Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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One Day in Hell

by Gregory Adams


The day begins early in Hell.

Long before the seething white-hot fireball that serves as a sun begins its slow crawl across the sky, massive loudspeakers mounted high upon black-iron girders -- constructions of bone, skin, and grotesquely stretched human mouths -- scream to life, blaring out a cacophonous wail of agonized prayers played backwards with volume enough to rattle the shabby brick walls of the City of Dys and send dust tumbling down to the cobblestone streets. The prayers serve as a wake-up call for the damned, and signal that curfew will end in one hour.

Michael is usually awake before the prayers begin, if he has slept at all.

He has found sleep in Hell difficult. His many neighbors - souls more or less as damned as himself -- argue long into the night, their shouts and screams punctuated by crashes and bangs as their conflicts turn inevitably violent. On some nights demons make surprise visits to the apartments, and only then are the tenants silent. Michael himself is silent: sitting up on his small cot, eyes closed, ears straining to follow the tramp of hooves as the demons stalk past every doorway before smashing one down and dragging out the terrified soul within.

There are also the sounds from the streets. Demons work round-the-clock, are usually drunk, and are hellishly loud. Their foul voices echo in the narrow alleys as they come and go, their ebony hooves and claws echoing in the narrow streets and alleyways.

Hell's public transportation also runs all night. The huffing, struggling, straining streetcars scuttle past at irregular intervals, their stinking cars filled with demons that cackle and roar over tortures given or received that day.

Hell's only silence comes when a ranking devil passes, the high fiend's approach marked by a brilliant fiery glow that sends red shadows rippling along the walls and ceiling of Michael's room. Even demons hide when a devil passes, and all of Dys seems to hold its breath. When the high fiend is gone, the sounds of the infernal city begin again, with all the vigor that a doom narrowly escaped brings.

In his small bedroom, Michael exhales, but he is not relived, knowing that sleep may have been altogether taken from him for yet another night.

Sleep, like everything else, is difficult in Hell, and Michael cannot wait to leave.

####

Dawn marks the end of curfew, and the moment is announced with ringing of the half-melted cathedral bells that hang from the highest towers in the City of Dys. At the first stuttering tones of the bells, doors all along the narrow cobblestone streets swing open, and the crowds of the damned issue forth.

The crowds are particularly thick this morning, for today is Tuesday, and on Tuesday every single damned soul has an appointment with his or her counselor. These appointments are not only mandatory, but they are also first-come, first-serve. Miss an appointment and you lose a rank. Lose too many ranks, and you are put into the pit. No one wants to be put into the pit, so on Tuesdays, the damned hit the bricks running.

Michael runs. His counselor's office is across the city from his apartment. Trains, rickshaws and taxis are hopelessly overloaded on Tuesdays, so Michael must run. He is fortunate in that he can move quickly. Although he had been 76 years old and very fat when he died, in Hell Michael wears the body he had at age 25, and is young, trim, and strong.

Many other souls are not as lucky. Most of the damned appear just as they did when they died, and many who end in Hell did not die peaceful deaths. The parade of conditions Michael witnesses every day cannot be easily described. Michael himself was killed by a heart attack while behind the wheel of his Cadillac, and if he were less well-favored, he might be shuffling through Hell heavy and old, his face a constellation of glittering windshield glass, his shirt and tie eternally slick with blood. There are souls who have it that bad, and there were others who have it far worse.

####

Michael thinks often about his good fortune, why he has been damned in the prime of life, and several explanations have occurred to him. His first theory is that while he may be healthy, he can't enjoy it, not really, and this in itself is a kind of torture. The next is that with a healthy body, Michael can better survive the punishments and beatings all souls in Hell must endure, allowing the demons to punish him with greater frequency and enthusiasm than an already weakened body could absorb. The last, the most attractive of Michael's theories is that it is only with a healthy, intact body that can he complete the errands his counselor assigns to him.

This last thought fills Michael with a hope most other souls will never know.

Michael is fortunate because his counselor is not a demon or fellow damned soul, as most counselors were, and his counselor isn't a devil, as some exceedingly unfortunate souls must face each Tuesday. Michael's counselor is an angel out of Heaven, and not just any angel, but an archangel. This is very promising and meaningful for Michael, as archangels are among the few beings that can actually promote a soul out of Hell. Promotion to Purgatory, an impossible dream for most souls trapped in Hell, is for Michael a very real possibility.

Michael's counselor has only a few clients, but he tends to take a long time with each, so there is every chance that if Michael arrives late he will miss his turn, and be a step closer to the pit. So Michael runs. He navigates the hustling crowds as best he can, careful not to bump into any demons he encounters on the way.

Michael understands that he is dead, but running the crowded streets of a busy city is still an effort: his legs ache, his lungs burn, he chokes on the swirling ash and dust that blows up and down the streets and alleys of Dys. Another soul shoves Michael, and he falls and skins his hands against the street. He looks at his hands and sees that his palms are embedded with tiny shards of grit and glass that he cannot take the time to remove.

####

Michael has crossed the city as fast as he could, but when he arrives at his Councilor's office there is already a line stretching out the door and down the sidewalk. He sighs in frustration, feeling the first real anger of the day well up in him, and knowing that he must be more patient. Patience is a virtue and only the virtuous make it out of Hell. Michael resigns himself to the wait, relieved to at least be at his destination and not still running through the streets as countless other souls still are. He takes his place at the end of the line and tries to relax.

There are many lines in Hell; so many that it has been said that a day in Hell is a day spent waiting. The queues are particularly unpleasant because of the other souls, who sometimes try and talk with Michael, but he ignores them. He is still sometimes surprised at how easily he can ignore a scabrous, mutilated corpse that is trying to make small talk with him, but Michael has long since learned that time in Hell does strange things to a person.

