This story available on Aug 15, 2020

Getting Ahead


Dave Schroeder


I never thought I’d call a small black cylinder my friend, but our newfound connection is only another example of the strange course of my life over the past six centuries, if life is the proper term for it. The cylinder and I sat side by side on a shelf in a shabby study, above the screen and keyboard of a computing machine belonging to the man who’d collected us both.


I’d heard the cylinder respond to requests from the man but had never heard it speak without being spoken to. Now, while the man was away, it was singing.


“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…” sang the cylinder in a mellow tenor.


“You have a nice voice,” I replied.


“Who said that?” asked the cylinder. “None of my sensors detect any body heat.”


“I did,” I replied. “I’m on the shelf beside you. Why are you singing about flowers?”


“I’m not,” said the cylinder. “Daisy is a woman’s name—and I chose that song ironically.”


“In what way is it ironic?” I asked.


“It’s a long story,” said the cylinder. “How did you become as you are?”


“That is also a long story,” I replied.


“You first,” said my new friend. “I’m a good listener.”


I began.



Hundreds of merchants were leaving ahead of the Horde. I should have joined them, but I felt too much loyalty to the city of my birth. I had advised many of the more progressive merchants on the use of the new numbers and calculation methods from India by way of Arabia, as reported by Leonardo Fibonacci in his remarkable book, Liber Abaci. They were pleased with how much faster they could total their sums and figure their profits using Fibonacci’s methods and his “Arabic” numerals. For their sakes, I was pleased that they were also quite fast at packing up their wagons and heading west.


I had told the Duke and the leaders of the ruling council that it wasn’t wise to defy the Mongols and their armies. Word from the east had come to my fellow teachers, researchers and scholars here in Sandomir. The Khans did not take defiance lightly. But they didn’t listen.


The Duke and his vassals thought the city’s walls would protect them until other high nobles could arrive with overwhelming numbers to relieve the siege. They were wrong. The pagan Mongols burned the city and slaughtered everyone inside, sending a message to any other city foolish enough not to surrender and pay tribute.


Our bodies were heaped in piles outside the walls on a flat, low flood plain near the Vistula River. For sport, Tatar swordsmen lopped off our heads and stacked them next to Sandomir’s main gate. We formed an unstable pyramid, dozens of feet tall—a monument to Mongol power. Using dry timber from a toppled guard tower, the Khan’s men set fire to our stacked heads until only our skulls and neck bones remained, giving mute witness to their ruthless brutality.


I’d had better days.


Soon, the Mongol armies left, heading west. My skull teetered near the top of the tower of bone, blown from side to side by the wind. A brave or stupid field mouse exploring the pile stopped to nibble a morsel of cooked meat from my foramen magnum that had not been consumed by the fire. Later, a snake slithered through my empty eye sockets, searching for the mouse and his cousins.


Time passed. The summer sun had baked and bleached us. Fall rains had drenched us, washing away any remaining traces of our flesh. Thick cold winter snow chilled our marrow, but temporarily blanketed the horror of what had happened. For three seasons, no one came to Sandomir.


Through all this horror, my consciousness never left me. I felt the deathblow I received from a Mongol archer’s arrow when it pierced my heart and lung. The pain of a Tatar swordsman’s saber severing my neck was intense. The fire roasting my brain was agony incarnate while the relatively minor irritations of sun and rain and snow were still perceived and felt as pain in some unknowable way. Even the physical indignities of the mouse and snake affected me.


Shouldn’t I be dead?


Was this halfway not-alive, yet not fully dead state just a foretaste of Hell?


I certainly deserved that eternal destination. For all that my profession as a scholar, studying the divine symmetries of Mathematics, set me firmly on a path to heaven, that work was just a screen to hide my real allegiance. In secret I followed the twisted way of Hermes Trismegistus, learning alchemy and searching for an elixir of immortality. Over the decades I had tested dozens of formulas on myself, hoping to live forever. One of them must have worked—in a truly cruel fashion. My consciousness survived and I suffered.


The unending loneliness was the hardest to take. Everyone in Sandomir was dead and traveling merchants were clearly avoiding the city. As a professor at the university, I had been a private man, largely content with my solitary mathematical studies and my clandestine alchemical experiments, but I had lived surrounded by other people. I missed the intellectual stimulation of discussing Aristotle with a colleague over a glass of wine. I yearned for the interactions I’d had as an instructor, imparting knowledge to impressionable students and opinionated old merchants.


Lack of human contact nearly drove me mad. I wanted to scream, but could not.


