The Conclusion to a 5 Chapter Novella
Read Parts 1 & 2
Terry had been busy the last week. He finally managed to get his chosen group together, more or less. Mark Stapledon had agreed to attend. Don Stafford could not but sent a graduate student, probably to break her in to the endless meetings she would be attending during her career.
Oddly, Terry himself did not attend, at least in the flesh. Instead, he had enlisted the help of another colleague of his, Dr. Steve Miller (no relation) who was the head of the chemistry department at the University of Cincinnati. The department had a communications room, as most universities did, where equipment could be set up to allow off-campus people to participate in meetings of just such a sort. Steve had set up the monitor and link in the communications room while Terry had set his own up back in Colorado. He could see them and they could see him, so it was mostly like he was there.
Rounding out the group, Howard had brought his own retinue. Lonnie Decree was there, of course, as was Jim Able. Howard had also brought along Lisa Moss, a structural engineer who lived down the street from him and thought it would be fun to sit in on this session. Other uninvited professors of various disciplines had showed up in the room anyway, primarily to see what all the fuss was about.
Tentatively, Howard rose from the chair he had taken behind a table at the front of the room, which was a standard theatre type classroom. Chairs rose in progressively higher tiers toward the back of the room. Howard almost felt as if he was there for a performance. The performance today would not be his. He was not used to yielding the stage to another act but, in this case, he would be more than willing. He gave a quick survey of the room and then looked over at Steve who was making final adjustments on the monitor which displayed the visage of Terry.
“Hi Terry,” Steve said, activating the voice module. “Can you hear me out there?”
“Very well. I’m ready when you are.” Satisfied with the settings, Steve nodded to Howard and took a seat in the front row. Howard cleared his throat. In his entire career, he had found being in front of an audience an easy experience, with never a trace of stage fright to impede him. He could almost get a case of it now.
“Thank you, Dr. Miller,” he finally said. To the rest of the audience, he continued. “First, let me just say thanks to all of you for agreeing to attend this meeting. I would especially like to thank Terry there for getting all of you together. Let me now introduce myself and these gentlemen with me. My name is Howard Marlin, but I go by the stage name Merlin the Mysterious. I’ve had some fame as a magician but people who know me at all probably know me more from my attempts, successful I would add, to debunk claims of the paranormal. Jim Able here, also known as Magic Man, is also a magician. Some would say better than I but we won’t debate that today.” The quip brought some welcome laughter from the group. Feeling a little more at ease now, Howard continued.
“Dr. Westlake on the screen here I am sure you all know from his many books. He and I have also appeared on a number of TV shows together discussing the paranormal. My part was always to debunk and Terry would give the scientific viewpoint. As part of my investigating claims of the paranormal, I have always had a standing offer to give anyone $10,000 who could correctly identify the contents of a safe I have at home using only paranormal means. No one has ever been able to claim this money, at least, not until last Tuesday. Mr. Lonnie Decree, here, did so.”
Howard indicated the man behind him and suddenly became self-conscious about being too stagy. The feeling passed and he continued the introduction. “Not only that, but the next night, in front of Mr. Able and myself, he performed several, er, miracles that we were unable to explain by our knowledge of magic and how effects are performed. Mr. Decree referred to this as ‘phase one.’ Phase two is this meeting here and, with that, I will now let Mr. Decree explain to you what he wants.”
Some in the audience briefly considered clapping while Lonnie arose. When no general applause was forthcoming, they let it drop. Howard took a seat behind the table in the front of the room. Lonnie arose and, after a brief look around, began to speak.
“Hello and thank you for attending this meeting. Mr. Marlin may already have explained this to you but I will reiterate my goal for those of you who haven’t heard. Quite frankly, my mission is to perform an experiment that will prove to skeptical scientists the existence and personal nature of God.”
Some jaws dropped in the room. The curiosity seekers had not heard this. Lonnie allowed a moment of silence for his last statement to sink in and continued. “Last week, God blessed me with a variety of powers and gave me instructions to seek out skeptics and put myself at their disposal to perform an experiment. Any experiment. I started by guessing the contents of Mr. Marlin’s safe, as he told you, along with guessing the values of playing cards and levitating various objects.
"These are all trivialities to our God. He has given me much more power than that; enough to perform any task proposed. I will point out at the outset that there are conditions. However, these conditions are not to make a task plausible but merely to make it universal. You see, God is not interested in performing a series of parlor tricks for a small group of people. He wants a test that will be witnessed by everyone on Earth, one that not only you scientists will find impossible but so will the general population.”
