I glanced at the clean white bandage wrapped around her left hand and a good ways down her wrist.
“It’s going to be all right,” I said. “I’m here to help.”
The steely-eyed woman sitting across from me in the booth gave a single nod. She wasted no time on small talk and launched straight into her first question.
“The Axiom Enchiridion, ever heard of it?”
I thought for a moment. “Does it have anything to do with a Greek philosopher? Uh…”
“Epictetus? No, this is before his time.”
I narrowed my eyes slightly and shrugged my hands as if to say, “All right then, pretend I haven’t heard of it. Tell me about it.”
So she did.
“That’s a relatively modern name. There’s some speculation that it may be linked to various texts referred to as the Book of Mages, but that phrase is so generic that no confident conclusions can be drawn. But the name tells you everything. Axiom Enchiridion. A handbook of universal truths. Legend has it that a group of ancient philosophers gathered together and decided to…meditate their way onto the path of universal and absolute truth, a truth that existed far beyond human perception and comprehension. That’s why they decided to do it together.”
“The ancient equivalent of parallel processing?”
“Something like that, yes.” She leaned forward. “They succeeded in discovering these universal truths, and they wrote them all down in this one book, along with instructions for how their disciples and descendants could learn and understand those truths. A handbook of universal truths. Lost to history until your average everyday researcher stumbled on it.” She pointed to her face.
I took a sip of my coffee and sat back. “All right, and what can I do to help?”
She furrowed her brow and turned her face away from me slightly. She was suspicious of my behavior. Ah, the irony. I should have pretended not to believe her for a bit longer. Most people expected that. I could fake all the expected signals. Raised eyebrow. Furrowed eyebrow. Pushing away from the table and sitting back with an exasperated sigh. Slight shake of my head. Most people expected these gestures of disbelief. Most were prepared to set aside their self-doubt and defend themselves and defend whatever it was they were reporting to me. They didn’t realize that it wasn’t necessary, that I would believe them. But then, most people were not in my line of work.
Add to that Ms. Paro’s reputation in her lab as a researcher with just the right balance of starry-eyed hope for magical discoveries and practical nose-to-the-grind skepticism.
But I admit that I did feel the slightest touch of skepticism myself this time. What she called the “Axiom Enchiridion” was a book that I had, of course, heard of before, though under a different name. The Eayan Alkun. The Oculis Universi Mundi. The Eye of the Cosmos.
Maybe I should have expressed that slight disbelief. “What makes you think that the book you’ve been studying is this…?”
“Axiom Enchiridion. AxEn is what some people call it for short.”
I nodded. “Okay, what makes you think you’ve found it?”
“Do you know what a palimpsest is?”
I arched a brow.
She explained. “In earlier eras, sometimes the contents of a parchment or book would be wiped away—erased or washed—so that it could be used again. But you can tell that this was done because you can still see the ghost of the previous writing. This book barely qualified actually. The original writing is very difficult to see without the aid of modern tools.”
“You mean to say that somebody erased and wrote over it? Something called the ‘handbook of universal truths’ got erased?”
“It’s possible that the book came into the hands of someone who didn’t know what it was. But I suspect the erasure might have been a purposeful effort to contain it.”
She took a deep breath, but didn’t answer.
“You’ve been uncovering it and…translating it?” I asked.
She nodded. “I have.” She fixed her gaze on me. “But I wasn’t doing it alone, not at first anyway.”
When she first realized what it was she had on her hands, she immediately shared the find with her colleagues. She had learned enough by that time to understand the nature of the book, and the burden of responsibility on the person who was in possession of it.
“Though it is one book,” she said, “it must not be read by just one person. The knowledge contained within must be shared.”
“Seems like quite the discovery,” I said. “Why not keep it to yourself for a while? Would anyone have known what you’d uncovered?”
She glanced down at her empty plate and shook her head. “I could have kept it to myself, true.” She glanced back up at me and peered at me eye-to-eye. “But it was not meant for only one person.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Let’s say that if you tested me today, I can lift a certain amount of weight, physical weight. That’s my current limit. But I can get stronger. Let’s say I start lifting weights regularly, steadily increasing that weight. Over time, I can develop my muscles so that I’m able to lift twice as much weight, maybe more. It is possible for me to get stronger. But it takes time and perseverance, and some measure of pain. Now extend that analogy to handling the knowledge of this text. Given enough time and effort, I could bear the ‘weight’ of more knowledge. Probably not all of it. A single person, no matter how strong, could probably not bear the weight of all of the knowledge. But many people, bearing the weight together, they could do it.”
