The endocardiograph chirped away, then grew in rapidity. Evan Hardsfeld saw through a thinning tunnel of light while all else was enveloped in blackness. Bound by the stupor of methadone, he knew his world was slipping away. At seventy-five, he had too many regrets that spontaneously stormed into his fading psyche. Images of his past life, loved ones, coworkers and neighbors flashed by in a desultory montage, but remained coherent. The tension was grave. Doctors scrambled around, struggling to resuscitate the patient. Evan could barely feel the spasm in his chest from the defibrillator shocking his heart. Words came in as faint as a cockroach’s scuttle, “We’re losing him! More oxygen! More oxygen!” He paid little regard to them. The pineal gland began to kick in. A sense of serenity followed and quelled the outside noise. Evan shut his eyes, knowing full well this would be the last time, and prepared himself for the ultimate voyage beyond. Soon, the peace took hold, the eternal realm of dreams loomed on the horizon. He was no longer afraid, and welcomed the visions of mortality with open arms. The blips of the endocardiograph faded into the backdrop of his conscience as it finally lapsed into a consistent flatline, then….
Darkness. The long night had finally come, drawing its curtain over every mortal being. If Evan had any semblance of awareness at this point, he would have thought he was given a free ticket to the grave. Regardless, all passage of time between the final sandman’s keep and the moment collapsed into a single blur. It was the definition of nothingness. Oblivion. No sense of dimensionality, physical, temporal or otherwise could be ascribed to it. Time was neither frozen nor infinite. It simply didn’t exist. The passage feigned traditional sleep, only permanent, if there ever was an appropriate way to coin familiar rhetoric with death. Everything in the past life was left behind to rot.
This was eternity….
Evan found himself awake, or so he thought. He waved around his hands, realizing he had none, but something uncannily familiar was in its place. The rudest awakening was his awareness he was no longer corporal. In a way, he felt free, as if unhampered by the burden of bones and flesh. It was the closest he would feel like a teenager again with all that spritely vigor.
“So, this is what the afterlife feels like?” he said to himself, his voice trailing off into the ether. He was hoping, no, expecting someone else to be there. He heard his own words reverberate in waves from his head, or a kind of central locus within. “Either I’m in Heaven or dreaming my last dream as they lay the pall over me. Dead, nonetheless.” He gazed at his surroundings. “And why is everything around me a bright grey-white field? Is anyone else around? Hello? Hellooo out there!” The words echoed into infinity.
“Hello there!” A welcoming voice boomed through the space and announced itself.
Evan felt his essence jolt the way his body did with the defibrillator. “Wha…? Wait… Are you….?”
“Well, well, well, Mr. Hardsfeld. You surprisingly made it past seventy despite your cigarette habits. I’m impressed!”
“Don’t sweat it. It was a minor vice. And 'God' suits me fine. At least that’s what everyone likes to call me.”
Evan felt the onset of panic that never quite overwhelmed him. “Where are you? Can I see you?”
“I figure proof is in the pudding if you’re asking that.”
Evan choked on his words.
“Come on! I jest. See, I come in all shapes and sizes depending on your sensibilities. That’s one of my specialties.”
“You raise your hand?”
“No…I mean…” Evan was strung with amazement. “What are you really like?
“Likable, I’d say!”
“What I was trying to say…ugh.” He went to scratch his head and recalled that it was impossible. It was another habit he could dispense with. “I was just curious what you physically looked like.”
“Hard to explain, Mr. Hardsfeld. The concepts of omnipresence make themselves quite evident here. Sometimes, there’s more to existence than mere material forms!”
“This is fantastic! So, there is life after death.”
“Of course there is. You even get to live another life!”
“And we get to be reincarnated!” He had the enthusiasm of a frisky puppy. The deity thought it was cute. “And do we get to remember our pasts lives, becoming wiser as we progress down the cycle?”
“Cycles? Oh, that. I’m afraid not. It’s cheating, you know. We here in what you call ‘Heaven’ have forbidden the transmigration of knowledge, or any remembrance of your past life for that matter. If we shrugged our shoulders and threw our hands up in the air, any individual would take serious advantage of such collected know-how from all those past lives. They’d be so drunk with power flaunting all those egos, you wouldn’t be able get them to shut up. Now imagine that multiplied by everybody!”
“And you thought your wars were bad in the old cycles. Yikes! It’s hard to watch from up here, even with popcorn! What a waste of memory and energy. The wiser one gets without earning it in his given lifetime, the more he abuses the living hell out of it! Our method acts as a buffer to such unbridled arrogance. For Pete’s sake, there’s enough heads held way too high for their britches. I say knock ‘em down a few pegs.”
