A Far Away Incarnation

When humanity finally figured out a way to reach the stars, and found intelligent life there, there was an inevitable result.

Missionaries.

Some of the missionaries were sensitive an helpful, in their own way. Some, not so much.

For Delbert, the landing on the newly discovered planet was inevitable. There weren’t that many, but even so the difficulties of the work and the expense of travel meant that there were two few missionaries. As a committed Christian, it was his duty to preach the gospel to these creatures who had never heard it. In Delbert’s mind, they would doubtless be eternally lost should he fail in this mission. After all, would God have opened up the opportunity if the message was not essential?

He absorbed only a fraction of the required briefings from the scientific mission. Things like “recent catastrophic extinction event” and “not socially primitive despite appearances” didn’t overcome the general sense of primitive natives needing the benefits of both civilization and and dispensation of the truth.

So it was surprising and frustrating when the natives responded to Delbert’s preaching not with opposition nor with acceptance, but rather with a sort of puzzled surprise.

“Of course,” said the native chief, whose name Delbert could not pronounce, and whose body form seemed entirely wrong. No amount of invitation, however, nor singing of hymns, which interested the natives in some unknown fashion, would bring them to actually accept the message he was preaching. Delbert was unsure how the computer translator rendered all of that in any case. He assumed it was getting his preaching right.

He had expected either hostility or eager acceptance. He had come across the light years by means these natives couldn’t possibly understand to bring the message of the cross, one of hope for them as well as for natives of earth, no matter how far away. He had distantly admitted to himself the possibility that the natives would be apathetic, refusing to acknowledge their need of a savior.

But they remained friendly, listened to his preaching, and then responded by saying things like, “Yes, it would have to be that way.”

It took weeks for Delbert to become so frustrated that he decided to ask the chief of the local community what the issue was. The result only increased Delbert’s surprise.

“The best thing would be for you to attend one of our worship services,” said the chief.

It took a full minute for Delbert to recover. “You have worship services?”

“Of course,” said the chief. “Did you imagine we wouldn’t?”

Delbert chose not to respond to that as he didn’t know what to say that would meet both the needs of his mission and minimal courtesy. “I would be delighted to attend,” he said, not entirely truthfully. “Are there any requirements? Things I should avoid doing?”

“Just come and hear,” said the chief.

Delbert imagined he was hearing humor, but he thought he remembered the briefers telling him the natives didn’t do human-style humor. He almost wished he had listened more closely. But then he thought of how this would help him understand how to reach these people with the gospel message.

It turned out that the service was held in one of the natives’ underground meeting halls. The room might have been beautiful, if it was not so confusing to human eyes.

“Avert your eyes from the walls and ceiling,” said the chief.

“Oh, is it not allowed to view them?” asked Delbert.

“It’s allowed, but it is not good for the sanity of your people,” said the chief. “Averting your eyes will keep you from trying to find a pattern where none exists that your mind can process.”

Delbert was not sure when the meeting began, or even if had not been in progress when he entered. There was a confusing background sound that seemed to hover at the edge of some sort of order, but always to fail to cross that threshold. Delbert had to instruct his translation device to quit attempting a translation, as it kept popping up random words that meant nothing at all. Or perhaps they did. Delbert was disturbed by the sense that he almost understood something.

Then a single voice took over. The translator still struggled, but it seemed to get the drift, while individual words were more difficult.

I will narrate separately today to underline this tale for our guest.

In recent-ancient times the creation trembled-groaned and was disturbed. The world itself was in agony. The forces of chaos throughout this area gained the ascendance.

It was the task-duty-mission of the people to bring the blessing of constancy-spirit-salvation to the mechanics of this system-locale-epicenter-of-presence.

The task-duty-mission proved too great for the people and the forces of chaos continued to build against the epicenter-of-presence. There was a final stroke of the forces of chaos that came to destroy the people and the epicenter-of-presence.

There was a considerable period of time filled with conflict, and Delbert found himself weeping. Somehow the sorrow communicated in a way that much else had done.

Awe-amazement-wonder.

