Pravic

A New Grammar for Science Fiction

Science Fiction is no longer a novelty.

We do not want to read Science Fiction because it is set in the future. Science Fiction must offer some deeper, truer view of ourselves and our place in the cosmos.

 

The Exploded Manifestations of Ari Ascher

by Nathaniel K. Miller

 

A Note: This story, the first I finished and the first anyone cared enough to publish, first appeared at Mad Scientist Journal in April of 2012. You can read some of it there still, or you can buy a copy of the seasonal anthology in which it is featured for a pittance, which I support your doing. However, I'd like it to be available in its entirety anyhow, so I'm posting it here for free. I hope to add some notes, an introduction or two, and perhaps an illustration at some point. For now, just enjoy it, if you can - it's a bit amateur, I know, but I think it's special. Not only is there a cool Philip K. Dick easter egg , there's also laughter - every time I read it again, I remind myself to let my characters laugh, but I always seem to forget.

 

 

***

A heavy wave slams against the hull of the skiff, jolting me to awareness. The sea is black around me, full of looming spirit dangers, of the unknown and the unknowable. In the distance, the island juts from the roiling surface, a ten-mile plateau perched just out of range of the violence below. The shear cliff walls slope downward from all points, protecting the inhabited surface from wind, weather, and prying eyes cast up from passing boats. I make out the hint of a particularly tall edifice, spiraling skyward like a castle spire. It fades out of view almost as quickly as it appears.

         I have been trying to remember with clarity an image from my youth, an image so ubiquitous that I scarcely recall its details. In the picture, Ari Ascher is a young man, and on his lips an almost-smirk is forever frozen below those bright and brilliant eyes. If anything served to burn this particular image into the collective awareness of my world, it was this tentative quality, this absence of completion. For if he was able to resolve his life, he did not do it amongst his countrymen. If his story reached an end, it did so here, on Ascher Island.     

         Why Dr. Ascher has conceded now to be not only interviewed, but visited as well, is a mystery I do not expect to discern. Certainly it is due to his own inclinations, however alien, and not to my own profile or record. For two decades, Ari Ascher has remained remote and invisible, despite requests from every journalist and dignitary alive. If I am sure of one thing, I am sure of this: it has nothing to do with me.

         When we reach the island's walls, I fear we will smash into them at full force. At the last possible moment, the hull begins to hum; a dim, eerie light envelops the craft, raising us in a column of electrically-charged air. I almost laugh; there is something comical and unreal about the color, like a ghost ship in an old movie. We sweep upward, barely skirting the rugged cliff walls, until we arrive at last on a small loading port. I wobble off the skiff, vaguely nauseated and clinging to my small shoulder-bag.

         The captain, my only guide, is silent, as he has been for the whole of our trip. A strangely-lit man, he is clearly better suited to solitary work than to even low-level diplomacy. He begins the trek toward the heart of the settlement, and I follow him dutifully.

         The path is long and broad, and dimly lit; I see the wide swaths of farmland on either side, stretching out and up the gentle slopes that bound the occupied plateau in a subtle bowl. Further on, a handful of large structures resolve into view; woven together by multiple paths, these few, spare buildings hold the whole of life here.

         Finally, we reach the central building, a monolithic temple-like structure around which all others are constellated. The streets are empty, as are the open-arched corridors of this great hall; the whole city sleeps as one, it seems. I am shown to my room, where I join them in this great community event. I am asleep when my head hits the pillow.

 *

         Before my eyes ever open, I hear the sounds of life rattling through the walls. It is a familiar set of morning sounds, a sort of absent bumping and shuffling. I make a mental list of things that evade me: motivation. Recollection of my arrival. Feeling in my toes. The sun glances the edge of the thick, rough-cut glass that serves as my room's tiny porthole; I squint away the light, trying to stay in the private world behind my eyes.