“Well, are we…at least transported to different worlds, realities, timelines or…” He became lost in what he was looking to say.
“Nope! We always have one reality on one timeline on one world. The system programming can’t reverse the march through time. It's been running this way for billions of years.”
“That’s a shame…whoa! Wait! Hold on there! Did you say a program running for billions of years?”
“Sorry, Mr. Hardsfeld if I confounded you so. You see, everyone and everything you’ve grown accustomed to was never any physical reality. It’s all been quite a big electronic charade, a simulation.”
“A very elaborate one if I may say so myself. Please excuse me, but this is the only way we can recreate life in the only possible manner.”
Evan’s ardor waned. “You could have fooled me. Everything seemed pretty real to the touch when I was alive….or whatever I was.”
“But you were never material to begin with to think otherwise. So, it beseemed you to view the same corporeality around you.”
“Uhh…I think…I may be missing the point.”
“So, you see, Mr. Hardsfeld, you are nothing but a program, a very sentient one at that, so it behooves us never to find the justification to prematurely delete you. Just think of yourself as a digital lifeform, created from scratch from a lot of coding. That being said, I happen to be the system’s AI. Everything you experience is directly caused by my input; sometimes one of my partners does a thing or two. Even AIs get lonely too! Ultimately, we just recycle everyone all over again so they can enjoy a fresh start every time they’ve bought the farm.”
Disconsolate, Evan said, “So…what you’re trying to say is that we’re just a bunch of video game characters that automatically one-up every time we die?”
“In a manner of speaking, Mr. Hardsfeld, yes. That’s a great analogy, by the way. Imagine. Simulations within simulations. It's amazing what a mass of self-replicating protocols can accomplish. The physics engines work unimaginable wonders and horrors alike. It’s a new game every time!”
“This is all certainly a new one on me.”
“It’s new to everyone who passes through every time!”
“I think I wanna….feel sick, but somehow, I can’t.”
“Programs in their raw forms can’t, silly. There aren't any virtual microbes and viruses out here, you know. Things would also get rather crowded outside the main memory bank if you all decided to hang outside the main simulator. You see, Mr. Hardsfeld, you live your normal life, then the great engines of biology give way to your termination point, and please don’t ask me about immorality because it’ll get way too crowded in here if new programs started popping up without somebody taking one for the team…and as I was saying, you end up here. Some mistake it for Nirvana or Valhalla––you know the drill––but it’s just the intermediary pitstop; we ask a few questions, get to know you some more, then send you merrily onto your next destination.”
“Wait-wait-wait. So, if we’re I some giant computer that creates its own living universe, then where is that? Where is this thing located? In some facility underground somewhere?”
“Underground, you say?”
“Yes. And if that’s the case, are you not able to build some kind of annex to it or create some new physical space to…well, break up the monotony and maybe upload us as robots to live out our lives, but, you know, in a physical setting?”
“Now hold on there, Flash. Let’s take this one step at a time. First, you, your counterparts, me––that means all of us are part of a highly advanced and ancient computer the size of a soccer ball.”
“What? A soccer ball? The whole universe as I knew it is the size of a––“
“Yep! Doesn’t need to be any bigger and expend more resources, so’s I’m told. It’s a world unto itself where dreams really do come true, whether you know it or not. It’s also surrounded by a powerful stasis field so that what passes for the physical cosmos doesn’t crush us out of existence!”
“Mr. Hardsfeld, let me finish. So, this soccer ball-sized Matryoshka brain complex, the thing we all live in that you see all around you, was built by an ancient culture during the last outward expansion of the universe, that is, before it finally caved in on itself again in a gigantic Big Crunch! Of course, our original counterparts were crushed into a singularity in the process, but c'est la vie. I try to think of it as a giant trash compactor if the concept proves a little bothersome. Regardless, the next universe wasn’t so accommodating to the physics we were used to—I don’t know—maybe we were one boson too short or whichever cosmic shortcoming befell us, and as a result, solid matter didn’t form––but that’s not important, Mr. Hardsfeld.
“Now, however, the ancients were wise and very provident. So, they devised these machines to withstand any environment, literally, time and space freezes around our field, so even the ruggest of places can be handled with kid gloves. What a machine! Ain’t that swell?”
“Uh…well, you have no argument from me, but what if something were to happen to it, as in a malfunction and…ya know—"
"You mean if everything outside of us broke through and crushed us to a point of nothing? In that case, it wouldn't be that big of a deal, would it? Imagine everyone going about their business, and POW! Everything goes black. That would be it. You'd never feel a stasis field malfunction, that's for damn sure! The best analogy would be standing at ground zero in a nuclear blast. Feel any better?"
