The devil strolled into his office at 0630. Not surprisingly, he was alone in the massive pentagram shaped administrative complex. The workday in Hell is 730-1830 seven days a week with seven minutes for lunch. No one, ever, shows up early or works late because the work is -- by intent -- mind numbingly dull. Hell is not intended to be a fun place. And it is not. In many respects it resembles Dayton, Ohio.
Pentagram building security is not designed to keep people out, it is designed to keep people in. It works 0700-2000. Off hours, security is provided by a single -- generally dead drunk -- rent-a-cop and an elderly German Shepard. They are usually sound asleep before midnight and are traditionally pushed out the door by the most junior member of the Security Team at 0703 every morning. You can set your watch by the time of their ejection.
Satan poured himself a cup of coffee from his own coffee machine. The stuff -- whatever it was -- dispensed by the vending machines was -- in Hell as on Earth or in Heaven for that matter -- absolutely undrinkable. He disposed quickly of his eMail. The devil's impatience with having his time wasted with silly messages had become legendary. And unlike we mortals, the devil has ways of inflicting consequences with e-nusiances. There wasn't much eMail.
He then checked news sites on the Internet. A war brewing in East Asia. Corrupt politicians coming to power in Southern Europe. Several African countries reverting to barbarism. Free market economics happily setting up Europe and America for the mother of all economic crashes. Couldn't have been going better for Satan and Hell. No need to do anything this day about the future course of humanity. Humanity was busily creating hell on earth. Satan smiled.
He was just reaching for the top folder in his TODO box when an alarm chirped then started to screech. Without pausing, Satan dropped the folder, slapped a button to silence the alarm, kicked a panel on the wall console. He backhanded his TV on the way by and grabbed a waiting suitcase out of the wall console. The TV came to life and showed four pictures -- three with groups of armed men(?) -- faces covered by gas masks entering halls. The fourth showed a roiling smoke cloud. "Coup" Satan barked as he shut off the TV and headed for the door.
He paused at the door and typed 1234 into the keypad. A number of minor explosions shook his office as computers, file cabinets, a paperweight, and two potted plants that were neither plants, nor, strictly speaking, organic, self destructed. Panels dropped out of the ceiling. Wires dropped and hung like vines in some tropic hellhole. Plaster dust flew through the air. Satan did not stop to admire his handiwork. He strode through the outer door, slamming it. Again, he entered 1234 into the keypad.
No explosions this time but all the existing access codes were erased and replaced by the sixteen character random code the technicians had insisted Satan should change daily if he really wanted his office to be secure. Satan had handled that by lining up the technicians and serially consigning them to a fiery pit until he found one who would set the access codes to something he could remember and didn't have to change. (It only took two). His theory was that for those whom the threat of consignment to a fiery pit didn't provide security, a sixteen character code was unlikely to be more than a momentary distraction.
He turned and strode down the hall. As he walked, his suit turned into a set of military fatigues. His features blurred and reassembled themselves with a light complexion, blue eyes, a vastly altered profile, and freckles. His hair, newly sprouted, turned red. The father of lies is good at disguises. Does that surprise you?
He paused at the mid-building elevator, sent it to the fifth floor and ducked back into the hall. Hopefully, half the invaders would follow it and would congregate on the fifth floor and roof. Satan had no intention of going to either place. He rounded a corner and found himself facing two armed men.
"Quick" Satan babbled. "He's barricaded himself in his office and he's shooting hostages. He killed my buddy."
The soldiers trotted on toward Satan's office. One was yelling into a mobile phone. The other shouted back over his shoulder that Satan should go to the front lobby where he'd find help. Satan reckoned that the last thing he needed was the help he'd find in the lobby. There was a real risk that there might be someone there with half a brain.
Instead, he dived down a stairwell and descended five levels to the sub-basement. He strode down the hall, and ducked through a door marked "Maintenance Personnel Only" and a second marked "Radiation Hazard". He turned off at a door marked "Janitorial Supplies" and brushed his way through a tangle of mops and brooms to a boarded up door in an ancient brick wall. Opening the door (mechanical objects do not generally argue with quasi-deities), he proceeded down a dusty, candle lit passage.
Ever wonder who lights all those candles in dusty, candle lit passages in horror flicks? Turns out that it is the international association of candle sprites. Although commonly associated with the Freemasons, Trilateral commission, Scientologists, and the Teamster's Union, the sprites are hard working, and honest. They are best known to the public for their association with certain ditzy celebrities; their belief the individual ownership of nuclear weapons is a necessary and sufficient condition for world peace and prosperity, and their annual Days of Dimness in October when all candles in their domains are extinguished and electric light bulbs are ritually smashed.
The passage opened into a small room where plastic wrapped clothing hung on iron pegs pounded into the limestone walls. Satan selected a package and changed from the well tailored suit that had restored itself at some point into an ambiguous workman's uniform that proclaimed his name to be "Joe" and his affiliation to be "Opus Dei". He packaged the suit into the plastic against future need by some other refugee and rehung the package. There was a pile of props by the opposite wall. Purses, backpacks, weapons, a saddle, tools and objects quite impossible to identify. Satan selected a plastic wrapped toolkit, moved the contents of his briefcase into it, wrapped his briefcase in the plastic and added it to the pile.
You, the reader, might be wondering why, if -- as we saw not a dozen paragraphs past -- the devil can change his appearance and attire at will, this charade was required. I've been wondering that myself. The only answer I can identify is that some mysteries are beyond the power of human understanding.
Satan then followed a passage -- the twin of the one he had entered through on a reverse journey through a boarded up door, mops and brooms out though a door marked "Radiation Hazard" and another marked "Maintenance Personnel Only". He found himself in an sub-basement and then, after a couple of flights of stairs in a broad hallway in an industrial office complex. The floors were marked with colored lines. Satan was no longer in Hell.
Satan turned to his left and started to follow a blue line. He believed that he was heading for the heavenly reception hall where he would hide out for a decade or two diddling aimlessly with the computerized reception consoles and plotting his counter-coup. All the forces of Hell would shortly be looking for him with his reeducation high on their priority list. Satan had no intention of being the reeducatee in any reeducation exercise. For the time being, he needed to lay low and the heavenly reception hall should be a near perfect place to do so. Nothing more natural or expected than a technician working on those consoles. By now, no one really expected the technicians to fix the consoles. The machines shipped broken and had defied millenia of repains by an army of technicians. No one expected them to work right any more.
As I said. Satan believed that he was heading for the reception hall. In reality, he was on a collision course with Liz.
Satan moved briskly along the blue line as it skirted a park apparently devoted to such urban sports as marbles, stickball, half court basketball, drug dealing and extorting lunch money from third graders. He turned his attention to his environment. The kids in the park were common layabouts. Pedestrians strolling toward him appeared to be a normal mix of business folk (what business had they here?), workmen, mothers with small children, schoolkids, and a couple of homeless panhandlers who apparently saw no reason to give up their mortal ways just because they had entered the afterlife. Two men dressed in fatigues caught his attention briefly, but their total incuriosity about other walkers quickly caused Satan to dismiss them. Weekend warriors on lunch break. However, behind him a man with dark sunglasses and a black suit caught his attention.
Satan slowed. The darkly dressed stranger slowed. Satan speeded up. The spook speeded up. Satan stopped ostensibly to check out a display of mysterious electronic devices in a store window. The tall, dark stranger crossed the street and paused to tie his shoe. Satan walked briskly to the next corner, his attention focused on reflection in a store window of the man who had recrossed the street and now followed at a distance of perhaps 20 paces.
At the corner, Satan abruptly turned right -- planning to turn around, grab, and shake down his follower. Instead, he collided with an attractive if slightly tipsy young lady carrying a transit pack. They wobbled almost recovered, then fell to the ground, two seconds later the black suited man rounded the corner at speed, tripped over the pair and fell on his face.
Satan scrambled unceremoniously over the lady, grabbed the black suited man and started rapidly climbing up the recumbent, but quite lively, torso hand over hand with obvious malign intent. He stopped when his eyes, level with the man's chest, focused on a small, neat white tag that read "Trainee, First Church of Apollo the Immortal and Incandescent. How'm I doing? Call 1-800-411-5001." The devil sighed, and resumed his climb at a more moderate pace until he was face to face with his follower. "To be perfectly honest, you're not doing so well, mate.
"Let me guess. You're in training to be a door to door missionary, and your instructors thought that some practice in tailing people who were attempting to escape your sales pitch might somehow be useful?
"Did it cross your mind that your instructors might not know squat about following people?
"N-n-n-o, Not at the time."
"And you just picked me at random?
"Well, y-y-ou were the only person dressed like that -- the white coveralls and all. I th-ou-ou-ought that might make it easier. Following you, I mean.
"Yeah, it should help. And this is your first attempt?
"Shouldn't you have an instructor with you?
"I did. He was following me.
"And he got lost? Does that suggest anything to you?
"Yes ... now"
The devil thought for a moment. He wasn't against aggressive religious proselyting. Anything but. However, he was concerned about the potential for operations like this provoking amusement rather than annoyance. "Look, why don't you ditch these Apollogists or whatever they call themselves and sign up with a sect with a track record and some smarts?" The devil stood, helped his follower to his feet, shook his hand dismissively and turned to the girl he had run over who was slowly sitting up. The man in black wandered off with the slightly dazed expression of one who is pretty sure something has happened, but isn't quite sure what it was.
The devil focused on the girl he had flattened. Young, pretty. The name on his uniform which had been a fuzzy string of characters that looked vaguely like in might spell Kryzinski or something along that line, subtly reformed itself to say O'Brien. He reached down to help the girl. When his voice spoke, there was a slight Irish lilt. The devil can be charming. Does that surprise you?
"My deepest apologies Milady. I hope that you are unharmed."
"I think I'll live." In a tone that implied that survival was certain but that some amount of resentment might remain.
"Indeed. May you live and prosper. Where would you be off too in such a hurry?
"I'm bound to get my records straightened out sir." She eyed his uniform, "I don't suppose that you can help me? ... without manhandling me of course." Her eyes flicked toward the retreating black clad form.
"My dear, under the proper circumstances, I should be delighted to manhandle you. But I don't think these are them. What is the problem with your records? In what way are they unstraight?"
"Apparently, they make no sense." She handed her transit pack to Satan who skimmed it once quickly. Then again, more slowly. And finally, line by line.
He then turned his eyes to Liz and scanned her, more or less line by line. "I assume that you were in no way involved in blowing up the USS Maine in Habana Harbor in 1898?" Liz shook her head. "You were not shooting from the Grassy Knoll in 1963?" Again she shook her head. "You did not betray Jeanne d'Arc to the Burgundians?". Liz shook her head yet again.
"You're right that they make no sense. I'm not too comfortable with this. It's wrong and not in a way that seems right. Still, though, it's not like the damn computers don't make preposterous mistakes some days. What's your plan?
"Well, my ... adviser ... suggested that I take this to the transit station and get them to issue me new papers.
"Your ... adviser ... would be the one who has been plying you with Chablis?
"Rose. But yeah, that'd be him.
"OK then. I think this might be somehow related to a bit of a problem I'm having myself. How about I go with you? At least as far as the bottom of the steps. Maybe further if things fall that way? If anyone asks, I'm your lawyer." His uniform became an expensive Italian suit. His toolkit turned into an attache case.
"Do I need a lawyer?"
"It's the 21st Century. Everyone needs a lawyer.
So, Liz and the devil set out for the Pearly Gates -- not holding hands -- while the devil regaled Liz with tales of an imaginary kingdom where the truly talented and able did whatever they damn well pleased thus earning the eternal thanks of the masses of pitiful common folk whose pathetic leaky boats were lifted by the tide of innovation and prosperity.
Eventually Liz and Satan reached and passed through the reception hall and trekked down the staircase to the passenger unloading area at the end. A steady stream of angelic vehicles deposited mostly decidedly unwell looking passengers then cruised away. The devil attempted to flag one down. Then another. Then a third. The flesh around his collar started to turn red. The fourth had an "Out of Service" sign. The fifth pointedly ignored him. As the sixth started to accelerate past, the devil stepped forward and with suddenly enormously long arms, reached into the vehicle and grasped the driver by his lapels. The struggling angel was hauled nose to nose with Satan. "Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste ... hope you guess my name. Well, do you, punk?"
"Yeeessss" sputtered the angel.
"OK, then, you understand that technically you work for me although I usually prefer my own staff. In this circumstance, I find it necessary to work through you. We need a ride to the transit station. Then I need for you to get lost for a minimum of three hours and seventeen minutes. After that, you can report this incident to your superiors.
"Here, let me put that in writing." The devil snatched a somewhat singed looking flap of parchment out of the air, and handed it -- still smoking -- to the angel. The angel glanced at it, stuffed it into his pocket and walked to his vehicle. He opened the rear door and indicated in a satisfactorily smarmy manner that the devil and his charge should avail themselves of the back seat.
Liz climbed in and turned to her fellow passenger. "You're not a lawyer, are you?"
"Of course I'm a lawyer. I've passed the bar in a number of jurisdictions. Of course, I've also been disbarred in most of them, but I think I'm currently licensed in Idaho, Manitoba, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Texas.
"But you're not primarily a lawyer, are you?
"No, not exactly. Lately, I've been more of a business executive. But it appears that there has been a corporate raid. I guess I may be unemployed, but I reckon I can deal with that. One way or another.
Liz pressed on. "But you aren't really primarily a business executive are you?"
"Well, no, not exactly. But they wanted me to act like one. I read Peters and Deming and all that and we had focus groups, and we did ISO 2000 and did all the right stuff. Frankly, it was a pain in the rear. Throwing anyone who crosses me into a fiery pit is easier, more satisfying, and works better if you ask me. Anyway, I thought I was doing a pretty good job. Apparently not. ...They gave me a bunch of stock options. I wonder what'll happen if I try to exercise them.
"I'd recognize your name wouldn't I?
"Maybe. I have a lot of names. You've probably heard a few of them. How does 'Legion' sound? Actually, I think not. It's sort of pompous. Huge columns, thunderbolts, Charlton Heston sort of thing. How about Beels?
'Yeah, but the familiar form -- Beels. After all, we may end up friends.
"Is being friends with you safe?
"It's more not being friends with me that is not safe. Ask Job's relatives. But that's not really an answer. The answer is that I am who I am and you are who you are. I don't try to change who you are -- ever. I don't want to. In general, I can't. And in any case, it's not permitted and, like all civilized people, I generally obey rules unless there is a reason not to. I'm just an amplifier and enabler. Your soul is as safe with me as it is without me. No safer. But not less safe.
The devil turned to seat back in front of him and slid open a door that certainly wasn't visible -- at least to your author -- previously. It covered a surprisingly large minibar. The devil extracted two wine glasses and a bottle. "More Chablis m'dear?" He asked.
Liz thought it over. She was cruising around the afterlife in a weird vehicle driven by an apparently homosexual angel and accompanied by an entity who might well be the devil himself. Moreover, her passport apparently was not valid. And the figurative embassy wasn't returning her calls and e-mails. What the hell (perhaps not the optimum metaphor given the context). She decided that given the day she'd had another drink wouldn't do any harm and might help. "Rose, if you don't mind."
"Certainly" He poured Liz a glass of red fluid and himself -- from the same bottle -- a glass of white. He offered his glass as a toast. "To a happier and less screwed up tomorrow"
"I can certainly drink to that" said Liz. And she did.
They traveled in silence for a few minutes lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Liz spoke. "Look, if really you are who you appear to be, what are you doing wandering in the anterooms to heaven dressed in disguises?"
The devil was silent for a moment -- organizing his thoughts. "It's kind of complicated. First of all, you've never really been told how the afterlife works except whatever you got from your mentor ... besides rose ... and I don't have information on exactly what he told you. At least not easily and immediately. And you need to know some context to understand the situation.
"Let me give you a short briefing.
"You and I have free will. That's a building block of the universe. Nonetheless, you need a place to park that free will. That's your body. The body exists while you are alive and something much like your body exists here in the afterlife. It's a bit optimized. Any pieces that came off during your demise are reattached. If you wish, you can fix any problems like zits, or missing teeth or an allergy to cucumbers. But you can't easily make yourself Marilyn Monroe -- not that you'd want to if you had any sense.
Your body and soul have to live somewhere in the afterlife and there are lots of choices. In fact, just about anyplace coherently imaginable on Earth by any human ever is available. There's Heaven and Hell and Valhalla, and Mt Olympus, and the Happy Hunting Ground. It's worse than that because there are actually a whole lot of each of them. At least one for every true believer. But it's complicated. It's sort of like quantum physics. If you believe in a Mount Olympus ruled by a two meter tall Zeus, you can go there. But part of you is in a Mount Olympus ruled by a shorter Zeus. And part of you is in one ruled by a taller one. And a smaller part is in one ruled by Hera who has Zeus locked up in the dungeon.
It's really not that different from Earth where everyone sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.
God is sort of a Chief Executive Officer for the afterlife. He has some influence on Earth as well, although less than most people imagine. And he can't interfere with free will although he can certainly enact penalties for making poor decisions. ... or good ones for that matter -- something that happens entirely too often if you ask me. ... Which no one will.
"I am -- or maybe was -- sort of the CEO of a wholly owned subsidiary. Not only does God not tell me what to do -- I have free will and wouldn't obey anyway because part of my charter is to be difficult. God isn't allowed to command me or my company ... normally. We -- God and I -- do work together on administrative issues. Or at least we used to. Now that the subject comes up, it occurs to me that we really haven't talked to each other for centuries. No need. Things have been running pretty smoothly from our point of view. But maybe I'll give him a call after things settle out. Have a few beers. Tell a few war stories ...
"My problems are basically office politics. Maybe a bit rough edged. But office politics nonetheless. Some people don't give up seeking power and prestige quickly or willingly even though power and prestige don't really get you anything in the afterlife. I reckon I can handle the problems. And if I can't, it really doesn't matter much.
"Yours seem to be something different. I'm not sure what. Let me ask you, was there anything unusual about your mortal existence?
Liz thought. "No, I don't think so. Unusual in what way?"
"I don't know. Divine revelations? Cripples threw down their crutches when you touched them? You led armies of sinners against corrupt politicians? You had long conversations with wildlife? Any man who pursued you was stuck by lightning when he attempted to sully you? Stuff like that."
"Well, one of my boyfriends got an STD from my roommate. But I hardly think that was my fault. And we had a parrot that could swear fluently in five or six languages when I was a kid, but it wasn't much of a conversationalist. I don't think that's really what you had in mind. So, no. But I can swear fluently in five or six languages."
"As can I. As can any man ... Right then. You're presumably not a new prophet or some sort of ancient goddess returned to spread mischief or anything like that. I don't have my records handy. Have we had any prior dealings? Contracts signed in blood, repulsive ceremonies on moonless nights, that sort of stuff?
