I love a story that starts out with, “And then he died.” It begs the question, “Is there an after life or are we just living the prelife?”
The Big Move
And then he died.
Morton H. Bosch flinched as the shrill, piercing sound drilled through his ears and into his brain. The sound itself wasn't that unusual, but he thought it was in very bad taste. Death should be peaceful.
The last thing he remembered was deadly silence. The air, long gone, had taken all sound with it out the hull puncture. He's struggled for breath in the silence as blood poured from his ruptured lungs. When the life left his body, Bosch felt strangely vindicated. He'd always preferred spending his life snuggled in a virtch, where nasty things like atmosphere blowouts could be cleared by the reset button. If this was what you got from real life, he'd thought, he didn't want any more. Then, release… sweet, sweet release and a sensation of floating into a bright light.
Heaven and safety, Bosch felt sure, were just around the metaphysical corner. But that sound. It wouldn't let up. The sound was just so... un-Heavenly. So... No, he thought, surely not. Not … There...
Listening more closely, Bosch tentatively identified the sound as a... a whistle?
He opened his eyes for a quick peek. He slammed his eyes shut, wishing he were the type prone to visual hallucinations.
"I don't think so, Dead Boy. I saw those eyes open. On your feet. Now! Move. Move. Move."
It was worse than Hell. It was Boot Camp.
Bosch rubbed his fists against his eyes. Fists? Eyes? But, wasn't he supposed to be dead? "No, no, no," he said.
"Oh, yes, Dead Boy. Yes, yes, yes. Time to get your butt in gear. Eternity waits for no man, alive or dead."
Bosch opened his eyes, squinting against the golden radiance suffusing everything. As far as he could see, human figures ran and jumped and crawled and hopped and dug and.... He shuddered, feeling the creeping whim-whams crawl up his back.
Leaping from the background, like an ocean liner appearing out of the fog and accelerating towards a hapless raft packed full of refugees, came a stout, shouting man wearing a round-brimmed, peaked hat. The man spit the whistle from his mouth and smiled, an evil, nasty smile promising a great number of things.
The man reached out and hauled Bosch upright by the lapels, making Bosch realize he was actually wearing clothes. He glanced down. He wore camouflage, picked out in shades of gold instead of earth tones.
"All right, Dead Boy. On your feet. Start running. Let's go!"
"Go? Where? What?"
The shouting man shoved his arms out full length and stared goggle-eyed at Bosch.
"Did you just speak to me, Dead Boy? My name is Sgt. Azamael and you will use it the next time you open your mouth. Do you understand me?"
Sgt. Azamael thrust his face to within inches of Bosch's own. Azamel's eyes bugged out even farther and his face turned a violent red.
"My name, Dead Boy. My name!"
Bosch closed his eyes, flashing back fifty years to his first boot camp: the long nights, the endless days and the mind-numbing rigidity of repetition. Bosch didn't know what was happening to him, but, after years as a professional cringer, he had developed his own survival method of go along, get along. He sighed.
"Sgt. Azamael, what's going on here? Please?"
"Because I am the soul of generosity and kindness, I will answer your question. You see that mountain? We will run there and back again. And we will do it now. Run, run run!"
"Mountain, Sgt. Azamael?" Bosch said. "I don't, I don't see a mountain."
"You will," Azamael said as he heaved Bosch forward. "Eventually."
Stumbling into motion, Bosch's heavy, dark-gold boots thumped the ground with each step. In life, Bosch hadn't been just the last person picked for teams. He'd been named permanent scorekeeper. Dying hadn't done much to improve his athleticism. After the first few steps, Bosch wheezed like a defective set of bagpipes.
"Why are you blowing like that, Dead Boy?" Azamael shouted as ran backwards, occasionally making effortless fifteen-foot-long jumps. "You ain't got no lungs now."
Bosch looked up in surprise and promptly tripped over his own feet. He slammed into the ground, raising a golden cloud of dust. The silence pressed in on him for just a moment. He looked around. The human figures he'd seen when he first opened his eyes had vanished in the distance. His peace didn't last.
"Didn't tell you to stop running, Dead Boy. On your feet." Azamael smiled. Bosch was beginning to hate that smile.
As Bosch pushed himself back to his feet, Azamael again leaned in close and whispered into his ear.
"While you're pondering my last little question, here's another. Didja ever think about what you owe God? After all, they gave you life. So, what's it worth?"
Bosch's glare should have ripped the polish off chrome, but Azamael's expression never changed. Bosch definitely hated that smile.
