by Graham Storrs
part 1 of 2
My head was spinning. Already I despised myself. I threw the skyball down and staggered back from it. It hit the ground with a solid thud and lay still. For a moment I felt a surge of panic. What if I’d broken it? Then what would I do? But I knew it would be OK. The damned things were indestructible.
As the familiar euphoria flooded me, a part of my mind still called me a weakling and a fool but that couldn’t be me talking. God, I loved that ball! I felt great! Everything was spinning and my head was floating, opening up to the Universe. I heard the Voices, the beautiful chanting, and joy filled my soul. I didn’t want this. I didn’t want the ecstasy and the glorious light but, as I drifted out of myself towards Heaven, I opened my arms to embrace rapture once more.
I woke up on my office floor. My body ached and trembled. I clutched my desk and climbed to my feet. I didn’t quite make it all the way and ended up slumped against the chair.
Involuntarily, my eyes sought the skyball and my hand grabbed it and pulled it to me. Despite what I knew, I felt a rush of relief to have it safe again. I’d been weak again. I’d used the ball. I hated myself for that and yet I clutched the ball to my chest as if my life depended on it.
“You’re awake then?”
It was a young woman’s voice, tentative and needy. It made me jump and push back against the chair. “Jesus, Lins, you scared me. How long have you been there?”
“Oh, you know.”
I looked at her, carefully getting to my feet. She was a scrawny little thing in a short cotton dress and no shoes. She looked grimy, as if she hadn’t washed for weeks. Pretty, in a gaunt, hollow-eyed kind of way. I thought she’d been one of Professor Leitner’s students before he Ascended, but I wasn’t sure. People just wandered onto the campus these days. Like people had just wandered off it.
“You said not to commune with the Gods anymore.” She looked at me accusingly.
“Did you stop?” I asked, curious.
She shook her head.
“You should,” I told her. I was hungry. How long was it since I’d last eaten? “Come on, I need to walk this off, clear my head.”
She understood and padded along after me as I walked down the empty corridors and out through the big entrance hall. As usual the campus was almost deserted. Algal scum had grown over the ornamental water features. An abandoned car was rusting among the weeds on the quad.
I wasn’t sure what time it was. It took longer each time for the disorientation to pass. “Is there anywhere still doing food?”
She took the lead, stepping over broken paving stones, taking us out onto the streets and toward what had once been a shopping mall. Under the shelter of the mall’s gigantic awning, a soup kitchen was doing a brisk trade among the quiet people who gathered around it. We joined a queue and shuffled forward.
“Doctor Lyle, Lins! How are you doing?” The guy doling out soup and bread looked familiar, but I was having trouble putting names to faces these days. “Still kicking against the world’s salvation?” he asked, cheerily.
He turned to Lins. “How come you hooked up with this joker? You know he wants us all to go back to the bad old days before the Salvator came?”
Lins gave a faint, polite smile. I frowned at him. “Do you know me?”
Grinning, he handed me my food. “Sure! I took your course in tensor calculus a few years ago. You maybe don’t remember me. When the Salvator came, I did the smart thing and dumped all that science stuff. I joined the Church. One of the first recruits!”
Hearing the pride in his voice, anger suddenly welled up in me but I fought it down. I had questions I needed to ask. “How come you Church types are not—” Not what? Shambling wrecks? Spaced-out derelicts slowly losing their minds, their intellects rotting away, their lives ebbing, waning, fading out? “How come you’re not like us?”
He laughed. Laughed! It was a sound I hadn’t heard in ages. “The Church looks after us, so we can look after you.”
“Yes, I can see that, but how do they look after you? You use the skyball don’t you?”
That took the smile off his face. “’Course I do! You think I don’t accept the Salvator’s Gift? You think I’m some kind of anti-salvationist like you?”
I met his irritation with more of my own. “Then what keeps your mind together? What stops you drifting down like all these people?” I waved a hand at the crowd around us. Although I’d been holding up the queue, no-one had complained, no-one even seemed to pay it much attention. If the stall were to shut up there and then, people would just drift away, accepting their fate. I’d seen it happen.
“Faith, brother,” he said, smugly. “Faith in the Good Gods and the Salvator who is their Messenger.”
I glared into his complacent eyes for a long while then turned and left him. He didn’t know anything. Nobody knew anything. It was pointless looking for answers among people. Only the Gods had the answers. Only They could tell me why They were doing this to us.
And They weren’t answering my calls. Not yet anyway.
I realised Lins was following me still, and I stopped to look at her. “I’m going to talk to the Gods, Lins. Do you want to come?” She looked up at me, a little, anxious frown on her face. “Don’t worry,” I assured her. “They never listen.”
She brought her skyball out from a pocket in her dress and held it up. But I shook my head and put my hand on hers, pushing it gently down again. “That’s not what I meant.”
They said — in the days when there were still newspapers and websites — that every person on Earth had been given their own individual skyball. They said the Salvator made them just pour out of the empty air into silos and cargo ships so we could distribute them around the world. Billions upon billions of them. By then the hysteria about our wonderful Visitor was at fever pitch and people were ‘converting’ to the new religion in mass rallies all around the globe.
To have this god-like being among us, to have it tell us we were saved, that our sins were forgiven, that the Kingdom of Heaven really was ours for the asking, unleashed a flood of pent-up need everywhere. And when people discovered that the skyballs gave them direct and irrefutable experience of the Gods themselves, there were no more questions asked, no more doubts expressed, nothing but acceptance and devotion.
Except from people like me. Anti-salvationists. Dumb jerks who could look the gift horse in the mouth and ask it for its credentials. When I got my skyball, I tried to take it apart to see how it worked but I couldn’t get inside.
I saw my friends, my neighbours, my own wife, Mary, taking hit after hit from the damned things, zoned out for hours while they had profound religious experiences, and every day growing more and more listless, careless, tired and vague.
Their bodies grew thinner as they forgot to eat, dirtier as they neglected themselves. Their wits grew duller — to the point where colleagues whose minds I had admired and respected talked only in platitudes, accepted anything they were told without analysis, and could no longer understand half of what I said to them. Eventually, most would wander off. Just disappear.
The skyballs were addictive. That was obvious from the start. But it was years before people started dying in great numbers. People got to the point where they couldn’t move, couldn’t feed themselves, they just kept using the skyball to keep themselves high until they didn’t have the strength to lift one any more. They’d lie where they fell and let themselves die. People called it ‘Ascending’.
I wouldn’t use mine. I kept it in the physics lab and worked on understanding it. No-one minded me using any equipment I liked. No-one else wanted it.
It was about a year ago that Mary Ascended. For months I’d been trying to stop her. I’d hide her skyball, but she’d always find herself another. I pleaded with her and begged. She had been a psychiatrist. She knew full well what she was doing to herself — at least in the beginning, but she couldn’t stop. She wouldn’t stop.
She told me it was something wonderful. She told me the Gods were good. She said it was all part of the plan, that she was on her way to eternal bliss. From the outside, I could only see it as the sad rationalisations of a junkie who needed her fix at all costs.
Copyright © 2009 by Graham Storrs