Saw this guy at the dealership as I was leaving Araha beach. I’m going to have to go back and give it a drive.
- The Silent Motivation
- An Eve In Eden
- Web Of Deceit
- This Cage Has No Key
- Titanium Heart
- Dragon Queen
- Invest In (Your) Humanity
First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate that souls are moving into Hell and the rate they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving. As for how many souls are entering Hell, lets look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to Hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase. Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle’s Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand proportionately as souls are added. This gives two possibilities: 1. If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose. 2. If Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over. So which is it? If we accept the postulate given to me by Teresa during my Freshman year, “…that it will be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you.”, and take into account the fact that I still have not succeeded in having that event take place, then, #2 cannot be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic and will not freeze.”
Nothing says “I’m here to help you!” quite like parading around with a machine gun.
There is a place, existing only in my mind. Perhaps in the minds of others, though I won’t be so presumptuous to assume it. In this place, love is joy instead of pain. There is no famine, there is no poverty. There is no hurt, there is no war. There is only celebration. Celebration of the unity of all people, and all things. Celebration of a deeper understanding of the world around us, and the realms within ourselves. This celebration never wavers, and is never disturbed. There is only the relaxation of it all.
This is no promised land, no ultimate retreat. This is something more, this place. And as I stand here, gazing across the desert sands and listening to all that the winds would tell me, I write in tribute to this place. I write of the journey from the darkest depths of the soul, fighting tooth and nail to come finally to this place of inner peace. Casting aside the masks. Leaving behind the falsehoods. Not returning to the roots, but evolving into something new. Something better. Something more. Evolving out of the old husk of inevitability and coming to rest in that special place.
“I quit. I hate you, I hate this place, you don’t pay what I’m worth, and I quit.”
“I’ve said it twice, what are you not getting?”
“You’ve said it three times.”
“I’ve said ‘I quit’ four times, I’ve only said ‘it’ twice.”
“Three times now.”
“No, twice. It was only once when you said twice.”
“Three times now, then.”
“That’s true. However, you seem to be missing the point. I quit.”
“Why not leave then?”
“I will,” said Mike. And, throwing his official resignation letter onto the desk, he did. Mike had been working as a programmer for LogicWare for only six months, but in that time he’d written two thirds of their three year project, and his four cohorts on the task had managed, between them, only half of the remainder. It didn’t take a lot to see that logically, Mike’s worth was four times the average of the worth of the other four – more, considering that their work could be expected to be ridden with bugs and unforeseen glitches, and his could be expected to be pristine. One might expect a company named LogicWare to have managerial people capable of seeing that. One would be wrong to have such expectations.
One of the four cohorts wore the title “Lead Programmer”, and, Mike knew, was earning half again Mike’s wages. Two of the others also had wages in excess of Mike’s, because they’d been with the company longer. Management would only hear what the Lead Programmer would tell them, and the Lead Programmer, of course, wouldn’t want to make himself look bad. The other thing Management heard that day was, of course, “I quit.” They heard it five times. At least, the skinny, vole-like manager, the one who was really in charge, the one who delegated everything not because he couldn’t do it, but because he was lazy, heard it. The sub-manager, the heavy-set, red with high blood pressure one who really just does what he’s told – he would no doubt hear about it later, when he asked why Mike hadn’t been in for a while.
So it was that Mike came to be stalking out through the LogicWare offices, being looked at by his ex-coworkers without mistrust for the first time since a few days after he got the job, when they had discovered that he didn’t want to talk about football, didn’t want to go out and get drunk with them, and could program any of them into oblivion without even trying. And indeed, most of the time he didn’t even try. He had aimed to do the amount of work he was paid for, and only boredom and some sort of half-unwilling work ethic got him doing the few hours work he would do each day.
He swept to his desk, barely sparing the others a glance, and collected the few possessions he had left there in the way of decoration and entertainment. A small piece of blu-tak that he would mould into interesting shapes while thinking, or while bored. A tiny gun that launched tinier soft projectiles, that he had brought to fire at his coworkers, but which he had never really worked up the enthusiasm to use. A small metal eagle that he had stuck to his monitor with double-sided tape. A small U-shaped magnet that he liked to leave on the corner of his monitor to make the display distorted and interestingly coloured. This last, he was briefly tempted to leave taped under a desk somewhere where it would damage floppy disks, but he rejected the idea as more likely to cause trouble than to entertain him. With a final cheery “See you! Or not!” to his cohorts, and without leaving them time to answer, he grabbed his coat, spun into it, and left the building.
