Meaningless Number

Photo by Sebastian Fritzon

Photo by Sebastian Fritzon

The second to notice were the paramedics because the cyclist’s blood stood out on the enamel; at her speed, she must have felt like she’d ridden face-first into a nail. Others stopping to help or watch also noticed and entered history. It was a cold, wet morning on a quieter side of Victoria Park.

Even so there was soon a crowd too large to be explained by just that ambulance. Black cabs started pulling over en masse. Dog-walkers were ignoring their dogs. Above the unconscious woman, in mid-air, was what looked like a tooth—an upper incisor, tilted as though it belonged in the mouth of someone yawning or screaming.

Most people’s reaction was to squint then laugh, rubbing their jaws. But against expectations, no TV pranksters or illusionists came out of their hiding places. Ignoring the gasps, a paramedic moved closer to it with an eyebrow raised. When he chopped his hand above and below, the second eyebrow joined the first, and he squirmed a little where he stood. Flicking it produced a familiar tap. He next tried wobbling it, and when he finally removed his aching and briefly warped fingers everybody could see that it hadn’t moved an inch.

Within minutes, photos and videos had spread around the country and—thanks to a couple of tourists—around the world. The media assumed that all the emails and phone calls were part of some ad campaign. It was only towards late afternoon that the first news vans arrived, playing chicken with one another at the gates. By then, several of the original crowd were staring into the distance or had left, heads shaking, as if someone had told a joke in bad taste.

The police arrived next, though not as some excitedly thought because of a cover-up—they were there to disperse the crowd (it heaved back and forth but always with a held-back clearing in the middle; now and then a child would break free, jump up to try get a touch, then run back giggling, as if having narrowly avoided being bitten). In fact, the police were just as confused as everyone else. A drunk was swearing and making threats, pushing others down to get closer. People started shouting that they couldn’t move or breathe.

The police had to call for help to pacify the situation. The military arrived, imposing a no-fly zone to ground the news helicopters and putting up tents that could be seen from all the nearby tower blocks. This did not help dispel people’s suspicions.

All they were left with were photos and videos, most too shaky or taken from too far away—but everyone’s reactions looked real enough; and even more compelling were the testimonies of those who’d been close enough to see it: the original crowd, the paramedics and the cyclist.

Most assumed that they were collaborators in a hoax. But journalists and detectives didn’t turn up anything other than everyday links. Some argued that there’d been a group hallucination caused by a common trigger, or even a freak coincidence of hallucinations. A breakfast show psychologist conceded that yes something strange had occurred but argued that it was of such strangeness that the witnesses had translated the event into an ordinary concept—a tooth was just how people saw whatever had actually appeared. And anyone who dismissed the whole thing out of hand would still have to explain why Victoria Park remained closed and the East End had disappeared off satellite maps.

The government was unprepared like never before and so kept changing its official line with farcical frequency. Each new explanation—a criminal release of aerosol LSD, a powerful new species of hummingbird—topped the previous for its implausibility and the outrage it drew from the nation; though as one flustered minister pointed out, any explanation they gave was still more plausible than what people imagined hung there in a tent under 24-hour surveillance.

The culture was familiar with instant spectacle and bizarre news. But this was different to an accident caught on a mobile phone or a mutant baby born in a remote village. This was something public, permanent and apparent. Stand-ups tried to tell jokes about it, mainly revolving around the idea of the English and their bad teeth. Talkshow hosts referenced it in their intro patters. Conmen pretended to raise funds to combat the ‘unnatural disaster’. There was merchandise. There was porn. This was all comforting for a time. But whenever anyone smirked, you could see the strain.

People coped better the further away they were. Even now, many had heard less than a rumour, in slums, rainforests, comas, prisons, torture camps in secret valleys. Most countries viewed it as a foreign problem, and in this way they could sceptically observe the situation from afar and mock the English for their credulity. Then one day a government professor leaked the surveillance footage: ten hours of it at six different angles.

When asked later why he had breached the Official Secrets Act, the professor would not look the journalist in the eye. During that famous interview, in which he kept making long pauses between sentences, pauses lasting nearly ten seconds, he confirmed to the world that it was a Tooth.

Nothing could be detected around It and nothing could move It. Air moved casually past It as though It were any other solid object.

“Like many of my colleagues,” he explained, “I arrived in the park with the thrill you get before the supposedly inexplicable that in fact is just the yet-to-be-explained. This was the most reasonable attitude to take, at the time anyway, when I’d only seen the various confused or angry reports. Then I saw It with my own eyes…Do you realise how difficult It is to look at for any long period of time? Soon enough your head jerks down, as though something’s been thrown at you. Understand that reality is otherwise behaving normally: there is nothing interesting on any register, up until Its surface. And then?… There’s just something so bad about It. We talk sometimes about the beauty of a theory, the elegance of an explanation. What we have under that tent in Tower Hamlets is the ugliest thing in the universe.”

