The (Probably Not) Last Debate

March 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Days off are wonderful, but especially so when the sun is shining and the air is warm.

And doubly especially so when you get to read stories written by me. In other news, Deathstalker has not yet arrived, so we’ll see about this week. Hopefully tomorrow, but who knows? Well, the UPS driver knows, but he’s not telling.

The Third Interlude

Vasily was upset. It was a testament to his intestinal fortitude that only now, when he was stumbling through the Swiss mountains in a rotting bear skin and growing mad with thirst, was he getting upset. Not angry, not furious, and certainly not despairing. No, that was not for him! The greatest of privations were as nothing to a former jet pilot (who had spent more time grounded for mechanical reasons than flying) who had served (because it was mandatory) in the glorious Military Air Forces of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic(glorious? Not even the idiots who still liked Stalin wanted to go back to those days). He was a man, without significant education (at the time), and who had carried aloft weapons of nuclear war on the belly of a steel eagle!

The thought that he had actually touched a nuclear missile still kept him up some nights.

Yet Vasily was upset because he stared up at both the gathering darkness of night and a roiling stew of furious clouds. A storm, unlike any he had experienced in the wild, let alone without shelter beyond that of Isabella’s fur, was about the be unleashed upon him.

He swore under his breath, because even though he was alone in trackless miles of forest, he still felt awkward speaking out loud to himself. He wouldn’t want anyone to think he was crazy, right?

Isabella had no comment. If she had been alive, she would have registered her gross displeasure at her present circumstances, a complaint that Vasily would not have survived. But she was not and he was, and he needed to find shelter in a forest that seemed to distinctly lack any.

A thought, unworthy of such a noble man, occurred to him. It was almost as though a spate of bad luck was actively chasing him. From the plane crash, which some would say constituted the definition of “bad luck”, to being forced to move away from the crash site and probable rescue, to meeting Isabella (which had turned out to be a bit of good luck in the end), to the approaching storm, why, it was almost as though nature was out to get him!

Vasily rejected that thought as unworthy. Nature, not only was it mad and mindless, wouldn’t concern itself with something as small as a single human. Why would it marshal such enormous resources just to rid itself of one man? Man had never meant anything in the grand scheme of existence, and they never would. Why would nature suddenly concern itself with them now? And why would Vasily think himself so important as to be the subject of that concern? Clearly, he was not, and dismissed the thought from his mind.

It did not occur to Vasily, once a former subject of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which had expended vast resources in the pursuit of individuals who were, despite their singular unimportance, endlessly tracked, controlled, and monitored by a gargantuan system of offices, agents, and information, that despite being mad and mindless, an organization so big could still care about one person.

One person, whether to nature or to the politburo, could be very important indeed.

Regardless of Vasily’s importance, the tower of clouds was growing darker and more ominous by the minute. Knowing that there was nothing behind him but scrub and trees, neither of which would be much good in a storm, Vasily resolved to climb further down the mountain. If he was going to be washed away by this storm, he decided to at least be as close to the bottom as possible.

The storm hit while he was climbing through a dense thicket of pine. The wind howled through the branches and tugged at the remains of Isabella. Rain lashed as thick as rope against his face and thunder roared in the sky. A lightning bolt obliterated a tree not a kilometre from Vasily and the brightness of the bolt blinded him for a moment.

He fell to his knees, gasping and furiously rubbing at his eyes. It was so dark that he didn’t know whether he could see again or not. But worse of all, it was so damn cold. The storm didn’t care for the fact it was summer. The rain felt as icy as the Volga in spring. Isabella’s now-pitiful remains offered no protection against the driving rain and he was very quickly soaked through.

Memories of his survival training kicked in and he knew that without rest and warmth soon, he would be as good as dead. In the event of a pilot ejecting from a crash, they were all relentlessly drilled that exposure could be as deadly as enemy bullets. Of course, they were also trained that nothing would be as deadly as crawling from the wreckage back to Lieutenant Andrei Ipatiev after destroying one of Mother Russia’s valuable fighter jets! He was always the first to tell them that the one thing Russia did not need more of was men.

However much that Vasily knew that he needed shelter, his body didn’t seem to get the message. It urgently reminded him that not quite twelve hours ago it had fallen out of the air, endured a crash that no-one else survived, and in those hours had had nothing to eat but a few poorly-cooked scraps of bear and no sleep but several unconscious hours in the wreckage (more due to shock than weariness). It begged him to consider the debt he was accruing against his body’s capital. He ignored the reasonable protests of his muscles and tried to take a step forward. His legs, now on strike against the bourgeois brain (always telling them what to do), refused to cooperate and threw him to the ground. His arms joined in a sympathy strike and stubbornly resisted the influence of capital. Also, they hung as Vasily’s side as he ploughed into the dirt.

