|Chapter5- Hell||Chapter7- The Wonderland Raid|
"And now, I think it is time to attend to our business." He reached in to his case and pulled out a small, flat-panel TV. He turned it on and got a fuzzy, moving picture of the back of someone's head. A couple of deft flicks of two fingers and the screen split into four with the back of head shot in the lower right. Two of the screen sections were gray. The last showed a tunnel with lamps and doors. A number of figures were grouped around a rather ugly glass table. "Behold, said Satan, our tap on the Quartermain party's video stream."
"Is there audio?" Liz asked
"Yes, but how about we wait to hook that up until we are dining on the finest of aged cardboard in our command center?
Satan and Liz gathered their stuff up and dumped it into Satan's attache case which had somehow morphed into a backpack -- that being easier to handle on a ladder. With Satan in the lead, they started down the rebar ladder. Sure enough, about 30 rungs down, Satan reached out, put his thumb into a depression in the rock and pulled a sliding door open revealing another tunnel. He swung himself into it, reached out and helped Liz in as well. Closing the door behind them, they proceeded down the tunnel.
Suddenly there was a terrifying growl, three loud barks and a large ball of disheveled brown fur descended on them. Liz was brushed back against the wall. Satan was knocked from his feet. When the copious dust cleared, Satan was revealed laying on his back fending off the amiable attempts of a large dog of uncertain provenance who was trying very hard to lick his face.
"Rex," he said. "Long time no see, what brings you to these parts?"
To Liz's surprise the dog responded in a well modulated baritone. "Well, I was chasing rabbits and things went a bit awry. I should have known that a rabbit with a top coat and time piece boded ill. But you'll look long and hard to find a dog that isn't brain dead who can pass up the chance to chase a rodent. I ended up in that damn tunnel with the strange stuff in it and pursued the silly bunny into a place even nuttier than Texas.
Anyway, after a few adventures I could have done without, I ended up in this tunnel -- which isn't a great place for humans but has a fair number of attractions for canines. I'll probably be moving on though, I think, I've finished off all the dumb rats, and who wants to spend their days being outsmarted by the clever ones? Being outsmarted by rodents doesn't do wonders for ones' self esteem"
Disentangling himself, Satan introduced Rex to Liz, "Rex, meet Liz. Liz, this is Rex the Wonder Dog. Rex has an IQ of 123 which is 40 points higher than the average Southern Senator and a full ten points higher than the smartest recorded banker. He's also the three time champion of the New Jersey Boot Chewing Derby."
Liz muttered some formalities and asked Rex if it was appropriate to scratch a wonder dog's ears. Rex muttered some similar things and replied that well, no, he didn't really much like strangers scratching his ears, but he tolerated it unless he strongly felt the scratcher's appearance, demeanor, or attitude would be improved by tooth marks on his or her derriere. He added. "If we get to know each other better, and I surely hope we do, you will be more than welcome to rub my belly."
Rex turned to Satan and asked "What brings you to these parts. Haven't taken up pursuing bunnies, have we?"
"Naw. I seem to have a bit of a coup'd'etat problem. I thought this might be a good place to settle in for a while while I get a handle on what is going on in hell. So we'll probably be bunking here for the next few weeks. Want to hang with us?"
"Sure, why not? But I have to warn you that my legendary loyalty and bravery to not extend to protecting quasi-deities from the consequences of their own ill-considered actions. Any trouble, and I'm out of here."
"Wouldn't expect it to be any other way." Said Satan.
The party assembled itself and walked down the tunnel away from the rabbit hole. Within a few hundred paces they came to a pair of blast doors festooned with signs and icons. Liz noted one in English reading "Trespassing, Hunting, Fishing strictly forbidden. Violators will be Violated", She also noted a Biohazard marker, and a No Right Turn sign. There were signs in at least 30 other languages and numerous wordless warning signs including one that seemed -- as best she could make it out -- to forbid flipping pancakes.
Satan asked Rex, "Been inside."
"Naw, I have no idea where the latch is, and it's probably a real pain to work it with paws and teeth. Looks like a people task to me. Gonna open it, Master?"
"Master? Riiight. When was the last time any dog interpreted a command as anything other than a suggestion?
"Well, it's true that we canines have a very short attention span and many of us can't seem to remember the subject of a sentence we don't want to hear long enough to match it up with the verb. But still, you are in charge here ... as long as you aren't trying to get me to do something I don't want to do. So it is written in my charter somewhere. Or so I'm told. Dogs can't read y'know.
"Rex, old friend, Someday all that clever is gonna cause you a raft load of trouble. ... But that's neither here nor there. On to the problem at hand. Anybody see a simple way to open this thing?"
Liz examined the doors carefully. Eventually amid all the visual distractions she identified a handle. She pulled on it, pushed it, twisted it. Nothing happened. She wasn't terribly surprised. "There's a handle, but the door seems to be locked. There's no keyhole. Must be some way to unlock it. Do either of you see a keypad or card reader or anything like that?"