After what seems like hours, Michael is admitted to the outer office, which is crowded with the damned. It is another hour before Michael gets a seat. He passes the time by digging the bits of cinder and glass from his palms.

At last Michael is called into the office. The doorknob is tacky with a strange, fluid, but there are no clean surfaces in Hell. Michael grips the knob and pushes hard - the door, he knows, sticks. He averts his eyes as well. His counselor, the Archangel Gabriel, is difficult to look at.

The archangel appears as the indistinct shape of a man burning within a shaft of brilliant light, seated behind an exquisite desk carved from a single block of wood. The features of the archangel's face - the nose, eyes and mouth - are flames burning within a flame, shining as the fluttering heart of a candle, and the halo about the angel's head blazes with the intensity of the naked sun.

"Come." The angel tells Michael, and Michael approaches the desk, eyes averted, hands clutched above his heart in a respectful, if not submissive attitude. "Sit." The glow is so intense that Michael can hardly find the chair in all the light, but he does find it and settles himself into it. The angel's voice, tolling like a heavy cathedral bell at the moment of command, relents when forming longer sentences, and becomes more bearable to Michael's ears.

"You have been doing well, here," Gabriel begins. "You have executed your appointed tasks with vigor and resolve. Your thoughts have been pure, and the name of the Lord has ever been close to your heart." The angel pauses, and Michael nods in acceptance of this proclamation. The angel's voice drops a measure in intensity and volume, and the fierce glow of his divine energy fades. The effect for Michael is one of confidence, and Michael is touched with a feeling of intimacy between himself and his counselor. "I like you, Michael," says the archangel. "I always have, for you share a name with my closest brother. But more than that, I appreciate your sincerity, your resolve. Those sins you committed in your life, well, they were terrible transgressions against the word of the Lord, we all recognize that, but your sins, Michael, as wicked as they were, are not the acts of an evil man, but rather one who has fallen to wickedness, who has been led astray. We in Heaven know this and we are not without sympathy." Michael waits in silence; the burden of his evil acts bearing down on him with weight enough to stifle his tongue.

"But since coming to Hell," the archangel continues, "you have served as an exemplary penitent, a man of character and determination. It is no flattery to say that I have come to count on you, Michael, in my day-to-day duties. That is why I have recommended you for advancement. That is why I have nominated you for Purgatory." Michael begins to weep. The archangel's presence always loosened Michael's hold on his own emotions, but to hear this, to imagine that he might be able to put Hell behind him...

"Naturally, there are duties you must perform first." the archangel continues, his voice more businesslike and his aura returning to some of its original brilliance. "We the Divine are satisfied in the service of the Lord, but it may be said that time in Hell is no more attractive to us than it is to you. I am delighted with the opportunity to shepherd our Lord's creation to the path of righteousness and eternal peace, and it is true that an ability to deal with souls one-on-one is most beneficial, but long have I pondered a more efficient way to send the Word. There are so many souls who know not that salvation remains open to them even here, in the foulest depths of Hell." He pauses for a moment, and then adds "You do know that you have been consigned to the foulest depths, don't you, Michael?" Michael nods to show that he understands this. "Well it's true." Gabriel continues. "This is as bad as it gets.

"My point, Michael, is that we are here to help souls and so few of them understand that," Gabriel says with renewed vigor. "As a trumpeter in our generous Lord's invincible army, it naturally came to me that some sort of signal would be in order. A trumpet blast or some other clarion seems inappropriate, as what is needed is something constant, which would serve as a beacon. And then I realized that this is exactly what is needed: a shining light, visible from all corners of the pit, a symbol of hope to those that have none. Perhaps, I speculated, if we could kindle such a light in the sky we could ignite similar lights in the hearts of the condemned. Do you agree, Michael? Would you like to be a part of this grand ambition of mine?"

Michael nods with tremendous enthusiasm.

"You please me, Michael," the Archangel says. "I knew that you would. I have had some of my other charges perform the paperwork, and they have discovered that there is a stone here in Hell, a shard of a fallen star that has been filed away in the stacks and may serve us. It's dormant now, but I will provide you with the energy to ignite it, once you get it where it belongs."

The Archangel falls silent for a moment and Michael waits, occasionally wiping the tears from his cheeks. At last, the Archangel asks "Don't you want to know where it needs to be brought?"

"Yes sir!" Michael replies, his voice sounding childlike in his own ears.

"The top of the Sullam!" exclaims the Archangel.

"The top of the Sullam?" Michael echoes in confusion. The Sullam - nicknamed 'that fucking ladder' by the fiends- is a tower, an impossibly tall web of steel, stone and bone that soars into the sky from the very heart of the pit itself. No one knew where the Sullam came from or what its purpose might be. It is almost impossible to get there and if you did, the Sullam is crawling with fiends whose duty it is to knock anyone who might to climb the tower off of it and into the pit.

The Sullam was also rumored to be one of only two ways to exit Hell -- apart from being recommended for a pardon by a counselor, which was so rare as to be a thing of legend. The rumors said that the Sullam rose all the way to purgatory or maybe even the world; no one seemed certain which it was. But if you got to the top you could see blue sky. The thought of seeing sky again makes Michael weep harder still. There is no blue at all in Hell, and no light except the light that which is cast by fire.

