“When the Trumpet Sounds” was originally published by Daily Science Fiction on April 5, 2013.
Imagine there’s a line to get into heaven. Or rather, to get on a rocket ship to take you there. And that nothing you did could help you gain passage — the only things that matter are your health and whether you have a family.
Melican paints a vividly dystopian picture where the only chance at happiness is escaping overpopulated and disease-ridden Earth through a migration to the stars. The main character doesn’t make it, because he has pneumonia when his family arrives at “the doors,” behind which is a bevy of not-so-angelic doctors and nurses running tests to make sure everyone who might possibly contaminate the space-bound chosen get left behind. As a boy, he is thrown out of the promise of a better life based on some sniffles. His father (a pastor), mother and twin sister make it through the metal gates.
On one level this story is a cynical look at the theology of heaven. Although the references are Christian, they may apply to other religious ideas about who gets to partake in afterliving glory as well. Who gets accepted isn’t wholly arbitrary, but it does seem to be out of many people’s control. This child is denied a chance at giving his great-progeny a life of bliss on a new world because he has a curable medical condition; some children are denied the chance at eternal bliss in heaven because the right person didn’t dribble some water on their foreheads. Or whatever.
However, as much religious criticism as might be seen on the surface of this story, there’s something deeper as well. Being condemned isn’t a license to condemn others. An old man named Moses — an ex-con who at one time would sell drugs “and steal and worse” — teaches the boy how to survive on “the line,” by selling things to those who still have a chance. But while survival is cutthroat, it turns out that Moses has a different view than those who created the line in the first place. “He taught me that the people on the line shouldn’t be conned, because the white scientists had already conned them.” The people on the line are just hoping they’re good enough to get into heaven, the con being that most of them won’t, and besides, there may not be a heaven anyway. The worlds they’re going to could end up just like this one.
As it turns out, Moses has never even tried to get on the ships leaving for “heaven.” He’s done some bad things, sure, but he’s done more good. That doesn’t seem to matter, at least he doesn’t seem to think so. But the boy realizes maybe it does. So, even without being able to go himself, he does what he can to help his friend, the one who helped him and so many others on the line over the years. And even as Moses does something his namesake never got to do and goes off to his promised land, it’s impossible not to think that maybe his having been here means this Earth isn’t quite doomed. At least, not yet.