The announcement was followed by a few seconds of additional silence, quickly broken by a barrage of questions. Terry let out a gasp. Howard had not given him any inkling that the proposed experiment was to have global reach. If this guy was a scammer, he certainly was a gutsy one.
“What kind of powers do you have?” one of the students asked over the general roar. “Could you tell what I’m thinking?”
“Right now,” Lonnie replied, “you’re thinking of Deborah Nye, a girl you knew in junior high.” The audience turned to observe the student’s stunned expression. “The problem with that kind of experiment is it is germane only to you. No one else in here knows whether or not I’m right or if you aren’t a plant. Actually, the Amazing Kreskin can perform such acts and does not claim any psychic powers to do it.”
“He’s right,” Howard spoke up. “And I have to admit that there are things Kreskin does that I myself haven’t figured out. But, as Mr. Decree says, he does not claim any psychic powers.”
“What about levitation?” another student asked. “Could you make this desk float?” Promptly, the desk floated, bringing a round of applause from the assembly.
“This is still trivial to God,” Lonnie continued, “and pretty much trivial to these two gentlemen behind me. Whatever experiment is proposed cannot look like a magic trick.”
“This may sound silly,” inserted Mark, “but I’m a golf fan and I would be interested in seeing if someone could actually score an eighteen in eighteen holes of golf. Eighteen holes in one would be an impossibility to me. You could set up with the PGA to perform this on the last day of one of the major tournaments.”
“God would allow me to do that,” Lonnie replied. “However, I would make a few points. First, scoring eighteen holes in one is unlikely, not impossible. Most holes have had at least one ace scored on them at some time or another, so eighteen is within the realm of possibility. In the second place, the only way this would be generally shown to the world is on TV and the vast majority of the population of this planet has no TV. Not a very global reach. Thirdly, anything shown on TV is subject to being faked, so most skeptics wouldn’t tend to believe what they are being shown.”
Mark nodded his head with a snort. The man had made good arguments. He obviously wasn’t going for cheap stunts.
“I have a question if I may.” The voice had emerged from the phone link below the TV monitor. It was Terry, of course. “The thing I am not understanding is why would God choose to prove himself in this way? He would only have to appear in that room there and let us question him for us to believe. Why is faith always such an issue with religionists?”
Lonnie briefly regarded the TV screen and then glanced over at Susan Thatcher, the stand-in graduate student for Don the astronomer. “Miss Thatcher, how big is the universe?”
Susan, for her part, was taken somewhat aback by the sudden query. The question was not hard but Susan did not recall being introduced to Decree, as indeed she wasn’t. How did he know her name? “We can’t really tell. The visible portion is 42 billion light years. That’s not counting all we can’t see beyond the horizon.”
Turning back to the screen, Lonnie countered Terry’s question with another question. “Do you really expect that a God big enough to make all of that would fit in this room?”
“Well, no,” Terry admitted, “but I would expect that God could make a human manifestation of himself to be here.”
“He tried that already,” Lonnie chuckled. “It didn’t go that well.”
With a smirk, Terry shook his head. “I guess I walked into that one. But, consider the ancient Israelites. If we are to believe the Bible, God established a presence with the Israelites on a daily basis as they were wandering through the desert. Surely, God could do the same with us.”
“Funny you should mention that,” Lonnie noted. “God’s daily presence with the Israelites failed to instill them with a lot of faith, even though they were highly religious. By religious, I mean that they were inclined to believe in gods and such, much more so than we are today. For all that, they still turned back at the border of the promised land, awaiting another generation to have the faith to enter.
"But let’s examine what you propose a bit further. If God established a presence with us, as you put it, would you really believe? I mean, would you believe that this is the God who created the entire cosmos? Might you not suspect he is some alien being from another planet that has vastly superior technology? What would convince you otherwise?”
“I guess I can concede that point,” Terry admitted. “Even so, if either God or a superior intelligence had led the Israelites through the desert, surely some of this superior intelligence would have been made manifest. It seems that all we got out of it is a lot of vague rituals.”
“Perhaps,” Lonnie replied, “but that’s not all. What about standards of cleanliness in a culture that never had any thought of the cleansing action of water? What about dietary standards for a people who had no knowledge of what trichinosis is? What about the prohibition of drinking blood to a people with no knowledge of germ theory and blood borne pathogens? Or sabbatical years to a people with no concept of crop rotation? It would seem to me that the Jewish law abounds in precepts that were far in advance of what was generally known at the time.”
