*This is a sample chapter (chapter 24) from volume 4 of Echo, where my protagonist Atriya realizes the nature of existence through a comic book. A few tidbits to add context: he has two teachers, Dake (the “bad cop”) and Lazarus (the “good cop”). Dake deconstructs Atriya through physical brutality on a daily basis, while Lazarus regenerates him through a pool of liquid charged with reality-bending magic. She speaks telepathically, which is why her communication is italicized and bounded by brackets. I made that choice for literary and aesthetic purposes. (I think it looks cool, plus brackets denote nonessential communication, which I believe would apply to individual words in a communicative medium as rich as telepathy).
Atriya abandoned strategy, and began each session by rushing his teacher. Dake took it in stride, and continued breaking him down with consummate ease.
After two weeks of this, the headmaster stated, “You’re not improving.”
Atriya didn’t reply. He flailed wildly and was swiftly countered (with a wind-stealing jab to the throat), disoriented (with a chain of high/low strikes), and crippled by a pair of vicious low-kicks. His broken thighbones ripped from his pants, protruding from the fabric like a bloody pair of fangs.
The Crusader fell on his butt, breathing in taut, furious gasps.
“You were getting better, but now look at you.” Dake gestured disgustedly at him. “You lasted less than a minute.” The headmaster eased down into a hunkered crouch, resting his forearms atop his thighs. “If you continue being childish, you’ll end up as nothing more than my goddamned practice dummy.”
The Crusader inched toward the hut, dragging himself backward on the flats of his hands. He kept his waist squared up, so as to keep his thighbones from scraping the earth.
“Fuck…you,” he hissed.
Dake shook with a humorless chuckle. “Fuck me. I see.” He rose from his crouch, eclipsing the sun with his lean frame. “I can do this for as long as it takes, Atriya.” He turned briefly away, then juked his hips into a sideways jerk, channeling his weight into a low roundhouse kick.
The Crusader’s eyes shot open. “Wait, no DON’T—”
Then Dake’s instep shattered his exposed femurs.
Later he would remember brief flashes: chips of red-washed bone flying through the air, along with the sound of his unchecked howls. Somehow, despite his pain-riven memory, he recalled his teacher’s parting words:
“You chose this, Atriya. It’s as easy or as hard as you want it to be.”
[How was your training?]
He looked down at his legs. They were both whole.
“I…tried to punish him.” Low and embarrassed.
[And how did that go?] She arched a sparkling eyebrow.
“You should know,” he muttered. “They call you ‘The Seer.’ ”
[I never asked them to.]
He threw her a skeptical look. “You’re not responsible for your followers’ actions?”
She opened her mouth. Closed it. He could tell by her expression that she wasn’t really stumped; she was struggling to articulate a difficult concept.
Finally: [It’s more like an agreement—an agreement made between me and them, as reflections of the Presence that are playing our parts.]
“I don’t get it. Did you verbalize this agreement, or—”
“Then what did I agree to? Did I agree to this?” He waved a hand down the length of his body. “Did I agree to get mangled, day after day?”
[Not as you are now.] Her brows knit together. [But yes—a deeper part of you did agree to it. It helps to think of yourself as two distinct beings: there is Kischan Atriya, and there is something greater.]
“ ‘Something greater?’ ” He leaned back, propping his elbows onto the edge of the pool. “So which one am I? The lesser or greater one?”
[Vilifying one leads to glorifying the other. You should explore both identities, until you’re able to perceive how they’re irrevocably intertwined. When you first become aware of this, you will experience the state called—]
“—Immersion,” he finished.
[That’s right.] she projected. [But in your case, you won’t be Immersed—you’ll become Deepened.]
“Why would I skip—”
[You’ve already been Immersed in another life. You’re not going to do it this time because…] she looked away. [There are certain things I can’t explain to you…not yet, anyways. If I were to simply tell you what they were, it would slow your progress or halt it altogether.]
Atriya sighed. “That’s what Dake says. As he’s kicking out my femurs.”
She smiled at him. [It’s not all bad. Try and look at it—]
“Easy for you to say. You’re sitting inside a mud hut that doubles as an extradimensional palace.”
[—from a wider perspective.]
He took a breath. Let it out. “Tell me more about this divided viewpoint. There’s the vantage I’m using—that of Kishchan Atriya—and then there’s a…a wider one, correct?”
She nodded. [Yes. But as I just said, both perspectives are one and the same. They appear to be different due to a lack of balance.]
“So you’re saying I lack balance?”
[You have to decide that for yourself.]
“Decide it for my—” Atriya scoffed. “I’ll just assume the answer is ‘yes.’ Assuming that it is, what would cause me to lose my balance?”
[Before I can elaborate, there are certain concepts that you need to grasp.]
She walked over to the wall on her right, where a small bookcase was carved into the stone. She reached into its top shelf, withdrew a plastic-sleeved comic, then walked back to the Crusader and knelt beside him.
[This will help.] She handled it carefully, as if it was a holy relic.
“It looks as old as…it looks as old as time,” he murmured.
[That’s why I’m showing it to you: so you can better understand the nature of time.] As she opened the wrapper, Atriya sucked a breath in through his teeth—careful.
The cover depicted an extremely fit man who was dressed as a bat. Appropriately enough, the title read BATMAN in bold, stylized letters.
[Go on.] she urged. [Take it.]
“I’ll tear it.”
[Even if you do, I have plenty more. Go on.] She inched the comic toward his chest.
“I…okay.” He accepted the book with tentative fingers. The paper was yellow, but it still possessed strength and flexure. “Amazing,” he whispered, flipping slowly through the pages. “I can’t believe that it’s still…that it’s still…” he trailed off, his eyes ticking back and forth across the frames.
