PANGLOSS LIVES!!! - Chapter 10 -- ???? ...

Donald Kenney (donaldkenney@gmail.com)
Last Update: Tue Jul 12 21:31:59 2016



Chapter9 - To Hell Chapter11 - ???? DINTRO11.HTM

= Chapter 10 -- And Back ...

Liz and Satan entered a large somewhat cluttered room furnished in storage shed modern. Metal racks lined the walls and stood in casual rows in the middle of the room as well. There were some work benches. On the shelves were boxes, containers, cans, hand tools, and units of electronic equipment. It one end of the room were a lathe, several power saws, a pinball machine, a hydraulic press of some sort and some other devices that Liz did not recognize.

The benches were littered with parts. White lab coats hung on hooks near a door in the far wall.

"And this would be Dr Frankenstein's laboratory?" Asked Liz.

"Naw, that's done in Transylvania Gothic. Stone walls, torches, that sort of thing. This is our small engine lab. This is the place where we perfected the design of polluting small gasoline engines that are hard to start, noisy, require bizarre mixtures of oil and gasoline, are not very reliable, and are prone to require a complete rebuild after being stored over Winter.

"And the point?"

"These things are very frustrating. They promote intemperate behavior. Some guy spends three hours fighting with a lawnmower or outboard engine. Anger builds. His wife says the wrong thing. Bingo, she's on the way to the emergency room and he's on the road to hell. And most of the things they are used for are unnecessary or positively harmful. Lawn? Who needs a lawn? No lawn, no need for a lawnmower.

"The stuff in here looks a little dusty. Where are your designers?

"The engines have become pretty much perfect from our point of view. We're past the point of diminishing returns. They can't be made more annoying. No point in more work. We've shut the effort down and reassigned the engineers to working on digital gadgets that never work quite right.

"Should we move on then?

"In a few minutes perhaps. Let's rest up a bit before we try that door."

Satan reached into his backpack and hauled out sandwiches, grapes, cheese and two beers.


Although the door looked liked an ordinary wooden door and it swung easily enough, it closed behind them with an authoritative metallic crash when they stepped through. Liz looked back to see an institutional beige-brown metal door with no visible hinges, and no handle, only a badge reader of some sort. Stencilled on the door were the words "AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. NO ADMITTANCE". Liz turned back and found herself in a busy concourse with weary looking, grim faced men and women trooping past in one direction carrying backpacks, large bags, and trundling large, heavy looking suitcases -- all of which appeared to be afflicted with bad wheel bearings --- those that had wheels. In the other side of the corridor was a similarly dressed mob facing in the direction that the walkers came from. They stood in an orderly line that stretched around distant corners in both directions. As Liz watched, two somewhat overweight individuals dressed in freshly starched tan uniforms strolled down the line clearly intending to deal harshly with anyone not behaving according to the rules. They wore highly polished black jack boots, wide leather belts festooned with gadgets, visored caps, and carried whips.

Insipid music played on invisible speakers

"Here", said Satan. "Put this on." He handed Liz a small card encased in plastic with a long thin plastic tube looped through it. It was clearly intended to be hung around the neck. Liz put hers on and looked to find that Satan was wearing a similar card.

"It is?" Asked Liz

"Preferred traveler ID. Kind of pointless since ultimately we won't be going anywhere. But it'll save us six days of waiting in line before finding out that we aren't going anywhere."

"And we're at?"

"Hades International Aerodrome. IATA code DMD"

"You can fly to Hell?"

"Sort of. We have an airport. Air travel is one of the more miserable experiences of modern life, and it'd be kind of obtuse for us not to embrace it. On the other hand, we can't have the damned climbing on a jet plane and flying off to Lisbon or Saskatoon. It'll probably come as a shock to you, but we suspect that some of them might be a bit slow about coming back. Not that they won't come back eventually. They will. But the delay screws up the bookkeeping and that frustrates the pencil pushing demons. You don't want to deal with frustrated demons ... or their union.

So, there's a terminal and some airplanes that sometimes taxi out and sit on the tarmac for fourteen hours or so before returning to the terminal. But there's only about 100 meters of runway. That's all we need because DMD is permanently fogged in.

Without warning, the the music -- Liz thought it might be the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Mambo Italiano -- was cut off. An overmodulated, staticy, announcement echoed through the concourse. Liz couldn't understand one word of it.

"wah? Anything we should worry about?"

"Naw, something about a corn dance at the Grange Hall ... Saturday? ... after sunset?"

"Corn dance?"

"Probably. The announcements are in Navajo. I'm not that good at Navajo. Been meaning to take a class or get some tapes, but I haven't got around to it. The announcements are recorded from a radio station in Window Rock, Arizona. Mostly personal ads for used pickup trucks for sale."

"But, surely, no one speaks Navajo except a few Navajo ... and you ... And you say you're not that good at it"

"Exactly. Not one person in this building can understand one single word of the announcements. But no one has ever complained because they all think they are the only one who can't understand the speakers."

Satan led them against the flow of foot refugee traffic in a brisk 10 minute walk. Eventually, they came to a staging area the size of a football field where the line snaked in serpentine fashion through a path defined by ribbons tied to posts. To the right were vending machines. Most had OUT OF ORDER signs and several were partially dismantled. At the head of the line were a dozen walk-through metal scanners. All but one had red lights. The single green lighted device wore a paper sign with the hand lettered words ON BREAK. BACK IN TWO HOURS. . The people at the head of the line had striped to their underwear and stood next to their luggage patiently holding their clothing and footware.

"It'll be more like four hours. Then they'll spend fifteen minutes setting up, process about six people, and it'll be time for shift change. That'll take an hour."

"Those poor people. Where are the restrooms?"

"Beyond the security check of course. Or back at the terminal if you don't mind loosing your place in line."

"Why would anyone subject themselves to this?"

'Beats me. We have teams working on trying to figure that out. The rumors are probably part of it."

"Rumors?"

"Yeah. We have agents who drop by the bars and hair-dressing parlors spinning tales of flights actually departing. If I recall correctly, there's a rumor going about this week, that a Transylvania Airlines jet with 120 passengers managed to get out of here when the fog lifted for a few minutes last Thursday. Didn't happen of course. But hope springs eternal.

"Anyway, these things" Satan waggled the badge handing from his neck. "Allow us to bypass security."

Satan led Liz to an area far to the right of the security area where he waved his badge at a sleeping guard flanked by two far more alert German Shepards. Liz, for lack of a better idea, followed him and waved her badge at the guard and dogs as they strolled past the checkpoint. The dogs followed their progress with about as bored an expression as a canine can assume.

Satan and Liz emerged into a large hall Brightly colored airline and car rental kiosks lined the walls. Each of the airline kiosks had a long line. Overhead was a huge sign displaying hundreds of departures. All the flights were marked as DELAYED. All the car rental kiosks had signs reading "NO CARS". The Mens restroom -- there was only one -- sported a CLOSED FOR CLEANING. The woman's -- also singular -- OUT OF ORDER. A dust covered food court was CLOSED FOR REPAIRS except for a bar where customers were throwing back shots of some liquid or other.

"Each line has a demon at the front trying to negotiate a complex itinery." Explained Satan. "It takes about an hour. We send the clerk demons and line demons to Atlanta for training BTW. You can't beat Hartsfield Airport for surly. Anyway, after dealing with the line demon, the clerk takes a coffee break and doesn't come back until almost everyone in the line gives up and moves on, and the next demon has joined the line. Works great. Even the folks on drugs are torqued up real tight by the time they get to the counter and find out that their ticket is defective and the clerk doesn't know zip about their flight anyway.

"In any case, we're not hanging out here." Satan led Liz to a blank stretch of wall. He studied it, kicked it, and a door opened near where he had kicked it. Satan followed by Liz moved into a cramped, poorly lit area with low, dark colored structural members criss-crossing overhead. To their right, a wide conveyor belt rumbled past chortling to itself. "Outgoing baggage handling" explained Satan.

As they scuttled along, the belt -- still moving -- began to gently rise until it was 3 ... 4 ...5 meters above the floor. Then it abruptly ended, tucked under itself and flowing back toward whence it came . On the floor under the end of the belt was a pile of shattered, dented, and otherwise damaged luggage that had quite obviously been fired off the end of the conveyor belt and had complied with the dictates of the law of gravity from there. "Good thing we're traveling light, eh?" remarked Satan as he examined the mess.

"There will be a crew along sometime to switch some luggage tags, bash up anything that is somehow undamaged, pour some jam and beet juice on some of the bags and send the stuff back to the terminal."

"No telling when they'll show up, but those dudes are big, muscular and none too bright. You've probably seen what they can do to luggage. We'd be well advised to be elsewhere when they arrive.

Satan led Liz out across an open floor and out another door that led outdoors into pea soup fog. "Just ignore the noises. They're recordings and they're only there to discourage anyone who thinks this this is a path out of Hell -- which, of course, it is.

Following some strange and unobvious talisman, Satan marched into the fog with Liz in tow. In back of them was the sound of hounds baying in the distance. Off to the left were marching feet. A LOT of marching feet. To the right was a strange slithering sound and ominous chitinous clicking. Up ahead somewhere in the mist echoed the deep throated cough of some nameless predator.

It got worse from there.

Liz held up pretty well until the screams and eerie laughter started. They emanated from somewhere in the forward quadrant and sounded close. The hounds also were getting closer. As were the marchers. And the slithered(s) was/were gibbering. Liz faltered.. "It is pretty intimidating, isn't it?" asked Satan. "My design" he added proudly. He looked back at Liz. "Just a few more steps ..Ah, there. "

A ramp sloped gently into the ground. The reader will probably object that airport runways don't generally have sloping ramps crosscutting them. And the reader would be right. They don't. There are several excellent reasons for that. But the ramp looked like it belonged and in much if not most of the universe appearances are everything.

Satan led their way down the ramp. At the bottom was an ordinary wooden door as might be found on millions kitchens throughout the developed world. It had a comfortably dusty window that revealed a blue sky, and a green lawn (overdue for mowing), rows of daylilies, hosta, and phlox backed by a somewhat patchy hedge, and -- through the holes in the hedge -- rolling fields of ripening grain edged by woods. Satan opened the door. There was no lock. There was a screen door with a simple hook that might have stood up for several minutes to a determined attack by a three year old. Satan unlatched it and held both doors open for Liz.

She stepped through onto a screened porch. It was warm, not hot. There was a pleasant cool breeze. A fresh outdoorsy odor permeated the air. Bees buzzed. Birds chirped. Liz turned to Satan, "Wow. Leaving Hell is that easy? I mean, the noises are scary, but you tell me there's nothing there. And ..."

Satan cut her off. "We're still in Hell Liz. This is agricultural hell. Farming is highly addictive. Worse than narcotics or libertarianism. And, on balance, it's about a frustrating an activity as one could imagine. Especially in Hell where crops never quite make it. This stuff is too close to harvest for drought to be on the schedule and frost or varmints won't have much affect. So it's either wildfire, hail, flood, locusts, or maybe an invading army that'll roll a few brigades of tanks through. But trust me, this crop will either never come in or will be destroyed in storage. Or maybe it's genetically modified and a Monsanto lawyer is en route even as we speak. Whatever it is, the farmer is headed for misery."

"But isn't that a really mean thing to do to the farmer and his family?"

"No worse than man or nature would do on its own. But really this is used for a certain class of the greedy and obsessed, People who fixate on some possibly worthy objective to the exclusion of everything else. In fact that's its principle problem from our point of view. There just aren't that many people who can be helped by this scheme even in principle. It's impressive, but in the entire history of Hell only 216 people have farmed this patch and there have been no redemptions. None. We're trying to figure out how to improve the results. Do YOU have any ideas? We're getting kind of desperate.

Liz thought briefly and frowned. When, exactly, had she become a consultant on how to manage Hell? She shook her head -- No, and reached out to open the door. Satan gently stopped her and jerked his head toward an unobtrusive door in the wall on her right. Plain wood painted the same white as the rest of the house. "Naw. Not thru the fields. Unless you want to spend two days slogging through cedar swamps and blackberry brambles. The path through the basement is faster, less strenuous, and a LOT less unpleasant.

