Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Playing God

by Ilan Herman


Jack remembered walking through the park after a few after-work beers with his buddies from the plant. He remembered a light so bright that it stung his eyes even when he clamped them shut and covered them with his hands. And then he was walking again, but instead of open sky and irregular, weed-infested turf, there was a tubular corridor with white vibrating walls...

At his side, he found a sinuous blonde who smiled graciously and said her name was Minna. She was tall and well endowed, with sparkling blue eyes, but Jack knew she was a hologram -- some kind of projection, anyway. She was just slightly translucent around the edges, and seemed to radiate light instead of just reflecting it.

Then Minna stopped walking and touched the vibrating walls. The walls parted to show a oval room glowing in soft purple. A dark-brown armchair centered the room. The walls were embedded with dozens of screens showing people in distress.

Jack stood in the doorway. "What's this? I don't like it."

Minna smiled widely. "Please sit in the chair."

Jack took a step back. "No way."

Minna held his hand softly. "No harm will come to you."

She gyrated toward the chair, Jack in tow, fingers sliding in and out of her warm palm. Jack wondered how much technology like that would be worth -- a system that generated three-dimensional objects that felt real. The porn industry would be the first to exploit something like that, of course, unless the military kept it secret.

The walls stopped showing the screens and pulsated sensually in purple and pink. Minna smiled and gestured to the chair, like she was a car model at a convention. "Please sit. I promise it will not bite."

Jack sat in the chair. The soft fabric, like watery silk, curved to embrace his body. He placed his arms on the wide armrests that nestled his arms in warm yet firm liquid, like he was floating in a heavily salted sea. The air smelled of roses. Ocean waves hummed; parrots chirped in a rainforest. His back and shoulders relaxed like after a thorough deep tissue massage. The chair hummed with pleasant vibrations that soothed his neck and buttocks.

"Feels nice," Jack said.

Minna laughed. Her ample bosom shuddered. "You like the chair?"

"I do."

"Good," chirped the Nordic queen. "Now you can be God."

"What?"

The multitude of screens showing people in distress returned to pulsate on the walls. Minna smiled and pointed to the screens. "You can help them. You can be their God."

Jack nervously tried to sit up in the armchair, when he was coddled by soft yet powerful and invisible tentacles that embraced him like a yearning lover. He sank back into the chair and sighed, "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Help them," Minna said and pointed to the screens. Her bright smile had faded, cheekbones subdued but still sharp.

Jack looked up at one of the screens. Men with beards and white gowns were throwing stones at a young woman no older than sixteen.

"What are they doing?" he yelled.

"They are trying to kill her," Minna said. "She gave her virginity to the wrong man."

Jack frowned. "How do they know what she wants?"

Minna shrugged, blue eyes filled with sadness. "They do not. Do you want to stop them from hurting the woman?"

"Yes," he hissed and narrowed his eyes with contempt.

Minna pointed to the screen. "Tell them to stop."

Jeff yelled, "Stop."

One man about to cast a stone froze in his tracks. Then he started shouting and waving his arms, and then lunged at another man who'd thrown a rock at the weeping woman who cowered on the ground, blood trickling from her brow, her face shielded by her arms. Several men then attacked the man who attacked the man who threw the rock. A brawl ensued, with members of rival families trying to kill each other with knives and heavy clubs. While mayhem rumbled, the woman scurried off and found shelter in a brick hut on the village outskirts. The men continued fighting until an elder with a long white beard and a wide gown rushed over and waved his arms and roared, "Cease your fighting." By then four men lay dead and several others, bleeding and unconscious, were dragged into brick huts by their family members. Minna smiled and clapped. "You stopped them from killing the woman."

"Why are you happy?" Jack cried. "Four men died."

"But the woman lived."

"But at what cost?"

The Nordic beauty smiled nervously. "I do not know. You are their God."