***

By now, no one was taking the official stories seriously; instead they were debating the implications of the three things that they’d learnt or heard rumoured. Firstly, the Tooth was immovable or at least couldn’t be moved by the forces that they were comfortable applying to It in such a crowded city. Secondly, the Tooth was geosynchronous: in other words, It was not part of the substrate of reality, if such a thing existed. Had It been, they consoled one another, then the Earth might have gouged a furrow out of itself as it moved from the Tooth on its axis, around the Sun, and with the Milky Way at 300 kilometres per second. Lastly, and most disturbingly: though the Tooth was immovable and seemingly indestructible in terms of large forces, It could still, on occasion, be altered on the small scale. Molecules were taken with lasers: ordinary dental enamel. This impossible contradiction, the claim that you could file off a corner of the Tooth while at the same time It might have bitten into the core of the planet set off something of a metaphysical panic, during which various ambassadors broke protocol by openly accusing the Prime Minister of having gone mad.

So she invited experts from around the world to see for themselves. They came and stared and went, leaving behind them stranger, vaster theories. But the maddening scene-shifting each entailed, the remodelling, the dismantling of paradigms: everything they moved just pushed a thousand other things out of place. It was like they’d been slowly completing a jigsaw puzzle but now were being asked to fit on to another piece a dead spider, or the concept of baldness, or the Code of Hammurabi, or a tooth.

Meanwhile, the press, academics, members of the public had their own theories:

‘The Tooth is simply a tooth—one that belongs to an ordinary person. The rest of this person is in another world. Somehow that world and our own have overlapped, but only at a very specific and tiny juncture. This person with their Tooth moves and eats and lies down like we do, and yet the reason the Tooth doesn’t appear to move is because our entire universe is moving relative to Its movement. And why can’t we move the Tooth? Because it’s like trying to move another universe. (A further question: how many of our own teeth have appeared like this in other worlds?)’

‘Until now, we’d barely explored even the shallows of Ideaspace (or ‘the totality of all possible thoughts’). But the hyperactive hive-mind that’s the online billions of modern humanity, it has crossed an epistemic threshold. We can map so much more of consciousness than ever before. And we’re finding things on our voyage that were already there, waiting to be found. There’s always been a Tooth. We can see it now. We will see more.’

‘The Tooth is a language problem. If we accept that “language” is approximate, ideological, unable to refer, then may we not risk the hypothesis that a general (mis)use of “language”, over thousands of years, has led to a calcification of meaning? This build-up of missed nuances and semantic remainders has ramified / appears—i.e. intersubjectively—as a tooth.’

‘The world’s this projection of deeper reality. Take an image on a computer: every pixel’s down to input from somewhere else, telling it what to do and how to be. All we’ve got in Vicky Park is a malfunctioning pixel.’

‘The Tooth is not meant to be comprehended; rather its incomprehensibility is to be meditated on; like the lotus shown in silent answer to the disciple’s question—like death.’

‘God is the immovable object. The Tooth is an immovable object. Ergo, the Tooth is God.’

‘There is no Tooth.’

Religious leaders responded like their followers: with a mixture of denial, reaching, apathy and terror. Philosophers called for calm by arguing that things could have been much worse: if, for example, daughters had birthed their mothers or numbers had refused to add up. People took this badly, arguing that such talk might bring these abominations into being. Who’s to say the Tooth Itself hadn’t been brought about by disgusting minds such as theirs?

Such paranoia wasn’t the only psychopathology on the increase. Solipsists multiplied. Each believed that they alone had gone mad and that this madness not only manifested in the Tooth, but also in the hallucination that everybody else could see It, proving that everybody else was imaginary and perhaps had been all along. Despite how lonely this idea made them feel, how weak and lonely, it was still more comforting to believe in subjective madness than an objective glitch.

Others though revelled in their madness; for the world’s cultists the Tooth was an affirmation. If It existed then no one could tell them that they hadn’t been abducted by lizards or that Earth wasn’t going to be rammed by an alien planet. That none of them had actually predicted a tooth per se did not diminish their cries of ‘I told you so’. Many of these cults even remodelled themselves around the Tooth, while at the same time new ones appeared that were devoted to It. Some even started worshipping the Tooth, attributing to It various commands and doctrines. The initiation rite for one such cult involved the hammering out of a tooth matching the one that hung in the park. They had their converse (and in time their enemy) in a group whose members had already lost an upper left incisor. This group eventually splintered into various messiahs who marched on Victoria Park to reclaim ‘their’ Tooth and were shot.

