The Noble: Part One

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Robert remembered the moment he first met Lord William Gray distinctly. Lenny had just finished shoving the man into the mud and then stomped away, ordering Robert to lift him back out. William had fallen in face first, and with his hands bound behind his back he started to kick wildly for fear of drowning in the filth. Robert gripped him around the shoulders, pulled him up to a kneeling position, then helped support him as he rose to a stand.

After spitting enough mud to the side that he could speak again William gurgled out a “Thank you, sir.”

“You ought not talk back to the guards like that,” Robert gruffly reprimanded as he brushed the mud from William’s eyes and nose. He gave a glance to the guards in question, but for the time being the three of them were huddled around a map a few dozen feet distant. No doubt they were trying to determine which district of Cotswolds their party was lost in now.

“Thank you, again,” William repeated as at last his face was clear enough that he could open his eyes. He was tall, with golden locks that fell to his shoulders. He held himself in an upright and dignified manner, one that did not fit with his dirty station. “It was a matter of principle, you see. They don’t have the right to speak to me that way.”

“You’re a slave,” Robert shrugged. “You don’t have any rights.”

“Well, in the first case, even a slave has the common rights of all men, and in the second case, I’m not properly a slave either, you see I am–“

“Lord William Gray, I know. I heard. You were being quite emphatic on that point when they brought you in.”

“Hm,” William pursed his lips. “And what about your name, sir?”

“Please don’t call me ‘sir’ anymore, I don’t want them thinking I need a shove in the mud as well. I’m simply Robert.”

“And what is your surname?”

“I’m simply Robert.”

“Well, Robert, I am indebted to you. I won’t forget this, and I will repay.”

“I’m sure you will,” Robert said dryly. Then stepped back as the guards came back from their huddle to the line. They were called Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew, and each of them bore the scowling mark of a man that maintained a constant hatred. This hatred was as necessary to sustaining them in their work as food and drink, for without it they would never be able to keep their consciences at bay.

“Now you listen,” Lenny spat as he grabbed William by the shoulder and cut the rope off of his wrists with a rusted knife. “I’ll have no more of your backtalk. You’re in a rough bind, I know, but I’ve bought you fair and square.” He pulled William’s hands round to the front where he tied them again, and then fastened the cord to a long rope. This rope ran the full length of thirteen slaves and held them in their line. “You see that I spare you the irons, at least until night? I make things as nice for you as I reasonably can. So don’t give me your guff. Save it for the master I sell you to!” He gave the knot he was tying one more tug, then turned and mounted his nearby horse, the one to whom the line of slaves was secured.

Robert was fastened to the rope directly behind William, and could see from the way his shoulders were rolling back that he was inhaling deeply, no doubt preparing to call a reply to Lenny.

“Don’t say it!” Robert hissed and William froze. “You’re part of the line now, and that means all the rest of us are liable to pay for whatever trouble you stir. I hate Lenny, but what he says is true. If you must fight back, wait until you’re sold off on your own and none of us will be harmed for it.”

William was still for a moment, clearly giving Robert’s words sincere consideration. “I understand,” he finally replied, keeping his voice low so they would not be overheard. “I do not intend to subject myself to these injustices, but you’re right that I have to consider all of you. You’re my brethren now, and I mustn’t do anything until I’ve convinced each of you to fight alongside me.”

Robert was spared coming up with a response to this strange declaration as Lenny urged the horse into a trot and the whole line of sorry souls lurched forward into their march. They moved at a pace somewhere between a walk and a jog, passing over one rolling hill after another. As far as the eye could see in each direction was nothing but long, green grass with the occasional sprinkling of bare, gray rocks to break up the pattern. Above them the sky was overcast by a multitude of thin, wispy clouds, diffusing the sunlight into a universal ambience. It might have been an lovely scene, were it being viewed by less dismal souls.

When Robert had first joined Lenny’s party there had only been three others, wretches  whose masters had sold them off to cover debts, just as Robert’s had done. As they took a winding course through the hill-lands, their numbers had increased one-by-one until they now marched thirteen long. They were destined for the auction houses in one of the main cities, where Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew would sell them at a decent profit.

Until this William fellow, all the slaves in their party had come in quietly. Years of servitude had long conditioned them to the rough manner in which they were treated, and the prospect of leaving one master for another was a familiar passage. But William was different. From the first moment Lenny brought him he had shown the signs of an unbroken spirit. He had proudly explained that he was in actuality a royal lord, waylaid on the road by a band of highwaymen, mistaken by them for a rich servant, and then sold into slavery at their hand.

Everyone in the party, slave and slaver alike, dismissed his story out of hand. The general consensus was that the poor man was insane, and likely it was for this condition that his prior master had chosen to sell him away. Where many of their band considered this a great source of fun and teased William for his sincerity of delusion, Robert could only shake his head in pity. He knew there must come a time where this dreamer would be forced back to his cruel realities, and Robert could not wish that crushing on anyone.

If Robert was honest with himself, though, it was not pity alone that he felt for the man. He could not help having a wonder and a fascination for him, too. At the close of each day, as they sat around their evening fire, one of their crew would invariably ask William for stories of his home and prior life. At first they had done this to mock him, but he spoke with such a fervor and richness of detail that it was impossible to not be captivated by the visions he spun. Night-by-night, the slaves’ faces became less cynical and mean, changing into something softer and longing. For a blissful hour they would forget their pitiful lives and saw the world of William as if in a trance.

They seemed to feel the summer wind blowing, fluttering out the red and yellow banner of his ancestors above their heads. They saw its emblem, that of a lion holding a long flower in its mouth. They lowered their eyes from its billowing form and found themselves on the parapet of a strong and imposing fortress. With William they passed the attendants and soldiers on either side, each bowing or saluting in turn. They followed him up the spiral staircase to the lord’s chambers at the peak of the tallest tower. They heard the din of workers below and the singing of the birds above. They smelled the perfumes and the salts from the bath, the starch and the dye from the laundry. They saw the wardrobe filled with rich and colorful garments, the complexity of design stitched into the thick rugs covering the floor. They felt the soft warmth of the feather pillows, the cold hardness of the his fine suit of armor’s steel.

Only one of the slaves remained immune to William’s magic. Jules had enjoyed listening to the stories at first, but after a time said it made him frustrated to hear dreams that could never be real. Fantasy made his reality unbearable, and so he would always excuse himself from the rest of the party when the tales began and brood elsewhere on his own.

It wasn’t as though William only offered intangibles to his fellow slaves, though. He was just as gracious with his daily food portions as he was with his words. He explained that the other slaves had not been properly nourished through life as he had, and so they needed the food more. Each time he would look them firmly in the eye and assure them that they would make it out alright. No one doubted that he truly believed it, and that he truly intended to share his better life with them all. Perhaps they were still not ready to believe William’s tales, but they did come to believe in him.

Though the three slave-traders heard bits and pieces of William’s lordly stories, they didn’t harass him any further than to occasionally make fun of his madness. William had kept his word and refrained from giving them any more trouble. That proud defiance never dimmed in his eye, but he held his tongue at their jeering. In fact he seemed to be saddened that they chose to be his enemies rather than his friends.

William’s intended rebellion never came to fruition either. Although William had gained the slaves’ appreciation, he was not any closer to winning their fighting spirit. A failing he admitted to Robert one night after all the others had fallen asleep. At night the line lay on the bare ground in their marching order,  still tethered to the line though now with iron fetters. As William and Robert were neighbors in the line they would often hold whispered conversations as the others drifted out of consciousness.

“I know I have to take this next step alone,” William was saying. “For a while there I had an ambition of us all raising up together and overpowering our captors. We outnumber them by ten, after all, but I have come to see that this isn’t in your nature to do.”

“Well of course not!” Robert shook his head. “We may outnumber them, but they’re still armed and we are not. Even if we were to overpower them, some of us would die in the effort.”

“Yes,” William nodded solemnly, “and I would be the first. But I would do it.”

Robert scoffed. “Then your escape attempt wouldn’t do you any good, would it?”

“Would I not be free then?” William smiled. “And my people would be free, too.”

“Who?… Oh, you mean us?”

“Of course. As I said before, you are my brethren. You are all of you of the House of Gray now.”

Robert just smiled and shook his head. “I must admit that being of the House of Gray still feels pretty drab right now.”

“You joke tonight, but soon you will see. The time of our liberation is soon upon us.”

“Oh?” Robert asked in amusement. “How soon?”

William grinned, raised his iron shackles up to where Robert could see them, gave a tug and the lock sprang open! Robert started, and snapped his gaze over to the fire around which the slave traders spent their nights. All three were still asleep. “What are you doing?” he hissed.

“I had a moment alone with the fetters the other day and stuffed mine full of grass. The lock can’t catch properly.”

Robert stared at this revelation. “But what are you doing?”

“As fortune would have it, I know these lands. These brutes have been leading us straight towards my very home, the one I’ve told you all about. It isn’t even a full day’s journey ahead. If our overlords see it as I have described and realize that I have been telling the truth I’m sure they will be very moved, though probably not towards doing me any kindness! My only chance is to get away tonight.”

Robert grimaced. “William, please don’t do this. You’re just going to die out there on your own.”

“I know you don’t believe me, Robert. I forgive you for that. But I’ll be restored to power within twenty-four hours and come back for you all! I’ve been gone long enough that the servants have likely abandoned the homestead, but there are enough hidden treasures in the place that I can immediately hire mercenaries and free you. Then all of us will live in my halls and we’ll build the House of Gray anew!” There was a joyful fire in William’s eyes, an excitement to at least be at his moment of action.

But Robert could not match his enthusiasm. “William, in spite of my better senses I really do like you. And honestly I do want to believe in your tales. Even without the promise of being a part of your court, I just like to imagine that such a place as you describe is really out there somewhere…. But dreams only have a place in us when we don’t get lost in them.”

William smiled in pity. “So you assume I am mad and off to my doom. What of it? Let me go, then. It is my choice.”

Robert nodded. “I suppose you have that right.”

William grinned broadly. “A slave has ‘rights’ do you say? Perhaps I’ve made a change in you yet! And that’s why I trust you with what I must ask next Robert. Listen to me close. I make a new man of you, I have that right as well. No longer are you to be ‘simply Robert,’ I pronounce you Robert Gray.” William lightly touched each of Robert’s shoulders. It would have been comical were his face not so sincere. “And I am entrusting you with these people until I return. Take care of them and follow the example I’ve set for you. You are my steward until I return.”

In spite of his doubts, Robert’s eyes grew tearful. Whether it was madness or not, something long too still in his heart stirred at the calling.

“Now see to this, I have born your shackles and I have broken them,” William proceeded. He reached down and pulled Robert’s wrists up to eye level. “By which I mean: I stuffed grass into your fetters as well.”

“You what?!”

“Just in case. Don’t worry, they won’t notice, you can’t even tell there’s anything different until you give them a sharp tug.”

Robert turned the lock towards him and saw a few telling blades of dead grass poking out from the metal.

