The Return of the Usa

Submitted into Contest #57 in response to: Write a story about someone breaking a long family tradition.... view prompt

50 comments

Adventure

Tanna Island, Vanuatu, Southwestern Pacific

“They came from the sky.”

The legendary tale always started the same way. No matter how many times he heard it, Kailani always felt a delightful shiver of expectation when the story began; the story of the mysterious gods, the Usa, and their miraculous visit to Tanna all those years ago.

This year, Kailani would be listening to the ceremonial telling of the account even more attentively than usual, given what he was planning to do the following day. The secret he held close to his heart, confirmed by the scrap of paper he clutched in his grubby fist, would see him do what none in his tribe had ever dared even consider, let alone attempt – he would venture forth off the tiny island and come face to face with the mighty Usa themselves. If Kailani had any hope of success, he needed all the information about the gods he could get.

The sacred festival had lasted three days, during which the island’s women and children sang and danced while the men, chests emblazoned with the words of their beatific benefactors, paraded and marched in imitation of the glorious gods they worshipped. Worshipped and entreated to return, for that was the primary purpose of the holy occasion – to invite the gods to come once more to Tanna.

Now, as the festivities wound down for another year, young and old gathered as one in the village square for the closing ceremonial event – the handing down of the oral tradition. Alaka’i, known affectionately by all as Abu – grandfather – was the oldest man on the island and the sole surviving villager from the days of the divine visitation over 75 years ago. Alaka’i would pass on the story, as he did every year, so the future generations may continue to revere the mighty Usa.

The children huddled eagerly at the old man’s feet while behind them stood the adults. At 16, Kailani was afforded a place in the crowd between the two, with the other adolescents of the island. He leaned in expectantly with everyone else as the story began.

“They came from the sky, but first they sent gifts,” Abu Alaka’i intoned. His sight had long since failed and he was scarcely able to walk, but his voice carried clearly out over the village square, as resounding and authoritative as ever. “As gods are wont to do, they showered down blessings to prepare us for their arrival.”

“What kind of blessings, Abu?” One of the children enquired. The asking of such questions was as expected and predictable as the familiar story itself. By tradition, it was left to the little ones. Participation was encouraged.

“All kinds!” the wizened figure exclaimed. “They floated down on clouds, a marvelous bounty the likes of which we’d never seen before. And never will again, until the day they return.” Alaka’i paused here and solemnly bowed his head, before booming, “Praise be unto the Usa!”

“Praise be unto the Usa!” The crowd roared.

The old man continued. “I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen the gifts for myself. Tins of food that tasted like heaven and never spoiled. Mud-colored bricks that were sweeter than any honey on Earth. Hot brown liquid that gave a man the strength of ten, and firewater that burned your mouth and throat going down and your mind for hours after.”

The villagers oohed and aahed, hanging on every word.

“And that was just the start. There were swathes of fabric that could be made into a house by a single man in less than an hour. They had clothing that would make you invisible if you stood motionless among the trees. There were contraptions that, when a man wore one on his head, allowed him to talk to another standing on Efate.”

The neighboring island was over 100 miles away. Such magic was unthinkable.

“And,” Alaka’i continued, “they had the secret of faerem! They could destroy anything in their path with their destructive power.”

“What did they look like, Abu?”

“Why, a lot like you and I, of course. They were bigger and stronger, though, and came in many colors. Blakwaet, they were.” Alaka’i paused for effect. “They were smarter, too. That was the secret to their power.”

“What could they do?” The children shouted breathlessly.

“Magic!” the old man replied to their delight. “They built things by magic. Massive steel birds that they rode, fitaplens, and enormous watercraft, batelbots, and all had the destructive power of faerem!

Kailani, by custom, was too old to participate in questioning Abu Alaka’i, but he now rose and asked what had all had wondered but none had dared voice before. “Why did they come, Abu?”

The crowd was stunned. To question the mysterious motives of the gods was dangerously close to blasphemy. “He’s hafmad,” the adults muttered uneasily, waiting to see if Alaka’i would respond.

He did. “You should know better than to ask that, young man.” Kailani hung his head at the rebuke, but the old man wasn’t done. “They never told us and, even if they’d wanted to, we couldn’t understand their strange tongue. But…” Alaka’i trailed off in thought, before going on. “I did hear some things.”

No one spoke. No one moved. They all held their breaths in expectation of new revelations about the mysterious Usa.

“There was a terrible war raging; a battle for civilization itself. The Usa were fighting a deadly enemy from far across the sea, where the sun sets. They came to save us, but also because they needed our help.”