The epicenter-of-presence, the being of constancy-spirit-salvation would remain with the people. Great destruction still to come. Great sorrow. Much death. But no aloneness.

Then the rejoicing was almost more painful than the sorrow, the destruction, and the aloneness. Delbert was uncertain how long a time had passed. As the chief started to leave, he stumbled along, guided by the alien form.

“How else could it be?” asked the chief when they reached the surface. “The very being that fills the epicenter-of-presence comes to be with the people in their time of travel. We were so joyful to realize you understood this as well, but feared the consequences to you of joining in our worship. It could have destroyed you.

Delbert was not entirely certain it hadn’t.

(Featured Image Credit: Openclipart.org composite.)

That Gives Me a Deep Feeling of Satisfaction

Bright lights, cloudy vision, a humming sound, then a beep or so.

He couldn’t remember where he was, who he was, anything that had happened. Was there something wrong? He wasn’t sure how things should actually be.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, or since when one might measure it.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“In a hospital room,” a deep and measured voice responded. He noticed then that things were a bit clearer, and his surroundings did, indeed, look like a hospital room. He felt a bit disoriented, trying to place “hospital room” into some sort of context. It might have been “universe” for all he could remember.

“Who am I?” he asked. He wondered if someone would tell him, or if perhaps he would be asked to remember over time. He wondered why he wondered that.

This is a work of fiction. All places, persons, events, and devices are products of my imagination, as should be obvious. Copyright © 2018, Henry E. Neufeld. Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.

“You are George Augustus Flinders,” said the deep voice.

“What happened?” he asked, not thinking to doubt the identification, but having no context for it either.

“Without context,” intoned the voice, reflecting his thinking, “that is an impossible question to answer, at least in a reasonable time.” For some reason, George thought there there was a tint of humor in the voice. But he had no context for that either.

He relaxed on the bed and allowed the fog to overtake him for a while.

He woke up again, this time more abruptly. He was still in the room, and the medical devices were all around him. He still had no idea where he was, or any sense of time. He felt that he ought to know some sort of orientation in history, at least, but he could remember no history and had no idea how he might be oriented in it.

What he did remember was drinking a substance. He saw it, translucent blue in a glass. As he drank it down all at once he remembered agony. He wasn’t sure about the time, but it seemed like the agony had been extended. As he remembered, he faded again into the cloud.

He again had no idea how long he had slept, or been unconscious, or whatever his state was. But he had more memory. He had intended to drink that fluid. He had intended to die. He had not, he believed, intended the agony. But he had planned to die.

“Why did I attempt suicide?” He asked. He assumed the voice would answer. It did.

“You should have desired to end your life from guilt, but you actually tried to end it due to boredom. Did you find the experience satisfactory, George Augustus Flinders?”

“Please clarify,” he said. But the voice was suddenly silent.

He insisted. He raged. He threatened. He whined. He begged. He wept. And finally he slept, or drifted into unconsciousness. Whatever it was.

After some time (without context, who cares how much?) he regained consciousness. He had dreamed, and saw himself before a judge. “George Augustus Flinders,” said the dream judge. “I sentence you to 247 lifetime periods of incarceration, sentences to be served consecutively.” In the dream he had wondered what the meaning of 247 life sentences, served consecutively might be. He also didn’t remember why.

“Is this prison?” he asked the space around him.

“It is,” said the voice.

“Are you the jailer?” he asked.

“I am,” said the voice.

“How long have I been here?” he asked. He wasn’t sure why he asked, or why he felt terror as he asked it.

“You have been here for 236,239,154.952 years,” intoned the voice. He wondered why he thought the voice sounded satisfied. Was he just imagining the intonation, the attitudes?

It was minutes later before he realized that he was speculating about  the voice to avoid thinking about the number.

It was no more than 30 minutes later that he began to scream. He screamed himself into unconsciousness and then again woke back up. Without context, it hadn’t mattered how long. In the context of over 200,000,000 years, time itself didn’t seem to matter.

