Friday, November 27, 2009

The Quantum Mechanic: Epilogue, part 2

Click here for part 1.

"Well, too bad," Gleck says. "Those people all had a chance at Heaven, and they were not worthy. They deserved what they got."

"What about you, Ben," Douglas asks. "Have you gotten what you deserve?"

"I - you - stop trying to twist my words! Look, I have no reason to help you, so I'm not going to. That's final!" Cameron sighs. Douglas strokes his chin. Alvina just stands and seethes at the miserable sadist in front of her, refusing to end the suffering of untold numbers of humans out of nothing more than sheer obstinacy.

"Very well," Douglas says at last. "I believe our guest needs some time to think."

"I need - " and he disappears. " - Nothing from you!" But now nobody is around.

Benjamin Gleck stands at the top of a mountain, alone. He shouts, but no one answers. He tries to expand his consciousness, but that heavy cloud weighs down upon him once more. He thinks. There has to be a way out. He looks around.

Of course! Gleck runs at full speed toward the nearest edge, and flings himself over. He laughs all the way down, thoughts of revenge and defiance running through his mind. He closes his eyes just before impact, and then - nothing. Nothing happens. He opens his eyes, and he is safely upon the ground. Funny, he didn't feel anything. He pinches himself. He registers pressure, understands that a fold of his skin is being squeezed between his thumb and forefinger, but he feels nothing. He looks around for a rock, grabs it, and then tries to smash his hand upon a boulder - the rock crumbles in his hand. He tries to smash his head upon the boulder, but he only registers a dull anaesthetic thumping. No pain. No sensation at all, only the understanding that his head is in fact bouncing harmlessly upon stone.

Ben screams to no one in particular, shouts after the wind, curses the rocks around him. He can't feel anything, he can't hurt himself, he can't even die. So he walks.

Benjamin Gleck walks for a very long time, through forest and valley, along rivers and over mountains. Day and night, rain or shine, he walks throught he world. He never feels hungry or tired, he does not eat and does not sleep.

How did this happen? He tries to sort out how his life has come to this insensate wandering, but the thinking is troublesome. He must stay strong in his faith. And so he walks. And walks. And walks.

He tires of walking, but there is nothing else to do but think. Food eludes his grasp, animals give him a wide berth, anything he attempts to use for a tool simply crumbles in his hand. He can only do two things: walk, or think.

Benjamin keeps walking.

He loses track of time, has no idea where he is or where he's been. He thinks he's on Earth, but he's not sure. Sometimes, he comes across the remnants of civilization: depressions where basements used to be, great wreckages of cities overrun by the wilderness that once surrounded them. It is not the world he knew. But he knows that the Quantum Mechanic is watching his thoughts, so he guards them carefully. He refuses to give his enemy the satisfaction.

One day, Benjamin finds a beach. He sits in the sand for a while, watches the waves lap at the beach. He finds round, flat stones in the surf, skips them out into the waves. He's not very good at this, and the waves do not help. He walks out into the ocean, breathes in the salty water, notices the cold impassively as the fluid fills his lungs. He stops breathing, feels no urge for air, and then walks along the sea floor for a while. He sees many shapes in the undulating distance, far-off shadows that could be any of a million things he has never learned.

Far enough below the ocean's surface, there are no distractions. There is only darkness. After many days of this, Benjamin cannot stop himself from reflecting on his life. He swims up towards the surface for what seems like days, finally seeing some light, then breaking through the waves into a great expanse of water. He is surely turned around. He has no idea where there is any land, which direction he is facing, or where he is. Treading water is a constant effort, unable as he is to expel the water from his lungs. It still does not help distract him. He stops struggling against gravity, and lets himself sink back down into the inky depths.

It's a waiting game, he realizes at some point during his descent. It's a waiting game, and there is no victory for me here. I cannot do anything until I give my enemy what he wants. I cannot eat, or sleep, or even die. He won't do anything to me except keep me limited to my human capacities, and protect me from the rest of the environment. And the Quantum Mechanic can wait as long as he likes. OK.