“But,” Terry objected, “how are we to know that those laws are the product of a higher intelligence? They might just be the Jews own standard practice of thousands of years ago and they lucked upon a few that have positive health effects.”
“They weren’t their standard practices,” Lonnie explained. “For instance, God commands several times that the Jews are to keep a Sabbath of the land every seven years and a further one every fifty. The Bible nowhere records that this was ever done and one of the reasons for the Babylonian captivity was to allow the land to rest. Further, God commanded the Jews not to multiply to themselves wives. One man and one woman is all God ever intended. Yet, the Bible is replete with men who ignored this bit of divine advice.”
“I think what he is trying to get at,” Mark began, straightening up in his chair, “is why is this God so subtle. In fact, I don’t see why the question of what proof we require should be asked at all. Surely, an all-knowing God would know what it takes to convince us of his existence, right?”
“God gave you something called freedom of choice,” Lonnie said. He was a little more at ease now, what with talking to an actual person instead of a TV screen. “What you think you would require as proof is at least as important as the proof itself. Rather than have God brainwash you, which is essentially what you’re proposing, he would rather demonstrate some power to you to convince you.”
“Why now?” It was the TV screen once again. Terry continued, “There have been nonbelievers throughout the ages. Why has God suddenly developed this desire to prove himself?”
“To prove a point, actually,” Lonnie replied, as though the thought suddenly occurred to him. In fact, it had. He was getting his replies from elsewhere. “One incontrovertible fact of life is that, in this world, there are believers and nonbelievers. Regardless of what God does or has ever done, there will be believers and nonbelievers. God’s story of Lazarus and the rich man leads to such a conclusion.”
“Now wait a minute!” Mark, incensed, straightened up even more. “This is the same garbage we hear out of psychics all the time. All you paranormals ever say is that we scientists cannot ever participate in your belief system because we are nonbelievers. Science is not about belief and nonbelief. It is about proof. Let God offer us actual proof, proof that can be scientifically verified, and we’ll believe. That’s how the game is played. Anything less is fairy tale.”
“That’s fine,” Lonnie insisted with a raised hand. “I came here today to ask you to propose something. Propose to me whatever it would take to make you a believer, if such is possible.”
“Mr. Decree,” Terry started with a chuckle that was more intended to break tension than communicate humor, “there are any number of impossible tasks we can propose.”
“Can you really?” Lonnie chided. “I don’t think so. You have collapsed the world into quantum mechanical statistics, where anything is possible, no matter how remote. It’s not like the old days, wherein Velikovsky could say that the planet Venus emerged from Jupiter before settling into its current orbit. You knew immediately that this was quite impossible because the rules of celestial mechanics forbid it. Now, quantum mechanics forbid nothing. There is even a quantum mechanical chance that one of us here will wake up tomorrow on the planet Mars, however remote. And that’s how it goes with nonbelief. Everything that contravenes your view of the world is a coincidence or within the realm of theoretical probability.”
“Not necessarily,” Terry differed. “It’s a common misconception that quantum mechanics, due to its statistical nature, is a somehow imprecise science. But actually, it leads to results with predictable levels of precision.”
“I disagree,” Lonnie countered. “Quantum mechanics is a theory that is a vague enough box to allow anything to be fit into it. Your theories of cosmology are getting so complex that they will one day be the same way. You will have precise theories that tell you essentially nothing.”
“Our theories are complex,” Terry explained, “because the phenomena they describe are complex. This is one of the reasons why I don’t believe in a God. Nothing in our theories requires one. I would expect that if there was a God, there would be contrived pattern in our theories. A signature, if you will.”
“Let me ask you this, then,” Lonnie addressed the TV. “Would you agree that a cornerstone of scientific thought is that the universe is describable by math? I mean, if it isn’t, a lot of you people are doing a lot of work for nothing.”
Terry shrugged. “Sure. I would agree with that statement.”
“And you’re familiar with Kurt Godel’s theorem,” Lonnie continued, “which says that any system of math that is complex enough to be useful will always start with assumptions that cannot be proven within that math.”
“Assumptions demand an assumer,” Lonnie concluded. “You guys who figure out the math didn’t think it up originally. Someone else had to. There’s your signature.”
“Hold on,” Mark interrupted, hands up. “There’s where you religionists always make a big leap. Merely because some agent came up with the math that describes the universe doesn’t mean that agent is personally interested in us. You would have us jump from what could be any complex entity to some guy with a white beard that sits on a throne above us.”
