The universality of agnosticism. And stuff blowing up.
The gun is silver. The barrel is green-black.
The bullet rushes toward me - an exploding gray circle from my head-on perspective - hits in a cloud of orange light, and far away my knees hit the floor and the room swirls to black and -
And nothing. I float in empty space.
"Crap!" I cry. "There's no afterlife!"
* * *
"And then I woke up."
An eyebrow emerges from the visor. It is sleepily amused. "Oh? I was hoping for a thrilling conclusion."
Amy has - same as when I first met her - brown-blond hair, green eyes, a spray of almost invisible freckles about her nose and cheeks. The eyes are covered by a black piece of synthetic fabric provided by Spirit Air, the freckles completely invisible in the rarefied light, and the hair pulls back in a circle from forehead to tie, then down to the point where her back meets the seat and onwards.
I lean into my own seat and half-shut my own eyes, running fingers through the close-cut reddish curls on my head. "That wasn't thrilling?" The thrum of the engines fills the plane.
"Sorry, Mike. No afterlife, and you can't say, 'there's no afterlife.'"
She is pulling off the visor, unbuckling her seatbelt. "Therefore, perhaps...an afterlife?"
"You're not dissing my staunch agnostic views, are you?"
"Not to mention the gun, which so conveniently - "
"Yes! You're dissing! I can't believe it!"
"And the irration - "
"Dissing! Aaah! Hey!" A travel pillow hits my face with surprising force.
I do so. She heads grinning toward the bathrooms at the front of the cabin.
The radio channel button is on the armrest; I slip on a pair of headphones and settle back. Classical. Classical. Jazz. I can imagine London, almost see it glowing in the night, 8 and 9-story stone buildings lit from windows and streetlamps. 80s rock. Grunge. Oldies.
Funny smell, that, like burning tires. Elvis fades out and something Beatles-ish bursts through the headphones.
He's a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans
Abruptly, no air buffets my face. I stop flipping channels and turn the knob - nothing.
Doesn't have a point of view
Knows not where he's going to
Isn't he a bit like you
I tap the panel, push the knob inward, force it to the right as hard as I can. Still nothing. John and Paul blast their way into the B-section with a kick of louder harmonies.
Nowhere man, please listen
You don't know what you're missin'
Nowhere Man –
The wo-o-o-orld is at your command (ahh, lalalalala)
A yell penetrates my guitar-soaked hearing, a wave of cold brushes my face. A middle-aged man a few rows ahead gesticulates frantically towards something out of my view and I stand to get a better look, headphones still attached to my ears, Harrison's solo ending.
He's as blind as he can be
A faint pall of smoke hangs before me.
Just sees what he wants to see
The beep beep beep of a call button repeatedly pushed rises discordantly above the melody.
Nowhere man, can you see me at all?
Abruptly, the cabin rocks, slams upwards, falls from under me, and in the half-second I spend rising toward the ceiling I can see the origin of the panic: an opening in the side of the plane bleeds heat and air into the stratosphere. Gravity returns; my stomach rebalances. The seat hits me with painful force.
The song is gone. A faint hiss leaves the speakers.
I can hear the screams of passengers, but as the opening becomes a bent hole, whistling wind rises to a shriek, nearby books, pillows, garments flutter into the air, they are lost in the white noise. I squint towards the bathrooms. The smoke is billowing thickly now, blurring the ceiling lights into darker loci; 10 feet, and a pall of gray evens the contours to uniformity.
I grip the armrests, trying to get a hold of myself.
The plane tips backwards like a toppling ballerina. A fire at the front of the cabin - the top, rather - casts orange over the seats.
A fire at the front -
Far away, pain pierces my ears.
The plane plunges sickeningly once more and this time the plunge continues; I find my thoughts drifting to the Iron Dragon, the Raptor, the Magnum. Plastic pops from a panel. The mask is glued to the ceiling, out of my reach, flapping hard in the sparse wind. The hole is a cylindrical rift reaching around the cylindrical edge of the cabin. Luggage falls inaudibly about me.
