Will was staring at a savanna, at a plain of waist-high brown grass baking under a tropical sun. Amidst the grasses, hunched figures moved. Apes? Men? The hair was thick upon their hides; they worked skillfully, crinkled hands picking dexterously at seed-pods or grubbing in the soil. Their eyes were vacant, unmistakably animal.
Evolution is powerful, said the voice of Refi:Sül. Its power is so obvious that even human scientists can recognize its workings. Evolution, as you can see, laid the foundations for man. Yet, even so…a man is a thing of two parts, mortal and immortal. And that which is immortal cannot evolve, for immortality eliminates the need for adaptive change.
A glowing mist descended, evidently invisible to the creatures―and yet, working unmistakable changes within them. As it lifted, there was something in the eyes of the creatures that hadn’t been there before―and within each of them a heartlight glowed.
In the absence of the Seraphim, who can say what the future of these creatures might have held? They would have grown cleverer, certainly, for intelligence provides a survival advantage. Taller, certainly; larger, as their nutrition improved; their posture more erect. They might well have become physically similar to modern humans.
And yet, they would not have been human. For the seraphim have bestowed a great gift upon the human race, Will. A human is a body and a soul. And while evolution is the author of intelligence, it is not the source of consciousness. The ability to perceive one’s environment, to change it, is one thing. The ability to experience wonder, awe, or ennui―and to fully grasp the truth that one exists, and the possibility that at some future point, one might NOT exist―these are things of another order. They produce no survival advantage, no evolutionary benefit. Yet they are present in human beings. They are present because we, the Seraphim, seeded the first humans with them, long ago.
Will was staring into the eyes of one of the creatures―no, one of the people. And what he saw in its eyes, he realized, was more than just a spark. An animal could experience terror, or contentment, even joy or sorrow. But the emotion spreading out across the face of the creature in front of him was unique to human beings.
I am a witness at the birth of despair.
Will watched as time passed. Physically modern humans emerged. Seraphim appeared to them and were worshipped as gods. And almost without exception, whenever and wherever a Seraph showed up, people died horribly. Will watched primitive cultures etch vast designs upon the earth in the vain hope of warding them off. He saw human hearts torn out atop jungle pyramids, and hills built out of human foreskins, in order to appease them. Will watched the Seraphim trigger plagues of frogs and locusts, watched them turn life-giving rivers to blood. He watched them intervene in human wars, urge the victors on towards genocide; then, generations later, turn upon the winners. Will saw the Seraphim descend upon a desert culture and, in a single night, slaughter every firstborn male child.
As if in answer, the voice of Refi:Sül. The people of the ten directions sowed a crop in humanity. We planted a seed. We granted human beings an enhanced perception of reality. But no crop prospers unless tended. Ours was a crop that had to be watered with blood…
Will watched the STYX descend on Earth, saw the Seraphim dissolve beneath it, thousands of them wiped out in a single instant. He breathed a brief sigh of relief for humanity. But his relief was short-lived. The violence, chaos, and suffering, did not abate. If anything, it intensified. The legends and myths to which the Seraphim’s interventions had given rise required justification and confirmation. Having been exposed to the divine, the human race could not forget it. And so, even in their absence of the Seraphim, men did their job for them. Purges and purifications ensued. Crusaders waded through blood up to their knees. It would be a mistake, Will, to hold my people responsible for the suffering of humanity. On the contrary; suffering is intrinsic to life in the Cosmos. Life has sprung up on a thousand thousand worlds, yet everywhere its nature is the same. Life consumes life. No creature may survive without inflicting the maximum suffering possible―death―upon those lower on the food chain. And these intrinsic hierarchies of biology replicate themselves within the social structures of every sentient species. Humans are no exception.
The focus of the demonstration narrowed. A single soul―a woman, fair-haired and beautiful, in a feudal society. Will watched as she was born, watched her mature. Will watched as she developed dreams and ambitions and was denied the opportunities to pursue them. Will watched as she was sold into marriage to a neighboring boy, and as she stoically fulfilled what she saw as her marital obligations. Will watched her rejoice at the quickening of new life within her. And Will watched as she died, sweating and agonized, in childbirth.
Will saw her soul emerge, propelled out of the STYX surrounding Earth, as his had been. Her soul discovered flight, as his had. She fled down the Axis of Eternity, towards The Light.
Even before we interceded, the ancestors of humans were social animals. There was that within them which sought union with others. Loneliness, the fear of disconnection―we did not add these qualities to human beings, when we gave them souls. The soul approached The Light, nearer and nearer. We merely gave human beings the means to fulfill their ambitions. A route to perfect union, and an end to suffering. We gave them The Light.
It seemed to Will that he was travelling as one with the woman’s soul as the light overwhelmed her, consumed her, as she crossed the threshold. He felt a sense of perfect peace, of perfect union, pervade her being.
It was we, the Seraphim, who planted the seed of consciousness in human beings. It was we who tended to the crop.
And as the sense of peace and union filled the woman’s soul, he saw it dissolve into extinction.
And we are entitled to the harvest…
Her soul had been extinguished, but where it had been, something remained. It was a residue, granular and rich with potency, of what she had once been. It existed not in the standard dimensions of space, nor on the Axis of Eternity, but in another direction entirely, one accessible only to the ten-dimensional Seraphim. And Will knew, somehow, that what he was looking at was the physical residue of human pain. He knew that, through the dimensional door, the suffering of thinking creatures becomes tangible, takes on a form with unique properties, and unique value.
