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I knew something was different the moment I woke up. I just wasn't sure what.
I felt odd, somehow. Ah! It was the pains! My pains were gone! And my long-time numbness from my nerve damage too!
Wow! I couldn't remember the last time I'd been free of my spots of chronic numbness on the one hand, and pain from my various old injuries and aged joints and muscles on the other.
And the fatigue! The near-constant feeling of fatigue was gone too!
For many years now I'd usually still felt tired even after a good night's sleep-- and good nights had been hard to come by.
Today though, I felt maybe forty years younger! No! Make that fifty!
But then I realized something even better than all that.
I couldn't recollect anything worrisome on the new day's itinerary-- or even a single solitary thing I absolutely had to do today.
I couldn't even remember the last time that'd happened! Wow! Yippie! I felt like a kid again!
I bounded out of bed, automatically reaching for my eyeglasses.
Then something else came to my attention. It wasn't just that my usual pains and fatigue and concerns were absent: my surroundings themselves were askew, too.
Then I recognized where I was. It was a place I hadn't lived in for a long, long time now.
I realized I must still be asleep and dreaming. Damn, but that was disappointing!
Something compelled me to move to a nearby window and look out.
It was daytime, but everything outside was cloaked in a heavy fog. I couldn't even see the ground or the sky.
I didn't like this dream. I was presently in a trailer in a mobile home park near Tech, where'd I'd lived for a time during my second stint at the school. On rare occasion even years afterwards I'd dream about that time and place, mostly as a manifestation of the difficulties I'd endured trying to complete my engineering degree after a lengthy hiatus from school. Things like electromagnetic physics and senior kinematics had been especially hard for me. So hard that they'd made me yearn for the comparatively easier other classes of matrix algebra, fluid dynamics, and differential equations. Yikes!
I'd had to work as a campus police dispatcher on the graveyard shift, and pull some self-employment gigs elsewhere too at the time. I'd been in near 100% machine-man mode there for as long as I could take it. Yuck!
And to make matters worse, my schooling then got interrupted in a manner even worse than the previous crash-- since I ended up spending a while in the looney bin.
My distaste for the dream locale seemed to spur a change, and I quickly found myself in a different place-- but still a trailer.
Oh no! This was the one I'd shared with Bridget in Texas! Ugh!
Bridget's sudden death had been one of the reasons I dropped out at Tech the first time. I'd tried to continue with my education after losing her. But I was in so much grief, life itself just didn't seem worth living.
And then I witnessed one of my ROTC instructors lose his own marbles, in just about the precise way I feared I might myself. It was all just too much for me, and I dropped out after that quarter.
No, no, no! I squeezed my dream eyes shut, hoping the dream wouldn't subject me to any painful memories here.
When I dared a fresh one-eyed squint a few seconds later, my location had changed to the college dorm room I'd shared with an extraordinarily bright freshman engineering student for a while, before moving into the trailer at Tech.
Just as in the previous scenarios, I was alone: the other people belonging to the tableaus nowhere to be seen.
Now-- again-- something compelled me to peer out a window. And I was confronted with the same scene of a featureless fog in broad daylight.
Then I thought I heard something. Out in the hallway.
I opened the room's door and stepped outside.
The dim and dismal and faintly unpleasant smelling dorm corridor was the same as I remembered it, with my room being the next to last at its end. But suddenly the other end of the hallway lit up so brilliantly I was momentarily blinded.
The intense light was flickering and dancing about soundlessly. But something beyond the light could be heard.
I tried to recall what had happened in previous dream circumstances like these, but couldn't think of any.
In the real-life version of this place, I'd usually kept a snub-nose pistol and flare pens packed away with other survivalist essentials in a small black trunk, inside my personal closet in the dorm room. But in my dream I didn't feel I was in danger. I only felt curious.
I saw a figure step out before the light. It walked towards me.
The light rapidly faded away, and I recognized who it was approaching me.
It was Bridget. My Bridget. From Texas. Who'd been killed before I could propose to her. So many years ago.
As she always did, she appeared unchanged appearance-wise from those days.
Well, unchanged but for her clothing. In my dreams I usually visualized her in her typical clothing from our Texas days: T-shirt and jeans, or shorts and sleeveless blouse.
Here and now though, she wore a soft floor length gown of some sort. All white. Not exactly a night gown, but pretty comfortable looking.
This seemed unusual attire for my dream-Bridget.
Right then I realized I couldn't recall much of what had happened to me in all the decades since Bridget's death. But I shrugged it off as a dream thing.
It wasn't unusual for me to dream of Bridget. Even decades after I last saw her alive. I'd missed her terribly.
"Hello Jerry," Bridget greeted me with a smile.
"Hello Bridget," I responded likewise.
Bridget didn't embrace me as I expected. Damn! It seemed this would be one of the frequent standoffish dreams I had. That was disappointing! These 'arms-length' dreams with regards to Bridget had become more and more frequent over the years, though. Compared to any sort of cuddling or love-making stuff, I mean.
"Do you know where you are Jerry?" Bridget asked.
"Yeah. I'm at Tech," I said, as my eyes briefly darted about the place. "One of my old dorms. I haven't dreamed about this place in a long time--"
"No Jerry," Bridget interrupted me. Then seemed to wait for my response.
"No? Well, it sure looks like it!" I ventured. Wondering what the dream-game was going to be this time.
"No Jerry. You're not dreaming this time."
"Huh? What do you mean by that?"
"I mean you're with me now. Where I've been for a long time now."
"But Bridget: you're dead, honey," I tried to say to her in as gentle a fashion as I could. "I see you like this in my dreams sometimes. So-- you're just in my head."
"No. Not this time," Bridget told me, then stopped to let the words sink in.
"Bridget, are you trying to tell me I'm dead?" I asked skeptically.
"Yes. You're as dead as me."
"Come here you, and I'll show you how dead I am--" I decided to try changing the dream to a more fun one, and reached for Bridget even as I stepped closer to her.
Disturbingly, Bridget immediately stepped backwards, avoiding my grasp.
"We can't Jerry. Not yet."
"Things are different now. You need time to get adjusted."
Wow. It appeared the whole death theme in this dream was a pretty strong one. Oh well. Go with the flow, as they say.
I still wasn't taking it seriously. Because I'd wished for death so many times in the past, and only been disappointed, again and again. I often craved the peace and rest I hoped death would bring me. And the permanent absence of pain too, of course.
Hmm. At least this dream about death did include the pain relief aspect, I noted. And so far I seemed to be enjoying an unusually peaceful state of mind, too.
I continued to humor my dream Bridget. I mean, I wanted to enjoy my little romp here with Bridget, before I truly woke up, and had to face my dreary, awful life again.
Oh, but if only I really were dead! For I was so, so tired of living. And had been for a very long time now.
I responded to Bridget's last comment.
"Well, after I get adjusted, will there be any playtime?" I arched a suggestive eyebrow at her.
Bridget gave me a knowing smile back. "Yes, there's playtime here. But it's a bit different from what you're used to."
"OK! Show me around then! Or should I show you? I know this campus pretty well."
"What you see as your old university campus is something you're wrapping around yourself like a blanket, Jerry."
"Well, I guess that's normal in a dream. Right?" I asked, forgetting for a moment Bridget's insistence I was dead.
"I told you Jerry: this isn't a dream."
"Yeah, well, you could have fooled me! You being my dream girl and all," I teased her.
"I just hope it won't be too much of a shock to you," she told me.
"When you realize I'm telling you the truth."
Yada, yada, yada, I thought to myself. Dreams frequently included ominous or seemingly profound statements or warnings while they lasted. But if you could recall such words after awakening, they usually seemed little more significant than the eureka moments pot-heads sometimes experienced while high: mere nonsense, elevated to the level of earth-shattering revelations by the right illegal substance or circumstances.
Bridget led the way, and we descended the dorm stairs towards the ground floor (my room was on the third floor).
Somewhere on the stairs we left the dorm and were suddenly somewhere else altogether.
"What the hell?" I asked rhetorically of the void, as a truly novel sight filled my vision.
The abrupt change in location was typical dream-stuff. But not this vista!
"This is your new home now," Bridget told me. The spectacle which greeted my eyes looked impossible, even for the far future folks I'd once walked among. It'd take me a while to digest all the aspects of the experience. For instance, I could now see much greater distances than I ever could have in physical life. I didn't realize it then, but Bridget had nudged my true new power of vision into manifesting itself for the first time. Essentially she'd gently removed psychic blinders I'd hobbled myself with upon arrival, much like a grown up would remove a bucket a baby had accidentally pulled onto its head, thereby allowing the infant to see again.
"Damn! I never dreamed anything like this before!" I exclaimed. I could remember quite a bit about my dreams. Always had been able to. I'd somewhat cultivated the ability at a young age, in an effort to be more creative during my waking hours. For major league creativity is one of the few ways the impoverished can ever attain many things.
"I told you Jerry: this isn't a dream. You're dead," Bridget repeated once again.
"And this is...heaven?" Heaven was my first guess, simply from the magnificence and vastness of the place. Although there were also some glaring visual anomalies in what I beheld stretched before me.
"No," Bridget said, disconcertingly.
"So we're in hell?" I asked, starting to get worried. I was reminded of how I'd had a hand in the death of more than one of my fellow men on the old mortal coil.
"No!" Bridget laughed. "I had you going there though, didn't I?"
"So...what is this place, if it's not heaven or hell, and we-- I mean me-- I mean we-- really are dead?" I asked, sort of shaken by the splendor laid out below our present tall perch. It appeared we were maybe a hundred stories high in the air-- and standing on an open air balcony jutting out from a tall building.
For some reason my normal fear of heights seemed missing in action. Much like my usual physical pains. Bridget gave me her answer.
"It's hard to explain everything about this place in a snap. But it shares little with the living's beliefs concerning the afterlife."
"But-- is there a heaven and a hell?" I prodded.
"Yes and no. Those who wish to live in a heaven or hell, or believe they deserve such a thing, can sort of have it here. At least for a while."
"Bridget, that doesn't make sense!" I frowned.
"I told you it's complicated."
Then something else occurred to me.
"If I'm really dead, how'd it happen? I can't remember dying, or even being close to it. At least not any time lately."
"That's part of the process. The newly dead typically cannot remember their last years of life."
"What? Why's that?"
"Why indeed, Jerry. You'll find causation a popular topic among the scientifically and philosophically inclined here."
"You mean...you don't know why?" I asked, both befuddled and in awe of the sight before me at the same time.
"Precisely! Much about this place just is. With very little hint as to why. The top minds among us do their best to clear up the many mysteries involved. But it may be more difficult to do that here than among the living."
"More difficult? Why?"
"Um...the thing you'd call the scientific method isn't well suited for this place."
"Oh?" I replied. While at the same time the geek in me considered her statement blasphemous...
"Yes. Much about our environment resists measurements of anything but the most subjective kind. You might say that in some ways this place is the opposite of the universe we previously inhabited."
It seemed Bridget was right about my memories. Whole decades seemed to be missing at the moment. Heck: I was even having trouble figuring out what the latest memory I still possessed might be.
My second stint at Tech had been during the mid to late nineteen-seventies. At least thirty years or so ago. Hmm. I couldn't remember what year it'd been, the last time I'd looked at a calendar. Or even my present age. There was also no mirror handy to check my age by means of appearance.
Stymied there, I posed more questions for Bridget.
"So what about God? Where's He?"
"So far as we can determine, there is no God. At least not such as the mainstream religions from our time speak of."
"No God, huh?"
"But...there has to be some sort of authority here. Who's the boss?"
"That's hard to explain, too."
"Well, there are experts in some matters, whom the rest of us tend to defer to at times. And some of us will occasionally band together to do something, with one or several among us acting as leaders. And other times we gather together to make decisions which will affect a lot of us. But there's no real central authority. Or maybe if there is, the closest thing to it are the elders."
"Yes. The oldest among us, with the deepest and most comprehensive memories of us all."
Something didn't sound right about that. I'd personally never liked the establishment, or having to defer to the opinions of others to find out what was going on. I preferred gathering my own information independently.
"What about a library? Take me to one of those, and I'll get up to speed faster," I offered.
"We do have some libraries here similar to those to which you're accustomed, Jerry. But they're pretty limited in their usefulness."
"Limited? Why?" There she went yet again with the blasphemy! Books limited in their usefulness...!