“The beard I saw was black, actually,” Lonnie quipped. “He was rather swarthy, too. He looked like your typical first century Jew. Anyway, you don’t think that an agent that was intelligent enough to create all of this would lack the curiosity to be even interested in how his creation turned out?”
“We don’t even know what this agent is,” Mark shot back, “or whether it even possesses anything like curiosity.”
“That’s why he sent me here,” Lonnie said, taking a seat on the table behind him. Arms folded, he continued. “God wanted me to offer you proof that he is, as you say, an agent possessed of curiosity in his creation. Propose something.”
The statement was followed by several moments of silence, not all of them thoughtful. Mark inwardly seethed. He had argued with religionists before and usually got the better of them. He had never met someone with such a matter-of-fact sort of faith, as if his god could really do anything.
Terry, for his part, actually mulled over possibilities. Frankly, Decree had a point. What in reality could a deity do to prove his existence? It would have to be something “out of the box” in the extreme. Terry had not been prepared for this. He expected Decree to fold under cross examination or fall back on the usual “We don’t do tests.” He recalled one of the popular psychics a few years back on one of the TV shows that Terry had been secretly invited to. The psychic had tried a similar tactic or, apparently, inviting the audience to propose any test, all the while imposing so many rules that there was actually only one test that would satisfy all of the criteria. Terry pointed this out, much to the chagrin of the psychic. The man fell back by saying the usual, “I cannot perform amid such unbelief.” Decree had not even ventured this defense, yet. Did he really intend to go through with this charade? And if so, how far?
The group argued further among themselves. Lonnie’s only condition was that, whatever the test turned out to be, it had to be something the whole world could witness. Eventually, Mark proposed a test. It was clearly impossible. The group waited with anticipation.
Lonnie, to the stunned silence of all, merely said, “Okay.”
Luckily for me, Howard thought, Lonnie was taking care of all the publicity himself. Lonnie had a big job ahead of him. First, he had to get word out to pretty much the entire planet concerning his plans. Moreover, he had to get people to take him seriously.
Could he really do it? Howard sat in his easy chair watching the new celebrity on one of the many news shows he had appeared on in the last few weeks. He had not promised to perform this great miracle right away. There was considerable preparation to be accomplished and he wanted time to ease the fears of a world that would be rather discomfited if Decree did what he said.
Provided he could do it. The whole thing seemed so unreal to Howard. Over and over, he mulled the tests Lonnie had performed in his mind. Was there a mundane explanation for what he had witnessed? Neither he nor Jim could think of one, even with all their experience in the magic business. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a mundane explanation. Lonnie might have been a magician of the first order, able to fool even others in his trade. If that were so, why then proceed on to this obviously impossible task?
Then, it hit Howard. Publicity, of course. Even if, or rather when, he failed, his fame would be firmly established. Being an entertainer, Howard was all too aware that one’s whole career rode on getting the headlines. Lonnie, just starting out, had figured out a way to get the headlines on a grand scale. Of course! That was it! Howard was surprised at himself that he hadn’t thought of it before.
“Now, let me get this straight,” one of many newsmen was asking him yet again on Howard’s TV. Newsmen were a hard-headed lot, he thought. Always asking the same questions, never quite listening to the resulting answers. “You say that God has given you the power to actually carry out this test.”
“Precisely,” Lonnie assured him. If Lonnie had ever become impatient with all of the meaningless questions, he sure didn’t betray it. “In fourteen days, God will make it happen. The time has been given us to prepare for this event. I urge all your listeners not to be frightened. They will be perfectly safe.”
“And where did you get the idea for this test?” the newsman asked. “Did God tell you he would do this?”
“No,” Decree explained. “God merely commanded me to ask a group of scientists to propose a test. The actual test was proposed by these scientists, chief among them Dr. Terry Westlake and Dr. Mark Stapledon.”
Howard winced at the dropping of names. The thing was, in Howard’s profession, bad press was better than no press. In Westlake’s profession, being tied up to a colossal folly such as this could damage or even end his career. He had not talked to Terry since the brouhaha started. Howard wondered how he was weathering this and how he planned on proceeding. An hour later, he had his answer.
The phone rang. It was Terry.
“Hi Howard. I hadn’t talked to you in a bit. Are you keeping up with all the goings on?”