The other path is the tunnel used by Dante, located somewhere near Lucifer's ass but few people have the nerve to go looking for that one. Michael has only ever had but a single glimpse of Lucifer, and then from a huge distance away, but that is enough. The most famous sinner in Hell appears as a writhing skyscraper of muscle and tissue, held down by chains as thick as subway cars. Lucifer struggles always, and the drops of his sweat and blood spatter on the sizzling hot rocks where he is buried to his waist. Lucifer may be firmly chained down but getting too close to him still seemed like a bad idea. Climbing the Sullam doesn't seem much better.

"Yes," the archangel continues with great energy. "The Sullam! I'm very excited about this, Michael. A beacon of divine light cast over the pit would have a great influence upon the future of Hell, don't you agree?"

Michael agrees. It isn't in him to disagree with the archangel, but the Sullam? That is impossible.

"The Sullam is the tallest point in all of Hell," the Archangel continues, as if he has read Michael's thoughts. "But if that is unsatisfactory, there is always Lucifer. You might convince him to wear the beacon so that the damned may look upon his malevolent countenance, as a sort of a hat, but then, a light that does no more than illuminate my brother's face may not serve our purpose. I know that you don't want to see his face, do you, Michael?"

Michael shakes his head furiously. "I thought not." The Archangel leans back in his chair, a signal that this consultation is drawing to a close. "Pratchett will fill you in on the details. I'd like to see this done by the end of the day, and if you can manage this simple thing, we can discuss your promotion in greater detail at our next session." The Archangel glances off towards his office window. A silence develops, and begins to fill the room. Michael is eager to go -- if he has to see Pratchett, he is worried about time -- but he cannot leave until the Archangel dismisses him. Michael does his best not to seem impatient. The silence grows and grows.

"You have your pager, correct?" the Archangel asks at last. Michael confirms that he does. Hell had no cellular phones that he knew of.

"And change for the payphones?" Michael admits that he doesn't have many coins, but assures the Archangel that he will be certain to get more.

"Be certain that you do," the Archangel counsels. "May the lord be with you."

"And also with you," Michael replies.

The Archangel gives a wave of his massive, shining hand, which is the formal dismissal Michael has been waiting for. He backs reverently through the door, and then squeezes through the damned that crowd the lobby. When he reaches the street he starts running.

####

Pratchett is the quartermaster for Dys, personally responsible for all the goods and services in Hell's capital city. A small, bookish demon who dresses like the clerk he is, wearing a white shirt and a black vest over his gnarled, twisted limbs, Pratchett lords over his archival empire, dispensing his inventory as reluctantly as a coward gives up blood. At any given moment there are countless billions of souls who want something from his warehouse. Lesser fiends can handle most of these requests, but Michael knows he will have see Pratchett himself.

The archangel has issued him a special dispensation, which is good, because it will get Michael to the shortest line there is, reducing his wait from days or even weeks to mere hours. This is also bad, because Pratchett's demon assistants sometimes hate the archangels more than they fear them, and they might hinder Michael when they learn he is on the business of Heaven.

The streets are still crowded and Michael cannot make good time on foot. He decides to risk a streetcar. He checks his wallet to be certain that he can afford it. The currency of Hell is gaudy, thick rectangles of greasy leather, some gray, some tan, each decorated with symbols and images relating to punishment and sin. The bills are rumored to be cut from the skin of mortals and indeed, sometimes they leak blood. In Hell, wages are paid via magic; there is a small box by Michael's bedside, and some mornings it has bills and coins in it, others it does not. Michael has never understood the system, and he has no idea what he might have done to earn the money when he does receive it, but he is always glad when it comes. Money makes things easier.

The streetcar only accepts coins, but Michael has enough for a one-way trip. The coins are thick wheels of lead decorated with leering faces that sometimes shout and sometimes bite. Almost everything in Hell is alive in some way. Even Michael's 'pager' is a heavy metallic insect. Usually inert, the insect buzzes and stings as numbers or words are magically burned into the underside of its abdomen.

Michael reaches the streetcar platform, stops and waits. There are a number of the damned and a few demons waiting, the damned doing their best to look small. Demons are bullies who are always seeking an excuse to torment one of the damned, and it is best to not attract their attention in any way. So the damned ignore them, standing neither too close nor too far apart, not looking at them but also not looking away. Often demons are satisfied with this show of respect and leave the damned alone.

The sun burns its way across the sky; the church bells toll their hideous notes, and Michael waits, his personal eternity in the balance.

####

The streetcar arrives: a massive, misshapen thing that closely resembles a gargantuan steel snake, oversized eyes serving as windows for the operator. A knife-sharp, silver and chrome cowcatcher stretches out before it, giving the engine in a grin of polished swords.

Michael boards the trolley and stands near the rear. There are plenty of empty seats, but a trio of demons has gotten on along with him and now sits chatting near the front. Since none of the other souls are sitting, Michael plays it safe and stands.

It is a long ride, with many stops. The car soon becomes crowded with damned souls, none of them daring to sit, and many in no condition to be packed into a streetcar with others. Michael is soon sticky with the various liquids that ooze from the more mutilated souls. The stench is awful. The demons sit sprawled across the empty seats and chat away nonchalantly, seemingly oblivious to the score of other passengers crammed uncomfortable together at the rear. Michael tries to ignore them, and their terrible laughter.

Only one of the damned dares to speak. Michael cranes his head so that he can see the speaker: a tall black man, young, like Michael, and in nearly as good condition, is holding forth at the very back of the streetcar, hard against the wall.