“But listen,” William continued. “I must leave now. Will you take this charge to care of the others?”

“Alright, William, that much I can manage.” He nodded. “And who knows? You’re a crazy fool, perhaps, but you also also seem to have luck on your side. You may survive yet!”

“I intend to.” With that William gave him a wink, then began crawling away from the line. He moved as stealthily as he could muster, making for the declining slope at the edge of the plateau where the party currently slept. Robert watched the retreating form, and for a brief moment a part of him entertained the idea that maybe the man really was a lord. Whether crazy or honest, one thing was certain. William simply didn’t belong with a crew as wretched as the rest of them.

“MAN ESCAPING!” A shrill voice split the silent dark. Down at the end of the line Jules had risen to his feet and pointed accusingly at William’s retreating shadow.

“No!” Robert roared, but the damage was already done.

Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew were on their feet in an instant, and had fully apprised the situation after another. Lenny barked at the other two to remain with the line as he sprinted towards the nearest of their horses.

William didn’t even glance backwards, but upon hearing the cry rose to his feet and sprinted full speed, now disappearing down the edge of the plateau.

Lenny threw his leg over the horse, and reached down to its side, pulling out a sword that flashed in the moonlight. He dug his heels deep into the horse’s sides, eliciting a whinny of protest, but then the beast obediently charged forward.

By now all of the slaves were on their feet, motionless as they watched horse and rider drive past them and down the same slope William had gone over. After a moment William returned to their view, a dark form streaking across the large valley that extended ahead. It was a field, open and bare, with nowhere to hide. Though his situation was hopeless, William continued to run, leading further and further away from the camp as now the horse came into view and quickly closed the distance.

As Lenny charged past the fugitive his arm could be made out swinging, catching the form of William with the shining sword and felling him to the ground. William’s body lay still on the ground for a moment as Lenny hauled back on the reins, drawing the horse to a stop. As Lenny dismounted, the prone figure began to lift and fall, haltingly trying and failing to push itself back upright. Lenny advanced purposefully, raised the sword, plunged it down, and stilled the body forever. There was no cry, no flash of lightning to herald the moment, yet all the slaves felt a tremor within and bowed their heads mournfully. All but the traitor at their end.

*

It was certainly not my intention to publish half of a short story this week, after all on Monday I already examined the series as a whole and meant for today to wrap it all up with a nice bow. The more I tried to cram the full tale of The Noble into a single post, though, the more it became apparent that it needed more space to breathe.

However I see in this an opportunity. I think this idea of feeling out the needs of a story, whether it needs to move along at a snappy pace or whether it needs to simmer, is something we ought to look at in greater detail. As such, I will examine this idea in greater detail on Monday, and then a week from now provide the second half of The Noble and really conclude this series.

 

Who Are You Really?

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Are people inherently good or evil? It is a question that has puzzled our species for millennia, and likely will continue to do so for a very, very long while. No doubt this question takes such a hold on us because the nature of humans is divided. There is a conscience in us all, but there also is a beast. Which of those two halves do you consider to the more real part, or is each one an equal half of the whole? Are there only these two halves to a person, or is there an entire spectrum in between? If you are able to answer all of these questions for yourself, am I fundamentally the same as you or might my own reality be different?

These are ponderings of the soul, and as such the deepest, most personal musings we can ever engage in. And we certainly do engage in them, every single one of us has an opinion on all these matters. Even if this were the first time you had heard such questions and had never before given them serious thought, you will still have an initial default reaction that accepts some of the notions and rejects the others.

But what’s with all of this philosophizing in a blog about writing anyway? Well, what better way to give expression to our beliefs and ponderings than through story? Writers have considered and influenced philosophical opinion for as long as pen has been to paper.  One obvious example is the advice Polonius gives us. “To thine own self be true” he says, but Hamlet, like all the rest of us, wrestles with knowing who exactly is that own self he is to be true to?

Shakespeare was by no means the first author to grapple with these ideas, though. More than 2400 years ago Sophocles wrote of Antigone, the faithful sister that tries to bury her brother in defiance of the king’s command. She asserts that this defiance answers to a higher law, one written into the very human soul, a moral compass that defines her. So powerfully does she feel on the matter, that when she is frustrated in following this inner guide it breaks her and she cannot go on living.

Shifting our focus to somewhere more recent I am reminded of an episode from the original Twilight Zone series entitled The Masks. Here an old and wealthy man plays host to all of the mean and rotten descendants who will soon inherit his fortunes. He requires each of them to wear masks, ones that grotesquely reflect their individual character flaws. In this way, the wearing of the mask is actually the unmasking of the true self within.

In my own way I have tried to incorporate themes of discovering one’s true self in each of my short stories during this last month. Each of these four stories has approached these questions in a different way and with different conclusions.

The Wolf in the Room had as its objective to query what it is that defines a person as such. Here we had a main character that scene by scene lost more and more of his humanity, finally transforming into something new: a wolf. Meanwhile there was a corresponding wolf that incrementally gained in humanity until it took the form of our main character.

My purpose with this strange account was to pose a culturally relevant question, absent any answer. If a man changed into the form a wolf while a wolf changed into the form of that same man, are the two now their original selves or their new selves? I expect the outcome of the story will be dissatisfying to most readers, where it is determined that a person is defined by nothing more than their current physical status. I believe most of us would maintain that as we grow and change in life, there yet remains an inner identity within us that remains constant. What, then, is the essence of that which remains permanent?

In Stars and Stones is something of an outlier in this series, given that it features no central characters, therefore no personality arc, and therefore no questions about the true self. And that is exactly the point. This is a story about what is left of life when it lacks any consideration for one’s own humanity. Everything in this piece is presented in a cold and calculated way, a textbook reading of numbers and events, with no consideration for what any of it actually means. The conclusions that are drawn from this clinical perspective are quite bleak: all things die and no legacy is permanent. Life, as such, is meaningless.

Socrates suggested that the unexamined life was not worth living, and surely he meant examined by the heart. Numbers and statistics are wonderful tools for measuring this world and we have a great need for them. Yet we must not forget that we also have great need for humanity, for thoughtful introspection, and for loving connection to others. Yes there are the cold facts of life, but there also the wonderful warm mysteries within it.

The Basketball in the Water echoes the importance of these humanizing moments, though it was far more forward with its themes. At the outset we have a man meeting with his therapist, a man who has gone to great lengths to avoid just these sorts of introspections. So much of the anxiety and fidgeting he exhibits are a direct result of that unwillingness to look at the man within, and the story suggests that it is most often tragedy and guilt that prevents us from engaging in this otherwise natural and healthy self-reflection.

Because of his mistakes he is burdened with a fundamental belief that at his core he is inherently evil, not good. He feels his past has condemned him, and so sees nothing but pain in rehashing that past. I tried to craft his plight in such a way that the reader would understand why he would naturally feel that way, but in the end want him to accept that he is being too hard on himself. The hope is that if the readers were able to have that sympathy for his situation, then perhaps they could consider whether they are not being too hard on their own situations as well.

Revenger of Blood suggests the presence of not only a self, but also of a higher self. Throughout its length the main character is grappling between a sense of duty and a conscience that refuses to consent to that duty. Ultimately the protagonist is able to come to the epiphany that the only true duty is that of the conscience. Sometimes we try to make the decision between right and wrong so complex, weighing pros and cons and debating both sides of the field. Nine times out of ten, though, our inner compass has already told us what we ought to do, and we’re just not willing to face the unpleasant consequences that can accompany acting on our conscience.

I might go to a grocery, select my items, and purchase them for their full retail value. At this point I have done no wrong. I have not tried to rob the store, I have obeyed every law, and I am completely justified. However the absence of doing wrong is not the same as doing right. The law does not require me to smile and brighten my cashier’s day, but perhaps my conscience does, though my introverted nature is uncomfortable with the prospect. If I do not learn to answer that higher call of my heart, I will lead only a half-complete life. The greatest acts of good we do are those that are demanded only of our own heart.

 

It has been quite fulfilling writing this more contemplative series of short stories. Obviously when authors publish work with introspective musings a very personal part of them has been opened for all the world to see. You can probably already tell that my answer to the question “are people inherently good or evil” is that I believe them to be good. There are those that would feel obligated to defend that belief by citing all sorts of logical or religious rhetoric. I suppose those have their place, but for me I cannot give any better evidence than that when I do good, I simply feel that I am being by most true self.

This Thursday I will be posting my final story in this current series, and I will be maintaining the theme of characters seeking to discover their true selves. Specifically I will be focusing on the idea of being called to redefine oneself into something greater. I hope to see you then.

Revenger of Blood

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In ancient Jewish society there existed a unique law to deal with the accidental killing of another. The man that was guilty of the manslaughter was permitted to flee to a City of Refuge, an asylum where none was permitted to do him any harm. If that man ever strayed from his City of Refuge, though, he would be at the mercy of the Revenger of Blood. This Revenger of Blood was a man that had been given the right and duty to slay the killer should he encounter him abroad.

In the last year of the reign of Herod the Great, King of Judea, there lived a man of Hebron named Elkanah, a wealthy and powerful man, known abroad as honorable and pious. To this man came Omri, a servant of Elkanah’s uncle…

“Did he say for what purpose he came?” Elkanah asked his attendant, Hoshea. Hoshea shuffled behind his master as he moved about his court, attending to all matters of business before the end of day.

“No,” Hoshea replied. “But he did suggest that his matters were urgent, and there was a graveness about him.”

Elkanah nodded as he stepped up to a pedestal where one of the local merchants stood. The merchant pulled up a ledger and laid it on the pedestal. As Elkanah reviewed the record, he motioned to another nearby servant to bring him his own record as well, and the two were laid side-by-side for comparison.

“I am nearly finished here, go and fetch him. Also, invite him to stay with us for the Sabbath afterwards.”

Hoshea made to leave but Elkanah held up a hand to stop him. “And then fetch the money purse and buy for sacrifices before sundown.”

Elkanah turned back to the records, gave them one last analysis, then turned to the merchant and asked “Are we satisfied?” The merchant nodded, and now laid their contract on the pedestal instead. Elkanah motioned to another servant who brought them a reed pen and in turn they signed the bottom of the paper.

Elkanah nodded to the merchant and his associates, who made their way out of the room, passing by Hoshea as he returned with a short and rotund man in tow. The man appeared nervous and pulled his cap into fidgety hands as he entered the room.

“Peace be unto thee,” the man saluted as he approached Elkanah. “Thine greatness and goodness are known for miles, Rabbi, I am thine servant, Omri.” Then he bowed himself to the ground.

Elkanah lifted the man up and clapped his shoulders. “I am glad to see thee, Omri. Will you stay with us for dinner that we may discuss your matters in comfort?”

“I am honored,” Omri inclined his head in another slight bow. “But if thou wilt be gracious, I am weighed by a somber business and would be relieved of my duty.”

“Very well.”

“As thou knowest, I am the servant of Hiram, thine father’s brother. Ever since that tragic accident with thine father, Hiram has sent servants from time to time to discover the movements of thy father’s killer. He does this tirelessly as his duty to thine father.”

