“Don’t you think it’s strange?” said Captain Bill Trout, as he closed the hatch behind them.
“Don’t I think what’s strange?” said Abe.
Abe considered this for a moment.
“I do now,” he said.
The bridge of the Psychonautilus wasn’t what he expected, not that he knew what he expected. Something a little more maritime, perhaps. A ship’s wheel, maybe. An engine room. Levers. Crewmen. Some rope. But it was as if he’d walked into a traditional English pub; dark brocade wallpaper of maroon and gold covered the walls, and there was a fully functional oak bar running down one side. Comfortably worn seating arrayed the other; and a long table, with an old Johanna in the corner. A leather-topped Edwardian pedestal desk, seaman’s chest and pair of heavy walnut bookshelves equipped the near end. Abe spotted copies of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Origin of the Species, the Communist Manifesto, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads, as well as volumes by William Blake, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Meister Eckhart, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. There were others that he didn’t recognise at all, by people he’d never heard of. The Doors of Perception, the Way of Zen, the Psychedelic Experience, the Lord of the Rings, Slaughterhouse Five, the Gospel of Thomas, Alcoholics Anonymous. There was more to Bill Trout than met the eye.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” said Abe.
“I haven’t done anything with it,” replied Trout, “it’s constantly changing. When I went ashore this morning it resembled a French patisserie. Probably because I was thinking about breakfast. It reflects whatever is going on in the mind. I wonder where the cat’s got to.”
“A ship’s got to have a ships cat. It’s traditional.” He pulled half a roast chicken from under his reefer jacket. “Shakespeare!” he bellowed, “Where the hell are ya? I‘ve got breakfast.”
There was a sudden explosion, obscuring the bridge beneath an acrid scud of smoke. Through it, faintly at first, but rapidly increasing in volume and proximity, came the unmistakable sound of the William Tell Overture, and the hooves of a thousand thundering warhorses. Abe congratulated himself on his earlier decision to take some fukkummuppa root. If he hadn’t been tripping he might’ve gone quite mad.
“Well hello,” a voice both haughty and sardonic greeted him from the vicinity of his ankles, “you must be the addlepate we’re taking to London. You have the honour of greeting Shakespeare, first officer and ships cat. Chicken is it, Bill? Spot on. You can have enough of fish, you know.” He hefted his fat ginger and white body up onto the bar and began to pulverise the chicken. “Fish, fish, bloody fish.” Pausing for a moment, meat remnants hanging depravedly from the corners of his mouth to address Abe once more, he said: “I hope you don’t mind my eating while you lollygag around the place. I’m quite famished.”
“Not at all,” replied Abe, “all those parlour tricks must build up a hunger.”
“Parlour tricks?” snorted the cat, with as much pique as he could muster; “how dare you, sir. I’ll have you know that I am a warlock of great power, a master arcanist, and a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Aleister Crowley is a close personal friend of mine. But not that detestable poet fellow, whatshisname. Yeats. I can’t bear the man.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Abe.
“Granted,” replied Shakespeare. “Bill, darling, could you pop a drop of scotch in my saucer of milk, please. Hobnobbing with the common folk rather brings on a thirst.”
“You mustn’t mind Shakespeare,” Trout came from behind the bar with jugs of ale for Abe and himself, “he’s not normally so unctuous. It’s only when we have guests. He likes the attention.”
“Oh, please!” Shakespeare spat out a mouthful of chewed up fowl; “I couldn’t care less about guests. I’m a cat, in case it’s escaped your notice. I’d come over and stick my rear end in your face, except I don’t want your beard all over it.”
“Eat your chicken, you awkward animal.”
Abe and Trout took their beers and repaired to the long table.
“As I was saying,” Bill continued, “the deck of the Psychonautilus changes with the thoughts and ideas that are prevalent in the mind. We’ve both been thinking about England, hence the décor.”
“Right,” acknowledged Abe, although he suspected the old fellow was as boiled as an owl.
