This short story, that I wrote, builds off Voltaire’s existential ideas expressed in Candide, which we read during Sapere Aude. Dr. Robb discussed how “Candide” is a direct response to Gottfried Leibniz’s idea of “the best of all possible world” from his theodicy. In one of the first existential texts, Voltaire satirizes this idea, and stresses the importance of “cultivating our own garden.” By this, he means that one must live freely and consciously; fulfillment is not given by a higher power, Voltaire argues, it is individually created. In “Heaven on a Hard Drive,” I build off the idea of fabricating personal fulfillment in the neo-technological age.
Heaven on a Hard Drive
Only the man who understands that he is utterly meaningless can truly be free.
Nietzsche hits the water, becoming soaked with translucent blood. The bible of the man who scoffs at such, written by the Godless prophet, drifts through the current with confused transgression. Without a trace of remorse, Charlie turns as the afternoon beauty of the bipolar world encapsulates him like a benevolent snare. For Nietzsche has served his purpose; he is not a God, solely a guide. For Charlie, there is no beauty. For him, there is no pain. There is only confused anger masked with shallow and faux conceit. Yet in his scintillating sky-eyes, there is truth. He is a tall man in his early twenties, solidly built with hay-like hair and subtle skin. He is short of imposing, though not through lack of action. His smug manner would indicate that he is the owner of a large sum of money. This is true, to the extent of the misunderstood capability of the word. His earthly possessions are, however, not the catalyst of his mannerisms.
With calm and superior strides, Charlie leaves the light and beauty behind as he steps from sand to pavement; his outwardly deliberate nature no longer having to war with the blissful indecision of the flowing fleuve. A woman, walking a small white terrier, smiles at him. He walks past. The power of his grey, mundane automobile carries him past the limit of constructed law, alerting a shallowly empowered officer who’s waiting out his life as he’s told. With glaring indication of his moral abandonment flashing blue and red against his mirror, Charlie internally quarrels over how to properly deal with this nuisance. Tempered by the waste, he stops his car. Boots appear behind him, and cracked pavement crunches as hope approaches nihility.
“License and registration.”
The officer glances at them. Once finished, he blindly engages moral annihilation.
“You know why I pulled you over?”
“Do you know why you pulled me over?”
Closer to flabbergasted than angered, the officer ponders this absurdity before answering:
“Of course I do. You were doing 53 in a –”
“No, you don’t.”
Another moment of collection. He points at the radio hissing evidence the death of art.
“Turn this shit down. God I miss real music.” Nostalgia wares. “Have you been drinking today?”
“No sir, I only like to break one law at a time.”
“Cut the shit!”
“Okay I will. I think you have no idea why you pulled me over.”
In uncharted territory, the officer peaks down the rabbit hole of honest self-assessment before stopping, realizing that naivety is imperative for a man like him. “Son I think you’re coming dangerously close to calling me a liar.”
“No, I’m not calling you a liar.” Momentary relief. “Because a liar knows he’s lying, a liar is cunning. You? You’re just a fool. You have no idea what you’re doing.”
“You’re sayin I’m the fool?”
“I am. To be fair, I’m likely the sole person enlightened enough to lie. Statements of objectivity are, in fact, untrue, so long as one is oblivious what this world really is.”
Law chuckles anxiously, attempting its best to conceal the unmasking of its charade.
“Son, I could throw you in my cruiser right now for suspected drug use. But I think you’re just crazy smart. Or maybe just crazy. So I’m going to be a good guy and let you off wi—“
“Okay officer I need to stop you there. First of all, I might commend you for being the bigger person but,” he points at the officers stomach, “I think you already are. Second, there’s no such thing as good or bad. There’s just comparison. And if you knew what I know, you’d understand why you’re such a fucking nuisance.”
No longer is the officer suffering from confusion. He is now ensnared in the trap of human rage. Reverting to the one constant he believes he has, he sputters with indignation, “Jesus Christ boy! Do you have any morals at all?”
The commonality of the man amuses Charlie. He cannot respect someone whose entire self can be learned through text. He sputters with accidental vexation, “No, I don’t. And you don’t either. You just think you do.”
Assured of himself once again, the officer rhetorically muses, “I take it you’re not a man of God.”
“No, only when I need something.” Silence. Charlie speaks first, sealing fate. “I’m a very busy man, and you’ve made me late. There’s somewhere I should have been a lifetime ago.”