"Because everything you see around you is really part of someone here. Like you or me. Once settled in, we each create and maintain our own personal items and surroundings: artifacts is one common term for them. Everything you see here is merely a conglomeration or intersection of what many are presently generating. So nothing here lasts any longer than the will-- or the strength-- to keep it going.
"That makes small objects of a certain level of complexity prone to short spans of existence, or else a spotty nature. So books are somewhat impractical here-- except as special, limited-time gifts."
"You've got to be kidding me! Or do you mean everything's computerized?" I asked hopefully.
"No. I mean we simply can't create any permanent records or structures here. Because there's no true physical materials. There's just us, and the temporary artifacts we create around us. Nothing here lasts longer than the person who's maintaining it."
"That sounds crazy!"
"Yes. Like you, many here would prefer different circumstances. But it helps that people can stay here longer than they could in the physical world."
"Yes. It seems anyone who makes it here can stay on average around three times longer than they lived in physical form."
"What do you mean anyone who makes it here?"
"Not everyone shows up here. Some proceed directly to non-existence. Or at least many think that's what happens to them. There's other ideas too of course, but--"
"Well...how...I mean what-- determines if someone gets here?"
"That's complicated too, Jerry! But apparently more than half the dead don't stop here, but proceed directly back to the nothingness from whence we all originated. Or maybe to being reabsorbed back into their family potentiality-- but that's a whole other theory..."
"Well-- you and I are here. So how'd we stop here?"
Bridget tilted her head to one side and squinted her eyes, like she was pondering how best to answer my question.
"Actually, you and I may represent a couple of the more unusual avenues leading to here."
"Oh! So you mean you go to heaven and I go to hell?"
"No, silly! I just mean you and I took very different paths to get here, that's all."
"So how'd we do it?"
"As I mentioned before, we don't know all the answers. But some things seem to have proven out over the millennia.
"Namely, those people with a substantial impact on the lives of many others seem to often end up here."
"Bridget, you're worrying me! I don't think I had a good impact on lots of people while I was alive!"
Bridget smiled at me.
"You had a bigger impact than you know, Jerry. A good one! But you don't have to have a good impact on lots of people to get here: just an impact, period."
"Well, I guess I got to take your word for it, Bridget-- but I can only think of a few folks I really helped--"
"You're new here, Jerry. You can't remember everything yet. It'll come. Don't worry."
It was at that moment I recalled a couple of instances from my life relevant to this conversation.
"Bridget, can the people here go back to the real world?"
"Yes. In a manner of speaking."
"Did you? I mean, I could have sworn you talked to me in my car after I almost hit that school bus--"
"Yes Jerry. That was me," Bridget interjected.
Holy crap! She'd confirmed it! It hadn't been a hallucination! At least if I truly was dead now...but surely I was dreaming instead(?) But her acknowledgement made it even more important to me to ask about a second event...
"And what about when I was lost in the mountains after hurting my leg? Was that you? The waitress in Kentucky who told Charley Sowders where to find me?"
"Yes. It was."
"Bridget! I knew it was you!" I said with exultation. Then realized the ramifications...
"You mean ghosts are real? That dead people really do come back as spirits, and talk to people?"
"Yes. Well, yes and no. There's plenty of the living wishing to see dead loved ones so bad they imagine or dream it happening, and others who gladly lie about it for money or other reasons. So few of the cases you hear about are true.
"On the other hand, quite a few of us retain an interest in the living, and try to help where we can. But it costs us."
"Costs you? How?"
"Appearing among the living always costs us some of our lifespan here. The more often or tangibly we do it, the sooner we'll pass on."
"So it shortened your life-- your after-life I mean-- to help me those times?"
"Yes. But you shouldn't worry about it Jerry. I'm lucky. I seem to have more potency-- that's what we call lifespan here-- than many other folks."
"How'd you arrange that?"
"Well, turns out I've got some rare blood in me. Or did have, when I was alive. Blood that gave me my second sight, as some people called it back then."
"You mean your visions or feelings about the future?"
"Yes. It turns out the same stuff makes you longer-lived in the after-life. So in a way I'm one of the richer folks here."
"Yes. Here, wealth mostly consists of potency. If you have enough of that, you can do almost anything you want in this place. And visit the living too, on occasion."
"What about me? Where am I on that scale?"
"I don't know, Jerry! It takes a while for anyone to know that-- including yourself. But if you're still here about-- um, what you'll see as a week-- you'll probably have at least a couple hundred years here, minus any big spending you do of it along the way."
"If I'm still here a week from now? What does that mean?"
Bridget's face took on a more serious expression.
"Jerry, I don't want to scare you. But lots of those who show up here don't stay for long. They pass on just a few days later. Because their-- after-life quotient you might call it-- just barely qualifies them for a stop-over."
"So I might just be here a couple days and then really die?"
"You already really died, Jerry. But yes, it's possible you'll only be here a short time. I believe you'll still be here a week from now, but I can't prove it."
"Well, is there something I can do about that?"
"No. I'm afraid not. Your quotient-- or your starting potency-- is overwhelmingly set by your actions while living. Not by anything you do here. At least, that's the consensus.
"Does it scare you to face nothingness, Jerry?"
"Not really, Bridget. I've been awfully tired for a long time now. To be honest, if I really am dead, I guess I'd have to say I'm disappointed that I'm not already in nothingness! But I do like seeing you again. And knowing you're OK."
I moved closer to Bridget to hug her, but she shied away.
"What's wrong Bridget?"
"Jerry, it's just the circumstances. You're in your-- transition period-- and if I or someone else touches you here, we could cause both you and ourselves problems."
"What sort of problems?"
"That's sort of unpredictable. But they'd likely be unpleasant. So we shouldn't touch for a while."
"Oh. So you mean if I'm only to be here a few days, I can't touch you the whole time?"
"Yes Jerry. I'm sorry. But that was one of the first lessons people here ever learned."
"Well, I guess that figures! So what do people do here? When they're not stuck like I am at the moment?"
Bridget's face brightened again.
"Almost anything they want!"
"Bridget, that sounds suspicious."
"But-- other than the spectacular landscape, the people here seem to be acting pretty much the same as the living," I complained. I could see thousands of people within eye shot moving about the streets and buildings and skies in much the way you'd expect of an urban environment anywhere.
Well-- anywhere people could whiz through the air in flying convertibles and on scooters-- all bereft of any wheels-- like in some 1930s science fiction pulp tale.
But by contrast to the scenery and all the flying about, the people themselves looked normal enough.
Of course, most of them were very distant, rendering their details difficult to distinguish, even with my newfound super sight. Bridget sought to explain.
"Yes, there are mundane daily tasks to be done here, just as before. That's what you're witnessing now. But we enjoy plenty of free time to do what we wish," Bridget told me.
"Mundane daily tasks? In the after-life? Awww! You've got to be kidding!" I hated drab drudge work. To imagine being afflicted with it in the afterlife too was just too much!
"No. Believe it or not Jerry, we are cyclic beings too, much like the living. Only where the living eat and sleep, we generate and rejuvenate."
"Generate and rejuvenate?"
"Yes. Those seem the most appropriate terms you'd understand at the moment. Where the physical reality of life is dominated by entropy, here it's extropy and dissipative systems. Among the living, stars are the ultimate energy producers. Here, it's us: the people.
"In fact, we tend to produce too much energy. If we don't expend a certain amount each day, we can pass on that way too."
"I don't get it Bridget. First you talk like you must conserve your potency, then you say you must spend it. If I'm understanding you correctly."
"It's a balancing act. We survive longest and most effectively here by expending a certain amount of potency here each day, and no more.
"Rather than consume energy in the form of food like the living, we must regularly expel a certain amount, by generating and refreshing our surroundings and appearance: our artifacts.
"Instead of periodically sleeping like the living, we must strenuously celebrate our existence. Seek out the company of others and dance and laugh and debate and enlighten-- or play together in other ways.
"If we don't participate in such celebrations with others, we must otherwise do something far more strenuous in its place: such as create some tremendous work of art or public show far beyond the norm for personal artifacts-- of a scale we couldn't possibly maintain longer than a day. Or else benefit the living in an unusually large way.
"Dabbling in the affairs of the living helps us expend excess potency too, but doesn't replace the need for regular and robust enthusiasm here. Or not for very long, anyway. Somehow the potency spent affecting the living realm can rapidly exhaust us, leading to our passing. But expending it here instead somehow helps us stay healthy, and doesn't deplete us in any significant way.
"Social interaction appears vital to afterlife health and well being-- much as it does among the living.
"Plus, when you consider the uncertainty involved in the expense related to affecting the living realm, choosing that route over the usual celebration could be quite hazardous. Something like a living person scaling a high mountain: they might survive, or they might not.
"Our artifacts have a certain inertia about them, requiring a refresh roughly every several hours in most cases. And I use the term 'several hours' mainly because that's what the passing time will feel like to you, in the early days of your stay here. Friends can pinch hit for you in refresh duties if necessary, with the caveat that such substitution will skew the details of the artifacts some.
"Potency determines lifespan and artifact power-- and both are proportional to each other. You usually start out with an average of three times the perceived afterlife expectancy, as you possessed life.
"Artifact strength and range is roughly proportional to one's local reality from life. That is, the larger your territory in life, the bigger it is in your afterlife."
"I don't understand," I prompted Bridget for a deeper explanation.
"It's like this: someone who in life traveled a lot and saw many things can manifest that same approximate range and detail of items in their artifact repertoire here. But someone who never left the small village in life in which they were born, will have a much more circumscribed artifact generation capability here."
"Oh! I think I see now. So the well-traveled during life will have lots more artifact power here than others."
"Something like that. But education and imagination and socializing during life are also factors. All three can substitute somewhat for physical travel during one's lifetime, in terms of the artifact generating capacity you'll enjoy here. For instance, an architect who both read a lot and spent his life designing large and complex buildings-- but rarely left his tiny home village-- might still match world travelers in artifact talent when they all arrive here."
"Well, I guess that makes sense. But Bridget, I got to ride with time-travelers. So you can probably give me the accelerated course on this stuff, you know. Uh oh! You do know about that-- right?" I briefly wondered if informing the dead about the future would be as potentially damaging to the timeline as spilling it to the living-- then dismissed the thought as ridiculous. Heck: I was probably dreaming all this anyway!
"Jerry, I knew something of that before you did! Even before I died!"
"Oh yeah! I guess you did..." I now recalled some of her predictions from back then. But continued to press her for a quicker accounting of this place.
"So then, you know you could go ahead and give me a crash course in this after-life stuff. Right? I mean, I'm used to weird stuff! Plus, if I end up passing on pretty quick, I'd rather learn all I could about this place first. OK?"
"I'm not sure what you mean by a crash course," Bridget responded, seeking some clarification.
"Um...just let me ask you questions, and maybe I'll get the gist of things here a lot quicker."
"All right Jerry," Bridget said with a slight smile. "Ask me whatever you want, and I'll try to give you an answer. But I'm sure some things won't make sense to you until you've spent more time here yourself. And maybe talked with some of our experts or elders, too."
Having the exquisite Bridget Dufay here-- even if only in dream form, and possibly more accessible after some sort of waiting period-- one very important question demanded to be asked.
"Is there sex here?"
That made Bridget laugh.
"Oh yes! Actually lots more sex here than among the living! At least for those who want it."
"Are you kidding? Who wouldn't want sex?"
"You'd be surprised. Many new arrivals are downright appalled by the opportunities they find here. Religious zealots, and the like. Some of them even think this must be hell, with a vengeful god or angels just waiting for them to succumb to temptation, and then be punished."
"You mean to tell me there's people here who are actually dead, and seen this place with their own eyes, and still believe the same crap as before?"
"Yes. It's sad, I know. Especially when they become violent and try to attack the rest of us--"
"Ah! You mean there's violence here? In the freaking after-life? You've got to be kidding!"
"It's true. But it's not nearly so important here as it is among the living. For here, violence mostly hurts the one doing it, rather than the intended target. Here violence or even the threat of it is costly in terms of potency for the perpetrator. So anyone who indulges in it merely grows weaker and weaker until finally they are gone."
"Well, I must say that sounds tidy! But what about the victims? How badly does it hurt them?"
"Mostly it saddens them. Darkens their day. Wastes their time. But so long as they don't react violently themselves, they do not lose potency or life energy. Indeed, in some cases their potency and life-spans will increase slightly as the result of such attacks."
"Huh? How does that happen?"
"That's one of the mysteries here. And one of the greatest frustrations to those prone to forcing themselves onto others. But tricking or inciting others into perpetuating violence against you for your own gain doesn't work either."
