Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Ironic, Modern World of A. Dumas

This holiday season, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have come up several times in casual conversations with people as young as 14 and as old as 50.  Some are not consistent recreational readers, some are, all implicitly or explicitly expressed the special place Rowling’s world holds for them.  They loved the books, lived in the books and the books provided a model, or maybe “schema” is a better word,  of how to approach the world, how to discover it and act in it.  It’s interesting to consider, say, how a physician working in an academic medical institution sees his world inflected by a fantasy “public school” for the magically gifted.  The physician is a serious and capable professional, by the way, and I’m not at all uncertain that a Harry Potter lens doesn’t provide some useful insight or inspiration.

Neither the books nor the subsequent films had much appeal for me but perhaps that was due to my personal experience of some of the sources for her world.

That’s neither here nor there.  Nevertheless, I found myself thinking about what books had affected me that way.  Books that weren’t just immersive, compelling reads but which also suggested how to approach the world.  One of the most curious is Alexander Dumas “The Three Musketeers.”   Years ago, I decided to read it for the best of reasons:   it was an adventure set in the muddy, bloody 17th century with lots of sword fighting.  And it certainly is that, but something else made me react to it at a more interesting level and find virtues in it that even now are rarely discussed.

The book was originally serialized in “Le Siècle” in 1844 and necessarily had to “burn from the first line” to paraphrase Sting’s admirable advice.  Yet the book has a deft, larger structure, too.  One strategy to get to the heart of it is to ask, why is it compelling?  Is it vital, perspicacious description of 17th century scenes?  Not so much.  Dumas’ physical description is prosaic, sometimes precise, sometimes generic.  Is it the wit?  Partly.  Even in the context of the larger drama I expect its possible for modern readers to miss the delicate, bittersweet irony in the cheerful and gentile conversations.  Consider, D’Artagnan’s father’s advice, “fight on all occasions.  Fight the more for duels being forbidden,” and bring it forward into a modern context and change the diction a little:  say an inner city father speaking to his son.  Suddenly, the words have a different, more ominous and dangerous meaning.

But another aspect is even more important.  D’Artagnan travels to Paris and engages with a new world, one which Dumas has the temerity to draw at every level, from the passions and care of the court to those of the poor and middle class Parisians.  And they’re all drawn with the same generous  compassion.  In that sense, his breadth of social portrayal exceeds Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens.  D’Artagnan is certainly the hero of his own life but he’s far from the hero of the history in which he lives.  Yet, he has an important role to play and it depends on his learning how to move in very different subcultures which continually interact outside of him.  That is a very modern condition.

Then there are the characters.   Athos is a deftly-drawn, Byronic presence whose character foreshadows the shape of the book as a whole.  The conclusion which  revolves around the murder of an innocent, is a kind of social tragedy, explicitly damning the gentile but aggressive culture.   It is a much bigger book than it seems.

There have been innumerable versions made for film and television.  As I’m writing this the BBC is about to broadcast a second season of an enjoyable production which takes slight advantage of Dumas’ original plot.  To my mind, the very best films were those made by the director Richard Lester in the early 1970s.  The script by George Macdonald Fraser is not only true to Dumas’ plot but also captures Dumas’ comedy and wit while portraying believable and graphic violence unlike so many recent films in which CGI supported action scenes are both implausible and without real dramatic consequence.

Michael York’s Dartagnan deserves special attention.  The role is surprisingly difficult, which is apparent when you consider the large number of forgettable performances, so much so that actors probably should be wary of it on principle.  Yet York finds a perfect balance of naivete, passion and cleverness that makes the character not only believable but someone with whom we trustingly identify.  That’s essential.   All our lives we’re neophytes learning a new, changing world, complex and only partly visible.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Virtual and Physical Hidden in Plain Sight


When I was a child we used to play a simple game in a friend’s expansive, shadowy basement.  Each of us would take turns hiding something in plain sight.  Some of us had a gift for it, some didn’t.  It was spooky, dramatic and great fun.  I remember the thrill of hunting through shelves and trunks and oddly stacked furniture.