He lay there for awhile as he felt the weight of the rain press the breath out of him. He, as a rule, had never been afraid to die, but it had never occurred to him that he would die. He wasn’t afraid of lions or anacondas either, mostly because Russia had very few of those running around and he never really expected to meet any. No, like lions in Russia, death was an abstraction, a thing that he didn’t claim to understand and, like particle physics, therefore ignored.

Now that he lay in the mud of the Swiss alps and felt his mind giving up, it suddenly occurred to him that death was, not only possible, but present. It almost felt like it was waiting for him, waiting for the last breath to sneak it’s way out of his body and to fill his lungs with blackness instead. Normally, Vasily would have fought and railed against that idea. But now, he was too tired.

His thoughts raced and pulled images out at random. His graduation. His first Easter. What it felt like to fly above the clouds. His wife, Barbaricia, and how she smelt at night. What it felt like to hold his son Tomas in his arms.

Slowly, so slowly, his thoughts slowed down and the images came slower.

Bread.

A sunset.

An eagle.

Darkness.

XII.

Jan Zizka adjusted his tie.

Technically, Patrick O’Flanagan adjusted it for him. It was only a half-Windsor, but he felt that it was suitable considering the big Bohemian’s ignorance of 20th century fashion. Taking a step back, Patrick admired what he had been able to whip up out of imagination and a bit of patience.

Jan Zizka wore a burgundy blazer over top of a golden shirt. His tie, silver thread woven with indigo crosses, was tucked neatly behind a dark red waist-coat. He also wore bright green slacks and, to cap off this crime against sartorial good-nature, brown leather shoes.

Patrick nodded appraisingly and Zizka beamed out a smile.
“How look I, friends? I’ve long admired the dress of those you call Mad Men, but this is the first reason I have I wear such fine dress! Do I appear similarly mad?”

Patrick turned to the others. “How’s he look?”

Hai’s face was turned up into a look of sheer horror. The angel had only recently allowed the others to see her (with much pleading from Patrick), and she had no reluctance in showing her opinions. Zizka and Phorcys were completely flabbergasted by her presence and seeming deference to Patrick, while the Vikings took it in stride.

“He looks like a Christmas tree where someone forgot to turn off the tinsel.” Hai sniffed.

Zizka beamed even more. “Ahh, like an ornament to mark the birth of our Saviour? It seems I know well enough how to dress in this fashion! That good, eh?” He turned to admire himself in a mirror, pleased as punch. Patrick offered a weak smile and a half-hearted shrug. Zizka had insisted on dressing himself, and although the colours he wore might have been suitable in tunic, leggings, and tabard, they didn’t quite go with a 1950s suit.

Phorcys swept into the room. “Oi, how’s this then?” He wore a pin-stripe suit, tightly tailored in the Italian style that accented his strong arms, thick legs and shapely posterior. His long black hair was smoothed back into a neat ponytail that avoided being trashy, and a single golden ring gleamed on his hand. Patrick was briefly jealous, if only because of how easy it was for the Phyrigian. The man just oozed handsomeness and masculinity, and what was worse was that he didn’t even realize it! He wore a men’s suit like the idea of a suit was modelled after him, and he was born 3,000 years before people started wearing suits! He even had a folded handkerchief in his breast pocket, which Patrick had certainly not thought to give him.

“If you’re jealous, you could always make yourself look more like him, you know.” Hai whispered in his ear.

“No, no. I…ok fine, I’m a little jealous. He looks like Gucci come again, for Heaven’s sake!” Faced with such a piece of masculine perfection, Patrick had to admit that the thought of changing how he looked had crossed his mind, but only briefly. In Heaven, all it took was a thought and in truth, he had unconsciously smoothed out some of bad skin, cut his hair like the barber never seemed able to, and dropped some of the extra weight he had carried, but he didn’t change anything significant. He still looked like a Patrick, with most of his warts and all. He was afraid what would happen if he changed himself completely, if it came to a point where he didn’t even recognize himself.

“But that’s fine, because I guess he always did. And I still look like I always did. I don’t really want to change myself. Sure, parts of me maybe, but not all. I grew attached to that body. I liked it, for what is was, even if it wasn’t…that.”

“Good. Because I like you just the way you look.” Hai turned her whisper into a purr and ran a hand down Patrick’s back. The touch of her was electric and he jerked forward.

“That bad, huh?” Phorcys asked and his face fell. “Should I just go back to the chiton and chlamys?