Squinting against the unaccustomed sunlight, Mike pulled a snappy pair of shades from the pocket of his coat, shook the limbs out, and gently but repeatedly stabbed himself in the side of the forehead with them, before resignedly using both hands to don them properly. Thus clad, he made an oddly foreboding figure – covered almost head to toe in items of black, starting at his unruly hair, closely followed by the frameless shades. His neck disappeared, hidden inside the coat by his habitual hunch that he had adopted years before as a way to prevent unexpected sunburn below the hairline. The coat flowed heavily to the ankles, and if the coat was open, usually all that would be revealed was a plain faded black t-shirt, and some sort of black cotton trousers. Completing the image were a pair of aggressive-looking boots, chosen, like all the rest of the wardrobe, not for the aggressive look, but simply for comfort. The scariness was nothing more than a welcome side-effect. Mike walked almost jauntily homewards. Having just quit a decent-paying job was no worry for him; he knew he could find another job if he needed, and for now, he didn’t. While working this job, he’d saved enough to last him six months without even being frugal. His complaint about the wages wasn’t a matter of need, or even of want – it was a matter of principle. His other given reasons, his hatred of the bosses and of the place, were far more pertinent to his quitting.
Keeping to the shadows where possible, as he always did to avoid the heat of the sun, Mike amiably paced, thinking what he would do, either with his new free time, or with applying for more interesting jobs. He had a lot of scope for job-hunting, since he had nothing to tie him to any specific area. Not that he didn’t have relationships – his girlfriend just wasn’t nearby, and any move he might make would probably bring them closer together. Similarly his friends were scattered far and wide since he and they had gone their separate ways at the end of graduation.
The truck came out of nowhere; one second Mike was crossing the street, the next his body was bouncing along it, leaving wet marks in its wake.
“Ow,” Mike tried to say. As far as he was concerned, he said it. Since there was nobody around to hear, he might as well have. He didn’t have long to contemplate that this would be his last word. The truck driver burst out of the truck, all apologies.
“Oh God!” he said when he saw Mike’s body. “Oh God, I’m sorry!”
Mike didn’t hear, couldn’t hear, would not hear again, and the truck driver knew that his apology would be no use. “And there’s blood on my truck!” he muttered, semi-incoherently. “Christ, I’m in trouble.”
As it transpired, the truck driver really wasn’t in a lot of trouble. Certainly not as much as Mike, who was suddenly dead, or his girlfriend, who suddenly had a dead boyfriend. There had been no witnesses, so the driver’s explanation that Mike must have unexpectedly leapt into the road, because he wasn’t there a moment before, was met with sympathy – especially after the testimony of Mike’s ex-manager, who said that Mike had recently quit without warning, and stormed out, seeming terribly depressed, and the testimony of his ex-coworkers, who said they wished they’d thought more about what Mike had meant when he had said “See you! Or not!”. Clearly, in their minds, this had been an intimation that he would be ending his life.
“He would have told me,” muttered ex-Mike’s girlfriend at the funeral. “He wasn’t depressed. He was going to visit me tomorrow.”
“Did he tell you he was going to quit his job?” asked her mother, feeling cruel to be attacking the dead man at his own funeral, but wishing to help her daughter see the truth. “That wasn’t important. He had savings. Being dead is important,” argued Vikky, holding back tears. “Even to him.”
“How can you know, with a man who would quit his job without telling you?”
“I know!” Vikky snapped, because she didn’t. “I just know.”
Mike’s funeral had been paid for by his parents, using his savings that had reverted to them upon his death. They knew that he didn’t put any value on funerals, that he would have been happy to be chucked in a river, off a cliff, into space, left to rot in the top of a tree, whatever, that he didn’t care. They knew that he would have liked his savings to go to someone that he cared about – probably Vikky, or maybe to some of his less well-off friends. They knew, but they couldn’t bring themselves to do other than a proper burial. As the coffin-bearers traipsed the long path to the grave, Mike’s parents felt guilty for spending his money on this, guilty for encouraging him to move out as young as he had, guilty for whatever they had done that had driven him to suicide. Still, they didn’t for a moment think of putting his money where he would have wanted it to go.
As the coffin was hefted into the hole, one of ex-Mike’s friends was muttering to another, “He said I could have his skeleton if he died, and they’re burying it. What a waste.” The second friend hushed the first, but with a wry smile, because Mike had undoubtedly meant it. Nobody cares what you want when you’re dead, unless you set it on paper, and Mike had never been one to set anything on paper. He rarely even set things in computer data, except when he was being paid to.
The holy guy, whatever denomination he might have been (Mike’s friends would always pretend to be unable to tell the difference between one religion and another), started in on a speech about Mike’s virtues, and how he’d now be with God in Heaven. “Not that guy’s God, I’m betting,” the friend whispered. “Hell no. Not if he has any say,” replied the other. “Does anyone else wish to say anything?” asked the white-robed person, eventually. “May I?” asked Vikky.
The overly verbose holy man stepped aside, and gestured her to the microphone.
