Network Down: Part Two

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“Dani, are there any nearby buildings open right now?!”

Checking…The Barrows Banking and Loan seems to have left its doors open.

Really? Maybe the rumors about that place were true then. He’d had his own reasons to suspect so after all. Still he’d never make it there with that truck coming after him.

“Dani, can you establish which network that truck is connected to?” Kevyn wheezed out as he felt a stitch growing in his side.

It’s a public service. Voracia Systems.

“Dani, buy a hack from the black market. Get me control of that truck!”

Sir, even performing that query is a misdemeanor and actually implementing it is–

“Do it!” he screamed as he felt the rumble of the truck’s nearing mass. It wasn’t slowing down to let one of the passengers out to grab him, it was going to run him over! Not even daring to look, Kevyn tried to judge its distance from him until the last possible moment.

“Not yet… not yet…” he muttered to himself through clenched teeth. “Now!” He threw himself to the side just as the truck tore through the space he had just been standing in. It wasn’t able to swerve to follow his lunge in time, and so he fell to the pavement untouched. There came another squeal as the truck spun back around to face him.

Sir, I have access to the truck’s internal functions.

“Alright, on my word I want you to accelerate it down the street, lock the doors, and…”

Kevyn stopped speaking as the truck’s wheels whined from the strain of being turned too quickly. In his anxiousness to run Kevyn over the driver had overestimated his vehicle’s capabilities, and now the entire thing lifted onto its two side wheels, teetered there for a moment, and then thudded down on its side.

Sir?

Kevyn snapped himself out of his disbelief, turned away from the truck, and began sprinting the other direction.

“Never mind, Dani,” he panted. “I guess it’s just a misdemeanor…for now.”

He could hear the looters clambering out of their sideways vehicle, and a quick glance over his shoulder showed that they were still intent on running him down. At this point their persistence seemed to be fueled more by rage than anything else.

“Dani, direct me to the Barrows Banking and Loan.”

Certainly. Just take your next right and it’s two blocks down on the left.

“Alright, and keep track of those guys chasing us. I want to know if–”

Kevyn was interrupted as all of the ad-boards crackled back to life. He didn’t slow in his pace, but listened intently, hoping to hear that the security network had been restored already. From the very first words was disappointed.

“This is CLNN, the Chicago Local News Network” blared down the deserted streets. “Hello Chicago, my name is Cindy Trulick. As the city continues to be blackened by a security network failure, we are now receiving additional word that Governor Haley has just been assassinated in his office. We started seeing reports on social media three minutes ago, and the details are consistent enough to conclude that heavily armed assailants broke into the City Office Building, subdued local security, and then shot and killed the Governor. We cannot yet verify that this attack was the intention behind the citywide security network failure, nor which organization might be behind this atrocity. It has been posited on many social media forums though that the mob has had reason to–”

Kevyn stopped listening. To all the rest of the city this news might be significant. To him, in this moment, he couldn’t care less. His legs were beginning to get wobbly, entirely unaccustomed to such vigorous exercise, and with every glance over his shoulder he could see that his pursuants were growing ever nearer. He made those glances after every twenty paces, and then looked forward to the looming figure of the Barrows Banking and Loan, trying to gauge whether he was going to make it there or not.

Kevyn glanced backwards once more, just in time to see that one of the looters had fallen behind his fellows and moved into a shooting stance with the gun raised to his cheek. The man was aiming with what appeared to be a practiced confidence. Kevyn tried to lunge sideways, but too late. The high staccato of the gun being fired echoed down the street and Kevyn felt a sudden, searing pain in his arm. He instinctively clapped his other hand over the spot, about halfway up from his elbow, and found his fingers moistened by blood.

He felt shock at the realization of having been shot, yet Kevyn managed to stumble back into his run and the aiming looter followed suit. The man would wait until he was a little closer before trying again.

“Just keep going,” Kevyn muttered to himself. He was now nearing the doors to the Barrows Banking and Loan. He would make it inside, he would find help, he would survive this…no matter the cost.

The building had a distinct and old-fashioned style to it. The architecture was Roman in design, complete with supporting external pillars, white marble, and an unnecessarily long flight of stairs to its entrance. Kevyn instinctively tried to swing his arms as he dashed up the steps, but his wounded arm gave protesting spikes of pain at the slightest of movements, compelling him to hold it stiffly at his side.

He mounted the last of the steps and moved into the shadow cast by its overhanging roof. For a moment he was blinded by the sudden transition from light to dark, but he continued groping forward until the heavy oak doors swam into his view.

Kevyn crossed the threshold into the massive lobby within, his quick steps echoing loudly off the marble floor as the upper-class people lounging around on the plush seats gave him dirty looks. Even in his haste Kevyn couldn’t help but realize how bizarre it was that these people were gathered so calmly behind un-shuttered doors while the rest of the city was gripped in complete terror. It seemed to add further credence to the all of those rumors. Rumors that this business was nothing more than a front.

The receptionist at the desk frowned deeply at Kevyn as he came wheezing up to her station. He was sure he looked a mess, covered in sweat, panting heavily, and bleeding down the arm. Before the woman could call for security he took a deep breath and blurted out his request.

“I want to apply for a position with the Inner City Mob.”

Her eyebrows raised clear into her hairline and her nostrils flared. “What did you just say?!” she exclaimed with a bitter hostility.

Undeterred Kevyn continued. “I have considerable services to offer as a top-of-the-line accountant. If you pull up my profile you’ll see that I have extensive experience with a number of distinguished firms, currently at Johnson & Webber.”

She still looked enraged at his insinuations and was about to spit out a retort when the front doors slammed open again. Kevyn took a hasty glance over his shoulder and saw the looters awkwardly file into the place. They quickly spotted him up at the counter and then divided into two group, each slowly strolling up a different side of the room towards him.

“Friends of yours?” the woman said, now with a slight tinge of amusement in her voice.

“No, and I would need…protection from them.”

“Sir, I’m not sure who told you that this place was being run by the mob,” she said curtly, “but they were making a fool of you.”

“No one told me,” he said shortly. “People talk, yes, but I figured it out myself. Last year a man named Barney James transferred 110 million dollars from one of our agencies to this one. I handled the case.”

Out of the corners of his eyes he could see the looters nearly halfway to him. He continued speaking in a hushed but rapid tone.

“And when I did so the FBI came to me and instructed me to install a trace on those funds. It’s an entirely new currency tracking technology, one that not only contaminates the funds it is installed on, but the entire ledger that they sit with. Now I’ve been hearing all this year on the news about how they’re finding all of your side businesses and shutting them down…I’m confident it’s because you’re funding them with that contaminated money. But I know how to help you find which of your funds are tainted and clean them. Just ask your ‘managers,’ they must know something is up–”

A heavy hand fell on Kevyn’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry about our friend here,” the looter said gruffly while digging his fingers into Kevyn’s shoulder. It was the arm that had been shot and Kevyn winced at the fresh waves of pain that came over him. “We’ll just be taking him and going.”

Kevyn looked his silent plea to the receptionist, but he only saw cold indifference in her face. She merely nodded and two more sets of hands grabbed Kevyn, pulling him away from the desk.

“But wait–I–” Kevyn wriggled around but couldn’t free himself from their grasps. They were dragging him back across the lobby, towards the exit, into the streets. All of the patrons seated on the plush seats still seemed strangely disinterested in his plight. Most of them refused to even make eye contact with him, their faces buried in their various digital devices.

Kevyn spun his head back around to look at the receptionist over his shoulder. “Please, just give me a chance to–” his eyes grew wide. He had just been dragged past a group of four patrons, all of which were now silently rising to their feet behind the looters, reaching into their coats, pulling out black-metal guns.

Kevyn cried out and flung himself to the floor so suddenly that he managed to break the grips on him. One of the looters cursed, and it was the last sound he ever made. The high-pitched whistle of silenced weapons rushed over Kevyn’s head, followed by the thuds of the looters’ bodies on the clean marble.

