AFTER THE AWAKENING
by Jeffrey A. Corkern
Faith is a sloppy way to run a universe.
---Robert A. Heinlein
Faith isn't how the universe is run.
---Jeffrey A. Corkern
TO STOP THE KILLING
I step up next to the Jump Seven and stare out the plane's exit ramp. The African horizon is a dull gray line underneath stars shading to pale in the light of a rising glow. Beyond that horizon, an old world is crumbling to dust, another cleaner one being forged in the fires of the Awakening.
“I always hated the killing, Jump,” I say. “Every fucking minute of it.”
“This is it, Sergeant Soldat,” the Jump Seven says. “The final destruction of evil on planet Earth. Goddamn, I love it. Goddamn, I love being part of it. I wish I could jump with you guys.”
"Time to death camp,” I say.
It's so close now I can almost taste it. My final fulfillment. I am the tip of the Awakening's spear.
"Ten minutes from death camp," the Jump Seven says. I can barely make his voice out over the growling avalanche roar of the Globemaster's jet engines. “Ten minutes from hammerfall.” It’s a night jump. The Globemaster's interior is lit in dim red to preserve our night vision, turning the Jump Seven into a faceless figure crouched at the open rear ramp.
We both watch patchy brown carpet squirt out at high speed from the ramp’s end. It boils up in me again.
“Christ, how I hated the goddamn killing. It was the worst fucking thing in the world.”
"You oughta love this mission then, Sergeant."
The patchy brown carpet is Sudanese grassland. It looks that way because we’re only two hundred meters up. We have launched into Sudan without notifying a single Sudanese official of anything, without filling out a single piece of paper asking some petty bureaucrat’s pretty-please permission to halt mass murder. The wonder of that is still soaking through me. Another gift of the Awakening, another impossible moral change.
"Goddamn right I do, Jump," I say. Deep in the core of my being, killing memories stir, burn like acid.
"Now you know why, Sergeant Soldat," the Jump Seven says. "You and every other soldier who's ever been. Now we all know why."
“The Awakening happened just in the nick of time,” I say. “You know that, don’t you, Jumpmaster. The killing had gotten so easy.”
“So incredibly goddamn easy,” the Jump Seven agrees. “Fission bombs. Fusion bombs. One plane, one bomb, one city. And then the biologicals came along. Poison gas, ricin, anthrax, smallpox. Each new horror easier to make and kill with than the last. One person, one poison, one planet. The human race wasn’t going to survive much longer.”
“It was all spinning completely out of control,” I say. “You wanna know why I became a soldier, Jump? To do what we're doing now. To stop the killing. All the killing in the world. That's why I became a soldier. That make sense, Jump?"
"It does now, Sergeant," the Jump Seven says. "No true soldier ever liked killing. Only psychos like killing."
“We were all about to destroy ourselves, wipe ourselves off the planet,” I say. “We didn’t have long to go.”
"I knew that," the Jump Seven says. "I think a lot of people knew that, but just didn't say anything."
"You could feel it coming in your guts," I say, "in all that hopeless scrambling after security."
"But that's done now," the Jump Seven says, and sighs in relief. "It's all good now. All stable now, as Chernov would say."
"All stable now," I repeat. "All they had to do was take the cuffs off. Tell me, Jumpmaster. How many of these U. N. peace-keeping missions have you been on that wasn't more fucked-up than not?"
"This would be the first," the Jump Seven replies. "We went in handcuffed every damn time, didn't we?"
"Dumb-bastard politicians always holding us back," I say. I clench my fists in old frustration.
"Stand aside and let children have their hands cut off by some local warlord's troops," the Jump Seven says. "It's not in our 'national interest' to defend the innocent."
"Don't stop an evil man from committing mass murder," I say. "He might cut off our oil supply."
"Justice is coming," the Jump Seven says. "Justice is coming for those who could've defended the innocent and instead turned their back. If there is a Hell, the hottest part is reserved for those who could've defended the innocent and refused."
"Hell," I say. "You really think there might be a Hell your eternal soul can get tossed into, Jump?"
"I don't know," the Jump Seven says. "If it were me in charge, I might have me a little one. For those extra-special assholes."
"For the murderers," I say. "In particular the ones who murder millions. The ones who commit genocide. Those are the ones that deserve to do a little screaming in agony."
"Or the dumb-bastard politicians that wouldn't let you stop it," I say, "because it wasn't in our 'national interest.' "
"Yeah," the Jump Seven says. "Them too."
"Life done got real interesting for dumb-bastard politicians since Chernov proved souls were real," I say.
"I'll bet you," the Jump Seven says, "the dumb-bastard politicians who stopped us are so scared of Hell now they can't sleep at night, by God!"
"It's still hard to believe they're finally going to let us fight," I say. "I gotta tell you, Jump, I wouldn't be surprised a bit if they called us back right before the jump. That friggin' scientist Chernov and his friggin' soul-detector or not."
The Jump Seven raises his hand up and brings it down in a chopping motion, an executioner's gesture of finality.
"Not a chance," he says. "That kind of bullshit is done forevermore, Sergeant. This time, we got notified innocent people were being murdered by death squads, and we hauled ass into our Globemaster and launched within the hour. How sweet it is."
"Not just the dumb-bastard politicians," I say. "Some of those goddamn scientists should get tossed in the fire, too. The ones that said killing was right. The dumb-bastard politicians listened to those guys."
" 'The clash of civilizations' ," the Jump Seven quotes.
"That's what they said," I say. "This world worshiped killing because of what those numb-nut geniuses said.”
The sudden white of a grin splits the Jump Seven’s face.
“Not any more, Sergeant Soldat!” he says with relish. Not a nice grin, that grin. Too many teeth. Demon justice grinning like a skull at the entire world. “If you’re one of the numb-nut geniuses who said that, these days, you are scared absolutely shitless! You just gotta love that!”
“Because people really are eternal souls, eternal beings,” I say. I have to say it again, to let the shock and surprise roll over me once more. “We know this because that goddamn Russian scientist Chernov detected the goddamn souls in a goddamn laboratory and somehow that winds up meaning God loves everybody forever.”
“The love of God is a law of physics!” the Jump Seven shouts. The skull grin gets wider. “Ain’t that some shit, Sergeant!”
Something like relief sweeps over me.
“So," I say, "the good guys win in the end."
“We win,” the Jump Seven says. “The souls are doing what God designed them to do, stop the killing and guarantee that victory. The killing stops now, Sergeant Soldat. For us, for everybody, for good. The love of God is a law of physics, and the bad guys are going down, never to rise again. Welcome to the Awakening.”
The Jump Seven looks up like he’s getting a message from On High. That’s what he does when he’s listening to ARGUS, our combat Artificial Intelligence.
The Jump Seven’s head comes back down, and I know play-time is over. He clicks back onto the company channel.
“Final confirmation received!” the Jump Seven announces over the company channel. His voice cracks a little from tension. The company is lined up in slack ranks of six in the Globemaster's cargo bay. The news stirs their ranks like a spoon. Determination and a fierce joy charge the cargo bay's atmosphere. Some of the younger men lean their heads back and howl like wolves. “Operation Justice Hammer is a go! Death camp in five! Squad leaders, prepare your sticks for insertion. This is it, ladies! We’re going to war!”
A feeling of intense satisfaction, of final savage victory, flashes through me. We're actually going to do it, attack and destroy a place of evil, a Sudanese death camp, purely and simply because it is evil, despite what old rules it might break, despite what tin-pot dictator who happens to control a lot of oil it might piss off. I'm on the verge of doing the most profoundly right thing I've ever done. I'm finally jumping into combat for the right reason.
I'm jumping to answer the cry of the innocent, in service to what is now clear is the most powerful force in the Universe.
THE HAMMER REVELATION
Each broken black blur is a murdered human being.
Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, I touch each broken black blur on the recon photo with a pencil point as I count it. I've been tasked with counting the dead bodies left behind after a Janjaweed raid on a Darfur village. From high altitude, burned-out huts look like circular charcoal smears, dead bodies like broken dolls. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty, the toll of random, useless, unjust slaughter goes up, and up, and up. I thank God I can't tell which ones are children, which ones are little girls. Christ have mercy, I can't take the murdered little girls.
"Hey, First Sergeant, check out this shit," Sergeant Al-Durabi, one of my platoon sergeants, calls to me. He’s been riveted to the rec-room TV for the last hour. Our company of paratroopers has had little to do except watch TV since the Reagan arrived on station off the Sudanese coast.
I look up from the Darfur recon photos, happy to have an excuse not to have to look at pictures of destroyed villages, not to have to count burning bodies lying beside burning huts. Just another routine massacre, that happens all the time in Sudan, that nobody gives a damn about. I hate the feeling of utter helplessness that goes with recon photo assessment, but it's the most the goddamn politicians and bureaucrats will allow us to do. If I cannot act, at least I can document and bear witness.
"Watcha got, Sergeant?” I snap the overhead light off and fold the pictures and magnifying equipment away, wondering at the insanity of it all. What's the point of documenting, when we're not going to do anything? Why is a billion-dollar carrier, stuffed with the finest, most advanced war-fighting technology in the world, plus a contingent of Army Rangers, the most elite paratroopers in the world, sent under U. N. aegis to a slow-motion Sudanese massacre perpetrated by rag-tag Sudanese militias and then told to do nothing to defend the innocent? The craziest part is I understand what I'm doing better than the politicians do. I'm documenting the proof for what will inevitably be another international embarrassment for the United States and the other technologically advanced countries of the world. I can already hear another hapless American president standing in front of an audience of mutely accusing African victims making a lame apology for the so-called civilized world's inaction.
This whole U. N. mission's a giant cluster-fuck, confused beyond description. It's like nobody really understands what's going on.
"Some Russian scientist is claiming to have detected souls in the laboratory," Al-Durabi says. The lights are low in the rec room to make the TV more visible. Al-Durabi's face is a smear of darkness in the nebulous light. Sergeant Al-Durabi is the son of Sudanese immigrants and speaks Arabic and other African languages, which bought him assignment to the Reagan as translator, and he is black, an awe-inspiring black, so intensely black a drop of black paint on his skin is not visible. "Cat souls."
"What?” Far overhead, I hear the thump of the Reagan’s steam catapult launching yet another worthless recon plane, on its way to take pictures of yet more dead bodies.
Al-Durabi waves the remote at the TV and mutes it. It's because he wants to explain it to me personally. Al-Durabi loves techie stuff. He backs the broadcast up and freezes it on what looks like a miniature version of the very first atom bomb hanging from a stick, a gray metal ball hanging on a rod from the ceiling, with thin black plastic wires sprouting out of it in all directions like uncombed hair and vapor clouds forming around it. The metal ball is slick with condensate. A big puddle of water has formed underneath it, a dark stain on a bare concrete floor.
"Yeah, they built this gadget out of these chips that can detect very small electromagnetic fields," Al-Durabi says with an air of superiority. "SQUIDs. Superconducting Quantum Interference Detectors. They have to cool them down with liquid helium before they can work. That's why all the water."
"If you say so, Al-Durabi."
Al-Durabi fancies himself a master of any and all things electronic because he's from San José, California, the fabled Silicon Valley. He's forever crashing the squad's computers.
"They built this thing and put cats in the middle of it," Al-Durabi continues, "then put the cats to sleep with an intravenous injection---and picked up these coherent electromagnetic fields, about the size of a cat, going through the SQUIDs right after the cats died. They're claiming what they detected was cat-souls."
"Bet the animal-rights groups pitched a bitch."
"Nah," Al-Durabi says. "They only used cats with terminal illnesses."
"Awful finicky for scientists. The animal-rights groups must be a real power in Russia."
"No, that's not why," Al-Durabi says. A confused look crosses his face. "Because it was the moral thing to do. The scientist behind this, some dude named Dmitri Chernov, is saying souls are the physical reason why the concept of 'morality' evolved. That's the word he used, 'evolved.' He's saying morality is actually self-interest, that the Universe isn't stable otherwise. Somehow that was why they only used cats with terminal illnesses."
"So if they use cats that aren't terminally sick, the Universe collapses? I gotta tell you, Sergeant, I don't see the connection."
"Yeah, well," Al-Durabi admits, "neither do I. Anyway, Chernov's saying they didn't really hurt the cats. All they did was separate the cats' souls from their bodies, and the cats never felt any pain. They're saying the cats are still hanging around somewhere, just disembodied."
"Chasing little ghost-mice," I say. "Taking little ghost cat-naps."
"Beats me, First Sergeant," he says. "That's just what Chernov is saying."
"How does he know for a certain fact they're cat-souls? Sounds to me like he's jumping the gun a little."
"He's asking what the hell else they could be," Al-Durabi says. "His team only sees them when the cats die, and at no other time. They've done the experiment over a hundred times."
"He's got a point there, I reckon."
"There's a helluva fire-fight going on over precisely that in the scientific community," Al-Durabi says. "A lot of scientists are screaming this Russian is full of shit. And when I say screaming, I really mean screaming, like this Russian shot their mothers."
"Some people don't have any real problems," I say. "So what does this prove, other than Russians have a mystic streak a mile wide?"
"That people have souls, too? That people don't really die?"
The whole world rocks. As if all the mega-quadrillion tons of the entire planet has shuddered back and forth, as if God Himself has roared, shaking the planet after eons of absolute silence. All that mindless murder was still heavy in my mind, clouding it. That statement clears it.
"Damn" is all I can say.
“This guy Chernov just stirred up a world-class shit-storm," I say. I can feel the planet still vibrating. "He just turned the whole world upside-down. God only knows what happens next."
"You called it, First Sergeant," Al-Durabi says. "Everybody's coming down on this poor bastard's head. The scientists aren't the only ones screaming. All the religious types are mixing it up, too."
"Everybody's going to get into this one," I say. "Nobody's going to leave this to the so-called experts. What does this result mean, that's the basic question, what does this mean, what effect will it have on the human race, the world."
"Yeah," Al-Durabi says. He grins, a split of startlingly white teeth against his coal-black face. He's a typical Ranger. He loves a good fight. "Should be one helluva interesting show."
#HAMMER IN THE SKY
I nod at the Jump Seven and turn to face rows and rows of black JDAP cages, like gorilla skeletons with moth wings folded on their backs, stretching far back into the Globemaster's interior. We're jumping XLALO, Extreme Low-Altitude Low-Open, in the first combat use of the latest American assault technology, the Joint Directed Attack Parachutists cage. The sight of the gently rattling JDAP cages brings it home to my guts, that I'm about to jump into battle. An adrenaline burst like an electric shock throbs from the small of my back, pounds through my whole being, raises my perceptions of my surroundings to combat alertness. I always get a charge from the adrenal glands in my back just before dropping into combat. I feel the cool air of altitude silken on my skin underneath my shirt, the trickles of sweat tickling their way down my ribs from my armpits.
My team is sitting down with their backs against the first line of JDAP cages, staying as rested as possible. We have the honor of being first into combat. I give the signal to stand up---right arm thrust down at a forty-five degree angle, then raised up level to my shoulder. Lined up out of the way along the walls, the embedded reporters bring their cameras around to point at my squad. A jitter of alarm shivers my back as lenses like gun barrels focus on me. I'm about to be exposed to billions, chilling to my soldier's instinct to stay hidden.
"Transmit restrictions lifted," ARGUS says. "Broadcast is now unrestricted. Cameras are hot, repeat, cameras are hot. The whole damn world is watching, soldiers.” The whole damn world is watching because the whole damn world is like me, still having trouble believing it. They have insisted on watching our first combat jump, the very first combat action of the United Nations Genocide Quick-Reaction Force, in order to witness with their own eyes, live and uncut, the latest flatly impossible moral change wrenched into being by the Awakening.
“First stick, rise and mount your cages,” I order. I make the signal for equipment check, holding my hands out in front of me palms up and bringing them to my shoulders. “Stand by for pre-jump inspection.”
Corporal Mitsui has been sitting with his tagger in his lap, restlessly loading and reloading Hellfire magazines while he waits for the order to mount his cage. The iron discipline the Japanese are famous for shows in the way he’s in his cage and locked down before I’ve finished speaking. The soul experiments have refined Mitsui, turned him into a samurai sword vibrating with tension, eager for battle. The old samurai beliefs have been vindicated. Mitsui is bushido personified, the warrior way made flesh. Many of the GQRF's volunteers are coming from the Japanese Defense Forces.
Since Mitsui’s ready first, I start at the right end of the line. The Jumpmasters will do the official inspection, but my men aren’t jumping until I’ve personally checked their cages and equipment. An embed behind Mitsui’s cage sinks to his knees and angles his camera upward at me from a low perspective, uncomfortably close to an act of worship, certainly an act of envy.
Righteous fire is burning Mitsui, nova-fierce, elemental. Steel-hard flame is the glitter of his eyes, the tight, happy, feral grin he gives me when I tug on the lock-bars of his JDAP cage to make certain they’re down and locked. Mitsui is a racehorse at the gate, chomping at the bit to get out and kick some serious bad-guy ass. He reaches into his vest pocket and clicks his channel selector. He screams a challenge to battle over the company channel, a phrase in guttural Japanese I don’t need translated.
The answering thunder from the rest of the company dwarfs the noise of the Globemaster’s turbojets, shaking the cargo bay, the same phrase exploding in a dozen languages from volunteer soldiers from all the world’s professional armies. The embeds are right there with us, shouting and stomping their feet. The righteous fire sparks in my chest with the urgent intensity of a match flaring to life, forces me to raise my tagger high in salute to all. Professional soldiers were the first group to accept the Awakening's ultimate meaning. The fear of death was never blinding in us.
Corporal Heinrich is next in line. He's a German Überman racial ideal straight out of a Nazi recruiting poster, a six-foot-six blond-haired blue-eyed Aryan with a darkness lying on him. Heinrich has a stern Teutonic face that reminds you of freshly planed white oak, all flat surfaces joined at sharp angles, and yet it is dark, his face, dark and filled with shadows. He fits into his JDAP cage without a cubic centimeter to spare. He went AWOL from his unit in Germany and evaded German MP’s to get to the U. N. in New York to be the very first GQRF volunteer. Nobody in the company has dared to ask him why. We couldn't bear the weight of his answer. He seems not to see me as I check him out, staring out the Globemaster's open ramp with a laser's concentration at some mysterious long-sought goal. I leave him staring into the distance with peace on his shadowed face, peace and possibly a dawning hope of redemption.
The Italian Army soldier Tivoli can’t get his tagger into its slot in the cage. He was the last of our squad to join the GQRF. He’s made only the minimum three training jumps in the JDAP cages. He snaps it in and slides himself into position just as I reach him. I check him more closely than the others. JDAP cage wheels properly mounted on the rails that lead to the ramp. Cage bars secure with no wiggle. Cage thruster nozzles clean and unobstructed. Tagger properly in position so it will pop free when the cage disengages. One Hellfire magazine loaded in his tagger and six more mags on his armor vest. Night-vision goggles locked in the up position on his Kevlar helmet and computer systems battery plugged in and turned on.
“Tivoli, when we hit the ground, you stay within thirty meters of me at all times," I say. I pull on his tagger again to make sure it's free in its slot. The tagger is a heavy, clumsy weapon, like a cross between an automatic shotgun and a fifty-caliber machine gun. The big metal pancake ten-round Hellfire magazine hangs just in front of the trigger. The magazine has to fit into its cage slot perfectly. If Tivoli doesn't have it right, the magazine will catch on the bars when his JDAP cage disengages and rip his tagger out of his hand, leaving him dropping into combat without a weapon. "I want you where I can keep an eye on you, and that's an order."