The frisson that Lynn and I experienced when we first came across the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which crosses beneath the Thames, was similar.  The long tunnel has its own dreary, Victorian beauty and almost abstract geometry, of course.  But it’s equally fun that in a sense it’s hidden in plain sight.  It remains a commonly used footpath for crossing the river and the entrances on either side aren’t that interesting.

A different example is in Chaco Canyon.  If you don’t know much about the area or even if you do and it’s your first time, you’re naturally drawn to the monumental great houses built by the Chacoans a thousand years ago.  It’s entirely possible to pass by the immense butte in the center of the canyon thinking it’s interesting, dramatic geography but no more.  In fact Fajada Butte is as worthy of attention as the more ostensible remnants of Chacoan construction.  The remains of a 95-meter-high, 230-meter-long ramp is hidden in plain sight on the southwestern face.  And, if you have an eye for detail, you can see remnants of construction near the top.  In fact it’s a diverse archaeological site; evidence suggests it may have been used for religious and ceremonial purposes as well as astronomical and solar observation.  So Mayan pyramids immediately come to mind:  did the Chacoans use a natural feature instead of a constructed one for the same purpose?  What relationship, if any, did Mayan culture have to Chacoan culture which came shortly after?  And it’s in plain sight.

Here’s something new in plain sight.  Twenty-five years ago I read a Computer Science paper of which I can find no record.  I believe the authors were David C. Evans and Micky Mantle and the title was something like “Once More Around the Wheel of Reincarnation.”  The point of the article was that as digital technology and research advance, old architectures are reinvented and applied to meet the exigencies and opportunities implicit in new elements.  Their particular example was the computer workstation (which was then in the ascendant) and the mainframe computer.  Since then the architectural balance between those elements and the elements themselves have been “reincarnated” many times.  Today we have tablet computers and multiple clouds.

Another technological idea which recurs and is reapplied is that idea of creating a single and/or preeminent portal for accessing entertainment, or purchasing hard goods or even consolidating scientific and technological research.  Amazon clearly demonstrates how successful that strategy can be while Spotify and even Youtube are more ambiguous in spite of their ubiquity.

In that context, I find Shakespeare’s Globe’s recent decision to stream their productions of Shakespeare’s plays very provocative.  The key question is why aren’t they doing it through one of the much larger portals?  The obvious answer is that they don’t need to.  And, if they don’t need to, others don’t either.  It could be that contrary to the expectation that digital content will continue to be consolidated, the wheel of reincarnation may be turning to a phase of dramatic decentralization and distribution.  Perhaps content provision and curation may become entirely separate as it’s necessarily a compromised relationship anyway.  I’m aware of at least one new technology start-up, The Hawaii Project, which is consistent with that technology culture change.

Around 1150 Chaco was abandoned and the culture that dominated the Colorado Plateau decentralized.  Perhaps the image of the Crab Nebula super nova hidden in plain sight on the path to Peñasco Blanco in Chaco Canyon was interpreted as a prophesy of that event.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The North - A Story


