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Interlude כ: The Outer Gate

I.

Imagine there’s no Heaven. It’s easy if you try. So easy that millions of people throughout history did it entirely by accident. They went to church, they read their Bibles, they knelt prostrate in prayer, and then they went home and lived a life of sin regardless.

A group of psychologists once did an experiment on children’s willpower. They placed a young child in front of a marshmallow, and said if he could sit there without eating it for just five short minutes, he could have two marshmallows later. The “marshmallow test”, as it came to be called, was found to correlate with all sorts of later-life outcomes like health, wealth, and success. Because unless you were a truly exceptional kid, you couldn’t sit there all five of those minutes with that luscious marshmallow staring at you, begging to be eaten – just for a reward in some sucky future.

So up the stakes a little bit. Sit there for five minutes, and we’ll give you all the marshmallows you can eat, forever. We will give you an entire dimension made entirely out of marshmallows. You can live in a great marshmallow mansion surrounded by woods made of jelly-beans, with gingerbread-man servants, and seventy-two houris made entirely out of sugar. But eat the marshmallow, even a tiny part of it, and you will be carried away to Soviet Russia – where marshmallows impale you on a stick, hold you over a fire, and roast you.

I’m not talking about atheists here. I’m talking about the people who accept the entire premise, the people who go “Yup, this world is basically a cosmic marshmallow test, where if we can go the merest infinitesmal moment without sin we will be rewarded forever and ever with joy beyond our wildest dreams, but if we grab the marshmallow we will be punished forever in ways too terrible to imagine” – and then go “Eh, what the heck,” and eat the marshmallow.

(The Lord said unto Adam: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat this marshmallow, for it is the marshmallow of the knowledge of good and evil, and when you eat of it, you will surely die.”)

And it’s not just Adam. What about Noah’s sons, who right after they were saved from a giant flood caused by God being really really vengeful about sinners in the most conspicuous way possible, decided to celebrate with some kind of weird debauched incestuous rape orgy? What about Judas Iscariot, who after watching Jesus commit miracle after miracle, decided to betray him for a measly thirty coins? These were not people wracked with doubt about the terms of the bargain. These were people who knew exactly what that marshmallow was buying and gobbled it down anyway.

I would blame the Bible for being unrealistic, but everything that’s happened since has borne it out. Let’s face it, the sincerely religious have not exactly been spotless in the two thousand odd years after the close of the New Testament.

Imagine there’s no Heaven. It’s easy if you try. Only the cold maw of Hell, voracious for sinners.

When the Broadcast aired on TV that frosty November night, all the pretty lies, all the excuses people gave themselves for eating the marshmallow, came tumbling down. People fell to their knees, begging for forgiveness. Misers went out into the streets, throwing all their money at the first homeless person they could find. Lawyers, bankers, and politicians resigned en masse. So many people went out into the woods to become hermits that the woods became too crowded and the real hermits, the ones who knew what they were doing, took up residence in deserted apartment buildings.

Whole industries collapsed in a matter of days. When you know, with utter certainty, that this life is the antechamber to an ineffable eternity, who the heck wants to spend it canning tuna? Who wants to spend it catching tuna to can? What if you get to the Pearly Gates and St. Peter is some kind of purist who is really upset about what modern industrial fishing methods have done to his former trade?

In Europe, tides of pro-Church sentiment swept the traditionally Catholic countries of the south and east. In Asia, once-arrogant businessmen fasted themselves to death, hoping to gain enough karma to escape damnation. In South America, revolutionary guerillas repented and became wandering friars. In Russia, the Marxist-Lurianist enclaves that had survived the fall of Moscow just doubled down and fought harder.

In the Oval Office, Richard Nixon, who had blown off the Broadcast as propaganda when he first saw it, watched it for what had to be like the twentieth time.

“[Expletive deleted]”, said Nixon.

A few people, through some innate defect of character or the certainty that they were going to Hell whatever happened, took advantage of the chaos. Anyone who could put on a tattered cloak and start begging became an instant millionaire. Nonexistent charities sprang up, collected so much money they needed extra mailboxes to fit the envelopes full of cash, then closed down before anyone asked them how exactly they plan to solve world hunger from Jonesboro, Arkansas. The few businesspeople remaining were terrorized by job applicants pointing out how desperate and needy they were and how it would definitely look good in St. Peter’s celestial ledger if they were to be immediately hired to do minimal work at high salaries.

These were bad people who need to be punished. One might even say “righteously smitten”. There was no shortage of people willing to do righteous things, not now. Soon a persecution was on whose deranged fervor made the Salem witch trials look like the ACLU. The combination of many well-meaning but unexperienced people trying to do good and set up charities, plus a giant witch hunt for people trying to fake doing good and fake charities, went exactly as well as you might expect. Vigilante justice was served.

In the middle of all of this, NASA incongruously announced they were going to launch their long-delayed Apollo 13 mission to “further the study of the composition of the celestial spheres”.

The Catholic countries of Europe united into a theocracy. The Marxist guerillas in South America vanished into the Darien Gap. The Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire told the Dalai Lama they were really really sorry and he could totally have Tibet back if he wanted.

Richard Nixon vanished for several weeks.

