Near the edge of the canvas that is our world, the Creator’s brushstrokes grow thin, and there are places where the sketched lines that underlie all we see and feel might be seen and felt.

The hushed whispers of poets and madmen tell of one such place, beyond the unfathomable waters with no bottom and the sky-piercing mountains of infinite slope where travelers grow old and die climbing their whole lives away. It has many names in meany tongues: vicārōṁ kā samudra, shikō no umi, okean vdokhnoveniya, ámmo tou idanikoú.

To many, though, it is simply the Sea of Ideas.

The concept is at once simple and profound: what if creativity were a desert, each grain an idea? Endless dunes and windswept grit embody both the beauty and the horror of unspeakable creativity and creation for those daring or foolish enough to seek it out. For to come into contact with a single grain of sand from that impossible expanse is to experience the truest, purest form of an idea that is, was, or someday might be.

That is the reason that many a starstuck loner or struggling creator has sought out the Sea and its sands; to those for whom inspiration and ideas seem like arid wells, it is as a siren song that shakes the heavens. But when has the sand and dust of our world even gone singly? Those who trod those wastes unprepared are overwhelmed from the start, bombarded with ideas that shriek out for release. Many are so alien that they simply cannot be comprehended; the mind crumbles under such an assault. Others are more banal but shatter consciousness with sheer force of numbers.

Only the wisest, the luckiest, the most resourceful and open-minded, avoid the fate of babbling incoherence shared by so many who have sought the Sea and stumbled back from its berms broken and blasted. Wrapped tight against the wind and the scouring force of the Creator’s gifts at their most profuse and elemental, the wisest select only a handful of grains to bear hence; few are their numbers.

Fewer still are those–be they the wisest of the wise or the most foolish of the fools–who realize the deeper secret of that place. For as grains of sand are but the rocks of our world broken apart and worn by the keen edges of eternity, so too are the idea-grains shards from something bigger.

At the furthest and most ragged edge of the Creator’s artwork, the deepest fastness of the Sea, they lie: great stony pillars of creation, from which the sands of ideas, inspiration, and creativity are hewn. To behold them is to feel the inconceivable claw at the ribs like a death rattle. To approach them is to be beset on all sides by the most crystalline of thoughts, thoughts so profound and simple that falsehood and self wither away as tinder in a blaze.

To touch them is to touch the original inspiration that led to the creation of our world, of all worlds. To touch them is to touch the Creator’s brush and palette.

To touch them is to Know, and in all of the wonder and horror that represents, to Cease.

From an idea by breylee.

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In time, the few who knew how to operate the ancient machines of old became pariahs. Their skills, once so useful to the builders of empires, now shunned by those who lived in their weed-choked ruins.

Some tried to use their machines, their great engines of war, to carve new empires for themselves. But they could never extend their authority beyond the reach of their vehicles’ steel arms, and there was no more fuel to replace that which they burned, and no stores of missiles and bullets to reload their emptying racks and magazines. Such petty hedge-empires fell as quickly as they arose; even working in concert, the pilots who had been behind the ruin of their world needed just what they had destroyed too much.

Then there was Hobb.

Hobb’s machine was still functional, if battle-scarred. Its legs had been shot off at the Tombs, and it had lost its right arm holding back the 83rd from the gates of Helion. All but two of its external missiles had been fired, and its countermeasure flares were limited to a single fresh magazine of six–all the techs at Ouroboros had been able to load before the city fell. The pilot’s station was unarmored and exposed, its composite and multiplex stripped off to keep other units running during the Long Retreat.

Still, Hobb might have carved himself out a minor fiefdom with his machine and a little skill, and brought him something greater than his rude shack on the outskirts of what had once been Helion. If only for a bit.

Not Hobb.

He used his machine’s repulsordrive sparingly, to carry him on clear nights to heights undreamt-of by the people below. There, he’d watch the moon rise and the city slumber.

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It wasn’t just that summer vacation was coming to an end, and that life would soon be classrooms and textbooks and waking up early to get dressed. This was Tara’s twelfth summer, and she could see childhood’s end bearing down upon her not far off.

There would be school dances, growth spurts, algebra, and other distasteful things to contend with, combined with the pressures she’d seen unleashed on her older sister. The obsessive desire to act older, to cast off childish aspects and habits…it didn’t excite a dreamy girl who preferred to stomp around the yard and scribble down stories in worn-out notebooks.

