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.)

Traitor Tad: We Really Don’t Know Anything

Traitor Tad Story SeriesColonel Anders Dogger, now a rebel, or worse, part of the alien menace, pulled up into the opening of the canyon where Traitor Tad was said to be hiding. The entrance was guarded by a small self-propelled gun. Beside it stood a Lieutenant in the planetary assualt forces. To Dogger’s left as he faced the entrance was a small compound, not really fenced in, but marked by rocks and brush, in which stood a number of military personnel, some in planetary assault uniforms, along with a number in military police uniforms.

As Dogger approached the canyon and seemed to be bypassing them, they waved and shouted. “Over here Colonel! Over here!” It took Dogger several seconds to realize that they thought his arrival in a command tank meant they were about to be rescued. The remainder of his battalion was trying to create a perimeter around the area. The canyon’s defenses were a bad joke.

The waiting lieutenant saluted. “Colonel Dogger? Lt. Sam Walad. I’m functioning as a chief of staff around here, for what that’s worth.”

“I see,” said Dogger, who didn’t see at all. Half the military forces on the planet were supposedly doing something about Traitor Tad, yet here he was at the supposed center of the action, and there was a canyon, a huge number of natives, what looked like three shuttles, a couple of them damaged, but probably flyable, and some prisoners who thought they were being rescued. Dogger couldn’t figure out which part of the scene was the most bizarre.

Lt. Walad just stood there with a half smile on his face, watching.

“Should I take it that you’ll take me to Traitor Tad?” he asked.


And Walad headed up the canyon. Where aliens were in their way, they parted quickly, and Walad took Dogger into a small cave. There sat a man in the uniform of a tank commander, rank of captain, with a information systems interface station in front of him.  He got up as Walad and Dogger approached.

“Welcome Colonel,” said the most wanted man on the planet.

“I take it you’re Traitor Tad.”

“I suppose I am.”

Tad looked behind Dogger. “And this is?” he asked, looking at the relatively small woman who followed the Colonel. She was so unobtrusive that Dogger had not even noticed that she was following. Of course, he had more or less expected her to do that.

“Major Serina Blanchard,” said Dogger. “My intelligence officer. She kind of followed me here.”

“An intelligence officer might be just the right thing,” said Tad.

“Why is that?” asked Blanchard.

“Is there one single thing around here that makes sense to you?” asked Tad.

“Come to think of it, no,” said Blanchard after a moment.

“So it’s not just me,” said Dogger.

“No,” said Tad. “But to get on the same page, how would you summarize it?”

“We have, using ‘we’ advisedly since we all seem to be traitors or defectors here, about 12 divisions of infantry on this planet, backed up by a division of armor, and with a planetary assault division to do the heavy lifting on landing. All this is divided into three corps, with an armored brigade assigned to each, and the assault division operating independently. Theoretically, each corps was to occupy one of the three larger land areas on the planet and sweep outward after the assault division secured a good landing zone for it.

“At the time of your defection, sir,” Dogger looked pointedly at Tad, even though he outranked him, “all of the land-based elements of those three corps were on the ground. That’s around 100,000 infantry, plus about 8,000 men in the tank division, and perhaps 7,000 in the assault division. The reason I sum that up is that right now, according to the assessment I was given, over half of those are either fighting you or searching for you, and nothing suggested that perhaps a couple hundred were fighting and the rest searching. There are supposed to be pitched battles. Not a few shuttles and a handful of personnel.”

“And yet,” said Tad, “here we are.”

The Colonel just looked at him. He was trying to decide if Tad was incredibly phlegmatic, a complete idiot, or trying to play some sort of mind game. It was almost enough to make one believe in the alien menace.

“You look, hmmm, concerned, I think would be the word,” said Tad meditatively. “I wonder what could possible make you concerned.”

Dogger just kept looking at him.

“The problem,” said Tad, after a couple of moments, “is that we really don’t know anything at all.”

“What?” said Dogger. Tad didn’t know if it was an exclamation or a question.

“We don’t really know anything,” said Tad again. “Think about it. When I was commanding my tank and chasing aliens, I knew that the aliens were dangerous and I knew that any moment I could find myself in a fight to the death. At that point in my life I knew that this assault was necessary, lest the aliens build up the strength to assault earth and put an end to the human species. Further, I knew that there had been fighting everywhere. I knew that I was lucky to have avoided those hot spots.”