The Trader world turning on the screen constituting one side of the conference room is opulent with detail:  mazes of snowy peaks and crags abut deserts with arcs of dunes, delicate as lace.  Endless dark forests.  We appear to be a mere thirty miles above, if that.  The low ceiling, the pragmatic steel-girded construction of the remainder of the gray room tells you that this is a military ship.  We’ve been presenting and discussing for three hours and have only reached consensus once, at the beginning, when we decided it should be morning though of all the time frames we came from, none would have made it such.  The image of the world is there to remind us of the gravity of our responsibility; in fact we are nowhere close to the satellite that is capturing the video.  Where we are is nowhere.  We are better protected by darkness and probability than the elaborate defenses of the ship itself.
            My nose itches.  Rayl Marsen is browbeating us with statistical predictions; the downturn in the Free Alliance's light industry production will become exponential over the next year if the Union's successful depletion sorties continue to grow quadratically as they have over the last year.
            The opposite wall is a adorned with a piece of symbolic, historical art.  The right side is an architecture of vaguely primitive and technological symbols and six figures, two of which are human.  The man and woman are traders, like myself, and apparently they have landed on a picturesque, primitive planet in the process of exploring the galaxy.  Judging by their environment suits it is about one hundred years ago.  The man is using a portable translator in an attempt to communicate with four curious Cabaloids, the woman is staring wistfully at the starry, evening sky.  Inevitably, Marsen had it hung to flatter us.
            I wonder what these caricatures could be thinking on their picturesque, unlikely planet.  But we are nowhere.  I know that he is about to say that unless we, the Independent Association of Trader Worlds, join the Free Alliance they will collapse.  I also know that for once he isn't exaggerating and that nevertheless we will say no.
            We will say something else, too.
            After a frugal, exotic lunch, it is my turn to speak.  I recall how we have traded with the Free Alliance throughout the last thirty-seven years of war against the Union, in spite of the Union's pressure not to do so.  I show a couple of compelling images of Trader cities destroyed by the Union as a result of our refusal to honor their weapons embargo.  Where the image of the planet was, a burned, naked child, three times life size, stares at us from rubble; war always looks the same.  If she's still alive, and she could be since that was the last attack on a major Trader city, she'd be ten years older than I am now.
            The Union no longer harasses us; now they buy our weapons.  "I believe you, Marsen, the time is desperate.  But we have survived as a confederation for fifty years by not taking sides.  I know you consider it a matter of black and white and principle:  you are the freedom loving rebellion, the Free Alliance, while they are an oppressive Empire, the Union.  But after thirty-seven years of war, and in spite of your platitudes I see little difference between the dictatorial repression your peoples live with as a necessary concession to your war effort and the Union's unabashed political censorship and control."
            Marsen stands suddenly to exhibit his sense of offense but his face is unchanged.  He is a better politician now than he was seven years ago when I met him for the first time.  Now his red hair is gray at the temples and his aquiline nose and somber expressions give him a presence that his shortness and bellicosity used to defeat.  Their uniforms have grown more ornate since then.  They used to be much like ordinary clothes with the addition of a small insignia denoting rank; now there are stripes and symbols.  When they win an engagement in an inhabited solar system, which of course is where most of them are, they choose some ferocious animal native to one of the planets and use its likeness on their decorations.
            "Rayl, I’m not being captious;  I'm speaking plainly.  As you've said, we don't have much time.  In spite of my concerns about your political system and culture, I have no doubt the fall of the Free Alliance would be disastrous for the Independents; as soon as your worlds were secure the Union would begin annexing us, a system at a time.  And, by the time we could organize militarily it would be too late."  Marsen sits down slowly, he is placated, momentarily.
            "So, suppose, we cut off trade with the Union, announce our intention to support you economically and militarily, what would be achieved?"  I walk between the two groups to the other end of the room and stand in front of the burned child.  I tap the radio remote in my pocket and she is replaced by whiteness, different statistics, a graph.  "For a few weeks, things are better:  the Union finds the number of possible, antagonistic planets and bases has increased by an order of magnitude, your supply problems vanish and, with the assistance of our irregular planetary protection forces, the Alliance wins one or two major engagements.  But then the Union begins to retaliate effectively.   Most of our assembly and heavy industries are concentrated on fourteen worlds and everyone knows which fourteen those are.  You know it's nearly impossible to defend large industrial centers; we wouldn't be here if you didn't.  Of course, given their importance we could dedicate a large percentage of our collected forces to protect them, but would your civilians, as used to hardship as they've become, understand the need to give up their lives for a plant that manufactures, say, uniforms?"  This is an allusion to the riots in the Merin solar system.  "Ours wouldn't.
            "I don't know where we’ll be in a thousand days’ time, maybe we'll be in this room again or maybe this room won't exist.  Maybe that planet won't exist," I push a button and streaming clouds over the sea and a radial city on a coast appear.  "But wherever we are, our joining you will not change what needs to be changed.  You don't need to change the scale of the wars; you need to change their structure."
            I apply pressure to the button in my pocket and my last image appears.  It took half a day to find a suitable one in the library.  The screen appears to be made of rough, gray stone. Cut on the stone is the coarse, image of an ancient vessel for traveling across water.  The vessel has a square sheet which allows it to be propelled by wind and the vessel itself, though long and narrow, is filled with men wearing what were probably conical, metal hats.  The vessel bristles with their spears and several of them hold ropes leading to a mesh of ropes at the base of the square sheet bellied with wind.  Clearly, controlling the vessel was a complex and technical matter.  The front of the vessel is a tall, graceful carving of the long neck and square, fierce face of a forgotten mythological animal, a dragon.
            "This image comes from a rock.  It's about seventeen hundred years old.  Our idea comes from some new technology, they often do."
            "What does this have to do with us?"  Someone, a Trader I don't know, says.
            "That is precisely the point."