Tara’s family had a house on the literal edge of their tiny town, with houses across the street and a relative wilderness to the back, bounded on one side by a farm. The highway, sometimes audible through the trees, had brought development to the east: an ugly mini-mall and fast food joints fused with gas stations. But if she walked in the other direction, Tara could find excitement and stories to be told in the woods.

She set out one day, feeling a strong urge to be outside and muddy among the trees. Her older sister and ostensible babysitter was on the phone with her boyfriend–another accoutrement of growing up that Tara was less than enthusiastic about–so with their parents at work the wold was free and fair even though Tara was theoretically forbidden from going in. But rules were made to be broken, and broken especially in the service of squeezing out a few more honey-yellow drops of summer from the dying light of August.

It was, after all, Tara’s last summer.

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I used to come here as a child, but not to appreciate it. This park was my playground, site of pirate adventures and long-winded fantasy stories that never existed anywhere but between my ears. While the other kids preferred the swings or slides or sports field, for me it was always the trail, the bridge, the river bubbling merrily past.

When a person reaches a certain age, they find themselves returning more and more often to these places of memory. I’ve been back in person, but more often than not I return solely in my memory. The sunlight is stronger, the shadows darker, and the possibilities broader. I can be any age, any person, anywhere, so long as it is through the lens of an eight-year-old wearing an old blazer like a pirate coat.

It’s sad, devastatingly sad, that those days are now fixed like graven statues in the past. At the time, it seemed like that world was there, always there, forever for the asking and the taking. At times it seems almost unfair that those days nearly twenty years ago have cast such a long and deep shadow over the rest of my life, that all my years since are like a faded daguerreotype beside their brilliance.

As we age, it’s only natural to look back with regret; regret is in many ways the most human of emotions, the longing tug that connects us to our pasts. There are times when I feel I’d trade anything to go back and do it over again, do it right this time.

And then there are times when I just wish I could live it over again, the riverside trails and my childish games unchanged for all the time I’ve mulled them over.

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The shades–perhaps they should be capitalized Shades, given their ubiquity–relayed a dizzying amount of data to his eyes. Compass directions, friend codes of passersby, a GPS line leading to the last destination he’d forgotten to clear. Billboards and paper with a special reactive coating appeared animated through the shades, piping their accompanying musical jingles into his earphones. There were blips on the compass that corresponded to sponsors–fast food places, mostly–and the occasional augmented reality pop-up that was projected in the shades as if it were a living person (albeit one that could disobey the laws of gravity and space).

It was too much, right now. He hated the shades at the best of times, but they were necessary tools of modern life and they corrected his astigmatism for free–a real pair of ground-glass lenses, ad and augmented reality free, would have cost thousands of credits that he simply didn’t have. He pulled his shades off, wincing at how blurry and bright the world was without them. But he wasn’t trying to find fast food or the nearest organic food store.

He was trying to find the girl who had floated into the city from the hilltop park.

Acting like a piece of augmented reality, and yet being visible without the shades…it was intriguing, maddening, enticing. But he’d lost sight of her in the warren of shops and eateries that surrounded the green space. No one else had noticed, no one else was looking so desperately skyward. If they’d seen her, she’d been dismissed as just another ad.

Misty rain began to fall, blurring his vision still further as he wandered among the steel and glow of a city alight with information and yet desperately empty. People walked by singly, eyes focused to infinity behind their shades or looking down at a more sophisticated digital device. It was liberating, he thought, to look up for once outside of the bubble presented by the park. But he feared that he’d lost–or worse, hallucinated from the very start–the girl in white.

But there was a flash of pure prismatic colorlessness in an alley he passed, and there she was. Serene against the sky, pinched between two buildings, twenty feet off the ground. The neon light of the city and its hurrying people below cast itself on the girl’s dress, while a stiff breeze kept the fabric billowing behind her.

She seemed to notice him as he shyly approached, but also seemed to be looking through him, as if distracted by shades that she was not wearing.

“H…how are you doing that?” he whispered.

Her voice was soft, melodious, sad. “I don’t know.”

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It seemed the more bright and neon and wireless the world got, the greater the distance was between ordinary people.

There was a park bench that offered a good view of downtown, from the skyscrapers to the bright channels of red and amber flowing about them like titanic jugulars. He’d sometimes come there on warm summer nights to linger and look, a speck among specks, with everything that had an off switch silent and cold.