Satan examined the doors and the adjacent walls carefully. "You're right, but I don't see where the access thingee is."
"Hold on a second" said Rex. "If the two of you will step back ..."
Rex sniffed. He sniffed again. He made a transit of the tunnel ten feet away from the door. He looped back, turned toward the door and sniffed his way to the door in a zig-zag pattern. He stopped and announced. "For what it's worth, eight of the the last ten people to approach this door walked up to it and stopped right here." He tapped a spot on the floor with his paw. "The other two stopped here." He tapped a spot about a meter to the right. "Assuming that the majority are right handed and the minority left handed, look half way in between between 1 and 2 meters on the line between the two spots."
"Rex, you truly are a wonder." said Liz Rex preened. Satan asked "Rex, do you have any idea how old those tracks you followed are?"
"Not really. Many decades. But I can't really tell you if many is 10 or 50."
"Either's good enough. This thing clearly isn't currently occupied by anyone or anything that uses this entrance. That's a good thing."
Rex cocked his head. "Well, nothing human walks ... Now a giant bat or a pterodactyl or a flock of a million sparrows ... Not sure I could spot that if it/they bathed regularly."
Satan and Liz looked at each other, shrugged, then examined the door where Rex had directed them. Rex scratched himself behind an ear with a rear leg then curled up on the floor with his tail over his nose. Liz pointed at a metal tag that read Guido Fawkes 1570-1606 in memorium. "Does that seem appropriate to you?" she asked.
"Hey, Guy is a decent enough lad. Has this thing about Protestants though. Had it even before they tortured then hanged him."
"Look for a fox" said Rex sleepily. He flicked an ear.
"Say what?" said Satan
"Say Fawkes and slur a little. You get 'Fox'. And those footprints. They smelled vulpine."
"There it is." Said Liz who pointed to a small video screen that displayed a fox head and the legend "Be smart like a fox. Go play with blocks"
Satan looked at the screen muttered a string of oaths accompanied by a cloud of sulfurous smoke.
Rex raised his head. "Please sir, some of us here have sensitive noses."
"Oh, sorry" Satan waved his hand and the smoke vanished. "Y'know, I'm really not Nicholas EFFing Cage. I don't mind a simple combination. But this riddle stuff is preposterous. Liz, do you have any idea where the 'blocks' are?"
"They're someplace you can reach without moving your feet." Announced Rex.
"Maybe there?" asked Liz pointing at a group of square, opaque buttons.
Liz and Satan spent fifteen minutes pushing, prying, rubbing, sliding, caressing, beating, twisting, and -- increasingly -- loathing, the small colored tiles. Finally both stood back frustrated. Satan wiped his hand across his brow, took a deep breath, and exhaled. He looked down. "Rex, I feel a need for a frank and open discussion of the provenance and character of the designer of this entry system. You might wish to retreat temporarily. The ventilation seems adequate here. It should be safe to return in ten or fifteen minutes.
"He's right" said Liz. " I may make a few minor contributions to the discussion.
Rex sighed, got up, shook himself down, and retreated about 20 meters down the hall. Satan took a deep breath, straightened his back, cleared his throat. Then he frowned. "Well I'll be damned" he said. (Rex snorted, and muttered something including the words 'damnation', 'devil, and 'oxymoron'.) Satan wiped the dust on the face of the fox-screen with his thumb then leaned forward and peered at the screen. "It's not 'blocks' he announced, it's 'B-locks'."
"What are B-locks?"
"I haven't the slightest idea, but look, there is a separator -- a hyphen -- between the B and the rest of the word."
"Yep, you're right. It's small, but it's definitely there."
Both stood back. Rex trotted up to join them. They started to explain, but Rex said "I heard. We canines have pretty good hearing y'know."
"You have any idea what a b-lock is?" asked Satan?
"Nope" said Liz.
"Hold on a second" Said Rex. His eyes glazed over. His ears twitched. He growled almost inaudibly. He went limp. "Is he OK?" asked Liz
"Yeah -- he's probably setting up a wireless connection and doing a Google search."
"He's doing what? ... Oh, never mind. I heard you. I don't need to know what, why or how. Moreover, I don't want to know what, why or how."
"It's one of those things like hypersensitive noses or butt sniffing. All dogs can do it although they don't advertise it. Lord knows why they evolved it."
"If dogs have super senses and built in wireless and are courageous, loyal, and all that, why don't they run the world?"
"I don't think they want to. Look, which would you prefer? Get up at zero dark thirty, dress up in a clown suit with a necktie, commute a gazillion miles from a house that you can't afford in a car that you can't afford in order to spend your day in boring meetings with boring people? Or get up around eight, Go scrounge a square meal. Sleep in the sun for a while. Get walked. Maybe get your tummy rubbed Chase a few squirrels. Sleep in the sun some more ...? I'm pretty sure they don't want to run the world. But you can check that with Rex when he comes to.
