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Chapter 9, continued
Adapted from "Knocking on Heaven's Door Through the Back End of a Black Hole" by J. Parker.
Tenochtitlan District, Terra Superioris, April 13, 2051
The front door to her apartment slid open as Josephina approached. She ambled across the well-lit corridor and knocked on the neighboring apartment.
A handsome man answered the door.
"Yes, can I help you?
"Oh, um, I'm sorry." Josephina straightened her posture and self-consciously checked her clothes for scattered crumbs. "I'm the new neighbor, I was actually looking for a Danish, uh, I mean Mr. Danish...um, Charles...Charles lives here right? I'm sorry, I actually just woke up, I'm Josephina."
"Alejandro Nahuat, pleased to meet you." He took Josephina by the hand with surprising force. "You must be new to our little world. Charles actually works for us. He's back here fixing something now but he should be about done. Come on in. Welcome, welcome."
Josephina was feeling lightheaded and overwhelmed from calculating the unlikelihood of all possible explanations for her current scenario. Either she was trapped in the longest, most lucid dream conceivable, living in a spiritual purgatory the existence of which she had never believed in, or the experiment had been almost unfathomably successful. If the latter were true, it would seem to indicate the possibilities within the multiverse were so vast that the other explanations were just as likely.
Gathering herself, she eagerly accepted the invitation. Charles had a grounded quality to him that she needed at that moment; she felt like she might float away any second and wind up again in that odd white void that had originally spit her out into this strange new world.
Like the lobby to the building, the Nahuat household was decorated tastefully with Spanish and Mayan-themed decor.
"So what's your story, Miss, uh..."
"It's Mrs., er...Dr. Parker, but Josephina is fine. Um, I don't know, what can I tell you?"
"So what is your background, if I may ask?"
She hesitated, still unsure of Mr. Nahuat's motivations; she wasn't quite sure he could be trusted. Unlike Charles, he and Diplomat Peralta gave Josephina the feeling they were hiding something.
"Quantum theory, mostly."
"Really? That's quite useful."
"Is it? I don't hear that very often. Is it a standing policy here to kidnap researchers? You know the notion of Stockholm syndrome has never really been proven to exist, but it seems like you all are wagering quite a bit on it."
A puzzled look came over Mr. Nahuat's face. "Wow. It's not often I'm totally stumped by someone from Earth. I've been studying both our universes for my entire career, and that's a syndrome I'm not familiar with at all. Sensing the facetiousness in your voice, I'm guessing I've probably just been zinged, but I'm too ignorant to understand how, so congratulations for the apparent double zing, Dr. Parker."
"Just doing my part to be useful to my new benevolent overlords," Josephina snarked while doing a mock curtsy.
"I think you misunderstand your current situation. You must have just arrived, yes?"
"I'm sorry. I forget that I knocked on your door. It's all quite disorienting."
At that moment, a loud metallic clanging could be heard from an unseen corner of the apartment and Charles emerged from a back room with sweat on his brow and a large soldering iron in hand.
"Good to see you again Dr. Parker," Charles said. "Has Mr. Nahuat been interrogating you?"
"No, I'm afraid I'm being a rather rude guest, actually. Good to see you too. It's Mr. Danish, right?"
"Only if you want to make me feel like I'm knocking on death's door demanding an encore. Please, I beg you, call me Charles."
Mr. Nahuat interrupted. "Listen, Mrs. Parker, I'm afraid I have some things to attend to, but we'd love to have you for dinner to welcome you to the neighborhood. Charles, could you please schedule something with Mrs. Parker and let's pick this up later? My apologies."
The patriarch of the apartment grabbed his screen, folded it and slipped it in a jacket pocket as the front door to the hallway slid open before he had even begun his approach. He dashed out toward the open, waiting arms of the elevator and the door to the apartment slid closed behind him.
"Don't worry about him...busy man, that one. Too busy if you ask me, but I think he likes you," Charles said to the closet in front of him as he seemed to organize some odd bunch of fiber optic wires and tools.
