Companions

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It started when I found a body and discovered a man.

I was eleven years old when I found him. My parents insisted that us kids get involved in talking to strangers. They’d sign us up to raise money or sell cookies or even ask poll questions, door-to-door. At first, we were scared silly of the idea. I guess that was why they signed us up. But by the time we reached eleven, we were pretty confident and outgoing kids. We no longer shook in fear when we knocked on a new door. Instead, we realized what each door represented: a chance to meet somebody new.

I came to John Teller’s door just like I would come to any other. I walked up the front path, got up on the deck and reached for the doorbell. It was a sunny day, I remember that well. But the deck wasn’t sunny. It was covered in shade from the house itself. Instead, the sun was shining through the house, illuminating everything inside it. I could see through the door. Even though the glass was frosted, I could see a man laying on the floor.

My parents had also signed us up for the Boy Scouts (well, my sisters were Girl Scouts). I wasn’t a very good Boy Scout so I kind of made up what I did next. I called 911 on my phone and then I broke the glass, reached in and opened the door. I ran to the man, ready to help. But he had passed long before I came up his front walk. As I waited for the emergency responders, I just sat there. And I saw the man had equipment – electronic equipment – stacked all over his house. I remember looking at him then, and regretting I hadn’t knocked on this door earlier.

An ambulance came, and then the coroner and then the police. They all asked me questions. And I told them what I knew. And then they took the man away. I asked when and where he’d be buried, and they gave me a number to call. Next of kin would be notified first, they would decide what would happen.

I called that day and then the next. And then the one after that. But it wasn’t long before it was obvious that John Teller had no next of kin. He had no children, no siblings, no wife (ex or otherwise). John Teller had had no living parents. And he had no friends. Nobody came forward to claim him.

A Detective came by his house and they found instructions. John Teller had paid for a burial plot and a funeral; he wasn’t a young man and he hadn’t expected to live forever. Three days after he died, his body was released to a funeral home. I went to his burial. There was no minister, there were no mourners. There was only me and a couple of guys from the funeral service itself.

The man had had a will. The instructions he left asked that it be read it aloud over his grave. And so it was: in one month, everything the man owned would be sent to the city dump. The house itself was a rental. As I listened, a sadness overcame me. In less than a month, nothing would remain of John Teller.

It was as if nobody had ever knocked on his door.

By the time I got home, I’d decided I wasn’t going to let him simply disappear.

I started researching Mr. Teller. He’d been in the army, in Korea. He’d had jobs as a lowly technician at electronics companies. And he’d worked hard, very hard. But he kept his head down. I managed to track down some old colleagues. The few who remembered him said he didn’t like to distract himself with useless conversation. He was, in fact, totally alone.

And then, fifteen years before I’d found him, he’d retired. I wondered what a man who lives for work does for retirement. And I thought I knew. He did something with electronics. I wondered what. And then eventually, my curiosity overcame me. I wanted to know what all the electronics were about. So I snuck into his house and began to look around. I found piles and piles of circuit boards and wiring. And then, in his basement, I found a bookcase full of notebooks. Every book was in date order. Every book was labeled. Every book was filled with precise notes. I began to read. And before long I realized John Teller had been working on one thing his entire life.

He had been working on building an interstellar communications device.

And according to his notes, he succeeded. According to his notes, the black box sitting on his basement workbench was a functioning Neutrino Wave Propagation Device, or NWPD. It was no bigger than a desktop computer. He claimed it worked. He claimed it sent messages faster than the speed of light. But he acknowledged that he would never really know. It is almost impossible for us to detect, much less knowingly direct, the movement of neutrinos.

The device wasn’t simply a black box, though. It was connected to a laptop which controlled it using a simple application. You’d type in what you wanted to share and then enter the star coordinates. Then, borrowing from a popular messaging service at the time, you’d close your eyes and think hopeful thoughts. John Teller had added the last bit as a touch of humor.

With that, your message would probably be sent, undisturbed by anything in the way.

All that was needed was a civilization capable of hearing what was being said.

The notebooks claimed the device could receive messages as well. But he had never heard anything from it. And in recent years, his work had become bitter. All of his work, all of his singular dedication, had come to nothing.

In his eagerness to communicate with the stars, he had given up on reaching out to his fellow man. In the process, he had been left with nothing at all.

 

I’d wanted to write a story about the man. So that is what I did. I wrote it and pitched it to everybody I could think of. But nobody was interested. When I got explanations (which was rarely), the reviewers said it was too fanciful or that I needed to work on my writing (I was only eleven). I recast it as an obituary for the local paper, but even they weren’t interested. The man hadn’t been important enough.

When the month had almost passed, I realized that everything was going to disappear. And then I realized there was one last thing I could do.

