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By Marco Cultrera


“What if not knowing what’s in the afterlife is an evolutionary advantage?” Eugene announced, striding into my office.

“Good morning to you too, Eugene,” I replied, my stomach unclenching. When I had seen him approaching, I had braced for the worst, but his opening line sounded more like philosophical musing than the usual logistical nightmare.

Eugene comes to see me only when he needs me to act on one of his ideas. Ideas that end up consuming my life for months, while usually challenging my moral compass.

“Good morning, James,” he replied seriously, the irony of my greeting entirely lost on him.

I gestured for him to continue.

“We still don’t have a definite answer to why the Homo Sapiens Sapiens emerged as the dominant hominid. Take the Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis. They had a very similar brain size and were physically stronger. Why didn’t they defeat our ancestors and populate the planet themselves?”

I focused on Eugene’s perfectly combed hair to avoid staring at his clothes. As usual, he was dressed like he was colour-blind–he’s not, I learned it during the living crystals project. He thinks vibrant colours help him connect with people—they do not, his chronic social awkwardness is beyond fixing. I’m probably the closest thing that he has to a friend, and our relationship is strictly professional. He thinks. I execute.

It’s not easy to make money on a massive scale in a post-scarcity world. Turns out that when people don’t have to worry about putting food on the table or the future of their children, global markets stabilize pretty quickly. Conversely, those big economic swings that scruple-free multinational corporations—as if there are any other kind—exploit, dry up.

Out-of-the-box thinking on a whole new level becomes necessary, and that’s where people like Eugene come in. The Company found him, nurtured him, and covered him in gold. All they ask of him is to come up with ideas that can be turned into the kind of profit that the Company needs to thrive. Things like Zero Gravity Football, which put the NFL out of business in ten short years, or the aforementioned transformation of outer-space crystal mining operations into living consciousnesses that can auto-manage themselves.

“One possible explanation is that all the different pre-human species knew what was going to happen after they died,” Eugene continued. “When consciousness emerged, it could have come with that knowledge.”

“It’s a bit of a giant assumption.”

“Could have come in the form of collective visions or the hearing of voices typical of a bicameral brain. Similar rituals have survived as traditions for centuries in many cultures. They could have a common origin.”

“Ok, go on.”

“What if at some point, because of a defective gene, or simply a fork in evolution, a portion of Homo Sapiens Sapiens stopped having those visions or hearing those voices? Suddenly, all that mattered was the life they were living. A dead child wasn’t someone they would see again in the afterlife, but an irreversible tragedy.

“The push for reproduction, a consequence of this new mindset—up to a few centuries ago, humans were still having double-digit children, with the expectation that half of them wouldn’t make it to adulthood—became another clear benefit in fighting the other hominids.

“As their number grew, they started encroaching against other species, like the Neanderthals, and in the resulting clash, the outcome would be a foregone conclusion. On one side, you have a group fighting for the only life they know and ready to do anything to survive. Against them, individuals that are aware of a new and better afterlife, where their beloved ancestors or prematurely dead are waiting for them. Any imbalance in physical strength or intelligence would have been more than compensated by that difference in motivation. Honestly, I can’t think of a better evolutionary advantage.

"It would also explain the fact that there is no evidence of the existence of religions before our species took over the planet. If you already know what happens after you die, looking for explanations about natural phenomenon or adopting a code of conduct for this life becomes irrelevant.”

I thought for a long ten seconds, then I came up with the only objection I could muster.

“Unless there is no life after death, and we all just dissolve into dust."

“But then we are back to not having an explanation of why our ancestors prevailed over the Neanderthals and all the other hominids.”

I nodded and stood up. “Ok, I’ll take it to the board.”




“Come again?” my wife Sheila asked after I told her about Eugene’s new idea, following our weekly love-making session.

“If you insist…” I said, my hands exploring her body again.

She hit me, laughing. “James… You dog, you know what I mean…”

I sighed and just took her in my arms before explaining the details of Eugene’s latest theory.

According to my contract, I’m not supposed to tell anyone who doesn’t work in the Company anything about my job, but Sheila wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t blame her. She is the one who endures my prolonged absences, nurses me back to health, and deals with my bouts of PTSD after particularly taxing projects.

“And the board decided to pursue it?” she replied once I was done.


“I just don’t see how they can monetize it,” Sheila said. “Even if you find out what’s in the afterlife, the news on what awaits humanity after death would spread instantly. It wouldn’t be more than a one time broadcasting event, not the kind of return your bosses go for.”

“Maybe there’s a sliver of humanity left in them, and they want the people to just know.”

The faces of the board members during that morning meeting, brimming with curiosity once they had grasped the magnitude of what Eugene was proposing, flashed in my head.

“Unless…” she replied, slipping out of my arms to stare into my eyes.

“...the Company could create a whole new religion around that knowledge,” she said, sitting up, “and then do the big reveal and show that they were right. People would just flock to the new faith, eager to spend their hard-earned money in every way they are told.”

I hadn’t thought about it, but Sheila’s brain had always worked at a superior level than mine. No wonder she had completed a PhD in psychology and one in criminology by the time she was twenty-five.

“But that would require a long-term strategy,” she continued. “They would sit on the greatest secret in human history for years. Good thing I know someone to get me the inside scoop.”

She winked before cozying up to my chest again.

“Speaking of,” she continued. “How do you plan to find out? You can’t travel back in time and ask the Neanderthals.”

A satisfied smile appeared on my face. I can’t think out of the box like Eugene, or as deeply and fast as Sheila, but I get stuff done. When you work with ideas or concepts, lateral thinking and the ability to process information quickly are great assets, but when you deal with people, the direct approach always works best. We needed hominids still living in prehistoric conditions, and I had found them.

