One thing that I find myself struggling with constantly is the impression of progress, the finishing of things. It is so difficult, with all these different influences and interests, to simply stay the course and complete the things we set out to do.
That's in addition to all the daily responsibilities we have. Just now I contemplated not finishing this post, even though in the end it has little value or importance to anyone, just because it seemed like ANOTHER THING TO DO.
Anyway, on to some actual things. I've resumed work on the novel, mostly because of the above, but also because I was heartened by Harvey Smith completing his and this thing has been floating around for 15 years in various states of completion.
It is going okay, although I am currently in a place with it that will either mean I rewrite everything or I live with a lot of the stuff I'm unhappy with in the interest of completion. I should do 2, but we'll see. Writing is like falling down a hole for me - if I know where I'm landing it's sometimes a lot less interesting.
In other news, the Payday 2 gig is really fun and exciting and I'm glad I've had the chance to work on something so different and close to my heart. While I loved what I did at DICE it was hard to find personal satisfaction in something that came with so many caveats and had so many people involved. It was a special challenge for me, I think, because writing became one of the few methods of satisfaction I had, and it came at the detriment of a lot of other things. I feel lucky that I'm working closer to the metal now for sure. Making skill and loot systems, writing stuff, balancing weapons and items, fiddling with LUA and terrifying the coders, along with all the other things I'm responsible for - that feels really good.
Making things feels good. There, I said it.
I've been noodling with Unity and Twine and Gamemaker a lot. I plan to post the Twine experiment next week. It's definitely something I enjoy, although as with all things, that's just one more thing I have to worry about..
Finally, I'm posting the Foreword and the first chapter of the revised book here below.
I hope you like it, and any/all comments welcome.
The Cave of Letters is located in the desert near the border of what was once Israel and Judea, about twenty kilometers south south of the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
The discovery in 1955 of several pieces of correspondence from the Hebrew revolutionary Simon Bar-Kochba, dated around the time of the last great Jewish rebellion in AD 132, made the cave a very attractive place for archaelogists and thieves alike, but after many more thorough explorations, the Cave’s secrets were considered fully disclosed, and the letters properly seated in museum archives.
About eighteen months ago, a strange posting on the largest electronic auction house in existence drew hundreds of bids and global interest, sparking a search for the sellers. The original posting is listed below, spelling errors and all:
SUPERB OIL LAMP “Time of Christ”
1st century AD from Holy Land or Egypt.
A Very Fine Ancient pottery oil lamp from the time of Christ ca. 1st century AD from the Holy Land or possibly Egyptian. This particular piece is detail with raised ridges and 1 small circle on base. This oil lamp is in wonderful condition and measure 3 x 2 1/8 inches with mineral deposits showing its age and origins. Additionally there may be something inside which rattles when shaken. The buyer is free to open the vessel. The item was discovered in a cave so there isn’t any provenence.
The last line hit buyers like a thunderbolt. The auction house eventually froze the seller’s account, and the truth leaked out little by little, but not before the bids had climbed high enough to involve bidding wars between museums and a huge enquiry.
The sellers turned out to be two Bedouin youths, names C. and O. They had been seeking shelter from a fierce Negev sandstorm and stumbled into a cave, inadvertently uncovering what appeared to be a tributary and previously undiscovered series of chambers near the Cave of Letters. Although they later confessed that much of what they had found they had already bartered or traded away to private collectors for cash, they still held a few items of interest in their possession, among them several more oil lamps, the husk of what must have been a very large scarab beetle, four bronze knives, several denarii of silver, a pouch filled with indigo pigment and six topazes of middling quality, an iron key, a pair of sandals, a rather poor silver mirror, and last but not least, a leather satchel with six reeds inside. Each was filled with a papyrus scroll.
The scrolls were in good condition; stored in a closed, dry area, and sealed inside a leather vessel in addition to the reed, they had kept well enough and were, for the most part, quite legible. Unusually, the text is bilingual in both Aramaic and vulgar Latin, suggesting the author or authors intended a specific readership, and also suggesting that they were unusually well-educated for the time period.
The scrolls detail the journeys of a protagonist whose name can be translated as “Locust”, a pejorative term at best, often connoting thief or burglar. It may also be judged to invoke authorial irony in the manner of The Golden Ass, which is, according to carbon dating, its nearest contemporary.
