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The Sympathetic Universe Part 13

Eloy’s watch read 12:15 PM when they saw the sign for Camp Virtue.  Indeed, they shortly crested a hill and saw cabin lights. The triangle roof of the cabin extended forward out from the main building. A trellis extended across the base of the triangle, three beams rising outward, one straight up, one diagonal to each side, creating an image like a starburst. Almost before Angel finished parking the van, Eloy was out and running to the cabin.

Eloy opened the door.  Sitting on the wide, wooden floor was a young girl listening intently to an old man in an easy chair. The girl had hair long enough to cover her ears. It was messy, but somehow in a way that seemed free rather than unkempt. It was brown at the top, fading to blonde at the bottom. The man looked like he was wearing a scratchy brown blanket held together by a rope tied around his waist, and he was speaking loudly and waving his arms. Eloy had trouble understanding what he was saying through his thick beard.

“Regardez!” said the girl, looking in Eloy’s direction. By this time, Angel had caught up with him, and had shoved through in front.

“Ah,” exclaimed the man, “Bienvenue les amis!”

“I don’t speak French,” Eloy muttered to Angel.

“I would be surprised if you did,” Angel replied matter-of-factly.

Angel and Eloy stared at the man, who stared at the girl.

“Good evening!” said the girl. Her accent was metropolitan American with a hint of southern, no trace of french, “where did you come from?”

Eloy stared. Angel jerked her head in their direction, “you tell us, first.”

The girl’s and man’s eyes widened at Angel’s aggression, but it only took a moment “I’m Eliza Cunningham from Carrboro, North Carolina in the year 2019. This is Gabriel. He’s a monk from thirteenth century France.”

“Bonjour, ah,” he looked back at Eliza and stressing each syllable said, “Hello.”

Eliza smiled back and nodded approvingly. Gabriel put out his fist and without missing a beat Eliza pushed hers to his. In unison, they both withdrew, evidently very pleased at their secret handshake.

Eloy had to consciously close his mouth. Eliza was from the future.

“I’m Eloy,” Eloy offered, “I’m from Richmond, Indiana, 2003.” Eliza beamed, but Eloy figured she did that for everyone. All eyes turned to Angel.

“I’m Angel,” she said, “I’m from Detroit, Michigan, 1975”

“Bienvenue!” exclaimed Eliza.

“Bienvenue!” Gabriel agreed.

Eloy did a double-take in Angel’s direction. She didn’t look like she was from 1975 at all.  Maybe it was just that she wasn’t wearing a disco outfit or a huge afro and she wasn’t washed out like an old TV show.

“Is there someone else with you?” Eliza asked.

Eloy started to look behind him, but Angel growled, “There’s no one behind us, Stupid.”

Eliza continued, “There’s another bed is why I ask. Two double rooms and one room with just one bed. Also, there are five chairs here, if you count the loveseat as two. There are five cups in the cupboard, five each of forks, spoons, and knives.”

“The cabin expects five people,” Angel summarized.

“Yes, the cabin or whoever set it up.”

“All right,” said Angel, “you two have special relationships with God, right?”

She thumped her chest, “I get visions,” she pointed at Eloy, “he gets overprotected.”

Eliza patted her shoulder, “I had a physical conscience that took the form of a grasshopper.”

“You had a Jiminy Cricket?” Angel asked, bemused.

“Yep.” Eliza pointed to Gabriel, “He heard God’s voice when he prayed.”

“Does anybody know why we’re here?” Eloy asked, not expecting an answer.

“Virtue,” Eliza said.

“Beyond that, though.”

Eliza shrugged.

The virtuous thing to do, Eloy knew, was to let someone else have a bedroom all to him or herself, so he volunteered to bunk with Gabriel. He wondered if it netted him additional virtue credit when he quietly endured Gabriel’s snoring.

Breakfast the next day was curious. After her morning calisthenics, Eliza showed him how to get it. Just open the fridge around mealtime, and it was there. Usually it needed some microwaving. It was individually portioned. Exactly four packages of food in tupperware, one for each person. Not five, he noted. To Eloy’s delight, the breakfast sausage and eggs tasted like it had been prepared the night before by hand.

Angel held tight to the keys of the van. She pointed out that it wouldn’t do anyone much good if they drove out to look for civilization and ended up out of gas in the middle of the woods. She was impervious to Eloy’s argument that he appeared in the van first and therefore it was rightfully his and he should get the keys.

