Copyright© Connard Wellingham 2007
Warning. I'm not in a good mood. This story is an antidote to all the feel-good second chance stories that are around just now. It is bitter and cynical and some may find it offensive. DO NOT write and tell me if you find it so. You have been warned!
The voice was deep and resonant and slightly mechanical, as if it wasn't entirely human.
"Geoffrey Alan Carver," it said.
I opened my eyes to... nothingness. It wasn't grey, it wasn't white, it wasn't black, or blue or green or pink or any other colour; it was... nothing. There wasn't an up or a down or a left or a right or a North or a South; there was... nothing. There was no heat or cold or pain or pleasure or any other sensation. I felt neither hunger nor thirst and no aches and pains, and for that, at least, I was grateful. In fact I felt... nothing.
I knew I was dead. I had known I was dying before it happened. I had had a moment's awareness and opened my eyes to see my son and daughter being comforted by their respective spouses. I could not see my wife but she may have been on the other side of the bed and I was too weak to turn my head so I gave her the benefit of the doubt.
I looked at my grown-up children, standing at my bedside looking so concerned, and my heart filled with love and pride. They had turned out all right, despite my parenting. They were bright and energetic and kind and generous and pleasant and gregarious and seemed to have neither inherited nor acquired any of my character flaws. For that I was exceedingly grateful. I wanted to tell them not to worry; that I was fine and my torment would soon be over and they should file me under 'Memories: Dad' and get on with their lives, but my mouth was refusing to respond to my brain. It was probably all these damned drugs the damned doctors kept pumping into me. I should be grateful. The drugs had at least kept the worst of the pain at bay and the doctors had done their best.
I felt a pinpoint of blackness start somewhere deep inside like a black hole. It expanded rapidly and I knew my time was close. I don't know how I did but I did. The thought that I would soon be dead filled me with a mixture of relief and regret: relief that the long months of pain and suffering would soon be over and my family could at last get on with the lives they had put on hold when my illness had been diagnosed as fatal, and regret for all the things I could have done with my life but didn't; for all the experiences I could have had but hadn't and for all the good I could have done but didn't. I tried to stretch out my hand and feel the comfort of their touch one last time. Memorable dying speeches were beyond me but I tried to croak out one final goodbye. I have no idea if I succeeded for the ultimate darkness swept up from behind me and engulfed me in its deep, silent, eternal, black cloak.
"Geoffrey Alan Carver," the voice said again.
"Yes?" I managed to reply, or did I just think it. Having no mouth or tongue or palate or throat or lungs, I suppose I must have thought it.
"Good. You are with us."
"Where am I?"
Wherever I was it didn't seem to be like any sort of heaven or hell I had ever heard of or read about. On the other hand, perhaps this was, indeed, hell for what could be worse that spending eternity in the ultimate of sensory deprivation?
"You are in limbo."
"Limbo! I thought that was just an invention of the Catholics?"
"You are not a Catholic." It was more a statement than a question.
"Limbo is real, as far as anything is. Anyway, the Catholic Church did away with the concept of Limbo some time ago."
"Oh, I didn't know that." This was surreal in the extreme. I was newly dead and discussing comparative theology with a disembodied voice. "Are you God?"
The voice almost chuckled. "No. But you can think of me as He. Are you a Christian?"
"Moslem? Jew? Bhuddist? Wiccan? Taoist? Believe in Zeus, Odin, Karl Marx, Heidegger, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy?"
"No. I never did go much on organised religion. Sorry."
"Don't be. Makes it easier if I don't have to fight my way through a morass of misconceptions. Do you believe in God at all?"
"If you mean an old man with a white beard and long hair staring benevolently, or otherwise, down from the sky... no."
"Is this the afterlife, then?"
"Good Heavens, no." The voice laughed, an eerie and distinctly unpleasant sound. "Good Heavens... dearie me. Sometimes I amaze myself." It seemed more than taken with the cleverness of its wit.
"And... ?" I said in an attempt to halt the disagreeable noise.
"If this is not the afterlife, what is it?"
"I thought I had already explained; this is Limbo."
