How Many Angels?

By Nicholas Stillman

Two of the three experimenters learned that God exists and that He values human life. They made this greatest of scientific discoveries almost an hour ago. Conrad remained outside the capsule in the atmospheric suit, delivering last month’s results. Technically the most isolated man alive, he still didn’t know. Chase sat stunned and staring on the flattened padding of his swivel chair where he practically lived for eight years. Millet, however, spent most of the hour with the lab rats.

“I still can’t believe it,” Chase said to the tiny screens nearly pressed to face. “I mean, I believe it, but…you know what I mean. The shock won’t leave. God exists. And He values human life.”

Millet stretched in his chair and tried not to bump into anything important–which meant everything. He felt no awe, only a steady joint stiffness from eight years of this capsular confinement. He felt the months of training in the test tank stacked on his bones too, that cramped, extra time required for a psychological evaluation. The discovery of God hadn’t done much for him to relieve the cravings for space and freedom.

He also still had work to do, preferably with some grace now that you-know-who watched for sure. He exhaled extra hard at the curved wall of the capsule, the experiment station which immured him and his two colleagues. His long sigh seemed almost visible, for in here the breath always bounced back to the breather. The rows of switches and gauges numbered in the hundreds just in the small patch of wall pushed up to Millet’s face. It looked the same everywhere. The three experimenters lived in a squalid eggshell of controls which, like the men, clustered in the smallest space achievable by science.

Millet left his chair–everyone’s chair–and clambered around Chase to the opposite side of the capsule. He pressed his hand down on Chase’s shoulder twice. It lessened the risk of toppling while he maneuvered half stooped. Despite the paper-thin tawny coveralls they wore, the balding environmental technician didn’t notice. He kept gazing slack-jawed at the onscreen data, the proof of God. No one reacted to getting used as a crutch forty times a day anyway.

Still hunched, Millet leaned toward the little station of the capsule he could call his. He didn’t have to walk to it, but just bend closer to the segment of wall with the greasier controls. There at stooped chest level, the row of three lunchbox-sized chambers remained closed. Their black doors still gleamed a little in the fluorescent light, despite eight years of accumulating smudged fingerprints. One chamber never got used; it served as a backup. The other two each contained a live rat.

Millet knew this despite how the chambers forbade a single photon to enter or leave with the doors closed. He had sealed the rats in there himself. Nonetheless, a little white light above each door indicated “filled” or “unfilled.” They helped on those dreary days when Millet forgot what work he had done earlier. No one would need the idiot lights today, though, nor ponder over Schrödinger’s cat problems. No one forgets anything on the day man discovers God.

Now, Millet threw the switches in the long sequence which always annoyed him. He had done it exactly 24,000 times before. Even Chase could probably flick the switches in order just from hearing the constant rhythm of snaps and seeing the procedure peripherally.

Over the years, however, only Millet ran the chambers. He pushed the flashing red button a final time and heard the expected buzz muffled by the middle chamber door. A hissing sound followed. Whatever mist remained of the vaporized rat now suctioned away into a vast tank below the capsule.

He killed the last rat the eight-year experiment required. This final death punctuated mankind’s greatest discovery. As always, Millet leaned his forehead on a familiar bit of wall oddly devoid of buttons and dials. The spot cooled his head briefly, a relief from the sudden heat of the chamber doors. While bending his head today, Millet wished he could vow to never harm another animal. But he couldn’t.

“Twenty-four thousand and one rats,” Chase said without looking. “Congratulations.”

The last rat to die served as a post-experiment test of the equipment. Millet, although having killed so many, still felt a pang in his gut. The cruelty of man’s thoroughness had created both the God box and witch burnings.

All the other rats, though, through their deaths combined, squeezed out a message to God in His dimension. By killing so many sentient animals in perfect timing, man had asked God if He values human life. A response at all meant that God necessarily exists.

Millet mustered a smile at the wall, for he at least had that answer. The experimenters gained irrefutable proof. God had sung a reply to every rat which asked a quantum snippet of the question, and He had ignored the rats man intended for Him to ignore.

