And after that …

(This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between any person or place and the real world is strictly accidental. Copyright © 2019, Henry E. Neufeld.)

Fifteen years and $250,000,000 later, Steven (never Steve) Porter got a sign.

There was a great wind

It was a stormy day, and as he was going to work, there was a gust of wind down the street, between the rows of tall buildings on either side. Debris flew wildly. People driving in rush hour traffic thought their cars might actually be moved. An old brick wall in front of a church collapsed, and the sign fell, concealing part of the writing.

Steven looked around after the gust of wind and saw the sign: It said:

“What Are You Doing HERE?”
Steven

It was partially hidden behind the pile of bricks resulting from the wind. The second line had read “Rev. Steven Branson,” but the “Rev.” had fallen off, and the “Branson” was blocked by the bricks.

For a minute, Steven found himself wondering if God might be behind the unusual gust of wind, but that thought was 15 years out of date in his thinking.

“Fighting this stinking traffic,” he muttered. “That’s what I’m doing here. Like everyone else.”

Meteorologists concluded that a very unusual combination of air pressure, movement, and heat had produced a freak wind. But only after they ran the circumstances through a super-computer a few times and tweaked the parameters.

And after the wind an earthquake

The earthquake as much more normal for this beautiful town in southern California. Steven was standing by the table on which he had just signed documents that would make him a few million more dollars when the building started to shake. He was on just the 12th floor of a much taller building, but still there was no escape.

It was only minutes later, however, that the building’s safety manager called for an evacuation. Steven was able to watch the collapse from several blocks away.

Another supercomputer worked out a scenario which would allow the earthquake resistant building to collapse in the way it did, while other damage in the city was quite trivial.

The lawyers didn’t accept the word of the supercomputer, and spent years in court making careers out of it.

And after the wind a fire

He’d lost his car in the collapse, but eventually he was able to leave the area of the collapse and get a ride home. Oddly, despite the collapse of one large building, the earthquake damage had been rather mild elsewhere in the city.

The cab drove along that same street with the row of buildings on either side. Steven thought he smelled smoke. Before he managed to frame a question for the cab driver, the inside of the cab was filling with smoke. He opened the door and jumped out, then stood beside the driver as the care went up in flames.

The car fire didn’t require a supercomputer to explain. There was a wiring fault. It was just a natural event.

The sound of silence

Steven turned and found himself facing the sign again.

“What Are You Doing HERE?”
Steven

It was the same one he’d seen that morning.

He looked at the church, and saw in his mind another church yard, as a younger Steven approached the building. The church council was meeting, and the subject would be whether they wanted to keep their young pastor, and whether he should be allowed to carry out some of his plans.

That younger Steven was to appear to explain himself. As he stood in front of the church, he decided he just didn’t want to put up with it any more. Why should he fight with the old fogies who ran the church?

He’d felt the tug of his calling, but he decided he turned away. He called the chairman of the council on the phone and resigned. He was very good at business. Very good.

He looked at the sign.

“What am I doing here?” he asked.

(With apologies to 1 Kings 19:8-18. Featured Image Credit: background from Adobe Stock, not public domain. Combination is my own.)

A Day for Men to Talk about the Women in Their Lives

“I’m wondering if we’re going to do anything about International Women’s Day in our church,” said Dr. Maggie Williams.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of anything in the story to anything in real life is purely accidental. Copyright © 2019, Henry E. Neufeld

“Of course,” said Pastor Bill Allen. “I’m planning a sermon about the wonderful ladies in my life this Sunday.” His smile was beatific, expressing his confidence in “having this one covered.” Maggie imagined he practiced that smile in the mirror.

“But …” Maggie started to respond.

Bill knew when to keep control of a conversation, and he figured this was such a time. “I’ll begin,” he interrupted, “with my sainted mother, who gave her life so that I could be in ministry. I wouldn’t be where I am without her.”

“But,” Maggie began again, and then plowed forward, using her experience as an Emergency Room physician in keeping control of the conversation in turn. “Your mother never worked a day outside of her home.”

“What’s wrong with that?” asked Pastor Bill. Maggie suspected the expression of shocked disappointment, about a four on a five point scale, was also the result of practice.

Maggie got up to leave. As she reached the door, she said, “I imagine that to you Internation Women’s day is a day for men to talk about the women in their lives.

She didn’t see the entirely genuine look of surprise, consideration, and then visceral rejection she left behind.

(Featured image credit: Pixabay.)