"Hell is like the world because it is in the world that you failed." The black man wears a huge head of dreadlocks and a scruffy beard. His lips seem particularly thick, and his white teeth flash as he speaks to a young, hideously disfigured teenager, who is also black. The listener's arm is a broomstick of red and white bone, his hand a claw hooked into the overhead strap. The boy's single eye stares out into space, rolling and unfocused. The taller, healthier man keeps talking, even if his audience doesn't seem to be listening. "Hell and Earth are the same because man has made Mother Earth as Hell has always been, you dig?” The silent boy gives no indication that he does. “If you are to see Hell with any clarity, you must recognize it in all the things of the material world. Hell is in the trains, cars, and property, it is woven into much of the music and writing and into nearly all of society's laws, but it is not to be found in all things, only in those created from greed and spite. Hell is not to be found in creations of the spirit. It is only in sincere designs that salvation can be recognized, and it is in these that you must put your faith."

Michael groans. Sometimes it is the damned that make Hell what it is.

Michael does his best to ignore both the demons and the preaching black man. He keeps his thoughts turned upon the Sullam, how he can get there, how he will climb it. Just the thought of the sheer height of the thing makes him dizzy where he stands.

The streetcar rolls on. Souls get on and off; a few more demons join their peers at the front of the car. The damned huddle closer together, trying to give the demons as much room they can. Michael is squeezed like the last slice of apple pressed into a pie.

As the trolley nears the next stop there is a tremendous push from the souls pressed at the back of the car. "Excuse me, coming though," a voice calls, and Michael sees it is the black man with the heavy dreadlocks. He is shoving his way through the crowd, coming on with polite determination. The black man glances into Michael's eyes as he passes. "Excuse me, brother," he says in passing and keeps on pushing. His breath smells of some spicy food that reminds Michael of Indian restaurants. The car stops, the doors open. "HOLD THE CAR!" the man shouts, his voice stabbing into Michael's ear. The black man shoves, yells, and apologizes his way off of the car, many of the other souls joining him. Michael is glad to see the men go, to be free of the stranger's philosophizing.

The streetcar rolls on. There is more room now, and Michael stretches a bit, relaxing but not forgetting the demons near the front. He looks out the window, sees where he is, and swears loudly. He has missed his stop.

"What did you call me?" one of the demons asks. He has turned away from his companions and is looking straight at Michael.

Michael returns the demons gaze, but not in the eye- Michael knows better than to look a demon in the eye "Excuse me, sir?" he asks.

The demon stands up. Seven feet tall, naked, bristling with long wiry hairs that jut from blemishes and moles all along its body, the creature has a head like a Chinese gargoyle, pale gray tusks curling out to the sides of its huge frowning mouth.

"He called you a fuck," another demon offers. This one is smaller, with bulging eyeballs and huge ears, as if it has the head of a ferocious Chihuahua. "I heard him distinctly."

Michael exhales a long, hopeless breath as the demon sets upon him.

####

As beatings go, it isn't so bad. The demon works Michael over for a bit but the creature is just making a point - its heart isn't truly in it. The demons get off at the next stop, leaving Michael bloodied and bruised on the floor of the car, but nothing is broken and he can still see. Michael stays on the car for one more stop just to play it safe, then exits and crosses over to the inbound platform. He doesn't feel up to walking after the beating he has just received, and besides, those demons could still be on the platform and they are certain to see him if he tries to get past them on foot. They might recognize how lightly they have let him off. Michael stands waiting for inbound car with his hand pressed over his lip, trying to stop the bleeding.

As luck would have it, this stop isn't a free changeover and Michael is forced to use the last of his change to make the switch.

####

Once again, the car is packed tight and Michael has to fight his way on. He rides the two stops with his back hard against the doors of the car, his face pressed against two mutilated corpses who knew each other in life and are talking over old times.

Pratchett's building is a massive warehouse built of rounded stones, the façade crisscrossed with rickety staging, wooden ladders and sagging stairways. Inside are the Stacks, rows and rows of shelves, crates and seemingly random piles of materials, some piled so high that they tumble over at the least provocation.

Pratchett's is crowded - even for a Tuesday. Souls are lined up around the block in both directions. Michael draws out his dispensation and makes his way through the crowds, cutting through several lines of souls who are waiting for other doors. The line for those on Archangel's business is near the top of the place, running along a narrow catwalk that hangs high above the Stacks. There are about fifty people in line already, which is bad, but not terrible. The lines move quickly at Pratchett's, as petitioners' requests are either in order or they are not. If the papers are in order, Pratchett gives the soul a slip, and they go and wait in other lines to receive their items. If they are not, the unlucky souls are taken out of line too quickly to protest.

Michael isn't too surprised when he sees the man from the train -- the black man who caused him to miss his stop -- waiting in line about 20 places ahead. Well-persevered souls are almost always entrusted with the important errands of Hell. He can see from the man's gestures that he is still preaching to the damned unlucky enough to be near him, but Michael is too far down the line to hear, and he welcomes this small relief. The black man is causing a serious breach in Hell's etiquette by talking so much. The souls near Michael know to keep to themselves and do not speak.

A demon passes; a huge, hulking thing with stubs of what had once been enormous wings jutting uselessly from its back. Michael hopes that the creature will pull the black man from line, as he is bringing attention to himself by being the only one talking, but the demon strides past the man without a glance. Michael deflates a bit.

Michael suddenly jerks to attention as his pager goes off, the small beetle digging its six sharp legs into the flesh of his hip. Cursing, Michael pulls the pager from his side and reads the numbers smoldering in the creature's abdomen. It is Gabriel. Michael curses again, and gets out of line.

####

There is a bank of phones near Pratchett's front door, and the working ones are all in use with lines behind them. These lines were not supervised and there is a lot of pushing and general rudeness. Michael waits for a phone, and it isn't until he gets the receiver in hand that he remembers that he doesn't have any change. He drops the phone and shoves his way back out through souls who spit at him and curse him for taking up their time. His pager goes off again, stinging him violently. Michael runs from Pratchett's warehouse and crosses the street to a small convenience shop. There is a line here, as well, and Michael realizes it is getting near lunchtime. The day is passing and he doesn't even have the Archangel's bit of star yet.

