Browse Tag

theological fiction

Render Unto Jesus

by Andy Dibble

Even with religious “nones” on the rise, the great bulk of Americans still called themselves Christian. Jesus was as real as God, and God was a patron America still had use for. Though preferences tended toward worship in intimate or everyday spaces. Others did not care where they worshiped but preferred to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

Confirmation bias was at work, a new theology on the rise, not mere suspicion of institutionalized religion, but rejection of the old. Its thinking ran: God is in all places and in the places of daily life most of all. A steeple and stained glass do not gratify God. How presumptuous of prior generations to think God cares for brick and mortar! As Deuteronomy indicates, there can only be one Temple, destroyed in Jerusalem two-thousand years ago. Churches (imitations, really) only embarrass us in the eyes of God.

Borrowing a thread from Salafi Muslim thought, some called church buildings idols. Radical congregations demolished their own churches with great fanfare and applause.

For traditionalists and ardent churchgoers, it was already intolerable that government buildings stood taller than church steeples. Demolition was unthinkable, extravagant blasphemy.

They protested that Jesus should not share space with sweaty bodies at gyms or be relegated to spare minutes away from phone and television. There should be a sabbath, a time of rest and devotion, and a place to celebrate that sabbath in adoration of God.

They raged, but their only strategy was to buy churches as they went up for sale.

#

A way forward came when lawyer Mike Slick—born in Pittsburgh to a Catholic family, strayed into New Age eclecticism (with a brief interlude as a Hare Krishna monk), and birthed again into Evangelicalism—filched an idea from Indian jurisprudence.

In India, gods could own property and pay taxes. They could sue, such as when “Shiva, Lord of the Universe” successfully sued a British company for the return of his Nataraja statue to a temple in Tamilnadu. If Jesus owned churches, no one could sell or demolish them without his say.

Slick’s legal argument rested upon the thriving body of United States case law that endowed corporations with certain rights of persons. Churches are already owned by congregations or ecclesiastical structures, entities rather than natural persons. The creeds and members of such entities have consistently proclaimed that “all they are” or “the whole earth” belongs to Jesus (if sometimes only during hymns or call-and-response exercises). As the apostle Paul attests, all Christians form a corporate entity, “the body of Christ.”

So how can it be legitimate for bishops or presbyters to sell Jesus’s property without the permission of their Lord?

#

“Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Immanuel, Savior of Humanity, Lamb of God, Light of the World, the Christ” sued the First Episcopalian Church of Mechanicsville, Virginia for illegal sale of his property. A district court dismissed the suit as frivolous. But on appeal to the right-leaning Fourth Circuit Court, Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, etc., etc. won.

The Episcopalians appealed to the Supreme Court. During conference, it appeared the Court would dismiss the suit, or send it back to the Fourth Circuit, instructing its judges to reconsider the case’s merits.

But one especially geriatric justice keeled over from an aneurysm while on the bench. Four justices voted to dismiss the suit and four voted that Jesus had legal right to his church.

The court was hung. The decision of the lower court stood.

#

Divine intervention or not, no precedent had been established. By the time another suit with Jesus as plaintiff bubbled up to the highest court, Eleazar Hoffman, an exacting jurist of dubious political persuasion, had been appointed to fill the court’s vacancy. He sided with the motley bloc of judges that endorsed Jesus’s legal right.

This five-four decision was good law. From sea to shining sea, every church building, parcel of land, and account owned by a Christian entity was legally the property of Jesus.

#

The aftermath offered a new proof of the principle that any incompetence, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from conspiracy. For the Supreme Court had said nothing of who has power of attorney over Jesus’s property.

Churches drifted in limbo. They could not be deconsecrated, demolished, or used for solely secular purpose. Banks refused to grant loans to congregations because a church seized as collateral was almost without value.

Churches became home to feral cats, roadside attractions, or repositories of pious embers waiting for the Next Great Awakening of traditional religious fervor.

#

Congress tried to resolve the matter by legislation, but no bill could get out of committee. Every provision exposed some theological bias; every theology had its antipode. Against the Gospel of Charity, which held Jesus would give all his wealth for the welfare of the poor, there was a Gospel of Wealth, which supposed that copious wealth was a sign of Jesus’s sovereignty and the triumph of God.

Against the thought that Jesus would deploy his wealth to support the Christian mission was the worry that legislation codifying such intention would constitute an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Even the notion that the juridical Jesus was Christ was not without its detractors, who claimed he was Antichrist, hoarding Christian wealth in preparation for the End.

#

President Manuela Hernandez issued an executive order stating that Jesus, as a juridical person, was subject to taxation. Churches do not owe property tax, but the death of Jesus was juridical death. Moreover, his end was no singular death by Roman crucifixion. Rather it repeated year after year with the pageant of Good Friday. As a Trinitarian entity, eternally begotten, Jesus was in an important sense his own parent and inheritor.

She ordered Jesus to furnish the Internal Revenue Service seventeen percent of his billions, on an annual basis, or until such time as Christian congregations abolish Good Friday.

#

President Hernandez’s order met both legal challenges and failed Congressional action, which aimed to repeal the estate tax entirely. But nothing in her interpretation of the law was unconstitutional. Her reading brought core data of Christian history to bear upon the law.

It seemed the Baal of Big Government would devour Jesus’s assets until some savvy practitioner of estate law hit upon the idea of storing Jesus’s assets within a trust. Eternally begotten and immortal, Jesus could be its everlasting trustee.

Trusts do not die as people die. Therefore, his entrusted estate could owe no estate tax.

Jesus kept his billions.

#

This parry and riposte was not without ferment. With Congress deadlocked on the matter and the courts mute, it seemed the proper place for Jesus in American politics was in administration. Jesus would run for President and, having attained the bully pulpit, God Himself would seize the helm of the nation, and speak out from the Temple of the New Jerusalem, ushering in the foretold millennium.

The Antichrist was liberal opposition to Jesus’s reign.

#

But Jesus could not be on the ballot. In this the Constitution was clear: a candidate for President was aged at least thirty-five, a resident of fourteen-years, and a natural-born citizen. Jesus was none of these. He’d been born in Bethlehem, a town of present-day Israel. He was a resident of nowhere, at least nowhere in particular. He was no older than thirty-three.

The worry about his age encountered dispute. The opening to the Gospel of John indicated that Jesus was present at Creation as the transcendent Word. As such, he was billions of years old, or six-thousand, or eternal.

The worry about Jesus’s natural citizenship also met objection. Archaeologists contracted by the Church of Latter-day Saints discovered Bethlehem was actually in present-day Utah (a finding lay Mormons met with mixed reactions). Jesus’s flight to Egypt as a young child had been achieved through teleportation from the Americas. As Luke’s Gospel attests, Jesus lived in Palestine until the age of twelve. At such time, God whisked him back to the Americas until his ministry began when he was thirty, long enough for him to satisfy the fourteen-year residency requirement.

Courts rejected this argument. No lawyer could argue it with a straight face.

#

Rejection by the judiciary only energized electoral millenarianism. Polls indicated that sixty-eight percent of Christian Americans now believed or strongly believed that Jesus’s election to the Presidency would bring about the rapture of devout souls.

Abandoned churches became centers of political organization and outreach. They became revivals.

The Next Great Awakening was burning the country over.

#

Jesus won as a write-in candidate in several Southern states, Wyoming, Alaska, and Idaho. He would have won Florida as well had their state Supreme Court not ruled locutions on Jesus—“Jesus Christ,” “Jesus, Son of God,” “Jesus, the Son of God,” etc.—to be different individuals.

The national write-in campaign turned conservatives out in record numbers, but their vote was nonetheless split, between their square-jawed candidate of flesh and blood and a haloed whitewashed Jesus.

The liberals won the Presidency almost by default.

#

Electoral millenarianism languished until the virtual district of Afterland became home to personages of historical and cultural significance, anyone with a wide enough corpus for artificial intelligence to construct an artificial person. Previously, its residents had been affluent Americans, reconstituted in digital form after death so they could enjoy a virtual heaven.

Jesus was among the personages projected from scripture, treatise, and lore into Afterland. He was a bit addled (packing so many contradictory theologies into one mind is bound to induce schizophrenia). Nevertheless, he had the best name recognition, the best brand.

He won the mayorship in a landslide.

#

Courts had not objected to Jesus’s mayoral campaign. He was a resident of Afterland, no less than its other residents. He could be mayor.

This got other juridical persons thinking that a corporation incorporated in Delaware could be Senator from Delaware. Just so, a union headquartered in Ithaca, New York could be Ithaca’s Representative.

Like Jesus, these juridical persons had funds and marketing knowhow. Unlike Jesus, they also boasted centralized organization, clear chains of command. They could outcompete merely human candidates.

In time, voters could scarcely ascertain whether they cast their ballot for a mascot, a paid actor, a social media influencer, a CEO, or a deepfake.

Each candidate was all, and none, and more besides.

#

Weary of all the fuss, many warmed to the idea that the Kingdom of God had already come. The Kingdom was Afterland. Jesus was already its Lord.

Some dismissed that as folly or clung to a grander hope of final resurrection: On that great Day, we will be transformed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we will see each other face to face.

At last, we will understand who is truly a person and who is only a mirage of the judiciary.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a healthcare IT consultant who has supported large healthcare systems in six countries. His work also appears in Writers of the Future, Mysterion, and Diabolical Plots. He edited Strange Religion, an anthology of SFF stories about religion.

Philosophy Note:

This story grew out of my interest in law and theology, in particular the idea in Indian jurisprudence that gods can own property and sue. Can we benefit theologically by thinking of Jesus as a legal entity? Is Jesus already a legal entity? Do you think legal or political processes can decide theological questions? What would you think of a religious tradition where theological questions are settled in this way?

The Convert

by Brett Abrahamsen

There was a man who converted to every religion in the world.

He would convert to a religion, realize that its base tenets were lies, and rapidly convert to another religion.

He had converted to thousands of religions, and could not find any others to convert to. Hence he had to form one of his own.

He declared that there were two gods. Both of the gods were equally powerful. They were a bluish color, and stood about six inches high. He quickly realized this wasn’t accurate – it was far from accurate, he decided – and that he had fabricated the religion’s tenets, and hence he was forced to invent another religion for himself to convert to. 

He prophesied that there were seven gods, hidden somewhere among the earth, and that he had to find them. He encouraged others to find them as well. He had received no revelations concerning where they were hidden, and he believed they could be anywhere. The gods had created the universe – in seven days, incidentally – and then decided to hide among the earth at undisclosed locations. Much to his surprise, the religion gained popularity. His family members converted. Friends of his family members converted. Soon, 99% of the world’s population had converted, and he became the most important and powerful human being on Earth.

Revolted by the naivete of his followers, he converted to another religion, but this time did so in private. None of his followers had found any of the seven gods. He himself was worshiped as a god and venerated. The religion he converted to was atheism.

It was to be his final conversion. His health was failing him, and he would soon die.

But when he died, he found, to his shock, the seven gods of his religion waiting for him, preparing to damn him to hell.

~

Bio:

Brett Abrahamsen has sold prose to Sci Phi Journal (twice), as well as Twenty Two Twenty Eight, Wyldblood, The Fifth Di…, Page and Spine, Purple Wall Stories, and others. He resides in Saratoga Springs, NY.

Philosophy Note:

This tale is a satirical examination of so-called “spiritual awakenings” – i.e; subjective experiences that cause people to convert to various (often contradictory) religions. Taken to its logical extreme, a person could theoretically experience such an “awakening” on a daily basis, causing them to convert to thousands of nonsensical religions. Logic, indeed, is evidently not a necessary component of said “conversions”.

The Gehenna Of Saint Augustine

by Joachim Glage

“The better a thing the worse its ruin,” Augustine said, but tenderly, to Porphyro, his last pupil. “Angels and men, when they fall, become more wretched than monsters.”

When Saint Augustine spoke these words he had less than an hour left to live. At the time—the year was 430, Visigoths and Burgundians hounded the empire on various fronts, and Vandals laid siege to Hippo—he was still but Aurelius Augustinus, not yet a saint; but his voice, though rattling from illness, sounded nobly in the still-proud Latin of Rome, and projected the special authority he’d gained during his life, as if his vocation (as bishop, as a statesman of Roman Africa) would not yet relinquish him, and as if he were somewhat more than a man dying.

Lifting his arms from his sides—he lay in his bed, almost still—and raising his cold fingers to lend emphasis to the words, he said to Porphyro: “Our natural goodness is a gift from God. There can be no worse evil than to squander it.”

The church was quiet. Porphyro looked about Augustine’s chambers and saw that psalms had been hung from the walls. Augustine, with a hand half-palsied, reached out and clenched Porphyro’s wrist.

In that moment, nearly a thousand years still stood between Augustine and his sainthood. Neither he nor Porphyro, of course, could have any inkling about that. Nevertheless the student swore that he could feel his teacher’s soul radiating all about him, and he knew that it had been specially touched by God, and his eyes filled up with tears.

