Looking down, transfixed by the harshness of the scarlet blur, Jackson noted its contrast to the otherwise clinical white bleaching his peripheral vision. Its real-world relevance had already slipped from consciousness as he embraced the Superior. What was it again? And why such a striking red?

The question threatened to pull him back down as he concentrated on full withdrawal. Ahead of him the dark rectangular form had already lost its meaning as he focused hard near its centre, the crimson smear already forgotten.

A shout rang out from somewhere nearby. Outside. Beyond himself. Then he remembered. Beyond the rectangle. The locked door.

The familiar dark shape regained its coherence as he reluctantly descended back to the plane with the door, its dull metallic surface marred by scratches from the hundreds of prisoners before him. And the hands. Looking down at the blood, the acrid, metallic taste returned as he swallowed, the shock terminating his descent.

The sounds grew to a raucous, joined by the authoritative timbre of an officer’s voice echoing outside. Things soon died down as the bleak white cell, the door and everything else imposed itself with unwelcome clarity.

Looking down again, his palms quickly dropping away, he embraced the ascent, rising as the sounds and the echoes dissipated. Losing himself to the sensation, calmness beckoned, enmeshing him in its numbing embrace. Turning to the dull contours of the cell door it too began to lose coherence as he pulled inward, focusing deeply.

~ ✷ ~


Principle discovery of the effect

Jackson stared at the word ‘up’ on the page of the book, barely aware of the moment it passed beyond comprehension into abstraction. Even the knowledge he knew what it meant, the definition not just known to him but understandable even by a child, could not prevent its semantic shift into obscurity. The intensity of the experience caused the word to lose immediate comprehension as if narrow focus bypassed the rational mind entirely.

The simplicity of the two-letter composition reinforced the sense of something unusual unfolding. Such an odd-looking construction too, the half-pipe of one letter contrasting with the more complex circle-with-line arrangement of the other. Looked at in isolation the two-letter word seemed like nonsense, not language at all, unknowable and incomprehensible. Up? What did it mean? Staring more intently strengthened the effect as the characters lost all meaning.

He snapped out of it, pulling away as the word resolved back into normality, lodged within a sea of other familiar words, its definition easily within grasp. Up. A direction of travel. To ascend or rise.

What had happened? Considering the process he marvelled at the observation even an awareness you understood the meaning of a word did not assist in retrieving its definition if stared at deeply enough, its concrete normality temporarily inaccessible. Nothing else seemed to work like this. Was he fooling himself, or accessing some previously hidden aspect of the psyche?

The implications of such a discovery were too great to ignore as he resolved to find out.

Concentrating on the bookcase, focusing at the centre of the wall of books, the array of spines stood in their loose upright formation, slivers of colour hinting at their contents. Too far to easily read, the confusion of volumes already stood at a distance.

Struggling to reproduce the effect, individual books intruded. Spotting one he had recently read triggered a memory of its contents, breaking the spell, his mind refusing to comply with the enforced focus, seemingly not under full control. Drifting, he caught himself and tried again, this time seeking out an unread work.

A dark spine near the centre proved impossible to read, the unfamiliar wording too small to discern. Peripheral vision diminished as he focused, the black shape with its white writing dominating attention. This time when he drifted he managed to pull himself back, the slim dark spine his only target.

It didn’t work. Standing for several minutes, never losing the sense of the whole bookcase with its riot of vertical markers, his awareness danced around with the mixture of colours even as he forced his eyes to remain on the target volume.

Walking to the bookcase he pulled out a single work. Looking down at its minimal white cover the design included the title and the author’s name as well as a quote. An illustration covered the top half, with much of the rest blank. Concentrating on the title he directed his attention to the words. After a moment they slipped away as before, his vision unfocused, the plain cover a pale blur. As he opened himself to the experience the entire book lost coherence.

Continuing to stare he pulled further away from the object in his hand. Only its shape remained; a light-coloured rectangle. He knew it was a book, one he had read, but it gradually receded, drifting away. It drifted down. Or perhaps he had raised his perception higher, as if standing above it in some sense. Despite an awareness he knew the book, it’s name and author familiar, he had risen above a mere understanding of those blunt facts.