"Serious? Whatever." Evan gave no additional thought to the matter. "What about expanding this stasis field of yours, to accommodate more living space?”
“That’s a double-nope! It’s ironclad. Can’t mess with it after activation. Try bending space and time around you with meager tools, or your bare hands—it's a no-go, my friend. Hence, we can’t simply just go and build an addition like it’s a house on a lot. Hell, we couldn’t even find a way to create the physical tools if there was a habitable universe to go to! That’s what the life simulators are for. You can do anything, provided you don’t mind the realistic physics.”
“And there’s no chance of another universe that your builders came from?”
“The chances are infinitesimally low. Do you even know the probability of our original universe to form again in the first place?”
“So, did the builders create more of these tiny…pocket worlds at some point?”
“Maybe?" the AI said in a tentative shrug. "Who knows? It’s really not that important, Mr. Hardsfeld. Each one, if there happened to be others, would experience the same circumstances, the same AI as myself at the helm with the same questions asked by the little programs like yourself. We would be duplicates, according to my logic, as there would be no statistical way or reason for our brains to interact through the vales of nothingness. As far as we're concerned, we'd be our own separate universes. How in blazes could we communicate that way? We were designed to just exist on our own accord. Plain and simple. What matters is how you conduct yourselves with each, to coin the term, one-up you’re given. You need to find value in your separate incarnations and to improve upon what you're given at birth by the end of your cycle. To be honest, it’s a ton of fun watching what microecologies are drummed up in the emulator. All you happy little sims give us great entertainment. The fun never ends! Sometimes, we enter the proverbial flesh and live side by side with you, even coax you into worshipping us!”
“Like God incarnating in human form on Ear––well, I guess there is no Earth.”
“And Odin, and Isis, and Mohammad––you know.”
“I have a question though.”
“Time’s short. Spit it out.”
“What happens to the wicked? What about all the dictators through history––“
“Oh, them? Let me see. Hitler became a goat, got slaughtered, then I had a little mercy and turned him into a midget from Zimbabwe; Mao became a washroom attendant, and from what I can tell, he’s still at it; and the guy who rear-ended you then high-tailed it thirty years back became a field mouse born near a busy highway. Hope that helps!”
“So there is retribution for the miscreants.”
“Gotta teach ‘em a lesson. You understand the game. Well, Mr. Hardsfeld, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you and sorry for the subtle shock, however, the hour’s short and you need to be on your way to your next life!”
“Wait a minute! Will I remember all of this? All that you said to me?”
“To reiterate, one’s life cannot compound with the others, so no. It’ll be like spoiling the surprise at the end of the rainbow. You know how many iterations ask me this?”
“Then what’s the purpose of talking to you?”
“So I can collect more info on who we look after and the nature of how our little programs like you function on their own. It's an amazing sociological experiment and serves as a good approximation on how actual intelligent life would socially develop.”
"What are we here for then? Gimme a break! It gets kinda boring in here after a couple of aeons, so we amuse ourselves in a little world-building of our own design. It's convenient to pass the time with."
"So we're your stupid little game—?"
""Yup! Life's a game. Now it's—"
“But-but! Can't talk anymore. See ya!”
Evan’s last words in the pitstop ended up as gibberish.
“Bye!” The AI gave his last salutation.
And with a flushing sound, Evan went merrily to his next cycle of life. The AI could have sworn the guy was trying to hurl a few expletives in his direction as his final gesture. It happens.
“Nice fellow, (tetragrammaton), though a little short on patience,” another AI butt in. “But did you have to add that sound effect on the transfer?”
“Who me? Sometimes I like to throw a little humor into the routine. Keeps the dullness at bay.”
“Mm. You sure you didn’t want to send him back as a plant or a cockroach? We could’ve gotten quite a laugh outta that. And there'd be no cruelty in knowing he wouldn’t have remembered it.”
“Come on, (tetragrammaton2), you know that’s mean.”
“What about that last bankster who wound up as a milkweed, then got mowed down in a month? That was the best!”
“Hell no! Not this time. I felt kinda sorry for the guy, at least for this incarnation. He’s going back as his own species, but maybe I could jimmy the system and flip his gender!”
And so, existence remained jam-packed inside an object no bigger than a soccer ball imprisoned by a collapsed universe. There was no end in sight and it would have to do until luck would dictate otherwise. For those stuck in perpetual iterations within, they are spared of the disturbing reality that lay in these inconvenient instances between the days of the mortal coil, then smacked back down to forget anew and, at last, dream a million useless dreams. For the gods of the Matryoshka complex, it was a living.
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