Christopher Sand Iversen

The Free State of Palo Alto

A skinny guy in hippie throwback clothes stood in the thin morning sun in front of the old garage. Zip Vincent approached him. There could be no doubt that this was his man. The ancient industrial warren split off in all directions around him, dusty roads zig-zagging away between low, flat buildings with corrugated shutters, the cabs of long-disused lorries rusting where they had been left. Above one of the flat roofs the bright light cut out a ragged palm tree against the pale blue.

The guy in the 1960s getup looked Zip up and down before opening a steel door next to the corrugated shutter.

‘Dean,’ the guy said into the musty interior by way of introducing himself. They advanced into the dim light until they reached a little table with a few chairs dotted around; Dean snapped his fingers and a glowlamp turned on. Its bright aura revealed a bowl and a wad of succulent green weed lying on top of a little pile of tattered papers.

‘So…’ Dean motioned that Zip should take a seat, ‘you’re one of them wants to head down there.’

‘Well, I heard about it.’

‘Sure you did. No amount of hush-hush can kill a thing like that, if you’ll excuse my choice of words.’ He chuckled and a cough rattled around his bronchials. Zip smiled and added a chuckle of his own.

‘You’re quite sure about it?’ Dean said and began to thumb a clump of the juicy weed into the bowl. He focused intently on his handiwork, turning the bowl around by degrees and packing the weed in carefully.

‘Wouldn’t find me out here in a place like this if I wasn’t.’

Dean broke into a clattering laugh and picked up the everlasting lighter. After a couple of deep puffs he put the lighter down deliberately, balancing it on its thin end alongside the tattered papers, and laid his fingertips on them.

‘You heard about the teachings of the Divine Mortal?’

Zip nodded. He had heard all about them. When rumours of the cult had first surfaced, news had reached the general public of a passage torn from a book that had been spoken of as the cult’s sacred text. The text had in fact been circulated by sources close to the cult, in an attempt to lend weight to their cause. One of the more colourful stories in the media had been that the founders of the cult had been holed up in a crumbling villa in an abandoned Amazonian town. Forced to rip up the rotting wainscoting and floorboards for firewood, they had come upon the sheets, mildewed and bug-nibbled at the edges. One of the more aggressively sales-oriented media had attributed the cult members’ conclusion that this was a sacred text to their famished, semi-hallucinatory state. Palo Alto’s professors of literature had quickly identified the text as stemming from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, specifically the section numbered in conflicting editions as 175 or 302. As far as the secret police could ascertain, the certainty of this identification had apparently had no effect on the cult members, who persisted in regarding it as a sacred text, the conflicting numbers becoming instead the subject of numerological speculations.

Dean handed Zip one of the tattered pieces of paper, and as he had anticipated it was indeed that foundational text.

Sometimes I think with ambivalent pleasure of the possibility of creating in the future a geography of our consciousness of ourselves. As I see it, the future historian of feelings will perhaps be able to reduce to an exact science his own attitude towards his consciousness of his own soul. Meanwhile we are very much beginners in this difficult art, for it is still only an art, a chemistry of the feelings that has not yet got much beyond alchemy. This scientist of tomorrow’s world will have a special sensitivity to his own inner life. He will create out of himself the precision instrument necessary for its analysis. I see no great difficulty in making an instrument for self-analysis out of the steels and bronzes of thought alone. I mean by that, real steels and bronzes but ones that are forged in the spirit. Perhaps that’s how it really should be made. It may be necessary to come up with the idea of a precision instrument and physically see that idea before being able to proceed with any rigorous analysis of oneself. And naturally it will also be necessary to reduce the spirit to some sort of physical matter surrounded by a space in which it can exist. All this depends on a great refinement of our inner feelings which, taken to its limit, will no doubt reveal or create in us a genuine space like the space in which physical things exist but which, in fact, does not itself exist as a thing.