“Yeah,” Howard replied with a trace of exasperation. “You can’t hardly avoid it. It’s practically on every channel. The guy’s a great PR agent. I’ll give him that.”
“Are the things he did for you at your house really that compelling?” Terry asked.
Howard paused a while before answering. “I guess so. I just don’t know. Jim or I either one could not explain how he did what he did. Still, I about fell out of my chair when he so casually agreed to Mark’s proposal. It’s one thing to do little parlor tricks, as he puts it. To do this, well, that’s just insane. I really don’t understand what he intends to get out of it, apart from a colossal amount of attention, which he’s got already.”
“Have you heard anything from him since the meeting?”
“No,” Howard said. “Not directly. I’ve just been following him on the news. I guess he’s been quite busy making his round the world trip to warn everybody. I don’t know where he gets the wherewithal to do all that. He must have a great accountant. How, er, are you going to play this, if I may ask?”
Howard heard a long sigh over the phone. “Well,” Terry finally said, “I was toying with the idea of denying any knowledge of it.” The news item Howard saw on the TV an hour ago botched that up, Howard thought. “I guess the best thing I can do is play it straight. Religionists and scientists have been having increasing run-ins with each other of late, what with the Kansas evolution thing and what not. When asked, I plan to say that I will be setting up equipment to monitor the, uh, event and I will be urging fellow scientists to do likewise. That way, when he fails, people won’t look on us like we’re against faith or anything. I’ll just explain that science is about what can be proven, not what people wish to assume.”
“What kind of equipment would you set up?” Howard asked, half chuckling. The chuckling was returned from the other end of the line.
“Well,” Terry said, somewhat sheepishly, “it has made for a good thought experiment, anyway. If someone was actually going to do this, it would depend on how he intended to do it. I mean is it going to happen all at once or in stages? I will allow the press to show me setting up a camera and some infrared sensors which I will explain will tell us more about the experiment. I will also mention any of my colleagues that I can get on board with this. Several different vantage points would be good, after all.”
Another pause ensued. Howard broke it, in a furtive tone. “Any chance he can do it?”
“No,” Terry replied, vehemently. “Here’s the deal I have always had with religion. Why does God seem more remote the more we learn about things? Decree said that a god that could create this whole universe would be curious as to its outcome. So why isn’t he? I would think he would be a daily presence. I would think he would be more inclined to keep us from killing each other, if he’s as loving as people make out.”
“Now that you mention it,” Howard replied, “that would have been a good question. I wish now someone had brought it up at some point.”
“Exactly,” Terry agreed. “I keep hearing that God cares about his people and can change lives and all. I just don’t ever see him doing it. The bloodiest wars in history were fought in the name of God. Why didn’t he stop any of them? Even on a personal level, any religious person would have to concede that, as an example, the divorce rate among religious people is pretty much the same as among nonbelievers. Where are the changed lives in all of this?”
“Maybe that will be his encore,” Howard said. “After he performs this great miracle, maybe he’ll let us in on the meaning of life.”
“If he performs it, you mean,” Terry countered, cynically.
“Well,” Howard replied, “one thing’s for sure. We’ll know in two weeks.” “True,” Terry agreed, laughing.
It was the day of, well, the Day. All over the world, due to Lonnie’s tireless efforts to get the word out, people were staring and waiting. Some were shut up in their houses, too scared too face the prospect what was to come. Others, children especially, were out in their yards and local parks eager for the final minutes to count down.
At 10:00 a.m. EDT, it would happen. That’s what Lonnie had said, at any rate. Lonnie was very emphatic about that. No one would be harmed. In spite of what everything was supposed to look like, everyone would be perfectly safe.
People waited. The various polls that were taken suggested that the waiting was mostly without much faith. There were the various atheists and agnostics who believed nothing would happen, of course. They still waited out of curiosity and to prepare themselves to say “I told you so” when it didn’t happen. Buddhists, believing as they did that God is a machine more than a personal deity that could be communicated with, waited anyway. Muslims, chagrined that a professed Christian would claim to communicate with the One, waited also. Catholics and Protestants, dismayed that a man would claim such power from God for an obvious publicity play, waited as well. One just never knew.
Dr. Terry Westlake, for his part, had chosen an open spot on the campus of the university and invited the media to witness him setting up various pieces of equipment. Howard Marlin had taken the opportunity to fly out to Colorado to join him. Marlin’s career was, after all, about publicity. He was not going to pass up the chance to get in on some, especially since he himself was instrumental in the whole business.
