Heavengate, Hell, November 2008.
Corporal Dripankeothorofenex had decided, upon mature consideration, that he liked humans. In a manner of speaking, he always had in a culinary sense, but now he was working with them, he was beginning to see that the way they did things had decided advantages to offer a poor footslogger.
Take Heavengate for example. The chamber containing the black ellipse that offered direct access from Hell to Heaven was in the center of a massive fortress, one designed for the sole purpose of stopping the Heavenly hordes from invading Hell. It has served that function, and served it well, for millennia beyond counting. The problem was that the way the daemons had organized the defense, there had to be a guard detail inside that chamber. This had led to a game being played over those millennia. The Angels would stage a raid, pile through the gate, kill the guard and retreat the other side before reinforcements could arrive. Then the daemons would retaliate and stage a raid of their own. And so it went on, millennia after millennia. Greta fun for the Lords who could boast in Satan's court about it, not so much for the foot-soldiers who died.
Then the human army had come and they'd killed Satan, destroyed his court and put their own leader into power. After a while, they'd found Heavengate, looked at the chamber and shaken their heads sadly. Then they'd made a few modifications of their own. They'd walled up the original entrance to the chamber, leaving just a massive steel door for access. They'd built a new room off to one side, with armored glass windows so the occupants had a good view of the portal. Then they'd brought in comfortable chairs for the guards, run a power capable in from a generator outside and even installed a refrigerator so the guards could have a cold fungus ale now and then while on duty. After all, as the Sergeant in charge had said, 'any damned fool can be uncomfortable'. Then they'd rigged the inside of the chamber with their dreaded weapons.
Dripankeothorofenex remembered what had happened next, remembered it fondly. He'd been on guard when a group of angels had burst into the chamber, intent on slaughtering the daemon guard. Then they'd stopped dead, looking around them in confusion at the empty chamber. While they did so, Dripankeothorofenex had picked up the telephone and called the human reaction force waiting outside.
"Hi Drippy, anything happening in there?" The human voice at the other end might have been relaxed but Dripankeothorofenex wasn't taken in. Humans could do more killing while totally relaxed than daemons could achieve with a week's concentrated effort. He was a little proud though, he'd noticed that the human soldiers tended to invent slightly abusive nicknames for each other and the fact he had one of his own suggested they were accepting him as a comrade.
"Angel raiding party just arrived." His report was interrupted by a series of explosions as his Sergeant set off the killing machines. 'Claymores' the humans had called them. "We just blew them up."
"Good for you. We're on our way."
Dripankeothorofenex had settled back in his seat and waited for the humans. This way of warfare, sitting back and killing by remote control, was much preferable to a desperate hand-to-hand fight. He had looked into the chamber, seeing the charnel house resulting from the killing machines. Not an angel had survived. Then the humans had come, taken away what was left of the bodies and reset the charges. "When we will stage a raid of our own?" 'Drippy' had asked the Sergeant commanding the team.
"We won't. Why should we? We don’t know what is that side, we can guess it's probably much the same as this. Why waste lives? Anyway, they sent a raiding party through, it never came back, what would you do?"
Dripankeothorofenex thought for a second. "Send another one through to find out what happened to the first one?"
"Right, Drippy. And we blow that one up too. We could get half a dozen groups before they give it up as a bad job and that's the end of this raiding problem, right?"
That's when Dripankeothorofenex had decided he liked humans. He entered the observation room and relieved the previous watch of their duty. Once his own group were in place, he visually checked the Heavengate Chamber and saw that all was in order. Next item on the checklist, he picked up the telephone and advised the human reaction team outside the fortress that he had the guard and all was well.
At that point he turned around, opened the refrigerator and looked inside. There were flasks of fungus ale, some slices of foodbeast and some metal cans of human beer marked 'Coors'. He took one of the cans, in truth he preferred fungus ale but beer was human so it had to be better didn’t it?, opened it and swallowed the contents. As he turned around he looked again into the Heavengate Chamber and it took a second for the change to register. When it did, he dived for the telephone. The black ellipse wasn't there. The Heavengate was closed and couldn’t be reopened. Ever.
