The First Going
Posted: 04 April 2005
Word Count: 2660
Summary: Almost to heaven and back
The First Going
"…..so we kill you, but not for too long." She paused, smiling sweetly, sensing a deathly hush descending upon the lecture theatre, which was now charged with reticence rather than the positive enthusiasm which had prevailed until now. "Then we bring you back to life again."
The silence was complete. Thirty volunteers, both men and women, held their breath and nervously looked at each other. Professor John Chalmers, who shared the podium with his colleague, Professor Molly Wilson, spoke into the silence. "You are all free to go if you decide that you don't want to be a part of this experiment. But remember you did sign confidentiality agreements."
Breathing gradually resumed, then self-examination replaced feigned
interest. One, two, three, then 29 moved, without wanting to appear ungrateful, to the exit doors and left as quickly as possible.
Chalmers and Wilson looked out over the auditorium at a tall, broad shouldered blond-haired young man, who sat resolutely staring back.
"Just you then Greg," said Chalmers, the element of relief ringing in the words was not lost on Greg.
Greg looked around. "Yep," he said. "I guess."
"And you're sure you want to go through with it?" asked Molly. She rubbed at the bridge of her thin nose, her blue-green eyes searching Greg's face for any sign of fear. He appeared to be calm, which was more than could be said for her. She was motherly looking and had a motherly concern for all the volunteers.
"I've done it all, cold germs, flu bugs, sleep deprivation, too much sleep, white noise, black noise and sperm donation," said Greg, listing off his previous incarnations as a fully paid up human guinea pig. "What's death?"
"That's the spirit," shouted Chalmers. "What indeed? I told you Molly, there would always be one."
Molly nodded, absently, her mind on the probabilities. It had worked with the mice and rats, the dogs had been problematic but the two
Gorilla's were still swinging around their cage. But none of them had been capable of recounting what they had seen, and it would be nice to know.
They walked down form the stage and sat on either side of Greg. He had the feeling that they were worried that he might run off and join the others. There were one or two things he had to confirm before he signed the Disclaimer that John Chalmers held out to him.
"My student loans will be paid off and I'll get a cut of the book and film rights won't I?" said Greg, holding the pen poised over the paper.
Chalmers smiled. His handsome face, dominated by thick lips and a bright clean smile, lit up. "Confirmed. This is not only an experiment to prove the existence of the afterlife, which has been mine and Molly's life work, but it is also our meal ticket." He was eccentric, honest, and an expert in chryology.
"Did the Pope really give his blessing?" asked Greg.
"Not blessing, not in so many Hail Mary's. He and the other
leaders of the world’s religions have a vested interest shall we say, one that their representatives have shown an interest in and their bosses might want to become involved with, depending on what we," Molly corrected herself. "You, find."
"And I get one last night?"
"Yes, the experiment…"
"Your death, is scheduled for ten tomorrow morning, your resurrection for eleven," said Chalmers.
"Now we've got to fill in this other form. Full name. Date of birth. Next of kin," said Molly.
"Gregory James Meadows. Twenty, twelve, ninety nine. Prunella Meadows."
"Wasn't your dad the robotics billionaire, killed when he swerved to avoid a bull and a cow copulating in the middle of the road?" asked Chalmers, excited.
"That was him."
"Why did you need student loans?" asked Chalmers. He ignored the possibility of Greg being affronted by this line of questioning.
"He wanted me to stand on my own two feet. I don't inherit until I'm
thirty, in seven years time, so I thought I'd show him I could do it without his money."
"But he's dead," said Chalmers stating the obvious.
"He's watching," said Greg. Molly wondered if the counselling had been as thorough as it might have been, but Greg was now the only volunteer left.
Greg breathed deeply. "What do I get on my last night?"
"That's up to you," said Mary, knowing what was coming.
They put the alcohol and women down as out-of-pocket expenses. The following morning Greg woke up at five, wondered whether to relive the night before with the two women who shared his bed, thought better of it, had a shower, and went looking for Chalmers and Wilson.
They were in the death suite, a room decorated like a five star hotel, soft furnishings, subtle shades, and soulless. The only good thing was Neil Young, Greg's favourite musician, playing softly in the background.
Greg lay on the bed as Molly took him through the procedure. Basically, lie back, hold out your arm, and we'll do the rest. Preparing his mind for death, as far as could be reasonably foreseen, (which wasn't very far), had already been undertaken.