At about that point, Rex jumped up, stretched, shook himself down, and said. "Man, what a perfectly awful connection. This place needs to find a different ISP. It's hard to be sure because a lot of the hits on 'b-locks' look to be typos, but look for a fancy chrome padlock. Maybe that's it."
Liz looked at Rex. "Did you really just do an internet connection?"
"And all dogs can do that?"
'Most of us. Especially small dogs. Mastiffs and Great Dames are more into satellite relays. And mostly it fades when we get older. How many cat videos can one canid watch? But puppies ... I remember when the litter used to log into the UPS web site and schedule a phony pickup so we could ambush the UPS guy. I mean, the rest of the litter used to do stuff like that. I'd never participate in anything like that."
"I'm sure you wouldn't." said Liz.
Satan started fumbling in his backpack presumably looking for his stethoscope and notepad. Liz stepped back and looked at the barrier. "There it is." She pointed at a sleek confection of chrome and steel with a dial on its front. "Let's try 10-20-30." She tried. The lock opened. Satan once again looked disappointed. Rex sat up on his hind legs and clapped his paws soundlessly. "You go, girl ...". Liz lifted the lock out, swung the hasp open
She pulled on the door handle. The massive doors swung noiselessly open.
They found themselves in a long hallway decorated in bunker modern. Lockers and elaborate equipment racks lined the walls Perhaps 100 meters ahead, the tunnel appeared to open out into a larger area with screens, desks, and consoles. No living forms were to be seen. On the left hand wall was a large plaque. Liz didn't even wonder how it was that she could read it. It consisted of enumerated lines of text.
1. You shall have no other gods before me* 2. You shall not make for yourself an idol* 3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God* 4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy* 5. Honor your father and mother* 6. You shall not kill* 7. You shall not commit adultery* 8. You shall not steal* 9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor* 10. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife* 11. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor* ** Loosely taken from the Wikipedia
"Why that's the ten commandments. What are they doing in Hell? And why are there eleven of them? And what are the asterisks?"
"Why wouldn't we post the ten commandments in Hell? We don't have an Establishment clause in our constitution. Come to that, we don't have a constitution. There are eleven commandments because religions count them differently. Single asterisk means that the commandment applies to everybody except on days that end in the letter 'y', there's a profit to be made, or they are really pissed off. The double asterisk has to do with the other gazillion moral instructions and culinary tips in the commandments about boiling kids in the milk of their mother and how to sell your daughter into slavery. We don't have room in a lot of places to list them all so we just put up the double asterisk. Besides which, nobody pays the slightest attention to any of the commandments anyway unless there is some opportunity to make someone else's life miserable.
"I guess that makes sense." Said Liz in an altogether unconvinced tone.
Next to the commandments plaque was a bulletin board. The papers pinned to the board were yellowed with age and contained no visible writing. "Printed in the sixteenth century using an early inkjet printer" explained Satan. "The ink faded away in a few months. The guy who invented it was burned at the stake by infuriated users. The technology was lost until Hewlett-Packard rediscovered it a few years ago."
"I'd think that the military intelligence people -- spies and all that -- might have been interested."
"Well, yeah. They were. But they needed for the ink to fade quickly and the best they could do was about ten days. And they would have preferred to be able to get the printing back later. They never could work that out. I don't think HP can do that either, but they don't seem to care so much."
Liz, Satan, and Rex proceeded down the hall to the large area at the end. Three steps led down to a large control room with consoles, chairs, and a central conference table. Overhead were large panels. Everything was dead and wrapped in plastic except for a tiny panel at the bottom of the stairs where a single green light glowed. Satan muttered, "OK, let's bring this puppy up". He flipped two switches and pushed a button. Lights on the panel lit red, then yellow. The overhead lights brightened. Tiny rodent-like mechanical devices skittered about somehow stripping off and consuming the plastic wrap. Tiny, humming bird like machines somehow herded dust on the consoles, conference table, chairs, and other furniture into chutes in the walls. Other devices raced across the floor sweeping up dust. Slowly, the panel in front of Satan turned green. Finally only a single red light glowed.
Satan examined the button, snapped his fingers and turned to Liz. "My dear, would you mind going back and closing the door in the hallway?"
"Sure, but I won't be able to close the B-lock. It's on the outside."
"Don't worry. The B-lock will close itself ... sort of ... it's complicated ... Anyway, it won't be a problem."
Liz walked back to the door and closed it. Sure enough, when she returned to Satan and Rex, the tiny robot cleaners had returned to whence they came (probably), the room lights had brightened and become more inviting, the overhead displays conveyed a sense of readiness, and the panel was entirely green.
"Now then," said Satan, "let's see what the hell is going on in Hell."