The officer has become distracted with an item in Charlie’s backseat. The object, a physical representation of Charlie’s inability to appease the common man, sits idly basking in in the sun’s purposelessly vital rays.
“Son, is that a rifle?”
“Sure is. And this is a pistol.”
Pressure on the trigger sends Prometheus’s eagle carving through law’s flesh. The officer recognizes absurdity just before his loses his grip on the rock. It falls down the mountain as he does, resting on the pavement below: free and clear. Charlie flicks his sunglasses on calmly, as if he has just eliminated a virtual opponent; for he has. He slides away, mindfully unconcerned with the trickle of indecisive blood making its way under his tires. He’s a busy man. And now he’s late.
The faithful are docile. The free are restless.
Charlie vigorously foots the pedal, shattering the stillness of old country at rest. Ragged and chipped wood fences, guarding cattle subsisting on pious and rolling fields, stream together like ancient film in motion; pictorial lights fading away. Charlie, the present, disdainfully mashes through its bliss like a machete through vexatious brush. Haggard evidence of times soon forgotten disembarks his car like an errant bug off a windshield. The officer’s blood has long been worn from his tire; it seeps into the field, tainting paragon. Charlie sweeps back over the river without noticing the absence of street lamps that once caressed the ragged bridge; an absurdity neglect-able with the presence of flaming chance hovering above, and only apparent with its descent.
He noticed the car in time to stop. Probably because of technology, the blue Camry flew through the light. Definitely because of technology, Charlie chose not to stop, for Camus had died in a car crash, after all. The first point of contact was on the passenger side, and this is what thwarted his plan. Charlie spun left as glass embedded itself in his body, piercing his facade, and when he finally came to a stop, he was breathing. A doctor would have declared him alive, but it’s unlikely that Charlie would agree. He pushes the door open, and as glass falls in a pattering monsoon, he stumbles to the nearest door.
It happens to belong to a church whose exterior can most accurately be described as decrepit. The vibrant rays of a sun gently presiding over the summer afternoon do nothing to soften its grey skin, which is speckled with chipped paint and loose boards. Charlie limps past a wall painted with the phrase “God is for everyone”, dripping blood over the immaculate floorboard as he moves. He rests adjacent to the altar, closing his eyes to momentarily relax, bringing him the closest he’s ever been to, literally, practicing what he preaches.
“Vous êtes blessé.” A feminine voice echoes through the pews. The grand interior of the church is lined with shining windows; the intricacy of its interior in no way resembles its outer bearings. A golden chandelier rests high atop an oak grand piano, whose age trumps that of even the most avid churchgoers. Rouge tapestry compliments pristine, star-like candles, creating a blood-red glow that is now centered on Charlie.
“Oh no, I’m…”
Charlie looks up to see an aged woman with worry defining her wrinkled face. Despite her generation, the woman possesses an adolescent aura that is surely appalled by Charlie’s deathly demeanor.
“I’m going to be fine. This… isn’t the first time I’ve had to clean a little blood.”
“Are you sure? I can drive you to the hospital if you need.”
“Really, I’m fine. I just need to sit for a moment.”
Charlie suddenly realizes he lacks disdain for this woman. His entire existence hangs in the balance for just a tick before he brushes the worry off and decides he must continue to fight. The woman then speaks.
“Are you here to pray?”
He scoffs on the inside, but once again Charlie’s existential nature fails to break the surface.
“No, I’m…looking for something.”
“Yes? What is it?”
Worry once again races through his mind as he realizes he might actually appease this woman. He’s stuck by the idea that doing this might quell his anguish, and before he has time to reconsider, Charlie has spoken.
“I’m looking for a way out.”
Charlie lives inside a simulation.
“When I was young, this man came to me and he told me that the world is fake, that nothing and nobody here actually exists.”
His world is fabricated, an unlikely manifestation of the pipe dream of some scientist long ago.
“He told me that a long time ago, this world was made for people who were real.”
The humans had long wanted to escape their overcrowded reality, and when the wealthy got their chance, they pounced. It bothered few that their lives would exist solely on a hard-drive; for them, a utopia didn’t have to objectively exist to be strived for.
“They were looking for some kind of, rebirth, I guess.”
It’s telling that the project was named ‘Heaven on a Hard Drive.’
“So they had their, consciousness, I guess, put into this computer so they could live in this world that didn’t have any of the problems the old one did. But the scientists didn’t tell them that they’d forget what this place really is. It was to, prevent anarchy or insanity or something.”
