An anonymous essay, presented by Nathaniel K. Miller
A heavy wave slams against the hull of the skiff, jolting me to awareness. The sea is black around me, full of looming spirit dangers, of the unknown and the unknowable. In the distance, the island juts from the roiling surface, a ten-mile plateau perched just out of range of the violence below. The sheer cliff walls slope downward from all points, protecting the inhabited surface from wind, weather, and prying eyes cast up from passing boats. I make out the hint of a particularly tall edifice, spiraling skyward like a castle spire. It fades out of view almost as quickly as it appears.
I have been trying to remember with clarity an image from my youth, an image so ubiquitous that I scarcely recall its details. In the picture, Ari Ascher is a young man, and on his lips an almost-smirk is forever frozen below those bright and brilliant eyes. If anything served to burn this particular image into the collective awareness of my world, it was this tentative quality, this absence of completion. For if he was able to resolve his life, he did not do it amongst his countrymen. If his story reached an end, it did so here, on Ascher Island.
Why Dr. Ascher has conceded now to be not only interviewed, but visited as well, is a mystery I do not expect to discern. Certainly it is due to his own inclinations, however alien, and not to my own profile or record. For two decades, Ari Ascher has remained remote and invisible, despite requests from every journalist and dignitary alive. If I am sure of one thing, I am sure of this: it has nothing to do with me.
When we reach the island’s walls, I fear we will smash into them at full force. At the last possible moment, the hull begins to hum; a dim, eerie light envelops the craft, raising us in a column of electrically-charged air. I almost laugh; there is something comical and unreal about the color, like a ghost ship in an old movie. We sweep upward, barely skirting the rugged cliff walls, until we arrive at last on a small loading port. I wobble off the skiff, vaguely nauseated and clinging to my small shoulder-bag.
The captain, my only guide, is silent, as he has been for the whole of our trip. A strangely-lit man, he is clearly better suited to solitary work than to even low-level diplomacy. He begins the trek toward the heart of the settlement, and I follow him dutifully.
The path is long and broad, and dimly lit; I see the wide swaths of farmland on either side, stretching out and up the gentle slopes that bound the occupied plateau in a subtle bowl. Further on, a handful of large structures resolve into view; woven together by multiple paths, these few, spare buildings hold the whole of life here.
Finally, we reach the central building, a monolithic temple-like structure around which all others are constellated. The streets are empty, as are the open-arched corridors of this great hall; the whole city sleeps as one, it seems. I am shown to my room, where I join them in this great community event. I am asleep when my head hits the pillow.
Before my eyes ever open, I hear the sounds of life rattling through the walls. It is a familiar set of morning sounds, a sort of absent bumping and shuffling. I make a mental list of things that evade me: motivation. Recollection of my arrival. Feeling in my toes. The sun glances the edge of the thick, rough-cut glass that serves as my room’s tiny porthole; I squint away the light, trying to stay in the private world behind my eyes.
A knock on the door pulls me out of it. “Come,” I croak. My breath is thin, my voice rusty and unused. A trim man enters–my guide from the night before–carrying a tray of food. He wears a grey tunic and that elusive expression, and I can see that he is not accustomed to such domestic tasks. Despite my lethargy, I pull my soul out from storage and attempt to make conversation. “Faring well after your late night?” He appears confused, but I let it pass, still too groggy to press very hard. He sets the tray down on my bedside table. “When you are ready,” he says, and leaves to wait outside. I dress alone, feeling coarse and stiff. Leaving my food and my bed behind me, I set out to explore the world of Ascher Island.
The story of Ari Ascher is known, in the sense that all great stories are known: It is everywhere, but always incomplete. According to history, legend, and popular knowledge, Ascher was a prominent scientist, a public figure, and more or less privately, a radical philosopher. Instrumental in various debates of historical significance, his eloquent and humanizing words made the impending future seem familiar, friendly, and hopeful. A “real scientist” with a gift for succinct explanations and inspiring extrapolations, Ascher became a hero for the thinking masses.
Outside of the public view, Ascher led major research projects at Avington and Mass-Orga, the fruits of which–terminal energy, selective adaptation, and biocomputing, to name a few–were the wonders of the age. But his popularity with the progressive sphere was set firmly against constantly escalating tensions. These tensions came from all directions–the academic community, the government, and what he called “The Committee.” In volume one of his memoirs, Ascher describes this group as “those constant crusaders against thought, word, and deed, whether in the name of gods or ‘natural laws,’ whose faces change throughout the ages, but whose tolerances are never swayed by reason, prosperity, or the absence of divine retribution.”
Ascher absconded with a boatload of supplies and a small army of hired help in the second year of Cohesion. Amidst accusations of illegal research projects and a climate of dangerous nationalism, Ascher did what so many of the other outspoken critics had only threatened–he left. For months, the press waited for the thousand-odd laborers to return, but they never did. In years to come, travelers abroad would bring home tales of union-workers living lavishly in villas throughout the world. But these were only rumors. It was half a decade before Ascher Island was marked on any map, such disclosure being ultimately unavoidable for what had become a sovereign nation in a designated safe-zone of international waters. After the fog of Cohesion cleared, Ascher–or rather his memory–became the focus of an unspoken and unspeakable national regret. In the minds of his former countrymen, he filled the abstract abscess in the national spirit, becoming a surrogate for what had been lost and would never return.
My guide leads me to a large foyer where I wait to be formally received. I have yet to see anyone else, but I recall the sounds of preparation when I awoke, of people unknown readying for their day. How many live here? More importantly, who are they? I suppose they must be the workers who stayed, their sons and daughters. But I know enough to be prepared for other possibilities.
Finally, my guide returns, leading me down a long hall into what looks like a large nave. I had expected to be ushered into an office, maybe circulated around a small reception party–a few wizened old workers, dignified by years of hardship and isolation, asking questions about the world outside, offering drinks and handshakes and maybe a clue as to why I had been allowed to see what had been hidden from so many. I find instead a room full of people, easily a hundred, with their backs turned to me. Together, we face the podium, where a single man stands, dignified, imposing, grey as stone. His eyes meet mine and he smiles. I turn to my guide for reassurance, but I find myself alone.
The man keeps his gaze fixed on me as he speaks. “I would like to welcome our guest. He is, as most of you know, a journalist. Please be kind and open with him, as I’m sure you would anyhow.” Looking me directly in the eye, he says, “On behalf of all Ascher Island, greetings.” He smiles, his poise perfect, and motions me forward.
As I shake his hand, I recall that famous photograph, aged and dated even in my youth. Looking ahead, I know that this man is Ascher–and yet he is not a day older than in that antique image. “Meet my family,” he says, and turning around, I already know what I will find. His smile flashes like a spark in my mind, becomes the smile of my guide, the smile in the photo. Looking out over the population of this place, a hundred iterations of that stoic smile meet me, beams of good will radiating outward from the endless rows of identical faces. A multitude of Ari Aschers–young, old, and everything in between.
To read the rest of this story, check out the Mad Scientist Journal: Spring 2012 collection.
The author is a career journalist who happened to become an amateur anthropologist during his time on Ascher Island. Since his return, he has “retired” from mainstream journalism to pursue freelance work and a degree in Cultural Anthropology. He wishes to remain anonymous.
Ari Ascher’s biography is a matter of public record, at least to the point of his great departure, and is outlined by the author in his account.
He is both dead and very much alive.
Nathaniel K. Miller was born in Virginia and grew up in Pennsylvania, spending time in Arizona, South Carolina, and New York City before returning to school to pursue a PhD in Psychology. He lives with his wife and two cats. This is his first published story.
Art courtesy of 123RF Stock Photo