Each rat had to exist in a witness or no-witness state at their individual times of death. The states measured God’s responses in a sort-of quantum Morse code. A rat functioned as a bit, a zero or a one in God’s eyes, potentially. The brief observance of God by a rat left a different reading than a death with God choosing to hide. For reasons Conrad understood much better than Millet, the animals had to die in a matter of Planck seconds for a reliable measurement. Hence the vaporization.

Only at the experiment’s end could the team look at the data and see that God’s message had gotten through. He had let some of the dead rats observe Him as man requested, with each assigned rat “witnessing” God in His own dimension for a Planck second. The readings pieced together a message to and from Him one death at a time. Though the rats didn’t have time to truly perceive the Almighty, God certainly saw them, and the machines recorded the blip of interaction.

Millet did some standing push-ups off two of the chamber doors. After eight years of staying blind to it all, he and Chase now knew the results before any other people alive or who had ever lived.

“God exists,” Chase droned again. “And he values human life.”

Chase rubbed his big, oily forehead. His hairline raced back a bit every time he did so. At least Millet believed it did. At times, he felt bored enough to imagine his own hair growing an atom at a time.

“Think of all His power,” Chase said. “He can live in a dimension where nothing can live. He reacts in one Planck unit of time–an eternity between each of our rat deliveries.”

“I’ll think about it later,” Millet replied.

Millet opened the leftmost chamber and gently picked up the white, panicky rat inside. He closed the door and let the rodent scurry from one hand to another.

“I guess we all have plenty to think about,” Millet continued. He stared at the back of Chase’s head, at the thick ring of hair struggling to stay there. “Maybe you’ll write the first of many new bibles to come.”

Chase said something in the dreamy drone of a stoned philosopher. Millet ignored him as he had learned to ignore the capsule’s stuffy air. He crept two steps to another control station and turned a saucer-sized dial. The whole time, the rat screeched and squirmed in the cage of his fingers. Millet looked from his guilty free hand to Chase’s oblivious head and back to the dial. The needle on the gauge below it settled into the red zone. Red meant death for the man in the atmospheric suit outside.

The white rat screeched again, and Chase turned to look. Something hot fell into Millet’s hand. The rodent urinated. They often did, and a hand made a better basin than the already sticky capsule floor.

“Not going to kill that one?” Chase asked as he folded his fingers behind his head.

“No need,” Millet said. “This one served as a backup in case the final chamber test failed, which it didn’t.”

“Well,” Chase said with a mild smirk, “vaporizing him would save a trip all the way back to the cage hall.”

“Yeah,” Millet replied. He faked a reciprocal grin. “But I like this one, the luckiest rat in the universe.”

Chase turned in his swivel chair, and only then did Millet step away from the atmospheric suit controls. Among all these dials, Chase would probably miss the one currently set to kill Conrad. Ironically, the buzz of hearing from an omniscient God kept him distracted.

Millet hoped so, anyway. Conrad, their superior, the quantum physics doyen, truly deserved to die. He shall asphyxiate in the suit wondering if one colleague killed him or both. He shall die alone in this strange pocket of reality not knowing just yet if man had found God.

Millet took half a step and opened a heavy steel door. Everyone wished for an even thicker door because the smell beyond somehow slipped through it. Rat urine and droppings.

Rat urine and droppings. Rat urine and droppings. It soaked into the old paper shavings and produced an added wet-sock smell. After years of Conrad’s torments, Millet didn’t mind so much. He braced and let the wall of stench waft out and hit him. Then, out of kindness toward Chase, he slid into the rat hall and slammed the door behind him.

The hall beyond had rat cages for walls, thousands of one-square-foot identical pens. A stack of six cages reached the ceiling, and a grid of these ran interminably down the hall on both sides. Millet–and only ever Millet because he handled the rats–had to walk sideways just to fit between them. A single row of fluorescent tubes lit up the ceiling for as far as anyone could see. Chase and Conrad came in here once a month, and only to hold their breath and stare down the hallway. It relieved the eyestrain caused by the cramped capsule and the three-man sleep closet. It reminded the men that greater distance existed at all.

