Progress

Progress, I tell you, is the only thing that matters.

Everything moves forward. And, unless one moves with it, it will leave all behind. It is merciless, unfettered by sentiment, with no loyalty to any traditions. We are but relics and fossils even as we live, our time is so brief as to be already gone. Nothing can stop the endless march of time… and progress.

The expedition was successful beyond my wildest dreams. Buried beneath centuries of jungle, we unearthed a lost and forgotten city and a culture unknown and unnamed. The locals spoke only of the ghosts that haunt the lonely spots where ancient men once lived. They called these people ancestors…

But the evidence showed otherwise. The current culture was centuries old at best, the older one had been and gone long before the newcomers took the land as their own. They had no claim to this history, it belonged to the world. Who were they to leave it to rot? By what right did they demand that the site remain undisturbed?

Dirt people… Dirt people and their stupid, silly magic…

But what else do they have? Dirt? Maybe they need to believe in magic, to believe that life was only part of something more. After all, their lives were harsh and small. They had so little, was hope such a big thing to begrudge them?

But what kind of hope? False hope? That is just a lie, and worse than one told to others, it is self-deception, a lie told to oneself. It is the product of a diseased mind, a primitive and backward-thinking delusion.

That the “holy” man spat his curse is proof of the base and hateful nature of magical thinking. Vengeance, torment, death, all these he promised, for those who entered the ancient tombs. As in all cases, mysticism has done nothing but hold the human race back, imprisoning us with fear.

When has a mystic ever produced anything real? When have they ever accomplished anything useful? They cannot do such things, or even anything at all, because their magic is not real. All they have ever done is hold us back and impede our progress.

It was almost sad to see them fail. They were like children stubbornly clinging to the only way of life they know. They wanted, for some inexplicable reason, to remain behind, to hide trembling in the darkness, frightened by the light of truth.

And the historical treasures we recovered are the truth. A study of them will expand our knowledge and teach us more about ourselves.

Magic be damned.

 

I was grateful to leave that sweltering green hell behind us and return to the civilized world in the cool October air. I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since well before we left. To be at home, in my own bed would be, I hoped, a cure for the insomnia that had plagued me. I was so eager to return to the real world, but disappointment was waiting.

It was as though the stubborn and willful ignorance of the savages had infected me. A mere suggestion, I assured myself. Though I am no expert in psychology, I know enough of such mental trickery not to allow myself to be so deceived. Yet, I tossed and turned, as if beaten or bettered, even though I was right.

I was right, wasn’t I?

Granted, I had some ideas of my own about what the ancients meant when they spoke of this world and one of the spirit. It seemed quite a stretch, to be sure, but perhaps they knew there was an objective reality and one which is more subjective, that world which we perceive. I will concede that no one can hope to know objective reality perfectly, the limitations of our senses alone makes that impossible. But I have no reason to believe a spirit world exists anywhere outside that place between our ears.

But what if it did? Poppycock. Balderdash. Nonsense. The only magic is just a trick and one I have played upon myself.

But what if it didn’t need to? Hasn’t the mystic barbarian already gotten a foothold in my head? If the spirit world is there and only there, then he has done exactly what he claimed to be able to do.

I know it’s hogwash. But is it not true that the greater portion of human experience is in that place? All of it really, though I’m no more an expert at life than I am at psychology. And all the science in the world will not let me vanquish my discontent and find sleep.

What else could I do but rise from the bed, get dressed, and come in to the lab? At least I could get a sense of the next week’s work or so. The guard was surprised to see me, but such “professionals” see suspicious things everywhere in everyone and everything. He made a much bigger deal out of things than they really were. Those hero types love an excuse to overreact.

You see, I was making my notes when I got around to the mummy. It was astoundingly well preserved, and this culture rivals the ancient Egyptians in their funerary arts… but this remarkable preservation gave me a shiver. Here was a man a thousand years old, and more than the ghastly, sunken features, his face struck me in a far from pleasant way.

In my sleep-deprived state, coupled with some trick of the light, I thought I saw it move! Of course, it didn’t, not really, but I would have sworn the thing smiled at me! Then I recognized him, or thought I did. He smiled at me with the damnable face of the mystic! Given what I thought I saw is it any surprise that I cried out?

I know it’s silly, and I’d hate to think that this would get out and ruin my career. It’d be the death of me!

***

“So, Jeffery, you’ve met Dr. Billings?”

“Oh, yes, this morning Dr. Stephens took me on the rounds and introduced me.”

“So what did you think of him, of Billings?”

“I thought he seemed reasonable enough, a little bitter and perhaps somewhat bigoted, but, tell me what’s really going on? What’s the story with him?”

“The guard found him shrieking hysterically, raving about some corpse smiling at him.”

“Yes, he mentioned that, but I still don’t see what’s wrong.”

“Well, to start with, the expedition did bring back remains, but these were merely a few crumbling bones, not a mummy.”

“I see.”

“And the recent culture he speaks of is pure fiction. According to the rest of his team, the region has been uninhabited since the time the city fell to ruins. There were no natives and, thus, no hated mystic.”

“Amazing.”

“As for losing his career, well, he hasn’t had much of one since we picked him up at the university nearly ten years ago. As he has so often said, time moves unalterably forward, and some people are indeed stuck in the past. Progress is, tragically for him, something he just can’t seem to manage.”

 

Joe Stanley
story by Joe Stanley

artwork Martinschuschi

The Ghostly World Fictional Ghost Stories

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