"What the hell...what the hell is going on here? Hardeman is dead. Who are you? What the hell is going on here?" I demanded as I continued rubbing my eyes with one hand as I was pulled through the crowd.
"You'll see, you'll see. Just come on."
As I was dragged through this whirling pool of bodies I felt like a small animal who had just been swallowed by a python. My eyesight was returning and I could see that I was in a crowd that extended to the horizon. There was living matter all around: grass below me, trees and birds above me, and people, people, people everywhere. Bodies would appear in front of me and literally disappear into thin air.
"Look, there he is over there. Come on." Hardeman said as he pulled me through the crowd. I have never seen so many people in my life. It was like a third world marketplace, only it spilled off in all directions. To my right, I saw a marble building covered with vines. There were two guards in front. As they saw us approaching, they moved to either side and opened two immense metal doors. I stopped to catch my breath and there he was, the old fox.
"Welcome Lane. Come in and sit down. I know you are full of questions. Don't worry, I'll explain. Just come over here and have a seat." Trochanter was laughing. Surrounding him were what looked like servants. They cluttered around me and offered me trays of unusual looking snacks.
"Questions? Questions? Do I have questions?" I looked up at a series of immense crystal chandeliers that hung from the white marble ceilings. Trochanter took me by the arm.
"Lane, the bad news is that you've been shot. Actually, the truth is you're dead. The good news is dying is not so bad after all."
"Dead?" I paused as I watched my ability to reason speed away like a missed train. "What do you mean, dead? What is this place? Is this..." He interrupted me.
"Not exactly Heaven, no. But it's not Hell either."
"We're not in Heaven. We're not in Hell. I've been shot. You've risen from the grave. We are just sitting here chatting while waiting in limbo."
"In a sense, yes. We are in a sort of limbo. I suppose that's as good a word for it as any other."
I jumped up. "Limbo?"
"Right. I don't have all the answers, but this much I know. We are in a resting place of sorts."
"You mean we are going somewhere else, as in up or down?"
"Well, more like back. We will be going back."
"You mean to earth? As in being born again? As in reincarnation?"
"Essentially, yes. That much I know. We have to go back."
"So is there a Heaven and a Hell?"
"I'm not sure. `Man's roots are in heaven but as a tree upturned, whose leaves touch the soil, it is this contact with the tangible that gives promises of illuminations.' Anna Balakian said that. Is there a Heaven? I just don't know, Lane. From what I've been told we stay here for a certain period of time and then we go back. The more good you bring about down there, the longer you get to stay here before returning. It's Hamlet's `undiscover'd country.'"
"I don't understand. What are you saying? What is this some kind of heavenly frequent flyer plan, or what? I don't have a clue, Trochanter, I really don't."
"Okay, come over here. Look outside this window and tell me what you see." I walked over and peered out a huge glass window overlooking the swarm of humans, animals, and vegetation. It looked as though the entire world had been stuffed inside an aquarium.
"I don't know, I see all sorts of living creatures: fat people, skinny people, horses, dogs, mice. It's crazy."
"Okay, now keep looking and tell me what you see." I strained my eyes and forced myself to stare out into this buzzing zoological madness of life forms. As I watched, I noticed something peculiar. Sandoor was walking toward me. I could see his helpless expression as he pushed through the crowd. He looked into my eyes and disappeared.
"There! I saw Sandoor! I was looking at him--right at him--and he vanished."
"That's the dude that did me," said Hardeman.
"Did you? Sandoor killed you?"
"Yep. Wanted the CDR4000 real bad. Part of a marketing scheme. He was gonna mass produce it."
"Trochanter, is this all true? What's happening. Why did Sandoor appear and then disappear?"
"He was sent back."
"Back...you mean back to earth?"
"Yes. His time was up. Keep looking and tell me what else you see."
I continued to gaze outward. Suddenly a dog appeared, barked and just as quickly disappeared. Another man appeared in the dog's place, looked right and left and disappeared again. "Hey, some of these guys are appearing and disappearing in a flash."
"The non-doers? What didn't they do?"