Tivoli's eyes open wide in protest.
"Sergeant Soldat!" he says, shifting in his cage. "You don't have to watch over me like I was the bambino!” The JDAP cage is torture for the Italian. He can't wave his arms around when he talks.
"You don't have enough experience," I say.
"Experience? This is our first mission!"
"You've had the least training of any of us," I say. "The least time with the taggers, the least time in the cages, the least time in virtual."
"I can do my job!"
"If I didn't think you could, I wouldn't let you make the jump," I say. "Tivoli, you just stay close. There'll be other missions, God have mercy."
Tivoli is a professional soldier. He knows when it's time to shut up and follow orders.
"In service, Sergeant," he says.
“In service, Tivoli,” I say. I put a hand on his shoulder and move on.
The squad professor, Corporal Malreaux, is next. He's French and thinks his European historical background gives him an insight into the Awakening we poor, benighted Americans with our mere two-hundred-and-thirty-odd years of history can't possibly have. He's been observing me like a scientist observing a lab rat as I conduct the pre-jump check.
"Do you see it?" he asks me. "How crystal-clear it is in your own personal human actions right now? How very, very deeply this new law of physics is informing your actions here, how it has informed history, the evolution of our brain structure, our bodies, the structure of all of Man’s societies, how it is the foundation of the concept of Justice itself?”
"I see it, Malreaux," I say as I check his tagger. Malreaux is a philosopher. He loves to talk.
The Globemaster hits an air bump. The floor jounces up against my feet with a metallic crash, hard. My knees are driven halfway to my chest and then the floor drops out, leaving me suspended in mid-air. Outside, pre-sunrise winds are stirring and causing turbulence. I clutch wildly at Malreaux's cage to keep from winding up spread-eagled on the floor, thinking how clownish I must look to the TV cameras.
"So simple!" Malreaux marvels as I regain my footing. He's lost in contemplation. He hasn't noticed a thing. "So very, very simple! The postulate of sentient existence, so critically necessary for the stability of a sentient-containing Universe! The scientists should've seen it so long ago! Hundreds and hundreds of years ago! So much time wasted, so much time!"
"No doubt about that, Malreaux," I reply. "Way I see it, the goddamn scientists failed to do their job until it was almost too late. So now you and me, we’ve got one helluva mess to clean up."
"Mon Dieu!" Malreaux exclaims. "The pain! The unnecessary pain!"
I raise my eyebrows. Maybe there's something to Malreaux's conceit about his historical background, however annoying and snobbish it might be.
"Malreaux," I say, "now the pain stops and the healing begins. Even a rude Frenchman has to acknowledge that."
Malreaux gives me the same tight, happy, feral smile Mitsui did. It's burning him too, that righteous fire.
"Ouí, even a rude Frenchman," he says, and lapses into silence.
"Malreaux, watch your ass down there," I say, and go to Al-Durabi's cage, the last cage I have to inspect.
Al-Durabi's doing exactly what I expected him to be doing. He's got his network visor down, playing with his backpack computer's opsystem. He tosses his head to raise his network visor when he hears me rattle his tagger.
The righteous fire breaks free in my chest and blazes up in a firestorm. I shove my face against Al-Durabi's cage, our noses only centimeters apart.
“Corporal Al-Durabi!” I bellow in Al-Durabi’s face. “What do you want?”
“I wanna kick some bad guys’ balls between their teeth, First Sergeant!” he shouts back.
“Roger that,” I say. I lean back, relieved from letting some of the fire out. “Just ‘Sergeant’, Corporal.” Al-Durabi still hasn't quite adjusted to our new lower ranks in the GQRF.
My JDAP cage stands empty next to Al-Durabi's. I back into it and put my tagger in its slot as the cage bars automatically clamp down on me. I move the tagger back and forth until I'm sure as I can be it will come loose when the cage disengages. When I'm satisfied I toss my head to bring my network visor down and boot up my backpack computer. My network visor flashes a blank blue screen and the boot process starts. I lean back against the bars and try to relax. For a brief period of time, less than a minute, until my BC finishes booting, I have absolutely nothing to do except stand and wait, my last silent, solitary space before battle.
And in this last silent, solitary space, these few spare seconds, I am naked and defenseless, and the Awakening reaches into my JDAP cage and touches me. The earthquake shaking I feel is not the vibration of the plane but a roaring cauldron of change, re-forging the world in fire. Change which is taking place on a scale and with a speed unprecedented in history, far beyond the ability of a single human mind to comprehend. Chernov's soul experiments have rocked the entire planet to its foundations, rattled it like dice in a cup. All across the globe worlds are shattering like glass, massive social, economic, and governmental hierarchies hundreds of years old crushed to dust and gone with the wind, going down like tenpins before the Awakening’s juggernaut force as understanding spreads throughout humanity. Just my little piece of it, the GQRF, would have been beyond imagination before Chernov. Now, the GQRF has gone from an idea born out of Chernov's soul experiments to fully fledged fighting force in only three rapid-fire months. After decades of indifference, the politicians and bureaucrats are now falling all over each other to defend the innocent in what can only be described as stark raving panic, a heart-warming sight. Even the dipshit politicians and bureaucrats have seen just how incredibly, spectacularly, their own fat asses were on the front lines and always had been. No lard-assed, forms-shuffling, shit-for-brains chairwarmer is going to put paper over people ever again.
It's an irony for the ages, a joke of cosmic proportions. Standing in my cage, I have to laugh quietly to myself. The dearest wish of all humanity, its most impossible fantasy, has been fulfilled beyond its wildest dreams.
And humanity's overwhelming reaction is terror, the most supreme terror in all of history.
THE JUSTICE HAMMER
The Reagan’s rec room is filled with a heavy bass crowd rumble like a volcano about to blow its top.
"---can't believe everybody's wasting their time on such an obvious fraud, I mean, souls don't make any sense, just totally impossible, unreal---"
"---this explains that weird psychic experience I had once---"
"---man, it's insane, you reckon it's true people don't really die---"
"---assuming it's true, what the hell do we do about it---"
The Reagan’s rec room is stuffed to the rafters with people, so stuffed it's hot and difficult to breathe, but nobody's complaining. A verbal battle has erupted in the last two weeks, just like I thought, but going a million times further than I ever would've dreamed.
"This is all horseshit," a sailor in the row in front of me mutters. "I'm a skeptic. This guy Chernov hasn't proved a damn thing. This is all just some wish-fulfillment fantasy at best, and a fraud at worst. This'll all blow over in a week."
"Yeah?" the sailor next to him says. "What the hell are you doing here then?"
"Hey, I'm willing to listen," the sailor-skeptic says. "I'm open to new ideas. I ain't like these dumbass religious fanatics. That's what being a skeptic is all about."
"Souls have always existed!" another voice from nowhere says. "The scientific detection of souls was inevitable! We should've seen this coming!"
It's all you can see on the Internet, the TV, newspapers, radio, on board the Reagan. Soldiers and sailors are arguing in the gangways, in the mess halls, in the heads for God's sake, about whether or not it's real or a fraud, about what Chernov's results mean, about the scientific detection of souls and what it all means, to the point where I'm starting to get sick of it.
One thing is clear. This guy Chernov has touched a nerve in the world nobody knew was there.
A special wide-projection screen has been hung from the ceiling so everybody can see. Because of all the verbal warfare, the scientist who started it has been dragged reluctantly from his lab to explain to everybody what he thinks his results mean.
"Y'all shut up," a voice from the back drawls. "I'm about to start the show."
Everyone on board without duty is watching this. I have the cold feeling the on-duty people are watching, too. A jihadi could probably ram the Reagan with a rowboat right now if he wanted to.
Except I’m certain the jihadis are all glued to a TV, too.
The projection screen lights to show three men seated around a circular table.
"By the Prophet," Al-Durabi says, "what a wimp."
Academician Dmitri Chernov doesn't look like a rebel Russian genius who has yanked the world up by its roots. "Academician" is what the Russians call their top scientists. Dmitri Chernov is the Russian physicist who ramrodded the construction of what he insists is a soul-detector. He is a neat, diminutive man who looks like he would just reach five feet if he stood on tiptoe. He sits an island of stillness in the center of the three, flanked on his right by a man I barely recognize because I've flipped past his televised crusades many times, "The Mighty Reverend Rock," the Reverend Rocky Hooker, and on his left by somebody I don't recognize at all, a man with bleached Nordic skin and pale blue eyes who has his lips pinched together in an expression of permanent anger.
I study the reverend. He has a magnetic aura that draws your attention, the charisma of a man on fire with conviction. He reminds me of a soldier. He has a ruthless, implacable air about him that is almost soldier-like, but not quite. I study him closer to pin it down. Hunter, I realize, the right reverend has the air of a hunter, a hunter of men's souls.
The right reverend looks like somebody I might like. He looks like he might be a cast-iron son of a bitch.
The moderator, a reporter named James MacNeil, steps into view.
"Good evening, gentlemen, and good evening to our television audience, and thank you all for coming to this historic debate," MacNeil says. "Allow me to introduce the people on our panel. To our viewer's far left, the Reverend Rocky Hooker, an international evangelist who also possesses degrees in physics, theology, and human psychology. In the middle, Academician Dmitri Evgenievich Chernov, a Russian galactic astronomer who has made what may be the most revolutionary discovery in all of human history, the meaning of which will be the subject of tonight's debate, and on the right, cell biologist Richard Mocke, who is the creator and proponent of the current most widely scientifically accepted theory of human behavior, that people are controlled by their genes."
This startles me. It makes no sense.
"What?" I whisper to Al-Durabi. "Why would a cell biologist be expected to be able to explain anything about human behavior?"
"I'm thinking these scientists ain't the geniuses they think they are," Al-Durabi says.
"Chernov's a galactic astronomer!" the sailor-skeptic exclaims. "Why would he be expected to?"
"Because he's got lab results to back it up," Al-Durabi shoots back. "Something Mocke doesn’t.”
"Wouldja all shut the fuck up!" another sailor shouts. "Jesus H. Christ, give it a rest for a minute!"
We all shut up, abashed.
"So, to start, Academician," MacNeil says, "what made you decide souls might actually exist?"
"Conversation I had one evening with other astronomy graduate students when I was in graduate school, many, many years ago," Chernov says. "We had contest.” A bad-boy smile flits across his face as he remembers his youth. "Who could dream up easiest, quickest way to destroy entire Universe."
My soldier-sense tingles. A battle has just started on that stage. The battle of Armageddon. I am watching the last, final, completely savage battle to the death between two age-old titanic forces for the domination of the Earth. It isn’t going to stop until one or the other is completely and utterly annihilated.
"What?" Mocke exclaims. "That's impossible! You can't destroy the entire Universe!"
"Is not impossible," Chernov says. "Is quite easy, in fact. Doctor Mocke, you are cell biologist, not galactic astronomer like I am. Let me assure you destruction of entire Universe is entirely technically feasible. Given sufficient relatively small starting resources, I alone, one man, could do it. This is such extreme threat Universe must take steps to inhibit such action."
"Define 'destruction of the entire Universe'," Reverend Hooker says.
"At minimum, destruction of Universe's ability to evolve sentient life," Dmitri says. "At maximum, destruction down to quantum level, although I don't know how that could be done.” He smiles again. "I am mathematically challenged experimentalist, not next-to-God theoretician."
"Tell me!" Mocke exclaims. "Tell me one way you could do it!"
"I will tell you method I came up with in graduate school," Chernov says. "Is very crude, but will work. With one fusion-drive ship, and self-replicating light-sail machines, can be done. I will start with our solar system. I instruct light-sails to replicate themselves and drive fusion ship to high tau, both to drop self-replicating light sails in other systems and to take advantage of time-dilation. When I return to our solar system, I will find trillions of light-sails, with huge total mass. Using their summed gravitational attraction, I order light-sails to maneuver so as to alter Sun's orbit and crash Sun into other suns to create black hole.” He reddens slightly. "Black hole" means something obscene in Russian. "Meanwhile, light-sails are replicating in other systems. I iterate process. With enough time, with exponentially increasing number of light-sails, and with time-dilation, I can destroy entire galaxies, superclusters of galaxies, and eventually Universe itself. Just me alone, just one man, because I understand Universe's basic physical laws."
"I'm sure other physicists could dream up faster, more efficient methods," he says, "but this is sufficient to demonstrate threat to Universe is quite real."
The entire stage is silent.
"Damn," Al-Durabi breathes in my ear, "this dude thinks big."
"A sentient race would never do such a thing," Mocke says.
"Am not talking about sentient race," Chernov says. "Am talking one lone sentient."
"Still," Mocke insists, "it could never happen."
"Christ, man, Chernov's right," the sailor-skeptic mutters. "I have to give him that. Any soldier can see the threat potential's real. Give it up. You're only making yourself look dumb."
Chernov raises his eyebrows in mild surprise. It's strange to me, too. Mocke's deliberately being stupid. Reverend Hooker tilts his head back and favors Mocke with a long, calculating look, uncannily like a hunter who has sighted fresh prey and is figuring out the best way to make the kill.
"World has already seen death cults announce intention to destroy entire world, and actually try to do so," Chernov says. "As historical precedent, I cite Japanese death cult Aum Shinrikyo's repeated attempts to destroy Tokyo in order to bring on Armageddon, the destruction of Earth. Destruction of entire Universe is only next step up, a difference of scale only."
Mocke's idiotic intransigence is stalling the debate. The rec room audience stirs impatiently. MacNeil intervenes.
"Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that Academician Chernov is correct, and the threat is real," he says. Perhaps a slight tinge of irritation cracks his professional moderator's neutrality. "So, Academician, what does it mean?"
"It means, in sentient-containing Universe, Universe must take steps to protect itself from sentients, or sentients will certainly destroy it," Chernov says. "Current scientific thinking is presence of sentient life in Universe is totally random thing. This cannot possibly be case. For Universe to be stable, sentient life is something that must be designed into Universe from very start of Universe, from Big Bang on."
"Now we're getting to why souls have to exist," MacNeil says.
"We are," Chernov says, "but I must pause and define sentient life. Sentient life, intelligent life, is thinking and emotion-feeling life, capable of understanding basic physical laws of Universe, and able to manipulate Universe around them using these laws as sentient life-forms' emotions desire. Which makes sentients a threat to Universe, as they can destroy it using their knowledge of basic physical laws."
"Let me make threat as real as possible," Chernov says, with a glance at Mocke. "At this very moment, right now, by all odds, are trillions and trillions of sentients alive in Universe. What are odds at least one sentient is, right this very second, trying to destroy entire Universe? One hundred per cent, beyond doubt."
"You don't know other species of sentients exist!" Mocke says.
"No, I don't," Chernov says. "But this goes to why I started searching for souls. For long time, I was absolutely certain human race was only sentient race in entire Universe."
"Why?" MacNeil asks.
"Because Universe was still there," Chernov says. "Grad-school contest stuck in my mind. For many years, I would look up at sky at night and wonder why Universe was still there, why sentients had not destroyed Universe. Only reason I could come up with was because human race was only sentient race, and reason Universe was still there was because humans had not yet evolved technologically to point we could destroy it. Then results from planet-finding experiments started coming in."
"And?" MacNeil asks.
"Planets were being found so very easily," Chernov says. "First crude instruments built to find planets found them. So easily only possible conclusion was planets were everywhere, and so Universe had to be filled with sentients. Trillions and trillions of sentients. Was most reasonable hypothesis, and now I had very big problem, because every single one was threat to Universe, and Universe had to have some mechanism in place to protect itself from its sentients."
"So what does the Universe do to protect itself?" MacNeil asks, before Mocke can say anything. He's not going to let Mocke stall the debate again.
"Universe gives sentients eternal existence," Chernov says. "Or, more fundamentally, Universe defines and creates all sentients as eternal souls, not physical bodies."
"In order to protect itself," MacNeil says. "How does eternal existence protect the Universe?"
The answer seems obvious to me, but it's a question MacNeil has to ask, to make it clear to everybody.
"Would you let somebody burn down house while you were in it?" Chernov asks. "Certainly not. In fact, if somebody tried to burn down house with you in it, you would certainly take steps to stop it. You and everybody else in house. Correct?"
"Surely," MacNeil says.
"So giving sentients eternal existence forces sentients to protect Universe eternally from other sentients," Chernov says, "and sentient-containing Universe goes from being violently unstable to being perfectly stable. Without souls, each new sentient subtracts from stability of Universe. With souls, each new sentient adds to stability of Universe. Is trivial problem, actually."
"But that's not all the 'Universe' does with its souls," Reverend Hooker says, so softly I almost can't hear it. "Is it, Dmitri?"
"No," Chernov says, "Universe is not finished yet. There is one more thing Universe can do to make itself yet more stable. All souls must be constructed with one fundamental desire built into them, around one fundamental principle."
"Dmitri, you keep saying 'Universe gives' and 'Universe creates'," Reverend Hooker says, "and it sounds unbelievably awkward. Why don't you say it the way it makes sense? 'God gives', 'God creates'?"
This is a bombshell question, pure dynamite. The air in the rec room charges with lightning. Chernov inhales slowly, looks off into space and takes his time answering. Nobody moves, nobody on the screen, nobody in the rec room. It's eerie, the way everyone is zeroed in on Chernov, even Mocke.
"Am not prepared to use word 'God'," he says finally. "Certainly we are skating very close to God with this, if He is truly there. Perhaps one day, when I have had time to consider this matter more fully, I will."
"It does not make sense!" Mocke snaps. "It's an unnecessary, unneeded, complicating factor! The existence of God is untestable! Build us a God-detector!”
"Not to me!" Reverend Hooker snaps back. "His hand could not be more plain! I beg your pardon, but this is the simpler explanation!"
"Professor Mocke is correct," Chernov says. "Existence of God is untestable, therefore unprovable, therefore not science. Perhaps this is why I avoid word. Soul-detector I can build. God-detector I cannot."
"It sounds awkward," Reverend Hooker says, "it sounds really, really awkward, and you know it."
"It does, and point for you," Chernov says. "But I insist on it, at moment."
"Tell you what, Dmitri," Reverend Hooker says, "we're up here to discuss and try to figure out what your laboratory results mean. But your use of the word 'Universe' is, if you'll pardon me, awkward and confusing to everybody except, maybe, other scientists. So, if you don't mind, when you use the word 'Universe', I may use the word 'God' instead, so everybody else watching will understand."
"By all means, do so," Chernov says, "certainly you could be right."
"So what else does the Universe do with its souls?" MacNeil asks.
"Here we get into deeper waters," Chernov says. "We must ask very basic question. Why would sentient want to destroy Universe in first place? What is motivation to do such thing?"
"There is no logical reason to do such a thing!" Mocke cries.
“I admit is problem,” Chernov says, “while sentient can certainly destroy Universe, I have yet to find a motivation for doing so---“
“Oh, but there is,” Reverend Hooker interrupts. “There is a profound reason for a sentient to destroy the entire Universe.”
“Tell me!” Mocke cries. “There is no possible reason for doing such an insane thing!”
“Because it didn’t have a soul,” Reverend Hooker says. Chernov looks taken aback. “That would be enough.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about! Explain yourself!”
“Add it up,” Reverend Hooker says. “Add it all up. All the human suffering and misery experienced by the human race in all of its history. Now add up the happiness. Which sum is by far the greater? Millions of times greater?”