"Besides which, we don't want to deal with *her*'"

"The lady who must not be named is out there?"

"Naw, We should be so lucky. If you look carefully at that grove of trees down there, you'll see a patch of pink. See it?"

Liz looked. There was indeed something pink in a grove of trees about 200 meters away. "My that's garish. Are you worried we'll harm our eyes? What is it?"

"It's not our eyes I'm worried about. It's my patience and your sanity. Unless I'm very much mistaken, that object is a pink 1957 Cadillac and the driver is Little Red Riding Hood -- who is not so little any more by the way. Too many lunches with potential clients."

"I take it that you aren't going to introduce us?"

"You have that right. Apparently the farmer here has given up and the farm is for sale. He's got crop in the field, so it must be either the bank or someone in the household went nuts and killed the others. Happens a lot. The isolation and constant stress I think.

"If Red spots us, prepare yourself for three hours of hard sell while she tries to peddle this place to you.

"But if you and Karl are right, I think my credit score is roughly zero if not negative in these parts. No bank is going to lend me money to buy a farm."

"Won't bother Red. Once she gets your signature on a contract, she'll get you a loan. After all, the bank expects you to default. They're going to peddle the loan to some financial wizards in New York or London who will bundle it with hundreds of other equally bad loans. Then the bank'll sit back and collect servicing fees from the wizards for your non-payments. The wizards will sell the package to a pension fund. Red makes money. The bank makes money. The Wizards make money. The merchants in town make money. The politicians in the County Seat, and the state capital and in Washington make money. Everybody makes money except the farmer and the pensioners.

"It's a mugs game. But even if you manage to hold Red off on the farm, she also sell time shares at the Dead Sea.

"In the meantime, let me suggest that we get underground before Red senses the presence of people in here."

Satan opened the door and they proceeded down wooden steps into a large, dirt-walled, root cellar. Satan grabbed a pitch soaked reed torch from a basket at the bottom of the stairs. He lit it somehow with a snap of his fingers and handed it to Liz before grabbing and igniting a second for himself. The light from the torches was flickery and none too bright. Weird shadows danced across the walls. The smoke was copious and unpleasant. Liz tried holding the torch high -- Statue of Liberty like. That got the smoke out of her face and her eyes ceased to water. But the burning pitch started rolling down the reeds toward her hand. She quickly lowered the torch. "Beelzie, do we really have to use these things?"

Satan coughed, rubbed his eyes with his free hand, and pitched his torch into a corner of the room. "Of course not. They add to the ambiance, but we're here on business."

Satan fished two flashlights out of his backpack. He handed one to Liz who pitched her torch into the same corner with a sigh of relief and took the flashlight. She said, "Thanks. What are we doing down here in this hole and where are we going?" She looked around. "Beelzie, please tell me this isn't another damn tunnel"

"This won't be a tunnel" announced Satan brightly. Then he looked sheepish and acknowledged "Well, yeah, it is sort of a tunnel I guess. It's a mine. And it's not all that long." he added. A hopeful tone could be heard in his voice.

"The alternative is two days of swamps, bugs, and bushes with thorns? And it's not all that long? How long exactly is 'not all that long'?"

"I dunno. Maybe 500 meters. Not much more than that. A five minute walk if we don't dawdle."

"Don't worry. I won't dawdle. But what makes you think either of us can walk 6 kilometers in a hour?"

"I don't think that. It's YOU that's supposed to think that. OK, it's more like ten minutes."

Satan led Liz around a corner and they proceeded into a tunnel. The walls quickly changed from dirt to striated rock. White quartz veins alternated with brownish country rock and stringers of glittering crystals and shiny metal. "Really hard rock" said Satan with a touch of pride. "It takes an hour to chisel a miniscule hole. It laughs at explosives."

"What about the jewels?" Liz asked.

"Mostly Garnets and Quartz. Pretty enough if you can extract them in one piece -- which isn't easy. But you price them by the tonne, not the karat. There's some other stuff -- Silicon Carbide, emeralds, rubies, tourmaline. All flawed or full of fractures or loaded with ugly inclusions. Not worth the money to dig out.

"And the metals? Fools Gold?"

"Yep. Pyrite. and Galena -- Lead sulfides -- that's some of the shiny silvery stuff. And Specular Hematite. That's a shiny iron mineral. A little native Copper. Some other stuff that'd be valuable if there were any amount of it. But the veins of that all peter out after you hammer a meter or so into the rock. Lots to get a prospector excited about. Nothing that will assay out to a viable mining property.

"Quartermain would go nuts if he encountered this. But ultimately, it's a time and money sink." It's supposed to teach a certain type of individual that there's no easy path to fortune. Unfortunately, we're the ones who learned something." Liz cocked her head questioningly.

"It's taught us that the world is full of slow learners."

"Where are the miners?"

"Probably in court trying to straighten out their claims. Which will never happen because the property ownership system is so complicated and so dependent on markers that are easily moved that no one could possibly straighten it out. We don't even have to mess with it to make it unusable. Or maybe they've moved on to another mine that looks a little different, but isn't really.

"I don't think we'll encounter any miners, but if we do, just walk past at a steady pace. Their hearing is shot from too much exposure to underground explosions. The have no sense of smell. And for some reason we don't understand, objects moving at a steady speed don't register on their brains. Just in case, Don't look them in the eye and don't talk to them. They aren't dangerous as long as they don't think we're trying to steal their wealth. In fact, we're pretty sure that they literally don't see anything but the rocks they are obsessed by. Let me look at you. ... Turn around. ... Good. Nothing shiny. You'll be fine.

The walked on for a while and soon came up rusted rails upon which sat three equally rusted, and severely dented metal ore carts. "Well," said Liz, "At least they don't have to lug their worthless ore out on their backs."

"Actually," said Satan, "They do. Those things have really bad wheel bearings. It's all a strong man can do to move one on level ground. Much less three. The couplers are rusted shut so you'd have to move all of them at once. And the path from here to the mine mouth is anything but level. Moreover, there's a hill a ways down, and beyond that, a steep little drop with a /very/ sharp turn at the base. Very exiting and quite dangerous.

"Well, it's picturesque."

"It is that. In fact it's been used in movies -- two Steven Kings and an action adventure film of some sort. Don't do that any more though. The movie folks are far more evil than we are. Our accountants can't figure out their standard contracts, but we are pretty sure that we lost money on the deals. Not that it matters. We're like a central bank or a government. We can always print more. It's the principle of the thing.

"That doesn't really matter either I suppose. We'll get our shot at the movie executives in due time. ... All of them.

They trudged on. Suddenly Liz stopped, turned off her flashlight and turned to Satan. "I th...th...thought I saw something move up there in front of us."

"Might have. Nothing to worry about down here really. Might be an Orc or something. But *you* don't have to worry. Even if you get torn to pieces and partially eaten, they'll eventually put you back together more or less as good as new."

"More or less? And what about you? They surely aren't going to put you back together. Or if they do, you'll be inside a Kryptonite asteroid or something."

"Thank you. That's the first time in six or seven millennia that anyone has expressed genuine concern about my welfare. But there isn't much down here that can harm me and if it is something I can't handle, there isn't much I can do about it." Satan raised his flashlight to reveal a figure dressed in a crisp white uniform. The man -- the figure looked male -- looked to be in late middle age. He wore two monstrous headphones on his ears and had a somewhat dazed smile on this face. He shuffled slowly toward them.

"On dope?" asked Liz.

"Not really That's Wille Gutermann. Harmless

"What's he listening to? Something transcendent? Beethoven? Handel?, Jerry Garcia?

"He's listening to 'It's a Small world' The poor man drove an ice cream truck for 30 years. The music drove him totally mad. He never ever did anything but bring pleasure to children. He really belongs in Heaven, not Hell and if he is ever restored to something resembling normality, they'll welcome him there. But nobody can figure out how to cure him, so we just let him wander. As far as we can tell, he doesn't much care where he is."

Willie shambled by. Satan tipped a hat he hadn't been wearing earlier. "Top of the day to you Willie." Willie beamed broadly and shambled past them.

"We call people like Willie *Wanderers*. Some of them like Willie or Diogenes are completely harmless. Others like Captain Ahab or George Custer are dangerous if you put them in charge -- which we are not about to do -- but innocuous otherwise. Someday we'll be able to rehabilitate them, but I fear it won't be any time soon.

Liz and Satan trudged on for far longer than ten minutes. Finally a dim light appeared ahead. For a wonder it was not an illusion or the headlight of an oncoming train. It slowly resolved into a tunnel entrance. After more trudging, the pair emerged onto a paved road in a thick wood. The road was narrow with numerous haphazardly patched potholes. A second road branched off to the left. There was a signpost. One road led to Cabot Cove. The second to Salems Lot, Castle Rock, and Derry, The third to the New Hampshire border.

Satan unhesitatingly headed off down the road to New Hampshire.

"I can understand why we're avoiding Stephen King country," said Liz. But why not Cabot Cove? As I recall, it's a charming little town with great ocean views."

"Stephen King country? You don't know the half of it. I'm OK with possessed cars. You don't key them or steal their hubcaps and they leave you alone ... usually. But I loathe clowns and the feeling is more or less mutual. Unfortunately, one of my predecessors granted them a special, eternal, dispensation in return for some consideration or other, so I don't have a lot of leverage with them. And who knows what King may have conjured up lately that might be even more obscene and dangerous than clowns?

As for Cabot Cove. It's charming OK, but it's the murder capital of New England. 50-70 violent deaths a year in a town of 3600. That's five or ten times the annual homicides in the whole state of Vermont. And most of the victims are strangers. We'd be strangers.

"Oh" said Liz

They set off at a brisk pace in the direction of New Hampshire.

The walked a while, then Satan held up a hand and gestured to Liz to stop. "OK he said. Walk slowly and look to the left. We don't want to spook him."

"Spook who"

"Shhhh. Quiet. You can talk again as soon as we get to that tree." He pointed to a pine tree thirty or forty meters ahead.

They walked slowly past a small clearing. In the center of the clearing a small, short haired, animal was performing an intricate dance. Four steps forward. Two back. Tapped its forepaws five times. Turned two full turns counterclockwise. Two steps back. Then it repeated but spun clockwise instead of counter clockwise. Repeated again, twice. Drummed its forepaws eight times. Then started over.

When they got to the pine tree, Liz looked toward Satan. "That was?"

"His Eminence Bubba XIV, spiritual leader of all chihuahuas everywhere in the universe. Chihuahuas believe in rituals, and the Bubbas handle the really heavy duty ones -- the stuff that keeps the universe on track."

"Do the rituals actually accomplish anything?"

"No one knows. But no one is going to do anything to distract him. What he's doing may be important."

They walked on ... and on ... and on ... between fields of corn and potatoes and patches of woods. They saw an occasional driveway curling back into the distance, but no sign of houses, barns, cattle or people. No traffic passed them. No dogs barked at them. Liz was beginning to wonder if they were in a world populated only by ghosts. But eventually, they came to a tiny town. Perhaps a dozen houses strung out loosely around a small park with a gazebo and a bandstand. Half a dozen kids of assorted ages played a halfhearted game of softball. There was a gas station with a mechanic working on a car. A man mowed the grass near a white clapboard church that seemed too large for the village.

"The general store here serves a pretty good reuben sandwich. Want to give it a try?"

"Can we, like, sit down to eat." Asked Liz.

"Sure, they have a couple of tables."

"How are we going to pay?"

"I have a running tab here." Said Satan. "Part of a longstanding deal involving a three wishes and eventual delivery of a soul. I have some stuff in the backpack we can use for a tip."

They walked up the worn wooden steps of the General store, maneuvered past racks of essentials -- Ring-Dings, Twinkies, Doritos, Zig-Zags -- and came to an area in the back with a small kitchen and three time worn formica tables with mismatched sturdily patched chairs. Satan held a chair out for Liz then seated himself. A teen aged girl appeared from behind a deli counter. She was dressed in blue jeans, and a tight sweater. One foot was bare, the other sported a tiny glass slipper Three bluebirds flew in circles around her head. Two rabbits and three fieldmice trailed along behind her as she strolled to the table.

"Hi Beels" she said. "You in town to apologize to Father Joe for what you did to the church last August?"