“There are still a handful of primitive tribes on Earth,” I said. “Among them are the Sentinelese, living on a remote island in the Bay of Bengal in India. They haven’t had meaningful contact with civilization since they were spotted in the seventeen-hundreds.”

“Do you think they know?”

“Their isolation is a choice. They attack any outsider that lands on the beaches of their islands on sight. Over the years, the Indian government has left on their beach utensils and other useful objects. They have always destroyed them.”

“Like they aren’t interested in evolving,” Sheila replied. “And why would they if they only view their present life as a stepping stone toward the next and better one?

“Exactly my thinking. Their isolation and their small population make it entirely possible that they never lost the knowledge about the afterlife.”

Sheila went quiet again, lost in another one of her deep thoughts. I knew better than disturbing her. “Do you have a Plan B?” she finally asked.

“I can’t say that I do. But I get the feeling that you are about to suggest one?”

“It’s just a thought, but what if, just like a recessive gene, the knowledge about the afterlife occasionally reappears in modern humans?”

I scratched my chin. “Wouldn’t have it come out by now?”

“My guess is no. Whoever would claim to know would either be ignored or institutionalized as insane. Unless they had enough charisma and intelligence to use that insight to build something around it.”

“But what? If they are the only one to know."

“They would have to find followers ready to take their word for it and blindly believe what they say.”

“You mean like a religion? Or a cult?”

“Exactly! And what would be the one thing that such a cult wouldn’t be afraid of doing if things get out of hand?”

“Mass suicide.”

And then I understood where Sheila was going. “You can’t mean…”

“Oh, I do. Reverend Donald McQuarrie.”

McQuarrie was the only survivor of the Tofino massacre, six hundred men and women who had killed themselves drinking cyanide once their compound was surrounded by the police three years earlier. He hadn’t died only because his wife, charged with preparing the deadly doses, had given him a sedative instead. The reason why she had saved her husband was still unclear.

I knew all of that because Sheila had spent the better part of the previous year writing a paper on him. Her frustration as her requests for an interview with McQuarrie had been constantly denied was still vivid in my mind. He had tried to kill himself too many times to count since the massacre and was under constant suicide watch. The penitentiary wasn’t taking any chances with external visitors.

“I bet that with the Company’s weight behind this, you can get to him,” Sheila said.

“Thank you,” I replied and kissed her. When she responded, I grabbed her. It looked like I was going to come again after all.




The board approved both mine and Sheila’s plan—thinking that I had come up with both of them, of course—and I left for India the next day. They wanted to send a nocturnal raid on the Sentinelese island and grab as many natives as possible, but I convinced them using finesse would bring better results. My plan was to persuade one of the residents to volunteer and come back with me to the Company’s HQ. It seemed reasonable to think that someone that wasn’t coerced would be more inclined to share the secret of the afterlife, but I also wanted to fulfil my second and secret role in the Company, the only thing that makes me able to look at myself in the mirror.

The board would do anything to achieve their quarterly results, with no regard for the innocents that get caught in the crossfire. When I’m in charge, I always do whatever I can to minimize the collateral damage.

Like during the living crystal project. They wanted to orchestrate the accidental explosion of one of the mined asteroids, to accelerate the push for unmanned operations, with no regard for the lives of the miners that would have been lost. I convinced them that showing the transition of the miners to a better life on Earth would be a better PR move. Since I kept delivering on Eugene’s ideas, they let me do it my way.

The arrows hit me ten yards onto the beach. My full body armour made of Teflon and Titanium handled them without a hitch. I raised my hands and yelled Peace, and the speaker embedded under the visor said the Onge equivalent, sounding like my voice with a slight metallic tone. Nothing is known about the Sentinelese language. The only thing that anthropologists and linguists agree upon is that it would have branched off dialects from other tribes in the area.

My translator was set to the Onge language, the most common among those, and equipped with an AI module that would learn and adjust as I communicated with the Sentinelese.

More arrows tapped my body. I counted twelve before the shooters came out of the underbrush and I could take a good look at them. Short, dark-skinned and thin, five individuals approached me cautiously, wearing only skirts made of thick leaves. The one on point had a baffled expression and was levelling a stone-headed spear at me.

I sat on the sand and raised my hands. He speared me over and over again, as I repeated Peace every few seconds. My armour didn’t even scratch and finally another one of them turned, raised his skirt, showing me his naked bum, and farted loudly in my face. I instantly regretted not having mounted the nose filters.

“Peace! That peace!” he said, or at least that is how the translator interpreted his words. They all laughed around me until one of them barked another word, similar to the original one, but with a different ending. I said Peace again and this time, the new word came out of my speaker, as the AI caught up. It occurred to me that, in their language, the words peace and fart shared the same etymology and I wondered what that said about the Sentinelese. I decided to take it as a good sign.

“Peace not fart,” I said, laughing, and a few of them joined me.

“Quiet!” the serious one said. “He’s dangerous.”

“No,” I replied. “I’m a friend!”

The man opened his mouth wide and started wiggling his tongue up and down, making a high pitch noise. I’d seen similar behaviour before in some Polynesian tribes. He was inviting me to fight.

“No, I want to talk,” I said, hoping that the translator was not telling him to go screw his sister.

“Take him prisoner,” another one of them said. “Link his hands, bring him to the old ones.”

I offered my wrists.

“He’s dangerous!” the hostile one replied, “I don’t have children yet.”

The translator obviously had botched the second sentence. I repeated Peace then added, “You can tie my hands.”

The man grinned at me once more, then shook his head before turning away. The friendlier one grabbed a long and sturdy vine lying about and used it to tie my wrists. What he didn’t know was that, by pressing a button inside my gloves, I could eject blades along my forearms and free myself. But I was hoping I wouldn’t need to.