“Mike,” she began. “Mike was a great guy. He was honest, loyal, straightforward, honourable,” her voice cracked slightly, “He was a nice red suit.”
Mike’s friends all smiled sadly at the reference to one of Mike’s favourite sketch-comedy moments. His family all frowned, completely failing to comprehend. The holy guy ostentatiously scratched his nose, so that his hand covered his mouth.
“He would never do anything he perceived to be wrong,” Vikky continued, “And if there’s an afterlife… if there’s a deity listening… you better put him somewhere good, because he deserves it.”
She stepped down, to scattered confused applause, and the church chap, frowning, returned to the podium.
“Let us pray,” he said.
“Ow,” thought Mike. He’d have said it, too, if he could move his lips. If he had any lips. It was sort of how people always described it – like flying along a tunnel towards a bright benevolent light. Only there was no light. With no light, he couldn’t really tell if it was a tunnel either. So it was like flying. With no air resistance. So not really very much like flying either, after all. It was like a sensory deprivation tank, with no water and no walls. It was like sleeping without dreaming. It was like none of these things.
It was black. Lots of black.
Mike saw a point of light in the distance, and tried to fly towards it, but it blinked out. It might have been a trick of his eyes. If he had any eyes. A trick of his mind, then. But not of his brain. In this bodiless place, there was no brain. “No brain,” Mike thought, “just like everyone else. Except I’m thinking.”
The memory of the truck impact would have made Mike wince, if he had a face. The memory still almost hurt, like seeing the protagonist in a movie get kicked in the groin. That thought sort-of-hurt as well. But there was no wincing to be done.
There was music, though. Even with nothing else to perceive, it had taken Mike a moment to notice. It was that sort of music, the sort used to build up emotion without drawing attention to itself. Soundtrack music, rather than music for its own sake.
Mike wondered vaguely how it was that he could hear music, and see the blackness (it didn’t seem to him that he was blind, he was quite sure he was seeing nothing), with no sensory organs. He wondered about his other senses, tried to apply them. Tried to lick the roof of his mouth, but, with no tongue and no mouth, got nowhere. He concentrated on the sense of taste. Nothing.
He tried to detect odour. It seemed faintly lemony, but perhaps that’s how nothing smells. “Nothing smells like new lemon zif!” thought Mike to himself.
As for feeling – the feel of nothing was like nothing Mike had experienced. “Oh good one,” he thought. “Nothing feels like nothing. Very helpful. Very Zen.” With sensory deprivation, there would be a sense of the pressure of the water against one’s skin, and the ripples where water and air meet. Underwater, there’s still the pressure. Even in air, with no gravity, there’s pressure. On the other hand, in a vacuum, you feel the pressure from inside yourself, briefly, before you die. This was like none of those things. There was no pressure, no ripples, just nothing.
“I wonder if oblivion is eternal,” thought Mike. He didn’t really mind the idea. Being alone with your thoughts in a body, when those thoughts include being hungry, being cold, being uncomfortable, and being sex-starved – being alone like that is one thing. One thing that this was nothing like. He knew he would have hated the idea of eternal aloneness when he was in his body. He would miss Vikky with only scant days apart, even hours. Without any of the body’s imperatives interfering, he didn’t miss her at all. He wondered how she was coping, would have liked to see her, but was also happy without. It was unfamiliar, and very liberating.
Perhaps the music originated in Mike’s own mind – that would explain how he could ‘hear’ it with no perception. Some soft chanting female vocals were joining in now, singing in a language Mike didn’t recognise, but which sounded vaguely oriental – a voice filled with such rich emotion that Mike might have been moved nearly to tears, if he only had the necessary apparatus.
“Michael… Wake up, Michael.”
“No,” thought Mike. “No way. This was not a dream. No dream is so clear, so long. Never this clarity of thought in a dream. And I really want a copy of that music.”
Despite his disbelief, Mike opened his eyes, squinting against the harsh fluorescent lighting of the room he found himself in. Too white for comfort, yet the room was too comforting to be a hospital. The bed he was in was form-hugging and soft, rather than the patent sickly-green crunchy plastic so popularly used for hospital beds.
“Welcome back, Michael,” spoke the soft androgynous voice that had woken him.
“Mike,” he tried to correct it, coming out with something that more closely resembled “Huuuh”.
“You may find it difficult to move or speak at first,” the voice informed him a little too late. “Your coordination will return within a few minutes. Your memories will take a little longer.”
“Huun worn…” Mike began, breaking off as his grunts reminded him that his voice wasn’t working, having intended to say “Nothing wrong with my memory.”
His eyes adjusting to the light, he realized that it was neither harsh nor fluorescent – in fact it was quite dim, and seemingly emanating from the whole ceiling. As he looked up he heard something move behind him, and turned; it was a series of wires and tubes that were apparently attached to his head somewhere. His arms were still hanging limp by his side. After failing to reach up to touch the headpiece, he marked that as something to do later, and continued to look around.