I don’t quite know if this inner space will be just another dimension of the other space. Perhaps future scientific research will discover that everything, whether physical or spiritual, is just a dimension of the same space. In one dimension we live as a body, in the other as soul. And perhaps there are other dimensions in which we experience other equally real aspects of ourselves. Sometimes I enjoy letting myself be carried away by this futile meditation on just how far this research might lead.

Perhaps they’ll discover that what we call God, and which is clearly on another level from that of logic and spatial and temporal reality, is just one of our ways of being, one of the ways we experience ourselves in another dimension of existence. This doesn’t strike me as impossible. Dreams may also be another dimension in which we live or even an overlapping of two dimensions. Just as a body exists in height, width and length who knows but that our dreams may exist simultaneously in space, in the ideal world and in the ego: their physical representation in space; their non-physical representation in the ideal world; their role as an intimate aspect of ourselves in the ego. Even each person’s ‘I’ may perhaps be another divine dimension. All this is very complex but doubtless in time it will be resolved.

Zip skimmed through it. He had read it before.

‘Do you think the ability to live for ever has given us a geography of our consciousness of ourselves?’ Dean said, having sucked on the bowl, and looked as though he were about to embark on a lengthy excursus. ‘Have our scientists expended any of their energy and resources on our inner life?’

‘I wouldn’t like to say I understand it all,’ Zip put in quickly, ‘that would be saying too much. But I feel I understand enough to benefit from the direct tutelage of the Philosopher.’

This mention of the cult’s philosopher caused Dean to take another long drag on the bowl before passing it over to Zip, who puffed on it circumspectly. It was good stuff, strong stuff but not too crazy, nothing that would turn you mute for four hours solid or induce the paranoid fidgets. It gave a good buzz and opened up a chamber of clarity in which thoughts could compound with one another and form new ideas. In this state Zip meditated upon the last few decades of post-Conditionalist rule, during which the rumours about the cult had arisen. Zip thought that the ideas of the Conditionalists were founded on good old-fashioned common sense. A fair and practical response to a very real and growing problem, as they would say. He smiled a wry smile. Ever since technological developments made in Silicon Valley had made it possible for almost everyone bar the very poor to live forever, to have every disease eradicated and ordinary ageing nullified through the regeneration of the body’s own cells, population numbers had exploded, far outstripping even the most rapid increases known in history. First in the Bay Area and LA, then the whole state, followed by numerous of the world’s wealthiest countries. The problem was as basic as it should have been self-evident: where to put everyone. The first response of the Governors of Palo Alto, a group who emerged from among the leading executives of Silicon Valley companies, was to expand into the surrounding federal states, in which there were vast tracts of desert that could be filled, and then down through Central America. Thanks to the advances in exponential energy made by the PONENT alliance of business interests, their military might was suddenly vast, and they had met with very little opposition. The Free State of Palo Alto, in effect California plus various annexations, had ceded from the United States after demonstrating its awesome firepower in the 72 Hours War, and was quickly recognised as a nation state all around the world.

Zip had no idea how long his wry smile had been plastered across his face. He still felt a mixture of horror and admiration for the way in which the Governors had then taken the liberty of seizing control of the entire Mid-West and advanced into South America, uniting the two continents as far south as the River Bíobío. Yet not even this vast territory would be able to contain the multitudes of the eternal for long. Faced with this, those who came to be called the Conditionalists advocated a number of restrictions. Firstly, placing an upper limit on the number of years a person could be allowed to live (300 was the favoured suggestion) and secondly, discontinuing the practice of revivifying those involved in high velocity hovermobile crashes. These suggestions had met with vehement protest from many quarters in the form of countless arguments, but most vociferously from those arguing that the principle of eternal life could not be subject to conditions of any sort: it had become a universal right in the Free State, and to undermine this right would be to undermine the very fundament of society.