         A knock on the door pulls me out of it. “Come,” I croak. My breath is thin, my voice rusty and unused. A trim man enters, carrying a tray of food - my guide from the night before. He wears a grey tunic and that elusive expression, and I can see that he is not accustomed to such domestic tasks. Despite my lethargy, I pull my soul out from storage and attempt to make conversation. “Faring well after your late night?” He appears confused, but I let it pass, still too groggy to press for conversation. He sets the tray down on my bedside table. “When you are ready,” he says, and leaves to wait outside. I dress alone, feeling coarse and stiff. Leaving my food and my bed behind me, I set out to explore the world of Ascher Island.

         The story of Ari Ascher is known, in the sense that all great stories are known: It is everywhere, but always incomplete. According to history, legend, and popular knowledge, Ascher was a prominent scientist, a public figure, and more or less privately, a radical philosopher. Instrumental in various debates of historical significance, his eloquent and humanizing words made the impending future seem familiar, friendly, and hopeful. A “real scientist” with a gift for succinct explanations and inspiring extrapolations, Ascher became a hero for the thinking masses.

         Outside of the public view, Ascher led major research projects at Avington and Mass-Orga, the fruits of which - terminal energy, selective adaptation, and biocomputing, to name a few - were the wonders of the age. But his popularity with the progressive sphere was set firmly against constantly escalating tensions. These tensions came from all directions - the academic community, the government, and what he called 'The Committee.' In volume one of his memoirs, Ascher describes this group as “those constant crusaders against thought, word and deed, whether in the name of gods or 'natural laws,' whose faces change throughout the ages, but whose tolerances are never swayed by reason, prosperity, or the absence of divine retribution.”

         Ascher absconded with a boatload of supplies and a small army of hired help in the second year of Cohesion. Amidst accusations of illegal research projects and a climate of dangerous nationalism, Ascher did what so many of the other outspoken critics had only threatened - he left. For months, the press waited for the thousand-odd laborers to return, but they never did. In years to come, travelers abroad would bring home tales of union-workers living lavishly in villas throughout the world. But these were only rumors. It was half a decade before Ascher Island was marked on any map, such disclosure being ultimately unavoidable for what had become a sovereign nation in a designated safe-zone of international waters. After the fog of Cohesion cleared, Ascher - or rather his memory - became the focus of an unspoken and unspeakable national regret. In the minds of his former countrypeople, he filled the abstract abscess in the national spirit, becoming a surrogate for what had been lost and would never return.

 *

         My guide leads me to a large foyer where I wait to be formally received. I have yet to see anyone else, but I recall the sounds of preparation when I awoke, of people unknown readying for their day. How many live here? More importantly, who are they? I suppose they must be the workers who stayed, their sons and daughters. But I know enough to be prepared for other possibilities.

         Finally, my guide returns, leading me down a long hall into what looks like a large nave. I had expected to be ushered into an office, maybe circulated around a small reception party - a few wizened old workers, dignified by years of hardship and isolation, asking questions about the world outside, offering drinks and handshakes and maybe a clue as to why I had been allowed to see what had been hidden from so many. I find instead a room full of people, easily a hundred, with their backs turned to me. Together, we face the podium, where a single man stands, dignified, imposing, grey as stone. His eyes meet mine and he smiles. I turn to my guide for reassurance, but I find myself alone.

         The man keeps his gaze fixed on me as he speaks. “I would like to welcome our guest. He is, as most of you know, a journalist. Please be kind and open with him, as I'm sure you would anyhow.” Looking me directly in the eye, he says, “On behalf of all Ascher Island, greetings.” He smiles, his poise perfect, and motions me forward.

         As I shake his hand, I recall that famous image, that photograph aged and dated even in my youth. Looking ahead, I know that this man is Ascher - and yet he is not a day older than in that antique image. “Meet my family,” he says, and turning around, I already know what I will find. His smile flashes like a spark in my mind, becomes the smile of my guide, the smile in the photo. Looking out over the population of this place, a hundred iterations of that stoic smile meet me, beams of good will radiating outward from the endless rows of identical faces. A multitude of Ari Aschers - young, old, and everything in between.

