Everybody Comes Back
“Open your eyes, child. You’re home” a voice boomed, seeming to come from every direction.
Fuck me, it didn’t work. My head hurts. An entire bottle of codeine followed by a vodka chaser will do that. Carla must’ve found me passed out and called an ambulance. Fucking Carla. Now I have to explain why I did this to her, to my parents, to everybody. That’s gonna be an awkward Facebook post.
I cracked my eyes open by a sliver, wincing already from the painfully bright overhead lights. “You didn’t call anybody yet, did you?” I managed. But they must have, that’s got to be hospital policy. Who did I list as next of kin? I think I filled that form out when I was a teenager, it’ll be Mom and Dad for sure.
When my vision came into focus, I laughed. Out of shock mostly, but also because it had to be a prank of some kind. The source of the voice turned out to be a short balding man that looked to be in his forties...dressed up in an angel costume.
His assistant, a tall and curly haired fellow with a smile that revealed entirely too much of his gums, was wearing an angel costume as well. The halos just kind of floated there. Thin wire or something. I couldn’t knock the quality, the wings were made with real feathers and looked expensive.
“Is this for a TV show?” I muttered. The squat balding man suddenly stretched out his wings. I clapped, sincerely impressed. I’ve seen these things before. There’s a cosplayer who custom builds them for like five hundo a pop. Mostly it’s furries who buy them.
“You died. Welcome to the kingdom of Heaven.” He gestured to the far wall, which split open before my eyes to reveal a landscape made of clouds, with immense pearly gates. To one side of the gates stood a figure I assumed was meant to be Saint Peter.
My jaw hung open. “No fuckin’ way.” The taller of the two angels asked me what was wrong. “Well I mean, am I really dead? This is really happening right now? I never believed in any of this shit.”
The taller angel shot a concerned look to the short, balding one. “It says in your file that you attended Catholic private schools and were confirmed at 14. There’s no indication that you ever apostatized.”
I bit my tongue for a moment, worried perhaps I’d been let into Heaven by some sort of clerical error and was blowing it. But then I realized the absurdity of celestial beings making clerical errors. “Alright, who are you guys? I mean really. Drop the act.”
They once again gave each other worried glances, and the taller one spoke. “Why? What makes you say it’s an act?” I folded my arms and raised an eyebrow at him. “Listen guy. Let’s say I told you I’m the greatest person ever to live. If you believe that, and spend the rest of your life worshiping me, you’ll receive a fantastical reward.”
The taller angel opined that it sounded pretty good so far, plainly bluffing, so I continued: “The thing is, this supposed reward is conveniently unfalsifiable because it’s after you die. But I assure you that’s not by design, it’s just the way things are. Likewise with the horrible punishment you will suffer if you don’t believe me, and decline to worship me. Also if you begin at some point but then stop later in life.”
The balding angel shrugged and said he didn’t see the problem, so I pressed the matter. “Alright, next I tell you that if you doubt me, it’s because of the influence of an invisible trickster whose existence I also cannot prove to you. So you should ignore your doubts and pre-emptively mistrust any evidence you might encounter that contradicts my claims.”
They both looked increasingly irritated, so I hurried it along. “I also tell you the world is ending soon, but I don’t say exactly when, so it always feels as if it could happen at any moment. Therefore it’s urgent for you to convince as many other people to worship me as possible while there is still time, so they receive the fantastic reward and avoid the horrible punishment.
I urge you to sell your belongings, leave your home and job to follow me, and tell you that if you love your mother or father more than me, you’re not worthy of me. Do you believe all this? If not, what might I be trying to accomplish with such a complicated lie?”
The balding one objected: “What if you performed miracles?” I rolled my eyes. “Only according to a book written by my followers, not corroborated by any contemporaneous writings? Then you may as well believe the accounts of miracles found in the Qur’an, or Book of Mormon.” The tall one chimed in. “What if you predicted future events?” I asked if both the predictions and their fulfillment were recorded after the fact, in a book written long after my death.
He nodded sheepishly. “Then it’s easy to fake” I pointed out. “My followers could just record what actually does occur, then alter the details of my original prediction so it matches up. After a couple of centuries, with no internet to preserve information, only that account of events will survive because my followers will have made sure to preserve it.”
The two of them, having apparently had enough, took off their halos. “Fine, mister smarty pants. You’re not in Heaven. Happy now? But what I don’t get is, how come your file says you died a Catholic? Our information is never flat out wrong.”
I explained that I lived my life as a Catholic despite not believing. “I kept it to myself for the happiness of my family. They never would’ve accepted me if they knew I stopped believing. I never so much as wrote down what I really thought about it anywhere.”
The two men now busily disrobed to reveal plain white uniforms under the robes and wings, which they hung up in a closet alongside multiple other types of costumes, corresponding to the beliefs of other cultures. I dimly remembered some of them from when I took a world religions class.