“Did you help them?” Kailani asked, barely above a whisper.

“Yes, we did. We allowed them a home here on Tanna, so they might wage their war across the sea. And in return, they showered us with their blessings.”

Kailani knew he should sit down and hold his silence – this deviation from the traditional telling was making everyone uneasy. But he had one last question and it had to be asked. “Did they win the battle?”

“Who knows for sure?” Alaka’i responded sadly. “One day, years after their arrival, they packed up and left just as suddenly as they’d come. But we’re safe and free, aren’t we? I think that is answer enough.” The old man then mumbled to himself, “Praise be unto the mighty Usa.” No one heard this last and, if any noticed the single tear that fell from his sightless eye and rolled down his wrinkled cheek, it went unremarked.

Silence reigned over the square for several beats, finally broken by one of the children who asked the customary closing question. “Will they come again, Abu?”

Back on familiar ground, Alaka’i’s voiced rose once more as he replied, “Yes, that is what we live and hope for. That is why we honor them every year. We must never leave Tanna; we must remain in place and pray for the return of the Usa.” Even though Kailani knew the old man was blind, it felt as if the sightless stare was fixed squarely on him as Alaka’i said this. “If we praise them with our every word and work, they will surely return in all their glory.” He finished. “Praise be unto the Usa!”

“Praise be unto the Usa!” the villagers proclaimed as one, signaling the end of the story for another year.

As the gathering broke up into a bustle of activity and everyone prepared for the final ceremonial act of the festival, Kailani glanced guiltily down at the scrap of paper in his hand. Was he really going to go through with it? He could barely believe he was contemplating leaving the island in search of the Usa. Such blatant defiance of tradition went against everything he’d been raised to believe in. But he knew he could never live with himself if he didn’t try.

Kailani alone had seen Alaka’i’s single tear, and he knew what it meant. Regret. Everyone suffers from it in old age, but the youth instinctively knew that the worst kind of regret was for the things one had failed to do. He strongly suspected Alaka’i went not a single day without wondering how different his life would have been had he seized his opportunity over 75 years ago and learned more about the gods, traveled back home with them when they departed, even. Kailani was not going to make the same mistake.

He’d seen the curious craft anchored off the island’s uninhabited northern shore a few days ago. It was much like the batelbots Alaka’i had spoken of, except, Kailani knew, this was a turisbot. And when it set sail on the morning tide, heading for the home of the Usa, it would have one extra passenger aboard.

The boy regarded the faded piece of paper he’d found on the beach – proof of the craft’s destination. The image on the front was of a giant, green woman wearing a glorious crown and holding aloft a flaming torch. Kailani couldn’t read the words printed above the picture, but what was written below would have been instantly recognizable to anyone on the island. USA.

While Kailani thought anxiously of what he was planning to do, the crowd commenced the final, worshipful act of the festival – the singing of the sacred song of the gods. Their voices rose out in haunting harmony over the tiny island. O say can you see…  

Epilogue

So-called ‘cargo cults’ typically form when primitive cultures encounter developed, western visitors and come to see the technologically advanced newcomers as gods for the bountiful gifts they bring with them.

During World War II, US troops established a base on the island of Efate, Vanuatu, in the southwestern Pacific. The native population worshipped the soldiers and when the servicemen departed after the war, continued to hold annual celebrations begging the ‘gods’ to return.

This practice still persists to this day. There are at least three known cargo cults still in operation on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu.

Glossary of Bislama terms:

Abu - Grandfather

Alaka’i – Common Pacific island name meaning ‘leader’

Batelbot - Warship

Bislama – The national language of Vanuatu, a form of Pidgin derived from English-based Creole.

Blakwaet – Black and white

Efate – Pacific island, part of the Shefa Province of Vanuatu. Location of the capital Port Vila and the American Quoin Hill Airfield during WWII

Faerem – Fire, typically related to weaponry

Fitaplen – Jetfighter

Hafmad - Crazy

Tanna – Southern Island in the Vanuatu archipelago 228 Km south of Efate. Home to the cargo cults, most notably the famous ‘John Frum’ movement.

Turisbot - Cruise ship  

August 31, 2020 10:30

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50 comments

Lee Jay
05:04 Sep 07, 2020

Wow! Excellent piece of historical fiction; cargo cults have always fascinated me. Way to go actually researching Bislama. I really enjoyed your richly developed characters and the "Hot brown liquid that gave a man the strength of ten." Proof that coffee is universal? Check out a story of mine if you're so inclined :) Cheers!

