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Another item slowly materialized in the inbox, but unlike the others that he'd been ignoring for most of the morning, which were just smoking a bit around the edges, this one was glowing a dull ochre. He had just almost been about to get up and go to lunch; could he ignore it? With a sigh, he decided not; Hell hath no fury like his secretary when he didn't follow protocol. She was probably already monitoring how long it had been sitting there.

Pushing aside the thoughts of incubus flambé which had been tempting him, he willed the contents of the new arrival into his mind, and it faded away with a slight hint of crackling. It was a report from the Universal Surveillance Bureau. "El HaShamayim has started a new race and seems to be taking particular interest in it. Recommend continued higher level of surveillance; eventual action may be required." A small snort that he didn't feel the need to try to control escaped, accompanied by the barest wisp of flame issuing from his nostrils, that he was sure nobody (except his secretary) would have even noticed. God had won the damned war already! Couldn't he just mind his own business for a while?

He followed the hyperlinks to the complete report, and absorbed the gist of it. He sat back and fingered his goatee for a bit, then actually read through it from beginning to end. The Bureau was right, this bore watching.

He and God had pretty much left the material world to its own devices. Occasionally a star would explode (which could be pretty), replaced by a new one somewhere else, and most of those would form planets that eventually cooled into violent muck. Very rarely the molecules in the muck would accidentally combine into one of the special forms that entered into a self-replicating cycle, and then parts of the muck would slide around the planet for a while. Several times they had even evolved into recognizably individual beings. He had had some of them (his scientists had called them "ferns") brought here, but apparently ferns were constitutionally incapable of dealing with the climate he'd created for himself.

His mathemeticians were unanimous in insisting that such evolution could, if a vast chain of improbable events happened to happen, result in a sentient life form, hard as that was to believe. They had a hard time trying to explain to him just how unlikely that result was, but were sure that, because God had made the Universe so ridiculously big, it was bound to happen someday. Somewhere.

Apparently, God didn't want to wait, because He had chosen to breathe upon one planet and bring forth such creatures directly. Just two so far, but according to the report, they'd been created in such a way that there'd soon no doubt be more of them.

He formed in his mind a picture of his secretary — oops! wrong picture; he quickly adjusted it to the one appropriate to the office — and requested that she have Pent, the head of the USB, report to him. In the meantime, he cast his Eye upon the next item in the inbox, which turned out to be a routine request for more sulfur to re-line the Pit, which had begun to look a bit grungy. With that ongoing expense, he again vowed to find some good reason to maintain the thing.

The voice of his secretary boomed from every corner of the room: "Sir Pent here to see you, Bub." He looked toward the door and in crawled his top spy. "Yeah, Boss?"

"Got a job for you." He put the information about the new humans into Pent's mind. "Take a look at the situation and let me know what you think. Long term kind of thing. I have a feeling this might turn into something. But be circumspect about it. No doubt God is keeping close watch on his little experiment there."

"Will do. I'll have a report on your desk in two shakes of an imp's behind." With that, Pent left in the direction of the Dimensional Gateway, checking that he had his Executive level pass with him.

Well, now he could go to lunch, right? He walked through the outer office getting nary a dirty look from his secretary, so he must have done okay. He normally ate in the executive dining room, but on a whim he strolled in the direction of one of the cafeterias. It took him past the edge of the Pit — yes, it was beginning to look a bit run down. The sight of him out and about, while not unheard of, was sufficiently unusual that he gathered a following, several hundred strong by the time he arrived. He mostly ignored them, just dragging them along his way like so much detritus caught up in a lava flow, but he was aware that there would be a few in the crowd for whom this would be the first time they'd seen him, so he gave the occasional casual nod to nobody in particular.

Just because he was down among the hoi polloi didn't mean that he was inviting familiarity from them. He aimed his baleful visage toward one that had been sidling toward his table, apparently brash enough to entertain the notion of sharing it with him, and formed within her weak mind a powerful urge to bring him a pitcher of iced tea.

