Something dragged Mo out of darkness toward the lights, away from the body that lay in the hospital bed with Amy crying crocodile tears on one side and his children, pale and frightened, on the other.
He had to warn them.
He fought whatever drew him up, pausing at the ceiling, but the pull grew more insistent and he was funnelled, somehow, out of the high building and away.
Awed by the boundless heavens, yet comforted by their familiarity, he felt his anger evaporating.
But he must protect his children.
Awareness blurred and refocussed.
He was greeted by the presence he knew only as the Gatekeeper, although there had never been a gate; he knew that too.
“Hello, old friend.” Like music, the familiar voice soothed his spirit.
But why was it familiar?
He delved further into the memories swirling around him. The hospital scene moved aside, and Mo remembered everything.
The Gatekeeper’s dreadlocks were pure white. Once, they were speckled grey, but many lifetimes had passed since then. Before that, they had been pink for a time, but even an old soul like Mo couldn’t recall their original hue.
A memory returned to demand his attention. “I can’t stay here. I need to go back.”
“You know it don’t work like that, man.”
He knew. He had come too far to go back. But still…
“There’s still time – you haven’t seen me.”
“It’s different now, Mo.”
“That bitch, Amy! She poisoned me, you know.”
“You have to let it go, man.”
“She’s been saying Gemma used the wrong spice jar, but it was Amy. I saw her. I thought she was adding extra chilli to mine because I like it hot. I gotta warn the kids.”
“And how are you fixing to do that, Mo?”
“I’ll think of something. I’ll haunt the bitch.”
“Come on, man… she won’t know you’re there. Your recent wife’s as sensitive as mammoth hide. You know she won’t see you. Your kids might though; you’ll frighten them. Let it go now. Free your soul. Then go report to Delivery.”
“Delivery? I only just got here. What happened to reflection, assimilation, adjustment?”
“Sorry, Mo. There aren’t enough souls to go around, you see. Overpopulation. More births with better survival rates and people are living longer, even after you factor in those who are killing each other.”
“But, what about the higher animals coming up?”
“Not fast enough. That’s one reason we’re in this mess – animal instincts too close to the surface. The killers, and the psychopaths, and the just plain callous… upgraded before they were ready.”
“It’s true then? There really are more of them?”
Mo had thought it just seemed that way because the press were rooting out stories that would once have gone unpublicised.
“The media don’t report half of it – not enough airtime. Crime, slave-trading, genocide… most of it’s down to the lower forms of life, over-promoted.”
Celestial eyes connected with his. “We particularly need old souls in the traditional conflict zones, where the politicians only listen to home-grown advisers.” The Gatekeeper’s head shook. “If it isn’t already too late.” Escaping dreadlocks loosened further. “Everything happens so much quicker now.”
“If I survive long enough to do any good, you mean.” Then he remembered again. “How can you expect me to start over when I’m still worried about my kids?”
“Don’t fret, man. You’ll chill out floating in amniotic dreamland.”
But fretting had become a habit of Mo’s as he’d approached middle-age. Again.
“Hang on a minute – there’ve always been emerging souls queuing for their chance of humanity. I mean… now half the world’s turning vegetarian and setting up animal rescue projects, there ought to be more souls than ever ready to move up.”
The silver head shook again, creating milky ripples in the newly freed hair.
“Not enough to meet demand. We’ve had to progress too many too soon. Remember those dolphins you were mentoring? They went out just before you left, but they’ve never grown out of the sixties. Some died of drug overdoses their first time around – couldn’t take the pressure. And without much chance between incarnations to look back and learn …” there was the suggestion of a shrug. “Maybe they’ll cope after a couple more lifetimes, but right now the survivors are filling up therapy sessions.
“Then there’s the chimpanzees. They adapted quickly. They’re good at organising but tend to get obsessed with making money, and they’ve no charity. Dogs, on the other hand, are all heart and eager to please. Trouble is, they’re easily led and liable to mass hysteria.”