The native yanked at the vine to get me up, and we moved toward the forest. After a short trek, the unmistakable sound of children laughing covered the calls of birds and the cries of monkeys coming from the branches above. A few heads peeked out of the foliage, with piercing eyes and unruly hair, only to vanish when the man with the spear yelled at them. Shortly after, we arrived at the outskirts of a village, dozens of shacks scattered among the trees, forming an uninterrupted canopy above them.

I’d seen the satellite photos, and there were no open sky clearings in the forest. As a result, nobody really knew how many individuals formed the Sentinelese people. Estimates based on the amount of fishing being observed on the shores put the number at about two hundred, but from what I was seeing, it had to be at least double that.

We stopped just before the first hut. More natives were gathering, but all keeping a healthy distance. A few children yelled and pointed, and very soon berries and sticks started hitting me. I lowered my head and kept my tied hands up to show that I wasn’t a threat.

Suddenly everybody went quiet. I looked up and saw a group of older Sentinelese approaching.

They stopped a few yards away, and I couldn’t help but notice the lone frail woman in the group otherwise formed by men. The lines on her face, baked by the sun, drew the map of a very long life. She smiled at me warmly, the first reaction I had gotten from the natives not spurred by hostility, fear or scorn. When our eyes met, her smile widened even further.

The man that had threatened me on the beach addressed them. “Outsider! We couldn’t end him. His skin is too hard.”

Gasps and oohs rose all around us.

“I come in peace,” I said. “I just want to talk.”

The elders stared at me without saying a word until one of them stepped closer. He had red stripes painted on his face – one of very few among the natives. “Never go near outsiders! Ever!”

Thanks to my research, I knew where that fear came from. Most of the Andamanese tribes in the area had been wiped out by the germs brought by the Europeans in the mid-eighteenth century. Their bodies simply didn’t have any immunity against foreign disease.

“We Jarawa all ill and died!” the man added.

Those few words revealed to me the reason for the isolation of the Sentinelese people. The Jarawas were one of the extinct tribes. A few of them must have escaped to this island and warned the locals about the white invaders.  

“No diseases inside me,” I said. I had been vaccinated to all known diseases and quarantined for two weeks with constant monitoring. That had been a nonnegotiable request by the Indian government, the only one—aside from the sumptuous sum paid by the Company—to grant me access to the island. “We pale people mourn the deaths of the Jarawa, the Onge and all tribes. We stayed away from you, Sentinelese, to keep you safe.”

“Why you here then?” the Jarawa man asked.

“Talk with you,” I replied.

The man glared at me, then spit in my face.

“Take him away!” he yelled. “Or we all die!”

The other elders whispered among themselves until one spoke aloud.

“Border him,” he ordered.

They dragged me to a hut separated from the rest and pushed me inside, blocking the entrance with a grate made of sturdy wood. It would be no match for my hidden blades, but I wasn’t there to fight. I needed to gain their trust, so I sat and waited.

After a while, a group of kids approached, showed me their asses and produced the loudest farts, before running off giggling back to the village. Apparently, the translation incident on the beach had already become Sentinelese lore.

As twilight loomed, I realized how hungry I was. I had a few high nutrient bars hidden in my suit, but I decided to wait. I was rewarded when the man who had hit me with the spear approached the hut. Behind him was the old woman, still smiling and carrying a wooden bowl.

“Are you sure?” he said to her after they stopped about ten yards away.

“I had all my children,” she told him, bestowing on him her wide smile.

“You are crazy like a monkey,” he grunted, opening the grate.

The woman came inside, and the native locked the door behind her and left.

“Good dark. Morning will wait for us,” the man said to her before silently walking away.

She turned and sat in front of me. “My third grandchild,” she said, pointing at him. “He’s nicer than he shows.”

“Sawa,” she added, touching her chest.

“James,” I replied. 

She offered me the bowl. It contained a generous helping of grilled fish, garnished with tropical fruits. My stomach growled vigorously. She laughed with an innocence of someone eighty years her junior. I took off the helmet of my suit and ate while she watched. The food was simply prepared, but surprisingly good.

“Thank you, Sawa,” I said when I was done.

“I’ll be sleeping with you tonight,” she said.

The look on my face made her laugh almost to the point of throwing up.

“No, you monkey." She slapped my shoulder. “I’m too old for gup-gup.”

The translator couldn’t figure out the last word, but I had a pretty good idea what it meant.

“I stay in the hut with you three suns. If I don’t get sick, you can come to the village."

She was the…canary? Why would Sawa risk her life for an outsider like me?

Before I could ask, she started talking about her life. She told me about her three husbands, seven children and thirteen grandchildren. How she got bored with men and, after her third divorce, retired to a small hut to live by herself. I don’t know why, but I hadn’t expected the Sentinelese to be so liberal when it came to family dynamics.

Occasionally, some of her grandchildren peeked through the foliage, presumably to check on her, and she told me their names. They would get closer to bring us food, and I introduced myself to them, but they just ran away laughing. On my part, I shared how I had met Sheila and explained that I was still very much in love with her after over twenty years. She seemed confused when I told her we didn’t have children and had no intention of changing that, but I never saw an ounce of judgment in her face. My attempt to explain how overpopulation had become almost unsustainable outside her little corner of paradise drew a blank stare, so I let the topic die.

The hours flew by, between her surprisingly entertaining stories about the very mercurial but happy people living on the island and my description of the world outside of it, which Sawa probably understood very little of, but was somehow a constant source of hilarity. Soon, I found myself craving more and more the sound of her joyous laughter.

By the second morning, I had such a strong connection with Sawa that I wanted to just come out and ask her the question that had brought me there. I felt that if she knew what happened in the afterlife, she would just tell me. But I had different orders. The question had to be asked by Eugene in a sealed room at HQ. The Company didn’t want to risk anybody listening in, especially the Indian government, which had forced my employer to share with them, in real time, any conversation recorded by the translator.