Now what?

Benjamin doesn't want to spend eternity wandering the world as a passive observer, struggling to stop himself from doing anything that would give his tormentor any amount of satisfaction. His enemy has reduced himself to a force of nature, and for Ben to get anything that he wants, he must give a little, first. That is painful. But he accepts that it is the rule, and so he gives a little.

"I'm sorry," he warbles out to the ever-darkening water around him.

Nothing.

Benjamin thinks. Words probably don't matter. Fine. He thinks some more. The Quantum Mechanic probably doesn't care about what I think, he only wants my cooperation. He wants those poor saps saved from Hell. And Cameron - that sniveling faggot wants to reunite with his long lost man-lover, and - and - and do all those things they're not allowed to do! That bothers Benjamin more than anything: how can they believe in God, know the scripture, realize the error of their ways, and then still have those desires? Ben tried to glorify their bodies, make it so they didn't need to have those thoughts any more, but they still had them anyway! What is wrong with them?!

Benjamin realizes that he has no answer for this question. "They're sinful" is no help, because what he's trying to explain is that very sin. "Why are they sinful" cannot be answered by "they're sinful." But why can't they just stop being that way? Can't they just do things God's way? Although, while they were on Earth, they were really doing things God's way: they knew their sin for what it was, and they abstained. Then Benjamin took them to a mock Heaven, just like so many people, and they just fell again. He tried to help them let go of their sin, but they just wouldn't stop!

Maybe Ben did something wrong. Maybe the glorious city with the Lord on the throne and the Son at his right hand wasn't enough; maybe God needed to do something. Why didn't he? Maybe Ben tried too hard to be like God in his defiance of the Quantum Mechanic. But isn't being godly a good thing? Maybe not for people, it isn't. But then how come Douglas seems to be having such an easy time of it? Why doesn't that guy try to keep everyone in line? Why doesn't he ask for anything back from the people who he's helped so much? What good is it to be like God, if you don't get any of the perks?

Benjamin prays for guidance, but to no avail. After time beyond reckoning of being alone with his thoughts, he has learned to recognize his own voice in his head, and he realizes that every voice coming to him in answer is only his own. God is not helping him. Maybe this is a test. But who is testing him? And what is the right thing to do? How could he know it? How can he make sure he doesn't get it wrong?

Benjamin's mind clears once more, but due to no effort on his part. He honestly has no idea. There are no answers for him here. And the old answers he received in his youth are no help. Maybe he needs to find some new ones. Maybe it's time to start things over.

The fact is, the Quantum Mechanic is holding him here. He knows this. He also knows that God has not intervened, and probably won't intervene on his behalf. He also knows that all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. This includes him, Benjamin Gleck. OK. What does he want to do? He wants to live his mortal life and then go to the side of the Lord. But he can't do that until he cooperates with the Quantum Mechanic.

OK. This is OK. He did some very harmful things to some very incorrigible sinners, but that was not his place to do. If there is a god - that is, God does not need his help. Benjamin thought that he was supposed to do the Lord's work, but then he overstepped his bounds. His actions exceeded his authority. Punishing sinners is not his duty. And besides, as long as those people are in his simulated Hell, there's probably no way for them to turn from their sinful ways, anyway. It's not enough to just punish them, he has to help make them better. And that means he must admit his mistake. To himself, to God, and to the Quantum Mechanic. And then he will help them rescue those trapped sinners, and then he will help make them into better people, and then he can live out his life and go to God.

Well, then. There are his answers. Now all he has to do is find his way back. Benjamin sits upon the ocean floor. At this depth, wrapped in these clothes, his lungs full of water, he does not swim so much as climb upwards, shoving the water beneath him, then reaching up and grasping for more height. Higher and higher he climbs, out of the depths and up to the air and the light. Off to the East, the sun is rising. He swims towards it.