I laughed. "Man! If only it could have been that way on Earth!"
Bridget laughed with me. Then turned serious again.
"Jerry, your own life was at times remarkably violent. That violence won't continue here too, will it?"
"Hell no, Bridget!" I said-- then recalled where I supposedly was, and wondered if a lightning bolt or an avenging angel might suddenly smite me. But nothing happened. So I continued. "Not if I can help it! Heck, I didn't act that way except as a last resort. Right? I mean, if you know everything I did in life, you know that. Right?" I was suddenly unsure of myself. What if I did initiate a lot of unnecessary violence when I was alive? It's tough to look back on a lifetime, and thousands of events, and figure out if you always did the right thing, especially in cases where you were ignorant of important facts, or lacking the proper tools, or simply making an honest mistake...
And was Bridget actually privy to everything I did after she died? Yikes! A new fear suddenly sprang to life in me. But Bridget's next words immediately calmed me in that regard.
"I don't know everything you did, Jerry," she informed me.
"As I said, here too we must rejuvenate ourselves in celebration, as well as perform other duties. And in our free time there's plenty of other things to do besides spy on the living.
"There's also the cost involved. It doesn't just cost us to interfere with the living. It costs us to observe them, too. Most anyone here who was too much of a voyeur would surely pass on way before their time!
"And truthfully, most of the hours spent by the living are much too sad or boring to watch for long. Compared to other opportunities here, I mean."
Hmm. All that seemed to make sense!
But something still seemed fishy.
"But if you weren't watching me, how'd you know to come to me those times? Like after the close call with the school bus, and my injury in the mountains?"
Bridget considered that for a moment. Then asked "Do you remember me telling you we're all connected?" Referring to a moment in Texas before her death.
"Well, the connection between you and I transcended death. So afterwards I could feel it when you were near death. Or so deep in despair that you were at the threshold. People can actually wish themselves to death. So such thinking-- if profound enough-- will register the same as a close call physically."
"People really can wish themselves to death?"
"Yes. It happens more often than many realize. Doctors just don't usually consider it a formal cause of death for record-keeping purposes.
"In your cases Jerry, I felt it like a wave of heat washing over me-- or something like moving from a nicely air conditioned house to the outdoors-- on a particularly hot and muggy Texas day. And when I felt it, I looked in on you. When I saw your plight, I took the next step. Then I returned here. That's all."
"Well then, what do you mean about knowing of all the violence in my life?"
"You were at death's door many times Jerry. And I felt it every time. I checked on you all those times, too. But usually events happened too fast for me to help, or I couldn't figure out what I could do, before they were already over. I'm sorry!"
"So you were with me? All those times?"
"I was watching you. After I sensed you were in trouble. But there wasn't many cases where I could help. Not in time to make a difference. In some cases I might actually have hurt you instead, by distracting you. If I'd done anything more, I mean."
"I wish I could hug you, Bridget," I told her. My eyes welling up with tears.
"Me too, Jerry. But we can't. Not yet."
"It's no wonder you think my life was so violent, Bridget. Not if you only looked in on me when I might be about to die."
"We compare notes here, Jerry. And most others here didn't get nearly as many warnings about their own livings' close calls, as I did. So my judgment of violence in your life is not wholly subjective."
"Oh," I said sheepishly. "I'm sorry about that Bridget! But honest, it wasn't always my fault!" I suddenly felt like I'd gotten bad marks in school; that Bridget's peers here might think less of her for me having so many close calls like that.
"I know Jerry. It was your path. I just hope it won't carry over here. Because that'll make you pass on too soon."
"I'll try to behave, Bridget. I promise!"
"It's not your intent that worries me Jerry. It's your path."
"My path? But I'm dead now! That's all done and over with! Isn't it?"
"Not necessarily. You and I may have some peculiar things about our own paths, compared to many others here."
"Peculiar? How's that?"
"I must wait until your memory returns to discuss certain things. But you said you remember your time traveling excursion. Correct?"
"Right." Hey! I'd just realized that meant I could remember up through 1990, at the very least! Quite a few years past my second stint at Tech...
"Well, that unusual trip may have had an effect on your potency here."
"I don't understand."
"I'm sorry Jerry. I don't fully grasp it myself. But some of the others have discussed it with me and--"
"Others? Other dead folks have talked to you about me? About more than just my close calls?"
"Yes. Certain things about your life caught the interest of others here along the way."
"Oh no! That can't be good! Can it?"
"Well-- it was never good on Earth!" I said, not really sure how I was supposed to refer to the living now.
"Jerry, things are different here. I think it was good you drew the attention of the people I'm talking about--"
"You talk different now. I mean, compared to how you did in Texas."
"Yes. So I'm starting to wonder if you're really you." It wasn't unusual for people to unexpectedly morph into something or someone else in my dreams. Often something or someone much less pleasant. And if I was truly dead, there might be still worse possibilities. What if I was talking with a devil in disguise?
"Jerry! Of course it's me! I think you're merely noticing that I've grown over the years. My vocabulary has expanded, my perspectives widened. I've learned a lot here. You will too."
"Well, if you don't mind, would you answer me a question? Regarding proof of your identity?"
"Of course, Jerry!"
"The Bridget I knew made me a small sculpture before she died. Do you know what she called it?"
"The heart afraid of flying?"
"Yes!" Surely this really was Bridget, to know that!
"Does that help you confirm my identity?" she asked.
"Yes. Well-- there's one more thing. Do you know about me and Kathy?" I asked her. For her reaction to that-- if she knew about it-- would likely be the best indication I could ever get to her true identity. I don't know why I thought this though: for I was highly uncertain as to how the real Bridget would react to such a thing.
"My sister, you mean?" she responded.
"Yes. Did that bother you? That time in the camp? With me and Dana and Kathy?"
"Jerry! Of course not! You were wonderful to Kathy!" Bridget beamed her widest smile at me.
"So you saw all that?"
"No. Like I said, I primarily looked in on you when I sensed you were near death. Or deep in despair. At the camp I first found you standing atop that building in the sputtering rain, injured and exhausted, yearning to die by saving Kathy and Dana from that gang which had been chasing you. I hoped the two of them would provide you with the care you needed. And they did!
"If you're worried it bothered me that you had a relationship with my sister Jerry-- don't! I might have arranged that myself if I could have! Especially then. When Kathy was going through such a tough time herself.
"I checked in on the three of you again soon after the rooftop incident, just for my own peace of mind. And was happy with what I found. Thank you for that, Jerry. You were exactly what Kathy needed back then."
"Well, I'd like to say you're welcome Bridget, but I don't think I was exactly being generous there. Kathy was what I needed too, I think. That whole experience with her and Dana helped me get back to a normal life again. At least for a while. I hate to think what might have become of me without them."
"I know. You three did give me one more scare though, in the camp."
"Yes. You did have a heart attack, you know. Just not a fatal or disabling one. You were awfully lucky."
"Oh! That! Yikes! You saw that?" I immediately felt the king of all blushes blooming all over me. Maybe the worst I'd ever experienced. For if Bridget had witnessed that, she'd seen me in the throes of just about the most intense passionate fun and total abandonment of inhibitions I'd ever had.
"Just the aftermath. Enough to know you'd gone too far for your own good there," Bridget chided me a bit.
"Yeah, I guess we did go overboard. But people are prone to do that when they're having way too much fun!" I told her. Heck: even though technically I'd done nothing wrong there, I'd sometimes felt guilty about it for a long time afterwards.
Eventually I'd realized I was feeling the guilt basically over having had so much fun. Like I couldn't possibly have deserved such good times.
"Yes. At least that near-death experience wasn't a violent one," Bridget added.
"Yep! Too bad all my near-death experiences couldn't have been like that one!" I laughed, relieved to know Bridget wasn't angry with me over that. Wow! That had been the best time of my life-- well, I guess I'd have to say that and my time with Sym were the best times I ever had...even maybe a little more pure fun than my Earth-time with Bridget! But no way was I going to tell Bridget that!
"Bridget, what about the other people here? Are they as open-minded as you regarding stuff like that? When they see the living in those situations?"
"Not necessarily. Although the shock of realizing they're dead does allow some to leave their hang-ups behind them, in others bad stuff might only get reinforced. Like in the zealots.
"Fortunately, the rules regarding potency limit what they can do about the living acting in ways they don't approve of," she finished.
"Well, that still seems pretty awful, if your dead relatives or whatever might watch you doing private things they disapprove of--"
"Jerry, when we monitor the living, it's not a wholly separate experience. It's hard to describe, but monitoring usually requires a certain measure of participation or empathy on our part-- at least if we're monitoring surreptitiously, and not being perceived by them."
"Eh? What does that mean?"
"It's sort of another barrier to the nosey dead watching you. If they do so without your knowledge-- which is how most must do because of insufficient potency for more-- then they must also share some of your experience as well."
"I'm not sure I get you, Bridget."
"Someone here secretly watching you while you're alive will feel a bit of what you feel at the time."
"You're not saying what I think you're saying, are you?"
"Yes. When I looked in on you during your moments of despair, I too felt some of it. Some here think that the sharing which occurs there might actually benefit the living in those moments, by taking the edge off their heartache."
"But-- what about the camp? After we got settled in, I mean. Did you feel some of that too?"
"Holy crap!" I exclaimed.
"Yes. Holy crap indeed!" Bridget laughed, as she agreed. "Events like those are almost guaranteed to blow out the circuit breakers on any disapproving after-lifers looking in. Maybe even change them for the better!"
"Sheesh! That makes me feel really weird and uncomfortable, Bridget! I mean, not necessarily about you looking in, but maybe other dead folks--"
"Like I said before Jerry, it's unlikely anyone's watching you at a given moment. And if I hadn't made a connection with you in life, I wouldn't have gotten those little alerts which prompted me to check in on you. And even if I wanted to, I couldn't have watched you all the time-- I simply don't have the potency for that. No one here does. Not for perpetual spying, I mean. For that matter, many don't have the potency for more than a handful of such events. Unless they're simply wanting to speed up their own passing."
Hmm. Bridget's words brought a new question to mind.
"Bridget, do people who commit suicide get punished here? Or do they even make it at all?"
"Yes, suicides sometimes make it here. But like many other people, if they get punished, it's usually they themselves doing the punishing."
"They may regret giving up too soon or too easily upon life. Especially if they learn here of something nifty they missed by leaving too early. Or once they understand there's some things they could do there that they can never do here."
"Oh! I want to know about that! What is it that the living can do that the dead can't?"
"First off, the living can far more easily and continuously participate in physical reality than can the dead--"
"Yeah, you already covered that. What's other differences?"
"Some here don't like the malleability and unpredictability of the afterlife, compared to physical reality--"
"Um, what else?"
"You can't have children here."
"Go on. With the general list, I mean."
"Let's see-- I already told you how we can't do the kind of scientific research here the living can--"
"And you can't satisfactorily injure or coerce others here-- not even the living--"
"Yes. I got that already," I replied. Though soon I'd realize I had more to learn about the limitations regarding the dead's punishment of the living...
"Unconsciousness in the afterlife is less pleasant for many than it was in life--"
"Whoa! What do you mean?"
"I mean the living sometimes enjoy a mix of random unconscious imagination and a sampling of the flux of this place in their dreams, while here our dreams mostly consist of gritty memories from our past life, experienced in a very disjointed way--"
"Ugh! That doesn't sound like much fun!"
"It's not. The living tend to enjoy unfettered dreaming much more frequently than we do. That may be why many among the living enjoy their sleep more than they do their waking hours. Here, it's the opposite. Most of us dislike sleeping, but on rare occasion may have no choice."
"Well that sure sounds crappy!"
"Yes. It is!"
"But Bridget-- I thought you said to rest here you didn't sleep, but joined in something like a party?"
"Yes. That's right. Or a very strenuous act involving only yourself or a few. Such as an expensive foray among the living. But we do do something like sleep at times-- mostly when sickened badly enough--"
"Sickened? Oh, you mean when someone else here has tried to hurt you?"
"Yes. That's the usual method by which we may fall ill for a time."
"So that's the only time you might actually sleep-- or something like it?"
"Yes. For the most part. You'll learn about less frequent types of causes later on."
I decided to seek some further clarification on the matters at hand, by making a slight turn in my questioning.
"So you can go wherever you want, see whatever you want, and do whatever you want in the real world, amongst the living?"
"Oh no! Only a small percentage of us have that sort of freedom. Largely because of the expense involved. Things like that define the very limits of our existence here.