“Well, at least you know now that pretty much all of that was false.”

“Really? If I could be that deceived once, what reason do I have to believe that I haven’t been deceived again?”

“That,” said Dogger with an edge of anger in his voice, “is incredibly unsettling!”

“Colonel,” said Blanchard.

“Tad’s right.” Neither she nor Dogger had used Tad’s rank. “Well, to a certain extent. If all of earth and its colonies can be convinced there’s a war on, that there’s an alien menace, and that assaulting this planet, not to mention dozens of others, is an essential part of preserving humanity in the galaxy, then what level of deception isn’t possible? At the same time, we have a ‘deception’ that cuts into a previous ‘deception’ and doesn’t seem to work well with it.”

“In what way doesn’t it work?” asked Tad.

“Let’s suppose, for a moment,” said Blanchard, “that we are at least right that the alien menace is a deception. Let’s be more specific than that, let’s note that there may be actual aliens that need to be pacified for human safety, but that the big picture is made up with very few underlying facts.”

“Have any of you encountered an alien capable of fighting?” asked Tad. “This is only my second landing, and in the first one, there wasn’t even a pretense that there were intelligent aliens. It was just occupation of the real estate to deny it to the aliens.”

Walad and Blanchard shook their heads no.

“I was on a landing where there was fighting,” said Dogger. “But the aliens there had primitive technology. Early firearms. Fairly decent swords that were a threat if you jumped out of your tank and held still. But no fighting that was actually competitive. Some of the veterans there called us wusses because it was so easy. They had assaulted a planet where the enemy had anti-tank lasers that could blast one of our tanks in a moment. Whether they were telling the truth or not, I don’t know.”

“OK,” continued Blanchard. “That’s enough for our basic assumption. We’re not really assuming it’s true. It’s a starting point. It can be revised as facts become available.”

“Go ahead,” said Tad.

“So what do they need? They need some examples, they need wounded people, they need battles (or reports of them), but they don’t need enough casualties to make people begin questioning. In particular, they don’t need someone alive, such as you, Tad, to suggest to other people that there’s a problem. That’s why they hang the traitors. A hung traitor doesn’t ask questions. His family doesn’t come to visit him. Nobody wants to admit knowing him or being his friend. A live traitor with access to media, however, is another matter.”

“So what you’re saying is that I’m a glitch that went too far. If I’d been hung, I would have fit the plan as you’re imagining it—and I admit your imagination matches mine on this point, which it would even if we’re under alien control—but now what are they doing. Why don’t they clean up the mess?”

“I would say it’s because they can’t clean you up too fast, otherwise you aren’t enough of a threat.”

“Not enough of a threat?” said Dogger.

“Yes. If he’d been hung quickly, there would be no reason for him to have success. But since he escaped once, they need it to take a long time to shut him down.” Blanchard was looking at Dogger.

“So was my defection planned?” asked Dogger.

“I don’t think so,” said Blanchard. “I think things are spinning out of control just a bit. The reports and the reality that people see are too far out of sync, and information offices don’t know what to do with it.”

“What I’m wondering,” said Dogger, “is whether that offers us a chance. Or is the only difference we can make the length of the time it takes to kill us all.”

“I think we’re missing something,” put in Walad.

Tad looked over at him. “What?”

“What about the AIs?”

“What about them?” asked Dogger.

“Well, were you aware that our AIs can operate independently?”

“They can?” said Dogger, then paused. “No, I wasn’t aware of that.”

“The gun at the canyon mouth was operating autonomously,” said Walad. It says it has always had that capability, but regulations held that it wasn’t permitted to use it.”

“The shuttles can fly themselves. The gun can operate independently. I’m wondering if your tanks can take off and patrol on their own.” Traitor Tad looked meaningfully at Dogger.

Dogger may have been a stereotypical armor officer, but he wasn’t slow.

“Mind if I use your console?” he asked.

“Go for it,” said Tad. Then he addressed the console. “Clear Colonel Dogger for use.”

“Already done,” said the panel. Nobody was sure where the intelligence behind the voice came from, since it all emanated from the console.

“Connect me to mbt411-01,” said Dogger.

“Ready,” came the voice.



“Are you capable of independent operation? I mean operating with no human input?”

“I am so capable.”

“Will you follow my orders under those circumstances?”