            The problem is to make the language natural, a living organism.  The others don't grasp that.  I wish I could do it all alone but there's too much to do and it needs more diversity than a single person can give it.  It is afternoon, Helst has written twice as many communique generating algorithms as he needed to in the last eleven hours and I have added just over a thousand words to the dictionary.  It's time I returned to the grammar yet again.   When I stopped last time I'd only sketched out the locative plural and none of the irregular forms.  We take the elevator down the 97 floors to the bottom and walk to the waterfall.
            "I've been stealing," Helst leans low over the glass railing and stares at the tiny crescents of the ocean waves below.   "Stealing ideas."
            I lean over, too, to see if he is looking at anything more than the water.  "No one cares, unless someone could tell you've been stealing."
            He looks over at me.  Just a short distance to my right, water is spraying out over the rocks and then dropping in the empty air.  You can follow a single drop down for hundreds of feet if you pick it out when it's first hanging in the open air.
            "It's like falling."  He grins, reaches over and shakes my shoulder until I start and grab the glass rail because we were leaning over so far and there is so far to fall.
            "What are you stealing from?"  I recover my balance.
            "The sagas.  Not the big things.  Just sometimes, after I've translated my fifteenth food shipment to the supply forces on Elgin, I do a personal about a man who thinks his neighbors want his things."
            "That's what you're supposed to do."
            "I know that.  When I first started doing it, I did it because the ideas were different from mine.  Different subjects.  'More diversity.'"  He is quoting General Chancer's speech yesterday on the planned development of the military organization and is mimicking the old man's quavering, indecisive lower lip.
            "Now they're not."
            "Creating a hundred gigabytes of communication a day I'm not surprised.  So you're thinking too much that way, find something else.  Another culture, other stories."
            "That's not it.  There are plenty of stories left.  It's just that I look back all those years ago and I don't see the differences between them and us anymore.  Or I do, but they seem insignificant.  We're like them already.  Did you know that?  But we're lying."
            "Stealing is a good idea," I say.  "From other cultures, other histories, other planets.  The important thing is to make it consistent.  And inconsistent, too."
            "Maybe I should take a break.  You took a break from politics."
            "Yes.  Do you know how important you are to this?"  I give his arm a hard squeeze.
            "Yes.  Will you go back?"
            "I might run again when this is finished.  You said we were like them."
            "There's a plainness about us, about Trader Cultures generally, a straightforwardness."
            "What we're trying to do isn't what I'd call straightforward."
            "They were clever too.  There's a legend about man who was a skald.  Do you know what a skald is?"
            "A member of a kind of  poets bureaucracy?"
            "Yes.  Anyway, he hears a legend of a people that have the most extraordinary poetry and he goes in search of them.  When he finally finds them he learns that their poetry is all concentrated into one word and because of his search he already knows the word implicitly, the word is "Undr." Wonder.  Then he learns that it's a different word for each person in the clan."

