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Fiction #538
(published May 12, 2011)
A Faster, More Scalable Afterlife
(a Poor Mojo's Classic)
by Jason Michael
[This story was originally published in issue #43 of Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), in late 2001. Incidentally, Mr. Michael's story predates the XKCD treatment of a similar theme by roughly seven years.]


Hey there. My name is Gaduk, and I'm a demon. Big and nasty one, too. Face straight out of some Jungian archetypal nightmare. We're talking non-Euclidean geometry here, folks. I've got little holes all over my body that ooze spiders. I've got mouths and spikes and animal horns sprouting out of me from the most sinister places. I've got this twisted little needle that I use to skewer the throats of those left in my service, and I'm also pretty good at devouring entrails and all that good stuff. Long story short, I'm really good at my job, and I love what I do.

Well, I used to love what I do. See this guy I'm working on over here? Went by the name Patrick O'Callaghan in life. This guy was the salt of the earth, I tell ya. A good Irish Catholic in the strictest sense of the word. Went to Mass, ate fish on Fridays. He even gave up something good for Lent every year, not something stupid like ice cream. In fact, this past Lent, he gave up smoking. Damn near killed him, too! Sadly, for him, it was too late, and he was struck down by cancer of the lung. But all in all, this guy was a saint. So why am I towering over him, sticking this needle in his throat and ramming this rhinoceros horn that's growing out of my left thigh into a very uncomfortable place on his body? This man should be in Heaven, standing near the throne and singing praises for all eternity, reflecting on the One True God forever and ever, amen. So why is he in Hell? Well, it's a long story.

So, most of you will have heard of a little thing called the Internet. Buncha computers linked together, communications superhighway, yadda yadda yadda. We've all heard the hype. Well, it seems that this Internet craze made some waves all the way up in Heaven. See, you people think that God knows everything, right? In a way He does, in that He exists in all possible times, in all possible places, and so yeah, He knows everything. But that doesn't mean that He doesn't get surprised. One of His greatest joys is to see what His creation will do next. Well, the Internet surprised the shit out of Him.

God watched in divine fascination as entire industries sprang up like mushrooms down on Earth. He was quite taken with it all: back-end integration, strategeering, harmonious synergies, cross-platform monkey trousers or whatever. He was also awed by the upstart CEOs of the so-called "dot-coms," 20 and 30something youngsters who by sheer force of will seemed to have balled up the whole of His creation and placed it neatly in the palms of their hands. "Hmm," he thought, "These simple creatures may be on to something. I could almost certainly find a way to streamline my line-of-business operations while still leveraging my legacy systems."

And so God held a grand council in Heaven, attended to by all the heavenly host. From His throne, God proclaimed himself President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board of the newly formed company, Heaven.com. His archangels would now serve as executive vice-presidents, while the lower angels took care of the day to day activities of running the company. A mission statement was drawn up on the spot ("To achieve the greatest soul-share of any cosmology, and to kick Satan's ass come Armageddon!"), a corporate vision was laid out, and basically everyone was slapping everyone else's back. Things have a way of going really smoothly in Heaven. The angels were already stratified into a strict hierarchy, and so they took to their new positions within Heaven.com without a hitch. The basic idea of Heaven hadn't changed, it had just been "repurposed." All seemed, well, perfect.

This would have been all well and good if God had left things at that. But He wasn't satisfied with mission statements and cool new titles (He dubbed Remiel the Archangel "Executive VP of Soul Procurement Strategies." Feh.). No, God wanted to actually do something. And so He huddled up with his 7 Archangels in an intense "heads-down" brainstorming session to figure out what processes could be made more efficient by using the Internet. They sat for hours, not saying a word. See, things run pretty effortlessly in Heaven. That's just the way the place works. After several hours, Gabriel spoke up. "Well, St. Pete's been bitching for the last few decades about how long it takes him to look someone up in the Book Of Life. Maybe we could do something there?"

"That's a great idea!" boomed God. "What could we do to ease that 'pain point' for St. Peter?" An uncomfortable silence fell across the room. Angels find independent thought extremely difficult. Finally, Michael squeaked "I heard one of the newly dead souls—"

"Michael, we don't call them that anymore, remember?" God lightly scolded His Archangel.

"Oh, right. Sorry," continued Michael. "One of our new spiritual tenants was talking about his life before he died. Apparently he worked for one of these dot-coms. He mentioned he did something called 'database administration.' Sound promising. Maybe we could talk to him?"