Martial law had been declared, albeit mainly in the East End. Outside the park, crime rates were breaking records: thousands believed if the Tooth exists, everything is permitted. The government abandoned efforts at an explanation and reached for emergency measures.

They planned to build a permanent laboratory around the Tooth but inside an innocent and likable structure; maybe a cenotaph for all wars ever, or a giant statue of a bulldog. That way they could continue studying It, while otherwise denying Its existence. Such a plan would require an intense disinformation campaign, where the original eyewitnesses (those that hadn’t been hounded to suicide or gone into hiding or, like the cyclist, been blamed for everything and murdered) would be accused of being deviants, even a ‘Dadaist terror-cell’. Meanwhile other nations could be bribed off with limited access to the Tooth.

Besides, there were encouraging reports that some people had begun to forget or even get used to It. Remember that Tooth? Oh yeah—strange, huh? I suppose the universe is a crazy place. Hasn’t it always contained things that’d make you lose sleep if you thought about them for too long? The Tooth was like that. There could be an accommodation with the Tooth. Yes, there could be a peaceful future with the Tooth.

One night, the tent city was stormed by a crowd of hundreds of thousands, made up of ordinary citizens who had quit their jobs, had stopped going to school, had refused to continue educating their children, had taken to booze or drugs, had found God and been helping the sick and needy, had raped their friends, had begun eating cats and dogs, had given away all their money, had put their money in gold, had burnt all their money in a big fire and danced around it, had refused to believe until now, had come hoping to be proved wrong, looters, militias, perverts, cultists, dentists, the media, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tourists who’d been grounded since the travel ban, and two angry sacked park-wardens.

Fences sizzled and door locks thunked. This saved soldiers from the bricks and petrol bombs; it also trapped a technician inside a certain laboratory.

He hid in a corner, flinching at the alarms and screams. Someone somewhere was singing the national anthem until silenced by gunfire. The technician buzzed for help every few minutes, then every few seconds. Finally, he turned to face It.

He tried taking It all in, from thin crown to horned root, tried taking in all It entailed. And he began trembling as he saw the future history of the world.

How would anyone ever be content again when there’d always be that Toothache? What would it mean for the weak force to be stronger than the gravitational force if in Tower Hamlets an upper incisor floated inexplicably and perhaps eternally? No one would be persuaded of anything anymore. All new breakthroughs and discoveries, all good news, would be met with the same demurral: but what about the Tooth?

Faced with such madness, he snatched up a metal file. His colleagues banging on the other side of the observation bay saw the whole thing, saw him yelling and sobbing as he sawed away at It, and the mystery snowing down to the laboratory floor.

The news spread through the park and turned the rioters. They ran with it back through the city zones like giddy, scandalized children. There was smoke and noise everywhere. It was like London was burning down again.

In those stunned days to follow when it felt like the whole planet had turned into a grey Morning After, the enamel was studied; it revealed nothing more fascinating than calcium salt normally does. The space in which the Tooth had hung was also studied: as open and well-behaved a part of reality as any other. The tents left Victoria Park, apart from the central one, though it was briefly opened to the public in response to those who didn’t believe what surveillance footage had shown. Fanatics nonetheless cried cover-up while commemorative edition newspapers asked in page-filling font, ‘What happened?’ but few actually wanted to know anymore. Civilians began moving through the city again. They reopened their shops and went back to school, and there were the usual wars and taxes and harvests and cup finals and political scandals and journeys to work.

So everyone continued to live their lives, like they always had done, like the cringe before a blow. And on clear nights they’d look up, in their shame and agony, and see the teeth of the universe smiling down on them again.

A meaningless number of days passed.

Mazin Saleem

About Mazin Saleem

Mazin Saleem is a writer based in London. He has written short stories for The Literateur, the Open Pen Anthology, and Litro Magazine, and essays about film and TV at Big Other, Little Atoms, and Pornokitsch. His interests are rich and varied.

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5 thoughts on “Meaningless Number

  1. Loved it, great opening image of the cyclist riding into the tooth. Ouch! reminds me of Stephen Baxter’s Time (or is it Space?) , the idea of the object suddenly appearing in our reality – remember the silver football-shaped sphere in Africa? Also, loved the long paragraph (one night, the tent city was stormed…), shades of Philip Roth?? Have you read David Brin’s Existence yet? Full of great ideas especially dealing with what happens to humanity after the appearance of an alien artifact in near-earth orbit.

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