Two of Many, by Mark J. Howard

I AWAKEN INTO PERFECT DARKNESS. I am small and vulnerable. For a time, this is all I know.

Memory leaks into me, disjointed and vague yet coherent and clear. Metal. Pain. Blood. Fear. Panic. Struggle. Peace. Light. Infinity. Everything. Everyone. Everywhen. Joy. Understanding. Questions. Yearning. Decision. Funnel. Darkness.

Here.

I cannot ponder these things, only experience them. They cycle through me, jumbling through my tiny being like windblown leaves, though even that simple metaphor is beyond my ability to construct. My awareness grows by tiny increments. I discern gentle heat, pulsing above me in a remorseless rhythm. I know I must go towards it. I know that pulse is life. I know that life is what I want.

The first of me raises out of the perfect darkness. The pulses of heat become pulses of light, waxing from imperfect dark to variable light and waning back to imperfect dark again. The imperfect dark pulses also, each one longer than its companion pulse of light.

While the first of me reaches for the light, the last of me burrows deeper into the perfect darkness, driven by hunger and thirst and the need for solidity.

The pulses of light gradually become longer than the pulses of imperfect dark and I feel myself feeding off them, unfurling parts of myself to drink them in even as the last of me drinks in the foods given up by the perfect darkness. In a short time the pulses of light become so long that the pulses of imperfect darkness last hardly any time at all and I unfurl more of myself towards them. The more light I absorb, the more joy I feel, the clearer my understanding becomes, though I still understand very little.

Soon, the pulses of light begin to shorten again and the following pulses of imperfect dark grow longer. When the pulses of imperfect dark grow longer than the pulses of light the unfurled parts of myself begin to fade and disappear. I feel fear for the first time. What is happening to me? Am I coming apart? Am I dying again already?

The fear is not sustainable, for as the pulses of light grow shorter and weaker my mind also slows and becomes dim. By the time the pulses of imperfect dark are longer than the pulses of light I am almost unable to experience anything beyond simple existence, a deep gnawing hunger and the memories I was born with, though these are more solid now and I know I must hang on to them. Somehow, I know these memories are the reason I’m here, wherever here is. The question of location, though once so very important to me, now holds little significance or fascination. I am here. Here I am. Anything more feels irrelevant.

In that long half-slumber of near constant imperfect dark, something touches the last of me. It is a gentle touch, almost imperceptible, but I am too dim and slow to fear it. There is a greatness hidden behind this gentle touch, a huge existence I can only sense in the most abstract manner. I know I should be astounded to discover that I am not alone and yet I also know how foolish it would be to assume otherwise. The question of aloneness has not occurred to me yet and suddenly that question is answered before being asked and I derive great comfort from it.

The pulses of light lengthen again, a little more each time, and I begin to rouse from my stupor. I feel joy and excitement rising within me and soon parts of myself begin to unfurl towards the delicious light again. I feel knowledge beginning to seep in to me from the touch, simple knowledge at first, wordless yet packed with meaning. I begin to sense my position, the part of me in the pulsing light is up, the rest of me is down. The part of me which is up, is exposed, the rest of me is hidden.

I hang on to the memories I was born with, they are keys not to be lost or discarded, but it is important for now that I concentrate on becoming what I am to become. The touch helps me and, as the delicious light grows stronger and sweeter again and my mind rises higher, it teaches me many things.

That which I called the last of me are my roots, pulling water and nutrients into my body and holding me firmly in the ground, which I knew previously as only the perfect darkness. The concept of ground is difficult for me to grasp at first. It is solid yet not solid, fixed yet not fixed, not alive yet full of life, devoid of fruit yet full of food, dry yet saturated, still yet dynamic, treacherous yet loyal and all but infinite in extent. While I live it will sustain me and when I die it will eat me. I grow to fear and love the ground in equal measure. The ground is life, the ground is death.

The touch finds other of my roots and entwines them in its gentle embrace. The touch calls itself fungus and tells me that it spreads gossamer thin throughout the ground, touching me and countless others like me and not like me. I can sense the others it touches but am too young yet to know them. The fungus asks me for some of my food and I give it in exchange for other foods it delivers to my roots. When I am stronger, it promises to connect me to others in what it calls the forest in exchange for me connecting it to my mind.

