Curtis listened well, only ever asking the occasional clarifying question and otherwise taking the information in. At times he raised his eyebrows, not so much in skepticism, only surprise. He had, of course, already noticed things floating strangely through the tubes during the past few days, Gavin hadn’t done anything to try and hide them on his desk. If he had, Curtis would have noticed and confronted him about it all the sooner.
“So it’s not just some art thing,” Curtis concluded after Gavin closed his notebook. “It’s a…machine of some kind.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I hadn’t really thought of that.”
“But we still don’t know what it’s for.”
“No…does it matter though?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I think if it did something useful that would be really cool…but really I just like playing with it and finding new things about it.”
“Hmm…yeah, that’s why you were able to keep playing with it after I got bored. Maybe if I started helping out now I’d just make you frustrated by trying to make it do something?”
“I dunno…maybe,” Gavin felt bad saying it, but it was the truth.
“No, it’s cool,” Curtis started to move away.
“No wait,” Gavin said suddenly again. “I have an idea. If we can find a way to grow discs, then we could recreate everything. Make two sets of it all.”
“Each have our own copy,” Curtis grinned.
“Exactly. Play with it exactly how we want and neither one of us feels frustrated.”
“Do you really think we can grow a disc?”
“I mean I haven’t tried, but I’ve already been able to get it to do all these other things. It seems like there oughta be a way.”
“What are some of your ideas?” Curtis sat back down in the seat, lifting one of the islands to take a closer look.
“Well I know I can make a whole rod with clay, so what if I had an already-completed rod in there, and then I made a clay disc at the end of it. So I feed the tube, it makes the black stuff, the black stuff moves down the rod, and start changing the clay into a disc.”
“Yeah, yeah, good idea. But that clay will have to hold its shape for days.”
“Oh shoot, I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Here hand me that disc. Look we’ll just lay the clay out flat on top of it. It’ll support its shape. And maybe each day we have to touch it up a little bit…”
The two boys kept chatting away, feeding off of one another’s energy late into the night.
Neither of the two boys knew at the time how endless the project would be. It was probably for the best, or else even Gavin might have balked at the commitment. The fact was it would be years of experimentation and discovery, each of them with their own set, each of them doing their own tests and sharing notes whenever they found anything exciting.
It was usually Gavin who would make a new breakthrough, like when he discovered how a series of islands could be combined as nodes around a larger shell, allowing for more massive structures to be built.He further discovered that these larger shells could be used as nodes for something larger, and so on and so on, recursively increasing the scope to any dimension required. If they had had the space for it, they could have built a tube the size of the an airport terminal, the material never buckled under its own weight.
Curtis, meanwhile, was the one who found all of the practical applications. It never buckled did it? With that in mind he went the other way and began crafting smaller and smaller levels of detail, forging links that he wove into clothing. It was extremely crude, but his initial tests made clear that robust body armor was a definite possibility for the material.
Gavin never said that he disapproved of those experiments, but he always seemed bemused by the idea of taking a technology so purely alien and applying it to mundane everyday things. His approach was always to explore what he felt the pieces “wanted” to be.
Curtis understood that the operation of the pieces was lenient. It allowed for variation in the pieces it crafted, and that meant it was intended to bend to another’s will. It was a tool to make whatever the wielder wanted it to make.
In either case, both brothers found enough to fascinate them for more than a decade. At first they tried to find places in their room to hide the experiments from their parents, and then in their later teens they pooled money from their summer jobs to rent a storage unit. They moved all the material into that and worked with it in there.
High school came and went, college did too. They were bright, and already trained in an engineering mindset. As they gained education they became aware of how significant some of their discoveries truly were. They realized this was an entire science unto itself. Even so, they still maintained the secret of it all. Boyhood promises to one another were hard to break. It had always been their project, not for anyone else.
Curtis was the first to question these old commitments. He suggested that they were holding themselves back by not bringing other minds to explore with them. At the very least he said they could create commercial applications which would fund larger experiments for them. They wouldn’t have to patent the inventions, no one would be able to reproduce what they made without the material anyway, so there was no need to disclose how it was done. It could still be their secret.
There was a flaw in that plan and Curtis knew it. Gavin knew it, too, and he didn’t hesitate to point it out. Their experiments had concluded that any piece of this material could be used to reverse engineer all others. To give away one element was to give everything away.
Other people wouldn’t figure out its secrets, Curtis said.
Not most, Gavin agreed, but some would.
Curtis pointed out that it wasn’t even their discovery anyway. Someone else put these things in that cardboard box in the first place.
Probably that person hadn’t even known what they were, Gavin said. “Someone must have been throwing them out.”