Jack wrestled the chair and tried to free his arms from the liquid armrests. "Screw this God crap. I don't want to do this." He struggled mightily but the warm and soothing tentacles held him firmly in the chair.

"Get me out of here," he shouted.

Minna flashed her sunny smile. "I cannot do that."

"What do you mean? You promised the chair won't bite. I got news for you, lady, it bites. Now get me out of here."

"You are their God," Minna said, voice fading while her image vanished slowly and was replaced by a chubby bald man in his fifties, with a short and well-groomed silver beard and thick spectacles.

"What is your problem?" the man asked sternly in a clipped German accent.

"Who are you?" Jack asked.

"I am Siegfried, your psychoanalyst. Why are you afraid of being God?"

"Why?" Jack cried and pointed to the screen that showed the dead men who were no older then eighteen. "Look what I did? I can't be God."

Siegfried's hand swerved like a gentle wave. "Even God makes mistakes. You will need practice. Go back to your childhood. Did you mother breastfeed you?"

"This is bullshit," Jeff yelled and struggled with the invisible tentacles that continued to shackle him to the chair. "I'm not talking to anymore holograms. Get me a real person to talk to, or I'm staying in this chair and starving myself to death."

The screens showing humans in distress vanished from the walls. Siegfried paced the room, hands clasped on the small of his back, and shook his head. "Denying yourself sustenance is clear proof that you want to punish your father for sleeping with your mother." He stopped pacing and frowned at Jack. "Why do you hate your father?"

"I don't hate my father," Jack yelled, a shudder of panic in his voice.

"Then you must eat," said the therapist and snapped his fingers.

A red tray with Jack's favorite meal -- a rack of ribs smothered with barbeque sauce, and mashed potatoes and coleslaw -- appeared from thin air and floated toward him. The tray settled softly in his lap. Steam rose from the food and tickled his nose with a fresh meaty aroma that had him salivating. Confused and angry, Jack nonetheless took a bite. The soft and delicious meat melted in his mouth. The mashed potatoes were cooked with the perfect portions of butter and garlic; the coleslaw was thick and juicy. The human ignored the hologram of the German therapist and devoured the food. When he was finished, the tray floated away. The screens returned to cover the walls. Siegfried gestured toward them with his chin and said, "It is easier to be God on a full stomach."

Jack looked up at the screens. In one of them he saw a dark alley and a black man sitting on the dirty concrete pavement and slumped against a dumpster. Wearing a torn pair of jeans and a stained white T shirt, his braided hair was thick with dusty smog. The man, hands shaking, pulled out a syringe, a spoon, and a bag of white rocks from his underpants. He placed a rock in the spoon, struck a lighter and let the flame heat the bottom of the spoon. The rock melted in a bubbly hiss. The man sucked the liquid into the syringe. He flicked a finger against his arm and found a vein. Hands shaking, he aimed the syringe and was about to puncture his skin, when Jack whispered, "Stop."

The disheveled man looked up and around, searching for the voice. He placed the syringe on the ground. Hands no longer shaking, the ambivalence in his dark eyes was replaced by sadness, like a child seeing a deer lying dead at the side of the road. Tears streamed down the man's wrinkled cheeks. He placed his face in his palms and wept for a long time. Then he stood up. He left the syringe and drugs lying on the ground next to the dumpster and staggered out of the dark alley.

Siegfried clapped his chubby hands and exclaimed, "He will never do heroin again. He has heard the word of God."

"He wasn't doing heroin, he was doing crack, and stop being so happy. The man has no money or job, probably sleeps on the streets," Jack said with a frown, though he was also satisfied that he was able to stir the junky toward sobriety, however tentative. Then he shook his head with dismay: The aliens were trying to suck him into their sordid plan, plying him with an attractive woman, a magical armchair, and delicious food, like he was dog in training, like he was a gambler seduced by casino bosses offering sensory delights. Why were they doing that to him?