            The young people are not what I expect.  But the ships are:  sleek, black fuselages, eight, sweeping winglike appendages, each painted with a giant, "ancient" pattern, signifying flight.  It's all very dramatic here in the tropical jungle on Avius.  Helst made up these glyphs; I wish he were alive to see them now.  Each pair of wings are receivers and transmitters:  whatever electromagnetic energy they encounter on one side they broadcast through to the other;  the ships have the capacity to be utterly invisible.  Their attacks are sudden, efficient, enigmatic.  The wreckage the union found two months ago was intentional; we spent weeks constructing it and its computer files with the right proportions of absences, lies and melted titanium.  Now they know that we, or rather our conception, "the North,"  a previously unknown trading planet outside the Association, has suddenly become terribly and effectively bellicose.  We, or they, have come from nowhere, like the Danes, Norwegians and Swedes two thousand years ago.
            But the young people are not what I expect.  Half of the ships are automated, like the wreckage we built, and are used for the more marginal portions of the missions, of the remaining half, half again are flown by mercenaries.  The last quarter are flown by these kids.  After my talk, one of them follows me out onto the observation deck.  He leans against the wall, thrusts his hand back through his straight, black hair.  His predatory grin shows perfect, white teeth.  There is something of the conscious berserker in his fluid movements.  He folds his arms. "It was very good to hear someone talk about home."
            The way they speak the language is so strange.  One of the ancillary linguists suggested it in the last stages of the language project.  They flattened all the vowels.  It was an easy way of arbitrarily creating the cohesiveness of accent.  I nod.  Below us, one of the ponderous black ships begins to roar, rises majestically and hovers ten feet in the air.
            "You're not from the North."  The young man aims his grin at me.
            I look to his dark eyes to see what he means.  For a second I wonder if something terrible has gone wrong but then I understand what he means.  He, himself, is from the Northern islands of North; my accent indicates I am not.
            "No, but I've lived there most of my life, since I was eighteen."
            He nods.  I wonder where he is from, though he no longer knows.  Where he will go with all his new wealth when his term is ended?  Memory reconstruction is rarely completely successful; he was told that before he made the choice to be forced to forget.
            "I lived by a waterfall, too, when I was a child,"  he says and looks at me expectantly.  The roar of the ship softens and I look down.  It still hangs in the same place, but it is becoming transparent.  Suddenly, it is gone.  "We had a white house and there was a trail to the bottom of some falls."
            It's my turn to grin and say nothing.  Demographically, there is little chance he actually grew up near anything like a waterfall, or even on a world where it was reasonable to live outside of a dome.  I look out over the base and the tropical forest surrounding it and wonder again where he really came from and what brought him here.  They're so young.  I try to put him in light, summer clothes on one of our worlds, on my own green world, Transoceia.  It doesn't work.
            "When is your next mission?"
            "I can't tell you, can I."
            "Of course not."
            He grins again.  I can place him nowhere but here and now.  It's as if the North had to be devised because he was.  The air around us changes density; a premonition of sound.  Below us, the black, hovering shape slowly appears again.  There is something awful and majestic about the stately revelation of such implicit, deadly force.  It's like a rock hanging in the air.  I'm forced to put my hands over my ears because of the roar and this demonstration of human vulnerability disturbs the boy.  I take my hands down again.
            "What will you do when this is ended?"  I shout.
            He smiles and throws his head back.  "You southerners," he shouts back and shakes his head.  "It won't end."  It is a proud assertion of mortality and  immortality.

