The Space Between Breaths

After years of practice she had found the way here, to the space between breaths. Twice she got close. The first time she came to the threshold and grabbed at it, forgetting the teachings. Months of searching passed before she arrived at the gateway again, now her craving barred entry. Find the space. Expand it. Settle within, as a God. This became a mantra; SPACE, EXPAND, GOD; repeated until all other words relinquished power to those three, instilling them with the omnipotence to break through and enter.

She stood on spun sugar; struggled against the constant threat of collapse. There had been hope for serenity, but she only sensed anxiety. A prickling along her skin signalled company. Slow creeping panic snaked up her body as she discerned something malevolent and contemptuous come into being. Beneath her feet dark pools formed. Shapes emerged, circling her ankles, rising. She wanted to leave, but had not been taught how. She realised with dread that this was not a liberation; it was a prison.

The shape from the blackness wore her face and undulated in and out of focus. As the hand of a clock that appears stuck between seconds, she hesitated between knowing and unknowing. Recognised then forgotten. Conscious then unconscious. It was a beat; it was breathing. Escape from this place called for a disruption to the rhythm.  Her head filled with disorderly images of a future self doing commonplace things – brushing teeth, flicking through television channels, washing dishes. Playful mesmeric tunes wriggled and burrowed into deep, unreachable places,  earworms squeezing out emptiness, lifting her up and free of the darkness.

Her eyes opened. Her heart pounded and her breath came in shallow gasps, but familiar surroundings soon subdued emotion, ushered in reason. It was a dream, that was all. She was glad to be conscious and out of the dark. Strangely grateful for failing to reach that elusive terminus once again.  Deep within the unconscious however, something waited. It fed on worms, gulping down great draughts from the stream, creating famine and drought. It meant to leave nothing behind but the empty interval, where they could exist as Gods for eternity.

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Qualia – A Short Story

“ To lose ones self is essential for any transformation.” This had been the opening line of the flyer that had prompted my attendance at the seminar entitled “The Consciousness Singularity and Implications for Immortality.” It had been hosted by Metamind and, some months later, I sit in a waiting room of their huge lab complex. My hands rest in my lap, blue veins are visible under the pale soft skin of my wrists. I am dressed in a shapeless knee length white smock that had been handed to me neatly folded after my body had been through its final preparations.

I run my hands over my naked scalp marvelling at the novelty of it. A new sensation at the end of all sensation, I smile at the irony of it. I think of the remarkable devices that sit dormant within the surface of my brain millimetres from my fingertips. I have completed the final paperwork consenting to their activation, and I think how strange it is that my final act of submission to this program and its pioneering technology, should involve the aeons old and singularly human gesture of a signature on paper.

It had been impossible explaining my decision to mom

“It’s the ultimate liberation Mom” I had insisted as we shared a last meal together. “the next evolutionary step, maybe even the final one.”

Mom had insisted that it was a leap not a step, created in a lab by human interference with the laws of nature, and as such it was a bad thing.

“We should let nature take its own course Mary”, she said, “not manipulate it for our own ends!” She had a simplistic way of looking at the world which I usually found endearing, but tonight I desperately wanted her to understand. Her approval, though not essential, was still important to me.

“That doesn’t make sense Mom, we’re not outside of nature peering in and meddling with it, we are nature. This is the culmination of decade’s worth of social and cultural evolution. Collective consciousness is the next step up from collective intelligence, which, I hasten to add you don’t seem to have a problem with!”

Mom insisted that sharing ideas and information as a collective through her various social media accounts was different, that you could unplug and return to the material world, and that was important.

“Once you’ve given your consciousness over to those creeps at MetaMind there will be no unplugging, there’ll be no you to unplug, no way back to me“

Hearing the anguish in her voice was almost more than I could bare but I was firm in my resolve.

“To join my consciousness with a billion others though Mom, think about what that might mean, who or what else we might join with, what we might become! It’s the ultimate Fuck You to death; don’t you want that after all we’ve been through?”

She was crying now but defiantly held my gaze, how stubborn we both were!

“No more dancing to deaths tune Mom, we can be free of it, immortal, isn’t that what we’ve been striving for ever since….. I paused and she looked up, her eyes searching my face for the chink in my resolve that she thought I had inadvertently revealed

“Ever since what?”

It was cruel of me, but I held her gaze and continued “It’s our obligation to explore what that really means, to become something more than this, this fragile bag of bones that starts decaying just a handful of years into it’s short life, that can hurt and break and bleed. I need to be more than that!”

