The man stared at the briefcase lying on his desk, wondering if his visitor would dare to open it, and wake what slept within.
If that little green man was the only thing that slept within, the man would have thumbed in the combination, and clicked open the clasps. He would have been already smiling as he lifted the lid and caught a glimpse of the little toy that his little daughter had put in there for him.
But just the memory of the whispered warnings was enough to prickle the hairs on the back of his neck. The most frightening words were the first ones.
They are angry.
All he’d felt at first was confusion. He had just opened the briefcase that his wife and daughter had bought him. A present to celebrate a promotion. And a joke. They dared him to replace his battered backpack with something a little more professional.
He had looked around to see where the voice had come from. A speaker, sound leaking from a nearby office, or just his imagination probably.
It was in the room with him. He’d turned to see the swirl of glittering dust inside his briefcase.
Close it, the rasping voice said. Close the case.
The man had approached the case, still not scared. Was this part of the joke that his family was playing on him? He reached toward that glittering cloud. An unseen hand gripped his wrist. He tried to recoil, but the grip was strong. It squeezed hard, and it sunk into his flesh. He grunted in pain.
The man was all too willing. He reached over the dust cloud to the lid. Only then did the hand release him.
Do not open it again. Send it to the ones who know us.
The man held his wrist against his chest. He asked no questions. He wanted to slam the lid down, but he closed it slowly, gently, as if afraid to scatter that glittering cloud into the room. He didn’t want to chance a single particle escaping.
And so there was time for the voice to speak the words that would help the man to do what it bid him to do.
We are Vast.
He hadn’t entered his new office again that day. And if it hadn’t been for his throbbing wrist, he would have dismissed the whole encounter as a case of hallucination, likely brought on by sleep deprivation.
The day’s work distracted him. He spent time in meetings, in other people’s offices, taking calls as he paced in an empty hallway. None of it was out of the ordinary. But when evening fell, when it was time to gather his things and go home, he glimpsed the briefcase lying on his desk.
It was closed. He’d even thumbed the numbers on the lock into random positions. But that couldn’t possibly make any difference.
He left the case.
He said nothing to his family, calling his sister instead.
She would listen. And instead of some well-meaning but dismissive response that he’d expect from most—“you’ve been so tired lately, you probably just imagined it”—she would say the words he needed to hear.
“Okay, let’s figure this out.”
She said those words. And a week later, the man had a visitor in his office who knew what was trapped in his briefcase.
The first thing the visitor had done after laying eyes on the briefcase was turn to him with the most neutral of expressions and say, “I’m very glad and grateful you took this seriously, sir.”
Having someone else there sharing and now shouldering the burden of what he’d witnessed had been a relief. Knowing that the briefcase would soon be gone from his office was an even bigger relief. Being able to say“no” to all the questions his visitor had asked, about whether or not he’d ever heard the voice again, in the office or outside of it, or felt the presence of another, and so on, had also brought him great relief.
And with that relief came curiosity.
“What…what are the Vast?” he asked. “Are they spirits? Ghosts, or…?”
His visitor was punching a message into her phone. She sent it, inhaled, and stepped aside, so she could turn to him and still keep the briefcase in view.
One corner of her mouth lifted in a smile. “Answering your question means I’d have to tell you a little-known myth,” she said. “Most of the people I meet are bored by mythology.”
The man felt suddenly ridiculous. By that time, he’d told his family all about what had happened. They swore they had not rigged his briefcase to expel dust at him. They hadn’t hidden a speaker in the paneling to spook him. And even if they had, none of that could explain the unseen hand.
None of it could explain the bruise that circled his wrist.
Suddenly his visitor flicked a card out of a pocket and offered it to him. It was dark orange and square. It only had one item printed on it, a phone number.
“If you want to hear the myth, call this number,” she said. “I’ll meet you for a meal, and tell you the story I know about the vast ones.”
The man surprised himself when he called two days later. But then, he had noticed that the number on the card was fading. His visitor hadn’t said so, but it seemed there was a time limit to her offer.
She warned him when they sat down in a quiet corner of a café that she would recite the story the way it had been told to her, the long way. There was knowledge in the way a story was told.