He liked the park because it was safe, regularly patrolled by the expensive kind of Department of Public Safety drones, the ones that had a real person behind them instead of a computer program. There weren’t many augmented reality pop-ups either–the programs that appeared to walk in the real world but existed only in his shades. If he hadn’t needed them for GPS and vision correction, he’d have done away with them altogether–being accosted by the insubstantial and the unreal was a stiff price to pay in order to cut down the monthly fee.

At this distance from the city, though, there was nothing but silence, light, and motion. It was profoundly lonely, profoundly disconnecting, but profoundly beautiful. The speck among specks preferred that kind of solitude to being alone in a crowd downtown. Ordinarily he was alone in doing so, with only a few dog-walking drones and DPS UAVs for company.

This time, though, someone else wandered into view below him on the gentle incline of the park slope a few hundred yards away. Without the shades she’d have been a blob of colors in motion, but with them she was clear as a bell: tall and slim, hair so light as to be practically pearlescent in the moonlight, wearing what might have been a slip or a formal dress. Even though a pair of heels was clasped in one of her hands, she was still walking on tiptoes.

It was a comforting sight, a little bit of humanity peeking through the mess of concrete, steel, and lightwaves. He noted with some pleasure that the girl seemed to be looking out on the city much as he was. She was still a million miles away–the city papers were full of people being maced and arrested for saying “hello” in the wrong way–but the mere sight, the mere thought, was a comfort.

Then, as he watched, the girl slipped free of the pull of gravity and began to float heavenward, dress billowing and arms spread. He pulled off the shades in amazement, but the blur of ascending light remained–she wasn’t augmented reality, at least not of any type he’d ever encountered before.

That shouldn’t be possible
he thought, shaken. Even in this age of UAVs and drones, things needed wings or fans or something to fly. He felt a sense of eerie beauty and maddening confusion wash over him, perhaps the strongest feeling he’d felt in many long, lonely, and dour months.

An even stronger feeling came next: he had to follow her.

Inspired by this song and image.

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The human being is a complex machine, the human mind even more so. It’s no wonder that, with all that complexity, thing sometimes don’t line up quite right. And with love as the most complex emotion, it’s no surprise to find that as the very thing that becomes stunted or twisted in a person, leaving them incapable of loving or of being loved in return.

I’m not sure whether to loathe these wretches, or to pity them. Perhaps a measure of both is called for.

Recall, for instance, Alberto Luis Exposito, president and dictator of the República de San Martín from 1960 to 1989. The only son of a cold military man and the formerly vivacious daughter of a major politician, Exposito lived in a household where love was a weapon. His parents, unable to divorce, engaged in and flaunted numerous affairs simply out of spite. At the military academy, his classmates taunted him for his shyness and lack of experience with women, but his superiors respected his drive and lack of distraction.

By the time of the Sanmartíno Coup of 1955, he was a colonel and a member of the junta that seized power from the democratically elected government. By methodically playing his adversaries against one another he became president at the astonishingly young age of 35; Exposito became known as “El Caudillo” after his idol, Spanish strongman Francisco Franco. The República de San Martín ran like a Swiss watch under his regime, with torture and imprisonment alongside urban and rural development (much of it implemented by forced labor).

The inhabitants of Pueblo Navarro, a small city outside the capital, felt Exposito’s wrath more than most. Seemingly at will, he rearranged the city and its people: approving new construction one day and demolishing those same buildings the next, sacking or reinstating or handpicking everyone from the mayor to street vendors. Those who lived along the Plaza de la Revolucíon in particular felt the sting of El Caudillo’s micromanagement, and wondered how a man with 15 million people under his thumb had time to review candidates for milkman.

After Exposito was overthrown in 1989, the American ambassador to the República de San Martín from 1977-1981 confided to reporters what he had been forbidden to discuss: President Exposito, El Caudillo of the República de San Martín, had been madly in love with Maria Ramirez, a stenographer he had met during an official tour of Pueblo Navarro in 1966. Unable to bring himself to approach her, and unwilling to apply the full force of his dictatorial power to force her to his side, Exposito had instead made informants of Maria’s friends and coworkers and used his titanic influences to remove what he saw as annoyances and distractions. It was his vain and twisted hope that Maria would notice the great hand of state at work in her life and reward the president with her love.

There is no reason to suspect that Maria even noticed Exposito’s interest before her 1988 death in an automobile accident.