Eloy synchronized his watch with Eliza’s amazing phone that did everything. She was the best prepared of all of them. Her grasshopper had instructed her to hold onto a bag of useful supplies as tightly as she could before she disappeared and it had worked. She had a charger for her cell phone and the cabin had outlets. She said her phone could even connect to the internet and use satellites to tell you where you were, but there were no nearby cell phone towers, and apparently no satellites either. Eliza said she would love to synchronize to the central world clock, but she couldn’t without internet, so her time was just a guess. Nevertheless, her phone set the standard for the whole camp. They were on Eliza time.

This continued for a week. For lack of anything else to do, Eloy joined Eliza in her calisthenics routine, struggled to learn 13th century French with Gabriel, and did his best to avoid Angel whenever he could. It wasn’t hard, as she spent most of her time exploring the surrounding area in a systematic attempt to find an escape back home, or at least back to civilization.

At precisely six fifty-seven Eliza time each night, the whole group crowded into the radio room to watch Eliza deliver her broadcast for help at seven o’ clock. “This is Eliza Cunningham. I am here with three other people. We are stranded at a place called ‘Camp Virtue’ near Endurance Peak and seek assistance.” Eloy was irritated that Angel didn’t declare Eliza incompetent and take over that task, too. Apparently he was the only person here that merited so little confidence.

One day, after another tense fifteen minutes of listening for a response, Eliza stood to indicate it was time to leave. As Gabriel in the back turned to leave so everyone else could get out, the radio crackled to life.

“Eliza,” the radio said, “Come in Eliza. Eliza, this is Destiny. Over.”


The Sympathetic Universe Part 12

Eloy watched the road wind in front of him. Gray trees fell behind in the twilight. When the van did not turn with the road, Eloy realized he was in the driver’s seat and swerved out of the way of a spruce tree, managing to only hit a low branch, which dislodged with a crack. Thankful no one was hurt, Eloy backed up back onto the road and set the van to park.

Eloy examined the damage to the van. The left light was smashed in. Not something he could hope no one would notice. His heart was still pounding in his chest. Just a moment ago, he was about to go to school. Then God disappeared, then he appeared in a van rolling down a mountain hill and crashed it. All in all, a stressful day. He could still feel God’s absence. What was he supposed to do now? A voice in his head would be much appreciated.

It was completely dark now. The blinking red hazard lights showed him the outlines of his hands and the road and not much else. Eloy got back in and turned his lights on. He was gratified to see that the smashed light still worked even if it looked like hell. He checked the fuel gauge. Full. Eloy chuckled, like this van had just visited a fuel station in the middle of the woods. He sighed and tried to puzzle through what was happening. Nothing left to do but continue down the road. He started the van up.

The absence of God made Eloy on edge. The fact that he couldn’t see more than a few yards in front of him on sheer mountain roads would not normally faze him when everything was planned out so that he would do nothing but learn valuable lessons. Before he appeared here, Boden’s voice was rambling about virtue and about running out of time on “this Earth.” He also said that Eloy’s pet theory about God being his mother was wrong. On the other hand, that’s exactly what his mother told him in person, too, so…

“ok,” said Eloy aloud, “virtue.”

The road continued to wind. It was a climb now. Time passed. Eloy had seen no one else on the road. No cars, no signs, nothing. He tried turning the radio on. Static. He turned the dial through the frequencies. Static everywhere. Eloy grit his teeth and slammed on the dashboard. Everywhere had radio! Where the hell was he!? He turned the dial back the other way. More static, until he reached 171.7. A young woman’s voice. “…za Cunningham. I am stranded in the woods seeking assistance. I do not know my coordinates, but I am at a place called ‘camp virtue’ near Endurance Peak. Please send help.” The transmission ended.

“ok,” Eloy said, “camp virtue.”

Then he shrugged. “Endurance Peak.”

Eloy grimaced and raised his hands in surrender before clapping them back onto the wheel when the road made a sharp right. “Keep driving forward,” he muttered, “I guess.”

Eloy left the radio on. He turned the static down and listened to the noises of the night. Crickets made a continuous symphony. An owl hooted. A clicking noise he couldn’t identify. Another bird? The road went on.

