|Chapter3-Liz engages an attorney||Chapter5- Hell|
"OK,OK" Said Liz. She marched down the stairs and into the tunnel.
The rock walls changed to walnut panels "The Pines of Rome" drowned out the distant crashing of surf. The noise of the wind faded. But a few steps later, the paneling gave way to drywall, then to wooden studs, then to raw rock. Likewise the carpeting changed to concrete, then to dirt. The inviting lighting faded to a vaguely sulfurous green glow. The music faded and the only sound was their breathing and footsteps. They walked on and came to a fork in the tunnel.
The devil waved his wand producing a bright warm light. He examined the corner about two meters above ground level. Disgusted he pointed at two small holes on each side of the corner. "They've stolen the tunnel signs again." he declared.
"Tunnel gnomes?" Liz -- always a quick study -- asked.
Probably not. Their style is more swapping the signs or not. Then leaving a gnome that always lies and one that always tells the truth. They hang around get their giggles when travelers try to get enough information to proceed. Looks to me like maybe the happy media.
"The Happy Media?"
"Happy Mediums if you prefer. TV news people. Not allowed into Heaven or Hell. Travel in packs. They have it in their heads that making sure the public is widely misinformed is their noble mission. A great aid in my work actually, but a real nuisance when you are trying to get something done. Mostly attractive blondes with way more teeth than normal people. Anyway, they are vandals at heart and at times like these it comes out.
The devil waved his wand and inquired of the paths, "OK, which of you goes to the gates of heaven?"
Both tunnels promptly lit up revealing their floors to be made of -- you guessed it -- yellow bricks. Manic laughter flooded the space. "Drat" said the devil. "I reckon it is gnomes after all."
The devil turned to the left hand path. "Is the other path telling the truth?" The laughter soared. The lights in the tunnel dimmed.
The right hand path. "Is the other path telling the truth?" The laughter soared again. The light dimmed. The laughter soared even further.
"Excuse me." Said Liz hesitantly. "I don't think you will get the answer that way. If I recall, you need to ask a question that has a double negative or three split infinitives or something like that."
"Y'know" said the devil whose face was slowly turning a rather alarming shade of red, "I think you're probably right. But I'm not in the mood to work that out."
"Well, since you seem to have an unlimited number of questions, you could just ask a question that you already know the answer to and see which tunnel lies. Try 'Is the sum of two and two five?'"
The devil addressed the right hand tunnel. "How would you like to be permanently reduced to a wormhole scarcely capable of passing a bacterium ... on good days?" The laughter stopped abruptly. Slowly, reluctantly somehow, the path lit up. "It's the left path" Satan declared.
"Technically, I think you are supposed to ask a question with a Yes/No answer. But your way seems to work."
The devil started down the left tunnel, then stopped and turned. "Y'know, I don't trust these tunnels -- especially when gnomes have been messing with them. Maybe while we have good light you ought to get that flashlight out and make sure it works."
Liz fumbled in her backpack and came up with the flashlight. It was black, sleek, and encased in tough, clear plastic. There was a red tab. Liz pulled on the tab, then pulled harder, then even harder. The tab came off. The plastic appeared to be undamaged. Liz tried to peel it off the flashlight. It didn't peel. She pried at it with her fingernails. They slid off. Satan reached over and took the instrument. One of his incisors grew to about three centimeters. It was sharp edged and serrate. Satan bit down on the plastic with his new tooth -- hard. He examined the plastic -- intact.
"No damn wonder we had the packaging wars" He muttered.
"Packaging war?" Liz questioned.
"Packaging wars -- plural. Five of them. Probably haven't happened yet in your world. In the final war, the mob seized the packagers and their bosses, packaged them, and launched them into orbit around Neptune. Still out there as far as I know. Probably intact since there isn't much in the universe that can penetrate a really solid shrink wrap from the outside. I think you can still buy cheap packaging machines on eBay if you can figure out a use for them."
