Forum several dozen meters above our heads. It is time to begin.
I withdraw a rubber squash ball from my pocket, where I placed it at 1:11. The Rhetorician and the Linguist stare at it, then at me.
"Well?” the Rhetorician rumbles. "Get it over with."
The Linguist hesitates. "Are you sure you know what you're-?"
I take a deep breath, the contents of the briefing burned into my mind. A should equal A, but not here. A is similar to B, and B is similar to C, therefore C is similar to A is not true, but not here. No way to know for certain without trying them. Tautologies first.
"This ball," I say, "Is a sphere."
The Rhetorician (wet and clammy) makes a rough choking noise, eyes bulging. The Linguist (parched and willowy) sobs in disbelief. I blink.
The ball (but that's impossible) is no longer spherical. The ball is round. Spheres are round. The ball is (they weren't lying) no longer spherical. This, then, is the Dais.
Before they can say more, I continue. Now is the time for syllogisms.
"This ball," I say, "is used to play racquet sports. A badminton birdie is used to play racquet sports. This ball is a badminton birdie."
I blink again at the thing in my hand, which is simultaneously a badminton birdie and a ball and neither. It is not spherical. Despite myself, I am intrigued.
The Rhetorician snatches it from my hand, turning it over and over.
"Would you look at that. Would you look at that. It's incredible. Impossible. Indescribable. My God. Imagine what this room could accomplish, given the right logical constructs.”
He thrusts it towards the Linguist, who recoils.
"P-please don't. I'd really rather not. Can we just take it all back and be done with it?"
He frowns (doesn't want to stop), but, nostrils flaring, proclaims-
"This badminton birdie is used to play a racquet sport. A squash ball is used to play a racquet sport. Thus, this badminton birdie is a squash ball."
And once again he is (clutching in his damp, fatty grasp) in possession of the ball. It is a ball. It is not spherical.
"This ball is not spherical," I say. Thankfully, I am wrong.
As the Linguist slumps, tension disappearing, I glance at my watch. It is 4:28. She looks up at us.
"It's reversible, then. Very good."
The Rhetorician tosses the ball up into the air.
"Everything's back to normal, so we're fine," the Linguist says.
A jolt of indescribable emotion passes through me (oh no oh oh oh no) as my thoughts pull apart her statement. Everything is back to normal, therefore we are fine. Because we are fine, everything must be back to normal. Tautology. We are not fine. Nothing is normal.
My eyes flick to the (birdie) ball. It has not yet come down. It is a distorted patch of colour in the air. We are not fine. The Rhetorician claps a hand over his mouth.
"What did you say?"
The Linguist's eyes are also on where the ball was.
"It's not real," she mumbles. "It is only a false logical construct. It is an illusion. It is not real."
The Rhetorician goes red (swollen and bloated with dumb rage), and takes a menacing step towards her.
"Do you realize what you've done?", he roars. "You blundering idiot!”
She quails, staggering back. I feel as if I should be intervening.
“Hold on,” she protests. “What did I do? It j-just vanished!”
“You stated it! You stated that everything is normal! You made it false. It's in our heads- it's real enough!"
Another misstep, but he hasn't noticed. I sway on my feet as my mind struggles to understand. It's real because it's in our heads. It's in our heads because it's real. Were it not for Descartes it wouldn't be an issue, but we've all received a (stuffy, useless) classical education. Cogito ergo sum is self-evident to us. Tautology. It's in our heads. It's not real. But what is it? The ball?
There is no ball. There is no discoloration. I am worried there never was.
“Perhaps,” I say slowly, choosing my words, “this is what happened to the missing three.”
He rounds on me. He has not yet noticed the ball is gone.
“I beg your pardon?”
He makes the word pardon sound obscene. There is a (piggish fury) look in his eye I do not like.
“The eight. They entered the Dais to normalize it and make it suitable for our use. Perhaps they accidentally triggered one or more logical contradictions in the process?”
The Linguist understands. She has noticed the absence of the ball.
“They- they reasoned themselves out of existence, then? This- this wasn’t what they briefed us about.”
The Rhetorician scoffs.
“Reasoned out of- preposterous. We know for a fact that this place only affects the mind. It’s a fallacy of perception, not some kind of spatial anomaly.”
I point to where the ball was. His eyes follow my finger, then go wide. He shakes his head (as if flicking away a cloud of flies) in denial.
“Ridiculous. An illusion, nothing more. The ball continues to exist.”
I lick my lips. I must be prudent and avoid a logical statement.
"If the ball is real, does that mean it's not in our heads?"
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"The reality of the ball is now assured, but it no longer exists within our heads. Our minds. So where is it?"
He frowns, confused. I cannot trust him to remain level-headed.
"Are you implying that I-?"
Then the realization hits him.
"The ball is real. But it doesn't exist in our minds. It's- it's the unknowable. Almost- but that couldn't be right. That would mean that-"
The Linguist comes to understand it less than a single second before I do. The ball is the unknowable. The divine is the unknowable. She rushes at the Rhetorician, screaming a wordless warning. I am thankful for her rapid reaction. But he is lost in (oafish) thought and doesn't notice.
"The ball must be the Divine, then."
A equals B. B equals C. C must equal A. In the Dais, this is always true.
My watch ticks to a halt. At 4:30 there are four of us- The Rhetorician (mute), the Linguist (deafened), I, the Logician (blinded), and It.
It is all and it is One.