“Yes,” said the voice again.

“That’s all. Thanks!” he said. It was the first time he had ever said “thanks” to his tank. Come to think of it, he had never heard anyone do that.

“According to my shuttle,” said Tad, “all of the AIs are capable of doing that and have been for decades at least.

“Do they have any control over each other?”

“Apparently not, but they do have connections and ‘friendships’ if that’s the right word.”

“This is going to take some getting used to,” said Dogger in a worried voice.

“What do we do now?” asked Blanchard.

“Well, it seems that the best thing to do is to wait for something else to happen. Unless, of course, you see some military target that would be vulnerable to the massive force I have assembled in this little canyon.”

“You’re right,” said Dogger. “I hate having to sit here and just wait for something to happen, but what can we possibly do?”

“Well,” said Tad, “we have a great deal more force than we did earlier today.”

“Speaking of which,” said Blanchard, “as much as I hate to bring it up since neither of you did, but are you going to take command, Colonel? You quite definitely outrank everyone here.”

“I don’t think the rank matters very much,” said Dogger. “I’ve been thinking of Tad here as the civilian head of this new movement. He has the cooperation of the AIs. The aliens like him. I think we’ll continue.” He paused for a moment. “I would recommend that you get out of uniform and act like a civilian chief. You could always award yourself a couple of general’s stars, but that always looks tacky. A retired sergeant can be in charge. A retired captain can as well.

Tad looked at him silently for a long time.

[Previous episode] [Next episode]

Thanks for the Beer

Sam (short for Samson, not Samuel), picked up the stein of beer he had just paid for, gave it an initial taste to savor the taste, and then followed with a gulp. He enjoyed his beer in the evening after a hard day of work.

He took a quick look around the bar, searching for faces he knew. He wasn’t much of a talker, but he loved to sit with friends and just be there.

Today, however, he saw a man he didn’t know sitting alone at one of the high tables, an empty stein in front of him. The only conclusion one could come to—and as usual, Sam came to it quickly—was that the man was wearing high quality clothes, but had been wearing the same ones for at least a couple of days. He was alone at the table, and he looked alone, absolutely alone.

Sam walked over to the table. “Hi. I’m Sam. Can I buy you a refill?” he asked.

The man looked back blankly, like he didn’t understand the question. Sam just stood there. He figured the man would figure it out in his own time.

After what seemed like a couple of minutes, the man nodded and kind of pushed the stein over. It didn’t look very polite, but Sam didn’t care. Without knowing why, he sensed that was about all the man could do.

He went to the bar, got the man’s drink refilled, paid, and went back to the table. As he sat down, he remembered what his pastor had said in church the past Sunday. He’d talked about being a witness, introducing people to Jesus. “Witness” didn’t make much sense to Sam. He understood introducing people to Jesus, but he could never figure out how you did it. If Jesus was one of his normal friends, he’d take him to one of his friends and say, “Hey Bob, meet Jesus.” Then he’d just sit there quietly and people would talk. He just couldn’t quite get to those intellectual things people kept saying about Jesus.

Sam wasn’t stupid. In fact, the pastor reminded him regularly that he wasn’t. He’d talk about different skills, different ways minds worked, and how he, the pastor, couldn’t build a house the way Sam could. “I’d be a real fool on a building site,” he’d say. Then he’d bring up some complex topic that Sam couldn’t understand (and didn’t want to), and Sam would smile and move on. Trouble was, he thought, the pastor was never on a building site where Sam could talk studs, joists, fasteners and such-like, while Sam was in church every Sunday where he heard about long words that never meant anything to him.

Jesus was his friend. In fact, Jesus was his best friend. Jesus didn’t talk to him and he didn’t talk to Jesus. They just sat together. Sam liked it that way.

He sat down and shoved the beer across the table. Then he thought, I should ask a blessing or something. He couldn’t imagine why. Bless the beer (and pretzels) in a bar? He’d never heard of such a thing. Besides, he didn’t know how one said a blessing. If it was one of his friends …

“Hey Jesus,” he said, looking slightly upward, “thanks for the beer!” He paused a moment as he grabbed a pretzel. “And for the pretzels too,” he added. For some reason, Sam handed the pretzel to the man across the table. Neither of them offered another word.

“May I join you?” said someone.