"For us, dipping into the living realm has a significant cost to potency. Frequently similar in financial terms to what buying a major household appliance or even a car might be, for someone still alive.
"It's also a bit scary for us. For the costs to our potency can never be precisely determined for a given excursion before-hand."
"Partly because we often end up doing more than we intended once we poke our nose in. But other factors also seem to play a part. Such as the geographical location, the sensitivity or readiness of living in the vicinity, and more."
"You're saying the physical location can have something to do with what it costs you to involve yourself with the living?"
"It's complicated. But here's an example: It would likely cost me less to manifest somewhere in my hometown, to someone I knew in life, than it would somewhere I'd never been to in life, and to someone I'd never met."
"Wait-- so that means when you talked to Charley in Kentucky, that was probably more expensive for you than the time in my car?"
"So why didn't you talk to my family or one of my friends instead of Charley? Like Steve!" Bridget had actually dated Steve briefly before getting together with me in Texas. And though she'd never gotten the chance to meet my family in life, most of my family members had been much nearer to me distance-wise than Charley, at the time of my close call. Steve was likely farther away than Charley then, but probably enjoyed more resources with which to come to my rescue. Of course, Steve's recognizing of Bridget's ghost might have complicated things. Charley had no way of recognizing her, though...
Bridget responded to the issue. "I considered it. But the wakes of contact looked much more iffy in regards to saving you."
"Wakes of contact?"
"It's a term we use here. Everyone here above a certain level of potency has something like my old second sight, except better. We can look ahead a bit, to see some of the near results of actions we might take. In the case of you being hurt in the mountains, the outcome of you surviving seemed much fuzzier when I considered anyone besides Charley. I can't tell you precisely why that was so. It just was."
"So is there anything else which-- um-- incurs extra costs when you deal with the living?"
"Visibility costs more than invisibility. Tangibility costs more than intangibility. The more living witnesses to your event, the more it costs--"
"Oh lord! And all Charley's friends saw you! And you gave him a piece of paper with directions! That must have cost you a fortune!"
"Yes. It was costly. But worth it. Look at how much longer you lived after that!" Bridget told me, looking pleased with herself. "The note was the worst part. I had to maintain its existence until you were found. After that I could let it dissolve."
Bridget had explained in a mere couple of minutes here things which had perplexed me my whole life, it seemed.
Then I had a new realization.
"Bridget, you look the same now as when I knew you in Texas. And you appeared that way to Charley and his friends, too. That makes you the only woman I ever knew who didn't change her appearance over a lifetime. Er, I mean, over time. Does something change women about that after they die?"
"No. Here you may present yourself however you wish. Many people maintain more or less the same appearance they had in life-- or the appearance they preferred to think they had. Most people here likely are more attractive-looking than they were in life.
"Those of us who manifest ourselves to the living usually present the most familiar appearance we can to them, in order to minimize their fear and confusion. That also helps us keep down the potency costs involved: for we have less to explain during such encounters. You can even allow the living's own memories of you to shape your appearance. That's what I've done with you. And what I'll continue to do, until you've settled in here."
"Thanks Bridget! I appreciate it!" I told her.
"Well, all that being said, I do plan to try out some updated looks with you later!"
"I can't wait!" I replied with real enthusiasm. Then had another thought come to me.
"But Bridget, why did you show your real self to Charley in Kentucky? I mean, you could have looked like anybody there, right? And he couldn't recognize you like Steve or I could have, anyway..."
"I did it for you, Jerry."
"But-- oh!" I'd always thought-- or hoped anyway-- that Bridget had shown herself that way basically to prove to me she really was still around somehow, and still cared for me. But now, after all these years, I was beginning to realize there might have been a second motivation too-- one based on reason rather than emotion.
"So you understand?" she asked.
"I think so. You were sort of blowing me a kiss that way. Giving me a fresh hint that you were still there, and looking out for me," I told her, holding back my latest realization for the moment. Wondering if she'd confirm it without any prompting from me.
"Yes. Plus, I figured I had to do something to prevent you from thinking your enemies had been the ones to tip off Charley. Otherwise you might afterwards have begun looking for answers in the wrong places--"
Damnation! I was right! I couldn't believe it'd taken me until now to figure that one out! That little figurative show of leg on her part back then just proved how well she'd known me, even years after fate had spun us apart.
It would indeed have vexed me sorely not knowing who had managed to tip off Charley like that, and why. Of course, once Charley gave me Bridget's description, any suspicion of worldly conspiracies had instantly fallen by the wayside.
Sure, I'd still twisted somebody's arm to drive me to Kentucky looking for Bridget as soon as possible afterwards. But that wild goose chase was much safer than what I might have done with a different description from Charley.
Bridget had known exactly how to save me from myself there.
"Damn, woman. I still love you so," I told her.
"I love you too Jerry," Bridget returned the sentiment.
It was practically a crime I couldn't take her in my arms right then.
But all that was off-limits. So after a moment of exchanging mute, longing looks, we went back to doing the only thing seemingly allowed us under the circumstances.
"So what else can the living do that we can't?" I asked.
"They can build more lasting legacies, due to physical records and a physical landscape.
"Keep in mind the living can also build up their afterlife selves in ways which cannot be replicated here."
"Yeah, but they don't know it! Or know how," I replied.
"Some do suspect it, though. That suspicion may be the basis for all religions, as people pursue different paths in an effort to build themselves souls potent enough to land here, and thereby find a whole new way to make their mark on the universe."
"I notice you used the word 'soul'," I pointed out.
"Yes. Though it may not be accurate."
"Many of us here refer to ourselves and the other inhabitants as 'souls' or 'spirits'. But that label doesn't seem to synch well with what many people thought of as souls when I was alive."
"What does that mean?"
"I'll give you an example. If everyone here is a 'soul', does that mean everyone who doesn't stop here-- or can stay only briefly-- isn't a soul? Or didn't have one to start with?"
"Oh. I see what you mean. Well, what do the experts think?"
"It depends on your definition of soul, of course. From one perspective it could be concluded human beings aren't automatically born with souls, but rather must develop them, much like their minds. That is, look at kids who grow up in the wild with no one but possibly animals for company. Those kids basically become human-shaped animals if they're not rescued at an early age."
"Hmm. That's an interesting idea. I hadn't ever thought of it that way. That we might have to develop souls from scratch, that is."
"Some of the living have thought this for ages. Like the Agnostics-- a branch of early Christianity," Bridget informed me.
That made me frown with skepticism. "I studied the bible and religion in general for a while in my youth. But I don't remember anything about Agnostics."
"That's because mentions of them were largely purged from Christian history, by those at the top."
"Oh. Yeah. The bastards at the top of just about everything on Earth seem to do some vile stuff at times," I acknowledged, with more than one example in mind. But if growing a soul was a requirement for this place, that brought up another question...
"So how does one cultivate a soul, anyway? If that's how you get here, I mean."
"Well, that too is complicated. Because if we are all souls here, then apparently it doesn't matter if a soul is good or evil, in regards to stopping here. For we've got them both! And the number of incoming bad souls has always been greater than the good ones--"
"Whoa! You mean to say there's more bad guys here than good guys? Mightn't that mean we really are in hell? Just a hell with sloppy record-keeping?" I asked, with what must have been a look of concern.
"No. Although there's far more of what I'd personally consider undesirable folks coming in than good ones, the bad apples usually burn themselves out pretty quickly and pass on. While the good ones stay. So despite a heavier influx of the mean-spirited compared to the benevolent, on balance there's usually been more good people among the population here, than bad.
"Plus, some of the bad people actually clean up their act after arrival-- once they see how things work here. Apparently quite a few among the living would be better people if only given the chance there-- or else encouraged more by prevailing social conditions."
Bridget's last words struck a chord in me. "Yeah, I think I'd agree with that. Poor people are easily made into desperate people, and desperate people easily pushed into criminal behavior. And on the flip side, if you're so rich you can get away with almost anything, you might well be tempted to push the edge of the envelope out of pure curiosity sometime, if nothing else. And if you're that rich, and no good to start with-- well, there might not be any limit at all to what evil you could wreak.
"But it sure is a relief the numbers work out that way here! I guess all that time and energy spent on violence you talked about before does the trick!" I finished.
"Well, it's not just the violence. Greed and vanity play powerful roles too. Bad seeds usually try to create and maintain far more-- and gargantuan!-- artifacts than they can sustain for long. Or else fiddle way too much with the living for their own good. All that draws down their potency and lifespan fast."
"So greed and ego cost a lot here too? Like violence?"
"Yes. And that might even be the more accurate definition for what leads to the rapid passing of most religious zealots. For usually it's their desire for power over others, or to stroke their own egos by proving their superiority over others, which does them in potency-wise."
"So-- what exactly ramps up a soul? Or whatever you'd call it?" I basically repeated my earlier question. For if I'd gotten a direct answer to it, I'd missed it!
"Certain types of experiences in life contribute more than others. Learning, hardship, fiercely striving for something against long odds; all that seems to help.
"It also seems that the more brushes with death one has in life strengthens them for the afterlife, as well. That seems to have been an important element in your own case, Jerry."
"Yuck! Can't anything fun help with it?"
Bridget laughed. "Yes. Sex helps."
My face lit up. "Yay!" I exclaimed. But then I remembered I personally hadn't had nearly as much sex as I'd liked in life. Heck: compared to my friend Steve, I'd practically lived a life of abstinence!
"I bet sex didn't help much in my case, did it?" I asked her.
"Well, you did try to make up for lost time in that camp with Kathy and Dana!" Bridget laughed.
I sighed. Bridget then amended her statement. But it didn't help matters any.
"Actually Jerry, it's not the sex itself that usually does it, but the results: kids."
"Kids? Well then I guess my score on that would be zero!" I replied. Kathy had had a child mere months after our time in the camp together; but that pregnancy had already existed-- if not yet in a noticeable way-- before we'd ever coupled in the camp.
"Yes. I'm afraid so. The more kids you have, the more likely you'll make a stop-over here," Bridget continued.
"Strong relationships with others seem to help too," she added.
"Holy smokes! I'm starting to get worried, Bridget! Maybe I will disappear soon!" I couldn't help but say. I guess I was somewhat torn between staying and passing on in that moment. For this place was different enough from life to sound possibly interesting...plus if I could take up with Bridget where we'd left off, that might just rate as heaven for me...
"Jerry, although you didn't have many long relationships in life, you had quite a few short but intense ones. Like with me. And Kathy," Bridget offered to ameliorate my concerns.
"Well, I suppose so. But it still seems like I've not got much in the till here. I guess I'll be passing on soon after all," I said, as I pondered my impending passage to non-existence.
"You forget about the impact you had on others," Bridget objected.
"I don't have a complete list. It's still coming in."
"Huh? I don't get it."
"Some of it will become clearer to you after your memory returns. But even in your youth you racked up some impressive gains there."
"Bridget, I hope you haven't done the same as Ling, and mixed me up with someone else," I warned her, thinking of the black-haired time-traveling beauty who'd made my abduction back then lots more bearable than it otherwise might have been. However...something in the back of my mind nagged at me over my statement, immediately after I'd made it.
"There's little chance of that. You'll see what I mean after your memory returns.
"Even before I met you Jerry, you'd saved the lives of quite a few people, and thereby affected hundreds of others down the road."
"I'm sorry Bridget, but I don't remember that," I said ruefully. I truly didn't remember anything like that.
"You don't remember crashing Shadow to clear the way for that ambulance?"
"Oh! Yeah, I remember that! But I never knew if it did any good or not--"
That caused my eyebrows to jump. "You mean I really did save Sue Anne?" I asked. That crash had been among my earliest major acts with Shadowfast-- and among the most damaging. My own survival had seemed somewhat miraculous-- since wearing no seat belt had caused me to be flung wildly about inside my car, just prior to colliding with a building. Agh!
"Yes. And one of her friends. It was a close thing."
"But-- wait a minute Bridget. That happened before you were dead. How can you know about that? I don't think I ever told you about that!"
"Because of the people who were already here then. They saw it. And told me about it later, after I arrived, and they learned of my own connection to you."
"But-- why were they watching me?"
"They weren't. They were looking in on Sue Anne and her friend, when the two of them were close to the border. You caught the attention of others here when you helped different people along the way. Plus, some here try to keep track of people like you over the years, even where there is no direct connection. Like a hobby, I guess you'd say."
Something about that seemed a bit creepy. Dead people noticing certain things done by the living.