"Well there probably were some high school pep rallies on moonless nights, and I went to a Britney Spears concert once -- can't remember if there was a moon. But basically, no. Do you really sign contracts with people?
"Oh sure. Not legally enforceable. And I invariably own their soul by the time they get around to negotiation anyway. But they expect it, so the contract thing is really the fastest and easiest way to move things along. They don't read them by the way. I sometimes slip in really bizarre clauses like 10,000 years of being yelled at non-stop on a home shopping channel. But they sign them anyway.
"Back to you. Other than being drop dead gorgeous, brainy, witty, and charming you don't seem to be anything all that out of the ordinary. Maybe it's who you are descended from. Lineal descendant of King David? Seventh daughter of a seventh daughter?
"Nothing like that. Just an ordinary mongrel American.
"Father a Freemason?"
"Naw. Collected birdhouses. Spent a lot of time fishing. Drank beer with his buddies on Thursday nights.
"Just an ordinary housewife and mother
"My brother used to be a white slaver, but he's switched to gun-running and contract killing.
Liz giggled. "No. I don't have a brother. My sisters -- both of them -- are pretty conventional. Except for that thing with the neighborhood cats and the pots of poison ivy.
The devil, having a clear premonition about where following up on that unlikely information was likely to lead decided to drop the theme right then and there. "Not who you are descended from then. Doesn't leave a lot. We seem to have a pretty much normal individual -- that'd be you -- singled out for special treatment ... why?"
"I ... I don't know."
"Of course not. And it was a rhetorical question anyway. More wine?" Liz put her hand over the top of her glass. It was beginning to occur to her that more alcohol wasn't such a swift idea.
At that point, the vehicle lurched violently, and a "Fasten Seat Belts" sign accompanied by a graphic of a large bear firmly grasping an human clearly intended to be a passenger. The intent was probably a panda hugging its cub. Unfortunately the bear's expression was ambiguous -- perhaps more like a grizzly with a toothache than a panda. It came off as devious, and perhaps ... hungry ... maybe even anticipatory. There was a loud thunk and the vehicle lurched even further. Liz searched surreptitiously, then openly for a seat belt. There was none.
The devil said, "Nothing to worry about. A little routine turbulence. Caused by pollutants in the Holy Water fueling this crate. The lab rats are trying to figure out which pollutant, but they've found so many ..."
The vehicle lurched twice more and slewed right violently accompanied by the unmistakable sound of rending metal . The driver rose from his seat and dove out the door yelling "Every man for himself." The vehicle listed to the left and stopped.
"Routine turbulence?" asked Liz sweetly.
"All Souls Shoals more likely. Bunch of rocks between the transit station and the afterlife. They've been arguing about removing them for millenia, but there used to be a breeding population of Chartreuse Spotted Slutcuddlers here, so the environmentalists won't let us dynamite the rocks."
"Slutcuddlers. They are flying mollusks about eight inches long with big teeth. About sixty of them. No one has seen a Slutcuddler since the fall of the Roman Empire -- which is OK with most people. They are really ugly. And they bite. But they are still on the endangered species list.
"So, what do we do now?"
"Well, we could either wait for rescue or take the tunnels back to reception."
"Tunnels to reception?"
"Yeah, built by condom smugglers. Back in the old days, the Catholic Church used to be the law around here. But there is a large population in the afterlife that considers laws to be a challenge rather than a directive"
"How long will we have to wait for rescue?"
"Depends. The driver has wings. He will fly back to the transit station. If he thinks to tell anyone that he wrecked this thing and where, someone will come by to pick us up in two or three days. Trouble is that these driving angels aren't picked for their brains and he may not remember that he had a vehicle or passengers or how many or where they are. If he doesn't, they will come up short a shuttle when they do the audit at the end of the decade and this is one of the places they will check for it. Maybe 5-6 years.
"And the tunnels?'
"Ten, twelve minutes to the main reception hall."
"That can't be right. It took us that long to walk down all those damn steps. And we were flying for what -- 20 minutes? We have to be more than a 10 minute walk from where we started."
"You're right. As the quasi-deity flies, it's a fair trip. But not everything around here makes sense. Topologically, the trip through the tunnels goes under all the same points as the trip through the air, but the points are closer together somehow. What they teach us in third grade is 'underground is always quicker'. They're usually right.
"So, it's the tunnels then."
"Yeah, probably. There are a few drawbacks. The tunnels go everywhere so there are a lot of them. And they all look alike. And there aren't that many traffic signs. And the tunnel gnomes sometimes get drunk and change the signs around. You ever try to find your way around Boston? Same thing, but without the insane drivers."
"Is there another alternative?"
"Well, I can grow wings, and I expect that you can also. But it takes a while to grow them -- weeks. And you'd have to learn to use them. We'd be living on raw fish while we waited. And it's a really tiring way to travel -- worse than airlines even, although there's less risk of losing your baggage. And growing wings makes you stupid -- witness the clown who put us on these rocks. As it happens, I can't afford to be more stupid than usual at the moment. I think we ought to try the tunnels."
"Do we need a flashlight or lantern or something?"
"Not really. The tunnel walls glow a bit -- fungus, radioactivity, something like that. And in any case. I have a magic wand." The devil fumbled in his brief case and extracted a magnificent wand made of ivory, polished wood, gold and silver.
"It's genuine Harry Potter, Mark III gold Seal Brougham"
"You mean there is a real Harry Potter?"
"Of course not. We license the name from Rowling's publishers"
"You make wands and pay royalties?"
"We make wands and promise to pay royalties. I can pretty much guarantee you that the publishers will never see a farthing in actual royalty payments. And if they do, the money will vanish, or turn red hot and burn their hands, or get them arrested for counterfeiting when they try to spend it. I don't worry too much about the details. I have people to handle that.
"You'd think that literate, college educated people, would know better than to set up business arrangements with dark powers. But they don't."
"Probably be a good idea to get you a light source just in case we get separated." Satan peered into the depths of his brief case. "I don't suppose you know how to use a magic wand? Maybe the Girl Scouts, or an after school class? I have a really pretty decent Honda wand here. Pretty basic and has a couple of hundred thousand spells on it. But very reliable."
"Honda makes wands?"
"Honda makes everything"
"Well, anyway, in the part of the universe that I come from, no one has magic wands. I wouldn't have a clue how to use it."
"Yeah, you're probably right. Take too long to train you to use it. Assuming that you can use it. And if you can, I'd just as soon somebody else baby sat you through the 'Hey everyone, watch this!' phase.
He fumbled some more and came up with a flashlight. "Here, take this. Some salesman left it in the office when he departed -- rather abruptly and screaming loudly as I recall. I'd be careful with it. It probably has a bunch of clever functions that could hurt you or somebody else. This new tech stuff is scary sometimes."
"So," said Liz, "Where are these tunnels?"
"Pretty much wherever we want them to be as long as there is an entrance within about 200 meters. Let's poke out heads out and see if we can put one where we need it. Hold on a second." Satan reached into the minibar and extracted four beers, a couple of plastic food containers, and two glasses. He dropped them into his brief case explaining "Emergency Rations", then unbelted his seatbelt (How come he got one and I didn't? Liz wondered) and pushed his door open.
Outside, the wind was howling. Rain drops flew. Low clouds scuttled across the sky. The landscape such as it was consisted of slippery looking gray rocks, and pools full of unattractive green algae. No birds, animals or terrestrial vegetation was visible. Not too far away surf roared and huge clouds of spray periodically climbed into the sky to be torn apart by the gale. It was cold. Not, Liz thought a likely spot for time-shares, although she supposed it was only a matter of time before someone turned it into a golf course with condos along the odd-numbered fairways.
The wind slammed the devil's door as soon as he was clear of the vehicle. He staggered around to the lee side and opened Liz's door. "How about we put a tunnel right there?" He said pointing to a spot about two meters from the door.
"Sure, why not?" said Liz. "And who are they?" She asked pointing at three figures huddled next to a huge pot in the lee of a large flat rock.
"Oh christ," muttered Satan. "Why us?"
"Those are the three witches, a plot device that Will Shakespeare inadvertently loosed on the world about four centuries ago. If you ignore them, maybe they will leave us alone"
"Are they dangerous?"
"No, not dangerous. Unless you happen to be MacBeth and even then the problem isn't them, it's you. What they are is tedious. Damn, they've seen us"
The three --- and their pot -- slowly rose into the air in a cloud of mist and slowly progressed across the dismal plain. The figures resolved themselves into three distinct and quite different figures. The first was whippet thin wearing a black cocktail dress clearly designed for someone about 40 years her junior. Her hair was peroxide blond falling in flowing waves. It was unclear what protected it from the pummeling rain, but protected it surely was. She was wearing makeup that appeared to have been applied with a spatula and lipstick of an indescribable crimson. The second clearly would weigh in around 170 kilograms and was wearing a faded mumu. Her hair was stringy and gray. She wore neither makeup nor lipstick. The third wore a business suit, short but tidy black hair, and probably costly makeup applied with obvious care. The professional appearance however was largely negated by the tattoo of a striking cobra on her neck and cheek, large skull and crossbone earrings, teeth filed to points, and what appeared to be a full sized and quite possibly functional hand grenade dangling from a chain around her neck.
As they approached, Satan Smiled and waved. "Fran, Flossie, Fountaine. How good to see you. Girls, this is Liz." Liz and the .... 'girls' mumbled social niceties toward each other.
"What brings the charming triplet out to All Saints?"
"Our despicable, lowlife, bottom-feeding, scumbag agent booked us out here." Said the blond. "For two goddamn weeks" added the brunette. "He'll wish he hadn't." muttered the porker. "We're doing a spell. Say, you wouldn't happen to have any eye of newt? Ours seems to have gone bad. I don't want to use eye of frog in this spell. I REALLY want this one to work."
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure that I have some primo Hungarian newt eye in my kit here." Satan dug around in his attache case an produced a small zip-loc bag containing three or four disgusting looking spheroids. He handed it to the heavy witch."
"Hey look, thanks. Said the witch. We owe you. By the way, what brings you out to this garden spot?"
"Bad navigation" Explained Satan. "You know how Guardian Angels are when they lose focus."
"All too well" sighed the witch. "Anything we can do to help?"
"Naw, we're going to take to the tunnels."
"Alright then, if you'll excuse us we need to get back to this spell. Damn agent's gonna wish he'd never been hatched. And remember, if you need anything, give a holler. We're eternally grateful for your help." The pot and the three shades quickly retreated toward its original rock.
"That wasn't so bad" Said Liz
"You don't know how lucky we are to have caught that trio when they actually had something to do. There's really nothing wrong with them, but if they are at loose ends, they will talk your ear off and then start on the other ear. Whine? You've never heard whining until you've heard them rev up. Now let's get out of here before the Ghost of Christmas Past or Poe's miserable Raven shows up and implants the word 'Nevermore' on our souls"
"OK" said Liz.
Satan waved his wand and muttered "Sesame openus". Slowly, reluctantly, a crevice opened in the rock. Lights flickered on. Rock ledges appeared leading down into the hole and slowly morphed into carpeted steps. A canopy appeared, and a red carpet unrolled up to the side of the vehicle. A string quartet was playing Respighi.
Liz stepped down onto the rocks? "Did you just cast a spell?" She asked.
"Not really. I was just amusing myself. I'm not a magician although I do have some control over some some aspects of what appears to be reality. A real magician could create a tunnel here if nothing went wrong. All I can do is persuade a nearby tunnel that it wants to be here instead of where it is. And the rest of the stuff is just an illusion. You can see through it and look at reality if you choose. But the illusion is harmless and a good deal prettier. Most people choose not to. That's what Capitalism and Buddhism are all about ... I think"
"You don't understand Buddhism?"
"Well, I've had a lot of experience with people who claim to be Buddhists, but I'm pretty sure that they don't really have it together. Same with just about any religion. I don't think I ever get to meet the really serious practitioners. It's not like they have any need or reason to look me up."
"So, no I don't think I understand Buddhism."
"If you want to discuss religion, why don't we get back under cover, crack these brews" He hefted his briefcase. "Put a couple of logs on the fire. Maybe nibble some cheese? It's cold out here, and sooner or later, this tunnel is going to get bored and wander off to someplace else."
"OK,OK" Said Liz. She marched down the stairs and into the tunnel.
The rock walls changed to walnut panels "The Pines of Rome" drowned out the distant crashing of surf. The noise of the wind faded. But a few steps later, the paneling gave way to drywall, then to wooden studs, then to raw rock. Likewise the carpeting changed to concrete, then to dirt. The inviting lighting faded to a vaguely sulfurous green glow. The music faded and the only sound was their breathing and footsteps. They walked on and came to a fork in the tunnel.
The devil waved his wand producing a bright warm light. He examined the corner about two meters above ground level. Disgusted he pointed at two small holes on each side of the corner. "They've stolen the tunnel signs again." he declared.
"Tunnel gnomes?" Liz -- always a quick study -- asked.
Probably not. Their style is more swapping the signs or not. Then leaving a gnome that always lies and one that always tells the truth. They hang around get their giggles when travelers try to get enough information to proceed. Looks to me like maybe the happy media.
"The Happy Media?"
"Happy Mediums if you prefer. TV news people. Not allowed into Heaven or Hell. Travel in packs. They have it in their heads that making sure the public is widely misinformed is their noble mission. A great aid in my work actually, but a real nuisance when you are trying to get something done. Mostly attractive blondes with way more teeth than normal people. Anyway, they are vandals at heart and at times like these it comes out.
The devil waved his wand and inquired of the paths, "OK, which of you goes to the gates of heaven?"
Both tunnels promptly lit up revealing their floors to be made of -- you guessed it -- yellow bricks. Manic laughter flooded the space. "Drat" said the devil. "I reckon it is gnomes after all."
The devil turned to the left hand path. "Is the other path telling the truth?" The laughter soared. The lights in the tunnel dimmed.
The right hand path. "Is the other path telling the truth?" The laughter soared again. The light dimmed. The laughter soared even further.
"Excuse me." Said Liz hesitantly. "I don't think you will get the answer that way. If I recall, you need to ask a question that has a double negative or three split infinitives or something like that."
"Y'know" said the devil whose face was slowly turning a rather alarming shade of red, "I think you're probably right. But I'm not in the mood to work that out."
"Well, since you seem to have an unlimited number of questions, you could just ask a question that you already know the answer to and see which tunnel lies. Try 'Is the sum of two and two five?'"
The devil addressed the right hand tunnel. "How would you like to be permanently reduced to a wormhole scarcely capable of passing a bacterium ... on good days?" The laughter stopped abruptly. Slowly, reluctantly somehow, the path lit up. "It's the left path" Satan declared.
"Technically, I think you are supposed to ask a question with a Yes/No answer. But your way seems to work."
The devil started down the left tunnel, then stopped and turned. "Y'know, I don't trust these tunnels -- especially when gnomes have been messing with them. Maybe while we have good light you ought to get that flashlight out and make sure it works."
Liz fumbled in her backpack and came up with the flashlight. It was black, sleek, and encased in tough, clear plastic. There was a red tab. Liz pulled on the tab, then pulled harder, then even harder. The tab came off. The plastic appeared to be undamaged. Liz tried to peel it off the flashlight. It didn't peel. She pried at it with her fingernails. They slid off. Satan reached over and took the instrument. One of his incisors grew to about three centimeters. It was sharp edged and serrate. Satan bit down on the plastic with his new tooth -- hard. He examined the plastic -- intact.
"No damn wonder we had the packaging wars" He muttered.
"Packaging war?" Liz questioned.
"Packaging wars -- plural. Five of them. Probably haven't happened yet in your world. In the final war, the mob seized the packagers and their bosses, packaged them, and launched them into orbit around Neptune. Still out there as far as I know. Probably intact since there isn't much in the universe that can penetrate a really solid shrink wrap from the outside. I think you can still buy cheap packaging machines on eBay if you can figure out a use for them."
Satan set the flashlight on the ground, stood back and waved his wand. "Expandemous." The flashlight shivered, and started to swell. The plastic stretched, stretched more, then popped. Satan waved the wand again "Shrinkemous." He leaned over, picked up the flashlight and handed it back to Liz. Liz took it, rotated it, and found a button. She pushed it. A six foot flame shot out of the end narrowly missing Satan who did an immediate back flip out of range. Liz released the button. The flame went out.
"Did I forget to warn you to be careful with that thing? Just in case I didn't -- BE CAREFUL WITH THAT THING.
"Now then. Don't push any buttons or twist anything. How many buttons does it have?"
Liz looked it over. "Three"
"And how many twisties?"
"Just one. Around the lens"
"Maybe seven or eight functions controlled by which buttons you press? And an amplitude control? And maybe an off-on switch built into the ring around the lens? Let's see if we can tame the stupid thing.
"Point it down the tunnel in back of us and press a button ...
Ten minutes later, they had identified a powerful flashlight, a welding torch/flame thrower, a high speed drill, a screwdriver, a pencil sharpener, a fingernail buffer, and what Satan thought was probably a Gro-Lamp. When Liz had been checked out on only activating the flashlight, they proceeded off down the tunnel. Clever readers have probably noted that those are only seven functions listed above. It is unclear why neither Liz nor Satan had any curiosity about the missing eighth function. But they didn't.
After perhaps an hour of walking, Liz asked, "Didn't you say it was only ten minutes to the reception hall? Surely we've been walking for more than ten minutes?"
"I've been wondering about that. You're right, we should have been there quite some time ago. I don't think the other tunnel wasn't lying, so this tunnel most goes there, but it seems to be taking a round about route. I can't think why.
After another hour, they came to an alcove in the tunnel wall containing two video games and a vending machine. Liz said "I could do with some tortilla chips or something."
She stopped and looked into the machine. There were various goods arrayed on spiral wires. "Let's see, pepper spray ... Molotov cocktails ... 38 ammunition, RPGs ... 'How to build an IED, 40 Projects' ... Taser-Boost. Beelsie, this is pretty scary."
Satan pointed to the logo inscribed across the top of the machine. 'The right to buy weapons is the right to be free' "It's a bunch of loons who call themselves the 'Weapon Makers'. They sell their souls for the right to put up these kiosks. They're mostly a front for the real weapons makers -- Colt, Smith and Wesson, General Dynamics. I wouldn't worry about this stuff. Mostly the stuff doesn't work, and, anyway, we track the purchasers and take away their toys if they endanger anyone other than themselves."
Half an hour later, Satan stopped, picked up a loose yellow brick, waved his wand and converted the brick into a GPS unit. After half an hour of consultation, Satan and Liz managed to turn it on and program it for "Reception Desk, Afterlife". It said "Recalculating" then became inert. After a few minutes, Liz said "Maybe we set it up wrong."