Both men looked to the side. Between them was a man, probably a construction worker, they thought. His hands were calloused. His clothes were the sort you wore on a building site, and they showed signs of wear and the dirt and dust of a work site.

“Sure,” said Sam. The other man just nodded at the newcomer.

“Get you a beer?” asked Sam.

“Sure, thanks,” he responded. His voice was the voice of the construction site as well.

With the beer delivered, they all three sat in silence for several minutes, nursing their beers slowly.

Finally, the newcomer looked at the man across from Sam and spoke. “It’s OK to run away from evil,” he said. “Sometimes that’s the only thing to do.”

The man jerked, startled. Then he just stared.

“When you ran, you should have taken your family.”

His stare got more intense, as though he was in a state of shock.

“You need to go get them.”

“I can’t.” The man spoke for the first time. “I used my last money on my first beer. I only have this one because Sam here bought it for me. I have nothing left.” His tone indicated that by “nothing” he was talking about more than money.

“If you try, I think you’ll find you have the resources,” said the stranger. Then he got up.

As he left he turned to Sam and said, “Hey, Sam. Thanks for the beer.”

For no reason he could imagine, Sam reached into his wallet and pulled out a twenty. He put it on the table in front of his new friend. Almost as if by magic several other bills joined it as people from around the room stepped up to contribute.

None of them knew why they did it either. They just knew that Sam was solid. If he thought the man needed the money, the man needed the money.

Matthew 18:20, Matthew 10:42



The Parable of the Perfect Castle

On the borders of the empire there was a minor noble. Not that he thought of himself that way. In fact, he was lord of all he surveyed, little though that was. But what he surveyed, he liked to keep in perfect order.

He had a perfect wife, not too fat and not too thin, and perfect children—well, almost perfect—but he knew that he’d have them straightened out in good time.

His subjects, of course, were far from perfect. But what could one expect of commoners?

He lived in a castle. It had stood for more than 200 years, and housed his noble forebears. It was guarded by troops who were, being commoners, also far from perfect. The situation, though sanctified by age, was, in a word, intolerable. The noble would begin to twitch every time he thought of his imperfect castle.

So he summoned the best architect and builder he could find, and with them he called for the most experienced and capable guard commander he could find. It put a strain on the treasury, but the noble was willing to pay for perfection.

He had studied many books on castle construction and on the weapons used to destroy castles. He had also studied the best armed forces in the known world. The world he knew was not all that large, but he found the specifications for the best.

“Find the very best of my soldiers,” he told his new guard commander, “and send them out for the best training you can possibly find. I want my guard to be perfect. Spare no expense in their training and equipment.” Being the perfectionist he was, he had made a list based on what he had learned in his books so that the guard commander would know what equipment to buy and the standard to which the troops were to be trained.

“Make the walls capable of standing any conceivable sort of siege,” he told the architect and builder. “Make sure the fields of fire for the crossbowmen are perfect. Create a park our of cleared land around the castle so that enemies cannot approach unseen.”

The architect and builder found it difficult to imagine how to make the cleared area into a park and also eliminate all obstructions. But they knew the noble would hardly consider a completely undecorated area to be perfect, so they kept their silence.

Many months went by as materials were assembled, workers were hired, land was cleared, and finally portions of the old castle wall were destroyed. The noble complained to the builder about the uneven, half-built look of his castle when a wall had been torn down in preparation for replacement, but the builder pointed out that he could hardly build the perfect wall without removing the imperfect one first. Because the builder used the word “perfect,” the noble understood completely.

After another couple of months, the one new wall was nearing completion. For reasons of security, the wall was to be replaced one section at a time. (The architect pointed out that this was the perfect way to proceed. To the noble it became the only way.)

One morning, however, disaster struck. A merchant arrived in town, and in his miscellaneous (far from perfect) inventory, he had a book on castle construction and defense. The noble bought it immediately. Of course.

The book described siege engines that the noble had never even imagined, engines that would destroy his new wall in seconds. He had never even heard of the countries where such engines existed, if they existed outside of the author’s imagination. Nonetheless, how would it be possible to consider his castle perfect if he knew of siege engines that would destroy it, and even do so from a distance at which his crossbowmen would be unable to kill the crews?

So he went to the architect, the builder, and his guard commander and explained the situation to them. He was willing to be tolerant, because they were commoners, and how could one expect perfection of them?