“Well then,” said Trout, wiping the foam from his beard and thumping his jug down on the table, “time to raise the anchor and hoist the mainsails.” He went off to rummage through his chest, adding over his shoulder: “A figure of speech. We have no anchor or mainsails. We don’t even have an engine.”
“No engine?” said Abe, “What powers the ship then?”
“Consciousness,” declared Trout.
“Excuse me?” Abe ejaculated in amazement, spraying beer and sputum everywhere. It was clearly about time for some more fukkummuppa root.
“Consciousness. The Psychonautilus is powered by consciousness, which is why it reflects the ideas in the mind. The mind is nothing but consciousness, taking on shapes, appearing as thoughts and emotions. The same with the Psychonautilus. It is consciousness taking a shape. At this particular moment, the shape of a rather well appointed public house.”
“Then how can you touch it and taste it and smell it? You’re pulling me by the gonads, old man, I wasn’t born yesterday.” Stamping his foot on the floor and rapping upon the table in the manner of Dr Johnson, Abe refuted it thus: “The floor and table are solid.”
“Yes,” agreed Bill, “it’s a very convincing illusion. As is the world. As is the universe. And yet the fact remains; they are nothing but consciousness appearing as something else.”
He came back to the table clutching an illusory cigar box, and it started to drizzle.
“My God!” exclaimed Abe, “what’s going on now? It’s raining!”
“Yeah, sorry, my bad,” said Trout. “I’d got to thinking about the Welsh hillsides. But never mind that. We have a long journey ahead of us, and for that we need fuel.” He handed Abe a handful of shifty looking dried mushrooms. “Eat these, and we’ll be on our way.”
“What are they?”
“They’re mushrooms. Magic mushrooms. From the Welsh hillsides. We can’t go anywhere without weighing anchor. Think about it like this; your mind is the sail, the mushrooms are the wind.”
“Hey, you don’t need to convince me,” said Abe, eyeing the grass that was growing under his feet and the bewildered herd of sheep milling about the poop deck, “I’m a big fan of stuff like this.” He swallowed his mushrooms, which were repulsive, washing them down with the dregs of his beer. “Are you familiar with the fukkummuppa root?” he asked Bill.
“Can’t say I’ve ever had the pleasure,” said Trout. “It’s very hard to come by, so they say.”
“Yes, it is,” said Abe, and then, turning to look pointedly at the cat; “but Mr Midnight, the witchdoctor, is a close personal friend of mine.” So saying, he put the bag of powdered root on the table. “If we’re going to go travelling, we might as well travel in style.”
“You wouldn’t know style if it bit you on the arse,” said Shakespeare.
Captain Bill Trout came from the future. He was born on Mars, one of three off-planet colonies, in the year 2055. Exploration was in his blood. His parents had both been officers in the United Navy, and were amongst the first to move out to the colonies. The Earth hadn’t been in a particularly good way in the twenty years or so prior to that, which was why the decision to build colonies had been made. After years of being polluted with carbon emissions and atomic waste, gluttony and avarice, it was barely habitable. The animals were dying out, and the humans were being born deformed or retarded.
Scientists had been warning everyone for years, since the late 20th century. They’d warned about pollution as the number of gas-guzzling vehicles doubled, tripled, quadrupled. So the Earthlings bought more SUVs. They’d warned about global warming, the damage to the ozone layer and the melting polar icecaps. So the Earthlings became three car families and took more jet flights. The blame for this could be laid squarely at the feet of successive right-wing neoliberal governments. By the beginning of the 21st century, governments – for the most part – were little more than money making entities. Capitalism had been an unmitigated disaster; all that had happened was that one percent of the population controlled all the wealth. The reason Capitalism had been such a failed ideology was because it was based on greed. Unless something had a monetary value, it had no value. Consequently citizens of low earning capacity were demonised as “scroungers” and feckless layabouts, and with every year that passed there were more of them.
The oil ran out in 2020.That pissed everyone off. Within a few years the planet was littered with the rusting carcasses of automobiles, and humanity had come to rely solely upon nuclear power, throwing up monstrous and menacing power stations that poisoned the countryside for miles around. Years earlier, some of the more environmentally conscious Earthlings had championed the idea of wind and solar power, but the rich and their puppet governments didn’t like the idea of that. Sunshine and air were free, after all. And you couldn’t make bombs with it either. No, nuclear power; that was the ticket.