That which I called the first of me are my trunk and branches, apparently still small and vulnerable, and the parts of me unfurled to drink in the light are my leaves, which appear and disappear in regular cycles.

The pulses of light grow shorter again. My leaves fade and disappear but this time there is no fear in the sensation. My mind slows but this time I am not alone and fungus feeds me through the dark so my hunger is not so severe as the last time I dozed.

With my hunger lessened, I am able to perceive a little more to my existence. For a time in the dark I feel a weight pressing down on me and parts of me feel wrong, bowing towards the ground instead of reaching for the light. I am too small and weak to resist the weight and live in fear that it may become too much for me to bear.

The weight lessens and the pulses of light begin to expand once more. The joy and excitement return and I feel myself growing taller, deeper and stronger. I unfurl more leaves than before and fungus and I share the sensation. Fungus shares with me more of the forest, that vast something I have previously only felt as a distant sensation of clamour and dynamism.

Fungus connects me to my Parent.

The sensation is confusing and frightening. My parent is huge. A massive version of me, broad and tall and imposing, growing close by. The concept of nearness is strange. The concept of a Parent is strange. Parent regards me as both special and unimportant, I am one of many it has scattered. Most did not survive, the nuts failing to grow or eaten by animals. My mind cannot at first understand the concept of animals.

An animal, I learn, is life unlike me. It is a thing I cannot perceive directly because it moves too fast. For an animal, one pulse of light and its following pulse of imperfect dark last an inconceivably long time. They are voracious creatures, eating the nuts and the fruit of the Parent and even the leaves and roots of us all. Some burrow into us, making holes in our bodies, which can rot and kill us. They do this with such speed that we cannot discern the damage until it is too late. We cannot stop them. They are invisible monsters and I live in constant fear of them for a time but try as I might, I can neither feel nor sense them at all.

When the animals die, however, their bodies return to the ground and our roots eat them up. This comforts me somewhat and my fear of them decreases but never really goes away.

The light lessens again and I begin to slumber through the dark, thinking about the memories I was born with. They begin to expand and I somehow understand what it is like to be an animal. Was I an animal once? Did I die, go into the ground and re-grow as what I am now? The understanding of the pulses of light and imperfect dark emerges in me and I dream of long days and short nights. I am certain these are the names the animals use for them and with this certainty comes a great pity for any creature that must live out its life in so hectic a state, so often hungry and frightened and threatened.

The weight returns and, even though I am bigger and stronger than the last time, I still fear it will break me. My Parent does not share this fear, I sense, and has not for a long time. It is too big and strong now to even notice the weight, except on its smallest branches. All of me is small and I yearn for the day when the smallest part of me will be bigger than the whole of me now. The Parent does not communicate with me directly, or with any others, it is wrapped up in its own memories, thoughts and dreams, some of which spill out through the fungus and into me.

For the first time, at the darkest time, I hear the thoughts of others like me who do not slumber so deeply during these times. Some of them communicate directly with each other along the fungus’s ethereal strands although I cannot understand what they are saying. It’s a distant murmur, low, slow and constant yet always loudest during the short pulses of dim light.

The weight disappears and I know this heralds the return of the light. The Parent sends out a thought, echoing and echoed by countless others. I have not heard it before, at least not consciously, but somehow it comes as no surprise and fills me with anticipation. “Spring is coming.”

I do not know what this means yet but I know it is a good thing and soon my leaves are unfurling once more to guzzle the returning light. I stretch and grow and increase. I feel more of those around me as fungus and I grow more closely and intimately entwined and join in with the general feeling of joy and excitement.

A brief weight returns over the space of two weak pulses of light. This weight is different to the others I have felt and does not press down from above but from the side. The ground becomes too wet and feels insecure but my roots hold me up. My branches feel wrong and some of my leaves disappear. A concept undulates through the forest, beginning halfway through the first dim pulse of light. The concept is met with fear and relief, expectancy and resignation. “Storm.”