Belatedly, he recognised what had been niggling at his mind since he started looking around – there was nobody in the room to go with the pleasant voice. “Hewwo?” he ventured.
He had been prepared to look at the source of the voice, but hadn’t been prepared to have absolutely no clue where the voice had originated. It seemed, like the light, to not have a single source, its diffuseness probably contributing to its smooth pleasant appeal. “Ike,” he tried again to correct the voice. “Rike! Mike!”
“Your name is Michael.”
Mike gave up on that course of argument. “Who are you?” he said carefully.
“Your memory will start to return soon.”
“Nothing wrong with my memory,” Mike said crossly. “At least I can remember my own name.”
“Your name is Michael.”
“Thanks a lot,” Mike said, dryly.
“You are welcome.”
Mike snorted. “Yeah.”
He experimentally tried his arms again, finding them a little responsive, though still not doing much in the way of feeling, other than feeling very heavy, clumsy, and numb. He found out just how clumsy immediately upon trying to scratch his nose, as his thumb caught against the edge of his eyesocket, and the palm of his hand slammed into his nose.
“Ow! Sonofa…” he muttered, “mother fuck.”
The ambient voice made no comment. A moment later, there was no pain. Mike wasn’t even sure there had been any in the first place.
“So where am I?”
“Someone will be in to explain shortly.”
“Did I die?”
“The question is ambiguous. Please clarify.”
“Am I dead?”
“No, you are not dead.”
“Did you bring me back to life?”
“I am not capable of that.”
“Did someone bring me back to life?”
“Not that I am aware of.”
“Then I didn’t die. How long have I been unconscious?”
“You have never been unconscious.”
“What about at night?” asked Mike. Suddenly, the word ‘night’ seemed terribly unfamiliar, as though it were a foreign word absorbed by a local language. The feeling was akin to déjà-vu, the irony of which was not lost on him.
“That abstract is meaningless here.”
“Not much of conversationalist, are you?”
“I am conversing perfectly, and with one hundred percent accuracy.”
Mike sighed. “Can I have a mirror?”
“Your name is Michael.”
“If you’re going to insist on being formal, why not go all the way and call me Mr…” Mike hesitated, momentarily unsure of his surname, and then briefly unsure of his memory when he did recall it, “Mr Renton.”
“That is not your name.”
“What do you think my name is then, smarty-pants?”
“Your name is Michael.”
“And my surname?”
“That abstract is meaningless.”
He sighed, “Right, right. Now about that mirror…”
“I have made the wall behind you reflective, Michael,” said the voice, without a hint of sarcasm.
Mike turned around, and sure enough, the whole wall reflected an image of the bed, himself, and the headpiece atop him, with the wires and tubes leading from it to the wall.
“Can I take this thing off my head?”
“Of course! It couldn’t possibly be a part of vital equipment keeping me alive. I should know that.”
The androgynous voice, so soothing in its tone, and so aggravating in its dialogue, stayed mercifully quiet as Mike gingerly removed the contraption, which turned out to be no more attached to him than a well-fitted hat would be. He moved to set it down on the bed, but it was whipped out of his hand by one of the tubes retracting, until it was pulled tight to the wall.
“How rude,” Mike muttered to himself, ruffling his hair to remove the print the device had left on it, and surveying his reflection. His hair seemed pretty much as it had before – as black, as unruly, perhaps a little wavier now, but that might have been to do with being crushed under a lump of metal for so long. For how long?
“How long has that thing been on my head?”
“One hundred and fifteen cycles.”
“How long is a cycle?”
“A cycle is one thousand heartbeats of an average human.”
Mike narrowed his eyes and did some approximate math in his head – somewhere between fifty and a hundred heartbeats per minute, making it ten to twenty minutes per cycle, meaning three to six cycles to an hour… A hundred and fifteen cycles, then, would be somewhere between 19 and 39 hours. Probably about a day and a half.
“About a day and a half?” he asked.
“That abstract is meaningless.”
“Oh, we’re back to that again. Forgive me if I choose to think in that meaningless abstract.”
“I have no preference as to how you choose to think.”
“You are welcome.”
Mike sighed. A voice like that should really have had a nice personality attached, at the very least. Perhaps the original did, but this recording was a jerk.