In the middle of the night – before the movers came – I went to John Teller’s house, I broke in, and I stole the NWPD.

When I got home, I booted up the laptop, copied the story onto it and then sent it, with a hopeful thought, to Proxima Alpha Centari.

If the Earth wouldn’t remember him, maybe the stars would.

 

Then, I went to sleep.

Three hours later, I was woken up when the laptop started playing a song: “Hello darkness my old friend” by Simon and Garfunkel. I shot up, looked at the screen and saw a message.

“We loved the story,” the message said, “Do you have anything more?”

At first, I was just confused. Was somebody pranking me? Was this a final joke? But nothing in John’s notebooks suggested a sense of humor. He had been deadly serious about this machine. And as far as I knew, no other humans could sense neutrino wave-based messages.

I skipped school the next day, determined to get something more. It was a good time to knock on doors. You’re more likely to meet retirees with time on their hands if you show up in the middle of the day. And then, for the hundredth time, I went out to knock on doors. This time, it was just to get to know somebody new. A few people thought I was trying to case their houses, but one let me in. She’d been a mathematician in college and then a waitress for the rest of her life. One of her children supported her in her old age.

I wrote up her story. I shared it with her. And then I sent it on the NWPD.

And three hours later, I got another reply. Another positive review. This one was signed “The Companions.”

I kept going. I played hooky from school to get interviews. And then to do research. My parents had never suspected I wouldn’t show up at school. When they caught on (the principal called them) they were shocked. They put it down to adolescence. But I told them the whole story; I even showed them the device. But they were not supportive. And then I showed them the stories. The stories had literature and history and science and math and engineering. And they had humanity.

My parents loved them. They pulled me from school so I could keep writing them.

And that’s what I did. For years to follow, I wrote stories. I never did find a publisher. So, I self-published collections of ordinary people living ordinary lives. I hoped they could catch on, but nobody bought them. Often times, even the people whose stories I wrote weren’t interested. In the books, I wasn’t private about the Companions. But nobody took notice. Nobody believed me.

And I didn’t have any way to convince them otherwise.

Then, fourteen years later, the world exploded.

Astronomers noticed something shooting through our solar system. It wasn’t physically visible but all sorts of other detectors picked it up. And then the astronomers noticed something far more dangerous. The sun had released a massive solar flare. When the electro-magnetic radiation hit a few minutes later, satellite communications were knocked out, computers were fried and – on the dayside of the earth – a huge part of the atmosphere was simply burned away. We didn’t know it until later, but over a billion people had been killed.

We were warned then, using shielded emergency communications systems, that should another flare hit we were to hide in basements or old municipal shelters. If we had oxygen, we were to bring it with us. We would have only seconds to react. Then, almost twelve hours later, the air raid sirens went off. I didn’t know it then, but the same pattern had been observed. An unusual something was detected shooting towards the sun. Only this time, my side of the Earth was exposed. As everybody ran to whatever shelter they could find, I suddenly realized the flares weren’t random. The timing, the direction, all of it pointed to something deliberate. And so, I ran to the NWPD and I called for help.

The flare never came. Instead, within moments the sky darkened, the sun vanished and the flare was replaced by some weird throbbing darkness.

Billions were not killed on our side of the planet. The atmosphere, globally, had thinned. Aircraft couldn’t fly and neither could birds. The Far East had literally been burned. Aid convoys were sent out but they would take months to reach the hardest hit areas.

Even where we were, lives were in shambles. The weak had died from the sudden change in oxygen levels. At our altitude (I lived in Colorado), it was even worse. And the economy was badly damaged. The loss of so many communication devices had undermined trade and commerce. With all the social media it can be hard to remember that food is a part of commerce.

The world was in a state of shock.

But I kept writing stories.

I knew the Companions had saved us, and I knew I needed to give them what they wanted. They wanted stories.

For three days, we were blind, desperate and utterly exposed. But then our satellite systems suddenly started working again. And our TVs and phones and computers began to operate. Nobody understood why they suddenly worked. But just like that, we could see the devastation in Asia. As we watched, huge packages started falling from the sky. People in India, China and Afghanistan recovered them and found food and water inside. We watched it all, beamed live from our phones.

We knew somebody was helping us.

I thought I knew who.

 

Then, we saw them. They were new points of light in the night sky. New stars that had never been there before. They formed a constellation – spaced evenly throughout our sky. The world exploded in conversation and analysis and conjecture. Had we been attacked? Had we been rescued?

As a planet, we watched and waited – wondering what would happen next.

And then they came. Not a fleet of them, just one ship; one ship no larger than Volkswagen Bug. But the astronomers and the military men saw it coming.

