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"Then the Lord God said, 'It is not good for the man to live alone. I will make a suitable companion to help him.'" -- Genesis 2.18

"Uh, hi," said Mike, turning to one side and self-consciously pulling his trousers back up, even though he had nothing to hide. "Back?"

The woman smiled sympathetically. Her voice was sweet and melodious, like that of the unseen and uninteresting conversationalist he had been speaking to for the last ten minutes, even to the point of androgyny. It differed only in that she spoke with more intonation and speed, and in that her voice came from a single source, not from all around. "Yes, back. You are well known here, Michael. You'll remember soon."

"Yeah, so the walls keep telling me. Will you stop calling me Michael, please?" He was loath to berate so lovely a woman, but quite sick of the long form of his name after arguing with the disembodied voice about it.

"It is your name."

"Not you too! Can't you just call me Mike?"

"Well, I can. But it seems silly. When your memory returns, you'll be wanting to be called Michael," she smiled wryly, the quirky expression looking strange on her perfectly symmetrical face.

"There's nothing wrong with my memory," Mike began, hesitating a moment at the woman's placid sympathetic nodding. "There isn't. My name's Mike Renton, I was, until very recently, a programmer with LogicWare, which post I just resigned. My parents'

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names are Janet and John. I got teased for that in school. My girlfriend is Cathy, we met at university because of a room-booking mix-up, she was at..."

Mike stopped, surprised by the next thing he was going to say. The woman nodded again, as though she already knew. "She was at my funeral," he said quietly.

"That's usually the first thing people remember."

"Who are you?"

"My name's Ruth. I'm here to smooth your transition back into ordinary life."

"This doesn't seem like an ordinary life to me," Mike glanced meaningfully at his crotch, then looked back at the woman. Now he thought about it, she was uncommonly flat-chested, and could easily pass for a man if she arranged her hair differently - perhaps tied back into a geekish pony-tail, or hidden under a hat, shame as that would be.

"Ah yes, that," she said, laughing lightly, and proceeding to unbutton her shirt.

Mike blushed, and averted his gaze. "You can't... I mean, I can't... I have a girlfriend."

"Look, Michael," she said, but he already was doing, accidentally, having turned away in the direction of the mirror. Her chest was as smooth and nipple-less as his own. When she realised he was looking, she pulled her pants down as well, far enough that he could see that she also shared his neuter state in that area, then pulled them back up.

"Um," he said, flustered. "Is flashing people that way normal around here?"

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"It's a fairly common demonstration during this transition period. The rest of the time... well, it's just not considered relevant."

"Not relevant?" Mike exclaimed in surprise. "You don't mind having no... well..."

She broke in, "Like I said, it's ordinary."

"You don't look ordinary to me," Mike said. Realising the ambiguity, he added, "by which I mean, you're quite beautiful. Er. That not being a come-on or anything."

She flashed a grin. "I love this job. The naïveté of returning Earthers is more entertaining than Earth itself."

"Calling you beautiful is naïve?"

"We're all beautiful. Look at yourself," she gestured to the mirror.

Mike surveyed his reflection again, imagining what he would think about it if it weren't himself. She was quite right, he was beautiful. Anyone who appreciated an endomorphic figure and high-contrast features couldn't fail to find him so. His body was perfect, but in a sterile characterless sort of way. No scars, no marks, no asymmetry. He smirked at himself finding flaws in perfection, and at his narcissism in considering himself perfection, and the smirk completed the effect - a little asymmetry rendered him truly lovely.

He looked at her again. She was as perfect as him, and of the same type of figure. They were both fairly androgynous of features, but she looked female and he looked male - a lot to do with their differing hair styles, and a little to do with small things; fullness of lips, thickness of eyebrows, and a manner of motion.

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"We may all be beautiful. Still, the fact remains that you are," he said, determinedly. As he spoke, he listened to his own voice - it, too, was smooth and androgynous, with nothing of the slightly breathy whine he knew his voice used to contain before he had apparently died.

"When everyone is beautiful, everyone is ordinary," she said, wistfully. "You'll stop noticing, soon enough."

"Hard to believe," he said, still looking at the arch of her eyebrows against her smooth pale skin. Her eyes, like his, he noticed, lacked any distinct iris - pure black and white. "So is this the afterlife?"

She laughed lightly, "We get asked that so often. It sort of is. And the beforelife. And the betweenlives. It's also life itself. But for the thrust of your question, yes, this is what that book refers to."

"Which book?"

"The religion one," she said, laughing still.

"The Bible? The Qu'ran?"

"Any of them. They all say the same thing, more or less."

It was his turn to laugh. "I always said that they did. The people who read them religiously don't agree."

"People in Earth don't agree about much. That's what makes it such fun."

"So what about Cathy?"

"Cath... Oh, your girlfriend."


"What about her?"

"When will she be here?"

Ruth looked sympathetic. "She may not."

