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City of the Dead

by Robert Sheckley

Illustration from G.O.D.D. game City of the DeadWe fly through the streets of the city of the dead, a ghost among ghosts, and we turn the corners and respect the masses of the buildings, even though we could fly right through them. This is a documentary about hell, not a commentary. The city of the dead, the city of hell is abstract enough without us worsening the situation by flying through walls that are supposed to be solid.

It is quite wonderful to be able to fly through the streets. Most of this city is built of a soft white marble, and it is a very classical sort of place. Plenty of pillars so that you could almost think you were in Athens in about 400 B.C. But the streets are empty, there’s no traffic of any sort, the city of the dead is a dead sort of place, although people have tried to start some entertainment.

It stands to reason, what else do the dead have to do but entertain themselves? What to do has been a problem for hell for a long time. What is death there for? What’s it all about? This sort of thing begins to bother people once they find themselves dead. The first thing they do is check out their situation. OK, I’m dead, I’ve got that. So is this supposed to be punishment? If so, what for? Is it for my sins? Which sins, specifically? Is atonement permitted? What do I have to do to atone? Or is it a question of serving a specific sentence? Or is this one forever, and should we just relax and take it one day at a time?

The main question of course is, how long does this go on? Most people would even take “Forever” as an answer. But that’s not what they tell you, once you start asking. On the contrary. You are led to believe from the start that hell is for a period of time, after which there will be something else. Maybe this is the only way they can get you to think over your life. Because you’re going to have to do something about it. Or so you think.

“By the way,” I said, “would you like a pomegranate seed?”

I was Hades, a large well-built fellow with black hair and a black closely trimmed beard. I was a sort of piratical looking fellow, Though soft in nature to belie my bold looks. My grabbing Persephone the way I did was the first thing of its kind I had ever done. Put it down to irresistible impulse. There she was, gathering flowers in the meadows with her girlfriends, and I was riding by in my golden chariot drawn by my four fiery black horses, and the next thing I knew she was in my arms and there was hell to pay.

Persephone of course was beautiful. She had long light brown hair that reached to her waist. Her nose, also, was quite finely drawn. It was one of those perfect Greek noses that merge up into the forehead.

That was then and now was now, six months later, and she and I were sitting in the little shaded platform on the banks of the Styx, at the place where Charon ties up his houseboat. She looked at the two pomegranate seeds I was holding out to her, and said, “You’re not trying to trick me, are you?”

“No” I told her, “I’m not a tricky sort of a guy. I don’t play games. That’s not how we operate here in hell. We’re direct, straightforward, just like I was when I kidnapped you in the first place. Do you remember that day?”

“I remember it all too well,” Persephone said. “I was out in the fields, harvesting with my friends. You came riding up in your chariot of gold drawn by four fiery horses. You were wearing black.

Illustration from G.O.D.D. game City of the Dead“And I lifted you up with one arm, first twisting my cloak back so it would be out of the way. I put my arm around your waist and lifted you into my chariot.”

“The girls just stood by and gaped,” Persephone said. “And when Mother found out, she didn’t know what to make of it.”

“She knew perfectly well what to make of it,” I told her. “It had been prophesied long ago that this would happen: that I would see you gathering flowers with the other nymphs and fall in love with you. And it was the first time I ever fell in love. I’m not like the other gods, you know, Apollo and Poseidon and all that lot. They’re forever falling in love and swearing that this time it’s for keeps. And then they’re off again next day after the next bit of skirt. But I am the King of Death and I only fall in love once.”

“Poor Hades!” Persephone said. “Will you be very lonely without me?”

“I’ll have my memories,” I told her. “I’ve had a wonderful half year with you. I’ve loved having you on the throne beside me. I’ve been so happy that you’re my queen in hell.”

“I quite liked being queen of hell,” Persephone said. “It’s been special. I mean, hell is not like some other country. Hell is everything after it’s been used up and turned all soft and easy to handle.”

“Hell is the place of appreciation,” I told her. “On earth, when you’re living, there’s not enough time to really get into things. But here in hell everything can take as long as it needs. There’s nothing to fear because we’re dead already. But also there’s nothing to feel bad about because in some weird way we’re still living.”

