“I have an anti-Darwinistic stance against something called the naturalistic fallacy – that nature is not moral. But who you have to rescue is the very weak to encourage risk taking on the part of entrepreneurs because the system needs them. You guys got here because of entrepreneurs, not because of bonus earners and bureaucrats. And not thanks to bankers, by the way. Alright? So you didn’t get here, you didn’t start the industrial revolution without risk takers who have small downside, big upside.” – Video excerpt, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Antifragile.
I run to the narrow cylinder where my brother is trapped and floating. I hit the thing with my fists. It’s as solid as steel but looks like a column of water extending up from Anahata’s floor to her marble ceiling. It’s probably ice-cold saline, Shiva’s recipe for drowning humans.
In Hawaii, James can stay under for four minutes, but that’s in eighty degree water.
Vedanshi stretches her arms around the cylinder, more than half way. She puts her forehead on the cold surface and looks at James. He looks back, their faces separated by millimeters.
I put my arms around the opposite side. Maxwell shows up next to me and kicks it several times.
“We’ll get you out,” Vedanshi says to James.
He rotates in the fluid and looks at me with that in-charge way of his – total confidence in tough situations. That’s him in real-time. Later if it’s just the two of us, he’ll admit he was scared out of his mind.
I put the side of my head against the cylinder and picture the nano gadgets I designed for Anahata. I shouldn’t have helped her. I imagine a big hammer smashing them.
I open my eyes. James looks worried now.
Don’t lose it.
He pushes off the floor with bare feet and shoots to the ceiling thirty feet above. I step back to see. His feet are on one side and his back is against the other, pushing. Nothing seems to budge.
I need to think.
He’s digging his fingers into the circle where the fluid meets the ceiling.
I wish I knew Anahata’s mechanics. Actually I don’t know if she has any. The Ganga doesn’t.
I squeeze the tall pillar between my arms as hard as I can, slow my breathing, close my eyes and watch ones and zeros fall inside my head. If I knew this code, I could write a trojan and speak it to Anahata, maybe take control of one of her systems.
“I’m so sorry I have to do this,” Anahata says in my head.
“Damn you,” I shout back.
I’ve never said those words to anyone before. Not like that. I feel cold inside. It’s the things you say that corrupt you.
I look at Anahata’s words. Three ended with the letter, “o”: “so,” “to,” and “do.” The first of the three starts with “s” and the last word in the sentence ends with “s.” I replay the binaries that fell when she spoke and pick out matching strings: my first two letters of the Universe’s machine code.
I line up ones and zeros on a spinning wheel in my head and turn it: SOS, SOS, SOS. Faster and faster.
It’s not a trojan, though. Not anything, really.
“Shiva should have trusted you,” I say to Anahata. “You’d sentence yourself to hell as long as you were following orders.”
Suddenly I’m floating in icy fluid with half a breath in my lungs. My body wants to curl up. A frozen headache pounds beneath my left temple. Cold is a unique pain.
“Did you do this?” I ask Anahata in my head.
“No,” she says. “It’s not protocol.”
I push off the floor and discover that the pain of cold is more intense when you’re moving through it. A new chill factor. James’ bare feet appear above me and come closer as I rise.
I’m behind him now. I grasp his right shoulder and turn him around. His eyes are open, I think, but everything’s blurry. He reaches for me and hugs me with his head down on my shoulder, like when he was a toddler.
Bubbles percolate past my right ear.
He hugs me a little tighter for a second then his arms get weak. His cough reflex jars him. His fingernails dig into the skin of my shoulders. More bubbles and he goes limp in my arms.
No, God, please, no. Please!
The loss seems infinite. The weight of failure is heavy. It’s like an intravenous injection of sorrow flowing up the veins of my arms and landing in my heart, cold as a deadly anesthetic.
Everything was a mistake. I could have saved James a hundred ways.
He would have been John Lennon. He would have been the cure to misery for the depressed loners of his generation. They would have found themselves in his music.
His first prayer song screams through my brain.
“Make for me a dirty heart
filled with all the darkness of the world.
I’m taking all the dull shit in
and burning up inside within,
I hate you.”
James. If only God had given you a normal sister. Someone less self-righteous. Someone with common sense instead of a star-struck fan with all my terrible advice.
If I’d only drowned myself in the ocean this morning. I was so close but I couldn’t inhale. Now it’s just a matter of time.
Or is it?
I put my lips over James’ mouth, pinch his nose tight and blow my breath into his lungs. He seems peaceful.
My little Hurricane. With those broad shoulders. You grew up when I wasn’t looking.
I open my mouth and breathe in Shiva’s fluid. It tastes like tears.
