Let's Read a Story Together

We're thinking that storytelling has a key place in a rich, meaningful life. We can't prove it.

A note from the editor: We've had this idea that arts and entertainment would play a big role in what we're up to, but it's been difficult to pin down exactly how. This is not for lack of trying! We had two months of conversation about a Horatio short story contest. We've talked about Horatio arts conferences. We even talked with major donors about a Horatio film studio. We're not slackers! But then we hit our first obstacle. We coundn't entirely pin down what "Horatio art" or "Horatio storytelling" was. Given our mission of kicking off great conversation starters about the deepest things for you and your good friends, would that mean that Horatio fiction would...have a moral at the end? Our crew gave that a rousing thumbs down. And maybe all serious art was about the deepest things in life, so what would be our particular contribution? But then we came up with a brainstorm. We'll job out the question! So we asked our in-house, big-time writer, Jeffrey A. Carver, to send us some "Horatio stories." Jeff has published sci fi novels for decades, has been a finalist for the Nebula Award (for Eternity's End), wrote the novelization for the recent Battlestar Galactica and has taught writing at places like M.I.T. And he fell for it. So here is our first-ever Horatio art! It will run in five installments. After the fifth, we'll hope to convene a moderated conversation with Jeff in the comments section so we can have our first-ever Horatio book club. (Feel free, of course, to comment freely along the way.) So here we go: our first-ever Horatio art!

Reality School: In the Entropy Zone

Part 1:

As we walk through the entropic boundary, I expect to feel... I don't know what... some startling physical sensation. Instead, it's more like walking into the shadow of a towering building. A draft of cooler air passes through my blouse.

Then everything changes...

*

Looking back, it seems almost impossible to believe. Reality School, from matriculation to retirement, was supposed to fill seven of my best years—years of learning and challenge, and perhaps even occasionally danger. The time I actually spent cannot be measured; it was a time in which the world almost changed beyond recognition—and I changed into something, someone, I hardly know.

*

For my first day at school, my parents had gotten us up at dawn and piled me and my older sister into our ancient station wagon, Woodie. We drove for a long time, before turning into the entrance to the school. I remember this clearly, even though I was a girl only six and a half at the time. My parents told me later that I'd complained so much about the length of the trip that they very nearly turned around and drove me back home. They wouldn't have, of course; they knew how important the reality school was—not just to us, but to the whole world. Why else would they have put me through all that testing, and cried when I was accepted?

I remember this, too: my complaints vanished the instant we passed through the reality school's continuum-bubble. A great shock wave hit the hood of the car and flashed past the windows in rainbow colors, and suddenly everything around us changed. Everything—including Woodie. Our station wagon was transformed from a sagging road-barge into a shining fuselage, powered by glowing fusion thrusters and floating on a magnetic cushion. I screamed with joy and amazement, deafening my mom and dad. Marie was screaming just as loudly. At the same moment, the school grounds changed from scorched desert grass to a fairyland setting of whipped cream lawns, cotton candy trees, and gingerbread buildings. I hopped up and down with delight.

It was all window-dressing, of course—not just for the kids, but for the parents, who were preparing to leave their children with a school that few of them could really hope to understand. The parents believed in the school's mission, or they wouldn't have been there; but it probably helped to have the special effects to ease the transition. The effects had little to do with the real function of the school, of course, but it would take us a while to understand that.

Daddy drove up to the parking area, where a centaur with an armband directed him to a space that looked as if it had been saved just for us. We all piled out, Daddy warning me not to touch the fusion thrusters, whose glow was slowly fading to chrome silver. We had a good laugh, walking around our gleaming spaceship-car. Then a team of whinnying ponies drew up, pulling a cart for my bags. We loaded the cart and headed into the administration building.