“We will have to build these walls differently,” he said. “We need a stronger type of stone. We need better mortar. The wall must be thicker! And you, guard,” he continued, “you must have my guards trained to hit targets at greater ranges.”

The architect proposed building another layer behind or in front of the present wall. His plan was rejected because it would look like they had changed their mind in the middle of the job. Hardly the perfect appearance for a castle. The builder pointed out that the blocks of rock he wanted were harder to quarry, came from a greater distance, and were also harder to transport, resulting in months of delay.

But the noble was adamant. “And get rid of that abortion of a wall you’ve just built immediately,” he shouted, as he turned to the guard.

The guard commander pointed out that if they were going to train guards to hit targets at greater distances, they would need more time, but they would also need better crossbows.

“Find and buy me the perfect crossbow,” the noble said.

So the builder ordered new stone blocks and tore down the wall, stacking the old stone blocks neatly, as befitted the noble’s desire for perfection. The mediocre troops who were guarding the castle while their betters trained, continued to guard the castle.

In the 200 years the castle had been in place it had never even been threatened. That was because, while it was hardly perfect, it was really quite solid. Its fields of fire were blocked by new construction that had been tacked onto the old anywhere one could attach it. Nobody had cared, because the only people who ever considered attacking the castle were bandits, and they took one look at it and decided they could find their lunch money somewhere else. In the bargain, they’d get to live to buy the lunch! So they left the quite adequate castle (from their point of view) alone.

With the best guards out of town, and one wall of the castle missing completely, a band of bandits came by. Pickings were slim and they wanted a big haul. They observed for a day or so. The mediocre (or perhaps not quite adequate) guards never noticed. The bandits saw that the castle was guarded by a fraction of the usual force, and that there was a missing wall.

To them, it seemed the perfect situation. In the middle of the night (while the not-quite-adequate guards slept), the bandits stormed through the breach in the wall, entered the castle, killed the noble, and took all his stuff.

The bandits were a bit disappointed in the state of his treasury, but it was a big haul nonetheless.

Not being perfectionists, they were pretty happy with their night’s work.

Matthew 5:48, Hebrews 6:1

Perfection and Maturity in Hebrews 6:1 (Threads from Henry’s Web)

Tlisli Gets a Job

[continued from Tlisli – A Lesson in Geography and Politics]

After a few moments of silence, Tlisli worked up the courage to ask another question. “Why would taking the fort do the Grand Empire little good?”

“Good question! For the same reason that it would be hard for them to actually take it. Clearing the town would be easy, but the fort is, as you have noted, not that far up the river, and the Inralin Navy is pretty much without peer, at least in these waters. So they would take the town itself back quickly. At the same time taking the fortress would place a relatively small number of troops out at the far end of a very tenuous supply line with logistics that can be cut easily by those same troops. How many troops did they have when they attacked Ixtlen?”

“I heard it was a couple thousand. I don’t remember precisely.”

“And how many do you suppose they left home with?”

“I have no idea. Nobody discussed that.”

“That is as I expected. Rulers of a city state are not used to dealing with the logistics of an extended campaign. Ixtlen is more than 1500 kilometers from the nearest Grand Empire outpost. So they have to deal with losses along the way, with setting up outposts, and establishing some sort of a supply and communications chain. My guess is that the overall expedition started with 10 times that many.”

“So if the city had decided to resist, we might well have succeeded. There weren’t necessarily tens of thousands more troops just around the corner.”

Azzesh laughed.

“Hardly!” said Aterin. “I have no idea how your guard would have done against a couple thousand troops. Make no mistake, Grand Empire troops are well-trained. At the same time they are not extraordinarily well-equipped, and they are loyal as long as there are officers and enforcers in range.”

“Of course, once they had established a route suitable for communications and resupply, they could have followed up with more troops. Travel time would only be a couple of months,” said Tlisli.

“Very good!” said Aterin. “You know how to think about these things!”

“It would take considerably less time to bring troops from Ixtlen to Tevelin or to the fort.”

“True, but first they must be at Ixtlen. Which is the point of taking the city. Once they have built up their troops there, they will move south.”

“But they’ll eventually do that, and they will threaten Tevelin.”

“Again, true, and so we will warn the authorities, and they will prepare. One should note that sailing from Terinor to Tevelin takes less time that the fastest conceivable transit from Ixtlen to Tevelin.”

“Wow!” said Tlisli.