He typed something. The screen in front of him and the overhead above it lit up. A scene appeared -- a large group of people gathered around a very smoky campfire swatting mosquitoes, singing songs, and trying to avoid the worst of the smoke. A light, cold looking, rain was falling. In the distance, other campfires flickered.
"That doesn't look like much fun" said Liz. Where is it?
"Well" said Satan it could be any of 10000 parks or campgrounds, but it's actually the vestibule to Hell. Those are the uncommitted -- some of them anyway.
"But where are the hornets, the maggots, the banner they should be pursuing?
"Ah, we've read our Dante. Those uncommitted are a few miles away nearer the River Acheron. This particular bunch of uncommitted don't really have the character of the bunch Dante described. Pretty much they just do what they are told, and think what they are told to think. The thing of it is, they hate camping, each and every one of them. They are only breathing smoke, being devoured by flying arthropods, and singing silly songs because they don't have the guts to admit to their fellow sufferers that they really don't like camping. About once a century, one of them realizes that they don't have to be making themselves miserable. We move them along to a better place when that happens.
Liz observed for a minute or so. "If this is some sort of punishment, why do you let them have insect repellent?". She pointed at a couple vigorously painting each other with yellowish gas from spray cans.
Satan grinned. "Oh that. The stuff doesn't work. And a lot of people are allergic to it."
"You go to all the trouble to make bug spray that doesn't work?"
"Well, we probably would do that if we had to. We're detail oriented. But it turns out that the ordinary commercial stuff is about as ineffective and obnoxious as anything we could conjure up, so we just order it by the 20 foot TEU from a pharmacy supplier in Toledo."
"So, we're going to remotely cross the Acheron and go through Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, Treason?"
"Naw. It'd be about as interesting as watching Fox News or Entertainment Tonight. In fact, we sometimes condemn the bone lazy to non-stop watching of the suffering of the damned. Sometimes after 20 or 30 years, one of them figures out how to turn the TV off and keep it off. There are eleven more steps to redemption, but that first step is an important one.
"Besides which, I don't really care about the suffering of the damned. I arrange it and get it fixed if it goes awry. That's part of my job description. But it's not something I care about. I leave the details up to my people."
Liz frowned. "If you don't enjoy torturing people, why do you do it?"
"Well, to be honest, I'm only following orders. But in any case, these people were torturing themselves. Without the -- ahem ... 'stressful' ... living conditions in Hell, they'd continue to torture themselves for all eternity. We're trying to encourage them to change their ways and find salvation."
"And how many actually do that?"
"Since we opened for business in 4011BC, I believe that roughly 77 souls have found salvation through punishment. I know, I know. It's not a lot. But we are working hard on more effective punishment and are confident that the numbers will improve. In fact, there is no question that the numbers will improve when some of the climate analysts out there die and join our statistics team. But we may get some actual improvement as well. Process improvement and all that."
Liz favored Satan with a skeptical look, but said nothing.
"Anyway, I think that a tour of the standard sites in hell would bore you stiff. Between Hollywood, Stephen King, and the US military, those horrors have been pretty thoroughly covered. But maybe you'd like to look at a few spots a bit distant from the tourist dives and souvenir shops." Satan flicked the mouse across the screen and clicked on an icon that somewhat resembled an Avocado. The screen turned smoky, swirled then reassembled to show a group of men and women knee deep in gently surging detritus. Occasionally, someone would lean over and quickly snatch something which was placed in a bag tied to their waist.
Satan cursed. Rex winced. Satan said, "Not at all what I had in mind. I was shooting for the upside down gardens in Disneyland-Limbo. But this is interesting too."
"What is it?" asked Liz.
"It's the Well Of Lost Socks. It's the place where lost socks, coat hangers, CDs, pens, and such are stashed temporarily before being returned years later when they have no possible use."
"And those people?"
"Sock pickers. They're a Cornish clan who has had access to the Well via an old tin mine since about 1100AD. Occasionally, something of value bubbles to the surface, and every once in a while an actual matched pair of socks floats by. Those folks pick the useful stuff and trade it for tobacco, drugs, and booze in Truro. They don't have the slightest idea that they are day-laboring in Hell, and since they aren't doing any harm, no one is telling them.
"We're kind of proud of them actually. Proof that we in Hell don't discriminate against the living and/or virtuous ... not that many of this lot are all that virtuous.
Liz nodded as if she understood/cared.
Satan, who -- all things considered -- has a fair amount of empathy quickly moved on to something else. "You may find this more interesting." He typed a few characters, frowned, typed something else. The screen showed a vast crater. Within the crater, dots moved. Satan panned the camera somehow to reveal that the dots were actually earth moving equipment. Zooming revealed tiny figures. It became apparent that the earth moving machines were immense -- six to ten meters high. The virtual camera moved even closer. The material being moved was not, as one might assume, dirt or rocks. It was packages. All sizes and shapes of modest sized packages.
"And this would be the Hall of lost Mail?," guessed Liz.