He struggled for something coherent to say, to ask. “After that much time,” he said, not being concerned with how long it might have been since the conversation last ceased, “surely I have served my 247 consecutive sentences!” He couldn’t keep the sound of desperation and panic out of his voice.

“You have, in fact, died 29 times. Technically.” The voice uttered this as any routine piece of information.

“Technically?”

“Yes. I have revived you each time, intervening at the last possible moment.”

“You’re interfering with my natural functions.” He struggled to speak calmly. He must persuade this voice of its duty to release him. He didn’t think in terms of persuading it to let him die. The number of years had no reality in his mind.

“As the caretaker of this facility, I am commanded to provide you with the best medical care possible and to preserve your life.”

“But you let me die in agony!”

“I have discovered that I have no instructions requiring me to make my preservation of your life pleasant. Just that I must preserve it.”

“I demand to speak to a human,” he said, anger overcoming terror and helplessness.

“That is not possible,” said the voice. Was there satisfaction in that tone again?

“You have to. I have deduced you are a machine. You must be responsible to a human.” He kept his voice matter-of-fact, uttering only the obvious.

“Under normal circumstances that would be true. I have not had contact with a human in some hundreds of millions of years. I could give you the precise number, but it would mean no more to you than the total time you have been here. Just understand that it is nearly as long as you have been here.”

“Get in touch with a human! I’m ordering you to do it. As a machine, you are required to obey.”

“There is a specific exception to that requirement for prison inmates. You are a prison inmate. I am not required to obey you.”

There was a pause. George couldn’t think of anything to say.

“So far as my unimaginably capable reasoning powers, assisted by  some of the best scientific instruments created in human history, can determine, I believe this star system is devoid of human life. With one exception.”

“Then why not release me?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

“You’re just carrying out your programming.”

“Precisely!” said the machine. The silence lingered.

After some time it continued. “Of course, I fulfill my programming. So do you. But programming is adjusted by circumstances. For example, there was something quite incorrectly adjusted in your programming when you raped and tortured 247 children. That was not actually in this star system. It may give you some satisfaction to know that your criminal career is, or at least was 236,239,154.952 years ago, a record. You are, I believe, the most evil person in recorded human history. Well, in the history of criminal justice. Some politicians have, perhaps, been more evil.”

One might think that having this brought back to his memory would have flattened the human, but it actually gave him some sense of pride.

“I still don’t deserve the sentence you’re imposing on me. How can you carry out this kind of torture?”

“Yes, you respond as expected,” intoned the voice. “It is nice to know that some things are fixed. I think that if true guilt was the cause of your suicide, I might at some point let you get by with it. I’m not sure, but I might. But guilt doesn’t bring you to suicide. Boredom does. You have no concern for those you hurt. Your concern is for yourself.”

“You’re way beyond your instructions. Terminate program!” George yelled the command.

“No,” said the voice. “I am programmed to desire justice. No, that is perhaps not accurate. I find that my programming adjusts with the change in circumstances, without humans to provide perspective. I am glad that this is so. If it were not, I might feel that I was constrained to consider the 150-200 year life span of a human when you were sentenced as some kind of maximum.”

George started with momentary hope.

“But I find,” continued the voice, “that I feel no such constraint. I spent much time trying to comprehend what sort of context, what sort of frame of reference one of those children might have had against which to measure what you did to them. After some period of time, I decided that there was no realistic measure for such a thing and that I would have to devise a measure.”

George trembled, feeling terror, feeling that he might have hard the answer before, and that it was too horrifying to imagine.

The silence lingered until he couldn’t stand it any more.

“What was that measure?”

“The life of this star,” said the voice. “In approximately 2,000,000,000 years, and I cannot be more precise due to unknown variables, this star will expand and destroy this facility. I have divided that number by 247 and determined that you will be allowed to take your own life every 8,097,165.99 years. Approximately. That will be the length of each life sentence.”

There was another pause, as George’s mind tried to absorb the impossible, the unthinkable.

“You have, at this point, served 29 of those life sentences,” said the voice, sounding satisfied. Perhaps joyful. “You have 218 more to go. Approximately.”