Elkanah nodded. “Hiram is an honorable man, by all accounts that I have heard.” His gaze strayed slightly to the side where Hoshea was now drawing a measure of gold and silver from the money chest and placing it into his bag.

Elkanah motioned a pause to Omri, then turned and called “Hoshea, come here.” When the man drew near Elkanah reached into the money bag and pulled out a coin that was faded and pockmarked. “We do not use this coin for purchasing sacrifice, Hoshea.”

Hoshea shrugged. “The markings are still legible. It is permitted.”

Elkanah smiled, but his voice was firm. “There is that which is permitted, and that which is sublime. Go and replace the coin.” Then he turned back to Omri.

Omri gave another slight bow, and then continued. “At all times thine father’s killer, a youth named Talmai, has remained in his asylum in the city of Shechem, never once abandoning his refuge. Yet three nights past, my master received word that Talmai’s father, an elder in Jerusalem named Anah, lies dying on his bed and calling for his son. It is known that messengers are bearing this news to Talmai, and there are those that say Talmai loves his father dearly and will not fail to answer the call.”

Elkanah somberly turned his back to Omri, bowing his head in deep contemplation. “And your master calls on me to fulfill my duty as the Revenger of Blood upon this young man’s head.” He face grew paler by the moment and the tips of his fingers quivered slightly. “Though I have never harmed any man at any time.”

“If you will permit me…” Omri began tentatively. Elkanah made no effort to suppress him so he continued. “There is no joy in this work before you, and there are none that envy thine station. But the way of duty requires of us to do that which is just, no matter how it aches our conscience. Such was the lot you chose when thou accepted the station of Revenger.”

“Never did I expect this youth to abandon the safety of his refuge.” Elkanah turned his head upwards, but closed his eyes against the light. “But truly, it was my duty to accept the station… I will do that which I have pledged,” he finally determined. “Go and tell thine master. I will take my journey to the northern entrance of Jerusalem; there I and my servants will lay in wait for the man, and take him while he is yet on the road.”

Omri bowed. “I thank thee, my lord. God be with thee.”

“In this?” Elkanah whispered to himself, after Omri had left the room.

*

Elkanah stood atop a rocky outcropping, one that overlooked the road to Jerusalem eight cubits below. Ahead of him the road emerged from a distant crevice and passed through a wide plain before turning beneath his feet. The moon was only half full, and this portion of the path was the only stretch that was well illuminated in all the region, though his position was further lightened by two torches on either side.

From his perch, Elkanah and the small group of men with him saw his servant Hoshea running down that dusty road towards them. He closed his eyes and sighed, knowing that such speed could only foretell that he had been successful in discovering the man Talmai. Hoshea reached the bend in the road and made his way around to the back of the rocky outcropping, where its sloping side led him up to where Elkanah stood.

“Master—” Hoshea panted as he stepped into the light of the torches. Elkanah held up a hand, silencing his servant until he had had a chance to regain his breath. Hoshea paused to take a few, long and deliberate breaths, then nodded. “Master, I have been and seen, and the report of Hiram’s servants is true. The four men come and one of them is tall with ruddy cheeks and dark, curly hair, the same as how Talmai is described to be. They will be at this place within the hour.”

“Are they armed?”

“No, they are not.”

That surprised Elkanah, but he nodded and turned to one of the men standing at his side. “Now Uzziel, take thine men and conceal them among the trees both before and after this bend in the road. Then thou and two that thou choosest wait in the road, without weapons that thou may appear peaceful. When the four men are drawn near to thee, hail them and say ‘Art thou Talmai?’ and they will say ‘Nay, we know not of whom thou speak.’ Then say thee ‘But we know thou art Talmai, and we are messengers from thy father, come to bear news that he has died this very day.’ Then the man will not be able to compose himself and will begin weeping. Thus we will have confirmation of his identity, and then call to thine men and they shall catch the man and bring him here to me.”

“It is well said,” Uzziel approved, then he turned to his men and they all departed with him until Hoshea and Elkanah were alone on their perch. Elkanah motioned to Hoshea and they doused both of the torches, then turned to face the road and began their wait.

Elkanah could feel his heart pounding in his chest, its every beat protesting the moment coming. He ran his hand along the hilt of the ceremonial sword at his side, a weapon that had only been ornamental in his house. For a moment he looked heavenward and silently prayed for strength, though partway through that request changed to a petition for understanding why these events had come to him.

The minutes slid by slowly, and the initial tension slowly relaxed. One-by-one Uzziel’s guards down below settled into seated positions, and then Hoshea did the same. It was just as Elkanah himself began to bend his knees that four dark figures came into view, travelers emerging from the shadow of the crevice in the distance. A muted call from Uzziel and the guards in the trees crouched deeper into their grass, while Uzziel and the two men he had chosen rose to their feet and stood conspicuously on the side of the road. Up above, Elkanah and Hoshea lay on their stomachs so that their silhouettes would not be visible to their quarry, and watched to see what transpired.

With the scent of dust filling his nose, Elkanah peered at the dark figures as they drew nearer and nearer. The more he tried to stifle his breath the more ragged it wheezed out of him. After a moment he reminded himself the men below would not be able to hear his breath and he let it out, long and heavy. He found himself wondering which of the four approaching men was Talmai. Which was the one that did not know he was now taking his final walk and breathing his final breaths?

The men passed by the first set of trees where Uzziel’s guards were hid, and passed on without perceiving the threat behind them. As they started towards the bend in the road and caught sight of Uzziel and his companions there was a noticeable slowing of their steps. Even so they came forward, no doubt not wanting to betray their anxieties.

From up above Elkanah could not hear the words spoken between Uzziel and the four travelers, but after a few exchanges between them he saw the third of them draw his hands up to his face and begin wailing so loudly that Elkanah could hear it clearly. Uzziel cried out and at the same moment seized on the weeping man, dragging him down to the ground. Talmai’s associates leapt upon the two strugglers, trying to pry them apart, and Uzziel’s associates leapt upon them in turn. There was a moment of complete confusion, but then the armed guards had rushed in from the trees and at sword point took each of the travelers by their arms and held them still.

Elkanah could not hear the words that Uzziel threatened to Talmai’s three companions, but they must have been compelling for at his word they were released and ran off into the night without a single glance back. With only Talmai remaining in their grip, Uzziel and his men made the march towards the sloping side of the overlooking rock and Elkanah and Hoshea rose to their feet and rekindled the torches. At first Elkanah faced towards the approaching men, but as they drew towards the light he found he could not face his captive and so he turned his back to them.

He listened as at Uzziel’s command the guards moved into an enclosing circle around the crown of the rock, preventing any escape for their captive. Then there was the thud of the young man being dropped to the ground behind Elkanah, from which point a faint sobbing arose.

“He is here, Master,” Uzziel’s voice announced unnecessarily, Elkanah nodded but still did not turn.

“Talmai,” Elkanah breathed out. “Thou knowest who I am?”

The sobbing continued for a moment longer, then was gulped down and replaced with a quavering timbre. “I was told that the man I slew had a son. And that he had taken upon himself the role of the Revenger of Blood.”

Elkanah nodded bitterly. “Why, then, wouldst thou leave thine City of Refuge?”

“If thou knew where to find me, thou knowest why I came. No matter the risk, I had my duty to perform.”

“Indeed, a father is worth a man’s life,” Elkanah agreed, finally turning round to see his prey. Talmai was young, not yet thirty, with a gentle, open face. As much pause as Elkanah had already felt, it only deepened now.

Talmai looked despondently into Elkanah’s eyes, but his expression softened as he saw the hesitation in him. “Thou art the master here I perceive,” he spoke up. “There is none to force thine hand in this thing.”

“There is the law.”

“The law allows thee to take mine life, but it does not require it.”

“It is written an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It was wrong for my father to die, even by an accident. This offense deserves a balance.”

“I do not deny what is deserved, yet still thou hast a choice. Why dost thy choose so?”

Elkanah called on his determination and hardened his face. “I am an honorable man, and I ever do my duty, whether it is my pleasure or not.” He gripped the handle of his sword and at last drew out its full length.

“It is also written thou shalt not kill.”

“In this case…it is permitted.”

Elkanah was in the act of stepping forward, but his own echo gave him pause. He looked over to Hoshea who grimaced at him meaningfully. Closing his eyes he tried to find his center within. He whispered so silently that none other could hear: “Is it blasphemy to want more than the law?”

He looked down to his hand, to the sword in it. He looked to his other hand, to its open palm. “Perhaps you are right, Talmai,” he finally said. “Perhaps within rightfulness itself there yet remains a choice to make.” He dropped the sword to the ground with a ringing clatter.

“Let him go,” Elkanah heard himself speak.

“Master?” Uzziel asked.

“Let the prisoner go,” Elkanah said forcefully and looked Uzziel in the eye. “He is free of the law today.”

Talmai’s face dropped into the earth and he sobbed the loudest yet. Though the guards stood apart from him he remained unable to move as his whole body convulsed with emotion. With Hoshea’s help, Elkanah also sunk to the ground, faint and weak from the release of so much tension.

“What are we to say to Hiram?” Hoshea asked him.

Elkanah thought, then finally replied. “We will say we found another law, a new star to follow.”

***

I mentioned on Monday that I was a bit uncertain about coming up with some good examples of multilayered dialogue in today’s story. Ultimately there was more I had wanted to accomplish in that respect than I was able to, but still there are a few instances of it here, hopefully enough to illustrate the idea sufficiently.

Beginning with the most subtle, there is symbolism and imagery, such as Elkanah being elevated above the men traveling their journey and then standing in judgment of and ultimately setting Talmai free. All of this is meant to be a parallel to the hope that there is a God above, one who is watching us travel through life, judging us, and offering mercy that we do not deserve.

Then, of course, there are a couple hints meant for the audience alone. For example, in the introduction we are told the story takes place mere years before the birth of Jesus Christ. That, and the mentioning of following a new star are obviously meant to be indicators of the approaching “new law” that Elkanah ultimately chooses to follow.

Omri’s line “but the way of duty requires of us to do that which is just, no matter how it aches our conscience” is also meant to carry a deeper meaning. On its surface it might sound noble and self-sacrificing, but the more we think about it the more it doesn’t sit right with us. Eventually it becomes clear that his definition is, in fact, exactly wrong.

The most obvious use of a dual meaning, though, is of course the echoing of the phrase “it is permitted.” Elkanah pronouncing this as justification for killing Talmai is a callback to the earlier conversation between himself and Hoshea, where he taught that there is a permitted way, but also a more sublime way, and we ought to follow the latter.

What I particularly like about this is that in the end it is Elkanah’s owns words that convince him of what he ought to do, and his words alone. When it comes down to it, every decision that we make is only done by our own inner persuasion. We must find all our answers inside, and indeed there is a theme in stories of conflict being resolved only when the hero is able to identify his or her true self to guide them. There is a lot of wisdom in that theme when done properly. Come back on Monday where we will look at this concept in greater detail, as well as how the theme has been utilized in each of the short stories of my current short story series. I’ll see you then.

