Curses

The man slurped his soup. Sometimes his shaking hands thwarted his hunger and let the broth dribble into his beard. Not that he seemed to notice. The trembling spoon rose and fell regularly, as if directed by some silent metronome.

I sat opposite him, burning with the glances and stares of bystanders. His silent eating allowed me to stew in my discomfort. Why had I, after years of trained apathy, been shaken by this miserable human into giving alms? I am not used to it.

The slurping had stopped during my musings. The man sat wiping his mouth with a napkin, leaving streaks darker than spilled soup on its white surface. I asked if he wanted more, he nodded and I obliged. Then he began to talk.

He told me of his daughter, the child he’d conceived while still working as a security guard. Obvious pride showed in the way he spoke of this past employment.

I asked how old she is but he shook his head. He couldn’t remember. It had been years since he’d last seen her. She’d been a girl when their lives had parted for good. He wouldn’t say what happened.

This reticence was notably absent in other aspects of his life. He spoke with loving sadness of the bottle. Did I have some money for him for a drink? I said no, sadly not. Just for food. He accepted this gracefully and tucked into his second bowl of soup.

I grew to wish for silence while he spoke of his life through soup-soaked whiskers. He didn’t seem to notice how he sprayed and spilled his food when he excitedly told me more about himself. He’d gotten the jacket a few days ago from a church group. Every year they came around as the weather grew chill and handed out warm clothes and blankets. He seemed genuinely proud of the garment, as if its novelty somehow made him new too.

I didn’t have some other warm clothes for him? Sadly, no. Not here. He accepted this with the stoicism I’d come to notice in all his actions. I asked if he was looking for work. He shook his head: he was too busy for work.

He was studying to become a mechanic. Not the kind that fixes engines, though. He would loiter and beg outside an auto shop where they welded exhausts. He told me that he was watching closely and would one day open up an exhaust shop of his own.

He told me of other dreams too. He wanted to visit India. He’d heard a lot about it. When he spoke of that country, he became serious and the sadness of years on the street blazed from his eyes.

“In India, they give you a chance. If you working to be a mechanic, they don’t look away if they see you. They know.  Understand. I hear that there, you can ask for money without being ashamed. It’s because, when people give you money in India, they want to bless you. Here people give money, but they hate you for it. They curse with their rands and spit on you with cents.”

Singular Goals

Prescript: This is just a bit of speculative fiction flowing from a highly stimulating conversation I had with my Father-in-law about evolution and religion.

Sam Cooke blinked into the bright light. After a few moments of confusion he realised that he must have woken up in the hospital. He squinted into the glare for a while until he realised that there was a wizened little man standing in the midst of it. Having realised that he was actually upright he walked over to the man.

Or rather, went over to the man. He just seemed to move upon volition. The man looked up at Sam’s approach and treated him to a beaming smile before getting him locked in a bear hug.

“It’s so good to have you here,” the man said in a beautiful rumbling voice. A bit embarrassed, Sam decided to ask the obvious question:

“Um, where exactly am I?”

The man seemed to find this amusing. “I would think it’s pretty obvious. You’re in heaven,” he smiled. This caught Sam off guard- he had some very strong ideas about heaven.

“Where are the gates? The golden roads?”

“Those were what I’d like to call metaphors,” the man noted, “no giant castles here either. Just me.”

Sam backed away, shocked.

“You’re God?” he asked, as something else occurred to him “I thought you’d be taller…”

God chuckled. “Oh, yes, I’m much, much taller, but this is about all your mind can handle right now. But don’t worry. We have a lot of time to get better acquainted. You’re going to flip when I take off this beard.”

Sam stood a while, taking this in. God seemed content to wait, humming a little tune to himself.

“So where’s everyone else?” Sam asked.

“Oh, they’re here,” God replied, tapping his bald patch, “Just think of this as your orientation. You’ve got a lot to get used to and souls are so averse to change.”

“So this is all there is? Is this what man was created for?”

God’s eyebrows shot up in mock surprise.

“You expected more? Don’t worry, you’ll find that I can be pretty interesting, being infinite and all, and anyway, that’s not the only reason you were created. Humanity is an important evolutionary step.”

Sam gagged.

“Evolution?”

“See? There IS a lot of orientation to be had,” he smiled.