So, I asked her the other question that had been on my mind since she had stepped into my prison. “Why are you here with me? Aren’t you afraid?”

“I had my children,” she said. “I lived seemed valuable.”

Valuable? Another translation bungle?

“Interesting?” I tried.

“Yes… Interesting.” She had said the same word, but the translator had adjusted. “I get bored, while I wait for the after.”

I had to stop her from elaborating, so I faked a yawn. “Tired… I need to go to sleep.”

“Good dark,” she said. “Morning will wait for us.”

The same words as the night before. I guess the sentence was too elaborate for the AI to just turn it into Goodnight. She curled up on the pile of leaves that formed our beds, and in less than ten seconds her breathing was slow and regular.

The morning of the fourth day, instead of breakfast, we found the man with the spear outside the hut. Sawa squeezed my hand and walked to him. She opened her mouth for him to examine it, then spat in a bowl. He looked at the saliva and nodded.

“We passed!” Sawa said, hugging him, before squirreling back to the hut.

I removed my suit, except the headset with the translator, and thanked the man, who just scoffed at me.

“Come with me!” Sawa said and grabbed my hand. We ran to the village like two children chasing an ice cream truck.

In the next few days, Sawa introduced me to everybody in the village, and made sure I fully experienced the Sentinelese way of living. Between the fish in the sea, the small animals and the sweet fruits and berries in the forest, the food was delicious and abundant, and only a few hours of the day needed to be spent gathering it and doing other chores.

The rest of the time was spent swimming, chanting and drumming around bonfires or playing with the children whose games were always a perfect mix of fun and learning, involving activities like climbing trees, catching crabs, or setting small traps in the underbrush. Everybody looked genuinely happy and carefree, and the Sentinelese code of law seemed to only need one strict rule: NEVER leave the island. Other than that, anything went.

One night I even had to rebuff the advances of a couple of younger women who had made their way into the hut that had been assigned to me, something that Sawa teased me about incessantly. They made me realize how much I missed Sheila, as I always did when I was away, but I didn’t want to leave. I hadn’t been so relaxed in a very long time, especially during a mission.

Which didn’t bode well. My plan was to find someone on the island unsatisfied with their life, or at least longing for something more. Someone who I could convince to follow me to the outside world. I couldn’t think of a single one of my new friends that would be interested.

Then one afternoon, tragedy struck. During a group hike, one of the younger children, racing his older brother to the top of a tree, fell. I saw him bouncing off two of the lower branches and I knew there was no hope for him even before he landed on the ground with a sickening thud.

My training kicked in and I performed CPR on him for what seemed an eternity. I only stopped when I felt Sawa’s arms around me. She gave me her sweetest smile. The dead boy’s parents thanked me and took him in their arms, with his brother and his other siblings by their side. Their faces all expressed infinite sadness, but I didn’t witness the screaming or inconsolable crying and desperation typical of such a tragedy in the modern world.

After a brief ceremony, in which the entire village took part, the family took the body to a part of the island I hadn’t been to yet. Sawa encouraged me to go, so I followed at a respectful distance. We arrived at a big clearing, still covered by the canopy of the tropical forest, but with freshly dug mounds replacing the underbrush. The father chose an empty spot and dug a shallow grave while the mother sang a soft song, which my translator had a hard time decoding. They laid the body to rest and covered it with soil. This was their cemetery, but there were no tombstones or markers of any kind.

That night Sawa walked me to my hut, as she did every night.

“Good dark,” she said. “Morning will wait for us.”

She gave me a kiss on the cheek and turned to go back to her hut.

“Sawa?” I stopped her. “I need to go back.”

“So soon?” she asked.

“I miss home…” I replied. “And Sheila.”

Also, since my plan was taking too long, I was afraid that the Company would soon storm the island, with the Indian government turning a blind eye thanks to another generous payment. I had grown too fond of Sawa and her people to allow that to happen. The only recourse I had left was to convince my employer that I hadn’t seen any evidence of the Sentinelese knowing anything about the afterlife, and that we should turn our full attention to Reverend McQuarrie.

“I’ll miss your stories about the outside,” Sawa said.

“I’ll miss you, too,”

She took my hands in hers. "I'll be bored again..." For the first time since I met her, I saw her mouth curve into a frown. “...Waiting until I don’t have to anymore.”

The thought of asking Sawa to come with me had crossed my mind, but I was sure that she wouldn’t want to leave her children and grandchildren for a trip that would probably kill her.

“Can I go with you?” she asked, sweeping away all my fears.




“Just like that?” Sheila asked while I was massaging her naked shoulders.

“Yup, she left her life behind,” I replied. “It took her all of ten minutes to say goodbye to her entire family.”

I could feel her body suddenly tense under my fingers. She turned and looked at me. “You know? I’m starting to think that Eugene may be right. The Sentinelese live a carefree existence and have no interest in improving their living conditions. They’re not scared by death and hardly honour their departed. It’s almost as if they know they aren’t gone forever, and they will see them again.”

She slipped back into my arms, and we remained silent for a while.

“How did Sawa fare on the journey here?” Sheila finally asked.

“We gave her some immune boosters and sealed her in a suit with air filters. You should have seen her face. I don’t think she had ever had her legs or arms covered before. She loved the flight. She couldn’t take her eyes off the clouds. I think I saw tears of joy on her face when I pointed out her island from above.”

“Where is she now?”

“The Company sterilized an entire wing of the HQ. She’s there."

“Like a prisoner?”

“I had them set up a full state-of-the-art holographic room. It’s too dangerous for her to travel, but that’s the next best thing. I took her through Venice yesterday. You should have seen how happy she was.”

“Wasn’t she overwhelmed?”

“We have been working up to it. First, I showed her different natural landscapes. She wouldn’t believe me when I tried to explain snow to her.”

The memory of Sawa’s eyes widening when I put shaved ice on her hands in the middle of a perfectly simulated rendition of the Matterhorn put a huge smile on my face.

"Oh my God..." Sheila looked into my eyes. “…you are in love with her.”

The blood drained from my face. What?

“All these years,” Sheila continued, “worried that you would leave me for a pretty thing half my age and it ends up being an aboriginal grandmother with no teeth.”

Was she being serious?

Then she smirked.

“Ha, ha, ha, you should have seen your face,” she said as I grabbed her.

We rolled in bed, both laughing, until I pinned her down. My mouth reached for her lips and we made love again.




The next day, I flew to Florence, Colorado, to offer Reverend Donald McQuarrie the deal of his life. For his life, more accurately. During the flight over, and the hour drive from the airport to the maximum security prison, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Sheila had said. Was it true that she worried about me cheating on her when I was away? Was it the normal concern of a wife forced to be apart from her husband for long periods of time, or was I doing something specific to make her think that? Over the years, many women, many men for that matter, had made no mystery of their willingness to sleep with me, but I had always firmly refused.

Once the metal door of the visitor area slammed behind me, I put those thoughts out of my mind. Knowing Sheila, it was very possible that she was just messing with me.

“Who are you?” McQuarrie greeted me.

His hair was long and unkempt, and he sported a foot-long beard full of knots. When they had searched me to make sure I wasn’t bringing in anything that the prisoner could use to kill himself, the guards told me that the only reason he didn’t stink to high heaven was because they hosed him down every morning with soapy water. The man wanted to die so badly that he was making it as difficult as possible for them to keep him alive. He ate regularly only because, when he had tried to starve himself the guards had pinned him down and fed him with a tube down his throat.

I introduced myself and told him who I worked for.

“What does this have to do with me?” he replied.

“I’m here to offer you a deal.”

“I’m not interested in any deal. All I want to do is die.”

“That’s what I’m offering.”

McQuarrie looked up at the cameras bolted to the corners of the room.

“My employee paid a hefty amount of money to make sure this conversation remains private. Nobody is watching or listening.”

“What do I need to do?”

“We’ll transfer you to a secret facility. The official reason is a new study from a corporate team of psychologists researching what drives people to suicide.” The cover story sounded as lame as when Eugene had come up with it. “After you answer a few questions to our satisfaction, you’ll tell us your method of choice and we’ll leave you alone in a room with it. We’ll make it look like you had tried to escape, or simply incompetence on our part. To be frank, I think the people here will be relieved to know that you are not coming back.”

McQuarrie eyed me suspiciously. That wasn’t the reaction I had been expecting. I thought he would jump at the opportunity.

“I’m not your average suicide candidate, Mr. Gordon. I may skew the results of your study.”

Where was that objection coming from? Seeing the expression on my face, he rushed to qualify.

“All I’m saying is that I want to make sure that you don’t decide to keep me locked away for years until my answers to your questions aren’t to your satisfaction. If the end result is me just moving to a different prison, I’d rather keep being miserable here.”

“Reverend,” I replied, “I’m not privy to the study, and I’m certainly not the one who will ask the questions, but I can assure you that my employer is very serious about ALL its proposals. Especially those that cannot be made public. Do we have a deal?”

McQuarrie scratched his beard repeatedly before answering. “Yes.”

“Excellent. It’ll take a few more days to complete the process, but you can expect to be in transit by the end of the week.”

I stood up and knocked on the door. When the guard on the other side opened it, McQuarrie shouted. “Hey Mickey, any chance I can get a barber in here? Also, I’d like to take a proper shower.”




“So? What now?” I asked Eugene, looking through the one-way window into McQuarrie’s room. He was sitting at a table bolted to the floor, staring into space. He was hardly recognizable as the caveman I had met in Florence. Clean-shaven, his hair short and combed, he looked like the well groomed man in the pictures taken by the police when he was found unconscious but still breathing, surrounded by hundreds of dead members of his cult.

“Hold on,” Eugene replied, hunched over the console, nervously typing on the embedded keyboard. “Here we go!”

The holographic representation of a brain appeared, hovering on a darker panel next to him. The sparks of the synapses firing blinked constantly inside its red outline.

 “Is that…” I started asking.

“Subject B’s brain, analyzed and mirrored in real time. When I question him, his brain pattern will tell me if he’s lying.”

Subject B? Sawa was probably subject A then.

“Of course, we’ll only know if he believes that he’s telling the truth,” Eugene continued. “He could just be delusional, but we need to remove the possibility that he’s just toying with us.”

I leaned in to look closer and noticed a cluster of blinking lights in a region deep inside the brain.

“Woah,” Eugene said, “look at the activity in the PCC.”

“PCC?” Eugene always assumed that everybody knew as much as he did about everything.

“Posterior Cingulate Cortex,” he replied, annoyed that he had to explain it to me. “It’s the part of the brain that deals with self-reflection and unstructured thinking. Whenever you are not focusing on external impulses, it immediately fires up. It consumes more energy than any other part of the brain, but in subject B, it’s off the charts.”

“What does that kind of hyperactivity mean?” 

“Who knows…the PCC is the least known region of the brain. Could be as simple as Subject B has spent a lot of his life meditating, but my hope is that it has to do with the kind of significant revelation I’m looking for.”

Eugene smiled widely, thinking he'd just made a joke. When I didn't laugh, he got back to business.

 “What now, you asked? The Company wants to keep any answer I get out of Subject A or B under wraps, so...your work here is done. Efficiently and with the usual high quality. I’ll submit my report to the board shortly, and you may expect another stellar review. I’ll be in contact for the next project.”

“Wait." I was used to Eugene's abrupt parting of ways, but this time was different. "What about Sawa?”


“Subject A. What will happen to her once you’re done?”

“She’ll be sent back to her island, with the same precautions as when she came.”

“Won’t I handle that?”

“The board is afraid that once she finds out why she’s here, she may share her answers to my questions with you, as it seems that you guys have become quite close. So, no, someone else who has no knowledge of this project will take care of it.”

Maybe Sheila was right. I felt my chest tighten at the idea of never seeing Sawa again.

“Can I at least say goodbye?” I tried.

Eugene looked surprise. “I don’t see the reason for such a thing.”

Of course, I shouldn’t have expected any kind of empathy from Eugene. I needed to get down to the only thing he understood: Practicality.

“Have you met her?” I asked.

“Not yet.”

“She may be more open to your questions if I introduce you and tell her you can be trusted.”

Eugene thought for a moment, then nodded. “That makes sense. Lead the way.”

I was elated at the thought of seeing Sawa one last time.

Outside her room was the same console as McQuarrie’s, with the holographic reproduction of her brain already floating above it. From the window, I could see that she was resting. Earlier that day, I had brought her to the Forbidden City, and she had insisted on walking the entire grounds. Where that little frail body found all that energy might have been the greatest mystery of all.

I turned on the translator, scanned my badge to open the door, and was greeted by Sawa’s smile.

“Going home to Sheila?” she asked me with a wink. I taught her that. The Sentinelese don’t wink, they are always direct in their conversations.

When she said that, I realized it was around the time my workday was over.

“Yes, but I won’t see you tomorrow.” I said.

The expression on her face matched the sadness in my heart.

I turned and gestured Eugene to come closer. “This is Eugene, a friend of mine, very trustworthy.”

Her face seemed to struggle a bit on the last word. Trust was implicit in the Sentinelese society, they didn’t need a word for it.

“He will ask you some questions and then make sure that you are brought back home safely.”

She lowered her eyes to the ground. “You are not coming?”

“I can’t,” I said. “They need me here.”

That little lie tightened my chest more than anything else ever had.

She came closer, and I took her in my arms for a last hug. Her body seemed frailer, like she was evaporating. She raised on her tippy-toes and gave me a kiss on the cheek. Then she whispered in my ear.

“Have a good dark. Morning will be waiting for you.”




“Just like that?” Sheila asked.

“Yes, I’m on leave until Eugene needs me again.”

Sheila hadn’t been quite her usual self while we were making love. She had been rushing things, and now I knew why.

“But…Aren’t you curious about what he’s going to find out?” she asked, sitting up to look me in the eye. “We are talking about the answer to the most important question that can possibly be asked.”

“I’m curious, for sure, but it’s out of my hands. Like you said, even assuming that Eugene is right, they may not reveal anything to the public for months or years.”

I sighed. “Or if they can’t monetize it or feel that it can affect negatively any of their core businesses, they may never reveal it. Eugene may take it to his grave.”

By the look on her face, Sheila had already reached that conclusion.

“I can’t believe it…” Sheila lay down and turned away from me.

I hugged her, but she didn’t move at all.

“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do,” I tried.

No answer.

I retreated to my side of the bed. After a few turns, I fell into a fitful sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night and reached for Sheila. She wasn’t there, and her side of the bed was cold. I turned the light on.

“Sheila!” I called. I looked at the clock: 2:27 AM.

I stood up and quickly checked the entire apartment. Empty. I found my cell phone. No texts from her. I dialed her number and heard a vibration coming from her nightstand. She had left her phone in the drawer. Where had she gone in the middle of the night without her phone?

Then it came to me.

“No, no, no…” I whispered as I rushed into the foyer. My work badge and her car keys were the only things missing.

I dressed quickly and, a couple of minutes later, I was in my car, speeding down the freeway to the Company HQ. My badge would grant Sheila access and exit through one of the unguarded entrances, but she didn’t know about the constant rounds of the security guards. The HQ was officially designated a Top-Secret facility, giving the Company the authorization to use the TOS—Terminate on Sight—protocol against intruders. The fact that she was my wife wouldn’t help her one bit. I couldn’t just wait home for her to return, hoping that she wouldn’t be caught, or executed.

I slowed down only when my car got into sight of the manned gate. I took a deep breath as I pulled by the armoured bunker next to it.

“Mr. Gordon?” the guard stationed there addressed me from behind the reinforced glass. “I have you on leave for the foreseeable future.”

A bit of luck, I knew him. We had worked together several times, and he was a practical man, sharing my hate of red tape.

“Yes, Donald, but I can’t find my badge,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I left it in my office. And you know the headaches if I report it lost. All the paperwork and the mandatory investigation.”

The gate began opening as he slid a visitor pass through the slot under the reinforced glass.

“Thanks, I owe you one,” I nodded at him, then drove into the garage. My plan was to find Sheila, hide her in the trunk of the car and leave from the same route after returning the temporary badge to Donald. With the absence of a logged incident, hopefully nobody would think to check the camera recordings before they would be routinely overwritten in a month and Sheila’s escapade would go unnoticed, like a fart on the wind.

I found her in the console room outside the Reverend’s cell.

“Are you crazy?” I whispered to her.

“Sorry, I just couldn’t-”

“We have to get out before anybody sees you.”

“He just went in,” she said, pointing to the one-way window.

McQuarrie was still staring at the same empty space, but Eugene was sitting across from him. He laid his tablet on the table and swiped it to activate it. He tapped on it a few times and his mouth started moving, but his words didn’t leave the insulated room. The Reverend turned to face him.

It made sense that the interrogation would take place at night, when nobody was around.

“Please,” Sheila implored. “Can we just listen for a bit? You said you were curious…”

Sheila took my hesitation for consent and started examining the console. “How do you turn on the speakers?”

“We shouldn’t be doing this…” is all I could say. 

Sheila grabbed my hand. “I’ll never tell anybody. I just need to know."

I reached for the switch under the sound waves moving up and down on the recording device and Eugene’s voice filled the room. I lowered the volume to a barely audible level.

“That’s it? All I have to tell you is what expects me in the afterlife?” McQuarrie was saying, as Sheila mouthed a thank you to me.

“Yes, and I’ll personally bring you the poison vial waiting in the other room. As you asked, you’ll fall asleep and die in less than five minutes.”

McQuarrie nodded. “I need to give you a bit of context first. When I was ten, I was on holiday with my parents. Lovely folks, by the way—so-called experts have tried to pin my suicide pact on a childhood of neglect, but nothing could be farther from the truth. We were in Norway, in a dense forest when a sudden storm broke out. I got separated and ended up spending a week in the wilderness alone. It was summer, so the temperature never fell to dangerous levels, and I survived by drinking stream water and eating berries. On the third day, I arrived at a secluded beach at the end of a small fjord. Thousands of little rodents occupied every square-inch of ground.”

“A slice of lemmings?” Eugene replied.

I rolled my eyes. Only Eugene would know what a group of lemmings was called, like a murder of crows.

“Yes, as I discovered later. So many that they spilled into the forest. Suddenly, the ones on the beach jumped into the water and started swimming toward the open ocean. I followed them, running along the side of the fjord, and saw them all disappear beneath the water.

"When I made it back to the beach, only a few hundreds were left, all going about their business, as if nothing had happened.

 “After I was rescued, I did some research and found out that the suicidal tendencies of lemmings are a myth. Their population simply fluctuates a lot, and when there are too many in an area, they enter a migration frenzy, looking for more space to settle. Unfortunately, sometimes that means jumping into bodies of water without knowing if they can reach the other side.

“Years passed, but the connection with nature that I developed in that week alone in the forests of Norway stayed with me. I became an environmental scientist, and got involved in various ecological organizations, some of which didn’t rule out violence to save the planet.”

I remembered reading in his file how he had found most of his followers among radical green warriors and how that was attributed to opportunism more than real environmental beliefs, as those organizations teem with people looking for a purpose. I also remembered that Sheila had always thought there was a deeper reason. I studied her, but she was too engrossed in the Reverend’s words to notice me staring.

“In a sabotage operation at a logging camp one of the explosive charges went off earlier than planned, and I was hit in the head by shrapnel.”

McQuarrie parted his hair on the top of his skull to show Eugene a long scar.

“I slipped into a coma. I saw the classic tunnel with the light at the end, but as I got closer to it, it opened into an idyllic natural paradise. A few people were living in it, joyously, plucking the juiciest fruits I had ever seen. They were laughing with each other and were completely at peace. I had never seen anybody happier.”

My thoughts went immediately to the Sentinelese people.

“I tried to move towards it,” McQuarrie continued, “but the tunnel forked abruptly, and the other branch led to a black void. I started feeling myself pulled towards it, and further away from what had to be Heaven. I tried to resist, but a voice in my head told me I couldn’t, that I hadn’t fully understood what I needed to do to be allowed to go there.”

I was hanging from McQuarrie’s every word, even if he clearly was just a delusional monster. The man's story seemed authentic, and his entire being was invested in what he was saying. No wonder he had convinced so many people to join his cult.

“In that moment I woke up from the dream, and everything clicked. I thought of the lemmings. When there are too many of them, what do they do? They blindly look for new places to go. They’d rather face the unknown than burden their environment with overpopulation.”

Sheila gasped.

“We humans are in the same situation. Overpopulation is turning Earth into a polluted nightmare. The sensible thing to do is to just take our own life and relieve Earth and nature from the burden we impose on them. And guess what? Earth has prepared a paradise for those who find the courage. I have seen it!"

The irony was delicious. If McQuarrie was right, and suicide was the only way to get into heaven, what could the board and the Company possibly do with that information? Create centres to help people kill themselves for a fee and lose the very clients of its countless other ventures?

“Why didn’t you commit suicide right away?” Eugene asked.

“I felt I was given a responsibility. I was the first living human to see Heaven and to understand how to truly get there. I needed to spread the word.”

“That’s why you started a religion.”

“Yes, I gathered together a core of like-minded individuals, ready to take that ultimate plunge, but then things ground to a halt. Some people were too cowardly to do what was necessary and left us. They also alerted the authorities of our plan. So, we acted before they could stop us.”

“You weren’t expecting your wife to spare you.”

“Her heart was in the right place. She wanted me to continue my work, convince more people to ease Earth’s burden, but I can’t anymore. I was labelled a monster, and nobody listens to a monster. There’s only one thing left for me - to join her.”

“Is this really the next step in human evolution?" Sheila took a deep breath. "An idyllic afterlife as a reward for leaving behind a more sustainable planet by committing suicide?”

Before I could fully process the enormity of her words, the door opened and Donald walked in.

“There you are…” he said, and then he saw Sheila.

“Freeze!” he yelled, drawing his gun and pointing it at her.

“Hold on!” I said. “She’s my wife!”

“What is she doing here? She doesn’t work for the Company.”

“I know, we were just leaving,” I tried.

“You know I can’t let you do that,” Donald deadpanned. He pushed a button on his belt, and an alarm sounded in the building.

Shit! “No please…” I stepped in front of Sheila to shield her. 

“What’s happening?” she whispered to me.

The door to McQuarrie’s cell opened. “What’s going on?” Eugene asked.

“An intruder,” Donald said.

Eugene looked down at the console. “You were listening in."

My silence was confirmation enough, and Eugene turned to Donald. “Activate protocol TOS. They have spied on highly confidential information that can’t leave this room.”

“Wait!" I thrust my hand out in a gesture of desperation. "Please, Eugene, she’s my wife.”

That puzzled him for a moment.