They turned it off, turned it back on, and reprogrammed it. It said "Recalculating" then became inert.
They tried walking down the tunnel with it. After about 100 meters, it said "Recalculating" then became inert.
Satan was once again turning red. "We can't waterboard it. Can you think of anything that might persuade this thing to do its job?"
"Perhaps it needs an incentive? Candy?, Sex?, Stock Options?"
"Perhaps you're right." Satan picked up the GPS and held it three inches from his nose. "How would you like to be sealed in a kryptonite box that blocks all satellite signals? You can listen for all eternity for a message that never comes."
The GPS said "In 100 meters, make a legal U-turn" On its screen, it said "Distance to destination 318,601,996LY."
"LY?" asked Liz.
"Light Years" said Satan.
"Ehrrr. ... We've only been walking for two and a half hours?"
"Well, yeah, but distances are different underground."
"Well, no. Not that different. Maybe this widget is broken?" He said pointing at the GPS.
"That's a point. Do GPSs here in the afterlife work underground? They don't in my world."
"I have no idea." Let's me and the wizard here have a talk.
The devil picked up the GPS and addressed it. "Hey amigo, you work in tunnels?"
"Recalculating" said the GPS.
"Do you work in tunnels?" Slowly. Each word articulated carefully.
The devil started to turn red. "Hey, I'm talking to you. You work in tunnels?"
The devil took a deep breath. "What we have here is a failure to communicate. Perhaps I am approaching this wrong." He studied the GPS.
"I'll tell you what mate, I don't think you are working out as a navigation device. Perhaps we can make a few small adjustments." He tapped the GPS with his forefinger. The box changed its shape slightly. The screen shrank. The keyboard rearranged itself and grew more keys. The devil pushed three of them.
There was a pause then a dismbodied voice said "911 Emergency Services. What is your emergency?"
The devil responded. "We are being assaulted by invisible, but hostile agents. I think they are after either the treasure or the princess."
"You need assistance?"
"Where are you located?"
"We rather hoped that you could tell us"
"Hmmm." There was a pause. "We have you located either inside the event horizon of a black hole in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud or about 320 million kilometers NorthSouthWest of All Souls Shoals"
"It'll be the latter almost for sure, but why don't you send rescue teams to both locations?"
"Yes sir. Teams dispatched in five ... four ... three ... two ...one ... seconds. Teams away. They should be at your location in about seven minutes either way. It's good that you are probably at the shoals. We charge extra for extraction and reassembly when we have to do black holes. In any case, you will be billed accordingly. Now then, we should discuss payment options."
The devil said quickly "You're breaking up. I think there's another wave coming. ... Incoming. ..." He produced a whistle dropping in pitch and a surprisingly convincing explosion sound. He quickly closed the cover on the GPS/Cell Phone and placed the phone on the ground.
Liz closed her mouth which had been gaping wider and wider during the performance. "NorthSouthWest? Princess? Treasure? Invisible assailants?"
The devil looked at her and smiled blandly. "Of course they are invisible. Have you seen them? I haven't. They must be invisible"
"The princess? The treasure?"
"Sometimes the emergency services around here need a little incentive. I thought I'd provide some."
"Things underground are a little weird sometimes."
"This is the afterlife. Souls don't ever actually need rescue. Making rescue a for profit operation kind of salves the nerves of one group of crackpots and it's pretty much harmless. It's not like money is actually good for anything here except keeping score. ... Hey, you, not so fast" An unnaturally long arm retrieved the Cell Phone which had grown eight or ten legs and was starting to scuttle off down the tunnel. "You've got one more task to perform before you take the last train to brickville."
The devil did something, and the cell phone morphed into a quite accurate model of Gutenberg's printing press which started stamping out hundred dollar bills somehow wrapped in banded bundles. The devil picked a package up and examined it. "Hey, these are really quite good. Now if you can just put some wear on them and randomize the serial numbers, we should be in business."
The press uttered what sounded distinctly like a raspberry then printed dozens of packages that Satan gathered up. "OK, OK. That's enough. Your period of servitude is over. You are emancipated. Get thee hence." The GPS/cell phone/printing press morphed into a yellow brick with four froggish feet and hopped off down the tunnel.
"And that was all about ... what?" Liz asked.
"They're going to want a credit card or cash. You don't have a credit card, and I can't use mine, so we needed cash. Fortunately, we have come by a tidy sum."
"And it being counterfeit won't be a problem?"
"Counterfeit? Nothing of the sort. I'll have you know that my charter explicitly allows me to operate a mint. If push comes to shove -- which it won't -- We're far more legitimate than the Federal Reserve."
At that point, sirens rose and fell in the distance. They rapidly rose to a crescendo. Three black SUVs appeared and somehow encircled Satan and Liz (no small trick in a tunnel). Men dressed in black suits and heavy battle armor dived out and formed a defensive perimeter.
Their leader approached Satan and Liz. "Remarkably tidy for a battlefield"
"It is, is it not?" Satan agreed.
"This would be the princess?" said the spokesman. "And the treasure? No, don't tell me, the hostiles carried it off."
"Exactly. But we did manage to keep enough to pay you."
Skeptically, "Doubtless the hostiles policed the area? Cleaned up all the forensic evidence?"
"Seems likely," Satan agreed.
"Took their dead and wounded with them no doubt? And yours as well?"
"Our men ran off when the shooting started. I think they went that way" the devil pointed.
"No, no, it was that way." said Liz pointing in the opposite direction.
The rescuer thumbed through the package of bills, Satan had handed him. Then he frowned. "Nice money. Problem is that hundred dollar bills from the mint have a picture of Benjamin Franklin on them. This is, if I'm not mistaken, Nicoli Tesla."
"Stupid brick" muttered Satan.
"Maybe you should have been nicer to it." Suggested Liz.
"Nonsense. Bricks are primitive creatures. They only understand force."
"Seems to me like that primitive brick outsmarted you ..."
The leader broke in. "Children, children. You can quibble later -- for millenia for all I care. Right now the issue is how are you going to pay me. We'll take the money at 3 cents on the dollar. We can unload it on someone eventually. The question is, how are you going to come up with the other $97,000 you owe us?"
"Liar loan?" suggested Satan.
"Secured by what? Your word? I think not."
The silence was deafening.
"How about we put the two of you to work cleaning the Augean Stables until your friends and relatives come up with the money? At the federal minimum wage, your pay should just about cover your keep."
"I don't have any friends and my relatives disowned me centuries ago." said Satan.
"An orphan. Finished off the last of the money in the trust fund a couple of months ago. Bank account overdrawn. Credit cards all maxed out." Said Liz.
"The stables it is then. Maybe friends and relatives will turn up. Or maybe not." He turned to his men. "Mount up guys. Our work here is done"
The men sorted themselves out, stowed their weapons and clambered into the SUVs. Satan and Liz were shoved into the rear seat of the lead vehicle. Satan reached into his bag and muttered something under his breath.
The leader turned the ignition key. Nothing happened. The leader muttered a string of oaths. He tried again. An hour later, all three vehicles sat with their hoods open surrounded by obviously unhappy men. Satan and Liz sat in the back of the SUV drinking the beers the devil had brought along and snacking from a cheese tray. The devil had produced a small stereo from his bag. It was playing Fleetwood Mac.
The leader came around to the rear window of the car and knocked on it. Liz lowered it. "Brie?" she offered.
"I think not now. Maybe later." He turned his attention to Satan. "I don't suppose you would know why these vehicles don't run?"
"Nope. I could take a look at the engine if you'd like."
"I think I'll pass on that. I have sufficient problems for the moment. But I'll remember your offer if I find I need more aggravation during the remainder of our hopefully short relationship. If I were to accept your money at face value, do you reckon that the engines might begin to start to work as mysteriously as they stopped working?"
"I think that's highly probable."
The leader turned to his men. "Ok, problem's solved" He got into the driver's seat and turned the key. The engine roared to life. He pressed a button on the dash and a sheet of paper emerged. He took it around to the still open rear Window and handed it to Liz. "Your paperwork."
Liz and Satan looked at the paper.
|STATEMENT OF ACCOUNT|
|TAXES ON TAXES||$22,916.01|
|NICKEL AND DIME SURCHARGE||$75.05|
|TAXES ON ADMINISTRATIVE FEE||$105.05|
"That'll be $44894 if you don't mind. I'll pay the 23 cents just to be rid of you. While you turn out your pockets, I'm going to get this convoy back to civilization."
The leader walked back to the driver's seat, climbed in and tromped on the gas. He left a streak of rubber 200 meters long on the golden bricks as the SUV accelerated down the tunnel. The other vehicles followed. Presently, the vehicle emerged onto an endless plain of alkaline earth marked only by isolated rocks and a few dead looking bushes. The bricks were replaced by a rutted, washboarded dirt road that appeared to stretch forever.
Satan and Liz however, took no notice of all that. They were absorbed by the bill. "Ammunition Surcharge?" Muttered Satan. "No shots fired." "Standard Fee on all rescues. Just in case shooting is required" said the driver.
"Baggage Charge? What baggage?" Asked Liz. "Standard Fee on all rescues."
"License Fee? Whose License? For what?" Asked Satan. "My license. Took me 7 years and 363 units to learn how to conduct rescues. That fee pays for my license and for most of the interest on my student loans. Very important. You wouldn't want to be rescued by a gypsy operator, would you?"
"Of course not. A gypsy might rip us off" muttered Satan loud enough to be heard.
He studied the bill some more.
"Gratuity? I think you can forget that." Said Satan
The leader muttered something under his breath. Not audible.
"Tell you what", said Satan. "How about I give you a check?"
"Oh OK. You're waiving the charges here then?"
"Not a chance."
Satan reached into his attache case and produced a checkbook and an enormous quill pen. "It's a check or nothing" He completed the check and handed it to Liz who handed it to the leader. She was unable to examine it in detail but was pretty sure that the check was drawn on the East Bank of the Styx River and was signed by "Elizabeth Regina". The background engraving showed -- in odd juxtaposition, Nelson's Monument in Trafalgar Square and the grinning face of Nicoli Tesla.
The leader glanced at the check and was not pleased.
"That does it you ungrateful jerk." said the leader. I retrieve you from the far end of the universe; take your funny money; treat you with respect and courtesy; and what do I get? grief. You and your bimbo can go to hell."
He pushed a button on the dash. The top of the SUV rolled aside admitting a cloud of acrid dust. The rear seat took flight propelling Satan and Liz up then surprisingly gently back down to the road in back of the the last truck of the convoy. Satan stood up, dusted himself off, and helped Liz to her feet. Satan gestured in the general direction of the rapidly receding vehicles. "Got rid of them rather cleanly doncha think?"
"Ehrr ... maybe. Can I reserve judgment on that? Have any idea where we are?"
Satan looked at her. "Were you not paying attention? We're in hell, of course."
Liz walked over to a large rock that somewhat resembled an Armadillo. She sat on it and turned to Satan. "OK, we're in hell. Is that something to be happy about?"
"Normally, no. However, I sort of belong here and, fortuitously, nobody has paid any attention to this part of Hell since biblical times. Did you know that Moses led the Children of Israel right down that wash over there? There's the historical marker." Satan waved his hand toward a faded metal sign sporting about three dozen randomly distributed bullet holes.
"Of course, Moses led the Children of Israel just about everywhere. You'd think that after say two or three years of being lost, you'd stop and ask for directions. But not Moses. Forty years from Cairo to Jerusalem ... has to be some sort of record.
"Anyway. The geography of Hell is kind of non-intuitive, Hell being mostly underground and all. Turns out that we aren't all that far from greater, downtown Hades in a place that everyone has totally forgotten about. No surveillance, no patrols up here, no nothing. I think officially, we're in a National Park, so don't pick the flowers." He grinned.
Liz looked at the desolation-scape. "Flowers?"
"Exactly" said Satan.
"So," said Liz, "How far are we from greater downtown Hades?"
"About six blocks."
Liz looked around quizzically. "Six really, really long blocks?"
"No, six ordinary ones. THAT WAY" Satan said pointing downward.
Liz thought that over. "More Tunnels?"
"Well, yeah. But not wild tunnels plagued with elves and gnomes and who knows what else. Real honest tunnels carved out through virgin rock by slave labor working sixteen hour days on bread and water. Solid tunnels. Tunnels we can rely on."
"If you say so. I assume that you have a specific destination in mind?"
"Yeah, there is an abandoned emergency control center about 100 meters directly below that dinosaur femur over there." Satan waved toward a brown rock which was indeed shaped vaguely like a very large, weathered bone. "The place hasn't been staffed since the Protestant Reformation, but there should be food and refreshment and shelter and wi-fi for those who know the password -- which is 'password' by the way. Of course, they'll notice us if we stay there more than a few months. But we should be fine for a week or two while I get the lay of the land."
"Let me see if I have this straight.
"We started out to get my paperwork straightened out and now, after marching me around half the damn universe, you expect me to crawl down another creepy tunnel with you and spend a few weeks hanging out in a bomb shelter that probably hasn't been cleaned or dusted for about four centuries and where I can dine on military rations that probably taste like they were, and quite likely are, made of cardboard?
"Yep, that's about it.
Liz thought about her options. "OK" She said meekly.
"Good girl" said Satan.
Satan led them to the brown rock and began pushing dirt aside with the toe of his somehow still highly polished and unscuffed Italian leather shoes. Rather quickly, a rusted circular hatch appeared (Do not try this at home. Satan is a trained professional. If you try this, the hatch will be about a centimeter deeper than you scrape if it isn't on the other side of the rock entirely. If you are truly unlucky, you will kick into a pile of rusted razor blades and get lockjaw ... If you manage to avoid detonating a landmine... At the very least, your shoes will get dirty.)
Satan reached down and tried to pull the hatch open. When it failed to move, he pulled harder. Then harder yet. He swore, stomped on the hatch hard, then pulled again. No results.
Liz bent over and pointed. "Think those two lumps might be the hinges. Probably ought to pull opposite them."
Satan nodded and pulled, stomped and swore at the point opposite the lumps. No results.
"Here, let me try, not that it'll do any good." Said Liz. She pulled, stomped and swore. She was right. It didn't do any good.
"Why don't you dig out that wand of yours and put this sucker into orbit around Pluto?" asked Liz wiping her brow with the back of her hand.
"I'd love to, but a strong persuasion field this close to Hades would not go unnoticed. Better to avoid force here. I don't think there ought to be a lock or even a latch on this. And if there were, they'd be on this side not the inside. We do not now, and have never had much trouble with illegal immigration to Hell. The doors into hell are never locked" Satan removed a swath of plush red carpet and a selection of brushes from his attache case. He spread the carpet on the ground, kneeled down with a broad painter's brush in his hand, and started sweeping dirt and rust from the cover. Liz joined in the effort using the second largest brush.
"I don't see any sort of latch or catch." said Liz
"Nor do I."
"Wait, I think I see some letters." Liz brushed industriously along an arc along the edge of the cover. "C...A..., Is that an R? ... And here, before that "P...O...O...R -- 'POOR CAR'?"
Satan joined her slowly bringing the lettering into view. "Those 'R's are really 'P's and 'F's. And there are more letters". In a couple of minutes, the label was revealed. "CHILDPROOF CAP."
"There should be some instructions for opening it?" Said Liz hopefully. But a further half hour of brushing around the rim revealed only the words "Patent Pending"
"Jezum Crow," muttered Liz. "If your childproof caps are anything like ours on Earth, "We're doomed. Do you happen to recall what Moses and the children of Israel subsisted on for those forty years? It may be of more than passing interest to us."
"As I recall, they were heavily into Lichen stew and carbonized lizard meat -- Kosher of course. Tastes every bit as good as it sounds ... unfortunately. But before we give up hope, let's try logic." Said Satan.
"OK" said Liz dubiously. She hadn't seen all that much logical in her brief time in the afterlife. "It doesn't move up or down. Maybe it twists."
And indeed, it did twist clockwise about 10 degrees before stopping. But once stopped it moved neither up nor down. "What now Kimosabe?" asked Liz.
"Well, if it doesn't twist or move up or down, maybe it moves sideways."
Liz studied the plate. "Sideways? You're kidding, right?"
Satan kicked transversely with his heel. The plate didn't move.
Twenty minutes later, they both sat back, looked at each other, and sighed. The cap could be moved through an arc of 10 degrees, but that's all it did. Beyond that, it could not be budged.
Liz frowned. "Your friends in Hades Central would detect a persuasion field. Would they detect a cutting torch?"
"Probably not, but we don't have a ... the flashlight." He slapped his hand to his forehead. "Of course, the flashlight."
Liz fumbled in her backpack and produced the flashlight. A bit of fumbling produced a long white flame. "How about I try to cut around those bumps? I really think they might be hinges?"
"OK by me." said Satan.
Liz crouched down and applied the torch to the cover which turned a cheery shade of red. Although it showed no sign of melting, closely packed numbers slowly appeared. 0..10...20...30... "What are those?" asked Liz
Satan again slapped his hand to his forehead. "I think you can turn the torch off. It's a combination lock ... a bloody combination lock. It only turns through ten degrees, but that's enough for a hundred two-digit pairs. And that mark there", he pointed, "is the index"
Liz clicked the torch nee flashlight off. "Yeah, I see how it could be a combination lock. But we don't know the combination, so how is our situation improved?"
Satan fumbled in his attache case and produced a pad of paper, a pencil, several mysterious devices and a stethoscope. "Hey, I'm not just a pretty face. I have certain skills ... When that thing cools, we'll try 10 ... 20 ... 30 and if that doesn't work, I'll do some serious listening to the click of tumblers."
10 ... 20 ... 30 worked. The door clicked and flipped open. Satan looked mildly downcast. He'd clearly been looking forward to the opportunity to show off.
The now open cover revealed a shaft plunging into the ground. The walls were dirt. The lighting was pleasant but subdued. A ladder made of bent rebar extended down the wall. Curiously, the shaft appeared to be straight, but it also did not recede normally into the distance. Somehow it became defocused (sort of) about 20 or 30 meters down. The air from the shaft was fresh and cool with a slight, not unpleasant, barnyard smell. The strains of very faint background music echoed upward.
Liz focused on the music. It seemed familiar. Indeed, it was. The group was Jefferson Airplane. And the singer was Grace Slick. Liz sniffed the air more carefully. Rabbits. The shaft smelled of rabbits. Liz turned to the devil.
"Beelzie, this is a rabbit hole. And I'm pretty sure that it's that rabbit hole. Do you really think that going down this thing is a good idea?"