"They didn't add to the value of life back home. That's all. Since they didn't contribute, they only get a peak of what it's like here and then they go right back. The more they contribute to the common good back home, the longer they can stay in the way-station."
"You're saying that if you're a good boy or girl, there's pie in the sky when you die. If you're bad, you can only taste it and then you're sent home again?"
"That is the idea. Only back there isn't really home. I'm not sure if the way-station is home either."
"So Sandoor was sent back...to what?"
"To whatever his next life is meant to be."
"You're talking reincarnation here. So Sandoor might go back as a pig or what? I can't deal with all this."
"Look at your hands, Lane." I looked down at my left hand. I could see what looked like a tattoo of the number twenty.
"Look at my hand." He raised his hand displaying a tattoo of the number 90. "It's like this, Lane. During your life back on earth you were earning vacation time here."
"So I merit a 20 while you merit a 90." I interrupted.
I stopped and rubbed my hands through my hair. "So let me see if I've got this straight. I'll be going back in twenty something; days, months, years..."
"I can't say. I'm not sure how time is measured here. I can tell you one thing: time is vastly accelerated here. Years and years are going by on earth right now as we speak. But you're right, you'll go back before me."
"But what about all of them?" I paused and looked out the window at the mass of living organisms moving about in all directions. It was a hurricane of birds and insects hovering over an exploding rain forest of plant growth together sandwiching every type of warm and cold-blooded creature imaginable.
"Where are they going?
"Lane, what you are looking at is essentially a herd. It's a moving, mass of living matter. It doesn't seem to have a purpose. It just moves along, seemingly in all directions at once."
As I stood and gazed out the window, I felt like I was in an inverted aquarium. Here I am staring out, protected inside this capsule.
"I don't understand. What is the payoff? You said that this is some sort of reward for having done the right thing, but I don't see any reward. Sitting inside the middle of a zoological riot is not my idea of a good time."
Trochanter laughed. "Let me show you something." I followed him across the museum like room to a large, intricately carved wooden door.
"I'm going to take you on a little tour. We are going to blend into the horde. When we walk outside that door, we will be instantly part of the movement. I will watch you and bring you back. You don't need to worry about a thing."
"Worry? Why do you think I would worry? Just because you're about to open up a closet and spill a million snakes, frogs, birds, fish, and God knows what else out on top of me. Why should I worry?"
"It's not like that. You'll see."
"Now hold on. I am not going out there. You're kidding right?" I peered out across the room through the window again. A mass of flesh, fur, scales, and bark scraped by.
"You're going to love this," he said as he reached over and touched my elbow. "Just watch."
As he spoke, the walls seemed to become thinner and thinner; pulsating like the surrounding masses of flesh. For a moment, I wanted to cry out like a newborn baby moving through the birth canal having last minute thoughts about what lies ahead. I fell onto my knees before realizing that I had already been swallowed up. I had expected to panic, but didn't. I was in the belly of this beast and was still alive.
At that moment, something inside me changed. I was no longer afraid, only curious. Immensely curious like a genie who had just been let out of a bottle after three centuries. I was intermingled with this combination of life forms without any clear sense of where "I" started and where "it" left off. My awareness floated from east to west, north to south across what seemed like an ocean of space.
"Follow me Lane, you're going to learn how to drive again." I could hear Trochanter's voice whispering in my ears. "With your mind, lean to your left." I pushed my consciousness to one side and felt myself passing through one organism after another. As I moved, I could see through the eyes of whatever life form was in my path. In the course of two seconds I was a monkey, a squirrel, several flies, an old woman, a young boy, and a barking dog. I could physically feel my body transforming from one to the other.
"Slow down, you're going too damn fast." I could hear Trochanter again.
"Trochanter, is that you? What is this? I'm some sort of ghost, aren't I?"
"Not exactly a ghost. Let's go into an air pocket for a minute. I want you to imagine yourself pushing through a waterfall. Brace yourself and move through it."
"You want me to push through this wall of bodies?"
"Just see yourself squeezing through to the other side. Picture a waterfall and see yourself passing from one side to the other." I closed my eyes and grunted. Then, I heard a popping sound as we both were expelled from the moving mass onto what seemed like a stone ledge.
