The office was compact and spare, with white walls, green carpet and a faint, yellowish light which was more apt to bedside reading than clerical work. Renton had a modest desk with a green deco-style lamp, some papers and an ancient looking rotary telephone. A secretary was seated at a smaller desk at the far side of the door, typing and smoking. She had sleek black hair, pale, almost translucent skin, green eyes and full lips whose redness startled the nameless man. She had the strange quality of eroticism and inertia which he found characteristic of the technocrats. He glanced at her as Renton ushered him into the office, but her attention remained fixed and distant, exhaling a plume of smoke that shrouded her face in the dim light.
Renton, in contrast, exuded concern and conviviality. He saw the nameless man to his seat and sat down opposite, studying him with a physician's earnest and helpful gaze. The nameless man's first impulse was to lean over the desk and attempt to throttle him, but Renton's air of suave civility was disarming. They sat regarding one another for a moment, the only sound in the office the steady clack of the typewriter and a distant hum of machinery. Finally, Renton spoke in a gentle, mellifluous accent:
'Well, you don't seem too bad, all things considered. It's a difficult process, but you seem to be bearing up to it. Do you remember anything?'
'Nothing at all? Even your name?'
Renton looked down at the nameless man's breast pocket.
'Did you check your passport?'
The nameless man reached into his pocket and found, to his astonishment, a passport. He opened the document and studied it. The picture was of the stranger whom he'd discovered in the terminal to be himself: the same timid features, pale blue eyes and sandy hair. Though much of the passport was written in a language unfamiliar to him, there was a name beneath the photograph: MARK WILLIAM SMITH.
'So my name is Mark Smith?'
'Yes', Renton beamed.
'It sounds made up.'
'Well, aren't all names?'
Mark turned to glance briefly at the secretary, who continued typing impassively, then back to Renton.
'What's she writing?'
'Oh, I wouldn't worry about that, it has nothing to do with our situation. Her presence here is largely theatrical. She is here because you expect her to be here. The environment, you see, is responsive to archetypal patterns of memory, and she corresponds to a wider complex of expectations. But she is working, of course, we're not wasteful. As to what she is working on, well, suppose that somebody, somewhere, is subject to an idea or an impression which seems to emerge out of the thin air – a strange, fugitive notion which doesn't derive from their own experiences or thought processes. Where do these notions come from? Well, it might be that such things are simply a mystery, or it might be that whenever a person experiences such an idea or impression, in some other place a secretary like Marlene there is dutifully typing up the crux of the matter, and her typewriter is in a sense a transmitting device.'
Mark turned back to regard Marlene again. She didn't show the slightest awareness that they were discussing her, and continued to work as though she were alone in the room. She typed with an extraordinary rapidity and lack of apparent mental exertion, as though a text were being dictated to her. She exhaled her cigarette, and her features were lost again in the slowly curling plume of smoke. Mark swung back to face Renton.
'What is this place? You have to tell me what's going on here.'
'Oh, of course, that's what I'm here for. But I can assure you that you just won't believe me at first. That's why I want you to promise that you won't actively resist what I'm about to tell you – you will, at least for awhile, indulge me, and entertain what I'm telling you. The process is difficult, but it will run more smoothly if you do just that much.'
'You want me to believe whatever you tell me?'
'No, I didn't say that. I'm not saying that you must accept what I'm telling you – only that you should entertain it. How else does one come to believe things, anyway? It seems to me that, when approached without preconceptions, all things must be equally fantastical and difficult to credit. The everyday is really only those fantastical things which impinge upon our attention with the more boorish persistence. So we acquire our beliefs by entertaining more or less queer notions, until such a time as their reality becomes undeniable. This is what will happen to you in Intermundia Airport.'
'Well, go ahead then.'
Renton opened a drawer in his desk and produced a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. He poured two measures and gently pushed a glass in Mark's direction.
'Well, there's good news and bad news, Mark. Let's start with the bad news. You are recently deceased.'
Renton's face and the timbre of his voice sank in an actorly modulation to condolence.
'You recently died. I'm very sorry.'