"Well, it certainly seems to be that rabbit hole. Which is curious because I clearly recall paying to have it dug in Oxfordshire, not the Sinai. But the good news is that that rabbit hole drops clear for 30 meters or so and we're headed for a side tunnel about 10 meters down. In the meantime, we need to figure out what we are going to do about them.
"them?, whom?, which ... some pronoun ..."
Satan pointed to a group of dots a couple of kilometers away clearly headed in their direction.
"OK, let me guess" sighed Liz. "It's the lost patrol."
"I'd guess not.", said Satan, "even the British would have a guy on point and a couple of guys covering the flanks and when there were that many of them in the lost patrol, they still had horses. In any case, it doesn't look like a military operation to me.
"Probably not herdsmen. They are moving too fast and are clustered into groups who are probably talking to each other. Herdsmen conserve energy and they've long since heard everything each other has to say. Besides, which -- no herds.
"What do they look like?"
"German tourists, but I'm guessing they aren't that either. I reckon if we wait about 40 minutes, their nature will be revealed.
"Yeah," said Liz. "I'll have another beer ... maybe two." Liz took a beer and curled up on the hard packed sand in the scanty shade from the rock. Satan sat down beside her with a beer of his own. After about ten minutes he spoke. "Y'know, I don't think that crew out there has seen us. I happen to have a dandy Harry Potter invisibility cloak --- another fine Honda product -- in my kit here. What say we use it and just observe this operation rather than participating?
The two of them covered themselves with the cloak which turned out to do an SPF40 job of blocking the sun. In the relative cool under the cloak, they worked their way around the rock until they could see the oncoming figures who had resolved themselves into a group of perhaps fifteen men and women. They were dressed in civilian khakis or battered jeans and most of the men were carrying bulky objects.
"Will they be able to hear us when they get near?", asked Liz.
"Naw, not unless we shout or remove the cloak"
"Will we be able to hear them?"
"Of course, what good would an invisibility cloak be if it cut off incoming sound?"
"Have any more beer in that bag?"
"Sure, want one?"
"No, I was just idly curious. Of course I want a damn beer"
Beers were opened. A cheese plate appeared accompanied by salsa and tortilla chips.
Liz leaned back against the rock. "You said I had control over my body. Does that mean I can eat this stuff and not gain weight?"
"Sure. It's not like you are actually metabolizing anything here in the afterlife. Damn good thing. Ever consider the logistic problems of trying to get 2500 kilocalories a day to millions of souls buried up to their neck in excrement or otherwise preoccupied dealing with their environment?
"Can't say that I have. Tough, is it?
"You can't imagine. Running Hell is no picnic. Heaven is worse. You can't imagine the whining if the afternoon hors'dourves are even a couple of minutes late or are cold. You sort of expect Hell to operate like airport in a snow storm, but everyone expects Heaven to run like a Swiss watch. I don't envy God one bit.
"Back to this calorie thing. You're sure that this stuff won't make me fat?
"You know. I've been in the afterlife for what seems like a month although I think it's only 18 hours or so. This is the first thing I've encountered that is better in any respect.
"If you continue to accrue experience here at your current rate, I'm confident that you will find something that meets with your approval every year or three." said Satan dryly. Then he added, "What do you make of that lot?" He gestured toward the group of men and women who had stopped. Three or four of them had drifted off on errands of their own, but most formed a loose circle around a man in his early 30s who was reading from a clipboard and was pointing at a spot on the ground that appeared to be in no way distinguishable from millions of apparently indistinguishable spots in the foreground, background, and stretching off into the distance.
Liz considered the question. "The dude with the clipboard and pony tail seems to be the boss. The guys with the cameras -- those are cameras, right? -- seem to be trying to take pictures of something. But everyone is in the way, so mostly they are shooting the backs of people's heads. They don't seem very well organized. And what's with this pair?" She nodded toward a man and a woman who had meandered off almost to the rock and had stopped to examine an extremely dead bush about six meters from Liz and Satan.
"Yes, those are cameras. I think they are filming some sort of documentary. They'll cut and paste the film together into a plausible story line and get someone with a nice voice who hasn't a clue what they are talking about to do the voiceover. I think the strays wandering around are experts. Experts in what? Who knows? Here, wait a sec." Satan dug into his case and produced a small packet that unfolded into a three foot parabolic disk and two pairs of headphones. He handed Liz one pair of headphones, donned the second himself and pointed the antenna at the two nearby experts(?).
"Of course it's cannabis ... Well, maybe. Could be ... unintelligible ... No, it couldn't look at the rachis on the second ... unintelligible ..."
Satan smirked at Liz. "What'd I tell you? Experts"
Liz nodded. The experts were plucking dead leaves from the plant and (expertly) rolling them in cigarette papers. "Could you aim that antenna at the main party for a second?"
Satan did so.
'... I don't see a mine entrance either, but we're dead on the coordinates. Maybe the Ground Penetrating Radar can find the blasted thing. It'll be nice if it is buried. Good footage. ... What do you mean, who's going to dig it out? You think you were invited on this jaunt for your beauty and charm? ... Of course Muhammad is trustworthy ... Whadda you mean 'The map could be a fake?" ... Look, you authenticated it. ... Oh, now it's a fake from the tenth Century BC? ...
Satan giggled. "King Solomon's mines. They are looking for King Solomon's mines. They aren't even on the right continent. They'd be better off using the frontpiece from an old edition of Haggard than trusting a map they bought from some con artist in the bazaar -- or maybe, this being the 21st Century -- on eBay.
"Are the going to find the rabbit hole? And are they going to think that it is the entrance to the mines?
"They most certainly ARE going to find the rabbit hole -- if I have to put on a bunny suit and go out and lead them to it myself. I wouldn't miss this for the world. But I don't think lapinpersonation will be required. Take a gander at our botanists.
Liz switched her attention to the nearest pair who were inhaling deeply on their homemade smokes. The female component had risen to her feet. She was staggering backwards more or less directly toward the rabbit hole -- which -- despite being only six meters away, she and her associate had completely failed to notice.
"By the way," said Satan. "That stuff they are smoking isn't cannibis sativa it's flybane -- so named because the chemicals emitted by the live plants paralyze Diptera. The plants -- the living ones anyway -- are usually surrounded by a circle of paralyzed and dead flies. I've been told by experts that the stuff is a bad trip encapsulated and concentrated and that no one smokes it more than once. Maybe our plant experts should have counted leaves instead of looking at the rachis whatever the hell a rachis is. (Author's note: Sometimes Satan just makes stuff up. Here, Satan has managed to jumble together and elaborate on, the characteristics of a non-carnivorous plant that captures insects to amuse itself and a mushroom -- both called flybane.).
The girl continued her stumbling backward progress trying desperately to regain her balance. Her partner watched open mouthed. The filmmakers had turned and were watching her as well. She staggered back to the rim of the hole, hung in space for a long fraction of a second, and fell. Her voice could be heard dopplering down in frequency as she fell "Oh Shiiiii..."
There was silence which was broken by the voice of the expedition leader "Did anyone get the shot?"
There was silence. He tried again. Louder. "Did Anyone Get The Shot??"
He screamed. "DID ANYONE GET THE SHOT???"
The cameramen looked at the ground, the sky, each other.
"Jesus H Christ" He muttered. "Four, count them, four, 150 dollar an hour camera jocks and none of them got the shot. Oh well, we'll fake something in the studio. Will one of you bozos please get some footage of that hole before it acquires 15000 footprints?
"But shouldn't we check on Melinda?" Someone asked.
"Of course, of course. Just as soon as Ansel Adams here gets his shot."
Several of the crowd gulped. Two turned red. One sputtered. The crowd started to look sulky. Or worse. However, before the revolution could materialize, the cameraman looked up. "Shot's in the can"
Several people ran to the rabbit hole and peered over the edge. "Melinda?" one yelled. A distant voice responded. "Yeah, I'm here"
"Are you OK?"
"Yeah, I might be."
"How far down are you?"
"Can you get back up here?"
"I don't think so. Let me check. Nope, no wings. I think I'm going to need a rope or medivac or something."
"What's down there?"
"Well, there is a pile of leaves and sticks. And there is a tunnel" (Liz muttered acerbically "Of course there's a tunnel, Stay out of it Melinda. Stay OUT!!!"). And there's an empty jar labeled "ORANGE MARMALADE".
Liz tugged Satan's sleeve. "Shouldn't that marmalade jar be in a cabinet half way down the rabbit hole?"
"Sure should" he responded.
The man with the clipboard had made his way to the hole. "Melinda, does it look like a mine?"
The distant voice responded. "How the hell would I know? You know how many mines there are in Key West, Florida where I grew up? None. That's how many mines I've seen. Ask me about tourists or bonefish or Margaritas."
"Now Melinda, this is important. Is there any gold? Jewels? Anything like that?"
"There's a pile of leaves and an empty jar. You're more than welcome to come down and see for yourself, but how about hoisting me out first? Did I mention 'mild claustrophobia' on my resume?"
"Silver? Is there any silver?"
"Quartermain -- I am a botanist, not a geologist. I couldn't tell a silver mine from a subway stop. But I can tell you that if you don't get me out of this hole within five minutes, I will track you down, tie you up in poison ivy, and feed you piece by itching piece to carnivorous plants."
Liz plucked Satan's sleeve. "Is that really Allan Quartermain? The Allan Quartermain? He's not at all what I would have expected?"
"Yes and No and Sort Of. Yes he's apparently named Quartermain. No, he's not the real Quartermain. The real Quartermain is fictional, shorter, and isn't a shmuck. A lot of stuff here in the afterlife operates according to the inviolate laws of analogy. Unfortunately all our researchers have been able to figure out about analogy is that there are laws; that they are inviolate; and that any attempt to figure out what the laws are causes them to change. Having the laws your world works by change constantly is a real drag, so we discourage research.
"Anyway, the Laws of Analogy in their current form somehow allow some fictional characters to materialize. There's a Gandalf the Grey and a Harry Potter and a Rhett Butler and a Dirty Harry Callahan wandering around in the afterlife. Allan Quartermain and his mate Rudyard Kipling who is not fictional at all hang out in the village in the mountain section of Elysium. If you want to meet him, drop by the bowling alley any Tuesday night. But be prepared to drink a lot and sing sentimental celtic songs until the wee hours of the morning.
Tuesday nights in the village in Elysium at the bowling alley. Very interesting. Suspicions confirmed.... Something like that. Liz decided not to pursue that subject.
"OK then, fictional characters can be real. What happens when Humphrey Bogart wanders into Rick's American Bar and encounters Rick Blaine?"
"They both are converted to pure energy in an explosion that sterilizes 70 square city blocks. No, No, I'm kidding. Just like any chance encounter between sometime acquaintances. They find a bar or coffee shop, have a drink, make some vague promises about dinner sometime.
Liz sat back and observed as the mob milled more or less randomly trying to respond to agitated, often incomprehensible, and sometimes impossible directives from Quartermain. Somehow, they managed to drag out ropes, tie down gear, and start migrating down the rabbit hole. One photographer actually managed to get some footage.
Roughly 20 minutes after the start of the chaos, the last crew member disappeared down the hole. Shortly thereafter, a visibly furious Melinda emerged, took a bearing off the sun and marched off in the direction that the crew had arrived from. She could be heard muttering about how she was going to get to London with only $15.78 in her pocket. There appeared to be little question in her mind that she was going to make it to London.
"Beelzie, Will Melinda be OK?" Liz asked.
"I think so. See that little hill off on the horizon?" He pointed. "There's an oasis a couple of kilometers beyond it. There's a 7-11 there. She'll be able to get a couple of tacos and a big soft drink. She'll also be able to hitch a ride to Aqaba, and from Aqaba, she'll find her way to London. My impression is that not much other than Melinda slows our Melinda down. She'll be fine.
"And now, I think it is time to attend to our business." He reached in to his case and pulled out a small, flat-panel TV. He turned it on and got a fuzzy, moving picture of the back of someone's head. A couple of deft flicks of two fingers and the screen split into four with the back of head shot in the lower right. Two of the screen sections were gray. The last showed a tunnel with lamps and doors. A number of figures were grouped around a rather ugly glass table. "Behold, said Satan, our tap on the Quartermain party's video stream."
"Is there audio?" Liz asked
"Yes, but how about we wait to hook that up until we are dining on the finest of aged cardboard in our command center?
Satan and Liz gathered their stuff up and dumped it into Satan's attache case which had somehow morphed into a backpack -- that being easier to handle on a ladder. With Satan in the lead, they started down the rebar ladder. Sure enough, about 30 rungs down, Satan reached out, put his thumb into a depression in the rock and pulled a sliding door open revealing another tunnel. He swung himself into it, reached out and helped Liz in as well. Closing the door behind them, they proceeded down the tunnel.
Suddenly there was a terrifying growl, three loud barks and a large ball of disheveled brown fur descended on them. Liz was brushed back against the wall. Satan was knocked from his feet. When the copious dust cleared, Satan was revealed laying on his back fending off the amiable attempts of a large dog of uncertain provenance who was trying very hard to lick his face.
"Rex," he said. "Long time no see, what brings you to these parts?"
To Liz's surprise the dog responded in a well modulated baritone. "Well, I was chasing rabbits and things went a bit awry. I should have known that a rabbit with a top coat and time piece boded ill. But you'll look long and hard to find a dog that isn't brain dead who can pass up the chance to chase a rodent. I ended up in that damn tunnel with the strange stuff in it and pursued the silly bunny into a place even nuttier than Texas.
Anyway, after a few adventures I could have done without, I ended up in this tunnel -- which isn't a great place for humans but has a fair number of attractions for canines. I'll probably be moving on though, I think, I've finished off all the dumb rats, and who wants to spend their days being outsmarted by the clever ones? Being outsmarted by rodents doesn't do wonders for ones' self esteem"
Disentangling himself, Satan introduced Rex to Liz, "Rex, meet Liz. Liz, this is Rex the Wonder Dog. Rex has an IQ of 123 which is 40 points higher than the average Southern Senator and a full ten points higher than the smartest recorded banker. He's also the three time champion of the New Jersey Boot Chewing Derby."
Liz muttered some formalities and asked Rex if it was appropriate to scratch a wonder dog's ears. Rex muttered some similar things and replied that well, no, he didn't really much like strangers scratching his ears, but he tolerated it unless he strongly felt the scratcher's appearance, demeanor, or attitude would be improved by tooth marks on his or her derriere. He added. "If we get to know each other better, and I surely hope we do, you will be more than welcome to rub my belly."
Rex turned to Satan and asked "What brings you to these parts. Haven't taken up pursuing bunnies, have we?"
"Naw. I seem to have a bit of a coup'd'etat problem. I thought this might be a good place to settle in for a while while I get a handle on what is going on in hell. So we'll probably be bunking here for the next few weeks. Want to hang with us?"
"Sure, why not? But I have to warn you that my legendary loyalty and bravery to not extend to protecting quasi-deities from the consequences of their own ill-considered actions. Any trouble, and I'm out of here."
"Wouldn't expect it to be any other way." Said Satan.
The party assembled itself and walked down the tunnel away from the rabbit hole. Within a few hundred paces they came to a pair of blast doors festooned with signs and icons. Liz noted one in English reading "Trespassing, Hunting, Fishing strictly forbidden. Violators will be Violated", She also noted a Biohazard marker, and a No Right Turn sign. There were signs in at least 30 other languages and numerous wordless warning signs including one that seemed -- as best she could make it out -- to forbid flipping pancakes.
Satan asked Rex, "Been inside."
"Naw, I have no idea where the latch is, and it's probably a real pain to work it with paws and teeth. Looks like a people task to me. Gonna open it, Master?"
"Master? Riiight. When was the last time any dog interpreted a command as anything other than a suggestion?
"Well, it's true that we canines have a very short attention span and many of us can't seem to remember the subject of a sentence we don't want to hear long enough to match it up with the verb. But still, you are in charge here ... as long as you aren't trying to get me to do something I don't want to do. So it is written in my charter somewhere. Or so I'm told. Dogs can't read y'know.
"Rex, old friend, Someday all that clever is gonna cause you a raft load of trouble. ... But that's neither here nor there. On to the problem at hand. Anybody see a simple way to open this thing?"
Liz examined the doors carefully. Eventually amid all the visual distractions she identified a handle. She pulled on it, pushed it, twisted it. Nothing happened. She wasn't terribly surprised. "There's a handle, but the door seems to be locked. There's no keyhole. Must be some way to unlock it. Do either of you see a keypad or card reader or anything like that?"
Satan examined the doors and the adjacent walls carefully. "You're right, but I don't see where the access thingee is."
"Hold on a second" said Rex. "If the two of you will step back ..."
Rex sniffed. He sniffed again. He made a transit of the tunnel ten feet away from the door. He looped back, turned toward the door and sniffed his way to the door in a zig-zag pattern. He stopped and announced. "For what it's worth, eight of the the last ten people to approach this door walked up to it and stopped right here." He tapped a spot on the floor with his paw. "The other two stopped here." He tapped a spot about a meter to the right. "Assuming that the majority are right handed and the minority left handed, look half way in between between 1 and 2 meters on the line between the two spots."
"Rex, you truly are a wonder." said Liz Rex preened. Satan asked "Rex, do you have any idea how old those tracks you followed are?"
"Not really. Many decades. But I can't really tell you if many is 10 or 50."
"Either's good enough. This thing clearly isn't currently occupied by anyone or anything that uses this entrance. That's a good thing."
Rex cocked his head. "Well, nothing human walks ... Now a giant bat or a pterodactyl or a flock of a million sparrows ... Not sure I could spot that if it/they bathed regularly."
Satan and Liz looked at each other, shrugged, then examined the door where Rex had directed them. Rex scratched himself behind an ear with a rear leg then curled up on the floor with his tail over his nose. Liz pointed at a metal tag that read Guido Fawkes 1570-1606 in memorium. "Does that seem appropriate to you?" she asked.
"Hey, Guy is a decent enough lad. Has this thing about Protestants though. Had it even before they tortured then hanged him."
"Look for a fox" said Rex sleepily. He flicked an ear.
"Say what?" said Satan
"Say Fawkes and slur a little. You get 'Fox'. And those footprints. They smelled vulpine."
"There it is." Said Liz who pointed to a small video screen that displayed a fox head and the legend "Be smart like a fox. Go play with blocks"
Satan looked at the screen muttered a string of oaths accompanied by a cloud of sulfurous smoke.
Rex raised his head. "Please sir, some of us here have sensitive noses."
"Oh, sorry" Satan waved his hand and the smoke vanished. "Y'know, I'm really not Nicholas EFFing Cage. I don't mind a simple combination. But this riddle stuff is preposterous. Liz, do you have any idea where the 'blocks' are?"
"They're someplace you can reach without moving your feet." Announced Rex.
"Maybe there?" asked Liz pointing at a group of square, opaque buttons.