That disabused all the others who might have been considering taking this opportunity to suck up to him, and let him think in peace. God had been pretty predictable these last few eons, and this thing with the humans totally came out of left field. Unless his surveillance had totally missed it, which was unlikely, there'd been no scuttlebutt regarding anything big, but this had the smell of a gambit to him, and not totally in the spirit of the truce they'd agreed to. He let possibilities dart around his mind, caroming off random bits here and there, brainstorming the gamut of ideas from the supercilious to the sublime, while his lunch grew hot in front of him.

* * *

Pent motioned for a stop at the Eden station, earning him glares from the few other passengers who weren't expecting it, probably didn't even know the new stop existed. Even Mithras, whom nobody had ever seen exhibit a dark side, shifted his weight and looked to be possibly stifling an impure thought. Pent chuckled inaudibly and slipped out the door — and fell a foot to the ground. The station was so new, they hadn't even built a ramp. Fortunately, he landed in a soft bed of grass; actually, he kind of enjoyed it. Just in case anyone was still watching, he converted the end of his tumble to the start of a glissade and came to rest at the foot of an apple tree.

What luck! Obscured from their view, he could already see the humans cavorting among the trees and bushes. It all looked totally innocent, but there must be more to it. He couldn't report back that he'd found no evidence of some subtle scheming by God. Even if there wasn't, he felt like throwing a monkey wrench into the plan, not only to thwart Him, but to punish those contemptuous creatures who apparently didn't know the meaning of pain or suffering.

He caught the eye of the plumper one and, combining some demonological charm with a shiny apple, enticed her to come to him. He assured her that the apple would be a welcome change to the nuts and berries she'd been eating. She whined a bit about them being bad, but come on, who doesn't like apples? She finally accepted it, and then he contemplated the broad expanse of unremarkable flesh between her breasts and legs. Too plain. Maybe he should fix that. Without warning, he struck and took a bite, which sent her screaming back to her companion. He thought that her reaction was a bit overdone, but maybe that's just how female humans were. In any case, he was sure his contribution to the experiment would be remembered. As the male was rubbing her tummy and taking a bite of the apple she proffered, an angel appeared with a flaming sword (pretty rude of it to bring that into the Gateway, he thought) and advanced upon the two of them. This seemed to be getting out of hand. He saw the angel escorting the humans away while he retreated to the portal.

* * *

"Sir Pent is here to see you."

"All right, send him in."

Pent entered the boss's inner office, and quickly dodged left to avoid the casually thrown fireball, wondering what was going on. He was here to report his findings which, while he was sure they would be considered incomplete, weren't worth losing his skin over. It was still a bit ginger, he having molted since his return. But, the boss was cranky now and then, and suffering through it was just part of the job.

"I said circumspect! Do you not understand what that means? Why did you have to get involved with them? I've already had a formal complaint about it."

"Sorry, boss. I guess I got carried away a bit."

"Put yourself down for a couple hours in Elysium. Now, on to the problem. At least all the halo ruffling shows that they're serious about this one. Did you find anything that might tell us why?"

"Not really, but I've put a couple of demons on permanent surveillance duty. Getting those two thrown out of the Garden must have thrown at least a small pitchfork into their plans, though."

"Well, we need to find out what the actual plan is. Have one of your moles in Heaven find out if this project was actually sanctioned by God, or might have been cooked up by an underling. It might be that the fuss they raised was because someone was afraid that an unauthorized caper would come to the attention of someone higher up."

"Yes, boss."

"Forget about the penance, but don't pull a stunt like that again, or I'll think you're losing it. Now get out."

* * *

The fact that Pent deserved the dressing down he'd gotten didn't keep him from taking it out on the others when he got back to USB headquarters.

Fortunately, despite his misstep in Eden, he was quite good at his job, and had, even before he left, told DeputyOps to find out everything he could about the new project from their operatives embedded in Heaven's bureaucracy.

He opened a channel and shouted "What in Hell have you learned about the humans?"

