Book: The Time Traveler's Almanac

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LIFE TRAP

Barrington J. Bayley

Barrington J. Bayley was born in Birmingham, England, and educated in Newport, Shropshire. He worked a number of jobs before joining the Royal Air Force in 1955. In the 1960s, Bayley became friends with Michael Moorcock, who described himself as “the dumb one in the partnership,” and joined science fiction’s New Wave movement. His short stories appeared regularly in Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine and then later in various New Worlds paperback anthologies. His first book, The Star Virus, was followed by more than a dozen other novels; his downbeat, gloomy approach to novel writing has been cited as influential on the likes of M. John Harrison, Bruce Sterling, and Iain M. Banks. His story “Life Trap” was first published in the collection The Seed of Evil in 1979.

Although we of the Temple of Mysteries have devoted our energies to the pursuit of life’s secrets, it has never been guaranteed that what we may learn will be in any way pleasant, or conducive to our peace of mind. What becomes known cannot be made unknown, until death intervenes, and all seekers after hidden knowledge run the risk of finding that ignorance was after all the happier state.

The experiment was conducted at midnight, this being the hour when the subject, by his own account, customarily knows greatest clarity of mind. This subject was in fact my good friend Marcus, Aspirant of the Third Grade of the Arcanum – the highest rank our hierarchy affords, entitling him, when the occasion arises, to wear the mantle of High Priest. The mixture had been prepared earlier in the day, and was a combination of ether, poppy, a certain mushroom, and other consciousness-altering drugs, all substances which, when taken singly or in various simpler compounds, produced effects already well known to us from our years of investigative labour. Never before, however, had we designed a concoction for so ambitious or so hazardous a purpose: to take the mind, while still fully conscious, beyond the point of death, and after an interval to return it to the living world.

Vainly I had begged Marcus to be less precipitous; to test the compound beforehand, possibly using partial samples on a candidate acolyte. But Marcus, adamant that nothing less than the full dose would be effective, consented only to test it on a dog belonging to our drug expert, Lucius the apothecary. When forced to inhale the fumes the animal became rigid and appeared to be dead for the space of about an hour. After this it quickly recovered, but for a further hour it showed some nervousness, barking and cringing when anyone came near. Eventually this, too, wore off, and Marcus announced that the symptoms were as would be expected.

On the appointed night Marcus and I were alone in the Temple, the others having left at Marcus’s own request. In the changing room I helped him into a robe of crisp clean linen on which the emblem of the Temple was sewn. Then, for a period, we sat together, while the water-clock dripped away the moments. We said little, for all aspects of the enterprise had already been thoroughly discussed.

The pan of the clock began to tremble. “Soon we may know the truth,” Marcus said with a smile.

“Or I shall lose a friend,” I replied.

Just then the balance tipped and the water-clock chimed the hour of midnight. We both rose.

I accompanied Marcus to the inner sanctum. As we went down the short corridor, flanked by two pillars, which leads to the door of the adytum, the possibility that I might be seeing him alive for the last time suddenly weighed heavily on me, but I tried to show no emotion. I opened the heavy oak door, whose edges are trimmed with lambswool so as to shut out extraneous noises, and we entered.

I looked around to ensure that everything was in place and the surroundings harmonious. For us, the inner sanctum serves the same function in our activities as the preliminary ritual of donning ceremonial garb: to help calm the mind and divert it from trivial thought. Hence everything is arranged to invoke the feeling of departure from the mundane. The room is oval in shape and painted in restful hues. On the walls are mandalas and one or two specially selected paintings. Earlier I had placed a vase of peonies on the small table of polished walnut.

The nostrum had already been left in a crucible over the brazier. While Marcus reclined himself on the couch I moved the brazier closer, so he would gain the direct benefit of the vapours, and lit the oil-soaked charcoal with a taper. Quickly the brazier began to blaze and the nostrum to bubble.

With no further glance at Marcus, I left.

*   *   *

The Temple of Mysteries subscribes to none of the traditional doctrines, since all of these are in varying degrees erroneous or at best blur the distinction between what is truly known and what is merely deduced or speculated upon. Our approach, once we have formulated an area of ignorance, is to try to gain the truth first-hand.

On the subject of what follows death, there are many proferred answers. The most pragmatic, of course, is that death is simply extinction. But most schools of thought claim some kind of survival, either in a different condition – in a spiritual realm or else by way of rebirth into another body – or actually in the same condition. The latter version, the bleakest of theories of this kind, represents time as a circle and says that following death we are born again into the same life as before, to repeat everything that has happened. Then again there is the doctrine that death means the end of individual consciousness, but that the mind is absorbed into a universal consciousness.

While sitting by myself in the changing room I reviewed these ideas as a means of taking my mind off Marcus. Close to an hour had passed, for the pan of the water-clock was again almost full, when I heard a hoarse shout from the inner sanctum, followed by the thud of falling furniture.

In seconds I had gained the corridor. As I did so the oak door flew open and Marcus staggered forth, his face grey. I rushed to assist him; he all but collapsed against me. His eyes, I noticed, were stricken and not glazed, as though he had seen something that horrified him.

Through the door, I saw that both the couch and the walnut table had been overturned. The brazier still glowed; but only a black stain on the crucible recorded the presence of the nostrum, whose fragrance yet drifted on the air.

I helped Marcus to the changing room and sat him down. He begged for wine. Though apprehensive of what its effect might be on top of so many drugs, I took a flask from the cupboard, uncorked it and poured him a goblet. He gulped it greedily, at which a little colour came to his cheeks.