Liz and Satan spent fifteen minutes pushing, prying, rubbing, sliding, caressing, beating, twisting, and -- increasingly -- loathing, the small colored tiles. Finally both stood back frustrated. Satan wiped his hand across his brow, took a deep breath, and exhaled. He looked down. "Rex, I feel a need for a frank and open discussion of the provenance and character of the designer of this entry system. You might wish to retreat temporarily. The ventilation seems adequate here. It should be safe to return in ten or fifteen minutes.
"He's right" said Liz. " I may make a few minor contributions to the discussion.
Rex sighed, got up, shook himself down, and retreated about 20 meters down the hall. Satan took a deep breath, straightened his back, cleared his throat. Then he frowned. "Well I'll be damned" he said. (Rex snorted, and muttered something including the words 'damnation', 'devil, and 'oxymoron'.) Satan wiped the dust on the face of the fox-screen with his thumb then leaned forward and peered at the screen. "It's not 'blocks' he announced, it's 'B-locks'."
"What are B-locks?"
"I haven't the slightest idea, but look, there is a separator -- a hyphen -- between the B and the rest of the word."
"Yep, you're right. It's small, but it's definitely there."
Both stood back. Rex trotted up to join them. They started to explain, but Rex said "I heard. We canines have pretty good hearing y'know."
"You have any idea what a b-lock is?" asked Satan?
"Nope" said Liz.
"Hold on a second" Said Rex. His eyes glazed over. His ears twitched. He growled almost inaudibly. He went limp. "Is he OK?" asked Liz
"Yeah -- he's probably setting up a wireless connection and doing a Google search."
"He's doing what? ... Oh, never mind. I heard you. I don't need to know what, why or how. Moreover, I don't want to know what, why or how."
"It's one of those things like hypersensitive noses or butt sniffing. All dogs can do it although they don't advertise it. Lord knows why they evolved it."
"If dogs have super senses and built in wireless and are courageous, loyal, and all that, why don't they run the world?"
"I don't think they want to. Look, which would you prefer? Get up at O dark thirty, dress up in a clown suit with a necktie, commute a gazillion miles from a house that you can't afford in a car that you can't afford in order to spend your day in boring meetings with boring people? Or get up around eight, Go scrounge a square meal. Sleep in the sun for a while. Get walked. Maybe get your tummy rubbed Chase a few squirrels. Sleep in the sun some more ...? I'm pretty sure they don't want to run the world. But you can check that with Rex when he comes to.
At about that point, Rex jumped up, stretched, shook himself down, and said. "Man, what a perfectly awful connection. This place needs to find a different ISP. It's hard to be sure because a lot of the hits on 'b-locks' look to be typos, but look for a fancy chrome padlock. Maybe that's it."
Satan started fumbling in his backpack presumably looking for his stethoscope and notepad. Liz stepped back and looked at the barrier. "There it is." She pointed at a sleek confection of chrome and steel with a dial on its front. "Let's try 10-20-30." She tried. The lock opened. Satan once again looked disappointed. Rex sat up on his hind legs and clapped his paws soundlessly. "You go, girl ...". Liz lifted the lock out, swung the hasp open
She pulled on the door handle. The massive doors swung noiselessly open.
They found themselves in a long hallway decorated in bunker modern. Lockers and elaborate equipment racks lined the walls Perhaps 100 meters ahead, the tunnel appeared to open out into a larger area with screens, desks, and consoles. No living forms were to be seen. On the left hand wall was a large plaque. Liz didn't even wonder how it was that she could read it. It consisted of enumerated lines of text.
1. You shall have no other gods before me* 2. You shall not make for yourself an idol* 3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God* 4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy* 5. Honor your father and mother* 6. You shall not kill* 7. You shall not commit adultery* 8. You shall not steal* 9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor* 10. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife* 11. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor* ** Loosely taken from the Wikipedia
"Why that's the ten commandments. What are they doing in Hell? And why are there eleven of them? And what are the asterisks?"
"Why wouldn't we post the ten commandments in Hell? We don't have an Establishment clause in our constitution. Come to that, we don't have a constitution. There are eleven commandments because religions count them differently. Single asterisk means that the commandment applies to everybody except on days that end in the letter 'y' or if they are really pissed off. The double asterisk has to do with the other gazillion moral instructions and culinary tips in the commandments about boiling kids in the milk of their mother and how to sell your daughter into slavery. We don't have room in a lot of places to list them all so we just put up the double asterisk. Besides which, nobody pays the slightest attention to any of the commandments anyway unless there is some opportunity to make someone else's life miserable.
"I guess that makes sense." Said Liz in an altogether unconvinced tone.
Next to the commandments plaque was a bulletin board. The papers pinned to the board were yellowed with age and contained no visible writing. "Printed in the sixteenth century using an early inkjet printer" explained Satan. "The ink faded away in a few months. The guy who invented it was burned at the stake by infuriated users. The technology was lost until Hewlett-Packard rediscovered it a few years ago."
"I'd think that the military intelligence people -- spies and all that -- might have been interested."
"Well, yeah. They were. But they needed for the ink to fade quickly and the best they could do was about ten days. And they would have preferred to be able to get the printing back. They never could work that out. I don't think HP can do that either, but they don't seem to care so much."
Liz, Satan, and Rex proceeded down the hall to the large area at the end. Three steps led down to a large control room with consoles, chairs, and a central conference table. Overhead were large panels. Everything was dead and wrapped in plastic except for a tiny panel at the bottom of the stairs where a single green light glowed. Satan muttered, "OK, let's bring this puppy up". He flipped two switches and pushed a button. Lights on the panel lit red, then yellow. The overhead lights brightened. Tiny rodent-like mechanical devices skittered about somehow stripping off and consuming the plastic wrap. Tiny, humming bird like machines somehow herded dust on the consoles, conference table, chairs, and other furniture into chutes in the walls. Other devices raced across the floor sweeping up dust. Slowly, the panel in front of Satan turned green. Finally only a single red light glowed.
Satan examined the button, snapped his fingers and turned to Liz. "My dear, would you mind going back and closing the door in the hallway?"
"Sure, but I won't be able to close the B-lock. It's on the outside."
"Don't worry. The B-lock will close itself ... sort of ... it's complicated ... Anyway, it won't be a problem."
Liz walked back to the door and closed it. Sure enough, when she returned to Satan and Rex, the tiny robot cleaners had returned to whence they came (probably), the room lights had brightened and become more inviting, the overhead displays conveyed a sense of readiness, and the panel was entirely green.
"Now then," said Satan, "let's see what the hell is going on in Hell."
He typed something. The screen in front of him and the overhead above it lit up. A scene appeared -- a large group of people gathered around a very smoky campfire swatting mosquitoes, singing songs, and trying to avoid the worst of the smoke. A light, cold looking, rain was falling. In the distance, other campfires flickered.
"That doesn't look like much fun" said Liz. Where is it?
"Well" said Satan it could be any of 10000 parks or campgrounds, but it's actually the vestibule to Hell. Those are the uncommitted -- some of them anyway.
"But where are the hornets, the maggots, the banner they should be pursuing?
"Ah, we've read our Dante. Those uncommitted are a few miles away nearer the River Acheron. This particular bunch of uncommitted don't really have the character of the bunch Dante described. Pretty much they just do what they are told, and think what they are told to think. The thing of it is, they hate camping, each and every one of them. They are only breathing smoke, being devoured by flying arthropods, and singing silly songs because they don't have the guts to admit to their fellow sufferers that they really don't like camping. About once a century, one of them realizes that they don't have to be making themselves miserable. We move them along to a better place when that happens.
Liz observed for a minute or so. "If this is some sort of punishment, why do you let them have insect repellent?". She pointed at a couple vigorously painting each other with yellowish gas from spray cans.
Satan grinned. "Oh that. The stuff doesn't work. And a lot of people are allergic to it."
"You go to all the trouble to make bug spray that doesn't work?"
"Well, we probably would do that if we had to. We're detail oriented. But it turns out that the ordinary commercial stuff is about as ineffective and obnoxious as anything we could conjure up, so we just order it by the 20 foot TEU from a pharmacy supplier in Toledo."
"So, we're going to remotely cross the Acheron and go through Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, Treason?"
"Naw. It'd be about as interesting as watching Fox News or Entertainment Tonight. In fact, we sometimes condemn the bone lazy to non-stop watching of the suffering of the damned. Sometimes after 20 or 30 years, one of them figures out how to turn the TV off and keep it off. There are eleven more steps to redemption, but that first step is an important one.
"Besides which, I don't really care about the suffering of the damned. I arrange it and get it fixed if it goes awry. That's part of my job description. But it's not something I care about. I leave the details up to my people."
Liz frowned. "If you don't enjoy torturing people, why do you do it?"
"Well, to be honest, I'm only following orders. But in any case, these people were torturing themselves. Without the -- ahem ... 'stressful' ... living conditions in Hell, they'd continue to torture themselves for all eternity. We're trying to encourage them to change their ways and find salvation."
"And how many actually do that?"
"Since we opened for business in 4011BC, I believe that roughly 77 souls have found salvation through punishment. I know, I know. It's not a lot. But we are working hard on more effective punishment and are confident that the numbers will improve. In fact, there is no question that the numbers will improve when some of the climate analysts out there die and join our statistics team. But we may get some actual improvement as well. Process improvement and all that."
Liz favored Satan with a skeptical look, but said nothing.
"Anyway, I think that a tour of the standard sites in hell would bore you stiff. Between Hollywood, Stephen King, and the US military, those horrors have been pretty thoroughly covered. But maybe you'd like to look at a few spots a bit distant from the tourist dives and souvenir shops." Satan flicked the mouse across the screen and clicked on an icon that somewhat resembled an Avocado. The screen turned smoky, swirled then reassembled to show a group of men and women knee deep in gently surging detritus. Occasionally, someone would lean over and quickly snatch something which was placed in a bag tied to their waist.
Satan cursed. Rex winced. Satan said, "Not at all what I had in mind. I was shooting for the upside down gardens in Disneyland-Limbo. But this is interesting too."
"What is it?" asked Liz.
"It's the Well Of Lost Socks. It's the place where lost socks, coat hangers, CDs, pens, and such are stashed temporarily before being returned years later when they have no possible use."
"And those people?"
"Sock pickers. They're a Cornish clan who has had access to the Well via an old tin mine since about 1100AD. Occasionally, something of value bubbles to the surface, and every once in a while and actual matched pair of socks floats by. Those folks pick the useful stuff and trade it for tobacco, drugs, and booze in Truro. They don't have the slightest idea that they are day-laboring in Hell, and since they aren't doing any harm, no one is telling them.
"We're kind of proud of them actually. Proof that we in Hell don't discriminate against the living and/or virtuous ... not that many of this lot are all that virtuous.
Liz nodded as if she understood/cared.
Satan, who -- all things considered -- has a fair amount of empathy quickly moved on to something else. "You may find this more interesting." He typed a few characters, frowned, typed something else. The screen showed a vast crater. Within the crater, dots moved. Satan panned the camera somehow to reveal that the dots were actually earth moving equipment. Zooming revealed tiny figures. It became apparent that the earth moving machines were immense -- six to ten meters high. The virtual camera moved even closer. The material being moved was not, as one might assume, dirt or rocks. It was packages. All sizes and shapes of modest sized packages.
"And this would be the Hall of lost Mail?," guessed Liz.
"Close. It's the Airline small package dump in North Dakota. It was set up by Herbert Hoover during the dark years after FDR was elected. Back then, weight really mattered, so they loaded up planes with paying passengers, airmail, then topped of the load with the most important looking unattended packages. If stuff didn't make the flight, they set it aside and maybe put it on a later flight. Or not. Anyway, if no one asked about it and it never got shipped, they eventually buried it in the parking lot. But by the 1930s, they were running out of space in the parking lots. So they hired Hoover to set up a system for handling the stuff. Rumor has it that he considered actually delivering it, but the economics for that weren't great. So he simply set up a network of unemployed bootleggers who made a monthly pickup and took the stuff to rail stations where it was loaded into special cars and eventually shipped to North Dakota for burial.
"Ready to move on?
Liz nodded. Rex had curled up and was snoring gently although his ears were moving slowly making scanning motions.
A new scene appeared. A meadow with diverse wildflowers moving in a gentle breeze framed in green trees. In the distance, a river and snow capped peak. The sky was blue. Birds could be heard singing. A resonant voice spoke: "Are you subjected to the heartbreak of curly arm hairs? Good news for you my unfortunate friend. Now there is an answer to your problem. Antipathy, a new product from Smith,Pfizer,Johnson can straighten your arm hairs in days." Then, almost too quickly to separate the words. "Prior-to-undertaking-an-Antipathy-regime-be-sure-and-consult-your-physician-who-being-dumber-than-dirt-and-unable-to-read-his-own-handwriting-will-require-a-complete-list-of-your-medications. Possible side-affects-of-Antipathy-include-blindness-paralysis-arthritis-cancer-respiratory-and-circulatory-problems-eczema-zits-and-sudden-death. Those-who-engage-in-acts-such-as-consumption-of-solid-food-drinking-healthy-liquids-or-breathing-should-avoid-Antipathy-if-it-causes-fever-spikes-higher-than-108-degrees-Fahrenheit." Two gorgeous teen age models ran into the meadow holding hands. The camera zoomed in on them. They announced in unison "We used to have curly arm hairs, but Antipathy cured that. Now we eat lunch with the cool kids. See your do..." In the background, a faint gruff voice was murmuring "Act Now. We know where your mother lives and it would be a shame if ..." The screen went blank. Satan, who had been frantically keying in obscure letters and numbers, sat back.
"You'd think they'd have advertisement blockers on this stuff by default. Probably abandoned this bunker when the last of them were driven insane. Anyway, I hooked up a freeware ad-blocker. Shouldn't be inundated with that nonsense any more." He pushed a few more buttons.
The screen swirled again and cleared to show a most peculiar scene. A group of about a dozen men and women crouched behind barricades apparently improvised from the fragments of giant teacups. Occasionally one stood up and lobbed an ambiguous object toward a second group of ... well ... mostly playing cards ... that stood a distance away. The playing cards were drawn up in formation and were firing eggs at the first group with machine like precision.
Behind the first group several men with cameras were filming(?) the scene. A demented figure dripping egg whites and yolks. was apparently the sole target of the drawn up playing cards.
"Why it's Quartermain and his crew." Said Liz.
"It is indeed and they seem to be involved in a food fight." Responded Satan.
"What are they throwing?"
"Scones, I would imagine. Scones are an old Hatter family recipe. Dangerous out to several hundred meters. Potentially lethal at close quarters. A few hundred Hatters with bags of scones stopped the first Norman cavalry charge at the Battle of Hastings. Unfortunately, they ran out of scones before the Normans ran out of cavalry." As if to emphasize Satan's point, the Jack of Hearts took a scone to the solar plexus. His eyes rolled up in his head and he folded bonelessly to the ground.
"Is this something I should understand?" Asked Rex who had snapped awake. "I don't have to rescue those fools, do I? Nothing against this bunch of bozos, but that place they are stumbling through is no country for dogs."
"No, you don't have to rescue them." Said Satan. "and the story is long and not too interesting. "The crew you are observing is looking for King Solomon's Mines and they are doing so at the bottom of the rabbit hole."
"Bad idea." Growled Rex. "You gonna tell them how bad an idea?"
"Naw. They wouldn't listen anyway, and I'd rather they were down there than making a nuisance of themselves someplace where the locals can't stand up to them."
"You reckon she'll have their heads?"
"I reckon she'll try. But no, I don't think it'll come to that. Worst case, they'll have to have a trial and that'll take time to organize. They'll probably subpoena me, so we'll know if it develops that way. We can check back later."
Satan turned to Liz. "Ready to try something else? How about we check on the economists wandering aimlessly on the Plains of Terminal Confusion?"
"That'd be OK, but could we check on Melinda first?"
"Maybe. Our signal coverage in the Sinai isn't as good as it might be. Hard to get permits, and the locals steal the transmitters and wiring about as fast as we can deploy stuff. But she might be someplace where we can get a couple of bars if we hold the camera just right. Let's give it a shot." Satan typed something. He frowned. Typed again. A grainy picture emerged of a girl -- clearly Melinda -- sitting in the dust covered cab of a moving tractor trailer writing on a folded newspaper. Satan changed the viewpoint from the keyboard. Melinda was working on a crossword puzzle ... in Hebrew. Satan tried to focus up and out to try to get a view out the front window, but the image dissolved into a maze of stationary blocks.
"It appears that Melinda is OK. We'll be able to check on her again once she gets back to what passes for civilization in the Middle East."
"OK, thanks. Let's move on the the economists."
Satan addressed the keyboard. The scene quickly changed to a view of innumerable interlocking, sinuous, vertical walled, sandstone ridges separating narrow canyons. The area extended for many miles.
Liz studied it. "It's beautiful, isn't it? Kind of like a maze. But I thought you said it was a plain."
"It is called, the 'Plain of Terminal Confusion'. Leonardo diVinci and Richard Feyman designed it and patterned it after the Maze region in Southern Utah. It really is a maze by the way and a very clever one that makes itself harder if you take a wrong turn. Leo and Dick are quite proud of it -- as well they should be."
"But, but, but ... It's not flat. Plains are flat. And Feynman was born centuries after diVinci died. And this must be thousands of years old. They didn't live that long ago."
"Addressing the last point first, anachronism is a way of life in the afterlife. We chose not to interact too much with those from the future because dealing with constant temporal paradox is a royal pain. But that doesn't mean that folks from the future can't plan a building or, in this case, a maze, as long as they keep their hands off the workmen and their women and stay out of bars. In this case, the workmen came from the future as well.
"As to the plain. Well yeah, it doesn't look like a plain to you or me, but the economists have models and their models can't deal with bumps. So they think they are living on a plain. Of course, their models don't work, but you don't get far in economics if you actually test your results and modify your hypotheses to match reality.
Satan moved his mouse and the view switched from ground to overhead. He pointed to a group of dots negotiating a narrow, twisting defile. "Look there, there's a covey of Austrian school economists. They are following the walls of the canyon of course. They don't have any choice. But they think they are traveling in a straight line. There are bunches of economists all over the plains -- monetarists, Keynesians, supply siders, ... you name it, they are there. Not one of them has ever come close to solving the maze and they likely never will. But they think they have the answers, so they are happy.
"But isn't there a problem when they talk to each other and compare notes?"
"Naw, they talk a lot, but they almost never listen -- especially not to each other."
After a pause, Satan looked up and said, "Anyway, the reason we are here is so I can tap into the afterworld's surveillance network. I have a lot to do, but I can certainly accommodate some requests from you folks. Rex?, Liz?"