“Like your group of ancient philosophers.”
“So you informed your team and some of you started working on the recovery and translation together.”
She nodded again. “But then…strange things started happening in and around the lab. Accidents. Small things at first and we had no reason to suspect they were related to our research. A toilet overflowing and a broken heel for example. But they got worse and more dangerous over time. A frayed wire on our office copier caught fire while someone was printing scans of the text. A shelf in our storage room suddenly collapsed and tipped over a second after someone went to restock some supplies. Someone who was reading over copies of the translations during lunch almost choked on a slice of pickle. We have copies of the incident reports if you need.
“People started noticing a pattern. These incidents were happening to people working on the AxEn project. So one by one, people dropped off. Some of them apologized for being superstitious, but gave some variation of ‘better safe than sorry’ as their reason for dropping out. A couple of people believed that the mishaps indicated some deterrent was in place to stop us from knowing the contents of the book. One person believed that our minds, even together, were not strong enough to contain the knowledge, which was manifesting as matter and energy as we went along reading it.”
“And what did you think?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I didn’t have time to think about the why. I was the only one left. I knew I needed to recruit others, but I was afraid that if I did, they too might abandon ship. It was, after all, a sinking ship. Or that’s how it seemed to others. I plugged away on my own for a few weeks, telling myself that it was only temporary, and hoping that I’d find something that I could use to ensure the safety of anyone who joined me.”
“Pardon me, but that doesn’t seem like a rational decision. Weren’t you afraid that you yourself might be in danger?”
“I was. But…the book was like an open door that you can’t see through. And my choices were to either wait until whatever was on the other side leapt out to me, or walk on through and see for myself.”
“Or you could have closed the door.”
She furrowed her brow and thought for a few seconds. “Let me rephrase, the book was and is like an open doorway without a door.”
“Then how did it get open?”
“There was a door,” she conceded. “I opened it, and then it vanished. I believe that I can’t find it again unless I have help.”
I shifted my gaze to her bandaged left hand. “And I take it when you walked through that doorway, that’s when you got that.”
When I glanced back at her, her gaze did not meet mine. Instead it went past me, as if she were staring at something in the far distance over my shoulder.
“Doors,” she said. “Doorways, yes. Reading the book has opened the doors to my perception. I’m seeing and hearing things that others don’t perceive. These are not hallucinations. I thought they were at first. Maybe some of them are. But not all. I was here for a while before you came in. Do you remember commenting on how nice our server was to me when she came by with my free slice of cheesecake?”
She shifted her gaze back toward me. I nodded.
“She was going to take a fall. A nasty one. I saw the whole thing. Her in pain on the floor, grabbing her elbow. And then the vision vanished and she was just walking and smiling, and I got up and walked to her. Just when she was about to slip on a puddle of spilled water, I was behind her, and she fell on me instead of the floor. We both went down. But I was ready for it, so the worst that happened was a few minutes of embarrassment.”
My eyes widened. “You mean to tell me you can see the future?”
She frowned and shook her head. “That was the first time I saw like that. I just recognized what it was because of everything else that’s happened. A good outcome this time. But other things have been happening. Troubling things. Last week, I woke up to discover that I was lying on the roof of my building. I had climbed up in my sleep. I’ve never sleep-walked before in my life. What’s more, there was no ladder. We have a common-use ladder in our laundry room. I thought maybe I used it and a neighbor put the ladder away, not seeing me on the roof. But I also examined the building to see if a strong and nimble person might be able to climb up without the aid of a ladder. It may be possible. A few days ago, I woke up with this.” She curled the fingers of her left hand. “I knew I’d run out of time. I had to act, to get the text into the minds of many instead of just the mind of one.”
“Are you a vessel for this knowledge? Or a conduit? Or…how does it work?”
“Vessel or conduit, that’s apt. A little of both actually.” She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders as if she were bracing herself for something. “From everything that I can gather, you and your organization are the best ones to take custody of the book and to study it further. I’d like to be involved, and I strongly recommend that I am. But I imagine that I won’t be allowed.”
“What makes you say that?”
She hesitated, so I pushed on.
“Why not share it online, so hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions could share the burden?”