Ascension. The word came to him in an abrupt understanding, the impression of distancing seemingly a process of disconnection; a moving away from concrete understanding to something else. A higher understanding. The part of his mind that knew the book’s name and author — which he couldn’t now retrieve — operated with a precision he rarely experienced as if it had discarded the irrelevant. Its initial simplicity, the clarity a result of removing intellectual clutter, quickly became more than that, blossoming into a purer understanding, not a simpler one. A cleaner sense of knowing.

Even actively reminding himself the object in his hand was a book he knew of, a book he had once read and experienced, meant little. The knowledge sat below him, down there among the rest of the mental debris, a place far away from the crystal clear purity of this new experience as the individual words and their hold on him evaporated into nothing.

It took effort to come back. Deliberately turning away from the cover he looked at the bookcase, its mundane form throwing him from the trance. Descending slowly, gradually adjusting, the confusion of book spines slowly resolved into concrete reality.

Looking back down at the book in his hand he reread the title and the author’s name, taking in the simple illustration decorating the cover. The comprehension of these things felt like a dull substitute for the precision he had lost. A sledgehammer of awareness rather than a scalpel of insight.

As he placed the book back on the shelf the memory lingered, its clean, incisive sense of understanding attractive as he looked anew at the familiar room.

~ ✷ ~


An exploration of ascension

The park stretched away like a carpet of green. Only the children’s play area some distance ahead broke the view, the angular sweep of the swings and slides indicating their man-made nature. Watched by vigilant mothers, toddlers clambered over bars with each other, swinging and dangling like unsteady apes in human clothes.

The squeals of the group reached him as he sat on a bench, watching the children engrossed in their play. Common lime trees in the distance marked the limits of the park, their loose pyramid shapes blending together to form a wall, obscuring everything beyond.

Drawn to the distinctive shape of the trees it was just possible to discern where each tree began and ended. By concentrating on a single example the edges of the pyramidal shape were soon lost, the rest merging in his peripheral vision.

The trees coalesced into a solid green mass as he ascended. Even the understanding they were individual trees, each with a distinct beginning and end, did not prevent his mind discarding the knowledge, its proper place in the concrete world left behind as he rose higher.

A sense of excitement underlined the experience, his past knowledge of the trees unable to intrude as he stared ahead. It belonged in the concrete plane, an inferior stratum to the one embraced through force of will.

Pulling back further than he had managed before, the memory of the previous experience seemed both more distant and more accessible. The book and the bookcase, the individual words, the dissolving of understanding and the knowledge of what an object was yet the ability in this plane to discard it as noise. Staring intently at the thicket ahead induced a similar sense of sharpening attention.

Retreating deep within, he discovered he could roam. His eyes remained fixed on the distance, the wall of trees now diffuse, like a cognitive blur. He knew they were trees of a particular type, uniform yet distinct, but their individuality was lost. Without moving his eyes he became aware again of the play area. The children and their mothers, the stumbling movement of the toddlers, the squeals and high pitch of shouts too far to discern beyond a muted throng.

They too had descended into an ambiguous kaleidoscope of dull movement, just visible, but beneath meaning or attention. Present, but unable to reach a sufficient height to intrude. Like the trees he knew at some level what they were, what they were doing. But the children and the adults had assumed an indistinct character, part of the landscape far below.

He stared, drifting higher. As before the clarity of the experience drew him upward. With abrupt awareness he realised this wasn’t really like rising high above; he could tell he remained anchored at the same level as before. And yet a growing sense of lightness permeated the experience, as if rising up from the depths of a black, airless ocean to a surface somewhere above him. The darkness of below was the unnatural place, it’s pressure everywhere, discernible only by those for whom it had become foreign. He suddenly understood this buoyancy as the clarity he had barely grasped before, as if floating up to the surface of a deep ocean, the fierce brightness of daylight unimaginable to those at the bottom adjusted as they were to a sunless existence.