Kevyn’s hands were up around his head, trembling, waiting for one of those bullets to find him. Waiting, waiting, but the shot never came. Slowly he looked up and saw the receptionist marching down the floor towards him, waving the assassins to the side and motioning them towards the entrance doors. They moved away and began locking the place down. She reached him and stooped down to look him in the eyes.

“My…managers wish to speak with you. Please follow me.”

He awkwardly clambered to his feet, his face still washed in dumb disbelief. He started to instinctively turn, to look at the fallen forms of the men at his feet. He caught a glimpse of one of their boots before he stopped and turned back. He didn’t need to see. Just knowing was harrowing enough.

“You understand what this means, don’t you?” the receptionist squinted at him.

He nodded. Just like that, he had sold his soul. His home, his job, his loved ones… his entire life up until this morning. They were all gone. But–he was alive. That was all that mattered wasn’t it?

The receptionist turned and walked back the other way and Kevyn followed after her. She led him to an elevator. It’s glass doors slid apart and they stepped inside. They stood there in almost complete silence, the only noise was the occasional drip of blood from his arm echoing off the floor.

“We’ll need a clean-up crew, and he’ll need a doctor to look after his arm” she said into an unseen microphone. “…yes, of course I shut down the entry.”

There was a screen in one of the upper corners of the elevator and it suddenly came to life with another public alert. Kevyn knew what the text was going to say before it even showed up.

“The Chicago Central Police Department has just regained control of its security networks. All monitoring and robotic police units are fully functioning again. Even so, citizens are still encouraged to remain indoors until the streets have been cleared of debris.”

It didn’t matter, Kevyn thought. It was too late. Fifteen minutes and his entire life had been lost, replaced by something else. That new life was looking pretty bleak perhaps…but at least he had something.

 

On Monday I said it was my intention to write a story where the main character loses what he has to gain something new. In this case it was his entire way of life. Kevyn has made a choice that he will never be able to walk back from. Even if he tries to undo it, there will be permanent ramifications that follow him wherever he goes.

But, of course, that was his choice. The only reason why he would make a choice to lose the life he knew for something so much worse, was that it was preferential to losing his life entirely. Many times you see this in stories. Tragedy strikes, takes all that the heroes had defined themselves by, and forces them to face the new. Usually that change isn’t what they wanted, but it ends up bringing them to their ultimate calling. This is Luke in Star Wars, Edmond in the Count of Monte Cristo, and Hansel and Gretel. Who knows, maybe there is a way through to a happy ending even for Kevyn.

We’ll just have to use our imaginations there, though, because this marks the end of Network Down, and also the entire story. Come back next week when we’ll be off to something new. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!

Lost and Found

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The Catharsis of Losing and Finding)

This last Thursday I suggested that loss is an integral component of most stories. It certainly has been central to each short piece that I’ve written for this current series. The reason for the prevalence of loss in storytelling is quite straightforward. With rare exception, a story is about a journey. The journey, in fact, is the story. And for there to be a journey, then necessarily there must be the character in one place and an objective that they are currently deprived of in another. For if the character and the objective were already in the same place, there would be no journey to obtain it, and consequently no story.

Note that the word “place” here may designate actual physical locations with a distance between the character and their goal. However it may also mean two different emotional states, or spiritual states, or moral states, or any other medium with a distance between two points. Hamlet isn’t removed by physical space from the better state of having avenged his father, but he is lacking in courage and confidence.

And so then comes the question of why is the main character so distant from their goal? To that there is usually one of two answers: either they have never possessed it, and so must obtain it for the first time, or else they had it once and now they have lost it, and so must work to regain it. Certainly there are examples in literature of the first, but I would argue it is the second approach that gets written more commonly. Why? Simply because of the stronger catharsis that exists in a tale of loss and regaining.

If a person in a story begins by possessing something, it generally means that they should have that something. For it to be taken from them then, even if by their own folly, means that things are not right any more. That sense of wrongness provides a natural tension and conflict, and the hope that things will be made right provides a natural hook to draw the reader through to a happy end.

There is also the psychological importance in this notion of loss and recovery. We all have had times when we lost something which meant a great deal to us. Specifically something of a spiritual nature, such as our innocence, our hope, or our beliefs. We feel incomplete to live without those elements, but also are intimidated by the odyssey it would take to reclaim them. And so we choose between living the story (the journey) of our life, or else living forever afterwards as a broken person.

Clearly writing loss into a story means dealing with some weighty themes, then, and it deserves great care. There are a few different ways to approach the subject, let’s take a brief look at a few of them.

 

Lost by the Hero’s Failure)

One of the most classic uses of loss in a story, is that of the hero possessing some great gift that they are unworthy of. Perhaps they were given it by another, or came by it through pure happenstance. Because they do not respect the significance of their gift they are careless, and by that carelessness they lose it. Often they lose it to the villain, who will use that gift for something evil.

Here the reader understands that they deserved to lose their gift because they were unworthy of it, but still believes that they should become worthy now, and then they should regain the gift. We tend to be very forgiving to the characters of a story, always willing to grant them a second chance.

The connection this type story of story has to the human experience is obvious. All the time we make mistakes, all the time we lose things as the consequences of those mistakes. And even after all that, we hope to have a second chance, an opportunity to do it better the next time.

You see this sort of story in the classic fairy tale Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. Aladdin is a roguish scamp who comes across a jinni of immense power entirely by accident. Though he uses it to acquire the fame, fortune, and wife he desires, he has not done anything to actually earn any of these gifts.

A sorcerer manages to steal away that jinni, and does so because of a lapse of care on Aladdin and his wife’s part. Now the true journey begins. Without being able to rely on his previous source of strength, now Aladdin must make use of all his own determination and cunning to recapture that which had once been his and restore peace back to the land.

I also incorporated the hero’s foolish loss into my short story Phisherman. Here we actually meet our main character after the misplacing of his great gift, that of his own innocence. He is a man incomplete, perverting his great talents, and living far beneath his potential.

He isn’t doing anything to reclaim that which was lost, either. Instead he has tried to fill that hole in his soul with a carefully-constructed facade to hide behind. This story then illustrates that sometimes there is a second loss needed, a loss of pride and false persona. This second loss we do get to see, and it returns him to the place of his original wounding. Now again he has a chance to commit himself to the better journey of reclaiming his soul.

 

Lost by Circumstance)

Opposite to this first type of story is the one where the main character loses all, but due to no fault of their own. Usually in these stories the main character still only held their great gift by happenstance. They received these things easily, and now they have lost them easily.

When someone has obtained something without effort, we tend to feel they do not truly possess it. They have it, but they do not own it. Thus the journey of the hero to regain what was lost is really the journey of their earning it for the first time. This time what is regained will really be theirs. They understand the worth of the thing for having had to work for it, and they have the power now to ensure it will not be lost again.

This is obviously closely related to the first type of loss-story we examined, and its connection to our human experience is a sister-experience to the former. When something is taken from us by another it represents an injustice, a wounding that we did not deserve. But we only endure the loss because we do not possess the strength to prevent it. And so it is the obtaining of that strength that now becomes the journey. We have to put in the work to find our nerve, our determination, our confidence. Then, at last, we march forward to claim what was rightfully ours. This makes us not only the possessor once more, but now and forever the protector as well.

A wonderful example of a hero that loses everything at no fault of his own can be found in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. This story begins with a happy family brought to sudden ruin with the dual blow of financial ruin and the death of the father. The tranquil peace they had enjoyed is taken away, and it is up to Nicholas Nickleby to win it back. It’s a long and hard road, with many life lessons along the way. Finally, though, the family is restored to the happiness they once had, as well as expanded into something greater. And that felicity having being recaptured, it won’t be taken away again.

In The Sweet Bay Tree I made use of a character that begins as something of a parallel to Nicholas Nickleby. That character is a tree that begins its life in a happy field, surrounded by friends and family. Later it is transported away and forever loses all that it had had before.

Here the similarities diverge, though, because in my story there is no restitution for the tree. There were a few reasons for this, one of which was to give the story a cautionary message. In my story the tree refuses for the longest while to even accept that it has lost anything, and so does nothing to try and correct the matter. The fact is that nothing can be regained until we are first willing to accept that it has been lost. There are those who are far from home and ever will be simply because they refuse to admit it.