“Because it’s not yet complete,” she said. “It’s like a piece of wood that hasn’t been sanded. Only those who have been warned and who understand and will heed that warning should handle it. Otherwise, they’ll get splinters, splinters that continue splintering and digging deeper and deeper. Completing the restoration and translation work will be like sanding that piece of wood until it is smooth enough to be brushed again a newborn’s cheek. But even then, I don’t know if it would be safe to share.”
“Okay, then why not just destroy it if it’s that dangerous?”
She recoiled from me a bit. “Destroy it? A rushing river is dangerous. Tell me, Agent, can you destroy a rushing river? A raging fire is dangerous. Can you destroy that? You alone, I mean. One person? Even if I wanted to destroy the book, I couldn’t do it myself. And I don’t want to destroy it. It’s not dangerous if it’s used properly. Just like water and fire are not dangerous if they are used properly, regulated, tempered.”
I held up a hand after I was sure she had finished speaking. “It was a hypothetical question.”
“No less than a dozen people, Agent. No less than a dozen should be in the room ready to receive the knowledge when I enter with that book.”
“You’re just one person. You seem to be handling it just fine for the time being—with one exception,” I said, glancing at the bandage around her left hand.
“In part that is because I came upon the text bit by bit. But the more I translated, the more its effects became manifest. We had too few people working on it to begin with. That’s why we seemed to fall victim to misfortunes.”
“Seemed to? The misfortunes you described actually happened, didn’t they?”
“Well yes, but they weren’t caused by the sinister will of the book. They were caused by the raw…energy—I’ll call it—that we ourselves unleashed simply by reading it.”
“Describe to me how that works.”
She started shaking her head before I could finish my sentence. So I asked the only other question I had left, at least for the time being.
“Why do you expect us to shut you out of any further study of this AxEn?”
“Because I am a variable that is not under your control.”
I smiled. “So by that logic, if you want to continue being involved, you’d have to be our employee. Are you hoping for a job offer?”
“No, but if I receive one, I would accept.”
I raised my brows.
Her gaze was locked onto mine, but if flicked over to her bandaged hand for just a second. “If I were to show you what’s under this bandage,” she said, “any lingering doubts you may have would vanish in a blink.”
“And your reason for not showing me?”
“I believe you can extrapolate based on the rest of our conversation.”
“You’re worried about exposing me. But I can be the first of many who can help you bear the burden.”
She sighed and shook her head. “I feel ashamed…that I’m not strong enough.”
“Why? You told me it wasn’t meant for a single human mind to comprehend. Isn’t that right?”
She nodded, but her eyes were on her plate again, half-distracted. “Objective truth. It’s not something I was specifically looking for, but when I found it, when I found the AxEn, I began to feel that I was on the right path, the true path, at last.”
“Path to what?”
“My life’s purpose,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be more than what I am.” She looked at me and cocked her head. “Haven’t you?”
“Yeah, sure. I think it’s safe to say most people feel the same.” I leaned toward her, widening then narrowing my eyes. “So, what is the single most spectacular truth you’ve uncovered so far?”
Suddenly, she laughed. “The secret of life itself. But…I’d already figured that out for myself six months ago.”
I felt my right eyebrow arching, as if of its own accord.
She grinned. “I know nothing at all about the world, and everything about myself.”
“That’s wisdom,” I said. “But is it truth?”
She peered at me.
“You’re not going to give me anything?”
“That depends. Are you still willing to help me?”
“I can contact my superiors and prepare to bring you in according to a reasonable compromise between your conditions and ours,” I said. “How long do you think you can hold on while I do that?”
“I don’t know,” she said, pulling her hands off the table and onto her lap. “The sooner the better.”
My boss said a few hours, so we waited in the diner, talking about other things, other work that both of us had done. There were a few cases that I was authorized to talk about, mostly because they had been written about in the papers. And Ms. Paro had some juicy stories from history to share about the provenance of some of the books she’d helped to restore and translate.
One of the smaller volumes had been swallowed by a nobleman escaping a revolt in his region. He had intended to regurgitate the text, but it was too late. By the time he made the attempt, the text was already making its way through his bowels. He had wrapped it in animal skins well enough that once he passed it, the text was relatively clean. The research team expected some meaningful content. Maybe it was a ledger recording some illegal dealings. Or a journal describing rendezvouses with lovers. Or even radical philosophies that ran counter to the beliefs of his time. It turned out to be a record of bad poetry written by the man himself. It was no great literary discovery. But the team was touched that the nobleman had valued his writing enough to protect it from enemies and brigands using such extreme measures.
