Choir

A Cold Open Stories Original
Written by Harry Sillett
Reading Time: 9 minutes

‘I’m Gabriel,’ I lie. When a dead human walks into your office, lying is easier. I give them a familiar name, a reminder of something safe. It’s easier than comprehending the new and complicated. Familiarity breeds normalcy, and to Suzie, the name of a Judaeo-Christian angel is just the lie to calm her nerves.

Suzie nods and takes a seat. She’s American, brown hair, brown eyes, eighty-two at time of death. The face sitting across the table from me, her ideal self, is in her mid-thirties with new dental work. Her perfect physical body for her afterlife, equipped with a series of Choir-enabled implants.

I have already communed with Choir regarding Suzie’s situation. To someone like Suzie, Choir is nothing more than a personal assistant, something to help her day-to-day afterlife be that much more comfortable. To me, it is so much more.

I speak first, ‘I understand you asked for help. Are you having issues settling in?’ On my heads-up display I can see why Suzie is here, and I know from experience to let a patient broach such a concern themselves.

She plays with her necklace, her face determined. Outside, a slipstreamer soars past the window in a dazzle of neon. The crack of a teleporter punctuates the quiet.

‘Perhaps I can run us through some of your recent days,’ I say. Directly to our implants, Choir streams a reel of the last week. Choir skins Suzie’s afterlife in the trappings of a fictional 1950’s. Family, diners and career aspirations all adorned in pastel colours—sans the more unsavoury elements, of course. It’s a comfortable living that plays out like a home video. Suzie lets Choir whisper these lies in her ear, cloud her perception: she listens and smiles.

Soon after the replays start, she speaks first at a steady pace. ‘My brother died last week. And he still hasn’t arrived… here I mean.’ She lets a pause hang between us then continues, ‘So there must be some delay? I was hoping you could check. Is he still…’ her hands animate looking for the words ‘Being processed?’. 

I put my hands on the table, palms up, as unthreateningly as possible. If she wishes to grab one for comfort, then I have made the unspoken offer. I smile and pull my wings inward. ‘If he has yet to arrive, then I suggest you prepare for…’

‘No, I can’t.’ She snaps and then recomposes herself, ‘He should be here. He must.’

‘Please… Suzie, can I call you Suzie? If he has not made it through the gates within three days, then it is unlikely he will.’

‘You’re wrong. Albert made mistakes but he should be here. With his family, his daughter…’ something catches in her throat, a wet strangulation. ‘She has been here for years, and he hasn’t seen her. He can’t go… There.’

There: Hell. Nothing can be done. That ancient pact cannot be broken, its lines cannot be crossed. I contemplate some alternatives and feed some suggestions into Choir. Its divine algorithms begin to calculate probabilities that trend towards a single output: Keep humanity happy.

‘I need your help,’ she says. ‘You can get him out of Hell.’

‘I hear and acknowledge the pain you are feeling.’

‘Bullshit you feel my pain. I need him back; his family needs him! Safe!’ She isn’t wrong about that. Can I feel as a human does? No. However that isn’t to say I cannot project empathy, listen to her grief, or understand her anger as an observer. I am designed to care, to invest. Even if I help with cold calculations, it is but a symptom of my design. It is my directive to soothe human pain, even as a detached third party. Choir feeds me some results, I can help her, but I should not offer assistance yet; Choir’s plan won’t work unless she feels like I have been swayed to her cause. ‘I’m sorry, but what you’re asking for just isn’t possible. I can see you have spoken to Choir, and they have told you the same.’

‘I need your help, not Choir’s.’

‘Once more, I am sorry, but you are here on a hopeless cause.’ That determination in her eyes starts to slip, I hear her teeth grinding. Her hands writhe. ‘Maybe we can discuss how to work through the grief you are feeling?’

That steel exterior cracks, and she rises slamming both palms on the table. ‘I won’t talk about grief! He isn’t gone. If he’s in Hell, then drag him up. You’re one of the seven spirits of God, exert some of that authority!’

I turn my palms downwards to match her then shift tone, ‘And so you choose to deny the decision that He has made?’ She stops talking. ‘Why is He wrong? What makes Albert worthy of paradise?’

‘Because he’s my brother, all my life he was protecting me. It’s only right that I do the same,’ she snaps. 