"So helping Sue Anne and her friend were enough to get me in here?"
"No. You scored less there than you did in other cases because it was a somewhat selfish act."
"You mean because I was crazy over Sue Anne," I stated flatly.
"Yes. You almost couldn't have acted otherwise. So in that case it was largely your balanced display of courage, self-sacrifice, and the consideration for bystanders you didn't know at all there, which possibly scored you points."
Speaking of saving people had caused me to think of a question my more religious friends and family would surely have wanted me to ask.
"Bridget, Jesus isn't here is he?"
"You mean Jesus Christ?"
"He used to be."
"Really? You met him?" I was never a very religious person in life, but I'd still gotten an all-over shiver from hearing her answer.
"Oh no, no! He passed on some time before I got here. But he was an elder for a long time. He was one of the richest in potency to ever arrive here. You know, because the religions started in his name affected so many people over the years--"
"Yeah, that figures. But you say he's passed on now?"
"Yes. Many here miss him. He was a good man. Nothing like many of the zealots who claimed to follow his teachings."
"Wow. I bet lots of the Christians went nuts when they got here and met him!"
"Well, no. From what I understand, most of the Christians arriving after, um-- 700 AD maybe?-- refused to accept Jesus as Jesus-- especially after speaking with him. For their beliefs didn't match his. It was pretty sad for all involved, from what I hear."
"You're kidding me! The Christians wouldn't acknowledge Jesus?"
"I said most of them. After a certain date. Some did afterwards, but they were a small minority of the self-proclaimed Christian arrivals during Jesus' span here."
"Well, I guess Jesus developed quite a following among everyone else here though-- right?"
"He was admired, yes. But much of his philosophy was obvious here already, due to how things work in this place. So some of his old stuff from his living days repeated here seemed much like someone living telling another that water was wet: people here already mostly lived by the principles Jesus had espoused on Earth. He was sort of ahead of his time there. But here he was maybe a little behind the times upon arrival. Still though, he was quite impressive in his days here."
"You say he was here a long time. And I think you said I might live here 200 years if I become anchored, or whatever you'd call it. So how long was Jesus here? I mean, how long has it been since he passed on?"
"I believe he passed only around a hundred years or two before I got here. Around the time of the American Revolution or a bit after, maybe. I'd have to check with an expert to be sure."
"Wow! So he might have been here around 1800 years?"
"Yes. Like I said, he was a very potent fellow. There's only been a handful like him here that anyone can remember."
"Did he say anything about passing on to nothingness past this point? I mean, did he disagree with what most people believe about that here?"
"I take it he did. An expert can tell you more about that. But I think he expressed a belief there might be something else beyond this place after all. That maybe this realm was just a filter for souls, and when we passed on from here we'd probably go through another sort of filter. A place like this again maybe, but with even tighter entry requirements, and maybe a whole different set of physics going on, too. Something like how the physics of this place are different from Earth's."
"Hmm. That sounds interesting!"
"Yes, I thought you might like that. There's plenty more where that came from. More of Jesus' theories, as well as the ideas of others."
"As good as it sounds, I'm surprised Jesus didn't attract a lot of followers here."
"Oh, he had followers. And friends. But one sticking point for his idea was the fact no one could find any hint of real contact between this place and anything beyond."
"Why would that matter?"
"Because of the backward contact we have with the living. It seems logical if we have such regressive links, then any place beyond this one would have such connections to us, too."
"Oh! I see! So nobody's ever found any possible links like that?"
"Well, did Jesus offer any idea as to why there might not be any such links?"
"Yes. I think he said something like that might be part of the test here: a refinement of the uncertainty the living feel regarding the afterlife. The living do get hints about this place and us, but just barely, and pretty rarely. By contrast, we get no hints whatsoever about someone existing beyond us. At least, not beyond the nature of this place itself."
"Hmm. I love all the tantalizing mysteries this place seems to offer! I can't wait to dig into them more with the experts!"
"Yes, I figured that would be the case. But just to whet your appetite, some of the elders already have something in mind for you."
"They do? It's not bad, is it?" I was automatically mistrustful of anyone else making plans for me, as during life such plans almost always turned out to be far from desirable in many ways. I mean, let's face it: if it was anything fun or profitable and safe, a person would do it themselves. If on the other hand it was awful, expensive, and dangerous to boot, they'd try to get some poor sucker like me to do it instead.
Bridget though seemed to want to give the impression it wasn't quite as nasty as I feared.
"No! But it may involve persuading you to expend some of your potency along the way. If you have enough to spare, I mean."
"Well, that sounds interesting. What do they have in mind?" I asked, mainly humoring her. For I was already pretty certain I wouldn't want to do whatever it was.
"I can't go into details now. Partly because it'd be a waste of time until you've regained all your memories. But lots of people who witnessed some of your exploits in life seem to think you'd make a great candidate for what they have in mind."
Uh oh. I definitely didn't like the sound of that! But surely Bridget wouldn't be a party to any sort of really bad plot regarding me. I sighed. It seemed only fair to give her a warning about how I felt.
"Bridget, I hate to bust anyone's bubble, but if they want me to do something along the lines of what I did in life, I'd really rather not. Like I told you before, I'm really, really tired, and would rather just quietly study up on this place, rather than take on some sort of adventure. At least any sort of adventure like I did in the past," I told her. I wasn't kidding. Even with the new absence of pain and worries and physical fatigue here-- and partial amnesia-- I could still feel the decades of hard experience weighing heavily upon me. I still felt profoundly worn out and used up. Eager to be finally free of all that I'd ever known. To me, it had seemed like there'd not been nearly enough fun and love and freedom to make up for all the awful stuff of life. I'd eventually come to the conclusion (during life) that I'd rather not have been born at all. I'd tried to keep that to myself though, as it seemed to disturb the people around me when they learned of it.
Although I did feel a hint of interest in some of the things Bridget told me about this place, it was nowhere near enough to relieve me of my personal accumulation of angst and exhaustion. To use a metaphor, my afterlife batteries seemed just as stone cold dead as my life batteries had been.
"Don't worry Jerry. No one's going to make you do anything. They'll just try friendly persuasion on you. That's all."
"And you can't tell me anything else about it?"
"Later. After we know you're going to be here a while."
"OK. So you said Jesus did attract some followers. Does that mean religious followers? Do religions exist here, like on Earth?"
"Oh yes! There's religion here! Gobs and gobs of it! Not much different than among the living."
"You're kidding!" I exclaimed, truly surprised by her answer.
"No. Many people tend to cling to the same beliefs dead that they had while alive. Seeing evidence which contradicts certain elements of their religion doesn't affect many of them here, just as it didn't in life."
"Don't be too condescending, Jerry: the impracticality of the scientific method here may prove troublesome to you too. At least if you're anything like the scientists and engineers already here."
Bridget then dutifully continued her afterlife tutorial for me...
"Getting back to the differences between life and the afterlife...one of the biggest luxuries-- and at the same time biggest constraints-- on the living, is their sense of time. Compared to the afterlife."
"Yes. Just as in many other things, here we must be fairly precise in our choice of timing. For we only get one shot."
"Well, that sounds just like the living! We only get one shot too!" I reminded her. Noting to myself that maybe the longer one was dead, the more one would forget about what it was like to be among the living...
"No Jerry. Here we can access all of time, much like the living can access all of the physical universe-- at least if they possessed suitable vehicles."
"All of time? You mean you can time travel?"
"Yes. In a manner of speaking. But we as individuals cannot visit the same instant more than once."
"Well, that still seems pretty powerful to me!"
"It's not what you think. Like the living, our normal time frame is always the present. To move backwards or forwards beyond that costs us. Going into the past costs more than going into the future. And yet we can only observe the past, not interact with it. At least not beyond a very short range, which seems roughly equivalent to the contact wakes we can see for the future from the present. In trips to the future we can interact all right, but we also lose our ability to foresee the possible consequences of our actions: become effectively more and more near-sighted. So interacting with the living in the present is the most cost-effective and least risky behavior for us. If we're going to do it at all.
"That also means our best chance to have a beneficial effect on living loved ones is to immediately make the attempt the moment we feel them to be near death. In some ways you might say that's the top way we can affect the living, as all other means are far more hobbled by other factors."
"So you're saying if you try to do something that's not related to you feeling the near-death experience of a loved one, there's more guesswork and possible wasted effort involved?"
"And you cannot change the past?"
"Right. Sort of. Not the past further back than a few days. And even in that narrow window we're unlikely to have the effect we wanted."
"What does that mean?"
"Well, we can't change the past on purpose. But merely observing a past moment can cause it to change in an unpredictable fashion. If you're observing a moment only hours or days old."
"Yikes! So you can change the past!" I exclaimed. Then suddenly was struck with a brainstorm.
"I bet that's why sometimes there's wild changes in breaking news stories over the first few hours or days...!"
"Yes. Sometimes our peeks into the near past can cause such things among the living. The effect is much more noticeable today than it was in past decades or centuries, since news reporting is getting closer and closer to realtime in responsiveness."
"What's going to happen when they catch you at it?"
"I don't understand what you mean."
"I mean sooner or later news reporting will get so fast we'll get incontrovertible proof of history changing on the fly. Due to the dead accidentally changing it, if nothing else."
"No, Jerry. That'll never happen."
"Even once the living perfect instant news reporting, our inadvertant changes to history will never be provable, simply because history adjusts to make it so."
"Oh yeah! I've forgotten some of that stuff from my Pagnew days!" I slapped my hand to my forehead. But heck: that'd been a long time ago!
"Speaking of your trip aboard the Pagnew, Jerry..."
"Remember how the crew talked about something called the probability stream?"
"Well, the event-lines they told you about are relevant to us here. We can fiddle quite a lot with such lines in the present and future, but only randomly in the past. And only for a very short distance into the past. And all this is made more complicated by us sometimes making mistakes about our choices of event-lines in the past."
"You're losing me Bridget."
"Well-- it's complicated, Jerry! Lots of past event-lines look almost identical, and it can be difficult to pick the one which actually connects to the present you wish to change or study. It can be worse than trying to pick out one tiny wire from thousands of strands in a trans-Atlantic cable--"
"Oh! I think I see now."
"Yes. The whole multiple universes thing is no picnic in the afterlife, either. We have some advantages over the living in this regard, but not nearly so many as we'd like."
"But-- so-- you're saying that you can't watch the living all the time in the present-- but you can spy on them at selected moments in the past and future, as well as the present?"
"Yes. And have a purposeful effect on them in the present and future-- but only a random effect in the past-- the recent past. If any.
"The flip-side of the across-the-board time access is the requirement to know exactly what you're doing in terms of timing. It's easy to miss the moment you truly want to target, and waste your potency.
"Another limitation is our greatest physical capabilities to interact with the living tend to be focused on the places we actually lived during life, and the people we personally knew. The further we get from those in our machinations, the more costly it is for us to exert the same level of effect."
"So...you're saying you're strongest in dealing with people like me or Kathy, or visiting your hometown in Texas?"
"So it sounds like those visits you did for me in Tennessee and Kentucky were pretty pricey."
"Yes. Compared to hanging out at the Dairy Queen a few blocks from our trailer in Texas, and haunting Paul."
"Paul? You mean you did haunt him?" Paul had been an old ex-boyfriend of Bridget's that I'd successfully confronted and driven away, during our time together in Texas.
"No! I mean, maybe it would have been fun to scare him a little, to get back at him for the old days. But I've never done that. I have far better things to do now.
"However, lots of new arrivals do tend to spend too much of themselves on looking up the living they left behind rather than making a fresh start here."
"But isn't that what you did? By helping me those times?"
"No! Jerry, I'll always love you. But I knew we had to go our separate ways once I realized where I was. That visit in your car came only because I knew you needed me, and your own life might be cut short if I didn't see you."
"But how's that different from those other people you talked about?"
"Those are obsessed with their past lives. They think they must monitor their friends and families continuously-- and sometimes go beyond that to actually meddle on an on-going basis-- either as guardian angels, or as demonic vengeance seekers--"
"Huh? Vengeance seekers!?"
"Yes. Not everything people do here is intentionally beneficial to the living. Some here wish to hurt or hound the living, for various reasons--"
"That's scary, Bridget! I mean, if they can appear and touch people physically, like you say--"
"There's a built-in safeguard on that, Jerry. Just as happens here, anyone who acts violently or malevolently against others pays dearly for it-- and the living victims sometimes actually benefit from it. Which makes it all the worse for their dead attackers--"
"Oh! I see! So it works the same for living victims as dead ones!"