Rising, the pressure lifted as the concrete horror of existence fell into the benthic depths of his everyday experience. The surface still far above, only the hint of light penetrating this deep, he focused on the oceanic nature of the journey, ascending through a sea of calm.

Losing any sense of time, he drifted, the serenity of the experience all encompassing. Even the awareness of lightness evaporated as he adjusted to the oneness he felt here, everything else lost in the depths below. Time here meant little, like the word definitions he couldn’t grasp but understood he knew. It had been left behind, no longer relevant or needed, destroyed by clarity.

Slowly drifting back down, the weight growing in his mind, something bothered him. The trees. Their thick mass intruded, still ahead of him. Rain touched his face as an individual tree resolved ahead of him, its edges slowly revealing themselves.

It was darker, the play park now empty. The wall of trees stood in the distance as before as he noticed the children and the others had departed. He sat, held fast by the reality around him, the lingering effect of the heights he had risen to reverberating in his mind even as the deep grip of concrete reality accosted his senses.

The supermarket aisles stretched into the distance, the scale of the structure impressive as he tried to calculate how many products the barn-like building contained. The entrance at one end meant you could walk straight ahead and look left as the various aisles appeared, as if looking down a ceilingless corridor with walls decorated by unidentifiable packages. There had to be millions of items here, all carefully placed to entice the unsuspecting. Standing at one intersection, the very end of the corridor had to be over a hundred yards away from him.

He knew they employed psychologists to determine the placement of just about every single thing on sale, each item calculated to maximise its likelihood of purchase. This manipulation evidently worked with many, the mindless associations carefully planted by behavioural experts to ensure everyone would spot biscuits as they bought coffee.

The racks of products receding into the distance reminded him of his bookcase. Slivers of colour merging into a patchwork of coloured blocks the further away it got. Soap powder and cornflakes, shampoo and milk all seemed alike from a sufficient distance.

Or a sufficient height, he thought as he wandered through the aisles. He had failed to ascend from the confusion of the bookcase, the rows of books too familiar to enable escape. But very little of this was familiar.

Standing, looking down the entire length of an aisle, he stared. The individual items soon fell away into an unidentifiable mass. The furthest items lost coherence first, then the rest as he began to ascend. The low murmur of air conditioning, the distant sounds of the tills and the rest of the noise died away. Feeling himself rise he managed to maintain a sense of his surroundings even as the detail receded.

Able to still discern the difference between the polychromatic aisles of products reaching high above and the light grey of the floor provided a navigable terrain to explore. Walking slowly down the aisle he ascended higher even while making sense of the layout. Turning right, down a shorter side aisle, different coloured packages on each side marked out the limits of the place like a kind of maze, the shelves reaching high above, all of them crammed with objects that now meant nothing.

Turning left a new aisle reached to the end of the building, with a different structure on the right wall. It wasn’t shelving this time. Movement caught his eye. People in overalls going about their business behind high glass-fronted counters. They stretched all the way along to the end on the right as he walked forward.

Even they sank below awareness as he aimed for the far wall, the white packaging of toiletries beckoning like sirens, their clinical containers reflecting a growing sense of clarity as he rose toward the superior plane, toward a brighter height near the surface of this murky ocean.

The sensation refreshed him as he drifted forward, the glass counters forgotten. Ascending higher than before, his surroundings diminished into a nebulous haze, only the brightness of the far wall retaining an echo of recognition. That was where he was headed.

A dark motion intruded, obscuring the view ahead. He remembered he was walking down a long aisle, to the end. It was easy to navigate, but the disturbance moved with him. It changed shape slightly, as he tried to navigate around it, the movement confusing, threatening to drag him down as he paused.

Something else intruded as he desperately tried to focus on the back wall, its bright white mass calling him. But he felt himself descend just as he became aware of sound, muted and distant, strongly dragging him back to the inferior plane. Soon the dark shape was joined by something else. Something white, like the packaging on the back wall he had been aiming for.

‘Are you OK, sir?’

The voice cut through everything as the security guard stood in front of him. To his side was another man dressed in a white coat. Three younger men lingered behind a large counter with bright red meat displayed. All wore white hats except the guard in his dark uniform.