Whether or not Locust was the actual author of the scrolls or an amalgamated or fictional figure is at best unclear - what is clear is that the scrolls offer an alternative explanation to what happened in AD 132, a perspective unlike the extant literature of the period. In spite of the usage of Aramaic and Latin, the text has a curious neutrality and unusual idiomatic structure which seems to indicate the author too had been a “stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22), or sought at least to appear as though he or she were.
Jerusalem during this period was still reeling from the siege and destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 by the Roman Emperor Titus as recompense for the Great Revolt of Judea. In 130, the Roman Emperor Hadrian began plans to “give back Jerusalem” to the Jews by building a new city atop the razed ruin of the Temple. Called Aelia Capitolina, it was basically a Roman garrison, with pagan temples to Venus and Jupiter beside the former holy site. Its presence would eventually start a revolt in 135 that would end in over 500,000 deaths and the effective end to Jerusalem as the seat of Jewish religion in Israel.
In Locust’s world, a word that comes up frequently is “slave”, (servis, l.) It was a hard, brutal, and short life. By law, common slaves could hold no property, were available for sexual exploitation and could be submitted to torture and summary execution at the whim of their master. They held no rights and expected none. In the words of Marcel Mauss, the slave “…has no personality. He does not own his body; he has no ancestors, no name, no cognomen, no goods of his own.”
The hope of a better life was small. Most could only hope for a kinder master, or not to be employed in a low job, like minework or logging or prostitution. Those with bigger dreams could consider escape, by becoming a fugitive who would be hunted like an animal and eventually crucified— or manumission, literally “freeing of the hand”, the equivalent of hitting the lottery in today’s age.
As in many ancient texts and histories, the confluence of the fantastic and the historical are plain and unremarkable, treated as fact. The time period in which our author lived was one of profound mystery and uncertainty. It is in the text as well, in the blotted lines and missing diacritical marks. Where possible I have attempted to capture this feeling, and where I have failed it is not the fault of the text, but my own inadequacy as a translator.
Some final notes about the manuscript are in order. According to spectrographic analysis done at two separate laboratories, the scrolls themselves are not written in the typical ancient ink of lampblack and gum, which would be more vibrant and durable but easily erased. Instead a different ink, likely from a cuttlefish, was used and most likely mixed with vinegar. This ink was impossible to erase but over the course of time, grew paler and paler with exposure. In some cases I have had to elide or frankly, guess at words from context. Portions of the text are sometimes too faint to read, and despite my having the enormous advantage of the bilingual text to verify my translation, even that is sometimes not enough.
Additionally, there are some curious usages here, the most significant of which is the term “tiger” (tigris in Latin, Numra and interchangeably ebed in Aramaic) which appears throughout the text of all six scrolls. I have chosen to use this word literally (and liberally) rather than choosing to be metaphorical to render the intensity and strangeness of its usage. In the end, only the reader can decide.
It was too dark in the tunnel for him to see and it stank. Lighting a lamp in a drainage channel full of shit and gas was too much risk for an already risky job so when the hired man raised his torch, Locust had no choice but to knock it down into the mire. I’d always known him to be impatient but on this day, he was in unusually foul temper.
“What now?” Cassius said, picking it up with distaste. “Can’t go further like this.” Cassius was a pockmarked and paunchy Galician with a hard mouth and a greasy complexion, as hardened and skillful a thief as any in Judea. “I know ye contracted me for this but if we can’t light a light... Can you say how much you want this thing?”
“I want it,” Locust said, and the way he said it meant there was nothing more to be said. If Cassius had known him the way I did, he never would have questioned his resolve.
Locust was tall and rangy and ugly in the way that men who did what we did for a living were meant to be, full of bruises and hard knots and cords. The only part of him that could be called something other than ugly at all were his fingers. They were long and curved and broad and spoke of utility and violence in equal measure. They had gotten him his formidable reputation. They had picked the eighty locks of the Hundred-Headed God in Thebes, caressed whores as far as Sinai, stolen ebony ingots from the offering tables of the Emperor himself. His hands were his legacy to Syria Palaestina, as the Romans then called Judea. They were his livelihood, and yet I know he would say these objects, the hands he had employed for years were not his own, for he was a slave. I imagine in his darkest moments he would drink and consider what fate a slave had with such hands, these being his only true option for liberation.
Locust looked into the blackness down the tunnel. His cold yellow eyes narrowed. “Should be close-by.”
Cassius shuffled his feet and continued. “Well I’m just saying we can still turn back. Last I saw the 6th Legion had this place camped but good. Plus this route I got, no one’s used since the Temple got burned. I never have been myself though so I would not guarantee anything..”