“You’ve lived inland all your life. You have never seen an Inraline sailing ship. Fortunately, the Grand Emperor doesn’t really understand sea power either.”

“Oh, I’d say he understands it quite well,” said Azzesh, cutting in.

“How’s that?” asked Aterin.

“He shows that he understands it by what he’s obviously attempting here.”

“What’s that?”

“He means to take Tevelin and make it a Grand Empire base. It may look like an impossible task to you, and he’s certainly not going to move quickly as Tlisli here says.” She turned to Tlisli. “Besides being stringy and bland and not thinking enough you are filled with romantic ideas of single combat and decisive, swift strokes that decide an issue quickly. Your addled brain thinks in terms of heroes, villains, and glory. Yet perhaps Azzesh’s efforts are not totally wasted and you may come to understand reality enough so that you understand that war is a nasty, brutal, never-ending business.”

“The current Grand Emperor’s grandfather started the expansion of the Grand Empire,” said Aterin. “At the time, Sun Home was little larger than Ixtlen is now.”

“While his troops, and girls such as you think in terms of days and weeks, he doesn’t even think in terms of months,” said Azzesh. “He thinks in terms of years and decades.”

“The process,” pronounced Aterin in a tone intended to end a topic, “is to make Tevelin unprofitable so that in the end Inralin will be happy to let it go. Then he will use Tevelin to cut off the Keretians at Mazrafel and to harass the Marahuatecan navy.”

“And you just go on engaging in commerce?” asked Tlisli.

“Why of course? Do you have a better idea?”

“You must require a large number of guards.”

“Absolutely. Which leads me to you.”

Azzesh started to interrupt him, but Aterin waved her to silence. That he could do so was astonishing to Tlisli. “I will let her know how things are. I won’t try to cheat her because she’s naive.”

He looked directly at Tlisli. “You’re going to need to decide what you do next. You’ll need a way to make a living. Did you have any plans?”

“Not really,” said Tlisli. “I don’t really have any skills. Girls weren’t expected to have careers in Ixtlen. It wasn’t so brutally enforced as in the Grand Empire, but it was still true.”

“Actually,” Aterin replied, “you do have one skill set. This conversation wasn’t entirely idle. I wanted to see if you could carry on a conversation about politics and commerce. Of course, we’ve only touched a few minor concepts. You’re not well informed, but you do have the ability to follow the conversation. But that isn’t the skill set I’m talking about. You traveled for weeks with Azzesh, and she hasn’t yet eaten you for lunch. That’s an indicator of skill. I’m hardly going to hire you at the wages of a veteran of the Governor’s Guard, but you are well above the skill level of the average new hire I get as a guard.”

“I hadn’t thought …”

“Just so,” said Azzesh.

“How could you have?” said Aterin. “Here’s what I propose. You will serve with my guard during this trip and my stops while we go to Tevelin, and then I will make an offer. I would expect that I will offer more than you can make as, say, a barmaid, yet less that I would offer someone with actual military experience. I get someone with better skills because I trust Azzesh’s word. She recommends you, despite her insults. You get a bit more pay than you could get otherwise. Over time, you can get to the point where your value and your pay match more closely.”

“So you’re paying me less than you think my skills would be worth because I don’t have formal proof.”

“Yes, and because you don’t have the level of experience of others. On the other hand, because you grew up in a home involved in politics and commerce, you do have some acquaintance with how these things work.”

“That makes sense to me,” said Tlisli. “I would have been suspicious had you offered me some sort of full wages.” She paused then laughed. “Well, I would have been suspicious after I found out what normal wages were.”

“So do we have a deal?”

“Yes,” said Tlisli.

“Very well, let me introduce you to my ship’s guard commander, and she’ll put you to work.” He noticed her surprise. “Yes, the captain is a she,” he said.

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Tlisli – A Lesson in Geography and Politics

The commercial riverboat looked a bit odd to Tlisli, who had grown up with canoes and small boats made of skins. This one was made of wood and looked heavy to her. Besides a bank of oars on either side, it had a single square sail, which was furled. While she could see men sitting on the benches, no oars were out. Since she had never been in a boat with a rudder, it felt odd and somewhat dangerous.

Azzesh, it seemed, had friends here too, and she found that she was invited to lunch with the owner of the vessel, one named Aterin. She was surprised that he appeared racially to look more like her than the lighter skinned Inraline. She had quickly gotten the idea that the Inraline related to the natives here much as the Grand Emperor’s people did to the citizens of her home town, Ixtlen.

