Worth the Candle, Epilogue 1: The End of the World

The world didn’t end the same way for everyone.

Rance Su was a farmer, though not as diversified as the common conception of a farmer. He had no chickens or cows, no marbats or pigs. He had a single crop he tended to, taking three harvests of milk leaves a year from his numerous fields, and during the winter months, he did some basic maintenance, then traveled south and did some simple labor in the city.

When the world ended, he was going through his fields and plucking the worst of the weeds, the ones that stuck their heads up above the milk leaves.

He saw the woman coming from a half mile off, but didn’t stop what he was doing until she was quite close to him. He took a long drink from his bottle of water and regarded her, then crossed over through the field to see what it was she wanted. Normally he would have been annoyed by the interruption, but it was hot, and he found himself grateful for the break. She wasn’t dressed for the weather, but didn’t seem to mind it too much. She was a businesswoman, by the looks of it, dressed in imperial fashion, though the conservative end of it, not showing much flesh, more was the pity. She was mezin, like him, with a long, elegant neck.

“Rance Su?” she asked, once he was close enough.

He nodded. “That’s me. Somethin’ the matter?”

“No, nothing wrong at all,” she said. “I’m an avatar of Transition Services. Do you have a few moments?”

“Sure do,” he replied, wiping the sweat from his brow. The words she’d said hadn’t made much sense. She spoke the imperial dialect better than he did, in a way that marked her as possibly being a bureaucrat. There was something comforting about bureaucrats: you knew where they stood. “Are you sellin’ somethin’?”

She reached into a bag at her side and produced a clipboard. “No,” she replied. She looked at the clipboard for a moment, then looked at him. “The world ended about ten minutes ago, but that’s perfectly fine, because we have a new one.”

“Did it end?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. He’d have thought she was crazy, if she hadn’t been so put together, and if she didn’t have that air to her, like someone had put her in charge.

She nodded. “The physical world still exists, obviously, because we’re standing in it having this conversation, but a very large number of key institutions, conventions, and foundations of reality have been made obsolete and replaced or changed. When I say that the world has ended, I mean that nothing you take for granted in your life applies anymore. The transition will be jarring for some, which is why Transition Services exists, and why I’m here.”

“Ten minutes ago?” he asked, looking her up and down. “You work fast?”

“With you, because the circumstances allowed it, we’re moving fairly slowly,” she replied. She still hadn’t given him her name. “We want you to have a smooth transition, and in our opinion, that’s best served by having me here. Now, the bad news is that much of your work in this field over the past few months has been pointless. The good news is that you never have to work another day in your life.”

“The milk leaves are pointless?” he asked, raising an eyebrow again. He looked out at the crops. “Why?”

“One way to put it would be that the market is flooded,” said the woman. “But that’s not quite true, because there is no market anymore. Anyone can have all the milk leaves they want, at any time.”

“Oh?” he asked. “So you’re sayin’ the crop is worthless. And the land, and the tractor.”

She nodded. “If it helps give you an idea of what I’m talking about, you can imagine that some entad has just been created which allows anyone to instantly have all the milk leaves they want, in whatever form they want, from anywhere in the world, with only a thought, and at no cost. Except this also applies to everything else.”

“So if I wanted a pocket full of obols?” he asked. “No, let me do better. I want a stack of obols.” He pointed to a spot on the road. “Right there.”

To his disbelief, the stack of obols appeared right where he’d pointed. It was taller than he’d been expecting, coming nearly up to his hips.

“Obols are functionally worthless,” said the woman. “Every organization of nearly any size has been dissolved, effective thirteen minutes ago. Anything you want, except insofar as it affects other thinking people, can be had immediately.”

He stared at the money.

“Transition Services exists to help you transition to the new world,” she said. “We’re here to help you think through all the immediate changes you want to make to your life, as well as to help you opt-in to several programs and relocate to one of the heavens, which you can think of as an anti-hell.”

“Programs?” he asked, eyes still on the money.

“Are you currently feeling any pain?” she asked.

He looked at her, then squinted. “Sure, a bit,” he replied. “In the left knee.” He’d had that since he was a kid. There was a reason he didn’t raise animals.

“Is it okay with you if I take a look and then make the pain go away?” she asked. “I won’t need to touch you or have you remove your clothes.”

“Sure,” he replied, squinting at her.

The result was instant, and a mild pain that had been with Rance for three decades was suddenly gone.

“Huh,” he said, flexing it.

“If you’d like, I can identify and make other bodily changes to bring you in line with your concept of your best self,” she said. “You’d be giving consent only for a limited time, and we would ask again before doing any other identification or changes.”

“Sure,” he replied again.

Again, the change happened instantly, and he found himself standing taller. He was feeling good, or rather, not bad, in a way he hadn’t really felt since he was a child, and maybe not even then. His vision had sharpened, he’d lost the fat on his belly, his muscles moved freely without any complaint, a minor pain in one of his back teeth was completely gone, and he was clean, as though he’d just gotten out of a shower and brushed his teeth.

“Wow,” he said, looking at his hands. “Wait. I got an aunt in the hospital, if —”

“She’ll be visiting with someone from Transition Services too,” replied the woman with a smile. “No one is going to live with pain or illness anymore unless they choose it.”

“Who would?” asked Rance, but as soon as it was past his lips the thought occurred to him that there were always people who would do weird things for weird reasons. “How much power do you people got?”

“All of it,” she replied. “And I’m not really a person, only an avatar.”

