The Ones Who Look | Tor.com

    The Ones Who Look | Tor.com


    Ethical Empire built the gate to heaven, and their employees hold the keys. By offering custom-built afterlives through full-brain uploads, they answered the needs of a society pushed to the brink by climate change and cascading antibiotic failure. But for Zoe, who works daily to assess the sins of users and decide who’s worthy of salvation, heaven is not so simple. Despite the urging of the angels on her shoulder, she is determined to uncover heaven’s secrets, no matter the cost.

     

     

    Zoe had met Henri at the office. Of course she had. It wasn’t like she went anywhere else. She’d thought Paris would be different than Arlington, Virginia, that she’d get out more, eat fabulous meals and meet fabulous people. But it was the same life against a different backdrop. She still spent most of her time hunched before a screen, combing through the sordid details of other people’s lives and tallying points to enter into the endless Ethical Empire database. When she got out of work, half the places in her neighborhood were already closed. She usually ended up swiping snacks from the office for dinner because she didn’t want to cook, and then going home to watch American shows alone in her frigid flat.

    Her office offered all kinds of opportunities to meet people: bowling leagues at the indoor lanes, gaming marathons in the immersive virtual environments, biweekly ice cream socials at the trucks on the fifth and twenty-third floors. Zoe, however, had always been an introvert—“a mope,” as her mother spun it—and her position at EE hadn’t bolstered her enthusiasm for interacting with humanity during her off-hours. The system was supposed to prevent her from receiving a case from anyone in her network, but it had happened once, when she met the husband of a high school friend and realized she’d watched him slip pills into the pocket of his pharmacy lab coat a few weeks before on the monitoring feeds. It had soured her on meeting new people. So she poured all her effort into work, which was why she’d been able to apply for a transfer to the Paris headquarters from the dysfunctional Arlington branch after only three years, securing the work visa only once her extensive medical tests came back clear.

    Somewhat against her will, she had made one friend: Silvia, who sat next to her in the cubicle pod and was the one who warned her about Henri when she caught him flirting with Zoe in the snack kitchen. “He’s bad news,” Silvia said. “Goes through girls like fppp, fppp, fppp—” She mimed riffling through a stack of cards.

    Zoe wasn’t sure she’d mind that. She needed something to distract her from how sepulchral Paris looked in the early springtime. So she said yes when Henri asked her out, even though she’d heard by then from others in their pod that Silvia and Henri had dated and it ended badly. Silvia herself hadn’t told Zoe anything, so she couldn’t expect Zoe to know, could she?

    “That logic would never hold up in arbitration, and you know it,” said Rocky, the more severe of her two Recording Angels, as Zoe slipped into a silver dress before meeting Henri. “You know it’s wrong, and it is wrong, and you’re going to lose points.”

    Atlan was more sympathetic. “It’s harmless. A little fun. If Silvia really had a problem with it, she would have said something.”

    “But this isn’t how one should treat one’s friends!” Rocky always became especially strident at their most indignant. “Don’t you want to keep her as a friend, Zoe? Don’t you want to make friends here?”

    Rocky sounded uncannily like her mother, whom Zoe had been dodging calls from ever since relocating to France. “I just want to know that you’re okay,” her mother said in her voicemail messages. “And, well—if you could find time to sign the papers, I’d appreciate that too. I’m not getting any younger, Zoe. I’d like to know my family was going to be together in Heaven before I go to my grave. Is that really so much to ask?”

    “What about Dad, Mom?” Zoe would sometimes shoot back. “And how do you even know I’m getting into Heaven? How do you know you are?”

    Her mother’s voicemails never had anything to say to that. After one listen, Zoe always deleted them.

     

    The angels kept quiet during most of her date, but Rocky piped up once Henri and Zoe left the restaurant and started stumbling down the empty cobblestone streets, cleared of bustle by fear of disease, toward Henri’s Montmartre apartment, which turned out to be a classic mansard rooftop flat accessed by a perilously tiny elevator. They became more insistent once Henri and Zoe were side by side on his leather couch, once Zoe was close enough to see the outer ring of amber around Henri’s brown eyes and confirm that his skin was as probably just as soft as it had seemed when he first started chatting her up over the free protein bars.

    “Kiss him,” Rocky cautioned, “and it’ll cost you points.”

    Atlan scoffed. “What are we, Puritans? Why would making out cost her points?”

    “Because you know Silvia likes him.” Rocky’s voice was shrill in Zoe’s ear. “She’s not over him. It wouldn’t be fair.”

    “They’re broken up, he’s a free agent—”

    “This isn’t football—”

    Bleep. With a subtle tap of her finger against her wrist, Zoe turned off the Recording Angels’ advisory function. She could still picture Rocky and Atlan bickering in her head, still imagine the threads of their various ethical arguments, but that was to be expected after thirteen years.

    Henri was only inches away from her face, close enough that she could feel his breath on her cheek. “Problem?” he asked, his voice low.

    “No. No problem.” She leaned forward, grabbing his arm and pulling him in for a kiss. He made a surprised noise, which seemed a little affected considering the dinner he’d bought and the glasses of wine he’d poured them both when they’d gotten upstairs. She pushed him back, slinging her leg over his lap in an easy straddle. If this was wrong, she’d lose fewer points if it was over fast.

    Henri moaned, and she wondered what his angels were telling him. Then he licked her neck, his hand slipping beneath the hem of her dress, and Zoe stopped thinking about angels at all.

     

    Henri, as it turned out, was exceptionally good in bed and exceptionally diligent about running out for pastries the morning after. So Zoe kept seeing him, first a couple times a week, and then almost every night, leaking a small percentage of points each time. Silvia stopped talking to her about anything that wasn’t project related, but Zoe couldn’t bring herself to care. Besides, she had Henri to talk to now, who, in addition to his other talents, was smart and funny and genuinely interested in what she did all day. Usually her job description was the death of cocktail parties, the killer of casual conversation: It made everyone sad and uncomfortable, and usually ended up with people revealing their recent sins to her like she could give them a point total on the spot.

    Henri, though, wanted to know everything about arbitration. He was an engineer who had been with the Ethical Empire since nearly the beginning. “Back when it was only a game,” he said. A programming wunderkind, he’d dropped out of school to take a job with Leon Boltzmann, the multibillionaire Swiss founder of EE, an old family friend whom Henri said was less of a father figure to him than an eccentric uncle. Boltzmann didn’t go out in public anymore, holed up as he’d been in his bunker in the Alps since the global antibiotics failure, but Henri’s apartment was filled with pictures of him on waterskiing vacations and skydiving adventures with Boltzmann and the core EE team. They were nestled in between photos of Henri’s parents, who lived in Strasbourg and worked in government, and his younger sister Mariève, who had passed away from tuberculosis a year or so before. She used to live with Henri, sharing the spare bedroom that Zoe always tiptoed past as she made her way down the narrow hallway to the bathroom, even though she knew there was no one behind the closed door.