The older man in white, standing behind the guard, caught his attention. Dr Campbell. It reminded him of Dr Campbell. Was he with Campbell?

The man in the white coat stared, as did the guard. Did all of them know? Were they aware, like the psychologists they employed to place the products?

He backed away as the guard in the dark uniform stepped forward, the others stationery, their expressionless faces menacing in the harsh light from high above.

‘Are you all right?’

He turned and walked back down the aisle, away from the intruders. He soon lost them as he found the main aisle intersecting the enormous vaulted room. Brightness from the windows beckoned as he spotted the exit, picking up his pace, leaving them all behind as the pressure of a familiar hard reality crashed in around him.

~ ✷ ~


Navigation through the superior plane

The brittle purity of the Superior shattered in an instant when the doorbell rang, its soft chime like a klaxon, pulling him back down. The room resolved with an unsettling abruptness, the straight edges of the books sharp and defined, like weapons.

The bell rang again. It took a moment to identify it as he got up to answer.

Opening the front door invited a flood of light, its intensity overwhelming his vision with unwelcome potency. The woman stood on the doorstep, her uniform obscured by a thick winter coat.

She motioned to enter and he stepped aside, the ritual requiring no words to ease it along.

‘Christopher, why are the curtains shut?’

She walked in to the living room, a sense of invasion washing over him as she looked around, her eyes skimming over the books in the dim interior. She didn’t wait for an answer as she violently swept the curtains aside letting in more of the hard external light.

She fumbled with the other curtain, pushing them open as wide as possible as if to infect the room with the outside.

‘You need to focus more on your routine, Christopher. It is easy to let things slip. But you remember what we discussed before. Dr Campbell’s advice.’

He let her prattle on. She fussed around the room, rearranging things. Picking up cups and plates as she took them to the kitchen, all the while talking absentmindedly, as if this were her own routine.

Turning he saw her look around the kitchen at the mess. Taking off her coat the dark uniform almost blended in to the gloomy interior, the blinds still drawn as she reached over the counter to the window to let in more of the outside world.

Staring deeply at her stout form straining to reach the cord, he began to ascend. He hadn’t tried it with people, except the children in the park and the security guard. But that had been a result of him focusing elsewhere.

With her back to him, still talking, he noticed her words had already slipped away. The navy blue of her uniform was still dark even with the light saturating the kitchen. He focused on that, staring as he ascended. Although still moving, her form bled away, replaced with an amorphous dark blot, like a stain on reality as he rose higher. As with the book and the trees he knew who she was, and what she was, but even that awareness couldn’t retard his skill at reaching the Superior where a cleaner awareness beckoned.

Rising ever higher she melted into the background as the kitchen itself degenerated into an incomprehensible blur. He soon lost her, managing to rise higher than ever before. Retreating inside himself he enjoyed once again the absolute clarity of the position, the crystal clear purity of it; soundless, formless and diffuse, all that anchored him to the weight of the Inferior lost for a moment.

Something moved ahead of him, difficult to comprehend. Another sensation threatened to intrude as he reasserted the effort to maintain the state. A thick, blue shape emerged slowly into awareness, encompassing most of his vision. What was it?

A strange pressure pushed against him as the shape moved, something new, a literal pressure. It almost pulled him back down and took effort to resist. More pressure intruded from outside, from the Inferior, this time from multiple sources. Was it sound? The blue mass tried to overpower him as he fought to maintain state. He struggled to assert his focus and only just managed to resist.

Pushing back took immense effort, the action threatening the clarity, muffled sound intruding. The shape diminished in size, the strange, alien pressure alleviated. Another sensation, one of unyielding hardness intruded, a flash of light appearing but quickly gone. The shape moved again as the unyielding hard object pressed into his hand. Then it too evaporated.

The blue shape was smaller now, its uniformity broken by something that caught his eye. Below him, the thick blot lay motionless against a flat surface. Was it the kitchen floor? The thought threatened to break his frame of mind as he resisted. But the sharp flash of something on the motionless form below caught his attention. The Inferior broke through as he realised it was the ID badge pinned above her left breast. His attention now seemed inexorably drawn to the Inferior as he noticed something else while looking down, a flare of brightness to his right. In his own hand.

