Once upon a time, there was a wonderful world.

It was not perfect, because nothing is, but it was distinctly wonderful. No one worried about death, for aging had been understood and stopped, and even violent death usually meant only a few days of lost memories - souls could be retrieved, and in the last thousand years, every soul lost had been. No one ate the flesh of beasts, because it was cheap to eat meat made without them, and the tears of children were a greater loss than the convenience. No one went without shelter unless they wished it, and many fine homes sat empty but clean and ready for anyone who might discover in the morning that they needed a new one by evening. War was a distant memory recalled only to remind those with power of the consequences of misuse, and no threats to existence loomed, nor did any unknown threats lurk hidden from view by ignorance. Few diseases remained, and those that did were little things, a week's inconvenience with no lasting effects.

It was not perfect, but it was close.

But it was not the only world. Nearly the whole world forgot, or ignored, or pretended to, but long ago, when souls were not caught, those who died went somewhere else. They had once called it 'Hell', but few now knew anything about what it was like to live there, or whether it was like life at all. Old books wrote of what those retrieved from Hell had said it was like, from the early days when retrieval was possible but not so quick. It was unpleasant - a second death was rare, but hunger was omnipresent, disease struck everyone, fathers were separated from daughters and mothers from sons, life was full of pain and suffering, and nothing was certain except that life was nasty and brutish, and they often wished that it would be short. But no one in the wonderful world knew anyone who had suffered this, and when they had tried to retrieve people who had been in Hell for centuries, they were nasty, unpleasant company. A hard life had made them hard minds, assuming all were enemies, taking whatever they could simply to have it, hurting others to make themselves feel safe or because it was the only pleasure they could find in Hell. So no one thought of it, and no one cared, and no one passed down the knowledge that Hell existed - they stayed in their wonderful world and lived lives which were happier for their ignorance.


Once upon a time, there was a boy who read old books.


He itched, and he did not know why. He was young by his society's standards, but he had found the time to read many books. And one day, he read about the development of the soul-catchers. And then he found the books about what they said of Hell. He looked for what was done later, and was puzzled to find no reference to it. He asked librarians, and they could not recall anything, remembering stories of Hell only vaguely. He asked professors, and they said that Hell was probably not so bad as all that, don't go believing lurid stories, it's bad for your health. He asked those who ran the soul catchers, and they said that it would never come up anymore, they were far too fast at detecting souls for the boy or his family or friends to ever find themselves in Hell. These did not satisfy him. He went to the people in power and asked why they did nothing. They said that they could not bring the Hell people into their world - they destroyed and ruined and all who had been helped were now kept asleep and cold like those who wished to end their lives, kept in storage against a future day. He went to philosophers and asked why this was not considered monstrous. They said that the people from Hell cost far more in harm to those around them than they gained, and our responsibilities to our neighbors cover our entire world, and isn't that enough?

No one listened to him, he thought. Hell was right there, and it was bad. Out of sight, maybe, but still there. How did they dismiss it so easily? He itched, and thought, and came to a realization.

He went back to the librarians and said "Can't you hear them? They wail, and scream, and cry, because their lives are so hard. Next to that sound, how can you not recall?" He went back to the professors, and asked, "Next to that sound, how can you say it is not so bad?" He went back to the soul catcher engineers, and asked, "Next to that sound, what does it matter that it will never affect our family or our friends?" They were shamed by the boy who could hear the wailing of Hell, and admitted that they could not hear it, but they would help him. With their help, he returned to the philosophers and asked, "Next to that sound, how can we say responsibility to our own world is enough?" They frowned, and pondered, and returned, and as they did, many of them cried, for they had thought for days about the cries of Hell, and now they could nearly hear them too. From philosophers he went to newspapers, and asked them, too: "Can't you hear them? Shouldn't this awful sound be on the front pages the world over?"

And they thought, and wrote, and then it was: the screams of Hell and the boy who heard them. Across the world, people of all ages spoke of it - the awful sound of those stuck in Hell, and the boy who had made them remember it. He was a celebrity, but he refused interviews - he asked those who sought one to write about the problem, not about him. It had taken time to spread the idea, and he was an adult now, living privately in a home gated away from the crowds. He still itched - to be active, to fix the problem sooner - but he knew it could not be rushed. He would return to the people with power, but when they sought him out, not the reverse.

And they did, in time. They sought his advice on how to ease the suffering of those in Hell. He said he did not know; he did not hear the screams of any individual, and he could not speak to them. He advised that the best thing to do would be to bring them here, and let them calm, and ask them what to do. So the powerful people nodded, and spoke to the philosophers, and the engineers, and the professors and librarians and newspaper writers and the whole public, and they invented, and diverted their budgets, and said that this would mean a little tightening of our belts, but it is not so great a sacrifice and how can we deny the screams of Hell, and everyone agreed, they had so much and the need was so great.

