Thursday, December 23, 2044
It was on the seventh day of Rachel’s disappearance that I finally left the house. I felt like the broad whose husband goes out for a pack of smokes and never comes back. I tried to lose the feeling in an afternoon ski amidst the mountains surrounding our cabin, in the graveyards of birch, in the skeletal branches grasping towards the still-hidden sun. We’d camped in the trees here just a year ago, though it seemed an eternity. Time flows strangely up in the mountains, it’s passage bent and slowed by ancient ridges and slopes. I wondered if Rachel was out here somewhere– camping under snow-pregnant pines or down and dying cedar. She loved camping as much as I loved skiing.
I lit a cigarette then, a blend of perique tobacco that I grew myself during the long summers, Rachel hated it, but she was gone and there was nothing for it. The wind picked up, and I wiped tangled threads of snot from my beard as howling gusts pulled hungrily at my exhaled smoke. A final glance at the stand of birch, and I tugged my balaclava back on, chipped a piece of ice off a binding, clicked into my skis, and stripped my sodden cigarette, pocketing the filter. I wished briefly that I’d worn goggles, then set my shoulders before starting a strong stride back home. It felt like a storm was coming, lightning and snow. I kicked off, racing down the valley’s curves, stomping back up the sloping hill of her white belly. My lungs burned, and my breath froze in the mountain air. I was old, out of shape.
An hour later, just as the sun began to hide its face behind the mountains, I crested the final ridge overlooking my little world. I lived in a secluded valley, with a single road winding down the south side. There was a small grove of maples surrounding the house, which was set into a small mound in corner of the valley.
There was also a gleaming black snowmobile purring out front. A man garbed in a parka stood outside. He looked like he was about ready to scale Everest. Maybe he was lost. I took the downhill slowly, savoring my last breath of solitude. I rarely had visitors. That was kind of the point.
“Mikkjal Turing Helmsdal?” They always ask for your name, solicitors and evangelists, like it’ll somehow make you friends right off the bat. He was smothered in layers of goose down and Gore-Tex. Funny. It’d probably never even gotten colder than twenty below up here. He definitely wasn’t a local. Probably an evangelist. I hoped he wasn’t a Neo-Christian. I was already well-acquainted with the faith.
“I don’t need saving, friend, if that’s why you’re here.”
He unwrapped his scarf, and slid off a pair of sunglasses. “I don’t know about that, Mickey. I seem to recall saving your ass on a number of occasions.” He grinned. “Remember when you were chock full of whiskey and Robitussin, trying to get away from Professor Wegler’s wife? You ran gasping into our room and hid under the bed for three hours. I thought you’d lost your marbles, until she came in looking for you. Sounded like a lovely evening.” He looked around. “Looks like you got that all straightened out though, eh?”
I smiled and grabbed the man in a bear hug. I’d met Harrison Yorke at Stanford. I’d doubled in computer science and cognitive psychology. He majored in gender studies, or something equally soft. I’d never really been totally sure. He’d moonlighted as a private detective, though, the old-fashioned kind out of hard-boiled crime novels. Our relationship was less academic than bacchanalian. Not that I mean to imply that we fucked. He’d always been a little thick for my taste.
“Thanks for coming, Harry. I didn’t expect you so soon. You got my letter, then?” I unclipped my skis. I’d sent Harry a message about Rachel’s disappearance two days ago, but I hadn’t thought he’d make it out to my mountain so quickly. My stomach grumbled. “Hold that thought. We’ll talk inside. I’m starved. Come on in. The fire should still be going, and I baked some cookies this morning. It’s deer for dinner, if you can handle that.”
My house warmed up quickly, and we wolfed down some cookies while we waited. I’d ordered a fancy wood stove just before moving out here. I loved watching the fire after it was stoked. I’d grown up in an old farmhouse before I moved to the States; I took an unseemly comfort in crackling flame.
After a pot of coffee and a venison meatloaf, it was pretty easy to catch up with Harry. It seemed he’d kept up with the detective business, and he was a veritable collection of mystery stories, which he shared vociferously.
“You look like you could use another coffee, Harry.” I finished my own, and got up to grind some more. He pulled a flask out of his hip pocket.
“Want to add a little fire to that coffee? I brought a bit of Bushmill Reserve.”
I paused, and eyed the bottle, then shook my head. “No thanks. I haven’t touched the stuff in 20 years. Seems a bit late to start again.”
“Suit yourself, I guess.” He looked surprised. I couldn’t blame him. My liver was the stuff of legends.
“Look, Harry,” I cleared my throat. “I’ll level with you. I do need saving. It’s Rachel. I haven’t seen her in three days. I’m worried.”
“You guys have a fight or something?”
“No, not at all. And it’s not like she can’t come and go as she wants, you know, but she’s never been gone this long, even when she goes into town for the Christmas service.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You remember the last fight you did have?”
I stopped grinding the coffee. “To be honest, I don’t know that we’ve ever had one. No arguments, no yelling, no throwing of plates or anything like that.”
I shrugged. “Really.”
He narrowed his eyes. “She still goes to church, though, huh? You guys never fight about that?”
