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Although parts of this short story have an almost storybook-like quality, this is an ironic portrait of humanity caught in the long sweep of history. It is about the rise and fall of empire, nuclear war, conquest, archeology and the arrogance of kings, although it can be argued that it is really about the ultimate conqueror: Time.

 

The Survivor

by Ken Sanes

Once in a far off land there was a sovereign by the name of King Wisemoron who knew himself to be the king of the ages. And he proved it by conquering other nations and building a great palace where he housed his wives. In response, the world was dutifully impressed, and it bowed down, spreading praise and riches before him as he sat on his golden throne and took it all in.

But Wisemoron was also a responsible ruler and he shared his riches with his people, lavishing many fair laws and taxes on them that he devised for their benefit. He even gave generously of his time, officiating at public ceremonies so his people could bask in his glory. If the widow and orphan were not as well cared for as many would have liked, that was a sacrifice that had to be made for the good of the kingdom.

It was in fact in the performance of his duties that, one fateful day, King Wisemoron instructed his workers to cut a large stone tablet and engrave a portrait of him on it, surrounded by images of dates and roast duck. Words were to be carved on the tablet, as well, just below the portrait.

Wisemoron’s master craftsman, Cuttywink, took two months to finish the job, decorating the edges of the tablet with curlicues, zigzags, and other eye-catching shapes that he knew his sovereign would appreciate. He then presented the tablet to King Wisemoron who was delighted with this royal work of art. In fact, he was so pleased, he had it set up on a table at the foot of his bed so he could look at it when he rose in the morning and when he went to sleep at night. After the tablet was in place, King Wisemoron held a meeting with his closest advisors and gave them special instructions on what he wanted them to do if the unthinkable happened and he should ever die.

That night, King Wisemoron looked at his engraved image on the stone tablet as it looked back at him in bed, and then he drifted off to sleep feeling satisfied. Yes, indeed, it was good to be the king! But King Wisemoron’s sleep was anything but restful. He tossed and turned fitfully and was repeatedly awakened by a dream in which he was trapped and suffocating, and there was no one there to save him. Then, just before dawn, King Wisemoron woke with a start, bolted upright in bed, pointed to the tablet, and screamed for his attendants. A moment later, he collapsed back into bed and, as his attendants scrambled into the room, gathering around the sovereign whose life their lives revolved around, King Wisemoron exhaled his last breath.

As his attendants stood there in a state of shock, they saw what they were convinced was a disturbance in the air over King Wisemoron’s body. One attendant later said it was like the dark cloud of a miniature thunderstorm. Another said it looked as if the air had gone wavy, like the distortion over a fire. But they all agreed that they saw the disturbance slowly extend itself toward the stone tablet until it made contact. Then it was as if it was drawn into the tablet and disappeared.

The next day, the most prominent people in the kingdom gathered in the throne room of the palace to see which of King Wisemoron’s young sons would be his heir. They had heard stories of strange goings on in the palace, and no one knew what to expect. Their apprehension increased when, instead of a new sovereign, they saw a dark curtain pulled around the throne.

Finally, after a long wait, a royal official entered the throne room. He stood next to the curtain and said, as was the custom, “The King is dead.” Then, with a pause for effect, he continued -- “Long live the King!” -- as two attendants pulled aside the curtain. And there, sitting on the throne, was the stone tablet that King Wisemoron had asked his workers to create. Many people took a step back. Some gasped in horror as they saw the portrait of the dead king staring at them from the tablet. A king with a heart of stone was one thing. But a stone tablet for a king was too much to bear.

As people looked on in disbelief, they noticed that two words were engraved below the portrait: “I’m here.” King Wisemoron, it seems, had found a way to hold on to his throne and bask in the love of his subjects forever.