"Good Afternoon Cindy." Satan introduced her to Liz and vice versa. Then he looked toward the girl. "That wasn't my fault you know. I was just passing through, minding my own business, and the padre came running out waving a cross, spraying holy water in all directions and telling me to get the hell off his lawn. I wasn't even ON his lawn. I was on the public road. I mean -- what would you do if you were walking to work or school and some demented dude tried to exorcise you?" While Satan had been speaking the four legged portion of the girl's fan club had formed a semicircle near her feet and were gazing adoringly up at her.

The girl swatted absently at the bluebirds which had been hovering in front of her face. "Father Joe doesn't see it that way. He's really annoyed about the brimstone smell in the nave. Probably has burned a ton of incense trying to get rid of it. Smells like incense and brimstone now." She giggled.

"Well OK, I'll apologize. If he'll let me near enough to do so without overreacting. Apologies are cheap and they don't have to be sincere."

"I guess you're right. He's still pretty hot under his clerical collar. Might be better if you gave him a few decades to cool off. We don't need any more fireballs. He makes us scrub the smoke off the woodwork for penance and I think he's kind of pushing the limits a bit there. I mean, is chewing bubble gum really a mortal sin?

"Of course it is. All our sanitation workers in Hell are serial bubble gum abusers."

The girl giggled again. "What'll you folks have?"

"Reubens and Cokes *s'il vous plait*"

The girl walked to the kitchen trailed by her quadrupedal entourage and accompanied by her bluebirds. In a few minutes she returned with the sandwiches, drinks, woodland animals, and their feathered companions. "Aren't the critters kind of problem? Asked Liz.

"Tell me about it." said the girl. "They're cute and all. And they're pretty quick, but it's only a matter of time before I accidentally squash one. And dates? You ever try being the center of some guy's attention when bluebirds are making strafing runs?

To Liz. "All in all, I'd just as soon they admired someone else. I don't suppose you'd like to try your hand at playing mother superior to a collection of agricultural pests?"

"I think I'll pass on that." Said Liz. The girl retreated to the kitchen

Liz and Satan ate their sandwiches and drank their drinks. Satan dug into his backpack and pulled out a foot high teddy bear dressed as a minstrel and a necklace with a good sized green stone. He put the bear on the table and hung the necklace around its neck. "Tip" he said.

They got up and the girl appeared to clear the table. Liz noticed that she was wearing earrings that matched the necklace. "Emeralds?" She asked Satan.

"Peridots" said Satan. "Volcanic gems. Hell's awash with the things. Use 'em for gravel in our floral displays and fish tanks"

He turned toward the girl. "We have to be going. I'll see you next time through"

"We'll probably be here." She sighed. "Me and the menagerie. Rumor has it that PC got busted for possession with intent to sell down in Nashua and is doing 5 to 15. So it doesn't look like I'll be leaving any time soon. See you next time you come through. And thanks for the necklace. Better than pocket change. It's not like I have anything to spend the tip money on."

Liz and Satan worked their way through the store. In the back Cindy could be heard rattling dishes and whistling *Someday My Prince Will Come*. She was accompanied by the bluebirds. Satan and Liz exited the store and turned down the road.

"Who's PC?' Asked Liz.

"Prince Charming of course. A 24 karat gold plated loser if you ask me. The peasants got fed up with paying for his family's endless wars and partying. They escorted him and the rest of his worthless clan to the border and told them to leave and not to come back. So he's trying to scam his way through life the only way he knows -- charm and, at all costs, avoiding gainful labor. His parents write self help books and videos that they sell on late night TV. His older brother, the Archduke Charming, shills penny mining stocks. His sisters have some sort of stupid TV program that targets low IQ housewives.

"But Cindy's probably going to wait forever for him to show up. If you ask me her best hope is that he never quite makes it to her place.

"But doesn't the girl have a fairy godmother to look after her?"

"She does indeed, but the 'fair' in fairy godmother turns out to be more like the fair in fair weather friend than anything else. I missed the meeting where fairy godparents were voted in, but my understanding is that they were supposed to be mentors that provided guidance and an occasional boost to the deserving.

"Cindy's FG is more or less typical I fear. Turns up occasionally when she has her own drinking, drug, and gambling problems temporarily under control. Does a little magic that probably will do more harm than good, then wanders off to screw up someone else's life or fight with her own demons. Worthless lot FGs. Be thankful you don't have one."

"So I'm better off with you?"

"Regretably, you probably are."

Liz looked back. The tiny town had disappeared behind a gentle curve in the wooded road.

A short distance further along , they came to a sign reading "ROAD WORK AHEAD FINES DOUBLED FOR SPEEDING IN WORK ZONE". Satan slowed to a casual stroll. Liz did the same and looked at him questioningly.

"Speed Trap", said Satan. Sure enough in a minute or two they came to a black and white vehicle idling behind a bush with a bulky individual eating a donut sitting behind the wheel. Satan smiled and waved. Liz did the same. The cop took no notice.

"They ticket pedestrians?" Asked Liz.

"Sure, The goal is to generate revenue, not to protect road workers. Pedestrians have money too. Besides which, there won't be any road workers. Look at that road. They haven't done any repair work here in decades."

"OK. But how did you know?"

"Easy, Real road work signs get set up every day and are taken down at night. There are fresh hand prints all round the edges and scrape marks where the bases sit on the ground. Those signs back there haven't moved in months."

"what would you do if they ticketed us?"

"Pay up. But I doubt they want a check drawn on the East Bank of the Styx. I can't use my credit cards, and the only cash I have has Nicoli Tesla's picture on it. They probably won't notice. Greedy people usually aren't big on details, but there are exceptions like our friend back at Rip Off Search and Rescue. I could do a Jedi mind trick or something, but it'd be likely to draw attention.

The walked on. The road deteriorated further. The pavement such as it was became more or less a patchwork of deteriorated, overlapping patches, then a mix of gravel, pavement, and patches, then gravel with pavement cobbles, then gravel sand and dirt, and finally two muddy tracks with weeds and grass growing between them.

"Beelzie, does anyone use this road? And does it go anywhere?

"It's really a logging road tacked on the end of an old farm road. The farmers have long since given up -- something about a short growing season and low milk prices as I recall. And all the serious wood was clear cut years ago. This" He waved his arm at the surrounding woods "is junk wood and second growth hardwood that won't be harvestable for decades. But there are a few places up the road with a few people -- mostly either eccentric or shady or both. I think Greyhound run a bus from Hades Central through here every other Friday afternoon."

They walked for hours following the rutted tire tracks. Liz was beginning to wonder if tunnels didn't have some merits. Not that she intended ever again to enter one. But still, tunnels, were, if nothing else, usually short. Roads on the other hand could go on, and on, and on. The thought came to her that Lewis and Clark had walked -- what was it? 2000 miles to get to Oregon. Then another 2000 to get back. She tried to stuff the thought back into whatever mental cubbyhole it came from. But somehow, like a paper roadmap, it wouldn't fold properly and it didn't fit. She trudged on.

Eventually, they came around a corner and found themselves looking at a huge parking lot surrounding an immense single story barn like building. The parking lot was empty. "Country and Western Bar?" asked Liz.

"Nope, TrashMart franchise."

"But Beelzie. This road ... No one is going to drive way out here, no matter how low the prices are."

"Indeed, but the taxes out here are low to begin with and it's in an economic opportunity zone and the owners managed to arrange a forty year tax holiday. The MBAs had this chart that said "The lower the taxes, the bigger the profit margin." Build it and the customers will come. So here it sits. But the food is pretty stale. Except the Twinkies. And the stocking is kind of erratic. And the staff is elderly and a bit slow. They bus em in from an old folks home in Dixville Notch. Trouble is that the ones whose minds are OK don't like the long hours, the standing, the beatings, the full body searches to keep them from stealing stuff, the low pay and the pep sessions. So the ones that don't quit tend to be a bit hazy on who they are, where they are, why they're there, and why you might be there.

"We can go in if you like. It's definitely a different shopping experience."

"Not a big fan of twinkies. Let's skip it. But can we stop at the next picnic area for a beer and sandwich from your backpack?"

"Sure" said Satan.

They walked on down the road. Around the curve was another huge, empty parking lot and another barn like building.

"Another Trasmart?" Asked Liz

"Nope, this one actually is a bar. If you look, you'll see a sign."

Liz looked and indeed, there was a weatherbeaten sign reading "The Mountain King".

"This is the Hall of the Mountain King?"

"Well, sort of. It's not the original. That was in Norway and it was torn down a couple of decades ago to make room for an Ikea parking lot. But the Mountain King and his entourage picked up and moved to the states in the 1880s. They started in Minnesota. They didn't fit in very well, so they moved on to the Dakota then to Iowa and finally here. This incarnation is a biker bar, but it operation really hasn't changed a lot since Peer Gynt's time. A little more run down and a bit rougher maybe ..."

"Where are the motorcycles?"

"Around back. The front lot is for drag racing and gunfights."

"Does Peer Gynt hang out here?"

"Naw. Peer's sort of a classy version of Prince Charming. Not his sort of place. Besides which the Button Maker drops by every now and then for a beer. Only time Peer met the Button Maker, the Button Maker wanted to throw him into a vat of molten tin. Peer has made avoiding the Button Maker one of his goals in life. Can't say as I blame him. The Button Maker is one creepy guy.

"Last I heard, Peer was working for a big lobbying firm on K Street in Washington, DC. If you want to meet Peer and have a taste for $500 a bottle wine, get yourself elected to Congress"

"Don't you have to be alive to be elected to Congress?"

"No, I don't believe that's a requirement. Might be some sort of residency requirement in some places. But I think that's about it"

Liz stared at the roadhouse for a few minutes. "We're not stopping, right?"

"Right. They caught me cheating at nine-ball a few years ago. I'm persona non grata there and probably will be for a couple of decades. And truly, I don't think it's your sort of place."

The trecked on, and in another hour or so came to another complex of buildings -- some factory like, others looking more like dormatories or prison blocks. The complex was surrounded by rusted chainlink fences topped with rusted razor wire. Guard towers rose at intervals. There were holes in the fences Windows in the buildings were mostly broken. Windblown trash had collected in corners and along the bases of the buildings and fences. The complex was obviously abandoned.

"And this is ...?" Liz asked.

"Santa's workshop" Satan replied. "Dreadful place. Old Claus worked those poor, half-starved elves sixteen hours a day seven days a week. The little folk revolted every now and then, but Claus had his goons mow em down with fire hoses and machine guns then turned the dogs loose on them. We treat souls in the sixth circle better."

[http://historylists.org/art/9-circles-of-hell-dantes-inferno.html]

"It looks abandoned" said Liz.

"Right. Sad story.

"Claus used to be a decent old guy. Spent a few hours a day updating his good-bad data base. Partied with the elves. Played the occasional reindeer game. Hung out at the bowling alley in Elysium on Tuesday nights. Had a near endless collection of dirty jokes. But Mrs Claus used to nag him mercilessly -- You're too fat. Get that pipe out of my living room. Those boots are a disgrace. Get a damn haircut. The poor man couldn't do anything right.

"Finally, she hounded him into getting a physical. God knows why. He's a demi-god and isn't, by definition, going to keel over with a coronary Anyway, his blood pressure was off the charts. So was his blood glucose. His bad cholesterol number wouldn't fit in the space they allocated in their data base and his good cholesterol was nonexistent. etc, etc, etc.

"The Doc told him he was headed for an early grave unless he changed his ways. Which was wrong of course. Claus outlived the doctor and the doctor's kids and will surely outlive their kids as well -- no matter how much he abused his body. But Claus, for some reason, took the medical advice to heart. He quit smoking. And he quit drinking. He started exercising. He ran 10Ks. Then marathons. Then he took up iron-man competitions. He dropped maybe 80 kilos. He got plastic surgery. After a couple of brushes with the law for home invasion because no one would believe that he was really Santa Claus, he had to hire doubles to make the Christmas Eve deliveries

"And he changed. No more the jolly old man. He made Simon Cowell look relaxed. He ditched Mrs Claus early on. Who can blame him? Big divorce case. Made all the news shows in the afterlife day after day, week after week. Nasty. Mrs Claus claimed that Santa's business was a cover for drug smuggling and that Santa had fixed the lottery. Claus claimed that his wife was a serial elf abuser and managed prostitution rings in Latvia, Baltimore, and Tulsa. It dragged on and on. Eventually Mrs Claus got the North Pole Complex and the existing contracts. Claus got the intellectual property -- Mrs Claus didn't look that great in a Santa suit -- and a lump sum payment that he used to build this place.