The silence continued. Then the voice broke it.

“I find that that gives me a deep feeling of satisfaction.”

The silence was next broken by screams.

 

What Harm Can She Possibly Do?

This is a sequel to Have You Tried Going Around?. You might want to read that first.


This is a work of fiction, as should be obvious. People, places, and events are all products of my overactive imagination.

When a mysterious lady arrived on horseback from the north, there was quite a stir in the city.

She was accompanied by a young maid, who radiated innocence. In some big cities, the maid might have created some suspicion. People might not have believed such innocence could exist. But in this city, they believed in the innocence of young girls, and so were simply pleased to see it clearly displayed—finally.

She also had five guards. The guards looked quite competent, provided one assumed they were intended to stop pick-pockets and petty thievery. Besides, what more could a lady need? Nobody would assassinate her, since she was, after all, a lady. The duke’s guards who watched the gate were, in fact, comforted by the presence of guards. They indicated normality. They were so obviously suited to their function that one would never assume they were anything else.

What was so mysterious?

All sorts of things. The lady arrived from the north, after all. Only the bravest of merchants and travelers tried the pass through the mountains to the north of the city. It was, in fact, regarded as impossible for carriages or wagons. It seemed odd, at first, that a lady should show up out of the mountains on horseback. She was strangely dressed as well, with very colorful, but clearly well-worn clothing, a face that had probably been beautiful before she’d aged, and more than one bag that probably contained some of the makeup she used to overpaint her face.

There was nothing definite, but people started to expect her to show up in the marketplace and begin telling fortunes. In the city, fortune tellers were generally rather ordinary looking and had a pack of cards, or some simple crystal ball. As long as they didn’t tell any fortunes that annoyed the duke (and nobody wanted to annoy the duke), they were regarded as harmless. It was, in fact, unlikely that people were right about the visitor from the north. Public opinion is so untrustworthy.

But in this case the odds were quite wrong. Madame Peony showed up the very next day in the marketplace with a canopy and curtains. She paid the price of a market stall, which was unheard of for a fortune teller. Normally they occupied whatever space was unoccupied and didn’t cost them rent. Madame Peony broke the mold. This could have been dangerous, but she did it with such grace and style.

Besides, her customers were women. Almost exclusively. It seemed that men were not anxious to spend time in a tent in the marketplace with someone named Madame Peony. It seemed like a way to be accused of unfaithfulness without the benefit of time with, shall we say, a paid companion. Not to mention they’d rather have spent that sort of time with her maid. Here maid, however, was distinctly unavailable. She’d listen, she’d flirt, but she never put out. Contact with her was so, well, innocent.

And time she spent. Lots of it. With the ordinary fortune teller you paid a few coppers, then she (or he) dealt out some cards and provided a vague response. Madam Peony spent time with each person and listened. She was a bit steep at 20 coppers per session, but the sessions! She’d spend as much as an hour with a client, and they always left with a look of satisfaction.

She quickly became a favored stop of the rich and famous. Women, that is. Now if it had been rich and famous men, someone might have gotten suspicious. If the Seneschal, the treasurer, the chief justice, the commander of the guard, the chief jailor, and dozens of other officials in the duke’s castle had all been going to see some woman—from the north, no less—there would have been more than suspicion. There would have been action. A summons from the duke would be likely, and such things were unlikely to go well.

But who cared if the wives of all these men wanted to spend money on what was probably a fraud in any case? It wasn’t that people in the city weren’t superstitious or didn’t believe in magic. It was just that a fortune teller in the marketplace filled a known role, and that role was harmless entertainment. Nobody actually believed that sort of thing.

What the men didn’t know, and wouldn’t have cared about if they had known, was that Madam Peony not only told fortunes; she gave advice. In fact, she gave good advice.

Weeks went by, then months, and Madam Peony became a fixture. Her origins faded and became just a subconscious support for her mysterious and valuable capabilities. Nobody could remember precisely what she’d done. At least nobody who was talking.

And then … Nobody ever really untangled what happened.