And they brought people out of Hell, but the librarians had looked into their archives and knew how they would be harsh and hurting, and so they were prepared. They found ways of sending things to Hell, and the professors and philosophers had debated and studied and devised the best care packages they could send, and the writers had interviewed those they had rescued from Hell and asked them how that could be improved, and they wrote what they heard and the care packages included those things too.

It was long, and hard, and cost more than anyone thought, but now they had the rescued people right there before their eyes and no one could deny that the need was great, and so they moved the budgets, and made their world a little less wonderful. And Hell was slowly fixed, and slowly emptied, until only those who wished to remain did, and their lives were much better. They were still harsh people, shaped by long harsh lives, but they had plenty, and comfort, and they grew less harsh every year, and Hell was, in the end, not so much worse than the wonderful world, and the wonders were not so much reduced either.

The man who had been just a boy at the beginning had grown much older, and lived a secluded life, so when the great project was almost finished, they had to send a messenger to find him. The great executive who had presided over the project since it grew large wished to present him an award. He smiled sadly, and agreed to appear at the ceremony and receive it.

She said, "We are gathered here today to commemorate the completion of the great project we began many years ago. The project to make Hell into a place we would not fear to go, and to allow those who wished to leave it to come to our world and share in our plenty. It has taken many people working hard for many years, and I thank all of them, but also here is the one man without whom it would never have been possible. So I give this medal, our highest honor, to the boy who could hear the screams. Thank you, sir, for bringing them to our ears."

The boy smiled, but shook his head. "I cannot accept this award, for it commemorates something I never did."

She frowned, perhaps expecting a metaphor or platitude.

He continued, "When I was a boy, I came to you all asking 'Can't you hear them?'. I never said what the sound was like, because I didn't know. I never heard the screams myself either. I cannot accept an award for hearing their screams."

The crowds around him were puzzled and ashen-faced.

But then he stood straight, and smiled, and spoke more loudly, "But I could accept an award for something else - that I did not have to. Through the centuries, no one heard the screams - but they were there. I asked you to compare the sound to your answers, because if I did not need to hear, neither did you. So while I did not hear the screams, I did bring them to your ears, and of that I am very proud."

There was no applause, and no cheering, because the crowd was older than he, and they were lost in somber thoughts. They had thought it was a talent that had started this, an extraordinary sense, but it was not. It was merely an idea, one they could have had. Their neighbors and friends could have been saved from Hell centuries sooner, if only one of them had had the courage to speak up about it and to refuse to let the world forget.

One man left with a medal that day. Everyone else left with a lesson. A failure, and one which could be repeated. What else might they be ignoring, simply because it was not reminding them every day?





More posts like this

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:30 AM

Thanks for your hard work. The article turned out great. Respect to the author.

I loved this story. It did a great job of expressing how compassion feels. 

This was my favorite line: “ to the boy who could hear the screams. Thank you for bringing them to our ears."

Maybe I'm not smart enough, but I don't get it.

On which level? There's two intended morals here - one is the analogy to global poverty and open borders; the wonderful world is the West and Hell is the Third World. The other is the explicit one in the last sentence: what problems in the world are you missing, simply because they don't affect your life and are therefore easy to overlook? And particularly the point that it doesn't take anything special to notice - just someone without preconceptions who sees it and then refuses to look away.

The particular choice of analogy is inspired by Unsong.

I like the concept, but it was a little confusing to be honest. I interpreted the wonderful world as the future, and was very confused about the travel between the worlds (still am). Are they different planets? Is it time travel? Dimensional travel?

Due to this, the literal hearing of screams was also unclear, dulling the final twist (which I like!)

Lastly, I felt odd with the last two paragraphs. I find them quite moralizing, and I'd find the piece stronger without them. I think that's a big challenge with this whole contest: to teach a lesson and motivate, while respecting the reader's own capacity to draw lessons and motivation from a story. Personally, I prefer endings that do less teaching, and instead let people ponder the story. Fewer people will reach the conclusion that we want them to reach, but the ones that do will be more motivated and have at least some capacity to think for themselves.

Dimensional travel, in my head, but this is allegory, the details are intentionally unspecified. I worked on making the literalness more plausible without outright lying to the reader, but it's a hard needle to thread.


The conclusion is not as strong as I'd like, but illusion of transparency is real, so I'm leery of completely removing the didactic quality. It's much subtler than the Fable of the Dragon Tyrant already, and that one works well (though I think it would be better if it was less of an anvil-drop).

I thanked the author for a good article