Over the coming years, the late king’s officials carried out his instructions to the letter. But, much to his subjects’ surprise, nothing much changed. Like the living king before it, the tablet sat on the throne as people bowed to it and lavished it with gold and praise. It attended cabinet meetings on finance and defense, and officiated at public ceremonies, all with the assistance of the palace’s able officials, who fared quite well under the new regime.

Then, one overcast morning, an advisor to King Dimsensible in the kingdom to the east pointed out that having a stone tablet for a neighbor was a cause for concern. What if King Dimsensible’s own people began to think they too could get along without a king, the advisor asked?

“Besides,” he said, “our spies tell us the stone tablet’s armies are poorly led.”

That afternoon, King Dimsensible held court. “A piece of stone!” he said, in a deliberately overdramatic voice. Then he made a face and waved his hands like he was dismissing the stone tablet, as his attendants and advisors and other toadies laughed uproariously.

A few days later, Dimsensible’s fighting force cut through the stone tablet’s border defenses and marched into its territory. In a decisive battle five miles from the palace, the tablet’s army was shattered and fled into the countryside, where it began pillaging local villages it was sworn to protect. Meanwhile, Dimsensible’s soldiers rampaged through the palace, destroying everything they couldn’t carry off.

After the palace was secure, King Dimsensible himself arrived and waited at the oversized wooden doors at the front. The doors started to creak open, momentarily got stuck, then finally creaked all the way open for their new sovereign as Dimsensible and a long train of his advisors, generals, and favorite wives entered and headed for the throne room.

Moments later, Dimsensible was standing in front of Wisemoron’s tablet, propped up on the throne, stone cold face to stone cold face. Standing around Dimsensible were his own people along with the tablet’s advisors and wives, who had been marched in, bound together with long chains. Dimsensible was then handed a large mallet and, while his attendants put the tablet in a horizontal position on the throne and held a spike up to the engraved face, Dimsensible brought down the mallet with a single sweep as the tablet cracked in two and fell to the floor.

“The pretender is dead,” his attendants proclaimed in unison as everyone, including the late tablet’s advisors and wives, congratulated Dimsensible. “Long live the one and only true king.”

The triumphant monarch then marched out, his head held high, followed by his applauding subjects.

King Wisemoron was now beside himself -- literally. His tablet was in two jagged pieces on the floor. But no one entered what was left of his throne room to see what had become of him, because the ruins of his palace had been declared off limits by Dimsensible, on pain of death. And in Dimsensible’s kingdom, death could be very painful. So the late King Wisemoron’s palace became a waste and fell down around itself as King Dimsensible ruled over his enlarged kingdom from a grand new palace he built in the east, full of imported cedar and marble, with luxurious fabrics that he paid for with his plunder.

As the years passed, the ceiling in Wisemoron’s throne room began to collapse, slowly at first, with bits and pieces falling off, then all at once, pressing in on the two fragments of the tablet. One of the fragments cried out plaintively “I’m here.” But no one heard and no one came to rescue it.

Meanwhile, Dimsensible’s great grandson enlarged the family empire by conquering lands even further to the west. And his son, Dimsensible the Horrible, extended the empire to the edges of the known world. The decadence in Dimsensible’s palaces ran rampant, with feasts of stuffed duck and candied swine, belly dancers jingling their bells, and vast topiary gardens tenderly shaped by the loving hands of eunuchs and tended by armies of slaves. Yes, indeed, it was good to be the king.

But over at King Wisemoron’s palace, all was darkness. The centuries passed and the earth covered the room where a stone tablet had presumed to sit on the throne, while the two fragments were pressed deeper into the earth. In the area around them, there was no noise and nothing moved except for an occasional burrowing rodent that failed to find anything of interest and continued on its way.

In the blink of an eye, a thousand years passed. Then another. And part of another.

Finally, one day there were strange sounds, and a lot of movement.  Suddenly, there was a shaft of light and fresh air for the first time in, well, a very long time. Small shovels pushed their way in from above and carried away dirt and debris. Then there was a clanging sound as a shovel hit a hard piece of stone.
 