In time, Eloy saw a figure waving at the side of the road. Easy as pie. The virtuous thing to do is help. Score one for Eloy. Eloy pulled the car over and rolled his window down.

“What have you got that smug look on for?” snapped the woman. Her black hair framed her scowling face. She looked old, like, 35 or something.

“Excuse me?” Eloy asked, taken aback, “I could have sworn what you said just now was not ‘thank you for helping me.'”

“The fuck is your problem?” the woman shouted, “you think this is a joke?”

Eloy and the woman stared at each other, and the woman shouted, “Did you crash this!? Are you old enough to drive!? Are you planning to tell me what’s going on!?”

“What’s going on!?” screamed Eloy, not sure whether to be angry or terrified, “I don’t know what’s going on!”

But the woman had reached in the window and unlocked his door. Before he knew it, vice-grip strong hands were hauling him out of the van. He braced for impact with the pavement, but, without giving him a chance to escape, the woman laid him gently on the ground. Then she climbed in the driver’s seat.

“Are you stealing my van?” Eloy stammered, vaguely worried about what would happen if he tried to stand up.

“Hey, fuck you.” the woman jabbed a finger down at him from the van. “How dare you. I was in the middle of a presentation. There were executives in that audience. There were power-brokers in that audience. I was going to show everyone what a woman could do. There were little girls in that audience. What happens when a latina who worked her way up from nowhere starts to tell people who have been told all their lives they’re worth nothing – what happens when she’s just about to tell them they can be something, and then she ceases to exist! What kind of message does that send?”

Eloy had no idea what kind of message that would send. He chanced putting his arms under him and pushing up a bit to look at her. “I disappeared in the bus in front of school,” he offered.

“Don’t lie to me,” the woman did not seem as assured as before.

“I really don’t have anything else but that van. Could I at least sit in the back?”

The woman scowled. “You sit in the front,” she said, “so I can keep my eye on you.”

Eloy had to admit that he had been getting tired of driving. He leaned his seat back and yawned. He checked his watch – it was supposed to be 9:00 AM. The darkness was getting to him.

“Hey, what’s your name?” the woman asked.

Eloy shook the sleep from his head, “Eloy.”

“Hm, so you’re God’s chosen.”

Eloy sat upright, “what?”

The light from the headlights illuminated the outline of the woman’s face. “That’s what Eloy means. ‘God’s chosen'”

“Oh.” Eloy was surprised no one had ever told him what his name meant. “God’s Chosen” seemed a little on-the-nose. “What’s your name?”

The woman shrugged, “Angel.”

The van bumped over a large stick on the road. The radio murmured its quiet static.

“Fuck,” said Eloy, “are we gonna run into Jesus next?”

“That’s my Dad.”

Eloy’s face contorted as he mouthed “what?”

Angel chuckled, her mouth stretched painfully wide across her face.

“God is my mom,” Eloy blurted.

“Fuck you,” Angel managed between heaves of laughter.

“No, really.”

“I just see the future,” Angel said, “It’s like dreams, but they tell me what’s going to happen. The visions always tell me no one will believe me if I tell them what I saw, and they never do.”

Eloy doubled over in his seat. He could barely breathe.

Angel continued, “But seriously, your mom? Jesus is just my dad’s name. It’s a common one.”

“I don’t know.” Eloy kept laughing. He couldn’t exactly say what was so funny. Maybe the night had just got to him.

The van continued on through the darkness.


The Sympathetic Universe Part 11

“People always ask me,” said Reverend Boden in his characteristic long-short rhythm, “why does the world have suffering if God is all powerful and all good?”

Eloy blinked and looked down at his iPod. The display said “Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication.” He rolled his eyes. Knowing his mom, He wouldn’t get to hear anything else through his earbuds until he was through this, so he set his jaw and got comfortable. Hopefully it would be done by the time he got to school and he wouldn’t have to pick it up again on the way back. He didn’t really mind Boden. Dad used to listen to him in the car and Eloy remembered falling asleep to his cadence. “PEOPLE… ALWAYS… ASK- ME- ….. WHY does the WORLD have SUFF-ER-ING if GOD is ALL POW-ER-FUL and ALL GOOD.”

“First I remind them that God is incapable of evil, for what He does is the definition of good. God is good, but more to the point good is God. They often want more than that.” Cue laughter from the congregation.