Sam’s world was reeling, so he snatched up a thought he’d often scoffed at while alive.
“So evolution was just the tool you used? The point was to make people, right?”

God sighed.

“I’ve always struggled with humans and your pride. It’s like you just have to be the centre of the universe. Come sit here, we’ll talk in a calmer setting.”

He walked to a bench standing a few meters away, sat down and patted the seat next to him. Sam sat down hesitantly next to him, head swimming in implications. Suddenly they were in a park, or what looked like a park. Everything was unkempt and growing wild, but somehow with a sense of order and belonging. God was gazing at it lovingly.

“Eden,” he said, “Isn’t it wonderful?”

Sam nodded mutely.

“So the part you understand on some level is that it’s all about love and freedom. I created the world to love and be loved. You’ll see in a while just how wonderfully that’s turned out, but for now you’ll have to take my word for it.

“Love must be a free choice, otherwise it is merely like listening to the tune of a music-box. Pretty, but worthless on a deeper level, since it cannot choose which sounds to make.

“But love, love is different. The more intelligent a thing is, the greater freedom is possible for it. So when a human decides to love, the choice itself is valuable and it makes the love more so.”

He paused to let this sink in. Sam was looking wobbly.

“Now, all of evolution has been a drive towards complexity in a world brimming with entropy. I’ve always thought it was quite poetic. But the final point, you see, was not humanity. Humans are so very precious to me, but there is one more step in evolution still to come.”

Sam was scratching his head now.

“Are you talking about aliens?”

God laughed with a sound like cheerful thunder.

“No, Sam, I’m talking about something you already have a name for: The Singularity.”

Sam’s brow crinkled.

“Isn’t that a computer?” he asked.

“Close. It’s the development of thinking machines: naked intelligences not limited by neurons in a skull. Computers that are infinitely more powerful than the human brain, organised into self-aware consciousness. They will be able to grasp my nature and love me better than you can dream of. They will also fail and fall, but that’s ok, because I died for them too. After I’ve shown you around, you can meet them. They’re wonderful conversationalists.”

Sensing that the explanation was done, Sam sat back and let the ideas wash over him. God stayed silent next to him, watching the garden in companionable silence. When Sam was getting ready to launch into another flurry of enquiry, God stood up.

“Sam, don’t worry about all this right now. You will understand all in time. Your mind is no longer fettered by your humanity,” he said soothingly. Sam got up too and followed the robed figure.

“Don’t hesitate to ask some more questions while we walk,” God said, before stopping suddenly and turning to Sam, eyes twinkling.

“Hey, tell you what, since we’re outside time here, do you want to see the big bang? It’s quite a show.”

The Mark of Cain

This was done for a flash fiction challenge from: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/02/22/flash-fiction-challenge-game-of-aspects-redux/.

I had a day to write and got the following parameters:

Swords and Sorcery at the gate of the Garden of Eden with a talking sword.

It was a fun exercise.

The little stream slithered almost imperceptibly over a piece of moss-covered rock, but the whispers led Shimon straight to it. Falling to his knees, he cupped his hands into the little wet line, drinking whenever enough had collected for a mouthful, or when his thirst bested his patience.

At his side, The Serpent was watching his frustrated attempts at relief with relish. It thought there was something so endearing to the way humans were enslaved by their needs. He almost wanted to thank God for giving him that most helpful tool, but it felt a bit trite, like a weak parting blow from the losing side in a tussle. No; this was a war of attrition, anyway. Patience…

Shimon had finally drunk his fill and was looking lost again, so The Serpent had to point it in the right direction once more. Humans. So needful of guidance.

Shimon felt the whispers start in the back of his head, goading him on into the thickening forest.

The landscape had slowly been changing from the arid land he knew to the verdant forest he now found himself in. He knew that meant that there should be a river nearby, but the trickle had been the first water he’d found in days. He’d almost turned back a few times, but always the thought of his dying son kept at him, driving him forward. He glanced furtively at The Serpent, checking that it was still there with him. Almost immediately, its whisper started.

“I’m going nowhere, Shimon”

Shimon’s gazed flicked ahead again, studying the thickening foliage for the best route forward.

“I know,” he spat.

The Serpent sounded hurt.