“Once,” she started, “the world was filled with different beings than the ones that now fill the world.”
They were just as wondrous. And just as terrible. But in different ways. For ways changed with time.
As it would come be, it was so in those days as well, that some of these beings were short-lived but numerous, and some were long-lived but few.
The longest lived of all were the firstborn.
They were born when the world was born. And they would end when the world would end.
As it would come to be, it was so in those days as well that some beings possessed only one form for all their lives, some changed form in subtle or grand ways, and still some barely had a form at all.
The most formless of all were the firstborn.
Their forms were wispy and luminous, yet vast and intricate, and they shifted and drifted, quivered and condensed, glowed and glittered.
As it would come to be, it was so in those days as well that all living beings must sleep for the sake of respite and repair. Some beings slept for a short while, others so long and deeply that their forms seemed near death until they woke.
The deepest sleepers of all were the firstborn, the ones that later being came to call the vast ones.
They slept under the roots of trees, snugly tangled within, their forms shifting as the roots grew around them, embracing them. Nestled in warm earth with only the soft rustle of roots, the sleep of the vast ones was sweet and long.
But the quiet did not last. As the world became filled with new beings, creatures who roared, trilled, galloped, trumpeted, chirped, barked, warbled, and croaked, the sleep of the vast ones was disturbed.
Some tossed and turned, and as they did, they pulled the roots, and shifted the trees. And the earth below those trees quaked.
Some tried to take respite in the waters, as deep as they could dive. All the way to the deepest deep. But even there, they could find no quiet. For creatures now filled the waters of the world. Even in the deep, they keened and clicked.
Finally, some of the vast ones thought that they might find quiet far below the earth, all the way to the center of the world, where fires were so hot they melted stone, and even a vast one’s yielding form could barely endure the heat. But some found quiet at last.
But most became restless and roamed the world, their forms rippling around them, causing tempest and gale.
The smaller beings of the world—that is, all the beings of the world as all were smaller than the firstborn—were caught in the wake of these fierce and rippling winds. Some of these beings perished, and the vast ones were much aggrieved.
So they sunk into the earth, and they decided that they must reach a deeper sleep than ever they had reached before, one from which they might not be able to rise. This they did.
One by one, the vast firstborn beings dropped into deathlike torpor.
All was well, with the world no longer in constant tumult from the unrelenting quaking and storming from a passing vast one.
But it came to pass, many ages later, that a being was born who had a talent for crafting. In their crafting, these beings mined the earth for ores and gems, carved away at stone, and even chopped down the living trees.
The search for a wood that would be hardy yet supple enough to carve and sand, and handsome enough to gleam upon polishing, brought these beings into the heart of a forest where no creature stirred, not even bird or beetle.
There, they found the wondrous wood they sought. But they deemed that they should leave it be. Something was strange about the wood. The bark was dark as obsidian, and between the cracks, silvery veins glittered. And the leaves of the canopy shifted color in the dim sunlight, from green to gold to violet to crimson.
Against the better judgement of his fellows, one stayed in the wood and cut down one of the strange trees.
The wood was indeed wondrous. It could be carved, of course, like marble. That is what this being, a carver, tried first. But it could also be hammered and worked like gold. And when it was plunged into fire, it did not burn or even singe. It did not seem to change at all, the carver thought. But when a sudden storm drenched the wood pile, he found the next day that the wood had not soaked up a single drop of rain.
The carver decided to make something very special from the wood. He crafted a chest, large enough to fit himself inside. Upon its surface, he carved beautiful patterns of flowers and leaves, some bold and some delicate. The colors of the chest shifted as he carved, and as light struck it, almost as the colors of a gemstone would. The carver had first meant to make a gift of the chest. But when he was finished making it, he found he could not part with it. He passed flame over the chest, hoping that would seal the seams between the hundred pieces he had assembled to make it.
It was unlike anything he had ever made or even seen. A chest made of dark wood the color of a night sky, purple so dark it was almost black, twinkling with tiny grains of silver. But it also bore colors unlike anything he had ever seen in the night sky, streaking clouds of soft green and blue, and shimmers of pink and orange.
The carver opened the chest for the first time since finishing it.