Zip wondered whether his face had been frozen solid and his mind wandering for so long, that Dean had tried to gain his attention without him noticing. He considered that this argument of principle handily overlooked that the universality of the right was not quite universal enough to encompass the impoverished and voiceless. Neither did the principle hold when the Conditionalists lost the argument: they had been subjected to ‘life cessation’ and their bodies left to deteriorate under armed guard in the sun until their bones were so desiccated that not even the technologies of Palo Alto could bring them back to life. Henceforth death was declared illegal, and any form of euthanasia was banned as superfluous to human requirements. The problem of space would be solved precisely through the continuing exploration of space. The considered opinion of the Governors being that a suitable planet for colonisation would be sure to turn up soon, even though several candidates had already been rejected.

He passed the bowl back to Dean, who was fingering another of the scraps of paper. ‘One of our esteemed members, in reading the works of the Divine Mortal, came upon this passage, which bears the numbers 188 and 333. Which has of course,’ Dean said with emphasis, and Zip thought he perhaps even leaned forward a little solicitously, ‘great significance for members who are in touch with the mystical elements of the faith.’

Zip knew this passage well enough too. It ran: We are death. This thing we think of as life is only the sleep of real life, the death of what we truly are. The dead are born, they do not die. These worlds have become reversed for us. When we think we are alive, we are dead; we live even while we lie dying.

The relation that exists between sleep and life is the same as exists between what we call life and what we call death. We are asleep and this life is a dream, not in any metaphorical or poetic sense, but really a dream.

Naturally this was a great provocation to the Governors of Palo Alto, a direct refutation of their claim to have brought humanity everything it could crave, and at the same time canonical proof for the cult members that they were caught against their will in an inferior state of being, condemned to dream for all eternity instead of being freed into another world.

‘The Philosopher teaches,’ Dean said, having watched Zip take in the text, ‘that the desire for eternal life which our Governors have realised on our behalves, stems from an excessive preoccupation, he would say even an obsession, with objects, with things. In his words, we, humanity, have externalised the will to know, so that we have come to understand progressively less about ourselves as beings in the world and exponentially more about the objects of this world.’

Dean laid the bowl and lighter down on the papers, and said eagerly, ‘He has taught us that humanity has lost its knowledge of itself as embedded, immersed, enmeshed in the cycle of life that requires decay as the prerequisite of renewal. Pre-eternity populations knew this, you understand, but by the modern era it principally found expression in the ideas of believers and mystics of various persuasions — Christian, Buddhist, whatever — and this automatically devalued it in the eyes of precisely those post-religious scientific boffins who brought us eternal life, those who had most need of valuing those ideas.’

Dean sat back in his chair and spread his arms in a gesture of peroration. ‘His philosophy is the first to express humanity’s divorce from knowledge of itself with a pure logic of the spiritual, freed of mystic-religious overtones — that’s why the Governors are so afraid of it, because they now see so clearly what they should have paid attention to before.’

Zip thought about it, and since the weed was strong stuff he observed himself thinking about it. There were numerous points on which he could disagree with Dean’s view of the matter. He monitored himself thinking about how he could broach the topic, evaluating which arguments he would like to make. He opened his mouth to speak:

‘What if I want to go there?’

‘You mean you…’

‘If I want to go and take part… wherever it is they are.’

‘You mean you no longer want to partake of eternity on earth.’

Zip thought Dean’s phrasing came across a little devotional, considering. Maybe it was the import of the moment, its danger, but surely this tie-died spectacle had been through the situation before. He decided to take the plunge. ‘Yeah, if I wanna defect from the cause, so to speak.’

‘You know they take harsh measures with anyone even suspected of planning to go there.’

Zip nodded solemnly and wondered why else they were sitting there, rather than in an elevated cafe with hovermobiles whizzing past the enormous thermo-solar glass panels. Twentieth century visions of the future had always imagined elevation and vast glazed surfaces, another part of his brain reflected idly, and Silicon Valley had made it come true. He wondered what the Philosopher had to say about the non-mystic-religious purpose of vast glazed surfaces.

‘I can get you down there,’ he heard Dean say, ‘but first I have to scramble your chip.’