 

Lost Forever)

This leads to a third archetype for loss in stories, which is that of a loss that is has no regaining. These are our tragedies, the tales that caution us of permanent consequences. Perhaps in an afterlife there can always be hope for a restitution, but here on earth some doors shut forever.

These stories can actually go both ways in regards to whether the hero initially possessed that which was lost or not. In Annie Hall our main man Alvie never really possessed Annie, after all. If anything that’s his “problem” throughout the film. In a relationship you may use words and phrases like “I belong to you,” but in reality it is a tenuous contract that might slip from your fingers whether you want it to or not. And once it is gone, there is little chance of its being regained.

Then, of course, there is the hero who really does possess the gift as his own, and that makes his loss of it all the more tragic. In the Old Testament the Israelites demanded a king, and Saul was chosen to lead them. At the time of his anointing he was given wonderful promises, including one that his line would rule over Israel forever.

Over the years, however, Saul’s pride began to get in his own way, and it led him to claim more than he had a right to. As a result his promises were rescinded, he died violently in battle along with three of his sons, and the kingdom ultimately fell to another. There isn’t any more permanent of a loss than that, and one that tragically never had to be.

My story that incorporated themes of permanent loss was Three Variations on a Theme. Here we have three miniature tales, the first two of which fall under that template of a man losing all due to his own hubris. In each of these the main character would have been fine, they would have had everything that they set out to have, if only they had proceeded with their plan as intended. But they wavered, and they lost all.

The third of these allegories was more along the lines of losing that which you never possessed. Here a starving man trades his body for temporary satisfaction, but this particular story doesn’t suggest a reasonable alternative. It seems more or less that he was fated to fall, that some tragedies may be unavoidable.

 

Lost Forever…Something New to Follow)

But what about loss in Network Down? I know that of all the entries in this series this last story has been more focused on entertainment than on somber musings, but even a more punchy story can still have its moments of loss. That is the destiny I have in store for Kevyn, but that loss will follow a somewhat different pattern than any of the ones mentioned above.

In some tales the hero loses something, and loses it permanently, but through this loss they find that the way is left open for something new to to take its place. Perhaps that new something is better, perhaps it is worse. But it is something new, and most often it is something that redefines the character entirely.

On Thursday I’ll post the second half of Kevyn’s story, and in it he will permanently trade his current life for another. In his case it is a trade he would normally never consider, but as you have already seen he is in moments of great duress. Ideal or not, it will be a decision that he consciously wills for himself, preferring it to all other forms of loss he could otherwise endure. Come back on Thursday to see how that works for him.

 

Network Down: Part One

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Kevyn strode down the sidewalk bearing that satisfied contentment that always came during his midday ritual. Each day around noon he made sure to get away from the office for a bagel and some fresh air. His carefree reverie was interrupted by the triple-honk of a nearing taxi, the cabby calling out to see if he wanted a ride.

“Dani, I don’t want any transportation,” he sighed.

Confirmed. The digital assistant sounded in his ear as she updated his public profile. Now all of the HUDs on the passing taxis would see a red X over his head.

“I thought I set a reminder for that, Dani,” he stressed. “Whenever I leave for lunch I want to just walk.”

Whenever you leave your workplace between the hours of 11 am and 1 pm?

“Figure it out,” he said. It was a phrase that Dani would understand to mean she should use her own algorithms to assume his intent.

Confirmed.

Kevyn reached the alley that led down to his favorite bakery. It had been intentionally positioned apart from the main thoroughfare as the owner valued a personal relationship with all his clientele. No one came here unless they meant to, and everyone who did soon became a regular. It wasn’t business so much as family.

Twenty minutes later Kevyn emerged having enjoyed the combination of good food with even better conversation. He felt invigorated to tackle all of the afternoon’s reports, and maybe even still have time to–

ALERT! ALERT!” A loud voice suddenly cut through the air, simultaneously emanating from every ad-board in the entire city. Everywhere Kevyn looked he was met with the same warning bulletin.

“The Chicago Central Police Department has just been compromised by a network attack. This attack has crippled all communication with automated units. Regular police forces remain in active duty, but citizens are strongly urged to vacate the streets and lock down their premises. Keep watching for confirmation of system restoration.”

An artificial voice began reading the message out loud but Kevyn didn’t need any further warning. He instinctively spun around to seek shelter in the bakery he had just left, but the metal shutters were already clanging shut. No doubt they were automated to do so in such events, and could not open back again, no matter how he begged for admittance. There was nothing for it but to run and grab any taxi that still dared to be on the streets.

As Kevyn sprinted down the alley he watched the small slice of the street he could see ahead. Though the window was small it still communicated the immediate panic that was sweeping all across it. Cars whizzed by at dangerous speeds, horns honking, tires squealing, bodies crunching against one another. Those on foot dashed down the sidewalk, taking wide swaths to avoid passing too near to any of their fellow pedestrians. They stared into one another’s eyes as they passed, trying to tell if this other might be a closet homicidal maniac about to spring loose.

That was the true horror of these episodes. The Police Department’s monitoring and enforcement network was state-of-the-art, and the dismantling of it had only ever been accomplished whenever a very powerful entity had wanted to enact a very dire evil, such as with the terrorist bombing of ’31. But beyond the grand act of terror there was the more common criminality as well. The human officers were simply too limited to hold back the tide of depravity that burst free whenever the dam came down.

There had been years of pent up felonies waiting to be committed. People had been silently seething: hating their bosses, jealous of ex-lovers, feeling a need to silence certain public voices… They had been burning with want, but been too afraid of the guaranteed repercussions that came in a world of constant monitoring and enforcement to do anything about it. Well, now in this brief window of opportunity every degenerate had just been given free license to do as they saw fit, and they were going to take it.

“Dani, flag down a taxi for me,” Kevyn shouted as he neared the end of the alley. “And alert me to any individuals approaching within a hundred yards of me.”

Confirmed. Removing transportation filter from your status.

Even before Kevyn reached the sidewalk he could tell he was in trouble, and as he came to the road, clutching a stitch in his side, his worst fears were confirmed. This was usually one of the busiest, most packed thoroughfares in all the city, and now it was entirely deserted. A few retreating taillights shone eight blocks down, a few doors were still slamming in the nearby apartment buildings, but there was no one near enough to offer him shelter from the storm.

Still, at least deserted was better than being approached by thugs.

“Dani, I…” Kevyn paused as his eyes lit on a wreck. Three cars had plowed into one another during the mad scramble and now all of them were deserted, their drivers having evidently continued their exodus on foot.

“Dani, see if we can buy any of these cars,” he ordered, sprinting over to them and trying to assess if they could still function. The Lexus that had been T-Boned looked pretty bent out of shape, and the Goat was so boxed in he wouldn’t be able to get it out. But maybe the Buick in the back?

The owner of the Lexus is willing to entertain an offer, Dani replied after completing her queries.

“What? No. What about–” Kevyn started at the sound of a loud bang just a few alleys away. “How much are they asking?”

91,670, standard price for a new Lexus Aria.

Kevyn cursed, but made his way around to the driver’s door. “Buy it!” he hissed, tugging at the door’s handle repeatedly.

A pause. And then Purchase completed.

The handle now opened for him and Kevyn dove into the car’s interior. Just as he pulled the door shut another bang sounded behind him and he spun around in the seat just in time to see a band of looters spill out of that nearby alley onto the street. One of them was behind the wheel of massive, black truck which pulled to the side of the road as the rest hopped out from the back and began moving down the street. They all held 3D-printed firearms and blasted away at any lockbox in sight, pillaging the contents inside.

Kevyn swore again and slammed the seat into its most reclined position, laying flat and hoping they hadn’t seen him. They would see the wreck and assume the owners had left it, wouldn’t they?

Sir, I am notifying you that individuals have entered the 100 yard radius you specified, and they are moving in your direction.