They debated attacking it. They debating greeting it with a parade. But in the end, they just watched.

When it landed it touched down at 454 Filbert Drive, Boulder, Colorado. It touched down in my front driveway. Social media connected the dots before the doors of the craft even opened. A few quick searches online and all my books were visible. Anybody could see the dedications to the space aliens I claimed to know. I must have made a billion dollars in those first few minutes. Everybody bought my books. I thought about people reading them. But I knew that when they did, they wouldn’t learn about the Companions. Instead, they’d learn about each other.

As the earth watched, the little spacecraft just sat there. No creatures emerged from it. None came to speak to me. Then, after five minutes, it just shot back into the sky.

That was the last day I knocked on doors. That was the first day people started knocking on mine.

People came to me and I talked to them. With each interview a pattern grew stronger and stronger. They felt weak and exposed. They felt irrelevant. They felt tiny. And they wanted me to beam their stories to the sky. They wanted me to immortalize them just as I’d first done for John Teller.

I soon found myself spending every waking hour talking and writing. People wanted their stories told. I wanted, desperately, to tell them. TV crews hung out outside my house, constantly watching my upstairs bedroom. People commented on my health and my stamina. They read every word I wrote. While I was the greatest possible celebrity, I didn’t write about celebrities.

I wrote about ordinary people.

Politicians came, of course. Some wanted their stories told. Others wanted their photos taken. All wanted to be close to me. They wanted some of my fame, some of my aura. But I didn’t have time for them. I had more important things to do. I had stories to write. I had people’s lives to share.

When Teri Vanderhouven showed up I wanted her to go away, like all the rest. Everybody knew who she was. She too was 26. She (too) was a self-made billionaire. And she too traded in stories. But where I wrote them, she transmitted them. She had invented an instant messaging platform like no other. It was a little texting device with a highly sensitive remote EEG sensor. You’d type in your message and then, to send the message, you’d close your eyes and think a particular kind of thought. Happy, sad, hopeful – there were a few choices. The device would pick up your basic emotion and your message would go with some emotional baggage attached. It was a cool trick. It was also a part of the NWPD.

And that was why I couldn’t keep her out.

John Teller’s device infringed on her patents. I had no choice but to let her in. So while I sat there, I heard her barge up the stairs.

Then, she pushed open my door (I was still living with my parents), closed the curtains on my window, turned to me and said one thing: “6 billion.”

“What?” I asked, already annoyed at her rudeness.

“There are over 6 billion people on this planet.”

“So?” I said.

“If you write two stories a month, you’d be able to cover them all in about 250 million years.”

I just looked at her. I had no idea what she was getting at.

“The Companions,” she said, “Want stories. Stories of ordinary people. And you can’t possible deliver them.”

“So, what I am supposed to do?” I asked. I’d never really thought about the question.

Her answer was simple. Others would write as well. I would choose ten authors, people who weren’t seeking their own fame but who truly wanted to tell the stories of others. And I would write about them. And they would choose ten others. Then those hundred would choose another thousand. Until more than 10% of humankind was writing and everybody was being written about. When big stories were found, they would be sent up the pyramid until a writer felt capable of handling them. The biggest of all would flow all the way to me.

I took her idea. I changed it, but I took it. Instead of writing the biggest stories, I would write the hardest stories. A nobody could make for the greatest of tales.

From that day onwards, we began to work together. She copied the design of the NWPD and new systems were placed all over the world. Then we all started broadcasting, together, the stories of humankind.

200 stories a second were shot into the space around us.

In the process, a remarkable thing happened. As we wrote, we were knit together. We no longer felt so weak and alone. We began to grasp for the stories of those around us. Humanity was strengthened. And as we wrote, the Companions began to come in greater and greater numbers. Their few points of light in our sky began to spread. Thousands and thousands and thousands more arrived. Soon, the Earth was bathed in the glow of their lights.

We knew, we could feel, that something great was coming.

And then the Companions spoke back. Through every NWPD on the planet, they told us to be ready for a great change. They told us the minute it would come. At dusk in my hometown in three days. You could touch the excitement. As the time drew near, the Earth seemed to come to a stop. People gathered together, holding hands, talking – appreciating the stories of others even if they were not writing them down.

Millions of people came to my city. They seemed to fill every available space, and even poured up the slopes of the mountains on the western flank of my city. As the sun drew down, they were captured by the shade of the peaks. They were all waiting for the hour of change.

And then, right on schedule, it happened.

From the skies above, a billion billion billion voices began to share their stories. Not in a white noise, but individually. We heard them in our heads, all simultaneously, filling our minds with the vastness of the universe. I reveled in it, filled with the joy of lives lived. But I was alone.