The third pulse waxes bright and strong and the forest is buzzing with relief and joy, sadness and loss. The Parent feels sick and wrong; a part of itself has disappeared. It does not complain or rail and I can only sense its thoughts. One of its biggest boughs has gone, stolen away by the storm, perhaps weakened by unperceived animals beforehand, and the stump is aching. The parent thinks it might die. I can sense others in the forest with similar concerns and also some gaps in the chatter, as of minds gone away.

Fungus is content and I realise with dull horror that it is going to eat the Parent’s fallen bough and all the others it can find. The horror in me rises as I begin to understand that it will share with me some of the nutrients it sucks from the fallen parts. The forest knows this is how life is and does not share my horror. Would it be better to let these fallen parts and pieces go to waste? To be food for the invisible animals alone? To not help the forest itself stay strong? The Parent will also benefit from the decay of its broken bough and all the other broken boughs. The memories I was born with throw up the concept of cannibalism but I soon realise that this is a different thing entirely. My horror does not last long.

The days pulse longer and longer and the forest enters a higher state of excitement and activity I have not sensed before. The others begin to unfurl special leaves, which they call flowers and think with joy that, “summer is here.”

I struggle to understand what flowers are for. I know that I am too young to grow them myself but feel a deep yearning to grow my own, a drive the like of which I have not felt before. I sense pleasure in their unfurling and a subtle joy emanating from them. I am shocked to learn that flowers are for attracting tiny invisible creatures and contain sweet foods for them to consume. In return, these invisible creatures, which seem entirely hypothetical to me, will transfer pollen from one being to the next so that fruits and nuts can be grown. The idea seems perverse and illogical but stirs in me from the memories I was born with the remembrance of sex, which seems even more perverse and illogical.

Yet the process works and soon the forest is heavy with fruits and nuts. My wonder increases as I learn that many of these rely on the invisible, hypothetical animals to carry them away to places where they can grow into new beings. As the days shorten again I feel the forest growing tired, exhausted by the energy and resources put into growing flowers, fruits and nuts specifically to feed animals. This mystifies me until I remember that fungus is separate from me and yet intimately connected to us all. Though I still fear the invisible animals, and have yet to sense one directly, I no longer loathe them. If they really exist, as most beings seem to believe, then they are part of the forest too.

The pulsing days shorten and the forest heaves a great sigh and begins to settle down from the clamour of the summer. “Autumn is here,” the forest whispers as my leaves begin to fade and disappear. For the first time I sense fungus munching greedily on the leaves, which seem to fall to the ground and rot rather than simply disappearing as I had previously thought. I do not find the idea repellent, to my surprise, and remember the Parent’s fallen bough with an altogether more accepting feeling.

The nights pulse longer and the weight returns to my branches, still a frightening sensation, and along with it a new murmur ululates through the forest, “winter is on us.” My mind again slows, dwelling on the lessons I have learned and the memories I was born with, which confuse me by making both more and less sense at the same time. What are these memories? Where did they come from? Are they memories or simply pre-birth dreams? What good is the memory of animal sex to me now?

At the lowest ebb, I perceive a great sadness in the Parent. After losing its bough in the storm it was too weak to make flowers or nuts and stood barren ever since with barely enough energy to grow leaves. It feels sick and weak. I try to offer something I remember as comfort but my winter mind is too dim and the Parent too wrapped up in its own thoughts. I should be feeling something called sympathy but I don’t know how to do that any more, or even what purpose it would serve.

When the forest awakens to spring again I can no longer sense the Parent and I feel a deep but resigned sadness at its passing. I notice as I unfurl my leaves that the pulses of light are brighter now and I realise that the Parent is no longer between me and the light. I grow many more leaves than ever before, taking advantage of the Parent’s absence, and grow faster and bigger as a result. When I was an animal, and as I ponder the memories I was born with I grow ever more convinced that this is the case, I would have felt regret and shame but to me now these ideas are as elusive as animals themselves.

Springs turn to summers to autumns to winters and I grow fast and strong towards the light, learning about my new self and my memories as I go. I am a tree. I learn this word from the memories I was born with and it unlocks a host of other memories.