“Doesn’t matter, you are in violation, too." He turned back to the guard. "Donald, the protocol applies to both.”

That hit me hard. After years of working together, Eugene was ready to have me killed at the drop of a hat, without a second thought because of a stupid rule. I had to go down to his level again to have a chance.

“Wait! Do you think it’s going to be easy to find someone else to replace me? Someone who can always find a way to implement your ideas in a timely fashion, no matter how complex they turn out to be?”

"Probably not." Eugene paused for a moment, then, shaking his head, finished speaking. “But I have no choice.”

“Let me talk to the board,” I tried. “First thing tomorrow morning. Just lock us up in a cell tonight. Shouldn’t they be the ones who decide if my value outweighs my transgression?”

Eugene thought for a bit longer. “There’s nothing in the protocol about that.”

“You’re correct, but isn’t it worth a try? How can the board fault you after all we have done for them, together, as a team?”

Eugene nodded. “Very well. Donald, lock them in two separate cells. I’ll schedule a meeting with the board for tomorrow at 9.”

The sound of glass breaking made us all turn to McQuarrie’s cell. He had stretched his restraints enough to reach the tablet that Eugene had left on the table. He had smashed it and was slashing his throat with the jagged pieces.

“Shit!” Donald exclaimed, while Sheila and I watched in horror. 

“It's OK,” said Eugene as the Reverend put his head down on the table and quietly bled out. "I got all that I needed out of him."




As soon as I was alone in my cell, my brain started going into overdrive. I had convinced Eugene to let me speak to the board, but the only thing I had accomplished was to buy time. I would plead that what we learned from McQuarrie had no real value, but I had seen those greedy bastards find a way to make money from the weirdest things. If their cost-benefit analysis showed that there was even just a penny to be made, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill me and Sheila and have our bodies dissolved in acid.

An embryo of a plan started to form in my head—I could break into one of the weapon closets, not too far from the route to the conference room used for remote meetings with the board—when the door to my cell opened.

Eugene walked in, holding a bigger tablet than the one McQuarrie had used to end his life.

“You have to see this!” he blurted, double-tapping on it. I had rarely seen him so excited before.

The holographic projection of a brain hovered on the screen, just like the one I had seen in the console room.

“Look closely…”

Suddenly, the entire brain lit up with tiny lights except for a black spot in the middle. All the sparks started converging toward it.

“See that?” Eugene said, pausing the recording. “That hole opened from inside the PCC the moment the subject died. This is slowed down thousands of times, and I’m still running tests, but it behaved like a tiny black hole. No radiation or matter of any kind came out of it.”

The recording resumed, and all the sparks disappeared into the hole. Once the brain showed no more activity, the black spot shrunk until it disappeared.

What had I just witnessed?

“I was wrong,” Eugene said. “The evolution mechanism that made the Homo Sapiens Sapiens win over the other hominids was not losing the knowledge of what is in the afterlife, but losing the connection to the afterlife altogether. This subject still had it, and so a microsecond after death, an entire electrical representation of the brain rushed into a hole generated by the brain itself!”

I finally got it. “Like a wormhole to another world.”

“Yes! This is the recording of the passage of the subject’s consciousness to the life after this one, whatever and wherever that is.”

My heart sank. “So McQuarrie was right…suicide is the path to Heaven.”

Eugene looked at me like I hadn’t understood a thing. “McQuarrie? No…” He tapped furiously on his tablet and pulled up a separate brain image. “He was just a delusional idiot and this is how he died.” The recording showed the normal activity of an active brain fizzling out to nothing upon death. “Just like any other human whose death was holographically recorded.” 

"Then whose brain..."

“Subject A died in her sleep last night. I had left the brain scanner on to record baseline activity for my interrogation, scheduled for today, and it recorded her death.”

My heart tightened as her last words to me replayed in my mind. Good Dark. Morning will await for you. ... You not us. I thought she had meant that I wouldn’t be there with her in the morning for the first time since we had met, when she was actually telling me that she wouldn’t wake up.

Then another realization rocked me.

“So Sheila and I didn’t learn anything of value to the Company from McQuarrie. There’s no need to kill us anymore.”

Eugene looked at me as if I were the stupidest thing he'd ever encountered. “Duh,” was all he replied.

“Then give me the key to her cell!” I exclaimed. Eugene hesitated.


He handed me a plastic card, and I walked out. I was done with Eugene, the board and the Company. I would go home with Sheila and email them my resignation. Curtailing the damage to the world caused by their lack of empathy might have been a noble pursuit, but it had almost cost Sheila her life. I couldn’t risk that happening again.

“Wait!" Eugene called with his usual arrogance. "I’m not done with you."

“I don’t care,” I replied as I kept walking. If I'd turned around I'd have killed him right there, with my bare hands.

“Why did you think I came to talk to you?” he insisted.

I stopped and turned to face him, my hands clenching into fists.

“To tell you about our next mission, of course!" He walked up to me as if we were thick as thieves, the termination protocol he'd demanded Donald execute upon me and Sheila only hours before seemed completely wiped from his brain.

The moment was surreal as a Dali painting. I couldn't have been more confused.

"Subject A’s brain-”

“Sawa!” I screamed in his face. “Can you at least call her by her name?”

“Sawa...sure, fine." He nodded casually. "The scans had confirmed that Sawa’s brain is physiologically identical to any other human brain. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to restore the chemical or bioelectrical trigger that opens the wormhole upon death in every human. I need you to find the right scientists for the job." Leaning in close, Eugene whispered, "How much do you think people are going to be willing to pay to have a life guaranteed after this one?"

I'd never seen Eugene smile so broad.

The import of Eugene's words sent a shiver down my spine. It was the question that changed everything, and I had to resign myself to staying on. Who else could or would stop Eugene and the Company from commercializing Heaven?