Laura’s Legacy Preview

Laura’s Legacy

Chapter 1 – Hunted

September 11th

Bushes crashed against her, scratching and scraping her exposed arms. The Samui sun beat down relentlessly, drying the breath in her throat as she dashed crazily from side to side. The terror was a palpable force in her arteries, pushing the blood to her muscles.

‘Fight or Flight’ – this was Flight, pure and simple!

Still she could hear her pursuer smashing his (or, please God, no; their) way through the jungle vegetation. Amazingly, even as she fought to escape the ensnaring tropical growth, part of her mind acted as observer, like an interested but aloof critic watching a movie. This critic marvelled at the absurdity of such terror in such an idyllic spot, Koh Samui – one of the many island paradises off the Thailand coast, with hazy lazy summer sun in the June tropics.

Yet here she was, scrambling for her life when she should be relaxing, sipping her Singha beer and sunbathing under the June sun. The critic wondered, How did you get here?, reviewing the past months when she went from being a carefree backpacker, through bereavement, to end up as an international fugitive from unseen but clearly powerful and deadly enemies. She wondered if she was having a nightmare, but she could not deny the reality of the biting and gouging undergrowth, or the stifling humidity that made it so hard to run.

The creepers tried to ensnare her, the shrubs tried to entangle her, but still she scrambled – up, through, over. The conscious part of her mind sought to penetrate the brush in front of her – all the time trying to decipher the dappled greenery and understand the path of least resistance. All of her senses reached out in front, trying to interpret the moving colours and forms. The dense foliage was both friend and enemy, making it impossible to see an escape, whilst at the same time hiding her. The horror and panic were overwhelming, threatening to overpower her mind. She wrestled, battled and gouged her way forward; all the time hearing the sounds of pursuit, never within reach but always on the point of closing in on her.

Again, the critic kicked in, but this time with a suggestion instead of an observation. The jungle was so thick, she could only sense her pursuer by the sound he was making. He sounded like a big man, which meant that he would find the foliage an even more impenetrable barrier than she did. Maybe the trick was to stop running, and stay still – and very, very quiet. Laura weighed and assessed the thought – in one way it was very appealing, as it gave her an excuse to stop, and her legs had become so heavy and leaden. On the other hand, it was terrifying, to stop running, and just hope that her hunter could not find her amongst the foliage as he played hide and seek instead of catch.

Laura realised the decision was being made for her – she simply could not go on, her limbs were starting to shut down from exhaustion. Her legs quaked and she could barely stop them from buckling under her. The sweat flowed from every pore of her body, soaking her clothes and blinding her eyes. Her heart felt as though it would burst if she tried to force the blood through it any quicker. There was a mist roiling in front of her eyes, even though she knew no mist could persist in the midday Asian sun. The pain in her stomach from the combination of exertion and stress was threatening to double her over in agony.

Decision made! As she raced through non-existent openings in the tangled shrubbery, she launched herself off the ground with one final effort. She landed in a bed of soft mulch, formed by rotting leaves. Laura buried her hands into the natural compost, making a hole that she could bury her face in. She wriggled her hands and face as deep as she could, using her hands to keep a breathing space in front of her face.

She tried to force her breathing to be quiet, but it sounded like a turbine in her ears. She lay still, hoping that her manic stalker would neither see nor hear her. As she lay there, she could feel the compost start to come to life. It was as though her intrusion had awoken the spirit of the forest – the entire mixture that she was lying in seemed to crawl and squirm. She could feel movement all over her body, and sensed the incredible life that held her within its grasp. She started to relax into the feeling, with an almost hallucinogenic acceptance of some otherworldly presence. Her sense of peace came crashing down as she felt wriggling around her ears and nostrils. She closed her mouth, through which she had been gulping air, but it was too late. She could feel the invaders within her mouth, her nostrils, her ears. Her hair was moving as if of its own accord, made mobile by the multitude of insects swarming through it.