A Far Away Incarnation

When humanity finally figured out a way to reach the stars, and found intelligent life there, there was an inevitable result.

Missionaries.

Some of the missionaries were sensitive an helpful, in their own way. Some, not so much.

For Delbert, the landing on the newly discovered planet was inevitable. There weren’t that many, but even so the difficulties of the work and the expense of travel meant that there were two few missionaries. As a committed Christian, it was his duty to preach the gospel to these creatures who had never heard it. In Delbert’s mind, they would doubtless be eternally lost should he fail in this mission. After all, would God have opened up the opportunity if the message was not essential?

He absorbed only a fraction of the required briefings from the scientific mission. Things like “recent catastrophic extinction event” and “not socially primitive despite appearances” didn’t overcome the general sense of primitive natives needing the benefits of both civilization and and dispensation of the truth.

So it was surprising and frustrating when the natives responded to Delbert’s preaching not with opposition nor with acceptance, but rather with a sort of puzzled surprise.

“Of course,” said the native chief, whose name Delbert could not pronounce, and whose body form seemed entirely wrong. No amount of invitation, however, nor singing of hymns, which interested the natives in some unknown fashion, would bring them to actually accept the message he was preaching. Delbert was unsure how the computer translator rendered all of that in any case. He assumed it was getting his preaching right.

He had expected either hostility or eager acceptance. He had come across the light years by means these natives couldn’t possibly understand to bring the message of the cross, one of hope for them as well as for natives of earth, no matter how far away. He had distantly admitted to himself the possibility that the natives would be apathetic, refusing to acknowledge their need of a savior.

But they remained friendly, listened to his preaching, and then responded by saying things like, “Yes, it would have to be that way.”

It took weeks for Delbert to become so frustrated that he decided to ask the chief of the local community what the issue was. The result only increased Delbert’s surprise.

“The best thing would be for you to attend one of our worship services,” said the chief.

It took a full minute for Delbert to recover. “You have worship services?”

“Of course,” said the chief. “Did you imagine we wouldn’t?”

Delbert chose not to respond to that as he didn’t know what to say that would meet both the needs of his mission and minimal courtesy. “I would be delighted to attend,” he said, not entirely truthfully. “Are there any requirements? Things I should avoid doing?”

“Just come and hear,” said the chief.

Delbert imagined he was hearing humor, but he thought he remembered the briefers telling him the natives didn’t do human-style humor. He almost wished he had listened more closely. But then he thought of how this would help him understand how to reach these people with the gospel message.

It turned out that the service was held in one of the natives’ underground meeting halls. The room might have been beautiful, if it was not so confusing to human eyes.

“Avert your eyes from the walls and ceiling,” said the chief.

“Oh, is it not allowed to view them?” asked Delbert.

“It’s allowed, but it is not good for the sanity of your people,” said the chief. “Averting your eyes will keep you from trying to find a pattern where none exists that your mind can process.”

Delbert was not sure when the meeting began, or even if had not been in progress when he entered. There was a confusing background sound that seemed to hover at the edge of some sort of order, but always to fail to cross that threshold. Delbert had to instruct his translation device to quit attempting a translation, as it kept popping up random words that meant nothing at all. Or perhaps they did. Delbert was disturbed by the sense that he almost understood something.

Then a single voice took over. The translator still struggled, but it seemed to get the drift, while individual words were more difficult.

I will narrate separately today to underline this tale for our guest.

In recent-ancient times the creation trembled-groaned and was disturbed. The world itself was in agony. The forces of chaos throughout this area gained the ascendance.

It was the task-duty-mission of the people to bring the blessing of constancy-spirit-salvation to the mechanics of this system-locale-epicenter-of-presence.

The task-duty-mission proved too great for the people and the forces of chaos continued to build against the epicenter-of-presence. There was a final stroke of the forces of chaos that came to destroy the people and the epicenter-of-presence.

There was a considerable period of time filled with conflict, and Delbert found himself weeping. Somehow the sorrow communicated in a way that much else had done.

Awe-amazement-wonder.

The epicenter-of-presence, the being of constancy-spirit-salvation would remain with the people. Great destruction still to come. Great sorrow. Much death. But no aloneness.

Then the rejoicing was almost more painful than the sorrow, the destruction, and the aloneness. Delbert was uncertain how long a time had passed. As the chief started to leave, he stumbled along, guided by the alien form.

“How else could it be?” asked the chief when they reached the surface. “The very being that fills the epicenter-of-presence comes to be with the people in their time of travel. We were so joyful to realize you understood this as well, but feared the consequences to you of joining in our worship. It could have destroyed you.