Rippling winds whooshed out of the chest. The carver was first knocked back, and then buffeted about. He gasped and the air was forced out of his lungs. He could not draw it back in. He clutched at his throat, unable to breathe. His sight grew dim.
But then, the winds calmed, and he was set down, he felt, by many hands. He gasped again and again, filling and emptying his lungs with wheezing breaths. In panic and fear, he saw before him a blurred, shifting form that condensed from nothing but the stray specks and flecks of dust that floated upon the air. The form resembled roughly his own, only taller, broader, and with glittering wispy robes and hair that dripped down into the folds of those robes, and yet the whole form was so vaporous that he could see the opposite wall of his shop through it.
Not knowing what to do, the carver prostrated himself before the being. Right away, he began to speak, begging forgiveness for his trespass, for cutting and crafting the wood. He had awakened some spirit, surely, that was inhabiting the tree. If that spirit was not itself powerful and vengeful, some greater being who protected that tree would surely come along to punish the carver.
The being, who had not yet spoken, began to hum and howl as the wind did when it stormed. With a rasp that grew louder and deeper, the being replied to the carver, able only to command the man to speak more. The carver clapped his hands to his ears. But he did as he was asked, confessing that he alone tore down the tree. He begged that the being’s wrath fall only upon him, for he was warned by his fellows not to fell the tree. He begged that the being’s mercy fall upon his fellows, and all the rest of his village. Remorseful tears dripped from downcast eyes.
No distress, the being replied, in a voice much tempered so it was softer, and almost a whisper. There was commotion. Such commotion that it woke me from death. But then there was quiet. A quiet I have not known since the world began.
The form, a giant to the carver’s size, seemed to bend down.
Did you make it so? How?
They spoke for a long while. The carver’s panic and most of his fear faded in that time, for it seemed the being was not angry, only curious. But he still feared that he might speak words that would displease the powerful being, who gave no name or titles, but only said, I am firstborn.
The two soon learned that the quiet the firstborn experienced was when the chest was finished but not yet opened. The crafting had created a seal that no sound could pierce. The firstborn tested this by returning to the chest, somehow pouring that vast form into what now seemed a tiny chest.
The carver closed the chest, and as instructed by the firstborn, he banged upon it, he sang songs as he marched around it, and he screamed as loudly as he could at the chest. And he found much relief in releasing that cry.
When he opened the chest, the firstborn told him that all been silence within. And the firstborn told him that even as sound could not pierce the barrier of the chest, the form of the firstborn could not pierce it. At last the firstborn could sleep in peace, but would require a trusted friend to open the chest when that sleep was finished.
The firstborn asked the carver to be that friend. And that strange shifting rarefied form returned to the chest for a longer test, a night of quiet.
The carver was tempted to keep the chest closed, to carry it back into the forest, and bury it there. But he feared that the firstborn would be able to escape somehow. He did not trust that a simple wooden chest would or could contain such a being.
So he opened the chest the next morning. The firstborn burst out in a flurry of dust and wind.
Help me free the rest, the firstborn said. Carve a chest for each of us.
The firstborn and the carver returned to the forest. They found the stump of the tree the carver had felled. The stump would grow back in time, though without the vast being tangled in its roots, the tree would not glitter, and its leaves would only shift through shades of green and orange.
The firstborn studied the tree and explained to the carver what had happened. The firstborn’s form had leached into the roots, traveling up through and into the core of the trunk. Some essence remained in the wood, imbuing it with qualities that other trees did not possess. It might have been so for the others.
But the firstborn feared that since that vast beings had not woken in so long, some may have forgotten how to.
We lie near death, the firstborn said. There is no rest near death. There is only rest in sleep.
“Then if you rouse the others, you will all return to sleep?” the carver dared to ask.
Yes, for the first time in many eons, we will sleep.
“For now long?” the carver asked.
When we wake, your kind will long have left this world.
The carver could not do all the work alone, so he told his fellows, introducing to them the firstborn. They too were afraid and awed. They too feared the firstborn’s displeasure. So they joined the carver, and all set about finding the strange trees with dark wood that glittered with silver veins.