"Yes. Oh, but you wouldn't believe the lengths to which some have gone to try to get around that, or reverse it somehow. But so far such things have never worked. The dead can almost never harm the living in any way but random accident."
"Well that's a relief! The living have enough problems without the dead piling up on them too!" I said, even as I recalled a few people from my own past I sure wouldn't have wanted to have met again, after witnessing their deaths first-hand.
Some of those deaths, by my own hand. Usually in desperate self-defense, or by accident. But once or twice, by a conscious decision on my part, that their end was far more valuable than any alternative available at the time. Such as where it'd stop an already well-proven serial killer from harming anyone else.
Still though, I didn't bring this particular point up with Bridget. For I sure didn't want to rehash those events in the here and now. Plus, what if no one here knew about them, and I inadvertently leaked the beans? Regarding something I could be penalized for here, somehow? Yikes!
"Yes. You're absolutely right," Bridget responded.
"Even well-intentioned meddling seems like it could easily go too far."
"Yes. It could."
"So what about that? What happens if well-intentioned-- um-- ghosts-- do too much for the living?"
"Jerry, remember the high cost of such meddling. The more real effect such people have on others, the more it costs them. So they can quickly lose their potency and dissolve altogether."
"So a guardian angel type dead person might help someone several times and then go poof! And be gone?"
"Yes. Something like that."
Just one of the strange sights here was people of varying transparency. That is, in this land of ghosts, some were more ghost-like than others.
It turned out that some people here when they passed on did so gradually, while others just went poof.
The poofed-and-they-were-gone folks usually did their disappearing act immediately on the heels of a final grand gesture or act, which cost them so much as to take them into negative potency territory in a single move.
The more ghostly appearing folks lost their potency in a more gradual fashion. It seemed the most extreme cases, who took great pains to guard their remaining potency and expenditures thereof, might take as much as a hundred years to go from slightly fuzzy around the edges to completely gone. With all the decades in-between spent as an ever more transparent and inaudible apparition: a ghost's ghost.
Once you started going transparent here, you'd usually lose associates fast, according to Bridget. For lots of folks here seemed to be under the impression that passing on just might be contagious. Or that the fading person might somehow draw parasitically on your own potency if you spent too much time with them. If you were lucky, you'd have close friends or family here that'd still interact with you as long as they could. But sooner or later you'd be so far gone your image sort of sputtered in and out unpredictably, so that often no one could be sure if you were still here or not.
From what I'd seen so far, I thought the instant poofing departure to be by far the best.
I personally didn't want to slowly fade away like those others.
A new question came to me.
"So how do your experts explain this place? How we're here-- where we are-- and why?"
"Oh, they're all over the place on that!" Bridget laughed. "It kind of reminds me of the living bickering about politics and religion!"
"You mean there's no general idea about what's going on here?"
"Oh, I think I know what you'd like to hear Jerry. With your engineering education and all. Well, those experts you'd probably like most think everyone here might technically not be all the way dead yet--"
"We might still be alive--"
"But Bridget: that's obviously not true! You died years and years ago! And yet here you are! Unless I really am just dreaming..."
"You're not dreaming. And yes. Here I am. But you didn't let me finish. The experts think maybe during the physical body's last split second or so of life, the mentality is freed to exist here for a time. And when we finally pass on from here, that's actually the moment our physical form finally expires. They explain the wild differences in time passage perceptions by saying perhaps we experience immensely accelerated time here, so that what's micro-seconds among the living could feel like hundreds of years here--"
"Oh! I see. Something like the distortion we can experience when dreaming--"
"Yes. There's also a variation on that theme, where some here claim they're not dead, but dreaming. Or willfully projecting here via meditation. Or somehow momentarily ascended here due to a great moment of enlightenment or religious revelation--"
I interrupted her there. "But if any of that were true, something still seems wrong about how you can move backwards and forwards in time here. And how even if you don't, time passes for you here in parallel to the living, for hundreds of years--"
"Yes. It does seem difficult to believe such perceptions could be shoe-horned into what may really be just fractions of a second before physical death. Or a few minutes spent in religious or meditative ecstasy by the living. And there's the potency issue to be considered too. But that's just a few of the ideas. And the ones I thought you might like most.
"Another is that the universe is actually merely a huge computer program, with the after-life just another level of the game or simulation," Bridget added.
"Yeah. I think that one's been a common idea on Earth for a while too. Well, among the living the concept is just about them: I'm not sure if I ever heard anyone include the possible afterlife in the scenario, too," I replied.
"Yet another idea is that unknown aliens catch our souls somehow after death, and put us here. And that either our home is truly a different plane of existence, or else a sort of alien retirement home for souls. That might also explain the absence of some people here: either they were missed by the capture net, or purposely filtered by our alien abductors--"
"Hey! If aliens-- hey! Are there aliens here, Bridget?"
"Yes and no. There's some who claim to be aliens. But many of those are clearly delusional. Of those who seem mentally competent, there's often no way to prove their claims one way or another."
"Well, it seems to me that they'd look alien!"
"Yes, it would seem so. But they don't. They look just like the rest of us."
"How do they explain that?"
"They have different excuses. Some say they were sent here by mistake, or as punishment. Or as ambassadors. Others say the same thing as those who claim to be here through dreaming or meditation or transcendence during life."
"Hmm. All those things sort of sound possible to me--"
"Yes. Like I said, there's simply no way to prove things one way or another for some here. It might also interest you to know some insist they are animal spirits."
"Animals. They say they aren't human or human-like alien counterparts, but animals. Sometimes alien animals."
"Well...I do know of a few kinds of animals which just might make it here-- what sort of animals do they claim to be?"
"All kinds imaginable."
"What about gorillas or chimpanzees? Or dolphins?"
"Yes. Those too."
"But they look human? Like the people claiming to be aliens?"
"Is there anything else odd about them? Besides their claims I mean?"
"A bit. But not usually anything beyond what you might expect of an eccentric human being."
"Oh. Well, sounds like another intriguing mystery to me! I think it'd be fun to talk to some of them!"
"Oh, I'm sure it will be! But you'll find there's no shortage of mysteries and puzzles here, Jerry! The problem is they're most of them staggeringly difficult to unravel.
"Oh! I almost forgot to mention that there are some aliens here, that we're sure of."
"How do you know? Do they look like aliens?"
"Well, not exactly."
"What does that mean?"
"Sometimes they look like us, and other times they look like artifacts."
"The largest group of aliens we're sure about here can look like us when they wish to interact with us, but mostly they prefer to remain a quiet and passive part of the scenery."
"Bridget, you're losing me."
"Their natural physical form-- as they'd appear on Earth-- is basically a giant family of mushrooms, all connected to one another underground. And so almost entirely invisible to the living at all times."
"Yes. I know it sounds odd. But they may be the dominant form of intelligent life in the galaxy."
"You mean with starships and all?"
"No. Nothing like that. They don't need starships. They can traverse the void without such artificial aids."
"Yikes! Are they scary?"
"No. They're quite civilized. Lots more civilized than we human beings are, I'm afraid."
"Well, that's a good thing-- isn't it?"
"Oh yes. Very good. Although they prefer to keep to a minimum any interference in our own affairs, we depend upon them quite a lot here."
"Depend on them? For what?"
"Memories, mostly. They're much longer lived than we are, both in the living realm and here. It's only by consulting them that we can ever know more about afterlife history than roughly the past couple thousand years or so. They're also the closest thing to real libraries we possess. Real afterlife libraries, I mean. Their memories are both deep and detailed on a great many matters."
"What? You mean to tell me they live longer than Jesus did?"
"Oh yes. Much longer. And their passing is unlike our own, in some ways."
Bridget thought for a moment before answering me.
"Well, for instance, we're unsure if they ever truly pass on. In the way we do, I mean."
"What? They never pass on?"
"They might. Sort of. We just aren't sure. Even after our experts discussed it with their experts, we still remained uncertain if their individuals actually pass on like ours do."
"Well, that sounds weird. Either you pass on, or you don't. Right?"
"In their case, we just don't know. Sure, portions of them seem to dissolve away eventually. But other portions simply become a part of others of their kind. So they have a very fuzzy way of passing-- if they indeed pass at all."
"And even the aliens themselves don't know if they pass?"
"That's part of the problem. It's like they don't understand what we're talking about when referring to passing on. Even when we use the passing of one of our own as a clear example, they seem to find it either puzzling or humorous."
"Well, maybe that means they know something they're not telling us."
"Maybe. But if so that would be the first firm deception or omission we've ever detected from them. They seem to be the epitome of trustworthy."
Bridget seemed a bit troubled by my distrust there. So she sought to alleviate it.
"Keep in mind Jerry that the only thing you have to fear here is yourself. What I mean by that is most new arrivals suffer a rocky first few months due to having a tough time getting a handle on their own fears and misconceptions. The good-hearted with little or no agenda about controlling others seem to have the easiest time, while those at the opposite end of the spectrum suffer the worst.
"Compared to the living, this place is almost upside down in many ways. So those who most liked how things worked in life are usually the most disappointed here.
"But anyone can have problems during their first months here. After all, going from a physical existence to a-- virtual one-- is no small matter.
"Your earliest months here could be heavily shaped by old dreams, nightmares, and memories from life. Some here have compared their first weeks to an acid trip in life--"
"Acid trip? You mean LSD?"
"Yes. Often it seems to turn out that those new arrivals who adjust the fastest to the afterlife had also tried LSD at some point during life--"
"So you think it'll help me that I did LSD a couple times while alive?"
If Bridget was surprised by my admission, she didn't show it. As best I could recollect from our days in Texas she'd only seen me drink a bit of alcohol on rare occasion, and use doctor prescribed codeine after a bit of eye surgery, for a few days. My main vices in those days had been driving fast, and craving all the sex with Bridget that I could get! Ahh! Sweet memories...
Bridget answered my query. "Maybe. It does seem that people with some recreational drug experience sometimes have an easier time adjusting than those without. But it's hard to be certain, as those same people also tended to be peaceful and laid-back, and thus better suited to existence here anyway."
"Why do you think acid-takers and the like might have it easier?"
"Well, some of them say the self and personal space generation here has much in common with certain altered states experienced during life with mind-altering drugs."
"Wow," I replied. While thinking that Steve might really like this place-- hey! He might be here already! I mean, if I was here now, he might be too. Especially since with my missing memories I couldn't recall his living status from recent years.
I made a mental note to ask Bridget about him in short order.
"-- but the most important thing is that you have a guide," Bridget was telling me.
"You mean like you?"
"Gosh! I sure am lucky I've got you, then!"
"Actually, you had at least a half-dozen other people who'd have gladly been your guide."
"What? Like who?" I asked. Heck: maybe I was about to find out about Steve right now!
"Your uncle Emerson, for one," Bridget stunned me by saying. Emerson had died while I was in college, long ago. He'd greatly encouraged a scientific way to my thinking and curiosity at a young age, with his massive scrapbooks of newspaper clippings regarding household experiments for kids, and unusual real-life events. Like my dad, Emerson had always tried to nudge me towards the arts of invention and improvisation. And I'd realized some of that later in my supercar and various self-built aircraft, among other things...
"Emerson? He's here?"
"Can I see him?"
"I'm sorry Jerry. But no. You'll have to settle for me until after we're sure you're going to stick. We must take precautions here to limit contacts at first."
"I understand. So who else was willing to be my guide?"
Bridget smiled again.
"I'm suddenly not sure if it's fair to name some and not all-- plus, at the moment, you might not recognize some of the names."
"Oh! OK. I get it," I responded. At which point Bridget continued my lessons regarding the great beyond.
"Speaking of the differences between life and afterlife, there's also the noise problem."
"Yes. I'm protecting you from it at the moment. Seeing as how we don't know if you'll take hold here or not. But if you stay you'll have to learn to filter out the noise on your own."
"What sort of noise?"
"The thoughts of others here, in the present. The noise of sensations from the living. The noise of artifact construction and maintenance. Stuff like that. It's quite the din! But people usually get the hang of it pretty quickly. In some ways it's similar to learning how to ignore a persistent odor in life.
"One aspect of the noise that's a bit more difficult though is keeping your place."
"The living have gravity and other forces helping them do that almost without thinking. It's the opposite here. We have to consciously anchor ourselves to a spot here, both space and time-wise."
"Uh oh. You lost me again Bridget."
"I'm holding you here right now. But at some point you'll have to take control of your own location and timing."