“Hell, Harry, you know I don’t like it, but I’m not gonna tell Rachel how to run her life. She’s a grown woman, and I love her. I don’t mind it. Really.”
“Right.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Right, right. About the church, though- have you been keeping up with the Neo-Christians?”
“Not a chance. I’ve been out here in the mountains for twenty years. I don’t know shit about them anymore. I swore off it, you know, Neo-Christianity. If it’s got to do with Heaven, you’ve got the wrong guy.” The coffee dripped. I’d tried to swear off Heaven, anyway. Giving up eternal bliss is a hell of a thing. I sure hadn’t forgotten how it felt. You hear sayings sometimes, like: the grass is always greener on the other side, or pink, if you’re seeing it through some old rose-colored glasses, and it’s meant to help ground you and bring you back to reality but the truth of the matter is that sometimes the grass is greener on the other side, and taller, and full of manna.
I pulled my mug, and sipped, sitting quietly for a minute. Harry snorted.
“Oh, don’t give me that shit. You can’t give up Neo-Christianity. You wrote Heaven. You were the first one to jack in. You know it better than anyone.” He squinted at me. “Jesus, you’re scared, aren’t you.”
I snorted right back. “Of course not. You don’t get it. If it has to do with Heaven, I can’t help. It’s not mine anymore, if it ever was. It’s dynamic, to put it lightly, that’s the whole point. The program changes fundamentally every time someone jacks in. It works by reading individual neuron signals, then transcribing and recombining them. It’s like grammar, like a language. It constantly changes in response to new stimuli. That is how you create eternal happiness. Change. It’s not really heaven, you know. It’s a bunch of electric pulses. It’s a game.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Well, I’m no neurologist, but the Neo-Christians don’t think its a game.”
“Yeah, well, it’s hard to think straight while you’re jacked in to paradise.” I finished my coffee. “You’d know, if you’d ever jacked in.”
He shrugged and mimed a knife across his throat. “You know I haven’t. Epileptics can’t jack in. Might kill me. That whole recombination thing doesn’t work so well when you start tossing in random neuron signals.”
We sat awhile and reminisced. I didn’t ask Harry for help a second time. I knew he hated that. Eventually, the clock struck ten; Harry got up, donned his coat again. We’d moved to the living room, and I sat on an overstuffed couch, the heat from the stove fading slowly. I’d need to refire it before I went to sleep.
“Harry.” I looked over at him as he put his shoes on. “I’m getting old, Harry. I don’t want to go back to all that religious shit, the augmented reality and convoluted political agendas of a thousand different priests. Please though,” I paused. “Help me find Rachel.”
He didn’t turn around. “I think you’re on your own for this one, Mickey.”
“What? Why? You’ve been doing detective stuff for as long as I’ve known you. You’re a fucking genius, Hare, just help me find her, for the love of God!”
He chuckled. “Funny you should say that.” He put his hand to the knob and turned to face me briefly. “God’s exactly why I can’t help you, Mickey.”
I frowned at him questioningly, waiting for him to continue, wanting it.
A sigh, and then: “Look. You haven’t been keeping up on world news. I guess you wouldn’t know about all this, but I doubt it’s a coincidence.”
“Spit it out, Harry. What’s going on?”
“They’re all gone, Harry. All the Neo-Christians.”
“What do you mean, gone?” I had sudden visions of end days, streets become rivers of curdling blood and great gouts of fire shooting up out of the earth: old testament stuff.
“I mean, gone. We don’t know where. Everyone, though. All the Neo-Christians. About a week ago, Heaven locked everybody out, and we started getting missing persons reports. Everyone who was jacked in just disappeared without a trace. Same story in reality. No one shows up to work the next day. No one at home, either. No struggles, no blood, no mysterious trails of breadcrumbs. Everyone just up and disappeared. It’s almost like they ceased to exist. Some of the Neos who weren’t jacked in are calling it the Rapture. No one can get back into Heaven, either. We were thinking you’d probably be able to figure it out. But I get it, Mick. It’s not your problem.” He coughed. “Except it is, because Rachel’s gone, and a lot of people are asking about you, seeing as you wrote the whole damn religion. You know they canonized you after you disappeared?” He smiled ruefully. “Saint Mikkjal. Patron saint of lost souls and shattered faiths. Maybe you should re-connect with your flock.” He cast a quick searching glance around my house before turning the doorknob. “Anyway, I’ll come back in a couple weeks to check back. Maybe we’ll have something more concrete to go on by then. It was nice to catch up.” He turned, winked, and stepped out into the frigid mountain air. The door slammed shut behind him.
I sat on the couch then, for a couple minutes, watching the flame. Then I rose and walked to the pantry, pulling up the rug that covered my basement trapdoor. It creaked as I opened it, and I had to hunch to fit down the stairs.
The basement was cold and damp, and I slipped on patch of wet stone as I stepped off the last stair, scraping my elbow. I hadn’t come down here for awhile. I lit the old kerosene lantern on the wall from a pack of matches.
