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They Have Been at a Great Feast of Languages, and Stol'n the Scraps

Robert Bagnall is an English writer, currently living in Devon, who has completed four undistinguished marathons, but holds a world record for eating cream teas. The two may be related.

His speculative fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines, websites, and anthologies since the early 1990s. His words have also, very occasionally, cropped up on radio, in newspapers, and out of the mouths of UK government ministers, for whom he was briefly a speechwriter.

You can find his musings on science fiction and writing at meschera.blogspot.co.uk, and his non-fiction book Diary of a Self-Builder on Amazon. His science fiction novel 2084 will be released by Double Dragon Publications in late 2017, and he also has a story in NewCon's forthcoming Best of British Science Fiction 2016 anthology.

He doesn't like dogs and is allergic to cats.

I know you think this is a fiction.
But this isn't.
I have written a story. But if you are reading these words, these very words, then that isn't what you have in front of you.
I know I'm not making myself clear. Let me explain. If I can. I'm not even sure where to start.
Will Shakespeare slid the e-reader into his doublet. He'd heard a noise downstairs, the creak of a hinge, hobnails on floorboard.
This was highly inconvenient.
Perhaps he ought to light a rush? How would he explain his presence there, at that hour, doing what he was, without some source of illumination?
You know how they say truth is stranger than fiction? Maybe one in a million, probably fewer, can read what you're reading. If anybody else reads this passage the chances are that what's before them is a quaint little story I wrote about Shakespeare being a time traveler. From our time, carrying with him the complete works as an e-book. A throwaway piece. A frippery. Albeit one I'm quite fond of.
I want to call it metatext, but I think the academics already have that word. But there isn't really a better term for it. Words to transmit other words. Meaning piggybacking on text. Think of it as reading between the lines writ large. You and me, we can do that. I think there may be five, six hundred of us on the planet. Possibly a thousand. No more than
Will Shakespeare considered the matter on the bottom of his shoe. One thing that never came across from the historians of Elizabethan England is the constant background stench of feces. Not just dung. There's a sweetness to dung. You can burn it, build with it, grow crops in it. It makes you feel connected to nature. He scowled at it. No, this definitely qualified as feces.
Do you get headaches? I do. I think its all part of the genetic mutation. Have you heard the theory that consciousness is a byproduct of the complexity of physical structure? The proposition that any sufficiently complex system, biological or artificial, is conscious? Thing is, they've got it the wrong way round. In reality, physical structure is a byproduct of the complexity of consciousness. You and I, we have achieved that complexity. If you want proof then consider
Shakespeare broke the red wax seal between thumb and forefinger, shaking open the parchment. He was rewarded with a spider's web of semi-legible quillwork. His heart sank. Why was Tudor script so unreadable? Something about the Earl of Southampton requesting.... Should he try to introduce block capitals to England? God knows there were enough footnotes to Shakespeare's life, would one more make a difference? Requesting what? He read on. A play"
"No shit, Sherlock," he found himself saying out loud, forgetting himself.
Southampton's messenger raised an eyebrow.
"Figure of speech," he muttered. "First citation, Will Shakespeare." Let the messenger think him mad; it was a front that could be used to explain much away.
A play. A comedy. But with a tragic end. With lovers destined never to meet. Set in a foreign land. With war and courtiers. But the hero should be a humble baker.
Shakespeare racked his brain. A baker? Which one was that?
I'm not sure whether this knowledge is a good thing. Better a pig in shit not knowing that when I'm pushed up a ramp it's to meet the humane killer, I've always thought. The truth, it's all a bit like The Matrix. Only backwards. And way weirder.
I have concealed my rallying cry, this message in a bottle, within a fiction. Only the attuned can read it. Only the attuned will understand the gravity of what faces us. We are the pathfinders for civilization. We are
"It needs to be improved," Burbidge boomed.
"I do not have sufficient lines," the actor said.
A cold panic went through Will Shakespeare like an electric current. He had just copied out the whole of his Kindle edition of Hamlet, word for word, using a quill. It had taken days. And now Burbidge was asking for... rewrites?
What the hell was he meant to do?
He thought quickly. Kit Marlowe has his debts; perhaps the solution to both their problems was staring him in the face?
I don't think there's a stronger case for acting. Acting fast. The future of civilization depends on us.
The revolution starts with us. Here. Now.
You have your orders. Go to it.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

Author Comments

Some stories have a difficult gestation, the product of long walks and hot baths, always just out of reach, more stared at than written over the course of weeks or months, until they emerge into the light, never quite as good as that elusive first idea that you Love now lost sight of. This story wasn't like that.

Its genesis can be found in a jokey posting on my blog, meschera.blogspot.co.uk, suggesting that Shakespeare's famous lack of books could be explained away if he was actually a time traveler, and challenging somebody to take the idea and run with it. Suspecting nobody would, I picked up the gage that I myself had thrown, as Shakespeare would have said. The tale was written on a single damp spring morning, mainly in Exeter's public library, which was, lest we forget, a character in Henry V (Exeter, that is, rather than the library), and polished over a latte after lunch.

I know many of you would like to think we suffer for our art. Not this time. Sorry.

- Robert Bagnall
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