Satan set the flashlight on the ground, stood back and waved his wand. "Expandemous." The flashlight shivered, and started to swell. The plastic stretched, stretched more, then popped. Satan waved the wand again "Shrinkemous." He leaned over, picked up the flashlight and handed it back to Liz. Liz took it, rotated it, and found a button. She pushed it. A six foot flame shot out of the end narrowly missing Satan who did an immediate back flip out of range. Liz released the button. The flame went out.
"Did I forget to warn you to be careful with that thing? Just in case I didn't -- BE CAREFUL WITH THAT THING.
"Now then. Don't push any buttons or twist anything. How many buttons does it have?"
Liz looked it over. "Three"
"And how many twisties?"
"Just one. Around the lens"
"Maybe seven or eight functions controlled by which buttons you press? And an amplitude control? And maybe an off-on switch built into the ring around the lens? Let's see if we can tame the stupid thing.
"Point it down the tunnel in back of us and press a button ...
Ten minutes later, they had identified a powerful flashlight, a welding torch/flame thrower, a high speed drill, a screwdriver, a pencil sharpener, a fingernail buffer, and what Satan thought was probably a Gro-Lamp. When Liz had been checked out on only activating the flashlight, they proceeded off down the tunnel. Clever readers have probably noted that those are only seven functions listed above. It is unclear why neither Liz nor Satan had any curiosity about the missing eighth function. But they didn't.
After perhaps an hour of walking, Liz asked, "Didn't you say it was only ten minutes to the reception hall? Surely we've been walking for more than ten minutes?"
"I've been wondering about that. You're right, we should have been there quite some time ago. I don't think the other tunnel wasn't lying, so this tunnel must go there, but it seems to be taking a roundabout route. I can't think why.
After another hour, they came to an alcove in the tunnel wall containing two video games and a vending machine. Liz said "I could do with some tortilla chips or something."
She stopped and looked into the machine. There were various goods arrayed on spiral wires. "Let's see, pepper spray ... Molotov cocktails ... 38 ammunition, RPGs ... 'How to build an IED, 40 Projects' ... Taser-Boost. Beelsie, this is pretty scary."
Satan pointed to the logo inscribed across the top of the machine. 'The right to buy weapons is the right to be free' "It's a bunch of loons who call themselves the 'Weapon Makers'. They sell their souls for the right to put up these kiosks. They're mostly a front for the real weapons makers -- Colt, Smith and Wesson, General Dynamics. I wouldn't worry about this stuff. Mostly the stuff doesn't work, and, anyway, we track the purchasers and take away their toys if they endanger anyone other than themselves. They hate us. They'd probably revolt if they were capable of either planning or organization."
Quite while and several kilometers later, Liz noticed an object laying next to the wall. It turned out to be a small brass oil lamp. Liz looked at Satan. "Is it OK to pick it up and look at it?"
"If there aren't any wires hanging off it, sure. And in any case, it can't kill you. You're already dead."
Liz picked it up and examined it. It was about 10cm long -- dingy and smoke stained. It was covered with elaborate geometric patterns and some writing in Arabic or some similar script. There was no oil in it, just some dust. "Is it good for anything?"
"Sure, it's probably a magic lamp. Rub it and you'll get a Djinn who will promise to grant you three wishes. Problem is the Djinn will do it's best to twist your requests into something unpleasant or dangerous. Ask for Gold, and it'll give you a ton of it -- molten -- poured over your head. Tried a lamp once when I was a kid. Worst idea I ever had except for when Solomon and I decided to harvest the honey from a killer bee hive. ... Never again.
"Actually, I think it may be worse than that. An old classic Djinn will grant you pretty much anything you want except more wishes. That looks to me like a modern lamp. Those patterns are probably microengravings of a 15000 word user agreement that says "Whatever you want, there's a reason I can't do it for you." in the most tedious possible way.
"And the new lamps are digital. They are prone to get half way through a task then quit with an incomprehensible error message. Don't work very well, unreliable, perverse, dangerous, but they are dirt cheap. That's called 'innovation'.
Liz looked at Satan. "So what should I do with it?"