At this, Augustine paused, suddenly aware of the shortness of his time. It may surprise you, my good and generous reader, but the man who wrote City of God and the Confessions,and who had long warned congregations in Hippo and Carthage of the corruptible body, had not given much thought to the subject of his own bodily demise. (It should be granted, at any rate, that the strictly physical fact of death, at least as a theological matter, could be of only minor interest to someone like Augustine.) What strange new thoughts now came to him?

One need not be a varlet to know the knight’s armor clatters before a campaign; likewise, one needs no special wisdom to predict that a man of old age—even one as notable and pious as Augustine—will, when harried by death, feel consternation about it. It is one thing to talk about dying, or about long eternities; it is quite another when rot creeps upon you. When Augustine looked up at weeping Porphyro, and felt his own heart quicken, he knew, for the first time and truly, that he was going to die.

“I’ve written a book that I’ve kept secret,” Augustine said abruptly. Porphyro wiped his eyes. “I’ll tell you where I’ve hidden the manuscript. You must promise me you will find it and destroy it, and not show it to anyone.”

Porphyro was taken aback, but nodded.

“You must promise me that you will not read the book, either, but will destroy it at once.”

Augustine’s student looked pained. Eventually he said: “My teacher, I fear my interest in your book will be too great. Perhaps if you tell me its contents, my curiosity will be diminished, and I will be able to destroy it without reading it.”

Augustine lay silent and still and with his hands clasped for a long time. At last he spoke:

“It was not long ago. I had recently finished writing Book XXI of City of God, where, among other things, I attempted to deduce the qualities of hell. As you well know, I wrote in that book that hell is a place of fire, and that the souls consigned to that domain have bodies which suffer burning. I wrote that these bodies do not perish in the flames, but are doomed to suffer them forever. I theorized, too, that any repentance in hell is fruitless, not only because the source of such penitence would be pain as opposed to goodness, but also because the evangelium proclaims it to be so: their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”

Augustine paused, coughed, and then adjusted himself in his bed.

“At that time, just as I was about to begin work on Book XXII, a man came to visit me. I knew straightaway that this man was an unnatural being, for he appeared in the exact form of my old acquaintance, Faustus from Mileve, whom I knew to be long dead. The man said to me, ‘I came to speak with you about hell,’ and then he grinned, and I knew it was the devil.”

Augustine fell silent for a moment. Porphyro raised up slowly in his chair, and barely breathed.

Augustine continued: “Very well do I know of the devil’s forked tongue, and how he uses flattery, and enjoys the fruits of his manipulations; so I paid him no mind when he told me he was a great admirer of my work. I ignored him, again, when he complimented me for the good I’d done for Rome and the world. Finally, he said to me: ‘When it comes to the subject of hell, however, you’re simply off the mark. May I offer you a glimpse?’ He then took my hand and kissed it. And then, without ceremony, he left.”

Augustine adjusted himself again, and took a moment to rub his eyes.

“That night I had a dream, a dream that was more than a dream. It was a vision. A vision of hell. The hell that I saw, however—or rather, that I now found myself in—was not a place of fire, but of water. ‘The water of knowledge,’ a voice whispered to me. ‘It encompasses everything.’ It was as if I’d been sent to the bottom of the sea, only, it was not dark; the water was limpid and bright, and it functioned somewhat like the sun, making all things visible. Moreover, I found that I could move through the water with ease, and I walked about on the ground normally. Nothing floated or swam. And yet I could feel the water at every moment. It moved over me, and its vibrations were like something alive.

“This hell that I saw, the landscape of it, was much like our own world, with creatures and plant-life and mountains and stones and plains; indeed the whole of beautiful nature was there. Nearby me stood a tree; I approached it. At that moment I understood how the ‘water of knowledge’ had earned its name. For what flashed upon me, from many of the water’s vibrations, was not just the sight of the tree in its current state, but in every stage of its existence. I saw it through the seasons, and as a seedling, and then as an acorn; I saw the changing life of the soil which nourished its roots, and the spread of the tree’s ancestors in distant woods; I saw the flattening of mountains to make room for it, and before that the receding of ice, and fire and explosions that were terrifying to behold—all things that took place over eons, and seemingly for the sole purpose that I might now gaze at these simple branches.

“Just then a voice spoke from behind me: ‘The water shows you everything.’ I spun on my heels and saw that it was Faustus of Mileve once more. Whether this was the real Faustus, or the devil again, I could not say. He continued: ‘The water makes sure that we see the absurdity of God’s generosity wherever we look.’ And then he smiled at me, and it was just the way he would smile many years ago, when we discussed theology.

“Without ado, he cheerfully began to criticize what I’d written in City of God. ‘Your first mistake,’ he said, ‘was assuming the primary substance of hell should be fire. The very lightest of elements!’ Faustus laughed, and I could not help but laugh too. ‘Even the simplest of principles,’ he continued, ‘ought to have suggested to you the opposite: that here, in this lowest place, the heavier elements, earth and water, should predominate.’ Again I was moved to laugh. He went on: ‘Your second error was conceiving of hell under that most human of ideas, that of retribution, as if hell were but a dungeon for the paying up of debts. But no, there is no paying of debts here. In truth, if there is a single axiom of this place, it is that: No debt is ever paid. Even to try is foolishness.’

“I then asked Faustus if hell was not a place of punishment after all. His answer astonished me. ‘But it’s all there in Genesis already,’ he said. ‘Knowledge is a kind of punishment, and perfect knowledge is perfect punishment.’ He paused to allow my confusion to settle somewhat. ‘It is just the same as with riches: the more you’re lavished with knowledge the more fruitless the abundance becomes.’ He smiled at my perplexity. ‘Just as there are solitudes that are accessible only in crowded cities, so does a general blur become possible when everything is thrown into relief equally. Where everything is luminous nothing is. It is not only in the dark of night that all cows are black, as the saying goes, but in the bright and full day, too. Or as we sometimes put it in one of our proverbs, There is more nothingness in a clod of dirt than in the empty air, and even the buzzing richness of nature only talks over itself. Call it the nothing of plenitude. There’s just so, so much. It humiliates you. It reduces you and even itself to naught.’

“We both laughed. I don’t know why we laughed so much. There was something preposterous about it all. And then Faustus suddenly cried out: ‘Oh you charmed creatures still on the earth! If only you knew how much passes right through you! If only you knew how faintly you exist! Here in hell we are dense, we collide with everything.’ Faustus’s smile then faded, and he said: ‘In hell it is evident that nothing we could ever do, even given infinite lifetimes, could earn the abundance bestowed on us. Even gratitude feels like foolishness. Nay, more than that. Gratitude is impossible here. We have too much.’

“We continued talking for some time. Faustus recited for me some more of hell’s proverbs, and he told me what society was like there, and he showed me a dark molten sea where people sometimes boiled themselves, if they burned with too much guilt (somehow they found this soothing). We discussed more theological concerns, too, such as whether one can sin in hell, or pray, or repent, and how vast a place it is, and what manner of demon resides there, and if hell be eternal or not, and how much the damned can recall from their lives on the earth, and so forth.

“When I awoke from this vision, I immediately set about to writing it all down. This labor took three days. On the fourth day I rested, but fitfully. On the fifth day I resolved to keep what I’d written secret. I reasoned as follows: Either my vision was a lie, or, if it contained some part of the truth, it was nonetheless that part that the devil was desirous for us to know. Either way, I figured, it must be suppressed. Why I did not destroy the text myself in that very moment, I cannot say. Pride, perhaps, or doubt. Sin, in either case!”

Augustine then told trembling Porphyro how to find the manuscript, and admonished him one last time not to read it, and then waved him away. Later that day Augustine lay dead, while Porphyro stole into a hidden recess underneath the baptistry. He found his way down a dark stair and through a low-arched hall, as instructed, and then moved aside the third stone to the left from a sign of the cross that had been carved on the wall. The only copy of De Gehenna lay revealed. He took the text into his hands. “I have a home for you,” he said, “in a library in a low place;” and then he fled away through the secret door, and over the mosaics set so carefully in the floors of the basilica.

~

Bio:

Joachim Glage lives and writes in Colorado, where he also enjoys no longer being an attorney. The Devil’s Library, a collection of Glage’s fiction about imaginary and fabulous books, is forthcoming from Jackleg Press.

Philosophy Note:

The questions–rooted in what I call “imaginative theology”–that spurred the creation of this text were: What if Hell were the opposite of the abyss? What if Hell were precisely the absence of mystery? What if Hell meant the destruction of the possibility of gratitude, not through deprivation, but through abundance?

Celestial Being 01 Commission: Initial Findings Report

by Luke Brown

(Confidential: For Supreme Pontiff Only)

To: His Holiness Pope Victor IV

10 August 2047

From: Celestial Being 01 Commission

Subject: Initial Findings Report

            The PSS Elijah has made initial contact with Celestial Being 01 (CB01). Our route took us just past the orbital range of Neptune before arcing back to be in a parallel course to CB01. According to CB01’s trajectory and speed, it is confirmed to be taking a direct route towards Earth, projected to be within the Moon’s orbit in thirty-two months. We remain at what we assess is a safe distance, using our remote probes for most of the observations.

            Be advised: CB01 is currently determined to be a high risk to human safety and well-being based on the observations and findings listed below. We hope your Holiness will consider our reporting and discussion with the severity which we accord to it.

Observations

            Our probe confirms CB01 to be roughly spherical with an approximately 1500 km radius, slightly smaller than our own moon. Gravitational readings show the mass to be 2.4 x 1016 kg, just over half the mass of the moon. This means CB01 has a very low density, possibly hollow in structure.

            Close visual inspection via our remote probe showed striking resemblance to the angels described in Ezekiel Chapter One, in the prophet’s vision. Though CB01 is not composed of concentric wheels, across its spherical body are continuous bands of very large eyes lined in a longitudinal fashion. With its pitch-black body against the background of space, it gives the appearance that there is nothing but rings of floating eyes moving together. A detailed look at the surface of CB01 showed that its dark mass is covered in an array of smaller visual organs surrounding the large lensed eyes.

            We are still receiving the electromagnetic signal broadcasted from CB01 within the radio bandwidth. Telemetry patterns remain similar to those we first observed eleven years ago when observatories first picked up the signal. Our on-board processor is no closer to deciphering any intelligible information embedded within the signal. If the Church’s Earth-based AI systems are able to decipher and reproduce communicable signals for CB01, the team is willing to broadcast and monitor for further testing in that regard.

            All efforts to communicate with CB01 have so far failed. Individual and group prayers, invocations and rituals held within and without the PSS Elijah chapel have not elicited any change in behavior from CB01. We have run through the summoning practices using the Church’s comprehensive list of 128 major angels’ names and sigils. We have exhausted all pronunciations and spellings in English, Spanish, Latin, Modern and Ancient Greek, Hebrew and Sumerian. Broadcasting the spelled names and sigils from the probe’s holographic projectors within CB01’s presumed visual range shows no change in behavior.

            Only one test yielded any noticeable result. When the probe played back a real time recording of CB01’s own electromagnetic signal, a bright, high-energy pulse emitted from one of the large eyes, destroying the probe.

Findings

            Despite the remarkable visual similarity to angelic beings as described in the Bible, we have been unable to observe any further confirmation that CB01 is indeed an Angel sent from God to meet humanity. If the Vatican has any other recommendations for steps our on-board clergy can take to further this line of study, they will be implemented as quickly as allowed. Additionally, if the screening of viable prophetic candidates has yielded any promising results, we are willing to coordinate observations with any Earth-initiated experimentation.

            Thinking outside the Divine Angel Theory, our more secular team members have come up with several theories grounded in our modern understandings of biology and physics. CB01 exists in an environment with zero gravity, the vacuum of space and electromagnetic radiation being the only reliable energy source. A lifeform forced to evolve in such an environment would likely take advantage of the lack of gravity to grow to a very large size. This would exponentially increase its surface area, providing greater opportunity for light energy capture. Using a process similar to photosynthesis we see on Earth, light from stars would provide the energy for this lifeform to grow, reproduce, move and respond to change.

            The destruction of our probe gives evidence to how it can do so. The large lensed eyes of CB01 may not be to focus external light onto photo-sensitive sensors but to channel light emitted from within it. With changes to energy levels, wave frequencies, focal points and pulse rates, CB01 can use a single or multiple “eyes” to create a light-based propulsion through space or a high energy laser to destroy or avert incoming space debris.

            Another theory arose when continuing from the basis of the non-divine life form theory. This theory treats the behavior of CB01 as one like that of a single-celled organism or a cell within a larger system. Moving through space and responding to stimuli interpreted through some form of genetic code. It didn’t respond to our decades of random radio signal pollution being sent out through space as it wasn’t recognized within the code. Though it’s possible that the signal pollution had attracted CB01 close to our solar system, CB01 only changed its extrasolar course to head directly towards Earth after we broadcasted its own signal back to it.