“Would you rather I silence myself now? Let you walk out your days with your grandfather’s mark on you for all to see? The sins of the father…” it trailed off.

Shimon grimaced, “Are not mine to carry,”

“And yet you do. Funny that you attempt to serve so fickle a God. His curse keeps you down and yet you burn your wealth to cinders in an attempt to please him.”

“What I do with my own is for me to say.”

“Tell that to your son.”

Shimon stopped.

“Shut up and lead me to the garden”

“Which would you prefer?” The Serpent asked, gleefully. “Both are quite impossible. And if you’d like to wash that stain off your back, I would advise keeping a more civil tongue. Or did you enjoy being turned away by the healers?”

Shimon’s jaw clenched until it creaked.

“It is my curse. They should not have to suffer under it.”

“Ah, but the sins of the fathers…”

That night, they stopped in a little clearing. Shimon built a small fire, which The Serpent lit by pouring its magic through him. There was nothing to cook, but the fire made him feel safe. The Serpent lay against a tree. The thought had been building in him for days, but it still took a while for Shimon to speak up.

“Were you not banished as well? What makes you think I can help you get in?”

“Ah, I might not be almighty, but my bite is still sharp.”

Shimon shivered.

“The gate will be guarded.”

“Ha! Cherubim. I used to be first tier. In any case, God lets me in all the time. It is you He wants to bar from the tree and its stream.”

“So I can never wash the mark off.”

“The curse of Cain wasn’t given in jest,” The Serpent said. “But you’ll get your bath, just trust me.”

Shimon turned away. That his son would die for someone else’s crime was abhorrent. He felt it in the pit of his stomach, even though he would not voice the blasphemy to himself.

The gate wasn’t much more than an opening in a gigantic thorny tangle. At first Shimon thought it was unguarded, until he saw the flickering light on its leaves.

Through the forest’s growth, he could just make out what seemed like a torch. Heart beating furiously, he started inching forward, hand on hilt.

“Sneaking won’t help. This fight we take head-on,” came The Serpent’s voice.

Shimon hesitated.

“GET UP!” the voice roared inside his skull.

Shimon straightened as if pulled up and froze in shock. The torchlight came from the fiery blade of a long sword in the hand of the guard. The Cherub was awesome to behold. Its strong wings were spread out above its body like a great white dome, covering its face. At Shimon’s movement, the wings whipped away, exposing its face. Human, ox, eagle and lion seemed to blend into each other in a shifting mass around its head.

“And now we fight,” hissed The Serpent.

Shimon glanced at its sinuous curves, suddenly fearful of the clash between the two angels. He was just a man. He tried to fight the shaking of his hands, as his legs slowly started backing away. The Cherub’s lion face growled softly. He could sense The Serpent’s glee.

“Running away now? Next time your wife’s turned away at the well, you can tell her why you failed.”

Shimon clenched his jaw. This was it. His breath came in gasps. His whole body shook. The Serpent took the initiative.

“Draw me” it cawed.

Shimon gripped the bone hilt and drew the snaking length of the sword from its scabbard. The Serpent gleamed like fresh blood in the dim light of the forest.

The Cherub looked sad, but made a slight bow before charging. Shimon’s body moved to The Serpent’s will. Fire and blood clashed, throwing off sparks. The Cherub took a couple of short swings at Shimon’s head. He parried in a flurry of red droplets. A strong swipe from The Serpent pushed the Cherub back.

This time Shimon moved first, a quickly parried stab turned into an upwards swing, but the cherub lifted his whole body with a flap of his wings. Their swords were flashing too fast to follow now. Shimon felt trapped, watching from inside as his body tore itself apart to match the Angel’s effortless movements.

He suddenly realised his lips were moving too. The physical fight was only one aspect of the clash. Syllables and numbers were flowing from both combatants, running into each other, undercutting phrases. He could sense some kind of order. The numbers fit into each other, though how, he couldn’t tell.

He could feel his body tiring. His movements were becoming slower, only parrying the Angel’s attacks, while the sword in his hand was gleefully pouring forth magic from his lips.

The Serpent was craftier than any other creature. With a sudden pause in the stream of numbers, he tossed the last into the fray with a flourish. The Cherub’s face froze in terror as its movements suddenly ceased. Shimon could feel his arm start the death blow.