A vast dark burden of knowledge rises in each of us. Reverend Hooker has reached deep inside us all and dragged something out we didn’t know was there. We feel it, the knowledge of the suffering of the untold billions who came before us, of war and disease and injustice, of the pain of history, a pain so great we don’t want to see it.
Chernov feels it too. His face becomes drawn and pinched.
"Without souls," Reverend Hooker says, "the Universe's only real purpose is to torture human beings, to put them in pain, to make them unhappy. Would destroying the Universe then become the moral thing to do?"
“Oh, yes, I did not see,” Chernov blurts. “Yes. I would destroy entire Universe without hesitation. Universe would deserve to be destroyed. Universe would be abomination.”
You can tell this is one thing that has gotten through to Mocke. He looks uneasy.
"You're assuming all sentients can feel emotion, can feel unhappy," he says. "How can you possibly know that?"
"Because without emotion, without desire, sentient performs no actions at all," Chernov says. "We could program computer with all of Universe's physical laws, put it down in front of freight train, and computer would do nothing, just sit there and be run over, because it has no desire. For actions to be performed, must want things, have desire, emotion."
"People do what they do in order to be happy," Reverend Hooker says. "No. I must learn to think in a new way. A soul does what it does in order to be happy."
"Allow me to state it in abstract terms," Chernov says. "A soul does what it does in order to achieve happiness by achieving desired emotional state. That is most general form."
"An unhappy immortal soul is certainly a threat to the Universe's existence," Reverend Hooker says. "So, Dmitri, what fundamental desire must be installed into every single immortal soul in the Universe?"
"To want, to desire that all other sentients in Universe---immortal souls---be happy," Chernov says. "In terms of happiness, sentient cannot be happy unless all other sentients are happy too. That is second absolute necessity for sentient-containing Universe to be stable."
"And what do humans call the desire to make somebody else happy?" Reverend Hooker says. "Love. And this was when you decided to build a soul-detector, wasn't it, Dmitri, when you realized the observable effects of souls were obviously present in human action, in human history."
"Da," Chernov says. "Society of immortal souls would revolve around everybody being happy, as human society does, and predicted requirement of love for all clearly existed in human race. Souls had to be there, as you say."
"What is the rock-bottom of every soul?" Reverend Hooker asks. "This must be made clear, beyond all possible confusion."
"In abstract terms," Chernov says, "all souls must want, first before anything else, for all souls, including their own, to be happy. I call this principle 'postulate of sentient existence.' "
"Allow me to state the postulate of sentient existence in a much more profound, simpler fashion," Reverend Hooker says. "A fashion human beings are already familiar with and will understand much easier. 'God loves everybody forever.' "
"Postulate can be stated that way," Chernov says. “Observable effects are the same.”
"What does the scientific detection of souls mean?" Reverend Hooker asks. "That the love of God is a law of physics. As it had to be, as it always had to be."
"Emotional states of sentients must be physically interconnected," Chernov says, "which immortality does. Sentient-containing Universe is not stable otherwise."
"Sentients who also possess the property of completely free will," Hooker says. "You didn't make that clear, Dmitri."
"We can conceive destroying entire Universe," Chernov says, "which can only mean our thoughts, and therefore our actions, are completely without restraint. Our will is free."
"All the 'Universe' had to do to make itself safe," Reverend Hooker observes, "was remove our free will, and it would've been safe."
"Universe has not chosen to remove threat," Chernov says. "Universe has chosen only to inhibit threat. Is odd thing."
"God chose to give us completely free will," Reverend Hooker says, "even at the risk of seeing His creation completely destroyed. He put our completely free will above the safety of His creation, His Universe, as a demonstration of His love and trust in us."
Chernov looks pensive at this, but makes no reply.
"I must strenuously object," Mocke says. "You both are acting like this issue is settled, and it's not. Your experiments were performed on cats, not on human beings. You have proven nothing when it comes to human beings."
"Rigorously speaking, you are correct," Chernov says. "But we have more funds now, and we are already building human-size detector, and already have many human volunteers to die in it.” He makes a dismissive gesture with his hand. "We do human experiments to be rigorous, but surely human souls will be detected. If cats have souls, so must humans. Is trivial."
"Even for cats," Mocke says, "in my opinion, and in the opinion of most scientists, you still haven't proved beyond a shadow of a doubt what you observed were the souls of cats."
"Oh, please, Professor Mocke," Chernov says, "what else could they be? Especially considering absolute necessity for souls to exist in order for sentient-containing Universe to be stable? Most probable explanation is phenomenon we are detecting is souls."
"That raises an interesting question, Academician," MacNeil says, intervening before Mocke can stall the discussion again. "Why did you do your experiments on cats and not people? Cats are not a potential threat to the Universe, surely."
"No, no threat to Universe," Chernov says. "Personal experience I had once.” His mouth quirks. "Cat-soul went through my chest."
"I had very sick pet cat once, Glorious Lady Snowflake," Chernov says. "Was dying, but I didn't know that, or rather didn't want to know it. I leave her at vet's office every morning for treatment and take her back to my apartment at night. One morning I leave her. Around noon, I am eating lunch by myself, when ball of energy appears about one meter in front of my chest, dives through my chest here---" He touches his chest just to his left of his heart. "---comes out my back underneath left shoulder blade, continues on for another meter, and disappears. I go back to laboratory and find note telling me vet has called me in my absence. I return call. Vet tells me Glorious Lady Snowflake fell into coma and he has performed mercy killing short while ago to prevent needless suffering."
"A ball of energy," Reverend Hooker says. "Describe it."
"Am really not able to," Chernov says. "No light, no sound, nothing in any of normal five senses, only somehow I could sense something was there, by some unknown mechanism."
"Did this experience have any bearing on your deduction of the existence of souls?" MacNeil asks.
"Nyet," Chernov says. "Experience was many years ago, and I had forgotten it until I realized souls had to exist. Then I remembered experience, and knew easiest way to test hypothesis. Was very fortunate."
"Very fortunate," Reverend Hooker says dryly. "Very, very, very fortunate indeed. The one person on Earth who could logically deduce the existence of souls also just happens to have sensed a soul directly, personally, through no mechanism he can understand. Could the hand of God be more clear? Do you see it now, Professor Mocke?"
"I see nothing here but deliberate self-delusion," Mocke says.
"I agree for once," Reverend Hooker says. "I also see nothing here but deliberate self-delusion."
"Oooooo," Al-Durabi whispers with glee. "They're gonna be going medieval on each other's ass next."
"You have to wonder why cats, or animals in general, would have souls," MacNeil comments.
"I have answer for that," Chernov says. "To shape brain, to put empathic structures in place for when intelligent species appears."
"Somehow I'm not surprised you would have an idea why, Academician," MacNeil says. "Could you explain further?"
"Would be very bad thing, for species to reach sapience with brains shaped only by Darwinian forces," Chernov says. "Universe would be destroyed."
"I must disagree with you slightly, Dmitri," Reverend Hooker says. "Purely Darwinian brains would never allow a technological civilization to develop in the first place. Not past a certain level. They'd be too busy killing each other with the weapons technology would give them. When mass killing became possible, that's what would happen, and the civilization, the species, would wipe itself out long before it became a threat to the Universe."
"So how would you answer question, Rocky?" Chernov asks. "Why do cats have souls? In abstract cold-blooded science terms, why would animals in general have to have souls?"
"Oh, you're correct about the end-goal," Reverend Hooker says. "To shape the future sentient brain, to put empathic structures into place well before sapience is achieved."
"I'm not sure I understand how that would work," MacNeil says.
"There is a precise evolutionary analogy," Reverend Hooker says. "The shaping of migratory birds by the Earth's magnetic field. Over evolutionary time scales, the presence of the Earth's magnetic field has resulted in structures in migratory birds that can sense this field. The better a migratory bird can sense this field, the greater chance it has of passing on its genes."
"That makes no sense," Mocke says. "What's the corresponding physical force that puts the empathic structures into place?"
"The love of God," Reverend Hooker says. "The love of God has been present since the Universe's beginning, and must therefore be considered as an evolutionary force, something which has never been done before. What has fooled the scientists is the evolutionary selection pressure has been an internal force, not an external one. But now, it is clear."
"Oh?" Mocke says. "You accept the scientific truth of evolution?"
"Always," Reverend Hooker says. "All Christians are not creationists, Professor Mocke. I now think creationism has been a disaster for Christians, a time-wasting stumbling block deliberately cast into our path by a malign hand to keep us from discovering what Dmitri here has shown us, the love of God revealed as a physical force in evolution. Convincing humanity to believe in creationism was not the job Jesus charged us with doing."
"Give me a precise evolutionary mechanism that will implant empathic structures," Mocke says.
"Easily," Reverend Hooker says. "A female animal has a choice of two male animals as mates. Both are about the same as material providers, but one does something different. He does something that makes the female animal happy, because his brain contains a structure that makes it easy for him to empathize, to know what the female animal wants to feel."
"He makes her feel happiness, the desire for which comes from her soul," Chernov says. "So she chooses him as mate over less-considerate one, and his brain structure is passed on. Over evolutionary time scale, this would implant empathic structures deep into developing brain."
"You're claiming this same emotional process goes on in animals?" Mocke says.
"I am," Reverend Hooker says.
"Do not animals feel emotion, want to be happy, to be loved?" Chernov asks. "But am not claiming. Have proven! Have already detected cat-souls!"
"The only way the brain could be shaped by emotion is for emotion to be exactly like the Earth's magnetic field, external to the physical organism, from the soul," Mocke says, intrigued in spite of himself. "This theory implies the soul is the true source of all emotion, that the brain is no more than a mirror, a reflection of a deeper structure."
"Precisely correct, Professor," Chernov says. "Brain is not source of emotion. Soul is, and it has shaped brain to its desires."
"Dmitri, this is all well and good," Reverend Hooker says, "but we've wandered from our most important purpose here today."
"How is that, Rocky?" Chernov says, "Our purpose is to explain what detection of souls mean, and we're doing that."
"What do you think is the primary meaning of the scientific detection of souls, above everything else we've said here today, Dmitri?” Reverend Hooker tilts his head back.
"Fundamental fear of all human beings, fear of death, is now gone!" he exclaims. "People don't die, and never have! They exist eternally! That is primary meaning, above everything else!"
"Wrong," Reverend Hooker says. He shakes his head in emphatic denial. "You could not be more wrong. You don't understand your own results, not yet, Dmitri."
"But you do?" Mocke says. "You understand Academician Chernov's results better than he does, better than trained scientists?"
"Well, then, Reverend," Mocke says. "Enlighten us."
"By all means," Reverend Hooker says. "Gentlemen, what are the implications of this on future individual human action? How should the man on the street now change his behavior, if at all?"
"Man on street should now have as primary motivating force desire to make all human beings happy," Chernov says. He raises a finger for emphasis. "Must always act with consideration for other peoples' feelings."
"And if he decides not to do that? If he chooses, of his own free will, even knowing he has an immortal soul, to act childishly, selfishly, without consideration of other peoples' feelings? Now what?"
Chernov looks bewildered.
"Will not happen!" he says. "Man on street didn't know scientific truth before! Now he does! He will work to make everybody happy!"
A cynical chuckle sweeps through the rec room. Reverend Hooker runs his hand through his hair and gives Chernov a wry look. Even Mocke is surprised. Chernov might be a genius, but he's just marked himself a fuzzy-headed academic who spends most of his time with his head in the clouds. Chernov doesn't know everything.
He doesn't know people.
"No, Dmitri," Reverend Hooker says, "that won't happen. There's no chance of it."
Chernov's mouth drops open in astonishment.
"Surely!" he insists. "Is clear now! Is smart thing to do!"
"There are a lot of idiots in this world," Reverend Hooker observes. "No, it won't happen. Trust me when I say it won't happen, Dmitri. The Universe is your area of expertise. Human beings are mine."
Chernov starts to reply, but Reverend Hooker quiets him with a shushing motion.
"If you don't mind, Dmitri, I'd like for Professor Mocke to consider this problem. Professor? Let me make it as immediate and personal as possible. What's the threat of Academician Chernov's results?"
"Threat?" Mocke says, raising his eyebrows.
"Yes, the threat," Reverend Hooker says. "What kind of threat do immortal souls represent to the man on the street right now?"
This is too much for Chernov.
"Threat?" he cries with indignation. "Is no threat at all!"
"Please, Dmitri," Reverend Hooker says. He says this mildly, but the steel ring of command is in his tone. Chernov shuts up.
Mocke looks wary. The interview has taken an unexpected turn. MacNeil quietly steps stage left and lets Reverend Hooker and Mocke have center stage. Battle has been joined, and he's going to back up and let the sparks fly.
"Don't misunderstand me," Mocke warns. "I still don't accept your premise. I was only considering things theoretically, from your viewpoint."
"Fine," Reverend Hooker says. "Spoken like a truly objective scientist. I ask only that you continue doing so for the next few minutes.” His hunter aspect becomes stronger. He leans over and bores in, remorseless as a shark. "Now, what is the answer to my question? What's the threat of eternal existence?"
Mocke looks off into the distance as he considers the question.
"What kind of threat does eternal existence represent for a sentient," he murmurs to himself.
"Let me strike to the heart of this," Reverend Hooker says. "What should an eternal being fear?"
"Yes, fear," Reverend Hooker says. "Everything has a price. What's the price of immortality?"
Mocke shakes his head.
"I can't see as there are any threats at all to an eternal being," he says. "He's eternal. Why should he be afraid of anything?"
"Because he can still be hurt," Reverend Hooker says, "he can still feel pain. The only thing that's guaranteed is existence, and the desire to love each other. Nothing else. If our bottom desire is to love each other, why would eternal beings deliberately put another eternal being in pain?"
"In pain?" Mocke squeaks.
"Yes, in pain," Reverend Hooker says, "which is certainly an action which would make an unhappy soul that threatens the Universe's existence. What could force eternal beings to do it anyway?"
A light dawns in Mocke's eyes. For a second, he's a bright kid in school who knows he has the answer when nobody else in the class does.
"When it's the least dangerous option," he says. "When the sentient is already threatening the Universe's existence. Then it wouldn't matter. Punishment, you'd have to do it as punishment for threatening the existence of the Universe. For any action by a sentient that threatens the existence of the Universe."
"Allow me to put it in my primitive, simple terms," Reverend Hooker says. "For breaking the law. The law of 'God loves everybody forever.' "
Mocke raises his shoulders and drops them in a massively contemptuous shrug.
"If you wish," he says. "It means nothing to me."
"I'll keep it in your terms," Reverend Hooker says. "Would selfish actions threaten the Universe's existence, and why?"
"Yes," Mocke says, "because selfish action by definition creates unhappy souls, and unhappy souls are a threat to the Universe's existence."
"True or false, Professor. There are a great number of people on this Earth who act selfishly, who hurt people unnecessarily, and who will continue to hurt people unnecessarily, even now."
Mocke looks annoyed.
"True," he says. "Don't insult my intelligence, Reverend."
"Just trying to be rigorous, Professor. So what are the other souls on this Earth going to be forced to do? For their own safety?"
"Well, of course," Mocke says, "they will have to stop selfish action from occurring. For their own safety."
"It's impossible to forget the victims, isn't it, Professor Mocke? Not if they're eternal beings. It'll certainly backfire on us. How are the victims going to feel?"
"Angry. Angry---and unhappy."
"What are the other people—--no, pardon me again, eternal souls---going to be forced to do?"
"They will be forced to intervene. They must stop any process that is creating unhappy eternal beings."
"Tell you what, Professor. Let's construct us a completely theoretical society, a society composed entirely of immortal souls, and try and figure out what a society of immortal souls would be like. Can you go along with that?"
"I can," Mocke declares, leaning back. "As a theoretical construct."
"Let us further postulate that, although these souls are immortal, they are not necessarily all mature. Many of them, maybe most of them, will be, basically, children, with all the selfish behavior that implies."
"In our theoretical society of immortal-but-mostly-childish souls, there will have to be societal mechanisms to deal with the selfish souls. Correct?"
"Oh, of course," Mocke says. "You can't allow the creation of unhappy immortal souls----granted that immortal souls exist. To do so would cause severe instability problems. Eventually."
"There will have to be at least two mechanisms in our theoretical immortal-soul society to deal with selfish souls, then, a teaching mechanism and a healing mechanism. The healing mechanism will be to heal the souls who have been hurt. It is the teaching mechanism that is the threat. Professor Mocke, what is this teaching mechanism?"
Mocke makes the barest detectable jerk. This question is completely out of the blue as far as I'm concerned. I have no clue what the answer is, but it's clear Mocke knows.
But he doesn't say anything.
Chernov starts squirming in his seat. He's seen something, too.
Reverend Hooker doesn't wait.
"Correction," he says, "the selfish soul has to be caught and corrected, both as payment for what he's done and so that he stops creating unhappy souls. Right, Professor?"
Mocke looks faintly tense. He swallows. Chernov looks like he's about to explode.
"There is logic to that," Mocke says. "Given your presumptions----which, I repeat, I do not accept."
"The selfish soul has to be caught and corrected," Reverend Hooker says. "This correction is not likely to be pleasant for the selfish soul. In fact, in most cases it will have to involve a great deal of pain to be effective, to get the point across and make it stick. Right, Professor?” He's grinding it in for some reason only he knows. "What might we call this teaching mechanism whereby souls who hurt other souls for selfish reasons are caught and punished?"
Chernov can't hold it back any longer.
"Justice!" he blurts out. "Is brilliant, Rocky! In precisely same sense as exists absolute standard of temperature in Universe, must exist also absolute standard of justice!"
"And what do you know," Reverend Hooker says, "the societal mechanism of justice exists in the real society of humans, just like in our theoretical society of immortal souls. Isn't it amazing, Professor Mocke? Human society is already acting the same way an immortal-soul society would!"
"Oh, had to be, Rocky!" Chernov says. "Had to be! Justice is inhibition mechanism!"
Reverend Hooker blinks and stares off into space.
"This is a very important thing to realize," he says. "If humans have immortal souls, how else would it show in their behavior? How would it show in human action, on the societal and personal levels? The concepts of love and justice are the primary observable effects, but there have to be many others."
On the left, MacNeil glances off-stage, almost certainly checking a clock. Time is about to run out. This battle had better be over soon.
Reverend Hooker looks at Mocke and comes back to Earth. He leans over and gets in Mocke's face again.
"So, Professor Mocke, what is the threat of eternal existence?" he asks. "What does an eternal being have to fear that a non-eternal being doesn't?"
Mocke's not going to give up without a fight. He rubs the back of his neck.
"If your existence can't be terminated," he says, "you can't escape the consequences of your actions."
"Quite right," Reverend Hooker says, "over the vast stretch of eternity, whatever you do must inevitably catch up with you. You just can't get away. Not true for a non-eternal being. If you die first, you can escape the consequences of your actions, you can escape justice."
Mocke's hands come together on the table and start twisting.
"True or false, Professor Mocke," Reverend Hooker says. "An eternal being cannot escape justice."
"True or false, Professor Mocke. Not only does the idea of justice already exist in human society, but so also does the idea that it is impossible to escape justice."
"True," Mocke says again. His hands look like he's wringing an invisible chicken's neck in slow motion.
"True or false, Professor Mocke. Eternal souls make moral behavior---smart behavior. The smarter you are, the more moral you are. Because the smarter you are, the more you understand you can't escape justice."
The invisible chicken's neck in Mocke's hands snaps.