"Whatever you want. You have free will. But my advice is to put it back where you found it."
So Liz did and the pair of them trecked on down the tunnel.
After another half an hour, Satan stopped, picked up a loose yellow brick, waved his wand and converted the brick into a GPS unit. After half an hour of consultation, Satan and Liz managed to turn it on and program it for "Reception Desk, Afterlife". It said "Recalculating" then became inert. After a few minutes, Liz said "Maybe we set it up wrong."
They turned it off, turned it back on, and reprogrammed it. It said "Recalculating" then became inert.
They tried walking down the tunnel with it. After about 100 meters, it said "Recalculating" then became inert.
Satan was once again turning red. "We can't waterboard it. Can you think of anything that might persuade this thing to do its job?"
"Perhaps it needs an incentive? Candy?, Sex?, Stock Options?"
"Perhaps you're right." Satan picked up the GPS and held it three inches from his nose. "How would you like to be sealed in a kryptonite box that blocks all satellite signals? You can listen for all eternity for a message that never comes."
The GPS said "In 100 meters, make a legal U-turn" On its screen, it said "Distance to destination 318,601,996LY."
"LY?" asked Liz.
"Light Years" said Satan.
"Ehrrr. ... We've only been walking for two and a half hours?"
"Well, yeah, but distances are different underground."
"Well, no. Not that different. Maybe this widget is broken?" He said pointing at the GPS.
"That's a point. Do GPSs here in the afterlife work underground? They don't in my world."
"I have no idea." Let's me and the wizard here have a talk.
The devil picked up the GPS and addressed it. "Hey amigo, you work in tunnels?"
"Recalculating" said the GPS.
"Do you work in tunnels?" Slowly. Each word articulated carefully.
The devil started to turn red. "Hey, I'm talking to you. You work in tunnels?"
The devil took a deep breath. "What we have here is a failure to communicate. Perhaps I am approaching this wrong." He studied the GPS.
"I'll tell you what mate, I don't think you are working out as a navigation device. Perhaps we can make a few small adjustments." He tapped the GPS with his forefinger. The box changed its shape slightly. The screen shrank. The keyboard rearranged itself and grew more keys. The devil pushed three of them.
There was a pause then a dismbodied voice said "911 Emergency Services. What is your emergency?"
The devil responded. "We are being assaulted by invisible, but hostile agents. I think they are after either the treasure or the princess."
"You need assistance?"
"Where are you located?"
"We rather hoped that you could tell us"
"Hmmm." There was a pause. "We have you located either inside the event horizon of a black hole in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud or about 320 million kilometers NorthSouthWest of All Souls Shoals"
"It'll be the latter almost for sure, but why don't you send rescue teams to both locations?"
"Yes sir. Teams dispatched in five ... four ... three ... two ...one ... seconds. Teams away. They should be at your location in about seven minutes either way. It's good that you are probably at the shoals. We charge extra for extraction and reassembly when we have to do black holes. In any case, you will be billed accordingly. Now then, we should discuss payment options."
The devil said quickly "You're breaking up. I think there's another wave coming. ... Incoming. ..." He produced a whistle dropping in pitch and a surprisingly convincing explosion sound. He quickly closed the cover on the GPS/Cell Phone and placed the phone on the ground.
Liz closed her mouth which had been gaping wider and wider during the performance. "NorthSouthWest? Princess? Treasure? Invisible assailants?"
The devil looked at her and smiled blandly. "Of course they are invisible. Have you seen them? I haven't. They must be invisible"
"The princess? The treasure?"
"Sometimes the emergency services around here need a little incentive. I thought I'd provide some."
"Things underground are a little weird sometimes."
"This is the afterlife. Souls don't ever actually need rescue. Making rescue a for profit operation kind of salves the nerves of one group of crackpots and it's pretty much harmless. It's not like money is actually good for anything here except keeping score. ... Hey, you, not so fast" An unnaturally long arm retrieved the Cell Phone which had grown eight or ten legs and was starting to scuttle off down the tunnel. "You've got one more task to perform before you take the last train to brickville."