Eloy rolled his eyes. Mom was really laying it on thick today. He could put up with it. He had to admit he had enjoyed the attention he got after rescuing that old woman from the fire. The first responders were baffled at how he had apparently ambled in and led the woman out by a hand. The old woman, who’s name he had completely forgotten, had told everyone the fire just died down wherever he was about to walk. They didn’t believe her any more than they would believe him that she and her daughter hadn’t existed at all just days before.

“So, I tell them that they need to look beyond this world. We suffer as children when we learn we cannot take a sodapop from the store without paying for it. Our childish minds curse this cruel society that puts sodapop in our reach and then slaps it from our hands for so little reason.”

Eloy yawned and looked over at his busmates. The red-haired girl was hunched over a bulky green and purple copy of The Half-Blood Prince. Eloy guessed it could be any gigantic green and purple hardcover book, seeing as her wild hair blocked his view of most of the cover, but it was hard to imagine what else it could be. He restrained himself from the urge to shout “Snape kills Dumbledore!” She’d probably heard it a hundred times by now.

“But then we grow up and see the greater plan. With experience, we see the wisdom our parents wished to teach us, and the world makes sense again, all the better for the suffering of our youth. That’s what this world is to eternity. It is your soul’s childhood.”

Eloy experimentally turned his iPod off. He may as well save the battery. The sound didn’t stop. On a lark, he took his earbuds out.

“God gives you experiences now,” the reverend’s voice rang clear in his bare ears. Eloy glanced around, but no one else could hear, naturally.

“When my father killed himself, I asked God ‘why, God, what lesson should I learn from this?’ He said nothing, for the lessons of our soul’s childhood are not ones that can be taught, they have to come through living.”

A chill ran over Eloy. He didn’t know the reverend had lost his father, too. He probably didn’t, and this was just his mom using the reverend’s voice to manipulate him. Eloy slouched further. He fished the newspaper clipping out of his backpack. The one with the picture of him leading Wilma Duff out through the roaring flames. The article made no mention that Wilma had ever had a granddaughter.

“Sometimes,” Boden intoned more loudly, “people don’t want to LIST-EN to the voice of God. They drown it out with their petty worldly pride and forget that all of their successes were given to them through His holy grace.”

Eloy knew better than to try to talk to his mom out loud in public when she wasn’t there. He tried to think as loud as he could, “I get it, Mom! Can I please listen to my music now!?”

“God is not your mother, young man,” Boden’s voice snapped. Eloy froze. He felt the blood drain from his face. After a moment, the voice continued preaching, “We are all finite beings. We are all running out of time on this Earth. There comes a time in our lives when we realize those who guided us are gone, and now we have to guide ourselves and perhaps be the guide to others.”

Eloy realized his mouth was hanging open and closed it, “What do you mean, time is running out?” he thought.

The voice started speaking more quickly, “Your virtue is paramount, but the acts on this earth are immaterial. Practice virtue, but don’t expect reward. Virtue for its own sake.”

Eloy’s heart was pumping in his chest. Something very bad was happening, he was sure. The bus stopped at his school, but he stayed rooted to the seat. The reverend was now speaking so quickly that he could barely follow, “Pro-social… greatest need… the first stone… the least of these…”

For ten tense seconds, Eloy listened to sage advice pumped into his ear at light speed, utterly incomprehensible. Then it stopped.

Eloy was shaking. He felt like his heart was either beating at quadruple the normal rate or had stopped beating entirely. The bus was empty. The driver shouted, “Hey, Eloy, you gotta go to school!”

More silence. More than that, Eloy felt a chill. He felt like he had been living all his life under a warm blanket, and now with no warning, he was exposed to the January air.

No, he had been in someone’s arms his whole life, and now he wasn’t.

Now Eloy was on his own.


Steve Duke the bus driver was worried about Eloy. He’d had students who were too frightened of bullies or telling their teacher they hadn’t done the homework and wouldn’t get off the bus, but he had always pegged Eloy as more mature. What did a boy who sauntered casually into burning buildings have to fear at South Davis High school? Steve stood and walked back to Eloy’s seat. Then he scanned all the seats. He got down on his hands and knees and looked underneath them. Then he stood up, pulled off his baseball cap and scratched his head.

“Now where on God’s green earth could that boy have gone?”


The Sympathetic Universe Part 9

“C’mon, Eloy,” said Bert, “I’ve got your ID right here.”