As a result of this, and the ensuing atomic catastrophes that would eventually leave the Earth a dead and barren wasteland, by the year 2030 the population of the Earth had shrunk to less than half; only three billion souls were left. Apart from a privileged few - the very ones who had orchestrated this disaster – the inhabitants of Earth lived in varying degrees of poverty and disease. Great swathes of the population had been dispossessed; they lived amongst the filth. Finally, and inevitably, the day came when the people rose up against their oppressors. They armed themselves however they could, and stormed the government buildings; the bastions of the wealthy. In England, the houses of parliament were besieged and those inside were finished off with blunt instruments and automatic weapons. Buckingham Palace was ransacked and put to the torch, and the royal family were rounded up and unceremoniously shot. After that the citizens of the world shared what was left, with each other. There was only one purpose for humanity now, and that was to prevent its own extinction. For this they looked to the stars. The projects for the colonisation of Mars and the Moon were already well underway, and now, miles out in space, work began on “Earthstation”; a space station capable of accommodating twenty thousand people.
The environmental conditions on Terra Firma were deteriorating, rapidly. The land was corrupt, the atmosphere was toxic, and the heat was blistering. It was obvious to everyone that there wasn’t much time left. It was also acknowledged that only a handful of the Earths inhabitants would make it off the planet. Even with the population of the planet shrinking drastically every year, there would still be a couple of billion left. There wasn’t enough time to find a way to move them all, and there was nowhere to move them to. All in all, 144,000 would go out to the space station and the colonies. The others were as good as dead.
Earthstation was completed in 2050. The twenty thousand future occupants were chosen by means of a lottery, and the next few months were spent shuttling them all out there. Finally, the remaining 124,000 left the Earth, escorted by the United Navy’s entire fleet; 44,000 heading to the Moon, and 80,000 going on to Mars.
Bill Trout’s father, Steve, was Captain of the New Morning, one of the transportation ships. His mother, Barbara, was the ships chaplain. She was a minister in the Church of the Words of the Living Jesus, a humanist sect that took the Gospel of Thomas for its text, and believed that the message of the gospels in the New Testament had been perverted by St Paul the Bastard, and the teachings of Christ twisted out of all recognition by the church ever since. Religion had undergone a huge revival in the twilight days of the Earth. Now that the human race had been so thoroughly disabused of the notion that life was all about material gain, they were at a loss. What, if anything, was its purpose? Numerous apocalyptic cults sprang into existence, and the churches, mosques and temples of traditional religion saw attendance sky rocket, as did the psychiatric and mental health professions. Twelve-step recovery groups sprang up on every corner.
The Admiralty was in the Borealis basin, the flattest part of the colony, and it was here that the young Captain and his wife lived, under a self-renewing environmental dome. With the evacuation of Earth complete, the Navy concerned itself with further exploration of the galactic quadrants, with a view to building further colonies. They’d be needed sooner rather than later, because in the first five years on Mars the population doubled in size. Escaping extinction seemed to have given the colonists a new lust for life, and they were reproducing feverishly. Steve and Babs were not immune to the pervading air of randiness, and they had three tiny Trouts, one after the other.
Little Bill was the last to be born, in the summer of 2055, perfectly bald, but with a magnificent beard. There were a lot of hairy kids that year; the public put it down to high levels of potassium in the soil. That autumn the People’s Council announced that any more children right now wouldn’t be in the public interest, and requested the citizens to stop it, please. Prohibited from making any more babies, the populace turned their attention to other pursuits, such as starting schools and crèches for the ones they did have. They were determined to make a better job of education than they had on Earth, and because their dearly held beliefs about life and the universe had been destroyed by its extinction, as completely as light destroys darkness, the whole colony had the beginner’s mind of an infant. For the first time in mankind’s illustrious history, the entire human race knew that they knew nothing. It marked the beginning of a huge evolutionary leap for the species, as they came to find that they were one with the cosmos, and a golden age that would forever after be known as the Revelation.