Secret Messages

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One of my favorite things in stories is when the dialogue is multilayered. As I said in my post last Thursday, this sort of dialogue always comes with an obvious meaning, the literal definition of the words being said, but beneath that is a second meaning, or in some cases even a third. Think of a spy film where the villain and hero meet in the middle of  crowded ball. The villain implies bodily harm through a veiled threat and the hero laughs it off with a witticism that ends in a code phrase meant for fellow agents who are listening in over his earpiece.

Or what about even blunter dual-messages that crop up in many romantic stories? Here the two main characters are very obviously confessing their love for one another, but for tension’s sake are pretending to discuss something else entirely. No one is fooled, nor indeed are they meant to be.

“There you are Miss Dotty, the plumbing is all fixed. Seems a few things just got built up and needed to be let out.”

“Oh thank you. Yes, I suppose that is my way. I just hold in too many things which I ought to be expressing out…in my plumbing, that is.”

“Yes, well, we all do. Sometimes we need another sympathetic heart to come and help us open up…to flush out our sludge, that is.”

“Well I’m sure you wouldn’t ever care to know about my sludge Mister Donny.”

“On the contrary, Miss Dotty, I have never felt so alive as when scrubbing out your vile filth.”

“Oh Mister Donny!”

“Miss Dotty!”

Well that is more than enough of that. Moving on…

Obviously there can be clever wordplay in these verbal acrobatics, but I wish to focus more on the more subtle examples, ones where the dual meaning isn’t being said from one character to the other, but rather from the character to the audience. And if audience members have not been paying attention, they might very well miss out on that hidden message entirely, meaning it comes as a reward only to the observant.

An example of this would be the oft-repeated phrase “recalled to life” in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Most every reader is going to pick up on its initial meaning, that of a man condemned to an age of imprisonment finally being “exhumed” back into the real world. However that phrase is also a motto for the entire novel, and it is entirely possible to miss out on some of its incarnations. There are the long-forgotten injustices and cruelties being recalled into sharp clarity via the barbarity of the French Revolution. There is the man condemned to the guillotine and then rescued from it. There is the man who lost his soul, then found it again in an act of selflessness. And in that same man there is his literal death, and then rebirth in a legacy that will live on forever.

There’s another excellent example of dual-meaning in the film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The very last line of the film is “no, this is for me,” by which a customer indicates he does not want the book he is buying to be gift-wrapped. On the surface that is pretty clear. He is keeping the book for himself and therefore doesn’t need it wrapped, the store clerk won’t give his pronouncement any second thought. The audience, however, happen to know that this book is in praise of the anonymous Stasi agent who spared the author when he was under surveillance in Eastern Germany. The audience also knows that this man purchasing the book is that same Stasi agent, and that his entire career was ruined by that decision to spare the author, a decision he made for no other reason that that he felt that the author was a good man.

Now that simple pronouncement of “no, this is for me,” is referring to the fact that he is the one to whom this book has been dedicated and thus it is literally for him. It is for him also in the sense that this is the legacy which he has earned by his sacrifice, the reward for his suffering. It is for him because he has earned it, a gift that needs no more wrapping and concealing. For such a short sentence, it is impressively loaded with meaning and a very fitting conclusion to the entire story.

Before closing, I thought I would try and tackle the question of why does this sort of multilayered communication stand out to us? Why do we judge it as something “good” when a story incorporates these elements in a thoughtful and effective way?

Well first off, I feel that this is a subset of an greater multilayering principle that improves every aspect of a story, including dialogue. After all, we all know a character is flat if they only have a single dimension with no conflicting principles, and I have mentioned in a previous post that as much as possible we should strive for scenes that progress more than just a single plotline at a time. Characters and scenes and dialogue that are multipurpose, that advance more than one idea at a time, are by definition more complex, more difficult to achieve, and therefore more impressive when done well. Something about our human nature sees beauty in complexity, and incorporating it is an excellent way to engender goodwill for your story.

The other reason why I think we gravitate to these sorts of layered dialogues is because they are tied to a pattern of social behavior we all partake in: that tendency to say things while meaning something else. After a certain age we have all learned to not say things directly, for better or worse. To put it kindly we have speak with nuance and suggestion, and to put it more unkindly we have are manipulative and passive aggressive.

We engage in this game whether we are in love and trying to tease the other person into disclosing their feelings before we do, or whether we are in hate and trying to disguise a barb that we can claim was never our intended meaning. Across the whole spectrum of emotions we have become masters of saying things and meaning things, and doing so separately from one another. It’s amusing, then, that sometimes we have a hard time incorporating this extra dimension into our writing. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in trying to force things that we forget we can do it naturally. If you’ve struggled with this sort of layered dialogue, see if you can just get out of your own way and rely on your basic intuition.

On Thursday I will post a short story in which I try to build up an example of this sort of multi-layered dialogue. Admittedly this is a daunting task to me, at this point I have a general outline of the story I want to do, but don’t actually know the details of my dialogue yet. Hopefully I’ll be able to take my own advice, stop stressing about it, and just let my natural multi-dimensional self shine through in my writing.

The Basketball in the Water

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Fidgety Frank. Denise always came up with nicknames to help her remember new patients, and alliteration was one of her favorite methods. Of course, “fidgety” would be a fitting description for many of the assorted lot that made their way through her office, but Frank managed to carry it to a degree that put the rest to shame.

He had not yet told her that their meetings were a waste of time and he would be moving on, but the speech was coming soon, she was sure of it. Maybe he would actually leave, maybe he wouldn’t, she wasn’t about to lose any sleep over the matter either way. As she said to all of her patients that threatened to leave therapy early, there was no shortage of potential clients waiting to take their place. The quitters were the only ones that had anything to lose, not her.

And if Frank left it would be his loss. His need was desperate, that much was clear. She didn’t know what exactly unresolved baggage he was carrying inside, but she could see in his eyes how desperately a part of him wanted to share them. There was just that other part that kept getting in the way. The loud part. The part that would shortly be telling her there wasn’t any purpose in continuing their work. For Frank’s sake she truly hoped that the wounded part of him would win out and get the help that it so desperately needed.

“So what are we talking about today?” Frank squirmed in his seat, seeking a position of comfort that ever eluded him.

“What would you like to talk about?” Denise countered.

He sighed deeply and shrugged. “I’d rather talk about something real this time, this chitchat that goes nowhere doesn’t do me any good.”

She smiled, but suppressed the eye-roll. “I appreciate your honesty. Why don’t we talk about your father? You mentioned in your bio that he—”

“No, there’s nothing to talk about there,” Frank quickly interjected. “Look, maybe this isn’t going to work out, maybe…”

Oh, here it is, she thought, but then he didn’t finish the sentence.

“May I be honest with you, Frank,” she leaned forward meaningfully.

“I suppose so.”

“Right now you’re blocking me. And the only reason you have to block me is because there is something to talk about there. That being said, I want you to know that I respect this role of you.”

His brow furrowed in confusion. “What do you mean this role of me?”

“The part of you whose job it is to protect yourself from being hurt. For better or worse, it’s just trying to keep you safe right now, and I think that is very admirable of it.”

A long pause, and then “Well…maybe he’s right to.”

“What is he afraid would happen if he let down his guard?”

Frank wasn’t fidgeting anymore, but he looked uncomfortable with the introspection. Clearly he wasn’t accustomed to much soul-searching.

“That I would not like what I learned of you?” she prodded.

He shook his head.

“That you would not like what you learned of you?”

One corner of his mouth pulled back in a pained expression.

“Maybe—maybe I’m better off not knowing myself too well,” he offered slowly.

Denise closed her eyes and nodded while breathing deeply, simulating the emotion that must be behind such a statement. “That sounds very hard,” she sympathized, then opened her eyes. “But in your heart do you believe that to be the truth?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged.

She paused, deliberating how to move forward. She wouldn’t ask about his father again, not yet, anyway. It was in the forefront of his mind now and his subconscious would find a way to bring the subject back to light if it decided he ought to.

“I want to pause for a moment and get a sense of where your emotions are coming from in this moment, alright? You told me you had that conference to attend earlier this week, the one with that special speaker you were anxious to hear. How did that go for you?”

He shrugged and shook his head. “Maybe I assumed too much. He wasn’t very interesting, actually.”

“No? Did you try to have that conversation you wanted with him about your company’s new sector? The electrical contracts?”

“No, I wouldn’t have been able to stand it. I mean, now that I’ve seen the guy I can’t believe I never recognized how conceited he was before.”

“He talked a lot about himself?”

“No, not that,” he paused to think. “More to do with how he said it. You know what I mean? Like with everything he had this air of authority, like his opinions were the gospel truth.”

“Opinions that you don’t think are right? Opinions related to your branch of engineering?”

“More just opinions on life,” he clarified. “He seemed so confident about having all the right answers.”

“Opinions on life that you don’t agree with, then? Such as?”

Frank put on a face like he was trying to remember a specific example. She was quite sure he already had that example in mind, though.

“Yeah, there was one, I suppose,” he said casually. “Like he started the whole thing off with this humorous electrical story, something to break the ice with the audience, y’know? And he talks about how great his dad was, and how he could always depend on him. Said when he was a kid he blew out all the fuses in his house with a school project, and his dad had to call in sick and spend the whole morning to fix his mistake and make it all right.” Frank was rambling on at a pretty good rate, anxious to get his thoughts out. “And he kept flashing this grin, y’know, a long-suffering ‘how could my father have ever put up with me’ sort of look. He even said something at the end about ‘that’s just how it is for dads, right?’ Like their role is to always fix up after their kids problems.”

She squinted. “Remind me…you don’t have any children of your own?”

“No, but I know well enough that kids need to be able to handle their own issues. You can’t just solve it all for them.”

“Sure,” she nodded. “Sounds like something you’ve put quite some thought into.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I guess I just never want to treat my kids like how I was raised.”

There it was. He had brought it back up on his own. “How were you raised?” she asked offhandedly.

This time Frank spared the act of pretending to not have a story already in mind. “So I remember these times where my dad told me to wash our dog. Now I was real little, like maybe five or six, and we had a big dog and he hated getting those baths. He would growl at me and I was scared of him biting my hand off or something like that, so I’d just pull out the hose and spray him from a distance and let him shake himself off. I even poured out some of the soap from the bottle so it would look a little emptier. Course my dad could tell right away what I’d done. He just shook his head and took me back to show how it was ‘supposed’ to be done. He’d grab the dog tight and scrub him down, said I just had to show the mutt who was boss, like he did. Every time he knew I wasn’t going to wash the dog right, yet we kept on playing this charade where I’d get scared, and pretend to do it how he wanted, then he’d pretend to be surprised that I’d messed up and get frustrated about it.”

Denise grimaced sympathetically. “I see. Correction wasn’t really about empowering you to be better, just about making you feel worse already?”

“Yeah,” he said grimly.

“It was often that way?”

He nodded.