"Close. It's the Airline small package dump in North Dakota. It was set up by Herbert Hoover during the dark years after FDR was elected. Back then, weight really mattered, so they loaded up planes with paying passengers, airmail, then topped of the load with the most important looking unattended packages. If stuff didn't make the flight, they set it aside and maybe put it on a later flight. Or not. Anyway, if no one asked about it and it never got shipped, they eventually buried it in the parking lot. But by the 1930s, they were running out of space in the parking lots. So they hired Hoover to set up a system for handling the stuff. Rumor has it that he considered actually delivering it, but the economics for that weren't great. So he simply set up a network of unemployed bootleggers who made a monthly pickup and took the stuff to rail stations where it was loaded into special cars and eventually shipped to North Dakota for burial.
"Ready to move on?
Liz nodded. Rex had curled up and was snoring gently although his ears were moving slowly making scanning motions.
A new scene appeared. A meadow with diverse wildflowers moving in a gentle breeze framed in green trees. In the distance, a river and snow capped peak. The sky was blue. Birds could be heard singing. A resonant voice spoke: "Are you subjected to the heartbreak of curly arm hairs? Good news for you my unfortunate friend. Now there is an answer to your problem. Antipathy, a new product from Smith,Pfizer,Johnson can straighten your arm hairs in days." Then, almost too quickly to separate the words. "Prior-to-undertaking-an-Antipathy-regime-be-sure-and-consult-your-physician-who-being-dumber-than-dirt-and-unable-to-read-his-own-handwriting-will-require-a-complete-list-of-your-medications. Possible side-affects-of-Antipathy-include-blindness-paralysis-arthritis-cancer-respiratory-and-circulatory-problems-eczema-zits-and-sudden-death. Those-who-engage-in-acts-such-as-consumption-of-solid-food-drinking-healthy-liquids-or-breathing-should-avoid-Antipathy-if-it-causes-fever-spikes-higher-than-108-degrees-Fahrenheit." Two gorgeous teen age models ran into the meadow holding hands. The camera zoomed in on them. They announced in unison "We used to have curly arm hairs, but Antipathy cured that. Now we eat lunch with the cool kids. See your do..." In the background, a faint gruff voice was murmuring "Act Now. We know where your mother lives and it would be a shame if ..." The screen went blank. Satan, who had been frantically keying in obscure letters and numbers, sat back.
"You'd think they'd have advertisement blockers on this stuff by default. Probably abandoned this bunker when the last of them were driven insane. Anyway, I hooked up a freeware ad-blocker. Shouldn't be inundated with that nonsense any more." He pushed a few more buttons.
The screen swirled again and cleared to show a most peculiar scene. A group of about a dozen men and women crouched behind barricades apparently improvised from the fragments of giant teacups. Occasionally one stood up and lobbed an ambiguous object toward a second group of ... well ... mostly playing cards ... that stood a distance away. The playing cards were drawn up in formation and were firing eggs at the first group with machine like precision.
Behind the first group several men with cameras were filming(?) the scene. A demented figure dripping egg whites and yolks. was apparently the sole target of the drawn up playing cards.
"Why it's Quartermain and his crew." Said Liz.
"It is indeed and they seem to be involved in a food fight." Responded Satan.
"What are they throwing?"
"Scones, I would imagine. Scones are an old Hatter family recipe. Dangerous out to several hundred meters. Potentially lethal at close quarters. A few hundred Hatters with bags of scones stopped the first Norman cavalry charge at the Battle of Hastings. Unfortunately, they ran out of scones before the Normans ran out of cavalry." As if to emphasize Satan's point, the Jack of Hearts took a scone to the solar plexus. His eyes rolled up in his head and he folded bonelessly to the ground.
"Is this something I should understand?" Asked Rex who had snapped awake. "I don't have to rescue those fools, do I? Nothing against this bunch of bozos, but that place they are stumbling through is no country for dogs."
"No, you don't have to rescue them." Said Satan. "and the story is long and not too interesting. "The crew you are observing is looking for King Solomon's Mines and they are doing so at the bottom of the rabbit hole."
"Bad idea." Growled Rex. "You gonna tell them how bad an idea?"
"Naw. They wouldn't listen anyway, and I'd rather they were down there than making a nuisance of themselves someplace where the locals can't stand up to them."
"You reckon she'll have their heads?"
"I reckon she'll try. But no, I don't think it'll come to that. Worst case, they'll have to have a trial and that'll take time to organize. They'll probably subpoena me, so we'll know if it develops that way. We can check back later."
Satan turned to Liz. "Ready to try something else? How about we check on the economists wandering aimlessly on the Plains of Terminal Confusion?"
"That'd be OK, but could we check on Melinda first?"
