On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published three ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.
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Humans love putting labels on things, and particularly on ourselves. While labels are often useful, they’re also potentially dangerous things, and too readily expose the polarised views of the person who created them. It’s a lesson that we apparently have to keep re-learning over and over, no matter how far we advance in other ways.
Today’s brief tale is inspired by the fluctuating and ultimately arbitrary divisions we create between ourselves, regarding where we came from.
Jon Tskany walked into the elevator with the two other men, silently musing at how anti-climactic it felt.
Seven years, give or take, he thought. That was how long he’d wanted to know what lay in the sub-basement level, which you could only reach via this secured elevator. And today, he was going to find out.
He’d worked for the agency for almost two decades, starting out as a junior field clerk in the bustling metropolis of Bend, Oregon. Notwithstanding a questionable eighteen-month detour via Miami of all godforsaken places, he had been on a direct line towards Washington D.C. for most of his adult life. He’d finally got the transfer seven years and four weeks ago — almost to the day — and since then he’d had a single goal. The phone call yesterday hadn’t been unexpected, but it had certainly been welcome.
A promotion was a rare enough thing, and Tskany wasn’t entirely sure that that’s what this was, but even if it was a sideways step he’d take it with gratitude. Curiosity was practically his middle name. It was a quality that the agency both sought out and encouraged.
His ethnicity had rarely been an issue for him, and he counted himself lucky indeed on that point. Tskany knew there were so many people in this great country who couldn’t say the same, including most of his family members and friends. He would have to check back in with them all soon, he reminded himself. It had been too many busy weeks since his last phone call.
He was pulled from his reverie by the slowing of the elevator as it finally reached its subterranean destination. The doors slid open to reveal an ordinary corridor, but Tskany noticed immediately that none of the doors had any windows set into them, and each had a security keypad with a small red light showing.
The older of the two men moved ahead without a word, and Tskany and the third man fell into step behind him. The air felt a little heavy, but Tskany knew it was just his own heightened emotional state rather than any actual difference in pressure. Their destination was clear: the far end of the corridor held double doors of dull metal, with a pair of armed guards who were paying him — and only him — a great deal of attention.
The older man made a small hand gesture of dismissal, and the two guards noticeably relaxed. All the same, Tskany was very conscious of their forefingers laid along the trigger guards of their rifles, and the way they kept the weapons at half-readiness in their arms. He had no doubt that he would be dead in less than two seconds if they decided he was a threat.
Tskany made a point of nodding to each of the guards when he reached them. Neither returned the gesture, instead regarding him with something a little beyond mere curiosity. The older man waved him through, and Tskany found that he was relieved when the guards remained behind.
“Sorry about all that, Jon,” the older man said. “Security. You know.”
Tskany nodded, not just because he did genuinely understand, but also because the speaker was the director of the agency, and a very powerful man indeed. They had attended many meetings together, but it was unusual for the director to have any hand in individual role changes. The man had the clear body language of someone anticipating giving a tour, or making a revelation of some kind, so Tskany suspected that whatever initiation he was about to experience was something that the director personally enjoyed conducting.
The third man, who hadn’t spoken at all so far, was unknown to Tskany.
The doors had opened onto a short further corridor, with a matching set of security doors at its end. This time, there were no guards. When this final set of doors opened before them, Tskany frowned.
The chamber beyond was larger than he had expected to find here, but by no means remarkable. It was a room like most of the others in the building, just a little taller than normal — perhaps three metres at the most — and around double the size of the executive conference room a few storeys above. There were other agency staff working in various parts of the room, and in the centre there was a cluster of scientific equipment, arranged roughly in a ring shape. Within, Tskany could just see an object that looked like a large and almost featureless chunk of rock about the size of a refrigerator.
“And here we are,” the director said, with obvious relish. “Quite a day.”
Tskany glanced at him, but the older man was already walking further into the chamber. As the other staff noticed him and respectfully stopped working, the director smiled efficiently at no-one in particular.
“Give us the room,” he said, and without so much as a moment’s hesitation, they all walked towards the door. Several pairs of eyes turned in Tskany’s direction, and again there was that strange more-than-curiosity.
Moments later, the three men were alone. The silent man went over to the perimeter of the room, and settled himself into an office chair. He was watching, and his manner exuded the utter casualness of ultimate authority. Tskany found that he didn’t like the silent man at all, and angled his body slightly away from him.
“A little piece of home,” the director said, indicating the large rock, and Tskany walked over to stand beside him. They were just outside the ring of machines, and he was relieved to note that none of them were designed to monitor radioactivity or anything alarming.
“Home, sir?” he asked, and the director nodded thoughtfully.
“Almost all we have left,” the older man said. “There are other samples, of course. This is the largest. I think of it as our most prized souvenir. And when I say our, I of course don’t include yourself, Jon, or your own people.”
“My… own people?”
Tskany felt the old and unpleasant tightness in the pit of his stomach. Your people was a charged phrase, and too often a precursor to prejudice. But it seemed so out of character here. Perhaps he had misunderstood.
“Native Americans, I mean,” the director said cheerfully. “Or American Indians, which I understand is the preferred term these days?”
“For some,” Tskany said carefully. “But I’m really not sure what you mean.”
“We are a nation of immigrants, Jon,” the director said, gesturing expansively, “but we are also a planet of them. Aliens, almost all of us, making a life on foreign shores.”
Tskany swallowed. This was all going sideways.
“I suppose you could say that, sir,” he said. “The United States is certainly an incredibly diverse–”
“That’s the big secret, Jon,” the director said. “The one you’ve been so diligently chasing after all these years. And the first of your own people to ever stand in this room, by god. Quite a day.”
The director turned to face him, and right on cue the silent man pressed a few buttons on a console on the perimeter of the room. A large screen came on, showing a diagram of the solar system. Tskany glanced at it for a moment and then his brow creased once more.
“How it used to look, so our scientists tell us,” the director said. “You see it there, between Earth and Mars?”
Tskany did. The dense greenish world, a cousin to this planet, though with much less surface water. Then he looked over at the chunk of rock again.
“We don’t even know how we came to be here,” the director said, his voice reflective now. “Or what happened to our world. But the advent of genetic testing removed all doubt. This world is really yours, Jon. Your own people, including many south of the border. Just from this one split-off landmass.”
Tskany looked at him. There was neither deception nor jest in his eyes.
“All the rest of us, everywhere — all the nationalities and ethnicities of the continents,” the director said, now pointing to the screen and the long-dead world within a blinking dotted border, “are from there.”
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.
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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.