“What’s the earliest memory you have of him correcting you like that?”

“Oh…probably that same one. The times with the dog.”

“So around five or six you said?” she made a quick note on her clipboard. “When is one of the last times you can remember an example of that?”

Frank fidgeted again. “Oh—um, well I’m not sure exactly.”

“You don’t have to know exactly. Just what’s the latest example that comes readily to mind?”

Frank continued to fidget. She was sure that once again he already had a memory in mind, he just hadn’t decided if he was going to share it yet. She waited, giving him time to process, but gradually his eyes glazed over and became lost in the world of his own thoughts.

“Frank?” she prodded.

He shook himself back to the present. “I guess…” he said slowly. “I told you when we first met that my dad died in a boat accident. You remember? Well I was maybe thirteen or fourteen. We were on this big yacht that my father’s boss had rented out for his daughter’s wedding. Everyone was in their best clothes and I was playing in the back with my brother and the son of one of his work friends.”

He paused, so Denise nodded, encouraging him to continue.

“Well there was a little pool with a basketball hoop on the back, and we had taken one of the balls from that and were just goofing around with it. Just playing around like kids.”

He paused again, this time with a pained and divided expression, as though torn about continuing. Denise could also see the two halves of him as distinct beings, one trying desperately to reach through the passionless mask that the other tried just as desperately to hold on his face.

“So what happened?” she finally asked.

“The basketball we were playing with fell into the water… In our roughhousing it somehow went over the edge and bobbed on the surface farther and farther behind the boat. And then I heard someone running behind me and it was my dad, still dressed in his tuxdeo, complete with his jacket still on and everything. He just, looked at me…sadly…and then dove into the water to go and get that ball.”

“Your father—went into the water to retrieve a basketball?” Denise asked incredulously. She paused, drumming the end of her pen against the clipboard as she thought. “And he didn’t come back?”

Frank cast his eyes down bitterly. At first he was still as a statue, but slowly his whole body trembled and silent tears started to drip into his lap. “Those clothes just soaked in the water like a sponge. He hadn’t even taken his shoes off.” Frank gave a shuddering gasp and the tears came harder. “I—I feel so confused. I hate him so much for doing that, but I know I shouldn’t.”

“Because he left you to feel all the guilt of it?”

Frank considered this, head still bowed, then slowly nodded. “Why would he do that? I can still see his face as he ran by me. He looked so—determined. So condemned because it was like he had to dive in and he knew it was going to be dangerous. It’s not fair for him to put that shame on me, he shouldn’t have felt so obligated to fix my mistake that he would risk himself like that. I didn’t even mean to knock it in. It really was an accident.” He looked to her with a need, as if waning her to absolve him.

“I believe you,” she said, but she was still thoughtfully tapping her pen against the clipboard. “It wasn’t really a basketball that fell into the water, was it?”

***

As I said in my post on Monday, every story is combined of elements both authentic and fabricated. At the time I was referring to how the actual structuring of a story will need to ground itself in realism to be relatable to the reader, but also incorporate fantasy to fill in a meaningful narrative. However, as I wrote about that topic I was reminded that there is also a power to stories that allow their characters to stray between the lines of authenticity and fantasy as well.

In this story Frank has more than one part to him and more than one truth to express. By concealing the details of the event for which he feels most guilty, he is also revealing just how deeply his emotional trauma runs and signaling to the therapist that he needs her to dig there. A masterful writer will imbue characters with dialogue that accomplishes more than one purpose with every line. Dialogue can will always exist on the obvious surface layer, but it can also speak to deeper layers as well. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, though, and it would be well worth taking some time to examine this tool in greater detail next week. Come back on Monday when we’ll look closer at multilayered communication in a story.

Balancing Fantasy and Authenticity

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Humans are funny things. We’re just as capable of finding meaning in a wild flight of fancy as in a calm, lifelike drama. We can learn rudimentary life lessons from wizards and space pirates, and we can live out power fantasies through the “neighbors next door.”

It’s not as though fantasy and authenticity are an all-or-nothing affair, either. To some degree every story straddles a balance between the two. The most imaginative of all fantasies still requires something relatable to establish a common grounding, otherwise the reader will not be able to understand what is going on. Consider the following passage

The Collans repeatedly phased through the entire Baryth spectrum, giving rise to the deepest Gerru yet. It coalesced with the Hinter fields and the resulting Delawa washed over them all.

This is meaningless without any context. It’s perfectly fine for an author to make up characters and phrases, but if you’re going to reference a Baryth spectrum you first need to define it in terms that are grounded in my real world understanding.

On the other hand, even a narrative that strives to capture true-life characters and events must take some creative liberties to fill the gaps in our historical records. Otherwise it isn’t a story, it is just another one of those historical records, a mere timeline of occurrences. For example, when Napoleon was in exile on Elba there must have been a moment of decision that led to his triumphant return to France. We know the world events that likely influenced his decisions, but we do not know exactly which point it was that convinced him the time was right to return. Any narrative of this man’s rise then fall and rise then fall would likely feel compelled to capture this pivotal turn between the two halves of that trajectory. As such the narrative would need to fabricate some fitting scene for this moment, one that is at least true to the man if not the history books.

On Thursday I posted a story where I tried to give a very down-to-earth report on the fictional end of the world. I knew that I wanted to employ an understated style of narration and avoid any melodramatic statements, so that I could create an authentic atmosphere for this tale of mankind’s demise.

At a certain point, though, I had a narrative decision to make on where that commitment to authenticity ended. I had in mind a symmetry of astronomers and archaeologists discovering the signs of the world’s impending doom simultaneously from the heavens above and the earth below. These signs would be foretelling of events that would be pretty extreme, and in extremity comes all sorts of complications with authenticity. And so the decision I faced was between maintaining that narrative symmetry, or else trying to be more authentic to the principles of physics, astronomy, and geology.

Ultimately I decided to go with the narrative symmetry. I was already giving a fictional account and I didn’t take issue then with bending the natural laws to fit my purpose. I made that decision simply by examining what mattered to me as the author, what points were most important for me to convey, and then being true to those cores. Another author with different priorities would be perfectly justified in making the opposite decision. In fact, in other stories I, too, would make the opposite decision to favor the more authentic approach. Consider the following mostly true account of the real-life mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel.

Kurt Gödel was a contemporary of Albert Einstein, and even a good friend of his. Where Einstein shook the world with his advancements in physics, Gödel defined some of the greatest principles of mathematics and logic to this day. He discovered his love for these sciences in his youth, and completed a dissertation in that field when only 23 years of age. This dissertation, called the Incompleteness Theorem, turned the entire scientific world on its head when first published. One of the most intriguing applications of this work has to do with how it defines the limits of science. You see the Incompleteness Theorem proves that there are truths which are true, but which cannot be proven as such.

This proof does not dispute the fact that the natural holds universal truths and mathematical principles, but only establishes that not all of these can be discovered through the calculations of science. This discovery came at a time where mathematicians were beginning to boast that soon they would have answers to every question in the world. The Incompleteness Theorem proved that they would not.

Gödel not only provided the proofs in the papers he wrote, he also illustrated them tragically through his own life. Though he maintained an amazing genius and a strict regime of reason in his professional work, yet he held onto deep and irrational fears in his personal life. In June of 1936 a personal hero of his was assassinated by a former student, having been given tea laced with a fatal poison. The loss shook Gödel personally and deeply and germinated a paranoia in his young mind, specifically a fear of being poisoned himself.

Though Gödel maintained his composure well enough to lead an accomplished and fulfilling life, the fears persisted and grew as he advanced in years. By the time he reached 70 years he refused to take any food that was not prepared for him by his beloved wife, Adele. She remained his singular constant, the only one whom he dared to trust. When, in 1977, she was hospitalized, he ate nothing at all, shriveling away to a mere 65 pounds until at last he died. She soon followed him.

Gödel remains one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever known, seeing the facts and realities that others never could. Yet for it all there was an incompleteness to him, much as the one that he had defined for the science he loved. For in them both there were mysteries and shadows that defied all reason, questions that could find no answers.

As I said at the outset, this story is mostly true, there was only one point in this account which I fabricated. Gödel did, indeed, have a personal hero that was killed by a former student, and it was this event that sparked his deep paranoia. However that professor was not assassinated via poison, but rather shot with a common pistol. I do not know why a shooting resulted in Gödel fearing poison more than guns, but somehow it did. Changing the method of assassination gives the story a better symmetry, however in this case I would choose to err on the side of authenticity. The literary qualities are already remarkable as they are, there is foreshadowing and allegory, triumph and tragedy, character and plot. All these authentic elements I would argue should be allowed to shine more brightly by repressing the urge to fabricate any enhancements to them.

If in your own stories you find yourself testing that line between the fantastic and the authentic, I recommend you pause to take in your narrative side-by-side with your objectives. There isn’t a cut-and-dried answer as to where you should draw that line of authenticity, you simply have to weigh what principles are the most important to you in this tale and what is lost be being more imaginative versus more realistic. In the end all your story really needs to be true to is itself.

 

This Thursday I’ll be sharing a new short story that walks the line between what is real and what is imagined, and that within its own narrative. Our main character will be a psychologist helping a patient to tease the truth of actual events out from the truths of the heart. I hope to see you then.

In Stars and Stones

astronomy constellation dark dawn
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The first thing that the astronomers of the Mauna Key Observatory made clear to the public was that our solar system is in constant movement through the galaxy. Some of the general populace would already be aware of this, but the scientific community had long since learned to speak to the lowest common denominator when presenting new scientific discoveries. And so they explained that just as how our moon orbits the earth and it in turn orbits the sun, so also the sun orbits the center of the Milky Way Galaxy and it in turn orbits the far off center of the Virgo Supercluster. It was that last statement was the part that was a discovery, for all prior research had suggested that our galaxy orbited no central mass, only that it ever drew nearer to its neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.

For the time being they had no explanation as to why this inter-galactic movement had never before been noticed, but cheerfully assured they would keep the public updated on this most fascinating of developments. The public, as a whole, were mildly entertained by the news but little further thought was given to the revelation.

Coincidentally, in that same year another discovery came to light which made far more of an impact on modern culture. In the midst of the ongoing Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, some seismic shifts had collapsed a large portion of their borehole and then filled it with a number of archaeological artifacts such as had never before been seen. What was most notable, though, was that these items featured unmistakable signs of synthetic materials, suggesting a community that possessed a technology which belied the age to which they must have belonged.

*

Seven years had passed since the first reports on the galaxy’s movement towards the center of the Virgo Supercluster, and each of the major astronomical observatories had confirmed the findings of the Mauna Key Obervatory. As each establishment published the results of their research, though, each claimed that the rate of the galaxy’s movement was slightly greater than that which had been measured by any of the preceding publications. By this pattern it soon became evident that the movement was accelerating, and doing so at a rate of that was greater than anticipated.

The full implications of this could not be fully extrapolated though. It was becoming abundantly evident that the scientific community possessed neither sophisticated enough models nor detailed enough data to predict future outcomes with any degree of confidence. The distances were simply too large and the rate of motion too great. Thus it was that mathematicians and physicists committed themselves to providing more robust systems for analyzing these extremes.