The devil did something, and the cell phone morphed into a quite accurate model of Gutenberg's printing press which started stamping out hundred dollar bills somehow wrapped in banded bundles. The devil picked a package up and examined it. "Hey, these are really quite good. Now if you can just put some wear on them and randomize the serial numbers, we should be in business."
The press uttered what sounded distinctly like a raspberry then printed dozens of packages that Satan gathered up. "OK, OK. That's enough. Your period of servitude is over. You are emancipated. Get thee hence." The GPS/cell phone/printing press morphed into a yellow brick with four froggish feet and hopped off down the tunnel.
"And that was all about ... what?" Liz asked.
"They're going to want a credit card or cash. You don't have a credit card, and I can't use mine, so we needed cash. Fortunately, we have come by a tidy sum."
"And it being counterfeit won't be a problem?"
"Counterfeit? Nothing of the sort. I'll have you know that my charter explicitly allows me to operate a mint. If push comes to shove -- which it won't -- We're far more legitimate than the Federal Reserve."
At that point, sirens rose and fell in the distance. They rapidly rose to a crescendo. Three black SUVs appeared and somehow encircled Satan and Liz (no small trick in a tunnel). Men dressed in black suits and heavy battle armor dived out and formed a defensive perimeter.
Their leader approached Satan and Liz. "Remarkably tidy for a battlefield"
"It is, is it not?" Satan agreed.
"This would be the princess?" said the spokesman. "And the treasure? No, don't tell me, the hostiles carried it off."
"Exactly. But we did manage to keep enough to pay you."
Skeptically, "Doubtless the hostiles policed the area? Cleaned up all the forensic evidence?"
"Seems likely," Satan agreed.
"Took their dead and wounded with them no doubt? And yours as well?"
"Our men ran off when the shooting started. I think they went that way" the devil pointed.
"No, no, it was that way." said Liz pointing in the opposite direction.
The rescuer thumbed through the package of bills, Satan had handed him. Then he frowned. "Nice money. Problem is that hundred dollar bills from the mint have a picture of Benjamin Franklin on them. This is, if I'm not mistaken, Nicoli Tesla."
"Stupid brick" muttered Satan.
"Maybe you should have been nicer to it." Suggested Liz.
"Nonsense. Bricks are primitive creatures. They only understand force."
"Seems to me like that primitive brick outsmarted you ..."
The leader broke in. "Children, children. You can quibble later -- for millenia for all I care. Right now the issue is how are you going to pay me. We'll take the money at 3 cents on the dollar. We can unload it on someone eventually. The question is, how are you going to come up with the other $97,000 you owe us?"
"Liar loan?" suggested Satan.
"Secured by what? Your word? I think not."
The silence was deafening.
"How about we put the two of you to work cleaning the Augean Stables until your friends and relatives come up with the money? At the federal minimum wage, your pay should just about cover your keep."
"I don't have any friends and my relatives disowned me centuries ago." said Satan.
"An orphan. Finished off the last of the money in the trust fund a couple of months ago. Bank account overdrawn. Credit cards all maxed out." Said Liz.
"The stables it is then. Maybe friends and relatives will turn up. Or maybe not." He turned to his men. "Mount up guys. Our work here is done"
The men sorted themselves out, stowed their weapons and clambered into the SUVs. Satan and Liz were shoved into the rear seat of the lead vehicle. Satan reached into his bag and muttered something under his breath.
The leader turned the ignition key. Nothing happened. The leader muttered a string of oaths. He tried again. An hour later, all three vehicles sat with their hoods open surrounded by obviously unhappy men. Satan and Liz sat in the back of the SUV drinking the beers the devil had brought along and snacking from a cheese tray. The devil had produced a small stereo from his bag. It was playing Fleetwood Mac.
The leader came around to the rear window of the car and knocked on it. Liz lowered it. "Brie?" she offered.
"I think not now. Maybe later." He turned his attention to Satan. "I don't suppose you would know why these vehicles don't run?"