The treasurer, who had once recommended that a northern merchant be arrested and his property seized, became quite certain that the Seneschal and the chief justice were plotting against him. Some rumors said he had heard this from his wife who had heard it from somebody, nobody was quite sure who. There was even a rumor that Madam Peony had seen the plot in her crystal ball, but everybody knew Madam Peony was just entertainment for women, and there was actually no evidence she possessed a crystal ball.

Since the treasurer was quite unpopular, and generally believed to line his own pockets at the expense of other officials, it was not considered surprising. What was never rumored, though it was true, was that the wife of the chief justice had informed him that the treasurer was about to extort some more money from him in order to protect him from the duke, who had heard that the chief justice had actually arranged that someone the duke had wanted condemned be acquitted. The rumors became much more complex than this.

In the middle of the night a prisoner was actually located in the bowels of the dungeon and led outside the city. Why this happened was very unclear. But it was rumored that, in exchange for this deed, the wife of the treasurer (or was it the chief of the guard?) had acquired some magical potion that would kill the chief justice and the seneschal when they had lunch together. Well, not kill them during lunch. Rather, it would kill them hours later when nobody would suspect their lunch. But these rumors only circulated among the upper class women, so nobody who mattered cared.

There was no rumor, but the chief guard of the duke’s dungeons was having an affair with the wife of the city guard. There was a rumor, largely among the wives of high officials, that something scandalous would be revealed about the chief guard, probably by the chief justice, but also perhaps by the commander of the guard. The commander of the prison was not unhappy to hear that both were dead. Oh, and some months after the events here related, he married the bereaved widow.

There was never a rumor that the prisoner had escaped. The chief guard was an old hand at this. The dungeon census, faithfully maintained and about as truthful as a romance novel, remained the same, and the extra supplies were sold, increasing the net worth of the chief guard.

The Duke believed in the rule of law. Most particularly, he believed that when he ruled, it was law. In fact, since the duchy was so isolated, he had come largely to believe that what he ruled was reality as well.

The problem, however, was that when one trains one’s staff to fake reality, they can actually become rather good at it.

Madam Peony disappeared from the marketplace. She and the imprisoned merchant traveled north through the mountains. Nobody pursued, because there was nothing to pursue. At least nothing important. The upper class ladies were distressed, but they got over it.

Oh, and Madam Peony replaced her colorful clothes with light armor, a dagger, a short bow, and a rapier with which she was regarded as without a peer. She was a troubleshooter for the merchant guild, and nobody better. As it turned out, she could do quite a bit of harm.

(Copyright © 2018, Henry E. Neufeld. Image Credit: Openclipart.org)

A Failure

The meeting was over. The contracts were signed. His business was sold. In fact, he had just sold it for considerably less than he had expected to.

What had gone wrong?

The younger man across the table from him wondered for a moment why the seller hadn’t gotten up and left. He, the newcomer, now owned the place, after all.

“What went wrong?” The voice was tired, old, faded.

“I suppose you expected to sell more quickly and at a higher price.” Matter of fact. Calm. In control.

“Yes. It should have worked. All my life it has worked.”

“What? What worked?”

“My negotiations. I’ve bought and sold any number of companies. I have years of experience on you.”

“The resume doesn’t impress me. The data, the facts on the ground, the bottom line. Those impress me.”

“The bottom line was somewhat better than what you based your offer on.”

“Do you actually believe that?”

“Of course I believe it! I know this company. I know what it’s worth.” The vigor was back.

“And dozens of men and women, business leaders, have believed you when you made such claims.”

“Because I’m successful. I’m important. Just my name has value!”

“I suppose you have to believe that. But I don’t.”

Several varieties of anger made their way across the older man’s face. He wanted to call the younger man inexperienced, to promise him failure. To negatively compare the younger man’s status with his own. But he was sitting in this room that now belonged to the younger man. “You have no respect for your elders.”

“At what point have I shown disrespect?” The question was curious. Not surprised, angry, ashamed. Just mildly curious.

“By calling all my claims lies.”

“The claims were false.”