“Cool, thanks!” Eloy took the id, “Hey, man, why does it say I’m 24? Shouldn’t 21 be enough?”

“21 is too exact, yo! It makes ’em suspicious!” Bert spoke with his whole body, throwing his hands in the air, his curly red hair bouncing as he bobbed his pale, freckled face up and down. He shone in the streetlights, like he was glow-in-the-dark.

“I don’t want to get in trouble, dude. My mother will get mad AF if she finds out.” Eloy didn’t want to disappoint Bert. He was literally the coolest friend he had ever gotten to hang out with. Every time someone remotely interesting came his way, he’d go right away again. His Mom nixing the deal was the best outcome. More often, something else even weirder happened. Freddy taught Eloy what “ass” meant in fifth grade, then became mysteriously allergic to his clothes or something. He couldn’t come near without breaking out into hives. Jack suggested he thought graffiti shouldn’t be a crime in middle school, then an hour later, his dad showed up in class and announced his decision to move the whole family to Iceland that afternoon. Wally offered Eloy a joint sophomore year, then just plain vanished. One kid insisted he saw his feet in the bathroom, and then he blinked and they weren’t there. He climbed under the locked door and just saw a half-smoked reefer floating in the bowl. Wally’s parents said they’d never had a child. Eloy felt vaguely guilty for putting Bert in so much danger, but the universe itself seemed to have made a pact with his overprotective mother, and he desperately needed to rebel.

“You’re 24 years old?” the bartender looked Eloy up and down.

“Ha ha, yeah, we get that all the time,” Bert jumped in, “he’ll have a Miller Lite.”

The bartender shrugged and pulled out a pint glass. Eloy’s adrenaline was racing. Was he finally going to get to do something bad? He watched the bartender fill it with frothy beer. Terrified that at any second the beer would disappear, the glass would shatter, or the entire bar would vanish and reappear in Quebec, he grabbed it the moment it hit the table and chugged it down.

It tasted like water. Eloy was underwhelmed. Bert was impressed. “Whoah, you’re a natural!” Bert downed a Coors

“Give me one of those,” Eloy said.

This one was bitter. That’s more like it!

Bert downed another Coors. Eloy had three more. Bert had two more, Eloy chugged another, and Bert followed suit.

“Am I drunk?” Eloy asked after a while.

Bert lifted a finger, swayed back, and jabbed it straight in front of Eloy’s eyes. “You, sir, are the heavyweight champion. Are you sure you’ve never had beer?” The pointing finger became an open hand that pressed against Eloy’s face as Bert used it for support.

“I’ll have another Coors,” said Eloy. The bartender gave it to him and he made as if to drink it, then he put it down. Fuck if his fucking magic mom wasn’t thwarting him again. “Bert, try this,” he said.

Bert guffawed and reached out to accept the beer. Instead, he fell off his stool. His head hit the bar top as he went down. “Fuck,” whispered Eloy.

“I’m ok,” Bert slurred from the floor, “could somebody help me get to the bathroom?”

Eloy didn’t know exactly the right thing to do, so he stayed with Bert while he threw up. So this was the new plan, huh? Just make sure fun things aren’t fun? This situation smacked keenly of the movie he’d just seen where the drunk guy’s friend takes his keys. So this was another learning opportunity, huh, Mom?

“Bert, give me the keys. I’m driving us home. I’ll take an Uber from your place.”

Bert raised his head, his face somehow even paler than before, “Yeah… yeah, man. You’re a good friend.”

Eloy sighed, defeated again.

“Do you think God has a plan for us?” asked Bert in the car.

I think God has a very particular plan for me, because my mom is God. Eloy knew he couldn’t tell anyone that.

“My mom says God just made the universe to run on its own like a big clock. He doesn’t have any particular plan for any of us.”

“I don’t care what your mom thinks, dude. What do you think?”

“You know what I think? I think she’s full of shit. God arranges our lives as learning experiences to prepare us to be better people. God is a micromanaging fuck.”

Bert guffawed, “I take it back what I said about holding your beer. God, maybe I should try Miller Lite.”

Eloy’s wristwatch said it was half past one in the morning. He pushed the door one millimeter at a time. Five seconds in, he heard a voice, “Just open it the rest of the way, Eloy Geoffrey Addison. I promise you won’t get more grounded than you already are.”

