Sunday, March 11, 2007

Short Story: The Soul Chamber, Part 3

Read parts 1, 2

He made his way out of the wilderness of Orkus and into the civilized regions. Automated rifle turrets twisted toward him from the high towers, their red light-sensors gazing at him in a constant stare. There were still dangerous demons roving the wastes, as indicated by the rifles and the thickset concrete building nestled close around the vast expanse of the Central Processing Station. The narrow streets all led to that central tower, but few people walked those streets. Those who did were armed. The people he saw all wore the blue uniforms of the Terran Alliance. They looked hard-bitten, as they should, for they were pioneers, and pioneers in the toughest environment pioneers had ever fought. Most were haggard--the people who lived and worked on the edge of the Inferno suffered severe nightmares. Indeed, those were the only dreams one could have in this region. There were occasional plague outbreaks as well, and the nanotechnicians were at great pains to suppress them when they appeared.

The fire pits were fewer in number near hell’s center, where the antechamber and judgment seat had previously been. The colonists could not build buildings over the pits to hide them, so they surrounded them with high fences displaying terse warnings. Smoke rose from behind the fences and occasional screams of pain came from within.

Cyril passed the spacious Temple of Humanity. Since the construction of the Chamber, the religion of Scientism, also known as Neo-Comtism, had grown. Hell was one of its most sacred sites and the temple was center to a great deal of research; it had produced the map Cyril memorized. He saw a few Scientist priests, their black transpositional robes marked with the symbols of their orders and vocations. Their ensign showed a galaxy with a human hand open, holding it. The colors along their sleeves named their orders: green for biologists, red for physicists, white for mathematicians, brown for geologists, and so on. Such was the size of the temple that even a humble sociologist appeared in their group, though the other priests ignored him.

As Cyril had almost passed them by, a voice caught his ear.

“Hey, brother.”

His spine chilled. He turned. It was the sociologist addressing him, leaning against the temple wall with a folded copy of the Inferno in one hand.

“Your transpositional cloak is soiled,” the sociologist noted. “Have you been in the wastes?”

“Yes,” Cyril replied. “Research on sector D80.”

“You shouldn’t be out alone.”

“I know the route.”

“Well, you look like you took a fall. You must be careful or you could tear your cloak.”

“You’re right. I should be careful.”

“You know, friend,” the sociologist said, straightening his robe, “that the cloak is the only thing holding you in this level of reality. If you tear it, you’ll be ripped back to Earth. Such a sudden transposition from one plain of existence to another, without the proper calculations and adjustments, would be fatal. You’ve got to be eased into another dimension.”

“I know,” Cyril answered. “It was a little accident, but not serious. I won’t go alone anymore.”

The sociologist waved a hand and changed the subject. “I have thought,” he said, “that we should build a shrine to Dante Alighieri. A forerunner of sorts, don’t you think? He came through here and walked back out again. Walked all the way to the top, in fact. Really prefigures what we do here. What do you think?”

“Good idea,” Cyril said. “Might build shrines to ├ćneas, Odysseus, Orpheus, and Hercules while you’re at it.”

The sociologist laughed. “Yes, but none of them made it ‘all the way,’ as you might say. Maybe someday we’ll have our Soul Chambers in purgatory and heaven, too.”

“Maybe.”

“So what do you think? Is there a purgatory? Seems to be unpopular these days--people want their afterlife slimmed down and fat-free: no purgatory, no limbo, no bosom of Abraham, just Paradise and Gehenna--eternal bliss and eternal hell-fire. What do you think?”

Cyril had little opinion on the matter. “I like to keep things simple,” he answered.

“Good man.”