Jack narrowed his eyes angrily at the analyst hologram. "I see what you're trying to do. Forget about it. I don't want to play God." He tried to defiantly cross his arms over his chest but the soft tentacles kept his arms anchored to the armrests.

Siegfried pursed his lips. "You will play God and you will like it."

"Screw you," Jack said. "I want to go home. Now beat it and send someone real I can talk to." He shut his eyes for long moments.

####

When he opened his eyes, Siegfried was gone, replaced by a tiny flame much like the one burning the wick of a candle. The flame, about six feet away, circled him slowly and silently.

"Who are you?" Jack asked.

"I am Koy, from planet Zoomar," the flame said in a high-pitched voice. "This is how I look. I am not a hologram."

"Cool," said Jack. "I believe you. You sound like a nice alien, but do something about your voice. It's squeaky. And then get me out of this chair."

"I will release you," the alien said in a soft baritone, "but I would like to convince you to use the chair and help us."

The tentacles let go of Jack's arms. He stood up and paced the room. "One minute I'm watching Seinfeld in my living room, the next I'm in a spaceship. I don't have a problem with that, but," he stopped pacing and frowned at the flame, "some would call what you did kidnapping."

"I apologize," Koy said, voice ringing with sincerity, "but we really need your help."

Jack started pacing again. "How can I, a puny human, help you, a clearly superior extraterrestrial?"

The flame shimmered for a moment and then said, "We, the scientists of Zoomar, do not know how to fix mankind."

"Why do you care about mankind? We're pretty hopeless."

"We created you," Koy said slowly, deep sadness in his voice.

Jack stopped pacing. "Say what?"

Koy explained that planet earth was used as a Petri dish to sprout the seeds of life planted by Zoomarian scientists, an genetically engineered experiment that had gone terribly wrong. "We have created a vicious creature who kills and consumes without care. We need humans to change, to evolve, or we will have no choice but to exterminate the human race. We dread this outcome with every fiber of our enlightenment, but we have lost control. Nothing we do changes human nature." Koy's voice shook with frustration.

"Easy does it, buddy," Jack said. "There's no crying in genetic engineering."

The flame expanded. "What you just said is a perfect example of my inability to understand humans. What you just said makes no sense at all."

"Sure it does," the human said. "It's a take on Tom Hanks saying, 'There's no crying in baseball.' That's from the movie A League of Their Own."

If the flame had fists it could clench and raise to the heavens, it would surely do so while cussing loudly. Instead, Koy said, voice cracking with tears. "That is why we need you and others like you, smart human beings who understand the subtlety and nuance of culture and language...."

"You have other people you talk to?" Jack interrupted. He pointed to the armchair. "Others you have sit in chairs and watch videos?"

"Yes. Hundreds."

"Hundreds? How come no one knows about you? How do you keep it a secret?"

"Once someone leaves the ship his memory of his time here is erased."

"And you ask those people to play God?"

"Yes, and some of them are very insightful and helpful." The flame shimmered. "They understand what to do, how to curb the violence."

"And if I say no, will you let me go?"

"Of course," Koy said. "What good would it serve us to keep you against your will?"

Jack pointed to the armchair. "If I sit in the chair now, will I be able to get up anytime I want to?"

"Yes," the flame whispered, exasperated.

Jack sat in the brown armchair and was surrounded by warm comfort. Then he stood up. The tentacles didn't try to stop him. Deep in thought, he paced the room while the flame silently looked on.

"Why didn't you show up first, instead of Minna or that silly therapist?" Jack asked.

"You are a man, so we wanted to entice you with a attractive woman, and when that failed, we opted for an authoritative figure."

Jack chuckled. "Minna was hot, but I like real women. And that Freud impersonator was whacky, not convincing at all."

A sigh fluttered the flame. "I trust that you now see that we have lost our capacity to understand what human beings like and want, why they behave the way they behave."