And Will saw a Seraph feeding that residue, bit by bit, into the maw of one of their machines, an incomprehensible web in which multicolored light ran down translucent strands. And he saw the pace of the glittering lights quicken, and The Light itself glowed more brightly for a moment. And Will knew what enlightenment truly was, and that the promise it offered was, in a sense, true. He knew that all human beings were all intended, in the end, to be united as one―as fuel in the machines of the Seraphim.
And the design of the Seraphim was at last clear to him, and Will knew the answer to the philosopher’s question of why God would permit evil and pain to exist on Earth. He knew that, from the perspective of their creators, pain was humanity’s reason for being. And Will knew that The Light was a refinery, designed by the Seraphim for the same purpose that the psychovore’s light-on-a-strand had evolved―to draw in prey.
And Will knew that the Rel Dega had been correct―that the Seraphim had grown utterly dependent upon their technology, and that their imagination had withered away. And that as imagination dies, empathy dies with it. The Seraphim did not, could not, put themselves in the shoes of a human being. They could see human beings only as a crop. Human beings were a drug on which they had become dependent.
And Will knew, with desperate finality, that the terror of his existence was not his alone. He was not the only one who had been brought into existence to serve the purposes of others. The whole human race was naught but grist for the mill.
We, the Seraphim, are benevolent. No race could be more so. We loan a piece of ourselves to the human race. They profit by it. They experience an existence that would otherwise be beyond them. Our gift enables them to perceive a greater part of the nature of reality than they ever could on their own. And, in the fullness of time, we grant their request for peace and union, for an end to suffering. Each and every soul is Enlightened. And, in bringing these souls into the light, we recollect that part of us which was initially given. And thus, we too profit by the exchange.
And yet, there is a flaw in the scheme. For as time passed, with the STYX shielding us from Earth, the quality of the product began to diminish.
Will heard only dimly, through a miasma of horror. Of course. As the interference of the Seraphim ended on Earth, human technology advanced. And slowly, over time, the comfort of our lives increased, and the suffering of the average soul diminished.
And they couldn’t have that…
The vision was back. Will was seeing distant heartlights, departing the traffic into The Light―rejecting the slaughterhouse―seeing paths of their own. What Rosemary had called “rogue souls.” And then, there were those who rejected enlightenment. More and more of them, as time went by.
But we planned an alternative. A world formed before Will’s eyes―coterminous with Earth in normal space, but separated by the Axis of Eternity. Perfectly terrestrial in climate and in biota. The ideal destination for rogue souls seeking an alternative to oblivion. Elysium. A home to the homeless, a waystation for wayward lambs who are not yet ready to return the gift they have been given. Here, the Seraphim are prohibited from interference not by the presence of the STYX, but by our own voluntary design―by the Codex.
And why would we interfere? Why kill the golden goose? For here, on Elysium, the crop ripens to its greatest extent. Here, we mine the richest ore imaginable. A single heartlight, emerging from Elysium’s atmosphere, rushing towards The Light.
Here are souls separated from the poisonous conditions of Earth. Separated from their memories, and hence, from technological development. Here are souls which ripen, not over the course of a single lifespan, but over centuries. Souls which suffer more, over a greater length of time, than any human who ever lived. Souls which experience the unique pain of separation from their past selves, whose entire existence is spent in a continual crisis of identity. Here are souls which, when they come to enlightenment at last, make up for the deficiencies of the rest of the human race. Here are souls to savor and to cherish. Here is the greatest triumph of the people of the ten directions. Haven is Hell.
Will’s thoughts tumbled anarchically, then settled, somehow on the memory of a woman he had never met. On Madeleine. Smiling out at the citizens of Haven, whom she’d loved for so long, and who had come to prize her for everything that made her special―for her kind and generous nature, for her ability to entertain them, to soothe them with her stories through the long, bleak winter nights.
Will thought of Madeleine. He thought of her sitting there at the town meeting, her face lit by the bonfire and by her inner belief in the benevolence of the universe. He thought of her promise, to the souls assembled before her, that God would call them all to himself, in the fullness of time. He thought of her proud declaration that she was going home, of her fearlessly imbibing from the yellow flask, of her heartlight rising proudly as the gathered multitudes shouted her towards glory. And he thought of what Madeleine had been, and what had been done to her, and my insides roared and seethed.
But rage did not define him. Questions defined him. He had been created to ask them. And even as the horror and the shock and the fury coursed through him, there was a question rattling around inside his head as well. It was a question that the Seraphim, their imaginations decayed, had lost the ability to ask.
The Seraphim know that souls are going rogue. They see it as a problem to be solved. And, being Seraphim, they built a machine―an entire world―to fix it. But…WHY do some souls, and not others, go rogue?
Ben called the residents of Haven “ungovernable”. The Light draws in souls by appealing to their desire for community, for union. It’s an appeal that’s intrinsic to human beings―unless you count me as a human being, I suppose. But, even if every human being ever born feels a need for others, not everyone is equally driven by that need. There have always been hermits, renegades, and rogues. It’s not a question of good vs. evil. It’s a question of “I” vs. “we”.
What makes a soul go rogue? The willingness to break from the pack, and the unwillingness to surrender the self. An unquenchable independence of spirit.
The Seraphim look at Haven―at all of Elysium―and they see a plantation from which they can extract a commodity. But they’ve lost their imaginations. They have no idea what they’ve created. The crop they’ve sown on Elysium will, in time, produce a harvest they’re not expecting.
However powerful the Seraphim may be, they will never be able to control Elysium. They’ve unified all of the most rebellious spirits in human history under a single banner. Of COURSE Haven is ungovernable―it’s a society built on the rejection of union. A community of the uncommunal.
And defiance is built into its bedrock...