It wasn’t the most graceful of noises to ever come from Jeret’s mouth, but it was the best he could manage while his tongue slowly regained feeling. The paralysis fluid was finally losing its effect.
“Coooome onnn!” he slurred, rocking his body left-to-right. His momentum carried him past the tipping point and he rolled off of the pedestal he had been placed on.
“Oof!” he grunted as he landed face-first on the cold stone below. It was perfectly flat, without a single pore to break its surface. It almost seemed like metal.
Jeret grit his teeth and focused, exerting all of his energy to move his leg. Slowly it bent up at the knee. He strained his wrists, turning the palms against the ground. He tried to push himself up, but it was still like trying to lift a thousand pounds.
He paused here for a moment, swaying his limbs from side-to-side, trying to speed up their resurrection. He grimaced as a thousand pinpricks danced across his skin, but it was working. Slowly he rose up to a crawling position. He tried to push himself up even further, but quickly fell back onto his hands.
Crawling would have to do, then. Sluggishly he lifted one limb after another, turning on the spot until he faced towards the transport vessel. Of course he knew he would never be able to reach it in time, but still he had to give it a chase. It was the principle of the matter.
“You can’t leave me here!” he bellowed.
Already he could see the engines powering up for launch.
“You can’t take a man from his world! I will come back!”
The engines ignited, and rapidly ran through every color in the spectrum until they peaked at pure white. The whole vessel trembled for a second, then shot into the air like a bullet.
“I’ll find a way off! I will!”
At last he lifted himself to his feet, just in time to vainly shake his fist at the streak of light scorching across the night sky. And with that Jeret was exiled.
After a few more minutes of screaming and kicking, Jeret collapsed to his knees and dropped his face into his hands, tears streaming between his fingers.
“I never had a chance.”
That was certainly true. His first mark of “poor citizenship” had come years ago, when only a youth of fourteen years. This was quite significant, given that one was only eligible to receive demerits starting at the age of thirteen, and each citizen only had an allowance of 30 demerits to last them their whole life. If one managed to exhaust that pool, they would be deemed incapable of integrating with society, and exiled for life.
Though he was never any good at arithmetic, even at fourteen he had understood the implications fully. He would be banned before he was fifty. At first this realization had frightened him into going straight, which phase lasted for all of two weeks. Then he was in the back alleys, trying to burn chokum once more. He lost hope then, and resigned himself to the fact that he would be thrust out from society at some point, and that was all there was to it. Perhaps it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy for him, a condemnation that caught him only because he stopped trying to escape it. In either case, his prediction had now come true.
When at last Jeret lifted his eyes he numbly surveyed his empty world. All of it was that same, impossibly smooth stone. It neither rose in hills, nor fell in valleys. A single pedestal where the transport had just launched from provided the only variation in the horizon. It was there that he would find his cot, his toilet, and where his food supplies would be dropped by airship every month. That airship would be the closest he would ever come to another person.
The Communion had decided that it was too dangerous to populate an alien world with all of society’s outcasts together. Who knew what ingenious mischief such an accumulation of evil might achieve? And so the Communion had crafted thousands of tiny asteroids, each one fifty square miles in area, perfectly spherical, and home to a single, solitary criminal.
As Jeret looked across the lay of his prison he could already see the land dipping away to the horizon. Beyond that line were the dark points of the other asteroids, and beyond that the swirling blues and greens of Amoria, the giant planet that had once been his home. He still swam through its atmosphere, and was near enough to make out the lights of the cities below…but he would never again feel their warmth. It was cruelest condition of his sentence.
A random thought passed through Jeret’s mind. The gravity of his asteroid couldn’t extend out too far, could it? What if he were to build a very tall tower? Eventually the gravity would stop pulling down towards the asteroid, but instead off to the side, down towards Amoria, wouldn’t it? But what then? Fall for hours and be smashed into nothingness upon impact? Was that really so bad of a prospect anymore?
Not that any of this mattered, of course. It wasn’t as if a tower like that could be built by a score of men, let alone just one. Let alone just one without a single tool. Exiles weren’t supposed to build. Creation was a privilege, and exiles had no privileges.
