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It was the heaviest rain that anyone could remember and hailed in a form that nobody had ever seen. The rain was so torrential that nobody ventured out to check on the hail, but everyone could hear it clunking on the roofs and bouncing off the gutters and, if they pulled back the curtains, they could see odd shapes careering downwards and accumulating on the sodden earth.

Next morning dawned bright but breezy and the strangest sight welcomed people as they left their homes to begin what would be not just a new day but a new era. It had not been hail and it was not any form of ice. The land was covered in utterly unfamiliar, exotically-shaped symbols made of a shiny, exceptionally hard substance that nobody had seen before. There was a luminescent beauty to each object and – so it seemed to many - a spiritual energy around the whole experience.

Immediately all sorts of explanations were offered. Most people were convinced that the symbols represented a new alphabet and constituted a message from God. The day of the week that the symbols first fell to earth was anointed as a holy day and each anniversary thereafter people would give each other presents to commemorate the gifts from the sky. Some asserted that the very weirdness of both the event and the symbols were warning enough that this was an attempt at perversion from a false god or devil. Others were sure that it was communication from an alien race with a code that had to be broken. A small number argued that, bizarre though it was, it was probably just an exceptionally rare natural phenomenon and no mystical significance should be attached to it.

Over the months and years, there was more weather of this extraordinary kind and consequently many more symbols. People would now make a point of standing out to watch the alphabet storms, since they found that the symbols would never hit a live object, whether human or animal. It was a thrilling sight to observe multitudes of images, exploding from the high clouds, tumbling earthwards, and glittering from caught light as they spun down and down. Whenever this happened, the sky seemed to moan and groan as the heavens gave birth to new children of the symbol world.

Local communities would create their own shrine and decorate it with one or more of the celestial artefacts. Some communities gathered together to share ownership of the accumulated objects and the largest collection was mounted on a hilltop to which pilgrims would travel from all over the land and then walk slowly all around the base of the mount three times.

Over time, it became clear that the symbols were recurring and that there was probably a limit to the number of different ones. Almost everyone was persuaded, therefore, that the symbols represented some kind of language and the challenge became to order the symbols in a manner that would enable the language to be decoded.

First, each symbol was given an identifying name (rapidly these identifications were used for personal names in many clans). Then copies of each symbol ever found were collated in universities and research centres. It took many, many years but, with outstanding ingenuity and great effort, a language and a text emerged. It was an immensely complex language and there was no consensus on exactly how the symbols should be organised. Even then, the messages were opaque and capable of various interpretations.

Most people had complete faith that this was the word of God. There were fierce arguments over whether the text was relatively short and then repeated itself in slightly different variations or whether it was much longer and revealed compelling new messages.

The 'shorters' - as they were known - also battled over the precise meanings of some of the more cryptic messages. Organisations which had been built around adherence to particular interpretations split and split again; there was communal conflict, and in some cass bloody clashes. The 'longers' found messages that others could not see and would not accept. They asserted that the script made clear that only those following the lengthier text were the true believers and they had been chosen to make a special contribution to the world until it ended on a specific date, the precise timing of which was the subject of enormous debate even among the 'longers'.

Others had a completely different interpretation of what was going on. They feared that the symbols were from the devil and an attempt to communicate a false message that would take people from the true path. Accordingly they determined that all the symbols must be destroyed and that any attempt to collect them, still less construct them into some kind of text, was heresy of the foulest kind for it threated the salvation of all for all time. This was more than enough justification for terrorist raids on stores of symbols and murderous attacks on the linguists working on them.

Those who thought all this superstitious nonsense believed that the symbols had nothing to do with the supernatural or the paranormal.

It was code from another race on another planet, a race of a much superior life form that was sending instructions for the construction of some sort of machine. Even the 'machinists' – for so they were dubbed – differed over what type of device was involved. Most took the view that it was some kind of time machine that would enable them to travel and meet those who had sent the symbols. Indeed eventually a time machine of a kind was constructed, although the general populace were never told by the scientists whether the specifications came entirely from the alien text or were the result of their own intuitions and experiments. In any event, the two men and one woman who boarded the machine were never seen or heard from again and the venture was never repeated.

When the space adventure collapsed, some scientists and technologists nevertheless refused to give up hope that the symbols could help them achieve some kind of breakthrough. Secret endeavours were conducted in a concerted effort to find a way in which they could be used as a super weapon. Less militaristic but equally forlorn research focused on a search for a new source of energy.

There was another problem. Many people were convinced that some symbols were more important than others, although there was not total unanimity on which were to be the most revered. This complicated still further any agreement on the value and meaning of the symbols. One sect declared that twelve of the signs were 'golden'. Among the 'Twelvers', families would name their male children with combinations of these special 12 symbols so that, quite soon, most men in that part of the land had very similar names. On the other hand, the 'Twelvers' decreed that women must not wear any clothing that depicted any of these symbols or variants of them. Others believed with a passion that all the symbols were equal and only by studying all of them could one truly realise the vision – whatever that was.