“We’re not turning back.” Locust said, interrupting him. Cassius shrugged.
Locust continued to feel around in the dark. He could see well in the darkness, better than most men. The outlines of the giant stone blocks that formed the foundation of the Temple bulked up all around.
“This one,” he said.
Cassius scrambled over, searching the slab, gauging depth, breadth, texture. He stood there among the shadows, silent. His fingers walked the stone for a moment. The corners of his mouth drew up in a grin.
“Yes, this is Herod’s seal,” Cassius said. “So the old tunnel should start down -- down there--”
Locust raised a finger to silence Cassius and indicated they move down the direction of the old tunnel. Cassius adjusted his gladius, and they began to walk down the tunnel, Locust with one hand on Cassius’ shoulder, the other on the wall.
The darkness swallowed them whole.
Their pace was excruciating, silent and slow as they crept along. The only sounds the chittering of rats, the hiss of water. In places like this time seems to slow and distances to lengthen.
They came to a dead end. A single fallen stone, big enough to crush thirty men, blocked their way. Cassius knelt and scraped away at the stone. “Here there is a gap,” he said. “An old compatriot in the Ashen Mask told me about it. It was dug originally by Jewish priests and zealots to escape the Roman siege. Perhaps it is still viable.”
Locust looked. It was almost too small to notice. Too narrow to do anything but crawl, not even a cubit high.
“If it is, then we are very close,” Cassius said in shadow. “Beyond, somewhere upward, that’s where the old Tabernacle’d lie. It’ll be a tight squeeze, though. What we want - it’s a scroll of some kind, is that right?”
“Go on,” Locust said.
Now this was not Herod’s tunnel as far I know, but an older, Hasmonean tunnel, carved before Roman soldiers by the order of Titus had decided to burn the whole Second Temple to the ground and end the revolt for once and all. It had taken sixty years for Rome to be content with the disposition of the place - now it was guarded day and night to prevent would-be martyrs or insurrectionists from reclaiming the place and starting the next great religious movement — or ending one.
Cassius didn’t budge. “It’s not that I don’t want to. But you’re better shaped for such things.”
Locust narrowed his eyes as he moved past and inspected the opening of the access shaft. Rude timbers braced the dirt ceiling but the whole thing didn’t look very stable.
He wedged his shoulders into the passage and gave a powerful wrench. Loose rock and dust showered down on his back. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” Cassius said.
Locust hauled himself out and began to remove his leather armor, piece by piece. When he was in only a tunic he handed his weapon to Cassius.
“Is that such a good idea with the legionaries all staked out up there?”
Locust took a deep breath and drove himself in, pawing forward in the crawlspace. It was so tight he couldn’t move his arms. More dirt and dust showered down on him and the shaft vibrated unpleasantly. He gave a tremendous shove and burst free, skidding on his belly.
“I’m through,” he called. “Excellent,” Cassius called back.
It was fifteen paces before he saw the first body. All the cloth was still intact. Flesh rotted away complete, only bone remained, and half-gnawed at that. Rats had seen to it.
“Dead man.” Locust muttered. He heard Cassius suck his teeth behind him. The skeleton wore leather armor. A broken bronze dagger lay beside him. The point chipped off. Desperate grooves in the rock. It was common enough for enterprising thieves to take a chance like this and then, like any rodent, to simply get stuck. With no way out, they starved, bled to death, or worse.
“I’ll be right here,” Cassius called, but Locust was already gone up the passage.
After a brief crawl on his belly Locust saw blueness beginning to lighten the dark. He went forward. Light filtered down a narrow square shaft probably eight men high. He squinted up at it as sound carried from the street. Someone praying, crying. Then metal pinging off the walls of the shaft.
He looked down at the coin. It had landed face up. The Emperor Hadrian’s face stared back at him. The sound of angry voices came down the well right after.
“Wishing to the gods isn’t going to get you out of this...”
“I worship my way. You should have left those goddam beggars outside alone, Pullius.”
Another voice, plaintive. “The scum were throwing rocks.”
“I don’t care. The centurions will scourge us for that. We have orders to keep the peace.”
“To hell with the orders. Those pricks think they piss silver and shit gold. So do you.”
The reply sounded like the pop of breaking teeth. Locust waited until the sounds of violence had diminished. Patience in thieves wasn’t just a virtue but a necessity, and he was no different. When the sounds had subsided, he moved on.