"Nope. I could take a look at the engine if you'd like."
"I think I'll pass on that. I have sufficient problems for the moment. But I'll remember your offer if I find I need more aggravation during the remainder of our hopefully short relationship. If I were to accept your money at face value, do you reckon that the engines might begin to start to work as mysteriously as they stopped working?"
"I think that's highly probable."
The leader turned to his men. "Ok, problem's solved" He got into the driver's seat and turned the key. The engine roared to life. He pressed a button on the dash and a sheet of paper emerged. He took it around to the still open rear Window and handed it to Liz. "Your paperwork."
Liz and Satan looked at the paper.
|**THIS IS NOT A BILL **|
|STATEMENT OF ACCOUNT|
|TAXES ON TAXES||$22,916.01|
|NICKEL AND DIME SURCHARGE||$75.05|
|TAXES ON ADMINISTRATIVE FEE||$105.05|
"That'll be $44894 if you don't mind. I'll pay the 23 cents just to be rid of you. While you turn out your pockets, I'm going to get this convoy back to civilization."
The leader walked back to the driver's seat, climbed in and tromped on the gas. He left a streak of rubber 200 meters long on the golden bricks as the SUV accelerated down the tunnel. The other vehicles followed. Presently, the vehicle emerged onto an endless plain of alkaline earth marked only by isolated rocks and a few dead looking bushes. The bricks were replaced by a rutted, washboarded dirt road that appeared to stretch forever.
Satan and Liz however, took no notice of all that. They were absorbed by the bill. "Ammunition Surcharge?" Muttered Satan. "No shots fired." "Standard Fee on all rescues. Just in case shooting is required" said the driver.
"What does THIS IS NOT A BILL MEAN?" Asked Liz. "Means it's a bill." Said Satan and the driver in unison.
"Baggage Charge? What baggage?" Asked Liz. "Standard Fee on all rescues."
"License Fee? Whose License? For what?" Asked Satan. "My license. Took me 7 years and 363 units to learn how to conduct rescues. That fee pays for my license and for most of the interest on my student loans. Very important. You wouldn't want to be rescued by a gypsy operator, would you?"
"Of course not. A gypsy might rip us off" muttered Satan loud enough to be heard.
Liz looked at Satan who winked at her. She frowned. He nodded. She didn't understand, but played along. "Are we there yet?" she asked in an annoying tone. Satan nodded encouragement.
He studied the bill some more.
"Gratuity? I think you can forget that." Said Satan
The leader muttered something under his breath. Not audible.
"Are we there yet?" Liz whined
"Tell you what", said Satan. "How about I give you a check?"
"Oh OK. You're waiving the charges here then?"
"Not a chance."
"Are we there yet?"
Satan reached into his attache case and produced a checkbook and an enormous quill pen. "It's a check or nothing" He completed the check and handed it to Liz who handed it to the leader. She was unable to examine it in detail but was pretty sure that the check was drawn on the East Bank of the Styx River and was signed by "Elizabeth Regina". The background engraving showed -- in odd juxtaposition, Nelson's Monument in Trafalgar Square and the grinning face of Nicoli Tesla.
The leader glanced at the check and was not pleased.
"Are we there yet?" Liz whined
"That does it you ungrateful jerk." said the leader. I retrieve you from the far end of the universe; take your funny money; treat you with respect and courtesy; and what do I get? grief. You and your bimbo can go to hell."
He pushed a button on the dash. The top of the SUV rolled aside admitting a cloud of acrid dust. The rear seat took flight propelling Satan and Liz up then surprisingly gently back down to the road in back of the the last truck of the convoy. Satan stood up, dusted himself off, and helped Liz to her feet. Satan gestured in the general direction of the rapidly receding vehicles. "Got rid of them rather cleanly doncha think?"
"Ehrr ... maybe. Can I reserve judgment on that? Have any idea where we are?"
Satan looked at her. "Were you not paying attention? We're in hell, of course."
|Chapter3-Liz engages an attorney||Chapter5- Hell|