Rex spoke first "I'm not much interested in the doings of humans and my pack and I are temporarily on the outs. I think I'll have to entertain myself by chasing rodents and watching NASCAR, House, and Mythbusters.
"Anything I can do to help with the pack thing?"
"Probably not, they've been lazing around on Sunday mornings listening to some televangelist with a huge temple in Grounded Turkey, Alabama or some such place. They have somehow decided on his advice that pooping in the woods is ungodly. I pointed out to them that we are not, strictly speaking human. More like beasts of the field. And I added that bears poop in the woods, Adam and Lilith pooped in the woods, the pope probably has been known to poop in the woods. Got really eloquent, I did. I was Demosthenes and Abe Lincoln and William Jennings Bryan all wrapped up in one tidy canine package.
"Anyway, they hated it, and said so, and I waxed eloquent on their deficiencies, and things went from bad to really bad to worse. Some things were said that probably shouldn't have been said. I had to "baddog" the lot of them in order to get away intact. So the pack and I aren't howling together at the moment. I imagine time will heal the wounds.
"I can get the NASCAR races on the satellite terminal without mobilizing the full resources of the netherworld, right?"
"You can indeed. Need any help operating it."
"Naw, even a dog can work a remote ... as well as anyone can."
"Well, I'd like to check up on Melinda occasionally. And maybe look in on Quartermain and his crew from time to time. ... and perhaps the bowling alley in Elysium on a Tuesday night?
"OK then, how about I show you how to use a terminal to do those things and to cruise the public channels? I don't think you can get into trouble doing any of those things, so there's really nothing to caution you about.
"And now, how about we look into the food thing?" Even though we don't really need it, it adds to the panache.
"OK by me." Said Rex. "Chasing rats is fun. Eating them, not so much -- even for a dog. A plate with some leftover meat and potatoes would go fine with me."
"Sure" Said Liz. "As long as it won't make me fat. It really won't make me fat, right? I mean you are the father of lies."
"It won't make you fat, and the 'Father of Lies' thing is really an honorary and not very accurate title like 'Protector of the Poor'. It comes with the job. It's my clients that lie a lot. Heck, on average, God tells more lies than I do. Check your bible. I rarely have to lie. Telling the truth is usually much more effective -- especially when it involves an imminent rapid descent into a fiery pit with a sudden stop at the end if things don't go my way."
The devil attempted to shut down his console and eventually succeeded after several minutes of cursing and clicking. Rex and Liz retreated to a respectful (and safe) distance. Once the console went dark, Satan was joined by Rex and Liz. The trio strolled/trotted off to a tunnel that extended off at right angles to the entry tunnel. They passed a row of vending machines.
Satan waved in their general direction. "You want cardboard, try those. If you can get them to deliver anything at all in return for your money."
Liz wandered over and examined a glass fronted box. It was clean on the outside thanks to the microbots but heavy dust covered the inside. A small sign at the bottom suggested that she report any problems with the machine to AliBaba Enterprises at 702-555-1212. "Is calling directory assistance in Las Vegas going to get my complaint addressed?" Asked Liz.
"No, but it'll get you billed $7.64. Then you'll have something else to complain about."
She banged the glass knocking loose enough internal dust to be able to see the goods hazily. "Hey," she said, "They have Twinkies."
"Of course they have Twinkies. Twinkies are absolutely and unconditionally indestructible. Millenia from now, archaeologists will use the "Twinkie Layer" to date material from the 20th and 21st Century. Almost as reliable an indicator as finding an AK47. Trouble is that they occasionally encounter eroded and redeposited Twinkies in younger layers. But there is never any problem with them deteriorating. Rodents, microbes and molds won't touch them. Their only predators are human."
"So, you don't think I should buy one?"
"I dunno. Are you suffering from a plasticizer deficiency? There will probably be something at least as good in the canteen. Besides which I don't have any tokens, and I doubt you do either. And in any case, the payout ratio on these machines is usually set around 80% which is a good ten points below what the Infernal Gambling Commission requires for automated games of chance. Not that anyone actually enforces the rules that favor consumers."
They walked on down the corridor and shortly came to a dining hall with several dozen gleaming Formica topped tables lined up precisely on the squares of a checkerboard linoleum floor. A hundred or more steel and plastic chairs were stacked neatly in a corner. A gleaming serving table stretched down one side of the room.
"Very tidy" said Liz. "But there is no food."
"It tends to get a bit dry and dusty after a decade or so, if you leave it out. So we make it up on demand. Here's the menu." Satan handed Liz a telephone directory sized book.
Liz opened it and found thousands of pages of densely packed listings in tiny type. "Breast of Passanger Pigeon au Gratin? Sauteed heart of thistle? Baked pine nut and Madagascar spitting cockroach soup? ... Is there anything less exotic?"
"The fast food is on the back cover."
Liz ordered a Whopper, fries and a Dr Pepper. Satan, the same. And he ordered roast FDA Prime Beef and mashed Idaho potatoes for Rex. There was a faint whirring sound. A section of the serving table slid aside and delivered three trays with plates, of steaming food two bottles of soda dripping with fresh condensation, two sets of utensils, and a large dog biscuit.
Satan took two trays -- his and Rex's -- to the nearest table then fetched three chairs from the nearest stack. He held Liz's for her while she seated herself then did the same for Rex. "I think we can skip saying Grace." he said.
Liz picked up her hamburger and took a bite. She frowned. "I don't want to sound whiny. The food looks terrific, and it smells great. But it tastes ..."
"I know." Said Satan wearily "... like cardboard. The techies are working on that. And they are making progress. It used to taste like sawdust. But fortunately, there is an answer." He reached into his backpack and produced a bottle of ketchup. "This makes everything taste better. And it's a vegetable."
Wordlessly Liz took the bottle and shook out a glop on her plate. She dipped the hamburger in it and ate a bite. She tried another and set her hamburger aside. "It does help, but I'm not as hungry as I thought I was."
Satan looked chagrined. "Yeah, you're right. I figured that given a couple of centuries, the techies would have made some progress on taste. Apparently not. I'll add incentivizing them to my to do list if and when I get my job back. A frank and open discussion of their probable future if the stuff doesn't taste better will probably get some results. ... and I don't think I will have to lie."
Rex had in the meantime consumed his plate of food. He looked up. "If you aren't going to eat that, can I have it? You're right that it doesn't taste so good, but we dogs are genetically programmed to eat a lot when there is food. Never can tell how long it'll be til the next meal."
Liz pushed her plate to Rex who cleaned it off in 30 seconds. Rex belched delicately
They bused their dishes, restacked their chairs and left the cafeteria. Satan took them on a tour of the facilities -- pointing out bedrooms, bathrooms, a rec room, a gymnasium, workshops, a sewing room, and a swimming pool. Satan and Liz offered to rip up some bedding to make a bed for Rex, but Rex said that if he was allowed on the furniture a human bed would be just fine.
They returned to the main chamber where they took possession of three consoles and settled down into a routine. Satan engaged in obscure surveillance activities -- swearing occasionally and sometimes laughing uproariously. Liz watched classic chick flicks recommended by by a website called TheChamomilleTrust.com. Her viewings were accompanied by sniffles and tears. She checked daily on Melinda's slow progress across the Sinai and the Levant. She also tracked what Rex had dubbed 'The Quartermain Pack's' slow and troubled expedition into Wonderland -- their frequent pitched battles with the inhabitants and their failure to find even the tiniest jewel or the most minute showing of Gold or Silver. Rex -- after watching NASCAR races non-stop for four days, became obsessed with watching reruns of obscure TV series ... China Beach, Dead Like Me, Special Unit 2 and, oddly, Columbo. His reactions were limited to occasional very human chuckles and a few rather terrifying and quite inhuman growls.
After about ten days, Satan rose from his keyboard, yawned, stretched, and announced -- "Liz. Rex. Family Conference!!"
Liz and Rex came over to Satan's console. Liz pulled up a chair from an adjacent console. Rex curled up on the floor. "OK, said Satan. I think it's time to get everyone caught up. Liz, how's Melinda doing?"
"OK, I think. She's waiting tables and tending bar in a Christian establishment in Beirut. Says she's saving her tips to buy a Eurorail pass."
"So, she won't likely be needing our help?"
"Probably not. Eurorail passes apparently are expensive and tips aren't any too great, so I think she'll be in Beirut for a while. People keep trying to tell her that a cheap flight or buses would be better, but Melinda doesn't seem to take a whole lot of advice.
"How about the Quartermain Pack?"
"Milling around somewhere in Wonderland."
"Can I amplify that?," Asked Rex.
Satan and Liz turned toward him and nodded.
"There's a gap early in the morning when all the channels have infomercials. Since we dogs really don't have much use for kitchen tools or exercise videos, I don't have an annuity I need to convert to cash, I'm not a candidate for any class action suits, and it'll be a while before I have to worry about scamming the government out of a powered wheelchair, I've been filling those hours following Quartermain and his crew.
"The locals were taking a lot of scone damage, so they've changed tactics. What they did was really pretty clever. They made a really twisty closed path that looks like it's centuries old and herded the Quartermain crew onto it with some strategic attacks and retreats. And now, there is a crew of them moving along in front of Quartermain changing the appearance of the path enough so that Quartermain doesn't know he's walking in circles.
"The pack think they are following Quartermain's map. So does Quartermain as far as I can tell. But if I'm to believe you, it's a map of someplace else, and frankly I don't think Quartermain could find the Atlantic Ocean -- with or without a map -- if you dropped him in the middle of it.
"Since Quartermain can't pass a stream without stopping for hours to pan for Gold and Jewels, the locals have run the path over a lot of streams. All the same stream I'm pretty sure, but Quartermain has no way to know that.
"So", Satan said. "How long can that last?"
"Not forever. Lot of mosquitoes near those streams. Big ones. The pack is not having a good time. Quartermain himself could probably forge on for centuries, but eventually the cameramen and hangers on are going to revolt and trek back the way they came. And in any case, the locals seem to be running out of patience. They've got a secret underground site where I think she is prepping a Jabberwock ... or maybe even a Bandersnatch.
"That wouldn't be good. Can you penetrate the site and see what they are about?
"I can, but it'll take time.
"Take all the time you need. And give a little thought as to whether we should get the Israelis to bomb their weapons site.
"Would the Israelis really do that?"
"Sure, they're like the Americans. They'll bomb just about anything that can't retaliate and some things that can.
"Does that work?
"Of course not. What do you reckon your chances are of intimidating people whose idea of a good way to spend a dull Friday morning is to strap on a vest full of explosives and blow up their neighbor's church ... with their neighbor inside it?
"Is it permissible to ask how you are doing, or is that information that is not permitted to mortals?" Asked Liz.
"It is not permitted to mortals, but strictly speaking neither of you is mortal. And, like most secrets the hidden costs of secrecy far outweigh the benefits. Besides which, as you have pointed out to me, I'm the father of lies, so you have no way of knowing whether I'm telling you the truth.
"As near as I can figure, Hell has been taken over by vulture capitalists."
Rex winced and coughed. "They're planning to sell off the assets? Run the stock price up based on their profits from the asset sales? Pay themselves huge bonuses for their acumen? Then get clear before the bubble pops? How are they going to do that? Which is to say, sell what assets and to whom?"
"Exactly. There really aren't many salable assets. Nor is there any market for the assets. But that isn't going to stop them. Apparently they are going to print and sell something called Afterlife Reward Certificates (ARCs) that pay 2000 basis points over the prime rate. The ARCs will be backed by the full faith and credit of the devil himself. They'll use the revenue from the bond sales to pay the interest. They'll bury the huge deferred debt in a footnote on page 63 of their financial statement if they can't find an accountant that will find a way to disappear it off the books entirely. And they'll be long gone when the problems come home to roost."
"But," said Liz. "That's utterly transparent. They can't possibly persuade anyone with the slightest amount of common sense to buy those things."
"Quite true. And the 1.74% of the population with the slightest amount of common sense won't touch them. Everybody else however ..."
"So, you're going to put a stop to that?"
"Maybe. First, I'd need a plan to stop them. Then I'd need allies and allies always expect something in return or turn out to be more of a problem than my enemies or have some other drawback. And maybe there are some beneficial features to ARCs. Maybe they kill puppies (Rex growled) or blight roses (Liz glared).
"OK, I'm kidding about the puppies and roses. I love dogs -- especially puppies -- and have my own rose garden on top of the Pentagram building. (For the record, the devil, in reality, couldn't care less about puppies. He regards them much as he does oak trees or lamp-posts. Things that are there. He has nothing against roses, but his garden on top of the Pentagram hasn't been tended in millenia and when it was, it contained mostly plants rich in psychoactive compounds and/or lethal poisons).
"I expect that ARCs will destabilize the financial markets eventually and destabilization should be good for my business. Since these guys are mortals, they seem to be overlooking one small problem with their scheme. ... Sooner or later they are going to die and I am going to get to disposition their soul and its activities for the next trillion or so years. Seems to me like they should have written a business plan. Maybe they'd have noticed that potential problem if they had.
"Anyway, I need some time to work out my strategy. In the meantime, Rex -- we really need to know what she is up to. I understand your reticence to get involved in the affairs of quasi-deities. But if she fires off a Bandersnatch, the damn thing will be a danger to everyone and everything ... even you and Liz."
"I agree. I'm on it."
"Liz, you're under no obligation to help me, but if you are willing, I'd take it as a great favor if you hung with Rex and helped him out where you can.
"Is it, like, dangerous?"
"Normally, I'd say no, but you need to understand that the Red Queen -- who we don't usually name because she sometimes knows when you are talking about her -- is something of a special case. She's a manifestation of the the great female force in the universe. That's what holds families and planets together. It's gravity sort of. And a lot of other things. But, she's not a very pleasant manifestation. Lots of envy, vengeance, cruelty, duplicity, sadism. Think a mix of Margaret Thatcher, Leona Helmsley, and Sarah Palin. So the rest of us try to humor her and stay out of her way. If you think that you or Rex have come to her attention, quit what you are doing, get clear, and let me know immediately. I can protect you and it is very likely that you will need protection.
"So, she is evil incarnate?"
"No, not really. It's more complex than that. But you might not notice the difference. ..." He thought for a moment. "Treating her like evil incarnate might work pretty well for you."
Rex spoke up. "There doesn't seem to be any electronic surveillance network in the bunker. At least not that I can find. That means I can't tap into it."
"She doesn't have spies every three meters?" Satan arched his eyebrows. Three of them despite only having two eyes. "I find that really hard to believe."
"Oh no. She has surveillance. Cameras and microphones. And they review them back at the castle. I can see that after a fashion sometimes. But they are sneakernetting the media in and the recordings out. I think they are using bats."
"They are hitting their tapes and discs into the site with baseball bats?" asked Liz incredulously.
"Given the origins of the lady and her subjects, cricket bats would be more likely, but no, I think that Rex is talking about small mammals with wings."
"I'm going to have to go in physically." said Rex. "And I'm going to need a support person and getaway driver just in case things go wrong.
Satan looked at Liz. Rex looked at Liz. Liz looked to see if someone was standing behind her. No one was. "What, exactly would I be expected to do?"
"Well" said Satan. "You'd be expected to cross three deserts, one tropical swamp and two mountain ranges, enter her castle by rappelling down a 2km high sheer cliff, sneak up on three or four guards -- no more than seven max -- and quietly strangle them. Then you need to scale a 10 meter wall, pick the lock to the facility, disable the alarms, string an explosive charge along the hanger wall and set up to steal a supersonic helicopter that they keep in the hanger there. Then you haul Rex up on a rope and carry him down a hall eluding 40 or 50 laser beams that you'll face visible with the face powder from your makeup kit. Then you return to the hanger and position a monster forklift to charge through a glass wall and rescue Rex if the need arises. If nothing goes wrong, extraction is the reverse of entry -- except you don't have to unstrangle the guards. I can do that remotely."
"And in the exceedingly unlikely event that anything goes wrong?"
The devil looked at Liz as if she were retarded. Speaking slowly and carefully as if to a very slow learner, he said. "If anything goes wrong while Rex is in the facility, drive the forklift through the wall at high speed. Then, before it falls into the crocodile pit, you leap to one of the hanging cables (don't confuse them with the rotten roots) and swing onto the platform. Disable the guards and use their automatic weapons to shoot your way to Rex. Then you carry him back to the pit, swing on the cables with one hand, blow the charge and escape in the helicopter ... if they don't shoot it down." Then he cracked up.
Liz was beginning to adapt to the devil's sense of humor, and had strongly suspected from the start that she was being set up. She laughed for a suitable period, then asked. "What do you really want me to do?"
"Not much. We'll inject you and Rex by tunnel. Notwithstanding your prior bad experiences with the tunnels, dogs have a natural feel for the blasted things. Rex will get you to the right place. Then you enable his surveillance devices. That's hard for him to do with paws. He'll sneak them in and position them. We'll show you how to enable them and run you through the routine until you can enable them in your sleep. And we'll show you how set a charge to blow the tunnel. You just monitor his emergency channel. If anything goes wrong Rex will tell you and will come into the tunnel at about Mach 4. You blow the charge as soon as he's safely in, and then the two of you get out of there."
"And when are Rex and I to undertake this adventure?"
Satan reached into his backpack and consulted a book roughly the size of an unabridged dictionary. "Well, let's see. The rules say we have to send you off to Oklahoma City for six weeks training. Then you'll have to defend your training to the certification board, then you'll need an internship. Two year apprenticeship. And the state qualification test.
"... But maybe we can cut a few corners.
"... How about tomorrow afternoon?"
"Sure" said Liz. She stood at attention with a slight lob-sided grin.
"What are you doing?" asked Satan.
"I'm channeling Angelina Jolie"
"You'd do better to channel Angelina Jolie's stunt double," responded Satan
Liz stiffened and looked shocked. "Angelina does not use a stunt double."
Satan arched an eyebrow. "Believe whatever you wish. It doesn't really matter. I swear on a stack of bibles that this job is risk free."
"A stack of bibles indeed. I'll wager that all you use bibles for is impromptu door stops"
"They're good for that too, but mostly we use them for insulation."
And sure enough, by 3:00 the following afternoon, Liz had memorized what was known about the layout of the Red Queen's armory, knew exactly how to activate Rex's sensors and had completed Bomb Prep 1A with good marks and no significant physical damage to either herself or the training facility that had been set up in the gymnasium. Liz, Satan and Rex gathered at the bunker entrance.
"OK, let's go over the plan one more time." Said Satan. They did. "Well then," said Satan. "There is one last thing. False ID" Satan reached into his ever present backpack and extracted a dog collar with numerous dangling tags as well as a metal chain with two standard issue military dog tags on it. He replaced Rex's collar with the new one, and handed to chain to Liz. Liz examined the dog tags, shrugged, and put them on. "Who, exactly is this FCAII in whose army I am a Major-General?"