It was an idyllic Martian childhood for Bill and his sisters, Teri and Tara. The demise of man’s empire-obsessed, greed-fuelled orgy of materialism, and the rabid individualism that was its cause and effect, saw the end of industrial scale agriculture, mass manufacture and the stockpiling of food and resources; the people returned to a more pastoral way of life. Under the life preserving sky-dome, they cultivated the red dusty land as well as they could, wove cloth, and contributed to the communal treasury. The colony was a colourful, exciting place. The pavements were a hive of activity; a confusion of sculptors, blacksmiths, and glassblowers’ stalls, of apothecaries, tailors and potters; musicians, magicians and street performers could be seen on every corner. The children attended school and stayed within the environs of the colony until the age of ten, when they became Navy cadets for a period of five years.
Young Bill was overjoyed at the prospect of joining his father on the New Morning when he was on a mission, rather than being left behind with the littl’uns. He had an enquiring mind, and there was nothing he wanted more than to be in the Navy and explore what was “out there”. His sisters happily returned to planet life after their cadetships, to teach at the school, but Bill was a born spaceman. He was a bright boy, so after his cadetship came to an end he was enlisted as a Warrant Officer, the highest non-commissioned rank in the Navy, on the auxiliary ship Exodus, where he excelled. By the time of his sixteenth birthday, he was a Lieutenant, and a year later he had achieved the rank of Lieutenant-Commander. At the age of eighteen he was made Commander on one of the new Explorer class vessels, the Warrior of Light, on its maiden voyage; a voyage that was to last three Mars years, and take the crew 2.5 million light years across intergalactic space, from the Milky Way to the edge of the Andromeda Galaxy.
The crew of the Warrior of Light were two years into the mission when they started to pick up signals of some sort from one of the star systems on the Andromeda Galaxy’s outer edge. They pinpointed the source to a terrestrial planet with three moons, and commenced to broadcast a return signal, which, as it happens, was Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sent in a wave of subatomic particles.
The planet with which they had made contact was called Mithya by its inhabitants, who were as alien to the crew of the Warrior of Light as the Mars scientists could have hoped for. They were hermaphrodites and telepaths who shared a collective mind; their skin was a luminescent pearly white. They didn’t give birth, in fact they weren’t born at all, in the sense that the humans understood it. They came forth from giant white lotus flowers, like pearls out of oysters. And when their lives were spent, there they returned; to the white womb of the lotus flower. As different from one another as the two races surely were, the Mithyans made their visitors welcome, and the Martians stayed with them for several weeks.
The Mithyans were explorers, but of a wildly different kind. Their interest lay in the intimate knowledge of awareness. It was they who discovered how to traverse the ocean of existence in a ship made out of thoughts and powered by consciousness. When Commander Trout learned of the existence of such ships he made it his business to learn everything about them. He spoke to the Mithyans at length, and recorded it all in a book. In order to empty their minds prior to existential exploration, the Mithyans chewed a fungus-like shrub that they called Soma.
“Chew some Soma and you’ll be flying,” they told him.
The crew returned to Mars as conquering heroes two years later, and a national holiday was declared, which would continue to be observed in the years to come, as “Explorers’ Day”. At the tender age of 22 years old, Bill Trout was given his own command, another Explorer class ship, the Atom Heart Mother, making him the youngest Captain in recent naval history. He took it in his stride. To be the Captain of his own spaceship was what he’d always wanted, to be sure, but now he had a far loftier goal. He intended to create his own thought ship, and fly it right into the heart of consciousness.