"Let me bring this down from the theoretical clouds and give it teeth," Reverend Hooker says. "Justice is a hammer. A natural, necessary component of a sentient-containing, soul-containing Universe, which must be completely impossible to escape. Only a fool would think he could escape. And that's the threat of eternal existence, that's what an eternal being must fear. Not death, not dying, but justice."
The entire stage goes quiet. So does the rec room. Al-Durabi puts it in soldier terms.
"Fuck up the least little bit," he says, his voice loud in the rec room, "screw up one tiny inch, and an Almighty hammer comes down out of the sky and smashes your eternal-being ass flat. Natural as gravity."
Nobody in the rec room says a word.
Mocke visibly takes control of himself. His hands stop twisting.
"I'm certain there are errors of logic in your thinking," he says. "Just give me time, and I'll find them."
"Lots of luck," Reverend Hooker says.
"Are no errors," Chernov says. "Reverend Hooker is correct."
"The mistakes are there," Mocke says. He starts slow-motion-wringing that chicken's neck again. Reverend Hooker glances at this with interest, then back at Mocke. "They must be. There are perfectly sound genetically based Darwinian reasons for the existence of all these concepts that don't involve something so patently ridiculous as immortal souls. Just give me time to find them. All I need is time!"
"If all you need is time, then time you shall have," Reverend Hooker says. "Perhaps we can continue this debate again in the near future, after you've had the time to find the mistakes in my thinking?"
This response is a shock to Mocke. He looks like he'd like nothing more than to walk away and forget this entire debate ever happened, but this is a challenge he can't turn down without losing face.
"As you wish," he says.
The battle of Armageddon is not over. Just suspended until the next debate.
MacNeil steps forward.
"Gentlemen," he says quickly, "our time is up. Thank-you-all-for-attending-and-perhaps-we-can-continue-this-at-another-time."
The screen blacks out just as MacNeil finishes. The rec-room crowd breaks into a noisy rumble.
"So now we know what it means," Al-Durabi says through the noise. "So what's next?"
I know the answer to that one.
"Human action," I say. "Big-time human action. Everybody smart starts covering their asses. There's going to be one hellacious scramble. Just to start, they're going to take the handcuffs off our mission. I guaran-damn-tee you new orders are being cut for our mission as we speak."
"Our mission here," Al-Durabi says in wonder. "In human action. It's all in human action, just like Hooker said. That's why we were here all along, wasn't it, floating off the coast of Africa in this overblown tin can. We were acting like we had souls. Only we didn't know it, and that's why everything felt so goddamn confused and fucked-up. Well, by Allah now it's clear, and now there's going to be some human action!"
I can feel it coming. I can feel it coming like a gentle breeze, like the first breath of a storm.
"In human action," I say. "There's going to be human action, all right. Human action like you wouldn't believe."
A storm that will shatter the world.
THE HAMMER RISING
My backpack computer is booting up when a worry surfaces.
Al-Durabi is fooling around with his BC---instead of concentrating on the mission. Malreaux is doing his philosopher thing---instead of concentrating on the mission. Tivoli is worrying about my opinion of his competence---instead of concentrating on the mission. I don’t know what’s going on in Heinrich’s mind, but I’m pretty certain it’s not the mission. Even Mitsui, the most rock-solid of my soldiers, is shouting slogans---instead of concentrating on the mission.
Only minutes away from battle, my squad has lost its focus.
I know the cause. The soul experiments. My squad is as caught up in the argument over the soul experiments as everyone else is, and they’ve forgotten we’re tasked with stopping a massacre in progress. I’ve got to push that subject out of their heads and get them tightly focused on the mission. If I don't, we’re all going to go down there and get shot. I reach into my vest pocket and click over to the company channel.
“Jump Seven,” I say. “Time to insertion.”
“Insertion in three, Sergeant,” the Jump Seven says.
“Copy, three minutes,” I reply, and click back to the squad channel. Behind each one of us, a jumpmaster steps forward and starts the official pre-jump check by sliding our JDAP cages on their rails to make sure the wheels are free. A line of embeds shuffle forward to shoot our exit, careful to stay lined up out of the way against the walls.
"First stick," I say into my mike as my backpack computer starts hunting for a network to link up to. "Comm check."
"Mitsui, five by five."
"Heinrich, five by five."
"Tivoli, five by five."
"Malreaux, five by five."
"Al-Durabi, five by five."
The network check is next. My BC has found the network. Mitsui, Heinrich, Tivoli, and Malreaux take their places at the bottom of my display as blue straight identity lines with their names underneath, indicating maximum connectivity. In the back of my mind I can hear Malreaux pointing out in his superior fashion how this concept, too, springs from that simple postulate of physics. Al-Durabi’s identity line shows up as a red, flashing X. He's disconnected himself from the network somehow.
“Corporal Al-Durabi, goddammit!” I shout. “Clear that fucking link and stop screwing around with your system!”
“Yes, Sergeant,” he mutters, chastened. “Rebooting.”
“The rest of you, check the network links to your taggers, Hellfire shells, and RFID chips,” I say. “Report any failures.”
The mouse button for the BC is on the tagger, two centimeters above the trigger. I move the button and the arrow on my display responds. The tagger is communicating. I pull down the diagnostic menu and execute the routine to check communication to all my Hellfire shells and RFID chips. The link to the shells is wireless and the most likely place for a malfunction. All seventy shells respond to the BC’s queries. The diagnostic routine moves on to the one hundred Radio Frequency Identification chips packed in each Hellfire warhead. They come back minimum ninety-five per cent functional, within warhead specifications.
As an afterthought, I ping my camera uplinks. The embeds can’t jump with us, so the world is going to watch the ground action from our tagger and helmet cameras. The ping-times average five milliseconds with zero percent packet loss, optimal.
“Online, Sergeant,” Al-Durabi says. “Tagger, shells, and chips good to go.” His red X goes blue and straight. The squad is linked up and ready for combat.
"Sergeant Soldat to ARGUS," I say. “Request map and tango last-known database update.”
“Updating,” ARGUS says. A green install bar lengthens across my display, disappears. The latest topographic map of the battlefield, integrated from radar, satellite and overflight scans is now in the squad’s BCs, plus the latest information on where the tangos, the bad guys, are located. “Last-known update complete.”
"Two minutes to jump," I say, and start the re-focusing project. "Let’s review the mission again, troops, so I can be certain everybody’s got it straight. One-hour launch-on-warning is not enough time to get it all straight in your head.” I pull the battlefield map down on everyone's display. The death camp is a small, shallow valley ringed by rolling hills covered with short green grass and scrub. I move the pointer to the center of the valley where a fenced-in area has been outlined in violet. "Sudan has a history of violence between the Muslim north and the largely Christian and animist south, which culminated in a twenty-year civil war that killed more than two million people. I must emphasize this conflict has nothing to do with the Darfur conflict, which is a race war, Arab versus black. This war is primarily based on religion, Christian versus Muslim. An upcoming referendum on independence for southern Sudan, part of a peace treaty negotiated in 2003, has resulted in violence from a variety of Christian and Muslim splinter militias, with military support for both sides coming from warring factions within the government. We’re tasked with stopping a massacre that started approximately twenty-four hours ago at the border between north and south. Local friendlies are being rounded up by death-squads and held in this corral complex in the center of this valley. When the corrals get full, the friendlies are executed and the bodies dumped in this mass grave.” I move the pointer to a black area on the valley's far north end. "The latest satphotos show them placing a layer of dirt over the bodies with a bulldozer and filling up the corral complex again. They've gone through one cycle already.” I pause for effect, to draw them to a fine point. “They’re killing innocent people down there! We are by-God going to put a stop to it!”
"Sergeant," Malreaux says. That unnecessary pain he mentioned is in his voice. He is a man who empathizes. "They're killing people already? I must ask. Why are we so late?"
"We didn't find out about it in time," I said. "Only way we know now is they got ratted out. Six hours ago, some high-up in the Sudanese government, we don’t know who, placed a cell phone call from their capital buildings in Khartoum to our offices in New York."
"We need better monitoring," Malreaux says. Now I know for certain my squad has lost its edge. Time for a touch of the whip.
"We do, and we'll certainly get it, but this is neither the time nor the place," I say with crackling anger. "Dammit, Malreaux, get focused on the immediate task, or you're going to get killed down there and not be a damn bit of good to the friendlies still alive!”
"Yes, Sergeant," Malreaux says unhappily.
That's enough of the whip. I move to the tactical situation.
”We have three primary advantages," I say. I overlay the tango locations. Red dots sprinkle over the map. A time stamp appears, also in red. These tango locations are five minutes old. They're coming from an American Global Hawk loitering over the valley at five thousand feet. The Americans have put every military resource they have at the GQRF's disposal. Along with the Russians, the Japanese, the Europeans, the British, the Australians, and the Tongans, for all I know. The finest, most refined military war-fighting systems produced by the most technologically advanced countries on the planet have been forged into a justice hammer poised over this little valley. I almost feel sorry for the poor dumb bastards this justice hammer's about to come down on. Almost.
"One,” I say, “we will know where they are at all times, whereas they won't have a clue where we are. Two, we're outnumbered three to one, but we have vastly superior standoff attack technology. We don't have to be in line-of-sight to tag them, but they have to be in line-of-sight to shoot us. Three, they don't know we're coming. They're sleeping out in the open. Intel says they’re a straight amateur death-squad militia, AKs and machetes only, no armor or heavy weapons. There is no observed defensive perimeter. The company is dropping in an assault ring around the valley hills, surrounding the tangos out of their sight.” I indicate the bottom of a low hill at the valley's southern end. "This is our specific drop zone. We're going to hit our DZ out of their sight, sweep up over this hill and tag them while they're still asleep. The rules of engagement are anything moving in the open is a probable tango. Tag it!"
Launch racks under the Globemaster make a sound like Godzilla spitting rocks, over and over.
"There go the Sleeper units," I say. "We're about to jump. Any questions?"
"Remember, shoot and scoot!" I say. "You can see a tagger launch for kilometers at night! Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving!"
"Hoo-ah!" Al-Durabi shouts. "Let's kick some bad-guy lawbreaker asses!"
They’ve got their focus back. I raise my thumb at the Jump Seven. My headset clicks as he switches to our channel. The jumpmasters behind us report in.
“Jumpmaster One! First man ready!”
“Jumpmaster Two! Second man ready!”
“Jumpmaster Three! Third man ready!”
“Jumpmaster Four! Fourth man ready!”
“Jumpmaster Five! Fifth man ready!”
"Jumpmaster Six! Sixth man ready!"
“Jump Seven, first stick reports blue and straight," I say. "Begin rollout at your discretion."
“Rollout in twenty,” the Jump Seven says, and the cameras rotate to follow us as the jumpmasters trundle us in our cages down the launch rails to the edge of the ramp. Wind vortexes like mini-tornadoes, formed by air curling over the bay’s open edges, come bursting over the ramp and ram our cages one after the other, threatening to twist them off the rails. The jumpmasters have to wrestle with our cages to keep them in position. There's nothing we can do to assist. We’re clamped stiff and helpless in full-body metal straitjackets on the edge of a two-hundred-meter cliff, about to be pushed over it into a ferocious hurricane. Staring over the cliff’s edge gives me a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. This is the first combat use of the JDAP cages. I wonder if these damn things are going to work in combat conditions or not. If they pick now to show some hidden design flaw, we'll be turned into strawberry jelly smeared over grass and innocent people will continue to be slaughtered.
ARGUS speaks to us in its combat voice, a distillation of every drill sergeant there has ever been.
“Rollout first stick in five seconds, on my mark,” it growls. I feel my jumpmaster plant his right boot on the back of my cage. “Five. Four. Three. Two. One. First stick, in service.”
A quick shove from behind, and we're kicked out of the plane into the hurricane fury howling across the world.
IN HUMAN ACTION
The love of God is a law of physics.
Our mission isn't confused anymore.
The roar of God is loud on the Reagan’s flight deck. It's a bee-swarm of helicopters and soldiers loud enough to make the flight deck shake. It must be sounding loud in our prisoners' ears. The forced, smartest-thing-to-do intervention to keep eternal beings happy has begun. But it doesn’t feel like being forced.
It feels like being set free.
Our Janjaweed prisoners are in total shock. The surprise on their faces as they offload the Pave Hawk helicopters and shuffle across the Reagan’s deck in their white plastic handcuffs is something to see. This is our little contribution to the hellacious scramble, to the tsunami of smashing change that started rolling over the world after Chernov gave his TV interview and showed anybody with half a brain the Almighty hammer poised over his sweet precious eternal-being ass.
"Where the hell are they gonna put'em, sir?" Al-Durabi wonders as he safes his rifle. A round clinks to the deck. He scoops it up.
"They'll find a place," I say. Watching these killers getting carried off to jail is satisfying something in me I thought would never be satisfied. There is a lightness growing in me that is beyond words. It's not just me. Morale on board the Reagan is through the roof. There is an undercurrent of energy, of joyous release and explosive exhilaration, running through everybody on board, beyond anything I've ever seen. I've seen soldiers coming back from combat happy, grinning like loons. "Gitmo for right now, maybe."
"Wait'll they find out they're going to do life at hard labor and turn big rocks into little ones for the rest of their natural lives," Al-Durabi says. "Then they'll be pissed."
"Life's a bitch," I say, "then you go to jail. May all their rocks be boulders harder than diamond."
"Nobody gave a rat's ass they were running around killing people before," Al-Durabi says. "Now right out of nowhere everybody cares. It don't make no sense. Somebody changed the rules and forgot to send them a memo."
"Too goddamn bad," I say. "Should've thought about that before they decided to try being genocidal murderers for a living."
"Welcome to the Awakening."
The hellacious scramble has a name now. It's "the Awakening.” Nobody knows who first called it that. It just appeared on the Internet somewhere and swept across the world in hours.
"How do you feel, First Sergeant?" Al-Durabi asks. "Inside. Way down deep."
"I feel," I say with emphasis, "pretty goddamn good. Better than I've felt in my entire life."
"Because you've done it," Al-Durabi says, "you've satisfied that little twist of yours. You've stopped the killing."
"You got that exactly right, Sergeant Al-Durabi," I say. "How do you feel?” This is the first combat action he's ever seen.
"I could've been shot dead," Al-Durabi says. "I could've been chopped in half with a machete or blown to bloody chunks with an RPG."
"So how do you feel, Sergeant? Inside. Way down deep."
"I feel," Al-Durabi says with emphasis, "pretty goddamn good. Better than I've felt in my entire life."
"We kept innocent people from being murdered, from being shot down like dogs just because of the color of their skin."
"So now what do you want, Sergeant?"
"I want," Al-Durabi says, "to do it again."
Something huge and unseen ambushes me from above, reaches deep inside me and tears something I can't name out, tosses it raw and bleeding onto the flight deck. A vast hollow is left in the center of my being. It hurts. It really hurts.
Al-Durabi wraps his arms around his chest, and I know he's been ambushed, too.
"I have done," Al-Durabi says, "the most perfectly right thing I have ever done, and I feel it."
He swallows and blinks, trying to cope with this unexpected attack.
"This is it," he says. "This is what it feels like to have a soul."
For a moment, neither of us says a word or moves a muscle. We just stand there caught in shimmering tension while the nameless things ripped out of both of us lay on the flight deck and bleed.
"How very, very deep it goes, how much it affects our actions," Al-Durabi whispers. His voice shakes. "It is what we are, what we truly are, what we have been all along."
Al-Durabi straightens up, swallows and takes a breath.
"Who knew justice was an absolute?" he asks. This breaks the spell. He's taken refuge by retreating into abstract analysis of human behavior. "We all thought it was relative, and it held us back."
"What a waste, Sergeant, what a frigging waste," I say, not really understanding, just stumbling for words, for a path away from this. I'm happy to play along, to get away from whatever that thing bleeding on the deck is. "This all could've been figured out a long time ago."
This is the newest game on planet Earth. Reverend Hooker started it and everybody is playing. Analyze specific human behaviors and show how they always contained the implicit assumption of eternal existence and the love of God.
"It could've been,” Al-Durabi says. "To deduce the basic laws of particle behavior, we observe the action of particles in motion. To deduce the basic laws of electrodynamic behavior, we observe the actions of charged particles. To deduce the basic laws of human behavior, all the scientists had to do was exactly the same thing. Observe the actions of humans."
"There's something strange about that," I say. "Something that's different. But I can't quite put my finger on it."
"I can," Al-Durabi says. "I know what it is that's a different idea. That people---sentients, souls---are fundamental components of the Universe, just like electrons and protons are fundamental components. That the appearance of the human race is not a random, accidental thing in the Universe. Sentients are something that had to be built into the Universe's structure, from its very beginning."
"How much pain it has caused, not knowing any of this," I say, feel the tug of that nameless, bleeding thing again, and instantly regret my words. I am on the edge of being torn open once more.
To my vast relief, I see Colonel Hendricks, our company commander, picking his way through helicopters towards us. He's got his smartphone in his hand.
"Make you a bet, sir," Al-Durabi says, watching him approach. "More human action. More human action that contains the intrinsic assumption of eternal souls, of eternal existence, and the love of Allah."
"No bet," I say.
"First Sergeant Soldat," Colonel Hendricks says, reaching us, "we just got word. The United Nations is forming an anti-genocide army."
"Really, sir?" I ask, with a glance at Al-Durabi, who looks triumphant. "The United Nations? Whose idea was that?"
"The Federal Republic," Colonel Hendricks says, "of Germany."
"Oh," I say. "They paying for it? An entire army? You're looking at tens of millions."
"The Germans proposed the idea to the General Assembly and it got adopted unanimously," Colonel Hendrick says. "The U. N. posted a note on their Website asking for donations to fund it. It's up to one hundred million and still shooting up."
"What's money anymore?"
"Moral obligation," Colonel Hendricks says. "A quick-reaction force is being created from professional soldier volunteers from all the world's armies, whose purpose will be to intervene militarily when genocides are about to happen. When the shit blows up, this force is going to be the first one into the fire. Knowing you, I'm giving you first crack. Want in?"
"You goddamn betcha, sir," I say.
"You'll have to take a demotion and a pay cut," Colonel Hendricks says.
"I don't care, sir," I say. "Sign my ass up."
"Great," Colonel Hendricks says. He taps virtual keys on his smartphone. "Done. You are now on indeterminate liaison to the United Nations. You will be a squad leader in the United Nations Genocide Quick-Reaction Force, hereinafter referred to as the GQRF."
"Son of a bitch," I say. "That's it?"
"That's it," Colonel Hendricks says. "Your orders are cut. Report for advanced JDAP paratrooper training in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. A company of GQRF soldiers is going to train there. You will train for one month, then you will return to Sudan, and you will kick ass."
"International troops?" I say. "The politicians aren't screaming about international troops inside our borders?"
"Not a peep," Colonel Hendricks says. "They can't give us money fast enough. Too afraid of burning in Hell forever, is my guess."
"There is no Hell, sir," Al-Durabi says. "At least, not one you get thrown into forever."
"You couldn't prove that by these guys," Colonel Hendricks says, amusement on his face. "You should see the fear in their eyes, Sergeant. These guys are scared shitless. They can feel the fire and smell their asses cooking!” He chuckles. "These guys are some motivated sons of bitches!"
"Hell isn't consistent with 'Allah loves everybody forever', sir," Al-Durabi protests. "It can't work like that. Allah wouldn't create souls and then set up a system that guarantees ninety-nine plus percent winds up burning in Hell forever. Or even one."
