God, the Machine

by Travis Simpson

Sokol_K_space_suit

Una hears the voice of God in the velvet nothingness of deep space. She tries to tell the others, but the good Reverend Nat Schulz just stares at her with empty eyes.

“This is what we came for,” she says, stepping into the common room, where she and the crew shared meals and arguments and laughter. “You aren’t excited? I don’t even believe in God. But you?”

A red strobe paints his frozen features in rotating scarlet light. She looks into his eyes. She can see herself reflected there, drawing nearer, inches from the portals from which life and intelligence once sparked.

There’s a kitchen knife in her hand. She places it on the table. She sees herself in the polished metal of the blade, in there bare spaces where there is no blood. She moves to the cabinet and retrieves a cutting board and a small bowl. In another cabinet she finds a container of mixed vegetables. She pops the tab and pours the carrots and lettuce and pea pods on the cutting board.

“What are you staring at?” she asks.

Schulz’ clerical collar is dyed red, vibrant against his black cotton shirt, like a solitary eye glowing in the darkness. He does not answer, possibly on account of the 5-inch slash across his jugular, now blackened with old blood. After awhile she shrugs and returns to the vegetable. She speaks to him, down toward him, like a mother to her child.

“Well, I am surprised is all,” she says, pushing the knife through the vegetables. “I am here to make calculations, to study, to help advance the collective knowledge of mankind. You are here to oblige the fucking right wingers back on Earth, and now that we are here, you say nothing.”

She works for a while, rocking the blade up and down, resting the broad side of the knife against her knuckles. There is blood on the knife, mixed with the vegetables. She puts a pot of water on the stove, clicking to life a ring of blue flame underneath. Whatever else happens, she has to eat, right?

When finished, she puts the knife on the counter. She walks to the door. Before she leaves, she turns to him. “Stay there,” she says.

She walks to the bridge, where the massive glass canopy gives her the best view of space, of the rift, of the consciousness that floats in nebulous clouds above their ship, from which the voice of God spoke to her moments before.

universe

She sits in the captain’s chair and ponders the tapestry of blues and gold and glowing light, half expecting a giant eye to come rolling out of the clouds, to fall on her and to see her — that she might be known by the universe itself.

“It won’t talk to you.”

She looks up. Schulz is standing in the entryway, bracing his weight against the wall with one hand. His head rolls to one side, and Una can see straight down the hole in his neck.

“Why not? Is God too busy?”

He hobbles toward her. “Are you trying to mock me? I never said it was God.”

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“I am coming closer.”

“Don’t.”

He pauses. His face is drawn on itself, his eyes swollen in their sockets. Every time he moves, the almost comical farting sound of gas escapes his bloated flesh. “Why not?” He eases against a control panel.

“You have not spoke to me for weeks.”

“I had nothing to say.”

Outside, the nebulous formation sparks like heat lightning, birthing another glowing orb.
Schulz fingers are missing below the first knuckle on his right hand. Una wonders when that happened.

“Did God speak to you too?” she asks.

“Not since I was a boy.”

“What did God say to you?”

“When I struggled with a choice, sometimes I heard him tell me the direction I ought to go. I have not heard God’s voice so clear since I was very young.”

“But you still believe?”

Schulz doesn’t answer. Instead, he touches at his neck, probing his fingers into the wound. “I guess I did until all this. It is a thing that can torment you, to hear God so clearly once and then never again. You wonder if you ever heard anything at all.”

“It,” she motioned toward the entity outside with her eyes, “spoke to me.”

“What did it say?”

“Do you have children?”

“It asked if you have children?”

“No, I’m asking you.”

“Oh. I did. Two girls.”

“You ever look at them, astonished at how much you love them? You stare at them, writhing in your arms, watching their little fists punch and feet kick, and it just doesn’t seem possible to love another being more than you love that child.”

“Yes.”

“That is what it said to me, in not so many words.”

“That it loves you like a child?”

“More or less.”

Una had a theory that the consciousness they discovered on the edge of the galaxy is an ancient AI, drifting, possibly for centuries, through space, at odds with its own programming. Perhaps it was an ancient terraforming device sent to remote corners of space to set creation in motion. But on the bridge with the corpse of the good reverend, a new thought creeps in on her. She sits in silence for eight straight hours. What if it is both?

She notices Schulz is missing. She returns to the common room and finds him sitting where he had died.

“Shifty,” she whispers. He does not move. He stares at her with vacant eyes.

She thinks she should grab the kitchen knife, so she enters the common room and takes it. She watches her reflection in the blade, struck by the beauty of this smaller version of herself, that it should exist at all, that light should refract in this perfect way. Her eyes are cherry-red around the edges, bloodshot. Her hair is a nest, unkempt and matted.