    In the photos, Mariève looked hale and happy, a feminine copy of Henri, with the same olive skin and sandy brown hair, though hers was shot through with streaks of artificial red. Zoe wondered if Henri ever visited her in Heaven, and decided that he must. How could he resist? Security risks prevented the living from having contact with the dead, but Henri would have all the keys, all the codes, all the know-how to speak safely with the sibling he had clearly adored.

    Rocky and Atlan advised against discussing painful topics early in any relationship, so Zoe didn’t ask Henri about it. Mostly when they got together they talked about work, since neither of them had much of a life outside the company anyway. Henri’s favorite topic was the minutiae of Zoe’s arbitration cases, which she’d first opened up about over a round of poker with the game-playing android Henri had brought home from EE’s robotics division. They’d rigged up the robot to be their dealer for five-card stud one night during a bout of post-coital insomnia, when they were both too wound up to sleep but not quite ready for another go. Zoe had spared a moment to wonder if she should worry about the fact that Henri had offered her a menu of quick games for the refractory period, like he was running a well-trafficked waiting room, before remembering she didn’t care. This wasn’t meant to last, even if things did seem to be going better for her than they had gone for Silvia. If she and Henri had never talked about the ins and outs of Silvia’s job, Zoe figured, they couldn’t have been that serious.

    “So I know all of Heaven and Hell, but I never really understood what happens in arbitration,” Henri said as he picked up one of the tidy stacks of Tarot Nouveau cards the robot dealt out onto the coffee table between them. “You watch their feeds and make a judgment, or something like that?”

    “Sometimes it’s something like that. Usually we don’t even need to watch the feeds, though.” She still did on occasion, though less than she used to. When she first started, the access to people’s private actions was alluring. But it soon became dull (in the best cases) and gross (in the worst). There was a reason almost everyone working below the exec level in arbitration was a woman or nonbinary person. You couldn’t pay men in tech to put up with other people’s shit the way Zoe did.

    “Then what do you do?”

    She traded in two of her cards to the robot, whose green visor, the only item of clothing it wore, cast a sickly hue over its expression. It was a prototype, meant to have the subtle tells and foibles of a genuine human player, since playing against perfect machines got boring at dinner parties. “We look at the facts. All that’s recorded: time of transgression, context, mood, effect, and intention. We may have to dig into their history a bit for the intention part, or they may include their version of facts in the report if it’s a client complaint. So we map their action on their particular ethical matrix and determine the deduction. There’s always a deduction, or a probationary period. They never would have ended up in arbitration if there weren’t. They did something wrong, it’s just . . . a matter of how much they’re going to lose because of that.”

    “Hmm.” Henri stretched back in his chair, waving his cards at her. “Give me an example.”

    “I’m not supposed to talk about my cases.”

    “They’re anonymous, right? So how will I know who it is?”

    She’d never violated her NDA during her three years with EE, but then again, no one else had asked. Rocky surely would have objected, but Zoe had turned off her angels earlier in the night. She knew better than anyone that all of her data was being streamed to EE and could be reviewed at any time, but it was easier to ignore if you didn’t have disembodied voices whispering in your ear while you had sex. She always switched them back on before falling asleep, though; she hated waking up without them.

    They placed their bets, and Henri won the hand. The robot had been bluffing, which was obvious: Henri had been tinkering with its reactions, but it still wasn’t complex enough to genuinely fool anyone. Its playing style, veering between preternatural precision and random error, was too erratic to simulate authentic personality, but EE wanted to roll out the new models next year. Crowded rooms of humans were an acute bacterial liability, and robotic replacements helped fill out social gatherings without increasing the risk of transmission. “Okay, fine. I had a guy today who got dinged for jerking off to pictures of his best friend’s wife.”

    “Jerking off?”

    “Masturbating.” Zoe mimed the universal symbol for hand jobs, and Henri’s eyebrows went up.

    “Ah.”

    “Yeah. He keeps losing points, because he’s done this a lot, and so he sent a complaint to us for arbitration because he says he’s in love with her, and would be much better to her than her husband is, and it isn’t fair that we keep deducting points from him.”

    Masturbation wasn’t generally a transgression, but the method or material employed could be. The clients dinged for obvious forays over the line didn’t tend to appeal. But on occasion you got a guy like this, who was sure he was in the right. So Zoe dutifully reviewed his record and found that he was in a book club with the best friend’s wife. They spent boozy evenings together discussing literature and he always drove her home afterward. Sometimes she’d tell him all about her problems with Gabe, the husband, who worked and golfed and drank too much, in her opinion. It was verging on emotional infidelity, for which the wife was probably losing points in some other arbiter’s books, but it was a gray area, because they’d never gotten physical.

    The man had kept his angels on for all his private fantasy sessions, so Zoe listened in on a snippet of their advice. “She’d be so much better off with you,” his version of Atlan said during the most recent point-losing incident. “Remember that night you talked about symbolism in Moby-Dick?”

    “You were the best man at his wedding,” whispered his Rocky. “You helped him pick out the engagement ring. He’d never forgive you. You’d ruin her life, too.”

    She wondered why he kept their advice running. Users couldn’t log out of the Ethical Empire app without losing points, of course, but they could turn off the angels whenever they wanted. A surprising number of clients kept them going even when they were committing flagrant wrongs. Zoe had never worked out the pattern as to why some clients did and some didn’t.

    “It makes sense to me,” Henri said when Zoe voiced her musings. “We found out what people wanted from the angels in the beta testing stage. They didn’t want an omnipotent being who can tell them exactly how to get into Heaven. Humans won’t just do what they’re told to, but they want guidance all the same. It’s why we developed two angels, offering variable input. Every action needs to seem like a conversation. A choice.”

    “Isn’t it?”

    Henri looked up from his new hand. “Sure. Of course it is.” He exchanged three cards with the android, which was biting its weirdly smooth lip. “I only mean—the angels can calculate probabilities almost perfectly. They could tell users exactly how to earn their way into Heaven. But no one wanted that, when we offered a single omniscient advisor. So we split them. Narrowed the scope of their learning and their, comment dire—speculation.”

    “You dumbed them down.” Zoe traded in her three of diamonds for a stoic queen. The android was now blinking rapidly, probably preparing another bluff.

    “You could say that, I suppose. But we think of it as preserving libre arbitre. Free will.” Henri scratched his taut stomach as he eyed his cards. “So what did you do? With the man who could not stop masturbating?’