But that was not the case, as the two would soon find out.
The two of them were seated at their separate desks inside of the storage unit. A power generator hummed in the corner, powering a number of lights and two fans to keep each of them cool in the tin oven. Curtis now had his own house, but it felt fairer to keep the materials in the storage unit like this. It was their No Man’s Land.
Each of them was bent over their stack of materials, absorbed in their never-ending work. Then, all at once, the silence was shattered by a reverberating clang! Something had just slammed into the roof of their storage unit. The two snapped their heads up and looked to each other in surprise as a second crash sounded from one of the walls.
“Kids?” Gavin suggested. “Throwing rocks?”
“Maybe,” Curtis said, but he appeared entirely unconvinced. He stood up and grabbed a heavy wrench from his workstation. “C’mon.”
Together they lifted the sliding door and walked around to the side of the unit. There was twelve feet between it and the next unit, but that space was entirely empty. No kids, no burglars…nobody.
What there was, however, was a smooth white disc that was sticking to the wall. It was about the width of a hand and with little wings on opposite sides to each other. Gavin stared in disbelief, knowing what it was before he even touched it and felt the way it rippled his skin.
“It’s the same material,” he frowned.
“I didn’t show our stuff to anybody,” Curtis said, as if he was anticipating an accusation.
“Sure…” Gavin said slowly. He turned to look in the direction the winged disc must have come from. “But how–” his eyes went wide and grabbing his brother he pulled them both to the ground just as two more discs came hurtling through the air and slammed into their storage unit. At the same time they heard another thud from the opposite side, and another two hitting the roof.
“Get away!” Curtis shouted, crawling as quickly as he could along the ground.
Gavin started after him, but then paused to look at the open door to their storage shed. All their work, all their secrets were on open display. He turned and made his way back, the discs continuing to whiz overhead like bullets, three-to-five impacting every second. Gavin reached the entrance and cautiously raised up until he could grip the bottom of the door and pull it down along its track. He had the door about halfway down when another of the discs slammed into it, bending the steel shutters so that they refused to budge any further.
“Leave it!” Curtis roared, grabbing Gavin from behind and hauling him away.
“But it’s all of our work!”
“If they tracked us down here do you really think a little door-and-padlock is going to keep them out of the shed?”
Curtis jerked his thumb off to the side and Gavin turned to see what he was pointing at. The storage facility was on top of a natural rise in the land, with a single road providing the only access to it. A quarter-mile down that road, and making their way up to the facility, were two black pickup trucks.
From the bed of the truck in front came those white, winged discs. They were being flung up into the air, hung in empty space for a moment, then hurtled off in random arcs. Each disc curved through the air for a little while, and then suddenly zeroed in on Gavin and Curtis’s storage shed, each striking it from a different angle.
“You think they’re here for our stuff?” Gavin asked.
“You think they’d be here for anything else?”
“We’ve got to stop them,” Gavin’s voice was panicky.
“If they’re coming here like this…I think they mean business,” Curtis’s voice was calm.
“Then…we gotta run!”
“They seem to have accounted for that.”
Gavin looked back to the trucks, they had separated and were now approaching the brothers in a pincer. Being off the road, the trucks now kicked up huge clouds of dust in their wake, churning up the sage under their heavy tires.
Gavin stared incredulously at his brother, unbelieving of how he could be so resigned. But he was right.
“You let me do the talking,” Curtis quietly ordered.
Well, I said that I would finish the story today, but I’m going to need just a little bit more to cap it off. The good news is, I found out how I want to end this story! I mentioned on Monday that I would try to incorporate a couple themes here at the end. The first was going to be a theme of never-ending discoveries. The story is progressing to a cliffhanger, one where the brothers will move into a new stage of development and invention. I have that whole sequence all worked out, and I feel that it satisfies this story’s desire to forever explore the unknown.
Another theme I had toyed around with was how one needs to be responsible with their creativity and employ that power for good. Ultimately I don’t think that’s an idea I’m going to be able to deliver on with this piece. It’s a good theme, and I even sowed the seeds for it when describing the brothers different approaches to their inventions. If this were a full-sized novel, there would definitely be a pay-off on that idea later on, but I just don’t have enough time in this short-story format to give that theme its due.
This brings up a question of what scope fits a story. It is a very important consideration for an author. We often say in writing that one is limited only by their creativity, but that isn’t entirely true. There are other constraints, such as the number of words before a story becomes unwieldy. On Monday I’d like to talk some more about those limitations, and about the balance of depth and breadth that an author should consider in their work. After that I really will post the end of Instructions Not Included. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!