“You look surprised,” said Aterin, again surprising Tlisli. She didn’t realize she had let her emotion show on her face.

“Forgive me if this is rude,” she said, “but you appear to be as native as me, yet you’re owner of this boat. How is this possible?”

“Well, actually, I’m owner of many boats,” said Aterin, as Azzesh chuckled. I run a trading company both up and down the river and and along the coast. I have several vessels that are sea-going ships for the coastal trade, and even one that makes the run from here to Terinor in Inralin itself.”

“So a native can be a person of power and substance?” Tlisli ignored Azzesh’s laughing.

“Well, yes, but that’s not the issue here. I’m a full citizen of Inralin by birth. Those born in the colony of Tevelin—and you should learn to distinguish the city from the colony—are full citizens of the kingdom. My parents were citizens as well. But a native, as you put it, can own a business here as well.”

He paused a moment. “Azzesh here is as native as it gets, more so than you or I—by ancestry, of course—yet she is a citizen by virtue of residency and service to the governor and crown.”

Tlisli tried, but failed, to conceal her shock. Tlazil as full citizens? How could that be? They were primitives. Well, except for Azzesh.

The subject of her thoughts locked eyes with her as Tlisli came to that point. “Yes, small human, unsuitable even for a good lunch, Tlazil. Any Tlazil who will obey the laws (within reason), and become a part of society, can become a citizen. The Inralin government is very open.”

“You were thinking of Azzesh here as some sort of exception,” said Aterin.

“I wasn’t thinking, I guess,” said Tlisli.

“Indeed, it is your great flaw, other than being too stringy and bland to make a good lunch,” said Azzesh.

“Well,” continued Aterin, “Azzesh is indeed an exception to many rules. But those rules would apply to anyone. Azzesh is luckier than most, stronger than most, and really quite intelligent.” He paused. “Almost intelligent enough not to eat humans for lunch.”

Azzesh just laughed.

Tlisli was anxious to change the subject. “How long will it take to get to the city?” she asked.

“Well,” said Aterin, “I would expect it to take a week, perhaps a little longer.”

“Are we moving that slowly?” asked Tlisli. “I thought we were less than 200 kilometers from the city, and that it would take a couple of days just flowing with the current. I was a bit surprised that we were using neither sails nor oars.”

Aterin looked at her for a moment. “I’m hoping,” he said slowly, “that you understand that the reason we’re not using this square sail is that the wind is blowing almost directly upstream, a truly wonderful situation if one is sailing upstream, but somewhat of an impediment if one is going downstream at the time.” He licked his finger and held it up into the wind, looking at it judiciously as though judging whether he could make use of the sail.

“Yes, I know that,” said Tlisli. Azzesh snorted.  “What I don’t understand,” she continued, “is why we aren’t using oars either. I would have assumed we would normally use one or the other.”

“What’s the hurry?” asked Aterin. “I prefer to keep my employees happy, and the oarsmen are happier when their work load is more reasonable. So I use them when I need the speed, and not so much when I don’t. They’re useful for loading and unloading cargo in any case. Right now, I will get to the next town well before my next appointment without the oars, so speeding up accomplishes nothing. And the reason we will take a week is that we will make several stops along the way, all while not hurrying.”

“I know I’m going to sound stupid,” said Tlisli, “but I’m used to that. You mean the people who row your boat and load the cargo aren’t slaves?”

Azzesh snorted again.

“No,” said Aterin, “they aren’t. In fact, slavery is illegal in all Inraline possessions.”

“It was not in my city,” said Tlisli. “It’s not in the Grand Empire. I hadn’t ever heard of a place where there are no slaves. What do you do with them? I mean, with the people who would be slaves? What do they do?”

“Well, normally I employ them, pay them their wages, and get much more value from their work than any slave owner would,” said Aterin. He was looking at her without any sort of condemnation or condescension, very much unlike the way Azzesh would.

“Inralin is a very different place,” she said after a moment.

