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
distinct feeling that he was being watched --- Elko scraped up
with dignity he still had and took a walk along one of his late
father's canals to the river. There on the shore, he removed his
shirt, headpiece, skirt, and sandals, and waded out into the
churning muddy water. "I give myself to the gods of Earth and
Water," he said, "in thanks for the gift of my life."
The current grew strong and swept him off his feet. He
treaded water as he was carried along past the city and out beyond
the farmlands. To either side of him were great expanses of
moonlit desert, calm and peaceful. Elko felt relaxed, and floated
easily. He wasn't in a rush to get it over with. He was reliving
memories of his wife and his children.
A ring of lights glared down at him, and there was a harsh
sloshing sound as a lot of water tried to climb up the side of a
silver wall. It only reached so far, then came surging down in a
wave that came back at Elko. He bobbed with it as it passed him,
then amazingly the wave hit another silver wall on the other side
and came back again. There was a round silver wall completely
surrounding him. The ring of lights from above seemed to be
mounted on a ceiling. He was in a room!
The water drained quickly and left him splayed in dismay on a
cold metal floor. He took a breath and sat up, wincing with the
pain and stiffness. Slowly, carefully, he got to his feet and
shuffled back and forth, looking at the metal and wondering how
he'd arrived here. "Hello?" he said. His voice echoed with a
ringing quality. There was no response, so he stood and patiently
A round hole opened in the ceiling and a ladder dropped into
view. A strangely-dressed man climbed down and spoke to him with a
thick accent. "I am a friend," he said. "Nothing here will hurt
Elko looked him up and down, seeing finely woven cloth of
thread so thin you could barely see it, and sandals that covered
all of the feet in a black shell like a foot-sized dung beetle.
The man's face and smile were oddly disconcerting, and his eyes
were a watery green. Without a doubt, this was a god. Which god,
Elko had no idea --- but definitely a god. "I am your humble
slave," Elko said.
"No, you are my friend. You will understand in time. Come
With difficulty and fear, Elko followed the god up the
They jabbed brightly-polished metal thorns in his arms, which
oddly enough brought pleasant waves of relief from the pain in his
joints and hands. In four days, they told him, the pain would be
gone forever. In the mean time they had provided him with a large
rectangular room in a building that seemed to be so big it went on
forever, and in this room one whole wall was fashioned out of the
purest crystal. Through it he could see a land lush with green
grass and gnarled trees, rolling hills, and a reassuring blue sky.
Black roads painted with broken yellow lines crossed the
landscape. Graceful buildings bigger than any he'd ever seen
thrust up out of the ground toward the sky, so skillfully crafted
they brought tears to his eyes.
He sat on a soft, high bed and watched as brightly-colored,
wheeled machines raced at astonishing speeds along the black
roads. Machines also flew through the air, some close and slow,
some very far away and traveling very fast. Some of these left
long, thin, straight clouds behind them, and as Elko watched these
clouds grew fat and translucent and then drifted away.
A smiling, brown-skinned woman and the man who'd first
greeted him came to visit and asked how he was adjusting. Elko had
no idea what they meant by this, but he told them how grateful he
was for the wardrobe of fine, new clothes. They asked him if he
would like to learn their language. He said, "Yes, I would be
"We have different methods of teaching than you are used to,"
the dark-skinned woman said. "They are much faster."
"I am humbled by your vast knowledge," he said, hoping this
"With the language lesson will come knowledge of things you
will need in order to understand this new world. The lesson will
change the way you view things. Do you understand this?"
"I am anxious to understand your new world," he told them.
"You do not object to the lesson, then?"
"I have no objections."
They led him though a maze of carpeted hallways, spent time
in a room called "an elevator" --- which seemed like great magic
to Elko --- and finally to a room full of comfortable beds. They
had him lie down in one and told him to relax.
"This is a machine that will teach you," he was told. They
rolled a metal box over to his bed. The box had numerous colored
lights which looked like captive stars, and a headband that was
attached to it by a long cord.
"We're going to put this on your head," they told him,
showing him the headband. "It will feel odd but it will not hurt
you." When they slipped it over his forehead it made all his
muscles jump, as if he'd been startled. Then sleep came with a
Through his slumber he dreamed of a stampede of mad oxen
trampling through the farmlands, through the town, through his
very home. They were possessed by the god of oxen, and that god
was furious. The oxen were everywhere, jabbing their horns and
crushing with their hooves. They swept everything away; his home,
his sons, his grandchildren. He heard women crying in anguish.
When he awoke, it was abrupt. He felt dizzy, and his forehead
was damp with cold sweat. He stared up at the boxes with the
colored lights and said, "Computer!" The word, even as he said it,
startled him, and the concept behind it was bizarre. "Microchip!"
he said. "They're made of dirt!" Disoriented as he was, this
fact gave him a spasm of joy.