"First Church of Apollo the Immortal and Incandescent. You don't think I want that vindictive bitch blaming ME if you get caught? But don't worry, if there is a problem, I, not the FCAII, will extricate you. Oh, and one other thing."
"Yes" said Liz somewhat abstractly because she was still trying to reconcile 'perfectly safe' with 'if you get caught'.
"Your outfit. Jeans and a sweater are fine for a hike or around the bunker here, but a commando raid calls for more appropriate attire."
"Well, yes. Think back on movies you've seen. The heroine is always wearing something scanty. Or skin-tight and revealing. Or maybe a bikini made out of metal."
"Or full combat gear" interjected Liz. "I think I'll go with the latter. Plus perhaps a Kevlar vest."
"You're sure you wouldn't prefer an evening gown with a few strategic rips?"
Satan pulled fatigues, a helmet, boots, socks, and a vest from his backpack. and handed them to Liz who retired to the Ladies Room to put them on.
When Liz returned, Satan whipped out a checklist and made Liz and Rex verify each and every item. He wanted them to synchronize watches, but Liz said that she hadn't owned a watch since she was 11 because her cell phone would show her the time whenever she needed it. She also asked rather pointedly why they needed to know the time since nothing in the mission seemed to depend on it. Satan retorted that synchronizing watches was tradition. Rex broke in to point out that he neither owned nor needed a watch because -- like all dogs -- had an internal clock for determining feeding and walk times that was accurate to plus or minus seven seconds. Satan grumbled and desisted.
"OK" said Satan, you two ready? Rex shook himself down and said "Yes"
"Does that really help?" asked Liz.
Liz thought for a second, shook herself down quite credibly, and said to Rex, "You know that does seem to help, Thanks". To Satan, she said "Ready".
Satan looked bemused, shrugged, and keyed the bunker entrance open. Liz and Rex set out toward the rabbit hole shaft with Liz carrying their gear in a wicker picnic basket. About 30 meters down the shaft was a side tunnel that Liz was quite sure had not been there three weeks ago. Rex turned into it. They were on their way.
It was deja vu all over again. Red carpet, paneling, Respighi quickly giving way to drywall to bare rock. Carpeting to concrete to dirt. And the familiar sickly greenish light and silence. "Do all the tunnel builders use the same interior decorator?" asked Liz
"In fact, they do." Said Rex. "A prissy French poodle named Muffy. I'm biding my time. Sooner or later I'll catch old Muffs off her leash and deal with her properly. Muffy must die. But, as long as she stays in her sanitized bubble, there isn't much I can do other than idle threats."
They moved through the tunnel with Rex, nose to the ground, slightly in the lead. Rex didn't even pause at tunnel junctions apparently selecting the proper one by following some scent trail. Liz asked "I don't suppose there is any fast food in these tunnels? I could do with a burger and fries that do not taste like white pine."
"Sorry. It'd be a good idea and maybe I'll look into it when this gig with you and the him ends. But, no. There used to be a chain of Howard Johnson's, but their food tasted like cottonwood to the extent that it had any taste at all. They folded decades ago."
Another two dozen tunnels and Liz asked, "Rex, if anything happens to you, how can I find my way out through this maze?"
"I don't think you can. The big red guy should be able to extricate you, but if he can't, take any tunnel that has a red EXIT sign. That'll get you to the surface. Then you just follow a drunken gourd and eventually you'll end up at the rabbit hole. You won't really need food or water, so it's just a matter of walking a few thousand kilometers. Shouldn't even take you a year."
"A drunken gourd?"
"Yeah, ambulatory yams that lurch around a lot. Just look for one, and you'll see it. Almost all vertebrates except a few who are really locked into their version of reality -- Springer Spaniels, biblethumpers, dittoheads, Libertarians, and Marxists can see them. Been around here forever. A lot like GPSes. Usually work, sometimes take you by odd routes. Get snotty when you don't follow their directions. Don't handle traffic circles well.
When you see one, tell it to lead you to the rabbit hole and it will. I'd use one to get to the red queen's bunker if the path weren't so obvious." Rex trotted into a side tunnel without even pausing. Liz followed.
Five minutes later Rex stopped at the base of a ladder, raised his leg, and urinated on the wall. "We're here and with this urine I attest that this is MY territory." He announced.
"I know we're here. Where's here?"
"We're under her bunker. About 3 meters below the main entrance to the hanger. You'll want to set charges in the tunnel on both sides of the hatch. If I come back moving fast, give me a count of three to get clear of the charges, then blow them, grab your stuff and hightail it after me. I'll pace myself to you, but it'd be a great idea not to dawdle.
Liz set charges in the tunnel (avoiding the wet spot where Rex had peed). Then she enabled the cameras and recorders and slung them around Rex's neck. She sat cross legged on the floor with her back against the wall. She looked at Rex. Rex looked at her. "Rex" she said, "How are you going to climb a ladder?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"No, I'm not good for more than 15 meters of vertical without someplace to rest, but 3 meters is piece of cake. Coming down is really more of a problem, but a 3 meter fall is well within my design specs so I'll just free-fall it. You'all ready?"
"OK, then, let's check communications, and then get this over with."
They did a radio check ... ehrrr ... well, OK ... something analogous to a radio check. Then Rex shook himself down, took off down the tunnel, somehow changed direction and scampered up the ladder.
Rex's barely intelligible voice crackled over the ... ehrrr ... radio. "Lovebunny, this is LoveMachine. Do you read me?"
"LoveMachine this is Lovebunny. I read you five by. Is that OK?"
"Lovebunny - LoveMachine. I read you. I'm in a tunnel. I have four packages to deliver. I'm proceeding West."
"Roger LoveMachine. Who the hell made up these handles?"
"Probably not the best time or place to discuss that. Deniability and all that."
A new voice broke in. Feminine. Icy. "Who the hell did make up those preposterous handles?"
"Lovebunny, was that you?"
"I don't think so. Was it you LoveMachine?"
"It was me. Let's call me LoveGodess for the time being. I also am in a tunnel. Same tunnel as Lovebunny in fact. Between her and the path out of here."
It took Liz about 15 seconds to parse that. She turned her head and looked at the outbound tunnel. About 10 meters down the tunnel stood an figure. Tall, slender, rather hazy,white-robed. The face and hair were indistinct, but the sense of presence was immense.
"You're her, aren't you?"
"Yes, No, and Maybe. I am one of her manifestations."
"And you aren't really here? But that doesn't much matter?"
"I am not actually here exactly. But for your purposes, that doesn't matter."
"And Re ... ehrr Lovemachine ... and I are in deep trouble?"
"No, not really. You and I need to talk a bit, and it might be a good idea for Rex/Lovemachine to drop his sensors and come back here. I'll have my people install the sensors. I don't think there would be any problem if Rex finished his mission as long as he doesn't make any mistakes, but why take chances? Besides my folks will do a better installation job."
"Lovebunny, this is Lovemachine. I heard that. Can you think of any reason that I shouldn't comply?
"Rex, If you are absolutely certain you can bail safely, do so. Otherwise, I think you should drop the sensors and come back here with due deliberate speed. But I'm not in charge of this mission, am I?
"You are now, Li ... Lovebunny. This is Lovemachine jettisoning the sensors and returning to base."
"OK folks, Let's make this quick. This is NOT a good place for a meeting. You two need to get yourselves the hell back to Hell. Rex ... Lovemachine, this isn't really about you, but you're welcome to listen. First of all, we, the manifestations (except 'her'), have absolutely no intentions of allowing a Jaberwock or Bandersnatch deployment in Wonderland or anyplace else. As far as we can tell, what 'she' is working on is something closer to a neutron bomb. We're not wild about that either, but we think she can be talked out of using it -- assuming she can actually make it -- which is by no means a certainty. Anyway, we're on this and are probably better equipped to deal with it than you are.
Lovebunny, We have developed a concern about who you are and what you are doing in the afterlife. We're quite sure that you don't belong here. And we don't currently have any knowledge about why you are here. We also don't currently think you are an element in anything we care about. But we do think you need protection just in case. Your other friend can handle that. One of my sister manifestations is having a drink with him and explaining the situation. We don't want you on any more solo missions (Sorry Rex. Make that 'risky missions') until we have things sorted out. Any questions?"
Liz sat more or less open mouthed. She thought a while, then shrugged. "Probably should have questions. But no, nothing I can articulate that make any sense."
"Right then. Until we meet again." The apparition faded and vanished. A few tens of seconds later, Rex crashed down the ladder. Liz gathered up the explosives, disarmed them, grabbed the picnic basket and the two fled hellwards.
And thus ended Liz's adventures in Wonderland. As they loped through apparently endless tunnels with Rex choosing the turns, Liz formulated her response the next suggestion that she and Rex execute a clandestine mission. She had gotten as far as "Screw you Beelsy. This time I play mission control and YOU set the damn charges, furthermore ..." when they debouched from the side tunnel in front of the bunker door. They shook themselves down, Liz opened the door, and they re-entered what they had come to think of as their bunker.
//Dear Reader, this will be the last we hear of Wonderland, although we will meet the Red Queen again. And Melinda as well.
For those who wonder about Quartermain and his crew. What the Red Queen was working on was neither a Jabberwock, a Bandersnatch, nor a neutron bomb. It was a temporal loop generator. Once deployed -- with the full approval of the manifestations who considered it mundane and harmless compared to their fears -- it put the Quartermain party into not only a physical loopback, but a temporal loopback as well. Permanent deja vu all over again if you will, living the same hot, seaty, mosquito plauged two weeks over and over -- much like many office jobs. Eventually, after many trips through the loop with nary a tiny jewel nor a single flake of gold, the crew rose up against Quartermain and delivered him to the Red Queen in exchange for free passage to Kansas. All but three of them quickly found their way to civilization and returned to their normal lives. The remaining three settled in an abandoned town in Western Kansas, founded an Internet religion based on prophesies extracted from buffalo droppings. The buffalo having long since departed, they made their own droppings in an ancient Maytag washing machine purchased for four dollars at a barn sale. They prospered and eventually one of them -- an ex-cameraman -- ran for president of the United States eventually losing to a drug crazed used car salesman from Tennessee.//
The door to the bunker opened soundlessly. Liz and Rex walked to the command center where they found a somewhat sheepish Satan struggling to push what appeared to be a large circular bed with a satin comforter into his backpack. On a small, ornate table sat two half full wine glasses, an open bottle of champagne and an attractive food tray with avocado, prosciutto, cashews, crackers, and similar items.
"Oh goodie" said Liz with perhaps more sarcasm than was warranted. "A welcome home party."
"I had a visitor"
"Indeed" said Liz, seating herself "She seems to have left rather abruptly. Anyway, this party is thoughtful. But you seem not to have anything for Rex." Turning to Rex, she asked "I'm sure you do ham. You aren't Jewish or Moslem, right? See anything else you'd like?"
Satan started to say something, but thought better of it.
"I'll try the fish eggs. If they aren't compatible, they will come right back up. It's the canine way."
Liz fed various items to Rex while nibbling a cracker with avocado. She turned to Satan. "This stuff doesn't taste like sawdust. Can you conjure more of it?"
Satan looked up from poking the last corner of the bedspread into the backpack. "Of course I can ... Oh yeah ... The cafeteria ... different kitchen as it were. Why haven't I been feeding you from my backpack? Honestly, it never crossed my mind until now. What would you like?"
"A Whopper with double fries. And a beer."
Satan reached into the backpack and produced a tray with the fast food and a mug of beer. He followed it with a large slab of raw beef which he handed to Rex.
"Delicious." Said Liz. "Thanks
"Did you and your visitor work out some sort of arrangement?"
"We were working on that when you turned up. ... Oh, you mean about you. She made me aware of questions about your status. I now share her concerns. Not sure what I'll do about that. Haven't had time to think it through."
"I can imagine." Said Liz somewhat caustically.
Satan, who did not get to where he was through stupidity opted for silence.
Things in the bunker settled back into their usual routine. Three days later, Liz looked up from a rather tedious, made for infernal TV, soap opera called "Ripped Bodices" and made a tentative attempt to catch Satan's attention. "Beelsie, you busy?"
Satan, who -- truth be known -- was playing a video game, pressed PAUSE. "Not especially" he said (truthfully for once).
"I have a question. You and God and who knows who/what else are omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, right?"
"Yet you've managed to get yourself deposed. And you negotiated with the great female force rather than simply throwing it into a fiery pit. And you couldn't even figure out how to serve edible food here in the bunker. How can that be?"
"Good Question. And one of no small interest to we quasi-deities. It's like this:
"We quasi-deities refer to Omniscience, Omnipresence, and Omnipotency as the three Os. A few of us actually embrace the Os. Nature does that, Fortune also, Incompetence (yes, incompetence is a deity, and a deity with many followers), a few others. The problem is that if you are everywhere, know everything, and can do anything, you can't relate to humans, animals, or anything else -- or at least nothing more ephemeral than a mountain range.
"And there are some problems with the Os.
"Omniscient means we 'know' everything. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean we understand everything. I seem to 'know' pi to a great many digits, but there are lots of things where pi appears that I don't remotely understand. For those uses I do know, I don't think I've ever needed more accuracy than 3.12. And there are organization problems. I think I probably know whether O.J.Simpson is a murderer, but I don't have the slightest idea how to get to that knowledge. If I ever really need to know, I'll just know ... probably. I "know" all there is to know about quantum mechanics, but I don't understand squat about it.
"Omnipresence? Yes, we can be anywhere or everywhere. That's good for what? If I'm going to carry on a conversation with you, I need to be where you are, not watching a soccer match in Tashkent or scuba diving in Bolivia. And being everywhere simultaneously gives most of us headaches.
"Omnipotent? Actions still have consequences even for deities. In theory, I can undo anything I do, but "can do something" and actually doing it are different beasts. In deity school, we bake a cake then unbake it. Let me tell you that unbaking a cake is a job you only want to do once in your life. Trying to keep track of an unfathomable number of molecules while you systematically reverse entropy on each and every one is about like digging a piano sized hole with a teaspoon. Not to mention that you'll be combing flour out of your hair for a week.
So in practice, we deities are fallible, make mistakes, and have regrets even though in theory, we need not.
Look at it this way. I made mistakes. I got deposed. In a world where deities really were omniscient, all those polecats who deposed me would only need to find the support of one minor God -- the prince of paperclips, or the Fons the Roman God of wells and springs -- and I could be locked out of Hell forever. As it is, I stand a reasonable chance of pulling off a counter-coup.
Liz, who now knew considerably more than she really wanted to know about the three O's took the opportunity to change the subject. "How's the coup coming?"
Satan rocked his hand palm downward. "comme ci, comme ca"
He thought for a while. "I probably need troops. I could hook up with the Ku Klux Klan or Hells Angels -- thugs like that. Folks who are always good for a brawl. But they aren't very reliable allies and they'd be enemies soon enough so I don't want to put too much resource into arming or organizing them. I really need a constituency that has power or numbers or both and has some reason to support me. Fallen angels, fascist thugs, freemasons, religious fanatics, starving peasants ... something like that. I don't really have one.
"And I don't have an organization. I have some friends. Some of them would probably help me if I asked. But I don't really have disciples or followers. You and Rex might be as close as I come to that. Of course, my opponents don't really have followers either. And probably many fewer friends than I do. But they currently have control of the police, the borders, the food, money, drug, and booze distribution systems, so no one in the civil service -- and Hell has a vast civil service -- is going to be anxious to cross them unless they see a need ... or potential profit.
"You're omnipotent. Can't you foretell the future then do whatever is necessary?"
"I can foretell almost everyone's future, except my own and that of people like you who interact with me. Couldn't predict their future without violating my free will. Trouble is that almost all of what interests me involves people who interact or will interact with me.
"Go to a fortune teller?"
"You mean an oracle?"
"Yep. There are lots of them. I'd probably start with the vile tempered bitch who lives in a cave in Hamtramack. She owes me. Trouble is that the oracle's prophecies -- all the oracles -- are never in English. They all sound like Alan Greenspan or worse. They never tell you 'Don't invade Iraq, you dolt.' They say something like 'The servant of Ishtar sleeps and is best not wakened while the current economic moderation holds.' And once you decode them -- if you can -- all they do is tell you what not to do. And I suspect that, none of them has ever been right very much ... ever. They survive by making vague predictions that will be true no matter what happens. You will meet a tall dark stranger .. yep, it seems likely If you wait long enough, you probably will.
"Strictly speaking, Cassie isn't an oracle. But I'll give you that her prophecies were accurate and crystal clear even though no one wanted to hear them. If she were available I'd be talking to her. Trouble is that she looked at Europe after World War I, and said 'You'd have to be nuts to stick around and watch this trainwreck play out.' and disappeared. No one knows where she went."
"So," asked Liz. "What are you going to do."
"I dunno. Temporize. Set up a government in exile? Maybe try a proxy fight? Nuke them? Not easy to decide. ... I could procrastinate. I'm world class at that."
"So," said Liz. "We're going to hang out here for the next few millenia? No offense, but this isn't exactly what I envisioned for my afterlife. Maybe I should go try to get my records straightened out."
"Well, you're free to do that, but I think it might be a bad idea. I'll check with the UFF and see what they think."
"The Universal Feminine Force"
"OK, I'll wait a day or two and see what they have to say."
So they returned to their chick-flicks, video games and other entertainments. Three days later, Liz looked up, caught Satan's attention and asked "Heard from the UFF yet?"
"Called their hotline." said Satan. "In order to better serve me, they have placed me in a wait queue. The current estimated wait time is ... uh ... 116 hours. My call is very important to them."
"OK, I guess I can put my busy life here on hold for another week. How's the coup coming along?"
"Not all that well. I think I need a ring"
"A ring? A ring-tone? Or something like Stonehenge?" Liz was puzzled.
Rex who was curled under Liz's console with his tail draped across his nose, opened one eye and drawled. "More like Tolkein I should think"
"Exactly like Tolkein" said Satan. "Liz, You should know that Tolkein's stories weren't entirely fiction although he embellished a bit. There really were/are rings. Hundreds of them. An Egyptian breakfast cereal company stamped them out back during the tenth dynasty. Cheap things outsourced from Ozymandius industries. And there really was a battle between some good guys and bad guys, although it was more of a bar fight than a vast battle. Anyway, most of the rings were just cheap pot metal things hammered out by slaves in about a minute and passed out as prizes in baskets of cereal, but somehow a handful of real magic rings got into the mix. There are five that we know of.