    “I put him on probation. He’ll stop losing points for his . . . behavior, but he’s on red alert for any interactions with the woman in question. Anything that seems like a move or any suspicious language loses him points. He can fantasize all he wants, but he can’t actually have any intimate contact with her without causing major damage.”

    Henri’s brow wrinkled. “Doesn’t that seem cruel?”

    “Cruel to who? The probation’s lifted if the woman and her husband break up.” She started the betting high, and the robot recorded her opening gamble. “Isn’t that the aim of the Ethical Empire, anyway? To make sure everyone honors their moral commitments?”

    “I suppose.” Henri matched her bet, and the robot folded. “But what if they were—how do you say it—meant to be?”

    She’d thought about that. She’d thought about it a lot. “Your father and I weren’t meant to be,” her mother had told her, when explaining why they were getting divorced, why Zoe’s father was taking his guitar and his books and the cats her mother had never liked to move into an apartment across town. “We weren’t good for each other. We didn’t make each other happy.”

    People stayed married more now, in partnerships that were better, at least on paper. The app had reduced domestic violence and infidelity across the board. It had caused political leaders to sign peace accords and finally take some real steps on climate change and poverty and hunger and a thousand other crucial issues they’d been neglecting. The Ethical Empire had concretized paradise and inferno, available in customizable modules for nearly all wavelengths of belief, and everyone was a better person because of it. Or at least they were pretending to be.

    Lying next to Henri later as he snored, she wondered. Divorce wasn’t a point-losing action unless you’d elected to play in a Religious Mode that detracted for it. But a lot of things that forced divorce—lying, cheating, throwing someone’s possessions out a window—could lose you your hard-earned credits. And Zoe knew few people capable of getting through something as messy as a marital split while maintaining perfect ethical poise. Better not to risk it. Better to smile and fake it, and earn your eternal reward.

     

    On her father’s birthday, Zoe’s mother left her another voicemail. “I put in Grandma’s rose bushes. It’s a shame she can’t be with us, but what can you do? Oh, and your brother says he can program in that infinity pool I’ve been asking for. If the family hits the point total I sent you last week, we’ll get the sixth-level upgrade, so I hope you’ve been behaving yourself in Paris, Zoe.”

    After deleting it, Zoe went to the nearest patisserie to buy herself the largest pastry she could find. She took it over to Henri’s to split it with him without telling him why.

    She spent most nights at Henri’s now, sharing highlights of her cases from the day. There was the embezzler, and the plagiarist, and the woman who kept forgetting to pay parking tickets. That last case had been tricky, because the woman had recently received a dementia diagnosis. EE claimed they’d improved the way they handled disability when it came to assessing ethical actions, but Zoe’s instructions were simply to do whatever kept them relatively free of lawsuits. Not that the lawsuits mattered. The Empire’s wealth exceeded the GDP of a good percentage of the world’s countries.

    There was still a lot she didn’t tell Henri. She didn’t tell him about her mother’s calls. She didn’t tell him about Michael, the man she’d been seeing back in Arlington. She didn’t tell him that she broke up with Michael because she couldn’t stop picturing the strange and terrible things he did when he was alone.

    She didn’t picture Henri doing strange and terrible things, because she knew where he was almost every minute of the day. She could see the entrance to the engineering offices—“the lair,” as everybody called it—if she leaned back in her chair and glanced past the wall of her cubicle. She could see the spray-painted inscription in red on the faux-stone arch above the blacked-out double glass doors: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.

    She didn’t see the other engineers much. They kept to themselves, and after spending time with Henri she understood why. If the legal agreements she had to sign to work at EE looked intimidating, the engineers more or less signed away their life’s rights for the chance to collaborate on Boltzmann’s grand design.

    Henri worked late in the lair a lot, so Zoe started racking up the overtime as well, earning her pointed looks and even sharper silences from Silvia, who tried her damnedest to find fault with Zoe’s reports but never could. Henri worked at his apartment on nights and weekends too, always in the living room, where he’d set up a console shielded from Zoe’s gaze by creative angling and stacks of books on dreaming and the function of unconsciousness. He’d let it slip while drunk one night that all those texts had something to do with Hell, the most opaque but essential component of EE, before clamming up on the subject.

    Heaven meant nothing without the risk of Hell, even though the percentage of users who ended up there was negligible. It had recently become a formal part of the penal system for a few of the governments EE did business with: The move had drawn widespread protest, but the company was used to pushback by now. Only the worst of the worst ended up there, anyway. If you feared Hell, the logic went, you probably had reason to.

     

    Perhaps it was Henri’s talk of the composition of nightmares, or the nocturnal hours she’d been putting in on the monitoring feeds, or the fact that she kept wondering why someone would keep a two-bedroom in Paris but use their living room as their office. Whatever the cause, late on the eve of La Fête du Travail, a day they planned to spend exploring Le Marais, Zoe found herself restless and fidgety as Henri snored beside her. It was warm enough now to keep the window above the bed cracked open, and she could hear the voices of Henri’s neighbors echoing across the balconies in the courtyard as they chattered and laughed. If she’d smoked, she would have perched out there now, lighting her cigarette in the dark and eavesdropping on conversations she could only half understand.

    But she wasn’t a smoker, so for lack of anything better to do she got up and went to the bathroom, staring at her blurry reflection underneath the harsh yellow light. She kept a case for contact lenses and a small bottle of solution in her purse for when she slept over at Henri’s, since her visual implants couldn’t totally correct her vision, but glasses seemed presumptuously domestic in a way contacts were not, like showing up with a pair of pajamas. Her low vision made the nighttime landscape of Henri’s apartment even more alien, filled as it was with ominous shadows that didn’t resolve themselves into ordinary items like coatracks or robot parts until she was nearly on top of them.

    On her way back from the bathroom, creeping past the door to Mariève’s bedroom, she was sure she heard a noise. A cough; a creak.

    The building was old. It settled and sighed, its pipes groaning and wheezing like a rheumy old man all through the night. But Zoe pressed her ear against the wood of the door anyway, unable to shake the sense that somebody was on the other side.

    Her hand crept down to the dulled crystal doorknob before Rocky’s voice streamed into her ear, startling her out of her semi-sleepwalk. “It’s a violation of his privacy to go in there, Zoe. You should go back to sleep.”

    Atlan agreed. “Ask him about it in the morning if you’re curious. But you can’t go snooping in his space like this.”

    Her fingers tightened around the knob, and, quietly as she could, she turned it an inch, confirming the door wasn’t locked. She eased it open, wide enough to slip inside, and let herself into the room that had been Mariève’s, leaving the door cracked behind her.