“Sure,” Colonel Hendricks says. “But you think I’m going to explain that to these guys? When they know God has got’em by the balls and will start swinging at the slightest excuse? Sergeant Al-Durabi, these politicians have seen the light!” He folds his hands in a prayerful pose and looks skyward. "It's a miracle, praise the Lord!"
"I bet the right-wing nutcases are screaming their heads off," I say.
"Yeah, they're pissing and moaning about Yew-En black-helicopter invasion fleets all over the Internet," Colonel Hendricks says, "but nobody's listening to them. Nobody with any brains, anyway."
"Me too," Al-Durabi interjects, "me too, Colonel, sir. This is the end-game of history, and by the Prophet I will be a part of it!"
"Same deal, Sergeant," Colonel Hendricks says. "A demotion and a pay cut."
"Do it, sir."
"As you wish, Sergeant Al-Durabi," Colonel Hendricks says. He taps more keys. "You're in."
The deep roar of multiple helicopter turbines firing up pierces the air. Warm jet blast reeking of kerosene washes over us. The rotors on the departing choppers start turning. The next rescue mission is about to depart.
We're done safing our weapons. Colonel Hendrick bows his head against the jet blast and heads for the stairs to below-decks. Al-Durabi and I follow along behind in single file.
Al-Durabi touches my arm.
"First Sergeant!" he shouts. "Observe human action!” He points to a Pave Hawk sitting close to the edge of the flight deck. A team of medics is unloading a Janjaweed prisoner on a stretcher.
"Watch the prisoner!" Al-Durabi shouts. "I've seen this before!"
The medics pull the Janjaweed out and carry him to the edge of the flight deck to triage him. He's strapped into his stretcher and can't move. He's bleeding all over the place, but it doesn't look serious.
The Janjaweed looks around, spots the flight deck edge and goes berserk, absolutely apeshit. He fights his straps like a madman, heaving and bucking so the medics nearly drop him. He gets a strap in his mouth and tries to chew through it.
"He thinks they’re going to throw him over!" Al-Durabi shouts.
They hauled his ass all the way back here just to throw him over? This guy ain't too bright, I think.
The medics set the jerking Janjaweed down. Disgustedly, a female medic yanks the saliva-slick strap out of his mouth. The medics break open their medical kits. They start pulling bandages back and tending to his wounds. The Janjaweed, panting, stops struggling. The confusion, the wonderment, on the Janjaweed's face as he watches the medics work on him is something to see.
The bad guys are the confused ones now. The good guys are not.
That's the way it's supposed to be.
"Allah loves everybody forever!" Al-Durabi shouts over the turbine roar. "And it's all in human action, and always was!"
Yeah, Al-Durabi's right. I shoulder my rifle and we continue following Colonel Hendricks below-decks.
All in human action, all in human action, and all right under our noses all along.
We hurtle toward the Earth like rocks. Wind force mashes the skin on my face flat. The faster we drop, the harder we are to shoot, but God, it’s scary to see the ground coming up at us so fast. The metal moth wings on my JDAP cage slide out with hisses of compressed air, and the GPS guidance system takes over. The indicated rate-of-descent on my network visor reaches one hundred kilometers per hour within three seconds. The sound of the Globemaster’s turbojets fade behind us, to be replaced by wind whistling through our cage bars. The cage shifts as the wings make small movements, adjusting my flight path.
The battle plan goes to shit right off the bat. Tracers reach for us from the top of our target hill, three delicate phosphorous-red fountains of death wandering around the sky. The enemy is not sound asleep in blissful ignorance. The enemy is wide-awake and waiting for us.
"ARGUS, the DZ is hot, repeat, the DZ is hot!" I shout. I pull down the battlefield map and move our DZ one hundred meters further south. My cage bucks as drag flaps deploy on the wings, sending my cage sliding backwards in the air. I check left and right to make certain the rest of my squad’s still with me. They’re where they ought to be, falling alongside me in a perfect horizontal plane. The one-second bell bongs in my ear. Our JDAP cages are about to disengage. I clench my fist around my tagger.
The JDAP cage bars clang open as the thrusters go off with a blast like shotguns and yank the cage off my back. My training kicks in, crossing my arms across my chest with the tagger cradled underneath. Grassland rushes up at me like a brown velvet hammer while my chute unfolds from my back. My display shows I’m one hundred meters up falling at one-hundred-fifty kilometers an hour. Drag snatches at my shoulders and pulls my body straight in the air when my chute reaches full extension. I rock back and catch a glimpse of the chute streaming above me like a collapsed balloon. A burst of Semtex micro-charges blows it open at exactly the correct millisecond to jerk me up short bare meters from the grassland floor. I rotate my body ninety degrees left to my direction of travel and go limp. My feet make contact and I disperse the energy of landing along my right side in a tumbling fall. The rest of my stick comes down around me like falling leaves. The JDAP system has done its job.
“ARGUS, we’re on the ground,” I say.
"Roger," ARGUS says. "Continuous tango-tracking initiated. Twenty-seven tangos targeted in your sector, Sergeant."
I unsnap the release latches on my chute harness and let the wind carry it all away. The death-squads are too close to worry with it.
"Stay down and prone!” I order. I bring my night-vision goggles down over my network visor. The landscape lights up as if illuminated by a bright green moon. A purple fisherman’s net appears to fall down over the hill as ARGUS overlays the visible landscape with a transparent virtual location grid. Ruby-red squares sprinkle over the net as ARGUS updates tango locations. I count three tangos on the hill in front of us, the ones shooting the sky. “Check your immediate area for tangos! Anybody hurt? Tivoli, you got your tagger?”
“Yes, Sergeant, I have my tagger,” Tivoli says.
The tangos on the hill continue to rake the sky with random fire.
“I don’t think they saw us,” I say. “Contacts! Who’s got contacts in their immediate area?”
Silence. I don’t wait. My landing short has created a gap in the assault ring. I've got to close that gap before the bad guys realize it's there and try to escape through it.
“Get up, but stay low!” I say. “Mitsui on my right fifty meters, Heinrich right twenty-five, Tivoli, left twenty-five, Malreaux, left fifty, Al-Durabi, cover our six! Watch those assholes on the hill!” I keep my voice down. Sound travels a long way in pre-dawn quiet.
My squad spreads out into a skirmish line as I keep an eye on the tangos on the hill. They keep firing random bursts into the air. I’m getting really bad vibes from that. Somehow they know paratroopers are dropping in, and I wonder how they know. We can't tag them from where we are. They're outside the one-hundred-fifty meter range of the Hellfire shells.
“All right, stay low and don’t let them see you!" I order. "Squad, advance.”
The terrain consists of grass and scrub bushes. We advance crouching, using the bushes for cover. My senses are on high alert, like the computers, drinking in and processing all the data the night has to offer. I hear the grass swishing underneath my jump boots, feel the soft crunch as I step. It’s not looking good in the valley behind the transparent virtual hill. Red squares are moving around in a disciplined fashion. They arrange themselves so quickly into a circular defensive perimeter I realize with a sinking feeling we've been suckered. Somebody has ratted us out, too. The Awakening's meaning requires intelligence to see.
The situation goes from bad to worse.
"Warning, warning, tangos emerging from camouflage in central valley area and dispersing radially outward," ARGUS says. "Estimate one to two hundred additional tangos."
The bad guys are trying a quick-reaction ambush of their own. The virtual grid chooses this precise moment to start flickering. Red squares apparently jump from place to place. ARGUS is lagging. There are so many tangos moving and so much location data coming in it's having trouble keeping up.
When we’re fifty meters from the bottom of the hill, the three red squares on top suddenly disappear and re-appear twenty meters down the hill. The tangos are headed towards my squad. Maybe they’ve heard something, maybe they’ve just decided to come hunting, I don’t know. I check the range. One-hundred-twenty meters. Time for an ambush.
The ARGUS system detects the threat. The icons flash and “Danger close!” sounds in my ear. I take a nanosecond's pleasure in having beaten ARGUS to it.
“Squad, freeze,” I whisper into my mike. I seat my tagger on my hip. “Mitsui, Heinrich, and me. Select your target.”
I move my mouse indicator over a red square and click. The square turns yellow, indicating the shell has acquired the tango. A yellow ownership arrow stretches from my ID line to the tango. Identical ownership arrows stretch to the other two tangos, one from Heinrich’s ID line, one from Mitsui’s.
“On my order, fire and shift right ten meters,” I say. I look left for a quick check on Tivoli. He's doing the smart thing, moving left away from my launch point.
“Fire!” I order, and the Awakening comes to Sudan in triple rockets of fire and lightning that rip the night open. A colossal feeling I don’t have time to analyze wells up in me as the rockets fly away.
I haul ass right as fast as I can and throw myself prone, sliding to a stop behind a bush. I twist around and look back. Bullets are splatting into the footprints I left behind and puffing up dirt. On my visor, the Hellfire rockets home in and signal explosion with red-star icons. Distant booms like exploding fireworks echo from the hill.
I listen for the screaming. It comes in right on cue behind the fireworks, the sound of people in inhuman torment, slicing through the quiet like a razor.
“Welcome to Hell, you murdering bastards,” Al-Durabi says. The chemical agonants coating the RFID chips shot into the tangos' skin have triggered the surrounding nerves into thinking they’re on fire. Right now, the poor damned fools on that hill feel like they’re being branded with a white-hot iron, like they've been dropped right straight into Hell itself. Their red-star icons turn to flashing "CI" icons, combat-ineffective. The screaming stops and the CI icons disappear seconds later. Sleeper units have homed on the activated RFID chips and put the tangos into coma.
“Three tangos owned,” I say. ARGUS shows the rest of the hill clear. “Move up and take the hill.”
Mitsui is already at the hill’s base on the right. Two ownership arrows stretch from his identity line. Mitsui's a wild man, always pushing the envelope. I bite back the order to halt and let him go. The hill is clear, and we need to close the gap. Instead I trot to catch up with him.
“Sergeant-san!” Mitsui sings out. He’s in his element. “Targets acquired! Permission to fire at will!”
The virtual display shows tangos advancing in a line up the other side of the hill. ARGUS flashes one for me. It's my suggested target unless I encounter a greater threat. It's doing the same thing for the rest of the squad.
“Permission granted,” I say. “Light’em up, Mitsui.”
Mitsui fires twice, meter-long tongues of fire illuminating lush green grass around him, goes down behind a bush and squirms away through tall grass while bullets chip twigs from the bush. Mitsui rolls over, plants the butt of his tagger in the dirt and fires again. This terrain is perfect for the little Japanese. He's working it like a pro.
"Sergeant-san," Mitsui says. "I will take the far targets. Please to take the close ones."
He disappears around the hill crawling and firing. The easiest thing to do is cover his ass like he requested. I select the target ARGUS has suggested and fire. The missile arcs over the hill and out of my sight. I don't wait to confirm the tag but fire on another target ARGUS picks out for me.
Again that odd feeling. Squeezing the trigger is nothing, nothing at all. The entire squad opens up around me, filling the night with multiple flame blasts and the acrid smell of solid-rocket propellant. Booms and strobe-light lightning flashes like a miniature thunderstorm come from the hills around the valley as other teams fire their taggers. It's almost like playing a video game. My squad and I fire and fire at the targets ARGUS designates on our network visors without ever coming within visual of whoever we're launching rockets at. My display is so clogged with ownership arrows I can't tell who's tagging which target.
The enemy pulls another nasty surprise. The bottom of the hill's other side develops a cloud of red squares like an outbreak of measles.
"Sergeant Soldat, tangos emerging from camouflage your sector!" ARGUS says. "Estimate fifty tangos!” The cloud of red merges with the existing tangos and flows up the hill as one group. They're trying a massed suicide charge to overwhelm us. I hear the static sound of their AK's firing at empty air.
"Sergeant!" ARGUS cries in its situation-critical voice. "We are unable to reinforce your squad!"
It's grassland. No hard cover that will stop a bullet, and we're too close to the enemy to run. We'll only get shot in the back. We're going to have to stand and fight, take the tagger assault system to the redline.
“Al-Durabi!” I order. I'm going to have to leave our rear exposed. It's going to take all we have to stop this attack. “Drop our six and join the line. Squad, weapons free, fire at will. Spread out and advance up the hill. Tag these bastards before they come over the top!”
The cloud of red surges up the hill.
"Here they come!" I shout to my squad. "Maintain firing discipline! Select your targets!” To lead the way, I select a target and launch a rocket. "Put these stupid bastards down!"
My squad and I meld into a machine, hosing tangos swiftly and efficiently, lost in the combat-eternity confusion of heavy fighting. Our tagger launches merge into a single continuous rolling artillery barrage. The idiots charging up the hill's other side don't have the slightest chance. We pour Hellfire onto the enemy, nailing bad guys up, down, and sideways, lining them up and knocking them down like ducks in a shooting gallery.
We drop every single charging tango before they're halfway up the hill.
And that's it. We're out of tangos.
My mind returns to normal as the firing stops. The quiet is sudden and electric, leavened by far-off screaming. My ears are ringing from tagger shots. We're three-quarters of the way up the hill. We've cleared our assigned sector and ARGUS is no longer suggesting targets for my squad, although firing continues from the other hills. I trip over something soft and look down to see one of the first tangos we tagged, unconscious with a Sleeper unit sitting on his chest like a robot gargoyle.
On my virtual display, the other side of the hill is coated with unmoving “CI” icons. A sense of triumph swells in my chest. Al-Durabi speaks for the entire squad.
“Fuck with us, baby,” he says, “and get your eternal-being ass smashed flat before you can blink.”
“Hooah, Al-Durabi,” I say.
My display shows Mitsui's on the other side, at the bottom of the hill facing the valley, continuing to push the envelope, maneuvering and firing at anything within range. I decide to leave him there to cover our flank.
"Secure this hill," I order. The sun is coming up, which through NVG makes it look like the air is filling with pearly green fog. I pause and turn my night vision gain down. The fog effect decreases. "Reload and spread out around the crown of the hill facing the valley. Don’t get on top of the hill.” My magazine’s almost empty. I eject it and load in a fresh one.
I never see the machete.
Night-vision goggles have the fault of washing out fine detail. It’s worse when the light intensity is increasing. What I take as a patch of dead grass springs up in front of me and what feels like a steel rod hits me out of nowhere square across my chest armor. I'm flat on my back before I realize something’s wrong. The tango looms over me, so close I hear his robes rustle as he raises his machete in both hands and takes aim at my head for another shot. Bright green sunlight runs quicksilver down the upraised blade.
"Sergeant!" Tivoli shouts. "Get away!"
I scuttle away on my back sideways like a panicked crab and Tivoli fires. This close, the tagger shell sounds like a bomb going off. I cringe, expecting to feel RFID chips piercing my flesh and setting me on fire.
The tango arches his back, opens his mouth wide to expose bad teeth and screams like an air-raid siren. Tivoli has fired his shell to go off behind the tango. The tango drops to the ground and rolls around screaming and clawing at his back. A Sleeper unit lands next to his head and burps anesthetic-loaded ice needles at the distended carotid arteries in his neck. The tango goes from epileptic spasms to instant rag-doll. The Sleeper folds its wings and goes into monitoring mode to keep the tango safe. I get up knowing I've been putting too much faith in technology.
"Tivoli," I say, panting. A thin ruby-red line of laser light winks over the grass around me, Tivoli checking out the area with his tagger’s manual target-acquisition subsystem. The doped-up tango's chest heaves once, and he starts snoring like a rusty buzzsaw. "Thanks."
"In service, Sergeant," Tivoli replies. He snaps the laser off with satisfaction.
"Sergeant!” It's Heinrich, standing on the hilltop beautifully silhouetted against the rising sun. He’s a target visible for kilometers. To help the enemy see him, he’s waving his tagger over his head like a madman. "They're setting up to kill the friendlies in the corral complex!"
"What? Get off the top of the hill before you get shot, goddammit!”
"Up here, Sergeant! Raus!”
“Heinrich, I’m coming! But get off the top of this goddamn hill!”
I double-time around the crown of the hill and find Heinrich waiting for me. He points at the valley’s center. The valley is studded with Sleeper units standing like vultures over unmoving forms. The haunted German is practically jumping up and down with frustration.
“They’ve got a technical, Sergeant! A truck with a fifty!”
I’m calling up the latest photos of the valley center.
“Heinrich, I don’t see anything.”
“Sergeant, turn that shit off and look with your own eyes!”
I flip the NVG and network visor up and take a look. The rising sun is in my eyes, making it difficult to see very far. Then I see it about two hundred meters away, a decrepit truck painted the same vivid green as the grass, when the tango raises the loading arm on the fifty-caliber mounted in the back.
“He’s loading the weapon, Sergeant!”
The fifty’s barrel is pointed in the direction of the corral complex. He’s fifteen seconds at most away from firing.
“Fuck! Tivoli, Heinrich, with me! Go-go-go!”
We go crashing down the hill and sprint like madmen toward the valley center, jumping over bodies and Sleeper units. The grass whips at our feet and slows us down. Tivoli’s faster than Heinrich and me. He gradually leaves us behind, legs pumping so fast his feet are a blur. I run flat-out watching for the fifty’s barrel to move.
The fifty’s barrel swings up to point directly at the corrals.
"Down and fire!" I gasp.
The three of us come to a sliding stop and collapse on our knees as the tango pulls the loading lever back to chamber the first round. He’s letting the lever go when we bring our taggers up. I don’t know what the distance is, but it’s going to have to be enough. There’s no time to let our BC’s acquire him. We're going to have to use manual mode. I'm turning my targeting laser on when the tango leans over and squints down the fifty's sights. I scope the tango up, put the laser dot on his back, and squeeze the trigger. Our taggers all fire simultaneously. The combined roar batters my ears. It's like standing in the mouth of an erupting volcano.
We're watching the rockets home in when two tangos pop up from behind the truck’s engine. They level AK-47's at us just as our shells detonate behind the gunner's back. My spine turns to ice.
"Hit the dirt!" I shout, and go prone in the grass knowing it won't be enough. We have to acquire before we can fire, and there's no time. We are helpless and exposed before the other two tangos. I roll over in what I know will be a vain effort to avoid getting shot.
I hear the screams as the shells go off. Somebody has ambushed the other two tangos. I bring my network visor down. Ownership arrows are coming in from off-screen. No bullets hit us.
“Cease fire, cease fire!” ARGUS says. “All tangos are down, repeat, all tangos are down. Assault teams, secure your sectors.”
I hear a click over my headset.
“Bit of a sticky wicket that one was, ay, mates?” says a cheerful English voice on our squad channel. “Sergeant Clarke ‘ere. Saw you lot running, saw the bugger on the fifty, saw the other two setting up to ambush you, figured you had the fifty, so I had me squad mates take out the other two.”
“Very quick thinking,” I say. “Saved our asses. A gold star on your paycheck, Sergeant.”
“In service, mate,” Sergeant Clarke says, and clicks out.
"Sweet María, Mother of God," Tivoli says, breathing in huge gulps. "When those tangos came up from behind the engine, I was sure we were dead.” There's not the slightest trace of fear in his voice.
"Not today, Tivoli," I say.
I'm becoming a connoisseur of screaming. I can pick out the one we tagged with three shells. He sounds like a man being flayed alive. Thrashing sounds are coming from the truck. I raise my head and look. So does Tivoli. We catch glimpses of the tango doing unbelievable flips in the truck bed, like a fish on dry ground.