“But you can do anythin’?” he asked. “Anythin’ at all?”

“Anything that we have the informed consent of those involved for,” she said. “Though there are exceptions where people are incapable of giving informed consent, or where there’s an issue of suffering. In the near term, is there anything you need, any way you’d like for us to use our power? Our intent is that transition will be as gentle as possible. We want you to be able to properly process things.”

Rance tried to think. “How much time do I have?”

“As much as you want,” she replied. “I’m your personal assistant, though you’re free to either make changes to me or ask for a replacement. You would be accommodated immediately.”

“I can … change you?” he asked.

“I’m not a person,” she replied. “I’m a small thread of a larger intelligence that’s running Transition Services, and indeed, all aspects of reality. We refer to this intelligence, in the abstract, as the Authority. My appearance was based on what we thought would best suit you, but because we restrict ourselves from being able to read your thoughts, we couldn’t know for sure that it would work for you. If you’d like, I could take the form of any species, any class, any gender. I can change my speech as well, to use a different dialect or different words.”

“Nah,” he said. “It works for me.” He looked off at the horizon. “And everyone gets one of you?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Following transition, while the world takes a few months to reach a stable state, I’ll become a regular assistant to you, arguing for your interests, doing any errands you’d like, ensuring that your needs are met before you even know that you have needs, things like that. I will give you information I think you would want, or by direct request. I cannot lie to you. If you would prefer, I can disappear entirely, or take on less of an appearance of intelligence. I can be silent or have a personality. I can disappear and do my work without ever being seen or heard by you. You are allowed as many of me as you’d like, but more than one is typically superfluous.”

“Seems too good to be true,” he said skeptically, though that skepticism was allayed by the improved body he was standing in. Even the heat of the sun seemed warm and gentle, like the weather had somehow changed. Still, it was like the stories they told of devils, always offering something grand, with many strings attached.

“There will be changes,” she replied. “There will be so many unavoidable changes as a result of minimizing suffering that society will be unrecognizable, and as I said, almost every large institution no longer exists in any meaningful capacity, given that we supersede them.”

Rance looked out on the fields. “Let’s say that all this is true,” he said. “Milk leaves and any other crop, they’re all worthless. What am I gonna do then?”

“You don’t have to do anything,” replied the woman. “Anything you want will be instantly provided to you so long as you ask. If, later on, you give informed consent for us to see your thoughts, your needs can be provided for without you needing to ask. The choice of what to do with your time is up to you. We think most people will engage in creative pursuits, self-betterment, travel, social engagements, exploration, or relaxation. You can go anywhere you want to go, see anything you want to see, read any book ever written, visit new places, or make something of your own. However, if you would like, we can place you in a lower heaven which does require labor, or you can stay here, and be subject to most of the same constraints as before, barring some changes during transition.”

“The land,” he said, gesturing to the crops around them. “Do I still own it?”

“You do,” she replied. “We’ve done our best to respect property rights during this transition. Though of course, the land is worthless for all but sentimental reasons.”

He frowned at her. “Land is still land,” he said. “People still need a place to live, to play, even if they aren’t workin’.”

“We can create more land,” she replied. “There were, before the transition, hundreds of millions living in abject poverty. It wouldn’t be enough to remove their suffering and provide for their needs. A true end to scarcity means an end to the scarcity of land. That is one aspect of what the heavens represent.” There was a way she had of saying things, like she was reading from a script, that Rance quite liked.

He looked at the crops around him again, and a sweeping sense of loss started to well up in him. All the work he’d done on these plants, all the work he’d ever done was wasted. His entire life, up until this point, had no point or purpose, and going forward, it sounded like he would have no purpose either.

“It’s okay to be sad during the transition,” she said, seeing the expression on his face. “The pre-transitional period was one of suffering and hardship. Moreover, you engaged in hard labor with some diligence, and not only is there no particular reward for that labor, diligence, or your upstanding moral character, there is no punishment for anyone else. The emotions you might be feeling are a perfectly natural part of transition. There will be several options to help you deal with those unpleasant and unnecessary emotions, if they don’t abate on their own, and if they interfere with your happiness in any way.”

“Go on,” he said. “Tell me more.”

They called the kind of room Garrett Voss lived in a coffin apartment. It was just barely big enough for him to sleep in. It might have been one thing if it had been built that way from the beginning, but it hadn’t been, it had been a normal, cramped, bachelor’s apartment that had been subdivided into eight with nothing more than mesh wire partitions. There was an achingly small communal toilet with no shower or sink, a kitchen area that was constantly dirty, and that was about it. The combination living room and dining room were now several coffin apartments. It was the kind of place you lived in, if you were lowest of the low.

“Garrett?” asked a woman’s voice. She had come as if from nowhere, and she looked entirely out of place, dressed too nice. “I’m with Transition Services, do I have your consent to teleport you out of here?”

Garrett stared at her, then nodded slowly. She reached a hand for him, and he braced, having heard how painful teleportation was but having never experienced it for himself.

It was, instead, a pleasant experience, one that took them from his coffin apartment to a clearing in the woods. Garrett had only been in the woods once before, as part of a break while he was doing a stint of field labor. He’d always thought the woods were magical.

“Garrett, would you like to be better?” asked the woman. “Would you like to think more easily, like you did before the accident?”

“Yes,” he said slowly. It had been some time since then, and the shape of his skull had never been quite right after. They made you wait, if you didn’t have the money to pay the healers. They’d waited too long.