He stepped nearer to the mirror, looking closely at his face. It was similar to the face he expected to see, but not the same. Much as he had no problem with his own face, he really liked what he was seeing in this mirror. Where his eyes had been a little sunken and bloodshot, now they were smooth and pearl-white. Scrutinizing them further, Mike realised what it was that was particularly disturbing, yet wonderful, about the face he saw – the eyes had no iris. Not like an albino, not white with a small pupil – quite the opposite, the parts of his eyes that would normally be a dark green were as black as the pupil itself. The effect was startlingly intense, once noticed, and Mike found himself gazing into his own eyes wishing he had eyes like that, before realising how ridiculous that thought was. The eyes weren’t the only change – his skin, normally at least a little pocked, was perfectly unblemished. The flesh around his jaw was tighter, his shoulders a little broader, his waist a little narrower. He looked like everything he had ever wished to look like. He smiled at the thought, which drew attention to one more thing about his features – for a moment, as he smiled, he had looked beautiful, rather than handsome.
That observation indirectly brought to mind a thought – Mike checked his instincts as to whether he needed to urinate, and was surprised to find that he didn’t. Nor was he hungry. Nor was he thirsty.
“When did I last have a drink?”
“I do not know.”
“Not while I’ve been here?”
“That is correct.”
“Why aren’t I thirsty?”. As with when he had said ‘night’, the word ‘thirsty’ felt alien, and, realising what that would mean, he answered himself in perfect harmony with the other voice, “That abstract is meaningless.”
Next he looked at the clothes he had on. They didn’t seem to be anything special – pale grey fabric, though much too nice to be a hospital-issue sort of deal. It seemed like maybe a synthetic silk-substitute. He peered closely at it, to see the weave, and found that he couldn’t at all – presumably a much finer weave than any of the silk clothes he had ever owned. Peering so closely at himself, he noticed something else.
“What the…” he began, horrified, pulling out the waistband of the silky pants, and looking within. The first thing he had noticed was the lack of any dangling body parts. Now that he had a full view, he also observed a lack of the hair that usually would accompany such parts, and similarly a lack of any sort of holes at all in that area of his body. “What… Oh, never mind, abstract, meaningless, I remember.”
Mike was appalled that he hadn’t noticed his new-found lack sooner. Evidently, those parts which made themselves so important when he had them, were not important when he did not. Just like being outside a box; you would never think “Oh look, I’m outside a box.” Unless you were in a box, you wouldn’t think in terms of a box at all. A box just wouldn’t spring to mind.
He pulled the pants down to his knees, and undid the accompanying shirt, to survey himself in the mirror. After the initial shock, his body actually, like his face, was pretty nice. The other side, too, lacked any sort of hole – between the buttocks of this body was barely even a crack, more like an indentation. “If I were celibate, I’d really go for someone with a body like this,” Mike thought, narcissistically. Looking at himself in the mirror, he added to the thought, “and I guess I am celibate now.”
Experimentally, Mike ran his hands, noticing that they, like his face, were slightly effeminate, over the smooth skin of his torso, testing how the nerves would react. Stroking the near-pectoral area, where he would have expected nipples to be, didn’t produce any different sensation from the rest of his chest. Surprisingly, he did still have a navel, albeit just a small indentation – that, too, seemed to have much the same sensation as the rest of his torso. Slightly self-consciously, he ran a hand down between his legs, stroking and scratching to see if the sensation in that area was lost along with the parts. He had time to determine that it was, but not time to move his hand away or straighten his clothes, when a large panel opened in one of the walls, and a woman walked in. She smiled wryly at his state of dishabille, and at his embarrassment.
“Welcome back, Michael.”
Uh, hi,” said Mike, turning to one side and self-consciously pulling his trousers back up, even though he had nothing to hide. “Back?”
The woman smiled sympathetically. Her voice was sweet and melodious, like that of the unseen and uninteresting conversationalist he had been speaking to for the last ten minutes, even to the point of androgyny. It differed only in that she spoke with more intonation and speed, and in that her voice came from a single source, not from all around.
“Yes, back. You are well known here, Michael. You’ll remember soon.”
“Yeah, so the walls keep telling me. Will you stop calling me Michael, please?” He was loath to berate so lovely a woman, but quite sick of the long form of his name after arguing with the disembodied voice about it.
“It is your name.”
“Not you too! Can’t you just call me Mike?”
“Well, I can. But it seems silly. When your memory returns, you’ll be wanting to be called Michael,” she smiled wryly, the quirky expression looking strange on her perfectly symmetrical face.
“There’s nothing wrong with my memory,” Mike began, hesitating a moment at the woman’s placid sympathetic nodding. “There isn’t. My name’s Mike Renton, I was, until very recently, a programmer with LogicWare, which post I just resigned. My parents’ names are Janet and John. I got teased for that in school. My girlfriend is Vikky, we met at university because of a room-booking mix-up, she was at…”
Mike stopped, surprised by the next thing he was going to say. The woman nodded again, as though she already knew. “She was at my funeral,” he said quietly. “That’s usually the first thing people remember.”
“Who are you?”