A whole series of wires, with pads on one end, lay ready to be attached to his body. They ran away into the monitor room next door. One-way mirrors lined the walls, behind which banks of seating rose up like a football stadium. Watching a dead man for 60 minutes was not intended to be a thrilling spectator sport for learned persons from around the world, although if Greg did come back from the dead he could expect a standing ovation.
At nine o'clock the electrodes were fitted and the technicians left the room. In the next hour the room temperature was lowered to zero. Molly took a syringe from Chalmers and injected a clear liquid into Greg's right arm.
He felt a numbness spread through his body then saw darkness racing towards him. Fascination turned to fear only when the darkness was complete. He was still aware of himself but life had ceased.
In the control room his vital signs, so strong prior to the injection, hit a flat line and stayed there. Chalmers stood at the lectern set up on
the roof of the death suite and stared out at the audience of gathered academics and research scientists, a cross-section of religious leader's representatives, media, medical and scientific experts.
"He's dead," said Chalmers gravely. Shock and alarm met his statement. "No he's controlled dead, not dead, dead." He clarified quickly. "We revive him in an hour."
The immediate concern subsided and was replaced by a tenseness that rivalled that in Mission Control Houston when Apollo 13 re-entered the atmosphere following it's interrupted mission. Somebody started praying which set off a number of rosaries clicking into the silence.
Sixty minutes is a long time dead, especially when the cynics amongst the spectators began to voice their opinions that Greg wouldn't make it back. They were wrong. He did.
Molly joined Chalmers for the countdown to Greg's return. Slightly
embarrassed by the razzamatazz, they watched the graphic countdown from ten to one on the giant monitor screen above their heads, which up until now had shown flat lines on heartbeat, respiration and blood pressure, brain activity and a myriad other vital signs that weren’t there.
Zero came with the ringing of a Buddhist bell, they were covering all bases. Greg's bodily functions started up on time. He got a standing ovation and Molly and Chalmers got a roar of approval. Molly, tears in her eyes kissed Chalmers full on the mouth. They walked quickly to the re-named ‘rebirth suite’ and helped Greg to revive.
Chalmers and Wilson had debated long and hard as to whether Greg should be debriefed before the press and their contemporaries. They had opted for a private recollection of death, with the promise of fully detailed handouts as soon as texts could be transcribed. Their reticence probably saved their reputations.
During a battery of tests he didn't speak, but two hours later the dam burst and his description of the afterlife spilled out.
“I died, I really died. I entered a void, a black nothingness. It wasn't frightening and it wasn't comforting. It was just like a limitless vacuum.
Suddenly nothingness became a very solid something. I materialised in amongst a group of people walking along what appeared to be a dusty incline. I got lifted off my feet turned to face the upward path and trudged along with all the others.
We were walking up a pathway. It ran around an inverted cone, like a volcano, but smooth-sided, with no crater. This walking went on for a long time until we came out on to a flat section where we could walk eight abreast. In the distance I saw a small town and as we drew closer, billboards began to appear at the side of the road.
The billboards were advertising cafes and stopovers in a town called Last Stop. I turned to the thin gangly youth who had been walking alongside me most of the way up.
"What's this place?"
The youth stared dumbly at me.
"Greg Meadows," I said, holding out my hand. "Pleased to meet you."
"Mike Thomas. Likewise. Do you really mean you weren't listening when we came through the tunnel?"
"At the beginning of the path. All soft lights and sombre voices telling you about death." Thomas’s face creased, a strained enquiry, then a light switched on deep inside his recently dead, and as far as he was concerned too soon dead, mind. "No, hang about, you're a bouncer."
"No, I'm a student."
"Were. You're a bouncer. Dead before your time."
"You could say that."
"I did and you are. Those who die out of time crash on to the Pearly Gate Freeway all over the place. They told us to watch out for people like you."
"You don't understand. I'm not really dead. I'm going back."
"Yeah," he said. "Me too!" Thomas said nothing else all the way into Last Stop.
"Any angels?" asked Chalmers as Greg stopped for breath and a sip of water.
"I'll come to them. Anyway, we got to the outskirts of town. It was a bit Spanish looking, two storey, dusty, whitewash everywhere. I followed the
signs to Greasy Eddies, the café with the largest billboards. It was down a side turning at the end of an alley. From the outside it looked like any
other greasy spoon café, then you walk through the front doors, and wow, serious chrome and glass, beautiful receptionists. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven." He had to take a break to recover from a fit of giggles. He didn't notice the sceptical looks passing between Chalmers and Molly.