“I know,” Kevyn whispered. “Just keep me updated on their distance.”

Of course… 80 yards… 60 yards… 40…

Suddenly Kevyn had a horrifying epiphany. They wouldn’t leave the cars, they would loot them. How had he been so stupid? Panicky he flung the seat back to its upright position and punched the button for the ignition.

The car roared to life, mingled with shouts of surprise from the looters. Kevyn slammed the pedal to the floor and felt a rush of relief as the car lurched away from the rest of the twisted metal it had been enmeshed with. He was curving sharply to the right, though, and as he spun the wheel to correct it he found that the steering didn’t respond. The passenger side was too dented in for the vehicle to drive straight.

A building loomed up ahead and Kevyn was too slow reaching for the brakes. His vision turned white as the body-cushion sprung up around his form, suspending him in space and giving the accident that followed a strangely muffled crunching sound.

“Get off! Get off!” Kevyn shouted, punching the deflating cushion away as he scrambled for the car door. A thought occurred to him and he pulled open the glove box before exiting the car. A gun! A beautiful, glossy black handgun. He grabbed it and leapt out of the seat, pressing his back against the side of the car. The vehicle was a barrier between him and the looters, something he was grateful for as there came the sharp pinging of bullets hitting the car’s other side.

“Stay back!” he roared, shaking the gun where they could clearly see. He squeezed the trigger to fire back a warning shot but nothing happened.

Sir, you do not own this firearm…

“Buy it!”

And even if you did, you would require a weapon permit before its use would be authorized. All permits have been suspended while the Police Department’s security network is down.

Kevyn’s bluff didn’t seem to have impressed the looters very much either, and they were piling into the back of their truck as it rolled down the street, making its way towards him.

Kevyn ducked low and scrambled away towards the nearest alley, his heart thumping painfully in his chest. He reached the gap and gave a silent thanks that it was too narrow for their truck to follow him. It was just a slight gap between two apartment buildings on either side, a place filled mostly with refuse and broken appliances.

“Dani, are any of these apartments vacant?” he asked as he sprinted down the length of the alley towards the adjacent street.

There are numerous apartments available in each of these buildings, ranging in price from…

“Never mind.” He realized that these buildings would also be locked down with metal shutters, and he wouldn’t be able to enter them even if he was a patron.

A loud clap rang out as the stucco wall next to him burst from the impact of a bullet. Kevyn wheezed in shock and flung himself away towards the other side of the alley. The fact that the shot had been so close to his head was evidence of how terrible the looters’ aim was. They needed him alive, after all, if they wanted him to transfer his money into their accounts.

And there would be no negotiating with them if they did manage to catch up with him. In a world where every transfer was registered in a digital ledger it was also possible for each transaction to be reverted. The only guarantee a robber had that you wouldn’t later retrieve the money you gave them was if they left you dead. Their promise was always that the death would be much worse if you refused to transfer the money.

Kevyn continued his run, now bobbing and weaving as much as he could in the narrow alley, trying to throw off the looters’ aim.  The occasional shot clattered around his legs and feet, but thankfully none of them had found purchase yet. He was nearly to the adjacent street now, but no closer to safety.

“Where are we Dani?”

The corner of 13th Street and Mull.

“Where’s the nearest police precinct?”

1.1 miles.

1.1 miles. Normally that wouldn’t sound very far. Now it might as well be in another galaxy.

Kevyn’s eyes flashed as he spotted a mobile trash container at the end of his alley. It was the large, industrial kind, about chest height and wider than the entire alley. It was designed for mobility, with automated wheels on its bottom, so that it could be dropped off to private events and retrieved afterwards if needed.

“Dani, rent that trash box, then tell it to rotate around!”

The cost for immediate use comes with a significant fee…

“Buy it!”

There was a moment’s delay and then the container began to spin, forming a wall between the two apartment buildings just as Kevyn dove through the shrinking gap. There came a grinding sound as the edge of the container scraped along the building walls. It was too large to rotate fully, so instead it just wedged itself in as tightly as it would go.

Kevyn spun around and looked over the top of the trash container at his pursuants. They were still sprinting towards him, streaking to the barrier he had made, crouching low, and then leaping to clear it.

“Dani, open the trash’s lid,” he ordered coolly. The top sprang suddenly upwards and backwards, blocking his vision of the alley just as the looter’s eyes widened in surprise. Kevyn allowed himself a smile at the sound of the bodies slamming into the raised lid, followed by the cacophony of them tumbling back down into the container’s interior.

“Close the lid.” It slammed shut and he heard the muffled shouts of the angry looter’s banging their fists against their metal prison. “You can transfer control of the box back now. At whatever loss is fine. And tell the new owners they ought to–”

Before Kevyn could finish his snarky one-liner he jumped at a sudden squealing noise. Three blocks south of him the looter’s large truck spun around an empty intersection, then turned, and came barrelling towards him once more.

Kevyn grimaced and then began sprinting the opposite direction as quickly as he could. He wasn’t in the clear yet.

***

I mentioned on Monday how I wanted to write a story that would feature a small novelty, and then explore all of the implications that would branch out from that seed. When I started working on this story all I knew was that I wanted a world where currency had become entirely digital. I wanted to explore how ownership might be a more fluid notion when the changing of hands could be done without any hands at all, handled instead by the interfacing of different AIs.

The first implication of this was that obviously this story would need to be set in the future. A world like our world, but later. And with that came the setting, the style, and genre of the piece.

Next I drilled deeper into this idea of transactions being conducted entirely remotely. We already see the beginning of this through online shopping, but I wanted to take it a step further. What if every item was tagged with its owner, who could be remotely queried for a purchase? Every item could be tentatively for sale, so long as your offer was compelling enough.

With that in mind I wanted the story to have a reason for someone to be buying a great number of things, one right after the other. That brought up the image of someone running, trying to escape, and purchasing tools to aid him in that flight. Obviously that would mean our main character was in trouble, being pursued by some ne’er-do-wells.

And now that I was thinking about robbers, I started to wonder how that would even work in a future where every transaction could be tracked and reversed. The chillingly fatal implication of how this crime could still be effective presented itself, and I began piecing together the last parts the story.

Of course there is a little bit left to tell of it, and in the second half we are going to learn even more about the digital currency in this strange world. Before getting there, though, I want to examine a theme that has been present in all of my stories for this current series, one that has given each of them a particularly somber tone. Loss. It’s a weighty topic, and yet one that we each need to process in one way or another. I’d like to make the case that stories are a uniquely fitting way to do just that. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain why. Until then have a wonderful weekend!

It Follows

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This last Thursday I made mention of a core question that drives a reader through to the end of a story. This question is universal across all mediums of story-telling, across all cultures, and across all eras. Stop anyone in the middle of reading a new book or watching a movie or listening to a song, and ask them why they are continuing to give their time to this activity instead of looking for something else. Their answer is almost guaranteed to be some variation of “I want to see what happens next.”

How strongly the question “what happens next?” burns in your reader will ultimately determine whether your next novel is a great success or a dismal failure. The moment someone stops asking that question is the moment they become apathetic and put the book away unfinished. Conversely, the “hook” that everyone is told their story needs to open with is really nothing more than the first time the reader starts to wonder “what is going to happen next?”

Now I did mention on Thursday that there are a few variations to this question. Self-help books, educational textbooks, and passages of scripture, for example, are usually driven instead by the question “what can I learn from this?” But these really are the exceptions to the rule. By and large “what happens next?” is the singular question that has proved so powerful as to support multiple multi-billion dollar industries for millennia.

But the question of “what comes next” is actually useful long before your story even ends up in the hands of the reader. Every author is also driven by that question in order to even finish their work. Similar to their readers, once an author stops caring to create that “next,” then the manuscript is sure to end up on the shelf collecting dust. Let’s take a look at the different ways this question might manifest in our writing process, and how it directly influences the work we create.

 

Phisherman and Back to the Future)

When I sat down to write Phisherman I didn’t know exactly where I was going to go with the piece. I knew I wanted it to be about a hacker who “consumed” his targets by accessing all of their private secrets. I completed part one and really could have finished the whole thing right there as a brief character study. But I was still interested in this individual and I found myself curious as to what he might do next.