Cyril walked on, heart thumping. Yes, simple, he thought, I certainly like to keep things simple. Life was a stressful affair. There had been something irksome to him about immortality, even when he was young. The world seemed so complicated, so tiring. He couldn’t imagine staying in it forever, but that’s exactly what everyone expected him to do. He certainly didn’t want to go to hell, but he didn’t want to stay on Earth, either. He didn’t want such complications as death, or even life. These things were too hard. His mother had been too complicated with her religion and his brother and father had been too complicated with their sadism and apathy, respectively. His school and its crowd of rowdies, the parade of sneering girls who passed him by, and the glutted job market of a hostile, polluted, and over-populated world full of people trying to make it from one day to the next, make ends meet, find a party, get laid--all were too complicated. The True Believers were an escape: heaven, free tickets. All you have to do is join and it comes with a lifetime guarantee.

But he didn’t really want to blow up the Soul Chamber. He wanted to blow up himself. Get to that reward faster. Once a man became a True Believer, there wasn’t much left to do except die, or maybe hand out tracts.

Yet there was no version of heaven Cyril could imagine that could be much better than hell. Eternal church service, maybe. Or, if the True Believers were right, something like an eternal religious pep rally. Or maybe Dante, whose imagination ran thin when he left the tortures behind and entered bliss, was right--heaven as eternal sitting and contemplating, possibly the worst version of the three. Hell, Cyril had to admit, at least did more to excite the imagination. Though the tortures weren’t as varied as some of the old writers had described, they were creative nonetheless. Plenty of fire and worms and interesting historical characters. A few historians and talk show hosts had even trekked into the wastes to track down the greats and interview them. That holo-V anchorman’s personal interview with Attila the Hun had been a sidesplitting classic. Who’d have thought a great military leader damned to perdition could be such a comedian?

Cyril remembered that a large portion of his fifth grade year had been devoted to Infernal Studies, examinations of the geography and content of the hellish regions, including a fascinating section on demonology. The private residences of Beelzebub, Azazel, and even Mephistopheles were available to the children in a virtual tour.

The teacher’s name was Mr. Feston, but the kids called him Virgil behind his back because, as they said, he “makes us go to hell and back.” None of them had ever read the Inferno, of course, and most of them never would, but they had picked up the name in class. Feston had asked the kids how many of them wanted to be resurrected from the Soul Chamber when they died. Most of the class raised their hands. Then he asked how many wanted to go to heaven instead. Jerry, the loser, raised his hand and the other kids booed. Jerry’s parents, rumor had it, were True Believers.

Cyril remembered just staring at the map of hell on the wall with the Soul Chamber in the middle and thinking about how uncomfortable it seemed. He didn’t want it to be there. He didn’t want hell and he didn’t want the Soul Chamber. But heaven? Wasn’t that...hard?

“Heaven is an important concept,” Mr. Feston insisted. “The purpose of religion was to promise eternal bliss for proper behavior on Earth. This preserved the social order. Misbehavior, of course, resulted in damnation--this also preserved the social order. As the human race grew wiser, we realized that hell was outdated and insensitive. Those of religious persuasion pushed hell into the background or eliminated it. A few retained it, but they spoke of it rarely and only as an allegory. Humanity became enlightened, but unfortunately, the metaphysical universe hadn’t kept pace. However, with transpositional technology, we destroyed the reality behind this outdated religious concept. That is to say, science has brought about as fact what was previously only a noble philosophical notion: hell’s nonexistence. Many religions claimed to believe in ‘free will,’ but didn’t really, because the choice was inevitably between heaven and hell. Since no one wants hell, the choice was not free. But now free choice exists. The religious may work for heaven if they like, and the rest of us may choose what we wanted all along--to live on Earth forever. Now don’t pick on Jerry, because he’s perfectly free to go to heaven if he wants.”

Remembering these things, Cyril muttered to himself as he entered the gate to the main compound. “And look at me now. A True Believer, just like Jerry.” It was comforting in its own way. Hell, to a True Believer, existed only for other people. That was better than its nonexistence. If hell didn’t exist, or if it was a possible destination even for True Believers, the True Believers couldn’t feel so good about themselves. But they could feel good, because they knew that hell did exist and gaped under the feet of millions of dangling souls while they stood safely by. It made them happy, and it made Cyril happy as well. It was simple and he wanted things simple. It was the answer to the questions he had while looking at the map of hell on the wall. Heaven, the hard choice, for free.

Read Part 4
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