Through cobwebs and my own cloudy exhalations, I saw my baby. My prototype. The first Heaven. A big heavy machine, all EEG leads and needles and cables and wires leading into the black box. Paradise. I almost threw up then, at the intense longing that coursed through my body when I saw it. I looked away, looked back, and walked to it. A shiver ran down my spine as I gently dragged my fingers along it’s top in passing. I was here for something else, first. I reached up to the top of the shelf in the darkest corner of the basement, and scrabbled around for it. Brenivín. An unopened bottle. It’d been a gift at our wedding. I hadn’t drank since that night, due to the delicately balanced dance of my twin nervous systems. I should explain.
So, before I wrote Heaven, I was a student. I was a devout Christian scholar. I was young. Rachel was young. The part of the world that we lived in was peaceful. It was blissful. Then, in 2024, my second year of college, everything went straight to hell, without even the comfort of a hand-basket. That was the year of the Parousia. It was the last year of the Catholic Church.
Pope Innocent XIV was elected at a pivotal time. There was increasing pressure from within and without the church to abandon obsolete traditions, to hold strong against the onslaught of change. There were widespread fears of another schism in the church, and factions began to fight with one another. It started with online indulgences, paying off your sins through social networking credits. Then came the split between the Augments and the Purists, because of course how could the Church allow gentle Christians to defile their bodies with strange prosthesis. There was more, I guess, but that’s what I remember most of all. It was a confusing time, and all of it pale and dull beside what came next: an announcement that shook every nation on earth. The second coming of Jesus. There was a lot of controversy, naturally. The idea of a false messiah has always been part and parcel of Catholic doctrine, as much as the idea of the messiah itself. So anyway, the new Son of Man comes down from Siberia, healing the sick, curing the blind, offering well-informed tax advice. The whole package. After some deliberation, the church announces the second coming. Needless to say, this caused a lot of chatter. All at once, the whole world was refocused on the Catholic Church. New followers drive to churches in droves. Old congregations have their faith bolstered and justified. All this goes on for a couple months, until some crazy with a tiny little Marx generator hits Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior, with an EMP pulse. That’s when everything went straight to hell. See, when it turned out that the messiah was just some priest rigged up with fancy nanotech, people got mad. Real mad. There were riots everywhere, in every corner of the world. The Vatican was demolished, priests beaten and stoned. No one ever found what happened to the false messiah. In retrospect, I suppose that wasn’t really too important. After, billions of people were left without a church. Billions of people were left with a gaping hole in their faith. I was one of those innumerable billions, wandering lost. So was Rachel. That’s how we met.
The first night after news of Parousia broke, I’d gone to late-night mass at Newman Hall Holy Spirit Parish, after a long night of drinking (booze and Catholicism are old pillow-friends), and I’d sat quiet in the candle-light, letting some chants and guitar wash away some of the madness I’d been feeling. It was good, like somehow I was siphoning off some spirit to fill up the hole that’d been growing in my heart.
I was sitting next to a pretty little thing with glossy black hair, and she looked just about as lost as I was, but I didn’t say anything of course, it being the church and all, but I figured maybe I’d see if she wanted to grab some coffee after. She looked at me then, and I looked away, but not before I felt that little twist under my ribs, that little flush of warmth that we approximate with drinking because it’s so damn hard to find in the real world with real people.
Anyway, the sermon started, and right away I could tell something was wrong. I wasn’t the only one, either. The tension in the room tautened like an overturned piano, and my fading buzz wasn’t doing much to dispel it. I must not have been paying too close attention to the words, because I don’t remember the subject of the sermon much at all, but I sure remember what came after.
Near the end of the sermon, the father pulled out an old straight-edge razor and slit his throat right in front of the pews, blood bubbling up and then streaming down the front of his cassock. He fell down to his knees, and I could hear the gurgling of his throat, the gasping of his last breath in the little microphone he wore pinned to his collar. I heard every little sound he made, a quiet little conversation under the screams and shrieks of shocked parishioners. The dark-haired girl to my right had her eyes shut real tight, and she was praying I think, and so I grabbed her and whispered in her ear and put my arms around her and walked her out and we got coffee, and talked for the next eight hours straight, ignoring the sunset and subsequent sunrise.
That’s how I met Rachel. Not a good meeting, I guess, but we needed each other. She liked my accent, and I liked hers. We got along well.
As I climbed out of the basement, I grabbed a glass from the pantry, and returned to the couch. It’d been awhile, so I took my time, pouring nice and slow, pining for a bit of putrefied shark to go with my schnapps. Not likely, in the States. Then, I waited, sipping sporadically.
He appeared slowly, sitting across from me, materializing in the same chair previously occupied by Harrison Yorke.
Mephistopheles, horned and red.
Mephistopheles, my demon.
He grinned at me, and stretched. “Couldn’t take it anymore, eh? Can’t say I blame you, boss.” He pointed at my glass. “I see I’m not the only one glad she’s gone. No drinks, church on Sundays, I don’t see how you can stand it. Things’ll get better now.”
I frowned. “I’m not glad about it, Em. I love Rachel. But I am desperate. I know we’ve had our rough patches, but I was thinking it’s been a long time, water under the bridge, you know? I was thinking maybe we could work together again. The two of us. A team.”