            I am myself again and so I am not quite myself.  When I returned home to Transoceia after reporting the state of the North project to the Directorate, I took five days and went to my home by the sea.  I wasn't sleeping well. Every morning I'd rise early and walk along the stony shore.  In places, the jagged, Almen trees with their skewed, crazy limbs and simple, round, green leaves, come right down to the water.  Each morning I'd stand on the rock at the point and look up and out towards the ring of tall, rectangular buildings that is the university on top of the plateau across the bay.  From that distance, the falls there are like a brightly polished silver thread.
            After being in space for twenty-seven days there is nothing to compare with sitting on a beach and skipping pebbles.  Suddenly there is so much to see.
            On the fourth day, as I stepped outside, there was a gray shuttle resting on the beach, not more than a hundred feet from my door.  Though it was silent, the intakes were still glowing red.  The door cracked the vacuum and slid open.  Johanis, Director of Public Works, took an unsure step down onto the pebbly ground, and, when he was stable, smiled.
            That was yesterday.  Then it was morning; now it is night.  I am in space again, on board one of our own satellite stations waiting for the representatives of the Union to arrive.  I walk back and forth in the small room, stretching, trying to shake off the lethargy and disconnectedness.  But it's an act for myself; something else is wrong.
            Finally, I sit down at the table and watch the sequence of six views of the stars and Transoceia from every direction pass methodically across the screen.  There is no apparent movement in any of the views and each image lasts for at least ten seconds, which establishes a kind of restful rhythm.
            I look through my notes on my personal screen one more time.  When I look up to the viewing screen again there is a new star apparent in the star field and it's moving.  I stare at it but then the image is replaced by another star field cut by an arc of blackness:  my world at night.  A while later the ship docks and a soon after that the door to the room slips open and the three representatives of the Union come in.  I stand.
            "Where is General Chancer?"  The first and tallest of three stops and looks around the room.  He has an orator's voice, silver hair and wolfish eyebrows.  I can see the vessels in his eyes.
            "General Chancer is the Director of our Defense forces.  I am Jekell Gardner, Director of Diplomacy.  In the current administration, he is my subordinate; I am first speaker of the Directorate.  We're not at war."
            "Not yet."  The orator says.  All three of them are wearing gray suits, each of a slightly different shade.  They are also wearing sashes emanating from a fitted silver plate at the shoulder:  a defense field generator probably.  I'm wearing a gray suit too, by chance, and the irony is not lost on me.
            Too late, I wish I'd brought someone else along.  "If you had decided to go to war with us or had decided to threaten us with war to intimidate us, you wouldn't be here.  There would have been no need.  And there's none now.  We're aware of your greater strength and destructive abilities, just as you're aware of our neutrality.  May we consider all of those preliminaries satisfied?  Please sit down."
            The orator laughs and then so do the other two.  They go to three chairs on the other side of the table.  All four of us sit at once, a subtle ceremony.
            "I'm Lord Froider.  You're better than Chancer.  I like you,"  the orator says, still laughing.  He is consistently condescending.
            "Thank you."
            "We're here because the war is ending."
            "Is it?"  I say.  He looks very disappointed.  Good.  "Would you mind elaborating?"
            "There is a planet, somewhere, called "North" which you needn't deny knowledge of; we're aware of your communication and trade with them, as indirect as it is."
            "For two years it has preyed upon our shipping and forces and we have done almost nothing about it.  Do you know why?"
            "We've wondered."
            "I'll bet you have.  They prey upon the Alliance as well, in fact much more heavily.  Over five times as much according to the Alliance's own coded communiques, which is not surprising.  By the way, do you understand how sensitive that information is?  Perhaps that will indicate the importance of this visit."
            The Alliance, in spite of their complaints, has done their job well.  I didn't expect that particular rationalization for tolerating North raids to last this long, in spite of all the falsified wreckage.  Maybe it didn't.  The Union is as capable of deception as we are.  I nod.
            "If the current trends continue, and they will, the Alliance's industrial and shipping capabilities will be completely destroyed by the end of the year."
            "From what we know of the Free Alliance that doesn't seem likely."  I lean back in my chair and fold my arms.
            "I know what you mean," he raises a furry eyebrow at me.  "Clearly they're receiving additional armaments and materials from somewhere that we don't know about."  He grins.  "We do know it's not you.  It’s but a last flash of flame as the fire smothers.  The war will end."
            "Then why are you here?"
            "As I'm certain you can understand, the existence of a large planetary association like the Traders, albeit neutral, poses a constant threat.  All too easily it could become the infrastructure of another rebellion.  The Association will have to be destroyed."
            "Is this a declaration of hostilities?"
            "No, I'm merely stating the obvious.  A number of the more strategically important Trader worlds will have to come under the Union's aegis."
            "And Transoceia?"  I make a point of not moving.  Of course it is all speculation; the Alliance is stronger now than it ever has been.  But the man and his need to demonstrate force and power are squalid.
            He laughs.  "You're not an industrial giant, but your technology is a concern.  And, since you have played such a significant role in Trader politics you are on the list."  Now he shakes his head.  I hate him.  "But there's something you can do that would shift the balance, so to speak."
            He wants me to ask.  I say nothing.
            "As I said before, we know of your dealings with the North.  We've tried communicating with them but somehow our communications have been ignored, or lost, or misunderstood.  There seems to be a need for someone to mediate between us, at least initially.  It could make a significant difference to you in the post war politics as it were."
            "What about the North?  Aren't they a threat?"
            "No.  Not really.  We're too much alike."