"So, I go up to reception and they ask me my name and date of death. They can't find me on their database. Can you believe it? They've got a record of everybody's death. Their computer is linked to the one inside the Pearly Gates. That's the joke, see. I'm dead, but not in heaven. Last Stop is a stopover for souls who are waiting to be called to the Gates.
The receptionist, confused and concerned that I didn't even register as a bouncer, asked me where I would like to wait. In the seascape, the cityscape, the countryscape. There are these huge areas which mirror places on earth to the last detail where people can wait and reorientate themselves to death.
Last Stop is like a benign transit camp, holding the souls before they're
processed at the Gate. They're having to redevelop the processing system at the Gate because of the population explosion. Gone are the days of a one-to-one with St Peter.
I went to the seascape. Beautiful. Just like Malibu before the film stars arrived. Salty tang in the air, blue skies, surfers in the water, and grit between your teeth from the sand in your sandwiches. I thought I'd been there a month when this little guy, wizzened face, wearing a ten gallon hat and carrying a lime green air bed said I had to go with him to the office. So I follow him out of the illusion, up some stairs and into a normal, untidy office, the smell of coffee on the go. Guess who was there?'
"This isn't funny," said Molly.
"What's not funny?" asked Greg and Chalmers in unison.
"This, this story!" She had got herself into a bit of a state. Death had not conformed to her preconception, which was hardly Greg's fault. He was relaying it as he had seen it.
"It's not a story. It's the truth," said Greg.
"But it's unusual," she said, realising how weak that sounded.
"Of course it's unusual to you. You weren't there."
"But it sounds like some piece of science fiction. How are we going to tell the world?"
"That's not my problem," said Greg. "So, I get dragged up to the office and there is this Greek-looking guy there. He's Greasy Eddie, the founder of the cafe, been there for aeons, forgotten by the Gate men or doing such a good job that they leave him alone. The little guy's called ‘Diss’, for disbeliever. I know your not going to like it but he's like an angel, a guru-type guy who looks out for the planet. And the other person in the room is none other than my dad, Garston Meadows, former billionaire. He hugged me and I hugged him back. Diss told me that the old man was a hero, he stopped the Pearly Gate Freeway, Last Stop by-pass, from demolishing Greasy Eddies. The devil was behind the scam but the old man outfoxed him. Makes you proud to be a Meadows.
But they were concerned, big time. They knew I was a different kind of bouncer, a rogue soul, and that I was known to the authorities. THE AUTHORITIES. The angels turned up and interrogated me."
"Interrogated you?" said Chalmers. "Torture? The full monty?"
"No, just scrubbed clean my mind. They were a bit upset that I didn't know all the details about how you did it, especially the anticipated resurrection. There's only been one of those before, apparently. And I'm to be the second, and last. Never to be repeated. So sayeth St Peter."
"Under threat of death?" said Chalmers watching the book and film deal sailing into the distance.
"Under the threat of living out eternity in Last Stop. Neither here nor there."
"What's it like in Last Stop?" asked Chalmers calculating the odds of
living a full rich life, then an eternity in limbo.
Molly stared at him incredulously. "You're not thinking of carrying on?"
"Because…because, St Peter says we shouldn't"
"We're scientists. We don't believe in religious claptrap. Do we?" He had made up his mind.
Molly turned to Greg. "It was St Peter and nobody higher up that suggested we stop?" She was warming to the idea of carrying on.
Greg nodded. "If it's any use, I'll go back."
"No," said Chalmers. "We need corroboration."
"You don't believe me?"
"It's not that love," said Molly, who had her doubts.
"Your description, it's a bit like a bad acid trip," said Chalmers
It was Molly's turn to nod. "We've got to convince the crowd out there and the Pope and all the others. I think I'll go, this afternoon, after all our guests have gone."
Just then a small man wearing a ten gallon hat and carrying a lime green air bed entered the rebirth suite. He acknowledged Greg, stood his
air bed in the corner and sat at the small conference table in the corner.
He beckoned Molly and Chalmers over and invited them to sit down.
"If I were you," he said, in a soft, melodic voice. "I would stop while you're ahead."
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