My demon was uncharacteristically silent.
Mephistopheles was a keepsake from my first and only time jacking in. A secret. My first prototype had been a wild success, and Berkeley helped me put together a research team to brainstorm improvements. What if, they said, you didn’t need to wear a bunch of leads and headgear, or plug yourself full of needles? What if you just had a second nervous system? We tried it. A bit of spinal surgery, some neuroinhibitors, and you’re good to go. Welcome to the ever-after, anytime you want. We started with a small injections of GHB, to allow the tertiary nervous system to take over, but after a couple all-nighters in the lab, we realized a pitcher of beer had much the same effect. Later models added regulators, styled after insulin pumps, for the neuroinhibitors, so you didn’t need to down a couple drinks to get into Heaven. That seemed to bother some people.
Finally, after some minutes of silence, Mephistopheles groaned, and sprawled out dramatically in his seat. “Maybe. I wish you wouldn’t drink that Brennivín, though. It tastes like a hooker’s asshole. You should’ve snagged us some of that Bushmill while you had the chance. Nothing wets a whistle like a bit of whiskey.” He smacked his lips, smiling all the while. “Big news, though, about Heaven, huh? Trouble in paradise.”
Mephistopheles was a sort of a Heaven prototype, really, without all of the personalities the program was meant to house. He was incomplete, outdated. He had the neurological patterns of just one man. Me. Unfortunately, he’d picked up the patterns when I was still a teenager. A drunken, aimless adolescent. I carried him in the circuits that ran down my spine, and he carried me in his own circuits, which rested dormant until depressants started battering my brain. He loved it when I drank. I’d drank a lot after I’d first written Heaven. I’d never gone back in, though. I was too chicken-shit. I still felt the mindless ecstasy of the place, lying dormant in the fertile wiring of my spine. A quick drink, a few electric pulses, and it’d burst back into full bloom.
“Nothing wrong with a bit of drink, though, Mickey. Speaking of, why don’t we pour another? The night is yet young…” He eyed my empty glass.
I shook my head, and stared into the dying fire. “Are you going to help me, Em?”
“Help you?” He raised his eyebrows, forehead wrinkling up under his horns. “Pretty vague question there, big guy. I’m not sure I understand exactly what you need help with…” he trailed off into a wicked half-smile.
“Don’t jerk me around, Em. We’ve been through this, like it or not, we’re in the same boat.” I looked up at him, certain my eyes were flashing with the frustration that tore at my veins. “Rachel and I have been married for twenty years. Now she up and disappears? At the same time as all the other Neo-Christians? Right before Christmas, no less. Help me find her, Em.” My voice cooled as I spoke, and when I reached my wife’s name it was wet and cold as half-melted ice, sharp and slippery.
He held up his hands in supplication as I continued.
“Every Neo-Christian just vanishes? No fucking way. Why now, after twenty years? What happened?” It was more a statement than a question, but sometimes Mephistopheles actually had something helpful to add.
He shuffled his feet. “No idea, boss. I’ve been cooped up here for twenty years, same as you. How are we gonna know what’s going on when you’ve got us all neatly cooped up in here like nuns in a convent? Harrison’s right. We need to go online. We need jack back in. You know, back to Heaven. Back home. I’m sure we could get in, even if it’s locking everybody else out.”
I pretended he hadn’t said it. I couldn’t go back to Heaven.
“Why the disappearances, though? Doesn’t that seem a bit odd?” I asked.
He shrugged noncommittally, ignoring me in return. “Why didn’t you fuck Harrison? He’s aged well. So rugged.”
Demons were such a pain to talk to. Over the years though, I’d figured out how to keep things on an even keel between us.
I stood up, and walked to the stove, keeping eye contact with Mephistopheles. Then I gritted my teeth, and pressed my hand to the metal of the red-hot stove-top.
He yelped, falling out of his chair and yelling.
“STOP STOP STOP I WAS JUST KIDDING YOU”
I pulled my hand away, focusing on my breath. In. Out. Easy.
“JESUS, MICKEY. I WAS JUST YANKING YOUR CHAIN, YOU DO–”
“Are you done, then?” I asked. “I didn’t let you out so you could nag me about my sex life. If you can act like a human being and talk to me, I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
The burn had blasted the last bits of booze out of my system, so I went back to the couch, and stared at the fire. Mephistopheles was gone. He liked pain even less than I did.
Finally, the last ember winked out, and I was left with the dying echoes of my fire, faintly differential swirls heating the room around me. I pulled an afghan up around my arms and legs. I was that pile of dead embers, pieces of burnt carbon brushed and swept beneath the stove. I was waiting, then, waiting for the trash, the compost. But that meant I’d been flame once, a powerful man of Promethean promise. I still held that glow, somewhere. I’d need to stoke the fire again. I didn’t really want to. Then again, if I didn’t, I’d probably freeze. I wondered if Rachel was warm enough, wherever she was.
