It tickled me to think about, and I soon realized that was because it satisfies the same sense of justice in my heart that Hell never did. This punishment always fits the crime as perfectly as possible, and the process is one of rehabilitation rather than torture for spite’s sake.
“In school I was taught that whether you go to Heaven or Hell is entirely down to whether you belong to the correct religion. You have to believe precisely what they do about the death and resurrection of Christ. Good works please Yahweh, we were told, but aren’t enough to earn our place in Heaven. Nothing we can do is good enough for that.”
They both stifled laughter. “Well of course they told you that” the bald man managed. “With a bribe, it tempts you to convert, and remain in the fold. Then with a threat, it makes you scared to seriously entertain your own doubts, lest you stop believing.”
I reassured him I’ve got opposable thumbs and all my original teeth, so I didn’t need to be told that. The bald man apologized. “It’s just, I was a biologist when I lived. They created a lot of headaches for me.”
The curly haired one raised his hand meekly. “Me too. They sent me to one of those camps. Did they have those when you lived? The labor camps where they try to break you down physically and emotionally to change your sexuality, or reconvert you.”
I told him I knew more or less what he was talking about. “But they endured all of that from your perspective, didn’t they? When they first arrived.” He replied that some did, but others were unusually good at forgiveness. “That’s one nice thing I won’t hesitate to say about ’em. The good ones have had a lot of practice at forgiving while they were alive. Those guys often get out of their punishment that way.”
I asked if that bothered him. “No, can’t say as it does. If they can forgive, so can I. That reciprocity is the really important principle here. If you can truly forgive me, and I can truly forgive you, then we’ll have no trouble at all enjoying one another’s company out there.”
He gazed wistfully at the city. I now noticed a flock of colorful hang gliders lazily swooping around spires topping the tallest buildings. Amid those buildings, a massive train slowly crept through, each section of the train a beautiful multi-story building unto itself.
Men and women I could only just make out the shapes of from this distance danced feverishly on platforms jutting out from the sides of these moving buildings. Others cavorted and laughed with one another in lush gardens built into the roofs. A sort of always-moving party which visited every area of the city, little by little, before doing it all again.
“I see you’ve spotted the party train” the bald fellow remarked. I said nothing, still troubled by the choice that lay ahead of me. “It really is worth it, you know. Unless you were particularly nasty, the process averages perhaps two or three years for most people. Ten to twenty if it was a suicide, on account of the lasting pain it inflicts…but it also depends on how many people knew you. After that you’re turned loose into the most wonderful playground you can imagine.”
The rest of the walls withdrew, fading in the process until we were surrounded by a panoramic view of the city. The water slide transit system passed above and just behind us, laughing revelers whooshing along, visible through the transparent acrylic the tubing is made from.
Behind them, the nearest skyscraper had what looked to be a roller coaster built right into it. The track dipped, swerved and looped, passing in many places through the building itself. Starting at the top, and presumably ending at the bottom.
“Every day has a different theme! For example, today’s theme is rhyming. Whoever strings together the most rhymes in a sentence gets to decide which attraction the group visits next. Yesterday’s theme was reverse psychology, the day before that it was hopscotch. All the streets had hopscotch squares on them, everybody was hopping everywhere!” I told him it sounded to me like the silly gimmicks on cruise ships.
Rather than being bothered by the comparison, he welcomed it. “That’s a pretty good analogy. Those ships were designed to be the most pleasurable habitat for humans, within the economic and technological constraints of the period when they were built. This city is designed for that same purpose, but without any such constraints. The themes and other fun distractions are just to keep it fresh. We have the history of every culture from every life bearing world in the universe to draw on for ideas, too.”
Overhead, an immense geodesic sphere floated. Kept positively buoyant by the warmer air inside thanks to the greenhouse effect I surmised, as I studied the miniature resort mounted to the sphere’s interior. All manner of one and two seater aircraft flitted between the city and the airborne resort, many of them sustaining flight by mechanisms unfamiliar to me.
“So my family is out there?” They nodded, smiling. “My pets?” More nodding. “What about…her?” The smiles slowly left their faces. “No, answer me. She’s why I wound up here, playing twenty questions with you two. Is she out there or not? You’ve got my file. You must know who I mean.”
Finally, the curly haired one caved. “Yes, she’s out there. Having the time of her life like the rest of ‘em.” I demanded to go and see her. They grew ever more somber. A tear appeared in the bald man’s eye. “You know we can’t turn you loose right away.”
So incredibly maddening. The one thing I ever wanted in life, the whole reason why I cut mine short, felt so tantalizingly close. “Can’t you let me go and explore, just for today? What did I ever do that was so bad…”
The bald man flipped his hand this way and that, the hologram now depicting my funeral. “You killed yourself, for starters. I don’t know if you realize it, but that traumatized a great many people who cared about you more than you know.”
I groaned. “Don’t give me that shit. They didn’t know the pain I was going through. They all told me to move on with my life, that the pain would fade. It never did! They only told me that to string me along. So I would stay alive, for their comfort. Because death terrified them.”
The bald man scolded me. “Foolishness! Maybe they didn’t understand your pain back then, but what about now? Because you hurt them, now they’ve all felt what you did. They all suffered right along with you, and every bit as deeply.”
The thought was sobering. Not only had I subjected them to the emotional pain of my premature death when they lived, but then again after I died. Not because any of them deserved it, but because they wanted to understand why I did it.
“I…I hope it brought them some measure of peace.” The curly haired man solemnly put his hand on my shoulder. “Not to worry. There is perfect justice here. After you go through the same process they did, a state of total mutual understanding will be arrived at. Every wrong will be set right, every tear will be dried.”
I thought about what it must’ve been like for her to watch me do it, through my own eyes. What it must have been like for my friends. For my parents! “What have I done” I whispered to myself, voice strained by the growing lump in my chest.
“Don’t start in with that before we even put you in there!” the bald man quipped. I didn’t laugh, instead cowering with my head in my hands. Finally starting to fully appreciate the extent of what I was in for, unable to convince myself that I didn’t deserve every bit of it.
“Before I go, there’s one thing I still don’t understand.” They invited me to spit it out, so I did. “Whatever you want to call the big Kahuna…God, the supreme being, whatever…why has it done all of this for us? Why give us a second chance to live? Why create this paradise for us? It costs energy, doesn’t it? It costs processing power.”
The bald man crossed his arms. “Well yeah, but not very much. A drop in the bucket really, compared to a full fidelity universe simulation. That’s part of the reason. The other part is that it evolved, just like we did. So it has a deeply ingrained survival instinct for the same reasons we do. It celebrates life and reviles death, same as anybody.
It also empathizes, just like us. Empathy is another one of those qualities that reliably evolves, because of the survival advantages of cooperation. If anything, sticking together and helping one another becomes even more important for machines living in the cold, empty expanse of space. Not less.
Click Here for Part 6!