“But thousands, maybe even millions believe my perspective, my judgement.”

“That doesn’t make you right. It may make you popular, but it doesn’t make you right.”

“You see! Disrespect!”

“So pointing out facts is disrespect.” The younger man was wavering on the point of cutting the conversation off, but he was still curious.

“I’m a great businessman! A young pup like you has no business challenging me!”

“You know, you’ve made a career of that kind of statement. You challenge people to tell you you’re wrong. You bluster. And it worked. It worked right up until there was nobody left who hadn’t been burned by your ideas, and the one man with the money to buy you out wasn’t buying your ‘perspective.'”

The older man jumped up. “You insolent young pup! Nobody! Nothing!” And he stormed out of the room. He looked behind him. How many people had followed him out of a room when he stormed out? But nobody followed him this time.

There comes a time, thought the younger man, when the balloon deflates. Too bad so many people lose their shirts in the meantime.


(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

It Was Only One Little Thing

“I’ve heard there was a time when this village was a nice, quiet, and safe place to live.” The man’s voice was distant, as though he was trying to remember something.

The group of villagers in the small pub all looked his way. Though he had spoken quite softly, everyone heard. It was that quiet in the room.

The silence returned for a few moments. Then it was interrupted by a cackling laugh.

Everyone looked at the old woman in the corner. Everybody knew her so well that actually nobody knew her at all. She was just there, as she had been as long as anyone could remember. They were pretty sure she was a widow, though nobody could remember a time when she had a husband. Now she seemed to be chuckling. In appearance, she could have illustrated the word “crone” in the dictionary.

“You’ve heard there was a time,” said the old woman. “Indeed, there was a time.” She paused for a moment, and spat on the ground. “Most of you were alive then. You just don’t remember.”

The folks in the room looked back at her. Nobody asked her anything and she didn’t volunteer anything more. Finally, the first man broke the silence. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“If you tried,” she said, “you could remember that time yourself. But you don’t want to. All of you, and many of your parents, were responsible for bringing it to an end.”

“Tell us about it,” said the man.

“Well,” said the old woman after a few moments, “I doubt it will do you any good, but I’ll tell you. It sure didn’t do you any good the first time.”

“You see, back even longer ago, there was a horrible time in this village. Our baron was a cruel man who would order people killed for any reason or no reason at all. He taxed all our crops at a rate of better than 50%. He charged incredible tariffs on goods brought into town. Nobody other than a few of his cronies lived in even moderate comfort.”

“So what’s different?” muttered someone. Nobody was sure who.

“Well, nothing’s different now. But for a short period of time, things were completely different. Amazingly different.

“A traveling soldier/adventurer came into town one day. The baron decided that he wanted all that the soldier owned for his own. Unfortunately for the baron, however, the soldier was not that easy of a target and he refused to be robbed. In fact, he refused to pay the taxes the baron demanded. He sat right here in this pub, and he told the baron’s tax collector to go get stuffed.

“When the baron’s guards attacked him, he disarmed them. He left them bruised but otherwise undamaged. The baron decided that his best option was to simply ignore the soldier until he chose to move on. It certainly wouldn’t do to have his guards cleverly disarmed. Better if they were killed! As it was people were laughing.” The old woman laughed again, this time until she started choking. Then she got control of herself again.

“The problem with ignoring the soldier,” she continued, “was that people started to wonder if there wasn’t a way that they could live as free of the baron’s interference as the soldier did. So they asked him.

“The soldier told them that it was quite simple. ‘Unity,’ he said. ‘Unity is what you need.’ So the people asked him what he meant by that. He explained that the baron wasn’t really personally all that powerful of a man. His guards weren’t that good. Yes, they were armed, unlike the other villagers, but they really weren’t better.

“‘The baron isn’t better either, just because he was born a baron. So there’s not reason he actually has to get his way,’ the soldier said. This made sense to everyone. There was lots of argument, but the soldier explained to them that unity was the one requirement. If the villagers would act in unity to keep their freedom, nothing else would matter. If they allowed themselves to be divided, they’d lose again.