"So what happens if I can't?"
"Um...to the rest of us around you, you'll seem like the village idiot, because your mind would be lost among the living somewhere in time, and your apparent presence here would be just thrashing about, unable to walk or get around--"
"Ugh! That sounds awful! Are there really people like that here?"
"Not many. People who were able to function in living society in a more or less normal way can usually adapt to the requirements here too. But it seems excessively strong religious convictions or mental illness during life can make some collapse that way after they've been here a while."
"Can they be cured? Or saved somehow?"
"Well, some here do try to help them from time to time. And there have been a few notable successes. But most of the victims stay lost that way until they pass on."
"Bridget, that brings up another question. Namely, can someone in such shape be put out of their misery sooner?"
"Like-- um-- can people here commit an-- afterlife version of suicide? Or could others help them by way of a mercy killing? Something like that?"
"Well, as I said before, you can bring on your own passing pretty easily if you want. Most everyone who's learned their way around here knows how to do that.
"As for helping someone pass on who might benefit from it-- I'm not sure. I'd have to ask someone. But surely under the proper circumstances they could."
Hmm. I decided to return to big picture requests again.
"Well, I guess this is where I ask the big questions," I told her.
"Yeah. You know: what's the purpose of life? Why are we here? What are we supposed to do? And I guess that would require an answer for both life and the after-life."
"Why are we here? What are we supposed to do?"
"On your own beliefs and intentions. Both while living, and after."
"Well-- how about for the average person? What would you tell them?"
"Jerry, there's no such thing as an average person, and you know it. It's a mathematical term."
"Gosh! Sounds like you finished your college education here, Bridget!" I smiled. For she was right of course.
"How about we rephrase the question to the answer I think would apply to most people?" Bridget offered.
"Yeah! That sounds good!"
"Why are we here, and what are we supposed to be doing..." Bridget mused for a moment. Then continued.
"Most of the living want to believe there's a God-- even if he's often a scary God that defies understanding and seems awfully unjust. They want to believe in a God who might-- at least on rare occasion-- take an interest in them, and respond in a beneficial manner."
"Yeah. I get that."
"So for those people, their purpose is to convince others to think the same way they do--"
"Oh man! Bridget, that sounds like crap!"
"Jerry, just because you know that's not your purpose in life, doesn't mean it's not others'."
"Well-- yeah. I guess you're right."
"Plus, I think there's something about that practice which you don't get."
"Yeah? Like what?"
"The more people the devout can persuade to join them, the more true their vision will become."
"Bridget! Now you're just plain talking bonkers!"
"Not really. You see Jerry, there's real strength in numbers. Hmm. Maybe you'll understand better if I put it more in terms you can relate to. Think about the gangs you often dealt with in life."
"Now, which gangs usually had greater control over their territory, and could better protect their members from adversity?"
"Oh. I see what you mean. The bigger the gang, the more powerful, and the more it could do in theory for its members."
"You got it. The bigger and more cohesive a gang, the more secure its individual members. At least in some ways. Because a sufficiently large gang can become akin to a force of nature. Actually change the local reality in some ways. In effect, take on some small measure of God-like powers."
"So the religious freaks can sort of create their own God-like effects around them, if they can only get enough members," I offered my own slant on Bridget's words.
"Well, I guess I can see that. But on Earth there's a lot of those gangs, and they fight with one another and everyone else too, it seems."
"Yes. That's true."
"So the purpose of religious freaks is to cause trouble."
"Jerry, that's not what I said."
"Well, that's how it turns out!"
"Jerry, religion is no different in some respects than many other man-made things. Like guns or money, for instance. Either guns or money can be used for good or evil: it depends on who wields them, and how."
"Well, yeah. I guess so. But at least you admit religions are man-made."
"Of course! But not everyone here would agree with that. Some believe there could be a higher power which does care about matters regarding humankind."
"Yeah. Apparently even death doesn't solve some problems," I replied. But Bridget largely ignored it in her next comment.
"So far as a 'higher power' possibly helping mankind, we seem to be it. By that I mean we've seen no sign of anyone but us interfering or interceding with matters on Earth. From some place other than the physical realm of the living, I mean. And as I explained before, even we have our limitations and possibly detrimental effects."
I took that opportunity to inject another question. "But what about the weird way violence works here? And when people here try to hurt the living?"
"Yes, that is a curious effect. But some experts think it's basically something like an immune system response on the part of life itself, against the normal entropy suffered in the physical universe."
"Yes. As I explained before, some think all of us here are actually still alive, but in our final dying seconds, and simply experiencing a higher plane of existence in those seconds, where time and other forces work differently. Therefore we're still technically part of life's equation in the universe, only less firmly moored to physicality than before.
"Anyway, in this stage of life, we've been promoted to something akin to neurons or brain cells in the body of life-- to use the analogy of human physiology. Therefore we're like supervisors over the living. Or at least those of us who may still affect them are.
"Those of us with too little potency to affect the living may only try to help the others figure out how best to use their influence.
"Our removal from the day-to-day concerns of life means we cannot be hurt as easily-- and so we lose ourselves the power to hurt others, too-- at least intentionally."
"Oh! That sort of makes sense! Even from an evolutionary point of view!" I responded.
"Yes. I thought you'd like that.
"But that's just one of the theories. Other ideas abound."
"Wow. I never heard anyone on Earth consider the possibility we could have evolved some weird powers we might use only after we've entered our final unconscious moments..." I mused.
"Don't forget you have yet to recall much of your life, Jerry."
"Oh yeah! I know."
"Others think the reason we can't find God is because we are God-- that is, God is made up of the whole of life in the universe, of which we after-lifers basically rate as lowly single God-cells."
"That sort of sounds a lot like the other thing-- only with the word 'life' replaced by 'God'," I observed.
"Yes. But the similarities end there. In the 'we are all God' theory, God means to experience every sensation that's to be had from living experience, which means every possible pain and pleasure. The bad news is there's far more flavors of pain and suffering than there are pleasure, which means most of us are doomed to be the suffering portions of God's body."
"Yuck! I hate that one!"
"You're not the only one. But it's about as plausible as many other ideas."
"But that suffering part-- that would only apply to the living. Right?"
"No. Remember the malevolent among us I told you about. They seem to palpably suffer here as a consequence of discovering they cannot bring harm to or control others as they wish."
"Oh yeah. Well, I sure don't feel sorry for them!"
"And there's those who cannot manage the noise here too, and suffer their own form of disability and more."
"Yeah. I do feel for them."
At that point Bridget took a firmer hold of the conversation, steering it another way entirely.
"Jerry, it turns out you and I are connected in one way you might not expect."
"Oh? What's that?"
"Well, I'm sort of related to-- um-- the thing you were warned about aboard the Pagnew. By the alien entity who shared your mind."
"Are you talking about Ovizatataron's warning?"
"Yes. Do you remember the thing Ovizatataron was afraid of? That he warned was afflicting humanity across time?"
"Yes. Why?" Ouch! I sure dreaded hearing anything about that topic from the perspective of the after-life! Agh!
"Well, that special blood I told you about that I had while alive-- it meant I'm distantly related to the thing Ovizatataron told you about."
"But...Ovizatataron acted like that entity was evil."
"Yes. It seems to be. But it's sort of like my great-great-great-great-great-whatever-grand-uncle."
"Bridget, that doesn't sound good."
"Oh, don't worry! It doesn't mean I'm evil or anything. It's just what gave me my second sight, and made me a little mentally unstable in life," Bridget explained. I wasn't sure what she meant about mentally unstable. To me, she hadn't seemed any more unstable than any other woman I ever knew.
"Ovizatataron didn't tell me much about living people being related to the Beast," I responded.
"Yes. I'm not sure how much he knew about that. But you needed to know that some of us are."
"Wait! You don't mean I am too, do you?"
"No! Not you. At least not like me. But you were exposed to its influence on your Pagnew trip. And at other points along the way, too."
"Exposed? You make it sound like it's contagious."
"It might be, in some ways. We're not sure about that either. But brace yourself, Jerry."
"Brace yourself. I have something else to tell you about this."
"The Beast-- or Mayan-- or whatever you want to call it-- is here. In this place. With us."
"It's here. At least we think it's the same thing Ovizatataron and his people meant with their terms."
"Are we in danger?"
"No! At least not for the moment. It's been here quite a while. Some here believe it somehow hastened the passing of people like Mohammad and Jesus."
"Yuck! Does that mean this place has turned evil?"
"No! It just means things are a bit more confused than has been the case for a long time. But stuff like this has happened before."
"Well Jerry, to get into that will touch on some things I don't think you can remember from your own life yet. But maybe I can explain it this way: you're aware that humanity existed on Earth a lot longer than the known historical records account for. Right?"
"Right! Well, it turns out when the ancient Greeks and others cobbled together the beginning of the present more or less steady advancement of human civilization a few thousand years ago, their's was something like the third or fourth attempt: humanity had tried the same thing before, but failed."
"One of the previous attempts was around twenty thousand years ago, in southeast asia. Before the Ice Age gave way to warmer times and flooded much of the civilized world.
"That earlier civilization went a different route technology-wise than the Greeks. They went with bio-tech in a big way. Then they stumbled onto methods by which to accelerate their progress far beyond their ability to wield it wisely, and things spiraled out of control.
"They did horrible, horrible things with their new inventions. They went to war, splitting into two major factions, then went to war again. One side finally destroyed the other, but then found they themselves destroyed by natural forces, as the end of the Ice Age caused the ocean to take their lands, and impoverish them to such an extent that they were forced to disperse across the globe, with little or no remaining technological edge left to them over other peoples.
"In some of their last, desperate experiments, one dying faction of adults performed genetic-engineering on some of their children before transporting them to the new lands. Their experiments didn't accomplish what they'd hoped, and as time ran out they shifted their goals to merely trying to give their children certain advantages over the natives they'd soon find themselves living among.
"Those new abilities were in the children's blood. Or their DNA, I suppose you'd say.
"One of those children was apparently an ancestor of mine. It was the same way with the Beast.
"That tweaked DNA though was as much a curse as a blessing. Sure, it gave its owners some extra powers over regular people. But it often made its owners crazy, too. Or sick in ways which couldn't happen to regular people.
"The Beast-- born as a Mayan or else assimilated into that culture at some point-- got a big dose of this in his genetic lineage, while people like me got just a tiny one.
"The Mayan managed to also get hold of some forbidden technology from the original biotech wars of our forefathers, by which to amplify and refine his genetic potential.
"And then he died. Sort of. His death may have been the strangest in all of human history. For he was able to have his followers construct a unique underground tomb for him, utilizing biotech from the homeland of our Asian ancestors. That tomb allowed him to keep one foot in life and one in the afterlife in a way which may have only happened two or three other times since humanity first appeared on Earth-- at least so far as we here know of.
"His tomb was eventually compromised during the 20th century, and broken into. But by that time other technologies had progressed to the point worldwide that the Mayan was able to make a successful transition to a different, and wider platform.
"After that, he became nearly unstoppable. Especially since the living had no idea of his existence, and so couldn't interfere with him but by accident.
"Think about it: by that point the Mayan enjoyed a strong position both among the living, and the dead. His potency here was enormous for his time of arrival, as he'd been instrumental in bringing about the collapse of Mayan civilization, and causing an enormous death toll in the Americas. Much larger than living historians realized until only recently. Though we knew about him here, he was at the very least our equal in many things-- and even our superior in some. Plus, he possessed the powers of a living being as well--"
"Man, Bridget! That sounds horrible!"
"Yes. It's bad all right. Especially since he is very careful about how he spends his potency. He seems to have figured out how to hurt people both here and there without paying the price I described to you before."
"I wish I were."
"Well, at least he'll pass on someday. Right?"
"We don't know."
"Huh? I got the impression nobody here was immortal! Heck, you said even Jesus passed on after a while!"
"Yes. Normally, all here who were once human pass on, sooner or later. But the Mayan may have found a way around that, with his status of simultaneous life and death.
"Remember, Jerry: the living can increase their after-life potency. And the Beast enjoys a perpetually living component. In theory he might live forever both here and on Earth. And continually increase in after-life potency, too--"
"No, Bridget! Don't tell me that!" I moaned, while clasping my forehead with my right hand.
"It's not all bad news Jerry," she told me, apparently throwing me a bone.
"Thank God! So tell me some good news!"
"There's someone who may be something of a counterweight to the Mayan in the scheme of things."
"Yay! Who's that?"