The rats, one to a cage, toiled in their paper shavings. The mass-produced bedding, which Millet regularly vacuumed out and replaced, kept their tooth growth in check and soaked up their biowastes. Small enough shreds fell through the mesh floors of the higher cages and through the mesh ceilings of the lower ones. The daily rain of balled-up waste reminded Millet of the hierarchy which pinned him here. He took orders from a hundred bosses above him, with all their demands foisted via Conrad. The susurrus of the rats, as they ran in circles and chewed, formed their own sort of protest.

“Don’t complain, y’all,” Millet mumbled to the thin band of a hallway. “You live better than we live. And you die better than we die. You have a God of your own.”

Millet held up the rat in his hand. Its beady pink eyes could never sense mercy, and the place still reeked. God or no God, only that mattered most days.

Millet handled the rats. He had taken on far more tasks than those prescribed by the Science Institute eight years ago. At the behest of his two superiors in the capsule, he had to deal with the rat odor problem or at least try. Only the trying seemed possible, and everyone knew that. Conrad had never flat-out deputed him to pick up individual rat droppings and package them far down the hall. Nor had the chief demanded that Millet scrape every bar of every cage floor with his fingernails. But Conrad had fiendishly implied these things.

Why? Because it degraded another man. It defiled God’s living property.

Millet sidled several meters down the hall and carefully placed the squirming rat back in its cage. He closed the little door and wiped his hands on an alcohol-based sanitizing cloth. He had hung the wipe in advance by poking a corner of it through the cage wall. Millet now pulled the cloth out and pocketed it in his coveralls so the rat would not chew it up and poison itself.

In today’s rush to read the experimental results, Millet only had time to wash one armpit. A capsule wash meant a hard wipe down with these disposable cloths. Millet felt tempted to finish the job in here, even with rat urine on the rag.

He mustered a long sigh and wished the rats understood what everything meant. No more of them would get bred and fed for vaporization. These ones served as spares in case a rat pandemic killed several hundred. Mankind took the God experiment quite seriously.

No such rat plague broke out over the eight-year message to God. When the capsule returns home in another month, any contingency rats will become classroom pets. For now, though, the rats belonged to Millet.

He returned to the capsule door, dragging his hands along the cage walls. Some of the rats would startle from his fingers rattling by, and that tiny interaction had to count for something. It would jar their boredom for a second. Maybe God would smile.

The rats had emboldened Millet, despite their pervading stench that so irked the great humans. Killing thousands of things with eyes, with their pink hearts in their eyes, had desensitized him. He had, over the years, vaporized enough life daily to build up to murdering Conrad.

Millet slipped into the capsule and closed the door with his usual speed and expertise. This time, he didn’t feel the habitual reluctance for returning here. The place became visibly roomier without Conrad, like a refrigerator just cleaned out. Millet inhaled the sweet air as though a big window had opened. Even with the salty aroma of unbathed skin, the eggshell smelled like another universe apart from the rat hall.

Chase still stared at the switch phalanxes on the ceiling, or the dial-riddled wall, or the nothingness where Conrad normally lounged. He ignored Millet as usual. He just sat, marinating in the wonder of high school stoner philosophy talks relived all at once. God exists. And He values human life.

Millet sat in Conrad’s favorite chair. The capsule enveloped him and embodied the control-freak nature of man. The switches waited, yearning. The buttons craved fingers. They would make loud, affirming clicks to reassure man that he had control and dominance over every corner of physics. But what did any of it matter, now that they knew God ruled everything?

“I wonder what Conrad will say when he finds out,” Chase said. He spoke to the fake, blinking stars on his control grid. “I mean, he could have gone outside to send the data packet a little later. Talk about patience. Do you think…maybe we should have waited to read the final results with the three of us present?”

Millet sprang up and feigned a casual stretch.

“I don’t think he’ll mind,” Millet said.

“You don’t seem too awestruck about the discovery,” Chase said. “God exists, man. And He values human life.”