"Maybe. Our signal coverage in the Sinai isn't as good as it might be. Hard to get permits, and the locals steal the transmitters and wiring about as fast as we can deploy stuff. But she might be someplace where we can get a couple of bars if we hold the camera just right. Let's give it a shot." Satan typed something. He frowned. Typed again. A grainy picture emerged of a girl -- clearly Melinda -- sitting in the dust covered cab of a moving tractor trailer writing on a folded newspaper. Satan changed the viewpoint from the keyboard. Melinda was working on a crossword puzzle ... in Hebrew. Satan tried to focus up and out to try to get a view out the front window, but the image dissolved into a maze of stationary blocks.
"It appears that Melinda is OK. We'll be able to check on her again once she gets back to what passes for civilization in the Middle East."
"OK, thanks. Let's move on to the economists."
Satan addressed the keyboard. The scene quickly changed to a view of innumerable interlocking, sinuous, vertical walled, sandstone ridges separating narrow canyons. The area extended for many miles.
Liz studied it. "It's beautiful, isn't it? Kind of like a maze. But I thought you said it was a plain."
"It is called, the 'Plain of Terminal Confusion'. Leonardo diVinci and Richard Feynman designed it and patterned it after the Maze region in Southern Utah. It really is a maze by the way and a very clever one that makes itself harder if you take a wrong turn. Leo and Dick are quite proud of it -- as well they should be."
"But, but, but ... It's not flat. Plains are flat. And Feynman was born centuries after diVinci died. And this must be thousands of years old. They didn't live that long ago."
"Addressing the last point first, anachronism is a way of life in the afterlife. We chose not to interact too much with those from the future because dealing with constant temporal paradox is a royal pain. But that doesn't mean that folks from the future can't plan a building or, in this case, a maze, as long as they keep their hands off the workmen and their women and stay out of bars. In this case, the workmen came from the future as well.
"As to the plain. Well yeah, it doesn't look like a plain to you or me, but the economists have models and their models can't deal with bumps. So they think they are living on a plain. Of course, their models don't work, but you don't get far in economics if you actually test your results and modify your hypotheses to match reality.
Satan moved his mouse and the view switched from ground to overhead. He pointed to a group of dots negotiating a narrow, twisting defile. "Look there, there's a covey of Austrian school economists. They are following the walls of the canyon of course. They don't have any choice. But they think they are traveling in a straight line. There are bunches of economists all over the plains -- monetarists, Keynesians, supply siders, ... you name it, they are there. Not one of them has ever come close to solving the maze and they likely never will. But they think they have the answers, so they are happy.
"But isn't there a problem when they talk to each other and compare notes?"
"Naw, they talk a lot, but they almost never listen -- especially not to each other."
After a pause, Satan looked up and said, "Anyway, the reason we are here is so I can tap into the afterworld's surveillance network. I have a lot to do, but I can certainly accommodate some requests from you folks. Rex?, Liz?"
Rex spoke first "I'm not much interested in the doings of humans and my pack and I are temporarily on the outs. I think I'll have to entertain myself by chasing rodents and watching NASCAR, House, and Mythbusters.
"Anything I can do to help with the pack thing?"
"Probably not, they've been lazing around on Sunday mornings listening to some televangelist with a huge temple in Grounded Turkey, Alabama or some such place. They have somehow decided on his advice that pooping in the woods is ungodly. I pointed out to them that we are not, strictly speaking human. More like beasts of the field. And I added that bears poop in the woods, Adam and Lilith pooped in the woods, the pope probably has been known to poop in the woods. Got really eloquent, I did. I was Demosthenes and Abe Lincoln and William Jennings Bryan all wrapped up in one tidy canine package.
"Anyway, they hated it, and said so, and I waxed eloquent on their deficiencies, and things went from bad to really bad to worse. Some things were said that probably shouldn't have been said. I had to "baddog" the lot of them in order to get away intact. So the pack and I aren't howling together at the moment. I imagine time will heal the wounds.
"I can get the NASCAR races on the satellite terminal without mobilizing the full resources of the netherworld, right?"
"You can indeed. Need any help operating it."
"Naw, even a dog can work a remote ... as well as anyone can. But there is one thing. The terminal seems to have Windows for Small Dogs (less than 12 pounds) installed on it. I don't mind the small dogs thing. Some of my best friends are chihuahuas. But I loath Windows. It's slow, bloated, unituitive and annoying. And the licensing ... it's insane. Is it OK if I download some other OS?"
Satan turned to Liz. "Liz?"
"Well, I'd like to check up on Melinda occasionally. And maybe look in on Quartermain and his crew from time to time. ... and perhaps the bowling alley in Elysium on a Tuesday night?
"OK then, how about I show you how to use a terminal to do those things and to cruise the public channels? I don't think you can get into trouble doing any of those things, so there's really nothing to caution you about.
"And now, how about we look into the food thing?" Even though we don't really need it, it adds to the panache.
"OK by me." Said Rex. "Chasing rats is fun. Eating them, not so much -- even for a dog. A plate with some leftover meat and potatoes would go fine with me."