Interstate 95, just south of Dover, Delaware. December 2008
"That's the turning, Interstate 666."
The green sign made it quite clear. "Interstate 666, Delaware City, Middletown and Hellgate Golf." John McLanahan swung the family car on to the exit ramp and started to follow the signs for the Hellgate. The whole road was new and showed signs of the hurried construction. The signs though were unambiguous. 'Military Convoys Have Absolute Right of Way.'
"Are we there yet?" John Junior sounded impatient and fretful.
"Nearly honey. We'll be seeing Grandma again soon. We'll make sure she is all right now she's dead." Naomi McLanahan and her husband exchanged slightly guilty glances, they were making this visit, one that was using a substantial proportion of their monthly gasoline ration, for reasons that were not quite so altruistic.
Ahead of them, Interstate 666 split, the main lanes curving off towards Hellgate Golf, the rest reverting to the prewar road network. Another preemptory sign, 'Civilian Traffic, Right Lane. Left Three Lanes, Military Traffic Only.' McLanahan started to swing right and felt the Toyota Corolla lurch as a ten-wheeled Oshkosh HEMTT roared past. It was followed by more of the same mixed in with tank transporters carrying Abrams tanks and Bradley armored fighting vehicles. The sign about military convoys having absolute right of way wasn't a joke, if the Toyota had been in the way, it would have been pushed out of it. McLanahan shook slightly, being at war took a lot of getting used to. Iraq and the Persian Gulf wars hadn't been anything like this.
Ahead, the road rose before falling away to the area surrounding the gate. Cresting the rise, he could see the whole extent of the human side of Base Hellgate-Golf. There would be more the other side of the ellipse but that was hidden behind the black shadow. "See that Junior? That's the Hellgate. Anybody from your class been through it yet?"
"No." Junior was staring at the lines of vehicles and helicopters parked outside. Most of them were red-stained and battered, waiting for the repairs that the vicious environment of Hell made essential.
Another sign. 'Civilian Parking' and an arrow leading off to the right. Once again McLanahan followed the indicated route to a parking lot. It was much smaller than he had thought, he had been expecting a sea of cars, left while their owners visited newly-deceased loved ones. Then reality set in, there were only a limited number of permits to visit Hell issued to civilians and the McLanahans had been lucky. Most were not. He parked the car and his family got out, looking around as they did so. There was a small shelter nearby, marked "Transit Bus". It drew them over and they stood in the metal lean-to, welcoming the cover it offered from the drizzling rain. A few minutes later, a dark green bus, looking for all the world like a schoolbus pulled up.
"Transit Bus For Hell." The Private driving it was bored out of his mind by the constant shuttling. This was not a prized assignment and he'd really upset his Sergeant at some time to get it.
The bus took them to a single-story building marked "Hell Orientation Center". The McLanahans were conducted into a briefing room, one that had around 20 seats in it. The room filled up quickly, the people eying each other curiously. Then, an Army Officer entered and stood at the podium.
"Welcome to Hell, ladies and gentlemen. A few quick words to advise you of the conditions and regulations concerning your visit. Firstly, this is an operational military base, photography is not permitted while on base grounds. Anybody seen taking pictures will have their camera confiscated.
"Secondly, the atmosphere in Hell is not healthy. It is loaded with dust and that is harmful to your health. You must not, repeat not, take off your breathing mask any time you are in an unfiltered environment. You do, you may be back here sooner than you expect. Some of the troops we sent in right at the start of the war didn't have breathing masks either and their health is now pretty bad.
"Thirdly, all of you are here to visit recently-deceased relatives. Be aware of this, the people you will be meeting are not humans. Not quite. They look like the people you knew and have the same characters but they are in different bodies, ones adapted to living in Hell. Think of them as flasks into which the people you knew have been transferred. So, just because they can do things here – like walking around outside without masks - don’t think you can.
"Fourthly, military convoys and personnel have absolute priority. If they are coming through, get out of their way because they will not stop." The Lieutenant looked grim for a second. "You may have heard that we had some protesters here a few days ago. They laid down in the road in from of a tank convoy. By the time the convoy had passed, they were a thousandth of an inch tall and about eighty yards long. Something like a tank convoy can't stop, understand? OK.