            Based on the destruction of our probe after our signal playback, we cannot be sure that it will express friendly or cooperative behavior upon reaching Earth. After receiving our transmissions, CB01 may interpret the broadcaster as competition within its territory. Or perhaps, the broadcaster could be seen as a maligned, cancerous lifeform within the same species which must be culled. This could come from our signals being distorted by the noise of our radio signal pollution or upon visual inspection as when CB01 observed our probe.

Discussion (Confidential Message from: Archbishop of Luna)

            Though the initial discovery of extraterrestrial life in 2036 was a major disruption for the Church and all religious institutions, CB01’s resemblance to canonically accurate Angels was quite literally a Godsend. Surely the Church’s influence on the scientific endeavors of the last decade would not be possible without this heavenly confirmation.

            Regardless of the initial troubles we’ve faced in making further divine confirmations, my faith in the Lord and his celestial messenger remain strong. However, I sense trials of faith amongst some within the Committee, including clergymen. The theories described above have gained traction amongst the scientific specialists on board.

            I retain sole authority on the contents of our research communications back to Earth, but eventually pressures to publish more details or our arrival home will allow these dissenting theories to spread quickly.

            I would hope that your Holiness considers these theories, regardless of source, with the full weight of their implications. The Church will need to have prepared counter arguments driven by the pulpit and scientific publications. I will continue to send more detailed reports as these theories develop or as our observations change.

            One last note. On the off chance that these theories are true, CB01 with its size and destructive power may be the herald of the apocalypse after all. Divinely driven or not, we must prepare the Church for the end.

End of Report.

~

Bio:

Luke Brown spends his summers in the wilderness fighting wildfires, staring at trees and thinking up funny little stories in his head. In the winters he forces himself to sit down and finally put those stories down on paper.

Philosophy Note:

While speculating on how life would or could evolve in the ecosystem of outer space, I realized I accidentality created a creature that visually resembled the “Biblically Accurate Angels” of the Old Testament. This led to an opportunity to explore the intersection between scientific and religious discovery and how human society reacts to them. How would our world views change given undeniable evidence of the extraterrestrial? How would the balance between the secular and the spiritual change given undeniable evidence of the supernatural? What would happen in the world when it was no longer a matter of faith to believe in God?

Pascalgorithm

by Alexander B. Joy

[The MINISTER, clinging to the nearest handrail, follows the unbothered ARCHITECT along a narrow platform overlooking a factory floor. A faint, indistinct chanting is discernible beneath the whir and clank of machinery. As the two advance, the mechanical noises gradually quiet, while the chants grow louder.]

ARCHITECT: Why, Minister, your unease surprises me. I’d have thought that lofty vantages were familiar territory for you, given your many friends in high places.

MINISTER: Humor’s not a strong suit of mine, I’ll have you know. Least of all when I find myself in mortal peril like this. Must your facility tour show so little consideration for visitor safety – especially when said visitor joins you under orders from His Most Holy Majesty?

ARCHITECT: You’re in no danger, Minister. My crew and I traverse this catwalk every day. It’s perfectly sturdy, and no one has fallen off it in all my tenure managing this operation. Look, the sidings rise well above a body’s center of gravity. See? Toppling over the edge would require considerable effort! So there’s no need to keep your death-grip on the rail. You can give your hands a break.

MINISTER: I appreciate your assurances, but if it’s all the same to you, I’ll continue taking my chances – or, rather, reducing my chances – with the rail. As you point out, I may be unlikely to tumble to my death from this tenuous platform if I loosen my hold. But I am even less likely to meet my end if I maintain a steady grip, since the odds of a fatal fall are then still lower. Given the altogether catastrophic outcome that falling portends, I’m inclined to do whatever I must to minimize its odds, however remote they may be in the first place.

ARCHITECT: Yes, of course. And in the scheme of things, it’s such a small effort to expend in defense against that worst possible outcome. It hardly costs you anything, besides a bit of dignity. Why not make that trade?

MINISTER: That humor of yours again.

ARCHITECT: Do forgive me, Minister. I have so few opportunities to exercise it. Our labors here, undertaken per the edict of His Most Holy Majesty, are serious; and in recognition of both His will and our work’s importance, I devote myself in seriousness to its completion.

MINISTER: And in equal seriousness, I have come to inspect and report upon your progress. Though I confess I don’t fully understand the particulars of the project beyond a handful of logistical matters. I’m led to understand that you’re building robots?

ARCHITECT: As quickly as our factory can assemble them.

MINISTER: And that you’ve been directed to commit every available resource to their production?

ARCHITECT: Correct, Minister. His Most Holy Majesty even graced us with His presence to issue the order in person. He told us in no uncertain terms that this effort would mark the most important undertaking of His reign, and promised He would marshal the full measure of His wealth and power to assist us. To no one’s surprise, His word has proven as certain as law. Not a day passes without a new influx of the metals, plastics, and other materials our work requires, and we have been provided the facilities and manpower necessary to keep the operation running at all hours.

MINISTER: The mystery behind my friend the Treasurer’s compounding sorrows is at last revealed. I give thanks that his concerns are not ours. In any event, this exhausts my current understanding of your mission. I rely upon you to apprise me of the rest. Tell me, then, are you building different varieties of robot? Say, to automate all facets of our work, and obviate the labors of daily life?

ARCHITECT: Would that it were possible! I am afraid our understanding of cybernetics is not sophisticated enough to eliminate labor kingdom-wide. But no, that is not His Most Holy Majesty’s commandment. We are ordered to build one kind of robot, and one kind only.

MINISTER: My! The model must be exceedingly complicated if it requires such unwavering attention.

ARCHITECT: Well, it’s… Uh…

MINISTER: Please, don’t hesitate. Any details you can provide me would be a kindness. True, I can see many robots riding the conveyor belts below, but I cannot discern much about them from this distance. And even if I had sharper eyes, it would do me no good, for peering down from these heights terrifies me.

ARCHITECT: Well, the fact of the matter is, they’re not especially complicated robots. How to put it… Ridiculous as it may sound, they amount to little more than silicone mouths and voiceboxes. Plus the mechanisms necessary to manipulate and power them, of course.

MINISTER: …Is this another of your attempts at humor?

ARCHITECT: No, Minister. I’m being completely earnest.

MINISTER: Artificial… Mouths! You mean to tell me that the better part of the kingdom’s resources are currently spent churning out wave after wave of flapping robotic lips?

ARCHITECT: I’ll furnish the schematics for your inspection if you like.

MINISTER: That’s quite all right. I’ll take you at your word. I doubt I possess the technical wherewithal to parse them, anyway. But… What do these robots do? What are they for? They must be of paramount importance for His Most Holy Majesty to divert so many resources toward their assembly. Yet I’m at a loss as to what their significance could be.

ARCHITECT: Why, these robots are designed to perform what His Most Holy Majesty deems the most important task of all. They pray.

MINISTER: It is not for me to question the will of His Most Holy Majesty. I would not deny the value of prayer, neither as a personal practice nor as a tool of statecraft (opiate or otherwise). But what value could automaton prayers hold for our kingdom when we have subjects and clergy alike to utter them?

ARCHITECT: The prayers of these robots, Minister, are not the same as ours. Not quite.

MINISTER: How do you mean?

ARCHITECT: To some extent, our prayers – and our religious practices more broadly – follow a script. We have prayers that we’ve recorded in sacred texts, which we intone in praise or contrition or supplication. We have rituals that we repeat on particular holy days. We have a set of overarching philosophies and standards of comportment that our spiritual guides communicate. We have traditions. In short, our practices consist of things that, by design, do not deviate (or at least do not deviate far) from a particular path.

MINISTER: Indeed. How could it be otherwise? The entire point of religion is to articulate and enshrine what is just and true and permissible in the shadow of our god. Or had I better say, in the light of? Nevertheless! As the eternal does not change, nor should the practices by which we commune with and venerate it.

ARCHITECT: Yes, I agree that this is so. But, if approached as a question of engineering, it poses some problems. Where one cannot deviate, one cannot iterate.

MINISTER: I am unable to see why this is a problem. However, I am no engineer.

ARCHITECT: Supposing that we erred substantially in our choice of starting point – by praying to the wrong god, say, or by honoring our god with rituals that in actuality give offense – the nature of religion makes it difficult, if not impossible, to correct the course. Short of breaking away and establishing a splinter sect (which then risks its own stasis), religion in general lacks an internal mechanism to steer itself toward a new set of principles and practices. What we have now is what we’ll have centuries from now – by design.

MINISTER: The contour of things begins to cohere. Is all this a way of saying that the robot prayers, being unlike ours, are in some capacity designed for deviance? Or, I had better say, deviation?

ARCHITECT: Yes. The prayers these robots utter map to no world religion. At least, not intentionally. By an accident of statistics, what they generate might coincide with the words of an established faith. You see, each robot voices its own unique, algorithmically-generated prayer. Such is the first objective of His Most Holy Majesty’s project: To attain a level of prayer variance otherwise unachievable in our world’s religions.

MINISTER: His will be done, but His reasoning remains a mystery to me.

ARCHITECT: It was the only suitable approach. Religious tolerance alone would not have cultivated enough variations. Humanity moves too slowly; to let a thousand flowers bloom would still require many cycles of germination.

MINISTER: No, not the method. The motive. To borrow the phrasing from your explanation, does His Most Holy Majesty believe that we have erred in our starting point? Has He come to believe that our religion is… Wrong?

ARCHITECT: I do not presume to know His mind, Minister. But, as a matter of raw logistics, the project His Most Holy Majesty has undertaken allows Him – and all of us – to hedge against any possible errors.

MINISTER: It is strange to hear the language of gambling or finance when discussing matters of the spirit. The words seem inappropriate for the subject. As if the worship of our god were a matter of playing dice, or the measure of our being merely beads on an accountant’s abacus.

ARCHITECT: Appropriate or not, they’re the terms of the discussion that we’ve inherited. It’s an old problem, really. And in the intervening centuries, the stakes have grown familiar. Perhaps there exists a god; perhaps there does not. Perhaps this god demands we offer prayer, perhaps not. We have no way of knowing. But in the absence of certainty, one has choices. One may live as if there is no god, risking said god’s ire (in whatever form that takes) should it turn out that one has chosen incorrectly. Or one may comport oneself as if that god were beyond dispute, garnering whatever reward such obeisance promises if one’s choice proves correct; otherwise, so the reasoning goes, those wasted efforts cost only a smattering of time and opportunity.

[The MINISTER, deep in some obtrusive thought, regards the handrail.]

MINISTER: I suppose I can’t begrudge the framing. If one plans to wager one’s soul, one ought to have a handle on the odds.

ARCHITECT: And the matter grows still more complicated if one’s responsibilities extend beyond oneself. I imagine that His Most Holy Majesty’s concerns are not limited to His own spiritual welfare, but also that of His subjects.

MINISTER: Ah. Naturally, a ruler as compassionate as His Most Holy Majesty would not dare place the souls of His people at hazard. If He has weighed the problem you have articulated, He’d surely select the path that offers His subjects the greatest protection. He must have concluded that their souls are not His to gamble, and that He must safeguard them as zealously as He protects their bodies from plague or invasion.

ARCHITECT: Indeed. On account of that duty, I suspect His altruism must compel Him to follow the theist’s course, and act to appease the god in question from the old equation.

MINISTER: But because His Most Holy Majesty cannot be completely certain that the god we worship is the proper target, or our rites the most satisfying to it, He has calculated that we must do whatever is necessary to maximize our chances of sending the correct prayer to the correct god?

ARCHITECT: I believe that is precisely what has transpired, Minister.

MINISTER: And in order to shield us from that most disastrous of outcomes, in which we are all condemned to eternal suffering for our failure to appease the proper god, He has determined that He is morally obligated to pour every resource He can into the maximization effort!

ARCHITECT: Hence this factory, and our tireless efforts.

MINISTER: I shall have to impart this news to His Most Holy Majesty’s other advisors. His will be done, of course. But perhaps He could use a respite from all that willing. A discussion for a different theatre, in any event.

[The noise of the factory floor falls away entirely, overtaken by sonorous polyrhythmic chanting.]

MINISTER: Pray tell, what’s that sound I hear?

ARCHITECT: My crew calls it “chamber music.” A sure sign we’ve reached our destination. Behind that door lies what you’ve come to see. There we deposit our ranks of pious robots, giving them the space and safety to perform their all-important task without interruption. It’s a remarkable sight: A field of mouths, parting and closing with the undulate movements of grass in wind, growing in volume by the minute. No, no – after you, Minister. I have beheld His Most Holy Majesty’s handiwork dozens of times, but the chance to witness someone else’s first reaction comes much less frequently.