I had been born surrounded by death. The Euro War was in its second brutal year and over the next seven I would lose a brother and a father to its horror. I had found people too, usually buried beneath rubble, pale powdered hands softly reaching out to me, or limbless and staring into a void I grew more and more curious about. War makes you contemplate death, not in the casual way of peacetime where it’s an important but troublesome party guest, who you acknowledge politely and then spend the rest of the evening trying to avoid, but earnestly, as the only sure thing in a life of uncertainty. Mom had taken comfort in this, I had not. Mom was passionate about life, about people, about the here and now. She was always fighting for social justice and lost causes. I found such enthusiasm for life futile whilst we were still at deaths behest and I decided quite early on to spend the life I had left exploring ways to cheat that arrogant and conceited spectre out of his inheritance. Mom would often berate my attitude towards death saying “Stop running from it Mary, turn around and acknowledge it and maybe it will leave you alone for a while”

“I’m not running from it Mom” I would reply “I’m running towards it.” It was true; my sights were always set on the horizon, searching for its shape, its shadow. I have always thought it odd that people think you can run from death when your death waits ahead. If you are running from death then it’s not yours you run from, but those already taken, those we lost in the war.

Last night had been hot and still. The window across from my bed was open and framed the thinnest sliver of moon glowing brightly in an inky and cloudless sky. As she reclined gracefully I could see what should be unseen; a huge shadow at rest in her lap, her dark side. Venus had risen to take her place below her like a sentinel, and blinked as if contemplating whether to inform the moon of her indiscretion. As I lay there looking out at the night sky and its terrible beauty, I contemplated my journey to come and I realised with horror that there still remained, despite the months of preparation, a sliver of hope that some essence of me would continue, just one instance of my unique consciousness – or qualia – that would identify as the me lying here, this night. Irritated with myself and what I considered a lack of complete commitment, I banished these thoughts from my mind and got up, closing the curtains on the night sky

In the bathroom later that night, I played with two mirrors, holding them up in such a way as to create an infinite number of me’s going on and on and on through time. It was a game I’d been fascinated by as a child. Where did I end? Where did I begin? Which one was the real me? Sometimes I would sit my little brother Milo next to the sink, “Where’s Mary, Milo?” I would ask and he would stare wide eyed at the reflections for a moment and then turn to me and point with complete conviction “That’s Mary!” he would shout and I would laugh and lift him up, and he would bury his head in my shoulder and wrap his arms around my neck and his legs around my waist, and we would hold each other fiercely until we were perfectly sure and confident of each other’s existence. As I studied those reflections for the final time I thought of each image as qualia; each a representation of my unique experiences of the world. This one is the colour red, this one my father’s stubble against my cheek, this one the fire of mango chutney on my tongue, this one wind through the bamboo, this one my brothers screams, this one smoke and decay, this one the crack, ping and thump of gunshots against stone and metal and flesh. I put the mirror down eyeing the one remaining image impassively. This familiar face with its light brown freckles splashed over pale skin, its delicate brow drawn into a frown over clear grey eyes. I ran my hands over the small contours of my face, down over my neck, my breasts, my stomach, I wrapped my arms around myself. Mom appeared behind me, “You ok honey” she whispered, gently stroking my hair. That right there, that sensation, this one moment, this qualia, I would keep it, hold on to it with every atom of my being and never let it go.

The double doors to the waiting room swing open and a smiling lady in a lab coat comes towards me hand outstretched. I rise and shake her hand noticing manicured nails in a startling shade of red. We walk together along the corridor, me squeaking in plastic clogs alongside the measured click click of her black patent shoes. We don’t speak until we enter a room where I am told to get up on to a couch. The room is vast and there are rows and rows of others like me, reclining comfortably as if asleep. They are dressed in the same white smock, heads shaved, palms resting in laps, my infinity mirror. Soon I will be joined with them in an intimate and infinite bond; their qualia will become mine and mine theirs. I climb onto the couch, I am ready.

To lose ones self is essential for any transformation, these words bubble up from somewhere and pop pop pop behind my eyes like fireworks. I feel a sense of emergence, like a moth from its cocoon into the inky night; I am searching for light, for that sliver in the sky. Threads of qualia unravel around me and set me spinning like a bobbin, they form a current and move with a powerful force toward other streams of qualia that crisscross the void in an intricate tapestry. I am losing my self, transforming as each qualia becomes part of the Meta Mind. A single thread hovers before me and I am suddenly so overcome by emotion and longing that I cannot breathe. Language is starting to evade me but I am certain it has a name; it is love. Now that thread too is gone, finding its place amongst the billions of others that are weaving their way through infinity. Still I transform and as my consciousness unravels from the umbilical connecting it to death, I cease to exist. I become not I, and the not I becomes huge and boundless, powerful in its infinite potential, and the not I knows with complete and unflinching certainty, that even if this body were to fail and the implants power down, and even if the lights were to go out at the end of all things, it would endure.

Cat

I wrote this for a short story competition. I used Macbeth as inspiration.

He strides through the dark alleys of the city.  The warm rain that soothed him at first, an ally giving purpose to his eager steps, now brings him to his senses.  Each droplet stings like a needle as he nears his destination, reminding him of his true purpose.

The sign appears at the intersection of three streets, rocking gently in a non-existent breeze on hinges that rasp painfully against the silence. His eyes make contact and it stops abruptly, words and images take form. “The Weyward Sisters” look out from the sign, three profiles of aged hags straight from a Fuseli painting. Bony fingers point in unison at a door.