Jeff shrugged. "Welcome to parenthood. You raise a kid, think you know them, then they turn thirteen and it's like you have no idea who they are. Sad but true."

Silent camaraderie ensued for a moment, and then Koy said, "Would you like to meet Matilda?"

"Who's she?"

A proud parent crept into Koy's voice. "She is one of our best emotional translators."

Jack laughed. "Emotional translator? A cumbersome title, but I like it. Sure, I'll be happy to meet Matilda."

Flame and man left the oval room and proceeded down the white corridor with the liquid walls, until the flame stopped. The walls parted to show a room much like the one Jack was first welcomed to, except the walls were light-green. The room was centered by a black armchair. A diminutive woman sat in the chair. About seventy years old, her white hair was well groomed and puffed up with hairspray. She had a wide forehead plowed with wrinkles, a slight hooknose, thin lips dabbed with red lipstick, and blue eyes that twinkled with a child's curiosity. Her bony left forefinger, manicured and stained with pink nail polish, pointed rapidly from one screen to the next, while she said, "No, you cannot do this," to one screen, and then "Yes. Do it," to the next. She spoke with a British accent, one viewers find dignified and colorful when watching PBS Mystery Theatre. Because she worked swiftly, the people in distress showing on the screens were quickly replaced by more people in distress. She ignored Jack and Koy who stood in the doorway. They watched in silence while the old woman worked and seldom took more than a few seconds to make a decision.

Matilda then waved her arm. The screens vanished into the walls. She reached into her purse, which was propped against the armchair, and took out a pack of cigarettes. She lit one and then smiled at the guests. "Hello Koy. And who might be the dashing young man you've brought to meet me?"

"Jack Straw," said Jack and saluted.

Matilda smiled. "How old are you and what do you do for a living?"

"Forty two, Madam, and I'm a software engineer."

Her eyes widened as she formed her lips in a circle. "Quite the title. Are you married and do you have children?"

"No on both accounts. I guess I have intimacy issues."

Matilda had a deep laugh riddled with decades of smoking. "Some solitary people are more loving than ones with mates and children. Not all is what it seems."

"You should know," Jack said and pointed to the walls. "How long you been doing this?"

"Five years."

Jack whistled. "How do you last? So much misery and craziness."

"Quite simple," said the crusty dame. "I have three daughters and one son, and eleven grandchildren and four great grandchildren. I'm trying to save them."

Then Matilda looked at Koy's flame and asked, "Why did you choose him?"

The flame shimmered. "He thinks very quickly."

"Maybe he does, but is he compassionate?"

"When he finds spiders in his apartment he traps them in a cup and releases them in his backyard. He takes care to step over a column of ants. Even though he doesn't have children, he donates money to foundations that help orphans in Africa."

"How do you know all that?" Jack cried. "How long have you been spying on me?"

"We are always in search of emotional translators," Koy said. "We mean no disrespect to your privacy. We make sure to never watch when you are taking a shower or using the bathroom, and we empathically cease our surveillance when you entertain female company."

Jack frowned. "Thanks a lot. You guys are a pushy bunch of aliens."

The flame contracted. "We offer our sincere apology. We mean no harm."

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions," said Jack. "I think your failed experiment proves that."

Matilda put out her cigarette and chuckled. "The experiment isn't a failure yet, though it is teetering over the abyss. Koy and his fellow scientists can be as ambivalent and insensitive as humans, but they have no malice. Have you considered why you want to play God?"

"I'm not sure that I do," Jack said. "I saved a woman from being stoned, but that resulted in four men getting killed. I don't think I'm good at playing God. Besides, I don't have the temperament. I'll probably start hating people real quick."

Matilda nodded. "Legitimate concerns no one but you can consider. Perhaps a few days as a trial period will help you decide."

"At least the food here is good," Jack said.

Matilda laughed. "That it is." Then she narrowed her blue eyes. "You should try out. After all, what could be more novel than saving the human race?"