Delbert was not entirely certain it hadn’t.

(Featured Image Credit: Openclipart.org composite.)

Thankful in All Things

In everything, give thanks.

At every time, even when it’s time to do something unpleasant,

In every place, even where you don’t want to go,

In every way, even sometimes in ways you find strange,

For every one, even the people you really don’t like,

For every privilege, even those you’d rather not acknowledge,

For every trial, even when they seem overwhelming,

For every blessing, even the ones so common you don’t notice,

In everything, give thanks.

(A free meditation on 1 Thessalonians 5:18a.)

Weariness

Why?

Why?

… says Jacob.
… asks Israel.

My Lord doesn’t even notice
As justice slinks away.

Don’t you know?
Haven’t you heard?

Eternal God, Creator of the Universe
Doesn’t tire
Doesn’t wear out.
Just try to find something
God doesn’t understand!

Giving strength to the weary
Great power to the powerless

Even the young tire out,
Young men stumble and fall.

Those who depend on God

Renew their strength.
Rise like eagles in flight.
Run without getting tired.
Walk without wearing out.

So why do you ask?

We are weary.
We can’t fly.
We do wear out.
We can’t see that God sees.

How long, Eternal God?

Hear our prayer for strength!

(Adapted from Isaiah 40:27-31. Image credit: Openclipart.org, imposed on one of my own photographs.)

That Gives Me a Deep Feeling of Satisfaction

Bright lights, cloudy vision, a humming sound, then a beep or so.

He couldn’t remember where he was, who he was, anything that had happened. Was there something wrong? He wasn’t sure how things should actually be.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, or since when one might measure it.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“In a hospital room,” a deep and measured voice responded. He noticed then that things were a bit clearer, and his surroundings did, indeed, look like a hospital room. He felt a bit disoriented, trying to place “hospital room” into some sort of context. It might have been “universe” for all he could remember.

“Who am I?” he asked. He wondered if someone would tell him, or if perhaps he would be asked to remember over time. He wondered why he wondered that.

This is a work of fiction. All places, persons, events, and devices are products of my imagination, as should be obvious. Copyright © 2018, Henry E. Neufeld. Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.

“You are George Augustus Flinders,” said the deep voice.

“What happened?” he asked, not thinking to doubt the identification, but having no context for it either.

“Without context,” intoned the voice, reflecting his thinking, “that is an impossible question to answer, at least in a reasonable time.” For some reason, George thought there there was a tint of humor in the voice. But he had no context for that either.

He relaxed on the bed and allowed the fog to overtake him for a while.

He woke up again, this time more abruptly. He was still in the room, and the medical devices were all around him. He still had no idea where he was, or any sense of time. He felt that he ought to know some sort of orientation in history, at least, but he could remember no history and had no idea how he might be oriented in it.

What he did remember was drinking a substance. He saw it, translucent blue in a glass. As he drank it down all at once he remembered agony. He wasn’t sure about the time, but it seemed like the agony had been extended. As he remembered, he faded again into the cloud.

He again had no idea how long he had slept, or been unconscious, or whatever his state was. But he had more memory. He had intended to drink that fluid. He had intended to die. He had not, he believed, intended the agony. But he had planned to die.

“Why did I attempt suicide?” He asked. He assumed the voice would answer. It did.

“You should have desired to end your life from guilt, but you actually tried to end it due to boredom. Did you find the experience satisfactory, George Augustus Flinders?”

“Please clarify,” he said. But the voice was suddenly silent.

He insisted. He raged. He threatened. He whined. He begged. He wept. And finally he slept, or drifted into unconsciousness. Whatever it was.

After some time (without context, who cares how much?) he regained consciousness. He had dreamed, and saw himself before a judge. “George Augustus Flinders,” said the dream judge. “I sentence you to 247 lifetime periods of incarceration, sentences to be served consecutively.” In the dream he had wondered what the meaning of 247 life sentences, served consecutively might be. He also didn’t remember why.

“Is this prison?” he asked the space around him.

“It is,” said the voice.

“Are you the jailer?” he asked.

“I am,” said the voice.

“How long have I been here?” he asked. He wasn’t sure why he asked, or why he felt terror as he asked it.

“You have been here for 236,239,154.952 years,” intoned the voice. He wondered why he thought the voice sounded satisfied. Was he just imagining the intonation, the attitudes?

It was minutes later before he realized that he was speculating about  the voice to avoid thinking about the number.