He nodded. ‘I understand. I guess I won’t have much more use for it anyway.’

‘I sure as hell hope you don’t,’ Dean said, and produced a phone-sized device, like the smartphones people used to have before you just called each other’s chips. ‘If I may be a little intrusive a moment,’ he said and stood up to get at Zip’s neck. Zip obligingly inclined his head so that Dean could get at the area below his right ear. He didn’t know where such a moment of trust came from, in this maze of disused lots.

Dean held the device over the chip for a few moments and then said, ‘There you go. Now it’s sending that you’re on your way back to your home.’ He paused, sat down again. ‘I’m going to tell you how to get there. Memorise it, don’t write it down. Repeat it back to me when I’m finished telling you.’

The hovermobile took twenty minutes to reach the final town, at the edge of the still thickly forested region, which had once been dense rainforest. He stepped out into a heat that clubbed him around the head, and broke into a profuse sweat. The rainforest was no longer thick with vegetation and life as it had once been, but it was still vast, and the Free State of Palo Alto hadn’t succeeded in revealing the secrets of its interior. He left the hovermobile at the parking space and ambled through the town. The shops and cafes were familiar to him, but the roads were made of earth; beyond the tops of the buildings rose the green wall of the forest rather than a glass skyline reflecting the light in countless refracted directions. On quieter side streets, if Zip listened carefully between the passing swooshes of hovermobiles, he heard unfamiliar noises, noises that he thought might be the sounds of the forest.

For all the satellite mapping of the Free State’s territories, with high definition cameras and x-ray cameras and ultra low light cameras, which could bring out almost any feature of the terrain in detail, they still had difficulty seeing what was going on beneath the thick canopy, down on the forest floor. In clearings, where the forest opened onto a river running deep within it, or thinned out on the slopes of a high range, animals could be made out on the ground or in the branches of trees, here and there snouts emerged from the surfaces of the rivers, very occasionally people were spotted. Usually they were hauling game behind them by the legs, and it was rumoured that a few images even existed of them tending a plot in a clearing.

He found the cafe, it was an old fashioned one at street level. The sort that otherwise in the Free State only existed in tourist destinations to cash in on the nostalgia trade, their number strictly regulated by the authorities. He ordered an espresso. After a few minutes, a woman came over from one of the other tables and asked if she could sit down. The barista busied herself with the cleaning of the espresso machine. Zip had been savouring the coffee, made the old fashioned way using a big machine and freshly ground beans from a nearby plantation. He was just thinking that what he had heard the nostalgia trippers say was true: it definitely was better then the vacuum brewed stuff they served in elevated cafes.

The woman took him past the edge of the town, along a path into the forest. The shade of dense, lush canopy overhead was a relief at first, but it was even more humid amongst the fecund vegetation. As they progressed along the winding path, the forest thickened and the number and variety of animal sounds increased. They walked for hours, and Zip, who was used to whizzing around in hovermobiles, was feeling it in his legs. The woman, however, struck on through the forest, her legs used to traversing the terrain. They ascended a number of steep hillsides, the incline and the humidity tiring him. They had begun moving through a more mountainous region, and to judge by the fall in temperature they had gained a significantly higher altitude. The air cooled further as evening quickly passed into nightfall, and the sweat which had lain in a thick film on Zip’s skin since they had entered the forest, now grew icy on his rib cage and back. For the first time he dared to complain, but as he was about to give voice to his ailments, she led them over a ridge and they looked down into a large bowl between the mountains, at the bottom of which there was a lake with a small settlement along its shores. From this vantage, Zip recognised it as one of the several lakes satellite imagery had captured during the intensive mapping of the Free State’s territories. The cameras had rendered the huts along the shore in more detail than his eyes possibly could. He shut his mouth and hastened in the wake of her descent into stickier air, where nocturnal insects harried his eyes and lips.

They arrived at last a hut made of logs and dried foliage, away from the lake and under the shadow of the mountainside, beyond the silver moonlight that etched contours out of the darkness. Inside, the space was lighted by some candles and a glowlamp, matted with the secretions of insects that had thrown themselves against it and been repelled by its hard, inorganic surface.