So I figured the natural evolution would be for him to progress from digital breaking-and-entering to physical. I wrote up a plot about how he obtained keys to a stranger’s home. Well that was definitely interesting, but then of course there had to be a part three where he actually broke into the home. The story demanded that I explore what would happen next.

That entire story came together naturally just by pulling on the thread of “what’s next?” You simply return to that well over and over until you come to the end. It makes me think of the first time I saw Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. Here I witnessed a time traveling car that brought a boy into the past to learn from his own parents’ experience. It was fascinating, but naturally gave rise to a question of what would happen if he traveled into his own future now. Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly where the series went with its very next sequel!

 

The Sweet Bay Tree and A Separation)

In my next story I tried to approach this question of “what’s next?” in a different manner. Throughout the plot of The Sweet Bay Tree we follow as a tree slowly comes to the realization that it has already reached the end of its arc. It is going to spend the rest of its life in the confines of a single room, and will only ever leave it after being chopped into little bits.

Before getting to that realization, though, we see the tree constantly looking for all manner of possible “nexts.” At first it assumes that it will some day be brought back to the field where it originally came from. Then it learns that field was paved over and it thinks it might become part of a new field. Or maybe a grove. Perhaps a retaining wall…something. Anything! But no, one-by-one all of its anticipations are pried loose until it at last accepts that there is no “next” at all. And now that there is no next, the story promptly ends.

This sort of teasing many possible outcomes and then systematically closing them was illustrated very well in an Iranian film called A Separation. Here we meet a husband and wife whose relationship has become quite strained. Despite the tension in their marriage, each seems to be constantly on the brink of setting aside their differences for a joyful reunion. The problem is that they are never brought to these moments of near-reconciliation at the same time. The wife is about to apologize but then the husband greets her gruffly. The husband is about to admit he might have been wrong, but then the wife ruffles his pride. Although their marriage should have a “next,” they are too stubborn to find their way to it. The film ends when they divorce.

 

Three Variations on a Theme and Oedipus)

Finally with Three Variations on a Theme I tried to illustrate the classic “hook” that I mentioned up above. In each of the three short pieces things are progressing along a certain track when a new entity introduces itself to tease a new path to follow. It was the cave calling to the pioneer, the muddy shortcut inviting the laborer, and the sinister exchange offered to the starving man. The introduction of each of these elements made for a divide in the road, a moment where the character could stay on their original road or else explore the other.

Of course in each case the character took the new route. Any time a story suggests a different road you can be sure it will be taken, because what would be the point of introducing it if not to then explore it? In each of these cases it proved to be the road to ruin, each allegory providing a caution against letting curiosity distract you from a path you already know to be right.

You see this same pattern in Oedipus’ journey as well. At the beginning he commits himself to a cause, but is then repeatedly warned to abandon it. Prophets, family members, and even his own intuition constantly warn him that he does not want to follow the thread he pulling on, but he stubbornly refuses to heed any of these voices.

Of course if he did desist then we, the audience, would be furious! The story has promised us epic tragedy and we won’t be satisfied until we get it. And so the path must be pursued, and the final revelations come fully into the light. When they do, Oedipus, and us as well, probably wish we had left well enough alone!

 

World Building)

There is one other way that an author can utilize this question of “what’s next?” in crafting their stories. This method is particularly related to world building and it begins by simply inventing one new thing in your world. Then, you repeatedly ask yourself how that one change would ripple out into others.

Take the world of Harry Potter for example. It’s basically our own world, but with one twist: the witches and wizards of antiquity are real, as is their magic.

But if they are real, then how about wands? Yes.

And potions? Yes.

Oh, what about flying broomsticks? Yes, sure.

Oh, but if broomsticks are real what are they used for? Well, obviously they’re used for transportation.

What about for recreation? Sure, why not. In fact let’s say that they have sports based around them!

Well what would those look like?

You get the picture.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this particular conversation is at all representative of how J. K. Rowling actually came up with the idea of Quidditch, my point is merely to give an example of how a train of thought like this could be used to come up with all manner of interesting of details. The author merely introduce one thing that is new and then follows each of the threads that follow. Those threads will undoubtedly begin to branch in multiple directions as well, sprawling out until you’ve created an entire web of new experiences for the reader to enjoy.

It is this tool of using “what’s next?” in world building that I wish to explore with my next story. The world of that story is going to begin with one simple idea: I want for all of the currency and deeds to be maintained purely by digital ledgers, there won’t be any cash, checks, credit cards, contracts, or paper documentation of any sort. It’s a fairly simple change, but one that can certainly have numerous side-effects that follow it. Come back on Thursday to see how it all plays out.

Three Variations on a Theme

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The Stone)

I had a dream that I was an explorer in a new land, traveling with a party of adventurers, all fair-haired, young, and beautiful. We were pioneers, pilgrims, fearlessly carving a new course through the world! I had the sense that we had traveled for a long while already, but that the real journey was only just now about to begin. For we were on a ledge overlooking a lush and green valley, and we were happily describing how we would go into this place, stake our claim, and forge our futures. One ambition would be succeeded by another until we would make this place shine as a beacon to the world, the star that dwelled on earth rather than the heavens above.

As the rest of our group continued with their enthusiasms I noticed a cave standing on the ledge a little bit back from the rest of us. Something deep was pulsating to me from there, and I found myself growing intensely curious. I informed my compatriots that I was going to see what was inside, and they cautioned me to hurry as they would not wait for long.

I entered the cave and found that it was not very deep at all. Just a few yards in and I came to its back, against which their lay a single, massive slab of onyx stone. It was from this stone that the pulsating rhythm emanated, a deeper frequency than I could actually hear, but which I could feel.

I was seized by a strange desire to possess the stone somehow. I reached to my side and drew my knife out, then proceeded to carve an image of myself into the rock. The stone was surprisingly soft, and easily received my image onto it. I was able to make my likeness with perfect ease, even down to some of the most minute details.

With a shock I realized I had been here in this cave for far longer than I had intended and I turned to rush back to my companions. But as I tried to move my legs I found that I could not. Glancing downwards I was shocked to find that my legs had changed, somehow they had been transfigured into motionless stone!

I tried to reach down, to pull my legs free of their earthy confines, but my arms would not extend down to them. I looked to my hands and they were as sculpted stone as well. As panic set in I tried to shout out for help, but no sound emerged from my mouth, for it was stone as well. I tried to look around for anything to save me, but my eyes would not shift, for they were stone as well. All of me was stone.

Though I could not move I was now somehow back on the ledge looking down into the valley. I was an immobile statue, yet still cognizant and aware. I saw my dear friends making their way down the path without me. They went into the valley and began to build their homes, their farms, their mills.

They developed and grew, they married one another, they had families and established a community. They were happy. They were successful. And not a one of them paused to wonder about me. Once every so often I saw one pause as if trying to remember something lost in the periphery, but then they would always shake their heads and go back about their day.

I wanted to cry. But rocks cannot cry.

 

The Mud)

I had a dream that I stood in a muddy field, grouped with a great mass of individuals who were carrying thick and long beams of wood to a far off destination. Every person was being assigned a single beam, their own personal cross to bear. They all received it, bore it on their shoulder, and then made their way with it down a grassy trail.

I received mine and felt the weight of it push me an inch down into the mud. It was about half as wide as a man, and long enough that its end dragged along the ground. I turned and began to follow the others, filing my way down that same long road. In time I became accustomed to the labor, and after shifting the beam around found a position that was stable. I peered ahead and saw that the way continued for quite a long while, round bends, up and down valleys, and at times the road would became narrow and pockmarked, though never entirely broken.

I made good progress, and even passed a few of the other journeyers along my way. I saw that the road would soon follow a hill that rose, curved right, and then dropped back down to our current level again. I had the realization that I could make better time by taking a shortcut through the field at the base of that hill, which would rejoin the road at the far end of the hill. And so I turned away from the main thoroughfare and ventured out over the unbroken ground.