“Truth be told, friend, it is a bit…drab, is it not?” Zizka tried to be conciliatory. “Perhaps if it was in yellow?”

“No no! It’s fine, fine! You look great, Phorcys, really great. Fierce.” Patrick stuttered and tried to get out of range of Hai’s hand. She had been acting strangely since they left Yggdrasil with the two einherjar and it was starting to bother Patrick.

The Phyrigian’s eyebrow arched. “You…peachy, Patrick? You seem a little bonkers. Is it those Nordic blokes? They do seem a bit shifty. No offence boys!”

Arngeir and Sævarr stood by the door of the house, looking grim. The whole house was a wonderful invention of Patrick’s, and had made him most proud. Once he had roped Zizka and Phorcys into his plan, they had needed a place to get changed and plan. While again, in Heaven there is no such thing as distance, the feeling of solid walls around them was a comfort and helped them craft their plan in what felt like secrecy. Patrick had thought about the house he knew best (his own), and closed his eyes. When he opened them, a tiny purple Victorian-revival with a full vegetable garden stood in front of them.

Now, that same tiny purple Victorian-revival had two frightened (although they would have fought any-one/thing/god that even suggested einherjar could feel fear) vikings in it. Patrick had insisted everyone dress in their fanciest clothing before they finalized the plan, and the vikings, having never met armour they didn’t like, believed that the finest of war gear was the fanciest thing in the world. And if they met anything finer, they’d run it through with their spears. They were dressed in shining mail and helmets, and carried their full panoply of shields, axes, swords and spears, and were unimpressed with ties, suits, and wingtip shoes.

Arngeir hid behind a mask of chain and stared resolutely at the floor, while Sævarr stared at the pinging radiator.

“It’s hot, Arngeir.”

“What do you mean, it’s hot? It’s fine in here. Stop talking.”

“No, you horse’s pubic hairs, the, the, thing. Over there.” He pointed at the radiator. “Keeps making that sound and groaning, an’ it’s hot.”

“Whoa there, who are you to call me a horse’s pubic hair? I’m Arngeir the Sharp, son of Ráðormr the Half-”

“I know who you are, you idiot, no need to shout it all over the damn house. That…metal thing? Looks like a bunch of horns stuck together? It’s hot. It’ll burn your hand, like. And I don’t see any fire or nothing.”

“No fire? Now who’s the week-old shit of a donkey! You can’t have something hot without a fire or the sun, sure everyone knows that.”

“I don’t think you do, you bloody rag off of a three-day old wound, because you’re too damn scared to look at anything in this damn witch den.”

“I’m just smart enough not to do anything to upset the wicca, unlike you, you cow-buggering second-son of a thrall. Besides, who are you calling a bloody rag? I’m Arngeir the Sharp, son of-”

“Yes I bloody well know! But you just lost.”

“What do you mean?”

“You called me a “cow-buggering second-son of a thrall”, and you already used that one.”

“What? When?”

“Just after I called you a “wine-drinking wife of a Roman”.”

This continued in fierce whispers from the relative safety of the doorway. Sævarr looked around the room in quick jerks like a startled rabbit, trying to take it all in but terrified at the same time, while Arngeir kept his head down. He had inadvertently peered into the kitchen when Patrick used the microwave. The sights and sounds of the roaring machinery (which in this case, led to the perfectly cookedburrito that was hot enough without burning the tongue) that seemed to create food out of thin air terrified the viking. What were even einherjar, besides a wizard of such power? And Patrick’s friends weren’t much better. There was the gigantic Slav that seemed friendly but had lost an eye like Óðinn, which was always a dangerous sign, and then the dark fellow that was as handsome as Baldur and as dark as Frejya, and who wore clothing of gold and night spun out of nothing.

Truly, this “Heaven” was a terrifying place.

Phorcys raised his voice. “I said no offence intended, boys!”

“What? Huh?” Sævarr’s nearly panicked. Arngeir continued looking at the floor. They ignored Phorcys.

“Huh. Well, I suppose they’ll be good in a scrap if it comes to that. What’s going to happen here, anyways, that we need a few bruisers like them?”

Patrick tried his best to deflect Phorcys’ question. “I hope nothing, but let’s go over it one more time.” He waved them over to the kitchen table. When Sævarr and Arngeir refused to budge, he said, “Now come on, we’re all friends here. I’ve asked you all to help me, and you’ve agreed, so let’s work together. Please?”

The vikings conferred amongst themselves.

“Why don’t he just order us over there? It’s his house, we’re his huscarls now. You think this is a test?”