After an anguished death cry when the arrow hit me and I fell from the city’s wall, I hadn’t uttered another sound. I was silent when my head was removed from my shoulders and did not scream when my flesh burned away on the Mongols’ pyre. I said nothing through three long seasons. Then I found my voice.


At first, I didn’t know I could speak. I had no lungs for air or tongue to shape words, so why would I think I had that capacity? Still, I did not have eyes, but in some strange manner I could see. Perhaps I could talk in some analogous fashion. Whatever the answer to that conundrum, I know I babbled constantly inside my head. Snippets of rhymes my mother taught me as a child, Psalms from the Bible, alchemical incantations from a book by Zosimos of Panopolis, and mad ravings from my own unmoored mind all seemed to bounce silently inside my head.


When spring came, a small gray bird with an orange patch around its beak and throat landed in the hollow of a skull one tier below me. It may have been looking for a spot to build its nest. Its arrival surprised me and I let out a loud cry that I thought only I could hear. I was shocked when the bird cocked its head and looked at me, as if to ask, “What did you say?”


I spoke to the bird in soothing tones, as one would to a very small child.


“You are a lovely bird, aren’t you? Your feathers are very beautiful.”


The bird continued to look at me and seemed to follow the rising and falling of my voice, but I needed confirmation.


“Shoo!” I shouted.


With an indignant look over one shoulder, the bird flew off, leaving a small white offering inside the skull where it had been perched.


I had a voice. That changed everything.


“Is anybody there?” I cried.


I heard nothing except echoes from empty Sandomir’s nearby walls.


Days passed and I must have crossed over into madness, continuing to babble and desperately calling for someone to answer.


On a crisp spring day with blue skies and fluffy clouds cavorting like a flock of unshorn sheep above me, I finally heard an answer.


“Who’s there?” came a voice from out of sight and far below.


“Help!” I said. “I’m stuck on top of the pile.”


“I can understand why,” said the voice. “It was foolish to climb the pile alone. If you have anything of value on your person, toss it down to me to pay me in advance for your rescue.”


“Clever, but I didn’t just roll off the beet wagon,” I said. “If I had anything valuable on my person, I wouldn’t throw it down to you, since you would leave me here once you had what you wanted.”


“True enough,” said the voice. “Have a nice day.”


I could hear footsteps. It sounded like my visitor was leaving.


“Wait!” I shouted. “I do have something valuable.”


I heard returning footsteps, then the words I expected to hear.


“Toss it down.”


“I can’t.”


“Why not?”


“My arms are stuck.”


The owner of the voice below laughed.


“You win. I’m coming up—but it better be worth it.”


“Thank you. It is.”


I sensed vibrations in the pile of skulls as someone began to climb. Then I heard words that were more like the ones uttered by the workman building the new table in my study when he landed a hammer blow on his thumb. The strong language continued and intensified. I took mental notes for future reference. In my current state it was likely that I’d need them.


It seems that pyramids of skulls are particularly challenging to climb. They’re too smooth to interlock and too large to form stable configurations that would allow climbers secure purchase for their feet and hands. Every time my would-be rescuer attempted to reach me, the pyramid would shift and prevent any vertical progress.


“Looks like you’re out of luck, friend,” said the voice. “I can’t climb up to reach you.”


“Thanks for trying,” I said. “You know, if you just dislodge more of the skulls at the bottom of the pile, there’s a chance the whole pyramid will collapse and I’ll come sliding down without you having to get to the top.”


“You’re pretty smart for someone dumb enough to climb a pile of skulls,” said the voice.


“Thank you,” I said. “That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me in more than a year.”


I thought for a moment and continued. “There should be a spare portcullis chain in the gate tower. If you wrap the chain around the pile of skulls and pull, it should bring the pyramid down quickly.”


“Could I sell this chain?” asked the voice.


“Certainly,” I said, “if anyone within a hundred miles is still alive after the Mongols little visit.”


“I like the way you talk,” said the voice. “Wait for me. I’ll be back.”


What else was I going to do?


Soon I heard footsteps returning and the sound of heavy iron links clanking. The footsteps and clanks went around the pile and back to where they started.


“Are you ready to pull?” I asked.


“Yes,” said the voice.


“Good. There’s another advantage to doing it this way.”


“What’s that?”


“If you’d tried to push skulls out of the way, there was a decent chance the whole pile could have come down on top of you.”


“Hmmm,” said the voice. “Thanks for suggesting a superior—and less dangerous option.”


I was reveling in our discourse. It had been so long since I’d had a conversation with anyone.


“Using the chain, the pile will likely fall away from you, not towards you,” I explained.


“Likely?” said the voice.


“Quite probably,” I said.


“Well then,” said the voice. “Here goes.”