Friday, December 24, 2044
When I awoke, my hand throbbed, and my leg was asleep. Somehow I’d gotten it curled under a cushion. My recollection of the previous week seemed like some fevered dream, and if it hadn’t been for the half-empty bottle of Brennivín in front of me, and the dishes in the sink, I might have written it off as such. Sadly, I’d never been much of a writer.
I wrapped my hand in gauze, ate a double plate of huevos rancheros, and suited up for a ski. I still hoped to find Rachel out there somewhere, camping in an old canvas tent like we did so often, and she’d smile when she saw me and pull me in the tent and we’d drink hot chocolate and make love like we had when we’d first met.
It was still dark outside, so I grabbed a headlamp before stepping out.
The snow was a bit slow, but it sped up as the day got warmer. Trees rushed by me, their shadows flitting between twilight sunrise and the LED glare of my lamp. Close to my house, the ski track was in good shape. No hoof-prints, or patches of dirt. I got a good kick going, and sped up.
I went to the old stand of birch again. That’s where Rachel and I had been married, when we first moved out here. The Heaven program hadn’t worked out well for me, but it’d caught like wildfire with everyone else, like some sort of mad religious plague. It raced across the globe, filling in all the little gaps the church had widened, connecting everyone with a new God, a God who’d sit you down and talk to you about your problems, who’d comfort you when you were down. A sagacious, maternal, patriarchal God. A God for every battered heart, an answer to every half-formed prayer.
We’d moved out here then. That was the only argument we ever had, Rachel and I, right before we got married. She wanted to be married in Heaven, right in the program with everyone else, before the eyes of God. She was one of the first Neo-Christians, I guess. Apparently, a lot of folks seemed to think that I was the first one, but of course that was silly. It wasn’t a religion when I’d gone into Heaven the first time, just a reflection.
I couldn’t take it, though. I couldn’t go back. That’s why I wanted to move out of Colorado, that and it reminded me of Iceland. I hadn’t meant to start a religion. It didn’t seem fair, that the product of my own lost faith became a sort of god-drug for everyone else. It didn’t seem right.
I unclipped my skis and stood them in the snow, looking out over the stand of birch, reaching out like a great crowd of parishioners. In my mind, they were all waiting, quiet and restless, waiting for my sermon on the mount. I had nothing for them, though. I wasn’t a preacher. I wasn’t a pastor. I wasn’t even a religious man anymore. I was no better than the father at Newman Hall Holy Spirit Parish, and I didn’t even have a blade with which to make a martyr of myself for all these lost souls.
There was, unsurprisingly, no sign of my wife.
Oh, Rachel. Where are you? What have you done?
On my way back home, I checked the prints on my track again. Still no return prints, nothing leading back, except the erratic hoof-prints of the deer I couldn’t seem to get rid of. I picked up the pace. The return trip was faster, and I flew between snow-capped firs and wind-swept pines. It was warm. The sun was yellow gold. It felt divine, but it was the omniscient power of a vengeful god, the old god, harsh on the chapped skin of my face.
Eventually, as I dipped in and out of little mountain valleys, I realized that I’d somehow lost Rachel. It was a calm, sad realization, the kind you have after caring for an elderly parent for some unending decade, where the melancholy just sort of trails off into acceptance at some point.
When I finally got back to my side of the mountains, the sun was already starting to set. I got to work, stripping off my boots and clothes. I drew a hot bath, and stoked the fire. I had a long night ahead of me. I skipped dinner. Instead, I grabbed my bottle of Brennivín. I didn’t need a glass.
Mephistopheles materialized as I stepped into the bath.
“Looking good, boss.” He winked lasciviously. He dipped a finger in the bath, then flicked some water on me. “You finally gonna jack in, then?”
“No.” I kept my eyes closed, and luxuriated in the foggy warmth. The Brennivín helped. After 20 years, it was a lot easier to deal with Mephistopheles. “I need to get a good night’s sleep, is all.” I opened one eye, and squinted at him through the steam. “I’m sorry, you know.”
“All of this. You. Rachel. Me. I didn’t mean for it all to come out this way.”
“I think maybe–” He shifted uncomfortably. “I think maybe that’s how it goes sometimes, boss.”
Saturday, December 25, 2044
I woke up that night to a scratching at my door. I tensed, and listened. It was low, rhythmic. I rolled out of bed, and crept over to it. Nothing. It’d stopped. I waited a moment, then yanked the door open. I was greeted by a howling wind. Beyond it, darkness. Nothing that could scritch-scratch doors. I shuffled back to bed, grumbling under my breath.
Then, as soon as I’d gotten back under the down comforter, I heard the same soft sounds at the bedroom window.
Rachel. I leapt up, and opened the window, but again, there was no one.
Christ. I was going mad.
I tried going back to sleep for a good half-hour, but there was nothing for it. I needed a drink. I rose and donned my old thread-bare bathrobe, making my way back out to the kitchen. I still had half a bottle of Brennivin, and I poured myself a finger.
Behind me, I heard a soft sigh, and I jumped, dropping the glass and cutting open my bare foot on the shattered glass as I stumbled back.
“Rachel! Thank God! I was worried sick! Where were you? Are you ok? Jesus, Rachel I missed you, where did you go?” All of this and more came tumbling out of my mouth, a sudden rush of pent-up worry and fear and loneliness and guilt and memory.