“Ouch,” Tivoli says. “That’s gotta sting. I hope the Sleepers have as much trouble seeing him as we did."
“The fifty didn’t fire, the fifty didn't fire,” Heinrich says in monumental relief. “We tagged him in time.”
I roll over and rise dripping sweat and grass.
“Squad, stay alert,” I say. I raise my network visor and look around. After getting a machete in the chest on the hill, I don't have quite the trust in ARGUS I once did. “Check your areas manually to make sure they’re clear. Keep your taggers ready. You might still get killed here today.”
I check the time as Heinrich and Tivoli rise up and stretch out the tension of battle. Start to finish, this combat eternity lasted all of thirty minutes. Heat from the risen sun touches my face like a breath from a fire. In an hour, this valley will be an oven.
"Sergeant," Heinrich says. "Permission to check on the friendlies. Maybe these assholes did something to them during the battle. They might need medics. We have to help them, sir. It's what eternal beings are supposed to do."
"Sure," I say. "Permission granted. Hell, I'll go with you.” Heinrich takes off like a shot. "Tivoli, help them secure the hill."
"Yes, Sergeant," Tivoli says. He trudges off to the hill. I reach into my vest pocket and click over to the command channel.
"Sergeant Soldat to Captain Smythe," I say. Captain Smythe is our Australian company commander.
"Captain Smythe 'ere. Be quick about it, mite, I'm busy."
"Captain," I say. "Corporal Klaus Heinrich of First Squad spotted a technical in time to prevent a massacre. Request he be given the honor of raising our victory flag, sir."
"Taken under advisement, Sergeant," Captain Smythe says.
"Captain, sir?" I ask. "Casualties? KIA's?"
Captain Smythe exhales, a long, slow, relieved sigh. On my back, a very painful, very weary burden of killing I've been carrying for a time beyond memory loosens.
"No KIA's, Sergeant," he says. "On either side. Nothing the docs can't fix. In service."
"In service, sir," I reply, and click back to the squad channel. A feeling hits me like a cotton sledgehammer, that odd sensation I felt in combat magnified a thousand-fold. Now, I have time to analyze it.
I haven't killed anybody. Wasn’t even trying to kill anybody.
My knees weaken. I stumble and nearly go to the ground as a sense of liberation grows. I haven't killed anybody.
I haven't killed anybody, I haven't killed anybody! I breathe deep the pure air of freedom. I’m not going to walk away from this one with more killing on my back, not going to be haunted in my dreams at night by the faces of men I killed here today. None of us are. There is a lightness in my step as I go after Heinrich.
This time, this time, there is no blood on my hands.
Heinrich is staring through a metal mesh fence as tall as he is, a death-camp fence. Coils of razor wire are strung along the top of the fence. I stop beside Heinrich. The death squad separated their victims by sex. The corral is filled with dozens of African women of all ages, clumped together in a rainbow mound of brightly colored full-length dresses as far away from Heinrich as they can get, staring at him in wide-eyed fright. Battered women, with lumpy faces, black eyes, split lips, torn dresses. Comprehension hits me a blow to my stomach, driving the air from my lungs.
This death camp is also a rape camp.
Seeing females deliberately hurt is a severe psychic shock to me, a quirk of my personality. I can’t stand it. It makes me sick to my stomach, weakens me. I have to grab the fence to steady myself. The young women have taken the worst of it. One young girl's eyes are swollen to mere slits. A very deep part of me flails around in impotent rage. The assault of innocent women is a gross violation of every code I have ever lived by.
"Sergeant," Heinrich says. His pain is a knife in his voice. "They're afraid of me!"
"Heinrich," I gasp through a daze. I swallow. It's hard to talk. "We’re wearing body armor, helmets, network antennas, network visors, night-vision goggles, and carrying these ugly weapons. These women are primitives. To them, we look like a pair of insect demons. Take your helmet off."
I sling my tagger on my back, take my helmet off, try to clip it to my belt. My fingers feel thick, and I nearly drop it. I have to do it one slow step at a time. Heinrich clips his helmet to his belt and looks back at the women in hope. He blinks in the raw African sunlight and looks shockingly young.
Seeing our faces is reassuring. A few of the bolder ones take a tentative step or two out of the crowd. I cast about in my mind for some way to let them know it's over, it's all over, and nobody’s going to hurt them any more. I raise my empty hands in a ridiculously clumsy effort to show we mean them no harm. The wind brings the smell of blood and filth. A miasma of evil hangs in the air, stifling, almost overpowering. It's difficult for me to think through the haze in my mind and the pain in my guts.
But Heinrich comes through for us both. Heinrich moves to a fence post, squats and wraps his hands it. The post is half the size of a telephone pole, but in his huge hands, it looks like a toothpick. Heinrich grunts and pulls, trying to snap the post. Nothing happens. Heinrich digs in and pull again. I see his muscles bulge and tendons stand out on his neck. I watch the force build and build, until I’m certain Heinrich is about to pop something, but then the post breaks off even with the ground with a crack that makes us all jump. Heinrich drags the post and fencing back, moving like an unstoppable force of Nature. I have to step out of the way quickly to avoid having razor wire dragged across my face. When Heinrich has destroyed an entire fence section, he raises the post high over his head, throws it to the ground and stomps on it.
A wailing of thanksgiving goes up from the women to tear the heart out of your chest. They rush out of the corral heedless of the razor wire on the ground. I realize the women didn't know we were here to rescue them. They likely haven't even heard about the Awakening. They have no idea why we're here or where we come from.
Heinrich stands in front of the women pouring out of the corral, a look on his face like a lost child. He stretches his empty hands out to the women like he’s pleading for forgiveness.
“My hands are clean!” he blurts out, his voice rough. Tears are running down his face. “My hands are clean!” Despite their pain, the women respond to him as if he were a hurt child of their own. They surround him in swirls of thick multi-colored cloth, touching his hands, reaching up to touch his face, trying to express with simple human acts their gratitude for Heinrich’s setting them free. Heinrich raises his hands high and displays his clean hands to the crowd. “Never again!” In an act of profound rejection, he reaches out over their heads and folds his snow-white hands around their charcoal-black ones as gently as if they were flowers, making a human contact, making a human connection, with as many as he can, until there’s no doubt who’s been saved.
Heinrich isn't going to be any good for anything else until we get back to base. In the distance, I hear the heavy clatter-rumble of approaching Chinook helicopters. I look to up to see a dark cloud of metal moving towards me. I have to stop and watch them approach with a sense of understanding wonder. Here comes an expression of the eternal-being healing mechanism. Here comes the most blatant, obvious effect of the love of God on human beings on planet Earth I have seen yet, in place and working long before Chernov explained their existence. Here come the Médecins Sans Frontiéres.
Here come the Doctors Without Borders.
"Heinrich," I say. He'll never know how grateful I am he knew what to do. "I’m going back to our hill. Get these poor women to the DWB. When that's done, contact me."
"Yes, Sergeant," Heinrich says. Darkness lies on him no longer. The shadows are gone from his face, washed away by his tears. He smiles, an amazing sight. Heinrich is a man shiny-clean and new, a man redeemed. "In service."
"In service, Heinrich," I say. I put my helmet back on and leave Heinrich smiling, giving away all the water and food bars he has.
The Awakening finally finds my hiding place on my trip back to our hill.
It starts with another ambush, another tearing at my guts, at a personal Hell so deep inside me I didn’t know it was there. I have to stop and put my hands on my knees. The understanding hits me I have been unconsciously hiding from this, but now Heinrich's corral redemption has exposed me to the whirlwind sweeping the world, to its healing pain. My mind sinks into turmoil. The Awakening's terrible power is not that it's transforming hierarchies, but that it's transforming people, and now it's my turn, a wind of release and healing blowing through me. I turn away in a vain attempt at escape, to get out of this healing wind, to return to my hiding place. This is not for me.
I don't deserve it.
It's not right. I'm a soldier, a professional killer, a cold-hearted, cast-iron son of a bitch. I've handed death out like candy. I have killed, and killed, and killed, until my hands ran red with blood. The Awakening's release and healing are for others, not for me, not for me. Not for somebody like me, not for somebody who has killed so many.
Not for the guilty.
I continue to resist. The sense of guilt is so deep it's beyond my control. I pull down the battle database to conduct an after-action review, but I can’t see the visor. The tearing goes right to my heart. The faces of the women we rescued rise before me. They blot out my view of the data. I try to push them away, to replace them with the faces of the men I've killed. No, this is not for me, not for me. There is too much blood on my hands.
But the women's faces, battered and broken and filled with joy, won't go away. They are what I see in front of me, not the empty African grassland, not the network visor with data streaming down it.
I stop and dry my face on my sleeve before my squad sees me. Cast-iron sons of bitches don't cry.
I raise my face from my sleeve and look out over savanna---and the world is new. A wall between the world and me has dissolved away. Sensation crashes through me. The green of the grass sears my eyes. The smell of dust and grass and a faint tinge of rocket propellant fills my nostrils. A cool wind runs feather tendrils over the exposed skin on my face and arms. I feel tingly alive, more alive than I have ever been.
It feels like coming home.
Heinrich isn't the only one finding redemption and connection here today.
THE REVELATION OF CHOICES
The rich middle-aged businessman doesn't look happy.
This guy is somebody who has it all. He looks like one of those worthless multi-million-dollar CEOs I'm always reading about. His suit is pure silk and must've cost at least a thousand dollars. The shining silver laptop lying forgotten in his lap probably cost my salary for a month. But he doesn't look happy.
He looks petrified.
"It's The Church of the Holy Screaming Preacher again," Al-Durabi says. "I'm getting awful sick and tired of hellfire-and-damnation commercials."
Me and Al-Durabi are an hour from Fort Bragg on our way to advanced JDAP paratrooper training. I've been trying to distract my mind from the cloying packed-cattle-car feel of the airplane by watching TV. The TV screen glued on the frayed seatback in front of me has such a low resolution it gives the preacher screaming in it a blocky, jerky look.
The sound is different. The headphones the stewardess handed out to everybody are the latest technology. The preacher's screams burst in my ear with crystal-clear clarity.
"And what does it mean?" the preacher shouts. The veins in his neck look like they're about to burst. The rich middle-aged businessman clutches his armrests and watches his monitor with horrified fascination. "What does this revelation of eternal souls by science finally, actually mean?"
He leans in so close to the camera I can see the pores in his nose. The businessman hunches into himself in anticipation of the terrible revelation.
"ETERNAL DAMNATION!" the preacher shrieks. The blood drains from the businessman's face. He wobbles in his seat, on the edge of passing out cold from sheer fright. "Hell is real! A place of fire and brimstone and agonizing pain, where God sends all unbelievers to burn for all eternity! Repent and believe, sinner, or your eternal soul will be cast into eternal Hellfire and eternal agony!"
"Preacher-man don't sound too happy," I say.
"Sounds like he's in Hell already," Al-Durabi says.
This commercial is one of the Awakening's more bizarre effects. Religions of all stripes are flooding the airwaves with promises of damnation to all who don't believe in their particular version of God.
"Hear the roll call of the damned, oh ye unbelievers!" the preacher shouts. He raises both arms like he's giving a benediction and looks heavenward. "Muslims! Buddhists! Hindus! Jews! Catholics! All doomed, all damned, for all eternity!"
"Everybody's going to Hell," Al-Durabi says, "but me."
This forces me to laugh. I'm in the window seat. Al-Durabi's bulk is stuffed into the middle seat. The businessman is on the aisle. He turns and stares at Al-Durabi with slack-jawed amazement. He can't believe Al-Durabi's temerity.
It occurs to me that, if you had spent your entire life in a selfish, greedy scramble for money and privilege, the scientific detection of souls might come as one hell of a shock.
"You're a bad boy, Al-Durabi," I say.
"Ain't it the truth," Al-Durabi says. He puts his head down and sighs in mock despair. "I know. I'm going to Hell now."
"You mock God," the businessman says. "I must warn you. Be careful of your eternal soul. The fires of Hell are hungry."
Al-Durabi glances over at the businessman. Oh, no, I think, here we go. Another Awakening analysis of human behavior. Al-Durabi loves doing it, an aspect of his tech-envy thing.
Al-Durabi cranes his neck and looks down the aisle. The stewardess is slowly making her way down the aisle towards us with a cardboard bucket in her hand, collecting donations. She's doing a land-office business. The bucket is overflowing.
"Forget it, dude," Al-Durabi says. "Chernov says the afterlife is in human action, and you know what? He's right. There is no Hell. At least not one you get tossed into eternally. Maybe the Prophet got this one right."
"God loves everybody forever," Al-Durabi says, "therefore He set up a system that guarantees ninety-nine point nine nine nine per cent of the people in the world wind up screaming in Hell forever. And merely for believing the wrong faith. Oh, yeah, right. Not a chance."
"God tells us unbelievers go to Hell forever!"
"Does He now? And you believe it? May I test this?"
"May I test this," Al-Durabi repeats, keeping an eye on the stewardess. "May I test whether or not you, personally, believe unbelievers go to Hell forever?"
"You wish to test the strength of my faith? Do it!"
"You still don't get what this is all about, dude," Al-Durabi says. "It's science. Not religion, not belief, not faith. Tell me. Do you believe in infant damnation? That if a baby is born, lives a few minutes and then dies, its little innocent soul goes straight to eternal Hellfire?"
"No, of course not," the businessman says. "God is not cruel."
"God loves everybody forever," Al-Durabi says. "That's a law of physics."
"Everybody understands that now," the businessman says.
"We're about to find out if you understand it," Al-Durabi says. "If a baby dies while still a baby, where does its little innocent soul go?"
"To Heaven," the businessman says. "Straight to the arms of Jesus."
Al-Durabi shoots the businessman a look of pure disgust.
"Man, I gotta tell you," he says, "everybody done got real religious since Chernov detected souls."
"Of course," the businessman says. "Only a fool---"
"You see that stewardess coming down the aisle?" Al-Durabi asks, cutting the guy off. "She's collecting money for starving children in Sudan. I asked her to. You know about Sudan?"
"I know about Sudan," the businessman says.
"No, you don't," Al-Durabi says. "You just think you know about Sudan. Me and my Sergeant here, we just come from Sudan. Let me tell you about Sudan. You really want to see Hell, you go to Sudan. They got babies in Sudan who look like tarpaper stretched tight over bones. Not because there's not enough food in the world. There's plenty of food in the world. The babies just can't have any of it. Because of money, because of oil, because of politics, because it's not in our national interest, none of our business, not the world's problem, because some country's soldier might get killed and some politician might lose an election, because the babies come last, because nobody really gives a damn babies in Sudan will die the slow, agonizing death of starvation so long as they get what they want."
"You goddamn betcha that's changing," Al-Durabi says with vehemence. The businessman looks shocked at the profanity. "Me and my Sergeant here, we are the ones who are going back to Sudan and change it. But never mind about that. Tell me. Will you, personally, give a donation to help feed the starving babies in Sudan?"
"Of course I will," the businessman says.
"Will you? There's something you must not be aware of then. The starving babies in Sudan are all Muslim. Does that change your mind?"
"Of course not," the businessman says, offended.
"It should have," Al-Durabi says, "you should've refused to help the second you heard they were Muslim. Because if they died while they were babies, they go to Heaven, but if they are allowed to grow up, they will die Muslim and go straight to Hell. Forever. So letting the babies die a slow, agonizing death by starvation is actually the moral thing to do. Right?"
The businessman looks baffled. He's never thought of it that way. Then his jaw sets. He's going to do it. He's going to let starving children die to save their souls.
Al-Durabi sees it, too.
"True or false," he says, borrowing Reverend Hooker's technique, "refusing to feed starving children, no matter their religion, will bring God's Almighty hammer down on your eternal-being ass harder than anything else."
The businessman looks terrified.
"True," he blurts.
"It's a real problem, isn't it?" Al-Durabi says. "If you believe in eternal Hellfire, the moral thing to do is let those poor innocent Muslim babies starve to death. If you believe God loves everybody forever, the moral thing to do is feed them. How strange. Those two beliefs are not consistent with each other, because they lead to completely opposing actions. So one must be wrong."
The stewardess is almost to our row of seats.
"Crunch time, buddy," Al-Durabi says. "You can believe in one, or the other, but not both. Will you donate, or not? Which one do you believe in?"
The businessman swallows.
"I don't have any money on me," he says. A guy as rich as he so obviously is? He's got to be lying like smoke.
Al-Durabi reaches into his pocket, fishes out a ten-dollar bill, and stuffs it into the breast pocket of the businessman's fancy silk suit.
"Problem solved," he says, "now you do."
Al-Durabi points at the stewardess.
"It's all in human action," Al-Durabi says. "Right now, right here, in your action. What will it show about the laws that govern the Universe?"
Al-Durabi leans away from the businessman, psychologically isolating him. He's all alone.
"Your eternal soul is at risk here," he says. "Make the right choice, and be happy. Make the wrong choice, and be unhappy. Very unhappy. Maybe even wind up in Hell."
The businessman watches the stewardess approach the way a mouse watches an oncoming snake.
"Let me help you figure it out," Al-Durabi says. "Burning somebody in Hell forever is not an act of love. Right?"
The businessman clearly hears Al-Durabi but he doesn't look at him. His attention stays rigidly fixed on the stewardess.
"So the basic, fundamental idea behind the concept of eternal Hell is the idea that God does not love everybody forever, that God's love is conditional. Right?"
The businessman runs his hand over his mouth in confusion and terror. The stewardess reaches our row.
"But this is in direct contradiction to 'God loves everybody forever', which has to be true in order for a sentient-containing Universe to be stable. So there can be no Hell, at least not an eternal one. And that's it, dude. Ball's in your court now. Make your choice."
The stewardess holds the bucket out to the businessman.
I expect him to hesitate, but it's not like that. The businessman's hand seems to move of its own accord, reaching into his pocket, pulling out the money and dropping it in the bucket.
"The love of Allah is in your mind, dude, but it's not in your guts," Al-Durabi says. "Let me put it in your guts.” He cups his palms together in front of him. "Allah holds us all in the palms of His hands. It has always been this way, and always will be."
The stewardess starts to move on.
"Whoa, hold on there, ma'am," Al-Durabi says. "People?"
Everybody else in our row adds something to the bucket. We're not fools. The businessman slumps back exhausted against his seat. His suit is soaked through like he just ran a marathon. A bead of sweat runs down his temple.
It's funny, but he looks happier now.
DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION
I find Malreaux sitting hidden in the shade of a bush at the bottom of the hill with his network visor up and his philosopher look on. The hill is bare. The tangos we dropped have already been hauled off to jail.
“Malreaux,” I say. “No KIA’s. On either side.”
“Well,” Malreaux says, looks down at the ground momentarily, and sighs. “Nobody.”
He glances up at me and searches my face.
"There’s less pain in the world than there was an hour ago, Sergeant," he says.
"Much less," I say. I remember the look on Heinrich's face as he tore down a death-camp fence. "This world is a better place than it was. We have done well."
"Ouí, Sergeant," Malreaux says. The philosopher look gives way to a deeper hurt, the memory of all those pain-wracked centuries rising in Malreaux, making him look old and infinitely tired. "The battle has been long and weary."
"The battle is over," I say. "Victory is ours."
"Ouí," Malreaux agrees, and the tiredness disappears. "Has there been any reaction from the Sudanese government?"
"Nothing I've been told about," I say.