The tunnel extended another twenty cubits and turned left again, sloping upward. It grew warmer and drier.
At the top, he blinked, unsure, until he noticed dust settling on his face. He looked up to see another shaft. Motes of dust filtered down. According to Cassius’ information, the true Tabernacle would be up there, if it was anywhere.
Locust wedged himself into the narrow chute. Several skeletons lay shattered at the bottom of the chute. He stepped over them and began to climb. He was a skilled climber and was soon near the top. His strong fingers dug into the crevices and bore him up until he reached another blockage. Locust rapped it lightly with his knuckles. Then levered himself out through a drift of old dust and cindered bones. A puff of ash followed his exit into the room where once the Tabernacle had stood.
The room smelled of must and smoke. He frowned as he surveyed. Because he was too late.
The curtain of the Tabernacle was gone. Cedarwood poles that had kept it aloft, broken fragments. A tangle of scorched bones strewn across the floor.
Locust got on his haunches and rubbed his thumbs over his face. Then he was quiet.
He kicked a ribcage. It exploded. He stomped more, crunching bones underfoot. Smashing them to splinters, to less than splinters. To nothing. He scanned the fragments. He sifted them. More nothing. There was simply nothing there. He would return empty-handed, and that would mean - he didn’t want to think about what it would mean.
Then there were louder voices, and he knew he had overstayed his welcome.
The metal rang with footsteps. Locust bundled himself into the shaft and scrambled down, skidding, half-slipping. His nails dug for purchase and bottled him halfway down. He paused. They’d hear him for sure.
They crashed into the room like bulls. He could hear them up top stalking the room, puzzling it out. Then silence.
He pressed close. The wall accepted him. For a big man his shape seemed small and natural.
A face peered over the lip of the shaft. Small white eyes darted from corner to corner to corner. The face didn’t look happy.
“Rats.” The face disappeared.
“Wasn’t a goddamn rat.”
Locust was halfway down the tunnel when he lost his footing. As he fell he had the presence of mind to turn his body into the wall. His fingers raked stone. He landed hard. It was sheer luck most likely, although some might have even called it miraculous. By all rights he should have been killed. But some fortune, some gift, even, I think, that prevented that outcome.
At first he thought he’d broken a rib. He reached down. His fingers closed around a smooth cylinder. His eyes widened a little. I imagine he considered then what he might have held there for the briefest time. For thieves there is always a bright, blazing moment when you find the object you seek, a joyous moment where your dreams are made real and tangible. When you hold that thing, whatever it is, everything seems possible. For most, that moment is very brief. It was Locust’s great misfortune, in my opinion, that for him the moment of joy simply did not exist.
He squeezed into the wall as a torch exploded on the stone floor in a shower of sparks. “We know you’re down there! Thief!” He ducked back into the tunnel. They’d be coming for him now.
He began to crawl toward the exit as dirt showered down around him.
Cassius was worried by the time Locust came back. “It seems you ran into some trouble,” he said, extending a hand. “You find anything?” Locust nodded, took his hand and then felt a sharp point against his throat. “Don’t move.”
“Really,” Locust said. He didn’t know why he was surprised. He had hired Cassius with the expectation that payment would secure his loyalty. He should have known better.
“I’ll take that,” Cassius said. His fingers searched Locust expertly. “Aha,” he said, taking the cylinder. With Locust bottled as he was in the opening he couldn’t even lift an arm.
It was now that Locust noticed his armor scattered on the ground, the straps slashed clean so its uselessness was complete.
Cassius smiled an uneven smile, raised the cylinder in salute, and kicked Locust in the face. Blood streamed down his chin. There was an ominous rumbling. Dust and dirt sifted down. Then he was shoving himself backward like a worm and the exit shaft was collapsing with a roar. White smoke and dust coated his face, eyes, choked him.
There was a distant crash and scream. Locust could hear moaning. He backed down the shaft and then, where it widened, turned around and peered in. The auxiliary lay there with his leg at a terrible angle. Bone poked through the wound. The soldier gave another cry of agony and lolled back on the ground. The tunnel collapse had probably startled him and caused him to fall. It was, in its own way, a stroke of great luck.
There was only one thing to do. He would need to be quick about it. Locust darted into the shaft and fastened both powerful hands around the soldier’s neck before he could cry out. The soldier’s eyes bulged whiter and whiter until they looked like globes of snow.
Locust let the body slip to the floor and hid in the shadows. He appeared to be a ghost or spirit recently risen.
