I woke to find myself dead.
I’m normally a quick-witted girl, but I didn’t notice that my card had been punched, not at first. I started figuring it out as I watched the dragon blast-off into the sky.
The pain of being eaten alive had faded, like those purple spots behind your eyelids when you’ve tried to watch a sunset. It hadn’t been so bad really: it had all happened very fast.
My first clue that I’d left the land of the living, was that somebody ran straight through me. The second clue came when I lashed out at him, because it was hard not to notice that my arm was now translucent. The man on the receiving end stumbled, but ran on.
The third clue was in the form of my severed leg, laying trampled in the crowd.
It had been a shapely leg, if I do say so myself (I do). I’d worked out. In hindsight, I might as well have enjoyed more ice-cream.
I watched Roger, noting that he was still alive, running around with his stupid hat on fire (again). He seemed to be handling the situation, getting his new friends off the burning stage, getting them out of there. We’d spent all of our years together, him as the Captain, me as the First Mate… but he’d barely batted an eyelid for me now. Sure, we’d disagreed about a couple of things, towards the end, but I’d still expected some kind of a reaction to my untimely demise.
I supposed that now he’d keep our ship… my ship.
I heard a man’s voice behind me, deep enough to drop a coin in and never hear it hit the bottom.
His skin was even darker than my own, and his hair was short and grey, including his beard. He wore a sensible robe and sandals. Two office ladies from the real world dashed straight through him without leaving a ripple, and I decided that here was my fourth, and quite definitive clue: so I was definitely dead then.
Shit a hairbrush.
The grey-bearded man was just standing there, smiling a take-your-time smile. I walked right up to him, figuring that I’d best see where I stood. Or where I didn’t.
“You’re an angel?”
“Something like that, yes. I’ve come to collect you. Would you like to follow me, please?”
A lift door opened in the air, and he held it for me.
“‘Like to follow you’, is not how I’d put it, gramps. What other choices have I got?”
I looked back at the stage, now an inferno of warping bamboo and smouldering silk. The screaming audience were crowding the exits, fireworks tearing the sky apart, and the dragon whipping like a pennant in the wind to avoid them. I’d come so close… I could still do something? I was still there, so maybe I could… haunt people? Like a poltergeist? Or… possess someone?
“You are free to choose, but as you are now, there are limits to what you can do, even with your powers.”
Hah, my sparkly-twinkle magic powers. They were the recently acquired favour of a totem creature from the Qing zodiac. While there was no denying they had made me faster, stronger, and venomous, I had the inkling that I could have learned to do other tricks with them, if I hadn’t been so rudely snuffed out.
I nodded, looked around for a moment, and spin-kicked a chair. Test result? Failed. My kick had about as much effect on the physical world as a stiff breeze.
I regarded the grey angel again.
“Let’s say I get in that lift with you. Where am I headed?”
“Really? Upstairs? And you’re sure you’ve got the right person?”
I cocked one eyebrow, wondering what his game was.
Looking over my shoulder, I could still see my leg still sitting where it had fallen. The square was almost cleared of people, leaving behind only corpses and scattered folding seats. What could I do now? I couldn’t have my life back, that much was quite apparent. Maybe I could at least try for some revenge… but then again, where had that ever gotten me?
The eternal sleep can be one hell of a wake-up call.
I stepped inside the lift, and the doors closed. There was piano music for a time, then finally a ding.
Over a million people waited in the foyer. I didn’t need to count them: there were boxes spaced at regular intervals, with those mechanical flipping numbers, seven digits for each, ticking over faster than I could make head or tail of.
“Angel, what the hell is this?”
“I believe it’s called ‘take a ticket and wait in line.’”
“Why are there so many?” He smiled that pitted, ancient smile. “How much do you know about the System War?”
“World War Three?”
“That’s not an accurate name: the conflict involved more than just Terra, expanding to Luna, Mars-”
“Gramps, ixnay on the history lesson. So you’re saying that these people are what, a backlog?”
He waved his arm toward the lines, snaking around marble columns as far as the eye could see.
“But that was a hundred years ago…”
“Yes. Regrettably it takes quite a long time to process seven billion applications. This way, please.”
The hall was tiled in pink and pearlescent marble, pillars dressed in chiselled fibonnaci spirals, the roof vaulted with classics by the masters (which I assumed to be their posthumous work). All this contrasted merrily with the plastic potted plants and watercoolers. And then there was the ticket machine… Aww hell no.
I slowed as we approached the brassy dispenser, but my guide simply strode past it. “Follow me,” he said.
I looked at the last-in-line: two smiling children, their eyes forward, hands held.
“So I’m not with them?”
He was already walking away, the lines parting for him like a golf cart through an arrivals lounge. By the time I caught up we’d arrived at the desks, and when I looked back the lift was no longer in sight.
The angel I’d come to think of as Gramps was leaning on the counter, just one among thousands. I didn’t hear everything as I walked up, but the words “expedited” and “upstairs” were definitely uttered. Gramps waved to the lady in the booth, and turned to me. “Alright, you wait there. Mary here will sort you out.”
I nodded, giving him the same expression that I’d seen on the faces of those children: the two holding hands at the end of the line. Gramps walked away.
I moved quick, getting to the wall, where velvet drapes hung, and the occasional balcony stretched out over a disorientingly horizonless blue sky. I made my way, head down, back toward the elevator.
I kept going.
“You, Kioni, stop!” Two angels that I hadn’t met were flying to intercept me.
One, whose hair was white as a cloud, gestured and wind slapped at me. I struggled another step, but then was forced to plant my feet. Okay, nice magic trick, Wind-Boy.
The other angel’s eyes blazed with light, forcing me to look away, rubbing at tears. Turn off your damned highbeams, you string-cheese-hair looking bitch! I breathed deep and listened, my muscles relaxed and ready.
The sound of flapping cloaks. Now!
Spinning kick! Hammer-fist strike! The kick rattled Wind-Boy’s head like a Frosties kid’s BMX wheel, but Miss-Headlights took the hammer-fist and flew, her wings catching her. So apparently I could hit these ethereal idiots, and judging from the strength of impact, my powers weren’t gone either. I remained perfectly still.
She swooped, eyes brightening again…
I closed my eyes, crouched, and shot upward, my forehead striking bone.
And then I was running again, not looking back. The lines shifted to let me through, staring ahead.
A voice came from close behind me: it was Gramps. “You’re not happy here?”
I turned and aimed a kick, but he disappeared and reappeared on my other side. I stumbled at this, cursed, and put on a turn of speed. He vanished again and appeared ten metres dead-ahead, so I stopped running.
“How did you-?”
“It’s not a simple trick to learn: I dream of a place, build the details in my mind, and then open my eyes.”
I closed my own eyes, opened them again. Nothing.
“Do I have to be like you?”
“You already are, like me, that is: everyone is, if only they knew it. You’re just… new. It helps to picture a place that you know very well.”
“But you can go anywhere?”
“Almost.” He smiled at me, and I got the feeling that there was somewhere, or maybe somewhen, that he’d wanted to go once, and that it hadn’t worked out. I looked away.
“I’m not staying here.”
“You don’t have to, and in a more specific sense, I don’t recommend staying right here, in this spot, at this moment in time.” He looked around casually, but I could tell he was checking for others of his kind.
“Let’s go somewhere quiet then.”
We walked toward one of the balconies, pushed aside the velvet hanging, and stood in the sunlight. I could see the ground below now, not of Ceres where I’d died, but of a green and blue planet. It was beautiful, and strangely familiar though I’d never seen it in life, but I couldn’t feel the wind, nor the warmth of the sun on my cheek. I wondered if I’d ever feel either sensation again.
“This is a test, isn’t it? This whole thing with the first class ticket to the penthouse suite. You’re testing me.”
“What could we be testing? You’ve already been granted the necessary clearance for you to head upstairs.”
That sounded great. Only… the things I’d done, things I’d had to do… no, that I’d chosen to do. My ambitions… There was no way that I was ready to kneel before the Big Guy, probably ever.