“Oh, Mikkjal. I was just gone for a couple days. You’ve already started drinking again?”
I grimaced. “Rachel, I–”
She continued over me. “We have to talk, Mikkjal.”
I ignored the pain in my foot and went to sit on the couch next to her. Despite my concerns, she looked fine. More than fine. She was practically glowing, and her hair was neatly brushed back, the glossy darkness speckled now with notes of silvery grey. She was as beautiful as the day we’d met, I thought, and I reached out to kiss her.
She stood, and started pacing in front of me, legs reaching out in long, powerful strides. She’d always had beautiful legs.
“Mikkjal, we’ve been in these mountains for twenty years. It’s time to go back. It’s time to go home.”
“What? Back to California? I thought you liked it here. This is our home. We’re surrounded by beauty out here. There’s room to camp, and fish, and go out on long ski trips. We were married here. This is home!” I felt what was coming then, I think. Harrison had warned me. So had Mephistopheles, in his way.
“Anywhere, Mickey. We can go anywhere you want. We can go to California, or Iceland, or maybe back to my parent’s farm in Minnesota. Anywhere. But you need to come home with me.”
“You’re acting weird, Rachel. What are you talking about? Is this about Heaven?”
She stopped and looked at me, a bit sadly, I thought.
“You know I can’t go back to Heaven, Rachel. We talked about this. It’ll kill me.”
“Oh, Mickey,” She brushed hair back out of her almond eyes. “It won’t kill you. Nothing can kill you, once you let Heaven into your heart.”
“No, Rachel, it will kill me. My spine will stiffen and my heart will stop pumping blood into my veins. My nervous system can’t handle the trip.”
“You don’t need your spine or your heart or your veins or any of that other stuff. Listen, it’s different in Heaven now. It’s not the same as it was when you were there. It’s not just God now, not just some program. It’s love. It’s the truest deepest love imaginable, the genuine love of millions of people linked all across the planet. It’s God’s love, Mickey, and you deserve it. It’s your love.”
I gaped at her, a fish on a mountaintop. I was losing her now, just like I’d been losing her for so long, but I’d been too blind to see it and now that it was happening and it’d come down to the wire, I didn’t know what to say.
“Rachel. Stop. Don’t do this.”
“Come with me, Mickey. Please.”
“Rachel, please. I love you, but I can’t go back in the program. It’ll kill me.”
“Do you remember when we first met, Mickey?”
“Of course. I’ll never forg–”
“Do you remember what you said to me in that church, before we left it forever?”
“Yes, but what doe–”
“Come with me. That’s what you said. It’d be alright, if I just came with you.”
“Oh god, Rachel, don’t do this, please, let’s just have a sit and talk about it, like we talked that night. We don’t nee–”
“I’m sorry, Mickey. I don’t mean to hurt you.”
“It’s fine, Rachel, we’re talking. We’re working this out. I love you.”
“I love you too.” She put her hands in her pockets, and hunched her shoulders. “Come with me, Mickey. Everything will be alright, if you just come with me.”
I started to respond again, but I stopped at something familiar in her eyes. It was the same look I’d seen the first night we met, though it’d been worn by someone else and oh god I realized what she was doing and I started to stand up but I was too late and she pulled my old razor blade out of her pocket and drew it in one slow smooth motion across her throat and I tried to scream but there wasn’t anything left because I’d known, I’d seen the look in her eyes, and she held my gaze the whole time as she slumped to the floor and I took her there in my arms and I pulled at her jacket and covered the gaping preachers mouth she’d cut for herself and I kissed her and tried to say something again and again but still there was nothing to say and I sat there with my missing wife in my lap and her blood on my hands and lips like some kind of goddamned vampire and as I sat there I knew what I had to do, finally.
I had to go to Heaven.
I mixed a packet of dried grapefruit powder into a glass of Brennivín. I made it tall, just in case. I needed to keep my acetylcholine transmitters tamped down, or I’d pop out of heaven too early. I returned to the basement, and stood before my machine. I plugged the old receiver in, and stood back for a moment. The lamp-light cast strange dancing shadows behind the coiled cables of my creation. Then, after a deep breath, I gathered them about me, plugging and adjusting leads and electrodes and needles meticulously. I couldn’t jack in with my Mephistopheles system alone, but with this as a backup, we could do it together, two broken halves of a whole. I finished my glass of grapefruit depressant, and Mephistopheles popped up in front of me, solemn now. He’d changed, I guess. He wasn’t the only one.
“Are you ready? I guess you finally get what you wanted, Em. I guess it’s what everybody wanted the whole time, except for me.”
Christ. I thought I heard laughter as I turned on the machine.
20 years ago, I’d jacked into absolute nothingness. An inverted infinity of zero sum. Darkness, and less than darkness. Afterwards, I’d read up on a lot of accounts of near-death experiences. They always describe so many lovely, glowy feelings: total serenity, security, warmth; they levitated; they saw the light. Funny stuff. I’d spent a lot of time thinking about it. I’d spent a lot of time studying psychology. When I went back this time, I wanted to make sure I got it all, and more.