    It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the scant ambient light spilling in from nearby rooftops through the dormer windows. Even when they did, though, she didn’t understand what she was seeing.

    The space was nearly bare. There was a stripped mattress on the floor to her right, and a thin, rickety chest of drawers pushed up against the wall to her left. But most of the space in the room was dominated by the object pushed up against the windows. It was taller than Zoe and wider than her arms at full extension, stretching at least eight feet across, blocking out the illumination at its back.

    Moving forward on tiptoe, Zoe strained to make sense of the pigments that were emerging on the broad wooden surface of the hinged structure. It was a triptych, she realized, remembering her single excursion to the Louvre that very first week in Paris. Upon its dark background someone had painted three figures, each inhabiting their own panel: one daubed in white, one in brown, and at the center a humanoid shape of indiscernible hue, with things hanging from its arms and legs.

    The paint was layered on so thickly that the details didn’t yield themselves even when she got up close. All she could see were the glinting ridges of the oil paint.

    She turned back to the door, ready to risk flipping on the light, and saw Henri standing there.

    “Told you,” Rocky muttered.

    Henri didn’t look mad. Only tired, blinking at Zoe as he leaned against the doorframe. “Couldn’t sleep?”

    She nodded, wrapping her arms around her middle. “I’m sorry—I should have asked. But I was really out of it, and I didn’t think—”

    “It’s okay.” He was gazing past her, toward the painting. Shielding his eyes, he reached out to the wall to flick on the light. “It’s called Les Femmes Qui Regardent. Or The Women Who Look.

    Zoe turned back to the triptych, where the three mysterious shapes had been revealed as nearly life-sized women, their faces blank unfinished ovals.

    The one on the left cradled an ocher jar in her hands, held out toward the viewer. The one on the right held out her hands as well, though they were empty, the fingers crumbling away into dust. And the one in the center, her limbs twined about with snakes and ivy, offered up a half-eaten fruit that might have been an apple, or a pomegranate. Where her lips should have been there was a kermes stain, a shade lighter than her skin.

    “Pandora. Lot’s wife. Eve.” Henri walked forward, indicating each figure in turn. “The women who can’t help seeking, and bring destruction when they do. That’s what Mariève said it was about.”

    Zoe glanced over at him. “She made this?”

    Oui. One of her last works.”

    “She was an artist? Professionally?”

    “She did not know what she was. Not yet.” His eyes were on Eve. “When we were growing up my parents were afraid she might become a nun. She was always quite religious. Quite . . . serious.”

    Zoe found his use of the past tense incongruous. Most people these days adopted the present tense to speak of the dead, especially if they worked for EE, where that language was core to the idea that life and death were an uninterrupted continuum. Old habits were hard to break, though, and some still talked about users who had passed over like they were gone forever.

    She turned her attention back to the painting. “I’m not sure I get it.” The trifecta before Zoe reminded her of the images of saints, or the flat royal suite characters on Henri’s playing cards. There was skill in the strokes, but it almost looked as though Mariève had gone over the lines of the bodies again and again before ever completing the faces. “She—there’s a lot of talent here, though.”

    “She was always a little complicated to understand. Her art, too.” Henri reached out to touch the wood, tracing his fingertips over a leaf on Eve’s shoulder. “It reminds me of this saying Boltzmann has. ‘Men have the vision, but it’s women who can always find the socks.’”

    “Wow. Patronizing and binary.”

    “Yeah, it doesn’t translate well. It’s something his father used to say, I think. Boltzmann’s a little—what did you say the other day? ‘Old school.’”

    “I don’t care how far back you go, Henri. There have never been only two genders.”

    His lips quirked into a smile. “Mariève would have said the same, I’m sure. She hated Boltzmann.”

    “Wait, really? I thought your family loved him.”

    “Everyone but her. He tried—you know he can be charming.” Zoe only knew as much from company-wide broadcasts from Boltzmann’s bunker and old news interviews, but Boltzmann’s cult of personality spoke for itself. He’d had a rabidly devoted fan base from the beginning, a growing tribe of true believers who thought EE was destined to save the world. “She never budged. She did not like my work, either. She wanted me to pursue medical research, or environmental protections. She kept telling me to do something else, up until—” He swallowed. “Until the end.”

    Zoe lay her head on his shoulder and her hand over his, squeezing tight. “He’s exhausted,” Atlan whispered. “You both should sleep.”

    And so Zoe set aside her questions, including the one she knew she couldn’t stop herself from blurting out if they stayed before the faceless women another moment. “Come on,” she said, drawing Henri toward the door. “Let’s go back to bed.”

     

    Summer sauntered into Paris shortly thereafter, sultry and gay enough to melt even some of the ice between Silvia and Zoe, who went out for Aperol spritzes and bonded over their shared annoyance with their supervisor’s management style. Zoe started to walk more, making her way down to Le Jardin des Tuileries to bask in the sunshine. She went on shopping sprees, bringing home bags of clothes and shoes, purchasing expensive lingerie now that she knew someone would see it. She found a shop that looked like her grandmother’s attic and sold nothing but handcrafted candles, and bought herself one that smelled of honey and cedar, even purchasing a bell jar to keep it under at the shopgirl’s urging. She could afford it, and she wanted Henri to enjoy coming over to her place as much as she enjoyed staying at his.

    When they’d been going out three months, Henri took her to dinner at a hip hole-in-the-wall in his arrondissement. He knew the owner there and ordered the second most expensive champagne on the menu. “It’s even better than the pricier stuff, trust me,” he told her.

    “Are you in love with him?” Atlan asked her as Henri and Zoe toasted the quarter-year they’d spent in each other’s beds. “You seem like you could be.”

    She couldn’t tell. If she’d ever been in love she hadn’t known it, and though her mild case of joie de vivre seemed as tied to Henri as to the             estival charms of the city, she still wasn’t sure she credited the concept. The chronic masturbator had popped up in her assigned cases again that day, this time because he’d kissed the best friend’s wife while the best friend was out of town. “But I love her,” he lamented in the vid complaint he’d sent. “And she wants to leave him. She’s just not sure she can yet because he built their Heaven, and she doesn’t know what it will do to her point total. But if you’ll let us be together, we’ll volunteer for a year. Leave everything to charity. Adopt a child in need. We promise.”

    “You mind if I order for us?” Henri asked. “I know all the specials here.”

    “Go for it.” She always felt like the people of Paris were judging her for using her translation app, like they could tell by the stilted way she spoke their language that she’d never put in the time to learn it properly.