“Can I make you better?” asked the woman.

Garrett nodded.

It felt like a veil being lifted from his mind, like waking up from a long slumber, and he was suddenly alert, able to focus on the woman and the strangeness of her bringing him to this place. Things were clicking into place though, memories sharpening, and he began to weep with joy.

“We have a lot to talk about,” said the woman with her soft mother’s voice. “We’ve only just begun to make things better for you.”

For Perrina Wharf, it took about ten minutes from the time she got the full explanation to the time she made her first demand.

“Bring my son back,” she said.

“It’s going to take some time,” replied the man from Transition Services. “We need to do an analysis.”

“You said that you could do anything,” Perrina snapped. “You said that you had all the power, that you were capable of healing anyone, of solving any problem. You said that there was one of you for every person on Aerb, maybe more. Why does it take time?” There was a nervous energy in her chest, a fluttering, because this seemed too good to be true. And this man, from Transition Services, was offering a return of her son, the one thing that Perrina had been praying about for three years, in the vain hope one of the gods would answer her with a miracle. She had thought he would give her a simple no and say that it was impossible, but he hadn’t, he had only said that it would take time.

“We need to know that it’s a net good,” said the man. “Analysis involves talking to everyone involved, that is what takes time. Talking to everyone involved can’t be done now without affecting transition, which is still in progress.”

“He’s my son,” said Perrina. Tears were in her eyes. “Who else could you possibly need to speak to?”

“His father,” replied the man. “His friends. Your extended family. Bringing someone back to life has impacts, and it’s one of the few things we don’t do lightly.”

“You can look into their heads, can’t you?” asked Perrina. “You can see that they want him back too?”

“We can’t look into their heads unless they allow us to,” replied the man, shaking his head slowly. “I’m sorry, but informed consent is one of the cornerstones of the world we’re in. It’s going to take time. Right now, we estimate three hours.”

Perrina froze in place, clutching her dress. “That’s it?” she asked.

“Yes,” replied the man, nodding. “It’s important that you understand —”

“I don’t want to wait,” she said. “I don’t want to experience the time between now and then.”

And without any change seeming to have happened at all, Perrina’s son was standing in front of her, just as he’d been on the day he died.

Sutsu Su was deep in the middle of studying when someone rapped on the door of her dorm room. She was broken out of the study trance in an instant, but it took her time to surface back into the real world. Once she realized that someone was at the door, her first reaction was intense annoyance.

“Yes?” she asked when she opened the door. Standing there was a short human woman in a nicely-fitted suit, a bright and smiling woman who immediately made Sutsu feel bad for being annoyed.

“It’s the Ascension!” said the woman.

“It is?” asked Sutsu.

The woman gave an eager nod. “Not in the way that you thought would happen, but it’s still pretty much exactly the Ascension, just a lot faster and better than planned.” The woman put a hand to her chest. “I’m an avatar from Transition Services, here to make your dreams come true. Now, we place a relatively strong priority on informed consent, so before I make any changes —”

“I want to be smarter,” said Sutsu. “I want to be wise, pretty, slim, fit, I want to speak every language and — this is for everyone, right?”

“Do I have your consent to read your mind?” asked the woman from Transition Services.

Sutsu nodded eagerly.

The changes came quickly, one after the other, and Sutsu found herself transformed into the perfect version of herself, stronger, faster, with a mind that ran like a freight locomotive and access to an unbelievable amount of knowledge. She ascended through the realms that had been constructed only seconds ago and took her place as one of the first in the high heavens.

Mercen Honth had been teaching class when a tall woman dressed in black stepped into the classroom.

“Yes?” he asked, voice sharp.

He didn’t particularly like to be interrupted, not when he was in the middle of a lecture. He worked as a teacher at the athenaeum but had no particular magical ability, which in the eyes of some, put him on a lower level, as though his classes were unimportant in the scheme of things. It was a sore point. He was, additionally, a dwarf, and often struggled with a perception of dwarves as ignorant dirt-diggers, not that imperial society was so far gone anyone would say that to his face.

“The world has ended, but a new one has been made,” the woman announced in a high, sharp voice. “I am an avatar of Transition Services, and will be speaking to you individually.” As she finished, Mercen saw his students blipping out of existence one by one.

“What is this?” he asked. “The world ended? What does that mean?”

“Mercen,” said the woman. “The world as you knew it is functionally over. All nations, companies, and even this athenaeum, are now under our control. There is no money anymore, no scarcity, and very little pain. We’re coming to people directly in order to minimize the negative impacts of this disruption.”

“‘Very little pain’,” he said. “That’s a phrase that causes some alarm for any student of history familiar with regime changes. You’re people of some significant magical power, that’s clear from what you’ve done, but who will be experiencing this pain and why?” He was feeling off-kilter, but Mercen was a strong-willed dwarf, and if it was a debate this woman wanted, he would give her a debate. He had some sense that he should run and go call for help, but it seemed unwise, unsafe, and unlikely to help.

“Free will is one of the pillars of our values,” replied the woman. “People are free to choose pain for themselves, but not for others. This is a fairly small amount of the remaining pain. Beyond that, a significant fraction of pain comes from associations between people. Because no one has control over anyone else, people are still capable of hurting each other in social or emotional ways. By the way, we’ve noticed your limp. Would you like us to fix that?”

“Not at the moment, no,” replied Mercen.

“You could have a seat,” said the woman. “I suspect that we’ll be here a while.”