"You did. Sorry. A better question would be; why am I here and what happens now?"
"That's two questions."
"So? Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition."
"Spanish Inquisition?" It sounded genuinely puzzled. "What do that group if imbecilic, homicidal maniacs have to do with it?"
I wanted to shrug which is not easy when you have no body. "Never mind. It's not important. Could you please answer my questions?" Clearly the voice had never watched Monty Python.
"Harumph. Yes. Well, you have been chosen by sophisticated random sampling techniques to be offered a unique and outstanding opportunity. It is an opportunity offered to only a select few. A golden opportunity to turn over a new leaf, start on a fresh page, wipe the slate clean. I cannot stress how fortunate you are to be given this wonderful chance."
He was beginning to sound like an advert for a time-share in Florida. I couldn't resist it. "You mean you pulled my name out of a hat."
If a disembodied voice could be said to sound sheepish, this one did. "Well... yes."
"What's more your opportunity can't be unique if you offer it to others."
"It's unique to you." It sounded distinctly huffy. "So, are you interested?"
"You haven't told me what it is, yet."
"The opportunity to go back and live your life again."
"You what? What sort of an offer is that?"
"It's a magnificent offer; a golden opportunity to re-live your..."
"Yes. Yes. Enough of the hard sell. What's the point? I mean why would I want to re-live my life again?"
"You might do things differently next time around," it said eagerly. "That's part of the Experiment. To see if all factors in a human's life are programmed or if there are random factors involved."
"I don't follow you."
"Take an example," it was sounding enthusiastic now. "Say, in your past life, you were walking down a street and you saw a sign saying, 'Vacancies. Apply within.' You went in and you were offered your dream job which led to you becoming rich and successful. Now, in your next life, would you see the sign? Would you go in? Would you accept the job? You see what I'm driving at?"
"To be frank, no. If my life and circumstances the second time around were exactly the same as they were the first time, I would behave in exactly the same way. It couldn't be any other way."
"Yes, but what would happen if, say, a seagull shit in your eye just as you were passing the notice? You wouldn't see it and you wouldn't go in. Your life would take a completely different track."
"Other than the fact that the seagull wasn't there in my first life so it couldn't be in my second, it wouldn't be my life, it would be someone else's."
"No it wouldn't. I mean, yes, it would. Now you're getting me confused. You would still be Geoffrey Alan Carver."
"But I wouldn't be me. I would be another be Geoffrey Alan Carver. If you were to pick that name from your celestial hat again, it would be a different person that was talking to you now, not me." I was beginning to enjoy this. I always did enjoy a good intellectual debate.
"But it wouldn't matter. You would still be Geoffrey Alan Carver."
"So, a rose by any other name..."
"Shakespeare." I sighed. "You've not read any Shakespeare either, I gather."
"No. What is a shakespeare?"
"Never mind. It may not matter to you that the Geoffrey Alan Carver you meet the second time around is not me but it matters to me."
"No buts. Your proposition to send me back to relive my life exactly as it was before holds no attraction for me."
"But it might be better?"
"Or it could be a damn sight worse."
It sighed. If anything that was worse than the laughter.
"Wait a moment. There's something bothering me," I said and paused to let whatever it was trickle to the surface. "Got it. This is some sort of joke, isn't it? Some sort of celestial 'Candid Camera' or 'Punk'd'. You're not really God, you're the heavenly equivalent of Jeremy Beadle. My God, you're not actually Jeremy Beadle, are you?"
"I can assure you I am not Jeremy Beadle, whoever he is?"
"That's a relief. But I still think this is some kind of absurd practical joke. What you're proposing is nonsense. This whole conversation is a load of nonsense. When I'm born again, I won't remember anything of my first life and I won't remember this conversation. I will be exactly as I was the first time around. It will be as if my first life never happened. That being so my second life will travel exactly the path as my first. Maybe even it has and this is the second or third or umpteenth time we've had this conversation."
"I hope not."
"So there's no reason at all for you to be talking to me in the first place. In fact," I cried triumphantly, "if you find my life so fascinating, why don't you just replay the 'Geoffrey Alan Carver Story' on your video machine, or whatever equivalent you have. That would serve the same purpose and be a lot cheaper."