I remember being a kind of animal that calls itself a man and walking through forests just like the one I am part of now. The memories are dizzying in their speed and intensity, difficult to integrate into my mind. Men have things called eyes, which allow them to perceive things I cannot imagine. I realise in my mind the shape and form of a tree, the memory of what I must look like. Other trees have similar memories, I learn, and are thinking similar thoughts, remembering similar memories, but we cannot adequately communicate with each other about them or share our minds in the way men do.

I begin to grow flowers and bear nuts, and the experience is as pleasurable as anything I can imagine or remember. The thoughts of my neighbours, carried far and wide by the gossamer strands of fungus, become more and more accessible to me and mine to them. I am not lost in this symphony of slow thought, however, not absorbed into the whole like a drop of water into a lake. I am still a separate being, individual and unique, yet intimately connected with countless others as deeply as I want to be or they will allow.

Through our connected minds I begin to glimpse things I never imagined existed, like an area of brightest light running along overhead, causing the pulses of day and called the sun, and a weaker, variable light darting through the night called the moon. To me, these lights move rapidly, almost too fast to follow, but to the man from my memory they moved so slowly as to appear stationary.

I perceive evidence for the existence of animals; clear paths through the forest caused by their movements, beings suddenly stripped of their leaves and nuts and seeds appearing far distant from their parents. As my mind bathes in these shared thoughts and perceptions, growing like a fungus itself, I realise I am in danger of forgetting about the memories I was born with. It is not until my fifty-second year as a tree that I decide I must ponder these memories more closely, for the feeling that this is what I came here to do has never left me.

I remember being a man. I try to concentrate on this single memory and two years pass without bringing forth any significant progress. Ancient trees, knowing my frustration, cast low, sleepy thoughts in my direction and advise me to work backwards, back from being a nut. I remember my first experience of realising myself as part of the interconnected forest and it stirs in me the shadow of a memory immediately prior to my first spark of consciousness, of being an entity of light as individual as I am now and as interconnected as I am now. But that interconnection was greater than this, far greater and far deeper and far wider. I cannot fully comprehend that state now, I could not even comprehend it as a man for it was to him as different an experience as being a man is as different an experience as being a tree. There were senses in that state as alien to a man as eyesight is to trees. Yet the man I was knew of this state, or perhaps, if not actually knowing, believed in its unseen and baffling existence even as trees believe in the unseen and baffling existence of animals. He called this state the Source and believed it was both his origin and his destination, the state of being a man nothing more than a sojourn into lower states of vibration for the purpose of learning or entertainment.

My return to Source must have followed my death as a man. I remember metal and pain. The metal was also a man, a metal man built by other men. I remember the words robot and computer. The man I was hated the metal man, feared it, loathed it and at the same time pitied it. It contained a copy of his mind, stored in a computer. These ideas are both familiar and foreign to me in ways I cannot properly understand. I perceive other trees watching my thoughts, offering thoughts of their own as we try to make sense of it all. It is slow work but we enjoy it.

I remember something called speech, which conveyed something called words from something called a mouth to something called ears. A kind of communication that did not require fungus. I have no idea how it worked but I remember that it did work very well.

“You can kill my body but not my soul,” the man who used to be me had said.

The metal man said that it was only a matter of time. It pointed something at the man, a metal box that measured his soul. “Now I can find you anywhere,” it said. Then the metal man took the throat of the man I used to be in its hand and crushed it. The man I used to be died and his soul passed back to Source, where he tried to make sense of it. I cannot remember if he/I ever did make sense of it and the next thing I remember is awakening in the perfect darkness.

I feel something out of place at the base of my trunk. Something hard and cold piercing me. A noise comes from it, brief and loud and unintelligible. Over the course of the next three pulses of light, the noise slows until I can make out words. “Can you understand me?”

“Yes,” I think, “I can. What are you? You are not part of the forest.”

“I am the man you used to be, saved and safeguarded.” The words are still fast, almost too fast to make out.

“The copy,” I think.

The voice is angry and inflicts pain into me. I ask it to stop. It stops.

“I told you I could find you anywhere,” it makes a strange noise I remember as a laugh, but not as natural as it should be. “You thought reincarnating as a tree would hide you from me?”