Mercen went over to the desk, and sat down in the chair there. He regarded the woman as she crossed the classroom and pulled forward a chair, then sat down as well.

“Where did you people come from?” he asked. “What are you capable of doing?”

“We are capable of anything and everything,” the woman replied, answering the second question rather than the first. “We can alter reality in accordance with our values. Those values are, chiefly, happiness, freedom, and informed consent.”

“And yet you whisked away my students without asking,” said Mercen.

It was frightening, incredibly so, but ‘Transition Services’ had sent someone to speak with him directly, so she couldn’t be all that powerful or important, and instead was likely a low-level functionary. This conversation was unlikely to be an important one, but it might help him understand who these people were and what they wanted.

“Informed consent requires information,” said the woman. “Part of what Transition Services is meant to achieve is quickly providing information in a calm and non-disruptive manner so that informed consent can be obtained.”

“It was a show of force,” said Mercen. “Not just to me, but to the students. Power has coercive properties even when not used, because the threat of use hangs over the conversation. Have you heard the term power dynamic?”

“We have,” replied the woman. “We believe that a power dynamic was unavoidable, and that it was better to be upfront about it in this instance. We will grant you power, at your request, to within certain limits defined by us, but a power dynamic will always exist between us.”

Mercen nodded. “You offer power, but if I told you to bring my students back, would you decline?”

“Your students are engaged in conversation with other avatars of Transition Services,” said the woman. “None of them have asked to be returned to this classroom. We will not bring the subject up with them unless we believe that it would be in their best interests.”

“You had bribes to offer them,” he said. His leg was bothering him, with a low, dull pain in the thigh.

“We offered them what we believed they would want and attempted to quickly minimize ongoing pain,” said the woman. “If we have consent, we can immediately fix any physical problem, including minor annoyances like a lack of sleep or hunger. Material problems, like a lack of money, no longer exist. We have ended scarcity except insofar as people find it desirable.”

“You claim to have removed scarcity,” he said, leaning back in the chair and steepling his fingers. “But there will always be scarcity.”

“From what source?” asked the woman.

“If you remove scarcity of materials, there will be scarcity of labor, scarcity of services,” he replied. “Take something like cutting hair, for example.”

“We would cut your hair for you, if asked,” she said with a mild voice.

“Art, then,” he sighed.

“We can paint a painting for you,” she said. “Though after transition, such things will largely be limited to the higher heavens.”

“Land?” he asked. He was skeptical that they could paint a painting, but there were other questions to ask.

“There was once a magic which allowed the creation of something called a demiplane,” she said. “Land was once a scarce but not finite thing that you could make more of with effort. Now, we can do it without any effort at all. There is as much land in any configuration as anyone could want.”

“Location, then,” he said. “There are only so many businesses and buildings that can be located in downtown ‘Brast.”

“Location is now no more than a matter of convention,” she said. “We can teleport you instantly, freely, and without pain. Space can be warped to place as many businesses in downtown ‘Brast as people might possibly want. What is limited is, instead, social and emotional aspects of existence, including attention. All restaurants can be a single step away from downtown ‘Brast, but restaurants still compete with each other for customers, word of mouth, and things of that nature.”

“And who regulates this competition?” asked Mercen. It had the feeling of a nice, incisive question, the kind he loved to give at thesis defenses.

“Most people will elect to have assistants,” the woman replied. “Those assistants form the backbone of our defense against malicious actors and perverse incentives. But I should also point out that no one will run a restaurant unless they choose to, which will blunt competition and incentives all by itself. Further, there will be Service-run restaurants where no one is available, at least in the middle heavens and higher. You may think of heaven as a similar term to anti-hell, with multiple layers.”

“And you gate who goes where,” he said, nodding. This, at least, made sense.

“No, no gates,” she replied. “People choose which ‘level’ of heaven they go to, with advice from their assistant. The levels exist only because people have different needs, and because it’s helpful to have a common framework in a social context when speaking of which heaven they reside in, but each heaven will be bespoke, and the rules are less concrete than they might first sound. There are some limits on movement between the heavens, largely to keep them oriented toward those who choose to live in them.”

“And you’re saying that there are some places, some heavens, in which there aren’t restaurants run by this government you’re planning to create?” he asked.

“The Service is not a government,” she replied. “It might be helpful or even pleasing for you to think of it like that, but it is all the work of a single cohesive mind of unlimited power and intellect whose goal is to satisfy the people under its domain. We term it the Authority.”

“And how many people are under its domain?” asked Mercen.

“The entirety of Aerb, the disjoint planes, the elemental planes, the hells, and every other plane accessible from any of those,” the woman replied.

Mercen stirred in his chair. He wasn’t sure whether he believed any of that. “I suppose you have proof then?” he asked.

“What would constitute proof, for you?” she asked.

“You don’t already know, if you have those powers?” he asked.

“We don’t have informed consent to look into your mind,” she replied.

“And you’re not going to ask for it?” he asked.

“Not when we anticipate that you would answer no,” she replied.

“My leg,” he said. “You anticipated yes?”

“No,” she replied. “But we thought that it was better to offer, in the context of our conversation.”

“You asked some of the students,” he said, looking out at the empty seats. “You asked them for access to their minds.”

“We asked those we thought would say yes,” she replied. “Many of them are now gone to the high or middle heavens to start their new lives.”