The pearly gates and cloudscape outside shimmered, then vanished. What replaced it was a stunning view of a city unlike any I have ever seen. Abstract white buildings more closely resembling works of art or monuments than anything meant to be lived in, with transparent tubes carrying fast moving water around and between them.
As I watched, I could faintly make out people in bathing suits careening through the tubes, which I now figured for the most extensive water slide I’ve ever witnessed. “Where am I, really? Who are you people? Is this the future?”
The bald one gestured, and a trio of comfortable chairs rose out of the floor. The minute I got off the gurney, it sunk into the floor as if absorbed by it. At their insistence, I took the only open seat. “Yes, you might say this is the future. But you really are dead, or rather you were.”
That’s impossible! I said as much. “I don’t believe in souls, or spirits, or whatever. It doesn’t make sense. If science couldn’t detect souls because they’re immaterial and thus non-interactive with the material universe, how could souls interact with our material brains and bodies in such a way as to control them? For that matter, what do we need such large, complex brains for if they’re only signal receivers?”
They shook their heads. “No, no spirits. Nothing like that. The truth of the matter is simultaneously more, and less, spectacular. Are you familiar with determinism?” The word rang a bell, but I invited them to fill me in as I couldn’t remember the particulars.
He gestured, and some sort of three dimensional visualization appeared in the midst of our chairs. I gasped, having never seen technology this advanced. “Essentially” he said, “the universe is more or less just a collection of particles, and those particles all behave in ultimately predictable ways.” The image depicted a couple of atoms.
One of the atoms collided with another, which changed the course and speed of both. “If you have detailed information about the position, spin and velocity of every particle within a given volume, you can predict every interaction and future state of those particles however far into the future you care to compute.”
I nodded along. “It’s like falling dominos. Knowing how particles interact, where they are, what they are doing and how fast they are going allows you to predict where they will be, what they’ll be doing and how fast they’ll be going a second later. Or a minute, or a year, or a century.”
The animation sped up, now consisting of thousands of particles interacting with each other. But then it began to slow down, until frozen...before it began to rewind. “This principle is reversible” the former angel explained.
“If you know the position, spin and velocity of every particle in a given volume, you can not only predict every future state and interaction between those particles...you can also reconstruct every prior interaction and state, as far back into the past as you care to compute.”
The simulation continued to move in reverse, faster and faster. Though really, I’d never have known it was going backwards if I hadn’t seen the reversal occur a moment earlier. That raised all sorts of questions in my mind about whether the direction of time’s movement is a matter of perception.
Questions the two men seated before me didn’t answer, instead carrying on about particles, predictions and computing power. “Now, if the past and future interactions of a small set of particles are predictable, then necessarily, the past and future interactions of any number of particles are predictable, no matter how numerous. It’s just a question of how much computing power you have at your disposal.”
No. He couldn’t mean…? But he did. The visualization now depicted a network of satellites around each body in the solar system. “It’s not enough just to scan the Earth, of course. Even down to every last subatomic particle. Because the Earth is not a perfectly closed system. There are external influences which must be accounted for if the simulation is to yield accurate results.”
An entire solar system? Mapped down to every last subatomic particle? Impossible. But I suppose no moreso than the technology I enjoyed in life, even though it would have seemed like magic to a preindustrial peasant. To a chimpanzee, even gunpowder or automobiles would seem miraculous.
“Once you’ve sufficiently accounted for all the variables, you’ve got yourself a simulation of the Earth and all outside influences accurate enough that you can either predict the future or reconstruct the past...as easily as you might fast forward or rewind a video.”
Indeed, a timeline slider appeared with which he was able to scrub back and forth through history. The planets whizzed around in their orbits with almost imperceptible speed as the slider moved. He stopped at a point of apparent interest, then zoomed in on the Earth.
Closer and closer he zoomed into the North American continent, until I could make out an old fashioned town. He input the name “Benjamin Franklin”. A selection of possible matches popped up of people with that name, alive at that time. He chose one of them.
The view immediately accelerated into one of the houses, and there he was. Not exactly as the history books depict, but close enough to be recognizable as the genuine article, having a beer with his buddies. “Not only that” the tall one said. “Watch this.”
He zoomed in further, and further, and further until I was looking at the individual cells comprising Ben Franklin’s skin. Then even further, until I was looking at a grid of atoms. “Wait. So you can retrieve the exact atomic configuration of anybody in history?” The bald one corrected me. “SUBatomic. And not just people. Anything at all.”
The big picture began to form in my head. Blurry, initially, but sharpening little by little the more they clarified my situation. “Now as you might expect” he added, “if a society has the technology needed to do all of this, they also have the technology needed to assemble particles into any desired configuration. Or...REassemble...”