"Excellent!" thundered the King of Kings. And so God and the Archangels spoke with the database administrator, and they all agreed that putting the ponderous Book Of Life into a database would be an excellent idea. God delegated the task of actually doing it to his Archangels, just like He'd seen His CEOs on Earth do.

Well, remember how I said that the angels have a strict hierarchy? Yeah, well, I wasn't kidding. This pecking order has been in place since the beginning of reality, and it's ruthlessly enforced. In fact, it was rare that any of the Archangels did anything anymore, preferring instead to have one of the lesser angels below him do whatever needed doing. That angel would in turn delegate the task to an even lesser angel, until you finally got to the point where the unnamed masses of minor angels were basically running the show. Things got done, sure, but it wasn't the most effective way of doing things. I sure hated working there. You never knew why you were doing any given task, except that some angel above you on the ladder had given you an order.

This system, of course, had disastrous consequences when it came to implementing a new technology like Oracle 8i for Unix. Some poor sap of an angel had ordered a database server running BSD Unix, and some other angel, completely unaware of this because of the rigid lines of communication, had ordered the Oracle software to run on HP Unix. Furthermore, there wasn't a single angel in charge of the data dictionary. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry angel had put their own tables into the schema, their own triggers. It was ugly, man, ugly. As the "go-live" date neared, everyone was getting pretty pissy. God even slowed down time to allow the angels to finish up the innumerable fixes and patches they had to apply (Did you notice that July 15th, 1999 seemed to last a long freakin' time?). In the end, though, they got the damn thing to work. It was understood that there would be a few bugs still in the system after the live date, but these were deemed "non-mission critical." My ass.

So there was this huge ceremony, with God beaming over his jubilant host. Champagne flowed freely, and little Jesus even turned a little water into wine, just for a lark. Spirits were high, and as St. Pete walked up to the slick, matte black console that housed the new Book Of Life v2.0, an awed silence fell over Heaven. St. Pete reached out his withered hand, and pressed the power button on the server. And then, quite literally, all Hell broke loose.

I can only describe the events of that day in vague terms, as language offers such clumsy tools for the task. In the blink of an eye, millions of those watching the event were wrenched out of their heavenly existence and cast into the Lake Of Fire. God's shit-eating grin slowly turned to a look of abject horror, as His precious "soul-share" was decimated. The Archangels were apoplectic. "What the fuck just happened? Who's responsible for this?" they each demanded in turn. "Turn it off!" bellowed God. Jesus wept.

St. Peter quickly went through the laborious shutdown sequence for the server, but it was too late. The damage had been done. Millions of righteous souls had been sent to Hell. And due to an oversight on the part of one of the drone angels, the backups for the Book Of Life v1.0 had been improperly formatted, and were lost completely. The psychic fallout from the fiasco was brutal and immediate. Sensing that something terribly, unutterably wrong had happened, millions of believers on Earth just gave up and stopped believing. It was as if an entire religious group suddenly, and in unison, had said "Fuck a bunch of that!" God turned His ashen face from the remaining host, and strode slowly into His private corner office.

So that's what happened. As it turns out, some unnamed angel had forgotten to properly deal with single quotes in names. Since the software used single quotes around strings, anyone whose name contained an apostrophe had their name truncated at the apostrophe. Our man Patrick O'Callaghan here was, as far as the Book Of Life was concerned, Patrick O. When the server booted up and ran an audit against its tables, it found no Patrick O listed as "saved," and promptly dumped Patrick here into Hell. You can imagine the asymmetrical effect this had on the Irish-descended demographic. Good Catholics, most of them. It's a damn shame.

I hear you asking. "So why doesn't God, in his infinite wisdom, just do a great big universal Undo? Well, it's just not that easy. You think papal infallibility is a tough nut to crack? Just try divine infallibility on for size. For God to undo one of His acts would be in violation of His infallibility, and you, me, God, and the rest of the Universe would simply wink out of existence. Frightening shit.

What's worse, with all the fallout surrounding this shit-storm, God ran out of psychic "juice" to pay all his angels, and so mass layoffs ensued. Of course, The Old Enemy's always hiring, and many angels ended up in Hell along with the unjustly punished souls. That's how I ended up here. The work sucks, especially when you get one of those mistakenly cast down. I tell ya, It breaks this poor demon's heart to hear their righteous screams eventually become moans of sad, bitter acceptance. But hey, at least Old Scratch runs a smooth operation.

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