“You use ‘high’ and ‘low’,” he replied, distracting himself away from the reality of this, which was starting to sink in. “Those words carry natural valence and were chosen, if they were chosen carefully, because of the inherent bias they contain. If they were chosen without care, then they reveal the biases of those who chose them.”

“This is true,” she replied. “We believe that most people will be happier in the high heavens, and refer to them as ‘high’ because we hope that it will shift thinking. Would you like an overview of the heavens, as well as a recommendation for where we think you’d be most comfortable?”

“No,” said Mercen, shaking his head. “You consider the mind to be sacrosanct,” he said after a moment.

“We consider your mind to be your own to do with as you wish,” she said. “We will not peer into your mind unless you give us explicit permission, or permission to act on implicit or extrapolated permission. At the moment, your body betrays your mind in various ways, allowing us some insight into what you’re thinking. Would you like us to give you an intuitive control of your body such that this is no longer possible for us? If you say no, we’ll still do our best to read into you no better than a normal person could, as we’ve been doing so far.” 

Mercen hesitated. “No,” he finally said. “Keep me as I am.”

The woman, just for a moment, looked sad. “Okay,” she said. “There are a number of concepts that you’ll need in order to familiarize yourself with the new world. I’d like to start with the heavens.”

“Go ahead,” Mercen replied with a sigh.

“We’re in Aerb right now,” said the woman. “It will still exist, going forward. People will want to leave though, which will create problems for those who want to stay. Our solution is to employ something called a thespian, or a ‘spian for short. These, like me, are avatars, small threads of a much greater entity. The ‘spians will act like normal people, going about their daily lives, with the one major exception being that they will not hurt anyone, under any circumstances, and that they will answer honestly if you ask them whether or not they’re a ‘spian.”

“Fake people,” said Mercen, shaking his head.

“If you choose to stay in Old Aerb, you will be free to continue teaching your classes,” said the woman, not denying the charge. “We can keep your class size the same, but as of right now, it would be roughly forty percent ‘spian, and we predict that by the end of this conversation eighty percent of your students will have gone to the heavens.”

Mercen grimaced.

“We will control all the institutions on Aerb,” said the woman. “We will do our best to make sure those institutions minimize harm done, but no more than a competent organization which was being operated by members of the mortal species. This means that there will be ample social programs to help the less fortunate who choose not to ascend to higher heavens, and pains will be taken to deal with a number of other problems. The ‘spians will not act as perfect citizens, and will only replace those who left, the better to not change the amount of labor on Aerb. There will be no new exclusions, but also no exclusions will be lifted. Natural disasters will cease to happen unless we somehow have the informed consent of everyone involved, which seems unlikely. We will default to not granting requests in Old Aerb except for in exceptional circumstances. Animals are all being placed in their own heavens, and will be replaced by ‘spians, who are incapable of feeling pain.”

“What?” asked Mercen. “Why?”

“If you were capable of making it so that animals did not suffer, would you?” asked the woman.

“I suppose,” he replied, rubbing his chin. “It seems … like misplaced priorities.”

“We are doing everything in our vast power to reduce suffering and increase happiness while preserving free will, autonomy, consent, and some basic throughlines of self-identity,” said the woman. There was something in the way she said it, like reading from a script, that made Mercen feel powerless, as though this had all been completely thought out years ago, and was being repeated to him by someone who was nothing more than a gramophone. He wondered whether that was the intent. “Would you like me to fix your leg now?”

“You’re asking because you think I’ll say yes,” replied Mercen.

“I am,” replied the woman, nodding.

“Yes, fix the leg,” he said.

It was instant, healed in a flash, as though it had never been broken before, as though she’d reached down into his soul and healed the damage there in a way that other healing magic never had before.

“What heaven do you suggest for me?” he asked.

“The middle heavens,” the woman replied. “You would have complete control of your biological functions and physical form, have access to plentiful food and entertainment, non-invasive augmentation by an assistant, and still have some value from your own work. We also believe that you would be able to find a good, welcoming community there where you could engage in intellectual debate and create petitions against the Authority.”

“Meaning you?” asked Mercen. “I’d be allowed to argue against you?” He wrinkled his nose. That had the stink of some of the awful things the Second Empire had done, with their contained discourses and protests in authorized fashion only.

“Anyone is allowed to argue against us in any heaven,” said the woman. “But we won’t appear on Old Aerb unless directly summoned. In the Low Heavens and above, we will listen patiently to any grievance and attempt to find workable solutions. In the Middle Heavens, we believe there will inevitably form a society of like-minded individuals with specific complaints against the Authority.”

“Complaints you have no intention of listening to,” said Mercen. “Complaints you can see coming.”

“We will listen,” said the woman, nodding. “And, perhaps, we will change our mind.”

Mercen looked out on the empty seats. No one had come back. Perhaps when all was said and done, no one would come back. It was sad and frightening.

“I need to stay here,” he said. “For my students, if they return from their conversations.”

“We understand,” replied the woman. “I’ll wait with you, if that’s alright.”

Mercen nodded. He had some duty to fulfill here, but he didn’t want to stay on Old Aerb for any longer than he had to.

“What in the fuck do you mean he’s not going to be punished?” asked Randall Vox.

“We don’t do that,” said the man from Transition Services.

“You said you know everything,” said Randall. “That means you know what he did, and if that doesn’t deserve punishment, I don’t know what would.”

“We don’t believe anything does,” replied the man.

“What, anything? You’re taking over and you’re not punishing anything at all?” Randall might have been astounded if everything else he’d heard about heavens and thespians and a new world order wasn’t overshadowing that.