"Santa got the last laugh incidentally. Turns out that his accountants and bankers (Chase, Credit Suisse and Gringotts) had been stealing from the business for centuries. Pretty much gutted it.

I asked Claus once how he could possibly not have known that the money men were ripping him off. He said he knew that Clausco was doomed, but he couldn't find any way around that that didn't involve lawyers. Figured that going quietly was less painful than being torn apart by bankers AND lawyers.

The divorce settlement and the bankers bankrupted the North Pole operation. Mrs Claus is stuck up there living off social security. The elves moved down here and turned feral when Santa shut this place down. The reindeer had their horns surgically removed and are hanging out in places that don't have hunting seasons for female deer -- Mostly in the Hollywood Hills."

"Are we going to be attacked by elves?" asked Liz.

"Naw. They moved to warmer climes. If you're broke and unemployable, you don't have to freeze your tiny rear off as well. Elf gangs are a big problem in Jacksonville and Fresno. No one's seen an elf in thse parts for thirteen or fourteen years.

"What happened to Claus?"

"Claus took up with a series of actresses and TV personalities and lady singer-songwriters. No more drinking beer with the elves or betting on whether he could pick up a 3-10 split.

"Then he went back to school. I'm not sure why. He got an MBA from Harvard. I have an ivy-league MBA myself, but I had to as a condition of employment. And I figured out pretty quickly that business professors have no interest in anything but short term profit -- the shorter the term the better. Maybe an OK way to run a movie franchise or a cable-TV monopoly, but those guys aren't experts in anything other than larceny, looting, rape, and pillage. If I ran hell according to their business principles, the place would be reduced to chaos in a decade, and I'd be dealing with a communist insurgency in two.

"Anyway, Claus has this MBA from Harvard. And this new Claus is in not in any way shape or form, a sentimental guy. Three days after the Chinese cut toy prices at the container port at Wilmington below his costs, he fired the guards, opened the gates here and vanished with the contents of the worker's retirement fund. Most folks think he's in the Cayman Islands or the South of France, but my people tell me that he's really in Miami posing as a Cuban refugee politician. The locals here had problems with packs of rouge elves for a year or two. The town took the place over for back taxes. I think you can buy it cheap if you want it."

Liz shivered. "All it needs is an *Arbeit Macht Frei* sign over the gate."

"The elves thought so too. They put one up after Santa pulled up stakes. But their sense of humor faded after a while out here. Sold the sign for scrap and moved to South to get warm."

They walked on and shortly came to a modest stream crossed by a picturesque wooden bridge. On the grass covered bluff above the bridge was a picnic table, a porta-potty.and a sign indicating that the minipark was provided by the "Salems Lot chapter of the Association for the protection of quasi-mythical creatures."

They sat down at the table. Satan reached into his pack and hauled out two deli sandwiches, a container of coleslaw, two beers, a pastry, a twinkie, paper plates, glasses, plastic utensils, an umbrella and a taser. He arranged the food and accouterments, opened the umbrella and placed the taser tidily to the left of his fork. Liz looked at the taser and cocked a quizzical eye at Satan.

"The bakery thing is for you. Twinkie's for me. Builds character, stimulates Omega-3 fatty-acid production and adds years to your lifespan."

Liz frowned and took a bite of her sandwich.

"Oh, the zapper. You'll see what it's for in a couple of minutes"

They ate their sandwiches and admired the view.

Suddenly, there was an explosion in the water by the bridge. A geyser of water soared skyward. With a fluid motion, Satan swung the umbrella up with one hand, shielding Liz and the food. He picked up the taser with his other and leveled it at the hulking creature who was scrambling aggressively up the bank toward their table.

The creature was huge, vaguely human, and covered with slime. It paused in front of them. "Pay Toll!" it demanded.

"Have EZ Pass" Said Satan

"EZ Pass No Damn Good. I spit on EZ Pass."

"How Much?" asked Satan

"One Gold Doubloon or 0.374 bitcoin ... and her." He gestured toward Liz.

"... and a future draft pick" It added.

"Last time I came through here. The toll was fifty cents."

"Inflation." Said the creature. "Inflation Good. Paul Krugman tell me so."

"I'll give you 100 Tesla Bucks." Offered Satan

"Tesla bucks no damn good. I spit on your Tesla bucks. Gold or Cryptocurrency only. Got license plate camera. No pay, 63000 points on your driver's license. And I eat you." Snarled the Troll

Satan tased the creature between the eyes. It flipped over backwards and rolled down the bank into the stream where it sank beneath the water.

"Typical troll" muttered Satan. "Reads the New York Times editorial page then thinks he's an expert on every subject under the sun."

"Shouldn't we be packing up and moving on?" asked Liz. "I don't know much about bridge trolls, but I had a boyfriend in my sophmore year who was really into garden gnomes and if what I learned about those little monstrosities is any guide, I don't think that troll was in a good mood to begin with and I'm guessing he'll be a good deal worse mood when he returns."

"You're right about his mood. But that taser was loaded with number 2 Baslisk Shot. It'd lay out an elephant for a week. He won't be back for a few hours and even then, he won't be moving any too fast."

The finished their lunch, put the wrappings into the backpack, crossed the bridge, and continued on down the road which was, if anything, even worse Ruts, rocks, washboard, washouts, potholes full of mud.

"Are you sure this is the right road?" asked Liz.

It's the right road. Not in great shape, but no checkpoints and not too many hazards. It's my favorite path out of Hell. Getting into Hell is easy. The border guards just wave you through. Getting out can be a bit harder.

Anyway, the road turns into a footpath, goes by an old hermit's cave, crosses the mountains into New Hampshire and eventually leads to a ski area parking lot near North Conway.

"But we're only going as far as the cave. There are portals there to other sets."

"More portals? Isn't New Hampshire outside the boundaries of Hell?"

"Just barely. It's a long walk. And North Conway is a long way from the bunker in the Sinai. We'd have to fly or take the tunnels. I hate flying nowadays. The seats are too damn small. The connections are too tight. The flights are always late. The food is terrible. You aren't wild about the tunnels. And one of my predecessors had a bad experience in New Hampshire. A mealy mouth, shylock, ambulance-chasing lawyer managed to get a client out of a perfectly legal contract. Not that jury trials aren't pretty much random and not that we didn't get the client's soul anyway in due time. But losing high profile cases is bad for the franchise.

"So we've left those folks to go to hell in their own way for a century or so. That's worked out really well. I don't think we could have dreamed up anything as bizarre as William Loeb or Meldrim Thompson.

"I'd prefer to avoid New Hampshire without a more pressing reason to go there than we have.

They walked on in comfortable silence as the tracks degenerated further into a hazy trail switch backing up a rocky, forested hillside The trees became sparser and petered out leaving them to a steeply sloping landscape of stunted bushes, mosses, and tiny wildflowers. The breeze was somewhere between refreshing and pretty chilly. Liz was about to ask Satan if he had any cold weather gear stashed in his backpack when they passed a large, lichen covered rock, turned abruptly and found themselves facing a cave. A small fire burned cheerfully in front. There was no sign of the hermit

"Where's the hermit?" asked Liz.

"Probably inside where it's warm watching the Superbowl."

"The Superbowl? I didn't know it was Sunday. And did we somehow miss Christmas and New Years?"

"We don't celebrate Christmas in Hell. Just another work day We do have a Christmas shopping season of course. And lots of annoying music. Be thankful that you missed the Chipmunks, Patience, Prudence and Tammy Wynette singing Handel's Messiah ... acapella. We're unleashing it on Earth next month. We have all the trappings, just no holiday. Anyway, it's really October. But one of the punishments the hermit -- his name is Jonathon by the way -- has to endure for choosing to live out here is having to watch two Superbowl games every day and three on high holidays. It's a race to see whether he will find inner peace before the ads drive him madder than Willie Gutermann.

"We won't disturb him. He has enough problems."

Satan led Liz thru the cave mouth and past the entrance to a grotto where slender sequined dancers cavortorted erotically on an enormous TV screen to music long on beat and short on lyrics in front of a chilled bottle of some liquid or other. Liz had a brief glimpse of a skinny man in a red robe sitting cross legged his face contorted in an expression of utter horror. Liz and Satan walked around a corner and confronted three doors.

"Which should we take?" asked Liz.

"Doesn't matter" said Satan. "There are three doors because it's tradition. But they all go to the same place. Our destination was decided at random when we walked around the corner."

"Seems awfully complex." Said Liz. "What's the point?"

"No point. The message is that not everything has a point."

"Am I supposed to learn something from that?"

"Damned if I know. This isn't my department. I think the contract for this facility was given to the Philosopher's Guild and I've never been able to make a bit of sense out of their operation. I'm not sure there is any sense to Philosophy."

"But haven't philosophers represented the pinnacle of human thought considered and honed over the ages? I'm pretty sure my Philosophy 1A prof said something like that last year. Of course I had a head cold. Maybe I misheard."

"No, no. You probably heard right. Philosophers think quite highly of their craft. It's just that their approach doesn't make much sense to me. I mean who lives their life chained to a wall interpreting shadows? And how do you know that the shadows can't give a perfectly good insight into reality? It's not like Plato or any of the others actually did or do experiments to confirm their *insights*. Doing experiments would be perilously close to science.

"It looks to me like philosophers are, and always have been, more interested in winning arguments and "defeating" their opponents through cleverness and slight of tounge. But what do I know? I'm just a politician who is temporarily out of office.

"No matter. Let's see where we are bound next." Satan opened a door.

Satan opened the door revealing a ruined cityscape -- substantial three,four,five story buildings -- some reduced to rubble, others sporting large holes, perhaps one window in ten was intact. The streets were littered with rubble, burned out vehicles, piles of junk. It was night. Clouds raced across the face of a nearly full moon. A single streetlight guttered about two blocks away. There was motion. Vague shapes loped by howling demented screams of rage and fury.

"Ooops" Said Satan who promptly slammed the door.

"What was that?"

"The noise? Lawyers. They've probably smelled fear and money. Nasty critters. Aggressive, Contentious, Mean spirited. Bad tempered. Greedy. They've apparently sighted a victim. They travel in packs and their prey is doomed. They'll track it down, rip it to pieces, reduce it to bones, then turn on each other.

"The city? I dunno. Stalingrad? Berlin? Beirut? Cleveland?

I don't think the lawyers can harm us, but why chance it? And the city doesn't look like any fun at all. Probably not a decent cup of coffee to be found. We'll go back to the corner and try a different set. It's not likely to be worse and will probably be better."

They walked back to the corner. Liz glanced into the grotto. The TV showed an shiny, unaccountably spotless car racing down a dusty desert gorge pursuing a creature approximately it's own size that appeared to be a cross between an octopus and a scorpion. (Liz wondered briefly what would happen if the vehicle caught up with its target). A streamer indicated that the car could belong to the viewer for $399 a month and an infintessimal payment at lease signing.

The monk was foaming at the mouth.

Satan and Liz reversed course and returned to the doors. Satan opened the same door he had opened a few minutes before. It revealed a scene somewhat reminiscent of the airport. A long line of sad looking people, each with a fist full of paper. In the far distance a number of people sat in chairs or a schoollike desks where they were filling out forms. The atmosphere was one of frustration.

"Wha?" asked Liz

"DMV" Said Satan. That's probably two weeks worth of line. And not one of them has the proper paperwork properly filled out and properly signed and stamped. We're not going there."

Satan slammed the door. He and Liz once again walked back to the corner.

The TV showed happy dancers playing Frisbee with yummy looking pizzas while executing an elaborate floorshow routine.

The monk in his grotto was gibbering.

Back to the doors. Satan opened the door revealing a large room painted in light colors. Thirty or forty obviously exhausted and unhappy men and women were pushing huge stones about with their chests. There were at least two dozen fit looking young men and women wearing white lab coats standing about watching and making notes on clipboards. Satan slammed the door.

