Judgment Passed by Jerry Oltion

Jerry Oltion is the author the novels Paradise Passed, The Getaway Special, Anywhere But Here, and several others. In 1998, he won the Nebula Award for his novella “Abandon in Place,” which he later expanded into a novel. He is also the author of more than 100 short stories, most of which have appeared in the pages of F&SF and Analog.

“Judgment Passed,” which is original to this volume, tells of the Biblical day of judgment from a rationalist viewpoint; a starship crew returns to Earth to find that the rapture has occurred without them. Oltion has strong views on religion–namely that it’s a scourge on humanity–that led him to write this story, which speculates on whether or not being “left behind” would be such a bad thing.

This excerpt appears here courtesy of the author.

 

Judgment Passed
by Jerry Oltion

It was cold that morning, and the snow squeaked beneath my boots as I walked up the lane in search of Jody. Last night’s storm had left an ankle deep layer of fresh powder over the week-old crust, and her tracks stood out sharp and clear as they led away through the bare skeletons of aspen trees and out of sight around the bend. She had gone toward the mountains. I didn’t need to see her tracks to know that she had gone alone.

Except for Jody’s footprints there was no sign of humanity anywhere. My boots on the snow made the only sound in the forest, and the only motion other than my own was in the clouds that puffed away behind me with every breath. Insulated as I was inside my down-filled coat, I felt an overwhelming sense of solitude. I knew why Jody had come this way. In a place that was supposed to be empty, she wouldn’t find herself looking for people who weren’t there.

I found her sitting on a rail fence, staring out across a snow-covered field at the mountains. She sat on the bottom rail with her chin resting on her mittened hands on the top rail. Her shoulder-length brown hair stuck out below a green stocking cap. There were trenches dug in the snow where she had been swinging her feet. She turned her head as I squeaked up behind her, said, “Hi, Gregor,” then turned back to the mountains. I sat down beside her, propping my chin on my hands like she had, and looked up at them myself.

Sunlight was shining full on the peaks, making the snowfields glow brilliant white and giving the rocks a color of false warmth. No trees grew on their jagged flanks. They were nothing but rock and ice.

The Tetons, I thought. God’s country. How true that had proved to be.

“I’d forgotten how impressive mountains could be,” I said, my breath frosting the edges of my gloves.

“So had I,” she said. “It’s been a long time.”

Twelve years. Five years going, five years coming, and two years spent there, on a dusty planet around a foreign star.

She said, “There was nothing like this on Dessica.”

“No glaciers. It takes glaciers to carve up a mountain like that.”

“Hmm.”

We stared up at the sunlit peaks, each thinking our own thoughts. I thought about Dessica. We’d waited two months after landing to name it, but the decision was unanimous. Hot, dry, with dust storms that could blow for weeks at a time–if ever there was a Hell, that place had to be it. But eight of us had stayed there for two years, exploring and collecting data; the first interstellar expedition at work. And then we had packed up and come back–to an empty Earth. Not a soul left anywhere. Nothing to greet us but wild animals and abandoned cities full of yellowed newspapers, four years old.

According to those papers, this was where Jesus had first appeared. Not in Jerusalem, nor at the Vatican, nor even Salt Lake City. The Grand Teton. Tallest of the range, ruggedly beautiful, a fitting monument to the son of God. I could almost see Him myself, floating down from the peak and alighting next to the Chapel of the Transfiguration back by the lodge where we’d spent the night. Hard as it was to believe, it was easy to imagine.

What came next was the hard part. He’d apparently given people six days to prepare themselves, then on the seventh He had called them all to judgment. No special call for the faithful, no time of tribulation for the unbelievers; He’d hauled everyone off at once, presumably to sort them out later. The newspapers were silent on the method He’d used, all the reporters and editors and press operators apparently caught up in the moment along with everyone else, but I couldn’t imagine how it had worked. Most people had expected to rise into the sky; but above 15,000 feet they would start to asphyxiate and above 40,000 or so their blood would boil. Not quite the sort of thing I imagined even the Old Testament God would want His faithful to endure. Slipping into an alternate dimension seemed more likely, but I couldn’t imagine what that would be like, either.

Trying to visualize the unimaginable reminded me why I’d come looking for Judy. “The captain’s going to be holding services in a little while. She thought maybe you’d like to be there.”

Jody looked over at me with an expression usually reserved for a stupid younger brother. “Why, to pray? To try getting God’s attention?”

I nodded. “Dave talked her into it. He figures the more of us doing it, the stronger the signal.”

“Very scientific.”

“Dave’s an engineer. Gwen agrees with him.”

“I suppose she’s going to ask God to send Jesus back for us.”

“That’s the general idea, yeah,” I said, beginning to get embarrassed.

She gave me the look again. “You don’t really think it’ll work, do you?”

“It’s worth a try. It can’t hurt, can it?”

She laughed. “Spoken like a true agnostic.”

I shifted my weight so a knot on the fence rail would stop poking me in the thigh. The joint where the rail met the post squeaked. “We’re all agnostic,” I pointed out. “Or were.” When the mission planners selected the crew, they had wanted people who made decisions based on the information at hand, not wishful thinking or hearsay. Those sort of people tended to be agnostic.

“I still am,” she said.

I looked at her in surprise. “How can you be? The entire population of the world disappears, every newspaper we find has stories about the second coming of Christ–complete with pictures–and all the graveyards are empty. Doesn’t that make a believer out of you?”

She shook her head and asked simply, “Why are we here?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean if I’m supposed to believe that Jesus came back for the second time, called the day of judgment and took every human soul to Heaven, then what are we doing here? Why didn’t He take us, too?”

“We weren’t on Earth.”

“Neither were three thousand Lunar colonists, and they got taken.”

