‘Making History’, Lynda Williams

An Okal Rel Universe story

Artwork by Djibril

Reva entered the theater with an unresolved proof pulsing in her mind that felt impossible to solve because it wasn't mathematical. It was moral. Or maybe a question of political philosophy.

Her government was still young and fragile, her people the traumatized survivors of a genocidal war from which they had been rescued, at the last minute, by their enemy's new leader, a charismatic figure called Ameron. She knew they badly wanted to believe that his gesture had meant more than it really did. She knew it served her interests that she let them.

Reva was on the brink of making history. Her colony of survivors was about to become the first example of a new form of government based on her arbiters. Total transparency was why arbiters were trustworthy. They could not lie. And they could not keep secrets.

Yet here she was about to help empower Lenny—her own, dear Lenny! The only colleague she had dared to take into her confidence about the secret weighing heavy on her conscience today—

Here was Lenny insisting she give her blessing to a play about her and Ameron that she suspected of being sentimental propoganda. And left the secret out, entirely.

To make matters worse, Lenny was the playwright himself, and prouder of it than she had ever seen him act over greater contributions to posterity: like arbiters. She couldn’t have invented them without him.

Reva hoped no one in Lenny's guinea-pig audience would like the damn thing. Then she could quash his literary aspirations, with sympathetic condolences, and side step the whole dilemma.

Lenny lurched out of his seat as she came in and waved to her, beaming across his entire face, his pear-shaped body looking only half as rumpled as usual, decked out in his best suit.

"Reva!" he greeted her, handing her a printed program. “Here! I’ve saved you a seat.”

It was a small colony. Reva knew all the people in the theatre personally, to some extent, and had gone out of her way not to be an icon to them—to date. They looked and smiled, respectfully, but that was it. They weren’t here for her. They were here to help Lenny make a legend of her. Her bad feeling gave a squirm.

She looked at the program.

"Romance of the Founder by Lenny Pushkin," she read, and fixed a skeptical stare on her friend and mathematical colleague. "This had better not be too entertaining, Lenny," she said.

"Actually, that is the general idea," he admitted, still beaming with pleasure and excitement. "I mean to entertain people. It has been a tough decade, Reva. And I know," he said, raising a plump palm. "It is going to get better. But arbiters, you know, however miraculous—well, they aren't very cuddly. We need a few warm feelings. A bit of the stuff of legend, even. People will love it. You'll see."

I hope not, Reva thought, but she sat down and shut up. She owed Lenny too much to quibble over something this obviously dear to him. Besides, he knew too much about her. He knew about Departures.

No one else but she and Lenny ever saw Departures. But he never objected when she claimed the discoveries they made, with its help, for herself. He had insisted on it. The Arbiter Administration was her dream, he always said. He just wanted to help.

And to write very bad plays, apparently.

Of course, it was not much of a theatre. The colony of half a million survivors had scant resources to spare for such luxuries, and the rest of what was left of the Old Regime was too busy reeling in the aftermath of defeat to pay much attention to them. But Lenny may have been right about the need for some myth making because nearly everyone invited was there, sitting in the hard seats with a hushed, expectant air, as if they were about to get the whole truth, at last: the real story.

Lenny leaned closer to Reva as the lights went down.

"It's for the cause, Reva," he implored her, hopefully.

On the stage, a spotlight fell on a woman lying face down on the floor of a prison cell.

 [ On stage: image (cc) 2006 Djibril ] "There were no bars," Reva whispered.

"Poetic license," said Lenny.

"We don't issue them," she hissed back at him.

"Shh," he said.

On stage, a man came in and stood over the prisoner. Only his legs were visible in the circle of light surrounding her. The tip of his sheathed sword cast a dramatic shadow.

Swords, Reva thought, and fidgeted. She hated the stupid things. Ameron and his Sevolites had been addicted to them, like overgrown kids playing war games. They made a blood sport of dueling. Ameron said it satisfied a need.

The man on the stage knelt beside the fallen woman. The spotlight expanded to include him. He raised the woman up to her feet. "I am Ameron," he told her. "What are you called?"

"He wasn't that good looking," Reva quipped to Lenny. "He had a longer nose."

Someone a few rows down hissed, "Shh!" either unaware who she was, or simply more interested in her fictional, younger self. Reva rolled her eyes and steeled herself to endure.

On stage, the actress had already introduced herself as Reva. "You speak English!" she said to Ameron. "Why did you learn English? It's a dead language!"

He folded his arms, looking serene. "I could ask you the same thing."

Now that's just all wrong! Reva thought, irritably. Ameron was never still. He paced. And he talked a lot more than I did. She remembered demands for an explanation, anger, and even threats. He acted as if she was responsible for every atrocity committed by the space fleet of the Old Regime.