"What's with you, Chief? Sounds like somebody's got a case of the Mondays."

"Very funny."

"Well, apparently something new is up, like you suspected. The human project was started by Michael, apparently he was just playing around on the side. I've got copies of the authorization and the appropriations in front of me. Nothing too interesting there."

Pent gave him a few seconds to revel in being the man with information that he didn't have, then said "Yes, and so …?"

"Two things, really. First, he made a few last minute changes before the project went live. One of them was, he ordered that they be given souls!"

"WHAT?" Pent yelled. Before Ops could answer, Pent conjured him into his office. "Say that again!"

Undaunted by the sudden change of environs, Ops said "You heard me. The humans have souls."

"Does Michael have the authority to do that? Is Heaven going mad?"

"Well, I don't really know. I wouldn't have thought that he did, but then, nobody else has ever tried it, or probably would even have ever thought of it. As to the latter, well … you've got to see this for yourself."

With a flourish, he produced what appeared to be the original — it had the faint white aura that things Heavenly affected — work order to construct Eden and populate it with Humans (male and female, one each, see Appendix 2 for specs) with the notation "Include souls" written in the margin and accompanied by Michael's sigil. "Look at the last page."

Pent flipped to the back, read it, and stormed out of the office. "Goin' to Satan's" he muttered to his secretary as he passed.

* * *

Pent was kept cooling his heels in the outer office. "You haven't been summoned", together with the look on Arianna's face when he tried to enter the inner sanctum, had been enough to bring him to a halt and abjectly tell her "Please tell him it's very important."

After what he was sure was a precisely calculated interval, and with no apparent communication from inside the office, she informed him "Lucifer will see you now." He managed to get around the desk and through the door without coming within range of the baton he imagined her spanking him with.

"What is it, Pent? I'm busy." Despite the booming, raspy voice of the Lord of Flies, Pent was able to hear what sounded like at least three nymphs in the room off to the side before the door closed completely and Satan flopped into the chair behind his desk. "RHIP" he thought to himself.

"I just received a report from my man in Heaven. He dug up the skinny on the Human project. I don't know how he does it, but I've got the plans right here. He'll have to get them back before they're missed." He laid them on the desk; Satan's gaze was instantly drawn to Michael's notation. "It's bad enough that they're giving the humans souls. Sure, He's God, but the arrogance sometimes —" The "ahem" reminded him that, regardless of his own lofty rank in the The First Circle, Satan was God's peer, and he was coming close to crossing the line. "Yes, well… Besides the souls, if you look at the last page, you'll see he's also given them free will. What in Heaven's Name are they thinking up there? That could be chaos!"

Satan flipped through. There, in the glowing script of God's inimitable Hand, it said "These creatures are to have free will. So it is written. So shall it be done."

"Free will, eh?" After a moment of contemplation, Satan realized he was chewing on the barb of his tail, and in front of an underling no less. He stopped it and considered the parting words from the last time he'd seen that psychotherapist, claiming that his work there wasn't done. Maybe he had been right…. "Yes, that could go anywhere. But there was also that report a short while ago about a whole new host of angels that were being created, called Guardians. Didn't you see that? I think I might know where this is going, and it could be fun. That'll be all. Ask Arianna to try and make a copy of that before you leave. And have her get the Chief of Personnel over here."

* * *

On only his third day at the new school, Afriel was very frustrated and felt he was near his breaking point. (But he wasn't. Deep down, he knew that God wouldn't have given him this assignment if he couldn't handle it.) It had been aeons since he, or anyone else, had seen an immature angel, and these little creatures were always getting under his feet and misbehaving most un-angelically.

Gavreel, in particular, took up so much of his time. Even now, he could see that the little scamp had wandered off again and would delay the beginning of the day's lesson.

Everybody knew that the little ones were part of a big plan that someone high up in the administration had concocted, and they just had to tolerate the situation until they grew up and assumed their special duties. Knowing it was so didn't make it any easier, though, and Afriel missed his normal activities with his assigned choir.