 *

         Though they are all him, they are not identical. They are specialized, but only in a limited fashion - different shades, different takes. Variations on a theme. It is a mind-bending notion, an idea that turns every convention of science and society inside out: to extrapolate the full variety of human life from a single set of genes. To achieve the diversity necessary for a functioning society from so limited a sample. To bend each iteration's talents toward an occupation, a role, a life, according to the needs of them all. It is a strange thing indeed, to be so alone in such company.

         I feel sadness at the news that their progenitor is dead, followed by embarrassment at the feeling; but there is more to my disappointment than nostalgia. He was the only one not born here. He alone shared the world with others. I wonder if, even here, amongst hordes of himself, he might still have felt alone, an outsider. No one else knew what a woman's hair smelled like. No one else could feel the sting in his longing. No one else could take personally the fate which had been imposed on him.

         Though his death saddens me, there is plenty of him left behind; there is no lack of personality on this rock. A big part of what makes the whole thing work is just that. A mundane man might have spawned a colony of human ants, something vapid and horrifying to behold. More likely, a mundane man would never have left his world behind to save himself ad infinitum. Ari is wry, funny, sharp, acerbic. He has a gruff quality, a common touch. He commands attention but doesn't attract resentment. He is eminently easy to live with - luckily for everyone. But he is also a challenge, intellectually and socially, at least to me. I am, now and ever, on my toes.

         I struggle with a plan, an approach to this culture. How should I study them? How can I? How do a hundred Ari Aschers differ from one? Mob psychology tells us that we are less than the sum of our parts. Is this because our differences bring us together more quickly than our similarities? Perhaps that which cannot be shared yields to the vacuum we carry, that cold root of madness. What about these men? Maybe I will learn that their differences are big enough to allow for such weaknesses, but I suspect otherwise. All alone here on this island, they could not survive if this were the case. Whatever the source of their unity, it has to be effective. My assumption is that they have mastered the art of the absolute minimum. Each member is designed to deviate from the rest only insofar as his work requires it. I imagine no thread of individuality could win against their sameness.

         But this description makes their world sound totalitarian, paints their citizens as functional and nothing more. The real shock is the degree to which such a supposition is incorrect. Their world, their community, is thriving, vibrant, both in structure and in atmosphere. It is confusing, to say the least, and something for which nothing in my past has prepared me.

         I try to spend time with as many of them as I can - a few moments of total attention, then on to the next in a breathless circuit. I hope to aggregate piles of information and impression quickly, to amass more than I can analyze, and to therefore ascend directly to a perch above the whole situation. In order to gain a semblance of context, I have to bypass psychology and move straight to anthropology. It is a submersion technique, one that trusts the analyzing mind far more than the participatory one. It is the only approach that I feel is appropriate, as I am certainly outside their world, though not above it. In truth, I do this for another reason as well: to save myself from becoming totally overwhelmed. It is hard not to lose oneself in a crowd of one face. It is a staggering kind of uniformity. As an individual, to see individuality reduced to mere shades of one man is unsettling. As a social creature, it is similarly confounding to see not loneliness, but dynamic, living interaction amidst all this isolation and sameness. It is beautiful and hyperreal and terrifying in every way.

 *

         I sleep like a baby - uncertain of myself, my body, my world. Wanting, needing, and not knowing what. Uncoordinated, afraid of death without comprehending it, small and raw and too overburdened by the cacophony of the living world to dream of solid, sensical things. A spark of thought in a vacuum of darkness, hovering above my own life, to be stoked or snuffed.

 *

         Everywhere there is a job to do, Ari Ascher can be found doing it. The fields are full of him, feeding the cattle and tending the crops. Ari collects raw materials, vegetables and corn and wheat, and sends them along with Ari to the kitchen, where Ari cooks the food and Ari serves it, carrying it out to a table where Ari eats. Ari sits alone in his chambers, working on a novel, while in the library, Ari reads the one he wrote last year. In the archive room, Ari studies the histories, while Ari sits close by, transcribing a crumbling text. He hums as he works, and Ari shushes him, at which Ari rolls his eyes, but desists. In the laboratory, Ari rings the bell and sends the researchers to lunch. Ari sits down beside me; I am already eating.