"But what if I keep making mistakes?"

Matilda shrugged. "Playing God is like riding a bike. You'll fall and scrape your knee, but then you'll get up, dust yourself off, and get back on the bike. You get better at it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must get back to work. Come visit with me tomorrow if you decide to stay. I like you."

Matilda waved her right arm. The screens came alive on the walls.

####

Jack and Koy left the light-green room that was swallowed by the white walls. They proceeded down the hallway when Koy said, "If you wish, you can try working an hour or two a day, so not to be overwhelmed. That way you can maintain your life on earth. The daily molecular transport is easy and harmless."

"I like that option," Jack said, perhaps somewhat empowered to try to save humanity.

They arrived at the room with the brown armchair. Jack sat in the chair, stretched his legs, and said, "Comfy." Then he looked at Koy's flame. "How about one screen at a time, instead of a whole bunch?"

"Of course," said the alien scientist, voice filled with gratitude.

Jack shook his head. "You guys are clueless about humans. You got in way over your head."

"Zoomarians do not have heads," Koy said.

Jack rolled his eyes. "It's a figure of speech," and then waved his arm. "Never mind. Come back in an hour."

The walls parted to allow the flame to leave the room. Jack rubbed his palms, his heart beating quickly with nerves. Then he took a deep breath and looked up at the screen.

Raising clouds of dust, a jeep rumbles across the Kenyan savannah. The driver is a young black man. Two white men dressed in khaki and wielding hunting rifles sit in the back.

"Over there," one of them shouts and points to the herd of elephants. He has a thin moustache and icy-blue eyes.

The jeep veers right toward the large beasts. The elephants see the jeep and start to run, but are too slow. The jeep gains on the herd. The man with the thin moustache places the rifle against his shoulder and shouts, "I'm gettin' the big one on the left."

The herd rumble grows louder and closer. Warning cries trumpet from their trunks. The jeep closes in on the large elephant leading the herd, his tusks long and sharp. The man shuts his left eye and aims. His finger caresses the trigger. He's about to pull the trigger when his arms start to shake. The bewildered look in his blue eyes overtakes the steely confidence.

"Shoot the bloody thing," the other man yells. "What are you waiting for?"

The hunter swallows nervously. "I can't."

"What do you mean you can't, you bastard. We paid fifty grand to shoot an elephant."

The hunter with the thin moustache raises his rifle to the sky and lets go with a round that sails over the herd. The second hunter aims his rifle at the large elephant, when his arms start to shake. He points his rifle at the ground and unloads his bullets. The herd moves on. The hunters remain seated in the back of the jeep, arms dangling to their sides.

"What happened?" the blue-eyed one finally mutters.

"Hell if I know," the other hunter says, "but suddenly I don't wanna kill an elephant."

The man with the thin mustache nods. "Neither do I. Let's go back to camp and get drunk. Why did we want to kill an elephant anyway?"

"I have no idea, but I'll drink to that."

Sitting in his brown armchair in the oval room pulsating in soft purple, Jack raised his arms in triumph and cried, "I saved an elephant!"

Then he sighed, and signaled for the screens to display another critical situation. To reach Matilda's skill level, if he could do it at all, would require a long and arduous journey --but he had taken the first step.

THE END


© 2009 Ilan Herman

Bio: Ilan Herman is "a musical producer with a passion for writing fiction". Ilan's novel The Gravedigger will be published by Casperian Books in the fall of 2010. Publishing house An Honest Lie will include Ilan's short story "Dilemma" in their 2009 anthology. Online literary magazine Ten Tons of Black Ink has published an excerpt from Ilan's novel Chan Kim. Ilan's work has also appeared in Miranda Literary Magazine, The Write Place at the Write Time, Planet Magazine, Freedom Journal, Loquacious Placemat, and Cantaraville. To read more of Ilanís work, please visit ilan herman at scribd.

E-mail: Ilan Herman

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