A great understanding seemed to be trying to catch up to him.
He could feel it coming up from behind, thundering along on a
hundred-thousand mad hooves. Technica! he thought. A church of
science! Truth! Great thought! The understanding swept over him,
trampling him. Crushing him over and over again. Technica
collected the great minds of humanity. They thought he was one of
them. They thought he had invented the wheel! Either the god of
good fortune was in love with him, or the god of practical jokes.
This was a prank of horrible proportions!
Elko sat at the table by himself with his plate of gourmet
cafeteria food in front of him, untouched. That day Professor
Burns had taken him out on a balcony on the top floor of the West
Tower, and let him behold the wonders of 22nd century
civilization. It spread like a carpet across the Livermore Valley,
covering the mountains to the west and continuing on to the sea.
"Wheels," Raymond had told him. "Everywhere you look, you see
wheels. It all started with you, Elko. The cart you built for your
father. You are the father of everything you see today. The day
you put that cart together was the decisive moment in the history
Even with his new found understanding of this alien world
called "The Future," this concept still boggled his mind. These
people had build a devices that, though manipulating the basic
fabric of reality, was able to reach back through the ages and
scoop him out of the water. They saved his life and brought him
here so they could honor him as the father of technology, and
allow him to teach a class in pottery in the Great Hall of
Here he was, elbow to elbow with the great minds of the ages,
just because he put four wheels on two sticks and attached a
basket to the top. It didn't make sense to him.
"So, you're the inventor of the wheel." Elko looked up at the
man who spoke. He was tall and had a charming smile, and his name
tag read, "John Kennedy, Great Political Leader." John introduced
himself and shook Elko's hand, then indicated a short, dark-haired
man standing next to him. "Elko, this is my good friend Franz.
Franz Kafka. He's a famous writer."
Franz shook hands with Elko. "I program computers, now," he
"Computers made of dirt! Digital logic!" Elko blurted. He
covered his mouth with his hands, and shook his head.
"Recent language upload, eh?" John said. "Don't worry, it
calms down after a few days." He and Franz sat down across from
Elko, each with their own cafeteria trays. "The foods here's
great, isn't it?"
"Preprocessed cloned non-cholesterol!" Elko blurted.
"Fabricated meat food product!"
"Amazing, isn't it?"
"I never did like greasy food," Franz said. "It always gave
"It must be a real change for you, Mr. Potter. Food-wise as
well as everything else. I heard you made an over seven-thousand
"Eight-thousand," Franz said. "He's from around six-thousand
"Before Christ . . . imagine that!"
"Millennium!" Elko blurted. "Cosmos!"
"Wasn't that right around the time of the invention of the
written word itself?" Franz said. "Did written language exist
during your time period?"
"Hieroglyphics!" Elko's mouth spat the word out violently,
then he was able to control himself. He drank some water and took
a deep breath. "Crude writing was around. It existed. We regarded
it with a mixture of suspicion and awe."
"What do you think of it now?"
"Alphabet!" Once again, Elko put his hands over his mouth.
"Information!" he shouted into his hands. "Immortality!"
"In a few days they're going to have you start writing your
thoughts and reflections down," Franz said. "It's to give the
students a database of quotes they can attribute to you as they're
John leaned forward and whispered, "If you need any help,
give Franz here a call. He wrote half of mine for me."
Elko cautiously moved his hands away from his mouth. In a
low, uneven voice he said, "Ill keep that in mind, thank you."
Elko attended his first cocktail party as Raymond Burn's
special guest. It was his first time outside the Technica campus,
and his first ride in a car. He kept closing his eyes because
things seemed to be coming at him too fast, and by the time they
reached Raymond's large round house in the hills he was feeling
There were several different levels to Raymond's house, each
one reached through the wide circular staircase in the center of
the structure. Elko was dazzled by the architecture, and kept
running his hands over the smooth, hard surfaces. Concrete! his
mind shouted, but by now Elko had learned how to keep it to
himself. Clay so hard it turned to stone! The top floor was one
large round room with a shallow domed roof ornamented by a
spectacular stained glass skylight. There were over-stuffed
chairs, leather couches and ornate wooden cocktail tables
everywhere, as well as white-uniformed butlers ready to serve. One
white piano stood out near a large window, and next to it stood a
large golden harp. To Elko's amazement they played themselves.
Computerized! he thought. Automated!
The reason for the party was that Raymond was celebrating his
elevation in status from 5th to 6th level professor at Technica.
The reason for his elevation, so Elko gathered, was the discovery