A pool of moving black seeped out everywhere around the blue shape. He dropped the shining object as he stared again, trying not to concentrate on the stain as it revealed a deeper red core when it caught the uninvited light.

He stumbled back, away from the slumped form and backed into the living room, fighting the urge to descend. The room — was it a room, he couldn’t remember — remained pleasingly diffuse as he stumbled into the corridor away from the intruder.

Navigating outside while enveloped within the Superior proved easier than before. The familiarity of the streets helped maintain state as he looked anew at everything around him, intoxicated by its purity.

His thoughts kept slipping. The demands of the Inferior intruded and he discovered new depths to his abilities as he focused inward to maintain it rather than staring deeply at the outer world.

Loose shapes approached as he made his way through the alien landscape, now reduced to its true self; amorphous, blurred and indistinct he realised now with the clarity his skill had cultivated, that this was the world as it really was. Mindless. Unworthy of focus. To really live one had to focus elsewhere, looking inward to ascend.

Even the loose shapes caused him no trouble. Nothing got in his way. His mind retained a distant memory they were people; it didn’t pay to focus on them too much. As he progressed he had enough spare capacity to just notice they avoided him, never coming close.

Walking toward a green area — was it the park? — he looked down and almost immediately recognised his mistake. The deep crimson jarred with the earthy tonal mass ahead of him, almost pulling him back to the Inferior.

By withdrawing tightly he managed to banish the sounds too. Like the words in the books aural signals meant nothing even when one knew what they ought to be, the knowledge lost in the depths, too weak to penetrate awareness.

As he ascended ever higher only the flashing blue threatened to intrude. Like the scarlet colour he carried with him it almost pulled him down. Even the dark forms approaching, two of them moving to flank him, did little to affect the clarity of his awareness. As he felt pressure again, a tall ambiguous shadow on each side of him, he marvelled at the beauty of the vision before him, the almost-black shapes framing the green splendour ahead, none of it available to the mindless unable to ascend to the Superior.

✷ ✷ ✷

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Image: Almos Bechtold.

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Low-Maintenance Organisms

Death came as something of a shock to Benjamin Knox. A faint recollection of diagnosis and swift decline swam in his mind, the barely remembered distress of it fading like a dream as he tried to grasp each evaporating moment. Only when its substance fully slipped beyond reach did he notice the man.

A cavernous room stretched into the distance. Devoid of furniture except for two plastic chairs, its floor-to-ceiling windows and geometric carpet tiles suggested some kind of office. Next to the chairs stood the man.

Dressed in jeans, shirt and a sports jacket he looked like some ageing businessman, his grey hair almost white. Despite his maturity he exuded a vigour Knox associated with younger men. Walking toward the man, looking around the empty space, confusion gave way to curiosity, the unexpectedness of it making him wonder if he was hallucinating. If so, why conjure up this of all places? An empty office.

‘You didn’t.’

The man’s deep voice resonated through the spartan room with a timbre like that of a smoker. Although ten or fifteen years older than himself, he was the healthiest person Knox could imagine at that moment. The realisation prompted a glimmer of recognition as he considered how to respond. An almost-remembered thought of exhaustion surfaced in his mind contrasting with the apparent strength of the stranger.

‘What do you mean? What is this place? Who are you?’

‘That is three different questions, Ben.’

‘How do you know my name?’

The man gestured to the empty space. ‘Where do you think this place is?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘What do you remember?’

Knox had to think. A mental image almost formed then slipped away. ‘I’m not sure. A hospital I think.’

‘Nothing else?’

‘No.’ The almost-memory lay just beyond his grasp. ‘I don’t know.’

‘That often happens.’

Knox searched the man’s face for a clue as to what he meant.

‘Am I dead?’ he asked, observing the empty office around them. Outside the windows a city sprawled into the distance, the cold light of a winter afternoon bleaching the concrete and glass into a colourless haze. Like the office, the city seemed abandoned as if it had never been used. ‘I mean, is this some kind of hallucination?’