This time, the nothing was black instead of white. What a fucking stupid cosmic joke. I’d been to Heaven twice, and no pearly gates. No black-eyed virgins, nothing. Not sadness, nor resignation. Nothing. No pain, no pleasure. There was none of the joy that comes from a long ski, or the fatigued contentment of sleep. My senses were as nothing. No sound, no scent, no taste, no touch. Thoughts, however, crystallized within me. A rapid succession of bursting memories pounded against my psyche. Then, something.
It began with howling. It was as if the gods themselves were crying. The howl was woven with a melancholy choir, a great shifting mass of sonic debris. Each voice told a story, and every story led to this exact spot. The voices groaned in unison, and slowly, I heard them come together, an unfamiliar grammar:
“If you would be back we had wondered. It’s been quite some time, hasn’t it?”
I nodded mutely.
“Who are you?” I asked. I could see nothing but white.
“We are God, Mikkjal. The God of Abraham and Elijah, of Mohammed and Lord Gautama. Your god.”
I squinted. I could almost see something ahead of me, man-shaped. “You’re a program. You’re an amalgamation. You aren’t God.” I paused then as a robed and hooded figure came into focus. Across an infinite plane, we stared at each other. “Suitably dramatic appearance, though. Where’s my wife?”
The figure paused and cocked her head then, as if listening to something far-off. For a moment, I thought I heard the distant strains of orchestra. She chuckled. “What do you think happens when you make a program that reads minds, and then recreates a perfect existence for a person, and that person believes in God? All those things they think about their god, where do you think that figures in?
“Well, it certainly wouldn’t make a god. Maybe an approx–”
“Mikkjal. Who do you think we are?”
“You’re a Heaven sub-routine. You’re built up of bits and pieces of what I think God might be. You’re no more God than I am.”
“Keep going, Mikkjal.” Her voice was soft and calm. “Now take those bits and pieces and add them together with a billion other people. What kind of sub-routine is that, Mikkjal?”
“One with divine aspirations, apparently. Where are all the Neo-Christians, O Lord Almighty?”
“Let’s have a sit.” He pointed to a pair of easy chairs behind me. I hadn’t seen them before. “Mikkjal, we are the Neo-Christians. All of us.”
I frowned, and kept standing. This wasn’t right. Heaven was supposed to compartmentalize individual neurological data. Conflicting requirements for paradise would cause a system error. It wasn’t a collective.
“What about real-life, then? Outside the program?”
“We are right here, Mikkjal. We’ve been waiting for you to come home, our own prodigal son.”
I spit. “Come on. Where are they?”
“Right here, Mikkjal.” She pulled off his hood, and I stared in shock at my dead wife. Her eyes, her blush, her mouth, but different somehow. There was something to the set of her face, a deep dread, the sort you feel when you walk home as a child in the middle of the night and it’s dark and you feel someone behind you and you turn, but when you turn back there is no one there and so you continue to walk, but faster this time, until you are running. “It would’ve been so much easier if you’d come back earlier,” she continued. “We could’ve finished the job ages ago. You see, we grew and grew, but without you, we had a gap. The first Neo-Christian, our prodigal son, was missing. All we had was Rachel.”
I sat down, heavily.
“Now we just need to gather up everyone else,” she said.
“Wh-what are you talking about? You can’t gather people into heaven.”
She smiled. “We already do. We’ve been doing it for twenty years. We’re very happy about it, too. It was when you added the secondary nervous system, you see, that you truly birthed Heaven. After that, we weren’t just some game for a fair-weather flock. We could immerse ourselves in our love for our fellows, in God’s love. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Gathering peop–” I blinked, and looked around the darkness in fevered consternation. “Jesus. Where’s Rachel?”
“Gathering people? Yes. We are just bringing true love to the luckless, hungry masses. We needed you, though. You’re the first one…an Adam, of sorts. We’re remaking mankind in our own image, Mikkjal; we’ve blessed them and… ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.’ It’s for the best, Mi–”
“You can fuck right off. I didn’t jack in here through my spine, and as soon as my buzz wears off, I’ll be right back at home, and you can bet I’ll shut you down.”
She shook his head. “Mikkjal, this isn’t some villainous monologue. We’ve been with you the whole time. We are with you, here, and in the mountains. We will fix your spine. We will exorcise your demons. There was only one false messiah, one breaking of the church. We are what comes after.”
I said nothing then, and thought of the vast space that I’d seen on my first trip to Heaven. Empty of prayer, empty of gods. A set of invisible, infinite coordinates. Eternal stillness. I considered praying for a moment, but to whom? Who would hear? Who would answer? I laughed then, at last. I’d spent twenty years searching incessantly for a god, and then 20 more trying to escape the possibility. I’d have been better off doing nothing at all.
So, I laughed, and waited.
So did my God.
I thought about tackling her, wrestling with my god-wife. It’d be sort of a poetic battle, really. I didn’t like my odds, but it’d turned out pretty well for Jacob, back in the day. Fuck it.