His face brightened almost instantaneously, and he stretched out his arms in an expansive gesture:
'But take cheer, Mark, the good news should be rather obvious by now: the rumours of death's finality have clearly been grossly exaggerated!'
Mark gaped at the strange bureaucrat, then took the glass and gulped back its contents. The whiskey burned his throat and he felt an intense wave of nausea grip his body. When this passed, he felt an involuntary, light-headed calmness.
'So my is name is Mark Smith and I'm dead?'
'Well, more or less, but not quite. Do you have any memory of the concept of reincarnation or transmigration?'
'The words are familiar but I don't know what they mean.'
'Well, they mean basically that a person leads many different lives. When they die, it's really not the end but only a new beginning. Night falls, and they must go to sleep, but the sun will rise again in the morning, and they also to a new life, a new round of pleasures and pains and all the strange business and exigencies of life, with only a fleeting awareness here and there that they have done it all before, many, many times. So you are Mark Smith, but you are also that unitary principle – let's call it a soul for convenience – which has persisted through all these myriad prior incarnations. But Mark Smith is dead, and will linger on only for a short while in this intermediate condition, until such time as you let him go, and go back to do it all again in a new identity.'
'Do you really expect me to believe any of this?'
'Well, I told you already you wouldn't at first. But, Mark, you have to be honest with yourself – you've surely had some suspicion or intimation about what was going on here all along. What other explanation, really, is tenable, for all the things you have seen today?'
'Okay, lets say I go along with you, for argument's sake. Where is this place?'
Renton sighed, and poured another glass of whiskey for Mark.
'Well, that's rather a difficult question. This is no place, really. We are currently occupying – if you'll permit the rather loose use of the term – a realm outside of space and time. What you might have called a void or a vacuum, if those words ring any bells.'
'So there is no time or space here?'
'And yet we're sitting on chairs, talking. And there is a clock on the wall.'
'Well, yes, it is a little difficult to wrap one's head around at first. Logic, you see, is a formalized property of time and space. Once one steps outside those parameters, such niceties as the law of non-contradiction are no longer applicable. Let me try to sketch out the territory to make things a little clearer for you. Time and space is the natural element of the human soul. When one incarnation ends and the physical body dies, the soul is extracted from its natural medium, rather like a fish taken out of water. And this process is very traumatic, very perilous, to the soul. There is a danger that the soul will lose its integrity and continuity – that its sense of self-identity will be obliterated in the immensity of the void. The fish, after all, dies in the upper world, just as the human drowns in the depths of the ocean. Luckily, however, the soul has evolved a fail-safe mechanism to maintain its integrity. That mechanism resides in the persistence of habit and memory. The soul continues to do in the void precisely what it did in the physical world, albeit with only its memories to replace the world itself.'
'Meaning what, exactly?'
'Are you aware of the concept of the phantom limb?'
Mark shook his head.
'It is a curious medical phenomenon. Say that a person loses a limb – an arm or a leg – in some catastrophe. After the amputation, perhaps continuing for a period of years, the person is haunted by the sensory conviction that the absent limb is still extant. Now logically, of course, they know that this is not the case, but experientially, the sensation is exactly as though an arm or leg were present. So what is happening? Well, we must assume that the brain, following its habitual interactions with the nervous system, is projecting the absent member's continuity over the void which has replaced it. Though indistinguishable from the sensation of real flesh and blood, it is but a memory of neurons and nerve-endings, a maudlin artifice of mechanistic biology.'
'Well, that's very interesting, but what's the relevance to me?'
'Well, the relevance, Mark, is that your physical body is dead and faraway from here. The body that you currently inhabit is an eidolon composed entirely of memory. There is no flesh, no corpuscles, not a single material atom in your entire frame – only a memory of the last body your soul inhabited, maintained by habit and projected onto the emptiness of the void.'
Mark took the glass and swallowed the second measure of whiskey. After another wave of nausea and elation, he patted his knees lightly and pressed his palms together.
'Well, it all feels very – solid and tangible to me.'