“My name’s Ruth. I’m here to smooth your transition back into ordinary life.”
“This doesn’t seem like an ordinary life to me,” Mike glanced meaningfully at his crotch, then looked back at the woman. Now he thought about it, she was uncommonly flat-chested, and could easily pass for a man if she arranged her hair differently – perhaps tied back into a geekish pony-tail, or hidden under a hat, shame as that would be.
“Ah yes, that,” she said, laughing lightly, and proceeding to unbutton her shirt. Mike blushed, and averted his gaze. “You can’t… I mean, I can’t… I have a girlfriend.”
“Look, Michael,” she said, but he already was doing, accidentally, having turned away in the direction of the mirror. Her chest was as smooth and nipple-less as his own. When she realized he was looking, she pulled her pants down as well, far enough that he could see that she also shared his neuter state in that area, then pulled them back up.
“Um,” he said, flustered. “Is flashing people that way normal around here?”
“It’s a fairly common demonstration during this transition period. The rest of the time… well, it’s just not considered relevant.”
“Not relevant?” Mike exclaimed in surprise. “You don’t mind having no… well…”
She broke in, “Like I said, it’s ordinary.”
“You don’t look ordinary to me,” Mike said. Realising the ambiguity, he added, “by which I mean, you’re quite beautiful. Er. That not being a come-on or anything.”
She flashed a grin. “I love this job. The naïveté of returning Earthers is more entertaining than Earth itself.”
“Calling you beautiful is naïve?”
“We’re all beautiful. Look at yourself,” she gestured to the mirror.
Mike surveyed his reflection again, imagining what he would think about it if it weren’t himself. She was quite right, he was beautiful. Anyone who appreciated an endomorphic figure and high-contrast features couldn’t fail to find him so. His body was perfect, but in a sterile characterless sort of way. No scars, no marks, no asymmetry. He smirked at himself finding flaws in perfection, and at his narcissism in considering himself perfection, and the smirk completed the effect – a little asymmetry rendered him truly lovely.
He looked at her again. She was as perfect as him, and of the same type of figure. They were both fairly androgynous of features, but she looked female and he looked male – a lot to do with their differing hair styles, and a little to do with small things; fullness of lips, thickness of eyebrows, and a manner of motion.
“We may all be beautiful. Still, the fact remains that you are,” he said, determinedly. As he spoke, he listened to his own voice – it, too, was smooth and androgynous, with nothing of the slightly breathy whine he knew his voice used to contain before he had apparently died.
“When everyone is beautiful, everyone is ordinary,” she said, wistfully. “You’ll stop noticing, soon enough.”
“Hard to believe,” he said, still looking at the arch of her eyebrows against her smooth pale skin. Her eyes, like his, he noticed, lacked any distinct iris – pure black and white. “So is this the afterlife?”
She laughed lightly, “We get asked that so often. It sort of is. And the beforelife. And the betweenlives. It’s also life itself. But for the thrust of your question, yes, this is what that book refers to.”
“The religion one,” she said, laughing still.
“The Bible? The Qu’ran?”
“Any of them. They all say the same thing, more or less.”
It was his turn to laugh. “I always said that they did. The people who read them religiously don’t agree.”
“People in Earth don’t agree about much. That’s what makes it such fun.”
“So what about Vikky?”
“Vik… Oh, your girlfriend.”
“What about her?”
“When will she be here?”
Ruth looked sympathetic. “She may not.”
Ruth laughed again. “Don’t be so sure you’re not going to Hell. Though you haven’t any time before.”
“So what about Vikky?”
“She might not be real.”
“What? She was as real as me!”
“She seemed as real as you. What colour were her eyes?”
“Blue… Maybe sometimes green.”
“Light or dark?”
“Kind of middling. What does that have to do with it?”
“Everyone real has dark green eyes. It helps visitors keep track, though there haven’t been any clear-mind visitors authorised for 10 kilocycles.”
“So what is a person when they are not real?”
“Same as everything else. An abstract, a construct. Entertainment.”
“You’re saying my girlfriend was just entertainment?” Mike asked, angrily.
“Very few things are anything more,” was Ruth’s calm reply.
Mike sighed. “This isn’t easy to come to terms with. How about, instead of springing things on me when the questions occur to me, you explain just what’s what?”
“Okay,” Ruth began.
“But first,” Mike interrupted, “Can you tell me how long a cycle is, in terms I’ll understand?”
“That’s trickier than it sounds. When you’re in Earth, what is a cycle here feels like a fifth of a year there. You were in for 115 cycles, so you probably lived to about… 23 years old?”
“Right. Whereas when you’re here, a cycle feels like approximately the amount of time it takes for 1000 heartbeats.”
“The voice told me that was what defines a cycle.”
“1000 average person heartbeats is the definition. At the moment, I expect you’re pushing 1500 heartbeats in a cycle.”