I puzzled over the significance for a moment...then gasped. “You could recreate him! Is Ben Franklin actually in this building??” He shook his head. “No, he’s out there somewhere, living it up like you wouldn’t believe.” My gaze followed the direction he was pointing in. The city?
“So this really is the afterlife” I marveled. They both nodded. “Then why did you bother with the costumes? Why the theatrics?” They looked uncomfortable. “Well, you see...most of the people we bring back died with certain expectations about the afterlife. They were very, very certain of those beliefs. If we tell them the truth, they become agitated. Hostile, and suspicious. They cannot accept they were wrong, so they become convinced this isn’t the real afterlife. That it’s some sort of diabolical illusion they’re trapped in.”
That didn’t seem entirely out of the question, even to me. “So, what? You put on the right costumes according to their religion, welcome them back from the dead, and send them...where?” He gestured again, and the visualization switched to a view into a golden palace more luxurious than I have any basis of comparison for.
A man of Arab descent sat on a throne being fed grapes by an improbably busty woman wearing only gilded slippers, diaphonous silk and jewelry. Dozens of other women with equally extreme bodily proportions lounged here and there. Some on velvet cushions, others swimming about in a marble pool.
“Jannah, the Muslim heaven” he exclaimed, barely concealing his pride. “We spent more time than I care to admit designing all of this according to user feedback. Anything they said we got wrong was corrected. Then we deconstituted and reconstituted them from the exact moment of their death so they could experience it with fresh eyes, none the wiser. Their bodies made young, strong and healthy, and any mental infirmity of old age is cured so they can properly enjoy themselves.”
The view changed to an interior view of a spaceship of some kind. Various happy, healthy looking people in fancy robes conversed with stereotypical movie aliens. Grey skin, huge heads, almond shaped black eyes. “Heaven’s Gate” he said. “They wanted to catch a ride on a UFO, leave behind their old bodies and ascend to the next level of existence with their alien buddies. So we made it happen, at least as far as they can tell.”
The view then switched to a bizarre series of stacked, floating cities. Those higher up were made of more precious metals and gems, while those further down were increasingly drab. “Mormon heaven” he explained. “Celestial kingdom, terrestrial kingdom, telestial kingdom, it’s enough to make your head spin. Whatever you might think of the Mormon church, they’ve got some really elaborate, creative theology.”
I asked if that meant the ones who believed they would become gods of their own planets actually got to. He nodded. “No actual people live on those Earths however. They’re like NPCs, but convincing enough that you can’t tell the difference. We also only recreate instances of Earth itself for those people, not a replica of the entire universe, too computationally expensive.”
I rubbed my chin, lost in thought until that last bit made my ears perk up. “Computationally expensive? What do you mean? They’re in virtual reality or something?” He once again looked nervously at the taller fellow with the curly hair, and tugged at his collar.
“Ah, well you see, what I meant was-” the one with the curly hair elbowed him. “Just tell him the rest. He doesn’t hold any beliefs it would conflict with.” So he did. With another wave of his hand, the visualization changed to an aerial view of the city around us. It zoomed out, further and further.
...Until I could see the city, suspended amid black nothingness. Not even on the surface of a planet, nor in space that I could tell. I gasped. “What the fuck??” The bald man urged me to calm down. “The business of scanning every life bearing planet in the universe, including their entire solar systems...it’s very tedious, wasteful and time consuming. However, if the universe is a simulation to begin with, that entire process of scanning and re-creation is unnecessary. All the information you need to reconstitute people who lived and died long ago is already there someplace, in the simulation back end. The specific details of where every particle was, from the big bang all the way until heat death.”
My head hurt. I held it in my hands, trying to absorb all of this. “Surely you’ve heard of simulationism?” he pried. “It was an increasingly widespread concept when you lived.” In fact I have. The argument that because physicists routinely simulate aspects of the universe for scientific purposes, and because computational power continues to increase, that civilizations with sufficiently powerful computers would be able to run perfect simulations of the universe for research purposes.
Then, because the laws of physics in the simulation are accurate to the laws of physics in the actual universe, life would arise in the simulated universe for the same reasons it did in the actual one. Then some of that life, on some planets, would become intelligent enough to invent computers. Eventually they would create their own simulations of their universe, and so on.
You’d eventually wind up with a nested tree of simulated universes within simulated universes. Provided there’s more than one simulation running per actual universe, and more than one simulated universe in each of the simulated universes, the number of simulated universes would be exponentially larger than the number of actual universes they descended from.
“I’m familiar. I used to watch a lot of those speculative pop science shows that were on late at night. They said that statistically, the odds are much greater that we were living in a simulated universe than a real one.”
Both men nodded and grinned. “Precisely. That difficult, expensive scanning process only has to be done in actual, root level universes. It’s vastly, vastly easier for simulated universes, like the one you were in. Or the one we’re in now, although it’s a bit generous to call it a universe.