They ran. To be more precise, Bosch thumped, plodded and wheezed while Azamael twirled, pirouetted and whooped into the dry, dusty day. Azamael said nothing, but his constant, effortless movement grated on Bosch like the tines of a fork scraped over an empty plate.
Eventually, Azamael did stop, performing a flawless triple somersault in the air and nailing the landing. He bounced up and down on his toes as he waited for Bosch to close the distance.
"And, halt," Azamael said. "Time for a little exercise."
Bosch's mouth fell open in slack-jawed astonishment. He took one more step forward and then just plain fell. He started choking almost immediately as golden dust inconsiderately swirled in the air while he was trying to catch his breath.
"Out standing, Dead Boy. You must have read my mind. See that pebble in front of your left hand? Move the pebble. Now."
The pebble in question was small, about the size of a peanut, and colored the same drab brown. Finally, Bosch thought, something I can do. He reached out his left hand, curled his index finger against his thumb and, hoping the pebble might just thwack Azamael in the face, flicked.
After he stopped screaming and sucking on his abused index finger, Bosch glared up into Azamael's smile.
"You tricked me," Bosch said. "Sgt. Azamael."
"Hmmm," he murmured to himself. "Sub-microscopic's out. Need to move to the observable, I think."
Grabbing him by the upper arm, Azamael casually tossed Bosch about twenty feet into the air. Bosch screamed until gravity smacked him into the dirt. His head stared into the cloudless sky while the rest of his body was twisted one hundred eighty degrees. His body shook as he flipped over onto his back, head still facing skyward.
Bosch held his fingers up to his eyes, slowly flexing his digits. Gingerly, he touched his neck, probing near his spine.
"There's.... I'm not hurt. I, my neck was broken."
Azamael shook his head slowly back and forth, a look of pity on his face.
"An image of a neck is not a neck."
Bosch struggled into a sitting position, bracing himself on his hands. He wished looks really could maim.
"I.... Why did you do that? You could have killed me."
Azamael just stared at him. As he realized what he'd said and grimaced, Azamael smiled again.
"No neck. No body. It's just an image of how you think you look. You can't really be hurt. You wouldn't have believed me if I told you. I needed to show you. Now you believe."
Azamael offered a hand up. Bosch sniffed, turned his head away and scrambled upright on his own.
"Enough jabbering, recruit. Get running." Azamael took off like a moon colonist, leaping effortlessly and touching down lightly.
Bosch grunted and pushed off into a slow trot. He shook his head, marveling at the lack of pain. There was no injury or anything to indicate his head had been twisted halfway around. He was dead, after all. He ran for another couple of steps as he watched Azamael make a mockery of physical laws and limitations. Bosch was in a place where the laws he knew in his bones were more along the lines of suggestions.
“What the hel—heck?”
He didn't even leap that hard. He just closed his eyes and added a bit of an extra spring in his step. Bosch didn't land. He kept waiting to touch down. Surely he hadn't jumped that far? Had he? Bosch opened one eye the tiniest fraction of an inch. Both eyes shot open as he stared at the ground a good hundred feet below him. He was standing motionless in mid-air.
Bosch flailed his arms, trying to keep his balance as the wind whipped past him. Every second carried him closer to the ground. This was going to hurt. No, he thought, it didn't have to. Bosch closed his eyes again. When he opened them, his feet were on the ground, the good, solid ground.
Azamael stood a few feet away, hands on his hips, wearing a smile on his face.
"Well, you answered my first question. So. Have you given any thought to my second? What do you owe God?"
"No. I, I don’t know. Prayer? Love? I'm sorry, I.... I didn't even believe God existed."
Saying nothing, Azamael looked around at the golden landscape for a second before turning back to Bosch.
"Wrong on both counts. God, obviously, does exist. But they don't want your prayer."
Azamael turned around and walked two brisk steps away before squatting down on the hard ground. He beckoned Bosch forward. Shrugging, Bosch moved next to Azamael and knelt down.
"Move that," Azamael said, pointing to a fist-sized rock, resting lopsidedly on the ground.
Bosch reached out toward the rock then paused, remembering his attempt to earlier attempt to move a much smaller pebble. His finger would still have hurt, if he still had a real finger.
Putting a hand on either side of the rock, Bosch stood up. His hands stayed where they were.
"You're supposed to lift with your legs, not your back. Never mind. 'S not a real back anyway."
Grunting, Bosch tried again with all the success of most of his athletic endeavors. Which was to say, none at all.
"If you can't do it, you can't do it. Just means you're not cut out for chemical reactions. Let's try this one over there."