“The afternoons are so long,” Persephone said. “They’re like the afternoons when I was a girl. They seemed to just go on and on, and the sun is reluctant to climb down the sky. But here there is no sun. Just a faint sepulchral glow across the marches that at irregular intervals lightens and darkens. But no definite sun. I miss the sun.”

I nodded. “We have light, but no sun. There’s moonlight, though, and the special light from the torches that light the halls of the palace of death.”

“Yes, and they cast long shadows,” Persephone said. “I used to be afraid of shadows, but in hell there isn’t anything to fear.”

“No,” I said, “the worst has happened and it’s all over. Won’t you try this pomegranate seed?”

She took one of the pomegranate seeds I was offering her and put it on the palm of her narrow white hand. “Why do you want me to eat it?” she said. “It’s a trick, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said, “I can keep no secrets from you. It’s a trick.”

“What happens if I eat it?”

“It means I will still have some claim on you even in the land of the living. It means that you will return to hell.”

“Return to hell?” Persephone said. “But I was planning to return and visit you anyway.”

I shook my head. “You don’t know what you’ll do when you get back into the upper world with its light and air. Once you’re fully alive again, you’ll forget me. And you’ll wonder how you ever came to enjoy this gloomy palace with its dark courtyards and the river of forgetfulness always running by with the dead souls swimming just below its surface and the weeping willows murmuring just overhead. You’ll think to yourself, ‘He must have bewitched me! No one in his right mind goes for a holiday in hell.’ ”

She smiled and touched my hand. “Maybe you have bewitched me. I’m quite content here in hell.”

“Then eat the pomegranate seed,” I told her.

She did not move. Her gaze was far away. She said after a while, “Achilles and Helen asked us over this evening for dinner. You must make my apologies.”

We freeze on Hades and Persephone, and then we cut away from them, leave the river bank, track across green rolling meadows with topiary sculpture that makes the place look like a funeral home or a French park, and we continue to the palace of the dead. From the middle distance it's like a small city. The palace is the composite of many palace-shaped buildings. They are all crowded together, and some are a dozen levels high. You see all sorts of shapes in these buildings made up of many other buildings that make up the city of the dead. There are domes of all sorts, and spires, and many shapes, both curved and cubical. Binding them all together are narrow roadways from many different levels. From many of the buildings you can walk out a window on an upper floor and cross directly, or by a little catwalk, to the next building.

The lighting of the city of the dead is like moonlight. Or like late afternoon sunlight in winter as seen from behind a bank of clouds. It is not night, it is not day. Twilight is the eternal hour in the city of the dead.

Illustration from G.O.D.D. game City of the DeadThere’s not a lot to do around here. But if you’re bored, you can watch the people step out their windows and take to the catwalks to cross from one part of the city to another. There are wires that connect everything to everything else here, and some people use them as shortcuts, Tiptoing along the highwires to get from place to place. They do this clumsily, because few of the dead, just as few of the living, have any acrobatic ability. They use the catwalks and highwires anyway, no one fears falling. When you fall from a catwalk in the city of the dead, you tumble down to the ground slowly, slowly, like a shadow falling. If you happen to bounce off a cornice or two, or graze yourself on a gargoyle, or catch yourself on a sharp projecting bit of roof, it is no matter. You can’t hurt yourself, you’re already dead. You can’t feel any pain. Pain is forbidden. That is because pleasure is forbidden. Or unlikely, almost the same thing.

Where there is no pleasure, there’s no pain. Some might think that a good tradeoff. The dead in the palace of the dead don’t think so. Being unable to hurt yourself just makes the boredom that much more excruciating. There are people in hell who cut their throats every evening. It doesn’t do anything. It’s just a gesture. But gestures are important when you don’t have anything else, and all you have in hell are gestures. Some make gestures of pain, and cut their own throats. Others step out the windows and take to the catwalks and high wires and go visiting. Is visiting a pleasure? Not in hell. It is a gesture. The people of hell don’t despise gestures. After you’re dead, gesture is all that’s left.