"I kept expecting Sudanese army units to show up and defend the death-squad, but it didn't happen," Malreaux says. "The world is changing."
"I get the distinct feeling the intelligent people in the Sudanese government know they're hip-deep in shit," I say, "and have no desire to sink any further."
"From now on," Malreaux says, “moral equals smart. That is the essence of the Awakening."
"That's what eternal souls do," I agree. "They make moral equal smart. The smarter you are, the better you understand that.” If I let him, he’ll talk my ear off. “I have to check on the rest of the squad. In service, Malreaux."
"In service, Sergeant."
Close to the top of the hill I find Mitsui on one knee having a bullet crease on his neck being bandaged by a medic. Both of his legs are sporting bandages. The medic has cut his uniform into ribbons. Mitsui's methodically cleaning his tagger and acting like the medic isn’t there. He found a mud puddle during the battle. He looks like a clay sculpture. The only part of him not encrusted with drying mud is his eyeballs. The battle database shows he’s acquired more injuries than anyone else in the company. It also shows he’s at the top of the list in number of tangos tagged, with a whopping sixty-eight put down.
If I don’t pat Mitsui on the head for this right here and now, he’ll never say a word about it, but he’ll never forget it, and he’ll be deeply offended every time he sees me.
“Mitsui,” I say. “Sixty-eight frigging tangos. Out-fucking-standing.”
The righteous fire is banked deep within Mitsui, awaiting the next battle. His face is a cold, unemotional mask of Japanese propriety. I am not fooled in the least.
"Hai," Mitsui grunts, with a rigidly formal inclination of his head. I incline my head back and go looking for Tivoli. I could locate them all in virtual but I feel the need to stay in the real world. A connection to the real world, to humanity, is a precious thing, and mine is too fragile and new to risk breaking.
Tivoli's on the other side of the hill checking the desert approach with his field monocular. He's not hurt.
"Tivoli," I say. "Good job today."
"We showed them, Sergeant!" Tivoli exclaims. He throws an arm up in Italian victory and beams. "We kicked their bad-guy asses to the moon!"
"Abso-damn-lutely," I say. "Where's Al-Durabi? I don't see Al-Durabi."
"Corporal Al-Durabi was detailed to guard prisoners, Sergeant," Tivoli says. "They've got them in a clearing two hills left."
"Thank you, Tivoli," I say.
I smell the clearing before I reach it, a sour rancid-meat reek that sets my stomach churning. I know the smell from a thousand battlefields. Day-old corpses rotting in tropical heat. The smell tells me this clearing is the militia's killing field, where they carried out their systematic slaughter.
A thunderbolt of horror smashes me to my knees on the killing field’s edge. I come upon the machete-hacked body of a little African girl hidden in tall grass, lying on her back with her last moment of agony and bewildered betrayal frozen on her innocent face.
Oh, Christ have mercy!
My heart stops in my chest. She looks about ten. Little-girl braids make a fuzzy halo around her head. There's a thick brown crust of blood on the left side of her head where her ear should be. She's wearing a plain, cheap white dress. Her belly has been slashed open and her intestines spilled out, pale and ropy and obscene against the grass. Insects are crawling over them. I reach out in automatic, shaking reaction, in angry, futile rebellion against this mind-numbing atrocity, before I come to my senses and realize it's far too late.
I remember the soul experiments. I cover her cold, dead hand with my own trembling one and look up at the sky, at tropical cumulus clouds floating in serene blue space.
"Angel," I whisper to the blue. "I failed. I'm sorry. May God have mercy on my soul.”
All I can do is my duty.
"Sergeant Soldat to Graves Registration," I say.
"Graves Registration," says a voice.
"Body at my location," I say, and brace myself. "A little girl. She was hacked to death."
"Allah the Compassionate have mercy," the voice responds. "We've stored your location, Sergeant. We'll take care of her. In service."
I pull myself together and stand up. It's hard to walk away and leave her there alone. The pain, the rage, in my heart is like a knife twisting. By God and everything that is in me, I will make this world safe for all little girls everywhere.
Stepping onto the killing field only twists it harder. To step out onto the killing field is to step out onto the arena of the world’s pain. The signs of cold-blooded massacre are everywhere. Bright yellow mounds of spent fifty-caliber brass shell casings, machetes, tire tracks, patches of grass covered with dried blood. And bodies, still more bloated, putrescent bodies, scattered in the chaos of evil around the killing field. The murder surrounding me brings an overwhelming wave of pressure and blackness clamping down on me from all sides, heavy, stifling, so stifling it's hard to breathe. Once again I am trapped in the cold dark tunnel of history.
But now I am almost at the end of that tunnel. A radiance is shining there, the radiance of the love of God, a radiance that was always there, that now I have the mind to see.
The radiance shines in service, in every person’s on this field own personal manner of service, their own individual human actions.
As it always had.
The radiance shines in the service of the soldiers collecting evidence, in their faces, in the crispness of their walk, the sure stride of conquerors. They perform their duties with restrained exhilaration, secure in the knowledge the days of confusion are over. This eons-long war is finally going to be won, the impossible, inevitable, absolute victory over evil.
The radiance shines in the service of the embeds, in the way they hustle to record every single action of the Doctors Without Borders and broadcast it to the world.
Because the radiance is shining most strongly there, in the service of the Doctors Without Borders, a radiance to blind the world, shining in their very name.
How deep it goes, how deep it goes!
The DWB are more soul than flesh on this field of death. Their souls glow like a lamp inside them. The concern in their faces as they bend over their patients on their stretchers is the same for all, guilty and innocent alike. The DWB have mixed their patients all together as one group, the victims and the murderers. In this one particular action the new law blazes hotter than the African sun, in plain view for all who choose to open their eyes. Until the guilty are proven guilty, they are innocent and will be treated as such. Before the soul experiments, the DWB didn't truly understand why they made that choice. Now they do, as does the entire world. Now the DWB and everyone else comprehends with perfect clarity why they're here, why they perform this service, the fundamental force that has been driving them and every other human being who has ever lived.
And now, on this field of death and horror, I choose the manner of my service. It rises up in me, a simple phrase, another code to live by, the essence of them all, never to change. I look up into the light and break the chains of guilt, of the past. I step out of cold, confining darkness into warm, forgiving light, and the light transforms my rage and grief over that little girl into a resolve harder than iron.
Evil must be destroyed.
THE PECULIAR BLINDNESS OF SCIENTISTS
"What is the Awakening's meaning," the college-kid bartender recites with a weary air as he stacks liqueurs. The air in the bar is heavy with the oily aroma of liqueurs. "We're all eternal beings, we’re all gonna live friggin’ forever and ever, and what does it mean. That's all anybody talks about in here anymore. Morning, noon, and night, that's all I ever hear."
Me and Al-Durabi are sitting at the bar of a sports bar in downtown Fort Bragg, facing a large-screen TV screen and topping off a late lunch. We're on the second day of a two-day leave after finishing training. Tomorrow, we’re back to Sudan.
It's mid-afternoon and the place is deserted, just us and the college-kid bartender. I'm eating some too-large ice-cream-and-cake confection, so cold it's giving me brain-freeze. Al-Durabi is drinking some mildly alcoholic fruity thing he had to tell the kid how to mix up.
"So I'm an eternal being who's gonna exist forever," the kid says. "Big hairy deal. Get over it. Give it a rest already."
The sports bar has at least a dozen large-screen TVs. All of them are showing the same five-minute loop of video over and over again, the latest result from Chernov’s soul-detector. Some Russian with terminal cancer has climbed into Chernov’s soul-detecting gadget and died, and the loop is showing the large field that left his body immediately afterward.
Over and over again. It’s been running here in this sports bar, the same video loop, all over the world, for the last twenty-four hours. Each repetition driving a new scientific truth a little deeper.
We are, all of us, eternal beings. Existence for us is permanent and inescapable. Stars and galaxies will fade and go out. We won’t. The knowledge is an odd tickle in my guts. I still don’t know how to handle it.
But I’m going to have all the time I need to learn.
I realize I really don’t care what it all means to me personally right now. What I really, really want to do right now is sneak up behind some bad guys and drop an Almighty hammer on their asses just as hard as I possibly can.
"So what is the Awakening's meaning," Al-Durabi says, yanking the kid's chain. "What does it mean to be an eternal being?"
"It means we got to buy all these fairy-wuss liqueurs and I got to learn how to fix all these fairy-wuss drinks nobody's ever heard of," the kid shoots over his shoulder, yanking right back. "Don't hardly nobody order no straight-up hard liquor no more. It's all fairy-wuss stuff now."
Al-Durabi grins. He can take being shot back at. He deliberately picks up his shot glass with his pinkie finger extended and sips his drink with a dainty air.
"It's control," I say to the kid. "If you’re an eternal being who can't escape the consequences of your actions, nobody smart's going to risk not being in control of his actions. Too easy to screw up and bring an Almighty hammer down on your ass."
"Yeah," the kid says absently, racking bottles.
Then he puts his bottles down and looks at me.
"No," he says. "I mean, yes, sure, but that's not the real reason. You'd have to be back here to know what I mean. People don't order hard liquor no more because they're afraid of what might happen. It's more like people don't order hard liquor no more because they don't want it. Because they're different inside now.” He pauses, confusion on his young face while he gropes for what he's trying to say. "It's like people ain't so friggin' angry inside anymore, you know?"
"Hey, dude," Al-Durabi says, "it's time for the debate. Turn the TV on."
The kid stops and reaches under the bar. The TV in front of us flickers on. We stopped off in this bar mainly because it was time for the second debate.
The kid leans back against the bar to watch with us. Reverend Hooker and Mocke appear on the screen. This is their promised second debate. Chernov isn't going to be in this one.
"There's one guy who's still angry inside," Al-Durabi comments. Mocke is wearing the same pinched-lip expression of anger he had last time. "Man, is that guy ever not pissed-off?"
"Guy came in here last night looking just like that," the kid says. On the screen, James MacNeil steps into view to introduce Hooker and Mocke. The kid talks through the noise of the introduction. "Came in here looking like he was mad at the entire world, went straight to the bar and started pouring it down shot after shot, straight rye whiskey. Real mean-looking dude. Wouldn't talk to nobody, just sat there and stared at the walls like they were closing in on him. I had to cut him off when he started getting drunk. It's my ass, you know? That's when he really got angry and started yelling. He just wouldn't calm down, just got more and more wound up until he started screaming, no joke. We had to call the cops on him."
On the screen, MacNeil steps back to the edge of the view screen.
"Well, Professor Mocke," Reverend Hooker says, "what do you think of the latest results from Academician Chernov's laboratory?"
"For our viewing audience," MacNeil says, "you're referring to the recent detection of human souls?"
"I am," Reverend Hooker says, and looks up at the ceiling. "Wherever you are, Pyotr Denisovitch, thank you for climbing into Dmitri's soul-detector and dying in it. I know it was cold in that thing, and I thank you and the world thanks you. You did us all a great service."
I can't help smiling. It's funny, somehow.
"I can't believe you're making a joke out of a man's death," Mocke says. "How deeply insensitive."
"You don't get it, Professor," Reverend Hooker says. "Death is a joke, and always was. Pyotr Denisovitch is not dead in the sense of his existence being terminated, merely no longer corporeal. He's still out there, somewhere."
"Once again, you're making a completely scientifically unsubstantiated presumption," Mocke says. "You still don't know for a scientific fact the phenomenon Academician Chernov is detecting is a soul."
"Oh, please," Reverend Hooker says. "It is now quite clear the existence of souls is what explains a great deal---possibly all---of human behavior. At this stage of the game, it is certainly the most probable explanation. What else could it be?"
"Death has never been observed in this fashion in the laboratory before," Mocke replies. "This observed emission of a spurious electromagnetic field could easily be just one of the things that happens when a brain dies."
"I agree it's not totally proven beyond all doubt yet," Reverend Hooker says, and shrugs. "But it soon will be, I imagine."
"How? How could this ridiculous thing ever be proven beyond all doubt?"
"By opening communication with a soul," Reverend Hooker says. "By building a mechanical gadget for talking to souls."
"It's not crazy," Reverend Hooker says, "it's just something that conflicts violently with science's previous assumptions. Would that be enough for you, Professor Mocke? To talk with a freshly non-corporeal soul that had been corporeal only minutes before?"
"I'll believe it when I see it!"
"You won't have long to wait, I think," Reverend Hooker says. "Scientists can be extremely clever when properly motivated. There are Nobel Prizes all over this."
"They're wasting their time on a fool's errand!"
"We'll see," Reverend Hooker says. "Tell me, Professor Mocke. Have you been able to come up with genetically based Darwinian reasons for the existence of justice yet? That have been published in refereed journals?"
"There hasn't been time for that," Mocke says. He thrusts his head forward in defiance. "I've got my entire research group working on it. These kinds of complex human behavioral problems take years and years of patient, dedicated laboratory work to solve!"
"Just out of mild curiosity," Reverend Hooker says, "could you give us any specifics?"
"If you wish," Mocke says. "I warn you I may have to use highly technical terms to describe our lines of research."
"I consider myself warned," Reverend Hooker says. "Tell us what your research group is up to."
"Human behavior," Mocke begins, "is determined by a combination of genetic and environmental influences governing brain structure and function. Or more precisely, by a Darwinian competition between these forces."
"Is it now," Reverend Hooker says, raising his eyebrows. "With regard to the concept of justice, are any specific regions of the brain implicated in particular?"
"There has been a surprising lack of research on this subject," Mocke says, "but some studies suggest an interaction between the amygdala, a region of the brain that controls emotion, and the frontal lobes, where the higher functions are controlled. Neurogenetic studies indicate a correlation between the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine---neurotransmitter chemicals---and levels of passive/violent behavior, which are involved in the concept of justice. My research group is currently surveying the neurogenetic and neurobiological literature to find the genetic regions that control the design of the amygdala, and the expression and regulation of these specific neurotransmitters."
"Neurogenetic studies," Reverend Hooker says. "So this is all controlled by our genes?"
"Why, yes," Mocke says, looking surprised. "A human being starts out as a single cell. Really, less than that, because the cell is not what's unique about a human being."
"The DNA strand in the cell is the only thing that's unique," Reverend Hooker comments.
"Yes," Mocke says, waxing enthusiastic now that he's on his favorite subject, "the only thing unique is the DNA strand. Everything we are is encoded in that DNA strand. The rest of a human being's life after creation of that single cell is merely replication and differentiation of that DNA strand, a non-linear Darwinian competition between levels of protein expression. Which is also, I have to add, totally controlled by that single, original DNA strand."
"So to understand a human being's behaviors," Reverend Hooker says, "the only place possible to look is his genetic code, his DNA strand. There is nowhere else possible to look."
"Precisely correct," Mocke says. "That's all he really is, his body, his mind, everything. It all must be in that DNA strand. There is nowhere else it can be."
"So in the final analysis," Reverend Hooker says, "we must be totally controlled by what's in that single, solitary DNA strand, by our genes. People are totally controlled by their genes."
"That conclusion," Mocke says, "is inescapable."
"Free will is an illusion," Reverend Hooker says, "self-awareness only a very odd emergent property of a collection of brain cells."
"I will concede it's an unpleasant truth," Mocke says, "but it is the truth. As scientists, we have to face things the way they are, not how we'd like them to be."
"Tell me, Professor Mocke," Reverend Hooker says, "with this theory of yours, on the emotional level, how much physically real connection is there between people?"
"On the emotional level?" Mocke asks. "I won't hide from it or sugar-coat it. Zero."
"There is no physically real reason to think about how your actions might affect the emotions of other human beings," Reverend Hooker says. "Your own emotions are the only emotions you have to consider."
"That’s an odd way of putting it," Mocke says, "but it’s true enough. I’m sorry, but that's the way it is. One hopes people will look beyond this in their daily affairs."
"And do it anyway," Reverend Hooker says, "despite the fact it doesn't really make any sense to do so."
"Once an intelligent person understands all this, what should his actions be? What's the rational way to act? The rational kind of person to be?"
Mocke tilts his head sideways and looks interested.
"That's a new question," he says. "I haven't considered that aspect. I'm afraid I don't have an answer right at hand. I'll have to think about it."
"I'll tell you the answer in a moment," Reverend Hooker says, "but let's continue considering the implications of your theory. Any feeling of emotional connection people might have to each other is strictly false and an illusion."
"Yes," Mocke says. "An illusion encoded into our genes because it facilitates the spread of our genes.” He spreads his hands and looks helpless.
"Now we know the genetic reason for the illusion of souls," Reverend Hooker says. "It's an illusion that gives people a feeling of connection, of meaning---and so the genes propagate themselves. That's why the illusion of souls has been so persistent in human societies. The belief in souls might even be encoded in our genes."
"You stun me, Reverend," Mocke says. "Yes!"
"Hmmm," Reverend Hooker says. "I recently read where scientists are attempting to cure genetic diseases by changing the incorrect gene to a correct gene."
Mocke looks puzzled.
"I'm aware of these efforts," he says. "And?"
"Well, there seems to be a bit of a contradiction here," Reverend Hooker says. "If somebody can change his genes, are his genes controlling him, or is he controlling his genes?"
Mocke freezes solid. From the look on his face, he's never thought of that before.
"Man," Al-Durabi mutters, "did that theory just get smashed into tiny-tiny-tiny-tiny little pieces."
"You know, Professor Mocke," Reverend Hooker says, "if you can show the idea that people are controlled by their genes is dead wrong, the notion a man's DNA strand is all he is must therefore also be dead wrong."
"It's more complicated than that!"
Reverend Hooker shakes his head back and forth decisively once.
"No," he says. "It isn't."
Mocke pinches his lips together so hard they look like white lines painted on his face and looks stubborn.
"Reverend Hooker," he says, "I'm afraid I can't explain my theory further without going into a great deal of highly technical detail, which would be well over the average layman's head."
"Let us drop the matter, then," Reverend Hooker says, "and move on to consequences. Have you considered the future societal consequences of your theory?"
A look of surprised agitation crosses Mocke's face, is quickly suppressed. Reverend Hooker raises his eyebrows again.
"Oh, so you have considered this," he says. "Please tell us your thoughts."
"I would rather not," Mocke says. He goes stiff as a board. "This subject shouldn't be discussed on camera."
"I think it should be," Reverend Hooker says. "Tell you what. I'll explore what the consequences might be, since you are hesitant to do so."
"Don't do it, Reverend Hooker," Mocke says, "don't. You have no idea what it might lead to."
"Not a chance," Reverend Hooker says. "Get ready. Here it comes."
"I can't stop you," Mocke says. "On your head be the consequences!"
"If a belief in souls is so vitally necessary to the existence of society that it is encoded in our genes," Reverend Hooker says, "then when souls are finally shown not to exist----society must also eventually cease to exist. Civilization must fall. The human race itself must go extinct."
Mocke loses his stiffness in a heartbeat and goggles at Reverend Hooker. He can't believe Hooker has struck so quickly and precisely at the core of the problem.
"Do you understand what you've just done?" Mocke asks. "Do you have any idea?"
"How much time did you think humanity had left?" Reverend Hooker asks. The ghost of a smile plays about his lips. "Twenty years? Thirty?"
"It doesn't matter anymore!" Mocke snarls, his anger stronger than ever. "The collapse will happen much faster now!"
"Oh, suddenly I know," Reverend Hooker says. "You thought this collapse wasn't going to happen until after you were dead---and so you didn't care."
"You fool! You complete utter fool!"
Al-Durabi turns to me, marveling.