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“It’s…it’s haunting,” said Sielger. “I know people have said you’ve been coasting lately, but…wow. How did you do it, and are you sure this picture is worthy of it? I’d hate for the director to throw such a beautiful melody out in favor of a crappy pop song.”

“It’s a love theme,” the composer coughed. “I’ve been holding it back for years, until my very last hour of need when inspiration and creativity fail me. It’s a love theme for myself, and it’ll probably be the last thing that every has my name on it.”

“Why hold it back?” Sielger. “How long have you been sitting on this thing?”

“I wrote it in the summer of 1969 to be a proposal of marriage. She said no, and I locked away my finest composition out of sheer spite.”

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“Who’s this?”

The group of prospective buyers being led through the suite stopped as Jenkins pointed at an oil painting on the wall, depicting a smiling middle-aged man.

Backtracking, the realtor made a dismissive gesture. “Leftovers,” she said. “FG&C left a few things here when they moved out. They’ll be back to collect or dispose of anything major before we close; they’re liquidating most of their assets to pay off outstanding debt as it is.”

“Who is it?” Jenkins asked again. “He’s smiling. These old skinflints never smile in their leering boardroom portraits.”

“Don’t let that smile fool you.” Cunningham, the senior realtor, stepped in from an adjoining room with Carey, one of Jenkins’ associates. “That’s old Florin himself, founder and CEO of Floring Greene and Company and CEO until his death about ten years ago. From what I hear, he was a right cold bastard and a workaholic to boot. The stories I’ve heard, let me tell you…”

“Like what?” said Jenkins, his interest piqued. “Tell us the worst story you heard.”

“Well, there was the time that he performed a hostile takeover on a company owned by his brother, and the time he gutted a company that made drugs for orphaned diseases,” said Cunningham. “But the worst…well, rumor has it that he let his kid, his only kid, be adopted by the friend of the family that was practically raising him anyway. Too much bother, I guess.”

Jenkins nodded. “That’s cold. So it’s a smile, but it’s a cold smile. An evil smile.”

“A lonely smile,” Carey volunteered.

“Most likely,” Cunningham said. He began to herd the group into the nearby hall, trying to move conversation to a happier topic for his soon-to-be-tenants.

“You coming, Carey?” Jenkins said as he was led out.

“Just a moment.”

Carey stood before the portrait and quietly laid his hand on its surface.

“Glad to see you’re still smiling, Dad,” he said. “Just like you were the last time I saw you.”

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This post is part of the July 2012 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “independence and slavery”.

Like a river winding from its headwaters to the sea, you come from whatever little burg gave you your spark and shake off its dust on the threshold of the city. The big city. The biggest city. It’s always been there, open, inviting, but you’ve only just now taken the time to meet it for longer than a visit.

You’re in the city to stay.

It’s like declaring your independence from circumstance and geography. “I don’t care that I was born in a place where nothing substantive has ever happened,” you’re saying. “I don’t care that it’s impossible to earn a living here as a writer or an artist or a singer. I’m moving to a place where things happen and talent can be rewarded.”

And then you go. You take everything that you’ve been given, from your parents, your friends, your school, everything. You take it and you go.

Suddenly you don’t have to worry about finding something to do tonight. The night is lit up, always, forever with a thousand neon signs and peals of hushed laughter. You’ve declared your independence from boredom, from shyness, from envy: if you feel those here, it’s your own fault for not taking deepest advantage, for not inhaling the sweet acrid city vapors to their fullest.

But even in this independence, deep and full, new chains take hold where the old scars have scarce begun to heal.

Even the city runs on money, on gossip, on superficialities concealed behind bright and inviting smiles. You must still make the rent, only it’s harder now with a thousand hands in your pockets. What so and so did with such and such is exchanged as freely and tenderly as the most bitterly mundane comings and goings back in your small town. People smile more here because it’s expected of them more, at least if they want to get noticed and get ahead. But the dagger in the small of the back is just as sharp when it connects.

The subway, the bus, the tree-lined parkways…in many ways they are new chains, shackling you as surely as distance and time and indifference do in cities that are small enough to walk across. The expectations are still there, hemming you in, only they’re different this time. You must still move a certain way, act a certain way, be a certain way if you want what others have to give. Disappointment is perhaps all the keener because there are so very many opportunities.

The city is independence and slavery made one, just as is the village.

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
Ralph Pines
dclary (blog)

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