Pain at the Pump (Short Story)

NEW YORK, January 27 2097, Television studio located on the twenty-third floor, 3 meters over sea level


“You are sure?” the director of the museum asked. Next to him was the Secretary of Interior, looking at Miriam. The scene was distributed on live television, on the syndicated news show with the highest rating. That made it worth some time from a powerful politician. Also, his presence was required by law anyway.

“Yes. I have saved all my life for this day,” she replied.

“You are aware of the fact that this won’t be easy?”

“Of course. Every schoolchild knows that much.” Miriam was determined to go through with it.

“I see you have filled out all the release forms and got the necessary approval from the Secretary of Interior,” the director went on. “Also, your payment of the $300,000 processing fee for your request is in order.” He paused for a moment. “Shall we proceed to the first stage? This is your last chance to back out and get your money back.”

“No. I haven’t come this far just to chicken out now.”

“Okay,” said the director. He pushed a switch, and on a video screen the explanation required by law to assure informed consent came up.

The announcement explained that THE ORDEAL consisted of two phases, both involving literally burning in hell.

In the first phase, the applicant would be attached to the hypno machine, which would then proceed to take over all his or her senses. It would create the illusion of slowly burning in a basement room without exit. Since it was only an illusion, the body would not actually suffer any damage, which made it possible to go on essentially infinitely.

This would only last for a couple of hours, just as long as burning the goal of THE ORDEAL would take.

The applicant would wake up from the trance, having experienced a couple of hours in hell. He or she would then have a chance to chicken out, before the explanation of the next phase.


Three hours later.

Miriam came back from the trance. The second phase of her interview started.

“Did you like burning in hell?” the director asked her.


“Most people find the experience unpleasant,” the director said.

“Of course.” Miriam tried hard not to cry. Her resolve was much weaker now, as she had actually experienced what the first phase of THE ORDEAL means.

“So, here is the explanation for the second phase,” said the director, pushing the button again to start the video.

The announcement explained the second stage of THE ORDEAL. This was not televised. Only the three people in the room were able to see it. The networks used the time for airing some commercials. Only applicants coming back from the first phase and high ranking officials were allowed to know exactly what the second phase was.

The second stage was just like the first one. But it added a small twist in changing the sense of time from the perspective of the applicant. It would last as long as the first phase for the outside world, but in the subjective perception of the applicant it would last as long as it took for the object of THE ORDEAL to form, which was 7,000 years.

“You can still back off right now,” the director explained. “Most people do so.”

“No. I will go through with it,” Miriam answered. She was not going to lose her chance and her $300,000. If she backed off right now, enduring the first phase would have been for nothing.

“Your choice,” the director said, the television transmission live again. “Here we go.”


Three hours later, Miriam came back from the second phase of THE ORDEAL. Her body was in exactly the same great shape as before.

“Did you like burning in hell for 7,000 years?” the director asked.


“Congratulations. You made it to the finish line,” the Secretary of Interior said, smiling.

“So you get the reward for making it through THE ORDEAL. ONE GALLON of gasoline, and one of our museum piece gasoline cars, as well as a special permit to drive it around until the gasoline runs out,” the director continued.

Miriam smiled. She knew that she was famous now. The first applicant for THE ORDEAL that had not chickened out after phase one in a decade.

And she had made her dream come true, to atone for the sins of her grandfather, whom she knew was driving a big gasoline powered SUV even as late as 2027, when just about everyone else had understood the existential threat of global warming, without thinking about the consequences, bringing an everlasting curse on her family.

She had sacrificed herself to pay back for the sin of her ancestors, and she knew that the curse would be lifted now.


Related post: Deep Down in Mount Fuji (Short Story)


Published by kflenz

Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo. Author of Lenz Blog (since 2003,

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