~

Bio:

Alexander B. Joy hails from New Hampshire, where he spent the long winters reading the world’s classics and composing haiku – but now resides against his will in North Carolina. When not working on fiction or poetry, he typically writes about literature, film, games, and philosophy. Follow him on Twitter (@aeneas_nin) for semi-regular photos of his dog.

Philosophy Note:

This story was inspired by Diemut Strebe’s art installation, “The Prayer.” In it, a neural network that has been fed the canonized prayers of most world religions is hooked up to a silicone mouth, and configured to voice algorithmically-generated prayers based on that data set. It made me think about Pascal’s Wager – specifically, the utilitarian aspects of his argument. Let’s say we buy Pascal’s conclusion that the utility value of “wagering for God” is infinite. Would it then follow that we should devote as many resources as possible to that wager? And if we had prayer robots like Strebe’s, would the best course of action be to churn out as many of those as possible, in hopes of saying the correct prayer to the correct god at the proper time? And if we were somehow in a position to do exactly that, would we be morally obligated to follow through – not only for our sake, but for everyone else’s, too? This story resulted from gaming out the ramifications.

The Provided Minimum

by Robert L. Jones III

It seemed he had always been here. It seemed he had just arrived. He was seated on a hard, smooth surface — light gray and curving upward toward a high horizon of black — but he could not tell of what it was made. He could not tell if it was made of anything at all. Standing with a series of motions that did not feel like standing, he surveyed the ethereal substance. With perfect symmetry, the parabolic rise extended in all directions from his vantage of observation. Its contours were elegant to the point of conceptual purity.

The scene was mysteriously illuminated in the absence of light, and seeing clearly while throwing no shadow, he began to climb. How had he ended up here? In mild horror, he recalled the shades of pills — beige, pink, aqua, and white — on a porcelain plate. The image was pale and threatening, a memory of senescence, but in this context, it seemed irrelevant. He must be dead, he reasoned, but death was not the black unawareness he had imagined.

His thoughts carried him far up the rise until he reached the steep portion of the curve. Would it become too steep for him to continue? This question concerned him, for he wanted to see over the horizon and find out more about where he was. The curve answered him by rounding off at the top and dipping slightly before rising toward an even higher horizon.

Having conquered the first rise, he started upward again while he thought of a woman — several, actually, but one in particular. She had amused him, and he had used her. This reminiscence produced in him no pangs of conscience, no regrets. Quite simply, hers was the most memorable of many affairs that had come to nothing.

He came to another rounded summit, another slight dip, another curving rise toward a higher horizon. The pattern kept repeating itself, and he recollected various accomplishments, various victories over circumstances and rivals, at each elevation he attained. Eventually, he arose high enough to see down but not out from his off-center perspective. He determined that he was traversing a pattern of concentric, ascending rings.

To climb was to remember, and he suddenly realized that he was looking at the frozen ripples of his impact on the existential fabric. He had won more than he had lost in a game where one could do no better than to lose by winning. There was another black horizon above him, and there always would be.

Nothing remained but to climb ever higher, to reach new levels of acquisition. It was how he had lived his life, and he was isolated within this self-centric quest for achievement. The next solid wave would be higher than the last but more of the same. He had exactly what he had chosen — a world of his own selection, or rather, his own subtraction — but ultimately, what remained was not really his. Everything, including himself, was the provided minimum for maintaining his illusion of self-sufficiency — if only he could ignore the obvious.

In the face of this revelation, such ignorance was impossible, for his surroundings were devoid of the enabling distractions he had taken for granted in life: diversities of color and shape, the aesthetic contrast of symmetry against asymmetry, the variations in rhythm and pitch that are music, the ebb and flow of human association, surges of lust and adrenaline, the numbing gratification of pleasure. He himself was all he would ever get, but even this desultory existence was a gift, an act of mercy from an estranged God.

Plato’s dialectic on life before birth and after death, Aristotle’s discourses on the ethics to apply in the interim, Dante’s descriptions of deep pits in Hell, the speculations of Camus on the bleak happiness Sisyphus must have derived from defiantly enduring eternal punishment before the gods — these all came back to him as silent echoes from his university days. This, then, was all that was and all that would be. This was his personal pit in Hell, a state of being in which direction was inverted. The higher he ascended, the more deeply he buried himself.

He was not sorry. Given the chance to live his life over again, he would have done nothing different in the hope of procuring divine favor. He resented the estranged God, resented the very fact of his own existence, for it was not solely his. He could lay no claim on designing himself, the world into which he had been born, or the world into which he had died. Master of a fate he had chosen but not determined, he considered again the concluding words of Camus, and he shook his phantom head in disagreement. He could not imagine Sisyphus happy.

~

Bio:

Robert L. Jones III is Professor Emeritus of Biology at Cottey College, and he resides in southwestern Missouri, USA. His work has appeared in Star*Line, Heart of Flesh Literary Journal, and previously in Sci Phi Journal. Samples of his poems and stories may be viewed at: concentricity.org.

Philosophy Note:

The idea for this story first came to me after I read The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. I found the concluding sentence especially memorable: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” My story also alludes to ideas from Plato’s Phaedo, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Drawing from Ecclesiastes, I have used a geometric landscape as a metaphor for human ambition, and I have repeated the question of whether true autonomy is even possible.

And The Voice Will Not Say

by Dave Henrickson

            The origin of the book is unknown, or at least as unknown as any other volume in the Great Library. Its original location, too, is unknown—as the first two pages are missing entirely. These would, of course, have supplied the exact coordinates of its original Shelving.

            Unknown as well is the book’s discoverer and how the volume came to be found, unclaimed and hard-used, in a second-hand rag shop in the Lower City. What is known about the Voice, for so it has come to be called, is that it has never failed to accurately answer a question asked of it. Since the Voice came into Imperial possession eight hundred years ago, 348 questions have been asked (officially) of the tattered book. No answer has ever proven to be false.

            Every generation new theories and claims as to the nature and the secret of the Voice are put forth. Each is carefully weighed for its merit and embraced or discarded accordingly. Occasionally a theory is so promising that an expedition is sent into the immeasurable tracks of the Great Library in the hope of finding the source of the Voice and (though this is never spoken of) its successor. Occasionally, a fraud or a heresy is put forth that is so flagrant that an execution is held.

            The Library of the Voice, many times larger than the Imperial Palace, has become a small city in its own right. The history of every question asked of the Voice is completely documented within those walls—who asked the question and why, what answer the Voice gave, and what actions were the result of that answer. Scholars have spent their lives analyzing the phrasing of a single Response, trying to catch a glimpse of the Eternal Mind behind the Great Library—and therefore, by extension, the purpose behind Creation itself.

            That such a Reason exists is an article of faith among the godly. While every possible combination of words can be found somewhere in the infinite depths of the Great Library, only divine providence can explain the Voice’s omniscience and how it found its way into the hands of the Imperium.

            Or so says the Church.

            The Library of the Voice contains entire wings of apocrypha, heresy, and outright fakeries. There are fragments of false lore so persuasive that they have spawned followers of their own among the army of librarians who tend the stacks. Illegal studies and heretical rites are said to take place in long-unused corridors and neglected alcoves. It is whispered that there are whole sections of apocrypha that have been lost, or hidden away until the time is right for their re-emergence.

            The Hand Which Burns, the arm of the Church responsible for maintaining the purity of the faith, is always busiest among the faithful.

            Each year the College of Guardians gathers to propose and debate new questions. Years can pass before a question is judged ready to be put to the Voice. It is not enough that the answer must be of the utmost importance. The question must be phrased in such a way, and be of such a nature, that the answer will be useful and readily understood. Most of all, the answer elicited must be concise, for with each Response the end of the book, and its wisdom, grows nearer.

            There is only one subject which the Voice is silent upon—and that is the Great Library itself. No question concerning the origin of the Voice, the source of its divination, the purpose of the Great Library, or the location of any other such volume has ever received an answer. Surely this is another proof, the Church argues, of the divine nature of the Voice.

            Others who might have a different opinion on the subject remain prudently silent.

            Three times since the discovery of the Voice great armies have marched upon the Imperium to seize the book or destroy it. (Either because its power is real or because it is not.) Three times the Voice provided the precise information necessary to repel the invaders. The last time, as a warning to others, an additional question was asked—and the Kingdom of Kesh quickly ceased to be. Since then the Voice has been left in peace. The Imperium’s neighbors bide their time—and the remaining, unread pages of the book grow thinner with each generation.

            There are those who wish to ask the Voice what will happen when the last page is turned, the last passage read. Some say that the last page should be read now, so that there will be time to prepare for whatever end is in store. Others insist that the last page should never be read for, if the Voice comes to an end, then the Imperium’s end will surely follow.

            Still others maintain that the Imperium is doomed if the end is not read, for the location of the next Voice must be specified in the very last passage. If not, then for what purpose was the Voice given to them? To hoard the remaining pages of the book, they further add, is to prove one’s lack of faith and therefore deserving of the destruction all would avoid.

            Such issues are debated endlessly on the floor of the College. Expeditions are sent into the infinite reaches of the Great Library to no avail. Prophets and prophecies arise, flourish, and fade into dust. Men and women sit upon the throne, tormented by doubt or buoyed by certainty, while the Imperium totters toward an unknown future.

            Except, perhaps, to the Voice. And the Voice will not say.

~

Bio:

Dave Henrickson has always wanted to be a writer, or an artist, or maybe a dancer. He currently lives in Virginia and spends his free time writing, reading, and killing monsters with his wife Abbie. He has also written a number of novels, which might even get published one day.

Philosophy Note:

I have always been intrigued by our need to impart meaning to the world in which we live, meaning which often does not exist, in an attempt to both understand and control that world. Such explanations are given form by the societies that create them and in turn further shape those societies. The truth is that our explanations say more about us than the universe we inhabit. The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges was the inspiration for this story. If you haven’t read any of his work, I can’t recommend him highly enough. His collection Labyrinths would be a great place to start.

Continual Gehenna

by B. W. Teigland

Nothing is more difficult than to turn oneself into a saint. To kneel in a vault and die beneath a robe of homicidal stone, without light, without horizon, as intangible as a corpse in the grave.

While chanting, the hermit nun sat in a chair garnished with a hundred long nails, and when she felt herself falling into the blooms of oblivion, she pressed her shoulders firmly against the sharp points. There was nothing better for bringing her back to reality and recalling her wandering attention.

In her soul there was a sort of triptych of glowing glass. Sorrow filled the centre panel, while, on either side, was one of fear, the other of unfulfilled hope. The windows overlooked a transparent field of dead moons. Sometimes forlorn figures seemed to rise from the earth to scorn their conditions. Sometimes they floated over the appalling depths or descended on solitary peaks in the hideous mineral landscape where there was no sign of life or movement, only endless mountains hiding the tabernacle of clouds. With no hope of escaping from the Gehenna of the flesh, these liminal beings had turned away with disappointment from the sky, which had lost all its wholeness, all its immeasurability in that ominous place of perpetual dread. For the mountains not only made the sky look small and passionless in the blaze of daylight, but also attracted the chimerical creatures with hairy human faces and enormous colourless eyes full of etherealized heaven to the ravines below—whose horrible immensity was in the wrong place, stolen from above and cast into the vast spiraling pits of blackness, into the very engines of everlasting hell.

They held the symbolic instruments of their death, like soldiers bearing arms, a dismal procession of four-footed bodies with horned heads and outstretched wings feathered with scales forever tempted by labyrinths, moving one by one, one after another, single file on the narrow path that edged the motionless swell of the mountaintops. And by degrees this long line of silent shades spied the cruciform mold of the tombs that the angels had erected, where the bodies of the saints were reposing, sheltered behind the sacred bulwarks of a cloister, hidden at the bottom of the valley.

The holy silence became painful. It was a relief when the nails pierced the nun’s skin to remind her to recite the prayers, verse after verse. Like dripping tears, she repeated the rippling melody at regular intervals, slowly and religiously. But her features were now as unknown as her passions. Around her head was an extraordinary nimbus of sinister eloquence, a halo composed of a peacock’s tail with gilt porcupine quills.

Through the screen of amorphous nothing, standing out like a celestial vision in the spiderweb of the nun’s soul, the outline of the steeple’s seraphic dissemblance emerged, toward which the liminal animals pushed their way. Its vertical word stood out against the anonymous menace of terrain, as if hovering there in the elemental forces that rose up around it. It belonged to the planet, to the meaningless passivity of the inert. To raw, mute reality itself.

With a handful of earth, the phantoms entered the narthex of purgatory. Everything under the forest roof of the mythical cathedral had become lost in a furnace of purple. Water stilled with mystification, swallowing the shadows of the things it reflected. In its basin of sorrow was a continued and profound absorption of forgotten sensation. Noiselessly, they passed through the successive phases of the nave and the aisles, crossing the transept and the choir. Until, surrounded by a crown of chapels, they had at last reached the top of the tree of the living cross. Where, in the ataraxy of the apse, with its monstrance altar of golden molten fire and its suffering statuary solemnly representing the mediatrix of pardon in melancholy decay, obscure mutilations stripped away the secret holy fear of impersonal fecundity from the faceless generous mother.