*

I have no memory of registration, but I vividly recall the "reality-view" posters that glowed in the walls, and the clots of strange kids gathered around gawking at them. The posters looked like moving holograms, and at first I thought they were just pictures made by artists. It turned out they were actual images of reality-threads that "shapers," as graduates of the school were called, had encountered and safely sealed off from our timeline. Marie and I gaped at a world where everyone lived in clouds, where the whole world seemed to be clouds, and nothing looked quite solid, including the people. "Wow," I said, feeling the kind of thrill that I got from my favorite stories.

Then we turned to an image filled with stalactites and stalagmites that flickered and slowly changed color as if under a black light. That one stumped us, until an older boy stepped up and explained that it was microscopic metal crystals: a world where everything was solid-state, and all life took the form of electrons and photons. Phew, I thought. Why bother?

The boy, though, seemed to actually like the idea, the way I'd liked the clouds. He grinned, and told me his name was Ashok. And I began to wonder if kids like him were about to become my friends.

*

It was only a little later, at the dorm, that Mom and Dad and Marie had to say good-bye to me. I flashed from giddy pleasure to tears, and starting bawling, "I don't want to stay! I don't want to! I want to go home!"

"Alexandra, we've been planning this a long time," my dad started to say, all rationally. Only he couldn't get it out; he started crying, too, and turned away so I wouldn't see. You'd think it would have been Mom crying, but she was the one who tried to calm me down, "Honey, the tests said you were one in a million. Now, you go show them how you can do this! It's so important—"

No no no I don't care...!

That was when the school's departure routine kicked in. My dorm room suddenly blossomed out into a beautiful little sun porch, where some of my favorite characters—Peter Rabbit and Eeyore and Maxine the bunny and Berlioz the bear were all having tea together, and one after another, they beckoned me to join them. That broke the cycle of tears, for the moment; it was enough to make me let my parents go.

And from then on, life was never to be the same... not even in the ways we'd expected.

*

I am utterly alone—in a steaming jungle. Animals shriek in the distance. Where has everyone gone? "Rober-r-r-ta?" I cry, shivering. "Lisa? Danny?" I stumble back the way I came, searching for them. But where the entropic boundary stretched a moment ago, a jungle now goes on forever.

I teeter on the edge of panic. If I'm to find my world again, I can only plunge ahead. I have a job to do. An adult's job, even if I am only six and a half. I have already grown beyond my calendar age.

But I seem to have forgotten what exactly I am supposed to do.

*

Lisa Hoopner, my roommate, became my best friend right from day one. She was just a few months older than me, and one of the things I liked about her was her laugh, which was a kind of whoop that came out at the funniest times. Another thing I liked was her Bahhston accent. We didn't talk with accents in California, I said; and every time I said it, she gave a whoop and talked to me in a bubbling upbeat voice that was supposed to sound like people from around here. I didn't think it sounded much like me, but it made me laugh anyway.

Lisa and I were both pretty homesick, but it helped having each other to be friends with. For one thing, we both liked Berlioz and Maxine, and we both thought Mr. Playstead, the head teacher, was nice but kind of stuffy, and we both liked Mrs. Randolph because she made us laugh, and we both thought the cafeteria was awesomely yucky. Once we'd agreed on all that, everything else seemed pretty minor. Oh, and we both liked Danny Hutton, a boy from Iowa who we could tell was putting on a brave front, even though he was obviously even more homesick than we were.

Most of the kids were pretty nice. We had a lot of counseling sessions, some by ourselves, and some in groups where we talked about the things that we liked, and the things that scared us. That helped us get to know each other, I guess. I understand now that they'd selected us not just for our imaginations, but for a certain sociability and a certain toughness of mind, not that I would have put it that way then. They didn't want any wild-eyed or selfish individualists getting hold of the reins of reality. It was risky enough with the people they did choose.

The teachers had lots of activities to help us get to know each other—games and stories and plays. But the main activity was learning to shape reality.