‘This is Zip,’ the woman announced to the faces turned towards them, and motioned for him to proceed around the circle of seated bodies to a man who was the focus of attention. Zip moved among them with ungainly steps, his head bowed under the low roof. Finally he reached the man, who stretched out his hand and and said, ‘I’m the Philosopher. You’ll have heard of me, since you’re here, and I’ve been expecting you.’

Before Zip had the chance to express acknowledgment or surprise, the Philosopher continued, ‘Tomorrow is the local tribe’s most important annual ritual, in which their chief will sacrifice gold to the lake.’ He paused, measuring the effect of his words.

‘We have our own ritual which we like to combine with their’s,’ he continued, eliciting smiles from those around him. Seeing that he had produced the intended look of incomprehension on Zip’s tired face, he let this remark hang in the air a few moments too, before explaining, ‘We dispose of all the chips we have accumulated in the course of the year. The ones we’ve removed from the people who come to us. My trusted Scribe here,’ the Philosopher indicated a woman to his left, ‘will in just a few hours’ time take a year’s worth of discarded chips to be placed by the tribal priests in one of the gold vessels. I fully expect your chip to be the latest addition. But before my trusted Scribe enacts the ceremony of partition, I would ask you to join us in the deliberation of this text. Recently this fragment of the Divine Mortal’s writings was found in one of the abandoned houses in a former colonial town some kilometres distant from here, where the local tribe have built their huts in the middle of the tree-lined avenues. We were in the middle of discussing it.’

The trusted Scribe read the fragment aloud for Zip’s benefit: Only they know that we are now the prisoners of the illusion they created for us. But what is the reason for this illusion, and why does this or any illusion exist and why is it that they, as deluded as we are, chose this illusion to give us? That, of course, even they do not know.

One of the others, whom Zip presumed to be a Candidate like himself, held that the writer of the text was speaking of gods, of a polytheist belief given the use of ‘they’, and their relationship to mankind: one of many expressions to be found in the old literature of human beings as the marionettes of the gods, and other such imagery. The Philosopher, however, asserted that the passage was prophetic of the current situation in the Free State of Palo Alto, in which the people lived under the illusion that they had been given their greatest desire, and that this dillusion, since it was invented by the Governors, was ultimately without reason or legitimate basis.

The discussion continued until it was time for the Scribe to deposit the chips. For the second time Zip surprised himself with a display of trust, inclining his head so that the Scribe cold get at his neck and extract the chip.

In the mid-morning, as the sun rose towards its zenith, more and more members of the tribe converged on the settlement by the lake. The Philosopher, the Scribe, Zip and the other Candidates wandered along the shore and encountered the great chief, his priests, and his retinue making a raft ready. It was to be paddled out into the centre of the lake during the ceremony. Members of the retinue were loading a large hoard of gold objects onto the raft, vases, drinking vessels, amulets, necklaces, while the priests attended to the chief, smearing him with the sticky red earth, and then with a layer of gold dust.

‘Gold has no monetary value for them,’ the Philosopher explained, ‘they amass it through trading and bartering with other tribes, solely to sink it into the depths of the crater lake. For this we look to them as a spiritually evolved people.’

Zip looked at the large vessels of gold and reflexively touched the pinhole wound on the back of his neck. His hand moved to his back trouser pocket, where the spare button was sewn in. Between his fingers the device easily unclipped from the button. It was now that he was to press the thumb pad and let the device reset his scrambled chip. He moved his hand to his front trouser pocket, the device resting loosely in the palm.

‘Oh yes,’ the Philosopher was saying to one of the others, ‘the crater is active. It makes the water acidic, but the gold remains more or less unaffected. Other materials that remain at the bottom of the lake,’ he smiled, ‘are of course eventually destroyed.’