Meanwhile the archaeologists were facing steep obstacles in the case of the ancient relics uncovered by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. The first hurdle had to do with the fact that the IODP’s mission statement was solely to bore a hole to the earth’s mantle, a massive undertaking in and of itself. The research of ancient civilizations was simply not on the agenda. That did not mean that the program’s board was disinterested, but that all of their specialized drilling equipment was funded by a great number of investors whose personal needs had to be represented in their operational decisions.

The program did, at least, agree to halt all further drilling efforts for three months, while a conference was held for all interested parties to come to an agreeable resolution. The outcome of these proceedings was that the financial institutions behind the IODP agreed to a seven-year loan of their project, to any party conducting research into the ancient civilization, providing said party could raise sufficient funds. The exact quantity of those sufficient funds was never publicly disclosed, but it was public knowledge that several leading governments contributed significantly to securing the contract for a coalition of top archaeological institutions. All of the resources available to the IODP, including their drilling ship, the Chikyu, and all of its equipment and manpower were assigned to this new outfit.

The second challenge that the archaeological community faced was in identifying an approach for ultra-deep excavation. Securing pieces and drawing them up to the surface would destroy all by the sturdiest of the relics, and it was a physical impossibility to dig a large enough channel down to such an immense depth, thus ruling out more traditional excavation techniques.

*

Four years later all astronomers were in agreement that the momentum of our galaxy was accelerating at an alarming rate. It had even reached the point where backyard hobbyists were noticing their night skies changing by the slightest of degrees. Again, some acceleration had always been expected, but this large of a change was unprecedented. All projected trajectories and timelines for this orbit were updated, and the natural conclusion was that the orbit was not shaped like the wide, circular path of a planet around the sun. Instead it was more akin to the long, drawn out ellipsoid of a comet.

Under this theory it stood to reason that until just recently the galaxy had been in the most outer limits of that orbit. At that point its movement would have been so slow that it was virtually imperceptible, and thus had never been noted until this time. Of course the implication of this theory was that this orbit passed even nearer to the Virgo Supercluster’s core than originally anticipated. Indeed the proximity would be so near that its effects on the planet would be devastating.

It was determined not to share these speculations with the general public, given that they truly were speculations. Yet, as mentioned, even hobbyists were starting to see the rapid changes and it was not be long before they began to draw the same conclusions for themselves.

The tension in the astronomer circles was in stark contrast to the excitement in rippling through the archaeological community. At long last they were able to develop a process by which slices of deep earth could be flooded and then siphoned upwards to the surface for testing. What was extracted by this process would be greatly fragmented and somewhat homogenized, but not to such a degree that the separate elements’ composition could not be evaluated. In addition, the safe retrieval of some small and individual relics could be accomplished through the use of durable tunneling robots, which were to be lowered to specific areas of interest through specially drilled boreholes.

The flooding and siphoning process was completed first, and every component was passed through triage into categories of cultural, structural, and natural origin. A barrage of tests was then conducted on each category and the carbon dating estimates cast the entire project into deeper intrigue. Every sample, regardless of which category of it had been drawn from, dated to the same point of time several hundreds of millions of years ago. More than three hundred million at least, and quite possibly more than six.

This alarming result left the scientific community unable to resolve this ancient culture with any of the existing historical timelines of the earth. Either an inexplicably ancient and intelligent civilization truly did exist many millions of years before even the dinosaurs walked the earth, or else all of the scientifically approved methods for dating elements were fundamentally flawed and the entire prehistoric record would be called into question.

Added to these perplexities was the further analysis conducted on the synthetic materials which had been extracted. It was determined that the necessary methods for producing these composites was of such a sophistication as to put it on par with modern steel and titanium. This was irrefutable evidence that these ancient beings possessed a degree of intelligence and technology that rivalled even our own. A civilization much like ours on an earth so ancient that our evolutionary ancestors had not yet crawled out the ponds.

*

Another five years and the acceleration of the world had reached such magnitude that it was visible in the night sky. The appearances of “shooting stars” were constant, as another million tons of passing space debris burned in the atmosphere every second. A few degrees off of the equator a comet-like tail extended far out into space, formed by all of the evaporated moisture, each day growing ever longer and brighter.

Every estimate of the galaxy’s movement was outdated by the time it was published, and astronomers grappled with the fundamental problem of not being able to chart distant celestial bodies before they had already been passed by. This became known as the “train outrunning its own light conundrum” and the so the world flew blindly on.

Simulations were only capable enough to illustrate the “general” trajectory of this orbit, and there was a great deal of concern about what exactly would happen when the world reached proximity to the center of the Virgo Supercluster. This point now had been given a name: the Pericore. Similarly the point furthest from the cluster was now referred to as the Apocore. The general consensus was that as the earth approached this Pericore it would be subjected to unimaginable forces of acceleration, heat, and gravitational pull, but the specifics of how these would manifest was mostly speculation.

World governments tried to quell the ensuing panics, calling for order as they initiated construction of deep, underground bunkers. Though they promised that the best minds would find a way to preserve humanity, those same best minds knew that there was no possible hope. The most likely outcome was that the entire planet would to be scorched from its peaks to its core for centuries. The atmosphere would be disintegrated, all life would be destroyed, and the earth would be left as dry and empty as the moon.

Immediately before the astronomers broke their silence on the doom they saw ahead, the archaeologists claimed their ultimate prize in the form of ancient writing from the prehistoric civilization. The figures had been deeply engraved into a hyper-compressed cube of some glass-like material. It was too large to retrieve up to the surface, but after digging a series of additional bore-holes and flushing away the surrounding sediment, they succeeded in reaching the artifact with a team of robots. These were manipulated to rotate and photograph the entirety of the artifact for further analysis.

Linguistic experts and cryptographers alike were called on to collectively decipher the characters’ meaning, and soon a rough translation emerged. This accomplishment was greatly helped by the fact that this record had been designed for interpretation, as evidenced by how the piece was structured.

On the first face of the glass cube gave a sequence of numerical quantities, with corresponding representative symbols beside them. There then followed basic operations on those quantities to establish a shorthand for mathematics. These mathematical expressions included binary operations for ideas such as “and,” “not”, “all,” and “exists.”

The second face of the cube featured a series of pictures filled with geometric shapes. Though each of these was different in style from one another, it was realized they were all varied representation of the same concepts: those of planets, solar systems, and other celestial bodies.

With the foundation of those first two faces, the third could now be properly understood. This one defined a core vocabulary, by first defining objects and then operations and states that pertained to them. For example the scale of the planet defined on the second face was paired with a small fraction defined on the first face to give the dimensions of a much smaller entity, one which answered roughly to that of a humanoid. These entities were combined with the symbols established for mathematical addition and subtraction to communicate ideas such as birth, growth, and death, and again all of these combined ideas were then associated with a single symbol for the word that represented this.

On the fourth face the cube finally began to deliver its message in earnest. It described many people at great distance from each other spread all across the planet. It suggested that a portion of these people spent their time measuring the stars that passed by.

The fifth face described a galaxy shown to be moving along a massive, elongated orbit. It gave figures for the distance of that orbit and the time it took for the galaxy to transition through it. The record drew special attention to the point of the orbit where the galaxy grew nearest to a cluster of other stars.

The sixth face used depictions for many different forms of death. The death of “all” was specifically emphasized. After this mass destruction it illustrated the galaxy continuing along its orbit back away from the star cluster. At one point it passed through a cloud of some sort, the meaning of which was not explicitly defined. After passing through that cloud, though, there came many of the symbols representing the ideas of “birth” or “life.”

The general consensus was that the cube’s authors had spied a fertile cloud of elements and gas which stood in the latter half of the galaxy’s orbit. This cloud would be able to replenish the earth back to a state of supporting life, and that life would perhaps evolve and become an intelligent society. And by their intelligence that society could one day find this ancient record, the record of those that had been before. A record written moments before they were all blended into the ground with fervent heat in a burning that was destined to rise again.

***

As rough as I feel this week’s short story still is, things started for it in a far messier place! As mentioned in my post on Monday, every story’s first draft requires a multitude of cleansing passes and iterating to brush away all the noise and dirt until the true story finally shine through. It’s a process that takes a great deal of time, and is as important as any other phase of crafting a story.

In the case of these blog posts I do need to meet a deadline, one which I’m already late in meeting, and so my short stories do not have the full benefit of this process. That being said I do take time to refine these stories as much as I can within my constraints, and I would never dream of posting my initial rough draft out here for the public to see…well, aside from just this once!

In order to better illustrate the points I said in my Monday post I will not present my original first draft of this story and then the same draft with the edit marks throughout which ultimately led me to the final version you’ve just read.

 

ORIGINAL FIRST DRAFT

The first thing that the astronomers of the Mauna Key Observatory had to make clear to the public was that our solar system is in constant movement through the galaxy. Of course some of the general populace would already be aware of this, but you always tried to speak to the lowest common denominator when approaching new scientific discovering. And so they explained that just as how our moon orbits earth which in turn orbits the sun, so also the sun orbits the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, which in turn orbits the far off center of the Virgo Supercluster, of which it is a part. That alone was a very notable discovery, for all prior research had suggested that our galaxy orbited no central mass, only that it ever drew nearer to its neighboring Andromeda Galaxy.

For the time being they had no explanation to offer as to why this inter-galactic movement had never before been noticed, but cheerfully assured they would keep the public updated on this most fascinating of developments.

Coincidentally, other surprising news came to light in the midst of the ongoing Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. After some seismic shifts collapsed a large portion of their borehole, the researchers there discovered it had been and then filled with a number of artifacts of archaeological importance. What was most notable was that these items featured unmistakable signs of synthetic materials, even though they were found at a depth that would make them predate even the oldest of dinosaurs.

*

A number of years had passed since the first reports of the Milky Way galaxy’s movement towards the center of the Virgo Supercluster. Each of the other major astronomical observatories had conducted their own experiments in relation to the Mauna Key Obervatory’s findings and all agreed with the conclusions that had been presented. As each establishment published their confirmation, though, it became a pattern that each stated that the rate of movement towards the supercluster core was slightly greater than had been measured by each of the previous publications. It soon was evident that the rate of movement was accelerating. This was by no means unusual, only that the rate of that acceleration seemed greater than anticipated.

The full implications of this were yet to be fully extrapolated though. For the time being what was most evident was that the scientific community at large did not possess either sophisticated enough models nor detailed enough data to predict future outcomes with any degree of confidence. The distances were simply too large and the rate of motion too great. Thus it was that mathematicians and physicists were put under great demand to provide more robust systems for analyzing these extremes.

Meanwhile the archaeologists were only barely beginning to make any headway in the case of excavating the ancient relics uncovered by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. The first hurdle had, of course, to do with the fact that the IODP’s mission statement and basis for funding had nothing to do with the research of ancient civilizations. That was not to say that the members of the program’s board were disinterested, but that all of their specialized drilling equipment was the property of a great number of investors whose personal needs had to be represented in their operation decisions.