Michael waits. He buys some brimstone gum to break the bill, and is halfway across the street when he realizes that the clerk, a turgid little soul with a bullet hole where his left eye should be, has given him the wrong change: these coins won't work in the phone. Michael returns back to the shop, pushes his way to the front of the line, and thrashes the clerk until he gets the correct change.

Michael heads quickly for a phone he noticed on the street corner, shaking his right hand in the air to work the soreness out of his knuckles as he walks. The phone is broken, and fortunately Michael realizes this before he put his change in. One of the coins does bite him pretty hard, however, and at the same time, his pager goes off for a third time. Michael runs back to Pratchett's, shoving a dozen souls out of his way as he forces his way to one of the payphones. He quickly dials the archangel's number. The phone rings and rings. Michael hangs on, ignoring the howls and curses from the souls that surround him, all eager to use the phone. The archangel's secretary picks up, and puts Michael on hold.

Cursing, Michael looks out over the souls who surround him, and sees an enormous demon moving through the crowd, tossing souls through the air with leisurely motions of his powerful arms. He is coming towards the phone: Michael's phone.

The angelic choir of the archangel's hold music rings out from the receiver as Michael digs through his pockets, searching for his dispensation. The demon strides up to him, one massive claw extended to tear the phone from Michael's grip. The monster's eyes are as big and as red as the taillights on a bus, and they open wide as Michael presents the dispensation, and then squint into a burning glare as they read the words printed there. Scowling, the demon turns, reaches out a massive hand, and pulps the unfortunate soul using the phone beside Michael's. Michael is at once sprayed with gore.

"Michael!" the Archangel begins, "Where have you been, I've been paging you!" As if to prove his point, the pager goes off again. Michael grimaces in pain, and slaps the stinging beetle with his free hand.

"I'm at Pratchett's, sir," he says, gagging on the stench of the crushed soul and with pain from the pager's bite.

"Just at Pratchett's?" the Archangel asks. "You'll have to move faster than that, Michael. I just got some unfortunate news: my brother Raphael has been miraculously blessed with the exact same inspiration as I."

There is a pause. Michael fills it by saying "Really?"

"Yes, Michael, I'm as shocked as you are by his blatant thievery of my idea. Just this morning, he has met with one of his petitioners and dispatched the man to collect a piece of star from Pratchett and affix it atop the Sullam."

The demon's giant hairy goat's ass is about eye level with Michael, and the monster sends an absurdly long and loud fart towards Michael's face.

"That bastard," is all Michael can manage through the relentless stink.

"What?' the archangel asks, sudden anger in his voice. ”What did you say?"

"Nothing, sir,” Michael replies. "I was talking about someone here." A small, mutilated soul grabs at the telephone cord and pulls. Michael kicks at the corpse's one good leg, and the thing goes down.

"That's good, Michael," Gabriel says. "I wouldn't want to think that you were referring to an archangel with a disrespectful tone."

"No sir." Michael replies.

"Good. I called because I wanted you to know that it's a bit of a race now, Michael, so don't waste any more time. Raphael's man is named David. He's black, I think, and wears dreadlocks or whatever you people call those things. He's going to see Pratchett to get a piece of star, but not the same one as ours. Ours is better."

"Of course it is," Michael replies.

"Of course. So get off the phone and get back into line, Michael. I want that beacon alight before nightfall." The archangel hangs up without saying goodbye.

On his way back to the line, Michael sees Raphael's man, David, the preacher from the train, running down a another stairwell, a large brown backpack over his shoulders containing, Michael knows, a piece of star.

####

The line is even longer, now, and Michael has no choice but to wait. At least he isn't paged out of line again. He does take a sharp jab in the ribs from a passing demon, but there is little he can do about it but keep pressure on his side and try to stop the bleeding.

Eventually, Michael reaches the window. Pratchett is there, and Michael stews while the small demon with the head of a man but the eyes of a spider reads over the letter with monotonous care, his thin lips moving slightly as he puzzles over words or phrases. There are smears of blood on the dispensation --not very much of it, considering Michael's day so far-- but perhaps enough for Pratchett to take issue with the legibility. Michael wrestles with his patience, fingers closing and opening, breath coming faster as he struggles against uttering any sighs or groans that might trigger Pratchett's legendary temper. At last, the old demon looks up from the page, his eight segmented eyes peering through the eight lenses of his glasses and croaks, "We just had another fellow in here for the same order."

"I know." Michael says. "But I talked with the archangel and he says there were two different pieces of star."

Pratchett stares at Michael. "He says that?" Michael nods. "I don't know how he'd know what we have in here," Pratchett comments. "I'm the one who runs the place; I know what's in here."

There is a long pause.

"Do you have another piece of star?" Michael asks, when he can take it no more.

Four of Pratchett's eight eyes narrow. "I'm running an inventory check now," he replies through clenched teeth. He looks Michael up and down, his temper obviously building, but then a few of his eyes glance over the paper he is holding, and he checks himself. Muttering something about archangels, Pratchett tears a slip of paper from the pad on the counter before him, and hands it to Michael. "Go wait for your order," he commands with a jerk of his ink-blackened thumb in the direction of the waiting room.

"Thank you," Michael says, cursing the demon in his thoughts even as relief floods through him.

Michael sits among the other souls who are waiting for items from Pratchett. Time passes. Michael can't be certain how much, as he sits there in awe over the job before him. The Sullam raises up in his imagination, growing taller every moment, David perhaps already upon it, climbing quickly as an ant up a stalk of grass, while Michael waits...