There is a song her husband used to sing to her before the cancer took him, a melody he used to try and comfort her when his diagnosis was bleak. He didn’t believe in God until he got sick, but he never renounced it afterward, not even on his deathbed, when all his prayers went unanswered.

She can’t remember the words, just the melody. She starts to hum. She starts to sing. Her voice echoes down the chamber as she makes her way to the hyperbolic coffins where the rest of the crew sleeps in suspended animation.

She looks at the supine faces through the glass. The whole room is white.

She sings to them.

She opens one of the coffins. Sherrie Gleason, the ship’s engineer. Sherrie Gleason did not hear the voice of God. Una folds Sherrie’s hand across her chest. She runs her finger down the long blue veins that curl around the meat and bones of her limbs. She touches Sherrie on the lips, on the eyes. She lets her thumb rest in the hollow place behind her ears as she tucks a free strand of hair there.

Una puts the knife across her throat.

“What are you doing?”

Schulz again. God didn’t speak to him either. And that is why he is like he is. She just stares at him. She doesn’t want to speak in case he turns her words against her.

She brings the blade down on Sherrie, tip to hilt with a downward motion just above the collar bone. She seesaws the knife back and forth inside. Sherrie Gleason makes no sound. Sherrie is beautiful. One of God’s own children.

“What are you doing?” Schultz says again, his voice calm.

She opens the next chamber. James Haralson. Thinker. Poet. He is scheduled to wake in three days, Una recalls. The physicist was to wake first to begin preparations, then the priest, then the poet, then the rest of the crew. Great minds planned for them to wake up in this staggered way, to give them each the time they needed to do the thing that brought them to the edge of space, where God waited for them.

She thinks if she had woke last she would not have heard the voice of God, that His hand was in that decision over a century ago. And his hand was in all of the systems and events that had to come together for her to be chosen for this mission, for her to go to work at the agency, for her mother and father to copulate their love time and again but for his sperm and her egg to meet at the exact right moment for two cells to divide and divide again until Una Harrington came to exist in a womb and be birthed out of it.

A year ago, when they all climbed into the hyperbolic chambers, she would have, without realizing it, been closing the lid on her own life.

“Are you going to tell me what you are doing?”

“Schulz. Shut up.”

She brings the knife down again. Haralson makes a gurgling sound. Pink, frothy blood bubbles from the puncture wound.

The right wingers back on Earth were convinced there was nothing in space. It was a liberal lie created by the mainstream media. Many of them did not believe there was a mission to space at all.

God is not drifting through deep space.

We never said it was God. But it’s something.

God is not in deep space — fingers now in ears, feet stamping, face reddening.

Yet here she was, now looking down at Emily Shelton, the ship’s cook. Emily Shelton did not hear the voice of God. And so she must die.

#

Couldn’t it just be a creature with an unknown biology? Some mystery of evolution unfolding across eons? It could be an interdimensional being passing through this tiny moment in spacetime, of which she could only catch glimpses from her relative position in the third dimension.

Theoretically possible. Mathematically sound.

Perhaps she did not hear the voice of God.

She looks at it, twirling slowly in the inky blackness outside the canopy. She tries to imagine it extending not just in this moment, but in all moments — forever backward until the it first came to exist, forward until it eventually is destroyed, if such a time exists at all.

Not a God. A living creature. Simple as that.

“You aren’t a god,” she says, and she thinks of blood gurgling in the throats of 17 of her crewmen who did not hear the voice of God. “Unless I touch you with my own hands, you are not God.”

The entity churns onward. What did she expect? Did she want her words to hurt it? To see it diminish in some way? No.

“I have almost figured you out,” she says.

Schulz whispers to her, but he is not present. “It is not God.”

“What if it is not biological?” she says. She puts her hand against the glass, leaving bloody thumbprints behind. “What if it is a machine?”

“It is not God,” Schulz says again.

“Where are you?”

“In the common room, where you left me.”

#

There is nothing she can do to thwart the will of God. If she suddenly jumps three feet to the left, that is God’s plan. If she slides the knife across the necks of her friends, God ushered them to that moment, ushered her there, like Abraham and Isaac, like so many before her whom the Lord defiled for a blood sacrifice. If she brings the blade across her own throat, will it be by her hand or by God’s?

She tests God by making sudden decisions. She ejects all the escape pods on a whim, sends them barreling back to Earth, where they will arrive empty in 200 years. She piles the bodies of her crew in the common room with only a little protest. Emily Shelton did not wish to be moved, and she hollered the whole way until Una took off her head completely with long sawing motions of the kitchen knife.