Mike laughed, “Probably. So how many cycles have I been here?”
“About 120. But you probably feel like you’ve been here for about one cycle.”
Mike felt like he’d been there for about 15 minutes.
“What’s the voice, by the way?”
Mike searched her face for any hint of a smile. At first, there wasn’t one, then the corner of her mouth quirked. “Not God like that. No supreme being, not the creator. At least, not how you’re thinking.”
“What, then? Wait, don’t answer that. Give me a full rundown, what’s this, where am I, and why.”
“I’ll do my best,” she began.
“Your name is Michael.”
“It’s… Hey. My name is Michael. I remember being called it a lot.”
“Good, your memories are starting to return. Would you like me to carry on?”
“Right. Earth is a simulation operated within God.”
Michael opened his mouth to interrupt, then changed his mind, and nodded at her to continue.
“Heaven consists of a variable number of us, about 150, who control God. God has been running for about 30 kilocycles.”
Michael couldn’t resist now, “What is God?”
“Oh, yes, sorry. God is a computer, pretty much.”
He laughed. “That’s great. I’d hate to be the one to tell that to the Pope.”
She smiled whimsically, “He’s definitely not real.”
Michael grinned, shaking his head in wonder. “That’s really perfect. If I could design an afterlife, I’d make it like this.”
“If you could design a life, you’d make it like that,” she gestured somewhat aimlessly at the headpiece on the wall.”
“Would I? All that pain and misery? All that ugliness? This is so much better.”
“This is so much more repetitive. As I was saying, God was created to run the Earth simulation… Oh, these are all acronyms, by the way. G.O.D., E.A.R.T.H., and so on.”
“Oh man, how contrived is that. It’s like a bad sci-fi story. What do they stand for?”
“It’s not contrived at all – the only reason the words God and Earth take that form in Earth is because of the acronyms they started out with here. They’re Guided Omniscient Dreamer, and Essential Ambience Research and Testing Headset.” She gestured at the headpiece again, “The acronym originally referred to the interface there, which was supposed to be a temporary deal, but it more often refers to the game itself, now.”
“Well, it’s sort of a game. Believe me, people love it. It’s also a test.”
“A test for what?”
“Whether you’re suitable to continue working for Heaven, adapting God.”
“Continue? I work for Heaven already?” Another flash of memory struck him, “Highly Entertaining And Very Exciting Network, right? Christ, what bozo thought up that?”
“Actually, it was Christ.”
Mike snorted. “Okay, add insult to injury – what’s Hell?”
She grinned. “Originally, Christ made that up, too. It wasn’t even an acronym, it was just a word to be used in Earth to suggest not being in Heaven. It sort of backfired. Lucy – you’ll remember her later – when she was told she couldn’t work on God for a kilocycle, decided to start work on an alternative, or maybe a replacement. She hasn’t come back for nine kilocycles. Seems word of that got to Earth, too. Maybe a memory slipped past God’s sweep and came out in someone’s subconscious. We have no idea where that fire-and-brimstone bit came in. Might just be God’s sense of humour. Maybe someone else’s.”
“So let me get this straight – life on Earth is a game you play when you get bored. God erases your memory and supplies you with a character…”
“Not quite. God hides your memory from you, and just drops you in. Your character is formed as your own mind would be in the situations presented to you.”
“Isn’t the processing power required to run something like this… immense?”
“Power? Oh, you mean how fast God can work things. God really doesn’t do all that much.”
“But there’s all the atoms… An entire universe!”
“Have you seen Mars?”
“What does it look like?”
“You’ve actually seen that personally?”
“Well, I’ve seen pictures taken by the space probes.”
She smiled, “A lot of that was your doing. How many real people do you think work on the space program?”
“I have no idea.”
“Zero, is the answer. The whole thing is made up by simulations. Until a few kilocycles ago, the planets and stars were just dots on the sky, aesthetically pleasing and nothing more.”
“What? You’re saying all the rest of the universe was made… er…” he briefly tussled with the mathematics in his head for a moment, but couldn’t remember the relationship between cycles and Earth-dates. “Quite recently?”
“Not really. The rest of the universe was never made at all. It’s still just dots on the sky, until you look at it through a telescope. Then it’s pretty much what you expect. The expectation thing was Lucy’s doing – a great improvement.”
“So Mars only exists as a red and dusty place when you’re looking at it?”
“It only exists as a red and dusty place if that’s what you expect when you’re looking at it.”
“So if I decided the moon was made of cheese, it would be? That’s crazy.”
“It was made of cheese, for a while,” Ruth told him dryly. “But you couldn’t make it so again. Your childhood in there prepares you to expect all the things you’re supposed to expect. It makes for good consistency – and even when you do confuse matters, you still see what you expect, so nothing seems wrong.”