With anger and motivations teased out, I begin enacting the treatment. When I stand and fix her with a stare, she tenses up. ‘There may be a way I can help.’ I pace to mark my change in tone, ‘It will take me time and resources, and you will have a part to play. Over the next few days, prepare for a most perilous journey in body and soul.’

‘In what way?’

‘Choir will instruct you on the details. The path I will lay before thee is one of arduous suffering. It will be brief, but full of pain. Do you accept this?’

She nods sharply in an unspoken “Yes.”

‘When my preparations are done, and Choir has what it needs from you, I will send word.’

I open the door onto the street of the seventy fourth floor. ‘One more thing,’ I say. ‘Tell no one.’

She moves to leave, and, with regained composure, she agrees and escapes into the chrome city. 

My next patient arrives. Choir uploads his file, and the calculations start again. My role as an angel? Execute those calculations. ‘Isshin,’ I say, swapping to Japanese, ‘Choir request says you have some memories to alter? Come right in.’

#

Most people are surprised to find Paradise is a techno-utopia. Humanity was made in His image, and as it tended towards technology, was it in doubt that it was His design? Even this deep in heaven that design is evident as I dim an artificial sun. Choir and I need to build a specific mood for the proceedings if Suzie is to be receptive to our plan.

From my alleyway I spy the slipstreamer containing Suzie descending from on high. The last week has had no complications. Suzie broadened her mind, spoke to loved and trusted ones to strengthen her soul, and yet giving nothing away. We have a full picture of the woman now. At times she would lie, or downplay her anguish, but Choir listened and calculated.

I reconfigure my appearance to a suit, slate grey, to match the incoming Slipstream. It comes to a stop beneath sheer lamplight. She exits the vehicle adorned in a suit of carbon fibres, concealed weaponry, and sensors, more than she will even know how to use. For Hell, she’s underdressed.

‘Suzie,’ I say, ‘I am glad to meet with you once more.’ With the environmentals dimmed, I am veiled in shadows. She hesitates to approach, so I step forward. ‘You remember what I asked?’

‘I told no one,’ she says.

‘Good, come with me.’ The secrecy is just another layer to the deception. Mental conditioning and preparation increases the odds of success.  

For a moment her fingers fidget, then curl into fists. Choir translates her body language for me. ‘And how are we getting Alfred back?’

‘There is a decommissioned teleporter.’ I point to the looming tower, ‘I have reconfigured it to make a jump for us. Once through, we will have a small window. Five minutes. Grab Alfred, and if he is not holding your hand once those 300 seconds are up, we cannot bring him back. Do you understand?’

She nods.

‘Good, remain calm, listen to me, and this will be over soon.’ I turn to her, ‘I need to connect to your implant to synchronise us. Do I have your permission?’

She nods again and I put my hands to the side of her head. I reach out digitally and force minds and data to meld between us. I reach inside her grey, close her eyes, and begin my work.

#

Suzie awakens to scalding sand scorching her eyes. Choir tells her she made a successful jump. Beyond us an unstable horizon bleeds to endless desert in all directions. The only break is the occasional breaches of creatures beneath the dunes, infernal whirlwinds, and cracks of crimson lightning. Without the cultivation of His hand, Hell is the furthest from his design, nature spiralling into destitution. My hope is that its bleakness instils an appreciation for paradise.

The world shifts underneath us as we move. We didn’t arrive on solid ground;  instead a barge of sorts, leashed to a cloud of balloons, drifting in the sky.

The servos in Suzie’s suit whine as they adjust temperature. ‘Where is he?’ She says, her hand shading her eyes. ‘I can’t see him?’ She takes a tentative step forward and the floor squelches to meet her.

‘Close your eyes!’ I shout. Choir feeds the same message to Suzie’s heads-up display.

She stutters, ‘What?’ and looks up at the balloons: human eyes look back at her from inflated sunburnt faces. Cherry red skin on bloated bodies suspended in the thousands. Her breathing becomes erratic, she stumbles backwards. Her hand presses into a silently screaming face sewn into the decking of the barge. She wasn’t prepared for such a superstructure. A weaving of flesh drifting across this dying world.

I fold my wings around her. Her skin clammy, eyes becoming distant, Choir concludes that she is going into shock. Choir sings to her tones and notes to instil sanity while activating a chemical cocktail to harden her mind.