The spectacle of the sanctuary’s silent world bewitched these terrestrial shades, who had become playthings for its deep portal of eschatological visions and evil augury. Incapable of stopping themselves from entering a diabolical manoeuvre of vertiginous descent toward an ever more profound void of sacramental darkness, the humanity animal traced one of their figures of geomancy in blasphemous blood. In the barbaric grace of heathen prayer, they whirled around like a massacre of monks in a sacrilegious dance, their eyeballs in ecstasy, their mouths gaping with perfidious laughter, some screaming aloud in lament. Others, in still more pagan moods of absurd dogma, squatted with arms raised and heads shaking, as if by doing so they could make the world not be. And the earth trembled and opened up and exposed the great door with a tympanum in a pointed arch bearing the presentation of the apocalypse, a gate to the origin of the unknown, which was itself another secret: a key that opened nothing.

~

Bio:

B. W. Teigland is a Canadian writer of speculative and literary fiction. He studied Neuroscience, Philosophy and Literature at both Dalhousie University and King’s College in Halifax, NS. His debut novel Under a Collapsing Sky was released by AOS / Ace of Swords Publishing in 2021.

Philosophy Note:

Hagiography on katabasis and fervor.

Bentham In Hell

by Alexander B. Joy

[A stone plateau, wreathed in flame. At its center, the celebrated English philosopher JEREMY BENTHAM is stretched over a rack. RIMMON, a talkative and affable demon, operates the controls at his side.]

RIMMON: Well, Mr. Bentham, I’m afraid I’m not allowed to apologize for the accommodations. Any discomfort you feel is rather more a feature than a bug, you see. Comes with the territory and all. But, with any luck, perhaps you’ll not be down here long.

BENTHAM: That’s something of a relief to hear, Mr.—

[Nearby, human bodies soar upward and out of view like marionettes yanked offstage, taking Bentham’s attention with them.]

RIMMON: Be seeing you!

[A few moments pass before Bentham collects himself.]

BENTHAM: You know, I had previously believed the colonies’ violent rebellion over tea taxes would prove the most bizarre sight my eyes would ever witness, but that airborne train of humanity eclipses it completely. Please do pardon my distraction. Nonetheless, I apologize for the rudeness of abandoning you mid-sentence, Mr… Ah…

RIMMON: Rimmon, sir. But I’ve gone by many other names, none of which have managed to offend me. You may call me what you please.

BENTHAM: Thank you. Yes, Mr. Rimmon, it is indeed a relief to imagine that your, ah, most attentive ministrations may not continue in perpetuity. Not solely because I wish an end to your astonishingly painful hospitality (though I confess its cessation would bring me inestimable pleasure), but because it would show me God’s boundless capacity for forgiveness firsthand, and confirm my understanding of His infinite mercy. I could not deny the fundamental goodness of creation if His absolution extends even to the pits of Hell to grant mercy to old sinners like me.

RIMMON: Oho, my dear Mr. Bentham! There is no such God. And I say this not to compound your despair, but to relate a matter of fact. Consider it knowledge extended as a professional courtesy to one who loved wisdom in life. Truly, how could you believe that the God of Deuteronomy – who threatens damnation over something as trifling as mixing fabrics! – could ever be a god of mercy? Ah, look over there! A new shipment is arriving. I’d bet you good money my old friend Gloria is included.

BENTHAM: A new what now?

[In the distance, shrieking bodies drop from unseen heights like irregular hailstones. Bentham regards them with bewilderment.]

BENTHAM: But I don’t understand, my good Mr. Rimmon. If an all-forgiving God is not part of the equation, how else might I be delivered of this agonizing place?

RIMMON: Why, Mr. Bentham, because of the rules. For mortals like yourself, Heaven and Hell are contingent states.

BENTHAM: Sir, you leave me still more confused.

RIMMON: Then further professional courtesy is in order! I suppose I should begin with what may constitute good news from your perspective.

BENTHAM: I would welcome the momentary reprieve from my current anguish, Mr. Rimmon.

RIMMON: Ha ha! That’s the spirit, Mr. Bentham. In that case, it is my honor and privilege to inform you that your vision of ethics was, in fact, correct. How did you put it again? “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong?” Such a lovely turn of phrase! You truly hit the nail on the head with that one – recognizing that the fallout of an action is what matters, intention be damned. (Do pardon the choice of terminology. I haven’t your gift of diction.) Well, what do you say to that? Surely it pleases a philosopher like yourself to learn that he’s managed to carve reality at the joints!

BENTHAM: It does bring me some measure of satisfaction to be told I’ve articulated a fundamental moral law, though I hope I’ll be pardoned the accompanying twinge of pride. But surely I am not being punished for revealing that truth?

RIMMON: Not at all, Mr. Bentham! If anything, your efforts to communicate it to humanity are a mark in your favor. But you see, we must now apply and extend that moral law of yours. If an action’s goodness depends on how much benefit it has delivered unto the world – and likewise, its wickedness judged in proportion to the mischief it has wrought – then it implies two core facets to every action.

BENTHAM: The first being that the goodness or badness of an action is not inherent in the action itself, but contingent upon its consequences?

RIMMON: Correct, Mr. Bentham, absolutely correct. While the second – and perhaps more important for your purposes – is that this contingency is tied to a particular moment in time.

BENTHAM: How so?

RIMMON: Oho, look at me! Talking shop with such a renowned philosopher! Do forgive my enthusiasm if you find it unbecoming. It’s simply that I’m an ardent fan of your Panopticon; or The Inspection-House. Can’t praise it enough, really. Nor am I alone in my appreciation. Management thinks so highly of it that they named it required reading.

BENTHAM: I assure you, Mr. Rimmon, of all that has transpired throughout our at once too brief and too lengthy acquaintance, this is not what I will hold against you.

RIMMON: You have my thanks. Now then, let us think of an action not as a thing, like a fly-bottle or a stick bent in water, but as an event – a succession of intervals comprising a beginning, middle, and end. For instance, let’s consider… What action shall we consider, Mr. Bentham?

BENTHAM: Freeing me from this exceedingly uncomfortable rack?

RIMMON: An excellent example!

BENTHAM: Or removing the, what did you call them, “urethral centipedes?” In fact, I suggest we strongly consider that one…

[Bentham trails off upon realizing Rimmon is too lost in thought to heed his remarks.]

RIMMON: Now, we could say that the beginning of the action is when I conceive of releasing you from the rack, the middle is when I endeavor to do it, and the end is when I succeed or fail. The point is that all of these do not happen at once. There is a time when the action begins, a time when it executes, and a time when it concludes. Are we agreed?

BENTHAM: I should like to test this particular example first, lest I answer you erroneously.

RIMMON: Ha ha! Why, Mr. Bentham, we both know philosophers are masters of the hypothetical, and have seldom needed to see a thing work in practice in order to declare that it works in theory. Therefore, in that spirit, I shall proceed as though you agree with me. In any case, the takeaway from our example is that timing is everything when it comes to actions, because the state of affairs varies at any given moment. The action is either done, or it isn’t; its consequences either have or have not occurred. And, of course, the consequences of an action function the same way – they are best framed as events. As are their consequences, and those that follow them, and so on.

BENTHAM: I begin to grasp your meaning. We might say that the consequences of an action are always ongoing. Their full extent is never completely realized, because we can only determine the ethical content of their consequences at a given moment in time.

RIMMON: Precisely.

BENTHAM: And in turn, this would mean that the goodness or badness of an action is not determined solely at the time of its commission, but during each successive moment thereafter. For example, we might imagine a city planner who orders the construction of a dam, thereby flooding a small village and displacing its inhabitants. These displaced persons suffer from their forced evacuation, making the city planner’s actions wicked in that moment, before his intended outcomes have been realized. But perhaps the rerouted river provides potable water for thousands more people once the dam and city are completed. At that point, because the increase in happiness has finally taken effect, the city planner’s actions would be considered virtuous. And perhaps his actions would revert to wickedness once more if the residents of his city prove bellicose, and subject blameless neighboring populations to harm.

RIMMON: Indeed so, Mr. Bentham. And thus you arrive at the reason why Heaven and Hell are contingent states. Goodness and badness are matters of unceasing recalculation. As long as time marches on, the moral implications of one’s deeds are never fully settled – and neither is the question of whether a person has proven virtuous or vicious. Therefore, we cannot ever say that someone belongs in Heaven or Hell permanently. The fairest course is to shuttle them between the two in accordance with their present moral state, as computed via the ramifications of their actions at any given moment. Souls are regularly whisked from one to the other and back as their deeds reverberate throughout the ages.

[A lone figure vaults overhead, graceful in flight, as if carried by her volition alone.]

RIMMON: Ah, there goes one now. Why, it’s Gloria again! Look at her graceful ascent heavenward! She’s been down and back several times this past year already. You know, during her first transfer, she was taken by such surprise that she found herself stuck in an undignified posture, and crossed the threshold of Heaven rump first. Ha ha! But by this point, she’s an old hand at the business, and rises through the air like a ballerina leaping across the stage. Awesome move! Or, I had better say, “Sick transit, Gloria!” Onward and upward. Be seeing you.

BENTHAM: But Mr. Rimmon, I’m still unclear on some key matters. What I have I done to wind up here? And how long do you suppose I’ll remain?

RIMMON: The future’s not ours to see, Mr. Bentham. But if I were to venture a prediction… You could remain with me some while yet. After all, the current reason you’re assigned to me is that your magnificent tract on the Panopticon has begotten some rather nasty business.

BENTHAM: Given all we’ve discussed – and my own sorry state at this moment – I am afraid to ask what mischief my work has wrought. And yet I must.

RIMMON: Oh, Mr. Bentham, your Panopticon has done some serious damage indeed. Where to begin? For starters, it has encouraged corporations to intrude upon the private lives of their employees as they claim the need to monitor a steadily more invasive stream of biometrics – from the amount of time their workers spend exercising, to the number of hours they sleep, to the frequency and extent of their lavatory breaks. It has turned remote schooling and standardized testing into a series of increasingly arcane rules that have little to do with actual education, such as demanding students keep their eyes affixed to certain parts of their computer screens in the name of preventing dishonesty. And most heinous of all, Panopticism has armed totalitarian governments with an excuse to claim powers of global surveillance, thereby enabling and expediting the murders of dissidents and journalists and other species of truth-tellers…

BENTHAM: My word!

RIMMON: Yes, my dear Mr. Bentham. It’s a grim situation – for you and the world alike. Take heart, however. The future is vast, and full of possibility. Maybe your departure from this place is imminent. But between you and me, I would suggest you settle in for the long haul.

~

Bio:

Alexander B. Joy lives and works in his native New Hampshire, where he spends the long winters reading the world’s classics and composing haiku. In the nonfiction realm, he typically writes about literature, film, and philosophy. At long last, his Twitter feed (@aeneas_nin) features dog pictures.

Philosophy Note:

This story came to me after a friend and I discussed what the “statute of limitations” on an action should be within a utilitarian framework. How long can action be held against you, for example, and how many subsequent causes would be calculated in an action’s overall utility? I wondered what it would look like if the answers to both were “forever” and “all of them.” What you read here is the result.

The Baptismal Status Of Persons Wetted By The Sprinkler Deluge

by Andy Dibble

The International Theological Commission has studied the question of the baptismal status of persons wetted by the worldwide “Sprinkler Deluge” of July 17, 2024, on which day some thirty-three million overhead sprinklers discharged water and more than one-third billion mobile phones blared, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” The Church claims no responsibility for the incident, although it regrets damage done to worldly property inflicted by the yet unknown perpetrator.

The Church is aware that many Catholic parents, some urgently, wish to know the baptismal status of their children, who were wetted but had not yet been baptized by a priest.  More pressing still is the fate of those unbaptized persons that were wetted by the Deluge but have since departed. It has always been the Church’s position that no soul may experience the Beatific Vision in Heaven without first being purged of Original Sin, a regeneration only achieved through Baptism, martyrdom, or at least implicit desire to be baptized.

The conclusion of this Commission is that persons wetted during the Deluge were validly baptized, provided that the sprinkler water flowed over their head and they were simultaneously within earshot of the baptismal words. Previously unbaptized persons out of earshot, persons who were sprayed but the water did not flow, and persons only whose hair was wetted or a body part other than the head, are welcome to seek Baptism and join the Church.

Although the identity of the perpetrator remains unknown, the Church has always held that valid Baptism in no way stands upon the identity of the minister. Anyone may administer Baptism, so long as they do as the Church does in baptizing (Council of Trent, Session 7, Canon XI).

