The room blurs away, fading to black. The black is subliminally noisy, something like the white of snow on a TV slightly out of tune, or rough like the texture of sandpaper. There are regions of reddish hue just like the light filtering through eyelids. There is also a soft brownian hiss in the background, similar to the static between radio stations or waves on a distant shore. The hiss has always been there but it seems strangely amplified by his isolation. A subdued click indicates that the system may have kicked in. The darkness becomes sharper, more absolute. The hiss disappears.
A single perfect tone like a bell sounds as a single point of light appears. The point stretches out to become a vertical line while the sound splinters into several musical octaves of the single tone. The line stretches out to become a plane of white across the full view as harmonics are introduced into the sound. In the same way a second green line appears horizontally across, dividing the view. From the sound comes a single pure chord. This line then extends downwards as a plane, slowly at first but then consuming the lower half of vision as if the ground had just marched from a far horizon. The sound again fades to silence. Palmer knew that this was a calibration routine, although he couldn’t repudiate the notion that he had just experienced a Genesis.
A calm voice, “Hello Palmer, and welcome.”
The disembodied voice emanated impossibly from a location inside Palmer’s brain. The voice continued, slowly emerged, and moved to a location somewhere in front of him.
“Firstly, I am real, and I am here with you. Not just in your head.”
The horizon shifts with mandlebrot subtlety, colour evolves, a figure swirls into the scene just ahead. It is Frank. He stands incarnate upon what came to represent a ground plane. It is also not Frank, this is Apollo. If every contiguous event in the thread of an individual’s existence could ensure an aggregate of unique perfection, this was the Frank that stood before Palmer. A fleeting thought: if this was Frank’s life played as the perfect rendition was it still Frank; and what happened to his antithesis?
As if reading his thoughts Frank began. “I’m sure you have many questions. Before we begin with them I think it would be useful to provide some context.”
Smiling Frank walks over to Palmer and reaches out his hand. Palmer feels the sensation as a pressure on his arm. Almost by instinct he raises his arm to look at it. It holds the same surreal presence.
“I am not a figment of your imagination, nor am I a residue of our shared experience. I know things about me that you do not. I also, now, know a great many other things.”
Frank looks around. “Lets give this environment some improvements, it’s far too sterile for my liking. Can you picture your ‘place of learning’ for me?”
A scene morphs from the simple lines, a fractal world. It’s the gardens at the Seminary in California where Palmer studied. Scents of spring impress themselves upon Palmer. A large Moreton bay fig dominates the garden, a prosaic concrete park bench nearby furnishes the roomy, natural temple. Palmer smiles. “It seems you also know something about me,” he concedes.
“Yes, though only what you would show me. You studied here? under this tree?” Frank also smiles, and indicating the nearby Moreton Bay Fig, he walks over to lie down. “It’s a little damp isn’t it?”
“Well I had a jacket that I’d use for padding. There’s also a root poking through the ground over there near the trunk. It would generally be dry enough, though it could get hard. I liked it because I was experimenting with an ascetic style.”
Palmer recalled that he would lie, and sometimes read where Frank was now reclining. Fellow students would often gather, they would take up the nearby park bench to hear him talk. Palmer, not sure about this sudden role reversal, decides that he would prefer to direct this experience a little more. “Tell me more about your mentors. Can I meet them?”
Frank continues to smile, “As I suspected you have many questions Palmer. You are already meeting them, through me.” A more sober expression washes slowly over Frank’s visage. ”But there are constraints; I am under a form of covenant. Let me tell you about it. Sit, please.” Frank gestures the bench.
Palmer sits as directed on the park bench, the bench feels as real as ever. ‘So be it’ he thinks. Frank interlocks his fingers, uses his hands as a pillow and then looks up into the arboreal sky. Palmer briefly contemplates the dimensions, and infinite branches of his thoughts. The moment stops, frozen, life becomes a polaroid capture of perfection. Frank then commits to a route among the branches and begins.
“This covenant; it’s in place to protect you and any others. You’re not bound to it like I am. At any moment you can destroy, replicate, or hide any artifact of my consciousness without any reprisal or regret.
I chose to enter this contract through a belief in the humanity to which I once belonged, and owe so much.”
Frank moves off the root. He leans over onto his hand, his head on a diagonal, and looks at Palmer.
“I can’t ever go back Palmer, and Humanity owes me nothing I could claim.
While you consent, I’m your guide. Humanity will soon enter a new phase of civilisation, and even if it destroys me it could use my best advice”.
Frank now smiles, “I know, it’s pretty heavy so far, but we needed the basic questions and rules out of the way.”
Frank then sits upright, turns his back to the trunk, shuffles to lean against the bark, and nestles in.
“So how do I ‘feel’?” He stares, briefly back into the branches. “Pretty much as you do really, although – and here’s the thing Palmer – I also feel the combined clarity of countless individuals coursing through my consciousness.”
Turning and looking Palmer directly in the eyes he then continues. “Just to set your mind at ease: I can’t possess you, and there are no ‘Freaky Friday’ scenarios. Indeed, even if I could inhabit your body, I would have no desire to. Not when I can now feel my being bathe in the dense blankets of Gas Giants, or soar in the rays of White Dwarves and Red Giants. I am yet to scratch the surface of what’s possible Palmer. Please, help me share this with you.”
As Palmer looks into the eyes of this disembodied consciousness he sees a thirst and passion for life that burns with the fires of a genesis. It freezes him.
Standing now Frank spins with his arms outstretched and performs a curtain call bow before Palmer. “I am no longer simply an individual with a singular history. You might consider me an enlightened collective, and yet treat me as an individual. You may also encounter other enlightened collectives with endless implications, we’ll save that for later.”