"Man, this Mocke guy is one thick-headed son of a bitch!" he exclaims. He waves his arm at the video loops running over and over all around us. "Doesn't he watch the news? They've already detected human souls! This battle is over! He lost! What in the world stops him from seeing that?"
On the screen, Reverend Hooker purses his lips meditatively.
"You thought the extinction of humanity wasn't going to happen until after you were dead, after your own personal existence had terminated," he says, "and so you didn't care. Which is entirely rational, I have to say, if your existence truly can be terminated."
"You know that's how it is!" Mocke snaps. "If only you had the guts to face it!"
"Don't you see what you've just illustrated?" Reverend Hooker says. "If the collapse of society happens before your existence terminates, you are rationally forced to care about it. If it happens after your existence terminates, you are not. Unless a human being's existence is eternal, inescapable, human society itself is not stable. Never mind the stability of the Universe."
"You still don't understand what you've done! You weak fool, the Universe is not under any compulsion to care about the stability of human society!"
"Oh, but it is," Reverend Hooker says, "About the stability of sentient societies in general, about its own stability, oh, my, yes, the Universe is under an enormous compulsion to care."
Reverend Hooker leans back and causally drapes one arm over the back of his chair.
"Eternal, inescapable existence," he says. "That's the solution, that's what works. On so many levels. That's what it takes for the Universe to be stable, for human society to be stable. On the personal level, too."
He glances over at Mocke.
"But eternal, inescapable existence is still not quite enough," Reverend Hooker says. "Eternal, inescapable justice is also necessary. That still hasn't sunk in to the world, not yet. Right now, people are just happy to know, yippee-yay, that they can't die."
"Fear will drive people to believe the most ridiculous things," Mocke says. "The stronger the fear, the more ridiculous."
"No doubt about that," Reverend Hooker says. "To not believe things, too. Right now, the Awakening means eternal life to everybody. But that's not its final meaning. You know, Professor, I don't think Dmitri Chernov's most important contribution to the world is his soul-detector. It's the theory behind it, the explanation of why justice exists, that sentient beings must be eternal souls in order for the Universe to be stable, that our primary job in this world is to love each other, to make sure everybody's happy, even ourselves. That's his most important contribution to the world. It's what he's revealed about human behavior, its ultimate simplicity."
"Human behavior is not simple! It is complex and almost impossible to understand!"
"Not if you don't believe in souls," Reverend Hooker says. "With souls, it becomes quite simple.” He sits up straight in his chair, crosses his arms and looks down at Mocke. "For example, let us explain the problem of evil behavior."
This jerks a laugh out of Mocke.
"Evil? You're going to explain evil? This, I've got to hear!"
"No, not evil itself," Reverend Hooker says. "That is an even easier problem. Evil behavior, the extremely simple bit of logic evil people have been using, albeit unconsciously, that leads to evil behavior."
"Oh, please, Reverend---tell us what evil is first! I'm sure the world is waiting to hear this with bated breath!"
"Good is 'God loves everybody forever' ", Reverend Hooker says. "Evil is 'God does not love everybody forever.' That's the correct definition of good and evil."
"You invoke a concept whose existence is impossible to prove," Mocke says. He smiles a thin superior smile. "Your definition is worthless."
"Pardon me," Reverend Hooker says. "I'll restate in your terms. Good is 'Everybody loves everybody else forever.' Evil is 'Everybody does not love everybody else forever.' "
Mocke doesn't reply right away. He's chewing it over. I have to give the guy credit. In the midst of all his anger, he's at least thinking about what the Reverend is saying. There's a true questioning scientist buried underneath all that interior rage.
"What is the deep undercurrent of every evil thing you've ever seen?" Reverend Hooker asks. "That nobody cares. Right?"
Mocke chews on this some more.
"Tell you what, Reverend," he says. "Let me take that one under consideration."
"Fair enough," Reverend Hooker says. "Let's go back to evil behavior. People do what they do in order to be happy. Happiness is always the end goal of human behavior."
"It's a reasonable first assumption," Mocke says.
"Let's answer that question we left hanging, about what the rational way to act was if you didn't believe in souls," Reverend Hooker says. "Would you do me a favor, Professor? I want you to consider a certain statement logically, unemotionally, as a pure objective scientist would, and rank it as 'True' or 'False'. Can you do that?"
"I certainly can," Mocke says. "Fire away."
"If there are no souls," Reverend Hooker says, "the only rational thing to be is a sociopath."
"True," Mocke says immediately.
Then his face flushes fire-engine red.
"Now you understand, don't you, Professor," Reverend Hooker says. "Now it has all become clear."
"The basic, fundamental reason for why you did what you did," Reverend Hooker says. "Wasn't that simple?"
"I don't understand what you're getting at," Mocke says. His voice is dangerously quiet. "If you would explain your purpose, Reverend Hooker."
"What have you done, Professor Mocke?" Reverend Hooker asks, calm as could be, like he's asking for the time. "Confess it now, for the sake of your immortal soul."
"I haven't done anything," Mocke says. He starts breathing hard. He can't meet Reverend Hooker's eyes. "I don't have an immortal soul. You're insane."
"Liar," Reverend Hooker says without rancor. "Your guilt has been plain to me from our first meeting. What have you done, Professor Mocke?"
"You don't know I'm guilty of anything," Mocke says. "How could you know such a thing? It's impossible.” A spark appears deep in his pale blue eyes, the real source of his ever-present anger.
"Let me explain how I know," Reverend Hooker says. "For all of my life, I've noticed something strange about scientists. They had the most peculiar blindness."
"Scientists?" Mocke says. "Scientists are blind to nothing! We see it all, without prejudice or religious delusion! What could we possibly be blind to?"
"Yourselves," Reverend Hooker says. "Scientists were so transparent on the emotional level. Scientists seemed to know so much about the physical world, and yet, on the emotional level, they seemed to know nothing about themselves. They were not self-aware, aware of their own motivations, the emotional forces that pushed them around."
"Psychology," Mocke sneers. "Not a science at all."
"That's the attitude," Reverend Hooker says, "that sums up the way scientists think. Only lately have I finally understood why this was true. The study of psychology was actually the study of the soul, and scientists thought souls didn't exist. Scientists never looked inside themselves---because they thought there was nothing there. And so, on the psychological level, on the emotional level, scientists were transparent as glass. As you are."
"It's impossible for you to know anything about me, so I'll let your false accusation go," Mocke says. "But be warned, Reverend. I have been granting you a certain latitude because I pitied your weakness, your pathetic clinging to religious delusions of meaning. But you are very close to libel, and I will sue if pushed far enough, I assure you."
"Let me tell you what guilty people do," Reverend Hooker says, as if Mocke hasn't said a word. "Guilty people deny their guilt, even to themselves. They will go to any lengths to do so, swallow any camel, strain at any gnat, all in an attempt to avoid having to face the consequences for what they've done."
"Witch-doctor hocus-pocus," Mocke says.
"They don't want to pay the price, you see," Reverend Hooker says. "They can do the crime, they just can't do the time. You realized what the soul-detection results meant the second you heard about them, didn't you.” It's not a question. "You were going to pay for what you did, and you weren't going to escape that payment by dying. It must've been the shock of all time. It must've felt like a trap had snapped shut on you. And you didn't have the guts to face the pain that was coming for you, and you fled into denial."
"You'll be shaking inkblot jujus at me next," Mocke says.
"Let me tell you what I've seen you do, Professor," Reverend Hooker says. "I've seen you, a highly intelligent scientist, deliberately refuse to understand something so simple a ten-year-old could understand it. Not just once, but over and over and over again, to the point of absurdity. It would require a tremendous crime, a tremendous guilt, to make a scientist do that."
"Amuse me," Mocke says, his voice high and tight. "What kind of crime might that be?"
"Murder," Reverend Hooker says. He's watching Mocke like a hawk. "You've committed murder. I've had people check into your past. I found out about the competition for that million-dollar grant between you and Doctor Samuel Tattersall. How convenient for you, when he poisoned himself in his lab.”
Mocke turns a ghastly, guilty white.
"You poor damned fool," Reverend Hooker says. "You did it, you really did it. You poisoned Samuel Tattersall. You murdered an innocent human being in cold blood, after you made sure nobody would ever know what you’d done. And now your perfect murder has found you out!”
The terror in Mocke’s eyes is something beyond insanity.
“Would you like to know why you did it?” Reverend Hooker asks. “You saw it as the Darwinian thing to do, and Darwin is the God whose precepts you worship."
"There is no God!" Mocke screams. "That's just a delusion of the weak!"
"He's coming for you, Professor Mocke, that God you don't believe in," Reverend Hooker says. "And then there will be pain, and justice. Justice like steel, damnation like a hammer---"
Mocke shoots away from Reverend Hooker so fast he falls over backward in his chair. He scrambles up with wild eyes darting right and left, a cornered rat seeking any escape. The camera pulls back. A stage door entrance is visible on the right. Mocke bolts in pure blind panic for the door, like the Devil himself is hot on his heels.
I halfway-expect Reverend Hooker to go chasing after him. Instead, the right reverend watches him go and laughs, a laugh like clear water, of total victory, that rings out over and dominates the entire stage.
"Run, little man!" he shouts at Mocke's retreating back. "Run!"
"He won't get far," Al-Durabi says.
The Awakening's meaning is not eternal, inescapable existence.
The Awakening's meaning is eternal, inescapable justice.
END OF THE KILLING
In the shadow of a hill, gagged and handcuffed prisoners in muddy clothes are sitting slumped over in a ring, looking down at the ground in dejection, as if they sense they're on their way to life in prison at very hard labor. Al-Durabi is walking around the ring poking the prisoners with his tagger, inspecting them for weapons. He jams to a halt at one prisoner, drops to one knee and brings his tagger up in the prisoner's face. I snap to attention and double-time over with my tagger at the ready to back him up.
But the prisoner doesn't have a weapon.
What he has is a string of human ears tied around his neck.
Underneath the string of ears he's wearing the generic raggedy-ass uniform of paramilitary outfits the world over, camouflage shirt, torn, bloody jeans, and homemade rubber sandals. He’s got a sergeant’s chevrons on his shoulders, but the idiot has them on sideways. The whites of his eyes are shot through with a latticework of thick red veins, like something corrosive has been poured in them. The prisoner rolls his eyes at me in abject fear, startlingly white against his tar-black face. He and Al-Durabi are the same intense shade of black. For Al-Durabi, it must be like looking in a mirror. The oozing aftermath of a tagger hit, like a rash of bee-stings, is all up and down the side of the prisoner's head and neck. He reeks of old death. Al-Durabi points his tagger camera at the string of ears. The prisoner stares straight down the propellant-stained tagger barrel and whimpers through his gag. Al-Durabi taps a button on his tagger to take a picture for evidence. The prisoner jerks sideways when the camera clicks. The poor fool either got tagged early in the battle or was too stupid to throw his grisly trophies away.
"Sergeant," Al-Durabi says. "Look.” He points his tagger at one ear that stands out because it's so small.
It has a tiny toy earring hanging from the lobe.
"Sergeant, say it isn't so," Al-Durabi says, almost pleading. “Say this isn’t what it looks like. Say this murdering bastard hasn't killed a little girl and cut her ear off for a sick trophy.”
"I'm sorry, Al-Durabi," I say. "I found her body."
Al-Durabi's body clenches inward as the horror hits. He has a wife and two little girls of his own back in Silicon Valley. He raises a stricken face to the sky. For a second, the professional-soldier version of Al-Durabi I have known for decades falls off, revealing an older version of Al-Durabi, one I have never seen.
"Eternal peace in Paradise grant her, oh mighty Allah," he whispers.
Al-Durabi's gaze returns to the prisoner, who quails back. The professional soldier has returned. There’s no strong emotion in Al-Durabi's face, no anger or hate, only a mild speculation in his eyes as he starts playing with the tagger’s trigger, lightly brushing his finger back and forth, back and forth where the prisoner can see it. The prisoner trembles every time Al-Durabi’s finger touches the trigger. At less than one meter, a tagger blast will vaporize his head.
"Tell me," Al-Durabi says. "Is this a Christian murdering bastard, or a Muslim murdering bastard?"
I try to drag the details of the mission briefing out of my memory.
"You know, Corporal," I say, "I don't think anybody ever said.”
I go on one knee beside Al-Durabi. The prisoner stares at me. Desperate hope wells up in his corroded eyes.
Hatred strikes me like a current of boiling acid, raw red titanic hate, psychotic fury and helpless frustration over the brutal butchering of that defenseless, harmless little girl, filling me with the desire for vengeance until my body shakes. I raise my tagger. All I can think about is turning this murdering bastard's head into red mist. I level my tagger at the prisoner's head and jack a shell into the launching chamber. The hope blows out like a light bulb and he goes absolutely still, awaiting my judgment.
The soul experiments, the soul experiments, the memory sweeps through me like a cool cleansing wind. Remember, remember what they mean. Justice always, vengeance never. The cool cleansing wind quenches the acid, calms the psychosis, brings me a new knowledge and inner peace.
I know the truth. Every thinking human being on the planet knows the truth now.
Being hacked to death wasn’t the end of existence for that innocent little girl. This damned murderer can not escape justice. That's the one truly inescapable thing. The one who's going to hurt the most from what he's done is him. This poor dumb bastard will face a justice beyond his imagining for what he's done, and he will be punished in full measure for every person he's harmed. All these murderers will. Not one of the victims slaughtered here will be forgotten or overlooked, not that little girl, not anybody.
Knowing the truth drains the need to hate out of me, leaving me hollow, light as air, a cup waiting to be filled. This is what the Awakening has done to me, my own wrenching flatly impossible moral change.
I will hate no more forever.
I lower my tagger.
I say nothing to the prisoner, just stare back at him with the same speculative look Al-Durabi has. The prisoner swallows, scared out of his freaking mind. Which I am still unenlightened enough to savor.
I sit down beside Al-Durabi and in silent communion we watch runnels of sweat run glistening down the prisoner’s face for a good long while before I answer Al-Durabi’s unspoken question.
“Yes,” I say.
“Yes, what,” Al-Durabi says.
“Yes, God will kick your ass if you blow this guy’s head off,” I say. “This life, too, God demands we save.”
“God,” Al-Durabi says, looking at that tiny, pathetic earring. “You think God is here? Even in a death camp, Sergeant?”
“Yes, Sergeant, I think God is here, even in this death camp,” I say. “You know what happens if you kill this guy, Corporal? The soul experiments have made plain what we all already knew in our guts. The evil in him is not wiped out of existence. He is not wiped out of existence. You kill this guy, you’re only cutting his soul loose without him learning a thing, and he’ll only do it again somewhere else.”
“Some asshole Russian scientist kills cats in the middle of a ball of silicon chips cooled almost to absolute zero,” Al-Durabi says as if he’s watching it again for the first time, “detects what he says are souls leaving their bodies, and all of a sudden everybody knows the difference between the good guys and the bad guys?”
From the killing field’s edge, Heinrich strides forth, a man on a mission. At once every single camera on the field focuses on him. Heinrich is carrying a fat collapsible pole that tapers to a spike on one end. Captain Smythe has awarded him the honor of raising our victory flag. Heinrich selects a spot in the middle of the killing field. He plants his feet, takes a deep breath, grips the pole with both hands and raises it as high as he can. Massive muscles on his arms explode into high definition as he drives the spike into bloody grass. Heinrich slaps the release lever with an open palm and steps back. The flag pole telescopes up. Camera flashes like heat lightning flicker all around Heinrich, bathing him in sheets of white light, capturing the most dramatic moment in human history.
“Company!” Captain Smythe orders over our headsets. “All without duty---render honor!”
Al-Durabi remains on duty, watching the prisoners. I rise and face the flagpole. The world holds its breath as the cameras follow the extending flagpole. Every single camera on the field is focused on the pole’s top when it stops. Heinrich and I along with every free soldier on the field come to rigid attention and salute the rising flag.
"Company!" Captain Smythe barks. "Our lives! Our souls! In service!"
"OUR LIVES! OUR SOULS! IN SERVICE!"
Our victory flag unfurls from the top and cracks like thunder in the wind, a pure white banner proclaiming the Awakening’s single clean message, a message and a warning being splashed live across billions of TV screens in all its world-shattering power. “IN SERVICE TO THE LOVE OF GOD.”
I turn to Al-Durabi.
“Yes, Corporal, we finally do know the difference between the good guys and the bad guys,” I say. I wipe my face. “After thousands of years of confusion, we by-God know the difference.”
“You know what, Sergeant?” Al-Durabi says. “This world is insane.”
“Was, Corporal, was,” I say. “But not any more. From now on, everything untangles. Everybody wakes up from the nightmare. Because we all, at last, know what the most powerful physical law in the universe is.”
Al-Durabi eases the tagger muzzle forward and touches the prisoner’s chin. The prisoner squeezes his eyes shut in terrified anticipation.
“God loves everybody forever,” Al-Durabi says. “Even the guilty.”
“The ultimate meaning of the soul experiments, Al-Durabi, of the detection of souls by science,” I say. “The love of God is a law of physics, the postulate of sentient existence, the most basic thing that drives human actions. Now we are awake, now we know.”
“Even this motherfucker,” Al-Durabi says, and taps the prisoner lightly on the throat. The prisoner pees in his pants, a dark wet stain spreading from the crotch of his stinking, bloodstained jeans.
“Yeah,” I say. “Even this motherfucker.”
“I've lost it,” Al-Durabi says. “When I first heard it, it made more sense than anything I had ever heard, the horseshit all blew away. But right here, right now, surrounded by all these poor murdered innocent people, I gotta tell you, Sergeant, I've lost it. It’s impossible to see how anybody or anything could love this worthless prick.”
The rip of parachutes opening overhead makes me glance up. I grab Al-Durabi by the shoulder.
“Here comes the proof,” I say. "The final proof God loves everybody forever, even the guilty."
Al-Durabi looks up and watches the second group of professionals to accept the Awakening's ultimate meaning drop in swinging back and forth underneath their parachutes in wild, uncontrolled arcs.
“Yet again, Al-Durabi, see the effect of the absolute, unconditional love of God on human beings,” I say, and point skyward. “Defense lawyers.”
As the defense lawyers come down, the burden of killing on my shoulders, a burden I have carried and labored under for centuries, breaks free, rises up, and floats away like a dandelion on the breeze, never to return.
Al-Durabi winces as the inexperienced defense lawyers slam into the killing field like sacks of bricks.
“I will be dipped in shit,” he says. “I was certain a bunch of pansy-ass lawyers wouldn’t have the balls to make the jump.”
“I knew they’d jump,” I say. I feel so released. It's so easy to breathe. It's like getting out of jail. I feel light enough to go floating away on the breeze myself. “The love of God demanded it. The same way it demanded we defend the innocent, and only hurt the guilty the least amount we could to make them stop killing.”
A defense lawyer thumps to the Earth face-first ten meters away. He wobbles up from the grass barely conscious. A crimson stream flows from his nose, and he limps heavily on his right ankle. He thumbs the release latches on his chute harness, and the chute goes billowing away. He unzips his vest front and extracts, God Almighty, a briefcase. He woozily looks around and spots Al-Durabi holding his tagger muzzle on the prisoner’s throat. His mouth drops open in astonished outrage.
“Hey!” the defense lawyer shouts, hopping toward us, as a dazzling light and a glorious freedom bloom inside my soul like I have never known. “Stop harassing my clients!”
The killing was over.