Chapter twenty-eight of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
It was easy to forget they were on another planet, in another dimension altogether. Had any of the PISA team thought too much about it, they would certainly have panicked, but that’s not how scientifically minded humans operate: They suppress the scary parts in deference to unimaginable discovery; they pound holds into ice and hope for the best as they scale the mountain; they seal themselves in metal tins and dive into the ocean or blast into space; and they clamber into ships that travel at the speed of light to other dimensions.
Then they walk through a beautiful forest, lit with the earliest brushes of twilight, searching for a temple that had only before been glimpsed by children in their dreams.
John Fobell hung back with Luci, Lorna, and Mouse while the kids led them all through the forest to the Temple of Radiance. Bransen and Carlos were having a heated conversation just in front of them—it seemed Carlos was suggesting that there were areas of the planet best left unexplored—which suited John fine, as their attention was diverted.
“I don’t know,” he whispered. “You can hear him—I think he knows something about what’s up here, and he wants to keep it hidden. I think the government knows about it, too.”
“You still think he’s a double agent?” asked Mouse.
This was a theory Mouse had much more readily accepted than Luci had. For her part, Luci still figured they should trust the government if it said not to go somewhere. Lorna, who had only heard about John’s suspicions secondhand from Luci, kept quiet.
“Look, I just don’t think he wants us to find that cave or whatever where the Golgantry are. I think he’s afraid we’ll have more in common with them than with this Ana-loop.”
The foursome was silent for a few minutes, lost in private thoughts. Ahead, Henry and Sophie were laughing and skipping, jumping at the pinpricks of light that had been following the group since they had entered the path to the temple. The little lights were certainly playing with the children, and the children knew it, but Luci got the sense that the lights were also there to watch them; to make sure they stayed on the right path.
“Did you guys read Hiram’s book?” Lorna asked sheepishly.
The others exchanged a guilty glance and Mouse finally answered for them: “No…”
“Well,” Lorna continued, her voice a bit more confident. “He mentioned the Golgantry, and he mentioned the Lands Below—a vast area of complete darkness where only the Golgantry live, save for a woman who tends a lighthouse. Hiram said if you ever find yourself in the Lands Below, you should follow the lighthouse to the ocean, where this woman would help you get back to the Lands Above, which is here—this forest.”
“What else did he say about them?” John asked.
“He said they were evil, John,” Lorna said in an apologetic tone. “He said they are purely physical beings with no inner light. They were banished to the Lands Below.”
John shook his head. “I don’t believe—”
“And he said they want nothing more than to get out, to get away from the Light Beings. He said they want to claim Earth as their own, just as the Light Beings had taken the forest as their own.”
No one said anything. John finally huffed and shook his head again, mumbling, “That’s ridiculous. They’re helpful…” and he increased his pace enough to move away from them, past Carlos and Bransen, so he could walk alone, just behind the children.
“Is that true?” Mouse asked Lorna. “That sounds too… Biblical, y’know?”
“Does that make it unbelievable?” Lorna shot back, perhaps more vehemently than she had intended. “I mean, those stories came from somewhere, Mouse.”
Mouse demurred with silence and a deep breath. The three of them remained quiet and kept walking.
# # #
“What was it Ana-loop said about the psilocybin?” Hiram asked, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully. “One way for your body, the other for your Radiance?”
“Yeah, something like that,” Howard agreed.
He turned a few knobs and dials and jotted down a few notes, his eyes scanning from monitor to monitor. He was professionally channeling back into his work whatever misfortune he felt at being stuck at the Earth station in Bransen Labs with Hiram, while everyone else explored an extra-dimensional landscape. Hiram smiled to himself at the force with which the dials were turned and notes scrawled, but said nothing.
“Why do you ask?” Howard wondered and turned his full attention to Hiram.
The discovery that they could breathe and move around on Mars meant the missions were much longer now and the spacesuits little more than jogging suits rigged out with vital-signs monitors that constantly beamed back stats to the machines on Earth. To Howard, though, it just meant more monitors to monitor for longer periods of time.
“Oh … nothing, really,” Hiram replied. “I’ve always wondered about the role of drugs in the astral realm, as many of the experiences of addicts mimic my own. The most crucial difference being that, as I’m sober, I can readily distinguish between astral reality and what we’re living now.”
“That’d be helpful,” Howard acknowledged.
“But the mission here doesn’t seem to show any of the side effects of taking an hallucinogen.”
“Well, they haven’t, have they? The beam passes through the psilocybin, but no one ingests it.”
“Yes, I suppose.” Hiram shifted in his chair and watched the undulations of the heart monitor output, deep in thought. “It’s almost as if the use of such narcotics has become highly distorted. You can almost imagine, at some point in the very distant past, when the last true mystical priest died… Their followers knew what to use, but not what to do with it.”
“Like a cargo cult,” Howard said. Hiram looked at him quizzically, so he explained. “In World War Two, when we were island hopping in the Pacific, the troops would go in and basically take over an island for a few days, then take off just as suddenly, leaving behind broken machinery and radios and so forth—cargo—and the natives on the island—who’d never seen anything like it before—assumed the soldiers to be gods. When we went back decades later, to make war movies, the film crews were greeted as returning deities. They found shrines made up of the garbage the soldiers had left behind. Literal shrines. The natives’ religions had completely changed. We called them cargo cults.”
Hiram nodded. “They had the goods but not the knowledge. Interesting. I’ve used music and tantric chants to facilitate astral projection, but drugs always seemed to me too dangerous, which I still believe. If you don’t maintain your lucid consciousness, then you aren’t really astral projecting, you’re just drifting at the tenuous end of the silver cord.”
“That part in your book scared me,” Howard admitted. “The silver cord? These kids were tethered to life only by some ethereal, conscious will to live?”
Hiram considering the phrasing and shrugged.
“In a way, though it was never that dire. They were never in any danger of losing a sense of themselves and their lives, which is the key—and which is why drugs so often lead to death. Drugs make you dangle too close to the end, and without that sense of self, the cord can be broken very easily.”
“And when it breaks, you die?”
“In a word…”
“Well, I think we’re all okay,” Howard said, smiling and tapping the heart rate monitor. “No one’s under any kind of stress.”
“Oh, no, they wouldn’t be,” Hiram chuckled. “Perendjo is a very peaceful place.”
Howard smirked and cut Hiram a sidelong glance.
“Perendjo? Did you ever think it was on Mars?”
“Never, in all my travels,” Hiram replied, smiling widely himself. “But then again, it isn’t really on Mars, is it?”