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Jonathan Blaauw
08:24 Sep 07, 2020

Thank you so much! Historical fiction is where it's at. Or was at? 🤣 I have read, enjoyed, and commented on a certain tale of shoehorn hilarity!

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Thom Brodkin
19:11 Sep 05, 2020

Have you seen the movie The Gods Must be Crazy?

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Jonathan Blaauw
08:29 Sep 06, 2020

Ah, Thom, I was just about to come over and bother you with more cannibal jokes. But you've bled me dry. And we're getting fed up with the topic. Okay, those were the last I've got. I wanted to try a new idiom (you can't have your corpse and eat it, or something like that) but such humor is often tasteless (okay, that was officially the last. I think) 😀 I haven't seen the movie. I've heard about it though. I just looked it up and it seems very fitting, so I can see why you thought of it. Also, it was filmed down the road from me (although...

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Thom Brodkin
01:01 Sep 07, 2020

Why did the Scottish cannibal live on a sugar plantation? He said, “So that I can feed my lads with m,lasses.”

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Jonathan Blaauw
07:19 Sep 07, 2020

🤣🤣🤣🤣 The truly strange thing here is I don’t even know how we got onto cannibals. The only one I’ve got left is the old one about two cannibals and the definition of trust. But since it crosses the line a bit, and I don’t want to get banned from here, I’ll behave myself and not share it. I’m expecting a cannibal cameo at the very least in your new story.

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17:41 Sep 03, 2020

Hey Jonathan, This is an incredible story. I felt like I was in a totally different world and enjoyed every minute of it. The grammar was impeccable. Well done! P.S. You have a cute profile picture! 😉

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Jonathan Blaauw
08:51 Sep 05, 2020

Thank you! Thought the new pic would make a nice change - facemasks are so last season. Next year: hazmat suits. We joke now, but who knows... Thanks for the comment. I'm hopping over to check if you have any new releases asap.

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19:28 Sep 08, 2020

Haha. ;)

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01:52 Sep 02, 2020

This story is so good it reads like a classic, sort of whimsical ya know. Such an Interesting Take on the prompt. I love how you incorporated the vocabulary and history. I had to read it twice to really understand. Usa . You are super creative.

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Jonathan Blaauw
08:55 Sep 05, 2020

Thank you! I think it's because I was born at a very young age. If this is super creative, what does that make living meatball/cannibalism stories? I think we'll have to invent a new word for you...

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14:32 Sep 01, 2020

Loved the historical references! Poor kid is in for a pretty big disappointment. Most God's are probably pricks though, rather self-centered. Your writing just keeps getting better. Sharper and honed to support the general theme. You should read, the body rituals of the Nacirema. It's of a similar thread.

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Jonathan Blaauw
15:18 Sep 01, 2020

My new favourite motivational quote - "Most gods are probably pricks." - M. Klingforth Thanks for reading, always great to hear from you. Before even replying I checked for a new one from you... Alas, the wait goes on. I know real life doesn't always give us writing time, as long as you're thinking of ideas it's okay. I will tolerate delays... For now.

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Elise Holder
12:54 Sep 01, 2020

Wow, this was such a captivating read, and I want to know what happens to Kailani! I’d heard of stories similar to this, but never to this extreme, I love how your stories educate and entertain all in one. Excited for your next story!

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Jonathan Blaauw
15:39 Sep 01, 2020

Thank you so much. I'm already thinking of the next one. I see you've got a new one. Intriguing title. I'm going to like it now so it goes to my library for me to read when I get a chance to give it my undivided attention.

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Elise Holder
00:19 Sep 02, 2020

Thanks!

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Thom Brodkin
21:01 Aug 31, 2020

Hey there brother, your versatility is off the charts. You can take any topic or prompt and make it exactly what you want it to be and you are developing a following as a result. I'm going to give you a little different feedback because I picked up on the direction from the title. That being said it gave me the ability to read it both for it value and for your talent. I found myself praising your choice of words and thinking how if I hadn't known I would have gone back and said "of course" to every choice. Once again you leave me wonder...

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Jonathan Blaauw
08:11 Sep 01, 2020

I am a Jack of all trades. But, since the full saying is - "Jack of all trades, master of none... better than master of one," I like being that kind of a Jack. First prize would have been the Reacher variety, but it's not a bad consolation. I knew at least some would catch on early. I was considering "Cult-ture Clash" or something like that for a title. It's always good to hear reader impressions, much appreciated. And it's not asking a favor for me to read your stories, it's doing me a favor. I've read it already and it's far from low...