"Another rare case of simultaneous life and death: an Australian Aborigine who was originally born thousands of years before the Mayan."
"Thank goodness! So he'll take care of the Mayan?"
"I didn't say that. The Aborigine is much like the opposite of the Mayan. Where as the Mayan largely exists here, outside of living time, the Aborigine mostly exists with the living. Both these unusual beings also differ in their interactions with others. Here, the Mayan remains strictly isolated from anyone who disagrees with him; only by successfully getting through successive filters of his followers may one speak directly to the Mayan in our realm. And basically that means no one sees the Mayan without first joining his cult.
"On Earth, the Aborigine is almost never near any centers of human population. He does roam the entire world-- but it's on foot, and usually via a secret honeycomb of subterranean passages only he knows."
"What the heck is he doing?"
"He influences the living through their dreams. But his range is limited. Ergo, the reason he must stay ever on the move.
"Basically the Aborigine preaches compassion, tolerance, compromise, sharing, peace, and innovation to others, as the best ways for everyone to survive and improve their lot.
"He's a creation of beings much longer-lived than humans, who've been colonizing the galaxy since the beginning."
"What? Are you talking about the mushroom people here?"
"Good! You caught that! Yes, I am. They have no interest in war or mankind-style domination or anything like that. Their lives and after-lives are near identical-- much more in synch than that of we humans."
"So why'd they create the Aborigine?"
"They actually created more than one like him. But the Mayan has managed to neutralize all the others on Earth for the time being, so that only the one remains an effective agent.
"That one is a major thorn in the Mayan's side-- for of all his kind, he is the most familiar with the civilization and technologies which spawned the special abilities of the Mayan himself-- and so might be the best equipped for stymieing the Mayan's plans.
"Beings like the Aborigine are stewards for young civilizations like ours. The mushroom people began creating such stewards on the planets they colonized long ago, in order to protect budding civilizations both from their own worst impulses, and from especially insidious threats like the Mayan himself.
"The aliens are not wholly benevolent here: they nourish and protect budding civilizations like ours in an attempt to provide a fertile bed for their own young ones to be so nurtured, later on. For in the best case scenarios, the aliens reveal themselves and their efforts to races like ours at a certain point, and then ask us to help their own young ones the same way they did us. For the way the aliens reproduce, the parents are never around to guide the young themselves. The race literally depends on the kindness of strangers-- and so they are as kind to young strangers as they can be."
"That sure sounds weird!"
"Yes. It all works out for the aliens though, due to their very long life-cycles. And the manner in which they live means they take nothing from the environment that humanity itself would want.
"Unfortunately, the Mayan's success at neutralizing the other stewards has made the 20th and 21st centuries much more dangerous for humanity than they otherwise would have been. The living are presently operating with much less help from the stewards than is normal, even as they have lots more choices to make in regards to their survival."
"So what are the elders or experts here doing about the Beast?"
"There's not much they can do but try to persuade him to desist in his efforts. But given the entity's substantial filtering system, I don't think anyone of consequence here has actually managed to speak with him for a long time now."
"But surely we've got to do something!"
"Yes. But that's for you to discuss with others after you've established yourself as a resident here."
"Uh oh. You don't mean that's what the elders are cooking up for me, do you? That I have to do something about the Beast myself?"
"I guess I may have said too much Jerry. But yes. They wish to talk to you about the Beast."
"Holy cow Bridget. I seriously don't think I got it in me anymore to do such things..."
"I know Jerry."
"I mean, it feels like that's all I've been doing for ages now..."
"I know, Jerry."
"And I guess I'm just tired of fighting, Bridget..."
"I know you are Jerry."
"So what happens if I say no?"
"Nothing. Nothing will happen Jerry. Things will simply continue on as they are now--"
"What? But they have to do something, don't they?"
"They're doing what they can."
"But-- you acted like that wasn't getting them anywhere--"
"So you're saying I'm it? Their only answer to the problem? Bridget, you have got to be kidding me! You know who I am! What I am! I can't fix this! I'm just an old worn out hot rodder!"
"You've already beaten the Beast in several match ups, Jerry."
"What!? No I haven't! Wait-- if you're talking about Ovizatataron, when he was inside my head-- he didn't beat the Beast either! The Beast ripped him to shreds and only the last remaining piece made it to nest in my head for a while! We didn't beat the Beast at all!"
"No, you didn't. Not then. It was other times."
"What other times? I don't remember them!"
"As I said, much of your memory is currently missing, but will come back to you shortly.
"However, even once you've regained those memories, it's possible you may still fail to recognize those instances where you grappled with the Beast."
"How could that be true?"
"Dealing with the Beast on Earth is unlike any other sort of conflict possible there. Remember that the Beast may use both living and afterlife powers-- but its afterlife component is constrained by the same things which limit the rest of us here."
"So please tell me that limits its living side too."
"No. The Beast's foothold among the living is unencumbered by the limitations of the afterlife."
"I still fail to see how I could fight him and not know it."
"Among the living your confrontations with the Beast were always indirect. I believe Ovizatataron once described to you how the Beast operates among living humanity--"
"Oh yeah. Yeah he did! Let's see...yes, it was something about the Beast having minions among the living. Minions which did his bidding...wait a minute! Matrix prodigies! That was it! Ovizatataron said the Beast preferred using organizational matrix prodigies for its main lieutenants...and..."
"Bridget, you said earlier you were sort of related to the Beast by blood..."
"Are you an organizational matrix prodigy? Like Ovizatataron talked about?"
"Yes, Jerry. I am. That's the special thing about me which gave me my second sight in life, and granted me my present wealth in this realm."
"But Ovizatataron said matrix prodigies work for the Beast..."
"Only some of them. Those the Beast could lure or persuade to his side. I am not one of them."
"But-- how can I know that? How can anyone know that?"
Bridget gave me a grim smile.
"He tried to turn me, Jerry. I didn't know what was happening at the time, but I do now. After getting here, and having it all explained to me.
"He pressured me, and my family, our entire lives. You remember my dead brother and sister?"
"Apparently the Beast had something to do with their deaths. To make things harder on us."
"But how would that help him bring you over to his side?"
"It was stick and carrot. As he realized I was moving further and further away from the direction he wanted me to follow in life, he applied more and more pressure to me and my family. Made things harder and harder on us. Then he'd occasionally dangle temptations in front of me. Ways I could make things easier on myself and my family, if I just did certain things--"
"You actually talked to him?"
"No! Nobody talks directly with the Beast that I know of. Not here. And not on Earth. All the negotiation and persuasion is done via intermediaries of various kinds."
"And you resisted him?"
"Yes. But I didn't know exactly what I was resisting. To my mind I was just doing the right thing. But he sure made it hard for me. And my family."
"How do you know you were struggling with the Beast back then? That he killed your brother and sister, and all that?"
"I was informed of all that by others when I arrived here."
"But-- do the others know you're a prodigy?"
"Oh yes! They actually made a fuss over it in the beginning."
"It sounds like they welcomed you. It doesn't seem like they'd do that."
"Jerry, most people here have nothing against matrix prodigies. For one thing, it seems we're pretty rare! And even rarer than that is a prodigy who avoided losing their mind in life, and didn't go over to the Beast's side either."
"Are you the only one? Like that, I mean?"
"Oh no. There's a few others here like me. Clear-headed and not a part of the Beast's machine. Just not very many. Most prodigies though both living and dead do seem to belong to the Beast. He's very good at getting them to join him."
"Well then...I guess maybe there was something good about your death after all."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean it let you escape from the Beast and his pressures."
"Jerry, I was murdered."
"What?! By who!?"
"By the Beast."
"But-- I mean-- you said he wanted you to work for him! Why would he kill you?"
"Two reasons: one, I was getting stronger with my matrix abilities, and worse yet, getting ever further away from becoming his servant.
"And two-- there was you, Jerry."
"Me? What's that mean?"
"The Beast was starting to take notice of you even before I met you. Before your trip aboard the Pagnew."
"Notice me? Why?"
"You were upsetting some of his plans, if only by accident and happenstance."
"Like what plans?"
"Like the fate of Steve Roberts. The future of Lindsay Finch. D.C. Evans' plan to incinerate New Forge. Wenger's killing spree. The deaths of those old folks and their grandkids by forest fire. That stolen car with the baby in the back seat in Texas. Briggs' personal terror campaign.
"And that's just a sampling of things you did before I met you!" she finished.
"Well, yeah-- I guess I had a hand in some of those things..." It concerned me that Bridget said the Beast had had plans for Steve, before I'd somehow disrupted them. I always had thought I might have helped Steve steer clear from less-than-virtuous uses of his surprisingly powerful charisma and other natural talents. And his parents and other adult relatives had always seemed to think I was a good influence, too.
Heaven help the world if Steve had ever been turned evil! He could be scary enough as a force for good! Yikes!
Hmm. Something didn't seem right here.
"Bridget, are you telling me the Beast was pulling the strings on all the bad guys I've run into? That sounds way too fishy to me. I'm positive all-- or most-- of those people would have been nasty without any help at all."
"You're right, Jerry. Of course the Beast isn't behind every dastardly plot on Earth. But after you've had the chance to learn more about all this, I think you'll see his influence and opportunistic ways are not to be underestimated."
"So you were lying when you gave me the impression of the Beast being mixed up with all those things?"
"No! Certainly not! Though the Beast isn't responsible for all the evil men do, he surely does exploit all of it that he can, after-the-fact. And he definitely was involved with some of the things mentioned beforehand. Or would have been afterwards, had you not interceded."
"Are you talking about that time-shifting business again?"
"No; not necessarily. People like Steve represent one of the Beast's favorite sorts of living recruits: charismatic natural leaders who can bend large numbers to their will. But the Beast also likes brutal killers like Wenger, who leave death, chaos, and ruin in their wake, for no apparent reason. Thereby often leaving survivors with greater uncertainty than ever in the justice and fairness of the world-- and so ripe for turning by the Beast himself."
"But what about you? It sounded like you said I was part of the reason the Beast killed you," I said to Bridget, seeking some sort of clarification on the point.
"Yes. Just as with Steve, you were helping free me from the Beast as well. Stack my loss up atop all the things you'd already taken from him, and he made his move: taking me from you."
"He killed you to take you from me?" I asked incredulously, my eyes suddenly welling up with tears of rage, and my breath heaving with anger.
"Yes. He decided I'd become a lost cause, and likely to only become a potent force against him. A force maybe even greater than you already were, due to my matrix abilities.
"But by killing me he thought he could accomplish three things at once: one, prevent you and I from ever combining into an even more formidable foe; two, even if we split up, prevent me from standing against him on my own; and three, begin a long term campaign to break you, in order to maybe turn you, or else make you irrelevant to the future."
"And why didn't he just kill me too?" I asked, my voice trembling with anger. I'd been devastated by Bridget's death. I'd hurt for ten long years, before two other very special women helped me finally become whole again.
"Despite his freedom in many ways among both the living and the dead, for the Beast there remains a cost of some sort for direct involvement in killings. So he often goes to enormous lengths to avoid that, preferring instead to turn others to his bidding, or else break their spirit so that they will no longer cause him trouble.
"Being a matrix prodigy though, I was too dangerous to his plans. So he took me out.
"You, he thought to turn or break. Not by the single act of my death, but by a succession of actions meant to keep you isolated and impoverished and struggling. Then make you a string of offers until he found one you couldn't refuse. Stick and carrot. That's what he does," Bridget concluded her brief on the subject.
That's when I decided there sure enough could be no Hell in the afterlife, because if there had been I would have been immediately sent there in that moment. For I was harboring an awful, freezing cold rage right then. Rage at what the Beast had done to me. To my life. To Bridget. To others.
I took comfort in the fact I'd at least bloodied him a little along the way, according to Bridget. Taken from him some small fraction of what he'd stolen from me. The bastard.
I was so angry I was shaking. I couldn't help but grit my teeth as I next spoke to Bridget.
"Bridget, you can tell the elders if I'm able to stay here I'll do my best to rid you all of the Beast. This shit's going to stop-- if I have anything to say about it!"
I had no idea what I could do to something capable of scaring both the elders in the afterlife and the super-advanced Ovizatataron from the future.
But I was pretty sure I could get its attention. Maybe somebody else could kill it while I kept it distracted...
I could think of no better way to embark on my own passing from this place.
I could only hope I'd get the chance.
This was the thought which would dominate my thinking over the remainder of my first day in the afterlife.
If I wasn't truly dreaming all this, I mean.
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