Lonnie, after being on the news constantly for the last two weeks, had disappeared. Speculations abounded as to where he was to perform this great miracle. Some suggested that he was probably out in the Atlantic somewhere, which would make the time wherever he was to perform his miracle high noon. Just before he vanished, he had been in the Atlanta area, leading some to think he would initiate the event from atop some notable point, such as Stone Mountain. I-85 and I-20 became jammed at this speculation, at least, more so than usual. Park attendance skyrocketed but no Lonnie was in attendance. Some members of the press had become dismayed at the lack of access to Lonnie as he initiated the miracle. Talk was already pretty rife that Lonnie had gone underground to watch the results of his great hoax.
“Science is not about the same things faith is about,” Terry was explaining to the assembled media as he finished the last adjustments to a camera that he had set up pointing at the ground. He had also laid out an infrared camera and a gamma ray detector. The gamma ray detector was there for looks only. He did not want to give the press the impression that he was less than serious about all of this. At two minutes till eight, he would fire up the video camera and leave it on until a few minutes past eight, at which point further footage of the green but uninteresting lawn of the commons should be superfluous.
“Faith is about the things you can’t sense,” he continued. “In fact, the way the rules of faith are generally laid out, it seems that God does not want people having an easy time believing him. He seems to prefer, if you will, that people not have a scientific basis for their belief. Science, on the other hand, is about what can be sensed and tested. This test that Mr. Decree has proposed is the first instance in recent history where faith has offered something science can examine. I would not want to pass up the opportunity to examine it to the fullest.”
“So you believe that Decree can do what he claims?” a woman from one of the networks asked.
“I don’t have an opinion one way of the other,” he lied. “I merely say that we will soon know whether or not Mr. Decree can do what he says.”
The questioning turned to Merlin the Mysterious and his beliefs. He repeated his account of the tests that Lonnie had performed for him and Jim Able, adding only that what Lonnie did was sufficiently mystifying to warrant further investigation. He also allowed, however, that Lonnie may be merely a magician of the first order, able to fool other seasoned magicians. He briefly noted that this would be an excellent opportunity for Decree but didn’t dwell on the issue. In his business, Howard had long since learned that it does not pay to tick too many of a certain type of people off. This included believers.
The wind picked up some and was rather crisp. Howard had worn a light sweater but could have used something a bit heavier against the chill air. Not to worry, he thought to himself. This would soon be over and he could head back to the warmth of Terry’s office. At least the weather was nice in general. A few clouds dotted the skies but that was all. Howard wondered how many people worldwide were standing out in rain, waiting for this event.
The minutes ticked away. Soon, it was thirty seconds until something was supposed to happen. In spite of himself, Howard could feel his breathing becoming labored, as if, subconsciously, he really expected something to happen. Oh well, he thought. Even he was not immune. It was okay to speak against voodoo from the comfort of one’s New York office. It was quite a different matter when surrounded by Haitian darkness.
Eight o’clock arrived and Howard found himself staring at the ground. His vision suddenly seemed to be getting foggy. Or, was it the ground? Surely not, he thought. But, slowly, the ground began to fade. He could hear Terry doing something frantic. Looking up, he saw Terry bolting for the cameras, excitedly making sure that they were recording. It was true! The ground was fading! Soon, he could see several feet down. All around him, people were letting out fearful whoops. Some were running for trees, cars, anything that would keep them from falling.
But there was no need. Underneath his feet, Howard could feel the ground, still firmly in place. It was just becoming invisible. A touch of nausea swept over him as he could soon see fifty feet into the earth. Even he had a desire to grab onto something. There was no visible object nearby, so he dropped to his knees, attempting to steady himself on the invisible earth. Now he was 200 feet above the steadily receding surface between visible and invisible. The ground had long since turned from a dirty brown to a rocky gray. The surface kept receding, picking up speed as it went. Evidently, Lonnie had wanted people to get used to the effect before accelerating it.
All around him, the area started to glow as the receding surface finally broke the magma that exists under everywhere. Howard had to shade his eyes. He glanced up, noticing the incongruity of buildings, cars, trees and people seemingly hanging in the air. He could hear Westlake chattering on his cell phone, determining if others of his colleagues were getting the same view. They were, too. Everyone was. All over the world, people let out shouts as the ground receded faster and faster into the earth. The light got steadily brighter as the demarcation surface fell further, revealing the mantle, the outer core and, finally, the iron inner core of the earth.