“It looks like a tablet of some sort” someone said, as one of the fragments was lifted out of the dirt.

“Show it to the chief archeologist” the person standing next to him responded.

Soon there were a dozen people crowding around the lower piece of the stone tablet, which had words engraved in an ancient language that no one could read.

A man dressed in khaki colored shorts and a wide brimmed hat stepped forward and took the fragment in his hand.

 “We may be digging up the Royal Palace of King Nadachunk,” he said.

“Or it could be -- ” said a young woman, stepping forward, holding a small hand-shovel. “It could be the long lost palace of King Wisemoron.”

“But that means this might be -- ” the man in the hat started to say.

“That's right,” the woman responded. “This just might be a piece of the legendary royal tablet that is said to have been the eternal resting place for Wisemoron’s soul.”

Actually, that last statement was more like an announcement to the large group of archeologists and other workers who had gathered around the fragment to follow what was taking place. Now there was applause and a great deal of excitement as a lot of people spoke at once.

Then the man in the wide brimmed hat spoke again but with a different tone then he had used before.

“Hail to Gullibania,” he said loudly. “Hail to our nation and this great new discovery, which demonstrates once again that we are descended from kings and heroes!”

With that there was more applause although it wasn't quite as enthusiastic as before.

Then there was more digging, which was carried out very delicately. The soil was sifted through screens, and pieces of debris were removed from the earth with brushes and fine hand tools, then examined and placed to one side. Soon, a second piece of the stone tablet was dug out. The female archeologist held it up over her head to show it to the assembled crowd of workers, who were following everything with rapt attention. It was a fragment of the upper part of the tablet although it only showed half of an engraved face, surrounded by what looked to the archeologists like images of dates and dishes of cooked poultry, probably duck, with an outer edge of curlicues, zigzags, and other decorative shapes.

The archeologists dug through the night and into the next day but that was all they found -- the bottom third of the tablet with words on it in a language no one could read and the left side of a face of what everyone now believed was the legendary King Wisemoron. They expanded their search but without success. The rest of the tablet had apparently disappeared into the sands of Time.

When the news media in Gullibania revealed that two pieces of the legendary Wisemoron tablet had been unearthed -- and just a hundred miles from the capital of New Defunctum City -- there was an uproar. Many people were superstitious and believed that it really did house the late sovereign’s soul. To satisfy public demand, television covered the story for weeks with nonstop updates even though there really wasn’t anything to update after the initial announcement of the discovery.

“And here is reporter Egan Morgan Killgerhorgan with the latest update on the tablet,” a TV announcer said, as bold letters on the bottom half of the screen blared out: “Breaking: Are Fragments Famous Royal?”

“Thank you,” said Egan Morgan Killgerhorgan, “We have now confirmed that a member of the presidential commission appointed to look into this has definitely confirmed that this is definitely Wisemoron’s tablet,” she said.

“Now, they confirmed that yesterday, didn’t they,” asked the TV announcer, who had a reputation for being somewhat crusty in his remarks.

“Yesterday it was only one definitely,” Egan Morgan Killgerhorgan replied.

“There you have it,” said the announcer, without a hint of sarcasm, “a double definitely from an unnamed commission member who says this is definitely –- definitely -- Wisemoron’s tablet.”

Behind him was a photograph of the two fragments, one with half a face and one with the lettering no one could read, that said, “I’m here.” People may not have known what it was saying, but they were certainly answering its call.

The fragments were now set up in the east wing of the presidential palace in the capital of New Defunctum City. The line of people waiting to see them wound its way through the surrounding courtyards, gardens, and parks, clear out to the tree-lined boulevard that encircled the presidential palace. What was left of King Wisemoron was a star! And the lines kept coming as hundreds of thousands of people passed through. The guards were even forced to move the display back away from the crowd because people kept breaking out of the line and touching the fragments for luck.