"Fifthly, wandering around is a bad idea. Hell isn’t linear, don't ask us why, we don’t know. If you really want an answer, we'll tell you it's because the polarity is reversed but that's just saying we don’t know using different words. But, it means this. You walk in a straight line out, turn around and walk in a straight line back, you will not end up in the same place you started out from. On walking distances, its only a small error but in the refugee camps, that will get you lost. And that will displease us.
"Lastly, when the bus comes to pick you up, you leave. You'll have about an hour or so before that happens. Please don’t make us come in and get you. That's all. Any questions? No? Excellent. Thank you." The Lieutenant left quickly, giving the orientation speech wasn't a prized duty either and he wondered what he had done that had displeased his Captain so badly.
Another bus pulled into the reception building and the visitors were conducted into it. The driver was another morose private expiating some unknown military sin but there was also a professionally cheerful young woman on board. She handed out breathing masks as the visitors entered. Once they were all seated, the bus pulled out as she checked everybody had their masks on properly. "Did you all get your lecture from the Lieutenant?" There was a mumble of agreement. "He is a bit fierce isn't he? Still, Hell is a hostile environment, but you follow his advice and its safe enough. He probably skidded you past the questions bit so if I can answer anything. My name is Elva by the way, Elva Jones."
The bus slipped through the Hellgate and the inside darkened as the overcast Earth sky was replaced by the red-gray of Hell. Junior stuck his hand up. "You're not wearing a mask."
A chuckle went around the bus at the boy's presumption. The guide smiled for the same reason. "I don’t have to Johnny. I'm dead you see."
One of the men up near the front of the bus couldn’t help but ask. "Miss, ummm, how did you…"
"Die? I was an air hostess and my plane crashed. So, when I was rescued, I got this job." She looked at the man who was about to ask something else. "A DC-2, remember them?" The man nodded and she smiled at him, not many people knew much about old airliners.
"People, we're now entering the Phelan Plain. This is named after Philip Phelan, a mall security guard who gave his life to rescue a group of schoolgirls from a Baldrick attack. We're hoping we’ll find him soon so he can come visit us. The Phelan Plain is where everybody stays after they arrive or are rescued, until they find a better place of course. Now. We're going to the American Arrivals Area, all the people you want to see are there. Just give me your ticket, I'll tell you where to get off and give you a map."
"Miss Jones, the Lieutenant said that people are different. Will we be able to recognize…"
"Certainly. If your relative died before middle-age, menopause for women, they'll look just the way they did when they died. If they died much older, they'll look the way they did in middle age. To quote the Lieutenant, don't ask us why, we don’t know. Right, first stop. Mr and Mrs McLanahan and your son? Here you are, just follow the map, it's only a few yards."
Elva had been right, the small hut allocated to Rose Matthews, Naomi McLanahan's mother, was only a few yards away from the bus stop. Privately, McLanahan guessed that wasn't an accident, that the bus routes were planned to drop each group off close to their destination.
"Oh Naomi, its so good to see you. And you brought little Johnnie too. Come in, why don’t you, it’s a bit small but it's only temporary. Johnnie, would you like a drink or something to eat? You can come in too John." John McLanahan reflected that being dead hadn't affected his mother-in-law at all. Physically though, the change was stunning. When he had last seen her, she had been on a bed in the hospice, breathing through a tube in her nose and fading away as the lung cancer had killed her. Now, she looked like a well-preserved mid-forties, very much like Naomi's sister rather than her mother. And so, he followed them in and settled down
The problem really was that nobody had actually created a set of etiquette rules for speaking to dead people. The ridiculous mummery that the fake mediums had invented when they 'spoke to the dead' were of no help at all and a lot of the normal small-talk subjects just weren't relevant. So, the conversations staggered along. Eventually, it found an interesting area where Rose Matthews started to tell her guests about the people living around her. Oddly it had been Junior who had sparked it off when he had asked his grandmother if she'd met Jesse James yet.