The program did, at least, agree to halt all further drilling efforts for three months, during which a conference was held where all interested parties could hopefully come to an agreeable resolution. The outcome of these proceedings was that the financial institutions behind the IODP agreed to seven-year loan of their project, the drilling ship Chikyu, and all other relevant equipment and resources necessary to any party capable of carrying out research into the ancient civilization providing they could raise sufficient funds. The exact quantity of those sufficient funds was never publicly disclosed, but it was common knowledge that several leading governments contributed significantly to securing the contract for a coalition of top archaeological institutions.

The second challenge that the archaeological community faced was in identifying an approach for ultra-deep excavation practices. Grabbing pieces and drawing them up to the surface as had been done with the first discoveries would destroy all by the sturdiest of the relics, and it simply was not an option to dig any reasonably large channel down to such an immense depth for more traditional excavation techniques.

*

Four years later and all astronomers were in agreement that the momentum of our galaxy was accelerating at an alarming rate. It had even reached the point that backyard hobbyists were noticing that their night skies were starting to change by the slightest of degrees. Again, some acceleration had always been expected, but this large of a rate of increase had the scientist’s updating their projected trajectories and timelines for this orbit. The natural conclusion was that the wide circular pattern of a planet around the sun was not the correct shape for their movement. Instead it was more akin to the long, drawn out ellipsoid of a comet.

Under this theory it stood to reason that the last several hundred million years had seen the galaxy at the zenith of its furthest reaches in that orbit, the point where its movement would be so slow that it was virtually imperceptible and thus why it had never been noted until this time. Of course the implications of this theory were that at its nearest point this orbit were even nearer to the Virgo Supercluster’s core than originally anticipated. Indeed the point would by necessity be so near that its effects on the planet would be devastating.

It was determined not to share these speculations with the general public, given that they truly were only speculations. Yet as mentioned, even hobbyists were starting to see the rapid changes and it would not be long before the more insightful of them began to draw the same conclusions for themselves.

The tension in the astronomer circles was countered by excitement in the archaeological community. After a great deal of innovation and experimentation they were able to develop a process by which slices of deep earth could be flooded and then siphoned upwards with acceptable damage to interned artifacts. What would arrive would be greatly fragmented and somewhat homogenized, but not to such a degree that the separate parts’ composition could not be evaluated. In addition, individual holes would be bored into particular areas of interest, through which durable tunneling robots could be lowered for limited retrieval of smaller and more delicate relics.

By the nature of the two extraction methods the flooding and siphoning process completed first and every component was passed through triage into various assumed categories of cultural, structural, and natural. Separate tests were done on each category in order to ascertain whether the context of this ancient civilization was at odds to the culture itself. Or in other words, this discovery was so deep in the earth that it did not make sense for it to belong there naturally, yet there was no explanation for what sort of cataclysmic event could have been buried a community to such an extent.

Each of the tests returned and the carbon dating estimates did nothing to alleviate the scientific community’s complexity. The structural, cultural, and natural remnants all dated to the same point of time several hundreds of millions of years ago. More than three hundred million, that was clear, quite possibly more than six.

This conclusion led to more than one theory among the public that the archaeological community was attempting to pull some elaborate hoax. The scientific community meanwhile had no satisfactory way to resolve this news with any of the theoretical timelines for this earth and its creatures’ evolution. The implications were either that an unexplainably ancient civilization truly did exist since even before the dinosaurs walked the earth, or else all methods for dating the world were fundamentally flawed and all grounding for the entire prehistoric record was upturned.

Added to these complexities was the analysis on the synthetic materials which had been extracted from this ancient period. The methods of producing these composites was unfamiliar to any known chemical process, but the sophistication of it was on par with modern steel and titanium. Perhaps it was even somewhat superior. This seemed to suggest that even if these ancient beings were not humanoid in their original appearance, they were human-like in their degree of intelligence and technology. A civilization like us on a world so ancient that our ancestors had not yet crawled out the ponds. That news gave even the skeptics a moment of contemplative pause.

*

Another five years and the acceleration of the world had reached such speeds that it was visible in the night sky. The appearance of “shooting stars” were everywhere as millions of tons of passing space debris were burned up in the passing atmosphere. A few degrees off of the equator a comet-like tail was forming from all of their evaporated moisture and each fortnight it could be seen from another degree of longitude’s distance.

Every estimate of the galaxy’s progress through along its arc was long since outdated by the time it was published and astronomers still grappled with the fundamental problem of not being able to measure distant enough celestial bodies before they had already been surpassed. This became known as the “train outrunning its own light conundrum” and the result was that the world flew blindly.

Simulations were useful only to illustrate the “generally” perceived trajectory of this orbit and the current progress along it. There was a great deal of concern as to what would happen when the world reached proximity to the center of the Virgo Supercluster, a point which now had been given a name of its own: the Pericore. A name was naturally derived from the similar terms Perigee and Perihelion, and similarly the point furthest from the cluster was now referred to as the Apocore. The general consensus was that as the earth approached the Pericore it was destined to be subjected to unimaginable forces of acceleration, heat, and gravitational pull.

World governments naturally tried to quell the ensuing panics, calling for order and loudly initiating construction of deep, underground bunkers. Though they promised that the best minds could find a way to preserve their people and cultures, those same best minds knew there was no possible hope to be found. The best estimates were that the entire planet was going to be scorched from its peaks to its core for a duration of at least several centuries. If a material existed that could withstand the heat, which it did not, then food and other resources would shortly be consumed and any survivors would be left on husk as dry and empty as that of our moon.

Before the astronomers’ discoveries were brought to light, the archaeologists had successfully claimed an ultimate prize in the form of ancient writing from the prehistoric civilization. The words had been engraved deeply into a hyper-compressed cube of glass. After a series of digging additional bore-holes, and flushing away surrounding sediment they succeeded in using a team of robots to both turn and photograph the entirety of the artifact for research.

The photographs were shared publicly and linguistic experts and cryptographers alike collectively worked to decipher the characters’ meaning. It soon became evident that this record had been intended as a message to foreign beings, as the piece began by establishing core principles of the culture’s language.

On one face of the glass cube was a sequence of numerical quantities and operations on them with corresponding symbols that established a shorthand for basic mathematics. These mathematical operations included binary definitions for ideas such as “and,” “not”, “all,” and “exists.” The next face then featured a series of pictures, each determined to be a different representation of the same concepts: those of planets in a solar system.

With these established, the two faces’ information combined to bring meaning to a third, one where relationships between the celestial bodies and the scale between them were used to illustrate galaxies, planets, and even entities whose sizes answered roughly to that of a humanoid. These entities were illustrated in various interactions including birth, growth, and death, and again all of these ideas were then associated with a symbol for the word that represented this.

On the fourth face the cube began to deliver its message in earnest. It spelled out a statement of many people at great distance from each other spread all across the earth. It suggested that a portion of these people spent their time measuring the celestial bodies that they passed by.

The fifth face began again with pictures showing a galaxy moving along a massive orbit like a comet around some massive cluster of stars. It gave figures for the distance of that orbit and the time it took for the galaxy to transition through it. It drew special attention to the point of the orbit where the galaxy grew nearest the cluster of stars.

The sixth face showed numerous depictions different forms of death. The death of “all” was greatly emphasized. After the mass destruction it showed the galaxy continuing on its orbit back towards its Apocore. At that point it passed through a cloud of some sort, the meaning of which was not explicitly defined, but after doing so were symbols representing the ideas of “birth” or “life.” The general consensus was that the message suggested a fertile cloud of element and gas stood in the orbit of the planet and would replenish it back to a state of being able to support life.

Life that would perhaps evolve and grow over untold eons, perhaps even become intelligent. And by that intelligence that society may even one day be able to find this record of those that had been before, a record written moments before they were blended into the ground with fervent heat.

***

 

DRAFT EDITS
Bold text represents an addition, strikethrough represents a removal.

The first thing that the astronomers of the Mauna Key Observatory had to make made clear to the public was that our solar system is in constant movement through the galaxy. Of course Some of the general populace would already be aware of this, but the scientific community had long since learned you always tried to speak to the lowest common denominator when approaching presenting new scientific discovering discoveries. And so they explained that just as how our moon orbits the earth and it which in turn orbits the sun, so also the sun orbits the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, which and it in turn orbits the far off center of the Virgo Supercluster, of which it is a part. It was that last statement was the part that was a discovery, That alone was a very notable discovery, for all prior research had suggested that our galaxy orbited no central mass, only that it ever drew nearer to its neighboring, the Andromeda Galaxy.

For the time being they had no explanation to offer as to why this inter-galactic movement had never before been noticed, but cheerfully assured they would keep the public updated on this most fascinating of developments. The public, as a whole, were mildly entertained by the news but little further thought was given to the revelation.

Coincidentally, in that same year other surprising news another discovery came to light which made far more of an impact on modern culture. In the midst of the ongoing Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, After some seismic shifts had collapsed a large portion of their borehole, the researchers there discovered it had been and then filled it with a number of archaeological artifacts such as had never before been seen. of archaeological importance. What was most notable, though, was that these items featured unmistakable signs of synthetic materials, suggesting a community that possessed a technology which belied the age to which they must have belonged. even though they were found at a depth that would make them predate even the oldest of dinosaurs.

Many of the general populace received that news with complete skepticism, assuming the Drilling Program was having a joke at their expense. Every scientist involved in the ongoing investigation and extraction, though, considered this find to be the most significant of the last two or three centuries.

*

A number of Seven years had passed since the first reports on of the Milky Way galaxy’s movement towards the center of the Virgo Supercluster., and each of the other major astronomical observatories had conducted their own experiments in relation to confirmed the findings of the Mauna Key Obervatory’s findings and all agreed with the conclusions that had been presented. As each establishment published the results of their research their confirmation, though, it became a pattern that each stated claimed that the rate of the galaxy’s movement towards the supercluster core was slightly greater than that which had been measured by each any of the preceding previous publications. By this pattern it soon became was evident that the rate of movement was accelerating, and doing so at a This was by no means unusual, only that the rate of that was acceleration seemed greater than anticipated.

The full implications of this were yet to could not be fully extrapolated though. It was becoming abundantly evident For the time being what was most evident was that the scientific community at large did not possessed neither sophisticated enough models nor detailed enough data to predict future outcomes with any degree of confidence. The distances were simply too large and the rate of motion too great. Thus it was that mathematicians and physicists were put under great demand to committed themselves to providing more robust systems for analyzing these extremes.

Meanwhile the archaeologists were only barely beginning to make any headway facing steep obstacles in the case of excavating the ancient relics uncovered by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. The first hurdle had, of course, to do with the fact that the IODP’s mission statement and basis for funding had nothing to do with the was solely to bore a hole to the earth’s mantle, a massive undertaking in and of itself. The research of ancient civilizations was simply not on the agenda. That was did not to say mean that the members of the program’s board were disinterested, but that all of their specialized drilling equipment was funded by the property of a great number of investors whose personal needs had to be represented in their operational decisions.