Laura knew her life depended on staying absolutely still, on co-operating with the forest, blending into it to become part of nature and lying unnoticed until her hunter gave up. Even as she thought this, she realised that she was not going to be able to do it. She had never been a ‘girly-girl’, afraid of spiders and creepy-crawlers, but she was going to have a phobia after this. She thought about how to escape, wondering if she could quietly crawl to a less infested patch without drawing attention to herself. She decided to creep forward, away from the direction she had come from, to continue to put distance between herself and her pursuer.

She lifted her head out of the damp compost and risked looking around – she could detect no movement, no sound. The entire forest seemed to have paused, to be holding its collective breath. The only sound was that of the surf on the beach that lay a kilometre or so to the east. She blew out as hard as she could out of her nose, trying not to make noise. She spat, and shook her head from side to side to get the insects out of her ears. Finally, she felt that her body was her own again – the invaders had been repelled. She thought of all the books she had read on survival in hostile terrains, remembering the sections on hungry wildlife.

She knew she had to move very slowly, taking care not to disturb the undergrowth around her. It was so still – any movement would be instantly noticed. She had to stay as low as possible, hugging the ground. She must make sure not to snap any of the underlying twigs or frighten any of the forest residents. So much to think of, she nearly froze on the spot. Yet she was caught between two impossible alternatives – stay where she was and be eaten alive; or stand and run, with the prospect of being caught by her heretofore unseen aggressor. She started to move.

Inch by frightening inch, foot by terrifying foot, yard by petrifying yard. Slowly moving her left hand and arm forwards, then joining it with her right. Painfully drawing her right leg up under her, then joining it with her left. Then, oh so slowly, moving her torso forward, spreading the strain across her arms and her legs, so that she would not gasp with the pain and effort. Second after second, minute after minute – it felt like hour after hour. She lost all concept of time, her entire world reduced to the ball of pain that was her body, and trying to move it without moving at all. Aching, hurting, stinging, throbbing, agonising, burning, anguishing, torturing, suffering, racking pain – this was the entire universe of her existence.

As she moved into a deeper patch of shade, the temperature dropped a few degrees. She wondered how far she had come. Was it safe to stand and ease the cramps screaming throughout her body? Still afraid of capture, she resolved to stretch out where she lay, without rising, and let her abused body recover a little. Remarkably, her overwrought mind sought refuge in near-catatonia, and she drifted in and out of semi-consciousness whilst images of the chase raced through her mind. She came to with a start, not sure how long she had dozed. The sun was setting ahead of her in the west, so it was at least a couple of hours since the chase had started.

The forest had settled into its dusk routine – insects chirping, birds coming home to roost, and a gentle breeze blowing in off the sea. For the first time that afternoon, Laura felt she could relax. At last, the jungle felt safe and secure, instead of scary and vulnerable. She didn’t know where to turn next. She decided to forsake her belongings back at the room she had hired. Unquestionably the first thing she had to do was get off Koh Samui, back onto the Thai mainland. From there she could use her backpacking experience to get out of Thailand, and hopefully back to safety.

Laura started to stand, slowly and gently. As she rose a couple of inches off the ground, her mind screamed in panic as a heavy body crashed onto her, pressing her back down into the dirt. Her head rapped off the ground, and she was sure she would have been seriously injured if the earth were not so soft. She tried to scream, but a large and calloused hand was smothering her entire face. She couldn’t breathe, let alone scream or look around.

Laura realised that this was it – this was the end. She searched for understanding, but could not find it. She had responded to an apparently simple (though strange) request from her dying father; only to be met with exploding airplanes, attacked cabs, and now being hunted through a tropical forest. She felt her consciousness ebbing away, her mind slowly shutting down from suffocation. She tried to kick, to scream, to escape; but her exhausted body was no match for the strength and weight and power that had her pinned to the ground. As consciousness finally departed, her final thought was that whatever the point of life was, it had certainly passed her by.

