"...Tales help to disarm the unknown; they endow life with meaning; they move back the frontiers of the unknown, and promote the self-confidence that comes when sense is made of the world."

-John Barrow

There is no past right now.

There is no past for him as he turns a corner of a blank alleyway, watching it with an equally blank stare on a night starless as a clean slate. There is no past as he turns a key to enter into his home or as he sits down on his bed to write down the next day's tasks and count up the wages that he collects daily. The walls around the bed are a deep scarlet, the carpet stainless champagne, and the sheets upon which he sits are the richest and deepest black possible in a manufactured object. But he does not contemplate them. He contemplates them as little as he contemplates the events of the day, the feelings he experienced at the factory, or the girl he married and then forgot about four months ago. He does not write any anecdotes about scarlet as the color of the desire he felt as he held her. In fact, he could never even think of it—his mind does not perceive shades of meaning behind any trivial aspect of his life. He does not like the colors and he does not dislike them.

He lives in the suburbs of a city, some huge expanse of people and machines and buildings that must once have had a name. But he does not care to remember that name any more than he would care to remember his own—some people call him Joseph, others Giovanni, others JD. Anything with some variant of the letter J or G at the beginning can be faintly recognizable as pertaining to him, so he accepts it. Even now, he cannot be certain if the digital clock beside his bed that is saying "Time to go to bed, Gerald," is correct in what it is naming him. All he knows is this: he must concentrate on going to bed. He must change out of his work clothes, store them, put on his night clothes and let sleep claim him. After all, there is nothing else—no prayers to be said to a god that he can't conceive of, no tomorrow to imagine, no "earlier today" or yesterday to reflect on. There is no past right now. There is no past at any time in his world.

"Hey, Jim."

"Hey, Amber."

"How are you?"

"I'm pushing a cart of files and skidding on newly-polished floors. Yourself?"

"I'm standing beside a counter."

"Good, that's good. Here's a cigarette for you to smoke. There's a package in my pocket."

"Good, very good. I am lighting it as we speak with a lighter that's in my pocket. Goodbye, Jeffrey; I see that you're walking away."

"Goodbye, Alyssa."

He takes an elevator to a higher floor, vaguely content to be away from slick floors. The contentment stays momentarily—until he forgets about the slick floors, or until they cease to be meaningful to his present situation. The floor button that he has to press is not remembered, but easy to access because of the subconscious movement that his finger cares to recall but not his mind.

He walks down a corridor where a glass dome surfaces at his feet and rises above him. Around him is the world: an early sky with thin shreds of cloud clinging to it, the gleam of glass shards off of rooftops and the full glare of windows. The sea is beyond it all. It is somewhere in the distance, separated from the shore by a thin line of tide and separated from his existence by a lifetime of nothingness. It may be more advanced or sophisticated technologically, but it is the same world that existed at the dawn of time. At some point in history it was the world of playwrights dramatizing emotion, of artists giving meaning to shade and shadow, of poets and novelists and old men who sat beside campfires, tribal fires, or hearth fires to tell stories to their grandchildren.

But how can it be the same world, if he does not know of history? Of course, he knows the dictionary definition of "history" and "grandfather" and "poetry", but that is as far as it advances. His understand does not branch beyond technicalities.

There is only one thing he is sure of as a door opens before him to allow him restricted access into the high, practically forbidden reaches of the Factory: he works for important people. He is reminded of this daily. People in this room do not call him anything that begins with J or G—they do not call him a name. They like him because he is reliable and perfect.

The room is circular and enormous beyond usual comprehension. In dim halogen light, the walls and floors seem to be some shade of deep orange, but its contents vary in color and design, because it only serves for one purpose: to house books. The entire function of the Factory is for him to bring the books to this place. At the far end, across from the doorway through which he enters, is a fire so large that everyone in the building could be thrown into it at once and incinerated. The instructions beside the furnace read that it is only to be turned on once every month so that unsatisfactory materials can be disposed of.

Jim/Jeffrey/Gerald/Giovanni does not care for the books—they are not dictionaries or thesauruses or any of the other books useful to him, so they do not affect him. Endless shelves of them clutter an area at least ten times the size of a football stadium. And, in the center of it wall, after he walks straight through the looming bookshelves, is a man in a cage.

The men who run the factory are not here today. They have business elsewhere, which is fine, and it is also fine if they are somehow watching him. All he knows is that he is to take the books to the man in the cage, who sorts them into items to be stored and items to be destroyed.