At first the going was easier. The grass was less beaten down here and provided a firmer foundation for my heavy steps. As I continued, though, the grass became increasingly sparse and my feet began sinking into the soft earth. I had to pause and catch my breath as each step required extra effort to first dislodge from the vacuum of muck and mire.

I had extended about twenty yards out into the field before my first real misgivings began. The effort of lifting one foot out of the mud was driving the other a little deeper in return. Thus each step went further and further, and if that continued I soon wouldn’t be able to lift my way out of the mud at all. My beam was now slowing me like an anchor as well, its long end dragging through the soft earth with every step.

I began wondering about heading back the way I had come, but turning this my wooden keel seemed far more difficult than continuing, so I took a few more tentative steps. Perhaps I would find my way to a drier patch of ground soon?

But no, I had barely gone three paces more and I was already dropping all the way to my thighs. My last step never stopped sinking, it just kept descending slowly and so I floundered my legs, pumping them as if swimming upwards. It made it hard to keep my balance, especially with how the beam jostled and thudded across my back.

I lost my posture entirely and fell forwards. My hands flung out instinctively into the ground, the fingers splaying out to keep me stable.

There was a sense of dread growing that I refused to acknowledge. I had been stupid, but I was going to wriggle out of this and–

I realized that I was still continuing to sink. Even with all four of my limbs pressed into the ground the mud continued to crawl up  my skin, cold and sinister.

“NO!” I commanded, feeling the panic setting in. The weight of the beam was just too much. Until now I had had a sense that I mustn’t lose it, but now that didn’t matter. It was pressing me down, burying me in this mire and I started rolling my shoulders, trying to dislodge it.

It would not move. It was planted too firmly in the soil.

I tried to duck down and roll out from underneath it, but it dropped with me and only pinned me still lower. The scent of the moist earth was filling my nostrils and I felt it crawling up along my belly and chest.

Just my neck and head remained above the earth. My arms and legs churned violently through the mud to no end.

“No! NO!”

The cold sludge crept up my neck. Closed across my chin. I could taste it.

“NOOOOO–”

My cry became a gurgle as the filth flowed its way into my mouth, and filled my vision with darkness.

 

The Vulture)

I had a dream that I was at the bottom of a large crevice, a shaft in the rock that had plunged a few hundred feet down to where I stood. I had no knowledge in the dream of how I came to be here, but here I was and with no way out.

I did not even need to ascertain that there was no exit in this dream, somehow I knew it was so. There would be no scaling the rocky walls, no friend to lower me a rope. This was my world, though I was not discontent with that fact.

What was troubling to me, though, was the intense hunger that I was consumed with. These were no common hunger pang, either, they were sharper than any I have ever felt before. I felt that if I did not find any food soon I would collapse and perish.

Desperately I looked all about me for something to eat. At first I saw nothing, but then as I looked upwards I noticed an immense number of plump white birds roosting in the holes of the rock. They looked extremely fat and delicious, and I tried throwing stones to hit one of them. They were too quick for me, though, and too clever to ever stray far enough downwards where I might reach them with my hands.

In desperation I began rooting around in the dirt, looking for any mushrooms, and I was even considering trying to eat the moss that grew along the rock walls. Before I could, though, a single black vulture slowly wafted down the chasm and landed at my feet. It was a massive fowl, standing as high as my own waist. And in its beak it held one of those plump, white birds.

It looked me in the eye, then dropped the carcass at my feet, taking a half-step backwards as if to make clear that this was meant as an offering. It never took its eyes off of me, and there was something deeply unnerving in its look. There was a deep cunning in those eyes, a frightening intensity, and a hungry desire.

Even so, I wasn’t about to pass up my only opportunity for a proper meal, and so I cautiously lowered to a crouch, extended a single hand out, and took the gift. I never took my eyes off that vulture and it never took its off of me.

With our gazes still locked on one another I tore into the flesh of that white fowl and found it was ever more delicious than I had hoped. The meat was soft and succulent, and at the slightest pressure of my teeth it burst apart in a torrent of sweet flavors. Every succeeding morsel was the best I had ever tasted, and all too soon I held the last remaining bite of the meal between my fingertips.

Though I wanted to devour that morsel as well I knew I should be gracious, and so I placed it in front of the vulture that still waited at my feet. The vulture hissed, seized the piece and flung it to the side. Evidently it could not eat the flesh of the white birds itself, though it could catch them. With a sudden pity I realized it must be hungry as I.

The vulture hopped forward, extending its mouth out towards me expectantly. With that clarity that exists only in dreams I understood it meant for me to give it a bite of my own flesh. That was the meat that it could eat. Though that naturally gave me pause I knew that if I refused then the vulture would not bring me anymore food. And so I extended my arm and watched as it plunged its beak into my flesh. It tore off a chunk and swallowed the whole thing down at once, then happily flew away.

The next long while continued to pass like this. The vulture continued to bring me the birds, I ate them, and converted them into human flesh that the vulture could take from me. It was a horrible dependency we had for one another, I suppose, and yet I somehow found it deeply satisfying.

Unfortunately my ravenous appetite never was abated. Whenever I was not feasting I sat with my head turned upwards, waiting to feast. The vulture was a skilled hunter and soon learned to never cease in bringing me my next meal. At first I tried to ignore the fact that the number of those birds was beginning to diminish, but after only a matter of weeks I could not deny that my gluttony was driving us to ruin.

Where before every nook and cranny of the rocky walls had been overflowing with my winged dinners, now I could scarcely see so much as a feather in all that schism. The vulture struggled to find them, too, and more and more regularly it would come to me exhausted and empty-beaked. It would still approach me for its regularly-scheduled feeding, but I would kick at it and drive it away.

“You can never have anything from me until it you have made payment first!” I would shout at its retreating form.

When it did find food for me I now devoured the entire thing in haste and was left all the more dissatisfied for having tasted so little… with so long to go before I would eat again. I grew faint and weary, and took to sleeping while I waited for the vulture to return.

One time I awoke to see it looming before me, slowly approaching with that same sinister glint in its eye. It paused when it had seen that I had awoken, but after a moment continued forward again. I tried to lift my hand to shake my fist at it but I found my arm would not move. I tried to kick out at it but my leg refused to answer.

I glanced downwards and saw all of the vulture’s bite marks up and down my body. I realized it had systematically weakened my sinews, devoured my muscles, damaged my nerves. All to the point that I now lacked any power to fend it off. It was in that moment I realized my body was more the vulture’s than my own any more.

And still it came forward.

***

On Monday I mentioned that myths commonly abstract a story’s themes, which signals to the reader that its topics are universal principles rather than individual narratives. It’s important to do that early in the myth, so that the reader understands the proper frame of mind to read from.

In each of today’s piece my intention was to present a sequence of events that was too bizarre to be taken at face value. I did things like beginning each by saying it was a “dream,” I made strong use of supernatural events, I limited the use of character and plot, and I used a narrative voice that was emotionally distant from the intensity of the moments being described.

Most commonly when a reader picks up a new story the main driving question that pushes them through to the end is “what happens next?” But by utilizing these specific tactics I hoped to change that question into something more like “what is this about?” Thus the different experience presented in a myth has something to do with how the writer writes, but also in how a reader reads.

The other thing I wanted to accomplish with this piece was present the same theme in three different ways. There are shared elements between the details of each, such as a solitary central character and a setting based in nature, but what ties them together most strongly is the themes that they all share. Each features a character with initial promise, who encounters something new or strange (a slab of rock, an inviting field of mud, a vulture), and who ultimately loses their way. These are myths about losing one’s place, of being distracted from the right way, of being overwhelmed, and of being consigned to a destruction.

These are sobering ideas, and frankly myths often are. Even the ones that are happy tend to be happy with a heaviness. There just seems to be little point in engaging the reader’s intuition to teach a principle, unless it is a principle that carries some weight.