The conflict between the 'specialisers' and the 'egalitarians' took an unpleasant twist when, over time, it was noticed that some symbols were becoming less lustrous than others, eventually becoming dark. This seemed to have no impact whatsoever on their function in the script, but it made them much less attractive and even threatening to some people. They insisted that these particular symbols be removed from public view and, wherever they were powerful enough, they blocked all contact between these symbols and the people. If they could, they would have destroyed them.

All the problems associated with the symbols – their scarcity among many clans, the opaqueness of their messages, the darker nature of some of them – were blamed on a clan that was branded the 'manipulators'. It was unclear how this group exercised their influence, but the very lack of such information served to confirm their nerfariousness. At times of tension, attacks would be made on the 'manipulators', discrimination was commonplace, and murders were not uncommon.

Over time, prophets would appear claiming to have particular knowledge or insight in respect of the symbols and they were often successful in forming huge movements looking for a fresh interpretation and offering adherents special status and belonging. Even academe embraced the signs, forming schools of study and appointing professors of symbiology. No prophet and no professor was ever a woman though, since the erudition required to understand this intricate interconnectedness was thought to be beyond the female brain.

There came a time when the 'machinist' school was revived in a revised form. It was alleged that the symbols were indeed some kind of manual from another superior life form, but that it had been arrogant to think in terms of a time machine and wrong to abandon the attempt to find a scientific interpretation of the code. It was now asserted that the symbols represented a doorway to a new scientific paradigm, but to discover this would require a concerted collaborative effort by all the brightest brains in the land. It was even feared that the symbols represented some kind of test and that, if humankind failed the challenge, there would be consequences.

But this proposition never gained popular support. The religious interpretations were too embedded and there was no willingness to divert substantial resources into an unpromising and unlikely new interpretation that, if discovered, would overthrow all the current thinking. Nevertheless the limited attempts to find a scientific interpretation led to some remarkable technological breakthroughs.

Although generally the symbols were regarded as component elements of a complex language or text, some professed that they had another purpose or value that resided in each type – there were hundreds – of symbol. These people saw each symbol as a mystical representation of a particular illness or ailment. They found that, if an example of that symbol was immersed in water for a time and then that water was drunk by a sufferer of the relevant physical or psychological ailment, the condition improved dramatically. It was pointed out that nothing medicinally could be going on here because the symbols were inert and immutable, but the 'aquapaths' insisted that the water had a memory of the symbol and this was creating the proven benefit in the sufferer.

In all this confusion, two things were clear. The symbols were limited in number, since there had been none of the special rain now for centuries. The symbols were indestructible, as nothing had been able to melt or mould them. This gave them immense value. They replaced all currencies and all minerals and all sources of fuel as the ultimate measure of worth. Markets were established so that the symbols could be traded but, over time, fewer and fewer actually came onto the market. Much of the blame fell on the 'manipulators' This was when the 'symbol wars' began and, under cover of such extensive hostilities, many, many 'manipulators' were systematically exterminated. Eventually one clan had so many more symbols than any other that it was (reluctantly) accepted as the supreme power in the land.

This should have been the end of history – but things changed.

It was discovered by clever scientists that each symbol gave off some kind of signal of a kind that had never been known before. When this signal was further examined over years, another revelation occurred. Each symbol was connected invisibly to every other symbol so, anyone who possessed one, effectively had access to all. The leadership of the supreme power denied constantly and vehemently that this was the case. They were convinced that only their scientists were capable of making discoveries of this kind of brilliance but, in any event, they were well aware that, if the analysis was correct, the whole basis of their power was gone. When other groups started to make astonishing scientific and cultural breakthroughs, it was clear that the notion of any supreme power was over. This persuaded the previously dominant authority to open up its symbolic archive and there was a notable flourishing of knowledge and creativity throughout the whole land.

Later there were rumours that the symbols were not immutable or indestructible after all. It was noticed more and more that some symbols were becoming smaller and nobody could work out why. When a few symbols disappeared altogether, there was consternation in the land. Some suggested that this was simply a natural phenomenon. After all, the symbols were now incredibly old and all materials deteriorate over time. Others though were anxious that the vanishing symbols was somehow related to human behaviour. Much research was conducted with increasing urgency as more and more symbols dematerialised. Convincing evidence was then found that there was not just a correlation but a causation between the departing symbols and levels of violence in the community. There were 'denialists', but concerted and successful efforts to reduce the aggression shown by both individuals and clans halted the loss of the symbols which persuaded everyone of the connection. The losses though were irretrievable.

Much later still came the ultimate change. The former supreme power noticed it first, for they still held more symbols than others. But, within hours, the news had spread round the land and every man, woman and child stood and gazed skywards in awe and fear. The symbols were on the move, serenely floating higher and higher beyond the reach of vision or even the most powerful telescope, flashing kaleidoscopes of light as they drifted up and beyond. The sky emitted caressing sounds of undulating bells as the heavens welcomed back those that it had lost for so long. It had taken many decades for the symbols to arrive and many centuries for them to be studied, but it took mere days for them to evaporate. Many called this breathtaking experience an assumption into heaven; others declared it was merely an occultation which presaged an eventual return at a time of great turbulence; almost all felt a sense of deep sadness and loss.

A world without symbols. What kind of world could that be? It was up to us now.


Published on 4 December 2009

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