"Here's your rock." A tiny demon says, throwing a brown canvas sack into Michael's lap. "You're lucky, it's the last one we got and it was a bitch to find." The sack has dirt worked into the fabric, as if it has been buried. Michael opens it and looks within. He sees a large, dark piece of volcanic glass, about the size of a cobblestone, cold and inert as a brick. The demon clears its throat in expectation of a tip. Michael runs for the door.

The demon calls after him, promising to defecate on the next thing Michael needs from them, if they ever give him anything ever again. Michael ignores the threat. If he does his job well, he won't need anything from Pratchett's ever again.

He also has no money to spare for a tip, because today, Michael will take a cab.

####

Cabs are a risk. Taxis aren't really here for souls, although souls are permitted to use them. They are for demons and fiends, and they are all driven by demons. Michael is counting on the Archangel's dispensation to get him though any difficulty.

In a shining burst of good luck, Michael gets a taxi almost as soon as his hand goes up. The cab, a long metal black and yellow insect, windscreens wrapping around the sides like giant eyes, clatters up to the curb on long silver legs. The broad, curved doors ease gently upwards, like a beetle testing its wings for flight. Michael climbs in.

The demon behind the wheel is a leathery, emaciated thing, hunched and broken, with ragged stumps where its wings once were and the shriveled, nervous head of a buzzard. When the driver speaks, it is with a squawking, scraping voice marred by a thick accent. It takes Michael several tries to explain that he is going to the Sullam on the lake of fire, and even then, the thing doesn't seem to want to take him there. Michael has to show the driver how much money he has - it is all that he has, and if he doesn't succeed, he won't eat for the rest of the week - but the sight of the bills is enough to send the taxi scuttling down the crowded streets.

The cab shoots off down the road. Michael is appalled at how low the sun is in the sky. He is running out of time. The demon keeps the cab moving at a steady pace, leaning on the horn (which bellows like an elephant crossing hot coals) whenever souls or demons get in his way.

The cab scurries around a corner, and scatters a crowd of demons crossing the street. Michael keeps his head down, but it is no good: one of the demons catches a glimpse of him as the cab speeds past, the pistoning legs falling among the demons like flashing swords. Michael can see the anger well up on the demon's faces, and they can see him cowering in the backseat. "Drive faster," Michael tells the driver, and the thing in the front seat answers with a series of noises that might be words. The demons that surround the car spread their wings and take to the air.

The cabby looks in the rear view and sees the fiends coming. He floors the accelerator, and the long silver legs outside of either window become a blur. The driver runs down a few souls that aren't fast enough to get out of the way, the flashing steel toes ripping their bodies to shreds as the cab passes over them. His own salvation ever in mind, Michael tries to feel bad for them.

The demon takes a hard right, throwing Michael against the door, and then slams on the brakes, flinging Michael against the front seat hard enough to bruise his ribs. Michael screams first in pain, and then in horror as he looks through the windshield and sees that the street ahead of them is choked with other cabs. He pivots his head to look out and up: The demons chasing them, no more than black shapes in the red sky, begin circling.

"We're screwed," says Michael, speaking as much to himself as to the demon in the driver's seat.

####
####
####

"Narlascht cavvar," squawks the driver, and he shifts into a higher gear. The beetle-cab lurches forwards and begins climbing the stalled traffic, long steel toes punching holes in the metal bodies of the other beetle cabs. Michael and his package are tossed around like dice in a shooter's hand. Michael takes bruise upon bruise, feels wounds that had nearly closed reopen, and swallows two teeth that are knocked from his head.

The cab dips in and out among the crowded cabs as it tears across them. Demons scream and shout, and several of the larger ones grab the legs of the rampaging beetle-cab, but the cab is too strong, and the legs keep pulling forward.

The airborne demons sweep down among the jammed beetles. Their leader, a massive beast with the head of a bull and the snout of a slavering dog, rips the door off of a cab, sticks his great, clawed hand in, and yanks the occupant out.

It isn't Michael, but the demon is too furious to care.

Michael watches from his own cab, which has reached the far side of the roadblock and is speeding off down the street. "They got the wrong cab!" Michael shouts to the driver, as the demons tear apart the hapless soul they have captured. The driver gives an unintelligible but enthusiastic reply. He guns the engine, and the cab runs for the edge of the city, free of all pursuit.

####

"How much longer before we get there?" Michael asks, after a while. The driver makes another series of strange noises. Michael looks out the window. He can see the Sullam now, but it is still too distant for much detail to be visible. Michael studies the towering object that bisects the distant sky. Something seems wrong.

He rolls the window down and leans his head out, the foul, fetid air of Hell rushing past his face. He strains his eyes to the horizon, to the base of the looming shape, and then it comes to him: the Sullam is hollow, a web of beams and bones fused together like a radio tower. He should be able to see through it. The thing they are approaching now is solid, and colored a bright, dripping red, the color of raw, bleeding tissue, or muscle with the skin peeled away...

The tower moves suddenly, twisting against the sky. Michael sees the enormous chains flail as the thing struggles. The chains bite into the tower, and volumes of blood, more liquid than many lakes hold, spray out over the rocky plain.

The realization hits Michael more strongly than any blow he has taken this day -- the massive, looming shape on the horizon isn't the Sullam at all: it is Lucifer. They have been going in the wrong direction.

"I DON'T BELIEVE IT!" Michael cries. The driver glances at him in the mirror, its large bird-eyes showing consternation and perhaps even fear as Michael pounds on the back of the driver's seat. "Stop the cab, stop it right now!"