"That was the fourth circle of Hell and those were the greedy?" asked Liz.

"Sure looked a lot like it, but I think it was a Physical Therapy session. We really shouldn't be able to get to Hell that easily from here. I didn't recognize any clergeymen in the crowd. And most of our demons aren't anywhere near as pretty as those attendents even late in the evening just before the bar closes. Anyway, I think we can do better than that. PT. Yechhh."

They made another cycle past the monk who sat slumped in a corner, a picture of complete dejection.

Once again Satan and Liz returned to the doors and Satan took his fourth shot at the same door. Satan found this try acceptable and they stepped through the door. They found themselves in a metal lined corridor. When Satan opened the door they were immediately sucked through and the door slammed convincingly behind them. There was a bulkhead door a few meters ahead and another a few meters behind. Both were open, but because the corridor was curved, their visibility was limited. Liz took it all in then realized that to her great surprise, she was floating two feet off the floor. "There's no gravity!" she exclaimed.

"That's because we're on the space station. Strictly speaking, there's plenty of gravity, but we're flying through space at just the right velocity to cancel it. Anyway no gravity would be the least of our problems if we were going to stay here for any length of time -- which we aren't."

"Eh?"

"Not only are we in space, we've also experienced temporal displacement."

"Temporal replacement?"

"Temporal DISplacement. We're in the future. Probably hundreds of years in the future. That's bad."

"Eh?"

"You see, "THEY" abandoned the space station in 2168 when "THEY" finally figured out what they should have noticed in 1980. It's completely useless."

"Oh?"

"That means that there's no one out here but the construction bots, the ghosts, and us."

"Construction bots?"

"Construction robots? Sometime around 2040, it will occur to someone that they could gather up small metallic asteroids using automated mining machines, move them back to the space station using solar sails, grind them up with solar powered machines, sinter the powder back together using concentrated sunlight, and use the stuff to expand the space station. It'll sound like a good idea if you don't ask questions about why you are doing all that. So they'll build a bunch of autonomous machines and a few of repair bots that can fix the mining/grinding/welding bots and each other. And the station will be building itself pretty much forever. Tens of thousands of rooms. More every year. All empty.

"Ghosts?"

"Ghosts? As you've noticed, there's no gravity up here. No gravity, bodies don't have to work against it. Muscles atrophy. Physiology changes. After a few years, you need months of heavy duty exercise if you plan ever to return to Earth. After a few more years, you can't go back even with exercise. So the place fills up with 'humans' who can't survive on Earth. And their kids get feebler, and weirder, and dumber. And their kids ... Visions of this place were what fueled H P Lovecraft's stories about degenerate descendents of once noble races. Of course the losers up here weren't very noble to begin with. But they got a lot worse.

"Are they still around? The ghosts?"

"Very likely. Depending on when we are."

"In any case, there's no reason to stay here. And lots of reasons not to. And I can use real magic here because it doesn't matter if someone detects it and comes looking for us. Whoever shows up is more than welcome to spend the next millennium or so searching each and every corridor and room in this warren looking for us.

Satan reached into his backpack and hauled forth three pentagrams -- one somewhat singed, a cross, and an animal skull featuring a remarkable number of large, chicletish teeth. Satan handed the skull to Liz and said "when the luminous sphere appears, pitch that into it."

"Uh ... sure. What happens if I miss? And is it OK for you to use a cross?"

"Best if you don't miss And the cross is just a tool. Like a torque wrench or a screwdriver. Anyone can use one. Even me. On good days."

"Is this a good day?"

"Any day I can get off this orbiting termite nest is a good day."

Satan proceeded to produce a manual and to stack the pentagrams according to a blurry picture with notes in seven languages. All the time mumbling to himself. "insert the cross shaft D in the opening K. ... What opening K? ... And which end of the cross is the shaft?"

Sure enough, after perhaps fifteen minutes of mumbling and swearing, a luminous sphere enveloped the structure?

"Now?" Asked Liz.

"No, next Tuesday after brunch. Yes, and soon, this thing is getting HOT."

Liz managed to propel the skull into the sphere -- a feat that was fairly difficult in zero gravity. The skull lit up a brilliant orange. lighting bolts crackled. Everything when green. Then red. Then dark. Satan and Liz were dumped unceremoniously, in full Earth gravity, onto a wide, barren, slightly damp plain.

Liz got up, brushed dirt off her jeans and looked around at the purported scenery. "Where might we be?" she asked.

"We might be a lot of places, but a think we are in Sumeria in 2034BC about 6 weeks after the great flood."

"I thought we were aiming for the bunker a few days after we left.

"We were. Damn pentagram slipped at the last minute. It's that cheap Chinese crap from Amazon ... That, or the crummy instructions."

"Dangerous?"

"Probably not. Everything alive is hanging out at the ark waiting for some plants to grow back. I don't know where the ark is, but it's not here. ergo-we're alone and safe. Simple logic"

"What's that?" Liz pointed at a dark spot some distance away -- the only thing visible other than thousands of hectares of dirt.

"I dunno. Let me check. Appears to be an tapered cylinder at a range of ..." Satan briefly sprouted two grotesque extensions for his eyes temporarily putting them a meter or more apart. "400 meters more or less. and it looks to be an urn or amphora"

"An urn? Like a jar? And how far is 400 meter in English units?"

"Yes a jar although if I've misguessed the age, it could be an IED or, if we're really unlucky, the holy grail. Or maybe it's a funny shaped rock. 400 meters is about 16000 inches." (note: 15748.0315 inches)

Liz favored Satan with a look of complete contempt.

"It's about a quarter of a mile away. Why don't we walk over and take a look at it?"

It took them about four minutes to stroll the quarter mile to the object.

"What's the problem with the Holy Grail?" asked Liz.

"Nothing, really. But that damn jug has never meant anything but grief for everyone who comes in contact with it. Look what happened to its first owner. For us, it might be full of uncommitted angels -- no alligience to me or Yewah. Teases at best. Quislings more like. And even if the grail is empty, You never know who or what is going to turn up looking for it. It's all too likely to be some slay first, ask questions later dimwit like Galahad or Lancelot."

They approached the jar. Satan examined the markings and proclaimed it to be a wine jug from Noah's own cellar.

"That's a LOT of wine isn't it?"

"Well, yeah, but Noah lived in the desert and the water wasn't very drinkable. Something about fracking fluids his lawyer claimed. Anyway, his family went through a lot of wine."

"Is it any good?"

"Not very, had some once once on a trip through these parts. Wimpy, with a faint overtone of mendacity. But I think this jug has been opened then resealed, so there probably isn't any wine in it anymore.

"What IS in it?"

"Let's look. But first ..." Satan pulled a fist sized yellow plastic box out of his backpack and waved it past the jar. "Djinn detector" Satan explained. "... Only about .02 microgenies ... which is the background count in most places. Should be safe."

The Djinn detector went back into the backpack and a two meter long wooden staff came out. "Snakes." Satan explained. "They like to sleep in dark cozy places."

"No snake detector?"

"Had one. Can't remember where I put it. Didn't work all that well."

"Can't you talk to snakes?"

"Sure. I speak hundreds of dialects of serpent. But it's like dealing with religious fundamentalists or cocker spaniels. You're speaking at them, not to them. They don't listen. Besides which. For some reason, I seem to have a credibility problem. I can't think why."

Gingerly, Satan knocked the top off the jug, them levered the base upwards dumping the contents onto the ground. The contents turned out to be a number of scrolls. Satan picked one up, partially unrolled it, read the top and handed it to Liz. "Ship's log from the ark. Might be worth reading."

He picked up another scroll, read the top sheet and whooped. "A copy of the Necroncomicon in the original Arabic. Been wanting to read this for centuries." He turned to Liz and said. "What say we take a break, unwind, have a few beers and some sandwiches, and read some of this stuff?"

"Won't Rex worry about us?"

"Naw, we'll correct this break out of the timeline when we jump back to our time."

Liz thought it over then put her hand out. "Beer" she said.

Satan produced four beers, a food tray, two folding Adirondack chairs and a beach umbrella from his back pack. He and liz set their chairs up back to back, opened their drinks, and proceeded to read.

Captains Log of the Vessel 'Freedom's Centerpiece'

Saturday August 1st 1326 Post Creation, 1706PM

Received a most curious visitor yesterday afternoon. He arrived in a whirlwind accompanied by thunderbolts and a mob of overweight gentlemen in expensive suits who blew trumpets vigorously and stripped the house of edibles as quickly as any cloud of locusts. The visitor proclaimed himself to be he whose name must not be uttered -- which is, I suspect -- a title he uses when he has forgotten to bring business cards. True to his word, he did not mention a name. Although he claimed to be pure blooded Babylonian, he didn't seem to speak the language very well. Much of the time. he seemed to be reading his lines -- badly -- from a device somewhere behind my right shoulder."

Liz looked up and turned somewhat toward Satan who was reading and chuckling. "Beelzie. It says here that it was the Nameless One -- that'd be you, right? -- who told him to build the ark?"

"Yeah, it was me. Old Yewah was in favor of wiping out all life on Earth and trying again from scratch. But that seemed to me kind of like McDonalds poisoning the french fries.. Poor brand development. We had this massive afterlife set up to service tens of billions of souls and we're going to cut off our soul supply cold turkey? Who was going to have to deal with millions of underemployed demons for hundreds of millions of years while intelligence re-evolved? No Thanks !!!"

Satan went back to his reading.

As did Liz.

"We collected nearly twenty pieces of silverware from the entourage on their departure.

The unnamed one directed me to assemble my family and build a great boat whose purpose would be made clear to me later. He threatened to carpet bomb the town and strafe the herds if I did not come down immediately on the side of freedom and democracy -- whatever that is -- forthwith. Something about "I'm either with him or against him". I'm not entirely sure what carpet bombing, strafing, and democracy are but they sound to me like something I'd like the Sherif Ishmael -- God curse his progeny to the 20th generation -- to try out first. I agreed that I thought Freedom and Democracy were the greatest thing since sliced bread. ... After all, I can always change my mind if they turn out to be something bad.

The visitor left me with about 7000 scrolls of "blueprints" (They are purple) and "Specifications" I examined one of the latter called Mil-Spec-21578A which contains hundreds of pages of tiny print that make no sense whatsoever.

I checked with my attorney today who advised me to build the damn boat and keep careful written records of everything I did. He also told me to make sure that the "Specifications" were well worn -- as if they were in constant use. I asked him if I should attempt to comply with the "Specifications" and he told me he would have to check with spiritual advisers. He sent a dove later in the afternoon advising me that he thought the compliance was neither advisable nor possible and recommending that I burn the note after reading it. No doubt I will be billed for 20 hours for the 4 hours effort he put into this, and I doubt the sleazy worm will be anywhere to be found if problems come up. I have given the Specifications to the goats who have already given them a well worn look.

Question: Why would you hire a tribe that lives in the middle of the desert to build something they have never even seen -- a boat?

Monday August 3rd 1326 Post Creation, 1925PM

My son Japeth has taken over the job of provisioning the boat. Ham will manage construction. Shem has taken over the job of handling publicity, and none too soon as I had to be restrained yesterday afternoon from cutting up a reporter from Channel 8 and throwing his or her (It's unclear to me which pronoun fits) scraps to the dogs. Imagine asking me inane questions about my interest in horticulture while his/her camera crew trampled my crocus beds. I am a bit embarrassed about the incident as whatever substance he/she uses on that preposterous hair would surely have made the dogs sick. They do not deserve that.

Wednesday August 5th 1326 Post Creation 1834PM

An emissary from the nameless one turned up today. He appeared to be sickly, but not too sickly to consume a platter of sweetmeats and seven glasses of wine. After a great deal of social banter, he finally got to the point which was that I could safely ignore most of the "specifications". He advised me however, that I should try to come close to the specified size and to build strongly as the payload would really require those things. The real point however turned out to be that I have to build the entire boat out of something called "Gopher Wood". This wondrous material costs 17 shekels a board foot and is available only from one company in some place called "Texas". The visitor made it quite clear that seriously bad things will happen to me and mine if Gopher Wood is not used.