    After giving their waiter some animated instructions, Henri leaned back in his chair, tipping the glass of bubbly to his lips. “I think I should tell you something,” he said after a sip. “Though I’ve been a bit afraid to.”

    Zoe’s stomach dropped as she flipped through her extensive mental catalogue of depraved habits. “What’s that?”

    He set down his glass, fingertips resting on the stem. “This is the longest I’ve ever dated anyone from work.”

    She nearly laughed. “I’m flattered.”

    “I didn’t think you would be.”

    “Why not?”

    “It’s embarrassing, no? To have never been with anyone longer than a few months?”

    “So that goes for outside of work, too.”

    “Mm-hmm.” He tapped the base of his glass. “I never meet anyone anywhere else. And when it goes on too long, I get nervous. But I don’t get nervous with you. You’re—easy.” Zoe raised her eyebrows, and he backpedaled. “No, I mean—you don’t pretend. I feel comfortable with you.”

    “You get nervous? You don’t seem like you would get nervous.”

    “But I do. You probably heard about Silvia, right?” Zoe shook her head and lost a point for lying. “We dated. Not for long. Maybe one month. But I didn’t tell her why I had to end it, and she called me an asshole. Plus she was too strict about work. No sense of humor. She would not tell me anything about her cases.” Zoe squirmed a little in her chair, uncomfortably aware of how little it had taken for her to break EE’s confidentiality agreement. Henri scrutinized her. “I thought she would have told you. You really didn’t know?”

    “I really didn’t know,” said Zoe, and lost another point as Rocky groaned.

     

    During dessert, Zoe’s phone beeped. She checked the message in the bathroom and heard her mother’s voice coming through her aural implants, as clear as Rocky and Atlan’s. “Why do you always punish me for being the one who survived, Zoe? Half your life it’s been this way. And now—well. You won’t have me to ignore for much longer. I got the test results this morning.”

    Zoe listened, fancy French underwear pulled midway down her thighs, as her mother detailed symptoms and timelines, survival rates and regions of bodily invasion. When the message was over she didn’t delete it. She went back out to Henri and sat across from him, nodding at his story about a trip to Barcelona while Rocky told her to call her mother and Atlan said it was okay if she needed time and the last of the Glace Plombières melted into a puddle, spilling over the plate and dripping white globs onto the table.

    Zoe’s mother had started going to a chiropractor, the chiropractor who would eventually send her to her a specialist, the specialist who would eventually tell her how long she had to live, around the time the Arlington branch of EE had gone to hell. The arbitration teams were collapsing. One girl had joined a cult. Another tracked down one of the people she’d been monitoring, a lawyer who spanked his children, and stabbed him to death. The only man in their department declared that EE was building a robot army and planning to take over the world, and that Boltzmann was himself an android.

    It all happened at once, the disintegration, and Zoe had been the only one to keep her head. Silvia had remarked on it when Zoe arrived in Paris, scrolling through Zoe’s file on her tablet. “Very impressive. Especially in such a terrible time.” She glanced up, smiling. Zoe couldn’t take her eyes off the magenta lipstick stain on her front tooth. “You are very dedicated to the work.”

    Zoe wasn’t sure if she deserved the praise. It hadn’t been particularly hard to get through Donna’s attempts to get Zoe to come to the compound in Kentucky with her, or Arjun’s ranting about how many small AI firms EE was buying and how it surely meant the singularity was coming. She’d still come into the office every day, still done the same work she always did. She was used to turning off her own doubts and feelings, used to letting Rocky and Atlan guide her through her days. They’d done it for her when her father died, in the weeks after the funeral, when Zoe couldn’t get out of bed, when all she wanted was to join him in Heaven. She’d thought about razors, and rope, and pills, but suicide was a surefire way to disqualify oneself from paradise unless a high-level arbiter determined that the death was a case of ethical euthanasia or extenuating circumstance. EE had learned the hard way that if they left that loophole open, too many people would walk right through the door.

    Atlan had spoken to her, softly, night after night, until the morning Zoe finally got the strength to push open her bedroom door. “Zoe, if you get up and go outside, you can earn some points, and you’ll get closer and closer to Heaven with every bit you do. And don’t you want to see him again? Isn’t that what you want, Zoe?”

     

    Back at the apartment, cheeks flushed red from champagne, Zoe and Henri fell into bed. She didn’t turn her angels off. She wasn’t sure yet that she could handle the night without them.

    Afterward, Henri rolled a heady spliff sprinkled with Moroccan hash, which they passed between them as they lay atop the ruined sheets, twisting up to blow smoke out the window. It made Zoe feel like a lot of things in Europe did: a little decadent. A little sick.

    This could be her life, if she stayed. No more East Coast schwag from a cheap vape pen in Michael’s rented condo. She could live in Paris with her brilliant engineer boyfriend, accompanying him on business trips to all the exotic locales where EE had a presence, from Buenos Aires to Bangalore. It would almost be perfect, her life. The only thing she couldn’t work out was what came after.

    She propped herself up on an elbow, looking over at Henri. His expression was lost in the dim blue of the room, illuminated only by the small incense-scented candle she’d picked up for him when she bought her own. “I have to ask you something.”

    “Of course.”

    “Could you—I know this is a strange thing to ask. But could you turn off your feed? Just for a minute.”

    He looked at her, his eyes black pools. Then he nodded, the bed shifting as he tapped his wrist.

    “That’s not a good idea,” said Atlan.

    Rocky agreed. “Anything said in private can be said in pub—”

    She switched off her feed. Henri waited for her to speak.

    “It’s about Heaven. I need to know if—” She took a breath. It was strange not to have Rocky and Atlan guiding her through this. “If it feels real when you make copies of people, when you have access to their data.”

    “You mean does it feel real when you—”

    “When you pass over. Yeah.”

    Henri watched her a moment. Then he threw off the sheet, standing and crossing the room like a pale skinny ghost to retrieve something from the dresser. He settled back beside her and, without a word, tapped a cool, smooth object against the implant on her wrist.

    “Sorry,” he whispered, once he’d tapped it against his own skin. “I should have asked. But they’d know then, you know. This is the only way to actually disable the app.”

    A slug of fear slid down Zoe’s gut. “So Rocky and Atlan, they’re—”

    “Just off temporarily. Don’t worry, I’ll turn them right back on. But I wanted to be honest with you, off the record. Are you asking because—I mean, is there someone who—”

    “My dad.”

    “Ah.” Henri’s hand was on her other wrist now, stroking lightly. “I’m sorry.”

