“How can you believe the Name creates people just to send them to hell?”
Susie frowned at Paul as she answered, “The book talked about that argument. People always try to use it. But it’s not like that. It’s just that if he knows everything that’s ever going to happen, then he knows that some people are going to go to hell. He knows even before they’re born.”
Paul stood up and brushed sand from his shorts. So much for a romantic moment on the beach, very possibly leading to her going home with him for the night. Today had gone so well, too. A great day, that seemed to be leading toward a great night, was a much bigger deal for the two of them than most people. He instantly regretted standing up, because now he couldn’t just focus on Susie’s face. Now looking at her meant looking at all of her, with just small shorts and a tight t-shirt on over her bathing suit.
Most people fell for each other and had sex and then took it a day at a time from there forward. Then, when they’d decided they wanted to stick together, they’d have a wedding reception and work out the logistics of turning in their credit halves to the Medicine Guild to receive the fertility treatment. Then they’d have a child, maybe save up enough money to buy another treatment and have another. Life was all very straightforward and simple. Especially for a city like Lieutenia, with sun and beach and cool breezes available to everyone most days out of the year.
But not for Paul and Susie. They were followers of Seven, so the first time they had sex would mean they were married. And divorce was nearly forbidden, so there was a lot of pressure on the idea of a first night of love making. So much pressure that, starting a week or so ago, after four months of serious dating, after two years of being friends, they’d began discussing it.
Paul was on board. Susie was on board. But Paul was uneasy because Susie’s father didn’t really like him. Said he was too gloomy and irritable. Susie would tell Paul about indirect, but decided statements he’d make that assumed failure: “I’m sure Paul will be a wonderful husband for some girl someday,” or “Oh, Sue, I wouldn’t worry about all that. You’ll find someone who really knows you.”
Susie didn’t think much of these comments. She thought her dad was just being obnoxious, and that it wasn’t an issue. She trusted her dad fully, but Paul did not. Paul felt family disapproval hanging over the whole situation like smoke from an approaching brush-fire. The wedding reception that both families would be expecting one month after the marriage night might not be the time of celebration it was supposed to be.
Paul wanted to hear her say, “I love you and I’ll marry you no matter what anybody says.” He was very confident she would have said that tonight if this current argument hadn’t come up. But he was too stupid and stubborn to just say, “oh, that’s fascinating, my love.” No, he somehow had a stronger urge to clarify why he disagreed than to swallow his pride and finally have sex with the girl he was losing his mind over.
It didn’t matter anyway. She’d know he was upset and pry it out of him, so he was damned no matter what he did. He tried to regather his thoughts. The topic was double-predestination, which she’d read about in a found-book. An ancient book on theology. From Earth, so that made it special. To her. He concentrated on making his tone casual: “It makes all our choices in life just a tease. With his—I mean, he should at least be as just as the Alephs.”
Still sitting on the sand, Susie rolled her eyes. “The Alephs. Mebar’s gods. We might as well be living in Babylon. All these false gods people believe in. Alephs, the TAW, Irse, all that nonsense.”
Paul frowned. “Most people don’t actually believe in all those, other than the TAW bringing us here after they left Earth. But they still get held up as ideal examples.”
“All I know is what the Remnants say. And don’t worry, I still trust them more than some found book. They say that the one and only god isn’t some enlightened human who used hidden knowledge to rescue humanity, gain immortality, and let…suicides come back to life as monsters.” She snorted a dry laugh. “He judges the living and the dead, and he’s the only one who has a right to, because he’s just. And he’s good.”
Paul put his hands in his pockets and looked at his sandaled feet. “I wish I understood him better.”
Susie stood up and stretched. Paul watched her, transfixed by her figure and natural grace in the execution of such a simple motion. He thought about how friends laughed playfully when they found out he believed in the Name, one of the old gods, as if he was telling them he was a fan of a team that never made it to the playoffs. He thought about how difficult it was to explain the whole, “one time means marriage” to people. People who lived in a world where STDs had been eradicated centuries ago and pregnancy was deeply coveted.
But then she smiled at him and all the thoughts were washed away. “Just remember. We don’t know who the Name will save, so we can’t give up hope. We try to save everyone. No matter how good or evil they may seem to us.”
Paul nodded, but found zero comfort in that. He knew Susie did, but he didn’t understand how. He wished he had a better understanding of the Remnants, but it was so hard reading through them. He wanted Susie to be wrong, but didn’t know how to prove that she was.
They stood there in awkward silence for a while, then Susie took his hand and they walked down the beach together, going south. Her tone changed. “One thing’s for sure, though. There’s definitely evil in the world.”
Paul dragged a little behind, Susie’s hand feeling hot and soft in his. “You heard about the other killing.”
Her grip on his hand tightened. “She was from the neighborhood I grew up in. Thirty-one years old. In school to become a teacher.”
“Yeah, I read the story.” Paul looked at the dimming glow of the western horizon. He frowned, realizing he may have sounded rude in the way he’d just said that. “Sorry. It’s just—really depressing.”
Susie nodded. They walked along, silent, for maybe a hundred meters. Susie took in a deep breath. “I’m getting pretty tired. You want to meet up again tomorrow for coffee? Memory Bean is supposed to have a new band playing.”
The words killed his last bit of hope for the night. It made his response dull: “Are they another one of those gray-market cover bands? I’m getting kind of tired of listening to the same stuff played over and over by different people.”
Susie shrugged. “I dunno. Guess we’ll have to find out.”
Paul nodded. “Sounds good. I’ll walk you to the station.”
Paul had a sharp pain in his forehead the entire walk. He was fuming as they walked past a dark cluster of touristy beach shops closed for the night. As the road curved around and a handful of shuttle cars came into view, Paul wanted to ask Susie why having a book be written on Earth made it relevant. The book didn’t know about them.
Susie smiled and pulled her hand free and tapped her watch on the console next to the front-most shuttle car. She told the shuttle where she was going and got in. She leaned out to kiss him, a light, soft peck on the lips. “I love you.”
She disappeared into the shuttle and the door closed before Paul could reply.
The shuttle floated off down the road.
Paul was alone. His stomach filled with an unclear dread that something terrible was about to happen, possibly worse than going home alone, but that seemed unlikely. He ignored it and turned inland to walk toward his apartment in the cheap part of the beach district.
Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he sighed as he looked up and at the stars. In an hour or so, light pollution laws would kick in and all non-safety lights would shut off. More stars would be visible. Right now, only the stars behind him, the ones over the ocean, were bright.
He continued walking from the heavenly light and into electric dullness. He cleared his throat and picked up his pace. He had some books he wanted to read when he got home, so he decided to let himself be distracted by that.
“Excuse me,” said the low voice of a man off to Paul’s side.
Paul stopped, looking at a dark corner of a closed sandwich shop. “Yeah?”
“Could you help me with something?” The man didn’t leave the shadow. Paul couldn’t quite make out what he looked like.
“Uh. It depends, I guess.” Paul took a step forward. He then stumbled back as a black-shrouded figure lurched from the darkness and grasped him. As the figure moved and passed under a street light for a brief moment, it almost looked like his skin was dark gray. The man was terribly strong.
Paul was about to say something, but the man then brought a large, strong hand over his mouth and pressed down with so much force that his lips hurt from being pinched against his teeth. The man’s skin felt like cold stone.
Paul felt warm breath on his ear and heard the softly spoken words: “I need you to be very, very frightened, my friend.”