It’s interesting to note how irrationality can transcend even reality.
“So now no one here even knows that we aren’t even real. But this man told me that I was special, that I could get myself out of this place and into reality. He told me all I had to do to get out was to find ‘objective truth.’ Gave me this little sheet of paper that said ‘Truth is not impressionable,’ told me that would help. And I’ve been looking ever since. Fifteen fucking years I’ve tried, fifteen years of knowing that none of this is real but not knowing how to get out. And here I am.”
The woman is still for a moment before lips move on an expressionless face.
“And did this man give you any evidence?”
“Yes! Did this man give you any proof that what he said is true?”
As if awoken from a coma, Charlie snaps back to himself and sputters with indignation, “You. You’re going to talk to me about proof.”
“Yes! You could be living your entire life following something that isn’t…that’s probably not there, all on the faith of that man’s word. Is that any way to live life? You must think, is this place really so bad that you have to leave early?”
Charlie’s eyes narrow as he speaks. “Is it so bad? This is torment. Do you know how difficult it is living in a world where nothing around you is real?”
“Well, does it matters.”
“Of course it fucking matters!”
The woman flinches slightly under his aggression. “Do you perhaps think that you might suffer because you don’t accept God in your life,” she pointedly muses.
“No, you see, I don’t think it’s God that causes suffering. I think it’s suffering that causes God.”
“Well, I think you’re wrong. I think you suffer because you mindlessly follow the words of this man, looking for a place you’ve never seen, a place you don’t even know exists.”
The church’s glow is not the only thing that is seemingly palpable. Charlie decides he’s heard enough, and gets up to leave. His liquid-filled shoes audibly mark his path as he scrunches away from God, and just as he’s about to leave he feels a touch of something new.
“I’m…I’m sorry I got blood on the church.”
Heaven without Hell is nothing.
Like Bridges on a bridge, Charlie flicks his rod with the somber touch of terminality. His fake fly lands on fake water slithering under the towering fortification of fake trees. Charlie is a weird fish. The world is a fake plastic tree. Hope gives way to disappointment, as it always has for Charlie, as the fly slides down the river untouched. His quest for truth became unbearable long ago, and he now exists as a miserable scarecrow among dying crops. Behind him meanders a familiar woman who’s simply killing the days until the days kill her. She’s without her dog, and when she sees Charlie, her wrinkled face fails to break into a smile.
“Catch anything good?”
“No,” Charlie remarks without turning, “there’s no fish in here.”
“Well then why are you still fishing?”
“I’m still alive. So it seems to be working.”
Her ragged voice is highlighted with subtle understanding. “Well…that seems odd.”
“Yeah, doesn’t it? A while ago I figured I should buy into this whole, life, thing, and it’s either this or bowling. At least this way I get to see an eagle once a day.”
“What kind of job do you have that lets you fish on a Tuesday morning,” the woman asks.
Charlie chuckles, “I used to be somewhat of an actor.”
“Oh? You didn’t strike me as the type.”
“Oh believe me, I wasn’t. What did you do?”
“I was a writer.”
“Far from it.”
The pair enjoys a long moment of blissful silence.
“You know,” Charlie says, “I wrote myself this monologue once. I was trying to find something true, and this is what came out.”
The woman smiles for the first time. “Okay stranger, lets hear it.”
Charlie stands on the ledge of the bridge, for dramatic effect.
“Us nihilists are a lot like cancer cells. Just one of us, alone, wasn’t a threat. Just a sad little speck no one notices. But we started talking, started grouping and started multiplying, and pretty soon we’re going to be a real problem. And we don’t give a fuck. We’re just dead little cells, the fuck do we care for? You don’t mean shit to us. Nothing does, that’s pretty much the point. So now we’re inside of you, and by the time you notice us we’ve already set your date. You stop working, fall apart from the inside, and die. Now, if you’re smart you already know what the ‘you’ is. And if you don’t, then the ‘you’ is ‘you,’ I’m afraid. And you better start checking those balls, because we’re coming.”
“Yeah. A nihilistic world kills itself,” acutely remarks the meaningless. “But a faithful one is lead to anonymous slaughter. So what are we left to do?”
Her realization is punctuated by the blaring of a phone.
Charlie looks down. “God, sometimes I hate technology. I feel like I can’t even live my own life anymore.”
The final smile: “There’s your truth.”
The Dude smirks. And then he jumps.