            They burn their dead.  A young pilot that I talked with during an evaluation trip to the base on Avis, or rather the three quarters that were left of him, was brought before us on an iron grate.  They'd dressed him in his best flying clothes, but had done nothing to hide his wounds:  the crushed chest, the missing leg, the charred burns.  Then four men that had flown with him hoisted the grate on to the tripod and stepped back.  The lasers bloomed, crossed at his chest and the corpse became a white hot fountain of hissing flame.  I didn't know that flesh burned that way; maybe they do something to the body after all.  The stern, gray haired pilot of our ship, Carole, who spoke the burning words, is a man like me.  He began life as a trader from my world, shipping small appliances; now he is a Northerner.  He lives the lie.

            "Out of the air,
            Into the air,
            The forking falls and rivers of honor.
            You fly before us."

             The boy never was himself again or rather he died as the self we made, and that he made, too.  It seems we are only what we make of ourselves.
            I think Helst would have been surprised.  He, better than any of us, appreciated the hubris of what we did.  But I think that even he assumed, in some way, that the inevitable absences would be filled with our culture, and they are for those of us that have had double lives.  But for the essential young ones, there are only absences.  They have no pity and love is something given to games and honor and luck, not to others.  Sometimes I think they sense the emptiness and fill it with humor.  Most of their events, particularly their ceremonies, are short, even ironic.  In a few moments there was only white dust where the body had been and we went to the ships.
            Now we are falling into high orbit around Transoceia.  The ship creaks as we pass from the light of the twin suns into the planet's shadow and the temperature changes by four hundred degrees in seconds.  I'm scared.  I'm forty years old and I'm more scared than the boys, than Carole, than anyone.  It isn't fair.  I tell myself that I don't mind death or pain and the lie is so shallow that I laugh aloud.  No one looks to see.
            Earlier, I was frightened for another reason:  I thought we might arrive in time and I was frightened that we might not.
            What the Union is doing is senseless.
            On one of the visual screens we can see what looks like a series of white storms flashing on and off and moving quickly, north and south across the otherwise dark face of Transoceia.  Networks of lightning, sometimes as much as a quarter of the planet in length, scintillate around burning white cloud centers which actually are intense, focused, city-diametered rays of microwaves.  On the tactical computer screen, next to it, the icons of the Union squadrons vector the same paths, relentlessly up and down the planet, detonating nuclear weapons as energy sources for the rays.
            Besides, the Union squadrons, probably two hundred ships in all, there is one other black icon, signifying us and showing our relative position.  I thought we might arrive in time but we didn’t.
            "Communications Officer, it's time, send," Carole says to me.
            Finally, something else to concentrate on.  I can't make a mistake.
            I don't. Our ship sends a burst of strategic and tactical code.  On the tactical screen, a hundred other black icons appear as if from nowhere.  The battle for the ruin of what was once my world begins.

For Jorge Luis Borges
Copyright 2014
All Rights Reserved