Then, the light vanished. For the people on the other side of the world, the light was replaced by a new light – the sun, as seen straight through the earth. Howard fought back more nausea. He was now suspended over blue sky – the blue sky of the other side of the planet. He forced himself to look out the side, toward the horizon. No horizon was in evidence, however. He could make out the bottoms of various buildings and the extensive root systems of trees as they faded into the distant blue. Below him was still the vast eerie blueness. He closed his eyes, trying to regain control of his stomach.
An eternity later, heart pounding, he managed to open his eyes. The blueness began to fade. In just a few seconds, he could see brown coalesce, then green. The sharpness of the blades of grass returned. The event was over.
Several months later, Howard was driving along Interstate 75 after having finished yet another interview in Atlanta on the Event and his role in it. Lonnie Decree, for his part, had not been seen since. No one had any inkling of his whereabouts and Howard could not recall ever asking him where he lived. In all likelihood, the police had ran the name Lonnie Decree through their NCIC and found no such individual. Howard had been kept rather busy of late attending frequent interviews and had no time to pursue a missing persons case.
Howard’s career had picked up well. In fact, it was better than he expected. Most of the requests for his time were not even magic anymore. Everyone wanted to know about the mysterious Lonnie Decree and Howard was only too glad to tell them what he knew, for $10,000 an engagement.
Howard still kept in touch with Dr. Westlake, who also rode the crest of the Decree wave. He, too, had numerous requests for speaking engagements, which he used to give his views on the Decree event and, not coincidentally, to plug a new book he rather hurriedly wrote on the subject. Terry found himself to be a sort of bridge between science and the faithful, even though he repeatedly said that, until the Event had been thoroughly studied to determine its cause, no pronouncement should be made as to whether it proved the existence of any deity or not.
No natural cause was forthcoming from the scientific world, although speculation was rife. There were some proposals that a combination of gravity waves from distant neutron stars had managed to intersect on the earth, changing its refractive index. Chemists, for their part, were examining ways to making substances clear through various chemical reactions. Some psychologists had even proposed that Decree had engaged in some sort of mass hypnosis by unspecified means. If he did, he sure managed to get to the whole world. People in every country across the globe had reported the same effect. The earth had slowly, layer by layer, become clear and then, twenty-one minutes later, became opaque once again.
Howard continued up the interstate, about half-way between Atlanta and Chattanooga. He had been noticing his car running a bit rough for about a half hour but chose to ignore it. Suddenly, the rough running turning into shaking. He apparently had a flat. Slamming his hands on the steering wheel, he guided the car into the breakdown lane. Coming to a halt, he exited the car to inspect the problem. He was right. The right front tire had gone almost completely flat. Howard cursed, heading for the trunk to retrieve the jack. He also got out the temporary tire which would only allow speeds of 50 mph. Howard looked ahead on the highway, hoping there was some good sized town before Chattanooga. If not, the trip there would be long indeed.
After a bit of scratching his head over the proper way to assemble the jack, Howard finally began pumping to raise the car. Then, he took the tire iron and began loosening one of the lug nuts, realizing too late that it would be better if the car was on the ground for this – the tire spun freely. Another muttered curse emerged from clinched lips as he lowered the car once again. He was so wrapped up in his task that he did not notice the other car that had pulled ahead of him in the breakdown lane and was now slowly backing up to him. The vehicle finally stopped and a man emerged.
“Hi,” an oddly familiar voice said amiably. “Need help?”
“Lonnie?” Howard asked, startled. “Is that really you?”
“Yep,” Lonnie confirmed. “It’s me. It looks like I arrived in the nick of time.”
“My graces,” Howard enthused, now less concerned about the tire. “Where have you been? You pulled a disappearing act that could have beat anyone in my business.”
“Well,” Lonnie chuckled, “I thought it best to separate myself from the actual event. I was not the cause, after all. People down through history have confused too much of what God does with the people who were merely his agents. Why do you think God planted Moses so deep?”
“You think this whole thing was a sign of God?” Howard asked with a return chuckle.
“How could it not be?” Lonnie countered. “It happened at your request on your schedule. Your whole group quite agreed that it was impossible, did they not?”
“At the time, yes,” Howard replied. “Now, there seems to be some doubt. Merely because you did not expect to see a result does not make it impossible, after all. There is some speculation that it was some kind of gravitational wave that changed the refractive index of the earth as it passed through.”
Lonnie laughed at the explanation. “That was precisely the point that I was making in the classroom that day. Science can always come up with an explanation, even if it consists of the fact that man does not possess the intellect to understand everything. Either way, you can’t prove God by a parlor trick.”