It was a charming story, but I was only half-listening. My eye kept wandering toward that bandaged hand, wondering what injury lay beneath. She didn’t wince when her hand hit the table. So whatever it was had either healed or had never hurt in the first place. I suspected it was no cut or burn. She said whatever was underneath was proof of her claims. I imagined wild scenarios. Maybe part of her hand was out of phase with our reality, and she had the bandage around it so people wouldn’t see that half her hand seemed to be missing. Or maybe it was infected by some kind of metaphysical bacterium.
The bandage was sparkling, as if someone had dusted it with glitter. And it smelled lightly of sandalwood. I had thought it was a fragrance that Ms. Paro had on, but when I’d gotten close enough, I realized that the source of the scent was the bandage.
At last, I received the call with instructions for where to go. It was early evening. The location was only a half hour from the diner.
It was one of our warehouses near the docks. That made me think of nuclear energy. Did my boss think that Ms. Paro might be radioactive? That we might have to dump her in the ocean?
We weren’t just trusting her word. We had been watching her long before she looked into us. Another agent had been following her group’s research. If Ms. Paro hadn’t reached out to us, we were a heartbeat away from showing up at her lab and trying to contain the situation anyway. And we too were afraid we had waited too long. Depending on how things turned out, I might tell her that someone was watching her when she had her mishaps. Someone was ready to help if she ran into any real danger. Someone had watched her climb up to the roof of her building, two stories, without a ladder.
There were two dozen people waiting in the warehouse, waiting to share the burden of the AxEn, the handbook of universal truths, with Ms. Paro.
My boss introduced herself and promised to introduce the rest of the gathered team after Ms. Paro produced the book.
In what seemed like a sleight-of-hand trick, Ms. Paro reached under the bandage on her left hand, just under the wrist, and pulled out a book that was two inches thick and slightly bigger than the size of her outspread palm. She tucked the book under her left armpit and began unwrapping her bandage. She glanced at me and smiled. I smiled back.
Even before she got the bandage fully off, I could see that soft glow emanating from her hand. I heard the shuffling of the other people gathered on the warehouse floor, volunteer agents and researchers. But I didn’t look at them. My gaze was fixed on Ms. Paro’s hand.
When the bandage was fully off, she didn’t let it drop but stuffed it into the pocket of her windbreaker. She untucked the book from her armpit. She held up her left hand, letting the fingers straighten until she was holding her palm out toward us. We saw what she had woken to a few days prior.
In the center of her palm there swirled a tiny nebula. It looked like an eye with a bright point of light in the middle, within a circle of indigo, surrounded by a disc of bright blue displaying darker streaks that radiated from the center. Wispy rings of vivid pink and glowing green pulsed away from outer edge of blue disc.
Ms. Paro held the book out, to no one in particular. One of the researchers stepped forward and grasped the book and I felt a sudden heaviness drape over my mind. And I knew we had just officially accepted our share of the burden.
I also knew that we would be working with Ms. Paro. I had asked her if she were a vessel or a conduit for the knowledge in that book. But as I gazed at the nebula in the center of her hand I had a realization. She had become a sort of lens, through which we would see the depths of the knowledge, and without which we would not be able to fully decipher the meaning of the text.
When she made a fist and covered up the nebula, it was as if we all snapped out of a collective daze. We looked around at each other as she wrapped up her hand. My boss signaled for all of us to gather closer. She reminded us all of the agreements we had made not to disclose what we learned in this project. And yet, she also told us that she would be seeking more people to join, to share in the burden that we all now felt. Everyone’s shoulders looked as if they’d dipped just slightly. Everyone except Ms. Paro, who rolled her shoulders as if she’d just thrown off a weight.
I spoke next. “You told me the greatest truth you had learned from the book so far was something you had figured out for yourself,” I said, and I quoted her. ‘I know nothing at all about the world and everything about myself.’”
That earned a few chuckles and lifted quite a few shoulders.
Ms. Paro grinned and looked out at the group of strangers who had agreed to share the weight and the worry with her, as they all walked the path toward truth.
“Maybe now, together,” she said, “we could begin to learn everything about the world.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel