Chapter 3. They Must Be Wrong About Hell

May heaven protect us

I sat alone in the locked car, looking at my hands. Ash was outside, talking to a uniformed cop about what had gone down in the bar. I wondered if she was recounting the story of why she shot the bartender. Maybe she had to, I thought, according to protocol, to recount everything that happened prior to his head exploding. Her thoughts about heaven, and hell, and all that shit.

I hated her, in that moment. Sitting in the black car, sunlight filtering through the tinted windows — stupidly staring at my hands, stupidly hating her for telling me Mitch was dead. Don’t shoot the messenger my ass, I mumbled to myself and looked at the sideview mirror, and the two people standing by the bar’s rear exit. The cop had a blank expression on his face, unburdened by intelligence or any other preoccupation, and was nodding periodically to whatever Ash was saying.

Our lives are governed by universal inertia of sin and misery, I imagined her saying. Nod nod nod, did the cop. The fuck you nodding for? I thought, Did you mistake the nods for an approval? Or do I?

I reached into my coat pocket and took out the small container with two caps of blueRED still inside.

I’m bought out! blue, by Angels. Make yours last.

Mitch was never one I’d expect to have some famous last words, but that shit right there was just weak.

I opened the container and swallowed one pill. My phone buzzed, sitting between my legs, and I picked it up to check the notification. It was a receipt from the proximity checkout from the bar, telling me some small sum of money was withdrawn from one of my accounts to settle the bill. I dismissed the message.

My best fucking friend is dead, goddamnit, I thought, and the last thing he ever said to me was about drugs. I wanted to text him back and call him a fuckface. Maybe the message would find him in the ether, eventually. And slap him in the fucking ear.

I opened my messages, fully intending to do just that, and landed in the middle of a text I had been writing to Jackie, right before Ash shot the bartender. My message was still not sent, and above it sat another — the one from Jackie.

get out now

Looking at it sent an uncomfortable shiver down the back of my neck, just as it had the first time I read it. The kind you feel when you look at yourself in the mirror late at night and can swear the reflection blinks more often than you do. A wry smirk on the face you thought was your own. If Jackie really did it, I thought, why text me at all?

So maybe she didn’t, I ventured. Maybe I was being played by this federal agent called Ash. Maybe it’s Jackie who she really wants, and I’m just a way to get to her. Which puts me in all sorts of fucked up inconveniences, I thought.

Jackie’s message could have simply meant to get out and avoid meeting the fed. Which means she must have seen Ash enter the bar, it hit me. Maybe she was still around somewhere, watching.

I turned around and looked out the car’s back window, scanning the street and the cars parked along the curb. They all looked to be empty. I turned back around and chewed my lip for a few moments, thinking. The car’s energy-share signature, I thought, that could show me if Jackie’s in the area. Provided she drove to meet me here.

Several years ago, when the the vast majority of cars on the road became self-driving, and fully electric — energy-sharing between vehicles became a clever way to extend their total range, and significantly improve the efficiency of power production. There was, of course, a massive network of Supercharger stations all around the continent that you could use while you were traveling, however, you — or your car — still had to drive to them.

Two engineers from (what used to be) the Silicon Valley calculated that if the cars that were low on battery could be recharged by other vehicles that had full charge — our collective energy consumption would go down by over forty percent. The cars that had little charge left wouldn’t have to drive to the Supercharger station, thereby saving energy. If you drove somewhere downtown, and let your car switch to full autonomous mode to find parking, it would start listening for the energy-share requests from other cars in the area.

The car would then calculate the percentage of its own battery it could share and drive up to whatever vehicle needed charging. It used a robotic arm to plug itself in, becoming the donor.

In the first two months of the feature rolling out, the media went fucking crazy. Everyone had to write their own clever piece about cars coupling, mating, and humping each other. “The autonomous car that could,” read every recycled headline, landing between awkward sexual innuendo and just short of hardcore robot porn.

It was a strange time. Then RED hit the streets, and that no longer mattered.

I tapped on the middle console inside of Ash’s car to see if it would come to life. The screen lit up and displayed a welcome message. If Jackie’s car was in the area, I could manually scan for its unique id, which, knowing Jackie, would probably be either theRudeProphet or cynicalMessiah. She had a flair for the dramatic, and never used her real name on any account that could be seen publicly.

“You’re not Ash,” the onboard AI said bluntly, which startled me. Biometric authentication, I thought. Shit.

“No, no I’m not,” I said, “Sorry, I’m not.” I glanced back to see that Ash was still talking to the policeman.

“I’m Anni,” the female voice introduced herself, “I’m the onboard assistant. I can see that Ash is standing nearby. Are you going somewhere together?”

“I, uhhh…” I paused, “We are, yes. Apparently.”

“I can’t start the car before Ash gets in. Is there anything you need me to help you with in the meantime?”

“No, I know, I was just… Can you play some music please?” I said, deflecting. Telling Anni what I actually wanted to look for would not have been smart.

“I can see from your playlists that you’re a fan of old rock music,” Anni said, while I pondered the stupidity of searching for Jackie’s unique id from inside of Ash’s car.

Anni continued, “Would you like me to play your top ten rock tracks, or are you in the mood for something neo-classical?”

“Neo-classical is fine. Not too loud,” I said.

My head was starting to hurt. I closed my eyes and leaned back on the headrest. The music spilled out from the speakers, filling the interior of the car with light digital distortion, which was followed by ephemeral strokes of piano. Time Lapse, I recognized, from an old album by Ludovico Einaudi. I had written a long review about it ages ago — in my past life — a life I barely remembered having. It was a love letter to the artist, a cry from some primal place. “It’s RED,” I heard Jackie’s voice echoing from the past, “that’s why you have these memory lapses.”

I opened my eyes, armed with a weak attempt at a rebuttal, and remembered that Jackie wasn’t here. Remembered that she may have been responsible for my friend’s death — unlikely as the thought seemed to me now. My mind started drifting. blue’s kicking in, I thought.

The music played on — weightless, infinitely beautiful — caught in a time lapse of its own.

Our lives are governed by winds that know no forecast, a thought had entered my mind of its own accord, uninvited, we are all just a product of universal inertia of misery.

Maybe Jackie really did it, I thought. Really killed Mitch.

My mind was fast adrift, propelled by the drug in my blood stream. I imagined Ash appearing next to me, in the driver’s seat, with a fresh glass of scotch.

May heaven protect us, she said, more to herself than to me. May it protect us from the cursed ground we walk on, for its own sake and for ours.

Why would she do it, I asked her. Why would Jackie kill Mitch?

She smirked and looked at me. To gain notoriety, she said.

But why, I pressed, that doesn’t make sense.

He had access to the source, Ash answered, to the lab in Junktown.

I didn’t understand. Jackie’s a pusher — they don’t do that. She probably got most of her stock of junkRED from him as well. Why kill the source?

Ash looked at me and smiled, to fall from grace all at once is to gain notoriety.

How do you know this, I asked, that Mitch had access to the Junktown lab?

Well, I didn’t. She reached into her pocket, extracting the gold-plated cylinder, and took two pills of angelRED.

Anyway, I wasn’t certain, Ash looked at me again and smiled, warmly, not until you told me.

Motherfucker, I thought to myself.

You know what that means.

I did.

Her gun was suddenly pointed at my eyeball, and she pulled the trigger.

I jolted awake, as I do.

Ash got in the car.

“Bad dream?” she asked.

“You could call it that,” I said.

“Hi Ash,” Anni said, bringing the car to life.

“Hi Anni,” Ash replied, and took out the gold-plated cylinder from her pocket. She unscrewed the cap and took one more angelRED.

“Is that your..”

“Third,” she finished my sentence and looked at me, “you got a problem with that?”

Mother…fucker… I thought with a sinking feeling. Feds don’t shoot hapless bartenders in broad daylight. Not too often, anyway.

“Where are we going?” Anni asked.

I looked at Ash. She’s a fucking Angel, I thought. One of the original pushers from LA. She must be.

“Yeah, where are we going?” I asked her, and she smiled warmly.

“You’ll see,” she said, steering the car into light evening traffic.

Fuck, I thought, they must be wrong about hell.

Hell is ignorance.

The Plague, The Stranger, and The Fall.

The story continues. Follow the publication for the next chapter. We publish one every other Sunday.

You can subscribe to receive new chapters in your inbox.