On the stage, her fictional surrogate told him: "I'm a mathematician. I learned English because there's a lot of Late Earth material I'm interested in."

He smiled. "You are educated!"

In real life, thought Reva, it wasn't that easy making friends.

Ameron came back to her, the second time, fresh from a slaughter. This time it had been his people wiping out hers. He had already lost his temper. She figured she might buy a fast death by provoking him and so she argued. He pulled that stupid sword of his and waved it around to make a point. She expected him to kill her with it.

The actress on the stage laughed. "You really do wear those things!"

"This?" The actor detached his sword and held it out to her.

Like a Sevolite would do that! Reva fumed in her seat. Of course, Ameron was not much of a swordsman by Sevolite standards, she remembered. That's why he always had to have a champion.

"We fight with swords, among ourselves," the phony Ameron said. "We do it honorably. We do not desire to fight with you in this destructive way of yours, with ships in space, assaults on green worlds, and with disease! It is a madness we must contain.”

The actress playing Reva looked straight up at her enemy.

As if I was never scared! thought the real Reva.

"It seems to me that it was you who invaded us," the actress boldly accused him.

"Yes," Ameron agreed, unhappily. "We did."

That part is right, Reva remembered with a pang she had not expected to feel. He was no prouder of the invasion than I was of our germ warfare and anti-pilot tactics in space.

Strangely, it was more upsetting when the actors got it right than it was to sit through silly, cheesy bits. Reva hadn't expected that. She began to get out of her seat.

Lenny clamped a warm, damp hand on her wrist. "Stay,"” he pleaded.

"I am not in charge here," said the actor playing Ameron. "I am only my mother's heir. There is only one way I can protect you, and that is to make you my mistress."

Not how it happened, Reva thought, relieved, and sat down again. She had suggested the mistress bit, but only after they wound up in bed, and getting there had not been rational or gentle. Desperate, was a better word. She was afraid of him. He was afraid of what he was learning about her. As love potions went, it was a strange cocktail, but she didn't regret it. Once they shared a bed, they found it easier to trust each other. And, of course, there was Departures.

Ameron's father had brought the book with him when he visited.

Avatlan, his name was. Avatlan Lor'Vrel.

The day she met Avatlan was the day her world changed.

There she was, a prisoner of war, and the half-willing concubine of a moody prince who shared a collective form of insanity with his people, about settling their quarrels with pointy sticks, and along comes Avatlan to discuss philosophy.

Somehow he made it riveting.

He spoke of all humanity's mistakes with the authority of someone who had witnessed all of them, although she knew he’d only studied most of it. He drew comparisons between ancient errors, on mankind’s long-lost home world of Earth, and the excesses of his own kind, the Sevolites, during their 1,000 year exile. He told her how his own clan, who ought to be wiser because they were smarter, had sullied the brilliance of work like Departures by using it to further their own, selfish ends, with results indistinguishable in terms of human happiness and liberty, from those of any Earthly megalomaniac.

"So long as social systems permit people to amass great power, power will reside with those most motivated to acquire it," he told her, making it all as simple and self-evident as an equation. "Therefore," he concluded, "we will always have empires. You think our pseudo-feudal one is backward, and it is, most certainly—but no more so than your military dictatorship. And democracies on Earth fell prey to those who best knew how to manipulate the media. There will never be good government so long as leaders can hide their true motives and repeat the endless cycle of hope, abuse and disappointment. As a species," he said, "we are sadly predictable."

They talked all night, while Ameron slept in the same room. Reva argued for hope, trying to penetrate Avatlan's cynicism. He talked about the advanced science of his own ancestors, the Lorels, who had authored the book called Departures. He explained how it was the breakthrough, in math, that could have led to technologies that changed the universe, but was understood by very few, some of whom wound up exploiting it for the same, old, idiotic motive of amassing wealth and power. Most people suffered and too many died as a consequence, leaving his people distrustful of science, in the extreme, even though their own power resided in being products of it themselves.

“The trouble is, in the end,” Avatlan said, “our creators made us too human. As if that was a good thing. The truth is, man is just a stupid animal emotionally, no matter how clever he might be in other ways. In fact the more clever you make him, the more dangerous he is." He held up the book to show it to her. "This could be the root of the most important advance in our understanding of the universe for a thousand years, with applications to medicine, space travel and even the creation of a thinking, artificial intelligence that might give us a chance to go one better on ourselves, at least for integrity. But in the end, all that the best of us could hope to do was destroy as many copies as we could, to keep it from being used in sickening ways. You talk of hope? A way to break the cycle? To prevent the power hungry seizing power just because it gives them a thrill? Science is useless as a means to improve on history until it can do that! So, my optimistic friend—” He smiled. “Prove it possible! Prove that science can create even one tool that cannot be abused by the power hungry. Then I’ll believe, again, in something worth living—or dying—for.”