'Yes, it is absolutely the same – on an experiential level – as having a physical body. But it is made of your thoughts, simply clumped together into a localized and continuous form by force of habit. The entire reality of Intermundia – your own body, and everything which you can see and touch around you – is of a mental rather than physical constitution. Like a dream, in a sense. It is a rather disorientating thing to get your head around at first, but really I wouldn't dwell on it too much – it's business as usual, to all intents and purposes.'
Mark had a strong sense that he should have been arguing with Renton, expressing his disbelief vociferously, and demanding that the bureaucrat spare him further nonsense, and come to the truth of the matter. However, he was exhausted and becoming more than a little drunk, and he had to concede that he'd been troubled throughout the day by an intimation that Intermundia was some kind of non-ordinary reality, or, more precisely, a hyperreality which carried with it disquieting associations with universality and death. Though he was not quite persuaded by Renton, he found himself hypnotized by the bureaucrat's peculiar mixture of dry civility and erudite madness. He found, in short, that he was playing along.
'So all this place is made up of my memories?'
'No, not your memories. Your own body, that is a product is of your individual memory. The environment, on the other hand, is a product of collective memory. It is generated by all the souls that pass through here. Let's say that the soul in this place is in transition between two distinct states of being. Now the soul simply can't process that experience in its raw state. The whole thing is just too unfamiliar, too alien and jarring. So the soul does what it habitually does when faced with the unknown and unknowable – it translates them into something familiar and comprehensible. Now the soul, in each particular epoch, has an iconic or archetypal image which encapsulates the idea of transition from one state to another. In the epoch prior to yours, it was a boatman ferrying the traveller across a gloomy subterranean river. For people who lived and died in your era, the over-lit and mechanized airport is the perfect communal image to encapsulate the idea of transition. So this world in which we find ourselves is partially true and partially imaginary. It is a concretized communal memory and a metaphor. How does it feel to ramble around in a metaphor?'
Mark pored himself a third drink.
'The trains are better in fables.'
Renton issued a loud boom of laughter.
'Yes, well, in some respects it really is remarkable how detailed and consistent this world is, considering that it is at bottom a shared hallucination. But it has its...little quirks and foibles, as you have no doubt noticed.'
'What exactly am I supposed to do here, anyway?'
'That's more of the good news. You don't really have to do anything. Just rest up. Recuperate. Take stock. Get ready for another go at it. Your memories will come back to you very shortly. Generally, they come all in one instant. Well, for some people, the process is slower and more piecemeal. But generally speaking, it's all in a flash. And you have to prepare yourself for that. It is a very emotionally overwhelming experience. You'll need a little time, after that, a little rest. And then, well, you're ready to book yourself a flight. Ready to be born again. We've booked you into the Intermundia Overnight for your Interim. It's not ideal.....but perfectly adequate.'
'But, who are you, exactly?'
'Well, I'm Renton, your case officer.'
'I mean, what are you? Who do you represent?'
'Lets just say that we are dutiful functionaries – we are here to insure that the process runs along smoothly. We are here to help.'
'And that's all you are prepared to say about it?'
'Well, are you a person?'
Renton's face became momentarily blank and expressionless.
Mark's head began to swim, and it was though as the world were a signal subject to electromagnetic static, with Renton's immobile face a still centre around which everything else buzzed and shimmered out of focus. The bureaucrat's features brightened again.
'I am personable though!'
He rose from his seat.
'Well, I think that's more than enough for our first session together. Who knows, perhaps it will be our last? The guards will escort you back to the terminal you arrived at, and you can get yourself settled into the Overnight. Show the fish a wide berth! Take everything nice and easy, and I promise you will be on your way back to the world of the living in no time!'
Renton shook Mark's hand, and began to guide him gently towards the door, but Mark paused and eyed him suspiciously.
'You said when I came in that we'd met many times before.'
'Yes, I'm your case officer, Mark.'
'But you also said that there was no time here. So how could we have met many times before?'
Renton smiled indulgently.
'You really shouldn't concern yourself overmuch with the physics – or rather mentalics – of Intermundia. However, you are correct in a sense. From your perspective, we have met many times before. From mine, it would be more accurate to say that we are meeting many times. Elsewhere in Intermundia, I am currently meeting all of your past selves, and all of those to come. So you see that we really are very old friends, Mark.'