It sighed dolorously. If I'd had any hairs on the back of my neck, if I'd had a neck to have hairs on, they would be standing at quivering attention just now.
"Don't do that," I said crossly.
"Make that godawful noise."
"Sorry." It sighed again and I bit my non-existent tongue to prevent myself from screaming. "I was hoping you wouldn't notice."
"The flaw in the offer."
"If it's flawed, why make it in the first place?"
"I have to."
"It's in the Rules."
"The Rules of the Experiment. They say that I must try to convince you to return without revealing anything."
"Listen, buster, if you want to have any chance at all of convincing me to accept your ludicrous offer, you'd better chuck your rules in the bucket and tell me exactly what is in this deal. Right now I feel like telling you to take your offer and insert it into your celestial backside."
"That isn't very friendly."
"I'm not feeling very friendly. I'm dead, remember?"
It sighed again.
"Stop it!" I screeched.
"Sorry. Very well. Let it be noted that the human Geoffrey Alan Carver has refused to participate unless all conditions are revealed. Satisfied?"
"I might be when you start talking."
"The proposal is as I have indicated. You will be returned to your previous existence with the chance to live your life again. See," it sounded smug, "I told you it was a unique offer. Nobody else can live your life for you."
It almost sighed but didn't. "And you will be allowed to choose your entry point, so to speak, and you will retain your memories of your previous existence. There, that's the lot."
A number of absolutely vital questions flashed through my mind. I only hoped I could remember them all.
"Why didn't you tell me this in the first place?"
"Because, according to the Rules of the Experiment, I am required to try to convince you to return without that knowledge."
"Do many people accept?" My curiosity was piqued.
"Most of them, yes."
"What? You mean that the majority of people to whom you make your offer simply accept it and go back without knowing what's going to happen?"
"Millions of people do the Lottery. The lure of something for nothing is very strong in you humans."
"Point taken. But there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. So what is this experiment?"
"If I tell you that I will have to erase the knowledge before you return."
"I wouldn't have thought I needed to explain that."
I thought about it. This was an experiment on human behaviour. If I knew I was being experimented on, my reactions would not be the same as if I didn't. In fact, now I thought about it, its attempt to convince me to return without telling me the conditions at all was more understandable.
"Okay, I understand. Who's doing this experiment and why?"
"That I am not at liberty to divulge. Suffice it to say that it is a galactic-wide study into the learning behaviours of primitive species."
"You mean that the human race is no more than a bunch of laboratory animals?"
"Oh, no!" It sounded genuinely shocked. "That would never be permitted. We have a very high standard of ethics. The human race is the human race, for what that's worth. We are allowed to intervene only where the outcome would not harm either the individual or the species."
"That's a relief. Is this it? I mean is this all you do; capture dying souls and let them re-live their lives?"
"No, indeed. This is only a very small part of an Experiment so large and so vast your mind could not encompass it. Even my mind has trouble understanding the size of it."
"Give me an idea."
"The experiment has been running for several tens of thousands of your years. It involves four hundred and seventy two galaxies, a hundred and forty thousand, three hundred and fifty species and over five million staff."
"Bloody hell! That's big."
"I told you."
"And the ultimate purpose is?"
"I have already told you."
"No you haven't. You've told me what you are doing but not why."
"Hmmm. There are not many who question me this far. Well, the elder races, of which I am a member, wish to know how species develop. At some time we assume we must have been planet dwellers like you. How and why we made the transition from that to the way we are now is lost in the mists of time. There must be planet-dwelling species today that have the potential to make the same transition and our goal is to find out who these species are and what the transitional criteria are."
"How does giving me the chance to live again help that?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"No. I am only an exceedingly minor cog in a very large organisation. It is my job to offer randomly-chosen humans the chance to re-live their lives. I like to think I di it rather well. I know why I do what I do but I don't know how it fits into the big picture."
"I'll buy that."
"I have answered you're questions and time is moving on. Will you accept the offer?"