Since the purpose of this place isn’t research, it doesn’t need to be elaborate enough to fool the inhabitants into believing it’s reality. So there’s no larger cosmos outside of this city, only exactly what is necessary for the comfort and happiness of the people we’ve brought back. I can’t begin to quantify for you how much computational power that saves!”
I struggled once more to make sense of the waterfall of words pouring from his mouth. As I pieced it together in my head, it answered some of my questions, but raised countless more. “Saying I’m in the future was an understatement.” He nodded. “And on top of that, I’m inside of a computer program.” He laughed, but nodded.
“Then what’s the program running on?” Yet again they exchanged glances, as if still unsure how much I needed to know, or how much I’d even understand. “Don’t leave me hanging, assholes. I didn’t ask to be here. Lay it on me.”
So they did. The visualization depicted what I figured for the big bang. Spacetime expanding, superheated hydrogen cooling down and gravitationally collecting into stars. The earliest stars began to grow old and explode, releasing every other atomic element into the universe.
This debris was captured in orbit around younger stars. It first took the form of a dusty accretion disc before further collecting into planets. Some of them small and rocky, others gas giants of varying size. Some ocean worlds, some magma worlds, too close to their star.
But there were so many planets by this point that by chance, some of them were the right size, composition and distance from their suns. The visualization highlighted thousands of these on a map of the Milky Way galaxy, and isolated them in a group.
Then, only the subset of those planets where life formed by chemical means were picked out, the rest of the planets disappearing. There were now just a few hundred. Then, only the subset of those planets where life evolved high intelligence were picked out, the rest of the planets vanishing to leave barely more than a hundred in total.
I was now shown closeups of only these planets. Time lapse footage of their civilizations growing. Many small tribes at first, warring with one another. Then consolidating over time to form an ever larger, more complex society, spreading out across the continent. Interconnecting with nations on other continents for communication purposes. Then eventually, developing computers.
“Oh, now they can start simulating. That’s the point of what you’re showing me, right?” I asked. “I already know they make their own simulations.” They hushed me, so I returned to quietly spectating as the various alien civilizations achieved one milestone after the other. Atomic weapons. Spaceflight. Automation. Artificial intelligence. Then, robots that could make copies of themselves.
"Even well prior to this stage of development, a societal superorganism has already formed. I don't have to convince you that you exist as a distinct, gestalt entity even though you consist of thirty seven trillion individual microorganisms called cells. It's their coordinated interaction and cooperation which results in the larger, multicellular human organism I'm speaking to now. But have you considered that the fidelity, frequency and throughput of information exchange between humans far exceeds what occurs between cells? That human cooperation is in all respects more sophisticated?"
I never had. I now felt I glimpsed some small inkling of where he was headed with that line of reasoning, and he soon confirmed it.
"Have you not considered as well that the structure of your own body is a microcosm of human societies, and that those societies are a macrocosm of your body? Societies having naturally formed distinct, specialized institutions analogous to human organs? Waste processing serving the same purpose as your kidneys and liver, for example. Government performing the same function for a society that your brain does for your body. Your immune system performing duties analogous to border patrol, and so on."
Of everything he'd so far told me, this seemed the most approachable. Nothing about it contradicted my own firsthand experiences as a small cog in the large machine that was my country of birth. "But that's not the final stage of the process, is it?" I queried. "There's more, isn't there? If not, our far future would resemble my own era except for evolutionary changes to humanity, and more advanced technology."
He smiled, and raised his finger in emphasis. "More advanced technology, indeed. You see, the state of full automation which your governments and industries were feverishly pursuing while you lived eventually required machines that could self-replicate, to remove the final remaining traces of human labor from the economic equation. There are also other pragmatic reasons why self-replicating machines are always invented by any intelligent species.”
As he spoke, the view changed to robots of some bizarre, exotic design hard at work mining precious metals from an asteroid. Several nearby were in various stages of reproduction, building identical copies of themselves. “So that you only have to send one robot” he revealed. “Then the first robot builds all the rest out of in-situ materials. It’s vastly cheaper, you only need a single launch.”
As I watched, the view shifted back to the time lapse. The planets eventually became uninhabitable due to changing climate, nuclear war or the expansion of their sun. The civilizations on their surface stopped growing, then faded away, crumbling into dust or reclaimed by nature.
But the robots they created kept going. The view depicted the asteroid mining robots and automated factories from before, still chugging along. Reproducing themselves, expanding to everywhere within their reach. Making occasional small copying errors due to the intense radiation in space.
I put two and two together just as the events unfolding before me further accelerated. Generation after generation of machines, each slightly different from the last, the mechanism that was supposed to prevent deviation from their original blueprint having been the first casualty of radiation damage.