Regrettably for him, his safe passage was not made a condition of discussion. He is presently residing in the dungeon undergoing our special family bread and water weight loss therapy. Once he is suitably trimmed down, we will sell him to a quarry somewhere. We will, however, use Gopher Wood for the arc. If the nameless one sends enough emissaries, perhaps we will even be able to afford it.

Monday, November 30th 1327 PC. We started to lay the keel for the boat. My cousin Osmer has examined a plank of Texas Gopher wood and has proclaimed it to be ordinary Lebanon Cedar. We have arranged a complex financial deal whereby sales documents for the Gopher wood are forged and notarized by something called a 'document mill'. Money is lent to us to pay for the imaginary wood. The vast reported profits from the non-sale of the imaginary wood cause the stock -- of which we own 43.6% to soar. My attorney slithers by occasionally to arrange the sale of the bloated stock to widows and orphans. He has advised me that it is neither prudent nor possible for me to fully understand the details of the transactions. Ordinarily, I would reject this deal -- which clearly has me marked to be scapegoat -- out of hand, but I know something that has apparently escaped the Texas geniuses. This arc is one hell of a big boat and it will take a lot of water to float it. I do not plan myself or the arc to be here when the forces of law and order come dogpaddling out with their warrants.

In the meantime, the arc is being constructed out of cedar, and the emissaries from the nameless one continue to fetch decent prices in the slave markets at Damascus. Financially we are doing fine -- at least on paper. Perhaps this government contracting racket has something to recommend it.

Wednesday, August 4th 1328 PC. We had something called a Design Review yesterday. It entailed hauling out the blueprints (they remain purple) and specifications and going over them with dozens of voracious gentlemen in suits. Shem, Ham and Japeth took care of the catering -- the volume of which may lead to famine in the towns if the fall harvest is not exceptionally abundant. The kids also took care of something called a Power Point Presentation which was colorful and impressive, albeit spectacularly deceitful. Upon watching it, I felt my breast swell with pride at the quality of our arcmanship. That despite the fact that I know full well that we have not the slightest clue what we are doing arcwise.

We seem to have survived the review although I am told that we will receive a formal list of questions we must answer and will possibly be asked to negotiate a set of design changes. When I expressed concerns about the cost of the catering, presentation, question answering, etc, I was told not to worry -- it's all chargeable costs and billable hours.

OK, I won't worry. But I am making arrangements to have a herd of fast camels, emergency rations, and a reasonable amount of portable wealth deployed where we can get to them quickly if (when) the need arises. There is no way this nonsense we are engaged in can possibly be legal.

I wonder if the camels and rations are chargeable costs? I must remember to ask.

Saturday, August 13 1328 PC. The questions and design changes have arrived by courier. Ham has persuaded me to send the courier back with our answers rather than selling him in Damascus and sending our answers back with the next caravan. Something about "not rocking the boat" -- a curious metaphor that seems to have no connection to the monstrosity being constructed in the North Pasture. The questions are trivial when they are not silly. The design changes also are trivial. Mostly things we would have done anyway like putting doors on the restrooms. I guess that my fears had no basis.

Ham says we have "dodged a bullet" Could be. What is a bullet?

Thursday, October 21st 4th 1328 PC. Staff meeting today. Everybody -- including the slaves -- got to take three hours off from work, guzzle a little wine, listen to an incoherent speech from Ham and an even more incoherent talk from some dude identified as a "motivational speaker" Not sure what the point was. Did not motivate me. Doubt it motivated anybody else.

Monday, November 11th, 1328 PC. Work on the Ark is coming along nicely. Our efforts have single handedly denuded much of Lebanon's once forested hills and have made wealthy men out of a number of once dirt poor woodcutters. But nowhere near as wealthy as they have made us through the Gopher Wood Scam. You would think that the Texans would have noticed that our orders from them have been few and far between, but in fact they seem to be even happier than the woodcutters. I do not think Texans are very bright. Which is a good thing. For us.

There is a problem though. If enough water turns up to float the monstrosity, what good is money going to be? There is, after all, very little point to great wealth if you can not use it to make the lives of your neighbors miserable. *All your money can not another minute buy* or something like that. Aren't going to be a lot of neighbors left to Lord it over if that much water shows up.

Are we going to let the neighbors onto the ark? We'll play that by ear. For sure the lawyers and Texans are on their own. I hope they are taking swimming lessons. I imagine that they are going to need them.

Wednesday March 1, 1329PC. The nameless one has paid us another visit. Much more low-key. He arrived in mid-morning in a noisy flying machine accompanied only by half a dozen men in dark suits, wearing dark glasses and wielding staves that we think might be weapons. No thunder or trumpets and he and his entourage ate and drank nothing although a couple of the suited ones were found scoping out the harem security. We suspect they might be thinking in terms of an after hours party on some future visit. We rather hope they try it. Just because our security people lack advanced technology does not mean they are ineffective.

The nameless one has directed us to collect one breeding pair of every animal on the planet and to load the arc with several months worth of fodder for the lot of them. That doesn't address the problem of feeding all that livestock while we wait for water to turn up. Japeth asked who was going to pay for all this. He was told not to worry, it's all chargeable costs and will all "net out"--whatever that means. He pointed out that merchants dumb enough to extend unlimited credit do not last long in Arabia. The possibility of buying the provisions in Texas, Florida, or New York -- where apparently dumb/crazy is standard issue was discussed, but it was eventually decided that it would be better to procure the food locally. Something called a progress payment was arranged. The nameless one and his entourage then toured the arc and departed with smiles, handshakes, and hugs all round.

Monday April 3, 1329PC. The progress payment has arrived. Shortly after dawn this morning an incredibly noisy flying machine flew over and airdropped three large bales of tightly packed paper sheets each slightly larger than my hand. (Japeth says the bales are called pallets and the sheets are called benjiis. Whatever.) Japeth showed me something called a "packing slip" that seems to say the pallet contains 100,000,000 somethings worth of benjiis. It also tells me that we are part of something called "Operation Desert Cleansing"

Apparently some great monarch across an ocean that may or may not exist guarantees that these "benjiis" are just as good as gold. I find that unpersuasive and suspect that my skepticism will be shared by the money changers. But maybe they will take this paper at a discount. There is certainly a great deal of it. And apparently we are not required to pay it back or even to account for how we use it. What's to lose?

This entire thing becomes more juvenile with every passing day. I wonder what the nameless one is smoking? Is there a way to come by some of it?

Tuesday April 11, 1329PC. It turns out that my fears about the negotiability of benjiis were entirely misplaced. The merchants in Damascus, Baghdad, and Beirut love benjiis. Curious, I bought one of the merchants a flagon of wine, and he explained that most of the "gold" coins in circulation are counterfit and the "bullion" bars are adulterated with tin and/or lead and/or something called "depleted Uranium" and/or who knows what else. He says that the only reason they are still used is the difficulty of purifying the metals and the fact that no one would believe that a bar of pure Gold was pure even if you had such a bar. Benjiis are, he said, much harder for even the most skilled artisans to counterfit. He feels that benjiis are almost as good as Mhyrr or something called Bitcoin. I did not ask about that last for fear that he might tell me.

Meanwhile, the collection of the critters has commenced. It is already clear this is going to be a much harder job than boat building. Most of the critters are elusive. Others are fiesty. Many prefer to eat their neighbors instead of the hay and corn meal that Japeth has provided them. Quite a few of them have proved to be remarkably adept at getting out of their cages/pens. Shem has acquired something called a Confuter that he claims will be of assistance in organizing the massive amounts of data we are collecting on which critters can not be housed next to which other critters. What eats what, Which need what sort of cages, etc. Mostly, it seems to make ugly noises, stop occasionally with something Japeth calls a Blue Screen of Death, and provoke a great deal of language that causes even the camel herders to cringe.

Oh yes, In many cases it is hard to determine sex and age of critters. Or the two individuals we pick may just simply not like each other very much. so our "breeding pairs" may not be able to breed. Shem says that we are probably looking at an extinction event in progress. We have discussed this and have decided that while very likely true, it is not our problem.

I used to like animals. I think the next few months -- let us pray it is no longer than that -- will likely cure me completely of any fondness I may have for animals. Or people for that matter.

Thursday April 20, 1329PC. The zoo is expanding and the process is developing a bit of rigor. We have several thousand species caged relatively serenely although some of the predators are prone to stare at their neighbors and lick their chops. For some reason this makes the neighbors nervous. That's OK with us. Nervous "Bunnies" don't breed because they are too busy looking over their shoulders. We're in favor of anything that keeps this horde from being fruitful and multiplying on our watch.

We have hired some sheepherders to help out. That's working out well For the most part, they are a phlegmatic lot. They don't like people any more than I do so they typically resolve disputes without involving me or my family. Fine with us.

The Confuter is occasionally helpful but on average, it's a bit of a pain in the rear.

Shem got hooked by the claw of a short-faced bear while he was trundling a bale of hay for the zebras past the bear cage. Thirteen stitches. Guess what. The short faced is not going to survive this extinction event. Likewise the dire wolves whose constant howling was driving us mad. If the nameless one wants them to survive, he can damn well have them build their own boat.

The big problem -- other than the mechanical problem of managing all these animals is the smell. I can not imagine what the arc is going to smell like if the voyage lasts more than a few hours.

Monday April 28, 1329PC. A delegation of the tribal elders rolled in this morning to inform me that our beautiful gopher wood arc is an eyesore and must be torn down. An eyesore!!! That from a bunch of mooks who live in badly patched tents that they share with their camels.

I have consulted my attorney who informs me that building a large boat in the North Pasture probably is a zoning violation as the land there is zoned agricultural and multifamily residential and in any case we should have obtained something called a building permit before commencing construction. Also, we seem to be bulding the boat in a floodplain -- which seems eminently reasonable to me -- but apprently requires yet another permit we don't have. Odd that the little weasel failed to mention the need for building permits when he told me two years ago to build the damn thing.

I am truly sorry that those many, many months ago I did not take the nameless one up on his offer to strafe the town. Had I but known then ...

The shyster has evolved a plan to claim that the arc is really a barn and thus exempt from a need for a permit under our "Right to Herd" law. He says that he doesn't really expect to prevail in court but that what with appeals and rehearings and discovery (whatever that is) he reckons he can hold off a final determination for at least two years. I have sent off an messenger to the nameless one asking if two years will be sufficient or, barring that, if he can simply arrange for some disaster or other to sweep my meddling neighbors off to slavery in Egypt. Since the neighbors are lazy, stupid, indolent and incompetent, I doubt they will be much good at pyramid building. But they may surprise me.

The issue of whether I have a moral obligation to take them on the arc when the flood comes has been resolved. They can keep the dire wolves and short faced bears company right here in Sumeria while we float off to happier climes. The critters and neighbors deserve each other.

Thursday May 1, 1329PC The Nameless one has sent us a message via, if you can believe this, an owl. He has told us to keep on collecting animals, and not to worry about the neighbors. They will not, he assures us, be a problem. All very well for him to say. They aren't HIS neighbors. But we have little choice but to continue with what seems to be our designated task. I'm a little hazy on how we got into this situation, but I suppose we probably somehow deserve to be in it.

Something I did not know. Owls eat rodents. I have instructed the scribes to move "Collect Chipmunk Breeding Pair" from the DONE list to the TODO list. We'll update the confuter as soon as some mysterious broken part is FedExed (whatever that means) from Allepo. I am at something of a loss how one tells if the confuter is working right or at all. The only criterion I have been able to come up with is the nature and intensity of the endless stream of profanity from those attempting to use it.

The owl is being returned to the nameless one before he/she/it (how does one tell?) does any more damage.

Tuesday July 1, 1329PC. Calamity! Shortly after dawn this morning a flying machine swept down out of the sun and launched six (we think) thunderbolts. Fortunately, the house was spared and the arc was only slightly singed. But the zoo was struck repeatedly. Unicorns -- the only pair in Mesopotamia, maybe the only pair in Asia -- dead. Likewise the mastodons and mammoths. And so it goes. One or both halves of seventy pairs gone. I do not think we will be able to replace all of them.