The demon stops the beetle, the six legs slowing in their rapid clicking steps with a sound of a gigantic toy winding down.

"We need to go back now, right now!" Michael shouts, leaning over the seat and yelling into the demon's ear. "I need to go to the Sullam!" he holds his dispensation out for the demon to see. The thing glares at it for a moment, and then gets out of the cab. Michael throws his own door open and steps out, his rage curdling as he takes his first good look at his driver.

The demon is very tall. It has the torso and waist of a man, but its feet are those of a giant tom turkey, yellow and scaled, sporting cruel spurs and huge, crack-nailed toes. The hands are like swarms of some horrible insect, with dozens of small wriggling fingers, each ending in a hooked, bird-like claw. Michael is surprised to have not noticed the thing's hands before. The demon takes the dispensation from Michael and holds it up to its beak. Off in the distance, Lucifer struggles, his chains groaning and thundering across the plains.

"Urtehccarth burt maraarthd?" the thing asks, after a moment.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," Michael says, speaking politely, now. "I need to get to the Sullam." He reaches up and points at the word on the dispensation. "The Sullam." The demon looks down at him, and hands the dispensation back. The thing stands patiently as Michael tucks the paper safely away into his pocket. Then it curls the two-score fingers of its right hand into a writhing parody of a fist and hits him.

Michael is knocked back, and the thing follows him, thick green arms rising and falling as it attacks him with closed hands. Michael falls to the ground and curls into a defensive ball, completely subdued. The thing places one huge foot on Michael's side and leans over him. Michael can feel the demon's breath on his face as its hideous fingers work though his pockets. When it has found his money, it rolls him onto his stomach and lifts him by the back of his jeans.

Effortlessly, the demon throws Michael into the back of the cab. Michael stays in a ball, coughing blood onto his hands, as the demon gets behind the wheel and fires the engine. The cab turns and heads across the plains, showing its back to Lucifer as it clatters across the sand and stones.

Michael lays coiled in the back. After a time, the cab stops. The demon gets out, grabs Michael from the seat and throws him onto the ground. Michael clutches the canvas bag in both hands, holding it to his chest and protecting the stone with his body and arms.

The Demon gets back into the cab and drives off. With effort, Michael lifts his head. He knows where he is by the smell, but he wants to see. The Lake of Fire hisses and boils to his right, seething like the mouth of an angry volcano. Off in the distance, at the very center of the boiling lake, Michael can see the Sullam, cutting across the sky like a pencil slash drawn from Heaven down to Hell.

####

Michael lies there for some time. He feels himself being rolled over, and the hands are human, not fiendish. They travel over his torn clothing, dipping into pockets, searching. Michael clutches the star. Hands tug at the canvas bag, but Michael will not let it go. A glob of spit hits his face, and he hears his assailant shuffle off. Michael lies still, cataloguing his pains.

He feels hands on him again. Michael has recovered some of his strength by now, and he kicks out. "Whoa, whoa, I'm here to help, friend." The voice is familiar but Michael cannot place it. "Hey," the voice remarks, "I have a bag just like that one."

Michael opens his eyes. David crouches beside him, dreadlocks swaying in the steady breath of hot air that billows out from the Lake of Fire. "There you go," David says, as Michael's eyes come open. The black man reaches out his hand and wipes away of the blood from Michael's swollen eyes. "It's not as bad as it feels," he says. "Many people here wake up every day worse than you are now and they won't get any better." Michael begins to gag. David slides his arm around and eases him into a sitting position.

"Some demon sure is mad at you," David says. "I guess on a usual day you're not in much worse shape than I am." Michael concentrates on breathing. Sitting up has made him feel better. He tries not to lean on David too heavily, but can't find the strength to resist his rival's assistance. "Still, we all need help once in a while," David begins, and Michael can tell by the pitch of the man's voice, so similar to the tone he had taken when he had first heard him on the train, that a sermon is coming.

"Some will tell you,” David begins. “that Hell turns us against each other, that there can be no charity here, no generosity." Michael doesn't have to worry about choking while his head is tilted forward, but his nosebleed is getting worse by the minute. David sees this, and he tears a strip of cloth from Michael's ruined clothes. "Sorry about that," he says. "But you're going to need a new wardrobe after today, anyway." He holds the cloth against Michael's nose and tilts his head back. Michael raises his hand and takes the cloth away from him.

"There you go." David says. "See, you'll be back on your feet in no time. But when you are, remember what it is to be down, to be in pain. Perhaps the memory will inspire charity in your heart." David takes his arm from Michael and sits in the dust beside him. With the Lake of Fire boiling and burning just paces away they sit like impossible picnickers, reclining upon a stone thrust up from the surface of the sun.

"Hell doesn't turn us against each other, WE do it ourselves," David continues. "It's the choices we make, us over the other, ourselves over everyone else. Not this-" he waves his arm, encompassing the Lake of Fire- "not them." He points at a demon flying overhead. "We do it. We waste everything that has been given to us, because we think that by hanging on to what we have, we will get more. That's the arithmetic of Hell, my friend. It's that kind of thinking that built this place."

Michael looks over at David. He is about the healthiest soul Michael has ever seen: healthy and strong, and maybe even a bit younger than Michael. He hasn't taken a beating today. "Heaven, Hell, all the same." David says, lifting his hands and letting them fall again. "It's the choices we make that build either." There is a harsh scraping noise, the sound of a heavy wood plank being dragged across rough stone. A boat has come ashore near them. The narrow black skiff floats impossibly upon the seething molten rock, and is piloted by a tall, skeletal figure clad in black. The thing's head is wrapped in a black hood and its face is hidden from view.