“So your God failed,” Howard snorted.
“No, indeed,” Lonnie explained. “Lazarus and Dives, you see. There are two kinds of people – those who are inclined to believe and those who aren’t. God knew this ahead of time. For the believers, God provided a rather terrifying reminder of His presence. For the nonbelievers, this is just another incident that they have to bend over backwards to deny. Same as always.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Howard rebutted, feeling impugned.
“I would. It’s even true in scientific circles. Scientists like to believe that, once they have contrary evidence to a theory, they modify or abandon the theory and propose a new one. That’s okay if the theory is just a fleeting guess as to how something works. However, let that theory be something a scientist has based his whole career on. He will in no way abandon it in spite of any contrary evidence. To do this would be to watch his whole career go down the tubes. No, I’m afraid that the true source of the progress of scientific thought is that old entrenched scientists die and are replaced by young ones with new ideas and less vested interest.”
“That’s what this is to you?” Howard asked with a trace of chagrin. “How is this a vested interest? What scientist wouldn’t be thrilled at incontrovertible proof of the divine?”
At this, Lonnie gave out a hearty guffaw. “You must be joking. Some scientists wouldn’t be thrilled for the same reason any nonbeliever wouldn’t be thrilled. For if God exists, then the Bible is his word. That means he is keeping account. It’s a rather scary thing to know that you’re not as free as you thought you were.”
“I suppose that doesn’t scare you, then,” Howard deadpanned.
Nope,” Lonnie countered. “Trust me. God is actually rather lenient. As gods go, he has the lightest load. He doesn’t require human sacrifices. He doesn’t even require animal sacrifices anymore. He requires your life, though. All gods do. God just happens to give far more satisfying gifts than the various false gods like money or drugs.”
“So your god is a loving sort,” Howard said. He had wished to push this point before. He now had his chance. “So why, then? Why does your God allow his human creatures to suffer. Why does he allow them to commit heinous acts in his name? For that matter, why does he allow innocent babies to suffer and die? For the Bible to be the Word of God, it is curiously silent on this point.”
“No it isn’t,” Lonnie countered. “’Be ye holy as your father is holy.’”
“Huh?” Howard retorted. “What does that mean?”
“Well,” Lonnie replied, matter of factly, “what does it mean to be like God? God has knowledge of both good and evil. He consciously chooses good for its own sake without promise of reward or threat of punishment.” Howard still wore a confused expression, so Lonnie pushed on.
“Consider three worlds. The first one has no evil. All people love each other. All people look out after each other. All people love God. The people of this first world are good people, but they are not like God. They are good only because that’s all they know. Now consider a second world – one of rigid justice. Good people are instantly rewarded. Bad people are instantly punished. The people of this world will be good, but not like God. They will just want to be rewarded and avoid punishment. Consider a third world – this one. Good people sometimes suffer. Evil people sometimes flourish. Only in such a world will people learn to do good for its own sake. Only in such a world will people learn what it is to be holy.”
“That’s all well and good,” Howard objected, “but, according to the Bible, good people do go to heaven and bad people do go to hell. Seems to me like there is still going to be rewards and punishment. That conflicts with your holiness theory.”
“Does it now?” Lonnie chuckled. “”In the kingdom of heaven, the last shall be first and the first last.’ Jesus said that several times. One of the times was just after he told the parable of the guy who paid all his workers the same wages regardless of how long they had worked.”
Lonnie thought for a moment, then continued. “When God gave his life on a cross 2000 years ago, he didn’t get any reward for it, at least, nothing that wasn’t already his anyway. He did it out of love. He wants us all to be that way.”
The two stared at each other for a minute, divided as it were by an unbridgeable gulf. Howard broke the silence. “Well, I must be getting back to my task if I’m to get anywhere tonight.”
“I understand,” Lonnie said with a smile. “I’ll leave you to it. Have a good day.” With that as his parting words, he entered his car and eased back onto the highway. Howard watched his car disappear in the distance. I could turn your argument around, he thought. What would convince you that God doesn’t exist? With a sigh, he dropped back onto his knees to resume work on the tire. What he saw startled him. The tire was now quite full of air. Howard would not need to replace it.
Howard bolted back to his feet, giving a long last look up the highway. Did this really happen? He couldn’t really tell anymore. Maybe the whole thing had been a dream.
© 2008 David Rawls
Original fiction debuting at ResAliens
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