    “It’s—he died years ago. When I was sixteen. He was really sick, and so he was thrilled when Boltzmann announced the afterlife feature.” The timing had seemed so miraculous, then. Just as bodies were failing—just as new and old plagues were spreading fast and far, aided by the failure of antibiotics and the febrile globalized world—the Ethical Empire developed technology that made bodies largely unnecessary. “But now my mom is sick, and she wants to sign everyone up for the family Heaven, and—they got divorced way before he died. That’s the problem. She doesn’t want him there. Not the real him. The best compromise she offered is that I could have a copy of him locked off in some corner of the place. We fought about it all the time before I left. And I keep wondering—would I know the difference? If I had a copy of my dad, or if I moved into his Heaven and got a copy of my mom instead, and she had a copy of me? I know you can share space in multiple paradises sometimes but I’m never going to earn enough points to do that, I’m not a saint, I’m barely a cinch to get in and I’ve been working for EE for three years—”

    “Hey, hey, slow down.” Henri, to her dismay, was chuckling. “It’s okay. If it’s points you need, I can get you points.”

    “What do you mean, you can get me points?”

    He waved his hand. “I can—you know. Dump however many you need in your account. So you can build what you want.”

    They were both high. Still a little drunk. Maybe that was the cause of Henri spouting nonsense. “You can’t just give me points, Henri. I’m in arbitration. I know that better than anyone.”

    Something about the comment altered Henri’s tone. “Oh, yeah. I didn’t mean—I meant that I can help. Make it feel real, whatever you decide to do, you know?”

    “Does it feel real when you visit Mariève?”

    He stiffened. “What?”

    “I asked because—I thought you’d know. She isn’t a copy, but if she were, do you think you’d know the difference?” She couldn’t seem to stop herself now. Something about the dark, and the hash, and the fact that she had an architect of Heaven before her had unleashed her tongue. “What does it feel like? I’ve watched the testimonials, but they can’t really tell you everything. Death must change people, right? No matter how seamless the upload?”

    Henri still wasn’t moving. His eyes were focused on the wall behind her. She looked back, and saw only her shadow in triplicate.

    “She is not . . .” Henri’s voice was so low that she could barely hear him. “Mariève is not in Heaven.”

    Zoe sucked in a breath. “Where is she?”

    “Nowhere.” Henri’s voice began to break. “I want to believe she is, but I cannot. Because if she is—” He buried his face in his hands. “I’m going to Hell.”

    “You’re not—Henri, you’re an engineer. There’s no way you’re going to Hell.”

    “Not that Hell. The real one.”

    “What are you talking about?”

    He raised his face. “It’s broken, Zoe.” She’d always liked the way he said her name, Zo-ee, but now it sent a chill down her spine. “Heaven—it’s broken. It has been broken from the start.”

    “I don’t understand.”

    “Those first beta users. Your father. Almost everybody since. They’re not in Heaven. Not anymore.”

    “Where are they?” She was glad they weren’t touching, glad she hadn’t reached out to comfort him. She wasn’t sure she could stand the feel of his skin on hers.

    Purgatoire. We made it in the beginning. We thought—we only meant it for extra storage, back then. Or maybe only in extreme cases. But it’s where everyone goes now.”

    Zoe’s hands twisted in the sheets. “That can’t be true.”

    Oui, it is. We’re fixing it. We are trying. But at this moment—maybe only twenty thousand are in paradise. All rich, all powerful. It takes too much to keep everyone else’s minds running. More than the subscription fees or subsidized plans could cover.”

    Zoe knew who he meant. Her nation’s last president. Scores of CEOs. Celebrities, aristocratic scions, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners. All the early influencers who had helped secure funding for Boltzmann’s revolutionary, proprietary technology, all those who had stacked his company’s board with their bona fides. They were the ones who had given the testimonials, beaming in from the afterlife all beatific to encourage worldwide sign-ups.

    “We started to run low on storage in the vaults in Lausanne by the fourth year,” Henri went on. “But the problems started before. When we got the patents, the early users all seemed fine. They were fine. For a long time. But then they began to change.”

    “Change how?”

    “They warped.” Henri’s voice was dull. “Destroyed their Heavens. Attacked the system. Made . . . terrible things out of what they loved. What they had put in their afterlife.”

    An unbidden image flashed through Zoe’s mind: her father’s cats. Rocky and Atlan. The ones she’d named her angels for. The ones she’d told him to put in his Heaven, so he wouldn’t be alone.

    “We realized too late that a mind without a body can only exist for so long. There is an element of consciousness we couldn’t replicate that must be connected to embodiment. To sleep. To dreams. They’re important in ways we did not understand. All the people in Heaven now, we built them robotic vessels for relief from the virtual world. That is where Boltzmann’s concentrating all the research. He wants it perfected now, before—”

             Boltzmann’s building a robot army. Boltzmann’s terrified of illness. “Before he dies.”

    “Yes.”

    They sat in silence until Zoe spoke, her voice sounding far too loud. “Why are you telling me this?”

    “Because I am frightened, Zoe. We have done so much more good than bad. Every revolution has its cost, and to defeat death—that is the biggest revolution of all. But it doesn’t mean as much to me as it used to, because Mariève never signed up. She refused, no matter how many times I told her I could build her a Heaven, a real one. Get her a new body. She didn’t want it. She still believed there were things humans couldn’t do. Shouldn’t do. And maybe she was right. Maybe I’m going to burn.” He clutched at her hands, and she fought the urge to shake him off. “Tell me, Zoe. Am I damned?”

    “Why the—why do you think I can answer that?”

    “Because you can. You judge people all day. You weigh their sins.”

    “To total points that are apparently meaningless.”

    “But they matter, Zoe.” He squeezed her palms. “It does matter. Whatever you think, it matters. To me, it is—it’s everything.”

    His hands were hot in hers. Ever since her father died, ever since Zoe had left her mother behind in the States, all she retained of them were phantom sensations. She’d been trying, these last few months, to work out which ones mattered most. The sound of her mother’s voice? The smell of her father’s cologne? The way each of their hands felt in hers when she was young, swinging between them as they helped her sail over a puddle in a lush green park as big as the world?

    She hadn’t known how to choose, but she’d been certain her father was waiting for her. Her brother had chosen their mother. He always did. Her dad had never remarried, had no one by his side. She couldn’t leave him in eternity, counting down the years, the decades, until Zoe would arrive.

    “Can you save them?” Her throat was dry. “If you fix this mess, the ones who’ve already died—they can still go to Heaven, right?”

    Henri hesitated. “We . . . don’t know. We could not store all their data, everything from the neural links. We had to compress it. There has been loss. We’re not sure exactly how much. What it has done to them. Their experience of time, of reality—we do not know how it feels.”

    “And yet you send more users there every minute.”