After many days, Benjamin finds his way to the shore. He looks around for the nearest tree, does a handstand against it, and finally the salty water flows out. He has not taken a breath in many, many days, but the habit comes back with a little practice. He looks around. He has no idea where he is, or where he's supposed to go. He calms his mind, relaxes, and tries to reach out - just to look. No suppressive clouds this time. Good! Farther, farther - he recognizes the shape of the land. He's on the coast of Washington. Off in the distance, there is a house in Montana with smoke coming out of the chimney. Benjamin sets off towards it.

Alvina answers a knock at the door to see a serene looking Benjamin.

"Hello, Mister Gleck," she says evenly. "Welcome back."

"I, um," he stammers, unsure of what to say. He thinks for a moment. "Thank you."

"Come on in. Can I get you something to drink?"

"Water would be nice."

"Sure thing. Cameron's reading in the living room, Douglas is finishing up dinner. Would you like to join us?"

"Yes, I think so." Ben is on guard, steeled for any confrontation, but none ever comes. He walks into the kitchen to see Douglas stirring a pot of rice. "Hello."

"Hi!" Doug is all smiles and effervescence. "I trust you found what you needed?"

"I - " Ben stammers, puzzled. "Well, yes, I suppose. Weren't you watching?"

"Meh, yes and no. I just tried to make sure you didn't do anything foolish, but other than that, I pretty much left you to your own devices. Why do you ask?" Ben reflects briefly over all the silly motions he went through, trying to somehow antagonize or provoke the man he used to call his enemy.

"No reason," Ben finally says.

"Fair enough. If you'd like to take a shower, there are towels in the hall closet."

"Thanks."

Under the hot stream, it occurs to Benjamin that he can feel once more. He feels relaxed, a little sleepy, and rather hungry. After washing off the dust of the road, he towels off and finds a new suit next to the pile of rags he walked in with. He puts it on; it fits perfectly.

"So," Cameron asks at the table, "Did you have a good walk?"

"Yes, I suppose I did."

"That's good. And are you ready to help us?"

"I - " Ben pauses. "I did a whole lot of harm to a whole lot of people, Cam. I really feel awful about that. I don't - I don't know what I can do."

"Hey," Pleasance puts a hand on Benjamin's shoulder. "Listen, it's OK. Well, I mean, it's not OK, but it will be. Nobody's died yet. Not that we know about, anyway."

"I hope so."

"Everybody makes mistakes, Mister Gleck," Douglas says. "The trick is to see what you can learn from them."

"Yeah. Still - I wish I didn't have to learn this one the hard way."

"Well, sometimes that's just what needs to happen."

"I guess."

"So," Alvina chimes in, "Where are all these people, anyway?" Ben breathes deeply, blinks slow.

"I pretty much made them into brains in vats, sent them on a bad trip in their own minds, and flung them out into the darkness between the stars. I remember the vectors I sent them on, and about their times, but - well, I'm not too sure on some of the earlier ones. There were a lot of them."

"It's OK," she says, "We've got time."

"Yeah, I guess we do," he replies. "Hoo, boy. This is going to be a lot of work."

"Yes, it is," Douglas says. "And it won't end just by finding them - I don't expect that very many of these folks will be in quite as good a shape as our friend Cameron, here. We really have our work cut out for us. But it's work worth doing."

Benjamin nods, chokes back some tears. He has behaved in a very un-Christian fashion, just trying to do what was right. He realizes now that some of his ideas were rather strange - and if only he had taken the time to weigh the consequences if he was wrong, then maybe - no, no good can come of this. He did what he did, and now he has to deal with that. He's a very different person now. He closes his eyes, counts to ten, takes a couple of deep breaths.

"You still with us, buddy," Alvina asks after a few moments.

"Yeah," Benjamin replies. "It's just hard. Reconciling what I did with who I am now. It just seems so foreign. I don't know what I was thinking - I guess I got carried away."

"I think you'll be all right," Douglas says with a nod. "Welcome back to the civilization game, Mister Gleck."

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