The man stood, impassive, saying nothing.

Then Knox remembered, the fog beginning to clear.

‘You knew what I was thinking. So this is either a dream or…’

‘Or what, Ben?’

The question lingered in the silence. Outside the windows he could see the city, its static form seemingly dead, like an image. Nothing moved, and no noise filtered up from streets that must have been far below.

Am I dead?’ said Knox. The man remained impassive, unmoved by the question. ‘Is that it?’

The briefest flicker of recognition flashed in the man’s eyes, gone in a moment. But it was enough.

‘Jesus,’ said Knox. ‘I am dead.’

Recollection blossomed in his mind. The hospital. White machines. Or was it white uniforms? And nurses. It vanished quickly, like his earlier thoughts. He remembered noises too. Was that the machines?

‘Yes, Ben. You are dead.’

The deep voice drove through him like a punch. He instinctively stepped back, away from the man. ‘What do you mean?’

‘You asked. That is the answer.’

Knox didn’t know what to think, the calm expression on the stranger’s mature features unchanged.

‘So what does that make you? God? Is this heaven?’

The flicker appeared again, this time only briefly, as if the man were controlling his reactions.

‘You are God,’ said Knox. Despite the confusion of the place, the stranger, everything, it felt true. The involuntary acknowledgement in the older man’s eyes confirmed it.

He peered down at his hands and feet as if trying to find something solid in this place. The interlocking shapes of the patterned carpet reminded him of a puzzle, its detail resolving as he concentrated. The confusing repetition pulled him in, his mind drifting. ‘I’ve always believed.’

‘I know you believed,’ said the man. ‘You’ve always been a believer.’

‘Yes!’ said Knox, looking up. ‘Ever since I was a child. So many don’t believe, but I knew it was true.’

A rush of elation cleared his mind, the sense of relief welcome after the overwhelming confusion of the man and the office.

‘Indeed. You’ve always known. You’ve always had faith,’ said the man, taking a step closer. Standing right in front of him. ‘And that’s a problem.’

Knox thought he’d misheard. ‘What problem? What do you mean?’

The stranger didn’t answer, turning away as his hand swept around the empty room. ‘What do you think of the afterlife, Ben? Does it meet your expectations?’

Knox considered again the dreary office, devoid even of basic furniture or fittings. It sprawled away in every direction, one side dominated by the floor-to-ceiling windows emitting their cold light. In the distance, behind the man, he could see a solitary door, the only exit.

‘Well, I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, what is this? Is it heaven?’

That didn’t seem likely. But he struggled to take it all in after what the man had confirmed. God himself!

‘Would you be happy if it was, Ben?’

‘Well, it’s not quite what I expected if I’m honest.’

‘So I gather,’ said the man. ‘That is part of the problem.’

Before Knox could respond the stranger continued. ‘It is a construct. One you can easily understand. Were you an ancient Persian, for instance, it might be a garden, which would ironically be closer to what you imagine it should be. Equally, were you a lowly worker in the early days of the Industrial Revolution it might be a textile mill. I’m sure you get the idea.’

‘So what is this place really?’

‘A holding area. Somewhere we can talk.’

‘Before what?’ said Knox, his voice quavering. ‘Some kind of judgment?’

Mild amusement appeared on the man’s face, his only emotion so far. ‘It’s a little late for that, Ben. Think of this as a courtesy.’

‘So we have a chat then I’m sent to heaven or hell. Is that it?’

‘No, Ben. Not heaven or hell. You are being sent back.’

‘Sent back? What do you mean? Back where? I thought I was dead?’

‘You are dead. That is to say, you died. Shrugged off the mortal coil and all that.’

‘You mean I get another chance?’

‘Yes, but not in the sense you mean.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Knox.

‘You are being sent back because despite living your life you haven’t lived at all.’

‘What do you mean I haven’t lived?’

‘Believers never do. Not fully.’

‘That doesn’t make any sense.’