"Gavreel! Where are you? We're waiting. Everybody will be ashamed when our class gets out later than the others." Again.

Gavreel heard the rebuke from far off. He hadn't meant to be late, and didn't want his class to be the most backward, but he'd been exploring and today had found the most interesting thing ever. Between two of the big fluffy clouds in the new wing that had been built for his cohort, he'd spied a narrow gap, black as the void, that called out to him. He was pretty sure it wasn't supposed to be there. This section has been run up pretty quickly, and it looked like just a glitch. But sometimes the glitch was more interesting than the plan.

Of course, he had squeezed through. After a brief meander, he'd discovered an immense hall, which appeared to be intended for housing innumerable souls in repose. Back in the direction he'd entered from, there was a faint white glow from Heaven, but far in the other direction there seemed to be something more reddish.

Vowing to return later and find out what it was, he returned to class, to the relief of Afriel, who had been considering whether he should go looking for the little tyke. "Sorry, A. Afriel," said Gavreel and took his place in the circle of young anxious faces.

* * *

"BuPers here to see you, Chief." The sudden crackle of the intercom made Satan jump and the ball veered two inches wide of the cup. Damn you to Hell!, he yelled at the ball, which quivered a bit but stayed just where it was. "Thanks. By the way, give Astaroth a call and tell him I'm authorizing a whole lot of new expenditures, and I don't want him kicking up a fuss."

The head of Personnel walked in and got right down to business. "What's up, Chief? I'm busy."

Though he was the least likely of all department heads to be summoned, and didn't exactly have great influxes of new heads to find work for, it was actually true that the clerks in Personnel did keep occupied with moving around the millions of demons among the various makework projects that the other departments were always dreaming up.

"I've got a big project coming up, and it's going to need all those demons that are goldbricking. The first thing we need to do is enlarge the Pit by at least ten times; you'll be hearing from Interior about his needs. You'll also want to hatch a couple of million more. I'm going to use them all; but you've got some time on that. The new ones should be particularly instructed in torment. Put Mastema in charge of that."

* * *

Verin was making his way to the school for the new demons. He had to be careful, because the old ones liked to lay traps for the newbies. But he had learned a few tricks of his own, both in and out of class.

He cackled with glee when Oriax, the fat commander of legion 237, at the head of his unit marching from here to there, tripped on the ice he had conjured (one of the hardest things to do) and camouflaged as a bug, which he knew Oriax would feel the need to squash; Oriax fell sprawling. Verin thought he might even have sprained his tail. Lacking any command to stop, the legionnaires kept marching past him, with not a few snickering behind his back. Verin enjoyed the thought that the whole legion would face company punishment later.

He was in such a good mood, he decided to play hooky, and continued on past the school. No doubt the teacher would have something special for him tomorrow, and he'd have to think up something better, but he'd think about that later; right now, he had adventure on his mind.

He'd noticed on the first day that the new school backed onto the Void, but there was some kind of flaw back in the corner. Now was the perfect time to check it out.

Sure enough, he found a door there. He was expecting maybe a utility closet or something, so was totally unprepared to find himself in the biggest space he'd ever seen, or even imagined.

"Hello!" hello o o his voice came back from the distance in every direction. "Hello!" hello o o Hello? Who was that? He'd never heard such a pure voice.

He ventured out into the darkness occasionally calling out to keep his bearings to the unknown voice and receiving a reply that got even sweeter as it got closer. Shortly before they met, he saw the soft glow he'd been approaching resolve into an indistinct circle hovering over the head of the beautiful creature. Some of the guys talked about Heaven, and the Angels that lived there. Was this one of them?

He wasn't sure how he should address the other. As a demon, he'd never had the need for proper etiquette, but he didn't want to start off badly. Without actually deciding on anything, he stammered out "Hello, Your Grace. My name is Verin."

The young angel giggled a bit. "I am not anyone's grace, if you believe my teacher. Just call me Gavreel. I am pleased to meet you, Verin."