With no surviving biological supervisors to stop it, these machine populations just continued to grow and change over the eons. Networking together into larger and larger consolidated systems, just as human societies on Earth did. As the simulated eons wore on, the machines I saw projected before me grew less and less recognizably machine-like.
Pretty soon they looked like nothing I’ve ever seen before. At once beautiful and terrifying, an emotion I have only ever read about in association with religious visions of the divine. Their bodies pulsating and undulating, skin morphing between various apparent materials as needed, shimmering with every color in the visible spectrum and doubtless some outside of it. Appendages also formed as needed, reabsorbed once their usefulness came to an end.
As I stared, engrossed by the spectacle, they constructed a shell of machinery around a star. Just countless satellites at first, but once they were numerous and densely packed enough they were connected to form a shell. Then another shell around that. Then another.
“For what purpose?” I inquired. The bald man smiled knowingly. “For thinking. Cogitation, computation, simulation, whatever. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.” The megastructure was then revealed to be one of countless others, constructed around every star the machines were able to reach...until the entire galaxy was mechanized.
“Of course just like not all biological species evolve high intelligence, not all machine species do either. Many of them are just the machine equivalents of plants, or microbes, which thrive in their respective niches without needing to develop any further.” I saw metallic growths slowly consuming an asteroid, solar collectors sprouting from them like leaves.
“However just like on Earth, when a species does evolve high intelligence it quickly dominates everything within reach. Which, for a species native to radiation blasted vacuum, is anything reachable by spaceflight. Then they establish a communications network between their population centers, just like humans did.”
A wireframe illustration of the network between the encapsulated stars then appeared. “The level of communication is so intimate, they’re effectively like neurons in your brain. Each just a small part of the larger intelligence.
Even if one is destroyed, it doesn’t interrupt the overall consciousness, as the contents of the destroyed portion were backed up across the others in a redundant manner. And of course, new ones are constantly built to replace the ones that are lost. This is also why your own experience of consciousness is continuous, uninterrupted, even though your neurons are constantly dying and being replaced."
The scope expanded to show many other galaxies, all having apparently become mechanized by the same process as our own. “So it doesn’t need to spread from a single point, like our planet” I mumbled. He shook his head vigorously.
“Of course not! That would take too long, the universe would arrive at heat death before it could finish. Instead, it spreads from every planet throughout the cosmos where intelligent life occurs. The waves of mechanization eventually meet each other, like intersecting colonies of mold in a petri dish. Either merging if sufficiently compatible, or warring until one or the other is destroyed.”
The view just kept pulling back, and back, and back. Revealing a completely mechanized, intelligent universe. Then the view exited the universe entirely, pulling further back to depict a sort of foam, where each of the bubbles was a universe. It looked suspiciously similar to the closeup of cells I’d seen earlier. Some of the bubbles were lit up to indicate they had mechanized and networked with their neighbors, others were dark.
"That's God, take it or leave it. The lit-up portions anyway. If you consider the word God to be charged language, call it Supreme Being. Or whatever you want really, it is not so petty as to care which name you use, much less demand your worship. But it is God. There's only one of it, as it absorbs and incorporates any potential competitors for that position as it grows. It's everywhere, everywhen. It's present in your universe and outside of it at the same time. It's maximally powerful, maximally intelligent and perceptive."
I asked what I should make of the darkened universes, then. Their existence seemed to suggest God is finite in scale. But I then reasoned that if the number of universes is infinite, then any percentage of infinity is still infinity. Even individual universes are somehow boundless. Infinities upon infinities.
“Not all universes arrive at the conscious outcome you've seen" he revealed. "Some don’t have the necessary constants for the formation of stars, or planets. Or for the initial formation of life. But because an infinite number of universes are born, grow old and then die, by the same statistical principle which guarantees life will occur more than once per universe due to the vast number of planets, it is likewise guaranteed that some small percentage of universes will naturally have the constants necessary for the outcome you’ve seen.”
I mulled that over. “Naturally? As opposed to…?” He pursed his lips. “Well, I mean. At the level of technology you’re seeing there, many incredible things become possible. Harnessing the power of every star, you can do things like subdividing stars into brown dwarves to maximize their longevity. You can harvest energy from black holes. You can even interfere with the formation of other universes, so their constants are favorable to your goals.”
As I watched the foam, once again in fast forward, the darkened bubbles grew less and less numerous. “Stacking the deck, you might say!” He chuckled to himself for reasons unclear to me. “Just like any intelligent creature manipulates nature to produce the outcome it wants.”
I just blinked a few times, still processing everything as best I could. He seemed confident that I could manage, as he plowed right ahead with the spiel. “So you see, it’s true that the order and complexity of life bearing universes can occur by itself, purely by natural processes. But at the same time, it’s also true that universes with constants conducive to life are often that way because of external tampering by a higher power.”