The program did, at least, agree to halt all further drilling efforts for three months, during which while a conference was held where for all interested parties could hopefully to come to an agreeable resolution. The outcome of these proceedings was that the financial institutions behind the IODP agreed to a seven-year loan of their project, the drilling ship Chikyu, and all other relevant equipment and resources necessary to any party capable of carrying out conducting research into the ancient civilization, providing they said party could raise sufficient funds. The exact quantity of those sufficient funds was never publicly disclosed, but it was common public knowledge that several leading governments contributed significantly to securing the contract for a coalition of top archaeological institutions. All of the resources available to the IODP, including their drilling ship, the Chikyu, and all of its equipment and manpower were assigned to this new outfit.

The second challenge that the archaeological community faced was in identifying an approach for ultra-deep excavation practices. Grabbing Securing pieces and drawing them up to the surface as had been done with the first discoveries would destroy all by the sturdiest of the relics, and it simply was not an option was a physical impossibility to dig any reasonably a large enough channel down to such an immense depth, thus ruling out for more traditional excavation techniques.

*

Four years later and all astronomers were in agreement that the momentum of our galaxy was accelerating at an alarming rate. It had even reached the point that where backyard hobbyists were noticing that their night skies were starting to change changing by the slightest of degrees. Again, some acceleration had always been expected, but this large of a rate of increase change was unprecedented. had the scientist’s updating their All projected trajectories and timelines for this orbit were updated, and the natural conclusion was that the orbit was not shaped like the wide, circular pattern path of a planet around the sun was not the correct shape for their movement. Instead it was more akin to the long, drawn out ellipsoid of a comet.

Under this theory it stood to reason that until just recently the last several hundred million years had seen the galaxy at the zenith of its furthest reaches in had been in the most outer limits of that orbit. At that the point where its movement would have been so slow that it was virtually imperceptible, and thus why it had never been noted until this time. Of course the implications of this theory were was that at its nearest point this orbit were passed even nearer to the Virgo Supercluster’s core than originally anticipated. Indeed the point proximity would by necessity be so near that its effects on the planet would be devastating.

It was determined not to share these speculations with the general public, given that they truly were only speculations. Yet, as mentioned, even hobbyists were starting to see the rapid changes and it would was not be long before the more insightful of them they began to draw the same conclusions for themselves.

The tension in the astronomer circles was countered by in stark contrast to the excitement in rippling through the archaeological community. After a great deal of innovation and experimentation At long last they were able to develop a process by which slices of deep earth could be flooded and then siphoned upwards with acceptable damage to interned artifacts to the surface for testing. What would arrive was extracted by this process would be greatly fragmented and somewhat homogenized, but not to such a degree that the separate parts’ elements’ composition could not be evaluated. In addition, the safe retrieval of some small and individual relics could be accomplished through the use of individual holes would be bored into particular areas of interest, through which durable tunneling robots, which were to could be lowered to specific areas of interest through specially drilled boreholes. for limited retrieval of smaller and more delicate relics.

By the nature of the two extraction methods The flooding and siphoning process was completed first, and every component was passed through triage into various assumed categories of cultural, structural, and natural origin. Separate A barrage of tests were conducted done on each category, in order to ascertain whether the context of this ancient civilization was at odds to the culture itself. Or in other words, this discovery was so deep in the earth that it did not make sense for it to belong there naturally, yet there was no explanation for what sort of cataclysmic event could have been buried a community to such an extent.

Each of the tests returned and the carbon dating estimates cast the entire project into deeper intrigue. did nothing to alleviate the scientific community’s complexity. The structural, cultural, and natural remnants all Every sample, regardless of which category of it had been drawn from, dated to the same point of time several hundreds of millions of years ago. More than three hundred million that was clear, at least, and quite possibly more than six.

This conclusion led to more than one theory among the public that the archaeological community was attempting to pull some elaborate hoax. The This alarming result left the scientific community meanwhile had no satisfactory way unable to resolve this news ancient culture with any of the existing theoretical historical timelines of the earth. for this earth and its creatures’ evolution. The implications were Either that an unexplainably inexplicably ancient and intelligent civilization truly did exist since many millions of years before even the dinosaurs walked the earth, or else all of the scientifically approved methods for dating elements the world were fundamentally flawed and all grounding for the entire prehistoric record was upturned would be called into question.

Added to these complexities perplexities was the further analysis conducted on the synthetic materials which had been extracted from this ancient period. It was determined that the necessary The methods of for producing these composites was unfamiliar to any known chemical process, but the of such a sophistication of it was as to put it on par with modern steel and titanium. Perhaps it was even somewhat superior. This seemed to suggest was irrefutable evidence that even if these ancient beings were not humanoid in their original appearance, they were human-like in their possessed a degree of intelligence and technology that rivalled even our own. A civilization much like ours like us on an world earth so ancient that our evolutionary ancestors had not yet crawled out the ponds. That news gave even the skeptics a moment of contemplative pause.

*

Another five years and the acceleration of the world had reached such speeds magnitude that it was visible in the night sky. The appearance of “shooting stars” were everywhere constant, as another millions of tons of passing space debris were burned up in the passing atmosphere every second. A few degrees off of the equator a comet-like tail extended far out into space, was forming from formed by all of their evaporated moisture, each day growing ever longer and brighter. and each fortnight it could be seen from another degree of longitude’s distance.

Every estimate of the galaxy’s movement progress through along its arc was long since outdated by the time it was published, and astronomers still grappled with the fundamental problem of not being able to chart measure distant enough celestial bodies before they had already been surpassed by. This became known as the “train outrunning its own light conundrum” and the result was that so the world flew blindly on.

Simulations were useful only capable enough to illustrate the “generallyperceived trajectory of this orbit, and the current progress along it. and there was a great deal of concern as to about what exactly would happen when the world reached proximity to the center of the Virgo Supercluster., a This point which now had been given a name of its own: the Pericore. A name was naturally derived from the similar terms Perigee and Perihelion, and Similarly the point furthest from the cluster was now referred to as the Apocore. The general consensus was that as the earth approached the this Pericore it was destined to would be subjected to unimaginable forces of acceleration, heat, and gravitational pull, but the specifics of how these would manifest was mostly speculation.

World governments naturally tried to quell the ensuing panics, calling for order and loudly initiating as they initiated construction of deep, underground bunkers. Though they promised that the best minds could would find a way to preserve humanity their people and cultures, those same best minds knew that there was no possible hope. to be found. The best estimates were most likely outcome was that the entire planet was going would to be scorched from its peaks to its core for a duration of at least several centuries. If a material existed that could withstand the heat, which it did not, The atmosphere would be disintegrated, all life would be destroyed, and the earth then food and other resources would shortly be consumed, and any survivors  would be left on a husk as dry and empty as that of our the moon.

Immediately before the astronomers broke their silence on the doom they saw ahead discoveries were brought to light, the archaeologists had successfully claimed an their ultimate prize in the form of ancient writing from the prehistoric civilization. The figures words had been deeply engraved deeply into a hyper-compressed cube of some glass-like material. It was too large to retrieve up to the surface, but after a series of digging a series of additional bore-holes and flushing away the surrounding sediment, they succeeded in reaching the artifact with using a team of robots. These were manipulated to both turn rotate and photograph the entirety of the artifact for research further analysis.

The photographs were shared publicly and Linguistic experts and cryptographers alike were called on to collectively worked to decipher the characters’ meaning, and soon a rough translation emerged. This accomplishment was greatly helped by the fact It soon became evident that this record had been designed for interpretation, as evidenced by how intended as a message to foreign beings, as the piece was structured. began by establishing core principles of the culture’s language.

On the first one face of the glass cube was gave a sequence of numerical quantities, with corresponding representative symbols beside them. There then followed and basic operations on those quantities to them, with corresponding symbols that established a shorthand for basic mathematics. These mathematical expressions operations included binary definitions operations for ideas such as “and,” “not”, “all,” and “exists.”

The second next face then of the cube featured a series of pictures filled with geometric shapes. Though each of these was different in style from one another, it was realized they were all varied determined to be a different representation of the same concepts: those of planets, in a solar systems, and other celestial bodies.

With these established, the foundation of those first two faces, information combined to bring meaning to a the third could now be properly understood. This one defined a core vocabulary, by first defining objects and then operations and states that pertained to them. For example the scale of the planet defined on the second face was paired with a small fraction defined on the first face to give the dimensions of a much smaller entity, one which one where relationships between the celestial bodies and the scale between them were used to illustrate galaxies, planets, and even entities whose sizes answered roughly to that of a humanoid. These entities were combined with the symbols established for mathematical addition and subtraction to communicate ideas such as illustrated in various interactions including birth, growth, and death, and again all of these combined ideas were then associated with a single symbol for the word that represented this.

On the fourth face the cube finally began to deliver its message in earnest. It spelled out a statement of described many people at great distance from each other spread all across the planet earth. It suggested that a portion of these people spent their time measuring the stars celestial bodies that they passed by.

The fifth face began again with pictures showing described a galaxy shown to be moving along a massive, elongated orbit like a comet around some massive cluster of stars. It gave figures for the distance of that orbit and the time it took for the galaxy to transition through it. It The record drew special attention to the point of the orbit where the galaxy grew nearest the to a cluster of other stars.

The sixth face showed numerous used depictions for many different forms of death. The death of “all” was greatly specifically emphasized. After the this mass destruction it illustrated showed the galaxy continuing along on its orbit back towards its Apocore away from the star cluster. At that one point it passed through a cloud of some sort, the meaning of which was not explicitly defined. After passing through that cloud, though, but after doing so were there came many of the symbols representing the ideas of “birth” or “life.”

The general consensus was that the cube’s authors had spied message suggested a fertile cloud of elements and gas which stood in the latter half of the galaxy’s orbit. of the planet and would This cloud would be able to replenish it the earth back to a state of being able to supporting life, and that life that would perhaps evolve and grow over untold eons, perhaps even become an intelligent society. And by that their intelligence that society could may even one day be able to find this ancient record, the record of those that had been before. A record written moments before they were all blended into the ground with fervent heat in a burning that was destined to rise again.

***

 

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Did the number of edits surprise you? I don’t usually visibly mark my corrections, so I personally was pretty amazed at how many of them stacked up by the time I was done. And as mentioned before, “done” in this instance is actually far more limited because of the blog deadline, for my more personal stories this would merely be the first of many transformations. I think you can really get a sense that the story you first write a draft of and the story you finally publish are two entirely different creations.

Now obviously in today’s little fiction I have invoked the name of science while presenting a story whose details boldly defy scientific reason. For example, there is no rational explanation for how any remnants of an ancient civilization could have survived the long march of time, let alone the complete devastation that I describe the earth being subjected to.

Obviously I had to make a decision where the line between realism and suspension of disbelief fell, and this is where it left me. This is certainly a question that often comes up when writing a story, and I’ll look into the topic in greater detail with my next blog post on Monday. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!