Again, by the will of God.

She leaves them in the common room, a sock clogging the sink, the water on full blast. She seals the room closed, tells the ship there has been a breach in the hull. The airlock doors on either end of the chamber seal tight with a hiss.

She imagines the room filling with water, their bodies floating inside, spilling whatever blood is still loose inside them free in billowing clouds, a little like the nebulous entity outside the craft. This is the will of God, who moves through all dimensions and put this plan in her life from the moment she was conceived.

No. That’s wrong. She was conceived for this moment. This is why God dreamed her up to begin with.

She walks to the hangar, thinking she might surprise Him once again. She climbs into the small transport craft, which the crew used to travel to nearby planets. She fires up the engines and opens the bay doors.

She wants to touch Him, to feel him between her fingers, to become a part of Him.

The transport ship lurches forward. She feels the Gs pin her to her seat, her stomach tumbling around inside her. When she opens her eyes, the frigate is 300 meters behind her. The entity stretches for thousands of miles before her, sparkling, spinning just slightly, rolling like an incoming thunderstorm back on Earth.

She weeps. She can she herself in the reflection of her canopy, her face a wreck of tears and snot and blood. She screams into the emptiness of space — a wordless cry of worship into the face of God.

He does not answer her. She knows He will if she can touch him, if they can be that close. She accelerates. She can feel the momentum, but there is no indication of movement besides the shrinking frigate behind her, and the growing form ahead of her.

“What are you doing?”

“Shut up, Schulz.”

“It’s not God.”

“Unbelievable.”

“Una, I’ve been trying to tell you from day one, it’s not God.”

“Go to hell.”

Soon, she is surrounded by it. She is laughing, crying. The undulating clouds seem to notice her as they stretch and pulse away, as if her presence is painful in some way.

“Hallelujah,” she whispers. It is a spiritual moment — an entire lifetime of atheistic cynicism falling away in an instant. “Talk to me.”

There is only silence.

She lets the craft drift. She can see Him in all directions. She has lost visual on the frigate, but she doesn’t care. “Talk to me,” she whispers again.

The ship floats for an hour. She kills the engines, kills everything except the things she needs to survive the vacuum. “Please,” she says. “Talk to me.”

A soft glow rises in the distance. She thinks it is an answer, but it dies away before her eyes. She can’t see through Him, it is a thick mucus enveloping her craft. She tries the ignition, but the ship stutters and shakes, and she hears the horrible grinding sound of turbines winding up then winding down.

“Maybe you never heard the voice of God,” Schulz says.

“Then what did I hear?”

“Just you.”

She thinks about this for a long time.

“Schulz.”

“Yes.”

“The silence in space is so immense. There’s no word for it.”

“No. There’s really not.”

Hours pass. She glimpses the frigate through an opening in space. It is 187 years earlier, still on Earth. She is standing before the open doors. Her face is full of hope and optimism. The others are with her, standing in a straight line, as one of the great minds who dreamed of sending men to the entity at the edge of space made a commencement speech to the crowd gathered to watch the launch.

She watches herself board the craft. Watches herself close the lid to her hypersleep chamber. Watches herself snooze for 187 long years. She sees herself wake up first, alone among the others. She watches herself warm her body in the shower, then in blankets, then in clothes suitable for arctic conditions. She watches the priest stir. She remembers this. Exactly this. She watches them argue. Friendly at first but growing more heated. He is slamming his hands on the table as he speaks.

She hates this. So childish. Sometimes she thought he picked an opposing view to her own just to be contrary. They argued over God, him promising her mystery and perfect love, and forgiveness and all the beautiful things he believed, her explaining them away with ease. Then, in the arms of the creator, Schulz, the believer, the man of God, the Pharisee, tells her again and again — that is not God.

Nat Schulz did not hear God. And so he had to die.

She sees herself on the bridge, staring at the entity. She is staring at herself, right into her own eyes. She knows what happens next. She turns from the glass. She goes to Schulz. She begins to open them all like envelopes.

“Don’t,” she whispers. “You love them.”

And there is peace. Warmth. And the sound of oxygen leaving her lungs all at once as she yanks the ejection lever with one quick movement. She remembers the words her husband sang to her centuries ago. Some fine morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away. She sees him in the arms of God. She can see nothing else.
*******

Travis Simpson is an award-winning journalist and columnist living in Arkansas. His work has appeared in Altered Realities, Bull Magazine, The Good Men Project and daily at couriernews.com. Follow him on Twitter @trvsimpson. 

 

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