We zoom through a doorway, segue down a corridor, slither through a doorway, do the whole thing several times, and then we come to a stop in a large room. Achilles is sitting in a lyre-backed chair. We know it is him because affixed to his back there is a bronze plaque reading ACHILLES.

The matter of easy identification has been found necessary in hell, where unnecessary confusion is frowned upon. It is more than enough work just to be dead, without wondering who the people all around you are. This plaque system is for the benefit, not just of the inhabitants, but for future audiences which will look at the stories of people in this place on films made by us, the people who will either go back in time to record them, or build them up as imaginative constructs in the computer that can build anything that can be imagined. And looking just beyond that, we foresee a time when secondary and tertiary images will be capable of generation based not only on primary sources but also people’s different versions of those primary sources; and while this might not strictly be the only kind of imagination—the jury’s out on that one—it certainly is one of the possible sorts, a sort of synthesis manqué so the least we can do is keep everyone easily identifiable.

Back in the real world, of course, people are rarely found just sitting in a chair, not reading, not watching TV, not even thinking. But these are not realistic stories in that the sort of detail one would like—the incomes of the protagonists, their main loves and hates, their family tree for three generations, is unfortunately missing. But Achilles does in fact happen to be just sitting as we turn our attention to him. He spends a lot of time doing this. The problem of doing nothing is one of the greatest problems in hell, one which people have put a lot of attention into but not solved yet. Achilles certainly has not solved it. He is just sitting in his chair, staring into the middle distance.

Helen of Troy enters from the right.

It’s a mistake to try to describe or even photograph the features of someone as famous, as numinous, as Helen of Troy, because her features exist mostly in dreams, where they are made up of the images generated by all the men who have ever dreamed of her, or at least a significant cross-section thereof, because the computer only needs a cross-section of data, not all of it. Since we don’t use the dreams of everyone who ever dreamed of Helen, her reproduced image is a little blurred around the nose, though I think we captured her general shape quite nicely. Suffice it to say she’s a good-looking dame of everyone’s predilection, and she wears her bronze plaque with distinction, so you think, looking at her, she walks like she’s Helen of Troy, and that of course is who she is. She wears a simple frock made of up silken ambiguities, and around her head is a golden lie.

Illustration from G.O.D.D. game City of the Dead“Hello, Achilles, “ she says. “I’m just back from the marketplace. Boy, have I got a story to tell you.”

Achilles had been staring off into the middle distance, paying no attention to his wife, Helen of Troy. But on hearing her words, he turned his head.

“How could you hear anything? There’s never any news around here. What could ever happen in hell? Just people’s opinions, that’s all you get in hell. So what could you have heard in the marketplace? I suppose the philosophers have figured out another proof for the possibility or the impossibility of this place existing? Frankly, I couldn’t care less. It’s a matter of minor importance, whether this place exists or not. But even if they have a proof about it one way or the other, it is still hardly news.”

“Do stop making speeches,” Helen said “It isn’t your turn. Despite your hypothesizing, I do happen to have real and incontestable news of a timely and late-breaking nature. That gives me the right, not only to speak, but also to embroider images and use words in strange and unlikely ways. For it is well known that matters must never be spoken of directly, and that one must not take refuge in the subterfuge which the Heisenbergian position forces on us.”

“If you got some news,” Achilles said brutally, “what is it?”

“That approach is much too simple, my darling,” Helen said. “Once the bearer of news has discharged her novelty, it is all over, she has no more news to impart, she is forced to return to her original rather static position, Unappreciated Love Object. Me. Can you fancy that? No, don’t be too quick, my friend, I need to get some value out of the fact that I might even carry news, without being forced prematurely to divulge it.”

“You run a fine line,” Achilles said, “since what you mean is that you carry the imputation that you carry news, rather than the news itself. And an imputation is of much less value than the fact it imputes toward.”

“What I have heard is weighty enough,” Helen said, “for me to interrupt you and to tell you that what I have to tell is even now taking place, but out of your sight, my dear Achilles. Now, wouldn’t you like to know what is happening?”

