So here’s a short story I wrote recently that didn’t quite come together for me. It also takes place in a new setting, Hell, which is separate from either the Lokiverse or Teleran, but of course, is linked to them both (in some way I haven’t quite figured out yet).
Be interested to hear what you think of it, folks.
The worst thing about Hell is how they let you leave it.
Temporarily, or course. There’s no permanent reprieve from damnation. In fact, there’s no reprieve at all. They let you leave, every so often – but only in order to increase your damnation.
Some of us, anyway. Hell is very big on the whole poetic justice thing, and those of us whose great sin in life was never stopping to help some poor tourist with directions have a special place in the great scheme of really horrible things.
We get sent back to Earth every so often, with no other human company, but with precisely 666 young demons on their first trip to see how the living half lives. It’s our allotted task to take them around and show them the sights. They’re supposed to learn from it, and I suppose maybe the last 66 or so of them actually do each time. A bit, anyway. The tour ends when the last one of them gets discorporated and automagically whisked back to Hell.
Enterprising members of this fraternity of which I am a member – and I say fraternity advisedly, since we are probably 98% of the male persuasion – have found the limits of this. There’s the unlucky slob who took a tour to New Orleans exactly one day before Katrina hit, and at the other end, the cunning bastard who’d taken a tour to the Burning Man festival back in 2003 and still wasn’t back in Hell.
Me, I like to take them to Manhattan. Herding 666 demons down Broadway is surprisingly easy. It’s kind of like herding 666 primary school aged kittens on speed down Broadway, only without the meth. But no one looks out of place in Manhattan. (I’ve heard this said about Burning Man too, but trust me, no one normal-looking belongs there. Manhattan is different.)
Besides, I had a plan.
For my last several visits now – about three years, given how irregularly there are 666 demons ready for the tour, and how many of us there are sentenced to this particular torture at any given time – I’d been laying plans. Each time, I’d managed to smuggle a note to a still-living friend, and each time, I’d gotten my replies. Contacts had been made, arrangements solidified, and a plan agreed upon. And this tour was going to be the one.
Of course, I had to move slowly, at least to begin with. It began with a call I made from phone booth. That was all it took to set it in motion. Then all I had to do was wait and whittle.
So I spent a long afternoon waiting for the first hundred or so demons to get hit by cars. A few more were convinced to try launching themselves off the balcony after the musical was finished. About half of them were persuaded that swimming was a good idea – there’s no water in Hell, only steam and ice, each of them about 200 degrees away from being water – and that the East River was a fine place to try it.
Plus there was the usual attrition from demons getting caught picking pockets, shoplifting or assorted other petty crimes. Most inexperienced demons, when caught doing something that the laws of the living frown upon, will panic and voluntarily discorporate. The ones who don’t invariably fail to survive long in a holding cell. I believe the record is 8 hours, but apparently that was a slow night.
The rest of the day, I just tried to keep them too busy to think much. I kept them out of libraries, galleries and museums, and instead took them to one department store after another. For hours. Until every last one of them was laden down with sample bags and plastered with “Hello my name is” stickers. It slowed them down, and it distracted them. Hell is conspicuously lacking in certain kinds of variety – colors and scents being two notable examples – and I’ve always found that playing human eye for the demon guy (or whatever) will keep them busy for hours. Plus, not a few of them will choose to discorporate after blinding themselves with perfume or hair spray.
In any case, by nightfall, I was down to about 80 demons. These ones were smarter than their more easily departed brethren, sistren and genders-you’d-rather-not-know-about-ren. They were the ones who were able to master their pride enough to ask me questions, like “what’s this gnawing sensation in my belly?” and “you only cross when the light’s green, yeah?” I would, under normal circumstances, have been rejoicing in their intelligence. After all, the longer they stayed, the longer I stayed. But not this time, and not this way.
As we had arranged, I killed some time in a Starbucks, watching from the windows for my friend across the street to signal me. And before too long, it came – the guy in the “The End is Nigh” sandwich board threw his board into the trash. It was time.
I had managed to lose a handful more in Starbucks. Demons have no universal physical characteristics, which means there’s always a few to whom caffeine is either poisonous or just too great a stress on their metabolisms. But I probably still had more than seventy demons following me when we crossed the street to Union Square.
Demons being demons, they had all been pleading with me all day to take them to Ground Zero. But none of them knew a direct route there, so when I suggested we take the subway, no one objected. It was one more part of the New York experience that they had yet to sample.
Now, there’s a rumour that in the seventies and eighties, Hell actually outsourced part of its punitive transit system to the New York subway authorities. I’ve never been able to find out whether it was true or not, but as someone who lived in New York in those years, it’s always felt true to me. I was counting on that. I hoped that standing on a subway platform might feel familiar enough to get demons to let down their guard. At least a little.
The platform was crowded, and the demons needed no encouragement to push as close to the edge of it as possible. They wanted to hear and see the next one before anyone else, to feel the wind of an oncoming train. What they felt instead, each and every one of them, was a sensation of pressure in the area roughly equivalent to what we humans would call a back, a brief sense of vertigo, and finally, the lightning burn sensation of hitting the third rail. This is because my friends, and some of their friends, and some random dudes they met on the way here
Oh, wait, did I say every one? I meant every one but the one that I grabbed hold of. The one that my friends and I took prisoner. The one who now lives in a cell in my house, and has not, in five years, recognized that he is a prisoner. Nor will he ever, I hope, so long as we keep the dvds, console games and junk food coming, although what with how hard I have to work to keep him supplied, I sometimes wonder is this is not Hell after all.