         I ask him what he is working on, and, between bites, he says, “Besides lunch? I'm in charge of the research department. Trying to introduce more variety, coax more substance from our genes.” Interjecting, Ari adds, “He's not a real scientist though.” He grins playfully at Ari, who is scowling. “His bent is leadership, organization, data overview.” I ask him what he does. “I write code - or rewrite, rather. He's the editor, and I'm the proofreader.”

         I excuse myself and head toward the big laboratory. Ari welcomes me in. If my lunchtime friends were editor and proofreader, this Ari is the publisher. He has as much power as one can have in a system such as this, and he has agreed to act as spokesman for Ascher Island. I am told there are no subjects which are off-limits.

 

Q: Where do you bury your dead?

A: At sea. But we have an area for funeral services. There's a place at the Northern-most tip of the island, a dusty little half-circle. At the edge, there's a natural cliff which extends, like a plank, over the sea below. When you stand there, you feel removed from the momentum of life in this place. You feel...one feels the strangeness of death, the numbness found in confronting it.

 

Q: Is it...like watching yourself? Like watching your own body fall into the sea?

A: Of course it is. Does the occurrence of scars in different places change his face into the face of another? No. But in this, we are not unique. Maybe it's more... pointed. But every death can have this effect on a person with a soul. The question is not simply “Can he ever not be me?” The question is also, “Can he ever not be you?”

 

Q: How many of you are there?

A: One hundred and fifteen, at the moment.

 

Q: That's incredible. It seems like thousands. Your pace, your vitality...they overshadow your numbers.

A: It's easy to overshadow numbers. It just takes a strong personality.

 

Q: What about sex?

A: It's Disneyworld here, my friend. Rated G. Edited for content. In order that this place could exist, Ari Ascher needed to drastically redefine the most basic parameters of society. In this world, sexuality could not survive the Great Reprioritization. It was possible for us to exist without it, and so it was discarded - without reservation, without sentiment, without regret. As strange as it may seem to you, it is quite normal for us.

 

Q: How long do you live?

A: If we live longer than your people, it's only because we're more active, more healthful. If we die earlier than you, it's because our world is less safe, and our culture less concerned with comfort. Accidents are the main cause of death.

 

Q: I wonder if you could live longer, if that is a secret you've discovered and simply not applied?

A: If that possibility exists, we haven't found it yet. But it's not a priority either. Our orientation toward mortality is decidedly different from your own. In your mind, a series of unanswerable questions arises from your experiences with us; identity, culture, friendship, love, names - they are all inverted, exploded, by the nature of things here. What to you are problems to us constitute the basis for a nuanced view of life and self. Death is no exception. We don't relish it, and we will protect ourselves against it, but it's just not as simple for us. After all, Ari Ascher might die in an accident a hundred times, and still he will never die.

 

Q: And yet, the individual is gone - his memories, his differences.

A: This is what makes us careful, deliberate. Fear of death is lessened by our sameness, but caution comes from our having something to lose.

 

Q: Is there total equality?

A: There's total equity.

 

Q: Is there violence?

A: There is conflict.

 

Q: That's not exactly an answer.

A: It is difficult to live with others, just as it is difficult to live with oneself. Yes, sometimes tempers are lost, punches are thrown, but not often or to much ill effect. Remember, we need each other.

 

Q: Is there leadership?

A: Plenty of it.

 

Q: Is there a primary leader?

A: Yes, Ari Ascher is our absolute sovereign. (laughter)

 

Q: Do you ever plan to expand? Do you ever plan to return?

A: Outward expansion is outmoded. We are expanding - we're increasing our capacity, our complexity. We're becoming more efficient, more productive, and in the meantime, happier. As far as “returning,” everyone on this island was born here. No one has anywhere to return to.