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Kristin Neubauer
20:00 Aug 31, 2020

I've been checking your page everyday since the new prompt dropped on Friday, hoping for another Jonathan Blaauw masterpiece. You did not disappoint! I loved this story for so many reasons. The history, of course. But I did not know this story about Vanuatu so I suspect that, like other readers, I thought the Usa were gods, until your big reveal. I love how subtly you did that....and of course, I had to go back and read the whole thing again. I also really appreciated the structure you chose - the epilogue and glossary of terms. I nev...

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Jonathan Blaauw
17:53 Sep 01, 2020

Thank you so much, I enjoy receiving your comments almost as much as reading your stories! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I think it was you who I was talking to about the idea of write the story you want to read. I'm all but certain. Anyway, that's kind of what happened here, the idea was so interesting I just had to explore it in a story to see what would happen. I'm also glad you enjoyed the epilogue/glossary - whenever I read historical fiction that's my favourite part. Finding out what's really real and what stuff means is always the best...

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Kristin Neubauer
19:24 Sep 01, 2020

I'll be keeping an eye on your page again! I think you can expect mine to come in under the wire pretty much every Friday. School just started up again so I spent all day today writing a paper and then back to work for the rest of the week....and hopefully will grab a few minutes here and there to finish the story. Fingers crossed - again!

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Lynn Penny
18:55 Aug 31, 2020

I loved your take on the prompt! The definitions at the end were a awesome touch. This felt like it came right out of an old book with hand written legends.

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Jonathan Blaauw
09:01 Sep 05, 2020

Thank you! I wish you had a new story for me to read, though. I'm sure you've got your hands full, being a 'newbie adult' and all. Let me know if you pick up any tips cause I've been winging it for years (results have varied). I'm talking about adulting here, writing I've only been winging since the start of the plague or so. Or, as we like to call it, 2020!

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Lynn Penny
14:57 Sep 05, 2020

I’ve got almost nothing except avoid paying rent. That’s my only life lesson.😂

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Katina Foster
16:10 Aug 31, 2020

Wow! Nicely done! I like how you subtly dropped hints throughout but kept the story focused on Kailani, the ceremony and his plans. I recognized the gods as soldiers, and the tents, chocolate, etc... but I didn’t catch on to "Usa" until the very end. I swear I watched a documentary about this a while back. It broke my heart a little. Americans just got to stick their noses in everything. Excellent work, Jonathan!

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Jonathan Blaauw
17:06 Aug 31, 2020

Thank you so much. It's so helpful to hear what readers think at what parts of the story. Every single comment like this encourages me and is so useful for future stories. There are a few documentaries on this I think. I was going to say all American-made, naturally, but I think old Attenborough covered them at one point. It's amazing that it's through the technology of the Usa that we get to learn how great they are 🤣

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Katina Foster
17:31 Aug 31, 2020

Very good point!

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Jonathan Blaauw
17:55 Sep 01, 2020

Amazing this thread hasn't been hijacked yet... Probably just a matter of time 🤣

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Katina Foster
18:51 Sep 01, 2020

Hint, hint! How's that dream stealer story going Laura? 🛌

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Amy De Matt
13:40 Aug 31, 2020

Thanks for educating me on this one, Jonathan. I was unfamiliar with cargo cults. This story was great because it reads like fantasy/fiction until the epilogue when it turned my understanding on its head. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and this challenged me to examine how paternalistic my country can be. Your writing is so interesting and a pleasure to read. Each one has a surprise insight or story that makes the reader think. Keep writing, I’m loving keeping up with it!

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Jonathan Blaauw
14:00 Aug 31, 2020

It’s a great self-esteem booster, isn’t it? Next time you’re feeling down, remember that there are people out there who worship you. Literally. Kind of creepy, actually. I was wondering if the reader would pick up on what was happening along the way. I tried to make coffee/whiskey/chocolate/tents etc sound as otherworldly as they must have seemed to an islander in 1941, but I was worried it was too obvious. Knowing some would guess, I tried to make it interesting even with that knowledge, but I still feel maximum impact comes at the end wh...

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Pragya Rathore
13:15 Aug 31, 2020

Exceeding the reader's expectations as usual with this wonderful story! I think my favorite word in here was 'hafmad', which sounds like 'half-mad'. You built up the mysterious atmosphere nicely and it reminded me of the Ancient Aliens episode on Egypt, where the aliens came to gift the Pharaohs with great powers, etc. The story-telling felt realistic, like some children huddled around the bonfire with their grandpa. This does sound really adventurous, but the Usa turned out to be WWII soldiers! Didn't see that coming. Great job with this one!