From Chapter 15 – The Meaning Of Life

When Greg had left the porch, Laura turned to Jopl. Despite the fact that he was a child, he was the wisest person she had ever met, and he always seemed to be able to answer her questions. ‘Jopl, you know sometimes I wonder why I am doing this at all. It just seems to be causing trouble at every turn. Do you think I should stick with it, or should we just run away and forget about all this? Why are we here?’

‘Why do you ask me, Laura?’

‘Because you always seem to understand what I need to know, and you always have the answers.’

‘I wish that were so, Laura. But truly it is not. When we have discussed various matters, I have usually asked the questions, and you have supplied the answers. For example, if you think of our first day on Captain Smith’s ship when we discussed the nature of right and wrong, I simply asked questions. You supplied most of the answers. Isn’t that so?’ he asked, ending with a question.

Laura laughed. ‘I think you are making fun of me, little man. But really, what do you think I should do?’

‘Well, I suppose that depends on what exactly it is that you are asking. If you mean what you should do at this particular time in this specific situation, well I’m afraid that only you can answer that. If you mean why are we here in a more general sense – what is the purpose of our existence, what is the meaning of life – well that is a question that has exercised some of the greatest minds in history, from Socrates to Descartes, from Augustine to Chomsky.’

‘OK, then, I will try to decide what I should do at this particular time, in this specific situation,’ Laura said, a little sarcastically. ‘But do talk to me about the bigger question – it will help to take my mind off my immediate worries. Why are we here?’

‘Yes, indeed, a very interesting question. Many say the most interesting, and the most important, question of them all. I wonder how much difference it would make to our lives if we truly understood the answer to that question. I really feel sympathy for the people who don’t even believe that there is some central purpose to their lives. I would hate to live like that – believing that my life was simply the random result of a lottery of physics and genetics. Believing that there is no guiding principle by which all men should be directed, a central principle that joins all of mankind in a unified endeavour.’

‘So, are you saying that there is some such central ‘principle’?’

‘I would never be so arrogant. Who am I to make such a grand declaration? All I can say is that I believe it is possible. Maybe, given my limited understanding of the universe about me, I might even say that I believe it to be probable. If you read Einstein and Bohr, Schrödinger and Hawking, it seems to me that this is the direction that we are being pushed in. Through the Renaissance in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, science seemed to be providing answers that religions had failed, or refused, to provide. Accordingly, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was a growing secularism, which in many ways may have been a good thing. Science became the new religion, the new font of all knowledge, the new repository of all the answers. People believed that as scientific knowledge and understanding grew, eventually all of our questions would be answered. And all of this negated the proposition of some underlying entity that either created or was guiding the universe – who needs any of the many versions of the Gods, when you have science?’

‘Yes, I know,’ said Laura, wanting to check that she was following Jopl’s line of reasoning. ‘For example, when we found out about the Big Bang, then there was no need to have a God who created the world in seven days. And when we found fossilised animals millions of years old that supported Darwin’s theory of evolution, then that meant that the world couldn’t have been created from scratch six thousand years ago.’

‘Indeed, so it seemed,’ confirmed Jopl. ‘And no matter which of the major religions you look at – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity – it seemed to be the same. Science apparently disproved the possibility of reincarnation, negated the need for an afterlife – science said, “Who needs these gods anyway? We don’t.” And yet, as I said a moment ago, if you read the published works of some of the leading scientists of the last century, including the most recent, there seems to be a problem. As the scientists work at the astrophysical level, the atomic level and the quantum level; it appears that science may not be able to provide all of the answers after all.

‘As you have mentioned it, let’s look at the Big Bang. As a theory, I like the Big Bang. And all of the evidence, as we currently understand it, seems to support the theory. There is just one problem. The Big Bang theory can explain the entire universe from about 10 million trillion trillion trillionths of a second after it’s formation to the present day. It can even predict the eventual demise of our universe many billions of years hence. But, and this is the key point, it cannot explain that first 10 million trillion trillion trillionths of a second. Yet that is where it all started. That 10 million trillion trillion trillionths of a second is the key to explaining, and therefore understanding our universe. Yet the physical sciences seem baffled on that one. So it seems to me that there may very well be more to this universe than the purely physical – there may be something metaphysical, something literally ‘beyond the physical’ or ‘other than the physical.’