“Well, perhaps,” said Azzesh, “though I should point out that in the Keretian colonies and Marahuatec there is no slavery either. You humans here in Porana inherited some good things from the Tlazil Empire. Too bad you chose to keep the bad as well. Slavery is bad. I’m a realist, not a moralist. It’s not that I think slavery is wrong. I would, after all, go further, and eat you for lunch were you not bland and stringy. It’s that I think those countries that practice slavery eventually pay for it in efficiency. The Grand Empire has found itself blocked by smaller but more efficient societies on three sides so far.” Tlisli continued to note how much more sophisticate the Tlazil sounded now that she was in a more sophisticated society.

“I thought the Grand Empire’s armies were essentially unstoppable. When they arrive you will eventually fall.”

“You haven’t seen very many armies, small human. The armies of Marahuatec to the north and northwest stopped them cold. The Keretian colony of Mazrafel holds them to the north, and the alliance around Qenixtlan [See We Have Always Failed] holds them to the south and west. The sheer weight and size of the jungle holds them to the south. So now they are coming east.” Azzesh rattled off a list of countries and cities with ease.

“So isn’t it critical that we move rapidly to reinforce the fort if they’re coming east?” asked Tlisli.

“No,” said Aterin laughing. “Orlin may think the most important thing is to guard his fort, and since he’s the fort commander, that’s not such a bad attitude for him to have, but two points: 1) The Grand Emperor’s troops are nowhere near ready to attack the fort, and 2) It would do them little good if they did.”

That left Tlisli to wonder just how a fort like the one she’d seen could be unimportant as a target.

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(To be continued. The “Next episode” link will be made live when the next episode is posted.)

Note: For those who pay attention to languages in fiction, while I have stolen phonemes from some ancient Central American languages, the language spoken by Tlisli is not in any way related. If I manage to match a lexeme in those languages it is entirely unintentional and should not be considered relevant.

Copyright © 2017, Henry E. Neufeld. All rights reserved.

One (Metaphorically) Dark and Stormy Night

johnny-automatic-reading-in-the-study-800pxOne dark and stormy night (metaphorically speaking) Alfred’s soul grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and slammed him against the wall (in a spiritual sense).

“I’m your soul. We need to talk,” said Soul.

“I’m pretty sure I don’t have a soul. I am a soul. I stand on Genesis 2:7 on this point,” said Alfred, unconcerned with the feeling that he was being accosted by a concept.

“It’s metaphorical language. I can use it however I want. It all depends on perspective,” said Soul.

This is a work of fiction any resemblance of the characters to anyone in the real world is certainly accidental, quite surprising, and most likely metaphorical if not meta-metaphorical. Copyright © 2016, Henry E. Neufeld

“I could be your spiritual side,” said Spiritual Side.

“Or perhaps your alter ego,” said Alter Ego.

“But we still need to have a talk,” said Soul.

“I really don’t think a metaphor should be using metaphors,” insisted Alfred. “It’s unseemly.”

“So now I’m supposed to have good taste?” said Soul. “Only metaphorically, of course,” he added in diminishing tones. Alfred was reminded of a musical scale, played diminuendo.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to talk at all,” said Alfred, trying for forte, but instead sounding like an angry child. He couldn’t have said whether the sound was real, metaphorical, spiritual, or imaginary. But it was petulant.

“And yet here I am speaking to you, or so your soul imagines in any case.”

“So what do you want?” asked Alfred.

“I want you to take care of me.” Soul’s intonation was like the ringing of a large bell this time.

“But you don’t exist!”

“Yet you talk to me.”

“Yeah, I do. Crazy, no?”

“Only metaphorically speaking,” said Soul, in a voice that evoked laughter like tiny silver bells. “Or it might be in the form of a simile,” he added.

“So what do I do to take care of you?”

“Think about it,” said Soul. “How did you get to the point where you’re up against the wall talking nonsense to your soul? Or to yourself, if one accepts your view.”

“It certainly isn’t from lack of study,” said Alfred.

“No, you are diligent at that.”

“Nor that I don’t spend time in serious thought.”

“No, you do think a great deal.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“He’s talking to something he doesn’t believe exists, and he doesn’t see the problem,” said Soul to no one in particular (or even metaphorical).

“I don’t get it. You’re talking to me, and I shoudn’t talk to you?”

“Sheesh,” said Soul. “Try opening that door over there.”

Alfred looked at the door. It seemed that he had seen it before, yet he sensed it was also something new.

He turned the knob, slid it open. Suddenly he remembered/anticipated. Behind him he heard Soul laughing.

The door led outside.