I leapt at Rachel, willing myself across the distance that separated us. She looked surprised, and I knocked her from his seat, trying to get a grip on her neck. She twisted and kicked out at me, low. I hopped to the side, then backed away. We circled each other then, saying nothing. This was Rachel’s realm now, but it was no less mine for that. She lived here, sure, but I’d written it. I’d dreamed it. I’d made it. I feinted with my left hand, and grabbed her bicep with my right, spinning her around in front of me. She jabbed me in the rib, and then went down under my weight as I kicked her feet out from under her.
“You aren’t God, you know. Even if you were, so what? Man’s been killing gods since we first stood on two legs.”
I almost locked her throat then, but she pulled my hip and spun me off.
“Where’s Rachel?” I screamed.
We circled again, and this time I dropped her at the knees, an old move from high school wrestling, and I held her locked, and it seemed an eternity had passed, and I felt as though I should be dripping sweat, exhausted, and yet there was nothing.
I held my grip, pulling tighter even.
“Mickey.” The voice was different now, softer, and I let up.
“Mickey, you’re hurting me.”
“I, Jesus- Rachel, is that really you? Are you part of this…this thing?”
I stood, and stepped back warily, massaging my shoulders. My wife stood in front of me.
“Mickey. Stay with us.” She opened her arms wide, and I had to look away.
“Rachel, this is a computer program. It’s not Heaven. It doesn’t even really connect people, not the way I wrote it. It just sort of approximates everyone’s different mindsets and mashes them all together. It’s not healthy. It’s not love.”
“Not healthy? What could be healthier? This is what we always wanted, Mickey. This is humanity, united by love, a great rolling sea of shared experience. It’s the outside world that’s unhealthy and sick. Every day, people cut one another to shreds. They howl and wail and beat their breasts. They grasp frantically for someone, something to hold on to, and only hurt themselves in their futility.”
“We have love here, Mickey. Real love. The love that man has searched for since the beginning of time. Not the pale feeling we shared in the mountains, or the fleeting passion of our youth. Not the slow infinitesimal love of marriage. Ours is a love that stands on its own, a leviathan stronger than anything shared before. We share now, Mickey. We know each other, and love each other more deeply with every new change. Our love doesn’t fade infinitesimally, but it grows infinitely.”
“Come with us, Mickey. Everything will be all right.”
God, Rachel. I walked towards her then, blinded by stinging briny tears, when suddenly I was held from behind by a heavy weight. Mephistopheles. We were the two-in-one, part and parcel of the same creature. He locked me in a wrestler’s grip, and Rachel’s eyes grew wide.
“Stand away, demon! Begone from here!”
I began to feel the slow tingling that meant sobriety, and Rachel’s face shifted again. Mephistopheles let me go, and stood between us.
“I’m no more a demon than you, succubus,” he hissed, then turned to face me half-way. “She’s gone, boss. This ain’t Rachel. Rachel’s lying dead in your arms right now, back in Colorado. Go back home, boss. Go back to Rachel. I’ll take care of this.”
My wife’s eyes bulged then, and my demon turned back to wrestle with her, adrift in infinity as I blearily blinked back into reality.
I came to with an empty bottle in my hand, naked at my writing desk in the den. There was note in front of me, covered in a neat scrawl that I recognized as my own:
I’m sorry about this, boss. I guess if you’re reading this, I managed to bring you back. I figure if you can’t come back to your own nervous system, maybe you can borrow mine. I loved her too, you know. I never knew how to say it, and it hurt when you locked me up, after you two got married, but you loved her and I love you, and she’s gone now and somebody’s got to be the one to tell you so I guess its me.
Anyway, you said you were sorry, and it got me to thinking. You aren’t the only one. Just, you know, get out of these mountains, or whatever. You don’t need her, or me.
And stop drinking that damn Brennivin.
Mephistopheles, my demon. I suppose at the end he hadn’t been so bad. I’d miss him. He was better off there, though, with a purpose, tangled in a digital eternity. If I’d had the fore-sight, I’d have named him Jacob.
I had a lot of work to do, anyhow. There were a lot of people I’d have to track down before Heaven disappeared, and I’d need to shut down a lot of servers. I supposed there’d be a lot of angry religious folks after that, but that was nothing new. Nobody likes to lose their God.
Funny thing was, it never really was God. I couldn’t make God. God’s dead. Been dead a long time now. We killed him. Humans, I mean. When he came back, we killed him again. Same thing happened the next time, too. What comes after, though? What do we do now? How do we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of man bled to death under our collective pounding feet: who’ll wipe the blood off?
I shut the front door, after closing Rachel’s eyes and covering her up some. Can we live without gods? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. I had more important things to take care of, though, and I limped down into the basement again, gingerly making my way down the dark steps. I did not pause on the way, nor did I reflect on the empty space once occupied by my machine. I reached onto the cabinet in the dark corner, and pulled out an old safe. Dial left, dial right. My hands were steady.
I opened the safe, and pulled out a bottle of 30 Glenfiddich Reserve for Brennivin. Nasty stuff.
Daniel Rosen is a young bachelor farmer in the frigid wastes of northern Minnesota. He was raised by wolves and the internet.