‘Now what form that takes is an entirely different question, and that is a question that I am even less qualified to comment on. Is it some sort of omnipotent monotheistic ‘God’ as many religions suggest? Is it the powerful gods of the Greeks? Is it the animist gods of the American Indians? Is it the Brahman of the Hindi or the Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo of the Buddhists?’

Laura waited. Jopl had just asked the 60 million dollar question. This was it, this was the big one. But he seemed to have finished speaking.

‘Well, Jopl? Don’t stop there! Tell me. What is the answer? Which of these belief systems, these religions, has it right? Do any of them? Tell me!’

‘But, Laura, I cannot tell you. I do not know. And in any case, it is not important.’

‘Not important? How can you say that? Wars have been fought over this question. More people have died in religious wars than any other type of war. Look at the Inquisition in the Middle Ages. People tortured and put to death because of their religious belief. Look at the Crusades. Of course it’s important!’

‘Well, I think many of the so-called religious wars that you refer to had more to do with human politics and power struggles than they had to do with religious beliefs. But anyway, the reason it is not important is that the answer to your original question is the same, regardless of what metaphysical philosophy you choose to believe in.’

Laura had to think back and try to remember what her original question had been. In her mind it had been supplanted by a more important question of whether or not there was a God; and if there was one, who or what was he, or it or she? ‘What was the question again?’

‘The question was what many say is the most important question ever asked – ‘Why are we here?’, ‘What is the meaning of life?’, ‘What is the purpose of my existence?’ – all variations on the same question, and all with the same answer.

And the answer to this question is the same, regardless of what belief system you have. Whether you are Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim; the answer is the same. A lot of philosophical traditions, even agnostic ones that choose to believe that there may or may not be a God as such, have also arrived at the same answer to this question. The answer is out there, it is known, it is discussed in learned philosophical journals, it is preached in churches and mosques. And yet, people still ask the same question. To my mind, that is a more interesting question. Not ‘What is the meaning of life?’, but ‘Why are people still asking, when the answer is already so widely known and indeed so widely taught’?’

Laura found herself hanging on every word that exploded from this young boy’s lips. He reminded her of the biblical story of Jesus in the Temple as a child – talking to the elders as an equal, displaying superior knowledge and understanding of the scriptures than his learned seniors. If we all know why we are on this earth she wondered, then why do so many of us flounder through life without direction?

‘It doesn’t actually matter how the world was created or by whom. All that matters is why. The reason, which is in itself the ‘The Meaning of Life’, is simply this – to give us all an opportunity to be divine. Whether in the Buddhist belief of reincarnation leading to Nirvana, the Christian belief of death leading to Paradise, or any of the other religions and philosophies that propose existence after death, the objective of all life should be to make the world a better place. Our impact does not have to be famed or big, it merely has to be good. We are judged by a simple weighing of the effort we put into making the world better, and the absence of that effort. If two people put in the same effort, and one achieves world peace while the other simply makes a neighbour happy for a moment, the same effort and desire to do good existed, so they are valued the same. Does this make sense to you?’

‘Yes, I suppose it makes sense. But you said that we all know this answer – that our purpose in life is to make the world a better place. How can you say that? How can you say that, when so many people have no sense of purpose in their lives?’