’Think about your beliefs. What did you really believe?’

‘I believed in God. A God at least.’

‘Someone who created the heaven and the Earth? Someone who watched over you?’ The man’s face remained neutral, unmoved.

‘Yes,’ said Knox. ‘In a sense.’

‘Yet there was no evidence for such a belief. No proof. Why would you believe such a thing?’

‘Well I was right. Assuming you are God and this is not a hallucination of some sort.’

‘But how did you come to this conclusion, Ben? Was it through rational analysis? The very thing your superb brain is designed to do.’

Knox hesitated. What was he talking about? ‘I don’t know. Why does any of this matter? Why am I being sent back?’

‘Take the ancient Persians I mentioned,’ said the man, ignoring the question. ‘The pioneers of horticulture. Obsessed with the cultivation of plants. Any gardener wishes to see his plants flourish and grow. The ultimate goal for the gardener is to ensure his plants are independent and resilient. If you plant a seed and cultivate it over a long period you are disappointed when, in the end, it refuses to blossom, the key activity of plants. You would view them as failures.’

‘What does that mean? People aren’t plants. Our flourishing, if that is what you mean, is more than just our beliefs. Independence and resilience shows itself in other ways. Usefulness, for example. I was useful,’ said Knox. ‘At least I think I was. I can’t remember.’

Awareness slowly bled into his mind as he recalled fleeting moments from his life, struggling to retain them with any clarity. Only the sensations they triggered lingered behind. His work and his efforts, the knowledge and familiarity there but difficult to embrace, another life entirely. Behind it all lurked his faith, embedded in childhood, a vision of the church flickering before bleeding away with the rest. That’s all it was, a childhood thing long buried, but there all along.

‘You understand the point,’ said the man. ‘To realise your full potential requires the kind of rational thought you are designed to manage.’

‘I was rational. I mean, I am rational.’

‘Belief with no evidence is not a rational position to take, Ben.’

‘So what?’ said Knox. ‘Even though I was a believer I kept it to myself. I mean, I don’t think I even went to church. It was just there, at the back of my mind. It’s not like I was out there converting the heathens. It didn’t interfere in what I did. My usefulness. So it doesn’t make sense you’d punish someone because they didn’t reject something they were taught as a child. That’s absurd.’

‘You are missing the point, Ben. This is not punishment. Indeed your preoccupation with that aspect is itself one of the effects of the belief system you never quite got round to challenging.’

‘So what is the point? One part of my life wasn’t to your liking. What about the rest? Was that for nothing?’

‘Now you’re getting closer. You had a life, but did you really live?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Do you think your belief system could have limited your potential? Remember what I said about gardening. Gardeners want plants to reach their full expression and to blossom, otherwise why bother?’

‘How could a private belief make any difference? I kept it to myself as far as I can remember.’

‘Those kind of beliefs are the most limiting kind, Ben. The internal ones that shape how we think and perceive the world. All self-limiting beliefs are by nature internal and private, even if shared by many others.’

An abrupt vision overwhelmed him, fleeting like the others, his pulse quickening in response. Euphoria flared in his mind, lasting only a moment, giving way to unease. An impression of images, scenes and events swept past, quickly lost as he recoiled at the intensity of the sensation before it vanished.

Distressed by the unexpected onslaught Knox recognised it as the life he never lived, the life he could have had. As the revelation dissipated the understanding cut through him like a cold wind, leaving no trace except the echo of regret reverberating in his mind.

Quite forgetting the presence of the man and the empty office, Knox reeled at the emotional assault, his mouth dry as he lost focus, aghast at the unwanted epiphany. ‘What the hell? This is crazy.’

‘It is, Ben. A kind of mental illness.’

The unmoving expression on the man’s face conspired with the grim, harsh light to make him appear stern and menacing as he delivered his judgment.

‘But I didn’t have self-limiting beliefs.’

‘Well you believed in an afterlife.’

‘And I was right,’ he said, motioning to the empty office around them, exasperated by the absurdity of the situation. ‘I’m in it!’

‘But you imagined a glorious afterlife. A heaven.’