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Jonathan Blaauw
13:46 Aug 31, 2020

Thank you! I hope you popped in to read and comment between writing your new story because I keep checking for it... Funny you mention Ancient Aliens - that's where I first heard about the cargo cults! The episode, naturally, went on to speculate that the visitors were actually aliens (bless those crazy guys) but when I investigated further, I discovered that the truth is crazier than even Gorgio's theories. Perfect story material, in other words. Bislama is basically bastardized English, so hafmad almost certainly came from half-mad. Wh...

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Elle Clark
11:07 Aug 31, 2020

I thought you’d come up with a really interesting concept but I’m blown away by the fact that this is a real thing. Good Lord above, how is this a real thing?? Anyway, this was brilliantly written, as expected. I want to know what happens next when the protag ventures into the rest of the world! How does he cope? How does he adjust? Nobody is there to help him 😭 I liked the glossary but not sure you needed to include definitions of hafmad and fitaplen (you have no idea how much of a fight I had against autocorrect writing those) as, u...

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Jonathan Blaauw
13:00 Aug 31, 2020

You mean, good Usa above, right? But thank you, Laura, you are the current that powers the amplifier that feeds the microphone that projects my writers voice! Really appreciate the feedback! I love it when readers wonder what happens next, especially when I have no idea. Maybe he gets eaten by a shark before he reaches the cruise ship? I hear you on the glossary. I wrote the story in a way that the terms would make sense in context and, while I was doing that, I knew that a glossary would perhaps be unnecessary. I included every native te...

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Elle Clark
15:12 Aug 31, 2020

This is the second time you’ve used a language that I don’t speak in a way that makes me think it’s made up because it’s so easy to understand. I’m happy to add Bislama to the very short list of languages I feel like I’m fluent in now. I get how cults work, I just never thought there would be people worshiping American soldiers as actual gods (outside the Republican Party) and so can’t quite get my head around it. In my head, a member of the crew from the cruise ship goes to the island and your protag’s wanderlust is temporarily sati...

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Jonathan Blaauw
15:33 Aug 31, 2020

IsiXhosa nako kulula kakhulu ukuthetha. It’s interesting looking at the whole idea from a developing countries perspective (like mine, although ‘developing’ implies an ongoing process and ours stopped doing that years ago), because, in a way, we also worship western culture. We think everyone in America is rich and happy, consume Hollywood movies with religious devotion, idolize movie stars, etc. Even tourists, with their magical dollars, are revered. ‘Going to America’ is the dream of every African child, especially in rural areas. And t...

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Elle Clark
17:28 Aug 31, 2020

Hayi akunjalo. Ungaxoka kum. Are you seriously trying to tell me that you don’t have a lion? Because I’ll be honest, that’s the only reason I’ve befriended you. It’s what I’ve put up with all of this summer/winter rubbish. I know he had a bit of a rough time, put on weight and got horrifically bullied by the press. I hope he’s okay (but honestly, with all of his George of the Jungle and The Mummy money, I’m sure he’s okay).

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Jonathan Blaauw
07:43 Sep 01, 2020

Very impressive... but can you pronounce it? Because I can't... I have zero lions (at present) but I live very close to a lion park, and every year a hapless tourist ventures out their car and becomes lunch. A tragedy, the media calls it. I prefer - natural selection. I forgot about The Mummy as well, talk about a blast from the past! The big, bald pharoah guy is South African, in case you're curious. With all his mummy money I bet he has a whole gaggle of lions at home!

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05:46 Sep 01, 2020

Loved it!

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Jonathan Blaauw
07:48 Sep 01, 2020

Thank you so much!

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Philip Clayberg
18:56 Mar 02, 2021

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -the late Arthur C. Clarke ----- Thank you for writing this story. I really liked it. You made it feel like someone in the tribe was recording it for posterity. It's nice to know that sometimes when two cultures meet, the "superior" one doesn't wipe out the "inferior" one. It would be nice if the two cultures could actually coexist and learn from one another. But it's the rare human who prefers equality rather than the domination of the "superior" culture" over t...

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Zea Bowman
01:52 Sep 22, 2020

Wow! I was truly captivated by this story! Your descriptions were amazing, and the words seemed to flow together. You really have a knack for writing! Could you please come read a story (or stories) of mine? Thanks! Keep up the good work! :)

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