*

In the beginning we shaped storybook landscapes and scenes. Try to imagine a roomful of six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds bubbling with imagination, perched under strange helmets of silver and glass, with visions of stories taking form right before their eyes. (None of our creations were permanent, of course—and they were strictly confined within the shielded training rooms. But if a leakage had occurred, the continuum-barriers around the school grounds would have kept anything we did from reaching the world outside.)

We learned right away that our mind's eye views of such magic places as Oz, Middle Earth, Peter Rabbit's forest, and Barsoom differed wildly from one another. Sometimes that caused arguments, which we were supposed to settle among ourselves. But other times we just had fun building one vision upon another, castle upon cloud upon ocean upon desert—until our landscapes grew into something that was as much us as it was the stories that had inspired us. We were learning to create. Later, we would learn to choose realities from the crazy chaos that the universe offered up to us. But in those days, we were consumed with building.

We were also learning to share...

One day Lisa and I worked together on a special play cottage made of clouds. It was delicate, puffy, and ethereal—and it had lightning bolts flashing across the doorways, and only Lisa and I could make the lightning go away to let us in. Even so, we made sure the point got across by patrolling the area in our helmets, telling everyone else to stay out. Mr. Playstead came upon us and planted himself in my path with a scowl. "Alexandra," he said sternly, "this space is for everyone, not just for people who appoint themselves queen for a day."

I was stunned, and suddenly ashamed. I didn't know quite what he meant by "queen for a day," but I knew we were supposed to share our creations with everyone, and not keep them to ourselves. I felt my face get hot as I looked at Lisa. Mr. Playstead hadn't said anything to her yet. She looked away guiltily. I knew we were both in for a special counseling session later, after Mr. Playstead reported this.

I was ready to let the cottage dissolve back into a cloud of smoke, taking me with it. But Lisa was quicker. She caught Tommy Harte's eye, and with a look invited him into the cottage. When Mr. Playstead saw that, he nodded approvingly. Lisa cheered up right away. Before I knew what was happening, she'd opened the cottage into a big pavillion and told everyone to come in. I stood there, burning with humiliation, as Mr. Playstead watched Lisa being so generous.

I stalked away, refusing to look at her. Finally, I sat down in a far corner of the room to make shapings by myself. The only trouble was, no ideas came. Nothing at all. I was getting madder by the minute. I heard Lisa come up behind me, and I glanced her way sullenly, ready to say something nasty.

"Meow."

She was holding a pair of little grey tiger kittens, offering one to me. I glowered. But I took one of the kittens anyway, and after Lisa had gone back to play, I hugged it carefully. It purred and strutted in my lap, and as I petted it, I began to feel better.

When the counselor asked me about it later (in my regular session—Mr. Playstead didn't send me in for a special visit, after all), I told her that I knew I shouldn't have done that with the private cottage-making, and I wouldn't do it again. She peered at me through her big, wide glasses and said, "You mean you've learned something about not being selfish?"

I shrugged, uncomfortable under her stare. "I guess so."

Dr. Shelby nodded carefully. "Have you forgiven Lisa for being quicker, and cleverer about changing what she was doing when you both got caught?"

The question surprised me. I didn't think Lisa had been caught. But yes, the kitten had helped me forgive her.

I nodded.

"You know, it's a pretty tall order to learn not to think just of yourself," Dr. Shelby observed. "But this thing between you and Lisa could be a valuable lesson. If the time ever comes when you have to reach deep inside yourself for strength, deeper than you think you can reach, I hope it will help you to remember this."

I stared back at her in alarm. Although she said it nicely, I could feel the weight of seriousness behind her words. Anything that would make me remember this in a good way, I thought, was something I didn't want to face. But I didn't say that; I just nodded.

Dr. Shelby peered at me. The light glinted off her glasses as she looked at the clock and said our session was over.

Part 2 to follow next week.

Copyright © 1995 Jeffrey A. Carver

First appeared in Science Fiction Age, March 1995.
Also appears in the story collection Reality and Other Fictions, by Jeffrey A. Carver (www.starrigger.net/ebooks.htm)

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