Mom didn’t like being called out on her witchcraft. The last time he tried to confront her she said she was going to send him to a psychologist. The next day she acted like nothing had happened. When he brought it up, she even played dumb. It was the only time he’d seen her play dumb, and she was good. You’d think she really had selective amnesia.

When he pressed her she got upset and told him she’d never said it before, but this time she really would send him to a psychologist. After she sent him to his room, she just left him in there for hours until he called down the stairs to complain and she said “I never sent you to your room.” After that, he had just stopped talking to her about it. He couldn’t handle the craziness.

Eloy couldn’t play Gamecube when he was grounded, nor could he visit friends. Mom and Dad were too cheap to buy cable internet and they didn’t like the phone tied up, so internet surfing on the dial-up was out of the question. He sat on the couch watching staticky TV.  As Spiderman, Tobey Maguire rushed into a burning building to save an old woman, only to learn that she was in fact his nemesis, Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin. Adventure ensued. Eloy sighed.

The next day walking to school, Eloy saw a curious sight. One of the houses was on fire. Great billowing flames lit the pre-dawn twilight. He snorted and kept walking. He couldn’t be late for first period.

“Help!” Eloy heard a voice and looked all around to see where it was coming from, “my grandmother’s in there!”

Nobody was saying it. Mom was just using her witchcraft and summoning voices. Eloy kept walking. “Help!” said the voice again. A woman was behind him now, “My grandmother is in there! Can’t you help!?”

Eloy sighed and slouched, “Fine.” He began to trudge toward the fire.

She had better not be Willem Dafoe.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 8

When The Entity reset its universe it noticed that the comet was still arriving in the same location and preventing Ta’s tribe from being attacked. Did The Cousin change the initial conditions? The Entity checked, and they were the same. It was not going to give The Cousin the satisfaction of knowing it had outsmarted it.

The Entity moved into a four-dimensional view, just to see if it could see something else it had missed. The whole path of the comet was according to the rules. It noticed something else, though, at the other end of time. The radioactive wasteland a few short aeons into the development of Sapiens was no more.

Looking more closely, The Entity saw that all of history was different. Some of the patterns worked out the same, but the names and dates were completely different. Now, in this version of the universe, nuclear disaster threatened, but was narrowly averted. It threatened again, and was narrowly averted. It seemed as if by sheer coincidence that sneaky cousin had nudged its universe onto a path where the dominant species just happened to make it through the most dangerous phase of its existence.

It still wasn’t going to tell The Cousin, but maybe it didn’t need to fix this comet issue. Since all the lives were different, it would even open up another batch of stories to live. Human stories were so popular, the one entity per person rule had turned out to be a serious limiting factor. There was always an entity ready to inhabit a mortal.

To limit the pressure on his universe to provide more people for entities to inhabit, The Entity had doubled down on its policy of letting other entities copy its universe and do whatever they liked with their own versions. This led to some very strange spinoff universes. Most common was an entity who wasn’t satisfied with how their life turned out.

Now The Entity had multi-layer rule protection and emergency shutoff mechanisms that stopped the universe and kicked out everyone living a life in it if anyone attempted to make an illegal change. It also identified the guilty party in an automatic mass message to let everyone know whose fault it is that they had abruptly been ejected from their physical journeys. After that, three more entities tried to save their unjustly executed children,  their prematurely perished parents and their cancer-stricken golden retriever respectively. Each was in short order cowed into a meek reassertion of the hand The Entity’s reality had dealt them, and then there were no more violations.

Its punishment scheme seemed so effective that The Entity didn’t even see the need to ban these three entities. However, each one took its offer to make their own universe where things were not quite so random and, well, cruel. Others followed suit. These were so common that they became a class unto themselves. “Guided universes” were ones where the entity on the outside behaved as a closely interested deity, making deliberate tweaks here and there as it saw fit.

For the most part, a guiding entity was satisfied just to help the people close to the mortal whose life it had lived. Occasionally an ambitious guiding entity would instead seek to create a utopia, ending all suffering for everyone within its universe. Some entities questioned the point of this, as these private universes seldom had any entities inhabiting them at all. Did the mortals in these universes even experience anything without entities in them doing the experiencing for them? “Kindness is wasted on an empty body.” became an aphorism among entities attempting to dissuade each other from trying to make utopias.