 

Q: Except me.

A: (laughter) Yes, except you. But to answer your question, no. We are already home, and we are very much still evolving, and we don't need the old world to do that. You don't need to travel to be pioneers.

 

Q: So you're content to just...keep going?

A: It's safe to say we prefer it to the alternatives.

 

         These final comments seem to encapsulate their world-view, echoing sentiments the original Ascher recorded in his former life. He felt that it was possible to move upward, inward, and forward without moving outward. He saw the preoccupation with physical acquisition as evidence of barbarism, and believed that it had broken modernity beyond repair. “All our wealth amounts to trinkets,” he wrote in his private journals. “Our biggest error is not in our greed; it is in the vulgar simplicity of our desires. We strive for dull and ugly things, while treasures turn to trash around us.” The society he created, though certainly not perfect, seems a remarkably faithful approximation of the world Ascher envisioned. It is an accomplishment by any standards.

         For all the honesty I received during this interview, I am left with a few lingering doubts. I find myself wondering if such a thing as sexuality can truly be filtered out. Are there not other things, fundamental to human nature, which exist in tandem with it? I remember reading Burroughs' Wild Boys years ago and realizing that, underneath the intentional and aesthetic surrealism, a more fundamental lack of plausibility was present - namely, a total absence of women. And yet, here I am in such a place, and it is very much plausible, very much real. I wondered at first if Ascher Island was fundamentally homosexual, but I am more inclined to think that it is truly asexual. As is the case in every society I've visited, it is always possible that a secret sanction exists, and that sex is not as dead here as it appears to be.

         And what about the remarkable lack of violence? Can this be true? Or do they have a Cain tucked away somewhere? Could a person simply disappear? Who is keeping track? Whatever the answers, I shall refrain from further speculation on these subjects. Some secrets are not for me to discover.

 *

         This week has been spent earning my keep. I have been on rotation, doing every job I can remotely manage - and a few others besides.

         Monday I toil under the hot sun, lungs full with salty air and the sweat of twenty Aris. I strip off my shirt as I hoe the soil. Ari comes over, red around the shoulders, and we both lean on our hoes, resting for a moment.

         “How do you like farm work?” He asks.

         I laugh. He laughs back.

         “Well, not everyone's built for it,” he says.

         As the moment fades, we stand in silence. I marvel at how comfortable it is.

         “You know,” he says, seeming to sense my thoughts, my doubts, “you're wrong.”

         “Is that so?” I smile against the sun's punishing glow.

         “It's so. We are all built for something. Some of us with more forethought, of course.”

         We both laugh. He leaves. We work until we can't work any more.

         Tuesday I shadow the archivist. Ascher island has a massive library, a stunning, almost monastic-style chamber, built directly inside the main building. That this was not added as an annex later, but rather included in the plans during those early, necessarily tedious days, is a testament to its importance.

         “Ashers are very literary by nature,” he tells me. We stroll through the endless stacks of dusty hardcovers - a collection worthy of a millionaire. The thought strikes me suddenly that Ari Ascher had been a millionaire. He had been a man of means, of not only wealth but of society in the formal, old-fashioned sense of the word. This had once been primary to my image of him. Now, it was almost unimaginable. It seems to prove the versatility, the universality of the first Ari, from whom all others sprung. He had been so much “of the world,” and for so long a time - a lifetime, give or take. Or maybe he was never truly of it; maybe he was only in it, mired perhaps, and making the best of what he was given. I simply cannot think of this place as an epilogue to a life, even an extraordinary one.

         I remove a leather-bound volume.

         “'The Owl in Daylight,'” he notes. “One of my favorites.”

         I run my fingers over the smooth grooves of the embossed owl that graces the cover.

         “Owls become disoriented in daylight,” he says. “They don't understand where they are.”

         I replace the book and we continue on.

         “You're a writer,” Ari says. “What would you title a book about us? About this place?”

         I think hard, filing through my memories here, my impressions of the place.

         “Ari told me about this Iterative Identity idea you've developed.”