    “We can’t stop it now, Zoe.” Henri’s eyes were refulgent, maybe with tears. Maybe only with reflected firelight. “Even if we tried, if someone told the truth—it would cause a scandal, and the Empire would go on. Stop Boltzmann, and someone else will take his place. Most people will still take the gamble to be the ones who end up in paradise, when the only other option is . . .” He trailed off, gesturing at empty space. At wherever Mariève wasn’t, perhaps. Or at the void of the room in which they sat, which, despite the summer night, seemed as cold to Zoe as catacombs.

    “Show me.” The words were out of her mouth before she’d had time to consider them.

    “What?”

    She withdrew her fingers from Henri’s grip. “You want me to render a verdict? You’ll have to show me the evidence. I need to see what you’ve done.”

    Henri gaped at her. “But I cannot—it threatens the integrity of the entire system, Zoe. I do not know how to open a link without threatening Heaven. Or without risking your mind, and mine.”

    Zoe said nothing. She kept her eyes on his, even though they were nothing but blurs to each other in the dark. She should have pressed him, that night in Mariève’s bedroom, on why he still kept a shrine to a sister he could visit in Heaven any time he desired. She wondered how much Mariève had suspected. What she’d known.

    Henri sighed, dropping his head into his hands. “D’accord. Okay. Let’s go.”

     

    Henri lived a twenty-minute walk from the office. It was three in the morning when they arrived. The security cameras and thermal scanners would capture their presence, but Zoe didn’t care. She’d never be able to stomach coming in to work again anyway.

    Henri made her wait in the cubicles while he checked the lair. She stared at the images on Sylvia’s digital photo wall, the portraits and candids of her large, happy family, and wondered how many of them had already died.

    “Psst.” Henri waved her in, holding the lair door ajar. She walked over to him, passing through the archway, and he led her down a hallway to another door, where he placed his hand against a pad for access. “Sometimes the others don’t leave. Just work on their Heavens, all night long.”

    Zoe followed him into the large circular room, taking in the sprawling, buzzing consoles and the scattered VR headsets. Half of its curved wall was a one-way mirror, looking out over the clock and arches of Gare Saint-Lazare, bright against the still and empty night. On the domed ceiling someone had painted Boltzmann wearing his signature “Ethical Tech” T-shirt and blazer, reaching out in the style of The Creation of Adam to touch the tip of a robotic finger.

    “Here.” Henri went over to one of the consoles and lifted up a headset. Zoe took it and awkwardly maneuvered it over her head. She saw only blackness for a moment, and then as Henri did something to her left the machine sprang to life, immersing her in his Heaven.

    Her breath caught as the vertigo hit, and she took a step backward, a real one. Henri caught her. “It’s okay. Takes a second to get used to. Use the controls; they’re linked to your implants already.”

    She twisted out of his grip. “Put yours on.”

    There was the clatter of plastic as he obliged, and then Henri was before her, standing on the same green hill the machines had deposited Zoe upon. They stood on a marble plaza that looked like something out of ancient Greece, with glowing plinths indicating different sites in Henri’s personal paradise. Around her the simulation stretched for countless miles, its every detail complete. Gleaming towers rose in the west, set before an aquamarine expanse with waves too even and perfectly whitecapped to be natural. Above them dual purple suns, the two clearest objects in an early evening sky filled with streaking meteors and other celestial ornaments, spun in twin harmony, casting an uncanny solferino glow over the landscape. The slopes of the hills around them were lush with blooming flowers and plants she didn’t think existed in nature, or maybe plants that had been lost long ago.

    She’d never seen anything like it. She’d played around with tweaking the Heaven template when she was younger, but stopped when the generic game options lost their allure. For all her efforts, she could never envision a Heaven bigger than a house.

    In the distance a volcano rumbled, startling her. She turned to watch as it spewed fire in the air, and then looked back at Henri, who was blushing in perfect-pixel quality.

    “Mordor,” he said. He looked a little sharper than he did in reality. The long plane of his nose cast shadows onto his skin that were starker than normal, though the effect may have come from the strange sunlight. When his hair waved in the wind, Zoe could see every strand.

    The virtual space she inhabited felt real. She tried to imagine how it might be to exist in a constructed world without the attachment of a physical body, but of course she couldn’t. Maybe death wasn’t only the expiration of the corporeal form. Maybe it was the separation from it. Maybe that’s what the mind never recovered from.

    “You can see here”—Henri tapped his finger against one of the plinths and a spinning image of Earth appeared, with an ever-increasing sum, outlined in red, floating above the projection of the globe—“nearly a billion minds and counting. It will just go up and up, exponentially. More people are signing up every day, and they put the implants in their kids now. As soon as they are able. No one wants to go to Heaven without their babies.”

    She shivered. When they’d left Henri’s apartment, she’d only thrown on a T-shirt, and the lair was freezing, its tangible chill overwhelming the temperate programming of Henri’s Heaven. The ticker above the map of the Ethical Empire kept rising, and Zoe tried not to tally all the people she knew who had died since EE’s beginning.

    Henri crossed over to another marble stand and tapped his finger against it. With dizzying speed, they were traveling, and when Zoe’s feet once again hit something her brain perceived as solid they were in a garden. A garden, or a jungle—Zoe couldn’t be sure of the correct terminology to use. Above her latticed towers of hanging vines stretched, leading to bridges and huts nearly a hundred feet up, and below her the invisible floor revealed descending levels of waterfalls and ponds, an unending grotto beneath her feet.

    They stood at the base of an impossibly large tree, one of at least a dozen Zoe could see. An opalescent snake, its body as thick as Zoe’s torso, wound itself around the lower branches. Henri started to walk and she followed, stopping behind him as they came to a stone wall overgrown with oleander.

    “It’s—I know it’s cheesy. But this is how I design. I have to think of the story, you know? So this is my perimeter. The edge of my—well, my Garden of Eden.”

    Zoe looked up again, to the soaring birds, large as pterodactyls, cackling over their heads. There probably were pterodactyls here. She wondered how much of this place resembled a fifteen-year-old’s amusement park wet dream. “So you can connect to Purgatory from here.”

    “Yes. It’s the only way in, besides Boltzmann’s Heaven. To create another conduit would be to acknowledge Purgatory existed, which we do not. It’s categorized as one of the lower Heavens, officially. That keeps it . . . mostly legal. It’s all there in the user agreement, but everyone who understands what it means is working for EE.”

    “Why would Boltzmann give you access?”

    “Backup. In case something happens to him. And because he has me working on a project to fix things. Rehabilitate those minds, or—recycle them, if we are able.”

    “Recycle them.”

    “Yes. For processing power, or for data.”