Before closing, I need to mention one other element shared in these stories: the way that each of them introduces the reader to a new idea and then asks them to follow the logical continuation of that novelty. In fact this is a tool of story-writing that I’ve been using in all of my pieces for this current series. Come back on Monday where we’ll examine this more fully, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

Myths

brown chain close up colors
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On Thursday I posted a short story about a Sweet Bay tree being confined within a college multi-purpose room. At its core, that story was meant as an allegory for how our lives can sharply change course in only a moment, while our expectations for that altered future then take a great deal longer to adjust. On the surface, I realize that that may seem like a very strange connection to draw, but for me the idea of this allegory arose quite naturally.

The idea for that story actually began more than a decade ago when I watched the television mini-series Roots for the first time. For those that don’t know, Roots was a six-chapter epic spanning multiple generations of African slaves in America, the real-life ancestors of the man who penned this story.

 

Roots and Trees)

The story begins with the first of our subjects being captured in his native homeland and then sailed across the ocean to America. There he is sold into slavery and his daughter, grand-son, and all of the further two generations spend their lives in servitude until the Civil War is concluded and they are set free. There the story closes.

While each generation has their own trials and arcs, I was always most captivated by the plight of that first forefather, Kunta Kinte. Of all of these people, he alone begins his life wild and free, with absolutely no expectation of ever being bent to another man’s whims. Understandably, he resists the harsh changes that are thrust upon him, and refuses to accept that they define his new reality. As such he performs one escape attempt after another, but sadly each ends in failure and he never does obtain his freedom.

I remember watching his ambitions to return to his native Africa with a mixture of both understanding and sad cynicism. Obviously I could appreciate his desire to return back to where he belonged, but at the same time I wondered how he didn’t realize it was hopeless. Suppose he had managed to break free and evade capture. How then was he expecting to find to cross an entire ocean and find his old tribe in the middle of a massive continent?! At the very best he might win a better life than his current slaver, but he would never be able to recapture the exact life he had had before.

To be clear, I did not think he was stupid for trying to escape, more so I was perplexed by the recognition of a human stubbornness. A stubbornness that defies reason, and one that is common within all people, myself included.  I vaguely understood that this stubbornness had something to do with not allowing ourselves to accept that which our hearts have deemed to be unacceptable.

Or at least, I almost knew that. At the time all I experienced was a strange sensation, a sort of empathetic emotional reaction, but I didn’t understand what it was about or why it was there. Something inside of me had been stirred, but I wasn’t able to put words to it until a few years later when I was seated in a large multipurpose room at college, looking at the massive trees that had lined the walls in massive planter boxes.

Suddenly I found myself wondering how on earth they had come to even be in this room, given that they wouldn’t even begin to fit through the doors. The simplest explanation, I decided, was that they had been brought in while still young and small, and had afterwards grown to their massive statures. Then I realized that if that was the case, then now they would only be able to leave this room when chopped into small pieces.

Though these were only trees that I was contemplating, I found this notion very sad. It was right then that some strange connection happened inside of me. Some voice said “hey, that’s kind of like Kunta Kinte, isn’t it? Able to come in, but not to go out. That’s kind of like all the slaves, and all other people who can never have what they want from life.”

 

The Abstract)

I was so wrapped in an individual’s experience that I hadn’t been able to see the bigger picture. I had not understood why I felt a connection to someone whose experience was completely different from my own. I had to realize that there was a broader theme at play here. Up until that moment of epiphany I had been viewing this as a single character’s problem, rather than as a universal suffering which happened to be reflected in that single individual.

Being able to take a specific instance and find in it the universal comes more easily to some than to others. I don’t think I used to be very good at it at all, but of all things it was an education in software development that taught me how to step back from the minutia to take in the whole.

Of course what we are talking about here is abstraction, the act of focusing on an entire body of material rather than on the individual components. The ability to deal with an interface, rather than an implementation.

Most often in stories we get connected to a character, or a moment. We talk about the hero or the showdown. We evaluate these elements as a single entity, deciding if we enjoyed them entirely within their own context.

But sometimes an author doesn’t want the reader to be obsessed with a character or an event, they want them to be thinking about an idea, or a type, or a theme. The author wants them to ask “What are the key attributes of this sort of man?” or “what would I do in a situation like that?” or “do the ends always justify the means?”

 

Myths)

And that my friends, is how we come to myths. It is where we change from the specific to the abstract.

Long ago authors figured out that the way to get people to focus on the idea of a story instead of the details, was to put walls up between the readers and the actual events described. I’ve made mention of this before, but when all the ordinary things in a story have been made strange and unfamiliar, then the intangible themes that usually hang in the background now come into center focus.

We don’t relate on a personal level to tortoises, nor to hares, and so in Aesop’s classic fable we have no distraction to keep us from recognizing the truth at the core of this myth: that flighty passion will burn out, while stoic consistency will eventually win the day. Even if we were entirely unaware of Plato and his work we would immediately assume that The Cave was a work of allegory. The premise of this story is that of men that spend their whole lives in an underground cave believing that their lives are made up of nothing more than a series of shadows being projected upon a wall. It is just too foreign and bizarre to take at face value, and so we naturally start looking for a deeper meaning in it.

In my next blog post I am going to present a collection of three short myths, each being an examination on the same theme. My intention will be to illustrate how an author can indicate to the reader that the story at hand is meant to be understood abstractly, and to show that there are multiple ways to approach the same lesson. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

The Sweet Bay Tree

photography of tree
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It was a bright Spring morning the day they brought the Sweet Bay tree into the open study area. It was a massive room, featuring thousands of square feet in open floor space, with another fifteen yards stretching vertically before being capped off by a wide glass ceiling that ran the whole length of it.

It was a multi-purpose room, one commonly scattered with tables and chairs for the University students to study at during the days, but all of which could be folded up and carted away with ease. It had played host to dances, career fairs, blood drives, charity auctions and more. Many-a-time it had been reserved for wedding receptions, and once had housed the funeral services when one of the Deans had passed way. A collapsible stage could be erected at one end for music and dance performances. It had seen debates, clubs, and religious ceremonies.

Of course the Sweet Bay tree did not yet know any of these things. It’s amazement as it was wheeled through the double doors was due simply to the sheer magnitude of the place. It was awed at the awesome grandeur on display, the architectural wonder of 400,000 cubic feet, all sustained without a single supporting pillar to break that space.

Somehow the artificiality of the room made it seem bigger. Naturally the tree was natively from the open outdoors, yet the openness there was too great to be appreciated. One does not marvel at a breadth unless one can see both ends of it, and so can comprehend it.

If the Sweet Bay tree felt honored to be put into a room so large, it swelled all the more with pride when it beheld the vessel the workers now lowered it into. A massive pot that lay a full twelve feet across and six feet deep! Perhaps the tree felt a little silly being so dwarfed by its home, but it knew this grand base had been selected with the intention that it would grow to fill it. It meant the workers intended this tree to become the central piece of the room’s ornamentation.

And so, after the workers had finished patting the soil around the tree’s roots, and threaded the water hose through a hole in the back of the pot, and added a layer of shredded bark as a skirt around its trunk, and then left for the rest of the days duties–then the tree unfurled itself and drank deeply from the soil and relished in a sense of fullness and fatness.

“Hello there,” a neighboring fern said. “Looks like they’ve given you the place of honor!”

“Why thank you,” the Sweet Bay tree returned graciously. “Yes, I am quite touched. It certainly is a thrill to come and visit you all. I only hope I’ll be able to measure up to everyone’s expectations.”

“I’m sure you will. What’s your name, by the way?”

“Sweet Bay tree number four on the Eastern side.”

“Eastern side of what?”

“Why the Eastern side of the Administration Building, of course, that’s where I’m stationed.”

“Oh…” the fern said awkwardly. “But aren’t you stationed here now?”

“Oh that’s very kind of you,” the Sweet Bay tree laughed. “I am, as I said, thrilled to come and visit. But I couldn’t possibly give up my station, I am an essential part of the tree-line there after all.”

“Well…” the fern started to say, but didn’t know how to politely end its sentence and so did not.