The firstborn tried to help them, but could not. The vast and rippling form whipped through the forest, knocking down the wood-cutters, and knocking down trees. So the firstborn tried to condense that form, but as it condensed, the form grew bright and fiery, scorching the other trees, and blinding the wood-cutters.
All the firstborn could do was keep still, and keep the carver company as he worked in his shop.
“You are so vast and great,” the carver said one day. “Why do you remain upon the earth?”
This is where I was born.
“You need not stay where you were born, vast one. I was born many leagues away. But I came and settled here.”
Why did you come here?
The carver smiled. “Because I was young, and I thought I was too vast and great for my little village.”
Do you not miss your first home?
“I do at times. I have visited a time or two, but it is far.”
It is difficult to restrain myself every moment I am awake. But if I wanted to find a new home, where could I go?
The carver looked up. “There seems to be plenty of space to stretch among the stars.”
Yes, but how could I go there?
“Can you not fly?”
The firstborn’s form shivered. I have never tried. I have only ever tried to sink lower into the earth, or into the oceans.
“Why haven’t you tried to fly?”
I don’t know that I can. Have you ever tried to fly?
“No,” the carver said, allowing himself a laugh, “but I am much heavier than you.”
The firstborn thought upon the carver’s words. All the while, they roused more and more of the vast beings, the first who were born unto the world.
The carver crafted the wooden chests that would be the quiet sleeping chambers for the vast beings. But as he did, the firstborn he had unknowingly wakened spoke to the others of another way.
We do not desire to harm, but we cannot help but to do it. Our very passing causes the sky to storm. We can only constrain ourselves for so long before we slip. If there were a place we could go and let our forms unfurl and our voices sound, I would go there. And I would have you join me.
Many were convinced right away. Others were convinced after they learned that they would not be able to escape their sleeping chambers unless they were released by other hands. A few even began to try rising into the sky, taking comfort in seeing that smaller creatures—birds and beetles—could rise and fly and descend again to the earth.
The vast beings rose and descended, rose higher and descended, and soon came a day that a few dared to rise all the way up to the heavens and not descend again. They traveled up together and carried their chests with them, all the while hoping the chests would not be needed, hoping the heavens were vast enough for them to find a quiet place to sleep.
Then came a day when the wood-cutters came upon a tree whose silvery veins oozed with a moon-bright sap that turned a dark brown as it trickled down to the ground, where it fizzed and bubbled with a foul odor. The leaves of this tree were tattered at the edges. The bark was dark, but the color was dulled and the bark was brittle.
“It looks ill,” the carver said when he saw the tree.
Something is wrong, said the firstborn.
With haste they felled the tree, seeing that it would not survive. The sulfurous odor upon the wood sharpened when it was cut, and reeked even worse as the wood was carved and shaped into a chest. The carver could not work long, even in the open air, and so this chest was not as fine as all the others. When it was fired in the kiln, the chest turned white as bleached bone, and the odor vanished. The carver was relieved, hoping that the fire had destroyed whatever disease had festered in the tree.
But his firstborn friend halted him from opening the chest, and bid him and his fellows to move away.
The firstborn called forth the other vast beings, those who had not risen to join the stars, or yet gone to sleep in their chests.
Together, they opened the bone-white chest. And it was well that it was they who opened it.
The carver did not see what came out of the chest. He only heard it, a sharp screaming gale that crashed through the trees and sheared their canopies. When the screaming faded, the carver’s friend gathered a few of the vast ones to chase after the one who had escaped. They took the bone-white chest with them.
If you find any more festering like that, the firstborn said, passing by the carver, make the chest. Carve great locks upon it. Never open it.
After waiting a while, the carver and the other wood-cutters followed the trail that was cleared, for it made for easier travel into the dense forest. But they soon came upon sights even more troubling than the ruined trees.
Animals had returned to the forest, as the strange trees containing the vast beings had been cut down. The wood-cutters found in one spot a fallen flock of birds, their feathers still drifting down from the sky in bloody clumps. Still further along, they found a deer, a buck whose antlers had been shattered, and neck sliced clean through. They turned back then. And they waited for the vast beings to return.
The next day, the vast beings who had given chase returned with the bone-white chest. They were absent one.