“We were doing ninety-eight percent of the speed of light. We were three and a half light-years away.”

“And so God missed us. That’s my point. If He was omniscient He would have known we were there.”

I’d been thinking about that myself in the days since we’d been home. “Maybe He did,” I said.

“Huh?”

“Maybe God did know about us. Maybe He left us behind on purpose, as punishment for not believing in Him.”

She snorted. “What about atheists, then? What about other agnostics? Why just us eight?”

I held up my gloved hands, palms up. “I don’t know. I’m not God.”

“If you were, you’d have done a better job.”

I wasn’t sure whether to take that as a compliment or what, so I decided to ignore it. “What do you think happened, then, if it wasn’t God?”

“I don’t know. Maybe aliens came and took us all for slaves. Maybe we were a lab experiment and they got all the data they needed. Maybe we taste like chicken. There are plenty of more believable explanations than God.”

“What about the photos of Jesus?” I asked.

She rubbed her red nose with a mitten. “If you were going to harvest an entire planet’s population, wouldn’t you use their local religion to keep them in line?”

“Jesus wouldn’t have much sway with Jews,” I pointed out. “Or Moslems. Or athesists.”

“So says the former agnostic who believes in him because of what he read in the paper.” She said it kindly, but it still stung.

“Look,” I said, “Gwen’s going to start pretty soon. You coming or not?”

She shrugged. “What the hell. It ought to be fun listening to an agnostic sermon.”

We swung our legs around off the fence rail and stood up, then started following our tracks back to the lodge, an enormous log hotel built around the turn of the last century to house the crush of tourists who came to visit one of the last unspoiled places on Earth.

I took Jody’s right hand in my left as we walked. It was an unconsciously natural act; we weren’t a pair at the moment, but we had been a few times. With the small crew on the ship and lots of time to experiment, we had tried just about every combination at least once. The warmth and comfort I felt as we walked through the fresh snow together made me glad we’d never broken up hard. It felt like maybe we were headed for another stretch of time together.

Jody must have been feeling the same way. When we got down in among the aspen trees, she said, “Assuming God really is behind all this, and it’s not just some sort of enormous practical joke, then maybe this is a reward.”

“A reward?”

She nodded. “I like it here. It’s pretty, and peaceful. The last time I was here it was a zoo. Tourists wherever you looked, lines of motor homes and SUVs on the road as far as you could see, trash blowing all around. I feel like now I’m finally getting to see it the way it’s supposed to be.”

“The way God intended?”

“Yeah, maybe.” She grinned an agnostic-theologian grin and said, “Maybe we’re the next Ark. We were all set to start our own colony, after all. We’re the best genetic stock the UN Space Authority could find, and we’ve got more fertilized ova in the freezer. Maybe God decided it would be a good time to clear away all the riff-raff and give humanity a fresh start.”

“It’s a little cold for Eden,” I said.

“We’ve got the whole world,” she pointed out.

I thought about that. I supposed we did, at least until the airplanes and hovercars all fell apart. There was no way eight people could maintain a technological civilization indefinitely. Our colonization equipment was designed to keep us at what the UN’s social scientists called an “artificially augmented industrial age” until we could increase the population enough to build our own factories and so forth, but that level wasn’t particularly cosmopolitan. The idea had been to pick a spot and settle in rather than to play tourist on a new planet. Of course the planet needed at least one habitable spot, which was why we’d given up after two years of searching and come home.

“I’d never considered just going on with our lives,” I said. “I mean, after the second coming of Christ, that simply never occurred to me.”

Jody shrugged. “We just landed; we’ve all been too busy trying to figure out what happened. Give ‘em time, though, and I think most of us will start thinking about it. I mean, this could be all the Heaven we need if we do it right.”

A sudden chill ran up my spine, and it wasn’t from the snow. “We may not have time,” I said. “If Gwen’s little prayer meeting works, God may come back for us today.”

Jody looked up at me, her face mirroring the concern in my own. “Damn,” she said, then she took off running for the chapel. I took off after her, both of us shouting, “Gwen! Gwen, wait up!”

#

Running in snow isn’t easy. Our feet punched right through the crust that had supported us when we’d been walking, and we wound up struggling for every step. We were both sweating and panting when we burst into the chapel, gasping for enough breath to cry out, “Don’t pray!”

Gwen was standing behind the pulpit, wearing a long white robe with gold hems a hand’s width wide. She’d found it in a closet in the priest’s sacristy. The wall behind her was mostly window, affording the congregation–Dave and Maria and Hammad and Arjuna and Keung in the front pew–a fantastic view of the Tetons behind her own splendor. Everyone turned and looked at us as Jody said again, “Don’t pray. We’ve got to think this through first.”

Gwen frowned. “What’s there to think through? We’ve got to contact God.”

“Do we?”

“What do you mean? Of course we do. He left us behind!”

“Maybe that’s a good thing.” Tugging off her mittens, stocking hat, and coat as she talked, Jody told her what she’d told me, ending with, “So maybe we ought to just keep quiet and go on about our business.”

Gwen had been shaking her head the whole time Jody had been speaking. She was a big woman, with a thick halo of curly black hair that wagged from side to side as she shook it. Now she said, “We don’t know what that business is. This could just as easily be a test of some sort.”

“Exactly! It could be a test, so I think we’d be smart to be careful what we ask for. We might get it.”

Dave had been listening with as much impatience as Gwen. Before she could answer, he said, “If God intends for us to repopulate the Earth, wouldn’t He have told us so? He told Noah what He wanted him to do.”

Jody shrugged. “God was a lot more talkative in those days.”

“If you believe the Judeo-Christian bible,” Hammad put in.

“The Christian day of judgment has come and gone,” Gwen said. “What else are we supposed to believe?”

[END EXCERPT]