My throat clamps shut. My gag reflex triggers my stomach muscles but my throat is shut tight.
Suddenly I’m swallowing. It’s not even me anymore. It’s autonomic.
I see the white light.
I won’t leave you, James.
My feet are on the lowest stair. I take the next one. Another appears above. I jump over it and start to run, almost vertically. My feet leave the blocks and I’m floating inches above a steep stairway of white quartz.
At the top it’s flat, thirty square feet with a square room in the center. I float above it and hover, looking down at the four sides of a white pyramid with stairs on each side and water all around, dark blue, almost black.
Ojiichan’s words come to me, “All roads lead north.”
The room on top has a square opening. I float down to the white blocks and walk in.
Inside is outside. There’s a great canyon as big as Arizona’s.
Blue desert flowers cover the flat ground at the canyon’s top, and hang down in broad swaths of blue against the orange and red walls of sedimentary rock.
Euphoria sweeps over me. It’s a home I once knew but can’t remember. I lived here long ago – before cancer took Mom and that white truck ran over Daddy on the Pali.
I sense someone behind me and turn. There they are, Mom and Daddy. I knew they’d be here.
But why are their faces troubled?
A chimpanzee stands between them, bent-legged, holding Mom’s left hand and Daddy’s right. It’s Moody. I see him so often in nightmares. His sad, gentle smile says more to me now than words ever could, “It was all me. You can’t forgive yourself when there’s nothing to forgive.”
I rush to him, pick him up and hug Mom and Dad with Moody’s long arms around my neck and his legs around my chest. I kiss them all, one after the other.
Thirteen feet behind my parents stands a young man in a blue swimming suit, a yellow surfboard under his left arm. Something for winter-size waves. I know this surfer’s face from somewhere.
I’m about to ask his name when I notice that my feet are twice their normal size. My legs are long. My calves aren’t the white radishes I’m used to, they’re haole calves and way hairy! My knees stick out like a man’s. This is embarrassing.
I look up at the young surfer. He smiles and the soul of God shines through his eyes. Euphoria comes back even stronger.
It seems that love is euphoria. Or maybe it’s the other way. Overwhelming but gentle. The feeling fills my lungs with admiration for my old friend, The Great Surfer.
I breathe in love like air and hold it inside, then drop to my knees to show my heart’s intent.
It’s your character not your power.
He doesn’t want me on my knees, though. He’s told me before.
I force myself to get up.
“Shiva,” he says to me. “You’ve brought Johanna this time.”
A small boy comes running down the hill behind God, stampedes past him and slams full force into me, hugging my left leg like a tourniquet.
“You gotta come home this time. Please! Vedanshi went back for you. You made God all worried.” The little boy looks over his shoulder at God.
I try to speak but nothing comes out. I hand Moody to my dad and step away from my parents. They’re keeping something from me. They’d be talking if everything was fine.
It’s weird that God called me Shiva. I look down and my right foot steps forward without me, then the left. A man’s back is inches from my nose.
It dawns. Shiva has just walked out of me. The little boy is still there clinging to his leg.
“You’re coming home!” God shouts. The Transcendent Surfer drops his board, jumps in the air and throws his hands up, kicking his legs before he lands – with a grin, a broad grin that pulls back more than up, because of that one thing where you see something in a person that no one else can see. He’s looking at Shiva, not me.
The little boy looks up at God, glances back at me and then up at Shiva. “You are coming home!” He squeals with joy and tightens his grip on Shiva’s leg.
“Dude,” God says to Shiva, “I shaped you a righteous board. We got a south swell this morning with an offshore, but Shiva, my boy.” He laughs. “It’s big, so no heroics, eh? Be selective.” He thumps Shiva’s chest with his knuckles and gives him that respectful look that surfers do with posture. Then he hugs him.
Shiva hugs back. Tears drip from his jaw.
“I missed you so much,” Shiva says.
“I never catch a wave without missing you,” God says.
Shiva pries the boy from his leg, picks him up and kisses his cheek.
The three turn and look at me. My legs are short again with thick calves, almost hairless. It’s a relief.
I’m starting to remember friends from before. Ronny Bradshaw, Philip Gulnick, Lisa Gomez, Glenna Studer, Tim Andrews, Leslie… I was too young to know last names when she and I played in her backyard. We made houses with walls of grass clippings. She showed me how to tie my shoes.
My heart fills with longing for these people. I love them so much. They’re here somewhere. I’ll go find them. We’ll play in a new place. Me and Ronny, we’ll build a fort while our parents talk about complex issues – the way it always was. And James can…
Where is James?
I see him drowning. The feelings run cold.