         “Of which we are an example” he says. “It's not specific to us, of course; it applies to any situation in which an individual or collective identity undergoes fundamental, ontological shift, while maintaining the narrative thread of experience.”

         I try to see this place in terms of philosophy, of culture, of mode. It's becoming difficult, even now, to remain outside my own perceptions here. After a time, I give him my reply.

         “My book would be called 'The Exploded Manifestations of Ari Ascher.'”

         Ari smiles. He looks pleased - or maybe he thinks it's stupid. I smile anyhow, feeling quite pleased myself.

 *

         I am being pulled by the strangest tides. I wake each morning feeling less and less like a guest. I dine with them, and a subtle polyrhythm sets in, the ambient echo of similar movements and manners and modes. This regular clatter and din - forks against plates, the clearing of throats, occasional laughter - it is a canon, a song sung in an endless round. Sometimes a few strains come into phase, producing an alien harmony that seems dissonant only to me.

         Yesterday one of them yawned - an engineer, I think. In the next moments, the whole room melted into an insane chorus, a whale-song of resonance and modulation. I felt the force of it gripping my throat, pulling my voice into theirs. I gave in; I had no choice. I walked outside in the aftermath, alone. The world felt heavier - less real, but more defined. These are the wonders that a man can make. This is something that can be.

         As the hours pass into days, I forget that this is strange. My mind does its job, adapting to the world it is presented with. I am no longer so baffled by the problem of names. We laugh together, and they seem unfazed by my presence. Have there been strangers here before? It strikes me as remarkable that men who have only seen one face look at me with so little wonder. And then, at the moment of total comfort, a part of me retches, quakes, tries with every effort to throw off this yoke of brotherhood. But it is only a momentary feeling. I am losing myself, and the only thing that scares me is how little I am bothered by it.

 *

         Everywhere there is a job to do, I can be found. Days pass easily, and I learn the work that makes the world. I till soil, bus food, file slides in the laboratory. I see a new Ari come into being. I make beds, learn their games. I listen to their stories. I drink their wine. I see two brawls, briefly, and a number of exchanges heavy on harsh words. I see many embraces, and much laughter. I witness one untimely death and the grief it brings. I attend meetings and plays. I seldom feel out of place, except at the funeral, and at the welcoming of the new Ari into the fold. I read books, take long walks, fail to sleep, catch a cold. I lose myself. I stop missing my home. Reality seems to recede, and I let it go. I stop writing, stop taking notes; my memory is good enough. I wonder who I am to them, how I must appear. I wonder when I will go, if I will go. I bury the thought.

         I think about the nature of work, how it changes in scope and depth in the space between cultures. I try to imagine returning home, entering the building where I work, shuffling into the den of uncertainty that is my job. I think about the latent violence in my coworkers' competitive glances, in their jagged formality. I try to imagine that our work could matter when here there are fields to be plowed.

         It has been nearly a month. I am unsure of everything. I can feel some brittle remnant of myself, held together tenuously at the core of my mind. Everything else has changed around it. It feels fragile, and I wonder what will happen if it breaks, what it would take to break it. I wonder who I will be when I am finished here. Will I be Ari Ascher? If one man builds a culture out of his own blood and nothing else, does his soul become a sort of virus, transmitted by enclosure, by bonds and shared meals and tradition? If they did come back, would all the world be Ari Ascher?

         Tonight there is a ceremony - a farewell for me. I feel as though I will also be saying goodbye to myself. I can hear them preparing; I can see the torches being brought into the hall, from my tiny window. I try to compose my piece, the flimsy conclusions I've been put here to make, so that my guileless world, full of curious nobodies, can 'know' this place and its supposed secrets. I try to compose, but it is a futile effort. So I try, instead, to compile. I put myself to sleep, editing, choosing which words to omit, and simply not trying at all. I am left with these spare sketches, culled from a month of furtive scribbling. It is rudimentary, unfinished, but it is a start. What artfulness can I hope to apply anyway? The facts of this place are enough. I file the slender stack of pages in my small attaché case, the only piece of the outside world I can still touch, the only evidence that it exists at all. I don my gown - the slate grey uniform of Ascher Island - and head to the hall.