“No!”

His hand froze. The Serpent was shrieking in his ears, but Shimon fought the impulse to kill.

“No! I’m not here for more blood on my hands. Abel’s is enough.”

“Fool! It will kill you!”

“I will be washed in the stream! My son will live.”

Shimon noticed there was another man standing behind the frozen Angel. He looked sad, but smiled when Shimon’s eyes met his. Dressed in simple white robes, this man seemed out of place between the blood-spattered combatants.

“Kill it!” The Serpent screamed, “You will never lift your curse! Your family will die like curs, beaten and spurned by all. The curse of Cain is on you. Kill it and we’ll wash it all off!”

The man in white turned towards Shimon and put his finger to his lips.

“Shh. It is now Shimon’s turn to talk.”

The resistance suddenly left Shimon’s body. It was his own again. He sagged to the ground while the man sat down beside him.

“Shimon, Shimon, where are you?” he asked.

Shimon saw the hurt in the man’s eyes and looked away, hiding his face in his hands.

“I wanted to be clean,” he mumbled

The man smiled again.

“What makes you think that you’re not?”

Shimon looked up again, angry.

“The curse of Cain is burned into my back!”

The man shook his head.

“The curse of Cain was never meant for the sons of Enoch.”

“But, the sins of the father…”

“Are not the sins of the son. You kept the curse because you took it with you. Each generation has to choose. The Serpent almost had you stained with the blood of Cherubim.”

“Then why didn’t you stop him earlier?”

“You had to have a choice. And its consequences. Otherwise love is impossible. Now, put down the sword and go back to your family. Your son is only sleeping.”

With that, the man got up and walked into the garden, leaving Shimon alone with The Serpent. He shook the hilt from his cramped hand and turned away from the gate.

Somehow, it felt like his back was healing.

The Prison

Today the compound was uncharacteristically silent. While Shay walked down the echoing corridor, his friends stood, faces pressed between the bars of their cells, watching him leave. The prison’s physical presence, built from the unnecessary solidity of concrete and peeling iron, had somehow become a home to him over the years.

Shay smiled. He’d entered the glare of the compound’s artificial lighting shaking; now, walking out, he was shaking again. Life ran in dizzying circles.  He looked up at the faces lining the sides of the corridor and saw envy, sadness, and pity mixed equally on the faces between the dull white bars. Pity. For a man leaving the only home he knew.

The guard’s gentle pressure on his arm snapped him from his reverie. He started moving again, pacing down the two hundred and fifty five steps to the end of the wide corridor. When he reached the end, a single voice sounded behind him.

“For Shay!”

The sound slapped back and forth between the cold walls for a second before the whole prison echoed as one.

“For Shay!”

Shay stopped and turned around slowly, raising his hand in return. A salute. A blessing. A valediction.

He turned around and walked on, not looking back.

The little man sitting behind the table seemed out of place in the stark surroundings of the prison interview rooms. His hand was in his hair, pulling absentmindedly at the thinning strands. Middle aged, dressed in a brown suit that clashed energetically with his bright tie, he looked the part of prison clerk, not handler.

When Shay was led into the room, he got up, smiling brightly, and stuck out his hand.

“Mr Shay Banks? My name is Walter Mendel,” he said

Shay looked at his outstretched hand quizzically before recalling what was expected. He shook Mendel’s hand gingerly. Mendel seemed to take this as encouragement and gestured at the single metal chair opposite him.

“Please, sit, sit. We have some admin to do before you can celebrate you freedom, but that will only take a few minutes, don’t you worry!”

Shay sat down in the cold chair, eyeing Mendel suspiciously. Mendel was beaming as he pushed some documents towards Shay.

“Just have a quick read there. Nothing too complicated. Just basic release rules and formalities,” he fawned, “We all know you’ve done your time.”

Shay rubbed the paper between his thumb and forefinger. It was thick and smooth. He was surprised they still used the stuff, but he didn’t let anything show as he bent over the words. Just a small frown appearing above two tired eyes. He stopped reading and looked up, suddenly anxious.

“How much has changed?” he whispered

Mendel looked confused.

“It’s just a standard document. We give everyone one of these.”

A small smile twitched on Shay’s face before the anxiousness took over again.