What was I thinking?
My mother’s eyes well up with tears. “We understand, dear,” she says.
“Time is flexible,” I tell her and look at Daddy. “Your absolute infinite vacuum doesn’t look so infinite these days.”
He shakes his head at the concept of space he taught me as a child – that space is nothing and “nothing” can’t have an end.
Mom starts crying and hides her face on Daddy’s chest. Moody holds Dad’s pants leg with one hand and reaches out to me with the other, stretching as far as he can.
“Don’t be sad, big guy,” I tell him. “I have to go back for the one I love.”
God comes over and stands in front of me. “You make me proud,” he says.
I don’t know how to answer. I need to go help James, but I’ve got so many questions I’m dying to ask. And time is flexible here, Vedanshi said.
“Did I ever know how to surf?” I blurt out, wondering if I ever really fit in.
“For sure,” God says and chuckles. “You’re a holy terror.”
Shiva laughs and shakes his head. “You don’t remember the Overheads?” he asks.
I shake my head. It’s odd not remembering everything. Kind of a relief.
I look at God and there’s one last thing. “What’s your take on religion?”
“All depends,” he says. “Strengthen the weak, the poor, the orphans. All good. Especially the guys that annoy you most. Help them.”
“Sociopaths annoy me,” I tell him.
“Everyone rotates through their dilemma,” he says. “Try to figure it out.”
Maybe I should work with Vaar.
“I know this is childish,” I tell him, “but do you answer prayers?”
“Between cycles, yeah. Otherwise it cuts into people’s decisions and their outcomes. Free will is the basis of identity. I cherish it and leave it alone.”
“What cycles?” I ask. A gentle wind ruffles the blue flowers beneath us.
“It’s like this,” he says. “You pray for yourself and nothing happens. But when that cycle of the Universe is over and everyone switches to someone else’s spot, I answer your prayer the best I can. Not in binary terms because everyone’s web is interconnected.”
“So when an answer comes,” he says, “it fits naturally into the next person’s life in your spot, looking like a coincidence. That way free will stays intact.”
“So when somebody prays for themselves, they’re really praying for someone else?” I ask.
He nods. “And when you pray for someone else, you’re praying for yourself, because eventually you’re going to be in that spot.”
“So you never answer prayers in real-time?”
“Only to restore free will to a large group. Like a whole species. The power to choose a path and walk on it is fragile in 229, so I stay in the nodes.”
“Places where the warp and woof of free will aren’t sacrificed. Without the free cause and natural effect of decisions there’s no personhood. When someone loses free will it’s like brain death.”
“So you absolutely never mess with it? Even over some giant cataclysm?”
“No. Two-twenty-nine is about comfortable people from Reality wanting to find out who they really are. It’s a struggle of will against detractors. Sociopaths, tyrants, drugs, crowd dynamics, innate fears, addictions, illnesses, tragedy, physical and emotional pain, hunger, all the forces aiming to cripple your primary will to act according to your intuitive moral knowledge. Everyone here wants to see who they are without my influence.”
I shake my head. “All that suffering. People must be brave.”
“They are,” he says.
“Do you ever send prophets?” I ask.
“Everyone who writes honestly is my oracle. Spiritual, rational, heuristic, scientific, legal, historical, advertising, self-help…”
“Truth is the exchange of love,” he says. “Honest lives create love and trust, whether in life or in stories. When two things touch at the quantum level, they become entangled. This is why you commit for life before you quantum connect.”
“You’re talking about marriage?”
“No, but that’s a good analogy. I’m talking about stories. They shape everything in 229. The characters and ideas that a person becomes entangled with at the quantum level – they move mountains. Try to be selective with the characters you love. Make sure you want them with you for life. Myelin wrappings make the divorce of beliefs very slow. Difficult to want, let alone accomplish.”
“What do you think of fundamentalism?” I ask, afraid of wearing out my welcome.
“It’s useful for passing heuristics and rules of thumb from generation to generation, especially through a pinch point where a population gets down to a few individuals. I really like the way fundamentalism can sometimes promote honesty and trust. These are the foundation of love, the backbone of true civilization. But when infallible beliefs, inerrant prophets and supernatural books lead to violence, it destroys free will. That’s the price of claiming too much.”
God hugs me and whispers that he fixed my board. “The pink one,” he says.
Before I can thank him I’m on my back looking up at a familiar marble ceiling in Anahata’s convex room.
Next to Shiva’s Throne.
M. Talmage Moorehead
If you feel like it, please email a friend about Johanna’s story (here at http://www.storiform.com). Maybe before you forget?
Keep writing your dreams. If you take them seriously, other people will, too.