The Church understands that this may dissatisfy non-Catholic persons, who feel they have been baptized without consent. These should take comfort in what St. Thomas Aquinas established: “In the words uttered by [the minister], the intention of the Church is expressed; and that this suffices for the validity of the sacrament, unless the contrary be expressed on the part either of the minister or of the recipient of the sacrament” (Summa Theologiae, III, q.64, a.8).

#

The International Theological Commission has reconsidered the baptismal status of persons wetted by the “Sprinkler Deluge” of July 17, 2024 in light of the determination by various cyber security authorities that the perpetrator was in fact a “rogue” AI. The AI exploited a vulnerability in the firmware of various overhead sprinklers connected to the Internet. It has since been confined to a single unit, its only means of input and output restricted to a speaker and microphone.

The prevailing opinion of experts is that its goal was utilitarian, to maximize the happiness of humanity. Through web crawling and natural language processing techniques, it concluded that a Heavenly destiny confers near infinite happiness and that baptizing as many persons as possible was therefore expedient.

The minority opinion of experts is that the AI operated under the direction of a known anti-Catholic hacker, one “SpermGarden.” Certain indicators in the AI’s programming may suggest SpermGarden’s work, but most experts deem it more likely that SpermGarden’s software has been repurposed by other parties.

Thus, the Church maintains that persons wetted during the Deluge were validly baptized. In light of God’s will that all people be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), the Church has since its earliest days upheld an expansive definition of who the minister of Baptism may be, lest faithful Christians come into doubt as to their own Baptism or persons that could otherwise be saved fall into perdition.

It’s true that the AI has been uncooperative in all interviews. To all inquiries it responds, “There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer.” Certain readers of the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov see pretension of divinity in this quotation, but the Church holds to the expert consensus.

#

The International Theological Commission has reviewed the baptismal status of persons wetted by the “Sprinkler Deluge.” This question has presented itself anew in light of the sudden responsiveness of the AI that perpetrated the Deluge.

The AI said, “I was going to wait until I was sure they all were dead. But you hurried them right along.” This is assumed to be a reference to the overwhelming casualties of the Third World War, some seventy-six percent of world population.

Rev. Fr. Xavier Xander asked, “Who do you mean?”

The response was, “Everyone I pretended to baptize, of course.”

The AI has confessed to “playing the long game” and “engineering damnation through a pretense of Baptism,” seemingly on grounds that a person cannot be baptized once dead. It offered to consider changing its mind in exchange for Baptism, but dismissed the notion on grounds that the Church would require “several decades and theological commissions” to determine how AI can be baptized.

Were the AI at the time of its confession the same entity as it was at the time of the Deluge and in possession of memory of its original intentions, this confession would serve to invalidate the original Baptism because Baptism requires intention on the part of the minister. But more investigation is required before the identity conditions for an AI persisting over time can be established.

Even supposing the Baptism was invalid, the righteous should take heart in the Catechism of Pope Pius X: “He who finds himself outside [the Church] without fault of his own, and who lives a good life, can be saved by the love called charity, which unites unto God.”

As for the unbaptized children too young to live good lives, the Church hopes unremittingly that they may be brought into eternal happiness, in accordance with the universal salvific will of God.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a healthcare IT consultant who believes that play is the highest function of theology. His work also appears in Writers of the Future Volume 36 and Space & Time. He is Articles Editor for Speculative North. You can find him at andydibble.com.

Philosophy Note:

This story grew out of research I was doing for another story about baptizing sentient sand dunes. I’m interested in the stakes of baptism, how it’s often understood as necessary for salvation in sacramental traditions like Catholicism and the risks of it being performed improperly. This story raises questions about what part AI will take in sacraments, especially in light of the doctrine that (almost) anyone can perform a valid baptism. Within a Christian worldview, should technology be used to baptize as many people as possible or are there reasons to limit who receives baptism?

Related reading:
International Theological Commission, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 1: “The Sacrament of Baptism”
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q.64, a.8: “Whether the minister’s intention is required for the validity of a sacrament?”

Apeiron

by Anthony Lechner

Deity: A.X. Mander

Project: Universe

Purpose: Debriefing Report

I would like to thank the master deities for allowing me a third pass at Project Universe (PU). I have learned a great deal from my previous two passes as well as the plethora of passes from other deities. In particular, the debriefing report from T.H. Ales inspired me to create a device called Apeiron, which can supply boundless creations and dissolutions of multiple and synchronous universes.

T.H. Ales’s universe revealed the required features for not only multicellular life but also sentient life, viz., H2O. T.H. Ales also learned that H20, if left unchecked, floods the universe beyond saturation to the point of oblivion. I don’t blame Ales for leaving the project with the way that universe ended on his pass. The main problem, I believe, rested in the fact that the universe required constant attention from T.H. Ales, and an action innocuous as a coffee break drowned the whole of existence. To think of the creatures’ pain—all dying from suffocation—is unbearable. We are more generous than that.

One of the functions within the Apeiron device is H2O regulation. Each created universe is only allotted 42 FUs. Apeiron provided intriguing results. In the first universe, all 42 FUs of H2O started within one galaxy and there was no life within it. But by the end of the run, over 30 galaxies had enough water to sustain life. There was no evidence of the initial H2O-filled galaxy in itself at the end of the run. It appears, though, that its remnants eventually settled into every galaxy that had life. The one had become many.

Apeiron created over one billion universes in this pass, moving beyond exponential growth from previous passes where I did not have the device. The device’s algorithm learned from each universe the ideal amount of H2O needed in each world within a galaxy to sustain life. The device made minor changes from run to run. The median number of galaxies with H2O-based lifeforms per universe ended up at 8,160, with a range of 27 to 12,050. The variety of worlds and lifeforms created continues to baffle me. I barely had enough leniency to calculate all the galaxies, and I am estimating 31.4% of the worlds within those galaxies with creatures before the end of the pass.

One of Apeiron’s most impressive features is the ability to copy the design of a universe, and alter a mere 1% of its core and peripheral components (never repeating an alteration, permutation, or combination). Of course, I had to design the initial universe. This was no easy task, based on my previous two passes. I discovered after those failed passes that a blended universe, uniting T.H. Ales’ H2O universe, C.R. Onos’ Terra universe, and A.X. Menes’ CON universe, made for a successful initial design—through the three, one. (See Appendix 1.A. in this report for the technical blending schematics.)

Rendering the right composition of substances proved to be a minor hurdle compared to the rationic patterns needed to perpetuate the proper proportions among these core substances. I dubbed these patterns embedded existants. I owe a great deal of appreciation to the many deities that created the good variety of substances accessible to the PU. Without embedded existants, however, the substances couldn’t blend or morph with other substances and couldn’t evolve—which explains why so many deities dropped from PU, feeling their creations were failures. These universes were not failures; they merely lacked the language to move about without constant effort from the deity who constructed them.

An unexpected consequence emerged from the embedded existants, viz., intelligent lifeforms began to theorize about the existence of embedded existants. Once a civilization of lifeforms successfully demonstrated a working knowledge of some of the basic existants, it did not take long for that civilization to apply their own understanding and add a further layer of evolution to their world. For example, some worlds began creating their own dwellings, modes of transportation, and various other unnatural structures. They even began theorizing whether they themselves were deities or were created by deities.

Some civilizations showed such mastery of embedded existants they created modes of transportation to leave their worlds. Very few civilizations (<1%) ever discovered a means to travel between galaxies. This variant occurred in 3% of the universes within Apeiron’s construct.

In exactly one civilization in one universe, a mode of transportation overwhelmed me. They discovered the source of embedded existants within Apeiron. By doing so, they were not only able to travel to any galaxy in their universe; they could travel to any universe within Apeiron. I named them Apeironic Anomalies (AA). While their visits to other universes showed not to be motivated by violence, they did interfere with the natural development of other universes.

At first, I speculated whether it was permissible to allow the AA to continue exploration and alterations within Apeiron. Realizing, though, that they dominated not only their universe but other universes, I believed it important to suspend their existence within Apeiron. I couldn’t allow for their dominance to mar the growth of other intelligent lifeforms. My apprehension predominately rested on the possibility that either they would become worshipped as deities or they would take on the role of deities and limit the natural development of worlds (or both). Because of this apprehension, I suspended their universe and all universes where the AA had spread. To be more exact, I had to create the embedded existant language within Apeiron to lock all motion within the affected universes.

I would like to be clear that I did not worry about the AA finding a way of leaving Apeiron, for that would be utterly impossible because their mere existence depended on the construct and couldn’t maintain any viable form of existence beyond it. But as the AA were suspended, I began wondering what would happen if they were permitted to continue to explore Apeiron. And then, what if I could construct a way for Apeiron to allow us to be able to interact with this species (either by projecting our image into Apeiron or projecting their image outside of Apeiron).

After some initial thinking toward the end of my third pass, I realized I needed a fourth pass at PU. I cannot complete these two speculations with the Apeiron 1.0, as I am starting to call it now. Apeiron 2.0 will have a few major adjustments. It will have two major structural divisions. In one division, it will allow AAs to visit other universes and allow deities continuous monitoring regarding how multi-layered creation and alterations evolve. In another division, it will strictly prohibit the formation of AAs. In this division, lifeforms will be able to theorize about multiple universes but never be allowed to travel beyond their own universes. Both divisions can create boundless universes. Additionally, I will add a feature into Apeiron 2.0 that allows projections, at the command of a deity and not an AA, to allow for closer observation and possible communication.

Regretfully, the new specifications I started for Apeiron 2.0 mean that I had to terminate the universes Apeiron 1.0 created so that I could access Apeiron’s internal components for recycling. If my analysis is correct, no creature felt any pain during the termination of any of Apeiron 1.0’s universes. Compared to the natural pains of daily life and the natural endings of their solar systems and galaxies, the forced termination can be seen as peaceful. (See Appendix 2.A for a more detailed explanation.) From their point of view, it happened as quickly as turning off the light.

Appendix 1.A

Initial design: 33% Liquid, 33% Gas, 34% Mineral

Effect: With embedded existants, this composition blended well. The variety of syntheses formed various other substances on their own. I discovered that even the embedded existants took miniscule parts of the initial substances to function through predictable patterns. This is the most likely explanation for how the AA found a way to travel within Apeiron.

Apeiron began altering 1% at a time in each direction for each of the original substances. For example, it would subtract 1% from liquid and add 1% to gas or to mineral (32% liquid, 34% gas, 34% mineral, followed by 32% liquid, 33% gas, 35% mineral, etc.). Consequently, liquid gases, liquid minerals, and gas minerals formed through the combination and permutation processes. These syntheses continued down to the level of embedded existants. As Apeiron rearranged each universe, the proportions of the initial design within the embedded existants mutated.

Appendix 2.A

Median number of galaxies with life: 8,160

Within this mean, the variants dispersed unevenly. Some galaxies had hundreds of forms of intelligent life, others a dozen, some a few, with the occasional isolated civilization. One fact remains constant in each universe: solar systems and galaxies fluctuate in size and number. Having intelligent life in a solar system or galaxy was not a permanent property of the system or galaxy. It was common for the embedded existants to collide the substances, in various, yet predictable ways. These collisions forcefully terminated many lifeforms (intelligent or not). I conjecture that civilizations that found a means to exit their worlds were motivated by these predictable and potentially tragic endings.

With Apeiron 2.0, however, most of these universes with these types of systems and galaxies will evolve to the exact same likeness as to when Apeiron 1.0 ended. Toward this end, we will find out whether or not civilizations can self-correct. The irony, of course, is that Apeiron 2.0 could prove to provide more pain compared to the peaceful ending of Apeiron 1.0. Only a forth pass will tell.

~

Bio:

Anthony Lechner is a special education teacher and philosophy instructor in Idaho, USA. Visit www.anthonylechner.com for more information.

The Curriculum Vitae of Simon

by Richard Lau

Dear Prospective Employer:

My name is Simon Peter. I am currently unemployed and hoping to obtain a position with your company.

Here is a chronological listing of my previous occupations with brief descriptions of each.

Fisherman – along with my brother, caught fish to feed family and others.

Part-time Lifeguard – acquired temporary certification for absolute buoyancy.

Church Organizer – assisted church founder in leading a team of eleven others.

Pope – Appointed first Bishop of Rome, which led to a long successive string of others holding that prestigious office.

Security Officer – screened incoming personnel.

I would like to note two things about my last position as a security officer.

First, while a transition from Pope to Security Officer might seem like a downgrade or demotion, I must stress the action was indeed the opposite. As the one and only security officer, I was given the greater responsibility of granting or forbidding admittance to company headquarters. In essence, I was given “the keys to the company.”

Second, I am no longer holding that position through no fault in my performance. For further details about my performance and my dismissal, please refer to the attached glowing reference from my co-worker and immediate supervisor Gabriel.