“I had years to contemplate either outcome,” Millet said. He strolled in two baby steps to a blank segment of wall, one of the few cabinets in the far-flung capsule. “I guess I already processed whatever I could. You know, thinking of every bad thing I did growing up.”

“I hear you. God–I mean gosh. All that internet porn I watched…”

Millet opened the cabinet. He did so rarely, because no real space poured out to greet him. The little compartment looked as stuffed as always with flashlights, first aid kits, and other slender emergency supplies.

Up top, mostly obscured, sat the black box with the green button–the activator. The novel-sized brick had a charming, intentional clunkiness to it. Designed for easy hookup and usage by someone in the bulky atmospheric suit, the activator reminded Millet of a cartoon remote control. It had two big sockets in one side, so even a child could plug in the heavy cables on the communications terminal outside.

Only controlled packets of information could leave the capsule walls. Likewise, only scrutinized messages got in so nothing could contaminate or influence the experiment. The quest for God forbade games of telephone.

“Don’t forget to take the activator when you head out there,” Millet said.

“I won’t,” Chase sighed. “Jeez, can’t I have a moment to appreciate God, our potential creator?”

Chase joked, but Millet thought up a serious reply anyway.

“Back home, some would argue you had your whole life to appreciate Him.”

“Yeah,” Chase mused, “you have to wonder what God will think of the stragglers. Heck, it will take decades more of these excruciatingly slow experiments to learn what He thinks of anything. Did He partake in the writing of any of our holy books? Does He want organized religion or iconoclasm? Does He smell the ‘sweet smoke’ of all those rats you zapped, or does it make Him sneeze?”

Millet tried to shake those questions out of his head, out of the whole capsule. He wanted to declutter the cabinet for easier access to the activator. But cramming everything back in would require a sort of game of 3D Tetris.

He closed the cabinet and fell in Conrad’s seat again. His head felt sandy. Stress sand. Some of it would never go away. Millet wondered who had the more squalid life. Himself with the supposed honor of finding God first, or the choking masses back home? He glanced at the bitty screen that still displayed the last updates packet. The number 80,000 glowed on the screen. It burned into his retinas, forming an afterimage when he closed his eyes.

Roughly 80,000 people starved to death each day from the global ash cloud and its impact on agriculture. The “Big Boom” of Yellowstone’s supervolcano gave humanity no time to build enough indoor farms. They wouldn’t help much anyway. The roads needed for supplying them lied buried in a foot of ash.

The activator worked as the second key needed to switch on a giant nuclear bomb. The subterranean explosions, if activated, would shudder the Earth and plug the supervolcano. The bomb would also shorten Earth’s lifespan by about half a billion years by irreparably altering the mantle’s lava flows. Mankind simply wanted God’s permission first. With modern experiments hinting that God might live multidimensionally, people had to know if He felt man deserved to survive by killing the planet sooner.

God had apparently answered “yes” today. But people would keep dying as the ash spewed and the world waited for proof of divinity. For the past few days, the three experimenters had squirmed more than the rats.

Millet sat in reverie until he heard three dull clacks booming through the capsule’s two-meter walls. He smiled.

Chase froze and turned only his eyes to Millet. “Did you hear that?”

Millet leaned back. He wanted to say, “Maybe God did it.”

Chase spun to the row of tiny screens at his station. Their thick glass looked almost bulletproof, designed to endure years of bored finger tapping and clumsily leaning elbows.

“Oh my God,” Chase said. “It says here Conrad just disconnected his umbilical line. Why did he do that?” He looked at the curved ceiling with its hard plastic switches hanging up there like bent stalactites. “Why did you do that, Conrad?

Chase spun in his chair again and raised his hands as if to karate chop what little space they had. Then, he slapped the control panel.

“He’ll die,” Chase said. He waved has arms majestically at nothing in particular. “He’ll die no matter what we do.”

“I killed him, Chase,” Millet said. He gestured at the one dial set to red. Even in here, it looked so far away. “I turned his oxygen all the way off so he would die.”

“Why?”

“Oh, I think you know. Pick any ten reasons. Or a hundred. You’ll guess right on all of them. I think society will understand.”