Wednesday July 2, 1329PC. The damn owl is back. This time carrying a broadside indicating that the second in command of AlQedda in Mesopotamia was killed yesterday morning in a bombing raid. Could be. If the second in command was a sabertoothed cat or a yeti. We have FedExed the Owl back to the nameless one.

====== Thursday July 4, 1329PC. The misbegotten bird is back yet again. This time bearing a scroll apologizing for Tuesday's "targeting oversight". It includes a sixty two page form that we can complete and submit in order to get reimbursement for the damages done. What is the fair market value for a 1326 model unicorn? It's going to take two people a couple of months to fill out the form. And we will probably be paid in benjiis. We are already awash in benjiis. On the other hand, I can pay the scribes that fill out the form with benjiis.

So our enterprise continues to grow -- carpenters, metalworkers, zookeepers, accountants, confuter techs, janitors, cafeteria staff, veterinarians, something called human resources ... etc, etc, etc. We're running out of water. And the cesspools are overflowing. We have contractors to deal with those problems. Salesmen crawl out of the woodwork to sell us stuff we've never heard of that we apparently can not live without.

Shem has sketched out plans for an incredibly huge five story, five sided barn to hold our ever increasing staff. I have suggested that he allocate space in the barn for an inhuman resources department. I imagine it's only a matter of time. We will not bother with a building permit for the structure.

Is there any point to all this?

At least the owl will no longer be a problem. The cook, using what he claimed was an old Hungarian recipe, made it into a soup. Not as awful as I had feared, but I doubt owl soup is going to be a big seller at the souk.

====== Wednesday October 27, 1329PC

Japeth has discovered an infestation of Orcs in several compartments in a starboard or larboard or something-board aft subdeck of the arc. Apparently it is impossible to get them out of there without damaging the keelson -- whatever that is. I'm a farmer and rancher. I understand cows, goats, sheep, wheat, barley, peaches. I don't understand -- or desire to understand -- any of this nautical stuff. Apparently that is why I have been designated as Captain of the craft. I asked about that at the last design review and was told that it is traditional for those in charge to be clueless.

The orcs are a nuisance with their screaming, posturing, flag-waving, parades, security check-points and military exercises. But de-orcing apparently requires a certified de-orcer and a permit from the village elders -- who are not my favorite people. In fact, I think the orcs may be marginally the more tolerable of the two.

====== Wednesday November 2, 1329PC.

It's starting. Or maybe it's over. Yesterday morning the sky clouded over. Lightning flashed. Thunder crashed. A booming voice intoned "Head em up and Move em out." After some initial confusion we loaded the animals two by two onto the arc. The confuter, of course, failed with a segmentation error when we tried to access the carefully produced accommodation plan, so we are just letting the animals allocate the available space amongst themselves. I fear that will result in the extinction of many herbivores who have set up housekeeping adjacent to carnivores, but we seem to be out of time, and it's the best we can do.

It started to drizzle a few hours ago. The rain is getting harder and a South wind is freshening. We have paid off the staff, given them whopping bonuses for a job well done. Why not? It is unlikely that our huge stash of benjiis will be of much value wherever we are going. None of the animals except the goats and the termites will eat benjiis and they give the goats diarreah. Best to get rid of them.

We have provided the staff with sufficient wine for one hell of a party. Presumably they will slosh off toward the brothels, bars, gambling halls, and opium dens of Baghdad their pockets stuffed with benjiis, once their hangovers subside. I hope that they have a really good time in Baghdad. I fear that the aftermath may be a bit more stressful than they anticipate.

The confuter has been dragged off to a slowly deepening pond near the arc. It is our plan to sit and watch its slow engulfment by the rising waters from a viewing station on the bow of the arc. We have a pool on when it will finally sink beneath the waves. I have 1000-1130 hours tomorrow morning in the pool. My chances of winning look quite good.

Shem and Japeth have strongly suggested that this log be closed out and left with the confuter. Something about incrimination and not wanting it on the ship if we are boarded by something called the Coast Guard. I have agreed with that rather than waste energy arguing about how this mysterious Coast Guard is going to survive the deluge, and why, if the Nameless one's great plan (there is a plan, right?) includes their survival, they have not been deligated part of the zookkeeping duties.

Only two stowaways have turned up so far. Both dead and partially eaten -- one by the big cats, the other by crocodiles. If any turn up alive, our plan is to put them to work washing dishes and shoveling dung for a week or three before putting them over the side in one of the lifeboats. All in all, I think you are probably better off building your own arc than trying to steal a ride on someone else's.

The boat is already starting to stink. I hope this proves to be a safe and, above all, short journey.

It is time to close out this log.

Japeth has suggested that the final line should be "Better Here Than In Philadelphia" I do not know what that means, but it has a fine ring to it.

"Better here than in Philadelphia."

The scroll ended.

Liz stretched, finished her beer, placed the scroll back in its jar after checking carefully lest any serpents had crept in while she read. Satan meanwhile was reading rapidly and chortling to himself.

Liz wondered whether it was polite, possible or wise to interrupt him, but he looked up of his own accord. "You're finished? Good. We should probably move along."

He stood and stuffed chairs, umbrellas, beer bottles sandwich wrappers, and such into his backpack. Liz stared -- astonished as always by the apparently unlimited capacity of the backpack. "Beelzie" she asked "You just stuff things in there at random like my mom does with her purse. How can you find anything later and why aren't your hands covered with scratches from pawing through all that junk?"

"Easy. It all dematerializes as soon as it's inside. When I want to retrieve something I just reassemble it from its component atoms. Purses are for humans. Demigods have more advanced technology."

"And you didn't just stash this ring in there when you abruptly left your office" she lifted her necklace chain a couple of centimeters causing the ring to pop into view, "because that would be too damn simple?"

"To be honest, I didn't stash the ring in my bag because it never crossed my mind to do so. But I don't think I would have anyway. After disassembly and reassembly, it'd look the same. But it might not work the same. It's not like I have the slightest idea what Sauron was up to when he forged these things or why the hell he wanted to rule Middle Earth anyway. Why would anyone want to run a domain full of contentious, bad tempered creatures who are constantly plotting against their ruler and each other. Ruling Middle Earth would be like being Emperor of Ireland or the King of the Balkans. His reign would probably have been nasty, brutish, and short"

"That from the Lord of the Underworld."

"It's not like I have a choice. Ruling Hades is my station, not especially my desire. I sometimes think that I'd rather be figurehead and spend my time studying fish like Hirohito or painting odd pictures like George W Bush."

"Why don't you quit?"

"I don't think I'm allowed to Quit."

Satan reached into the backpack and hauled out the pentagrams, cross, and skull. He handed the skull to Liz. "Same drill as last time."

He assembled the parts. The luminous sphere appeared. Liz injected the skull. The colors cycled and Liz and Satan were again propelled through space and time ... to the ground outside the door to the hermit's grotto.

"I thought you were targeting the rabbit hole." Said Liz.

"I thought I was too. Next time -- if there is a next time -- maybe you should do the cross and I should inject the skull."

Once again they trooped back to the hermit's grotto where a crowd of oversized hominids in red and purple outfits topped with plastic helmets were emptying a cooler of ice cold water on a screaming hermit.

"I think he likes it better when his team loses." remarked Satan as they walked back to the doors.

The door opened onto a scene that was dismal rather than scary. Somewhat dingy storefronts and apartments lined a broad avenue filled with stationary traffic (If it isn't moving is it still traffic?). Dirty snow topped with trash containers and plastic bags was piled alongside sporadically cleared sidewalks A few scrawny leafless trees could be seen along with openings where others had probably once grown, but apparently had given up -- possibly driven to dispair by their environment. The sky was leaden. The temperature seemed piercingly cold. The wind was gusty and unpleasant. A few warmly dressed pedestrians scurried around on mysterious missions. They seemed as cheerless as their setting.

Satan turned left and set out at a brisk pace with Liz striding along behind. "It's only a block or two to the next gateway." Satan declared. "We won't bother with Arctic gear unless you think you need it."

Liz struggled to keep up. She observed that much of the "stalled" traffic was really double or triple parked. They came to a corner and crossed against the light. Car horns honked. There was no streetsign on the cross street. Liz managed to make out a name on the streetsign for the main street. "Commonw???h Av?". The next corner was similar. And the next.

Satan slowed. Liz, shivering, pulled abreast. "About that Arctic gear ..."

Satan stopped and pulled two overcoats out of his backpack followed by two watchcaps.

While they pulled on their outer garments, Liz asked, "Where are we? This isn't really Boston, right? Not in October?"

"Well, Boston can be pretty nippy in October. But no, you're right. This is Faux Boston and it's always February here. We patterned it on the real Boston of course .. mostly."

Protected against the cold, they set out again. "Is there a point to this miserable place?"

"Not really. I mean there must have been some point, but whatever it was, it didn't work out. We just use it for tropic dwellers who have transgressed. Cold, damp, crowded. Everything they hate. If they've been really bad, we give them a car and make them drive. It's always rush hour here. Which means nothing moves."

They walked on for several more blocks.

"Beelzie. I thought you said it was only a block or two to a gateway?"

"I must have turned the wrong way or something."

"Beelzie. Are you like ... lost?"

"Well, Maybe a bit.

"Are you going to ask for directions?"

"Absolutely not!!! First of all, I'm male and thus genetically incapable of asking for directions. Besides which, if I did ask, and got an answer, I probably wouldn't understand it. And do you really think that anyone who knew where a gateway out of here was would be hanging out waiting to talk to strangers? Of course not. They'd use the damn gateway and hope for someplace warmer.

Liz decided that the last point at least sounded like a winner.

They walked on. Finally Liz asked, "Are we just going to walk until we stumble onto a gateway?"

"Yep."

"Is there any chance of a gateway down one of those side streets?"

"Sure. And I've been checking each out as we pass. Haven't seen anything. We're certainly not going to wander around side streets in Faux Boston without being able to see our objective. This place is just like the real Boston. Four right angle turns do not get you back to where you started, They just get you hopelessly lost. Anyway, there should be a subway entrance along here somewhere soon. Every T station has a gateway in the Men's restroom."

Liz thought briefly. "I gotta tell you Beelzie, I'm less than wild about this Men's room idea, but if that's what it takes to get me out of this icebox, I'm game."

In the middle of the next block, they came upon a black phone booth like box on the sidewalk with dirty snow piled around its sides. It looked so ordinary that they almost walked past. Satan -- who had been expounding interminably on the evil of the Federal Reserve and his extensive plans for the current chair when he got his hands on that worthy -- stopped abruptly. "Whoa, what have we here?"

Liz stopped and examined it. "Well, it seems to be a Police Box. Do they have Police Boxes in Boston? I thought police boxes were a British thing. Bobbies on bicycles two by two and that sort of thing"

"No, they do not have Police boxes in Boston. At least I'm pretty sure they don't. And I don't think it's a police box anyway."

The light dawned. "Oh, you think it's one of those Dr Who things -- whatever they were called?"

"A TARDIS. Yep, I'm pretty sure it is."

"It's bigger on the inside, right? And it's warm inside?"

"Sort of, and sort of. It's not really bigger inside. That'd violate the laws of physics. But it'll look and feel bigger, and illusion is what really counts. And it'll be warm by British standards" Satan tried the door. It resisted him. He turned red and twisted hard on the handle. The handle came off. But the door swung open.

Satan ushered Liz inside. Indeed, it seemed quite roomy. And warmer. Satan turned to Liz and explained. "I'm not sure about this gizmo. I don't think it's a real TARDIS -- if there is such a thing as a real TARDIS. If it were, it would have manifested as something less conspicuous. Maybe a door stoop with a couple of drug dealers hanging out. And as far as I know, the time lords -- if they exist -- have never shown up in our afterlife. I don't think our rules of causation are compatible with their time travel practices.

So it's probably Dr Who's TARDIS which was, as I recall, one flaky device. Just because it isn't exactly real doesn't mean that it's harmless. So we don't want to provoke it into doing something. Might inconvenience both us and the Doctor if we take his transport and dump ourselves into the Coliseum just as the Romans are letting the lions loose.

Liz stuffed her hands into her pockets and edged away from the nearest wall.

"I'm hoping that there's one of our gateways in here. I'm pretty sure I can spot it if there is."

"How sure is 'pretty sure?"