"Horatio Alger be praised! What a happening!" I couldn't stop laughing. Together we laughed and laughed until we fell to the ground. I glanced down at my hand. It now said "19."
"Hey, what the heck. My hand says 19 now." Trochanter stopped laughing and looked up at me with tenderness in his eyes.
"Yes, well, yes. Our time here is limited. Take at look at my hand." He opened his palm and I could see that his number 90 had also changed to an 89.
"For Chrissakes, Trochanter, I don't understand what is going on here. How do you know this stuff? What gives about the countdown on our hands? Who the heck is in charge around here?"
"Lane, I don't have all the answers. I just listen to the rumors as I go on my daily walks. I'll try and make it clearer. First of all, as far as knowing what this place is, or how it got here, or who put it here, I haven't a clue. I thought at first that it was some sort of Old Testament version of Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. But, there isn't anyone in charge that I can see. No St. Peter, no Pearly gates, nothing like that. We are just here, in this strange and wonderful place where we are literally fused with all other life forms. We are indeed part of something greater or finer than ourselves."
"But," I interrupted, "what about these internal clocks on our hands? Someone had to mastermind this scheme."
"Yes. There is evidence of some sort of planning. Who or what is doing the planning is a question I can only speculate about. You see before--when we were on Earth--we were no different from fish in the sea. There was a whole world outside the ocean completely inaccessible to us because of our biological restraints. A fish cannot know about the land. Essentially we have now left the ocean--becoming amphibians as it were--and are struggling to adapt to this new environment."
"But you're talking as if we have evolved into something new. We are both dead, remember?"
"Yes, we were both killed. Obviously our lives are still going on." He gave me a little slap on the cheek. "Right? We've changed. We have somehow evolved. We are on a different plane, maybe a different dimension."
"Okay, let's say we are in a parallel dimension. I can sort of accept that. But what about the hand clocks? I still don't get it."
"From what I can tell the clocks are an indication of how much momentum we've built up from back home. We are here, but we are slipping back. You will go back before I do. There are many who are here for only minutes and seconds. I have seen a few who don't even have clocks at all."
"You mean like permanent residents?"
"It appears that way. yes."
"So, in other words. Back home, we got a running start. That is to say our accomplishments gave us a running start. Then when we died, the force of our accomplishments either gave us enough momentum to gain permanent residence in this world, or else..."
"Or else you slide back. Like a prisoner trapped in a giant bowl. He keeps sliding back down until he gains sufficient momentum to reach the edge."
"And the momentum we have accumulated is directly the result of our actions?"
As we stood talking, a woman appeared. She did not speak to us. Instead, she smiled and slowly approached. She had the look of someone profoundly in love: someone absorbed by an intensity of feeling.
"Hello," I said, "My name is Lane Cooper. This is my friend, Alan Trochanter." She continued to gaze at us without saying a word. Trochanter had that same glossed over look in his eyes. He wouldn't say anything. He put his finger in front of his lips and signaled for me to look at her hands. I slowly reached over to her arm and turned up her palm.
"There's no number. She doesn't have a number. You don't have a number on your hand." I was all exited. She was one of them: the few that don't have number clocks. Trochanter motioned for me to calm down. She still wouldn't say a thing. She smiled and walked over to the sand and knelt down. We sat down beside her as she began drawing with her index finger in the sand. She drew a fish in a bowl and pointed to us.
"Pay attention," he whispered. "We are to be thought of metaphorically as the fish. I believe that is what she is saying." She kept on smiling and started drawing a larger bowl around the smaller bowl and then an even larger bowl around that one. The lines in Trochanter's forehead crackled as he rubbed his chin with his hand. He then whacked the side of his head.
"What does it mean?" I asked.
"I think it means that we have a way to go still. If you can act in unity on earth and devote your actions to the service of others, you have a chance to stay here long enough to begin round two up here." The woman burst out into a silent, geisha type laugh. I turned and she was standing next to me. She reached out and touched my arm.
"Quick, let me see your hand," Trochanter said. I turned up my palm and saw the number "1" blinking.