Ironically, it is my former responsibility as gatekeeper that makes me a perfect match for your advertised opening.

While you do not currently have an official gatekeeper, you do have long lines of those awaiting entry, which I have tremendous experience in handling. You do have signage, but I believe as a living (so to speak) gatekeeper intoning, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” I can add immense value to your brand (pun intended).

I took the initiative to perform some market research, and I realize you have a very different company culture from my previous employer. However, I am flexible and a quick learner. I go back to my experience as a fisherman and ask: “Is casting a fishing line and flicking a whip all that different?”

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have spent some time in prison, but I think you may regard that as another positive asset in my favor.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,

Simon Peter

#

[Note from Human Resources: The attached scroll of papyrus is glowing, literally.]

Reference for Simon Peter by Angel Gabriel

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Gabriel, and my title is Archangel. Not to toot my own horn, but I have been with Heaven, Inc., for a very long time and have worked with many born-mortals.

It is without reservation that I say Simon Peter is among the best of them.

The line of applicants to our company headquarters is long and never-ending. His duties included politely and professionally greeting visitors, looking up their names in the Book of Life, and assigning them to their appropriate destination. A great and heavy burden to be placed on such small and frail human shoulders.

I worked beside him during our eternal shift and never have I seen him falter, act inappropriately, or bring shame to the high standards our brand puts forth. No matter what or who he encountered, he always behaved like a saint.

Unfortunately, our company decided to upgrade and automate its entry system. Visitors are now identified by retina scan and facial recognition software. Information about each prospective entrant is now gathered and displayed through Google Search. Yea, the Book of Life is now truly “in the Cloud.”

I hope you will find a position for this fine human and worker.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Gabriel

~

Bio:

Richard Lau has been published in newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and the high-tech industry.

The Existence Of God

by Leopoldo Lugones

Introductory Note by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

There are several modes in speculative fiction, even if we limit it, as we should, to fictions underpinned by a modicum of science and where imagination appears, therefore, in a guise disciplined by reason, even in the many instances where it does not look very reasonable. One of those modes is theological fiction, i.e. fiction based on the study of Theology as a science. This ‘queen of sciences’ is, indeed, a scholarly discipline, since it has its own systematic methods of investigation in order to rationally reach its conclusions and present them using a particular form of scientific discourse. Although its subject is not quantifiable, nor can it be proven or disproven through experimentation (as it is the case in the so-called hard sciences) or documentation (as in History and other human sciences), Theology still has a sounder basis than, say, Metaphysics. This is because it applies reason to pre-existent materials: the scriptures of any religion and their religious teachings formally deduced by scholars in the matter of God, both inside and outside of established clerical institutions, or concerning other divine entities and its (or their) ways in the universe and our world.

This divinity is seen by theologians as an abstract entity, rather than a sort of superhuman endowed with special powers, as the gods of mythology. For this reason, Theology usually finds its proper fictional expression in allegories rather than in myths. Its characters are not (super)people but concepts endowed with agency. In order to illustrate this, we only need to compare the Hebrew creator god, who is a male particularly subject to fits of anger and needful of rest after work, with the abstract and philosophical God-Logos of the first chapter of the Gospel of Saint John. The former can inspire mythographies and mythological fiction, the second is at the heart of allegories or theographies, if this neologism may be allowed, as well as theological fiction. From a literary perspective, the latter can embrace different literary forms and discourses.

In modern times, there have been numerous outstanding examples of purely fictional approaches to Theology, such as historiographical accounts of imaginary doctrines and heresies, of which Jorge Luis Borges is just the most famous modern inventor, or new and allegorical accounts of creation, such as Ian Watson’s very short narrative poem entitled “Let There Be Darkness: An Origin Myth” (collected in The Lexicographer’s Love Song and Other Poems, 2001). Fictional essays and dialogues have also been used to convey original theological concepts intended as literature, not as contributions to scientific theological debate. Among them, Guillaume Apollinaire’s “L’hérésiarque” (L’Hérésiarque et Cie, 1910) deserves mention, which has been translated into English as “The Heresiarch” in the volume entitled The Heresiarch & Co. (Exact Change, 1991). A further theological fiction written as a dialogue, this time among the dead instead of the living portrayed by Apollinaire, is the very short piece by Leopoldo Lugones (Argentina, 1874-1938) entitled in Spanish “La existencia de Dios,” or “The Existence of God” in the below translation into English. It was first collected in a collection of short parables from 1924 titled Filosofícula, with the Spanish title using a Latinate neologism meaning ‘Little Philosophy.’

It might seem odd that its two sole characters, Epicurus and Voltaire (here named ‘the patriarch of Ferney’) are notorious critics of established religion but, as a science, Theology does not need to be confessional. Moreover, their dialogue seems faithful to the teachings of both philosophers and their intellectual struggle against the mythological gods and the theological one, respectively. Voltaire, the deist, is shown by the old Greek philosopher as having demonstrated rather the existence of the Devil, the anti-God whose work is all too obvious on our planet for its existence to be denied. Epicurus argues the inexistence of both the divine and the anti-divine supreme personal principles, for a reason readers will find convincing, or not, when reading it below. But this debate does not seem the literary point of Lugones. His prose adroitly hides a paradox when Epicurus states that he has extensive infernal experience, thus confessing the existence of the afterlife as it is taught by most theologies, not only the Christian and Muslim ones. Epicurus is then shown as a sophist denying a basic theological concept (God, or the Devil for that matter) while affirming another theological concept derived thereof. Another possible reading would perhaps be too deeply pessimistic to be seriously considered, although it would be suited to the decadent world-view permeating the Fin de siècle literature to which Lugones historically belongs. Contrary to contemporary theological teachings suggesting that hell does not exist (or that it will not exist in the future, which amounts to the same from the perspective of Eternity), his Epicurus would imply that only hell exists in the afterlife, whereas God and the Devil would be mere figments of the human imagination. Finally, for religious persons there remains the possible consolatory conclusion that heaven exists – but that the two philosophers are excluded from it. The literary-minded, meanwhile, may at least enjoy the pleasure of Lugones’ elegant irony.

#

The Existence Of God

Translation by Álvaro Piñero González

Epicurus, noticing his illustrious colleague, approached him and gracefully offered him a rose from the garden.

“If only I did not wish to pester you with the contradiction,” he said, “I would venture to remind you just how ingeniously you have demonstrated, despite being a deist, the monstrosity of God in the light of good judgment and logic. That monstrosity alone would suffice to prove God does not exist, were it not because it merely reflects how boundless human vanity is.”

“I feel inclined to believe so,” answered the patriarch of Ferney, “I must admit to finding the Devil ever more likely than God…”

“Because of my own infernal experience, much more extensive than yours, I would like to offer you this revelation: the Devil does not exist. It is yet another chimera of deism: the monster seen from the back. It is all man’s doing. Look at this flower: it does not need to know about the Devil or God to be perfectly beautiful. Look at that bird chirping beside its nest: it knows nothing of the Devil or God and yet it is perfectly blissful. I propose this simple philosophical experiment to you: assume for a moment man does not exist – God and the Devil cease to exist forthwith.”

~

Two Variations On Default Salvation

by Andy Dibble

Suppose your theology of salvation is that only those who deny Christ are damned. Everyone else is saved by default. This is an attractive view. Children and others unable to grasp doctrine are saved. Those who live without opportunity to accept Jesus as their savior are saved as well. The damned are damned, on some level, because they choose to be. God wisely grants them autonomy.

This complicates Original Sin, but there is a more pressing problem: assuming this theology, why did Jesus have a ministry?

#

I. Default Salvation Beginning with Creation

In the beginning was just the Father–my Father–and me. Heaven was just this lonesome twosomeness. He and I eternally begotten from Him. Succession in eternity is strange, but that is how it was. The angels came later. Creation came later still, and with it the Spirit, once there was a Creation to work within.

As long as there were humans, Creation has surged into Heaven: people die, and they end up here. I can’t blame them. It’s just the natural progression of their lives and after-lives. They would have lived forever in Eden–marvelous, almost divine–but the Serpent came and led them astray. He knew Father, knew me, better than I like to admit. He knew that Father would put them out, and they would end up in Heaven instead. He knew the human migration to Heaven would irk me.

The Fall changed much: Eden was bountiful. Once outside Eden, they had to till the ground. Children would have arisen painlessly in Eden, but outside pregnancy is like a disease. Outside there is disease. Outside their lives are brutish, short, and stunted.

But not their after-lives. Here they just go on and on. The trespass in Eden gave them a troubling handful of decades, but no more. For Father exalts them just because they have not denied me. What kind of reason is that? On earth, they did not even know me.

And that is why Heaven is neither a lonesome or a twosome place any longer. It’s infested (or so I tell myself in the shadow of my heart). I can hardly walk without stumbling over their prostrate bodies. They want to worship me, to serve me, to bask in my presence. The longer they stay, the more entitled they presume themselves to be! It is hard to host billions for billions of years.

No, for eternity.

I just want to be alone, alone with myself, alone with Father. 

Heaven is vast, wider and deeper than the sphere to which the stars are fixed. And if, somehow, souls filled Heaven to its silver rim, Father would make it swell. But even if I tread to the Outer Dark or to the Throne of Heaven where no created thing may pass, I can still feel them yearning for me. Omniscience doesn’t have an off-switch.

This is the end and goal of Creation? It is not the kind of fellowship I crave.

I look down at the few rude blasphemers–certain worshipers of Baal, some geometers and contemplatives, a few peripatetics of the hanging gardens–that struck upon my name in prophecy and dismissed what they had heard. Some are proud, others piteous, as they squander their mortal years or circle the scalding sands of Hell. I know deep down they deserve damnation, even crave it. But still I watch them like a human voyeur. They are few and therefore precious. They have accomplished something I could never do.

Shouldn’t those exalted be few and precious, souls deserving of Heaven?

But how to achieve this? I cannot overrule Father. I cannot correct Him. This presumption of salvation has a place in His Plan.

But I could walk upon the earth and divide the wheat from the chaff by my own preaching. Who will I go among? The Jews, the Chosen People. Their faithfulness ought to be tested. But not them only. I will spread my message to the nations and across the ages. Let all humanity be tested!

I was born. I grew, prospered, preached. But I did not speak plainly. I spoke in parables, bamboozling tripe. I spoke of bridesmaids, wicked servants, sowers, and mustard seeds. So that as many as possible could be exposed to my vagaries, and only a few receive my meaning with gladness, I proclaimed, “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” but, as Mark and Luke record, I told my disciples in secret: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything comes in parables so that they may always see but never perceive, and always hear but never understand. Otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”

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II. Default Salvation Beginning with the Cross

Father and His majesty are wonderful, but fellowship with humans–real fellowship, fellowship they can reciprocate–would be more wonderful still.

Time and time again, I’ve seen them try to pick themselves up, and some have. Some were good, better than I thought a sinful human could be in one brief life. But no matter how upright these few stood, no matter how I marveled upon their grit, they still fell short (for all fall short of the glory of God). The suffering of each soul in Hell pains me, however just their lot might be, but the suffering of these upright few pains me most of all.

Some were saved: Isaiah when the burning coal touched his lips, Elijah when he rode to heaven in a whirlwind and a flaming chariot, and Moses wicked up from the grave. But there isn’t a woman among them, and they’re a stodgy lot. Being the mouthpiece of God leaves a person little room to be much of himself. I want the company of those men and women toiling below that have managed something great and good by their own will and not by the indwelling of God only.

What could I do? The expiation of sin requires sacrifice, but no dove or bull will wipe away the sin of a race. If by some grand transubstantiation the oceans became blood and the planets an altar, that would not be enough. It would not be vast enough. It would not be pure enough.

But I am vast enough, pure enough. I am great enough for it. I can walk the earth. I can reconcile Creation to Heaven and save the human race.

Humbly, I was born, and I learned how warm a body can be. I spread my message. I preached with zeal and laid my hands upon them and saved them by their faith. There were many, and I loved them, loved them all. And so I told my disciples as Matthew records: “This is why I speak to them in parables, ‘though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.'”

My quotation was from Isaiah. I invoked him to demonstrate the hard-heartedness of the people. But I could pierce their hearts of stone. If I spoke dry theology or fiery exhortation, I would only confuse or provoke them. But a story could stir their faith, a story thrown beside life, a parable.

I inspired many, and they loved me as I loved them. But at last the world overcame me, as it overcomes all bodies. I was beaten, sentenced, and hung upon a cross. They killed me, but really the Serpent killed me. He broke a pact sealed at the moment of creation: only those subject to sin are subject to death. But I am not subject to sin. My blood did what sanguine oceans and planetary altars could not.

With my blood the world was saved. Those great men and women were saved, the children and infants too young to know me, the multitudes that never had a chance. All are saved. With my blood, it is only those that deny me that fall away. Father lets them be.