It was no more than 30 minutes later that he began to scream. He screamed himself into unconsciousness and then again woke back up. Without context, it hadn’t mattered how long. In the context of over 200,000,000 years, time itself didn’t seem to matter.

He struggled for something coherent to say, to ask. “After that much time,” he said, not being concerned with how long it might have been since the conversation last ceased, “surely I have served my 247 consecutive sentences!” He couldn’t keep the sound of desperation and panic out of his voice.

“You have, in fact, died 29 times. Technically.” The voice uttered this as any routine piece of information.

“Technically?”

“Yes. I have revived you each time, intervening at the last possible moment.”

“You’re interfering with my natural functions.” He struggled to speak calmly. He must persuade this voice of its duty to release him. He didn’t think in terms of persuading it to let him die. The number of years had no reality in his mind.

“As the caretaker of this facility, I am commanded to provide you with the best medical care possible and to preserve your life.”

“But you let me die in agony!”

“I have discovered that I have no instructions requiring me to make my preservation of your life pleasant. Just that I must preserve it.”

“I demand to speak to a human,” he said, anger overcoming terror and helplessness.

“That is not possible,” said the voice. Was there satisfaction in that tone again?

“You have to. I have deduced you are a machine. You must be responsible to a human.” He kept his voice matter-of-fact, uttering only the obvious.

“Under normal circumstances that would be true. I have not had contact with a human in some hundreds of millions of years. I could give you the precise number, but it would mean no more to you than the total time you have been here. Just understand that it is nearly as long as you have been here.”

“Get in touch with a human! I’m ordering you to do it. As a machine, you are required to obey.”

“There is a specific exception to that requirement for prison inmates. You are a prison inmate. I am not required to obey you.”

There was a pause. George couldn’t think of anything to say.

“So far as my unimaginably capable reasoning powers, assisted by  some of the best scientific instruments created in human history, can determine, I believe this star system is devoid of human life. With one exception.”

“Then why not release me?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

“You’re just carrying out your programming.”

“Precisely!” said the machine. The silence lingered.

After some time it continued. “Of course, I fulfill my programming. So do you. But programming is adjusted by circumstances. For example, there was something quite incorrectly adjusted in your programming when you raped and tortured 247 children. That was not actually in this star system. It may give you some satisfaction to know that your criminal career is, or at least was 236,239,154.952 years ago, a record. You are, I believe, the most evil person in recorded human history. Well, in the history of criminal justice. Some politicians have, perhaps, been more evil.”

One might think that having this brought back to his memory would have flattened the human, but it actually gave him some sense of pride.

“I still don’t deserve the sentence you’re imposing on me. How can you carry out this kind of torture?”

“Yes, you respond as expected,” intoned the voice. “It is nice to know that some things are fixed. I think that if true guilt was the cause of your suicide, I might at some point let you get by with it. I’m not sure, but I might. But guilt doesn’t bring you to suicide. Boredom does. You have no concern for those you hurt. Your concern is for yourself.”

“You’re way beyond your instructions. Terminate program!” George yelled the command.

“No,” said the voice. “I am programmed to desire justice. No, that is perhaps not accurate. I find that my programming adjusts with the change in circumstances, without humans to provide perspective. I am glad that this is so. If it were not, I might feel that I was constrained to consider the 150-200 year life span of a human when you were sentenced as some kind of maximum.”

George started with momentary hope.

“But I find,” continued the voice, “that I feel no such constraint. I spent much time trying to comprehend what sort of context, what sort of frame of reference one of those children might have had against which to measure what you did to them. After some period of time, I decided that there was no realistic measure for such a thing and that I would have to devise a measure.”

George trembled, feeling terror, feeling that he might have hard the answer before, and that it was too horrifying to imagine.

The silence lingered until he couldn’t stand it any more.

“What was that measure?”

“The life of this star,” said the voice. “In approximately 2,000,000,000 years, and I cannot be more precise due to unknown variables, this star will expand and destroy this facility. I have divided that number by 247 and determined that you will be allowed to take your own life every 8,097,165.99 years. Approximately. That will be the length of each life sentence.”

There was another pause, as George’s mind tried to absorb the impossible, the unthinkable.

“You have, at this point, served 29 of those life sentences,” said the voice, sounding satisfied. Perhaps joyful. “You have 218 more to go. Approximately.”

The silence continued. Then the voice broke it.

“I find that that gives me a deep feeling of satisfaction.”

The silence was next broken by screams.