"That's my wake up call, isn't it?" I looked at Trochanter and felt my heart fall a story into my stomach. I lost my voice as my eyes moistened. I knew what this meant. I had to go back. I looked up at Trochanter and just shrugged my shoulders. He looked at me with a certain softness I had never seen in him before.
"Lane, our greatest problem has been our exaggerated sense of self-importance. It's not that we, as individuals, are not important; but that in the grander scheme of things the species is what counts. When looked at as a whole, the human race is one organism. Each of us has our own strengths and weaknesses, which is as it should be. We complement each other. We don't criticize a kidney because it is not able to pump blood through the body. It is part of a system. A body needs kidneys to operate. It also needs a heart, lungs, and a brain. We cannot fault one part because it doesn't perform the same functions as the other parts. The same is true for human performance and the perception we have of our inadequacies.
Our problem is that we have been trained not to think of ourselves as a species. We think in terms of "I" rather than "we." You see in the long run the individual doesn't really matter; all that matters is his or her general contribution to the whole species. You and I are no different than say a couple of skin cells in relation to the anatomy of the whole body. Yes, we do have the DNA record of the whole system within us. Yes, we are capable of reproduction, cellular division, and cloning. Now, would you ask two skin cells to make any sensible decisions concerning the overall direction of the organism? Would you expect two skin cells to be able to make any sense out of the world of sensory experience continually making itself felt upon the whole organism?
My point is that as individuals we are only capable of contributing to the entire organism in our own unique, modest ways. It is not a meager contribution--a skin cell does a fantastic job doing what it does best: protecting the entire organism with its shell--it is however, minor compared with the sum of the effort expended by all the other cells.
Is a brain cell better than a skin cell? If you say so. It's purely a value judgement. Do some individuals contribute more to the survival of humanity than others? Most likely. But we as individuals will never know who, how, or why. Does the skin cell consider itself more important than a brain cell? Well, I don't think cells have feelings, per se, but if they did, they would probably become like us: self absorbed with their own sense of importance. We probably wouldn't survive without some pride. Would a sperm run a marathon race against a million comrades if it didn't believe it was the right guy for the job?
You simply can't fully understand one part of a system without examining the whole. An individual does not make sense unless studied from the big perspective of all humans."
I stood and looked at the two of them. The angel woman was still smiling and nodding in agreement. "Now, let me see if I've got this straight. I take it there is a flight going back that has a seat with my name on it. So, I've got to hurry. Correct me if I'm wrong. I'm going back, but if I approach my new life with a sense of the interdependency of all life and attempt to aid life in that way, somebody's gonna put a good boy stamp on my passport so I can stay and hang out here where things are truly cool."
"You do have a way with words, Lane."
"Okay. My baggage is packed. Got my ticket, my passport is in order. What movie is playing on the flight today?" I said to the angel woman. Trochanter grabbed me and gave me a bear hug.
"Hey, hey, you're gonna sent me back with a couple cracked ribs." He took my face in both his hands.
"I'll be seeing you before you know it," he said to me.
"That's right! You don't have full-time status here either. Christ, I'll be a grown up and you'll be a little kid. You had better look me up and tell me what you've learned." I turned to the angel woman. "I want a full report of his behavior while he's here."
"We'll have a lot to talk about in the future. Lane, just remember the words of Eliot `In my end is my beginning'."
The angel woman walked over to the living wall of flesh and fur and pulled out a coat made of leaves and feathers. I knew as she helped me try it on that this would help me on the voyage back. I rubbed my rib cage and felt the softness of the leaves clinging skin-tight to my body. She took my hand and started walking to the wall. Before I could say one last final goodbye, we were inside the wall. I felt the rapture again as we slid through light years of movement. Gradually I decelerated until I felt I was in a vat of tar. And there I rested and fell into a deep and long deserved sleep.
It was as if I was in the middle of a thunderstorm, only I was blind to the lightning and deaf to the thunder. But it was there nonetheless, I could feel the bursts and pops against my skin and all I could hear was the croaking of frogs.
Go to chapter 24