“Brothers, my leg is broken,” he called out in as weak a voice as he could manage. The voice actually appeared to come from the fallen body and as some might be aware, a skill with voice throwing is a skill highly useful in Locust’s trade. Imagine all the things one could do if you could simply draw someone’s attention. Or mislead them in one direction while you went in another.
There was rustling from up top. Locust continued in his wounded tone: “The thieves were just here, escaped down the eastern tunnel. They had something with them, a great treasure.” Locust gave out a woeful cry of pain and fell silent, backing away from the shaft. He heard hushed talk at the top. That same face peered down from on high.
“He’s unconscious.” Someone said. “We’ll get him soon, the overconfident son of a bitch. Next time maybe he won’t climb down an airshaft. Or pick a fight with me.”
The other voice laughed and the sound of mailed boots rang fainter and fainter until it was gone.
Locust knew he didn’t have long. First he stripped the dead Roman of his armor and laced it up on himself. Then drew off the dead man’s helmet. His head thumped the color, his purple tongue lolled out. Locust placed it onto his head. It fit and Locust thanked him in silence for having a sizeable head.
He believed at a reasonable distance he could pass for a Roman soldier. The helmet sideguards would hide a portion of his face and skin. But his disguise would not last long in full day. Romans were ignorant but not stupid, and they would see through him in a moment if he was cornered. So he resolved to not be.
Locust began to scale the shaft again. The weight of the auxiliary’s armor made the climb far more difficult but in a short while he exited one of the many hidden access shafts that opened into a main drainage channel, and after some careful maneuvering, stood outside on the Temple Mount, looking down on the valley of Kidron. To all the world he looked like a soldier on watch.
He walked down the great steps toward the Old City. A mass of slave workers toiled in the spring sun, seating squared blocks for a new road that led away from the recently built Temple to Venus. It was spring which meant it was temperate enough to work, unlike the blazing summer heat, and Rome, being an organized and industrious power, would take full advantage.
Locust walked down the construction lane, looking. No sign of Cassius.
A few guards stood watch nearby. The flow of people to the mount was limited to guards, Roman citizens, and laborers.
He nodded at the guards. They nodded back as he walked down the steep southern hill. He expected Cassius to adopt a disguise and walk out, as they had planned.
A figure came into view. It was Cassius, dressed in beggar’s clothing, bobbing and weaving, heading toward the Triple Gate, where a crowd of beggars had gathered. If Cassius reached it he would be lost to him, and along with it, Locust’s prize.
“Stop!” Locust bellowed. A number of onlookers turned round. Locust began to run down the slope, picking up speed. Cassius looked up, too late.
The impact knocked him into the dust. Cassius choked out some words. “What in the hells are you doing?”
Locust wrestled the cylinder from Cassius’s belt and shoved him back into the dirt. A brawny centurion was walking toward them.
“Do what I do or we both die,” Locust whispered.
Cassius saw and gave a terrific squirm.
“My brother I apologize,” said Locust, careful to stay in the shade thrown by the great Wall, helping Cassius to his feet.
“What is the meaning of this?”, the centurion said. He was muscled and raw-looking, newly come into his job, most likely.
“Thought he was one of the beggars who assaulted us, Lord.” Locust said.
The centurion squinted at Cassius with renewed suspicion.
“This isn’t him,” Locust said. “They stoned us so.. “ He let his voice turn reluctant and ashamed. “So we beat em some, but I.. I guess this wasn’t one of em. I know we weren’t supposed to.”
Cassius looked shocked, then outraged. The centurion frowned at Locust. “What’s your name?”
Other soldiers were filtering down the hill. Locust shifted his feet as he had done a thousand times before in a gesture of apparent shame. “Decius.”
“Why weren’t you following the Imperial order, soldier? Did you not agree with it?”
Locust gauged the question. “We were just defending ourselves, Lord. They come at us all in a group. Ain’t been at this long.”
The centurion hauled Cassius to his feet. “This man just saved your life, dog. What do you tell a man who does that?”
Cassius stared coals at Locust. The centurion jabbed him. “I thank you.”
The centurion grunted and shoved Cassius in the direction of the other beggars. “Stay away from the mount.” He looked at Locust, who had started to move away. “Back to your post.”
Locust nodded and began walking away from the centurion, who watched him for a few moments and turned back to the long walk up the Temple Mount.
It was several minutes more before the Temple auxiliaries found the centurion and told him what had happened, and by then, of course, Locust was long gone.