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Stephen V. Ramey lives and writes in an 1870's Victorian home perched on the edge of New Castle's Historic District, the third largest such district in Pennsylvania. His short stories can be read in Strange Horizons, Triangulation: Taking Flight, Eschatology, and Every Day Fiction among others. He is co-editor for this year's Triangulation: Last Contact anthology and be blogs at stephenvramey.wordpress.com.

On Centuri Primus, it's said one has only to set foot onto the planet to feel God's embrace. Ask a question, get His answer, think of a friend you once knew and you're talking to, feeling, their presence. Other planets have different protocols, but each has been linked into the Wholeness. Except Earth. The universe is alight with God's glow, yet we remain in a darkness of our own stubborn design.
I live in the shantytown surrounding the space elevator warehouse complex, a hundred thousand people fighting tooth and nail for day labor, shelter, food, and water. Nearly all of us want to leave. You can see the longing in our eyes when a car ascends through the elevator tower. You can hear it in the sudden hush.
Today I'm standing in a crowd of men waiting for the cargo company to select workers when a commotion starts. A woman has left the elevator compound. We're kept out of the Blue Zone, but sometimes visitors come to us. For them, it must be a return to the primitive, a safari vacation from the world of technomagic.
Toothless women wave handcrafted rugs and bowls and dolls. "Only twenty dollars," one screams. "Ten," another offers. Soon they've talked themselves below the cost of their materials for the chance to say they sold something to a visitor. Men offer to porter bags, children beg for crumbs. Everyone hangs on the visitor's every word, longing for stories of heaven.
"You," she says, pointing. Why she singles me out, I do not know; maybe because I'm relatively new here, less disheveled than most of these men. I feel the jealous hatred of others pour over me.
"Well?" she says. "Are you going to invite me into your home, or not?"
Intensely embarrassed, I lead her to the slant-roof shanty I claimed last week from a mummified man. I patched the roof with tarpaper and bricked one open side. I plan to sleep here until someone stronger comes along.
The visitor nods approval; the coarseness of this place resonates with some repressed part of her, I suppose. It's easier to visit Hell than to live here. Her name is Engjella and she's from Ganus Colony, wherever that might be. I admire her flowing brown hair, hazel eyes flecked with gold.
She comes inside. I drop the sheet that serves as my door.
"What does it feel like?" I ask. "To talk to God?"
She blinks. "God?" She touches her scalp. I see the glint of her halo, a circle of silver metal embedded into the skull crown beneath that lush hair. "It's like communion, I suppose, like being connected to everyone who is or was since the Wholeness began. I forget you cannot access it." She touches my arm. "If it's any consolation, sometimes the sensation is more than we want. We travel into deep space, visit a moon, or maybe come here to get away from that immensity for a time."
I hold back tears. "I would give anything to experience it."
She smiles. "Think of me as your opportunity. I'll carry this experience--you--within me when I leave." She laughs lightly. "Shall we make it memorable?"
I nod numbly and she kisses me full on the lips. Sometimes people talk of feeling something to the marrow of their bones. What does that mean? I only know that what I feel now reaches down inside and saps me of my will to resist. I loved Ella, but Ella was merely human. When last I returned to her grave I could not find it. Her mound had compressed, was no more substantial than any of the mortal remains packed into the ground five or ten layers deep. Bodies upon bodies, lives upon lives, all empty, without connection.
As our lovemaking progresses, I stroke through Engjella's hair to its roots, caress the circular ridge that marks her crown. Is this all that stands between me and God?
I stop. Our breaths rasp. This is my moment, the fulcrum that will define my future.
"Is something wrong?" She nudges my shoulder, twisting in the same motion as if to roll out from under me.
Panic squeezes. I push her down and kneel onto her torso. She pushes harder. She kicks.
"Opportunity," I murmur. Her eyes go wide as I press my fingers into her mouth. I force my hand deeper, past her teeth, beyond her tongue. She gags and gurgles; her body convulses. Blood wells across my knuckles.
I ride her until the last tremor, then pull my ripped flesh from her mouth. She does not breathe. Her dead eyes stare.
I pry at the halo. Something cracks and the device releases like a weed pulling from the ground. Red dew beads its silvery tendrils.
Carefully, I lick each strand clean, feeling the ritual of that action, the sense of largeness it entails. Blood-metal coats my tongue.
Fingers trembling, I place the halo atop my own head. Will the device sink its roots deep into my soul and connect me, at last, to things larger than myself?
I do not know. I only know that in this moment I feel one step closer to God.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, June 20th, 2011

Author Comments

"Godless" began with a prompt from The First Line: "Three thousand habitable planets in the known universe, and I'm stuck on the only one without ___". My impulse was to insert God into that empty space (isn't that everyone's first impulse?). Well, okay, but then what? Arthur C. Clarke suggested that technology might appear as magic to the less primitive. I wondered what would happen if technology reached a point where we could create a sort of virtual heaven, a Wholeness of experience past and present. What if Earth resisted that technology and ended up as a backwater planet? Now, it was getting interesting. The first draft poured onto the page. The second draft came more slowly, and the third and fourth took months of sporadic rearranging, rewriting, and tweaking. I'm pretty happy with the flash that came out of this mix, particularly the nuance that each character longs for what the other has and is willing to risk life or take life to achieve it. That made them very human to me. Thanks to the folks in the Flash Me Fiction Boot Camp and my peers in Sunday Morning Writers for constructive criticism.

- Stephen V. Ramey
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