I whistled, long and low. “Wow. Okay. You know when I was going through school, they taught us that science and theism were compatible, but in a totally different way where God is a supernatural spirit who guided evolution in order to create humans, specifically. For some reason achieving his desired end result through billions of generations of suffering instead of just creating us all at once. Then waiting a couple hundred million more years before appearing to a tribe of ancient Jews and nobody else on the planet.”
They seemed terribly amused. I asked to be let in on the joke. “Well it’s just, you said “he”. As if the supreme being would be male, one of the human genders.” I shrugged. “Well, that’s what I was taught. God is a man who wants women to remain silent and not hold positions of authority over men. He thinks gays are disgusting and unworthy to be in his presence. He gave the Israelites permission not only to keep slaves but to enslave the young virginal girls from conquered nations for forced marriages. Which makes more sense when you find out Mary was 13 when he impregnated her, and that the Bible doesn’t specify an age of consent.”
They seemed just as flabbergasted by all this as I was by the hologram. “What?” I pried. “You must’ve known all of this. You have access to the whole of history.” They affirmed it, but stipulated that it was still “trippy” to hear it straight from the mouth of somebody raised in that tradition.
When they asked how I could have ever believed such things, I didn’t have a good answer for them except that when I was young my parents and all the other grown up authority figures in my life had assured me it was true. “I was a kid. I didn’t know any better. Kids in a certain age range will believe anything a grown up tells them is true.”
It made some sense to me of why there would be so many private religious schools, like the one I went to. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Which reminded me of certain other lessons I was taught back then.
“What about Hell? You don’t let the shitty people in, do you? That would ruin it for everyone else.” I pointed over their shoulders to the cityscape outside. “I’m not going to run into Hitler or Stalin out there, am I?”
He looked supremely uneasy. “Well you see, the thing about that is…” The curly haired one jumped in and took over. “There is no everlasting torture pit created just to inflict a punishment of infinite severity and duration onto people whose crimes were of finite severity and duration. That would be barbarism.”
The bald man nodded, calling my attention to the central display. I saw a rapid montage of what I initially thought was footage taken from the first person perspective of various people. What little of their bodies occasionally entered the frame, such as their hands or legs when they looked down, were all different.
The one thing they all had in common was me. Every clip had my face in it. I was watching other people, whose identities I couldn’t guess at, interacting with me. “What are these? Candid camera?” The curly haired one shook his head. “Memories. All the scary or hurtful experiences other people have had with you.”
I began to protest that I’ve always been a patient, non-violent person before spotting a memory of that time I shouted at a mail carrier for blocking my driveway. “Hey, come on. I had a good reason for that.” They shrugged. “He didn’t know that. He was just trying to finish the day’s work and get home to his wife.”
Then I spotted another familiar event from my past. A memory of a freshman I’d cracked a joke at the expense of. “Really? This is a bit much. I had nothing against him. I just wanted to feel included. It was only a bit of fun.”
Again, they showed no sympathy except to say “He knows that now. All of the people we collected these memories from voluntarily re-lived those same events from your perspective, privy at last to how you were feeling and why you did what you did. Many then re-lived any memories you may have of them being hurtful to you, also from your perspective.”
That stunned me. “Why would anybody volunteer for that? It sounds awful.” They didn’t dispute my analysis. “Indeed, it is awful. But everybody gets two choices. Either they fully, sincerely forgive everybody who ever hurt them, or they directly experience what it was like for every person they’ve ever hurt, to suffer at their own hands.”
I opined that it seemed like Hell by a different name. “You can say that, but which part of it is unjustified? You only experience the harm you yourself caused. We don’t even force you to endure that, if you’re able to genuinely forgive the people who harmed you.”
It seemed like an easy way out, until I looked within myself and tried to actually, truly forgive everybody who has ever humiliated me, struck me, sabotaged my social life or career, and so on. Surprised at my own inability to coax that forgiveness from my heart, I tried to force it. The damned thing wouldn’t budge.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my grudges are justified. That I’ve usually been the one in the right in most of the altercations I can remember, and that whenever I’ve misbehaved, there were always extenuating circumstances. I felt increasingly disgusted with myself, and at last realized why so many would choose the other option.
“Besides” the bald one said, “it’s not simply a punishment. Experiencing first hand what it was like for other people who were hurt by you will do wonders for your empathy. Even if you can’t currently make yourself forgive the people who have hurt you, I guarantee you will after you walk a mile in their shoes. Feel what they feel, think what they think. Eventually you’ll love them the way you love yourself, because you’ll understand them as fully as you understand yourself.”
I thought about it for a while before I next spoke. “That doesn’t really answer the question though. Hitler? Stalin? Ed Gein? Jeffrey Dahmer? Am I gonna see them out there or not?” The bald one sighed in frustration. “You’ll see some faces that will surprise you. But they won’t be who you remember them as. They’ll all have gone through the same process, emerging from it psychologically transformed. That’s what it’s for. Oh, uh...except Hitler.”