"That must make him a terrible judge of character then. Hey, what was all that nonsense you were talking about earlier about me obviously being important here? Oh, and if you want to explain where 'here' is while you're at it, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts on the question."
Charles stepped out of the closet, which shut automatically behind him. He turned to face Josephina and wiped his brow one last time. Apparently on cue, a fan above him spun into action.
"Well, you're clearly from Earth. I'll never forget that initial sense of bewilderment mixed with wonder, but don't worry, you're in a good place. It's not perfect, which surprises a lot of people, but in a way, the faults make it better, more like home. You know, it's like seeing the beauty in a piece of shattered glass, you know what I'm saying?"
"Not really, I'm afraid. Look, a dream or a hallucination is the most logical explanation for what's going on, but I'm much too lucid. It's gone on far too long and it's way too...just real."
"Listen, what's the last thing you remember doing on Earth?"
"It's a long story, but I know where you're going with that and I'm not buying that. Why don't you tell me how you think you got here? Let's start with that."
"That's simple. I had a stroke."
"So that's really the story around here, then? That this is some sort of heaven? There's definitely a lot more bureaucracy here than I would have expected in the sweet hereafter, Charles. So, just tell me, what is it, purgatory? I can't believe I'm actually having this conversation..."
Josephina turned to walk toward the front door. She moved within a foot of the portal. It failed to slide open.
"Or maybe it's a particularly cruel and bureaucratic introduction to hell? That's the real story, right?"
"Seems to depend who you ask, what you believe, what you believed before," Charles grabbed a cup of water from within a glass box sitting on the counter and offered it to her. "But what I can tell you with confidence is that it is a better place, in almost all the ways you can look at objectively. Almost no crime, sickness, suffering, advances in technology, science, ecological balance, even the arts far beyond what we knew on Earth...of course, what do I know, I'm sure things have come a long way in the past few decades back there."
"Wait, decades?" Josephina put the glass back on the counter. "How long have you been here?"
"By my count it's been about 32 years, but sometimes the passing of time gets a little fuzzy for me. What year was it when you, uh...left?"
"2050. What year did you 'leave'?" Josephina found herself making obnoxious air quotes for the second time since her arrival, which made her think she was not taking an appropriately open-minded attitude toward her situation.
"2018. What do you know? Guess I still know how to do math, or space-time hasn't broken down yet. Say, how's the old girl doing? How about the sea levels, that turn out to be hype or what? No climate change here. Did you know that? Geologically, this planet is exactly the same as Earth. You're standing in central Mexico right now, even though nobody here calls us that. It's New Spain to them, but believe me, we're in Mexico City as far as I can tell."
"The last time I was in Mexico City...the real Mexico City, it was nearly impossible to breathe. But the sea levels, craziest thing...they actually fixed it with some sort of algae or something. I can't believe I'm having this conversation."
"No kidding. Wow. And yeah, I had a wife and a daughter. Both still kicking around Washington somewhere as far as I know."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that. Washington isn't the same as it was last time you were there, I'm afraid."
"Yeah, I heard something about that, they moved the whole place offshore or something. I hear bits and pieces of on-Earth news, but it becomes too hard to keep track of both histories...or maybe just a little too sad. I try to let go of as much as I can, embrace this new life here, you'll come to do it yourself. Mr. N and all the others who call themselves native Superiorans, they swear they've been here this whole time, that they were born here, but I tell you what I think; the only explanation that actually makes sense to me, is that they're the really old souls, you know? They've been here so long they've actually forgotten their previous life on Earth, you know? I think that's how it works. Who knows how many of these worlds, how many of these lives we've had, and we just eventually forget the previous one."
Josephina had spent much of her life trying to dispel these sort of myths, searching for the actual truth of reality in the elegant strings and vibrations at the core of the universe, themselves more beautiful than any ancient, anthropomorphic vision of heaven. To think she might have actually ended up in the bubblegum version of reality at the end of it all was in a way her own personal hell, no matter how much this poor old man might seem to love it.