         When I arrive at the main building, it is strangely silent. Ari stands at the far end of the foyer, looking odd and alien so far away. He smiles as I reach him. “This way,” he says, motioning me toward the door.

         I find myself back where I began, in that room full of Aris. This time, it is dark, and torches line the aisle. I proceed to the front, a deliberate, almost funereal gait propelling me. It is their pace, their rhythm; it is their tradition I am in lockstep with now. At the front, Ari stands, an older iteration, somehow more fatherly, more political. His eyes bore into my skull, and he speaks to me, quiet enough that only I can hear, saying, “It is always a gift to show one to oneself.” He takes my hand to shake it, to thank me, though I can't imagine what for. As their applause fills the room, I suddenly feel naked and lost, and a bitterness rises to my lips.

         The next day, I ask to be brought to the library. Ari, the archivist from those long weeks ago, is waiting there to welcome me. We sit for a while, talking about various things - the harvest, current gossip, various restoration projects. After we have caught up, I tell him my reason for coming: I want to leave a copy of my work behind. I want to make a gift of it, if possible. It is the only thing I have to give, and it seems to me both the least and the most I can do in exchange for my experiences here. Silently, he leads me to a room I have not seen before. “Have a look,” he says. I pull a volume from the tall, single shelf; embossed on the cover are the words “His Endless Forms.”

         “Our own collection of novels and fictional works is quite impressive, as well as being unique as a subject of study. We have no dearth of talented scribes. But this piece you have made for us is close to sacred.”

         “Why?”

         “Last night, we tried to express our gratitude. Ari told you that it is always a blessing to show one to oneself. It is your time here which has done this; it is knowing you. This work you want to give us is simply a meaningful symbol, a resource. It is a way to access that gift, time and again. It is sacred because it keeps us honest. It stops us from becoming...bloated. It keeps our face from becoming a mask.” Pointing at the tall shelves, he says, “These codices here represent the impressions and reflections of the others who have been guests on Ascher Island.”

 

        I must appear as confused as I feel, because Ari replies before I can ask. “Yes, there have been others. Even in your country, there have been others. But they are never heard when they return. They are never believed. Your country has particularly high walls; though they would never refuse a request - that would be an embarrassment - they will never publish your work. They can't afford to.”

         Against expectations, I relax a little as I learn this news. Somehow, the truth is obvious, and I find it easy to accept. I imagine trying to explain this place to strangers, to defend it or describe it at all, and I am glad to be freed of the burden.

        I think about all the subtle aggression, the low-level static of disconnectedness that permeates my professional life. My assignment to this story has been a ploy, a cowardly kind of treachery. My editors, who never planned to publish this story, had assumed I would destroy myself - slowly, by degrees, and without evidence of coercion. My integrity has always made their jobs more difficult, less lucrative. They have tried to use it against me, as they must have done to others.

        I will afford them no such pleasure. If I am to be assassinated, let it be an old-fashioned murder. Let it require not just dirty minds, but dirty hands as well. Let it be literal.

         I scan the spines, taking in the titles; The Expanding Man. The Eternal External. This is the context of my proudest work, now; amongst the unknown and the obscure, the forgotten strangers who share their recollections only in this place. These are my peers.

         “Last night,” I say, still looking through the shelves, “I felt guilty even accepting your thanks. You have shown me to myself as well, and it has shaken my foundations. I came here to give you a copy of my piece - or rather, the unfinished collection of notes and impressions that were to be formed into my piece. I think, instead, I will give you the copy. I think I will return home empty-handed. There's nothing from my time here I can truly share anyway.”

         I reach into my attaché case, removing the pages I compiled last night. I offer it as a gift.

         “Not yet,” he says, holding up his palm to refuse. “Finish first.”

        “I may need another day,” I say, and we laugh.