The cage is not made of metal—it is made of light and electricity and some things that he does not understand, but he does know that it is impenetrable. He does not know why the man is in the cage or how he came to be there; he simply knows that there is a man in the cage, and that the man in the cage is speaking to him now.

"They are preparing the furnace today," says the man. "That is why they are not here."

His voice is hollow and frail, straining as though it should not exist.

George/Jacob/Jarel/Jonathan knows that this man is extremely old—wizened and gray, with flesh dangling off of him, he cannot be less than 600 years old. He is obviously kept alive by science so that he can do his job.

"I know they're not here," says Jonah/Joey/Girard/Joshua. "It's good to know they're preparing the furnaces. I have these books for you."

The cart goes through the light, even when a human hand cannot. The old man lets it roll across roughly three feet until he reaches out a weak hand to stop it. He lifts the first book and verifies it as purely informative, so it is dropped through a small chute that will lead to its designated spot on a bookshelf. The next book is not purely informative. It goes to the fire.

"Do you know," says the man, "That I often slide a story into the information chute?"

No answer is given. The word "story" is foreign. But the man continues to speak, empowered by the fact that he is alone with the factory worker.

"You are alone," he says, "So I will tell you of these books. I will tell you of things that you do not understand. I have told it to every worker in your position, and I hope that before I die, one of you will retain it and save all worth from leaving my life. After all, the limit of science is 867 years—that is why they are working so fervently to keep me alive. Will you hear me?"

"Sure. I hear you as long as I'm still standing here. Right now I'm not moving, so I must be standing here. You can talk to me. How are you?"

The man blinks wearily at Jordan/Geronimo/Jared/Jayden through the bars, and his cadaverous face twists into some monstrous resemblance of a smile. "You have no idea that today could be different from any other day. You do not remember if yesterday was different at all, I am sure. But today I made sure they called you, even though it is burn day and you are not needed. You will be a hero today, if you can recall what I tell you. It is your day."

Jeremy/Jude/Johnny/Jay stands there, not understanding. He sits on the floor—he has nowhere else that he pressingly has to go. Papers and pens and all matter of book debris are around him. The pulsating electric bars of the cage and the groan of the prisoner's voice mesmerize him in a way that is special, though he does not know why. He does not remember that no one has spoken to him like this before—he knows vaguely of past and future tense, but they are not used. He cannot understand the significance of their usage. However, he raises no objection as the man continues speaking.

"You can call me Storyteller, for I am about to tell you a story. I can see in your face that you do not understand exactly what a story is—it has been erased from your reference books. There is a reason 'story' is part of 'history', as you perhaps will be able to infer from what I am about to tell you.

"I was born in a time that was dark, but not so dark as this. I grew up surrounded by war and tyranny and heartbreak. When I was young, I played in schoolyards, kissed my first girlfriend, went swimming in rivers and laughed with friends, never knowing if I was going to be dead the next day. The war was killing everyone—armies had such advanced technology that they could silently kill an entire city and no one would have seen it coming. The war had no name. Nothing has a name anymore.

"When the dictatorship arrived, its goal was to bring many civilizations under its control, and it seemed conformity was the only way to do so. I remember when they took power—I was 32. I must continue to make this brief, because they will soon start the burn and you will be called away, and the point of the tale must be told to you before you leave.

"The idea arose from some madman's mind, and the world was based off of it. A pattern was seen in rebelliousness and desire for freedom: the start of those ideas. Where did people get the idea of revolution from? Where did people get the idea of freedom and rights from? Why, from the past. From history. Where did people get hope from? From books, fairy tales, films, religion. Where did people get creativity and individuality from? From art and poetry and music.

"The common thread in all of these was simple: the story; an account of an event, a memory and interpretation of an event, or the imagining of an event. Eradicate the story and you destroy a lot more than is inherently obvious. It is not only books and movies and the tales passed down from generation to generation; all faiths begin with stories about the creation of the world, so destroy the story and you destroy religion. Artwork either stems from or tells a story; eliminate the story to eliminate art. But, most importantly: a memory is a story. With stories gone, memory, true memory, is gone as well. People cannot remember history. People cannot even remember what they had for breakfast yesterday. After all, if you were to tell someone what you had for breakfast yesterday, you might end up telling them that your cat jumped in your cereal, and they might laugh. You are telling a story."