“I shall be all right,” he said in answer to my solicitations. “Just give me a minute or so to recover.”

I stood by while he slumped in the chair, breathing heavily. At length I could forbear no longer. What, I enquired, had been the outcome of the experiment? Had it been successful? He groaned, and in sombre tones told me that it had; indeed (his voice fell to a mutter) the whole secret of death had been revealed to him. “Do not ask me to reveal this secret,” he said. “Better not to know.”

Astonished, I reminded him of the rule of our order forbidding any member to withhold from his brothers anything he has learned as a result of his work in the Temple, and again I eagerly pressed him to relate his new knowledge. He nodded resignedly and asked for more wine. Then, uttering a deep sigh, he related what is essentially the following.

*   *   *

Death (he said) is reversal. Reversal of consciousness, and reversal of time.

What do I mean by this? I will take consciousness first, for that is the first thing to be reversed. As we are now, our consciousness is within our bodies. I perceive you through my eyes, and within my brain I derive, through my senses, a picture of the outside world. Of myself I have no direct perception. I know myself only indirectly, through my relations with others, or through beholding myself in a mirror.

After death all this changes. Consciousness remains; but it is consciousness external to one’s body. It becomes an objective consciousness, similar to experiences of ecstasy we have had accounts of, where one sees oneself from outside. One watches while one’s body is laid out. One is present when it is placed on a bier and, accompanied by one’s friends and relatives, carried to the grave.

Then one seems to be present in the grave, watching the cast-off body decay for several months. From this there is no escape, for one’s consciousness is always where one’s body is. This, you might think, is a harrowing experience. But wait.

The reason why one becomes conscious of one’s dead body is that consciousness has momentum and, for a spell, coasts forward through time. But after a while the second reversal takes place. Time reverses.

(Emptying his goblet, Marcus reached for the flask, ignoring my anxious glance in that direction.) Time reverses. Do you understand me? Time runs backwards. Death truly is the end of life, but only in the sense that a road ends in a particular place. After that one turns round and retraces one’s steps. One finds oneself watching as one’s corpse slowly mends, is taken up from the ground, is carried home, and comes to life. So one’s life resumes, from death to birth. Reversed time. Reversed consciousness.

Eventually birth must come again. The shock of this is like the shock of death, and indeed it is, for this reversed life, the same as death. And again one’s consciousness coasts past it, but made internal now, living as a shrinking foetus until time again reverses itself and the foetus expands again, and one is born, a new babe, seeing the world through the senses as before.

This, then, Clinias, is the manner of our lives. The soul oscillates eternally between the poles of birth and death, though we know it not, and not one whit of what has happened can be changed. Therein, in our ignorance, lies our happiness for the present. But wait. You will not be happy. Wait until you stand outside yourself and must see yourself …

*   *   *

Marcus’s voice trailed off. “So the doctrine of an eternally repeating life comes closest to the truth,” I ventured.

“Yes. We have lived this life many, many times before.”

“But why so gloomy, Marcus? It is immortality after a fashion.”

Marcus looked up at me with a startled look on his face. “Have you not understood, Clinias? Do you not see? This is the worst of all possibilities! Each of us is doomed to see himself as he appears to the external world, and in that stance to live again through every detail of his existence! Every unworthy act, every self-deception, every last piece of shame we hide even from ourselves – all is presented to our gaze, and for a lifetime! How can one endure it? There is no one who lives with such dignity that this could be bearable!”

Slowly the horror of Marcus’s revelation began to dawn on me. Unsteadily he rose to his feet and placed his hand on my shoulder. For long moments the silence of the Temple seemed to descend on us, while I pondered on what I had heard and stood there with my friend.

“That nothing can be changed is the worst aspect of it,” Marcus said wearily. “How one longs and aches to be able to change what one sees!”

“We are in a trap,” I observed.

He nodded. “Normally the traumas of birth and death wipe memory clean. For our temerity the gods have allowed me to glimpse the truth, and to remember it. That is our reward, and our punishment. But I can speak no more tonight. Let us go home. We have done enough.”

Suddenly Marcus was violently sick. I cleaned him up, conducted him to his house, and saw to it that he was put to bed, leaving only after he had fallen soundly asleep.

*   *   *

Although the secret of death has been imparted to the full membership of the Temple, not all have understood its import. Several members, driven by curiosity, have repeated Marcus’s experiment, with results that more or less confirm his findings, but to most it is interesting merely; they do not grasp its terror. To live a life which, because lacking external awareness of itself, is contemptible and mean, and then to be given that awareness which alone could have improved it – and be condemned at the same time to do no more than watch the wretched and loathsome spectacle! The gods do indeed chuckle when they look down on the human condition.

A change of outlook has been forced on we senior members of the Arcanum who do understand the meaning of Marcus’s discovery. Suicide, which once seemed an honourable escape from undignified circumstance, is now realised to be no escape at all. And yet from this trap of life there should be, if the world is just, some escape.

Marcus has sickened, but fears to die. We all of us fear to die, knowing what awaits us. Men, who take refuge in never seeing themselves as they really are, invariably will shun such a vision.

Our work now is in how to end the eternal oscillation, whether to gain oblivion or a new life does not matter. But how may it be done? On that we have not a single idea. The gods may know. The gods, whom we have spurned as confusers and defilers of the minds of men, perhaps in the end we must turn to the gods.

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