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"Not hell?"

Ruth laughed again. "Don't be so sure you're not going to Hell. Though you haven't any time before."

"So what about Cathy?"

"She might not be real."

"What? She was as real as me!"

"She seemed as real as you. What colour were her eyes?"

"Blue... Maybe sometimes green."

"Light or dark?"

"Kind of middling. What does that have to do with it?"

"Everyone real has dark green eyes. It helps visitors keep track, though there haven't been any clear-mind visitors authorised for 10 kilocycles."

"So what is a person when they are not real?"

"Same as everything else. An abstract, a construct. Entertainment."

"You're saying my girlfriend was just entertainment?" Mike asked, angrily.

"Very few things are anything more," was Ruth's calm reply.

Mike sighed. "This isn't easy to come to terms with. How about, instead of springing things on me when the questions occur to me, you explain just what's what?"

"Okay," Ruth began.

"But first," Mike interrupted, "Can you tell me how long a cycle is, in terms I'll understand?"

"That's trickier than it sounds. When you're in Earth, what is a cycle here feels like a fifth of a year there. You

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were in for 115 cycles, so you probably lived to about... 23 years old?"

"Yeah, thereabouts."

"Right. Whereas when you're here, a cycle feels like approximately the amount of time it takes for 1000 heartbeats."

"The voice told me that was what defines a cycle."

"1000 average person heartbeats is the definition. At the moment, I expect you're pushing 1500 heartbeats in a cycle."

Mike laughed, "Probably. So how many cycles have I been here?"

"About 120. But you probably feel like you've been here for about one cycle."

Mike felt like he'd been there for about 15 minutes.

"What's the voice, by the way?"

"That's God."

Mike searched her face for any hint of a smile. At first, there wasn't one, then the corner of her mouth quirked. "Not God like that. No supreme being, not the creator. At least, not how you're thinking."

"What, then? Wait, don't answer that. Give me a full rundown, what's this, where am I, and why."

"I'll do my best," she began.

"Your name is Michael."

"It's... Hey. My name is Michael. I remember being called it a lot."

"Good, your memories are starting to return. Would you like me to carry on?"


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"Right. Earth is a simulation operated within God."

Michael opened his mouth to interrupt, then changed his mind, and nodded at her to continue.

"Heaven consists of a variable number of us, about 150, who control God. God has been running for about 30 kilocycles."

Michael couldn't resist now, "What is God?"

"Oh, yes, sorry. God is a computer, pretty much."

He laughed. "That's great. I'd hate to be the one to tell that to the Pope."

She smiled whimsically, "He's definitely not real."

Michael grinned, shaking his head in wonder. "That's really perfect. If I could design an afterlife, I'd make it like this."

"If you could design a life, you'd make it like that," she gestured somewhat aimlessly at the headpiece on the wall.

"Would I? All that pain and misery? All that ugliness? This is so much better."

"This is so much more repetitive. As I was saying, God was created to run the Earth simulation... Oh, these are all acronyms, by the way. G.O.D., E.A.R.T.H., and so on."

"Oh man, how contrived is that. It's like a bad sci-fi story. What do they stand for?"

"It's not contrived at all - the only reason the words God and Earth take that form in Earth is because of the acronyms they started out with here. They're Guided Omniscient Dreamer, and Essential Ambience Research and Testing Headset." She gestured at the headpiece again, "The acronym originally referred to the interface

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there, which was supposed to be a temporary deal, but it more often refers to the game itself, now."


"Well, it's sort of a game. Believe me, people love it. It's also a test."

"A test for what?"

"Whether you're suitable to continue working for Heaven, adapting God."

"Continue? I work for Heaven already?" Another flash of memory struck him, "Highly Entertaining And Very Exciting Network, right? Christ, what bozo thought up that stinker?"

"Actually, it was Christ."

Mike snorted. "Okay, add insult to injury - what's Hell?"

She grinned. "Originally, Christ made that up, too. It wasn't even an acronym, it was just a word to be used in Earth to suggest not being in Heaven. It sort of backfired. Lucy - you'll remember her later - when she was told she couldn't work on God for a kilocycle, decided to start work on an alternative, or maybe a replacement. She hasn't come back for nine kilocycles. Seems word of that got to Earth, too. Maybe a memory slipped past God's sweep and came out in someone's subconscious. We have no idea where that fire-and-brimstone bit came in. Might just be God's sense of humour. Maybe someone else's."

"So let me get this straight - life on Earth is a game you play when you get bored. God erases your memory and supplies you with a character..."

"Not quite. God hides your memory from you, and just drops you in. Your character is formed as your own mind would be in the situations presented to you."

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"Isn't the processing power required to run something like this... immense?"

"Power? Oh, you mean how fast God can work things. God really doesn't do all that much."

"But there's all the atoms... An entire universe!"

"Have you seen Mars?"


"What does it look like?"