"Sure" Said Liz. "As long as it won't make me fat. It really won't make me fat, right? I mean you are the father of lies."
"It won't make you fat, and the 'Father of Lies' thing is really an honorary and not very accurate title like 'Protector of the Poor'. It comes with the job. It's my clients that lie a lot. Heck, on average, God tells more lies than I do. Check your bible. I rarely have to lie. Telling the truth is usually much more effective -- especially when it involves an imminent rapid descent into a fiery pit with a sudden stop at the end if things don't go my way."
The devil attempted to shut down his console and eventually succeeded after several minutes of cursing and clicking. Rex and Liz retreated to a respectful (and safe) distance. Once the console went dark, Satan was joined by Rex and Liz. The trio strolled/trotted off to a tunnel that extended off at right angles to the entry tunnel. They passed a row of vending machines.
Satan waved in their general direction. "You want cardboard, try those. If you can get them to deliver anything at all in return for your money."
Liz wandered over and examined a glass fronted box. It was clean on the outside thanks to the microbots but heavy dust covered the inside. A small sign at the bottom suggested that she report any problems with the machine to AliBaba Enterprises at 702-555-1212. "Is calling directory assistance in Las Vegas going to get my complaint addressed?" Asked Liz.
"No, but it'll get you billed $7.64. Then you'll have something else to complain about."
She banged the glass knocking loose enough internal dust to be able to see the goods hazily. "Hey," she said, "They have Twinkies."
"Of course they have Twinkies. Twinkies are absolutely and unconditionally indestructible. Millenia from now, archaeologists will use the "Twinkie Layer" to date material from the 20th and 21st Century. Almost as reliable an indicator as finding an AK47. Trouble is that they occasionally encounter eroded and redeposited Twinkies in younger layers. But there is never any problem with them deteriorating. Rodents, microbes and molds won't touch them. Their only predators are human."
"So, you don't think I should buy one?"
"I dunno. Are you suffering from a plasticizer deficiency? There will probably be something at least as good in the canteen. Besides which I don't have any tokens, and I doubt you do either. And in any case, the payout ratio on these machines is usually set around 80% which is a good ten points below what the Infernal Gambling Commission requires for automated games of chance. Not that anyone actually enforces the rules that favor consumers."
They walked on down the corridor and shortly came to a dining hall with several dozen gleaming Formica topped tables lined up precisely on the squares of a checkerboard linoleum floor. A hundred or more steel and plastic chairs were stacked neatly in a corner. A gleaming serving table stretched down one side of the room.
"Very tidy" said Liz. "But there is no food."
"It tends to get a bit dry and dusty after a decade or so, if you leave it out. So we make it up on demand. Here's the menu." Satan handed Liz a telephone directory sized book.
Liz opened it and found thousands of pages of densely packed listings in tiny type. "Breast of Passanger Pigeon au Gratin? Sauteed heart of thistle? Baked pine nut and Madagascar spitting cockroach soup? ... Is there anything less exotic?"
"The fast food is on the back cover."
Liz ordered a Whopper, fries and a Dr Pepper. Satan, the same. And he ordered roast FDA Prime Beef and mashed Idaho potatoes for Rex. There was a faint whirring sound. A section of the serving table slid aside and delivered three trays with plates, of steaming food two bottles of soda dripping with fresh condensation, two sets of utensils, and a large dog biscuit.
Satan took two trays -- his and Rex's -- to the nearest table then fetched three chairs from the nearest stack. He held Liz's for her while she seated herself then did the same for Rex. "I think we can skip saying Grace." he said.
Liz picked up her hamburger and took a bite. She frowned. "I don't want to sound whiny. The food looks terrific, and it smells great. But it tastes ..."
"I know." Said Satan wearily "... like cardboard. The techies are working on that. And they are making progress. It used to taste like sawdust. But fortunately, there is an answer." He reached into his backpack and produced a bottle of ketchup. "This makes everything taste better. And it's a vegetable."
Wordlessly Liz took the bottle and shook out a glop on her plate. She dipped the hamburger in it and ate a bite. She tried another and set her hamburger aside. "It does help, but I'm not as hungry as I thought I was."
Satan looked chagrined. "Yeah, you're right. I figured that given a couple of centuries, the techies would have made some progress on taste. Apparently not. I'll add incentivizing them to my to do list if and when I get my job back. A frank and open discussion of their probable future if the stuff doesn't taste better will probably get some results. ... and I don't think I will have to lie."
Rex had in the meantime consumed his plate of food. He looked up. "If you aren't going to eat that, can I have it? You're right that it doesn't taste so good, but we dogs are genetically programmed to eat a lot when there is food. Never can tell how long it'll be til the next meal."