Civil aviation in the United States broke down, the complicated supply and maintenance chain beyond the reach of its tottering industries. The Midwest was consumed by riots. The Secretary of State announced that the federal government was no longer able to project force west of the Mississippi, and state governors should do what they could to maintain the peace until order was restored.

II.

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Houston had problems of its own. Louisiana, long suffering the occasional storms spinning off Uriel’s hurricane, had finally given up the ghost. Texas governor Dolph Briscoe had re-declared the Texas Republic until such time as the federal government recovered. Mission Control in Houston was still working for NASA until such time as an alternate arrangement could be decided.

“What kind of problem, Apollo 13?”

“We think an oxygen tank has blown. The command module’s getting full of carbon dioxide. We’ve managed to jury rig the system, but it’s not going to hold out. We’ve got to return to Earth.”

“Roger that, Apollo 13.”

For a moment, the attention of a collapsing superpower was distracted from its self-immolation by the drama of three brave men fighting a race against time to save themselves and their ship. And millions of Americans watching their television sets cheered as the command module splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of the newly declared California Republic.

Then their joy turned to confusion, as they saw not three but four people leave the rescued capsule.

John Young, commander.

Kenneth Mattingly, pilot.

Fred Haise, lunar module pilot.

And Richard Nixon, president of the United States.

Why was the President in a spaceship? was what everyone wanted to know.

Air Force One was sent to California to return Nixon to Washington; whether as president or prisoner no one was sure. Witnesses were called. Records were subpoenaed. It was discovered that the President had kept recordings of everything he had said in the Oval Office, and these were added to the pile of evidence.

“Look,” Nixon told Kissinger, in one of the most damning tapes. “Everything I did, I did for the love of this country, I did it to fight communism. But [expletive deleted] God isn’t going to see it that way. He’s going to be too soft to realize what had to be done. And I’m going to end up burning in [expletive deleted] for all eternity. Why the [expletive deleted] did I ever let you convince me to sign an alliance with [expletive deleted]?”

“The idea behind the alliance was sound,” Kissinger answered. “We did not entirely understand how things stood at the time, but even if we had, I would have made the same suggestion. Brezhnev was getting too strong, especially with the Vietnamese and the South American communist movements. We did what we had to do. If the good Lord disagrees with me, I will be happy to point out His tactical errors.”

“[expletive deleted] easy for you to say!” said the President. “You can talk anybody into anything. But I’m the one whose [expletive deleted] soul is on the line. Doesn’t the Bible say something about that? What use is it to something something the world if it cost you your soul? Something [expletive deleted] hippie dippy like that? I’m breaking the alliance. There’s no other choice.”

“There may be another way. As you know, Captain Armstrong disappeared into the cracks in the sky. Exactly where he went is uncertain, but you cannot have missed the popular press speculating that he entered Heaven. I have been having some of my people look into it. I believe that just there is a gate to Hell inside the Earth, so the edge of space may be an outer gate which leads to Heaven.

“[expletive deleted] great. So this [expletive deleted] gate outside the world would get me to Heaven. How am I supposed to get there? Take a ride in an [expletive deleted] spaceship?”

“You have several.”

“God, you’re [expletive deleted] serious.”

“The director of NASA is loyal to the administration,” said Kissinger. “I have seen to it. Apollo 13 has been ready for launch for years now, but it has never been the right time; always an emergency. We will make it known to NASA that now is the right time, and they will need to make room for a fourth person. The astronauts will grumble, but they will not betray the secret. They are military men, and you are their commander-in-chief.”

“I [expletive deleted] am!” said Nixon. “Holy God, you’re starting to convince me. So when can we start heading to this Outer Gate of yours?”

“I believe NASA can have the craft ready within about a month. After that it will be a three day flight to the crystal sphere, and from there you may descend into the Outer Gate and save your soul while our alliance against Communism remains intact.”

“I don’t [expletive deleted] believe this, but let’s do it!” Nixon was heard to say when the full recording was played before a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, whose members voted unanimously to propose a motion for impeachment. It wasn’t just politics. The witch hunts against anyone who tried to cheat the God-fearing, hell-fearing public had only just started to die down. And now here was the President, trying to cheat in the most fantastic way possible, to buy his salvation on the taxpayer dime while leaving his supposed constituents to burn. The question wasn’t whether Nixon would be impeached. The question was how many seconds he would last after Secret Service protection was withdrawn.

As the Outer Gate scandal entered its third week, Nixon bowed out. He struck a deal with the House; if he resigned peacefully, he would be granted safe passage to a comfortable exile in his hometown of Yorba Linda, California Republic. Under cover of night, the President was flown out of Washington DC, as mobs pelted Air Force One with stones and Molotov cocktails.

III.

“Ford” means “to attempt a difficult crossing”. On August 9, 1974, Gerald Ford was sworn in as President of the United States.

In the California Republic, the Texas Republic, the Salish Free State, and various little towns and homesteads of what had once been the Midwest, people watched the inauguration the same way they might the coronation of the Queen of Great Britain – interesting, maybe even inspiring, but not having very much to do with them. In his inaugural address, Ford admitted that the federal government now controlled only the Eastern Seaboard and pieces of the South and Great Lakes.

The way having been prepared before them, the armies of Thamiel the Lord of Demons crossed the Bering Strait and began the invasion of North America.

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