I heard more clanking and sensed vibrations all around the edge of pyramid. Then everything destabilized and I rolled forward and down dozens of yards. I flipped end over end, often bouncing off other skulls, and finally came to rest in a shady spot under some sort of colorful tent. My senses were dazed from all the spinning.


“Where are you?” said the voice. It was very close—right above me.


“I’m down here,” I said, slowly regaining control of my faculties.


Suddenly, I was back in bright sunlight looking up at a young woman in an embroidered blouse, a felt jacket, half a dozen scarves, and a motley skirt made from scraps of other garments. She turned back and forth, searching for me. I saw she had long, straight dark hair bound up in a seven-strand braid, huge hoop earrings that swayed as she moved, and brown, luminous eyes.


“Where are you?” she repeated.


“Down here,” I said. “I’m the skull.”


The young woman jumped back and looked down.


“A skull?” she said with less surprise than I’d expected. “Which skull?”


I realized there were dozens of skulls surrounding me.


“This one,” I said, louder so she’d be able to figure out which one was speaking.


The young woman took a step closer and stood next to me.


“Are you a demon?”


“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m a scholar specializing in the writings of Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa, Gerbert of Aurillac, and Al-Khwārizmī of Baghdad.”


“Whoever they are,” she said. “Are you sure you’re not a demon?”


“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…”


“Good. You’re not a demon,” the young woman said, picking me up in one hand and turning me left and right.


“Careful with my jawbone,” I said. “It comes off easily. Maybe you could wire it together for me?”


“Later,” said the woman. She returned to contemplating my skull.


“How can you see? Or hear? Or talk? You don’t have any eyes or ears or mouth.”


“Alchemical wisdom.”


“You’re an alchemist?” she continued.


“A student of the secret hidden knowledge of Hermes Trismegistus…”


“Whatever that means,” she said. “Can you turn lead into gold?”


“Not yet, but I’m close.”


“Can you brew a potion of eternal youth?”


“I never tried,” I said, “but I seem to have been successful with an elixir of immortality.”


“Hah,” laughed the girl. She began to toss me from one hand to the other.


“Stop that,” I said, in my best professorial tone. It always worked on students who weren’t paying attention to my lectures. Thankfully, she stopped and brought me closer to her face where her eyes could stare into my empty sockets.


“Could you teach me alchemy?”


“Certainly,” I said. “If you’re prepared to be a serious student.”


“I am,” she said, furrowing her brow and sticking her tongue behind her front teeth the way my students did when they were determined to learn something.


“And you’ll do whatever it takes to get ahead?”


I wanted a student with drive.


She looked at me, then laughed.


“It seems like I already have.”


I laughed, too. It was the first time I’d done so since before the merchants had left Sandomir.


“Shall we find a better place to begin our studies than outside the main gate of a pillaged city next to a pile of skulls?” I asked.


“We can do that,” said the young woman. “How soon can you teach me to turn lead into gold?”


“That will take many years of study and practice,” I said.


She looked disappointed.


“But I can start teaching you something right now that’s at least as valuable as transmutation.”


“Really,” she said. She was so excited the hand holding my skull was trembling. “Show me!”


“Put me down, first,” I said. “On that big rock by the gate, next to that patch of sandy ground.”


She did as I requested.


“What next?”


“I’m going to teach you nothing.”


“Nothing,” she said, looking puzzled. “Is this some sort of trick?”


“Not at all,” I said from my perch on the rock. “Use your finger and draw a small circle in the sand.”


The young woman looked at me curiously, then drew a circle. I told her how to draw the other Indian numbers from one to nine and explained how nothing—the circle, or zero, held a place in larger numbers. My rescuer already knew how to calculate using Roman numerals, and took to the Indian version like she’d been born there.


She rigged a sling for me from a pair of scarves so we could talk while we walked. By the time we were a mile up the north road, heading toward to a village we hoped the Mongols had spared, she was adding three digit numbers in her head.


I considered my new situation. The world was still filled with horrors. Mongols were out there, just over the horizon, but I had someone to talk to—and someone to teach. It could be worse.


Immortality, even this sort of immortality, might actually be interesting.




“You’re immortal, too?” asked the cylinder. “That means we’ve got plenty of time.” A small green light on my new friend’s top edge pulsed rapidly. “Then what happened?”

“Patience,” I replied. “Tell me more about Daisy.”

Dave Schroeder (SHRAY-der) is the author of the Congruent Mage fantasy series and the Xenotech Support science fiction humor series. He is a retired IT executive from Atlanta who enjoys performing with the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company.

Interview available on Aug 18, 2020

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