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This is the first in a series inspired by science, sound, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” and armchair philosophers.
All the hollow men were walking, walking up the gently sloping grassy spire. We followed them, the hollow men, climbing, climbing higher up the wildflower slopes, but they saw not the purple poppy and deep blue cornflower, knee-high grasses stirring in the breeze. We observed, we knew, we were aware.
At the top the spire ended in a cliff, and there the hollow men would topple, legs scissoring the air as if they still moved up. They hit with a crescendo of resonant clangs like bells struck at a dark lord’s portentous wedding. We stopped, patting ourselves on the back for averting the danger. But then, weeks or months passed, the same men returned, climbing, climbing. Again they fell and hit with the clangs of a clock striking midnight.
Half of us–the bravest and the strong–volunteered to follow, for we the aware should learn more in the fall than these fools. The strong and the brave landed with a shower, a heavenly choir of tiny bells.
A year later one volunteer returned–perhaps the least insightful of the lot we sent forth–his form mangled almost beyond recognition. The others, he said, shattered while he alone remained. We, he suggested, were also hollow, just of different stuffing and stuff.
This we could not swallow: We were the aware, we the observant, we the knowing.
by David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Daniel Braum, and Luc Reid
This is an exquisite corpse. Each of us wrote 1/3 of the story.
Joe wanted to blink. His eyes were shriekingly dry. He tried to focus. Bundles of dried wass reeds, a wall of them. Hung on the wall: stone-tipped spear, leather sack, dried Tolin head. He was in a native hut, but somehow things seemed to be too low. If he was standing on something, he couldn’t feel it. Holy crap! He couldn’t feel anything below his neck! Was he paralyzed? His mind ran panicked circles in his head.
A Tolin stood in front of him. It was a short one. They stood eye to eye, but most of the aliens were at least 7 feet tall.
The creature spoke.
“Death is not the answer,” it said.
Joe’s mind filled with a mechanical buzz. Sensation began to return to his limbs. Cold and stiff.
“Contact with you and your kind was too important to just let you die,” the Tolin continued.
Joe looked down and realized why he was able to understand its speech. His body had been replaced with artificial mechanisms. Parts of his new body looked like wreckage from his ship mixed together with the rudimentary Tolin technology.
But they couldn’t be that primitive, could they? Not half as primitive as he and his superiors back on Earth had thought … Joe dug into his memory, trying to recall. One of the top-heavy Tolin trees had crushed his chest. Had they really brought him back to life? Or had they just done some kind of radical surgery to save him?
“We want to understand your species,” the Tolin said, his voice a low hum that Joe could feel in his bones. “We know more than you imagine, and your computer video records are very easy for us to view, but we don’t speak your language yet. We thought perhaps if we took apart your brain, we would find your language in the pieces, but it was not there.”
Joe began to remember a little more now, disturbingly more. Yes, the tree had fallen on him: but now he remembered a group of Tolin standing in the shadows behind the tree as it fell.
“No, death is not the answer,” the Tolin said, “but that’s all right. We’ll just try something else.”
– end –
Tomas loved books. At first, like most children, he preferred to chew on them. That changed when he learned to read at the age of three. Dr. Seuss was the gateway drug. Oz, Wonderland, and Narnia led the way to harder texts.
He was seven when he made the promise. “I’ll read every book ever!” From that day on he was never without one. Fiction or nonfiction, it made no difference. A quirk in his brain made him remember every word of every page.
Tomas visited libraries. He learned to speed-read. He taught himself other languages. Facts bubbled through his brain, joining and sparking one against the other. Were he not so busy reading, he’d have become an inventor, a philosopher, or quite thoroughly insane.
He studied dead languages. He worked in bookstores and was fired for reading on the job. He put every penny into ordering more books. Read once, they wound up in stacks he carried daily away to be sold.
He gave up sleep. It was just a matter of willpower, or another quirk of his brain. Evicted from his efficiency, he lived in his van subsisting on peanut butter and Proust.
Tomas traveled from city to city visiting libraries and estate sales and bookstores, finding underpriced books and selling them for gas money.
He read hundreds of books a day, as fast as his fingers could flip the pages. Movie novelizations and abstruse textbooks and choose-your-own-adventures, he gulped them all. Older books he hadn’t already read grew harder to find, so he picked up every translation. English, Russian, Japanese, Javanese, Esperanto, he read them all.
And yet the number of new books being published grew faster than he could read. He read while eating, he read while driving. Something had to give.
Tomas overclocked himself, blazing through piles of books in seconds. Day and night he ghosted through library stacks seeking the odd unread volume. He broke into publishers’ offices seeking not-yet-published manuscripts, into museums to read diaries and journals.
He gave up dying. He learned to teleport. For three hundred years he lived from page to page. Finally, he reached the day of equilibrium.
“I have read every book published. There will be a new book released in four seconds. Do I wait to read it? Or do I end it now?”
Tomas took a second to admire the sunrise. He took another to sum up his life so far. Then, with a happy sigh, he moved on to the next book.