The scene froze. The camera or whatever it was dissolved into a light show. This was pleasurable in its own right, and mildly hypnotic as well. The dead have found that everything goes better when you’re mildly hypnotized. In fact, there are some who say that death itself is but a state of mild hypnosis, or, to be more specific, that there is no such thing as death, since what we call death is merely a pathological hypnotic state from which we cannot waken.

Be that as it may, the camera was powered through a cable that trailed out through the window, from which it hung in a great catenary loop so that, considering it as a roadway, we could travel along the curve, and see, at the top, a little house, under which the stream that is the cable flows. In the several rooms of this house above the torrent, there are various activities going on. We make a choice, go through the nearest door, and we see that we are in some sort of a control room. There’s a man sitting there. Hello, it’s me! I look closer to see what I am doing.

I see that I am engaged in some extraordinary work involving symbols and dials and buttons. By manipulating the controls, I can put together all the inputs from all of the selves who are signalling to me through the many threads that connect this place to everywhere else. It forms a beautiful tapestry. Or would if I could ever get it all together. Actually, I don’t quite have it down yet. Or, even more likely, I have no idea what to do with it after I get it all together. Assuming I ever do.

I decide that I’ll return to this place at some other time. There’s a lot of stuff here that interests me. Not necessarily you, the audience for whom I’m spinning this tale. Why should you care what happens to me? But maybe you do, since this is likely your problem too, since everybody is everybody else. But it is time to return to Achilles and Helen.

“I’ll hold it back no longer,” Helen said. “For the sake of the story I’ll put aside the byways of statement and tell it to you forthright. The fact is, Achilles, someone is leaving Hell today.”

Achilles was stunned, but not by Helen’s statement. In fact, he barely registered Helen’s statement, astounding though it was. Another realization had come to him, and its even more monstrous implications had flooded his mind and was presently using up all referential emotion. The fact of the matter was, Achilles suddenly saw that he was a provisional figure, and it really blew him out. Achilles had always considered himself immortal, without even thinking too much about it, and to realize now, on the basis of one tightly packed fragment of information that had come careening out of the god knows where and impacted in his mind, to realize that the collection of circumstances that brought him to life today in the mind of the computer might not come to pass again soon, or perhaps even ever, well, it was really a little much.

Illustration from G.O.D.D. game City of the DeadProvisional! It was an astounding thought, and Achilles forced himself to contemplate it without shrinking. Provisional meant that he was a manipulable concept in someone else’s mind, and it meant that he wasn’t even important enough to that mind to ensure securing him for another appearance at a later date. Because the indications were clear, this entity who was doing this dreaming was about to shut down, go off line, take itself out of circuit, shift its attention-energy elsewhere, attend to something else. While that was going on, Achilles would be literally nowhere until he was brought back into this mind again. And when was that likely to happen? Perhaps never. Because Achilles realized (and it was a hell of a thing to become aware of) that he was as likely as not never to be thought of again, and certainly not in this context, unless he could do something, make some sort of impression on the entity dreaming him so that the entity, after taking care of his own unimaginable concerns, would call him up again rather than some other character. Some quick research convinced Achilles that this was the first time the computer had ever conjured him up, and the whole damned construct was likely to crumble into dream-dust unless the computer did the hard work necessary to give the damn thing some zing so that he would call the city of the dead back into existence on subsequent occasions.

But how likely was that? Achilles ground his teeth in frustration. He was going to have to try to bribe the computer. What present could he make to bribe the Computer-dreamer who was the one who had synthesized all the available views of Achilles that Achilles was now cognating? How could he convince him the errant and light-minded dreamer that he, Achilles, was worth coming back for?

“I’ll put it to you as directly as I can,” Achilles said. “I’m trying out for Voice. I’m not asking for an exclusive. I want to be a Viewpoint. And I know you’re looking for one. I’m also trying to sell mood. I’m trying to talk you into making the City of the Dead a regular stop on your mental itinerary. I know you’ve been looking for a place like this.”

The computer didn’t answer.


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