Azamael vanished. One second he stood next to Bosch, the next instant he was two hundred meters away, leaning against a house-sized boulder of golden brown. An audible click sounded as Bosch shut his mouth. He stepped forward, then stopped, staring at Azamael. There was a soft bamph of imploding air as nature proved, even post-mortem, that it abhors a vacuum.
It was Bosch's turn to smile as he reappeared next to Azamael.
"Quick study." Azamael patted the boulder. "Now, try to move this puppy."
"I don't really understand what's going.... I mean, look. I couldn't move those little rocks. How do you expect me to move this one?"
"All right, but I'm telling you I won't...." Bosch's voice trailed off as he stared at the boulder, slowly revolving away from the gentle pressure of his finger. "It, it worked."
"And now you've answered my second question."
"I. What? What do you mean?"
"God doesn't want your love, although that would be nice, or your prayer. They want your work."
"But, but I'm dead. I'm done with work. Right?"
"Not according to that," Azamael said, nodding toward the spinning boulder.
"I'm completely lost."
"Not surprising. You're wondering why you could move that rock and not the smaller ones. And what all this has to do with anything. Right?"
Azamael floated slowly up into the air. Bosch gulped, closed his eyes and clenched his fists. His boots lifted a few inches off the ground, and then slammed back into the dirt. He shook his head, took a deep breath, exhaled, and gently drifted up toward Azamael, opening his eyes on the way.
"Consider the universe," Azamael said, waving his hand toward the stars beginning to glimmer in the sky. "The universe was a heck of a lot easier to run in the beginning. Just a bunch of rocks and some flaming gas. God just wound it up and let the watch run.
"Then along came humanity and thousands of other intelligent races. They looked around at the universe and some of the smarter ones started asking questions. What are those bright lights in the sky? How come they just hang there? Why is it bricks don't float?"
"Think about it. Anyway, they all came up with all these great theories about how the universe works. And God, well, they love us and want us to be happy, so they started supplying reality that matched theory.
"Unfortunately, that 's even more complicated than it sounds. God wanted a little time to spend doing something besides running the universe so they started recruiting souls instead of just recycling them. Not everybody has the aptitude. Those that can't find a niche get sent back for another turn on the old mortality wheel."
"But, but why me?"
"Does that really matter? You're one of the lucky ones. You get to help God. There's not many that can say that."
"What do you want me to do?"
"You get to spin planets."
"Sure. You moved the big rock, didn't you? That translates to planet-equivalent mass." Azamael gestured toward the gas giant hovering suddenly over his shoulder. "What? You thought planets just spun on their own? Oh, please. The universe is too complicated. It needs supervision. From you, among many, many others."
Bosch looked around, staring into infinity on one side and into the depths of a huge, banded gas giant on the other.
"Where are we?"
"HD 168746. It's a yellow-orange G5 V star, similar to the sun, about 140 light years from Earth."
"Who cares what happens out here?"
"Hey, every job is important. Think about light. It moves as a wave and a particle. Right?"
"Yeah," Azamael said. "It does _now_. Somebody goofed up and let some particles slip through the waves. Unfortunately, human scientists noticed so now we've got to keep up the wave-particle sham. Lots of work for such a small slip."
"But, I don't know what to do."
"You'll get the hang of it. Just keep 'em spinning the right way. You'll do fine. God sends their thanks."
Bosch reached out toward the gas giant. Either he was growing larger, or the planet was shrinking. He jerked his hand back and the Jovian loomed over him again. He stretched out his hand and gently pushed. With glacial slowness, colors separated from each other as the giant began to spin.
Well done, he thought.
"I didn't think that," Bosch said.
“Yes we did”, he thought
Bosch shrugged. After so much strangeness, what was a little more? He turned his attention back to the gas giant and lost himself in concentration. He stared and thought, and pushed and thought and exerted just the right amount of control and thought.
Decades passed. Bosch no longer noticed. The gas giant, along with the six other planets in the system, might just as well have been spinning on their own for all the attention Bosch afforded them. Over time, he had become so adept at the work he hardly even noticed he was doing it.
The application of imaginary numbers to the prediction of quasi-stellar phenomena had occupied his mind for a while, but that quickly paled.
"Numbers," he said. "We don't need no stinking numbers."
Too right, they thought.
Something tugged at his mind and brought him back from the infinite. For the first time in long millennia Bosch looked around at his system... planets still spinning, still in correct orbits. Nothing new under the su—
No, they thought. That wasn't quite true.
Looks like we'll be making some changes around here soon. Bosch smiled and wondered what the new universe would look like. No boot camps this time, thought.
And on a water-bearing planet circling about 1.3 AU from the primary, something green and scaly looked up and wondered about the bright spots hanging in the darkness.