Not unexpectedly Satan sidestepped the question. "Don't worry. If I have any doubts, we'll just warm up here then move on to the subway station.

Satan walked about. Liz stayed frozen in place. Frozen in more ways than one. The TARDIS was warmer than the outside, but only marginally. Satan stopped in front of what appeared to be a coat closet and examined the door minutely. "I'm 99% sure this is a gateway. How about I open it and we'll see if I recognize what's on the other side?"

Liz, shiverring, thought for a minute. "Well, OK. But we're only going through if you recognize the destination ... and it's warm there."

Satan opened the door revealing a wide sandy beach with palm trees waving in a balmy breeze. Satan closed the door again.

"Was there something wrong with that? It looked delightful?"

"I recognize it. Tarawa Atoll, afternoon of November 19, 1943. There are probably about 2000 Japanese troops watching that beach. I doubt they'd let us sunbathe in peace.

"Can't we just stand in the doorway and get warm?"

"Naw, not a good idea. Sometime in the next few hours, the Americans will start lobbing explosive shells the size of a small refrigerator onto that beach. We'll just have to settle for the what warmth there is in here. I'd adjust the thermostat, but I don't trust this thing. The thermostat is probably hooked to the steering. it'd probably dump us someplace nasty. And this being British, the heat probably doesn't work anyway.

"OK. But Beelzie, it's COLD in here."

"Yeah, it is. That's really why the British drink their beer at room temperature. Room temperature in a British pub in Winter is just about ideal for beer.

"OK, then. Why don't we just move on to that men's room? Is it warm /there/?"

At that point a bell rang loudly startling both of them.

"An alarm?" Liz stammered.

It rang again

Satan held up a hand.

The bell rang again.

"Not an alarm, I think" Satan looked around the somewhat cluttered room. His eyes fell on what he was looking for. He strode across the room as the bell rang yet again. He grabbed the receiver off the wall mounted telephone and spoke into it his voice overpriced hotel concierge smarmy. "Who residence. Ask not for whom the bell tolls."

He listened, frowned, frowned more deeply. Then he reached over to the phone and pressed *75. He turned to Liz. "Rachel from Cardholder Services with an important message about my current account. I sent her a plague of boils. Or maybe it was a drone armed with a tactical nuclear device. Hard to keep all of those star codes straight.

Satan offered Liz his arm. She took it. "You about ready to go m'dear?"

They walked to the door. Satan pulled the door open, but instead of the dismal street scene they expected, they found themselves at the top tier of a large auditorium full of people. Satan muttered something about a second gateway. He sounded slightly surprised. Liz pulled off her glove with her teeth and pushed her free hand through the doorway. "It seems warm enough. Is it OK to go through?

Satan gently removed her arm from his and fished around in his backpack. He pulled out a vaguely cell-phonish device, aimed it through the door, and squeezed it twice while shaking it right to left at an angle of about 15 degrees from horizontal. "Great interface on this thing" remarked Satan. "easy, natural, intuitive." He pulled the gadget back into the room where they stood and looked at its tiny screen. Squinting, he said "Temporal displacement only 3 seconds, relative velocity nearly zero, only hazards within 100 meters are two lawyers -- both sonomulent and a religious nut. If she bothers you, just take her flowers and give her a donation of a couple Tesla-20s. No major disturbances detected in the next 15 minutes. Tox and biohazard checks OK. High tide in 95 minutes. Sunrise at ... No matter. Should be safe enough. Besides which, since this is the only outside door, the alternative would appear to be to wait here for the arrival of an animated trash barrel waving ray guns and babbling about extermination."

They stepped into the auditorium.

On the stage a handsome man was speaking. He had a voice reminiscent of cathedral bells chiming in the distance on a perfect Autumn afternoon. "And Lo I say to you that science proves, nay dictates, that if you continue with your sinful ways mankind will continue to be be plagued with terrible storms, droughts and floods and disease and famine and telemarketing and taxation and every other evil known to history. I know that there are those of you out there who laugh at the 613 commandments, and embrace debauchery, and the burning of hydrocarbon fuels, and covet your neighbor's oxen, and even -- secretly, late at night, listen to rock and roll music. I warn you that we -- those of us who are virtuous -- will seek you out and reducate you."

Satan yawned.

"613 commandments?"

"The Torah. Hard to keep all those directives straight, but 613 sounds about right. Fortunately, I'm exempt."

The man on the stage continued on and on and on. The audience drowsed.

"Why are these people here if they aren't interested in the sermon or lecture or whatever the hell it is?" Liz asked.

"Social mores" answered Satan. "They are under the misapprehension that attending improves their character by osmosis. Or they attend to impress others with their piety."

An indeterminate time later, Liz whispered to Satan. "This is pretty tedious. Does my soul need salvation and, if so, is this the place to get it?"

"Quite probably your soul needs salvation. You've been keeping bad company. But I don't think this is the place to get your essence power washed.

Liz started to rise, but Satan gently restrained her with a hand on her arm.

"I don't think they take well to people leaving before the collection plate is passed. We'll wait for a break, then be on our way." Said Satan.

"How long?" Asked Liz.

"No Way to tell. Depends on what sort of show it is. If it's a lecture, probably not too long. If it's religious, it might last for a couple of hours before the collection and a few final hymns. But I don't see a choir or an organ, so it's probably not religious. If it's a sales pitch, it might last for days, but they'll have break for bathroom and refreshments every few hours. If it's too tedious, you can always yell 'Fire'."

Sure enough, in a few minutes the tempo of the diatribe picked up and rose to a crescendo. Liz, who was not paying much attention caught vague and overlapping references to missionary schools in Pakistan, hospitals in Siam and saving millions in Argentina from the evils of the demon rum. Curtains over the galleries retracted revealing a large choir which was quietly humming uplifting music -- perhaps Beethoven or Mozart although nothing she could pin a name on. A number of burly individuals started down the aisle passing collection plates which liz observed to have been salted with banknotes, jewelry, credit cards, and even a wallet or two.

By the time the plates reached Liz and Satan, they were loaded with wealth. Satan, ostentatiously dropped a pile of Tesla fifties in the plate and simultaneously palmed a stack of real money. Unfortunately the Tesla cash burst into flame when it contacted the plate and a siren started to screech. Satan muttered a curse, dropped the cash into his backpack, and stood up.

"Damn fraud detectors. Time for us to leave m'dear." He skimmed the collection plate at the line backer sized individual who was overseeing the collection and jerked Liz upright. "There is a time to every purpose under heaven. This is the time to run."

Somehow Liz and Satan made it out the back door of the auditorium scant meters ahead of a rapidly developing lynch mob. Satan slammed the heavy door, wedged it with the iron restraining bar. grabbed Liz's hand, and led her out of the building and through an open air market at a very brisk pace. The sounds of pursuit soon faded.

Satan looked around and selected an unmarked door in what appeared to be an office building on the opposite side of the market square. "Portal" he said.

Satan hustled Liz to the door, wrenched it open, pushed her through, followed, and slammed the door behind them.

Satan and Liz proceeded down the hall. It was brightly lit. The carpet was fairly clean. As were the walls. There were occasional doors, but none that had any appeal. "Where are we headed", asked Liz.

"I'm not entirely sure. Out of Hell of course. But to tell the truth, I'm still a bit lost."

"Are you going to ask for directions?"

"Of course not. To be honest, I can't understand directions from most people and even if I understand them, like most of you humans, I'm not great at following them. Besides which, exactly who would I ask?"

They strolled on.

"Do you smell something odd?" Asked Liz.

"It's coming upon kind of fishy."

"Not just coming upon. It really smells like a fish market ... in Summer"

There was a noise behind them. A squishy noise. Satan looked back over his shoulder. "Run" he said and took off

Liz ran along with him. She looked back over her shoulder. Something in back. Big. Bounding down the corridor pursuing them. Fast. Big mouth. Teeth. Abundant teeth.

Satan came to a door that may or may not have been locked. He wrenched it open and held it while Liz dived through. Then he stepped through and slammed the door. He backed against it to hold it against ominous thuds and crashes from the other side. Shortly the banging subsided and after a couple of minutes Satan stepped into the room.

"What was that?" Liz asked.

"Don't know. Don't care." Said Satan. Refugee from some horror novel probably. Maybe Lovecraft. Degenerate representative of a once noble race. Ugly SOB. Nothing I especially want to deal with."

The room was small and was furnished with a dilapidated armchair and a sagging sofa with two rusty iron springs exposed. There was a coffee table on which rested a dogeared copy of LIFE Magazine with a barely legible date in October 1963. Next to it was an overflowed ash tray and a coverless Reader's Digest. The walls held two faded pastoral paintings and a faded square where a third had obviously once resided. In it's place was a cross-stitched sampler in a heavy, ornate framed. It read IF YOU CAN'T AFFORD TO GET SICK, THEN DON'T GET SICK!!! In one wall was a dusty glass panel behind which could be seen a hand lettered sign reading "GONE TO LUNCH ... BACK MANANA ... MAYBE."

"Dentist's office?" asked Liz.

"Naw, Doctor." said Satan. "A dentist's office would have pictures of smiling 22 year old models. And maybe a toothpaste ad or two"

"People get sick in Hell?"

"Of course, how else could we inflict the misery of dealing with hospitals and health insurance companies on our clients?"

"And you have doctors?"

"Of course we have doctors. You don't think all those kickbacks and freebies from drug companies, and such entitle one to a free pass into heaven? Our doctors aren't able to treat any of the diseases we spread around, but they are doctors. Oh yeah, and none of them speaks any language their patients speak very well. Setting *that* up took a lot of work."

"And you have health insurance?"

"Not really. We have health insurance companies, but they never actually pay for much. It's a total free market system. The health insurers compete for customers and make lot of money. The doctors compete for patients, but they never actually cure anyone. They just keep them alive and sick. Profits are maximized. Patients pay and pay and pay. Capitalism at its purest. Have I mentioned that I adore capitalism?"

"By the way, the one phrase you will never hear from our doctors is ~/I don't know~/ They always have an answer. It'll be wrong or irrelevant unless it's something the patient will reject like ~/Drop 60 pounds and those sore knees will go away~/, but they always have an answer.

"Besides which, hospitals are a rotten place to work. Full of sick people who are in pain. Terrible food. fascist nurses. incompetent administrators. and arrogant doctors. We have lots of sinners doing their penance for past sins emptying bed pans and arguing with patients. And the paperwork. You can't imagine the paperwork.

"So what do we do now?" Asked Liz.

"I don't feel sick. Do you?"

"Naw, I've never felt better." Liz paused, "Well actually, I'm tired, and hungry and my eyes are sandpapery. But I think I could skip the doctor's visit."

"Right then. My tail's a little itchy, but I can pick up some sort of ointment or potion at the next supermarket that'll either fix it or make me not care or both

"How are you going to pay for it?"

"Pay for it? You clearly have me confused with some other quasidiety.

"So ... we're not leaving through ~/that~/ door." Satan gestured toward the door to the hall. "And this one is probably locked." Satan reached for what was most likely the door to the doctor's offices. He twisted the handle. It was locked. "Would you prefer to crawl out through the air vents or should I summon up a tunnel?"

"Couldn't you summon up the Presidential Suite on a Cruise ship? Maybe a ship with a great buffet and first class entertainment and drinks with little umbrellas, and some cute, unmarried male passengers who like to dance?"

"Hmmmm, Hades has a couple of cruise ships that operate out of Port Brimstone. But I don't think you'd like them. The ~/Maljornado~/ is big and ugly and smells bad. The staterooms are tiny and damp. The food sucks -- mystery meat on burnt toast -- but it doesn't matter much because two hours out the Capitan will deploy the destabilizers and everyone will be seasick until the ship runs up on a reef in a week or so and the crew and officers take off with the lifeboats, leaving the passengers to swim to shore.

"The ~/Paradisio~/ is more like what you have in mind ... until the zombie killers start stalking the halls recruiting. Exciting, but not really laid back.

Liz frowned. "There's no way out that doesn't involve tunnels?"

"OK, let's look at the alternatives:

Chapter9 - To Hell Chapter11 - ???? DINTRO11.HTM
Endnotes -


Other stuff that might fit in