“Maybe heaven would be good for you.”
“Really? Playing harps and diddling myself on a cloud?”
But he was right, the crew were on their own now. The wanted posters? They were gone. My ship? It was gone as well. Everything that had fuelled my entire being, for as long as I could remember, but it had all been for me. The marble pattern on the balcony tiles suddenly got a little blurry. I swiped at my eyes.
“Why me, anyway? I’m actually a murderer. What about those two kids standing at the end of the line? Don’t they deserve a fast-track to whatever’s upstairs? Instead it’s all about me: a pirate, a lowlife. What the actual fuck are you sheet-wearing sons-of-bitches thinking?”
The angel smiled. “You pass.”
I stared. “Did any part of what I’ve said make you think I actually want in?”
“I’m not offering you a way into heaven, I’m offering you a job.”
My eyes widened. “Then… the heaven thing?”
“If we’d said you were going to Hell, and then asked you to work for us, you’d do it?”
“Yes, we’d thought you might. But you see, the ‘why’ is important.”
“Huh.” That meshed, more than me winning the salvation lottery at any rate.
“Okay, now the why-me-for-heaven part makes a lot more sense, so how about you explain why-me-for-the-job?”
“We need someone with your special… skills. Someone with enough magical talent to become more than just an inert spook: someone who has crossed to the other side, but with the will to remain alongside the living, to help us make a difference.”
I leaned against a pillar and laughed, my belly shaking. “Holy shit, Gramps. Have you ever picked the wrong girl.”
He shook his head. “No, I’m sure I haven’t.”
I shot my pointer finger at him. “Okay, what’s this ‘difference’ that we’re supposed to be making?”
“There’s not much time. Take the job and we’ll go over the specifics, soon.”
“Short version, Gramps. You want me or not?”
He grinned. “Here goes then: not just heaven, but all of the heavens that ever were, Valhalla, Nirvana, you name it… we’re all fighting a battle against Chaos, for the souls of mankind. Most people thi-”
“So why not pick a nice guy?”
“Because we’re not supposed to win.”
My eyes widened further.
“Can I continue?”
“-Most people think that heaven is here to keep order, and to defeat the chaos. Even within heaven this is a commonly held belief. Well, it isn’t true: we don’t want Order to triumph anymore than we want Chaos to do so. We’re here to preserve the balance, to stave off the end times, Ragnarok, the Apocalypse.”
I heard the sound of running from just inside the hall. “She’s out there, seize her!”
I turned to see Wind-boy, Miss Headlights, and a dozen more angels running towards us…
Gramps glanced between them and me.
“But you said-?
“Listen, we’re all on the same side, but not everyone is playing the same game. Remember what I just said?”
I looked at the onrushing host.
I spread my stance ready to fight, moving to the centre of the balcony…
“Will you take the job?”
The curtains were swept aside by a blast of icy wind (that I could definitely feel this time), and in they came.
“What happened to no pressure? Yes, I’ll take it.”
“Good. Final test: what did I teach you?”
He winked and was gone.
The angels circled, looking not so much holy as vengeful, each like a page torn straight from the Old Book. My heart jumped in my chest like a convict strapped into the lightning chair. They literally brightened with gathering power, as though somebody were slowly turning a dimmer switch.
I scrunched my eyes shut, trying to imagine my ship, and heard the angels lunge towards me…
But when I opened my eyes, I was home. The old man’s trick had worked, and I was back on our ship, no angels in sight. All was calm, quite unlike when I’d left, so I assumed that time had passed differently over on this side of the veil.
I drifted over to the bridge, and to my surprise I found Roger. He was staring at the one chair that I always used to sit on. I’d sit there with my knees up and correct his mistakes. Was he being sentimental, I wondered? Aww, bless him.
I walked through him, Oops, and he visibly shivered. With a chuckle, I sat myself down in my old chair and tucked my legs up under me. I could wait until gramps showed up again. After all, I had plenty to keep me amused in the meantime…
D.R.Sylvester – 02 August 2014