“A test? I dunno. This one’s certainly a wicca, and a test is right up their sleeves, ain’t it? He’ll ask us something and then bam, turn us into toads or something slimy.”

Arngeir shivered. “I don’t wanna be turned into a toad. Toads can’t fight at the last battle.” His eyes suddenly lit up and he raised his head. “Unless…”

“You’d be the only toad fighting there, that’s for sure. That’d be remembered.” Sævarr mentally kicked himself for not thinking of it first. Good ideas like that were hard to come by for vikings. “But Óðinn gave us our orders.”

“But he said only to “heed any command he gives you”. He ain’t given us a command, has he?”

“Hmm, I guess he hasn’t.”

Hai looked at the whispering vikings. For the other mortals in the room, the whispers of the vikings came across as that: whispers. They understood that they were trying to limit their communication so that only each other could hear, and the other souls, who still weren’t over the limits of their human brains, interpreted that as being too quiet to pick up. Hai, as an immortal who was well aware of all her abilities, heard every word.

Einherjar. To me. Now!” Her voice was as sharp as the steel Arngeir carried on his hip. In a second, albeit a clattering one, two shaking vikings stood behind the others at the table.

“Hey Sævarr, we weren’t ordered to obey the valkyrie, were we?”

“Hey Arngeir. Shut up.”

Patrick sat at the table and marvelled at his situation for a second. Here he was, sitting at what, for all intents and purposes, felt like his kitchen table at home. The sun shone through the window, a few birds rustled in the bushes, and the open window brought in the smells of spring (covered by residue of microwave burrito, which Patrick shared with Phorcys). Yet, never once had he had as guests two terrified vikings, an amorous angel, a veteran of the Trojan war in a power-suit, or a colour-blind medieval warrior. It took a moment to register, but once it did, Patrick shook it off with a smile.

He too, was getting used to it.

“Ok, so here’s the deal. Something’s gone weird up here in Heaven. Isn’t that so, Hai?”

UMMMMM.”

“She didn’t answer, so that means that she’s forbidden to answer, which is as good as a yes. I’m not sure myself what the trouble is, but Arngeir and Sævarr know it. You two, what did you think was supposed to happen when you died, and then found out Valhalla wasn’t everything it was supposed to be?”

Sævarr answered Patrick’s question to save his friend from further terror. “We two have stopped thinking at this point. Óðinn gave us our orders and said the future was at stake. We ain’t exactly priests, but when Óðinn says “do something”, you do it.”

“And that’s exactly the problem. Who’s this Óðinn, and where did he come from?”

“Well, he’s the son of-”

“I know who he is, Sævarr, I meant it figuratively. We can’t all be in the same Heaven, can we? Phorcys, you weren’t supposed to be here at all, were you?”

“Was I?” The Phrygian answered, shaking his head. “Gods no. I took a damn Danaan spear through the gut and blacked out, and when I woke up, Cheron’s taking me across the river. So far, so good, but then this Michael bloke is telling me I have to wait, and this other guy, Raphael is all “so glad you’ve come”. I started asking where Hades was and where I could get me a pomegranate, and a while later, Michael shows up again and, Hera is my witness, he’s just wearing a black robe instead of a white one. He didn’t even take off the damn crown! A boy-tickling actor would have done a better job than this fella, and he’s telling me “don’t worry, things are different here, be at peace.” I didn’t buy it, but I kept my mouth shut. If a god tells you to be at peace, you bloody well are at peace, right? And I didn’t think much of it, because, truth be told, this is a little better than what’s promised by Hades. Never felt right, though. Something’s missing and I can’t say what.”

“And before I am asked, yes, Patrick, I too was struck dumb when I arrived.” Zizka carried on. He had a tendency to swell up when he talked, as though he was used to rapt attention from his listeners. It didn’t really work when the speaker was wearing a gold jacket in a linoleum kitchen, but Patrick listened politely. He thought for a second and sipped the cup of coffee that appeared in his hand. Arngeir nearly dropped his spear in shock.

“The dread boatman was the first clue that something was amiss, and although Peter comforted me at the gates of Heaven and saw that my name was entered into the Book of Life, I did not expect to see so many heathens, heretics, or apostates in Heaven! By the Blood of Christ, there are,” his voice dropped, “Arians here! Arians! A heresy so foul it choked the early Church for centuries, and they dance about in Heaven? “What next!”, I thought, and, like St. Thomas opening wide the gates of Hell with his doubt, worse came! The unbaptized! Heathens! Atheists!” He shuddered theatrically to show his horror, but the effect was lost on his audience. According to the people in the room, everyone else was a dirty heathen or atheist. “I kept silent, because who am I to question the will of Our Lord? No-one and nothing, but in my pride I resolved to ask Him at once. Yet,” and he idly stroked his eye-patch, “not once have my petitions gone through to the Throne. I have not even received my personal judgement from the Christ, and although I would never question my eternal reward…in my weakness I harbour doubts. Why does He remain silent? Why?”