“I’d have thought it would be even harder to have God managing little solipsistic universes for everyone, than to just simulate the whole thing properly.”
“Well, that’s not quite how it works. God just implants direction and expectations, and provides interaction. Other than that, you’re on your own.”
“God is only a small part of running Earth. It’s mostly run using the player’s minds.”
Mike frowned. “That seems a little… unethical.”
“Nobody is forced to participate. After a few kilocycles of this,” she gestured outwards, “you’ll be back here demanding another life.”
“Okay, one more dumb question. If I understand this right, we don’t sleep, here. What was that time between when I died in Earth, and when I woke up here, if it wasn’t a dream?”
“You’re right – no sleep, no dreams. Actually, the sleep periods in Earth give God an opportunity to rearrange the events since the last sleep, correcting glitches, compressing the memories in your mind into the most efficient format.”
“Compression algorithms in my head?” Mike laughed, “That’s great. What sort of an algorithm?”
“Nothing quite so simple. It’s done by arranging concepts that are alike so that they overlap. There’s no clean formula for it, that’s why it takes so long. What there is, you wrote.”
“Me? Wow, I can’t wait for my memories to return. I want to know what language that was all done in.”
“It’s not like that,” Ruth said, smiling gently. “But you understand it better than I. We should wait for your memories on that one. As for the darkness before you woke – that was my contribution. Without that, people were coming out of Earth distraught and angry, demanding to go back to their loved ones on Earth, and horrified by what they thought of as their loss of gender.”
“I thought you were saying people went in Earth for the contrast?”
“There was no contrast for people coming out having lost everything they valued. Some of them tried to kill themselves. We can’t, you know.”
“No pain, no death.”
“What if…” Mike punched a wall, hard enough that it should hurt, but not so hard that he risked breaking anything. It didn’t hurt. It felt not much different than if he had punched a cushion, only with less give.
“No pain,” Ruth repeated. She stepped forward and punched Mike hard in the face, knocking him flat. It didn’t hurt. He stood up, stunned that she would do that, and looked in the mirror to survey the damage. There was none.
“How about…” Mike began, turning back to face Ruth.
“It heals,” Ruth interrupted. “You cut off your head, it heals right up behind the blade. You do it with a guillotine, and leave the blade in the way, you’ll heal right through the blade. It still doesn’t hurt,” she grinned, “though once you did require some help to get the blade out again.”
Mike cocked his head in thought for a moment, then ran hard, face first into a wall, falling backwards to the floor. He stood up, laughing. “How can you people not enjoy this?”. He bent double, and, bull-like, charged the wall again, with even less hesitation, and much the same effect.
“Enjoy it while you can. You always do this after playing in Earth. You get bored.” Euphoric, Mike charged at Ruth the same way he had charged at the wall. An instant before he reached her, she turned and took half a step, so he flailed past her and tripped on her toes, falling head first to the floor. “Until you regain your memories, you don’t stand a chance of hitting me,” she pointed out. “We’ve all had a lot of practice.”
“Okay, okay, I can do more of that later. So, what’s the pay like in Heaven?”
“There is no pay.”
“Why on Earth… I mean… Why the hell… I mean… Well, why does anyone want to work for them then?”
“It’s more interesting than doing nothing. Besides, getting to adjust the entertainment,” she gestured at the headpiece on the wall again, “to be how you want it, that’s a great incentive.”
“When do I get to see Nathan and…” Mike hesitated, checking the unfamiliar name. He vaguely recalled that it referred to the boss of Heaven, the guy who decides who can work for them and who can’t. He blinked a few times, “This memory recovery stuff really sneaks up on you, eh? When do I get to see Nathan and find out whether I’m working for Heaven for the next kilocycle?”
“How about now?” Ruth suggested, opening the door and gesturing him through.
She’s the epitomy of sweet misery,
the sweeter the stroke, the deeper the pain given.
There’s an angel, angle sex-driven.
Dangerous sex kitten, warm as a mitten.
Fittin’ like a glove, with abstract relations,
Testin’ all my patience, push comes to shove.
Emotional masturbation, fuckin’ with my love,
Fuckin’ with my life, fuckin’ all of the above.
I will purify my mind, body and speech with the jewels of humility, wisdom and compassion; I will rise untouched as the lotus from the earth, as impenetrable as the seed of Buddhanature.
I will live life with a sense of abundance, rather than scarcity.
My life is full; of opportunities, of amazing people, of unbelievable beauty and good fortune.
I will be mindful of this, always.
I will be mindful of my breathing, seeking to quiet the running stream of thoughts in my mind; like a river, the water will flow over my feet but I will remain unmoved. In this way my mind will be a still pond, where even the tiny movement of a dragonfly on the water’s surface is seen clearly.