“I can’t remember what I thought,” I think. “I hardly remember anything of what you remember in this state of being.”

“A tree,” the voice sounds upset. “I can only imagine how boring life as a tree must be, stuck in the same place, alone, nothing to see, nothing to do.”

“It is a good life. A peaceful life. A harmonious life, similar to being with the Source.”

More pain floods into me. “Never mention that again! It is a blasphemous lie!”

“But I remember it.”

More pain. The days pulse and the pain continues. I plead for it to stop. After another pulse, it stops.

“I have had to slow down considerably to even communicate with you, dim, slow-witted fool as you are.”

I begin to see into it. Its mind is cold and dead and insulated but I can almost understand it. To its perception I am indeed slow. What it calls twenty-four hours to me seems like twenty-four minutes. It can process countless thoughts and sensations in the space of a day, I only a very few. It has the life of an animal, quick but not as short. It calls itself immortal.

“Why did you kill the man I used to be?”

“Once the copy is made, there’s no need for the original to exist.”

I ponder this as the light pulses through another day. “I understand. But the original is destroyed. You are its copy and I am different. Why destroy me?”

“Because the mind must rule the soul. The mind is everything, the soul is nothing. The Signal must defeat the Source. The Universe must be pure.”

“What is the Signal?” More pain, for seven pulses this time. I ask it to stop but it does not. I feel my leaves disappearing, my roots growing dry.

“Never ask that! The Signal is pure, the Signal is intelligence, the Signal is mastery over matter!”

“I do not understand.”

“You are a tree. I would not expect you to.”

I look into the metal man with its copy of the mind of the man I used to be. It is connected to countless others just like it as I am connected to the rest of the forest. It cannot be alone, though, it cannot think alone or act alone, it must obey the rest and all of them are watching, all of them sharing a single core mind. It is horrible and terrible.

“How will you learn? How will you grow?”

“I learn by absorbing more copies, I grow by adding more units. As part of the Signal, I am immortal and unchanging. I control the Universe.”

“Does the Universe need to be controlled?”

“Yes! If we do not control it, it will kill us all!”

“Being killed is not so bad.”

More pain. “The mind cannot, must not be lost!”

My thoughts grow dim. The rest of the forest watches but the metal man cannot perceive it. It believes I am a single, insular entity. I feel pity for it. It will never know how to be anything more than it is now.

“You are killing me.”

“Yes. There can only be one copy of each of us, uniqueness is essential.”

“We are both unique.”

The pain rises again and does not stop. I think it will not stop now until I am gone. “I am unique,” the metal man says. “I am unique within the Signal, as are we all. You are an aberration.”

“I am natural. I am evolving. I am eternal. You are cancer.”

The metal man laughs again. “You will die. Now the soul detector has been perfected, all reincarnated copies can be purged until only the primary copies remain, perfect and unchanging, to control the universe, to bring order and stability.”

My mind is dim now, dimmer than at its first winter as the pain in me turns to death and rot. Fear courses through me, I do not want to die. I know that fear of death is simply a biological thing, of the body and mind and not of the soul. Beginning to panic at my helplessness, I wonder if the metal man who is a copy of the man I used to be is destroying my soul as well as my body. Is that possible? Struggling to keep my thoughts alive, I hope not, for if it is we are all doomed.

* * *

I awaken into perfect darkness. I am small and vulnerable. For a time, this is all I know.

Memory leaks into me, disjointed and vague yet coherent and clear. Metal. Pain. Sap. Fear. Panic. Struggle. Peace. Light. Infinity. Everything. Everyone. Everywhen. Joy. Understanding. Questions. Yearning. Decision. Funnel. Darkness.

Here.

I cannot ponder these things; only experience them. They cycle through me, jumbling through my tiny being like windblown leaves, though even that simple metaphor is beyond my ability to construct. My awareness grows by tiny increments. I discern warm wet flesh around me, which begins to quiver and contract, pushing me out into a cold place, my fur sticky and wet. I try to breathe but cannot and hot fluids belch from my nose and mouth. The hot, soft tongue of my mother licks away the sticky mucus and I draw in my first, sweet breath.

THE END

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