Liz pushed her plate to Rex who cleaned it off in 30 seconds. Rex belched delicately
They bused their dishes, restacked their chairs and left the cafeteria. Satan took them on a tour of the facilities -- pointing out bedrooms, bathrooms, a rec room, a gymnasium, workshops, a sewing room, and a swimming pool. Satan and Liz offered to rip up some bedding to make a bed for Rex, but Rex said that if he was allowed on the furniture a human bed would be just fine.
They returned to the main chamber where they took possession of three consoles and settled down into a routine. Satan engaged in obscure surveillance activities -- swearing occasionally and sometimes laughing uproariously. Liz watched classic chick flicks recommended by by a website called TheChamomilleTrust.com. Her viewings were accompanied by sniffles and tears. She checked daily on Melinda's slow progress across the Sinai and the Levant. She also tracked what Rex had dubbed 'The Quartermain Pack's' slow and troubled expedition into Wonderland -- their frequent pitched battles with the inhabitants and their failure to find even the tiniest jewel or the most minute showing of Gold or Silver. Rex -- after watching NASCAR races non-stop for four days, became obsessed with watching reruns of obscure TV series ... China Beach, Dead Like Me, Special Unit 2 and, oddly, Columbo. His reactions were limited to occasional very human chuckles and a few rather terrifying and quite inhuman growls.
Their routine was interrupted only by three calls to Liz on her cell phone from her college's Alumni Association soliciting funds to modify their basketball arena such that -- like the Colesium in Rome -- it could be flooded and used to conduct naval engagements. Each time Liz explained patiently that she had not graduated, had no money, had no interest in naval engagements whether mock or actual, and was dead. Arguments that the fundraiser found unpersuasive. She asked Satan if anything could be done.
"Unfortunately, no" said Satan. "Once they find you, they never give up. Never. We've been trying for a hundred years to figure out how they locate people. Seems to involve something Edison invented, but never patented. Best thing to do is to tell them that your check is in the mail. They'll know you're lying, but there isn't a lot they can do about it."
After about ten days, Satan rose from his keyboard, yawned, stretched, and announced -- "Liz. Rex. Family Conference!!"
Liz and Rex came over to Satan's console. Liz pulled up a chair from an adjacent console. Rex curled up on the floor. "OK, said Satan. I think it's time to get everyone caught up. Liz, how's Melinda doing?"
"OK, I think. She's waiting tables and tending bar in a Christian establishment in Beirut. Says she's saving her tips to buy a Eurorail pass."
"So, she won't likely be needing our help?"
"Probably not. Eurorail passes apparently are expensive and tips aren't any too great, so I think she'll be in Beirut for a while. People keep trying to tell her that a cheap flight or buses would be better, but Melinda doesn't seem to take a whole lot of advice.
"How about the Quartermain Pack?"
"Milling around somewhere in Wonderland."
"Can I amplify that?," Asked Rex.
Satan and Liz turned toward him and nodded.
"There's a gap early in the morning when all the channels have infomercials. Since we dogs really don't have much use for kitchen tools or exercise videos, I don't have an annuity I need to convert to cash, I'm not a candidate for any class action suits, and it'll be a while before I have to worry about scamming the government out of a powered wheelchair, I've been filling those hours following Quartermain and his crew.
"The locals were taking a lot of scone damage, so they've changed tactics. What they did was really pretty clever. They made a really twisty closed path that looks like it's centuries old and herded the Quartermain crew onto it with some strategic attacks and retreats. And now, there is a crew of them moving along in front of Quartermain changing the appearance of the path enough so that Quartermain doesn't know he's walking in circles.
"The pack think they are following Quartermain's map. So does Quartermain as far as I can tell. But if I'm to believe you, it's a map of someplace else, and frankly I don't think Quartermain could find the Atlantic Ocean -- with or without a map -- if you dropped him in the middle of it.
"Since Quartermain can't pass a stream without stopping for hours to pan for Gold and Jewels, the locals have run the path over a lot of streams. All the same stream I'm pretty sure, but Quartermain has no way to know that.
"So", Satan said. "How long can that last?"
"Not forever. Lot of mosquitoes near those streams. Big ones. The pack is not having a good time. Quartermain himself could probably forge on for centuries, but eventually the cameramen and hangers on are going to revolt and trek back the way they came. And in any case, the locals seem to be running out of patience. They've got a secret underground site where I think she is prepping a Jabberwock ... or maybe even a Bandersnatch.
"That wouldn't be good. Can you penetrate the site and see what they are about?
"I can, but it'll take time.
"Take all the time you need. And give a little thought as to whether we should get the Israelis to bomb their weapons site.
"Would the Israelis really do that?"
"Sure, they're like the Americans. They'll bomb just about anything that can't retaliate and some things that can.
"Does that work?
"Of course not. What do you reckon your chances are of intimidating people whose idea of a good way to spend a dull Friday morning is to strap on a vest full of explosives and blow up their neighbor's church ... with their neighbor inside it?
|Chapter5- Hell||Chapter7- The Wonderland Raid|