Then it was revealed that a famous singing star wanted to leave her fortune to the maternal grandmother of her late Chihuahua, and the media rushed off to get the story -- and other stories of similar import.

As the crowds began to thin, the two fragments were moved to the Museum of Antiquities in downtown New Defunctum City. At first they held pride of place in the front gallery. Then they were moved back, and moved again, until they came to rest in the Wisemoron/Dimsensible Gallery of Ancient Art. The tablet was still crying out “I’m here,” but no one ever figured out what it was saying. Some people were interested but there were no great numbers like before.

The years turned into decades. The decades became a century. The nation of Gullibania that housed Wisemoron’s fragments was now the leading member of the Northeastern Federation of Free Nations. And the Wisemoron fragments had long since been moved to the Museum of Additional Antiquities in the outskirts of a provincial city, where they occupied a high shelf built into the wall, out of reach of visitors who still tried to touch them for luck.

But no one was thinking about ancient art. There were tensions with the Tri-Continent Alliance, which had accused the Northeastern Federation of Free Nations of usurping oil drilling rights. This was an issue of vital importance to both sides since oil was scarce. In fact, most kinds of energy were scarce, which made it difficult for either the Alliance or the Federation to achieve the level of material abundance their people yearned for. Most fossil fuels had been used up in the distant past, in an age that was ancient and largely unknown even in Wisemoron’s time. And nuclear reactors had to be abandoned as a source of energy after they kept suffering technical failures and meltdowns. The Northeastern Federation maintained only a handful, far away from the cities, to produce the nuclear weapons that had successfully deterred an attack for the last few decades.

Then a warship from the Tri-Continent Alliance fired on a warship of the Northeastern Federation, and sank it, with more than a hundred sailors dead. The rhetoric heated up. The Alliance threatened war. Generals in the Northeastern Federation recommended a preemptive nuclear strike. But the president refused.

“For every city we hit, they will counter-attack against one of our own,” the president said. “We might just as well target ourselves.”

Meanwhile, in the Northeastern Federation's Museum of Additional Antiquities, a little girl was staring up at the Wisemoron fragments.

“Mommy, mommy, the tablet spoke to me,” she screamed in a small voice as she turned and ran toward her mother. But as she ran she was very careful, because her mother had dressed her up like an adult attending a great ball for this outing to the museum, with a long dress and hair piled on top of her head. “Mommy, the tablet told me, 'Go there,'” the little girl said as she wrapped her arms around her mother.

The next day, newspapers throughout the Northeastern Federation carried the story. As one oversized headline put it: “Wisemoron Fragments Tell Little Girl We Should Take the War to the Alliance Before It Takes the War To Us!”

Then a well-known psychic announced that he had been visited by Wisemoron’s spirit in his sleep, and it had given him a message.

“What was the message” a TV reporter asked, as millions of viewers, their eyes glued to their television screens, waited nervously for an answer. 

“The message was one word,” the psychic replied. “Kill.”

Soon newspapers and the TV news throughout the Northeastern Federation were filled with reports of people receiving hidden messages from the Wisemoron fragments. The mysterious messages were discovered in vertical and horizontal word combinations in crossword puzzles; in the unexpected arrangement of letters in alphabet soup; and even in the barking of dogs at night, which sounded to their owners like a rough form of human speech.

“War! War! War!” the dogs barked, as otherwise peaceful neighborhoods were disrupted, and people tried unsuccessfully to get some sleep.

There were also a few cat owners who claimed they heard their pets purring for peace. But they received less attention from the media.

Like many civilians, the generals of the Northeastern Federation were superstitious, and they definitely preferred dogs to cats. They also knew how to read intelligence reports, which revealed that the Northeastern Federation would only last a year at most against the larger, richer, and better equipped forces of the Alliance. Then the Alliance sank two more Federation ships while the president of the Federation pleaded for peace.