As there was nothing else to do, Jeret walked to the pedestal. It was a flat dais, made of the same smooth rock as everything else. On it was his cot, his latrine, and his food box. That was it.
As there was nothing else to do, Jeret ate some of the food. It was bland and nourishing.
As there was nothing else to do, Jeret chose a direction and started walking. He figured he might as well see the other side of this asteroid, which would have a view of starry space. Of course, not being any good at arithmetic, Jeret did not realize that even a small, 50-miles-surface-area sphere is 12.5 miles to walk from one of its ends to the other. And so he did not reach the other end within an hour, nor within two.
He was about a half of the way to the other side, and the sky was already mostly composed of stars, with only a few remaining degrees of Amoria landscape still visible. Jeret wrongly assumed that he was already at the exact opposite pole of his asteroid, or at least very close to it. Therefore he concluded he might as well keep traveling forward to complete the circuit.
Another two hours slid by and he was now truly surrounded by stars, without a glimmer of Amoria in sight. He began to grow very afraid. He was hungry again, and had not thought to bring any of the food supplies with him. He did not understand why he was still seeing stars overhead, instead of the Amoria landscape. He concluded that he must be walking in circles, and it dawned on him that finding such a small thing as the pedestal within 50-square miles would be like looking for a needle in a haystack!
Miserable as a life alone on this rock seemed, he had not been ready to consider death, and certainly not in such a painful, drawn out way as starvation! Why had he ever strayed from the pedestal? He had walked away from it so nonchalantly, so unthinkingly. He had killed himself and he hadn’t even known it!
Jeret’s legs and hands started to shake, it felt like the world was somehow spinning beneath him. He wobbled down to his knees. Was he still breathing? It didn’t feel like any air was coming in! He clutched his chest and started inhaling hard and fast. Above him the stars expanded for eternity: so infinite, so vast, so lifeless! Beneath him the ground ran in infinite circles: so cold, so uncaring, so unrelenting! He fell onto his side, legs kicking fitfully as he was swallowed by fear and despair.
All turned black.
Jeret did not remember falling asleep. Indeed he could hardly have believed he was capable of it in that moment, yet somehow he did so. He lay perfectly still, with nothing but the stars over his head forever. Through the hours, Amoria turned, and as it did so it dragged along his little satellite to the dawn. And so, when at last he woke, Jeret was squinting up at a cloudless, sunny day.
Of course it was cloudless. He was above all the clouds now.
Jeret knew he should still feel just as panicked as before, but somehow he had lost the energy for it in his sleep. He felt nothing but the coldness of the ground beneath him, the dull ache of his empty belly, and the hardness of the pipe in his hand.
The pipe in his hand?
Jeret twisted his palm upwards and furrowed his brow in confusion. It wasn’t really a pipe. It was a pure cylinder, seemingly made of the same stone he lay on, and just as featureless, save for the small grooves that were etched around its top and bottom. He must have grabbed it in the night. What was it? And why was it here in his prison? Perhaps just a stray piece of material knocked loose when the asteroid was fabricated? A workman’s tool accidentally left behind?
Jeret stood up to stretch his legs, still holding the cylinder firmly in his hands.As the cylinder rose with his body, one of its ends left a strange, yellow trail behind it in the air. It was very subtle, and extremely transparent.
“Oh,” Jeret said softly. He cautiously reached his hand into the trail and felt nothing. He leaned forward to sniff and he smelled nothing. It was like a miniature haze, an illusion, suspended in the air. Jeret began to slowly wave the cylinder all about. Everywhere it went, the trail was left behind.
He looked closer at the cylinder. There were no vents, no exhausts, nothing to suggest where the yellow haze emitted from.
He looked closer at the trail, but it was so subtle that he couldn’t really focus on it. His eyes kept slipping to whatever was behind it. At one moment he thought its edges were sharp and well-defined, another they seemed to blur out into gradual nothingness. Did he see shimmering sparks in it, or was that only the sun glinting off the rock floor below? Was it staying the same shade of yellow, or was it starting to turn a little green?