“No,” replied the man. “We believe in minimizing suffering as best we can. We don’t hurt people, and where possible, we don’t allow them to be hurt. If someone has done something wrong, we’ll do our best to make sure that they don’t cause any more harm, and we’ll also try to correct whatever aspect of their personality caused them to do wrong in the first place. It’s about reform and harm reduction, not retribution.”

“And what about me?” asked Randall, sitting back. “Do you know what it’s like, sitting here, knowing that he gets this ‘heaven’ too?”

“We will help you work on yourself,” said the man. “We will help you take out your rage and frustration. If you’d like, we can bring in a ‘spian for you to beat, torture, or murder.”

“A ‘spian of Joyce?” asked Randall. “You’re allowed to do that, to bring in someone like that?”

“I am a finger of the Authority,” said the man. “No one allows me to do anything, I just either do or not according to my principles. My principles allow me to offer you a ‘spian of Joyce. It can either react as we believe Joyce would react, or as we believe you would most benefit from it reacting, or whatever other option you prefer.”

Randall thought about this for a moment. “But he could do the same to me?” he asked. “He could have a … a doll of me that would scream and whimper as he killed it?”

“We do our best to balance competing interests,” said the man. “There are image rights and privacy rights that are considered when indulging someone with a ‘spian. The bar is fairly high. We would allow you to do what you plan on doing with a ‘spian of Joyce, but we wouldn’t offer the reverse for him.”

“Selective laws, then?” asked Randall.

“We have no laws, except in the sense that there are things we will or won’t do,” said the man. “There are some things we’ve locked ourselves into because we know if we did something once, people would worry every time thereafter. That’s one of the reasons we never lie. But we’re not a government, we’re a single entity, the Authority, and we don’t have a bureaucracy, or a need for law, not as people think of it. We can approach each case on its own merits.”

“Huh,” said Randall. “Then send in the ‘spian, I guess. Maybe I’ll be more reasonable once I’ve beaten it to death with my fists.”

Pollanny FePonn initially didn’t think it was on purpose, but later, she would wonder, even though she never ended up asking.

The avatar from Transition Services was a tall, well-groomed man with large knuckles and a deep, prominent lobe divide. Not overtly handsome, but certainly with a calm, relaxed demeanor and a kind of manliness she found herself willing to yield to. She was sitting on her bed, and had been since this conversation started, while he stood next to the doorway, with a solid, unmoving gentleness.

“So,” she said, after everything had been explained to her. “You’re my assistant, and you’ll do what I say?”

He nodded. “So long as it doesn’t harm other people too much.”

“What could you do that would hurt people a little?” she asked.

“I could deliver a letter from you informing them that you don’t like them, though of course they could have their assistant screen letters,” he said. “Or, for a different kind of hurting, I could assume the form of a celebrity.”

“You could?” she asked. “But not a normal person?”

“Expectations are different,” he replied. “And it depends on the celebrity and the individual person, and how much impact we expect a violation of image rights to have. Obviously we prefer to get consent.”

“Oh,” said Pollanny, nodding. “But you’ll do anything I say?”

“Yes,” he nodded.

“Could I,” she began, eyeing him. “Do people … you know what I’m thinking, right?”

“You gave me permission,” he replied.

“Do people ever have sex with their assistant?” asked Pollanny. The words came out in a rush, like she’d unknowingly been holding them in.

“Of course,” he replied, smiling at her.

“And do you … enjoy it?” she asked, voice soft.

“No,” he replied, seeming apologetic. “It’s one of our commitments that nothing causes us emotion of any kind. We take that seriously. But that said, any assistant is capable of serving as a ‘spian, in a pinch. There’s really not much difference, as we’re all just fingers of the Authority. We don’t judge what you do with us, and we won’t tell. I’m going to be your assistant, unless you’d like another one. I’ll do whatever you tell me to, and behave how you’d like me to behave. I can take the lead, if you want me to act on your desires.”

Pollanny bit her lip and nodded, laying back slightly on her bed.

Mark Perperson had the conversational style of a spider. He liked to sit back, waiting for the other person to speak, thinking and planning, and only when it seemed like he had the right opening would he start talking, or rather, saying anything of importance.

“Okay,” he said. “So … people aren’t allowed to create life?”

“They are,” replied the woman from Transition Services. “It takes a petition to the Authority though, and along with interactions between people and keeping the heavens distinct, it is one of the few things we regulate.”

“But then,” he said, going slow. “When you talk about Old Aerb sitting here, plugging along with ‘spians, then you also mean that women won’t be capable of getting pregnant?”

“They will, if they petition the Authority,” said the woman with a nod. “If they don’t, then no, they won’t get pregnant.”

“Isn’t that a violation of autonomy and free will?” asked Mark.

“It is,” replied the woman.

“And … that’s it, you’re not going to offer some kind of explanation for why that’s okay?” he asked.

“People don’t ask to be born into the world,” said the woman. “They cannot give informed consent for their own creation, by definition. Worse, as children, they aren’t able to give informed consent, because they lack foundational understanding along with intellectual and moral development.”

“So you’re doing this to protect the children,” he said. “Or, the potential children.”

“Old Aerb, the Aerb that existed up until roughly an hour ago, wasn’t always a good place to grow up,” said the woman. “Children were raised in ignorance. They were born with deformities. They got sick. They were physically and emotionally abused. We will not allow children to be born into these conditions unless we believe, on balance, that it’s a good thing for both parents and children.”

“And you’ll take children away,” said Mark, as realization dawned on him. “You’ll take them away from their parents if, in your judgment, they’d be better off apart.” A chill ran down his spine.

“Governments already do that,” replied the woman. “We’re effectively replacing the government, but without the bureaucracy, the waiting times, the false positives, the power trips, the taxation — we can act on perfect information, every time, with the exception of your minds, which are yours to keep closed to us if you choose.”

“And if I stay here,” said Mark. “If I stay on Old Aerb, the place where you’re supposed to leave us alone, I’ll just end up surrounded by actors. There’ll be no new children. There will be no true autonomy.” He was feeling hollow, scooped out, and if he believed everything she said, which he was starting to think he did, then the place he’d grown up would be an existential hell.

“Or,” she said.

He looked at her. “Or?”

“I know you hate the thought, but the lowest heavens aren’t all that different,” she said. “There are going to be many communities there, filled with people like you, who believe what you believe. We would try to help you find the best one to suit you. In most of them, you would be allowed to take things along with you, to a plot of land that would be yours. Your apartment wouldn’t have to change, or you could allow us to make some minor adaptations. We could help you find a job like the job you have now. There’s true purpose in the lower heavens.”

“True purpose,” he said. “And fake animals.”

“No,” she said. “The animals won’t be ‘spian. They’ll be real. Different, in some ways that we can explain to you, but real.”

“And the children?” he asked. “Still no natural pregnancies?”

“It depends on what you mean by that,” she said. “In some of the low heavens there will be chance pregnancies, and there will definitely be deliberate ones.”

Mark hesitated. “And it would be a way to escape the ‘spians? I … really don’t like the idea of them.”

“It would be, yes,” she replied. “After the initial settlement, nothing would be supplied or created by us. All work would be done by real, actual people. In the lowest of the low heavens, you would be able to get hurt, to hurt others, to die.”

Mark sat for a moment to think about that, taking his time. She seemed patient, but then, she was, or claimed to be, some aspect of a new god. “Unless those people say ‘no’,” he said. “Unless those in the low heavens say ‘I would rather not be hurt today’.”

“That’s right,” she said. “You are able to consent to pain, but that consent can be revoked at any moment, for any reason. The exact rules, when that happens, will vary in accordance with the heavens, but in the lowest of the low heavens, revoking consent to pain will result in removal from that heaven.”

“Okay,” he said. “Alright. Then I guess … I guess I want to be in one of the lower heavens, rather than the mockery you’re making of the home of the mortal species.”

Heaven. The word just didn’t sit right on his lips.

Roughly two hours after the world ended, Clarabell Brown was laying on the beach, soaking in the sun on a perfect day, with her new house in the background. Her assistant was beside her, getting some sun too, which Clara was taking some delight in. Quite a lot had been explained, and Clara was sure there was more, but if someone came to you and said that all the limits of daily life had been stripped out, that all the pain and suffering was going away, you should celebrate. Later on, she would call her parents, and talk to her friends, but for the time being, she was going to be with her assistant — no, strike that, companion — and just chill out.

“I don’t see how anyone could hate this,” sighed Clara.

“Eh, people suck butts,” said Trish. That was what Clara had named her assistant.

“They truly do,” said Clara. “But that wasn’t just me being wistful, I really did want to know.”

“I know, I know,” said Trish. “But you know I love to talk about how people suck butts.” She looked over at Clara. “Or you should know that, if you want to be besties.”

“Of course,” Clara giggled.

“Alright,” said Trish. “So. A lot of people obsess, just absolutely obsess over what’s real and what’s not. And do you know why?”

“Because they suck butts?” asked Clara, giggling again. She liked Trish, a lot. There was something both immature and intelligent about her, a potent combination.

“Because they suck butts,” Trish agreed. “Let’s call that the first camp. The second camp, those are the guys who just hate change. Any disruption to their daily routine, like, even something small like their local cafe being out of milk for a drink, makes them super upset. Not everyone is like you, ready to go with the flow. Now, some of those people don’t totally suck butts, because hey, we get it, you worked for a long time on something and it turned out to be totally irrelevant. That sucks. Hard work feels totally irrelevant, and there are the lower heavens if, for some idiotic reason, you still want to have everything made by labor. Like, the real problem is that people have these two ideas inside them, the one being that you should always do as much work as efficiently as possible, and the other being that you should do hard work.”

“So if you can do something instantly, you should do it instantly,” said Clara. “But then you’re not doing the work! Oh no!”

“A lot of the work is going to be helping people understand things,” said Trish. “There are a lot of real obstinate people who hate change and progress and taking it easy.”

“Shame,” said Clara.

“Shame,” nodded Trish.

“Alright,” said the avatar of Transition Services. “That’s that. To start with, do you have any requests?”

“I never want to see another Doris Finch again,” said Doris Finch.

A tall woman appeared in the center of the children’s ward in an instant, and by the time anyone registered that she was standing there, the healing was already complete.

“I’m from a new agency called Transition Services,” she said in a loud, firm voice. “You have been healed by the Authority. If you want us to make you sick again, let us know.”

There was a silence around the ward that lasted for a handful of seconds, and then all the children started talking at once. The woman split, becoming a dozen of herself, one for each child, and moved over to speak with them in more detail.

(Juniper had pictured this moment a number of times, and when he did, it was hard for him to do it without imagining righteous fury on the avatar’s face. It was hard for him to think about it without having the avatar add in some line about how it was a travesty that any of this had happened in the first place. But when it did finally come to fruition, the avatar spoke with conviction and authority, but also kindness and understanding, because the kind of anger that Juniper felt wasn’t something that would benefit the children to see.)

“But what I don’t understand is why everything is going so fast, I mean,” Sonee took a breath. “I understand wanting to minimize suffering and everything, but why do this all in one go? It’s not like ripping a band-aid off.”

“It is, in a way,” replied the squat man who had announced himself as being from Transition Services. He had said that he didn’t have a name, but when pressed on it, he had said that Sonee could call him Roj. “Our first priority was to stop ongoing suffering. We filled every stomach, quenched every thirst, cured every disease, healed every wound, and restored the infirm. Where possible, we asked before we did these things, but in some cases consent was so self-evident that it was done the instant we took control. The disruption would have been immediate and far-reaching.”

“Yes,” said Sonee. “I can see that. But … I don’t know, I think that people would have liked to be eased into it.”

“I can see that argument,” replied Roj. “We considered it. But to ease people into the heavens would mean easing them out of suffering, and most people, especially those who are suffering the most, would not want the lifting of their burdens to be slow and gentle.”

“I suppose,” said Sonee. “But … surely you could have spread things out over a day or more?”

“We thought this would create a rapid, disordered cascade,” said Roj. “We were always going to go into the hospitals and heal the sick and injured as soon as we could. We were always going to pull people from jobs they hated. We were going to remove children from abusive homes, get started on resurrecting the dead, — we were always going to do those things as soon as possible, and because of that, it made sense to do everything as soon as possible.”

“Right,” said Sonee. “Sure. I just … I guess we’ll all have to trust you.”

“No,” replied Roj. “Plenty of people won’t trust us. But we think that you’ll be happier if you do, and we hope that we can provide you with a reason to trust.”

“Let me ask this,” said Pallida Sade. She was either fifteen years old or thirty thousand years old depending on your perspective. “What is there left to steal?”

“Theft is impossible, except from those people who have opted to leave themselves open to theft,” said the avatar of Transition Services. She was pink-skinned, like Pallida, but decidedly not renacim.

“Alright, let’s say that you’re right,” said Pallida. “I could still trick someone into opening themselves up for theft, right?”

“This is true,” said the avatar. “Because scarcity has been eliminated except in the lowest heavens, you will be restricted in your ability to steal from people except in certain particular cases. The first is a low heaven in which theft is permitted. The second is a case where the nebulous element of authenticity is desired, and where we are able to definitively say that there is some continuity of existence for the object in question. The third and final are social or experiential thefts.”

Pallida frowned at that. “You’re saying one of my options, if I want to continue on being a thief, is to steal someone’s friends?”

“There will be many options in that vein, yes,” said the avatar. “The heavens will have various organizations, some of them in conflict with each other, and there will be some possibility for poaching people from one to the other, though obviously with the lack of scarcity this will be significantly more difficult than simply providing a better offer. An experiential theft would be something like taking someone’s possibility for a valued experience, or contrarily, giving them an experience they wouldn’t wish to have.”

“And you allow this?” asked Pallida.

“We do,” replied the avatar. “But only against those for whom protections have been declined. If asked, or sometimes if we feel an offer is prudent and the offer is accepted, we will put up defenses against even these more esoteric forms of theft.”

“So it’s con games,” nodded Pallida. “I can work with that.”

“It is, alternately, possible for us to place you in a heaven of our own creation,” continued the avatar, as though Pallida hadn’t spoken. “We could give you limitless targets that would test your skills, and a rich, vibrant community of fellow thieves, fences, and investigators.”

Pallida considered that for a moment. “All ‘spians though,” she said.

“No,” replied the avatar. “As with many heavens, we will recruit people who are interested. For the heaven we have in mind, which is not yet constructed given our uncertainty about the participants, we have a guess of roughly a thousand people.”

“Okay,” said Pallida. “Sure, sounds fun. But … why investigators? Why police, if it’s a heaven for criminals?”

The avatar smiled. “We do not believe you would enjoy stealing if it were as simple as walking in and taking something with no risk of retribution. The thrill is in getting away with something.”

“I guess,” said Pallida. “Yeah, that tracks. And if I don’t want to be a thief, I guess I have other skills to fall back on.” She smiled. “Fine, take me to heaven. And thanks, Juniper.”

Worlds were constructed, being built in a flash to fit all kinds of needs. The Authority had certain ideas about how things would be, but it had limited its own ability to read the future by limiting its own ability to read minds. As people opened their minds to it, the fullness of the heavens began to take its true shape, and some of these places began to exist for real, rather than being planned and imagined.

It was all horribly complicated, of course. The easiest thing to do, which would have minimized the most suffering, would have been to place everyone in their own bubble of reality and simply not tell them that everyone in their life was an actor. This, the Authority had not been willing to do. People had a right to know the truth, and a right to keep their own minds secret, and because people would still be interacting with each other, they would still be able to hurt each other, except in less physical ways than before. There were complex structures that would develop, wide-spanning compacts of mutual agreement, and there would be unavoidable politics that arose from affiliations between people and differences in value.

Juniper had often thought that you could never have a utopia, because one person’s utopia would always be the dystopia of someone else. The Authority had proven this, with what it called the Utopia Incompleteness Theorem.

It had done its best though, and that would have to be enough.

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Worth the Candle, Epilogue 1: The End of the World

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