It was late at night when the generals removed the president of the Northeastern Federation from his position, and advised him to stay at his vacation home for the next few days. The next morning was a brisk fall day. The temperature was unseasonably cool. Nuclear missiles from the Northeastern Federation lifted off from bases in eight locations, traveling cleanly through the air, as they headed toward Alliance territory. The Alliance responded, launching its own missiles, in an attack on the Northeastern Federation. Then there was a change in the weather.

The Museum of Additional Antiquities didn’t open that day, or any other day after that. Late in the morning there was a loud noise coming from somewhere outside the building. Then the lights went out and the air conditioners stopped their perpetual hum. Once again the fragments were in darkness as they sat high on a shelf in a windowless gallery.

Meanwhile, outside the museum, day turned to night, and night to day. Full moons followed full moons. But still no one came to see the fragments. Then there were a number of cold winters that turned into a decade of ice. In fact, the entire century was colder than usual. And the millennium after that was only a little better, as the ruins of cities that littered the landscape were blanketed with snow. Meanwhile, in the dark gallery that housed Wisemoron’s tablet, openings started to appear in one of the walls, near the floor. Small animals with thick fur coats came in through the openings, looking for protection from inclement weather, and from larger animals prowling through the snow.

Then one spring the sun came out and, lo and behold, it was a warm day. Not long after, water started to trickle in through the openings in the gallery wall. Soon there was a creek inside, and a small pond formed in the dark cavernous room. Then the ceiling collapsed, followed by entire sections of wall, letting in a flood of light and a view of both the landscape and sky. Greenery began to grow in what was left of the gallery. Small fish appeared in the pond. Snakes slithered between vines and underbrush. Frogs hopped on what was left of the museum statuary. The idealized statue of two lovers caught in an embrace was a favorite place for the lizards because there were so many nooks and crannies for them to hide in. Over time, the Alliance of Frogs competed with the Federation of Lizards for the best spots.

One day there was a loud noise as the lower fragment with the words engraved on it fell from its high shelf into the water, face down, and landed on a rock. It made a nice place to sit for the frogs.

Then, early one morning, a man and a boy came wading in to the shallow pond in the ruins of the gallery. The man was about five feet tall. He had dark wavy hair and a short face, with features that looked like they had been pushed together. The boy was about four feet tall with a smaller version of the same face. They each wore sandals and a crudely woven tunic that covered them from the shoulders down to somewhere below the surface of the water.

The boy pointed to the remaining fragment of the stone tablet high on the gallery shelf. It had an engraving of half a man’s face on it, and pictures of what looked like foods they had never seen before. The man climbed up and brought it down, and they stared at the fragment with the engraved rendering of the long-faced ancient, without realizing just how ancient it really was.

They didn’t know there was another fragment of the same stone tablet in the water, with words on it. But they wouldn’t have understood it anyway. They had seen writing before but none of their people could figure out why the ancients, with all their magical powers, had devoted so much time to creating those intricate designs.

When the man and boy got back to their village, people were fascinated by the fragment they brought with them. Many were convinced it housed the soul of an old shaman who had died the previous summer.

So they put the fragment on an alter in their small mud brick temple, and everyone bowed down to it. One worshipper even told the others that, just for a moment, he was sure he saw the half of an engraved face smile.

Unfortunately, by now, most of the stone tablet was missing since additional pieces around the edges had broken off when it was carried back to the village. And since the bottom half with the words on it had been left behind, it could no longer tell people, “I’m here.” But, once again, what was left of Wisemoron’s tablet was the center of attention.

Standing before the assembled worshippers of the village, the man who had discovered the fragment pressed his ear against the engraved surface of the stone. Then, interpreting the thoughts of the fragment for the assembled worshippers, he told them that their new god was very pleased and was ready to bestow its benefits, as it had done for so many others before.

 


Note: the words on the tablet were undoubtedly inspired by a description in the Kurt Vonnegut novel, The Sirens of Titan.
Also, a hat tip goes to
"A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller Jr.

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