Chase fell back in his seat. Though as far from society as possible, he stared at Millet with the judging eyes of many. His mouth drooped open, as though his soul leaked out there. Both men sat silently, doused in facial oil and sweat which soaked into their papery, disposable coveralls.

“You can only call a man ‘scrotum’ so many times, Chase,” Millet finally said. “Each time you beat the dog, it wants to bite you a little more. I did some crude math on the subject. I merely took a few hours off his life for each time he called me ‘scrotum.’

“You know, he could have kept banging on the capsule, and you probably would have seen his low oxygen reading and fixed it. But then he’d live to make it back here–with me. Disconnecting his umbilical line seems safer, I’d say. Chase, did you really want someone like Conrad talking to God officially, on the payroll, dripping with money, out of all the devoted, chaste, innocent worshipers on Earth?”

Chase continued to gawk. He looked like he had taken too huge of a hit from a bong. Finally, he rubbed his huge forehead and brought his right forearm down like a lever.

“Millet, why did you commit murder when you know God exists? You will have to answer to a God who just told us He values human life. Our whole experiment asked Him that one question, over eight years, and you couldn’t wait another goddamn month to get away from Conrad?”

“As bad as it sounds,” Millet said, “the murder has more than a touch of extra sacredness now. We don’t know if God will punish me or not. But if He does, just knowing about that upcoming punishment makes every second of life more precious and stretched out. I did something no man has ever done. Experimenters do that, Chase. Maybe God appreciates a man who stands up for himself. We don’t know.”

“We do know God values human life.”

“But a man like Conrad cuts years off of other people’s lives by adding pernicious stress. The Science Institute would probably give Conrad a sinecure to run more experiments. Eight years with him in charge might drive some co-workers to suicide. I did God a favor.

“Back home they’ll view us as primacy, as God’s angels, the first men to talk to Him with any evidence of doing so. Can you imagine the citizenry emulating Conrad? The world will improve without his apotheosis. Maybe God wanted him as far from man as possible. I didn’t even plan for him to disconnect the suit.”

He had planned on Chase using one suit, the spare, to haul the other back into the airlock. He had planned on feeding Conrad’s corpse to the rats, a few grams to each cage.

Chase laughed silently at the ceiling. “Angels? You’ll leave this prison of ours only to enter another one.”

“I figure I’ll serve only a few years. Prison will smell like Heaven. They have sinks and taps in jail, you know. Time will blow by, especially after eight years in this kettle with Conrad. Or, if the time feels stretched out, I’ll enjoy not having to answer to God yet. Hell or no Hell, the food will taste great.”

“I don’t know about food for murderers,” Chase said. “The supervolcano has a way of sorting out who deserves to eat.”

“Don’t worry about me. You just get that activator hooked up. Otherwise, 80,000 more people will die than necessary. It takes almost a day to do a round trip outside.”

“I know! I run life support. You run death support. And your job ended one rat ago.”

The quip hurt Millet’s chest a little. He hated hierarchies. He might even hate God, the ultimate hierarchy.

“I guess you get to sleep on Conrad’s spacier mattress now,” Millet said.

Millet stood and paced. Given the crampedness, it looked more like spinning. Chase half rotated in his chair–everyone’s chair–so he could still see Millet. His right hand danced over a keypad. His eyes tried to watch both the tiny screen and the entire capsule to his left.

Millet saw the familiar form of his psychological profile appear onscreen. Abbreviations jammed themselves into boxes, and units of measurement hung in four-point font at the bottom. Millet had peeped at Conrad’s file many times.

“You know, Chase,” Millet said, “we all change after eight years. Nearly all of our bodily atoms get replaced by whatever they put in those food packets. Technically, we’ve replaced our old selves. I consist of rations now, Chase. Conrad-loathing rations. I have found a truth above the truth. If God values life, He must hate jerks too.”

Chase read only the first baby screenful of compressed data. He stopped to rub his face harder than usual. Still, an eye peeked out at Millet between two fingers.