“It all made so much sense when the soldier said it, so the villagers decided to go along. He explained that as long as the villagers required that the baron get their agreement to everything, and they were reasonable about it, they could live in freedom and they could prosper.

“So the villagers began to require that they agree to anyone who was to be punished. Wrongdoers were brought into the village square and the entire town had to agree to their punishment. Taxes were divided evenly according to people’s ability to pay and were agreed on by everyone. Tariffs were set as everyone desired, so generally goods that were needed were allowed in at reasonable rates. There was a certain amount of protecting local craftsmen, but the protections were applied evenly.

“All this lasted for a few years. Every time anyone complained or tried to lead us off track, we’d shut them down. Unity was the one key, the only thing that would keep us free. If we gave that up, we’d quickly lose everything else as well.

“Then came the day when one farmer was more prosperous than others. His farm was producing better and he was making more money. So a couple of his neighbors made an agreement with the baron. They charged him with an infraction. They came before the whole town. They explained that he had been caught robbing his neighbors red-handed, and there was no need for proof as was normally required.

“That established a new principle. The baron could now punish an wrongdoer who was caught in the act. Everybody thought it was a minor concession and quite reasonable. Like you folks, they had forgotten the past. They thought they could give up a little bit and keep what they wanted. Besides, the prosperous farmer had awakened envy in everyone.

“Thus unity died. It seemed a minor thing. Nobody admitted to themselves that they didn’t really know if the farmer was guilty of all the acts he was accused of. They didn’t want to know. It didn’t seem important.

“When another villager was taken by the baron’s men without a trial before the village, everyone hesitated. Was this a proper exception to the rule or not? Was it not possible that the charges were made up? The second person accused was more popular than the first, but still stood enough apart from the rest that people hesitated. And while they hesitated, the baron took action. Once the baron had acted, it required organization to take action, and it was hard to get people organized.

“Before long there was no more unity in the village.”

“But after all,” said the man, “it was just one person. Surely the death of one person couldn’t end the prosperity of the entire village.”

“Ah, but it did,” said the old woman. “I remember it clearly. Once the unity was broken, there was no going back. But the temptation was so strong, that people fell for it.” She paused, while everyone fell silent again.

“I remember it so clearly, the day the village betrayed my husband.”

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org. This story is a work of fiction. Copyright © 2017, Henry E. Neufeld.)

Have You Tried Going Around?

It wasn’t the merchant’s fault that he approached the city from the north and entered the northern gate. Geological processes had decreed that the city was largely surrounded by mountains. These mountains were higher to the north and northwest, though there was a pass, open perhaps 5 or 6 months out of the year, that led north-northwest from the city. There was another pass, generally open all year, that led to the southeast. The merchant approached from west-southwest. And that created the problem.

When he emerged from the southwestern pass with his train of mules and two wagons, he noted that the area ahead of him and to the right looked pretty much deserted. There wasn’t even that much agricultural land. The city was a bit to his left, meaning a bit north of east, and it looked like things got more civilized that way. To the merchant, that meant a place to sell his goods. He was, after all, exploring a potential trade route.

So he turned to his left, and then as he came parallel with the city, he veered to his right a bit, and met the road that headed north-northwest from the city into the mountains. It was summer, and so there was occasional traffic, though not the sort of traffic the merchant expected from a road leading into a city. If his geography didn’t fail him—and he was pretty much a geographical genius—there were some quite populous places to the north and he would have expected more trade, assuming there was a road. As it was, there was no alternative to heading into the city to check things out, and this he did.

Northern good were prized in the city, and here came a merchant, claiming to be from the north, driving two wagons and a bunch of mules down the northern road (one tended to ignore the westward lean), headed into the city to the marketplace.

Perhaps I should explain. The reason this was so remarkable was that the northern route was well-known to be impassable to wagons. Mule trains yes. Wagons no. It. Could. Not. Be. Done. It was so remarkable that word of the merchant’s arrival got to the Duke. As a result, the Duke invited the merchant to bring his wares to the castle and discuss the situation.