Through the door is a room dominated by a huge stone fireplace in which a fire burns, the only light in the room.  A small wooden table and chair are set before it and he sits and waits.

A child with hollow sunken eyes and skin the colour of a storm stands before him.  “I’m here for Cat” he tells her, she nods and leads him away.

She takes him down steps worn smooth by the passage of uncountable footsteps. As he reaches the bottom they seem to melt so that it is impossible to tell where the steps end and the ground begins. It is cold and damp, a strange coquettish mist swirls around his feet, curling and caressing his ankles with promise.

And then the one named Cat appears.  Through the ages they have sought her out. They come for guidance, enlightenment and wisdom. They come for a vision.

She offers him the drink, it smells like death but he drinks it willingly and falls to the floor retching, pinpricks of sweat appear on his brow.  The mists that teased him on arrival become all enveloping and he is transported.

He is flying so fast that he cannot breathe, creating a terrible storm as he flies up and up a huge tower to a room at the top. He glides in through a huge glassless window that takes up the entire side of the tower and locates the man sitting at a desk.  Old, unshaven,  his hands palm down on the desk,  steadying himself against the howling wind that has free reign to rampage throughout  the room, disturbing papers that are stacked on his desk so that they spin and twist about him, a maelstrom of typeset.

He stands facing the old man. He holds something heavy in his hands but he cannot make out what it is. He holds it up and shows it to the old man who slowly gets up from the desk and walks to the window and, without backward glance, steps out.

He sits at the desk and sees that what he holds in his hands is a crown; he places the crown on his head. He notices his hands are covered in blood.

He awakes from the trance and knows what he must do.

The Red Sweater

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time” ~ Banksy

He had been dreading the visit for days.  He walked through the park with his daughter thinking of  ways he could bail out. He could remember an urgent business appointment. He could feign a sneeze, a temperature and cancel on the basis that he was a potential health hazard. If only his phone would ring, damn he should have arranged for his secretary to call him back the the office with some pseudo emergency. It was too late, they approached the park gates and the care home that stood beyond where his mother had been resident for some time. Slowly this vibrant, funny and independent woman was losing herself to the dark and relentless onslaught of dementia. His weekly visits grew bleak as she forgot  aspects of their life and relationship, their history, and most recently, who he was to her, convinced that her son never visited. His daughter, expecting her first child, always accompanied him. She spoke gently to her grandmother of simple things; the view from the window, the weather. She showed her pictures of her unborn child and discussed what names they liked best. She did not press her grandmother to remember, she held her hand and chatted, brushed her hair or read from a magazine. As they approached the exit to the park he saw her. She sat on the park bench knitting a red sweater for a baby. She looked up and smiled, he thought he saw recognition in her eyes.

She loved her grandmother dearly and was heartbroken she would never know her son, but she was determined to stay strong, for all of them.  Her dad was struggling.  She was witness to pain and frustration as he tried to get his mother to recognise him, was shocked by how frantic her grandmother  became at his persistent questioning that would end with him storming upset from the room.  She learned to alleviate the tension and calm her grandmother.  Dad got sent for coffee leaving them to sit and chat about every day things. She discovered that her grandmother would watch birds and could tell her the breeds. She named her favourites  Cheeky, Skittish and Greedyboy. It was a memory as yet untouched by this grim disease, an oasis in a slowly encroaching desert. One day her grandmother had placed her hand on her bump and told her how she had child but he never visited. Her dad had got up and left. It had been his last visit and several weeks had passed. She had to persuade her dad to come with her today, had begged and pleaded as only a daughter can. As they walked through the park she gave his hand a squeeze.  Her grandmother sat on the bench near the exit to the park. She was busy knitting a red sweater for her unborn son. They had picked out a pattern last week when they had flicked through a magazine. She never imagined that her grandmother would actually take up her needles and begin to knit.

It’s bright today, I’ll go out. I need real light to see the stitches, its too dark in here. I wonder if the girl will come. I like the way she brushes my hair, like my mother used to when I was young. I think this is for her. I think its for her boy….. or my boy?… yes my boy. I’m knitting this for my boy. Red was always his favourite colour. He wanted to be a fireman, I remember…my boy. Here, this bench will do. I can watch the birds from here. I’ll sit here a while and knit this sweater for my boy. He’ll be here soon…

The Letter

It was clear that it was too late for her. However much she had meant to him, she had burnt those bridges. Bridges made of paper.

It was type written, as if he didn’t trust his hand not to shake and give away the emotion. The words were cool, well thought out. A methodical goodbye.

He left no forwarding address, no number. Cutting the umbilical all over again, but this time there was no joy.

He signed off with no expression of love, no softness, no chink in the armour.

The letter was the only thing we found on her when the body was brought in. A Jane Doe found in a back alley, all curled up in childs pose, syringe still embedded. Eyes wide, searching for him.