The conversation with the fern had made the Sweet Bay tree all the more anxious to measure up to the expectations that had been placed upon it. The last thing it wanted to hear was people tutting that it was a disappointment to the place.

Focusing its power inwards the tree began to will itself to new heights. To its delight it felt that the growth came quite easily. The tree was constantly sustained with a diet of nutrient-rich soil, regularly pruned to promote upward growth, and positioned under the glass ceiling so as to receive the most hours of bright sunlight possible.

In a matter of only a few years, which really is no time at all to a tree, the Sweet Bay had multiplied itself by many orders of magnitude, swelling to fill its pot and expanding to brush its uppermost leaves along the glass of  the ceiling. Those higher branches would be trimmed, but it always grew them back as a statement to the workers that it was doing its part in the role they had given it.

The Sweet Bay was not at all disappointed for attention, either. It swelled with pride each time a new student entered the room and remarked on how that impressive tree stood supreme in all that space.

“I didn’t know you could grow a full-sized tree indoors!” they often said in awe, and the Sweet Bay tree smiled down at them from its lofty perch.

Almost every occasion held in the room now utilized it as the centerpiece of its decorations. Lights wound up its trunk on Christmas and fake coconuts hung from its branches for luaus. There were black shrouds whenever someone important died, white lace whenever someone got married, and pink ribbons for cancer awareness.

The Sweet Bay tree was very pleased to serve and no one questioned that it did its part well. Still, with every passing year it found itself more and more anxious to know what was happening to its home on the eastern side of the Administration Building.

Any time a new plant was brought in it would ask them if they knew that area of the college campus exterior. Most of the time they did not, having instead been brought from greenhouses and nurseries far removed from the University. One day, though, a young poplar was brought in that had been stationed just south of the Sweet Bay tree’s home.

“The Administration Building? Yes, I know it. Had a fine view of it from the Library where they kept me.”

“Oh wonderful!” the Sweet Bay tree sighed in relief. “Tell me, how are things there? I suspect Sweet Bay trees number three and number five are missing me terribly?”

“Sweet Bay trees number three and number five? I don’t believe I know them.”

“Oh, but of course you do. Why they must be nearly as tall me now. Probably not quite as tall, but nearly.”

“Were they near to the vinca?”

“No, the vinca is on the southern side. These were on the eastern.”

“Ah, that explains it. They tore up that whole side and paved it over with a new parking lot. I didn’t see it happen, but some of the older trees told me about it.”

“They…what?!”

“Yeah, the demand for parking has really gone up of late. Doesn’t look anything like it used to.”

“But I–I don’t understand. Why would they do that? It’s quite a waste seeing as they’ll just have to change everything back to how it was… so that they’ll be ready when they return me there.”

“How’s that?”

“I mean why pave over a lovely green lawn when you’re just going to have to put the lawn back sooner or later?”

“Well…I mean…” the poplar stumbled awkwardly to find a tactful way to explain itself. “Sweet Bay trees three and five are gone. You understand? Not transplanted elsewhere from what I heard…gone. So I don’t think they were planning to change things back to how they were again.”

“Oh, of course,” the Sweet Bay tree tutted as if explaining something basic to a child, and not at all concerned about the chopping up of its brethren. “I’m not too shocked that they won’t be coming back. You didn’t see them after all, but quite frankly they were never anything so special as me. That’s why they brought me over here to liven up the room for a bit after all. Because I was the best! So of course they’re going to want me come back there. And when I do come back, I don’t intend to be planted in an inch less of lawn!”

“Ah…well…alright then!”

Despite the Sweet Bay tree’s show of confidence, it seemed to have been unnerved by something in that conversation with the young poplar. It began brooding and festering, wondering aloud why it was taking so long for the workers to return it to its station. It simply didn’t make sense!

The tree scolded those workers when they came to prune it and demanded answers from them, but of course they couldn’t understand any of that rustling. They just continued their regular work, making the Sweet Bay tree the perfect, beautiful centerpiece to this grand, impressive room.

Except that the room didn’t seem nearly so impressive to the tree as it once had. The Sweet Bay tree wasn’t nearly so small as when it had been brought in here, and it had long lost its sense of awe for the space. No doubt a large part of that had to do with being as tall as the entire room, for nothing seems so grand once you are able to fill an entire dimension of it. It would scratch its twigs along the glass canopy that defined the extent of its world, transparent enough to tease a world without limits beyond, but forever denying access to it. This room that had once been a throne was now nothing more than an ornate prison.

All the other plants learned not to broach the subject with the Sweet Bay tree. It was entirely unwilling to hear anything about being “replaced” or “forgotten.” And so they all stood silent as it rambled on about the warm summer breeze, the snowy blankets on the field, the buzzing of bees, the chirping of birds, the scurrying of chipmunks, the refreshing rain, the crunching of dead leaves, the flowery scents, the churning of the earth, and the taste of the wild wafting down from the nearby mountains.

One day a trimmed bush was brought into the room and placed right next to the Sweet Bay tree. As with all newcomers the tree swayed wistfully towards it and asked its tired, old question.

“Have you seen the Administration Building? Friend?”

“Hmm, well which one do you mean now? The old one or the new one?”

“Old one? What on earth do you mean?”

“Well they tore down that old one with the Library, didn’t they? Put up that new football stadium instead.”

“A… football stadium?”

“Yes, a sight to behold really! Thousands of tons of steel and stone splayed out over everything that used to be the Administration Building and the Library. With a massive parking garage hulking by its side, even. I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but it makes a place like this feel very small.”

“But…why would they do that? They’ll never be able to get things back to the way they were in time!” The Sweet Bay tree was swaying very laboriously now, as though it might faint from shock. “Where are they going to put me then? It just–it just doesn’t make any sense.”

The bush felt quite awkward and started to shrink back, but suddenly the Sweet Bay tree rounded on it with a sudden fury.

“You! Tell me! Have you heard any word of a new field for Sweet Bay trees? Any word of starting a grove for outdoor studying? Any mention of planting some trees to shore up the river’s edge?”

“I–no, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Has no one said when they’re going to take me out of this miserable place?!”

“You don’t…like it here?”

“It’s my prison!” The Sweet Bay tree fell to weeping. “But still I know they will get me out some day soon. They have to. They just can’t be leaving me here forever.”

For a moment the bush intended to avoid stating the obvious, just as every other plant had done. But then it felt it would be more cruel to leave the Sweet Bay tree hanging onto a vain hope.

“But…how will they get you out?”

“What’s that?” the tree snapped out of its self-pitying reverie.

“How would they even be able to get you out of this room?”

“The door, obviously! The same way I came in.”

“You don’t fit.”

“Well of course I–” a moment of horror swept across the tree. It had been staring down at the doors as it spoke. Down at them! They were so far beneath it, so distant, so small a matrix to pass through. Of course it had fit through them once when it had been a sapling. But now…now the only way out was in pieces.

“When did that happen?” the tree mumbled in shock. “Why did I just keep growing? Why didn’t I stop? What am I going to… what am I supposed to…. Wh–why?”

All the other plants in the room drew themselves as far away as their trunks and stems allowed, trying to grant the poor Sweet Bay tree a respectful moment of silence as its entire world collapsed.

***

I promised on Monday that I would try to write a story that began with its own ending. From the moment the Sweet Bay tree came into the room its story had reached its conclusion, and all that followed was merely waiting for it to realize that simple fact.

But of course, in this long ending there is also another story that is playing out. It isn’t the story of how the tree came to its final destination, it is the one of how it came to accept it. I wrote this story as an examination of a phenomenon I’ve noticed when people experience sudden, drastic changes to life.

These sharp turns occur in a single moment, and the course of our future is instantaneously changed. But then there is usually a considerable delay before our expectations shift to match up with that new destiny. In spite of all reason and sensibility, it can be very hard to let  go of how we thought things were going to be.

I realize it is a strange thing we do, trying to represent very human notions with very non-human subjects. But anthropomorphized characters and allegory have been parts of story-telling since longer than the Tortoise and the Hare. On Monday I’d like to take a closer look into why we do this sort of abstraction. Have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll see you then.