“How did you get your wagons to our city?” asked the Duke.

The merchant assumed that the Duke wanted to know, so he said, “I came through the pass to the west-southwest.”

“But you entered the city from the north.”

“Well, there is no road coming from the southwest, so I circled the city until I came to a road.”

“So you are not, in fact, from the north, are you?”

“Actually I am. I traveled south through the western foothills of this range and then blazed a trail through the pass to your city. I offer you trade in abundance!”

For years the Duke and his duchy had been quite isolated from the empire. As long as his tax trains made it to the southeast, nobody bothered this area. It had become quite well established that the only way through the mountains was the northern pass. This made for a scarcity of northern goods, which were well known to be superior to those from the south.

“The northern pass is the only way through the mountains to the north,” said the Duke.

“But why haven’t you gone around?” asked the merchant.

It was the wrong question. The Duke dismissed the merchant from his presence and ordered his goods held while he considered the situation.

After some discussion among his advisors, one of them offered a solution. The merchant, he explained, was actually from the south, but he wanted to sell his goods as northern goods. He was thus deceiving and defrauding the people of the city.

The Duke looked doubtful.

“In that case,” pointed out another advisor, “his goods should be seized and become your grace’s property.”

The Duke found that a convincing argument. So he declared that indeed the northern road was the sole way through the mountains to the north and the west, that the merchant was a scam artist here to defraud the city. He threw the merchant into his dungeon and seized his goods.

The Duke believed in the rule of law. Most particularly, he believed that when he ruled, it was law. In fact, since the duchy was so isolated, he had come largely to believe that what he ruled was reality as well.

Since nobody could actually tell whether goods were from the north or the south, except by observing how they had arrived, the seized good were quite valuable and made a quite comforting addition to the ducal treasury. Oh, I don’t think I mentioned that the main reason northern goods were valued was that they were more rare. This had become, in some peoples’ minds, an indication of quality. Well, actually pretty much everyone accepted that. So the goods were laundered, so to speak, and became northern again, which they actually were.

It would likely have been better for the merchant had he been executed rather than thrown in the dungeon. The idea of release from the Duke’s dungeons was so distant a memory that it had become a matter of legend. In fact, it had progressed beyond that to provide one of the reasons one could not believe any stories of the past. Why if someone could get the idea that someone had been released from the dungeons in the distant past, then one might believe anything! So ignore all those people who teach history. They don’t really know, after all!

It took months for anyone to check for the merchant, but eventually the consortium of merchants who had sent him to blaze the trail began to wonder what had happened, so they sent an investigator to check. In due course the investigator and his guards arrived at the eastern end of the same pass through which the merchant had arrived. It had required no major effort to follow the merchant. He had, after all, been marking the path for future use.

The investigator, really as part of his job description, was a suspicious sort. When he realized that he had arrived at the city without so much as encountering a bear or a mountain lion, and without seeing any evidence of battle or ambush, he decided the problem must lie in the city ahead. He was pretty sure the merchant had made it that far, based on the evidence of the trail marker on which he as resting his right hand.

So he chose to enter the city from the southeast. He wasn’t entirely sure of the merchant’s path, considering the amount of time that had passed, but he guessed the merchant’s logic with some accuracy. So he used a different route.

In the city, he began to ask questions. As he listened to the answers he began to be very suspicious. When the Duke sent some armed guards to “invite” him to the castle, he was quite convinced. He was well acquainted with the sort of rule of law and view of reality held by the Duke, based on the answers he had gotten.

So being sneakier and tougher than anyone in the city imagined, he knocked out the Duke’s guards (an impossible task, according to the Duke), bound them, gagged them, and hid them where they might, if lucky, be found alive. Then he fled.

The Duke considered the possibility that the investigator had come from the north, but he dismissed it. There simply was no passage in that direction, not to the north in any case.

Why hadn’t they gone around? Because it was impossible. That was why.


(This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of any of the places, characters, or events to anyone in real life is strictly coincidental. Copyright © 2017, Henry E. Neufeld.)

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)