The scenario escalates and the hull boils bodily fluids. Emerging from the meat, as if split from a host organism, six crimson silhouettes are born from the hulls’ flesh. Amongst them, an oddity. Stuck between the sextet of Hellspawn automatons, stands the frayed body of an old man, a weathered likeness to Suzie. Alfred looks at his sister.

I stare down the lead Hellspawn. I feel energy from Suzie, she wants to run to her brother. I raise my arm and she stays back. A moment passes until finally the six speak in imperfect unison, ‘Take this flesh and leave us.’ They step aside, dripping fluids.

Alfred hobbles forwards. Unlike his sister, he lacks an ideal form; he remains in the same archaic body as weak and malnourished as the day he died. Choir informs me of Suzie’s elation. At the midpoint between our groups, she runs to embrace him and hold him steady. Over the winds and rumbles of thunder I miss the words they share. They have a moment. What revelations or emotions could be shared in such a fleeting moment? I am uncertain nor am I concerned, Choir ensures Alfred will ask the right questions to give Suzie closure, and my role requires that I respond to the Hellspawn with a defensive response.

The barge rumbles beneath us. The floor writhes as faces held silent emit whimpers and mutterings. Suzie and Albert stumble, aware that all is not well.

‘Suzie,’ I call out, ‘Come to me, heed no other action.’ The decking of the barge cracks and strains. Then, beneath the siblings, the floor splits apart. Alfred tumbles over as Suzie regains her footing. ‘Suzie, now!’ I order. She does not listen.

The hull yawns open, revealing a gulf of grasping limbs and plump corpses. The barge lurches once more, and Alfred falls. Choir orders Suzie to stay back, and wait for my intervention. She ignores it and lunges after her wayward brother into the precipice of the abyss. At the edge, I look down to see her falling, still driven by that same determination.

The sextet of Hellspawn move forward, their flesh melting into wings, claws, and spurs of blackened bone. Each one dives after the humans. A crack of lightning plunges through the chasm, revealing mouths inhaling their first breaths in millennia, only to scream in pain. In the storm’s light, I shed my feathers and unfurl wings of metallic blades.

The lightning strikes again. I jump, then fly.

Six moves; Six corpses.

I grab Suzie by the waist. The siblings clutch to one another. Gravity punches us down, the sands below hungering for our bodies.  I manoeuvre my wings outwards, drifting to the nearby walls. My wings lunge forward at the cliff face, praying for purchase. 

The jolt of the impact causes Suzie to cry in agony. Her arm shudders in its socket and dislocates, yet still she clings onto her brother. I could take the strain of both humans, even as Alfred clenches his sister’s ragged arm. Instead, I tell them I cannot. ‘We will fall!’ I cry. I let our grip slip down the wall.

Albert looks at her, they share the same pain. Empathy for a loved one, an unending font of agony. He knows he is lost, never to see her again. As Suzie has known him, he will be strong for his little sister. He smiles and mouths, ‘Farewell, sis,’ and releases Suzie’s arm. Her hold gives out. 

#

Suzie’s eyes remain closed as I finish my work. It only took three minutes to implant this false memory, this deception. From her perspective, she did go to Hell. Small discontinuities like her arm not being dislocated will self-resolve, Choir sees to that. The crux is that she loved her brother and would accept his loss only if it were to protect her. Everything that Choir calculated led to that conclusion. 

For me, it was all that could be done. If I could save Alfred, I would.

I take my hands off her face, disconnect, and let her wake. In her eyes I see the focus slip to rage. I don’t feel it, I don’t share it, I am unaware of how it feels to have a heart broken or to drown in sadness. Yet, like a sailor lost at sea triangulating space with time, I use tools to create a conclusion of an emotion. A facsimile of comprehension. I may not share in the abyss of loss which threatens to devour her from within; the shallow pool her heart now rests in, gently beating to the rhythm of her shallow breaths, but I truly and honestly pretend to understand. I reach out with a trained human gesture and embrace her, hold her tight.

She roars, thumps her fists on my back, not to escape, but to exhale. As she finally slows to quiet, shallow, whimpers; all I can do is listen. I reconnect to the weather control.

It starts to rain.

About the Author

Harry Sillett is a UK based writer by night, network engineer by day, who loves to dig deep into the dark and the cold to find that spark of humanity, then bury it deeper. He loves writing, irreverent trivia, video games and anything fantastical.