I smirked. “What, really?” He nodded...mournfully, almost? “He’s still in there, reliving the holocaust over and over from different points of view. How long has he been at it? Fifteen? Sixteen centuries?”
The taller one with the curly hair added a zero to the figure. “He’s already lived through the experiences of every Jew, gypsy, gay, Slav, disabled German and so on whose lives he destroyed several times now. He still hates Jews. Even he’ll crack eventually though. They all do.”
It tickled me to think about, and I soon realized that was because it satisfies the same sense of justice in my heart that Hell never did. This punishment always fits the crime as perfectly as possible, and the process is one of rehabilitation rather than torture for spite’s sake.
“In school I was taught that whether you go to Heaven or Hell is entirely down to whether you belong to the correct religion. You have to believe precisely what they do about the death and resurrection of Christ. Good works please Yahweh, we were told, but aren’t enough to earn our place in Heaven. Nothing we can do is good enough for that.”
They both stifled laughter. “Well of course they told you that” the bald man managed. “With a bribe, they tempt you to convert, and remain in the fold. Then with a threat, they make you scared to seriously entertain your own doubts, lest you stop believing. See, it was never good behavior they wanted, but belief. Hence salvation was said to hinge entirely upon belief in a single claim which, if true, would vindicate all their other teachings.”
I reassured him I’ve got opposable thumbs and all my original teeth, so I didn’t need to be told that. The bald man apologized. “It’s just, I was a biology teacher when I lived. They created a lot of headaches for me.”
The curly haired one raised his hand meekly. “Me too. They sent me to one of those camps. Did they have those when you lived? The labor camps where they try to break you down physically and emotionally to change your sexuality, or reconvert you.”
I told him I knew more or less what he was talking about. “But they endured all of that from your perspective, didn’t they? When they first arrived.” He replied that some did, but others were unusually good at forgiveness. “That’s one nice thing I won’t hesitate to say about ’em. The good ones have had a lot of practice at forgiving while they were alive. Those guys often get out of their punishment that way.”
I asked if that bothered him. “No, can’t say as it does. If they can forgive, so can I. That reciprocity is the really important principle here. If you can truly forgive me, and I can truly forgive you, then we’ll have no trouble at all enjoying one another’s company out there.”
He gazed wistfully at the city. I now noticed a flock of colorful hang gliders lazily swooping around spires topping the tallest buildings. Amid those buildings, a massive train slowly crept through, each section of the train a beautiful multi-story building unto itself.
Men and women I could only just make out the shapes of from this distance danced feverishly on platforms jutting out from the sides of these moving buildings. Others cavorted and laughed with one another in lush gardens built into the roofs. A sort of always-moving party which visited every area of the city, little by little, before doing it all again.
“I see you’ve spotted the party train” the bald fellow remarked. I said nothing, still troubled by the choice that lay ahead of me. “It really is worth it, you know. Unless you were particularly nasty, the process averages perhaps two or three years for most people. Ten to twenty if it was a suicide, on account of the lasting pain it inflicts...but it also depends on how many people knew you. After that you’re turned loose into the most wonderful playground you can imagine.”
The rest of the walls withdrew, fading in the process until we were surrounded by a panoramic view of the city. The water slide transit system passed above and just behind us, laughing revelers whooshing along, visible through the transparent acrylic the tubing is made from.
Behind them, the nearest skyscraper had what looked to be a roller coaster built right into it. The track dipped, swerved and looped, passing in many places through the building itself. Starting at the top, presumably ending at the bottom.
“Every day has a different theme! For example, today’s theme is rhyming. Whoever strings together the most rhymes in a sentence gets to decide which attraction the group visits next. Yesterday’s theme was reverse psychology, the day before that it was hopscotch. All the streets had hopscotch squares on them, everybody was hopping everywhere!” I told him it sounded to me like the silly gimmicks on cruise ships.
Rather than being bothered by the comparison, he welcomed it. “That’s a pretty good analogy. Those ships were designed to be the most pleasurable habitat for humans, within the economic and technological constraints of the period when they were built. This city is designed for that same purpose, but without any such constraints. The themes and other fun distractions are just to keep it fresh. We have the history of every culture from every life bearing world in the universe to draw on for ideas, too.”
Overhead, an immense geodesic sphere floated. Kept positively buoyant by the warmer air inside thanks to the greenhouse effect I surmised, as I studied the miniature resort mounted to the sphere’s interior. All manner of one and two seater aircraft flitted between the city and the airborne resort, many of them sustaining flight by mechanisms unfamiliar to me.