Patrick nodded. “Exactly. I think it’s time we got some answers. I might be new here, but none of this is how I expected it to be. Hell, none of it is how any of us expected it to be. And I think I know who knows.”

He turned to Hai. “I’m sorry to have to do this.”

The angel’s eyes widened in terror. “You don’t have to, you know. You could just follow the Plan and enjoy yourselves until…” She clamped her hands over her mouth. In some ways, despite her immortal age, she was younger than any in the room.

“Until what, Hai?” Patrick asked, as gently as he could. He was roiling with emotions right now, not all of them good. Chief among them was How dare they lie to us! He, as a barely confessed believer, didn’t realize the irony of that thought, but the righteous anger still burned brightly. His next few thoughts, even though they grew dimmer by the hour (or what felt like, and so on), were of his wife. If Phorcys was here, a man who died over a millennium before anyone had heard of the Big-G God and his wife was not…then he needed, no, he would demand answers.

When he had been alive, the thought of what happened after death rarely occurred to him. Part of him, the part that occasionally dragged him to mass he no longer recognized, had clung to the old belief. He thought that, well, life would carry on. Sure, there would be more clouds, halos, and harps involved, but life would just keep going. When he met Amira, who didn’t give one whit for faith and who was content to believe that life ended in a hole in the ground, his faith had been so ground down by his lived experience that it barely shocked him. Would there just be an eternity of blackness and silence, one that he wouldn’t even be conscious to perceive? Maybe, but that thought had little fear for him. After all, he’d be too dead to complain.

But this, this continued existence bounded by neither space nor time, where one could have whatever they wanted and do whatever they pleased with whoever they pleased, this was beyond anyone’s thought of Heaven. This was even better than 72 virgins all served on a silver platter. This was a glorious paradise that Patrick had no intention of experiencing with anyone but Amira. As much as he liked Zizka, he hadn’t married the man.

Yet she was gone. She should have been there. Fairness demanded it. General decency demanded it. Hell, Patrick demanded it. But she was not. Whenever Patrick thought of that, a hollowness tore into him like a beetle attacking deadwood, chipping away at what he thought he was and leaving nothing but pain and uncertainty.

And if he needed to march all the way up to the Throne and demand an answer from the Lord himself, why Patrick, the quiet, non-confrontational man who liked to think and stayed away from fights, was going to march up and get that answer.

“Until what, Hai?” Patrick repeated. He laid his hand on hers and was surprised to feel it was cold and clammy. If an angel, created by the Divine to serve as His/Her/It’s personal agent, could feel fear, was able to understand trepidation, then Hai was edging close to panic. Patrick tried a half-hearted pat on her hand, but it felt more like he was stroking a cat than he was offering comfort.

She burst into tears, a very human response that caused every single man in the room to lean back and wonder “Oh crap, what did I do this time?” In-between her sobbing, sniffling, and very un-angelic runny nose, she gasped out an answer.

“I d-d-didn’t w-want to say it, because n-now the T-Thrones are going to p-punish us, and t-they’ll take us a-w-way and throw us all into Hell, but y-you asked and so I h-h-have to. I h-have to do w-what I’m ordered t-to.”

“I have the feeling, friend, that you just crossed the Rubicon, or fought across your Milvian bridge, as it were.”

“I think you also screwed a dog in there.” Phorcys helpfully added.

“You…uh, don’t have to if you don’t want to.” Patrick said, lamely, his burning drive somewhat cooled by her tears.
“I d-don’t want any of t-this. It’s all m-messed up and backwards but I h-have to! I h-have to listen to t-them and y-you and I just wish I d-didn’t, b-because I liked you and now you-re g-going to Hell! I j-just wish He’d come back and would set it right! ”

The temperature of the room, which had been hovering around a Heavenly “perfect”, suddenly dropped. Even Arngeir looked at Hai, who managed a defiant glare around the table despite the tears streaming down her face.

“W-who do you wish would come back, Hai?” Patrick asked as a worm of fear crawled down his throat and merrily splashed in his stomach. He knew who Hai missed, but he had to be certain. “Who?”

“God, you d-doofus.”

The birds outside stopped rustling. They flew up and away, and never came back to that small, purple Victorian-revival house.

 

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