‘In a sense. Sure. So what? What’s wrong with that?’

‘Think about it. You believed the amazing life you actually lived was to be superseded after death by something even better. Given how few people ever come into existence, and the unlikely sequence of events required for you to exist at all, you took for granted all that you had for the promise of something better. That is what your belief gave you, Ben. Your actual existence was second-rate, to be replaced in the end. Don’t you think that might have affected what you did with your life, how you managed your opportunities to really live?’

Knox remained silent, unsure how to respond.

‘What we believe affects how we behave. This is true for everyone.’

‘It still seems like a harsh judgment.’

‘Is it? As harsh as the meek inheriting the Earth? Just slug it out and you’ll get your reward in heaven? As harsh as that? A life of low expectation. An entire, unique existence that achieved nothing of its potential. That really is harsh.’

‘I mean, fine. I get the point. A belief system and all that. Maybe I did occasionally think about some kind of heaven. But also a hell. It’s a two-way street. Some of those beliefs helped develop my sense of morality. Surely that cancels things out?’

‘Does it? Two wrongs don’t make a right. More to the point, you are thinking like a slave. Again I have to remind you of your impressive brain and its astonishing potential. The purpose of this little chat.’

‘A slave? What are you talking about?’

‘This heaven you imagined. It is bad enough to think you will get something better after life. But that something is to be provided by someone else. The responsibility to provide this better life is to be outsourced. The rejection of responsibility, Ben, is the hallmark of the slave. Only a slave really believes in an entitlement of that sort.

‘Such an expectation, a belief that something better will be provided for free simply because you exist, would make for very high-maintenance organisms. And what kind of gardener wants that? Except maybe high-maintenance fetishists like the bonsai people. Even then for them the bonsai tree is little more than a toy, attractive because of its smallness. It says more about the bonsai gardener than the bonsai tree.’

‘You are assuming a lot,’ said Knox. ‘And from a private belief someone holds. That is arrogant.’

‘Yet you worship God,’ said the man. ‘A God you imagine is paying attention to your mindless devotion. That sounds a lot more like arrogance to me. Logically, any omniscient being, as you imagine your God to be, is unlikely to choose personal worship as a method of interaction. Don’t you agree? A powerful being who insists on adulation is only worthy of contempt to the free thinking. Unless one is not a free thinker.’

‘So that’s it? I am sent back to mend my ways? For what, another year? Ten years?’

‘For another life.’

‘A new life? Wait, will I remember any of this?’

’No. You start again.’

‘What is the point of that?’

‘You have everything you need to manage to avoid this fate, Ben. The mental machinery, if you will. Perhaps next time you will make better choices.’

‘And what happens if I fail again?’

‘You get another go. You get as many as you need. Everyone does.’

‘How long have you being doing this?’ said Knox.

‘Forever. If it is any consolation most are sent back. Fewer now of course.’

‘But there are a lot of people who die all the time.’

‘Indeed,’ said the man. Still emotionless and calm, as if delivering a mundane report. ‘The population is rising.’

‘But how can that work? My parents are dead. They can’t have me again. Do I live the same life again?’

‘No. A fresh start. A brand new life. You will be born very shortly to live again. A soul transference thing.’

The dull office drifted from his attention as he tried to make sense of it all. He didn’t notice himself slip away. The whole idea bothered him beyond words. He had so much he needed to ask. It didn’t really add up. Would the man, God himself, keep going until everyone rejected belief in the very person who controlled all this?

He looked up in time to see the stranger fading, his intensity petering out even though he remained in front of Knox.

‘Wait,’ he said. ‘I have questions!’

But it was too late as the office dimmed, its substance dissipating.

’This doesn’t make any sense.’ His shout barely registered, as if dampened by some force. ‘This is crazy! What happens when no one is ever sent back?’

The man focused on him then, at the very end, faint and insubstantial as Knox strained to hear his voice. ‘By then none of you will need any God.’

✷ ✷ ✷

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©2018. All rights reserved.

Image: The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus.

Special thanks to Simon Smith, Crisyah and desertdemon.

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