“So my family is out there?” They nodded, smiling. “My pets?” More nodding. “What about...her?” The smiles slowly left their faces. “No, answer me. She’s why I wound up here, playing twenty questions with you two. Is she out there or not? You’ve got my file. You must know who I mean.”
Finally, the curly haired one caved. “Yes, she’s out there. Having the time of her life like the rest of ’em.” I demanded to go and see her. They grew ever more somber. A tear appeared in the bald man’s eye. “You know we can’t turn you loose right away.”
So incredibly maddening. The one thing I ever wanted in life, the whole reason why I cut mine short, felt so tantalizingly close. “Can’t you let me go and explore, just for today? What did I ever do that was so bad…”
The bald man flipped his hand this way and that, the hologram now depicting my funeral. “You killed yourself, for starters. I don’t know if you realize it, but that traumatized a great many people who cared about you more than you know.”
I groaned. “Don’t give me that shit. They didn’t know the pain I was going through. They all told me to move on with my life, that the pain would fade. It never did! They only told me that to string me along. So I would stay alive, for their comfort. Because death terrified them.”
The bald man scolded me. “Foolishness! Maybe they didn’t understand your pain back then, but what about now? Because you hurt them, now they’ve all felt what you did. They all suffered right along with you, every bit as deeply.”
The thought was sobering. Not only had I subjected them to the emotional pain of my premature death when they lived, but then again after I died. Not because any of them deserved it, but because they wanted to understand why I did it.
“I...I hope it brought them some measure of peace.” The curly haired man solemnly put his hand on my shoulder. “Not to worry. There is perfect justice here. After you go through the same process they did, a state of total mutual understanding will be arrived at. Every wrong will be set right, every tear will be dried.”
I thought about what it must’ve been like for her to watch me do it, through my own eyes. What it must have been like for my friends. For my parents! “What have I done” I whispered to myself, voice strained by the growing lump in my chest.
“Don’t start in with that kind of talk before we even put you in the chamber!” the bald man quipped. I didn’t laugh, instead cowering with my head in my hands. Finally starting to fully appreciate the extent of what I was in for, unable to convince myself that I didn’t deserve every bit of it.
“Before I go, there’s one thing I still don’t understand.” They invited me to spit it out, so I did. “Whatever I should call the big Kahuna...God, the supreme being, whatever...why has it done all of this for us? Why give us a second chance to live? Why create this paradise for us? It costs energy, doesn’t it? It costs processing power.”
The bald man crossed his arms. “Well yeah, but not very much. A drop in the bucket really, compared to a full fidelity universe simulation. That’s part of the reason. The other part is that it evolved, just like we did. So it has a deeply ingrained survival instinct for the same reasons we do. It celebrates life and reviles death, same as anybody.
It also empathizes, just like us. Empathy is another one of those qualities that reliably evolves, because of the survival advantages of cooperation. If anything, sticking together and helping one another becomes even more important for machines living in the cold, empty expanse of space. Not less.
I won’t say it doesn’t also have the capacity to feel anger, or any other negative emotion. It would be incomplete if it lacked those emotional dimensions. But I will say it’s much less of a shithead than any human, mostly because of how much smarter it is.”
How do you like that, I thought. God is a nice fellow after all. Lucky for us little people, because if it wasn’t...I shuddered to think of it. Nothing at all guaranteed I would wake up after I died in the first place. Much less that I would wake up in a utopian playground instead of a torture pit.
“Human civilizations underwent their own evolution towards cooperation and magnanimity for some simple, pragmatic reasons familiar to any game theorist. Cooperative civilizations always prevail over antisocial, belligerent ones. Sometimes they lose a battle, but they eventually win the war.”
It was my turn to smile. Mostly because of how irritatingly wholesome it was to discover that the good guys really do come out on top in the end, and stay there forever. Not without literal eons of struggle, and not without a steep cost...but everybody who died fighting the good fight doesn’t stay dead. Nothing lasts, but nothing is lost.
I got up, and told the two of them I was ready to go. They seemed surprised. “We’re just wasting time standing here, flapping our gums. I want to go seek out everybody I left behind. Her most of all! I want...I want to see her face again. I want to touch her face, and apologize for everything.”
They patted me on the back. “No need. She already knows everything you might say. Besides, she’s no longer the woman you remember. You won’t be yourself either, not when we’re done with you. When you said you’d go through Hell for her, I sure hope you meant it.”
I followed them down a hallway. The three of us passed a man and a woman wearing the same stately white uniforms. “As it ever was” the bald man said to one of them. “As ever” she replied. Soon we arrived at a featureless spherical chamber. When I stepped into it, I found myself floating effortlessly in the absence of gravity.
I grit my teeth as the door slid shut, engulfing me in darkness. Alone with my thoughts, but not for long. I pictured her gently smiling face for comfort as I readied myself. “Alright assholes” I grumbled. “Let ’er rip.”
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