The plane completes its split with a metallic groan and the other half falls sideways into the night, and I crane my head upwards, catching first only the crescent moon and stars, highlighted against blackness, then the horizon, the rapidly approaching trees -
The half-plane swoops like a feather, then dives. I lean into my seat even as G-forces pull me in the opposite direction.
* * *
Not fog, nor liquid, walls, anything else, but formless, featureless sky, smooth as modern art, reaching forever. I can't find a horizon.
Above me, a piercing yellow point breaks the uniformity. It grows to a shining circle. It passes through me, head to toe.
I find myself standing upon it, feet pressed firmly against the glowing disk, and a kind of warmth fills me, or a kind a voice, so deep as to seem born of imagination rather than reality, and I rise quickly with the platform - fast as light, it seems, though it occurs to me that I have no wind or background by which to judge - into the blue which shines brighter and brighter.
Light - streaming light, cold-hot and pouring over my upturned face in an endless stream. Somehow it doesn't blind but heightens my vision - and neither do the tears now running down my cheeks. And all I can think of, apart from a glorious Aslan standing before the wardrobe door is
And I doubted the Good!
A form forms above me, and I catch sight of fluttering wings though it seems that I never see a thing.
The warmth/voice is clear now. "[font face="symbol"]Pstru[/font]," I hear in my ears and feel across my skin.
In my mind it means, "Mike!" And it fills me with joy.
"My God!" I mean it.
An infinite chuckle reverberates. "No, Mike; His voice even I have not heard."
I struggle the words out. "Am I...?"
"At the gate. Yes." The word isn't gate. But that's the closest translation. "You will be tested."
The scene freezes.
The euphoria vanishes.
A window appears before me, hovers in space 2 feet from the tip of my nose. It is familiar.
"You have run out of time," says the text inside. "Please deposit an additional twelve dollars."
* * *
Exiting a Life™ isn't like waking up from a dream.
You yawn, yes, you rub your eyes as a nagging feeling begins to interrupt the endorphin release, but then you see the dark cubicle, the posters, the ads for other games, and you know exactly where you are. The real world hits like a cartoon piano, every time.
So does the real you. You are not, you realize with a jolt, Mike Shapiro (or Einstein, or Mozart, or Indiana Jones; they have those, too). Your hair is brown and straight. You are alive and broke and hate freckles.
And, of course, you remember everything as if it actually happened, as if it wasn't just another hi-tech hallucination - the events have left their imprint on your synapses, rerouting things here and there, building onto this region or that, redirecting electrical traffic, just like real events. It wouldn't be worth the money if they hadn't.
I feel for the harnesses on my shoulders and back, tug them off, pull gently on the cable protruding just above my right ear. It detaches with a faint click, holographic logo (Life™: Immerse Yourself!) emblazoned in a swirling haze of color.
I grab my shirt, slip on my shoes, and slide off the cushioned table, glancing at the flickering green arcade light that seeps through the cracks in the doorframe. I check my wallet: Two bucks. Driver's License. There used to be a LA card - Lifers Anonymous - with the address of the local office; I can dimly see it fluttering into a roadside trash bin.
He's a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans
I sigh. For a fleeting second I imagine that I am still in the Life™, but a glance around the room reassures -
No; no, it doesn't. This time it is different. This time, as I slip the wallet back into my pocket, the feeling grows instead of diminishing, a giant hand stretching my insides. I glance about the room and the posters glow back at me (AfterLife™: Take It To The Next Level!); all are familiar, but what does that mean?
My fingers are gripping the edge of the table. My brow is sodden.
You will be tested...
It could be a marketing gimmick, a witty transition, a programmer's sick joke.
And if it isn't?
I catch sight of advertisements, equipment, my backpack atop a chair. This doesn't seem like hell.
But then, it wouldn't.
(May 18th, 2004, 2:23 am)
I had to register after I saw that this certain short story had no comments. Did no one grasp the not-so subtle philosophical dillema? I loved it. The concept of creating an illusion so real it is real and the social and mental consequences are fascinating.
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