[That it’s still intact?]
His mind was drawn into Gotham City. It was grim and dark, harsh and merciless…but in a strange way, it was also beautiful.
[You have a history with these.] Lazarus projected. [Most Seekers struggle to understand them. They can’t perceive still-frames as a comprehensive narrative.]
He glanced up at her, surprised. “Really? This is better than any holo I’ve ever seen…each picture captures the spirit of the action…” He ran his gaze over a double-page spread, drinking in the splendid artwork.
Aside from the lap of water and the rustle of pages, the palace was silent. A casual observer might have found them endearing: Atriya, wide-eyed and wonder-filled, and Lazarus—a woman who could have doubled as a radiant god—sitting together like spellbound children.
Eventually, he asked, “Why are you showing me this?”
Her dream-lit eyes crinkled with amusement. [To put things in perspective.]
His eyes crinkled as well…but in puzzlement rather than amusement. “I don’t understand.”
[On Old Earth, scientists built enormous machines that could manipulate quanta. They called them ‘colliders.’ These machines led to important discoveries, and opened the door to interstellar travel.]
“What does that have to do with comi—”
She projected in a mildly chiding tone: [I’m establishing context, Atriya. Without context, action is meaningless.] Her communiqué once again became conversational. [Colliders revealed certain truths about our existence…truths that may seem utterly preposterous to you.]
[We live in a hologram, the universe is flat, and time is an illusory construct—something that allows us to experience causality.]
Now he was really stumped. “I don’t understand.”
She gestured at the comic. [Say you’re a character.]
“Okay.” His voice was uncertain.
[Would you be able to detect your own flatness?]
He thought for a moment. “Not if I’m in the page, right?”
[Correct. If you were trapped in the book, you would be unable to perceive your own lack of depth. Now turn the page.]
He did so.
[Now turn it back.]
He did so again, feeling a little stupid.
[If no one turned the pages, then you wouldn’t perceive the movement of time.]
[But you as the reader perceives it. In this scenario, the reader controls it.]
“Right. But how does that—”
[Atriya, your view is that of the character. Your perception syncs with a forward turn, which is an analogy for your consciousness moving forward in time. This one-way flow is a necessary hindrance, because otherwise, nothing would make sense. Let’s say for example that you—as a character—observed an event that happened later in the story, but you saw it at the beginning. Well there’d be no story, would there? The event would happen for no apparent reason; you wouldn’t be able to discern a cause or a trigger. Do you understand what I’m saying?]
“I…think so…” Pressure was building in Atriya’s mind. Premises were combining and stacking, gathering a momentum that was both terrifying and wondrous. “I see from the character’s perspective…” he caught himself. “Currently. I currently see from the character’s perspective.”
She nodded, urging him on.
“And the reader’s perspective—where you can flip the pages back and forth, where you can see beyond the flow of time…I’m guessing that’s…Immersion?” He looked at her again. “Right? The Immersed see reality as it truly is. And the Deepened and Illumined—those are simply degrees of further refinement.”
She nodded again. By the set of her jaw he saw that she wanted to speak, but was disciplining herself not to.
“But there’s a third perspective, isn’t there? One that’s above the reader’s…and above the character’s.” He said this in a slow, careful voice.
Her eyes were boring into his.
“The third perspective belongs to the author.”
He felt a great lightening within his brain, as if invisible weights had dropped away from his head. The nerves in his body became alive and aware, and his flesh began to pulse with the same radiance that infused Lazarus’s skin.
Atriya laid the comic onto the pool deck and stared down at his upturned hands. Black globes blossomed in the center of his palms. Galaxies swirled down his arms and into the globes, like cosmic water down a celestial drain.
Lazarus was vibrating. Her features were blurring into indistinct outlines.
[This is how I see things, Atriya…with and without time. I am simultaneously a part of…and apart from.] She gave him a shimmering smile.
He looked back and forth between his otherworldly hands. “What’s going on? Why is this…why is this…”
[Why is this happening?] Her words had acquired a mechanistic affect—like they were coming through a glitchy speaker. [When you expand your perception, you acquire the ability to manipulate energy.] Her aura was pouring across the floor and winding through the air. [Actually…‘acquire’ is the wrong word for it. Think back to the premise that you are—at your core—something all-powerful that chose to relinquish its power. If that’s the case, you don’t ‘acquire’ anything; you simply rediscover your own potential.]
Kaia was blazing from his bones, flowing across him like a fiery tide. “If we were once omnipotent, why did we give it up?” His pupils vanished in a wash of halos.
[Indeed.] she projected. [Why would you—if you could control existence—give anything up?] She rested her hands atop her knees, palms facing up. Networks of fractals grew from her fingers, winding toward the ceiling in sinuous chains.
Responses formed in his brain and melted apart. He closed his eyes and turned away, but the gesture was futile; glowing outlines appeared on the blacks of his lids. A second later, he could no longer tell if he’d shut his eyes.
Because he saw everything around him as if they were open.
Atriya clutched his head. [Stop—I can’t take it.]
[You can.] The fractals in her hands lurched, trembled, and bounced outward. Tessellated patterns sprouted and crisscrossed, filling the palace with intricate blaze.
[What are you, Atriya? Character, reader, or author?]
He tried to process the words, but their very definitions slipped from his mind. [Which…character…which…]
[Yes.] Ancient patterns swirled through her eyes. Snakes, taos, spirals…
[Which one are you?]
He tried to respond. [I can’t…I’m…]
[What are you, Atriya?]
*In Echo 4, I inserted a page break here. I wanted the final realization in this chapter to visually take advantage of a full page of space, so the reader’s eye would be drawn to the epiphany and nothing else.