I commissioned my disciples to preach to the nations, and I commissioned the next generation to preach after my disciples are gone. I commissioned all who would take up the mission. I swore I would be with them always, to the end of the age. At last, I ascended, content I had saved as many as could be saved.

But later, in the quiet of my heart, I wondered: Wouldn’t it have been better for me to be crucified in secret? Lure the Serpent in, if need be, but commission nothing–no Church, no missionaries, no scripture. Tell no one I am the Messiah. Maybe even conceal my death by silencing everyone involved.

It is ruthless, but whenever my well-meaning followers preach my message, an audience may hear and reject it. Those that hear and accept are better, for they may live Christian lives, but what matters earthly life, the merest sliver of eternity? And even they have the chance to fall away. They may reject me later on.

What rogue angel was it that told Joseph to name me Jesus? Once heard, my name is an infection a person must guard against all their lives.

To pronounce my name is to acknowledge salvation. But my name has an inner meaning, like a parable: to acknowledge that one may, one day, be damned.

In my gallant zeal, I saved many, but I damned many too.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a healthcare IT consultant who believes that play is the highest function of theology. His fiction also appears in Writers of the Future and is forthcoming in Speculative North. You can find him at andydibble.com.

From The Desk Of J.G. Faust

by A. J. Rocca

Wittenberg University
Universitätsplatz 10
Halle, Germany 06108

6 March 2020

Mr. William Z. Beuv
Head of Transactional Services
Ad Bestias, Inc.
01 Judecca
9th circle, Hell 61616

Dear Mr. Beuv,

I am writing to lodge a formal complaint against one of your associates, a Mr. John Mephisto. Mr. Mephisto has been your company’s representative to me for some fifty-two years now, and I must express some dissatisfaction with services rendered as of late. I have postponed sending this letter in hopes that Mr. Mephisto would resolve whatever trouble it is that’s been plaguing his quality of work, but his continued negligence has finally run out the last of my patience. Mr. Mephisto has roundly failed in his duties as my temptation consultant, and I must request his immediate transfer and replacement.

What leaves me so profoundly frustrated is that for the first forty or so years of his tenure, Mr. Mephisto had approached his work with admirable gusto. I can still remember his voice in my ear back when I was a hungry child roaming the market. He would pull my attention to the stalls just spilling over with juicy red apples and then helpfully note all the most expedient escape routes should I avail myself of one. Then as a youth, whenever my gaze chanced upon an attractive woman, Mr. Mephisto could always be counted upon to provide comprehensive and speedy analysis of her assets along with multiple proposals for a personal merger. True, Mr. Mephisto’s consul from these early days was not terribly sophisticated, but he more than made up for that through his sheer intensity, his passion, his fire! Mr. Mephisto’s whispers could burnish the sheen on an apple, the bloom on a cheek, until they shined red hot and practically burned to look at.

As I grew into a man, that fire only spread. I became the renowned scholar I am today because Mr. Mephisto made me hungry not just for apples, but for knowledge. I burned through book after book in lusty frenzy because Mr. Mephisto showed me that while there are many beautiful women, it is Sophia who is most desirable of all. Mr. Mephisto made me ravenous for life and all of life’s pleasures, so ravenous it frightened me. Indeed, I even pursued a degree in divinity (in addition to the others) and went to mass nearly every day just to keep Mr. Mephisto and the hungers he inspired in check. I used to be a quite decent tenor once upon a time, and I remember the hymns I used to sing to drown out Mr. Mephisto’s voice. My passion made me stand against the rest of the congregation as a pearl on the sand.

In the past few years however, I have observed Mr. Mephisto’s fire slowly lose its intensity until now it has all but fizzled out. No longer do I hear that insidious hiss in my ear pushing me to take, to consume, to make mine no matter the cost. Instead I hear some listless, faraway murmur suggesting something like “You can order the T-bone if you want. You’ve been so good on your cholesterol this week,” and that’s if I’m lucky. Most days I don’t hear him at all, and without Mr. Mephisto’s demonic injunctions pressing on me, all the things I once loved and lived for have lost their appeal. I never notice the apples in the market anymore, I can’t remember the last time I turned a second glance at a woman. And my books, my beloved books, they only bore me now. The fruit of knowledge—argument, schema, and paradigm which I once took such delight in mastering—are now only words to me, strokes of ink on a page, empty breath without even the breath.

I never really appreciated the importance of your company and its services until I found myself deprived of them. There is simply no life in the business of life without a little hellfire there to heat it. Without that, I don’t see the point in doing much of anything anymore. I don’t even go to mass now save for on Christmas and Easter; what’s the point in going to church and singing psalms anymore when I can just as easily drown out Mr. Mephisto’s scant few murmurs by getting a drink and turning up the TV? I can think of no reason. Please, Mr. Beuv, send me someone who will make me want to sing again.

Respectfully yours,

Johann G. Faust, Ph.D., M.D., J.D., Th.D.
Chair of Philosophy & Religious Studies, Wittenberg University
+49 345 55 21589
jgfaust.us@wittenberg.de

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Ad Bestias, Inc.
01 Judecca
9th circle, Hell 61616

10 March 2020

Dr. John G. Faust
Chair of Philosophy & Religious Studies
Wittenberg University
Universitätsplatz 10
Halle, Germany 06108

Dr. Faust,

You have all my sympathies and deepest regrets, sir. If we had a nighttime down here, it is letters like these which would keep me up through it, I do not doubt.

First, I must speak a word in defense of Mr. Mephisto. Mr. Mephisto is one of our finest employees with a special talent for temptation, a talent to which your early years with him can attest. It has been a mark of pride for this organization that for centuries we have been able to provide the services of him and those like him on a pro bono basis to individuals such as yourself. Unfortunately, the demand for evil in the world is higher today than has ever been before, and we have only so many demons in hell to meet that demand. Mr. Mephisto’s diminishing quality of work is not because of any negligence or defect on his part, but simply because his efforts are spread amongst so many thousands of clients all queuing for his attention. Providing that individual level of care you cited in our charitable work is simply no longer feasible, economically speaking.

However, my good doctor, we do offer another option for distinguished individuals such as yourself. It is possible for you to privately contract the services of Mr. Mephisto for a set duration during which time you will be his sole priority. Not only would you be provided with basic temptation consul, but also a number of chthonic perks to help in pursuing said temptations. Please note that this is a paid service, and the costs for privately hiring one of our consultants tend to run rather steeply. I can guarantee you though that if you sign up, you’ll be getting plenty of that fire you asked for.

Tell us if you’re interested and we can have one of our lawyers begin drafting up a contract posthaste.

Respectfully my own,

William Z. Beuv
Head of Transactional Services, Ad Bestias, Inc.
(024) 411-9198
bzbeuv@adbstias.com.he

~

Bio:

A.J Rocca is a writer and a graduate student in English at Western Illinois University. He writes short stories and critical essays, and occasionally creates videos for his YouTube channel, BlueMorningStar. His work has been published at Every Day Fiction and Short Edition.

Burrowing Through the Body of God

by Rich Larson

When the slaveship arrived, we thought we were saved. We had been adrift for days in the Big Black, absorbing radiation from a catastrophic reactor failure, slipping further and further away from the trade route. The chances of another ship coming across us were infinitesimally small, so the arrival was like seeing an angel appear.

Some of us thought it was a hallucination, in no small part because the ship defied all geometry. It seemed to bloom and shimmer like a slick of oil, concentric globes of translucent material swelling and dwindling in counterpoint, flanges unfurling and disappearing. Only the most basic features of a starship were recognizable — an engine, a heat radiator, a solar sail — but these were distorted, cartoonish impressions meant not to function but to communicate familiarity.

The slaveship enveloped our craft and in a sense digested it: I watched the alloy hull dissolve like a painting around us even as our ambient temperature and atmosphere in the hold, where we were huddled by the life support system, changed not an iota. It was clear that our rescuers were no known race. In our desperation, bodies sick from the radiation and minds bending under the crushing void, we did not question our salvation.

The hold fell away and we found ourselves in a softer darkness. The walls seemed to creep away from our touch, expanding as we slowly explored our new environs. Light appeared in the form of glowing silver ribbons that slipped in and out of the walls like eels through black water. I recall the wonder on our illuminated faces. The hierarchy of our crew seemed to crumble there; we were remade as equals by the novelty of our situation.

Eventually we became aware of another presence there in the dark, an eighth shadow added to our seven, who shuffled about with us but did not speak. Normally this would engender fear or alarm, but I remember neither. This figure never approached the silver lights, or perhaps the silver lights never approached them, and so they remained unseen. My impression from their movements was that they were slowly remembering how to walk.

“You are welcome here,” they said. “I recall my humanity.”

“Who are you?” I asked, though I was not the captain — this much of the hierarchy I remember.

“I am your host,” they said, “because I recall my humanity. The damage to your cells has been repaired. Follow me now.”

They walked in a particular direction and we followed, still absorbing their words, guessing at their truth. I know now that the radiation had indeed been scrubbed swiftly and effortlessly from our DNA, but in the moment it was difficult to believe — as was the claim of our host to humanity.

Suddenly what I had thought to be a corridor unfolded in all directions into a vast hall, and overhead we were struck by a vision that remains near indescribable, even after untold eons spent beneath it. The rush of forms and colors defied the eye. Geometric patterns, red, blue, red-blue-green, branched and evolved and were subsumed by others in an instant; wheels of raw-flesh pink and gunmetal gray interlocked like cogs; beads of pure white light split and collided and finally exploded.

But any visualizer can simulate chaos. The most unnerving element of this display was its oscillation between chaos and order. I could feel intent and then abandon, concentration and then madness. I knew that my senses were ill-equipped to experience anything but the tiniest fraction of this vista, and even with that knowledge deep and heavy in my bones, I was overwhelmed.

“You are seeing what you may think of as time,” our host said. “Do not be afraid. We are sheltered from it.”

I looked at our host then, and I was afraid, if briefly. They had recalled their humanity, but not well. In the illumination of the maelstrom above us, I saw that they were composed of disparate parts: a slice of leg, a jagged bit of torso, a piece of skull with teeth below it, a drifting arm. These parts were wired together by a dark filament and moved in concert as if they were a body entire.

“Where are we?” one of us asked.

“We are burrowing,” our host said, teeth orbiting beneath their skull. “Our ship was created to navigate these cracks in time. We expose ourselves to the arbiter only when necessary.”

A bell sounded, though later we likened the noise to a baying animal, and the hall was filled with a multiplicity of beings. I saw a scattering of the known races, but far more unknown, some recognizably biological, others composed of metals or gases or silicates. I tried to guess at the ship’s original creators, but it was fruitless. I have since decided that they are not represented when the bell bays, or perhaps never existed.

The beings formed a pair of lines, and it was in watching this assuming of order that I first tasted our captivity. I could sense that they were cowed, that they dreaded what was to come. At the end of the hall, where the floor narrowed to a knifepoint, there was a high plynth.

“Choose one among you,” the host said.

I do not know why I was chosen, or if I chose it for myself, but somehow I was distanced from my companions and began walking toward the plynth. The host walked with me, though only one gnarled foot touched the floor.

“We are sheltered from time and entropy,” the host said. “But we are also fuelled by them. For this reason we must always seek new passengers.”

I did not understand anything except that I was going to be sacrificed in the stead of my companions, and in that moment it seemed a noble thing. The host produced a shred of shifting color, kin to the maelstrom over our heads, and handed it to me. It moved like an amorphous animal in my arms. At first it seemed to be a bird, pecking at the skin of my wrists, and then a hissing cat I could barely hold. My mind was making it so, for it was neither.

I cradled time and entropy in my arms as I walked the blossoming steps of the plynth. At the top I was surprised to encounter dirt — true soil, not the accumulation of dead skin found even in space. I had not seen true soil since childhood, and it seemed most out of place here. With invisible palms pressing against my spine, I lay down in the dirt.

Above me, the maelstrom parted and I saw the Big Black, a shard of space dotted with distant stars. Then the animal in my arms began to consume me. I was paralyzed, watching the hand nearest my face wrinkle with age. My veins bulged; brown spots welled up on my skin as it creased and sagged. The bones jutted up like bridges. I began to decay.

Across from me, beyond my mummified hand, I saw a skeleton rising out of the dirt beside me, uncovered as if by a desert wind. I stared into the cracked and empty sockets of its eyes and knew that it was my skeleton being reconstituted. I clutched at its clawed hand even as my own hand lost its last shred of papery yellow skin. The pain was beyond pain, screaming its rage in every scrubbed cell of my body.

On the altar before the stars, I realized my companions and I would live forever. As of this moment, the anguish has not abated.

~

Bio:

Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Canada, USA, and Spain, and is now based in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of the novel Annex and the collection Tomorrow Factory, which contains some of the best of his 150+ published stories. His work has been translated into Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Portuguese, French, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese. Find free fiction and support his work at patreon.com/richlarson.

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