She glared at a stained-glass window across the room; fragments of colored light drifted across the floor. "If I asked a hundred believers on Earth right now what they envisioned the afterlife to be, I can't imagine any of them would tell me that they pictured themselves working as a maintenance supervisor for some rich family with a case of existential amnesia in a Mexico City penthouse. Is this what you always thought heaven would be, Charles? Aren't you supposed to be reunited with your loved ones if that's what this place actually is?"
Charles smiled. The man seemed unflappably satisfied with everything; he certainly was a good advertisement for the place. "Oh, yes, my folks are here and happy. I see them all the time. I will admit, though, that I was expecting my wife to have migrated by now."
"Migrated...what an absurd phrase. You know, most migrants choose where, when and how they migrate. Prisoner or indentured servant seems a little more apt, don't you think?"
Another smile came across the old man's wrinkled face. "It's completely normal to be resistant, of course. Plenty of people are at first. But yes, 'migrant' is a term that makes the most sense from the perspective of the Natives, I suppose. Maybe it's more like being a refugee from death who wins it big in the cosmic asylum lottery."
Josephina sighed in resignation and changed the topic. "What's your wife's story? She must be somewhere down there enjoying some grandchildren for as long as she can, I imagine."
"I'm honestly not sure. Our daughter never seemed like the family-raising type to me, at least not the way I remember it, but of course she was much younger then. As for my wife, Rebecca was always focused on her career. Damn good at what she did, put everything into that academy..."
Charles trailed off, and for the first time a distant and forlorn look took over his face.
"Wait, the academy in Boston? That's where your wife worked? Danish? They said your name is Danish, right? Rebecca Danish is your wife? That can't be...she's my daughter's instructor there...I wouldn't have guessed that she could be your...oh..."
Editor's note: Remember, dear readers, there are no coincidences, just unobserved realities...and condescending editors concerned with advancing a story efficiently. But is it really my fault you're not up to speed on the latest in string-based social theory?
"What? What is it? You know my Bec? It's been so long since there's been a new arrival from the old neighborhood. Some kind of new drugs keeping everyone alive longer? How well do you know her? How is she?"
"Cindy, that's my daughter, she speaks very highly of Mrs. Danish. This explains so much about her...She must have had an age regression done, otherwise she'd have to be over 100 years old, right?"
Josephina seemed to be talking to herself at this point, which began to perturb the unflappable Charles. "Age regression? What the hell are you talking about? That's a new one on me. She had some surgery or something? Is she OK?"
"Wait, you don't know what's making people live longer? The word 'nanobiotics,' does that mean anything to you."
"Uh, it's familiar...I know I've heard that...I should know it..."
Josephina sat down and proceeded to explain the last three decades of nanobiological innovations, bringing Charles up to speed over the course of the hour as he listened intently, asking the occasional clarifying question. At the end of it all he seemed somewhere between confused, hurt and relieved.
At the same time, she could feel that she was also talking herself into acceptance of the fact that perhaps the experiment actually had succeeded. Charles thought he had hit the afterlife jackpot, and she had also hit the jackpot by landing in an analog Earth on her first try. Unless...unless the old guy was actually right and the experiment had failed. Again, she was cut deep by Occam's Razor. This place was filled with people claiming to be from her world. Was it really likely that she was the only one among them to arrive the way she did? Or had she simply arrived early to a party that she was destined for eventually anyhow?
"You know, Jo, uh...Dr. Parker. I think I'd better call it a day." He stood up abruptly and moved to the door. "I thank you very much for getting me caught up. I'll be knocking on your door to set up a date for that dinner with the Nahuats very soon."
The door slid open on cue and Josephina walked through it and back to her empty apartment.
Next up, Josephina's family back on Earth realizes their resurrected wife and mother is not the same person she once was.
'Crowd Control: Heaven Makes a Killing'
reading•'Crowd Control,' part 13: An accidental tourist in a Utopian Mexico
Jul 1•'Crowd Control,' part 22: Spies in heaven
Jun 30•'Crowd Control,' part 21: What comes after the zombie apocalypse
Jun 24•'Crowd Control,' part 20: When the dead fight back
Jun 21•'Crowd Control,' part 19: Reunited, and it feels so not dead anymore