Why it was so important to so many entities that no one try to care about empty mortals for their own sake was an open question. The entity who created the first physical universe was now known for its obsessive protection of it from tampering and behind its back was called “Leave My Universe Alone,” or Lmua for short. Lmua’s position that consciousness only lay in entities had not even been a position before. It had just been taken for granted. It may well have made entities making their own universes uncomfortable to think that the “empty bodies” they were making actually felt and thought what they looked like they were feeling and thinking. For one thing, it might implicate them in some moral transgression to create such suffering, but for another, even the idea of a finite existence was inherently frightening.

So, an entity guiding a universe to maximize the happiness of its residents was frowned upon and rare. Those who did try it found themselves flummoxed by a human’s unfailing ability to be miserable even in the most pleasant circumstances. Entities that edited their mortals to not do this found they behaved much like entities that edited themselves to be always happy. An entity with an entire universe of satisfied humans laying on their feather mattresses in unending meditative joy can only remain interested for so long. At best, they leave that universe to its blissful stasis and move on to another project.

The most ambitious entities, through trial and error, struggled to make beings that will always be happy, but also will interact with each other in interesting ways, grow, and create art. To this day, they may still be trying to make such a being.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 6

It was strange watching her own life play out before her, but Ta experimented with her duplicate universe, playing out possibility after possibility.

Don’t change anything before Da is born. The smallest tweak can prevent a pregnancy or change the children completely. You can’t save them if they don’t exist at all. Obviously, you can’t make a change after Da’s death if you want to do any good, so that limits the realm of possible changes to a span of a few years.

What could save Ta? Would it be simple to engineer the aggressive tribe never running into Ta’s tribe at all? Ta knew the tribe had a shaman that consulted goat bones tossed in the air. She had been surprised to know there was nothing guiding how they fell besides a few simple rules like gravity and momentum.

But what if something did guide them? She couldn’t do anything like moving the bones directly, that would be caught and reversed immediately. However, what if she could change the way they were thrown until a configuration came up that led the shaman to choose a different path?

Something as simple as sneaking a little serotonin out of the shaman’s brain that morning could be enough to slow him down and change how he threw the bones. Then she’d run her universe until she saw him say to go somewhere else, or if he said the same thing, she’d reset, change something else, and hope for the best.

After 100,000 tries, Ta realized that the shaman was a hack. Seemingly no configuration of bones had any effect on his decision.

This was especially frustrating because it was contrary even to his own conscious thought process. No matter where the bones fell he found a different interpretation and was utterly convinced he had divined the will of the spirits. The ultimate conclusion of his interpretation was always the same and, since Ta was now the closest thing to a spirit actually intervening in this universe, always wrong.

As the shaman delivered the decision to move south towards Ta’s tribe for the one hundred thousand and second time, Ta summoned a confluence of electrons above his head and watched a bolt of lightning strike him dead. While the tribe stared in confusion at their wise man’s smoking remains, Ta reset her universe once more.

Ta glowered at the tribe performing its morning ritual for the 100,003rd time. She watched the man who had killed her swiping at his friend with a club. As he had thousands of times before, the friend caught the blow with his own club and pushed her killer down. Her killer tumbled and leapt from the ground back at him, laughing. These guys were always fighting, and they would go on to defeat her tribe with inferior weaponry and kill her and doom her son to premature death once more.

Well, this time they wouldn’t. She summoned a mountain six feet above the tribe and watched it fall and crush them with an earth-shaking thud. As for the real tribe, she would just have to find another way to stop them.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 5

Breaking the rules would be the easy part. Ta understood as well as everyone else that rules were only inviolable to the extent that no one was particularly motivated to violate them. The trick was keeping the break there. If the master of the universe noticed, it would certainly be reversed, and no doubt harder to break again next time.

“It was a singular experience,” Ta told the Entity, “I was utterly convinced by the little system’s world and her motives.”

Without intervention, this is how the story played out after Ta’s death. Ko waited until she realized her mother wasn’t returning, then she ventured out, alternating foraging for sustenance and searching the caves for Da. It wasn’t until a few weeks in that she found Da’s body huddled in the back of a particularly twisted passage, the skin dry and taut beneath her fingers. After that, Ko left and found another tribe who valued her spear-making skills enough to keep her until she died in childbirth several years later.

“Do you think other entities would benefit from this experience?” asked The Entity.