Perhaps what was strangest of all, was once he thought he saw something in the haze, such as it changing color to green, then he started seeing that effect all the more strongly. And when he thought no, it really must have just been his imagination, then it really did seem to alter back to the same shade of yellow as before.
As entranced as Jeret’s mind was in this new discovery, his body was anxious to remind him of its needs. A thunderous growl rippled from his stomach and he looked down, recalling how hungry he was after a night with no dinner. What he wouldn’t give for a deep dish of Rustic Stew right now.
No sooner did the thought enter his mind, than he thought he saw a bowl of stew out of the corner of his eye. He snapped his head up and…there it was. Well, sort of. The haze had taken on a browner tint, and congealed together so that he could pick out individual pieces of potato and roast.
But it wasn’t perfect. Most of the haze still looked vague and unformed, and the whole thing was still just an image, flat and featureless. It didn’t have that delightful, smoky smell, or that bubbling, sloshing sound as the ladle dropped it by great globs into the bowl…
No sooner did those thoughts enter his mind then the sounds and scents truly began to emerge from the image. And the image didn’t seem so much like an image anymore. As he moved his head from side to side it seemed to have dimension, shape, and greater detail. He lifted his fingers to touch and there was something there! It didn’t feel like hot and thick broth, though. It didn’t have the soft texture of stewed vegetables, or the thick resistance of solid meat, or the…
And then it did! All at once Jeret’s fingers had pressed into hot stew, burning his hands with how real it was!
“Ah! Ah! Ah!” Jeret cried, shaking his hands until the fingers cooled down. Then he reached out, took the bowl in his hands, and lifted it out of the haze.
It was real. Totally real.
Even the wooden bowl and spoon were just like the ones he remembered from his favorite diner. It didn’t make sense that this could be here, but for the moment Jeret didn’t care. He blew over the surface of the bowl, willing the food to cool more quickly. When he did take his first bites it still scalded his tongue, but he didn’t care. It was delicious.
And it was real. Unbelievably really real. The flavors in his mouth, the texture of each bite, the lump of food flowing down his throat, the sense of filled contentedness in his belly.
By the time he emptied half the bowl, his hunger was satiated enough to start giving serious thought as to how this could be. He rejected the notion that this might be only a dream. A dream would have shifted into something else by now. No, somehow he really had made an authentic bowl of stew out of thin air.
Well, not quite thin air. Out of…haze?
Jeret lifted the stone cylinder until it was level with his eyes. What was this thing? Some toy that the Communion left for the convicts to play with? No, that couldn’t be. They were here to be punished, not to be entertained. And even outside of that, the technology of this thing was like nothing he had ever seen before. It didn’t seem possible that this cylinder should even exist, let alone be left in an exile’s prison.
A strange thought occurred to Jeret. He had woken up with this strange thing already in his hand. He had not see where exactly it had originated from. Could he have made it himself somehow? From his subconscious dreams? It would have seemed a ridiculous thought…if he hadn’t just made a bowl of stew…
Jeret shook his head. Really, did it even matter where it came from? What mattered was that he had it and he could use it. All he had to decide was what he was going to use it for next.
On Monday I talked about themes of power, responsibility, and duty. I mentioned that I wanted to write a story where I explored if power could have a purifying effect on someone. I thought it would be interesting to approach that topic by first establishing a man who has no power.
Jeret is an extremely miserable soul. He opens this story in a pathetic state, devoid of any privileges whatsoever. He still has his life, but absolutely nothing to do with it. He is, essentially, already dead; his body just hasn’t caught up to that fact.
My hope is that this groundwork was sufficiently humbling, so that his obtaining a bowl of stew already feels like a momentous victory. But of course, this is only the beginning. Jeret’s state of complete powerlessness at the beginning will be matched to a state of complete power by the end.
One of the most fundamental concepts of storytelling is this notion of establishing an initial state of the hero, which state should be markedly different from their state at the end. The closer these states can be to polar opposites, the greater the journey that lies between and the richer the story that can fill that gap.
I’ll explore this concept in greater detail with my next blog post on Monday. After that, we’ll get back to Jeret, and see how he transitions from one extreme to the other.