"Goodness me no. Nobody around here is famous. But then, there are so few really famous people and there are so many of us, I suppose the chances of meeting a famous person are very low. But if I see Jesse James, I'll tell him you asked after him." Grandmother and parents exchanged adult glances at that. She'd gone on to speak of her neighbors, of the new arrivals who exchanged news and opinions on what was happening on Earth and how they looked after those who had been rescued from the Hellpit. They'd been shattered by the experience and it took them a long time to realize the horror was over.
"So you are staying here Mother?" Naomi asked the question delicately but her mother's eyes twinkled. She guessed her daughter and son-in-law were finally getting around to the real reason for their visit.
"Here? Oh no, certainly not. This is just temporary until my Villa is built. Should be ready in a few weeks."
"Your villa momma?" Naomi didn't like the sound of that.
"I'm going to be a citizen of the New Roman Republic. I've even got my citizenship paper, look, it says here 'In the year of the consulships of Gaius Julius Caesar and Jade Kim, Rose Matthews being a landowner in the New Roman Republic, is accorded all the virtues and privileges due to a Citizen of Rome."
"Look Rose, we wanted to talk to you about this. When you died, the lawyers said you'd changed your will and left all your money to yourself."
"That's right John. Changed it myself. Saw the advertisements on television while I was staying in the hospice and thought, well that sounds like a good idea. So, I made some inquiries and decided it really was a good idea."
"But, we thought we would be the executors of your estate." McLanahan was trying to find a way of complaining about being left nothing without actually saying so.
"And you thought you would be inheriting everything when I was gone? Not going to happen. I'm sorry John but Mark and I worked hard all our lives to save for what we had. We owned our house free and clear, when Mark died, we didn't owe a penny to anybody. He's out here somewhere, maybe still in the Hellpit, perhaps he's been rescued already and we just haven't found each other. That takes time you know, even with computers to help out. But, when he is rescued or we do find each other, I want a nice home ready for him, just the way we left our old one, free and clear.
"Oh can I meet Julius Caesar?" Junior sounded awe-struck at actually meeting Caesar, it even beat the chance of meeting Jesse James.
"Certainly, the First Consul is always touring Rome, meeting the people. So does the Second Consul, you come to stay at my Villa Johnny and you’re sure to see them."
Junior sat back, his eyes glowing at the prospect. Rose stared at her daughter and son-in-law, her eyes triumphant and just a little malicious. "How often have you two refinanced your house? To pay off credit cards, buy that new trendy in-thing you just have to have and then threw away as soon as you got bored with it? Well, you'd better change your ways because you're getting nothing from me. All the killjoys were wrong, now we can take it with us and that's just what I've done. So have nearly all my friends at the Hospice. There's going to be a lot of disappointed kids who won’t get the windfall they're expecting and serve them right. Mark and I made it on our own and now we're going to enjoy it. I suggest you start to think about doing the same because when you die – when Naomi, it's not an if – you'll need everything you've saved as well. Or, you'll spend eternity living in a little shack like this and working on a road gang to earn money.
There was a long silence. Then Naomi broke it. "What will you be doing in Rome mother?"
"Me? I'll be going back to work of course. Sewing clothes, just a few hours now and then, enough to make some friends and keep boredom at bay. There's going to be factories in New Rome as well and if I get my feet under the table now, I can grow with them. And I might even buy a few shares in them, nothing like owning things is there?"
Once again, there was a few minutes silence as the McLanahan's digested the situation. They'd spent their lives working on the basis that they would be inheriting their family property in due course, now at least half of it had just gone. Probably all of it, John McLanahan thought, for it was unlikely that his father would do anything differently. Quite unexpectedly, his family had been hit with a financial crisis of unexpected proportions. Eventually conversation resumed but it was stilted and awkward until the time came for them to leave and catch the bus back to the Hellgate.
As the door closed behind them, Naomi clutched her husband's arm. "Oh John, what are we going to do?"
"I don't know darling, I just don’t know."
Nations do not survive by setting examples for others
Nations survive by making examples of others