“Yes,” Ta agreed, “I recommend the experience for all.”

In early universes, you couldn’t hide a break. They were so simple, it would be like if she tried to add an extra horn to Ko’s rhinoceros she had drawn on the wall. No one could miss an extra line in a painting made of five or six to begin with, especially if they admired it and rubbed it for luck every day like Ko did.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” asked The Entity.

“Isn’t what beautiful?” Ta asked.

“The immensity of it all. So much feeling in so little space. So many lives beginning and ending. Think of the joys we may not have ever experienced without knowing suffering. To think we could have never known true poignancy.”

“Yes.” said Ta. She manifested a mouth and ground so she could spit on it. The Entity had a painting of one hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion strokes constantly in motion. More importantly, The Entity had already admitted that it couldn’t keep track of it all at once. Ta just needed to make a change that would save her children and then be swallowed up in the chaos unobserved.

The Entity spoke again, “Cousin, there are forty entities who want to be Ko, thirty-six who want to be Da, fifty who have identified another villager in that tribe, a hundred who want to be members of the conquering tribe, and a hundred and fifty who also want to be Ta.”

Ta’s blood ran cold. Even though she didn’t have any blood now, having lived in a body made you experience feelings differently. “No,” she said without thinking.

“You think I should limit it to one entity per person?”

Ta was tempted to say no one else in that section of the universe should get an entity at all, but she knew she couldn’t defend that without giving herself away. She considered the merits of fifty other Tas also vying to save her kids, but thought better of it. Secrecy was paramount. Numbers would not help.

“One entity per person,” Ta agreed.

“I’ll set up a lottery,” said The Entity.

Ta felt empty inside. Despite the eminent sensibility of letting no experience go to waste, the idea that her eternal cousins would draw lots for the experience of murdering her in cold blood and orphaning her children horrified her. What was more – how could she quietly save Da with a hundred entities watching?

Ta created a small reality. She was deep in a cave laying on soft animal furs. dancing flames lighting her and baby Da on her breast. She listened to the soft clatter of Ko throwing and retrieving her spear. She breathed in deeply – the smell of her child’s hair, the fragrance of duck fat dripping onto burning wood. She did not know how to tell her cousin The Entity – it was better here. The concerns of a human were petty and meaningless, but to embrace that emptiness was worse.

Ta watched Ko – it wasn’t really Ko. Ta willed the illusion to switch to practicing her art. To do so betrayed the fakeness of it all and her heart fell into her stomach. As Ko started a circle that would become a mammoth, Ta mulled over her options.

She could forget herself and return to being The Cousin. This was the worst option. Despite everything she knew, abandoning Da to his fate felt fundamentally wrong, a concept alien to Ta before she had been mortal.

She could alter her own feelings and simply choose to be happy. It seemed marginally better to keep the memory of Da and Ko alive if she couldn’t help them. She knew what happened to entities who chose to be happy, though. It seldom worked only partway, and she wouldn’t likely keep much motivation to do anything at all. It felt almost like committing suicide herself.

Ko completed her mammoth. She would never love it like her rhinoceros, but it still made Ta feel at home.

Ta could take The Entity’s offer to copy its universe and make whatever changes she liked to her own version. It would be easy to pretend that her copied Ko and Da were her real children, but she would be saving no one. In the back of her mind, she’d always know it was a lie. One of Ta’s father’s sayings – he was full of sayings that he offered while they wove baskets together – was that the worst lie was that told by the coward to comfort himself.

No – Ta would have to break the Entity’s universe and save her children. She couldn’t do it like she had planned, though – the evil men abruptly fall dead, the tribe’s spears strike true with every thrust, Ko never loses track of Da. None of these would escape the notice of entities watching from outside once and living it a second time. No matter how she managed it, they would certainly notice Ta’s failure to die.

Perhaps, though, she could prevent them from sussing out the reason. If the chain of events leading up to Ta’s botched murder was long and abstruse enough, no one could track down the break and fix it. Then there would be no way to force Ta to die without the Entity either breaking its own rules by changing something else or running the reality over again from scratch. The former would not happen, so she would only have to plan for the latter scenario. All she had to do now was use some trial and error to come up with precisely the right break.

Ta reached out to The Entity. “Dear Cousin, would you mind helping me construct a copy of your lovely universe?”