The reset chip would begin transmitting its location again. If the waters were acidic, Zip thought, he had a limited time frame, maybe a matter of hours. He wondered just how thinly populated the forest must be. He looked along the shore of the lake and thought that if the entire tribe were assembled now, there must be kilometre after kilometre of habitable land.

The chief was now fully coated in gold dust, from his head to the soles of his feet. The Philosopher explained, ‘He will dive down to the bottom to survey the past sacrifices.’

The chief nodded his assent and spoke some words with an accent, the thickness of which could not hide from Zip a tone of distaste. The alloy of the device made his palm itch. The intensity of the heat and the light grew as the sun continued to rise. The Philosopher led the small group to a place from which they could observe the ceremony without disturbing the members of the tribe, who had begun to advance to the water’s edge.

His skin a landscape glinting in the bright air, the great chief surveyed the surface of the lake, his people silent along the bowl of the shore. As the raft slowly floated from the shore to the centre of the lake, he reverentially picked up the objects of gold which lay stacked around his feet on the raft and, one at a time, swung them in measured arcs into the water. Each breach of the placid surface was the only sound that broke the breathless silence. One by one the drinking vessels, statues of deities, amulets and bracelets were offered to the great god of the lake, consigned to its watery maw. In the stillness that encroached as each set of ringed ripples faded away, the great chief reflected together with his priests on the fruits of his people’s labour with the earth, which had brought so much of this golden colour from the other tribes. To him and his people its lustre was not of earthly life but the spectrum of their creation.

He gave the last of his golden offerings a splendid arc through the shimmering air. As the golden vessel broke the skin of the lake he sprang from the raft and arced through the air himself, the landscape of his golden surface glowing too. Then the chamber of the water closed around him. He propelled himself quickly to the depths of the lake, plummeting to its floor. There his offerings lay scattered about; as his eyes grew accustomed to the tenebrous depths, he saw that even here their golden colour still reigned. Older offerings, sunk by his predecessor, and by his predecessor’s predecessor, and by their many ancestors, lay lodged in the muddy deposits, their surfaces coated in sediment; he ran a finger over an ancient goblet, and under the murky residue the gold retained its glow.

He steeled himself against the desire to go up for air and brushed the surface of an even older offering, cast once from the hand of one of his forebears, which was sunk deep into the bed of the lake. It too retained its lustre. Then he saw the great god of the lake unleash the fire of its belly — red rivulets opened and ran across the bed of the lake, glowing hot against the cool body of the water. A landscape of fire seethed before his eyes: where it ran close to the objects of gold they lit up with a new rose-tinted cadence, where it collided with them they began to melt, the resplendence of the gold running amongst the dark sediments. Then the great god of the lake obscured its ire and the deep waters returned to the dusk of filtered light. Suddenly the chief heaved himself upwards and lashed at the waters with his legs until he could see the masses of it above him growing lighter. They turned lighter and lighter and then his face broke through the skin and he gulped a huge breath of air. Chest heaving, he took in more deep breaths as he felt cool droplets of water running down his face. From a little distance he saw the raft come towards him, and his priests offered their hands to raise him onto it. He saw that the gold dust was washed off him, the remains of earth and gold ran down him in streaks and his skin was once more that of his people, smooth and sunned. The last of the golden colour swirled on the surface of the water and away into the rippling sky, dwindling from sight like all the gold they had brought. And as the priests paddled the raft back to the bowl of the shore, the voice of his people rose in a great polyphonous clamour.

Once the craft had reached the shore again the chief and his priests made their way through the crowd of their tribe towards a large hut removed from the lake, a little way up the hillside. Zip stood marvelling at the sight, more firmly rooted than any plant that could spring up in the sediment at the water’s edge.

‘Pretty impressive, huh?’ he heard the Philosopher say, suddenly close at his elbow.

Zip opened his mouth to speak, but was slow finding words.

‘All that gold-,’ the Philosopher continued, but Zip interrupted: ‘Incredible how he walks so calmly, so uninhibitedly among his people. And that he was the one who took the dive — I mean how long was he down there? — that he puts himself in those situations so naturally.’