“We talk to God by killing rats,” Chase muttered. “Maybe we went too far with the quantum physics too. It makes people inhumane, men like Conrad who understand it too well. It takes a soulless robot to contact God.”

“Well, worry about all that later,” Millet said. “Conrad would have returned around this time. So you’ve got to hurry on outside to deliver the next packet–the revelation. Then, you’ve got to hook up that activator and push the button. Otherwise you’ll have 80,000 times more of God’s wrath to worry about.”

Outside?” Chase shouted. “You just killed the last man to go out there.”

“Chase, even if you think I’ll kill you–which I won’t–you’ve got to do this anyway. People have freaking candles lit worldwide as they wait for this packet. They’ve lit candles while volcanic ash dumps heat and hell everywhere. Plants and people die as we speak. I don’t have the suit training, life-support man.”

Chase jumped up off his chair. He waved his arms and expertly avoided striking any panels. “How do I know you won’t cut my oxygen?” he yelled. “Conrad never called me ‘scrotum’ once!”

“Of course not,” Millet replied. “You have a cool-sounding last name.”

“So you’ll probably kill me because you had it so much rougher.”

“I said I won’t.”

Chase shrugged to the heavens, in whatever odd direction they lied, and rolled his eyes. He sat in his chair again and flared out his elbows. He and Millet could both feel the glorious space of Conrad’s absence.

“Thousands die as you sit there,” Millet said.

Chase stood and joined Millet in the pacing. They looked like sick dance partners.

“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Millet asked. “We’ve fit three in here. Two seems easy, and for a mere month. Why kill more?”

“Alright,” Chase said.

Chase opened the airlock door, a steely chunk of wall that constituted a scary portion of the capsule. From then on he mumbled, mostly to the 800-pound metal suit strapped to the right-side wall. It stood in the tiny closet which functioned as an airlock.

“I’ll have at least enough air to reach the communications terminal. If you kill me, I’ll have already told the world about God. If I make it back here, I’ll worry then about you killing me in my sleep.”

“You could have killed me in my sleep,” Millet said. “But neither of us killed the other in eight years of opportunity. Don’t distract yourself with worry. Only Conrad deserved to die.”

Chase clambered into the big, gorillalike suit. Begrudgingly for both men, Millet helped him don the helmet. He had haggardly done so for every one of Conrad’s data packet deliveries. He would suit up Conrad like a good little wench.

He would kneel before the great, ugly knight to hand the monster his tools. Chase made it clear now, however, that suiting up took only one fourth of that time. Conrad had simply dawdled, adding another card to Millet’s crap deck.

Once fully suited, Chase awkwardly grabbed the heavy coil of his umbilical line, his lifeline, off the wall clamps. He stood there, looking stunned and slack-jawed through the two-inch glass visor. He wore that expression for minutes as the suit conducted automatic safety checks.

Millet realized that Chase had always shown a hint of this dumbfoundedness. Chase’s brain crunched away on the calculus of self-preservation. It would do little more. Only now, seeing the man’s face framed in the big glass circle, did Millet learn the truth. A lifetime of research and numbers had drained Chase’s soul too. He still looked like a mindblown high schooler because he had never processed the higher ideals.

Chase had at least mumbled something meaningful on this day of revelation. Science really did chip away at men’s hearts. For today, though, Millet forgot his four years of undergrad spent with a calculator stuck in one hand. Watching Chase nudge like a robot, he blocked out every number ingrained in his head.

The time came for Millet to leave the airlock. Chase stood alone, a stooped, dopey beast of armor. Millet could sense Chase’s watery demeanor underneath. Chase knew his life could end half a dial turn away.

He snapped a big, clunky toolbox into his pincer of a hand. The million dollar box resembled Lego man’s toolkit.

“Promise you won’t kill me,” Chase boomed through the glass. His breath hit the visor and faded with each syllable.

“I won’t, Chase,” Millet said. “I swear to God.”

The door closed on its own, and Chase went away. During his outside mission, all of mankind would learn of God today.

Unfortunately for some people, Millet and Chase forgot about the activator still stowed in the cabinet.

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