He meant it as a joke, at first. But it was no joke to Reva. It was the spark that got her thinking about arbiters. What if people had to make up rules that were impartially administered by an artificial intelligence? What if leaders had to lead through influence, and could not hide behind propaganda? What if the reins of power, based on rules people could tinker with, were firmly held by an arbiter with a simple, symbiotic urge to mediate human transactions and no human nature to pollute its work with dreams of self-aggrandizement? What if she made a new form of life with a fundamental commitment to transparency in government that had no human desires, just its own, that were uniquely suited to the job it did; a form of life with great intelligence but simple needs; the perfect, tireless, and incorruptible administrator.

Avatlan grilled her for hours, mocking her ideas and daring her to prove her intellect by challenging her to grasp bits of the book he had with him.

When she finally fell asleep, exhausted, she thought she had failed to have an impact on him.

But she woke to find the book, Departures, by her pillow.

She never knew, exactly, what Avatlan did, but she got the big picture. Avatlan assassinated Ameron’s mother, the ruling Ava, catapulting his son, Ameron, to power. And Ameron's first act, as Ava, was to execute his father. That upset Ameron enough that he almost forgot about Reva. Or perhaps he was simply too busy to be bothered with her for a while. But in the end, he gave her the chance to pack up what was left of her people and evacuate them.

She took Departures with her, and used it to create her arbiters.

None of that, of course, appeared in Lenny's "romance". Avatlan was an off-stage assassin whom Reva never met. Ameron was the hero. And Departures was scrupulously not mentioned.

Applause filled the theatre as Ameron sent Reva off with one last, lingering kiss, underscoring how her affair with him had been the salvation of a half a million refugees. Naturally, he asked her to stay with him, and she was torn, but came down on the side of her duty to her fellow citizens. The mock Ameron was heart-broken.

Lenny had been right. The audience loved the whole, silly thing.

Reva slipped out before the applause died down.

Lenny caught up to her in the lobby. "Reva—" he said, blinking at her anxiously.

She stabbed a finger towards the theatre doors. "That's propaganda."

"People need more than work," Lenny insisted. "It helps them to know they have a friend in a high place on the other side. Someone who would not let the Sevolites attack us, if they ever return. It helps them believe in working towards the Arbiter Administration, instead of another military regime. That's what you want, isn't it?"

"But it is not true, Lenny!" Reva despaired. "Not the way you tell it."

"You want to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, do you?" he asked her.

"The Arbiter Administration is predicated on—"

"Truth and transparency?" He nodded vigorously. "Sure. From here on. Among ourselves. Once we get started. But what about Departures, Reva? Why did you pretend we had invented everything we learned from it, ourselves? You did it to make sure nobody else could use it to subvert your arbiters! You have already told one lie about the past, Reva. Kept one secret. People like my version of the story. Let us have it."

She felt a pain in her chest.

Lenny wet his lips, looking puzzled. "And you did love him, didn’t you?" he asked, expectantly.

"Ameron?" Reva smiled. "He was a great man, in his own way. He deserves to be remembered that way."

"Yes, but—" People were starting to come out of the theatre behind them.

Reva gestured to Lenny, impatiently. "Go greet your admirers," she told him.

He didn’t need to be asked twice. He grinned at her gratefully, and trotted off looking eager and relieved.

"For the cause," she muttered under her breath, contemplating the humiliation of going down in history as a romantic heroine. And the injustice of the silence surrounding Avatlan’s role in everything. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

Her unfinished proof still troubled her.

Starting tomorrow, her colony would become the first Arbiter Administration, a society founded on principles of openness and transparency in government. It would be small, at first, but she had high hopes of the idea spreading to the Old Regime. Once people got a taste of arbiters, the services they could provide so effortlessly would be too hard to pass up, especially for free, because she meant to give them away. The catch was, the benefits couldn’t be uncoupled from the rest of it. They would be the perfect slaves, except for their refusal to be loyal to anything but the ideals of the Arbiter Administration. Everyone could have more of everything, but only if they were prepared to accept certain limitations on their freedom. In particular, no one could keep secrets about how they made use of power bestowed on them, in trust, by those they governed. Ambition would still be valued and people could achieve great things, but not by means that could not stand up to the scrutiny of those they claimed to benefit. No backroom deals. No corruption. Within a century, she expected arbiters to have a huge impact on her side of the universe.

Could one lie spoil all that?

If she debunked Lenny's play and told the world, instead, about Departures, people would want access to it. If she destroyed it, first, they might reject her leadership, and go looking for another copy in Ameron’s empire. Nothing good could come of that. They might even bring the Sevolites down on them, again. As it was, Ameron had agreed to see to it that his people forgot the way to her side of the universe, not out of kindness but because he felt her people's alien values destabilized the status quo among his own.