The carver did not see his friend. The other vast beings, their forms vaguely shaped like the carver and his fellow wood-cutters, hung their heads. One of them pointed to the chest.
Another spoke only two words. Captured. Both.
The carver was full of sorrow for his friend. He left the work of carving the other chests to the other wood-cutters, while he set himself to the task of freeing his friend without freeing their enemy.
Most of the remaining vast beings chose to ascend into the realm of the stars, where they could unfurl their forms and sound as loudly as they wished without harm to any.
A few remained on earth. And they vowed to watch over the chests containing the festering beings. Six were found altogether. But the first chest would remain with the carver. He vowed that if he could not find a way to free his friend, he would pass that task on to his heir—if not an heir of his blood than an heir of his craft.
In time the forest was healed, and in time all the earthly vast ones rose up to the realm of the stars, taking even the chests that contained their wicked kin. For they hoped that perhaps in the vastness of the heavens, in the quiet and the calm, they could find a place to release their kin, and heal them, a place so far away that even if their kin remained forever wicked, they would not find their way back to the world into which they were born.
The carver grew older, then old, and still he found no way to free his friend. He had an apprentice to whom he had taught all he knew and told all his secrets. She was wise and calm for one so young. He would not have passed the burden to her if he could have found some way to live longer, to keep the strength of his arms and back from fading. But pass on the burden he did. It was the only way he could grant his friend the hope of one day being free.
The man stared at the surface of his lukewarm coffee.
“My briefcase has one of those…angry ones?”
“Actually, I think your briefcase contains two of the vast beings,” his visitor, the agent, said. “I think it used to be that same chest that the carver kept. The carver did say the wood was malleable. I didn’t realize what that really meant.” She tilted her head forward. “I think the reason you’re not dead is that the angry one is asleep. The one who warned you is the first one to wake when our ancestor, the good old carver, went into that forest and cut down a tree.”
The man squeezed his eyes shut and then opened them. “So, I’ll have to pretend that you’re just messing with me, otherwise I can’t wrap my head around…” He trailed off. He wasn’t even going to try to contain around any of it in his head.
“I can play along with that if you want.” She shrugged. “It is just a story.” But then she smirked a little and leaned forward. She pointed between the two of them. “But then, so is this.”
“Can I ask, what are you going to do with them?”
The agent leaned back and sighed. “Above my pay grade. Above my clearance. Above my comprehension frankly. I have a colleague who know a lot more than what I just told you. And even they aren’t involved.”
The man blinked and shook his head. “Do you trust whoever is handling it?”
The agent’s gaze shifted down and shifted back up to meet his. “Put it this way. I trust the person I handed the briefcase to. And I trust that they will hand it off to someone they trust.”
The man pressed his lips together.
The agent peered at him. “If it makes you feel any better,” she said, “I also feel like I didn’t do enough.”
“But I guess if I tried to handle it on my own, opened the case again, they would have leveled the building. A lot of people would have been hurt, or worse.”
The agent nodded. “Yeah, I believe that would have happened, even if they weren’t angry anymore. They are fierce forces of nature.”
“I was…more scared of them when I thought they were ghosts,” the man said, shaking his head at himself.
“That makes sense. You’re familiar with the concept. You’ve seen movies, maybe had a friend who saw a ghost once, maybe even seen one yourself before. But these mythological clouds of dust and wind shaped like giant men…”
The man twisted his mouth to one side. “Never heard of ‘em.”
They were both quiet for a moment.
“I’m sorry about your briefcase,” the agent said. “I’ve been told I can’t return it to you. Or any of the contents.”
The man blew out a breath. “That’s okay. I hadn’t put anything important in it yet.”
“Well, there was one thing you described in your inventory that I thought you should get back,” the agent said. “Not the actual one, but it wasn’t too hard to get my hands on another one.” She pulled something from a pocket and handed it to him.
It looked exactly like the toy his daughter had given him. The little green man the size of his pinky. She told him he glowed in the dark.
“He glows in the dark,” the man said, looking down at the little green man with a smile, a smile that lingered as he looked up at the agent.
The agent returned his smile. “Our world is full of wonders.”
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel