Z for Zero-sum (Part I)

Freida Dantas stepped out of the queue to look around. The machine wasn’t that far from here–only a few hundred more. She looked behind. The queue went on for as long as she could see. She too had started from the end of the queue many hours ago. The machine took only a second to judge, so the queue had kept moving continuously. But she worried if there were more hopefuls in the queue than seconds in a day. She had been queueing up religiously for her pronouncement every day since she had died.

She’d learned of the system the day she had arrived at the purgatory. Learned is probably not the best word to describe the process. She had woken up in the purgatory a week ago knowing about it instinctively, with no recollection of her prior life. She knew exactly when and where to queue up for the machine. The machine would tell her if it was her time to ascend to the heaven yet. She’d witnessed thousands of ascensions on her first day. The ascendants one after the other had stood under the machine and a bright shaft of light had lit them up until they had become one with the light. This was what all of them in the queue were here for–ascension. It was expected that most of them would ascend, but there had been no ascensions after her first day in the purgatory. This was uncommon from what she knew. The Purgatory was supposed to only be a brief stage before ascension. The queue had kept getting longer each day as new hopefuls had appeared in the purgatory but the machine had chosen not to pronounce anyone through. The stability of the system relied on there being an equal influx and outflux. It was a zero-sum game. As the population of the purgatory exploded, she wondered if the whole system had stopped working.

Someone cut in front of her in the queue and forced her back into reality. She stepped back into the queue calmly. Knowing the rules didn’t mean that they made sense to her. In this supernatural world, the psyche was naked to the system and there were restrictions on feelings. Anger was a forbidden but self-serving wasn’t; passion was a forbidden but jealousy wasn’t. ‘What kind of a God makes such rules?’ she thought before stopping herself from thinking further. She didn’t know if doubting the work of God was a forbidden. ‘Maybe not,’ she thought. If it were, she’d already have been devoured by fire. She didn’t dare ask anyone.

Most of the hopefuls kept to themselves to eliminate the chance of a negative feeling. No one wanted to misstep this close to the finish line. There would always be a few hopefuls chanting the sacred verse–myn myn ryo mon kyln jin. Lately, there were more. Hopefuls had started spontaneously gathering to sing the verse together. The song resonated more around the purgatory during the week as the levels of anxiety soared.

The hopefuls had only two connections out of the purgatory: the machine and the liaison. So Freida was surprised to see no queue outside the liaison’s office. The liaison was also the only permanent resident of the purgatory and so she imagined would be a very important person. She wanted to ask the liaison for some information on the current situation. The liaison’s office was at the bottom of spiralling flights of stairs that descended from the ground like in a stepwell. A thick layer of mist had covered the steps. No more than three steps were visible any which way she looked. After descending for a minute, Freida arrived at a landing. Even as the stepped onto the landing, the mist disappeared and Freida eyed the most beautiful being she’d ever laid eyes on. The liaison sat in front of her in a white flowing gown.

The liaison smiled at her. “Welcome, Freida. I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.

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