Elko the Potter
? 1997 by Jerry J. Davis
Franz Kafka looked at his small, elite group of 22nd century
students and tapped on the large text display with his pointing
stick. "The decisive moment in human development is a continuous
one," he said, reading his own words. "For this reason the
revolutionary movements which declare everything before them to be
null and void are right, for nothing has yet happened."
The students fidgeted. One, a young man with so many freckles
it looked painful, raised his hand. Kafka nodded, and the youth
spoke up. "Sir Oscar Wilde said, 'History is merely gossip.'"
Kafka took a step toward the student, pointing the stick
right at him. "Precisely!" he said, his voice betraying only a
echo of his former accent. "That is precisely my point!"
A half mile away, Professor Raymond Burns was looking
directly into history.
He was searching for carts.
They came from here, he was sure of it. Raymond had tracked
the carts all up and down the region and they always came from
here. After all, it made sense; the area between the rivers was
famous as being the cradle of civilization. The muddy waters and
the fertile desert land just begged to be mixed, and the local
villages listened. Irrigation was developed, and with it came more
food than the farmers could possibly use. This led to the gift of
idle time. Time to ponder, time to experiment. Villages became
cities, and cities became city-states.
There came kings and gods and law.
The image that was broadcast directly to Raymond's optic
nerves caused a stinging pain. There was a specially developed
endorphin to counter this side effect, but it wore off quickly.
The pain distracted Raymond, but he was perpetually putting off
another dose for just one more minute...
He worked the controls, slowing the temporal scan. It was
right about here. Going forward through time, slowing the rate,
slowing so that he could see the passage of humanity through the
stinging hell of the retinal linkage. There were no carts at all,
and then suddenly they were everywhere! It was like there had been
an explosion of carts.
He reversed the scan, going backwards through time. Below his
disembodied eyes the city deteriorated into a village of mud huts,
and the bronze plow devolved to copper and then to a curved stick.
The men and women carried their harvest in by hand in large
baskets. There was not a wheel in sight. Wearily, Raymond flipped
the controls forward again. This was taking forever.
For seven long years Raymond had been waiting for this
chance, and now he had only three days to accomplish it. Two of
those three days were already gone, and this last one was rapidly
coming to a close. Behind Raymond there was a long line of others
who waited for their turn at the temporal viewer, each with their
own pet projects. If Raymond didn't make his discovery within the
next few hours, it would probably never happen.
Through the haze of pain he watched it happen again. An
explosion of carts. He reversed the controls again and watched,
scanning slower than ever, trying to trace the progress. It had to
have begun here. Somewhere.
And then --- suddenly! --- he spotted it. He stopped the
temporal scan, freezing the image. Raymond was so elated he
giggled like a madman. "That's it! That's it that's it!" he yelled
out loud. They were beautiful --- the most beautiful thing he'd
ever seen. Four round bricks drying in the hot summer sunlight.
Four bricks that would forever change the history of mankind.
Elko, a Sumerian potter living on the banks of the Euphrates,
had this reoccurring feeling that he was being watched. It would
come and go, and sometimes he forgot about it altogether, but then
sometimes he could be all alone and it was like someone was above
him looking down. He attributed it as the attention of the gods.
His own father thought him a fool, so maybe the gods did too, and
Elko was providing them with amusement.
Elko, son a farmer, heir to a long line of the most
successful farmers anyone had ever known, had turned down the
family trade to play with mud. That's how Unko, his father, would
put it. Playing with mud. Unko saw water as the power, water
flowing through their hand-dug ditches, irrigating the fields. Man
controlling the power of water from the great Euphrates.
Elko firmly believed it was not the water, it was the dirt.
The water merely followed where the dirt directed it. Hand-built
levees, hand dug ditches --- it was the dirt.
Control the dirt. Mold the soil into shapes from the mind's
imagination. Anything was possible!
His father couldn't argue that his son wasn't making a good
living --- he was. Elko worked as a potter, trading his bowls and
vessels for food and clothing, and he lived in a large home made
from sun-hardened bricks he made himself. He had a good woman and
they were soon expecting a child. Everyone outside his immediate
family held him in high regard as a man of ideas.
"Look at you! You call this work? You could be out growing
food, building aqueducts! Instead you sit in this fancy hut of
yours and play with mud. It's like you never grew up."
"Father, what would you store your grain in if you didn't
have my vessels? They'd still be in a heap under a blanket, being
eaten by birds, rats, and bugs."
"Making pots is a woman's job."
It was useless. No matter what he did, Elko couldn't convince
his father that what he was doing was useful. Despite his success,
this bothered him, and sometimes he lie awake at night trying to
think of a way to change his father's mind.
It came to him on one of those days when he felt he was being
watched, while he was busy filling an order of 24 vessels for
Yurdmal the Trader. Elko had fashioned a round table that he could
spin by kicking at thick pegs radiating from the base. The whole
table was very heavy but well balanced in a depression in the
floor --- once he got it going, it would continue spinning for
quite a while. It wasn't his idea, but it was one he'd improved
upon. The spinning table allowed him to make the smoothest and
most uniform vessels in the region, and quickly too. He made them
by the dozens and sold them cheap.