Outside my house, a great terror arose. All around the world, the people screamed and begged for the stories to stop. There were too many. It was too much. They could not survive the onslaught. They were overcome by terror.

And so, I typed into the NWPD, and I asked the stories to stop.

And, just like that, they did.

Then the crowds waited in anticipation. Nobody knew what would happen next. The minutes passed. And then I felt a story in my head. It was not in any language I could understand, but I understood the story.

I began to write. This time, I was not writing the stories of humanity for the sake of the heavens above; I was writing the stories of heaven for the sake of mankind.

People went back to their lives. They went back to writing their stories. They read every word I shared.

And the glow of the skies remained, promising our transformation when we were strong enough to grasp it.

 

Until then, I’ve got a billion billion billion stories still to share..

 

***

Most see the delivery of the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Commandments) as the highlight of our relationship with G-d. I see it a little differently. We were told to prepare for Bimshoch HaYovel. Bimshoch comes from hemshech. In modern Hebrew, the root means ‘to continue.’ But in Biblical Hebrew, that translation would be senseless. Aside from the naming of a descendent of Yapheth, the word only occurs twice. The first is before the bringing of the Pascal lamb. Just before they are to actually get the lambs, the people are told “mashcho and get lambs”. The second is here. There are various possible translations of this word, but few can bridge both situations. I believe a good translation would be “transform.”

With the taking of the Pascal lamb, the people transform into G-d’s nation.

At Har Sinai, they have the opportunity to transform once again.

Where the people were made into G-d’s people at the time of Exodus, here they are to step into the Yovel. The Yovel is the Jubilee. It is a time in which loss and risk are eliminated. It is a time, like in Eden, in which we need not build and invest to stop decay – but can build and invest purely to touch the timeless. We can create not to hold back destruction, but for its own sake. Reaching the Yovel requires trust. After all, with the Yovel, the nation will have two years without crops. Nothing will be harvested or planted during the Yovel and so nothing will be harvested in the year that follows. If the nation has trust, then G-d promises that crops will increase in anticipation of the Yovel.

If they don’t, then the Yovel will be beyond them.

With Bimshoch HaYovel, the people are to step into this timeless reality. They were meant to be able to ascend the mountain and approach G-d. But to do it, they needed trust. When the time came, the people did not have trust. They shook in terror. Their’s was not the fear of G-d, but a lack of trust in Hashem.

Instead of ascending the mountain, we get commandments, commandments that set the basis of our relationship with G-d and each other.

 

I borrowed these ideas for this story. Like G-d, the Companions want to relate to us. Like G-d, they are too vast for us to integrate with. Moshe’s first recorded actions were as a judge. He may or may not have been the best of judges, but at least he tried. He took responsibility. The storywriter is the same. He may not be the best writer, but at least he tried to record the story of a forgotten man.

In the end, both take on responsibility for vast numbers of people. And both are near being overcome by their obligations.

In Moshe’s story Yitro appears. His credentials get him an audience with a very busy man. He suggests a system of judgement. It not only helps Moshe and enables justice; it also fills the people with responsibility. Likewise, Teri’s advice not only helps the storywriter; it also fills the world with appreciation. In both cases, the possibility of transformation is created by the change in the people.

In the end there is no fundamental change.

We are not drawn into the Yovel or made into Companions. We are not ready for that sort of change. In the Torah’s story, we receive law from above to complement the growth of justice from below. Amazingly, the system of judges is the only mitzvah to come purely from mankind. In the case of the Companions, we receive stories from above to complement those that come from below.

In both cases, the possibility of transformation remains. It hovers in the heavens above, ready to welcome us when we are ready. Even today, a transformation of our reality remains within reach.

A whole new world awaits our responsibility, our mutual appreciation, and our trust.

 

At this point, I am just two weeks from completing my annual cycle of Torah stories. I have written 57 stories so far and I’ve had a blast learning about the world in the process (I hope you’ve enjoyed it too).

When I wrote this story I did it not only as a write up for the Torah portion, but also as an exploration of something I could do next.

I firmly believe that all people are interesting. They all have stories and histories and value, even if they don’t see it themselves. Despite this, many find themselves feeling irrelevant, alone and meaningless; we don’t need space aliens to feel our limitations.

I’m looking for my next project. Perhaps, in the coming year, I could try to try to fill the role of the storyteller. I may not be a good enough writer or interviewer to write the stories of those around me. But perhaps I should try.

Let me know what you think.

Would you like to be interviewed (for an anonymous piece)?

Would you like to read stories about others (or based on some essential element of them)?

Do you think it would make our world a slightly better place?

 

Share your thoughts below…

 

Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (www.CityontheHeights.com), a thriller about creating hope from war.

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