"Red, dusty..."

"You've actually seen that personally?"

"Well, I've seen pictures taken by the space probes."

She smiled, "A lot of that was your doing. How many real people do you think work on the space programme?"

"I have no idea."

"Zero, is the answer. The whole thing is made up by simulations. Until a few kilocycles ago, the planets and stars were just dots on the sky, aesthetically pleasing and nothing more."

"What? You're saying all the rest of the universe was made... er..." he briefly tussled with the mathematics in his head for a moment, but couldn't remember the relationship between cycles and Earth-dates. "Quite recently?"

"Not really. The rest of the universe was never made at all. It's still just dots on the sky, until you look at it through a telescope. Then it's pretty much what you expect. The expectation thing was Lucy's doing - a great improvement."

"So Mars only exists as a red and dusty place when you're looking at it?"

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"It only exists as a red and dusty place if that's what you expect when you're looking at it."

"So if I decided the moon was made of cheese, it would be? That's crazy."

"It was made of cheese, for a while," Ruth told him dryly. "But you couldn't make it so again. Your childhood in there prepares you to expect all the things you're supposed to expect. It makes for good consistency - and even when you do confuse matters, you still see what you expect, so nothing seems wrong."

"I'd have thought it would be even harder to have God managing little solipsistic universes for everyone, than to just simulate the whole thing properly."

"Well, that's not quite how it works. God just implants direction and expectations, and provides interaction. Other than that, you're on your own."

"I don't..."

"God is only a small part of running Earth. It's mostly run using the player's minds."

Mike frowned. "That seems a little... unethical."

"Nobody is forced to participate. After a few kilocycles of this," she gestured outwards, "you'll be back here demanding another life."

"Okay, one more dumb question. If I understand this right, we don't sleep, here. What was that time between when I died in Earth, and when I woke up here, if it wasn't a dream?"

"You're right - no sleep, no dreams. Actually, the sleep periods in Earth give God an opportunity to rearrange the events since the last sleep, correcting glitches, compressing the memories in your mind into the most efficient format."

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"Compression algorithms in my head?" Mike laughed, "That's great. What sort of an algorithm?"

"Nothing quite so simple. It's done by arranging concepts that are alike so that they overlap. There's no clean formula for it, that's why it takes so long. What there is, you wrote."

"Me? Wow, I can't wait for my memories to return. I want to know what language that was all done in."

"It's not like that," Ruth said, smiling gently. "But you understand it better than I. We should wait for your memories on that one. As for the darkness before you woke - that was my contribution. Without that, people were coming out of Earth distraught and angry, demanding to go back to their loved ones on Earth, and horrified by what they thought of as their loss of gender."

"I thought you were saying people went in Earth for the contrast?"

"There was no contrast for people coming out having lost everything they valued. Some of them tried to kill themselves. We can't, you know."


"No pain, no death."

"What if..." Mike punched a wall, hard enough that it should hurt, but not so hard that he risked breaking anything. It didn't hurt. It felt not much different than if he had punched a cushion, only with less give.

"No pain," Ruth repeated. She stepped forward and punched Mike hard in the face, knocking him flat. It didn't hurt. He stood up, stunned that she would do that, and looked in the mirror to survey the damage. There was none.

"How about..." Mike began, turning back to face Ruth.

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"It heals," Ruth interrupted. "You cut off your head, it heals right up behind the blade. You do it with a guillotine, and leave the blade in the way, you'll heal right through the blade. It still doesn't hurt," she grinned, "though once you did require some help to get the blade out again."

Mike cocked his head in thought for a moment, then ran hard, face first into a wall, falling backwards to the floor. He stood up, laughing. "How can you people not enjoy this?". He bent double, and, bull-like, charged the wall again, with even less hesitation, and much the same effect.

"Enjoy it while you can. You always do this after playing in Earth. You get bored."

Euphoric, Mike charged at Ruth the same way he had charged at the wall. An instant before he reached her, she turned and took half a step, so he flailed past her and tripped on her toes, falling head first to the floor. "Until you regain your memories, you don't stand a chance of hitting me," she pointed out. "We've all had a lot of practice."

"Okay, okay, I can do more of that later. So, what's the pay like in Heaven?"

"There is no pay."

"Why on Earth... I mean... Why the hell... I mean... Well, why does anyone want to work for them then?"

"It's more interesting than doing nothing. Besides, getting to adjust the entertainment," she gestured at the headpiece on the wall again, "to be how you want it, that's a great incentive."

"When do I get to see Nathan and..." Mike hesitated, checking the unfamiliar name. He vaguely recalled that it

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referred to the boss of Heaven, the guy who decides who can work for them and who can't. He blinked a few times, "This memory recovery stuff really sneaks up on you, eh? When do I get to see Nathan and find out whether I'm working for Heaven for the next kilocycle?"

"How about now?" Ruth suggested, opening the door and gesturing him through.

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