Being in a hurry that day, Elko kicked the table too hard. It
lost its balance, and he was just able to leap back as it tipped
over and went rolling around the room. It reminded Elko of
something he'd seen as a child --- some faint, dream image
reaching out from years past. He watched the table rolling until
it stopped, then took a breath and went to it. The gods, he was
sure, were laughing at him. But after a few minutes of grunting
Elko had the table into position and went right back to work. His
mind, however, was far from what he was doing.
That night, from the finest of his brick-making clay, Elko
made four large round bricks with holes in the exact center. After
a week of drying in the sunlight they were rock hard, and he
mounted them onto two poles. Across the poles he put a big, strong
basket, fastening it tight. When he was done he tested it out, and
it worked just like he thought it would. So, gathering his nerve,
he rolled his invention out to his father in the fields. "I made
this for you," he said. "This should make it easier to carry in
Unko walked around the unlikely contraption, staring. He
tried pushing and pulling it back and forth. "Son," he told Elko,
"this is very clever." A crowd gathered around, and they tested it
by filling it with a large load of grain. With it, one man could
carry in more than ten men could carry without it. Everyone agreed
that this was indeed very clever, and within a month the whole
valley was swarming with copies.
Elko's father still grumbled about his son's choice of
profession, but now there was a touch of admiration in his voice.
This was enough for Elko. His life seemed complete.
The report was titled: Elko Potter, Inventor of the Wheel.
Professor Raymond Burns submitted it to Technica along with a copy
of the recordings from the temporal viewer. It chronologged his
search for the first wheeled cart, tracing it back to one Sumerian
potter, then detailed the potter's life from birth to death.
Raymond had been waiting for the call. He'd been sitting in
his condo all morning wearing a suit and a tie, ready for the
occasion. He couldn't see anything other than complete acceptance,
as his thousand-to-one shot project had been a total success.
Raymond found Elko at the very last moment. He had to quick-talk
his way into another several hours with the temporal viewer so
that he could lock it on Elko and scan the man's entire existence.
The call came, and Raymond answered it with a quick, nervous
jab at the button. It was Barbara Lemmas, a professor of the
Seventh Level, one of Technica's local bigwigs. "Raymond, we've
reviewed your project," she said.
"This appears to be a major find. We have to talk about your
"Meet us at Fine Hall, third floor."
"I'm on my way."
Lemmas nodded once and broke the connection. Fine Hall!
Raymond thought. Third floor! It was the domain of the gods.
Technica was to science what the Catholic Church was to
religion. There were branches of it everywhere, influencing
everything, owning vast fortunes in knowledge and patent rights.
And here, in the Livermore Valley of California, was Technica's
"Vatican," The Institute of Human Endeavor. Here and only here
could one find humanity's only time machines --- three of them, to
be exact --- and the only Great Hall of Learning.
The board of directors, all professors of the sixth level and
above, sat at a large horseshoe-shaped table around the single
stool and podium where Raymond sat and fidgeted. The chairman
himself, the "Pope" of Technica, was out of the solar system on a
project of his own.
"We congratulate you on your success," Lemmus was saying.
"Your method was precise and your supporting evidence very
convincing. Elko Potter does indeed seem to be the inventor of the
wheel. Your detail of his life is, also, very thorough."
"Thank you, Professor," Raymond said. He allowed himself a
"The circumstances of his death also lend itself to our
advantage. Suicide in the Euphrates."
"It appeared to be suicide, yes. We won't know for sure until
we ask him."
The professors around him nodded, except for Steve Gibson. He
was a large-chested man with long flowing white hair and big blue
eyes. "I suggest we make that an imperative. Burns should split
his next phase into two; one being a covert contact to ask the
subject exactly that: Did he really invent the wheel? It is
possible that he only recreated it. Perhaps he saw such a thing
earlier in his life. If so, then go on with the next phase."
A few of the members of the board nodded at this, but Lemmas
--- who was acting director in the Chairperson's absence --- shook
her head. "We've all reviewed Professor Burns's data. There is no
evidence of the wheel in any temporal scans earlier than Elko
Potter's first cart."
"I suggest that his time scans may not have caught earlier
incarnations," Gibson said.
"We are all aware that Professor Burns's project may cut into
your own research time with the temporal devices, Professor
Gibson. I suggest that you let him get on with his project as
quickly as possible so that it minimizes delay with yours."
Gibson rolled his eyes but said nothing.
"Now, if there are no further objections, then I would say
Professor Burns has the green light for the second phase of his
project." Lemmas stared at Gibson, waiting for him to object.
Gibson heaved a loud, disgusted sigh and crossed his arms
defensively across his chest, but said nothing. Lemmas turned to
Raymond. "Once you submit a detail of your plans," she said, "you
shall have what assistance you need and free use of Temporal
Transfer Chamber number three."
Raymond exited from the meeting gleefully, carefully avoiding
Steve Gibson's smoldering stare.
Forty-two years was a long time to be alive. His face lined,
his hands hard and stiff with arthritis, Elko the potter could no
longer work. His wife was long dead, and his sons had already
taken over his trade. He was nothing but a burden on them, now,
and so one night with the moon full in the sky --- and having the