Suddenly he sits, cross legged, on the ground in front of the bench. Again he looks at Palmer. His face now holding a touch of melancholy.
“Please,” Frank implores, ”don’t allow parallels to be drawn between any faith and myself. My world is secular and plural, it’s an inadequate description really but it’s a start. All are welcome, no specific religious belief can legitimately claim me. Not as their Gabriel, Buddha reincarnate, avatar of Ganesha, or Klaatu and Gort, despite any coincidental similarities.
You can perhaps tell that I have transcended who I once was. Anyone can do what I’ve done. But, the same binding contract will apply. And yes, there will also be the surrender of a corporeal existence.
But this sacrifice is not required for us to commune. At times I will need help: I may have to teach, and I will also need advice from acolytes like yourself. As ‘Frank’ I have seen much of life and humanity, though I am far from an expert on all things”.
Palmer begins to get the distinct feeling that he is encountering not simply an idealised reincarnation of Frank, but a virtuoso of his own doctrine. He reflects on when he reposed beneath a tree like this all those years ago. He wonders whether the students in attendance felt the rapture he now felt. He recognises a reflection of his own modus operandi, amplified, and it leaves him beguiled, dumbstruck and humbled.
Frank continues. “Palmer I would like you to be an acolyte in matters of spirituality and ethics. I’ve known war Palmer, I will really need someone to help those of faith understand that I am no threat.
My hope is for Ellie to assist in matters of Science, and I will need advice on other disciplines, perhaps politics, economics, psychology, geology, biology and others.
In return I can offer enlightenment, if you wish it”.
Frank waits, Palmer hesitates. Here was something unexpected. He had not thought in his wildest dreams that he would pledge his faith to a soldier. His hesitation wasn’t derived from fear that he would say ‘no’, quite the opposite. It came from the foreboding that saying ‘yes’ would set events in train that, if historical precedence were followed, might not bode so well. He finds himself uttering: “I wish it.”
Frank smiles, “Superb, for now I have some advice for yourself and other acolytes. I can sense more than you might believe. Above all I can sense doubt. Please do not try to protect me. You are ready Palmer, and so is Humanity”.
Frank appears to have concluded his delivery, he visibly relaxes. Palmer, also feeling more at ease stands, takes a deep breath, moves over to the tree, and crouches near his root. Frank, still sitting, turns, he notices a leaf on the ground and picks it up to look at it. “So Palmer, why did you wish to come?”
Palmer had ingested a lot, he was certain that it would take longer to digest. He wants some time to consider and contemplate. But the question was asked. He answers as honestly as he could.
“A search for the truth.”
“And what makes you think you will find it here?”
“Well, I believe that the truth should be the same wherever you are, and so I look for it everywhere. For now I am here.” Palmer feels an irresistible urge to delve into the moral fibre of this conscious entity. He yearns for justification. He had not been asked to abandon his faith, but he had been asked to provide faith.
“More specifically,” he continues, ”I really want to understand you,” he gestures to Frank. “I want to know the truths you may have found, and the questions you still have unanswered. Finally, and most importantly, I’d like to know what hopes you have, and from whom you think these hopes might be delivered.”
“Already you ask the difficult questions Palmer. I’m really looking forward to our discussions.” Frank chuckles and then continues, “There are many truths we are yet to explore, and perspectives where the truth eludes us. Like you we still discover and illuminate the darkness, but still we find corners that have never seen the light of realisation? As for hopes, we find our satisfaction in the same humble beginnings as you… purpose. There are changes coming. Humanity could probably survive them without help, but at what cost? I offer midwifery to ease this new beginning. And we, basically, explore the multiverse to offer our help.”
“I see,” says Palmer, though every fibre in his body feels that perhaps he doesn’t. He begins to wonder if he now harbours more personal doubts than any scientific atheist could have evoked. Is there a simple conservation agenda? Is humanity and the earth the subject of a cosmic plan to maintain biodiversity?
He looks for his root, finds it and sits, the discomfort conjures substance, hard immutable mass, earth. If this whole experience is in fact a part of his own subconscious it reflects an adversarial point of view he was struggling to reconcile. If not, and this was the scary part, it brought what he was currently feeling into stark contrast with his first experience of enlightenment. The root is not real, it is illusory. He needs to be sure. He needs to be convinced. He needs elaboration. He begins again, confidence now a little shaken. Feeling like Daniel entering the Lion’s den he stands and brings on a facade of courage.
“But now I’m on more familiar ground. Don’t you think that there may be a higher purpose? One that transcends us,” Palmer now gestures to both himself and Frank. “Also then, can you imagine one who can aspire to deliver this purpose?” He gestures ‘out there’.
Frank smiles again. “Interesting, by extension you introduce God, a path of possible division. But let’s assume division itself allows for a better purpose.
Science and religion complement each other, mostly. Can we agree that Science does not claim a monopoly of the truth; believing in Physics does not make Biology less true.” Frank picks up a second leaf. ”An enlightened Faith does the same; Christianity should not make Hinduism less true.” He holds up the two leaves as if they indicate the two immiscible religions.
“I see you seeking to reconcile the differences between religions. Perhaps you are like the scientist trying to resolve quantum and classical mechanics. It may be that we will find two answers that diverge and cannot serve the same purpose.” He spreads the two leaves apart. ”It may also be that different answers converge to find the same purpose.” As he speaks he brings the two leaves together. As if they had grown with a mutually agreed plan he touches the leaves together and they form a larger leaf, “Convergence and divergence always enrich us Palmer.
I feel you need some time. You need to inform the others. You need to do this while it’s still fresh, since you cannot easily take a notebook to and from here, as Ellie discovered.”
Frank stands and approaches Palmer to hold his shoulders in his hands.
“I would very much like to meet her again. Please let her know.”
And then Palmer was back in The Fishbowl.