‘I often think that the greatest tragedy of the modern world is that so many people no longer believe in this purpose. I can unequivocally say that the answer is known – go to a priest or elder in any religion and you will get the same answer, though maybe in different words. Ask any great philosopher and again you will get the same answer, though maybe in different words. So the answer is known. The difficulty is that today, many people, knowing the answer, refuse to believe the answer. They hear from their parents that they should be ‘good’, they hear it from their community leaders, their political leaders, their religious leaders. But they are seduced by another voice, a voice that tells them that this is not so. A voice that tells them that the purpose of life is to amass possessions. A voice that tells them that their self-worth is defined by their material worth. A voice of poison and pain that is slowly killing the appreciation of the intangible, which is fundamental to a sense of community. Feeling isolated, people turn more and more to the voice of materialism, becoming more and more lost. A tragedy.’

Laura thought about it for a while before speaking – something she often found herself having to do when having a conversation with Jopl. There was no doubt that for one so young, he seemed more learned and wise than anyone she had ever met before, of any age. ‘Well, it makes sense, yes. But you are the very one who usually declines to be too definite about anything. You always say that one can’t be certain of the answer to these big questions. Yet you state this as a fact – as something beyond doubt. “The objective of all life should be to make the world a better place.” How do you know?’

‘That is a very good point. I am glad that you do not simply accept what I say. It is always good to question. In truth, I do not know for a fact that this is correct. However, I have looked at life from all angles, from all beliefs, from across the ages of Man’s understanding. And it seems to me that this is the best hypothesis that I can derive at this time. Maybe as I learn more, I will change my mind. Maybe, in the future, mankind will learn and understand more, and thus disprove my theory on the ‘Meaning of Life’. However, in the absence of any definitive evidence to the contrary, this theory seems to me to best fit the bill. I believe that there is a metaphysical component to our universe. I believe that our purpose in life, the reason we are here, the meaning to our existence, is to make the world a better place. And I can only suggest some reasons why this might be correct.’

‘OK, go ahead. I am with you so far, and I certainly cannot prove you wrong. But I would be very interested to hear why I should agree with you, even if I cannot put forward any concrete reasons for disagreeing with you.’

‘Aha, you are challenging me,’ said Jopl, with a gleam in his eye. ‘OK. Let me see now. In no particular order. Firstly, as I have already said, science cannot explain the physical universe to my satisfaction – certainly not its creation in the first place, and I think not its development since; although I am aware that there are arguments which claim to explain how the incredibly complex universe that we have today could have evolved from the Big Bang by random chance. But science certainly cannot explain the creation of this universe to my satisfaction.

‘Secondly, my theory that there is some sort of a metaphysical constituent in our universe is a fairly close fit in general terms with all of the world’s major religions, and indeed with many of its major non-religious or agnostic philosophies. I think that, in itself, is important – it seems unlikely to me that all of these competing philosophies would have arrived at what is effectively the same answer since the dawn of mankind, and that this answer should be wrong.

‘Finally, I think that believing that the purpose of our existence is to make the world a better place is probably the most practical way to live life. For example, people – particularly in your Western culture – often make the mistake of thinking that they will get happiness from possessions. They say, “If only I had a bigger car, or a better house, or more money, I would be happy.” But if they get more, then they generally will want more again. So they are in a pretty permanent state of wanting something – a permanent state of dissatisfaction – a permanent state of unhappiness. But if you even think back across your own life – when have you experienced the most satisfaction and happiness? Is it possible that the happiest and most satisfying times of your life have been when you have given something, or when you have done something for someone else? Would that be true?’

Again, Laura thought carefully before answering. She was more surprised than Jopl when she answered the question honestly. ‘You know, I think you are right! Yes, that is true. But now I am confused. I always believed that happiness came from loving relationships more than possessions. Am I wrong?’

‘Let us talk of happiness, and how to be happy, another time. Greg is coming, so I will finish this discussion. For these three reasons, I believe there is something other than the physical in our universe, and that the ‘Meaning of Life’ is to make the world a better place. Firstly, science cannot explain the creation of the universe to me. Secondly, it fits with all major religions and most non-religious philosophies. Thirdly, from a practical point of view, living this way gives the best results and the happiest most satisfying life, both for yourself and for the rest of humanity.’