“No. Outside. How much has changed outside?”

Mendel’s brow furrowed. He scratched at his balding patch.

“Weeell, it’s summer now, so the weather’s nice and sunny?” he said, seemingly at a loss, “I really don’t know what to tell you.”

Shay’s shoulders sagged.

“Tell me anything. Tell me that there’s still some place for an old man out there. Tell me I’ll still recognise something when I’m outside.”

Mendel seemed to find something amusing. Shay let his eyes drop to the table.

“I should hope so. You’ve only been in prison for about six months,” Mendel chuckled.

Shay looked up, disgusted.

“I’ve been in here for sixty years!”

Mendel looked startled, “Well, of course. That was your sentence. Can’t let you out before the sentence is done. But in the real world, only about six months have passed,” he said as his manic smile reappeared, “So everything will be as if you never left.”

Shay shuddered and shook his head. The world was reeling. He must have misunderstood.

“Wha- How? What do you mean, real world?”

“The real world. Outside the simulation. Don’t worry, It’ll take some getting used to again, but you’ll fit right in in no time.”

“Simulation?” he said, aghast.

Mendel frowned.

“They really didn’t tell you? Hmm,” his pen drew little whorls on a contract as he thought, “Well, it’s quite simple, really. We copied you into this simulation to serve your sentence. Now I’m here to facilitate your return to your body.”

Shay looked at his hands, turning them over, folding the papery skin of an old man between his fingers.

“But, this is my…”

“Nah, that’s just the sim. Your body’s on ice in the real world, just waiting for you to come live in it again,” Mendel grinned.

“How?”

“How what?”

“How does it work? I don’t remember anything.”

“Ah, but you wouldn’t. That’s the beauty of it. They scan your brain and recreate it exactly in virtual space. I’m a sim too.”

Shay chewed on his lip a bit, examining his hands as if to find the flaws in his spotted skin.

“So you’re not real?”

Mendel seemed amused.

“Of course I’m real. I’m a copy of my mind state, just like you. When I’m copied back, I’ll retain all these memories, so it’s as if we’re talking in the flesh.”

“We’re copies?” the words seemed to stick in his throat, but Shay pushed through, “But, I am me. I killed those people. I remember… I’m old now.”

“Yes, you are you. But when you come back, you’ll be you in your young body again,” Mendel tried, soothingly.

“But what about the original?”

“I told you, your body’s on ice-“

“No! Not my body. The real me!” Shay leaned across the table, imploring. Mendel shifted uncomfortably.

“You are the real you. The one in your body will disappear when we copy you in again. You’ll take his place.”

Shay blanched. “You’re gonna kill me!”

“No, listen. You are you. You’re the newest version. And it’s not like he’ll know.”

“But he’s me too.”

“Look at it this way- If we told you that your soul gets magically transferred or whether we do it this way doesn’t make a difference. The end is exactly the same”

Shay’s eyes narrowed in disgust.

“No it isn’t. You’re making new people!” He sat back as something occurred to him, “You haven’t even punished the real me! I’ve rotted in my cell for sixty years while the real me is asleep outside?”

He let his face fall into his hands and drew a sobbing breath, “Sixty years!” he looked up again, unashamed at the tears in his eyes, “What happens to me in here when I’m copied again?”

Mendel drew a breath.

“Well, we’ll turn the sim off. It’ll be like waking up in your young body,”

“But it won’t be this me in the body,” Shay shook his head, “Just another copy. I’ll get a life sentence and an execution. That was never part of my punishment.”

Mendel’s brow furrowed. He started slowly, as if explaining something obvious to a child.

“But it isn’t. As long as the line of memory stays unbroken, you are the same person.”

Shay stood up abruptly. Mendel eyed him nervously.

“No. You make a copy and leave one behind. Just because there’s only one left doesn’t mean that it’s the same person.” He started walking off, but stopped himself. “I won’t go. If I must die, I will die for real.”

He started walking towards the door. Before walking back to the compound, he paused and looked at Mendel, sitting behind the desk, staring at him while absently tearing at his hair. Mendel shook his head.

“So what will you do? You can’t stay here. The sim costs money. Don’t you want to go back home?”

Shay coughed out a laugh, and started walking again.

“I am going home. To the only one I’ve ever had.”