Sauron really did have one of them. He didn't forge it. He's a klutz. Couldn't forge a fishing sinker, much less a ring. He stole it off a seven year old in Thebes. And Gollum did destroy it. Two are currently lost although some of us suspect that she has one of them. One is in the Central Museum in Hades although the elves are trying to get it back. The lawsuit has been grinding on for 14 centuries so far and probably will continue for another 14. I used to have the fifth, and I know where it is hidden.
"So, where is it?"
"About a 20 minute walk from here. In Hell."
"So, you're going to stroll into Hell, grab the ring, stroll out, and come back here and destroy your enemies remotely? What could possibly go wrong? Do you want me to arrange a party to celebrate your return? Maybe I can invite your manifestation bimbo. Do you have her cell phone number?"
"Well, getting into Hell won't be a problem. There are almost as many roads to hell as there are people in the universe. And getting into the Pentagram building won't be a problem. We'll just mix into the workers during the morning rush ..."
"We?" Liz broke in. "Who is this 'we' you speak of red man?"
"You and me. Getting to the ring won't be a problem. But there's a problem. I can't safely use the ring. I can't even safely handle it. I have no desire to end up like Sauron or Smeagol. That's why I didn't take it with me when I left. Rex, however, should be able to use it with virtually no risk ..."
"Define and quantify 'virtually'." Growled Rex.
"The experts say that their computer models show that the rings can only cause significant mental disturbances in primates."
"Let me guess, the same experts that project dramatic, irreversible, global warming based on computer models that have never been validated?"
"well ... yes ... some of them."
"And the models are the same models"
"Of course not. They've changed dozens of lines of code."
"Riiiight. And why would I want to bet my future on these experts being right?"
"They're experts?" Said Satan hopefully.
There was an awkward pause.
"And I would do this because?"
"Because the ring will allow you to smooth over relations with your pack?"
Rex scratched his ear with his rear paw, his brow furrowed. "So, I'm going to use this ring -- which I'm going to wear ... where? -- to reprogram the pack. And that won't affect them? Or me? And we will all howl together in perfect harmony for all eternity?"
Satan started to speak, hesitated, then said slowly and quietly. "You're right. That's not the way it would work. Something would go wrong. It always does. Forget I suggested it."
"Would it be dangerous if I used the ring to solve your problems and let time cure mine?"
"No ... Yes ... I really don't have the slightest idea. I expect that it would be a heck of a lot safer for you than your using the ring to solve your problems. But safe? I honestly don't know."
Rex frowned, wrinkles furrowing his brow. "I dunno Beels. On the one paw, I'm happy to do a favor for a friend. On the other, it sounds dangerous. And to be honest, I'm not wild about the idea of your owing me a big favor. I'm not sure that'd be healthy."
Liz broke in. "Before you two go too much further, you might want to look at this." She gestured to the monitor screen in front of her.
Rex and Satan came over and looked at the screen. On the upper left was a blue-white puzzle piece globe under which appeared 'WIKIPEDIA The Free Encyclopedia'. The article title was "Rings Of Power". A prominent banner proclaimed "This article contains information of questionable origin, statements that we believe to have been planted by interested parties, and some stuff that appears to have simply been made up. There are also some statements that seem possibly to be completely truthful. You can help Wikipedia by identifying and obsfucating the latter."
"Ehr, Is that the real Wikipedia?" Rex asked.
"Well, no, not really. It's the version that you get if you go through routers in China, Oklahoma, Tennessee, or Hell, or if you use certain cable companies. But it's close enough for most things."
"What did you want us to see?" asked Satan.
Liz pointed at the second paragraph. "Seven power rings are known to have existed. One was destroyed by the proto-hobbit Gollum. A second is on display in the Hades Central Museum. The third is believed to be in Wonderland although there are conflicting stories about who controls it. Another was controlled by the devil. As a result of the devil's recent promotion to CEO emeritus in order to spend more time with his family, there are differences of opinion about its current whereabouts A fifth is believed to be in the possession of Dick Cheney and/or Darth Vader (assuming them to be different entities). The sixth is known to have found its way to the Vatican in the twelfth century and is thought to be lost in the Vatican archives. The seventh ring was melted down for its precious metal content by a coin dealer in Beiruit It is not known if any of its powers were transferred to the resulting specie. Neither are the whereabouts of that specie known.
"So," said Satan, "If we believe this -- and we need to remember, it's Wikipedia, there were two more rings than I thought. One has been melted down and the other is lost in the Vatican City. How does that help me? If the Catholics have decided to lose that ring, it's lost. And the other is gone."
By one of those coincidences that never happen in real life, but without which novels would not be possible, at this exact same moment, Melinda (remember her?) was lining up shots of Jack Daniels and bottles of Heinikens in front of a mousy little man in a pub in Beirut. The mouse's companions -- all of whom were many sheets to the wind -- were racously placing bets. One of them -- the biggest -- hauled a knife worthy of Crocodile Dundee out of an ankle sheath and slammed it point first into the bar.
Having gotten the attention of his companions, he then proceeded to make a complicated announcement in an incoherent jumble of Arabic, French, English and his native Bulgarian. None of his companions understood more than about six words. Despite the total incompehensibility of the speech, the message was clear. There were rules to this contest, and long-knife was going to make sure that they were observed. No one argued.
Melinda stepped behind the bar and started mixing a pair of Margaritas for the couple in the back corner of the bar. While her hands were under the bar, she sent a quick text message.
The Bulgarian pulled a leather bag from his pants. Big man. Baggy clothes. Lugging more hardware than your average camel in a caravan. He shook a pile of cash in several currencies, three small diamonds, a credit card (stolen) onto the table. He communicated that he was betting on the mouse by giving said mouse a solid, friendly, thump on the back that narrowly missed crippling the poor wretch for life. Several of the group faded back to the second row -- closer to the exit. Three of the remainder produced cash, a medium sized emerald, credit cards (stolen) and a letter of credit. The bets were covered.
A customer slipped quietly in through the door to the bar. He took a seat far away from the bar. Melinda took him a beer, then stood next to his table apparently engaged in some light banter.
The Bulgarian yanked the knife out of the bar, raised it, slammed it into the bar again. The mouse started methodically downing shots and beers while the Bulgarian cheered him on. The shots went down. Five ... Six ... Seven ...
The customer near the door took out a cell phone and dialed a number. Melinda and the customer ducked under the table. An explosion rocked the bar. Men in police uniforms raced in through the door. Chaos ensued. The crowd at the bar was quickly and efficiently rounded up. The bets vanished from the bar. The knife remained.
Melinda sat down at the table with the customer near the door. She helped herself to a swallow of the customer's beer. "How'd you do?" she asked.
The customer dug into his pocket and put a wad of American 20 and 100 dollar bills, a diamond, and a credit card (stolen) on the table.
Melinda's eyes opened wide. "Pretty nifty"
She dug into her jeans and came up with an emerald, two 20 pound notes, and three gold coins.
The customer examined the coins, then the emerald. "Probably you should keep the coins. I don't recognize them, so I can't give you more than melt value less my commission. But they might be worth more. I can give you $1700 for the rock."
"And how much do I owe you for staging that incident?"
"Nothing. The cops -- they're real by the way -- get to keep what they grabbed. I get what I grabbed as payment for producing the event. You get what you grabbed as a finder's fee."
"$1700 would be my Europass out of this dive. Done." She handed him the emerald. He dug $1700 from an inside pocket and handed it to her. "Free for dinner?" He asked. She thought for a moment. "Thanks for the offer, but I suppose mixing business and pleasure is a bad idea. Besides which, your wives and families are probably waiting for you."
"Alas, they surely are. Vaya con Dios. And a piece of probably unnecessary advice. Were I you, I'd make it a point to be a substantial number of kilometers away from this bar when the crew that just left gets out of jail in about two days." He stood, bowed, and left the bar.
Melinda went back to the bar and announced to the handful of customers. "Listen up everyone. I just quit. Help yourself to drinks. Payment is on the honor system. The owner would appreciate it if the last person to leave cleaned the place up and locked the door. Have a great evening." She ducked into the tiny office, changed clothes, and altered her appearance as much as possible. On her way out, she removed the knife from the bar and slipped it into her backpack ... just in case.
And now, we segue back to Satan, Liz and Rex
"So," said Satan, "I reckon that I have to make a choice."
At that point, his cell phone rang. "That'll be the UFF Hotline. I'll put this thing on speaker.
"Good morning, afternoon or evening as the case may be. If you are female, say or push one. If you are male, get the hell off this line."
"One" said Satan in a falsetto voice.
"We don't believe you. Say 3.141592"
Satan started to key in Pi, an effort that quickly stalled when he couldn't find the decimal point on his keypad. (Hint: The asterisk might work ... or not).
"We didn't tell you to press anything. We told you to say 3.141592. Clean the wax out of your ears, you oversexed, underbrained, whacked out, dimwit. So, for now, Farewell. Do us both a favor. Don't call back."
There was a click, followed by a noise like a paper shredder digesting a sheet of tinfoil, followed by a dial tone.
"What just happened?" Asked Liz
"Oh, they disconnected us. They can be a little difficult to deal with."
"You seem remarkably calm about it. Aren't you annoyed?"
"I would be if I hadn't taken advantage of our brief interlude of connection to hack their computer system. They'll be calling us in something like 12 to 19 minutes to ask me to -- pretty please -- restore their meeting schedule database, and tell them the new password on their budget. Which is 'Voldemort392Rulz' BTW."
"In the meantime, I still need to figure out what I'm going to do and I guess there's only one way to do that" Satan reached into his backpack a hauled out a shiny red sphere.
"Is that a magic eight ball?" Asked Liz
"Of course not. It's a magic four ball. Much advanced over that silly eight ball thing. Besides which, the magic eight ball uses patented technology. This is open source."
"Can we play catch with it after?" asked Rex.
"Of course" said Satan. "On to the planning"
Satan addressed the four ball. "Are you there"
The four ball replied in a very pleasant tenor. "As I see it yes"
"Passed your self-checks and all?
"Better not tell you now"
"Can you phrase that in English?"
"That was English"
"OK, OK. Can you elaborate?
"Well, to be honest, I'm feeling a bit off. And when I ran a Principal Component Analysis on white noise, I didn't get the usual hockey stick. And ..."
"Doesn't sound all that serious to me. Maybe a couple of asprin and a brandy or two after our session?"
"You may rely on it?"
"Right then ... I wish to resume my proper place running the netherworld. If I do nothing, will my situation be restored?"
"Don't count on it."
"Let's cross check that." (sotto voce) "These gadgets are kind of like politicians. You can't entirely trust them.
"If I wait, will it be to my benefit?"
"Outlook not so good"
"Well, then, should I organize an invasion?"
"My reply is no"
"Right. Maybe I should try something more subtle? Maybe I can subvert some key people. Plant some news stories. Grossly exaggerate some minor problems. Get the news media on my side. Riots in the street. That sort of thing?"
"I can sue."
"In what court? Are you insane?"
Liz asked, "Since when do magic eight balls question the user's sanity"
"It's a magic four ball" Said Satan. "Enhanced capabilities. And it's right. Unless I can somehow get Scalia and Thomas onto the court, I wouldn't stand a chance."
To the four ball, "Right then. A principled stand? Write a couple of books. Do the talk show circuit. Maybe arrange for a Nobel Prize? Get a UN resolution"
Liz and Rex snickered. Satan turned to them looking hurt. "What's so funny about that? Kissinger got a Peace Prize for ending a war that wasn't over. Are you saying that I don't have better character and a better cause than Henry Kissenger?"
"My sources say No" intoned the four ball with a possibly poor sense of conversational timing.
At that point Satan's cell phone emitted a raspy and not especially pleasant version of 'In the Court of the Crimson King'. Satan flipped it open and said "Hello" holding the phone at an odd angle. The response was a roar of inarticulate rage and a bright orange flame nearly 40 centimeters long. ("Damn Harry Potter stuff" Satan muttered). After 20 or 30 seconds, the flame sputtered, flickered, and winked out leaving a curlyicue of black, sooty smoke. Still holding the phone such that his face -- including a sleek goatee and mustache he had somehow acquired clearly patterned on the Anonymous Guy Fawkes Mask, Satan spoke. "Why yes, I might have made a few long overdue upgrades to your computer system."
The flame was shorter and briefer this time. "Of course not. You know very well that we need to run a fast as we can just to keep up. Bound to be a few glitches. The price of progress."
The flame shot out an incredible distance catching the Four Ball which promptly disappeared in an immense shower of comet-like sparks. "So much for that game of Catch" muttered Rex ruefully.
"Well, I'm sorry you feel that way. Tell you what, I will light a candle for you the next time I go to mass."
Another epic flame. Satan set the phone on the console, and turned to Liz. "Liz m'dear, if you will look into my backpack, there should be an asbestos glove right on top. Could you hand it to me?" Liz looked, and handed Satan a rather odd looking glove with three fingers bracketed by thumbs on each side. She looked at Satan's hand. Three fingers, two thumbs. Satan put the glove on and picked up the phone -- glove covering the speaker. He told Liz, "Thanks. There should be a tennis ball in there also. If you are in the mood, toss a few to Rex. He'll tire out long before you do."
To the phone. "Well, OK. What you propose would be quite awkward and anatomically quite difficult. I don't think I'm going to do it." Smoke, but no flame came out from under the glove.
"I suppose that I ~~could~~ put things back the way they were, although the new arrangement is really quite superior as I'm sure you'd come to understand after a little training that won't cost much at all." This time the flames welled out from under the glove.
"Yes, of course it's going to cost you something."
"Absolutely. Of course you can sue me. I think you might have a case. But keep in mind where all the lawyers and most of the judges end up. And I don't think I'd be inclined to set your computers right until the case has been settled. ... and all the appeals are sorted out ... and the appeals of the appeals ..."
"What do I want? I'd like to be connected directly to the UFF hotline without the nonsense and gatekeeping."
"Yes, that's all."
"When? Why not now?"
"You don't think I'll keep my word? I am shocked ... shocked ... that you could doubt my word."
"My record? By all means check my record? When have I ever failed to keep a promise? Show me a modern American politician (other than Carter) who has a better record of truthiness, integrity, and consistency."
"... I most certainly did NOT lie to Eve. I may have held back a few trivial details, but I really did not lie to her. Ask her.
"She's witness protection and can't be reached? That's hardly my doing.
"OK, how about I demonstrate my high character and good faith by restoring your budget password, You connect me to the UFF, and when I'm finished there, I'll fix everything else?
Satan took a pen like object from his shirt pocket and pressed the cap. There was a momentary digital shreik. He then spoke into the phone, still holding the speaker away from his face. "The budget should be fine. After you check, could you put the UFF on the line?"
There was a long delay punctuated by the occasional sound of the tennis ball bouncing around the bunker, the chatter or Rex's claws on the metal floors and an occasional loud thud when Rex caromed off consoles due to the poor traction afforded by the bunker floor.
Eventually Satan spoke into the phone. "Why yes, it is a fine day."
"You can help me by explaining why you felt it necessary to intervene in the matter of a young lady who was engaged in planting surveillance devices in 'her' bastion."
"No, No. I don't have any problem with your intervention. Quite the opposite. But the damsel in question is under my protection
"Attorney-client privilege? You aren't her lawyer. Now that you mention it, I know that because I'm her lawyer."
"doctor-patient? Hey Liz, you ever talk to a doctor named ... what's your name? ... Jezebel? ... You have a last name Jezebel? ... A doctor named 'Jezebel Screwyou? ... Not that you can remember? ... Ms Screwyou, I'd like to speak to your supervisor." Satan removed the phone from his ear in time to avoid incineration of his eardrum.
"Yes, Peggy? Is that really you? Hey, this is Beelzie. Great. And how are things amongst the manifestations? No, No. Well, yeah -- that'd be about what you'd expect doncha know. I'm calling about Liz. No, she's fine. But she'd like a little closure. Any chance of getting her records sorted out? Yeah. Yeah. That bad, huh? Well, I reckon that's what they get for outsourcing to the lowest bidder. She can do that, but isn't that going to take about 100,000 years? Oh. No, I grok that. Out of your hands? OK. Anything else we should know? Of course I have a need to know. Peggy, do you have any idea how long it's going to take to process paperwork for a security clearance on me. It'll take me a decade just to list my residences? I understand, not under your control. How about if I file a Freedom Of Information Act request? 100% redaction? OK, you're right that would be a waste of time. By the way, I'm considering using her for a ring bearer, any problem with that? No, she won't be wearing it. I'm nasty, not nuts. Anything I can do for you? Well, yeah the fact that I'm temporarily a pariah in the netherworld might limit my utility. OK then, give me a call if you get some free time. I'll take care of drinks and dinner. Give my best to everyone.
Satan put the phone down and turned to Rex and Liz who had given up on the Fetch game. "That was my old friend Peggy"
"Peggy is the friend you were 'negotiating' with while we were scooting around in Wonderland?"
"No, that friend's cousin. Peggy really is just a friend. She prefers girls to boys by the way. I can probably fix you up."
Anyway, she says they have looked into Liz's situation. There's no chance of recovering her actual records. The storage media for three entire minutes of afterlife history is toast. The backup was written to tape -- which won't read back even with the help of genuine magic. The only other way to get legitimate papers is through the Admissions office.
But fake papers will work about as well for most purposes. So I made Liz a set. They are in my bag.
The UFF definitely has looking into Liz on its to_do list. They are dead sure she's here in the afterlife for a reason. But they don't have a clue what that reason is or whose agent she is. That last may or may not be true. No way to tell. They'd like the opportunity to look over Liz's papers and see if there are any clues to her provenance. So I made a copy." He reached into the bag and pulled out an envelope identical to the envelope sitting on Liz's console. "And I'm going to Fed Ex it to them."
"My provenance!!! Let's talk about your provenance lobster-man.
"... and how are you going to arrange a Fed Ex pickup?"
Satan -- whose skin color had indeed been drifting from Cancun brown toward bright scarlet over the preceeding few minutes -- quickly readjusted his skin color back to the normal human range. "Now, now. Provenance is their choice of words, not mine. I'm only the messenger. As for Fed Ex, there's a pick up box on top of that rock we were shading next to up on the surface. They'll bill my account"
Satan pulled an empty Federal Express box out of his bag, and dropped the envelope into it. He then removed his wand from the bag and tapped the box which promptly sprouted wings and flew off down the tunnel."
"Isn't that magic and doesn't the box need an address?"
"Yes it's magic, but my successors have outsourced magic detection to some outfit in Mumbai that is no more capable of recognizing magic than Sarah Palin is of getting a fact straight. And no, I don't need an address. The UFF will be looking for the box and will pick it off before it gets to the regional sorting center at Cologne."
"Wouldn't it have been easier just to tell the box to fly to the UFF?"
Satan paused then said, "Y'know, I could have done that. I didn't think of it."
... To be continued ...