Bill had six months shore leave, and he meant to make the most of it. He had brought back a chest full of Soma, a parting gift from his friends on Mithya, and requested one of the Navy’s top biochemists to find a quick and efficient way of either growing or reproducing it. He searched the libraries for books on the nature of existence, and started to rise an hour before sunrise every morning so he could meditate, and focus his attention on purifying his mind. He looked into the spiritual traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christian Mysticism, Advaita Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism, before becoming convinced that they all spoke of knowledge of the same truth, albeit with different words and varying methods. The emptiness of the Buddhists was the consciousness, or “Brahman” of the Vedantins and Shaivists, and the nondual God of the Christian Mystics. He also read The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, which further convinced him that when a person underwent a genuine mystical or “enlightenment” experience – no matter what their cultural or spiritual background - they experienced the same thing that everyone else experienced, and the truth that was revealed to them was the same truth that was always revealed.
When his tour of duty rolled around, and he took the Atom Heart Mother into deep space on its maiden voyage - another three year trip – every moment away from the bridge was spent in his cabin, where he studied the teachings of Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharishi, the Doctrines of Meister Eckhart, and the Tao Te Ching, as well as reading comparable works from more recent western philosophers such as Eckhart Tolle, Alan Watts and Douglas Harding. He also ate a lot of Soma.
By the time the Mother returned to Mars, he was 25 years old, and ready to build his ship.
The Mithyans couldn’t have been more explicit in their instructions for building a thought ship, as Bill had recorded in his book:
Assuming that the would-be ship-builder has attained a pure and disciplined mind, the following method is apropos:
1. Eat lots of Soma.
2. Go to the highest point you can find; a cliff or the top of a tall building will do nicely.
3. Eat more Soma.
4. Picture the time and place you intend to visit. Hold that picture firmly and unwaveringly in the mind.
5. Jump, and the ship will appear.
Note: If the ship should fail to appear, the would-have-been ship-builder should understand that it was due to his own lack of preparation; that he has not gained complete ascendancy of mind, as he plummets to his death.
Bill practically lived on Soma these days, and as a result he was veritably itching to throw himself off a cliff. He packed everything he thought he’d need (a chestful of Soma) into a landhopper, and flew out to Valles Marineris, the largest canyon on the planet. At 2,500 miles long, 120 miles wide and nearly five miles deep, he thought it would suit his purpose admirably.
Standing on the edge of the canyon, looking out at the wide arc of space that surrounded him, at the red rock a hundred miles distant which was the other side of the canyon, and at the seemingly bottomless depths of the yawning crevice at his feet, he said a prayer; a prayer his mother had taught him, which she in turn had heard from the alcoholics who occasionally wandered into her chapel. It went like this:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
And then, recalling Siddhartha, he pictured Varanasi, India, 600bc. He imagined the sights and smells and sounds. The crowds, the colours; the Brahmins, the ascetics, the penitents; the sadhus and other itinerant holy men. He concentrated, focussing his attention on the vision until it was more real to him than the landscape in which he stood. He could feel the sunshine, the heat on his arms. It was his intention to go back in time and, like Siddhartha, to sit at the feet of the Buddha.
He stepped off the edge.
Bill was explaining all this to Abe, or at least trying to. It was hard to talk, admittedly. The problem wasn’t so much the forming of words as it was remembering what you were saying. Bill would start saying something, and before he’d said three words he would have forgotten what he was talking about. Abe himself, had he been asked, would have said that he couldn’t find his arse with both hands. He was in the eye of a storm; a hurricane of psychedelic phenomena which flashed through him and round him and past him. He saw the past and future; he saw his birth and death. He saw the one appearing as many, the universe as a city in the mirror of consciousness. He saw the face of God and it was his own. He saw everything. He was without beginning or end. He was the limitless reality.
Some hours later, as the effect of the mushrooms and fukkummuppa root began to wear off, Abe and the Captain slouched in varying states of battered decomposition at the table, limbs jerking, eyes bulging, tongues flopping; dribbling and foaming from their mouths. Shakespeare, first officer and ships cat, warlock of great power, master arcanist and close personal friend of Aleister Crowley, member of the Order of the Golden Dawn and a cat who knew how to handle his Soma, caused the table between them to explode, bringing them violently into the present moment.
“I’m sorry to break up your party gents,” he announced imperiously, “but land ahoy. We are approaching the White Cliffs of Dover.”