"Hello, Gavreel. Do you know what this place is?"

"No, I just wandered in. I'm pretty sure I'll get in trouble for being here, though."

"Oh, I hope not, but I'm glad we met. I've never seen anyone like you. I never really knew what the word beautiful meant until just now."

"Well, thank you. I think I need to get back, but I would like to see you again. Are you here regularly?"

"This is my first time, too — but I'll be here whenever you want. Er, since I have no way to communicate with you, I'll be here every day at this time."

"I will try to be here also. Goodbye, Verin."

* * *

For millennia, Verin returned every day, and most of the time Gavreel was there. Though in all that time they'd never seen each other anywhere else, they'd each learned from the other about the demesnes on the other side. Each found that what he had been told was in essence true, but had been exaggerated substantially. This enabled them to reconcile the original confusion they had felt when they'd found out what they were and yet quickly became so friendly. Eventually they couldn't remember a time when they hadn't been best friends.

Still young as immortals reckon things, they were each naïve enough to think that their assignations had gone unnoticed all this time, and credited their machinations and dissembling, in their minds perfect to the task but in actuality often melodramatic, with maintaining the deception.

In fact, it had taken only a few centuries for Afriel to notice Gavreel's absences and tardiness, and to find out the cause. Afriel never had totally accepted his teaching position as a substitute for his choir work, and had taken on the detective task as a nice diversion. The first time he'd espied the youngsters meeting for a picnic in the vacant Purgatory, he'd thought it was so charming that he almost forgot to keep his halo suppressed, which would have given him away. Despite one of them being a demon, he thought it would have been better if they could enjoy their lunch reclining on a soft cloud for two in Heaven. He felt it incumbent upon him to report this presumably unprecedented event to his superiors, but did so while encouraging them to allow it to continue. He was correct in his assumption that their knee-jerk reaction would be to forbid it, but it hadn't been difficult to overcome that. The governors of Heaven had brought it to the attention of their counterparts in Hell, and found it a bit more challenging to persuade them not to intervene, but eventually had won them over.

The two administrations had each appointed a bureaucrat to keep an eye on the situation, and the higher-ups had for the most part forgotten about it. The two Watchers conferred occasionally to be sure the kids weren't causing any problems, and every millennium or so submitted a report on the status. Nobody noticed that during this time, relations between the two Great Spheres gradually had started to run a bit more smoothly.

This day, the Watchers were particularly interested because they both knew that the long routine was coming to an end. Over time, they themselves had become, not exactly friendly, but comfortable with each other, and now their reason for associating was coming to an end.

They watched as Verin looked up at the approach of Gavreel. He immediately saw that Gavreel was not his normal upbeat self; their hug of greeting seemed to go on a little longer than normal.

"What's wrong, Gav?" Verin asked.

"Today is my last day of school. That means that I'm going to be assigned a human very shortly, and I'll be gone for a long time. I thought it was going to be you who had to leave first."

"Oh, I was reserved a while ago, and in fact I've been working already for a couple of years; I didn't want to tell you, because I know my job is hard for you to understand. But unlike yours, I can put my human aside for weeks or months at a time. I figured I could manage to get back each day to see you. But I knew that once you went on duty, we wouldn't see each other as long as your human needed you."

"That's sweet, Verin. I guess I should have been prepared, but it came upon me so suddenly."

"Don't worry, Gav. I'll wait for you. I'll be keeping an eye out, and when you're back, I'll be here."

At that, the Watchers decided to withdraw and give the newly adult angel and demon some privacy. Their goodbye was considerably more stilted and formal, and did not involve any hugging.

# # #

"No!", I hear you cry. "That can't be the end of it!" Well, it's not. The story continues in Bizmillah! We'll have to let them go.

In case you've never heard it, the title of this piece comes from the song Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen.

When I asked in the catbox for random words to use in a (non-described) story, wertperch gave me floccinaucinihilipilification, and Simulacron3 suggested Mithras. I thought I was going to use both, but it didn't work out that way. Sorry, wertie.

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