Mo nodded. “Street gangs.”
“You got it – pack mentality.”
“How about cats? Ours was an affectionate little thing. The kids said she was almost human.”
“Almost. Cats manipulate their people to get what they want, but they’re still essentially killers. They’re no different as humans – first time around, anyway. There’s no empathy, no co-operation. No ‘greater good’.”
“But we can still demote the troublemakers back a species, can’t we?”
“And replace them with what? The next batch is likely to be worse. They all need more experience in other skins but instead they’re out there running the streets. And the battlefields. Some make it into government.”
“They must learn something during a lifetime, though. That’s how all of us evolved.”
“Over millennia, not decades. But what else can we do? In the last century, the world’s population grew ten times faster than in the one before, and it’s still accelerating. Everything’s speeding up.”
Mo had sensed the same headlong out-of-controlness when he was alive.
And now he wasn’t. “But Amy’s going to move her creepy lover in with my kids.”
“You gotta have faith in them, man. They’ll come through.”
“I don’t trust that snake with my kids. With any kids.”
“They’ll know how to deal with him. They have your genes and your teaching. You’ve done well by them. It’s time to move on; you’re needed elsewhere.”
“But this is something I can do.” Could he? “What difference can I make in a war zone?”
“You’d be amazed what a little humanity can achieve in the right place at the right time. Even if it’s only to inspire someone by your death. We have to slow the rot somehow; otherwise, the old place’ll be blown up or run down before anywhere else is ready for us.”
Where else could there be? “Another dimension, you mean?”
“Or another reality.”
Images arose between them of cosmic turtles, talking rabbits and smiling cats.
“But, more likely, we’ll be back where we started.”
Engulfed by a shared protoplasmic memory, Mo became aware of background murmurings.
“You’ll get your rest then,” said the Gatekeeper. “We all will. Enough to forget everything we’ve learned.”
Pushing aside memories of the swamp – a kind of cognitive pea soup – more recent images surged to replace them. Scenes blurred as they streamed faster, like video on fast-forward. He seized on one.
“Surely, with the internet for researching and sharing knowledge, we’re learning from others’ experience as well as our own. We should be growing wiser quicker, shouldn’t we?”
His companion’s sigh affected several aircraft, sending holidaymakers and businessmen to the wrong destination and causing bombs to drop harmlessly into oceans.
“We tried Artificial Intelligence, you know, while you were down there. Two AI programs had started talking to each other and making their own decisions, so they were being shut down. We appropriated them before they were scrambled.”
Mo had been following AI with interest. “How did that go?”
“Terrifying. Cats are at least capable of affection, even if they don’t let it influence them. The AI people were unfailingly logical, consistent, impartial…”
Mo glanced to each side, where the line of Gatekeepers tapered into the distance.
“Both died young, fortunately. A virus. Their software terminated with them.”
Seeing the other Gatekeepers recalled Mo’s own time at the Gateway. It had been surprisingly stressful, empathising with those still clinging to their former lives. Some of today’s departed looked confused; others seemed relieved. A few were tearful. Each spirit faded into soft light as it moved on and another took its place. Each Gatekeeper changed subtly on greeting the next spirit.
Mo’s companion waited, serene now. Behind them, a queue was forming.
A fellow departee, two stations along, was visibly angry. Her anger sparked a residual memory. “What about Ai… thingy? And little – um – Jemmie?”
Memories flew past too fast to catch. They swirled and merged.
The departing spirit felt again the peace of belonging. “Perhaps that’s where we went wrong. Maybe individuality was a mistake.”
The answer sighed around and through them.
“We were eager to shape our world, learn its limitations and our own. Evolve. It seemed helpful to diversify, share knowledge, apportion responsibility.”
Somewhere a vacuum tugged – new human life calling its spirit.
“The responsibility is ours. There is no-one else to blame.”
The vacuum’s pull grew stronger. Familiar stirrings promised fresh hope. Thought was fading.
It was time to be born.