With a cold shock, she realized that if she didn't tell anyone about the book she would have to destroy it. But that, too, felt wrong, for all sorts of reasons. What right had she to keep Departures from humanity? Was she really as cynical as Avatlan, viewing humanity as idiot savants, in need of moral training wheels? What if her people needed it someday to fight Ameron's people? Even if that meant using biological warfare or something even more repugnant.

Reva went, alone, into the council chamber where the first elected body of sixteen would sit down, tomorrow, in the first session of government overseen by her very first arbiter. It was an ordinary looking room, with two curved desks equipped with workstations. The arbiter was located in a cabinet off to one side, so as not to elevate it symbolically above the sixteen people for whom it would act as chairman, secretary and referee.

The nearest station activated as she approached, showing a light to indicate the arbiter's sensors were aware of her and it was prepared to respond to input.

"I— " Reva began, feeling flustered.

She had striven for open government for a decade. A better way. And here she was, on the brink of attaining her dream, and she was poised to make a critical decision autocratically. She ought to put the question to the council. Have it all debated, openly. But she was almost certain they would vote to keep Departures. And it wasn’t as if she could even make her argument for secrecy, in a totally transparent context. The population would lose their respect for her, when they found out Lenny’s version of the story was a false one. And if they kept Departures, for themselves, it would give the very people she wanted to thwart an impossible head start on subverting her arbiters before they managed to instill a culture of trust and honesty among her people.

"Waiting," said the speaker in the workstation. The arbiter had a bland voice, with almost no inflection. That, too, had been purposeful. Arbiters could have no personality. Only be a medium that people worked through. Like a system of law that could implement itself. A living one.

"I wish to put my resignation from the council on tomorrow's agenda," she got out, all at once.

It was duly recorded. She supplied some made up reasons to do with personal needs.

Then she went back to her quarters, found the place where she had hidden Departures, unwrapped the book, and set it down before her on the table where she worked. As an object, it was unspectacular. It was written by hand, in a plain notebook, with illustrations painstakingly copied by an amateur hand. Only a handful of copies had ever been made, according to Avatlan. He suspected at least one or two might still exist among his people, somewhere. But he wasn’t entirely sure. The scramble to destroy them before they fell into the wrong hands had been desperate. This copy, her copy, could be the only one in existence. And she had to destroy it. Utterly. She had always known it might be necessary. That was why she had never allowed Lenny to make any sort of copy. She and Lenny would have to make do with what they had already learned from it, in shaping the destiny of arbiters.

 [ Book burning: image (cc) 2006 Djibril ] The colony was burning scrub cleared from a nearby, forested area, that had fallen prey to disease introduced accidentally by their arrival. It seemed a fitting pyre. Reva went out, at twilight, and waited at the edge of the circle surrounding a bonfire, like a shadow, until everyone else had gone in to bed except one old man, left to tend the blaze until it died out. She volunteered to take over for him. He left her to it gratefully.

After she put Departures on the fire, she sat watching it burn, to make sure. When it was all gone and the bonfire had died away to nothing, she took a long stick and stirred the ashes to make sure. She found no remnant. No secret, indestructible wonder of technology among them. The ashes were just ashes. Something unique and brilliant, the source of her own inspiration for arbiters, had been reduced to black and gray powder indistinguishable from the remains of blighted bushes.

Reva went back inside feeling hollow, but certain she had done what she had to do.

She might not deserve to be on the first council. She could not risk carrying the contagion of her lie into the brave new world she wanted to see flourish under the watchful eye of arbiters. But she would damn well see to it her brain child had a chance to succeed before the social vandals of the world got their greedy mitts on a way to negate their unfair technical advantage. After all, as any mother knew, there was sticking to your ideals, and then there was being plain stupid.

It wasn’t as if the greedy-needy liars of the world had earned the right to fair play in the history of humankind, to date.

About that much, at least, she felt certain Avatlan would agree with her.

 [ Photograph courtesy of Lynda Williams ] The Okal Rel Universe is the setting of a ten novel series by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy. Book One, The Courtesan Prince, was released in Canada in June 2005. It is also the setting of the open ended Fandom Line series published by Windstorm Creative, featuring works by the origin author, Lynda Williams, and by votary authors working under her direction. The first Okal Rel Universe anthology appeared in the fall of 2005, published by Windstorm Creative in Port Orchard, WA . In the meantime, a web search for "Okal Rel" will net you plenty of background material, excerpts and reviews. For Okal Rel Universe readers who wish to place the story “Making History” in the ORU’s timeline, it takes place after the Killing War and before the Reetion Summit some 11 years later, in which Ameron and Reva met for the last time. To inquire about writing opportunities, e-mail lynda@okalrel dot org. Visit http://www.okalrel.org/contacts/mailing_list.html to join the announcements list for Okal Rel Universe news.

© 2006 Lynda Williams

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