Geoff/Jacques/Jaime/Jack grows more confused by the moment. He does not see why all of this pertains to his present. Yet, strangely, the word that Storyteller—or Sam, or Steve, or whatever he wants to be called—keeps saying stays in his mind when nothing else will: story. It creeps into every corner of his being. It gives odd life to the books on the shelves, to the lights on the ceiling, to the pulse of the bars and the wrinkles that hide the man's eyes. There is an unusual thought growing in Jason/Jarvis/Jasper/Jamal's mind. He cannot shake it and it nearly hurts his mind to retain it, but it consumes him and he cannot release it.

"They started with the obvious ones, and as you can see they are far from finished—even after so many years. Books starting with the oldest Jewish Torah scrolls to the most modern novels had to be burned, destroyed, and that was no easy feat. Films were easier, just crack a disk or something—but films had scripts. Those had to be destroyed as well. So you see, the world was full of recorded stories that were impossible to eradicate all at once.

"But, slowly, as generations died out and more and more were born without stories, the things started to grow increasingly foreign. It began there. It continued until it was forbidden to give any sort of account that was not strictly technical. Of course, modern science enforces this quite easily. Careful manipulation of genes can make sure that people are born who forget even the simplest things. Complete forgetfulness was not their original intent, but as they destroyed stories it became obvious that it would lead to that.

"By that time I was very old, and the young scientists were facing a new dilemma: they did not know stories either. How could they destroy what they did not understand? They had a lesser degree of forgetfulness, but they needed the previous generations. So many of us were captured and given the extension operation. Now you see me here: my life line has been extended beyond that of any of the rest who were brought here originally.

"I will not delve into tales of my life or capture, or of what I felt then. All I can say is that they needed us because we were the only ones who could still remember, and thus we were the only danger. They eliminated that danger by twisting it and using it to their advantage. Now there is only me and those like me who are in chambers such as this in other parts of the world.

"Then there is you. You and your kind are the perfection of the years of toil, of the masterful manipulation of the human creature: you have no story. You have no history, no imagination, no memory. You cannot even remember your own name because you might then remember some story as to why your parents chose that particular name. But you see, James, nothing beyond stories and creativity and religion is perfect, so therefore you are not their perfect creation.

"Somewhere within you there is an infinitesimal remnant of humanity. If you can remember even one or two words of what I told you today, that humanity is starting to resurface, and if you can ponder it or draw conclusions from it, you are more than even I realized you could be."

The man looks blearily upwards, through the open top of his cage to a tiny skylight at the top of the dome. James wonders how he can still have his vision. But Storyteller sees a subtle change of light there that he has grown accustomed to discerning, and he knows that it is now time for his story to end.

"You must go now, before they start the burning. They will need you," says Storyteller. "But take my tale with you that it might endow your life with meaning. I am finished, now, until another comes. I do hope that you can at least remember what I told you your name was. That is all I can hope for; I cannot convey to you how it feels to look at an artist's portrayal of a sunset, or to read about dragons and fairies, or hear about the history of your nation's flag or to listen to your favorite song over and over...I simply cannot and I am sorry for that, but I thank you for listening. Goodbye, James."

James stands. Loose pieces of paper cling to him and something compels him to stick one in his pants pocket, crumpling it and inserting it next to the pen that protrudes from there. The light is dim around him once more. There is nothing to mesmerize him, nothing to confuse him, nothing that he does not understand. The only thing uncomfortable to him now is the thought that will not leave his mind.

It stays with him through the burning. It stays with him when he passes Alicia again and offers her another cigarette. It stays with him as he again descends to the slick floors and slips, having to lean against the counter to lift himself up. It stays with him when he realizes that Alicia is beautiful. It even stays with him as he turns a corner of a blank alleyway, watching it with a strange stare on a night speckled with pinpoints of stars.

And, as he turns a key to enter his home, he realizes that it is not going to leave. As he sits down on his bed to write down the next day's tasks and count up the wages that he collects daily, he realizes why it will not leave: it is his past. There is a past right now.

He takes out the crumpled sheet of paper and the pen. He does not feel compelled to find a clean sheet of paper. Then, as James starts to write down the next day's task, he knows what he must do. He knows that he must write down the thought that is with him. Once it is gone, he can be comfortable again.

Maybe once he finishes writing, he'll realize that he can never be comfortable again.

James lifts the pen from the paper, vaguely noticing for the first time that the walls in his room are a beautiful shade of scarlet, much like the shade of the jewel on Alicia's necklace. He then puts the paper unceremoniously beside his bed and concentrates on going to sleep. But before he falls to sleep, he reads it once:

"My name is James. I hope that when I die I can find the place called Story, where there are artists and sunsets and dragons and songs."

He does not know what all the words signify yet or what they will mean for him. But he knows that they are beautiful.