    “Data mining, you mean.” The value of this kind of archive of human minds would be inestimable, Zoe was sure. She’d never bothered to study the clauses for postmortem privacy protection in the EE terms of service.

    Henri nodded. “But we haven’t been able to find a way to extract the data without exposing the whole system to corruption. The minds in Purgatory—they’re like viruses. If I try to create a portal, even if I attempt to give only your father access, I don’t know what will come through. My Heaven is linked to a dozen others, including Boltzmann’s, which are linked to more and more. There are firewalls, but Zoe—we don’t really know what they’re capable of. This isn’t like AI we created ourselves from the ground up. These were human beings, once. I can try to contain them, but it could crash everything. I can’t project the risk of buffer overflow with something like this. A billion minds and no way to know exactly what they’ve become. Once we open a link to them, they will have a link to us.”

    Something tickled Zoe’s nose. The scent of jasmine, she realized, blooming on the vine. The aroma brought back memories of a summer trip to the zoo with her dad, borne on a simulated breeze she could feel brushing the fine hairs on her skin. They’d seen the last of a few kinds of animals there. The ones whose wild brethren had disappeared before humans were incentivized into behaving themselves.

    “We still have his base files. I could make you a good copy of him.” Henri’s hands were moving over a keyboard in the lair. She could hear it, the little clicks all around her at once, conjured from nowhere. And then Henri’s avatar pressed his hands against the wall, and there was a door there. He turned to face her. “There could be generation loss. He may not be exactly what you remember. But who would be?” He gazed at her for a long moment, the glittering specks of gold in his eyes hyperreal. “Even if we had designed Heaven perfectly, who would be?”

    “Is that how you feel about Mariève?” Henri’s avatar flinched, and she knew she’d hit her mark. “That she’s just a collection of memories? Wouldn’t you give anything to have her, all of her, beyond that door?”

    Henri’s fists clenched. “She is only my memories now, Zoe. She’s gone. And if I could talk to her, I would.” He walked toward Zoe and palmed something into her hand: a silver key. “If I could ask her what to do and she could tell me, I would do it. But it must be you. Because you make the judgments. The decisions, all day, and I do not know what else to do. Maybe there’s nothing else. No other judgment, no saving anyone’s soul. And we are doing good work. The world—it is better. I keep thinking of where we were a hundred years ago. Fifty. Twenty. Should we give all that up because death has some bugs?”

    The key was leaden in Zoe’s grip. It was only code, she knew, but it seemed to thrum with power, like a magical item in a quest.

    “That’s why you asked me out, isn’t it.” The words had weight too; the ungainly clunk of truth. “Because you wanted me to absolve you. Because Silvia, or however many other arbiters you went through, would never have gone this far.”

    Henri didn’t reply. He didn’t have to.

    She pushed past him to press her hand against the wooden surface of the portal he’d created. It felt like any door, like the door she’d pushed open when her father hadn’t responded to her knocking one Sunday morning. Like the door to Mariève’s room, to Henri’s room, to the room Zoe locked herself inside for weeks as a teenager. Like the top of a coffin at a closed-casket funeral, hinged at the sides, heavier than you’d guess. Like something you should never look inside.

    She had lied to Henri when she told him her father couldn’t wait to sign up for Heaven. It had been Zoe who insisted, who pleaded and begged. If she walked away now, went home, left Henri, she’d have to convince her mother to do the opposite. To let herself die so she wouldn’t be trapped, a fragmented mind in limbo.

    But who would choose oblivion against the promise of “maybe”? Vanishingly few, Zoe was certain. Life wasn’t hard-wired that way.

    Though her fingers were wrapped around the key, she found them tapping against her right wrist. It took her a moment to realize why. “I can’t—I have to think, Henri. Turn them back on.”

    He understood immediately. “But what if someone sees?”

    “Henri. Turn them back on. Please.”

    She experienced nauseating sensorimotor dissonance as she felt Henri lift up his headset and push the dampener he’d used in the apartment against her flesh, even as he stood before her in the simulation, motionless. Her vision flickered, and suddenly Rocky and Atlan were there, standing before her in all their glory.

    They looked like real angels, tall as she was, wrapped in golden robes, with fluffy white wings and hair flowing down to their waists. Rocky’s was a darker shade of red than Atlan’s, and though they looked identical otherwise, she could still tell them apart at a glance.

    “Whatever you’re doing, Zoe, stop,” Rocky insisted. Their radiant visage was smooth and perfect enough to be utterly alien, their eyes too big for their face. “You shouldn’t be here. You could lose points. You shouldn’t be here. Go home now.”

    Atlan was looking at the door. They cast their gaze back toward Zoe, and she could see in an instant that they knew precisely what she was about to do.

    Rocky caught on a millisecond later. “Zoe, no.” They rushed forward, grabbing her wrists, but their hands were insubstantial. The angels had never had a sense of touch. “You can’t do this. It’s a crime against the system. The ultimate sin.” Their voice was deep, almost echoing. It didn’t sound like them at all. “Henri can build you the perfect Heaven. You can be happy, Zoe. You can see your dad. Every day. Every day for the rest of time.”

    Atlan was still silent. Zoe looked at Rocky, holding their stare, ignoring Henri. “Calculate the possibilities. Tell me what could happen.”

    “Zoe—”

    “Rocky. The probabilities.”

    “They could seek bodies.” Rocky’s wings started to beat, lifting them a few feet over Zoe. “The bodies of living users. They could tear apart Heaven. Everyone’s Heaven. They could end all the good we’ve done. They could ruin the outcomes.”

    “They could show you what’s beyond.”

    Rocky glared down at Atlan, who fell mum once more. “There is nothing beyond. Nothing good. Heaven is good, and if you do this you will lose it. But step away, and go with Henri, and you can have a father.” Rocky’s words were speeding up. “You can’t know that what’s behind that door is him at all, Zoe. A parent is a program. Love is a program. Devotion is a program. You can run the right programs for eternal happiness. Let us save you. Leave this place. Do what’s right.”

    She glanced at Atlan, who stood to her right, and closed her eyes. She let herself imagine it. Her Heaven. Not the one her mother wanted; not even the one her father would have wanted. Not Henri’s, which buzzed and chirped and thrived around her with a force of life ever-missing from her reality.

    Her hand dropped away from the door, the key inert in her other palm. She felt Rocky settle, their wings quieting as they heaved an angelic sigh.

    She heard Henri sniffling through his hands, hiding his face from her deeds.

    She thought of Heaven, and Hell, and the space between.

    And then she flung open the door.

     

    “The Ones Who Look” copyright © 2020 by Katharine Duckett
    Art copyright © 2020 by Esther Goh



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