The Philosopher looked pensively at Zip, his brow furrowing into a quizzical look, as though Zip had really given him something to think about. The Scribe nudged at the Philosopher’s arm, however, and moved him on. They guided the Candidates in the direction of the large hut, along a path ascending into the forest that crept down the sides of the crater towards the shore. The chief and one of the priests looked up at the passing group, with sly smiles playing on their lips, so Zip thought. One of them said ‘Goodbye,’ with a grin and a strange flick of the eyebrows. Zip remembered the device rattling around at the bottom of his trouser pocket, and moved it back into his palm.

At a place where the path had begun twisting and rising steeply amongst the vegetation, he succeeded in dropping to the back of the group. He trudged there, at the back, dropping as far off as he could for a while. Then at a hairpin he took the opportunity to scramble quickly back down the path. He descended as fast as he could, not looking back, not daring. He heard no calls. He heard only the noise of his shoes slipping through the earth and unleashing a mini avalanche of stones and clods. As he was keeping balance with his arms outstretched, he let the device drop from his grasp into the undergrowth. Breathless, he reached the hut. One of the priests was still outside, tying something up in a bundle of broad, fibrous leaves.

‘Oh,’ he said, looking up, and then with a smile cracking across his face, ‘back from the dead?’

Zip stood there for some moments, catching his breath he told himself, but if he was more honest catching his thoughts. ‘Yes,’ he resolved to say at last. ‘Yes as it happens I was wondering about that.’

‘About?’ the priest busied himself with his fibrous leaves, putting some effort into the binding of them.

‘The Philosopher,’ he paused, ‘he seems to keep on coming back from the dead.’

‘Were you afraid to die after all?’ the priest said suddenly, though the smile persisted on his lips.

‘That wasn’t exactly what I meant… I was… it struck me, that your chief came back from, well, a rebirth…’

The priest finished his binding, his elbows no longer slashed at the air, and looked at Zip for a few moments. ‘You had better talk to him yourself if you’re interested. In fact, who are you,’ the priest moved lithely, and with a sinuous grip pulled Zip by the wrist into the hut.

Once he had been thoroughly searched, Zip was seated before the chief with the priests watching him carefully. The first one said to the chief, ‘He was in the head Palito’s latest group, but he didn’t want to give up his eternity. And then he-’

The chief signalled for silence.

‘Eternity held too strong an appeal for you. Or else the eternity of death seemed too daunting. Tell me, which is it?’

Zip thought for a moment. The longer he thought the more he felt the menace of the priests, their gazes studying every detail of him. ‘Neither the one nor the other…’ He decided there was nothing to do but dive in, and hope to resurface. ‘I don’t want to die today, especially not at the word of that so-called philosopher. But I don’t think, I’m not sure, suddenly, that I want to live forever either.’

‘Neither the one nor the other,’ the chief said, ‘they are one and the same, these two eternities.’

‘Oh fuck it,’ Zip said, deciding to plough on, ‘nonsense. I don’t want to hear more uninformed pseudo-philosophy. What do you know here about the eternal life the Governors have given us? What that clown has told you, waving his scraps of an old work of fiction around? I said that I don’t want the one or the other. What I’m saying is very simple, it leaves one option. Don’t you see, don’t you realise what it is that I’m saying?’

He saw that the chief’s hand was raised. He broke off, thinking that silence was being requested, then realised that the chief had forestalled the priests in seizing him. After some moments, during which the tension in the lithe bodies of the priests ebbed away and they sank back, the chief lowered his hand again and nodded thoughtfully. He shifted his gaze from some inner place straight into Zip’s eyes, and nodded more vigorously.

‘Give him something to eat,’ he said aloud, ‘and take him with us into the interior.’

Copyright © Christopher Sand Iversen. The passages from Fernando Pessoa are quoted from Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of The Book of Disquiet, copyright © 1991 Serpent’s Tail.