David smiles beatifically and rises to his feet. "Gotta go, friend," he says. "You're looking better already, anyway." He walks over to the boat, pulling his wallet from his jeans as he goes. He counts out some bills and lays them in the pilot's skeletal hand. David turns to Michael. His eyes flash over Michael's canvas bag, so similar to the one that carries under his own arm. His smile wavers but then returns. "I gotta climb that thing, can you believe that?" He nods his head towards the Sullam before turning his back on Michael. He is halfway into the boat when Michael's sputtering call halts him.

David looks back. Michael sits there on the ground, one arm around the brown canvas sack beside him, the other hand extended in a gesture of begging. David looks at the bag Michael carries once again, doubt once more darkening his face, and then his smile returns, brighter than before. "Sure, friend," he says, tossing the money he has left in Michael's direction. "Get some new clothes for yourself." David steps aboard the boat and pats the boatman on his dusty shoulder. The pilot pushes off with its long wooden pole.

Michael crawls on his elbows and knees, gathering the bills together into his fist. When he has collected them all, he gets to his knees and watches the boat go. David seems to be talking to the pilot, making conversation with a dead, hideous thing.

Michael needs to get moving again. Everything hurts, but nothing is broken. He needs to get moving. He needs a boat.

####

Michael walks unsteadily up and down the shore, his eyes peering out across the billowing, superheated air, searching for another boatman. Before he can sail, however, he has another problem. David hasn't given him enough money to pay for the ride. Michael smirks inwardly. The Good Samaritan bit had almost taken root, but Michael doubts that David short-changed him by accident. David saw the bag. He knows why Michael is here.

A demon passes overhead. It is carrying what looks like a giant, batter-fried chicken nugget, but Michael knows it is a soul from the Lake of Fire, cocooned in burned tissue. The demon drops the soul less than 20 yards from where Michael stands. The thing splits open when it hits the ground, spilling unspeakable fluids from the broken shell. The soul inside is curled up and slick with blood, almost unrecognizable as a human being after the ordeal. As Michael watches, another soul runs up to the twitching mass and kicks it free of the shell. Then, gingerly, as the burned soul is still sizzling hot, the newcomer digs at the injured soul with a piece of splintered lumber. It takes Michael a moment to piece together what is happening.

Demons don't bother to strip souls when they throw them into the pit; they just toss them in as-is. The money of Hell, and the clothing, for that matter, doesn't burn. Michael looks up and down the shore. He has been concentrating too much on the lake to notice, but there are several souls wandering up and down the shore. They might look like tourists collecting for seashells, if the ocean were not on fire and the tourists were not all shambling corpses. Michael understands now that they are waiting for souls to be pulled out of the pit so that they can rob them.

Michael looks to the sky. He soon spots another demon flying shoreward with a soul in its grip. Michael runs to head it off. Several other souls along the lake begin to run as well. The demon drops the mass it carries onto the rocky shore, and the encrusted soul breaks open like a candy egg filled with boiling pus. The waiting souls fall upon it like jackals. Michael takes his star by the strap and wades in, swinging the bag like a club. The souls, mostly ravaged corpses that can hardly stand, back away, hissing and spitting.

Michael crouches beside the steaming mess. He burns his fingers just brushing crusted blood off of the corpse so he can find its pockets. After a moment, he grimaces and shoves his hand in. It is like sticking his fingers into the cavity of a roasted turkey fresh from a hot oven, but Michael works his hand around, and after a few agonizing moments, pulls a few coins out and drops them on the rocks. The other souls cry and wail, some try to grab the coins, but Michael chases them off with a single wave of his pack. He counts his take. It isn't enough, but it's a start.

Michael gets painfully to his feet. He waves his red fingers in the air to cool them as he walks up and down the shoreline, waiting for falling souls, and watching the sun as it sinks closer to Hell's western rim.

####

Michael finds and rolls three more luckless souls. His hands are soon scorched to the wrists, and he has angered the many souls who wander the shores of the Lake of Fire, but he tells himself that none of this matters. He has found enough money for the trip. Now, he needs to find a boat, and keep moving.

After a few attempts, he is able to wave a skiff in to shore. Michael steps gingerly onto the low skiff. It rocks treacherously under his weight, but the pilot doesn't seem concerned. It is hot on the boat, but not the blistering furnace-blast Michael had expected.

Michael tries not to look at the boatman. If it has a face, Michael doesn't want to see it. He looks always forward, instead, towards the Sullam. He tries to spot David on the superstructure, but the Sullam is bigger that it had seemed from the shore. The closer Michael comes to the Sullam, the more closely it resembles a giant radio broadcast tower. The frame is red and white, with flashing red lights set upon it at various points. He can see figures moving on the lower rungs of the frame, but they are too large to be human.

The boat lurches heavily to one side. Michael almost loses his footing, nearly tumbles headlong into the fire. The boatman stays firm, rocking with the boat, rigid and unshakable as a mast. Michael looks down, and sees that a hideously burned soul is trying to climb onto the side of the skiff.

"Damn it!" Michael shouts, his voice shaking from his close call. He kicks at the soul with the toe of his tattered shoes. The thing hangs on, liquid fire rolling off of its clinging arm and sloshing in the bottom of the skiff. The pilot continues poling across the lake, taking no notice of Michael and the soul that threatens to capsize them both.

Michael begins driving his heels against at the swimmer's head, stomping harder and harder, until the shape of the skull begins to distort. At last the corpse lets go and slides off the side. Michael collapses onto the bottom of the skiff, narrowly missing falling into the liquid fire that still rolls on the floorboards. He is breathing heavily from what he has done, and he tells himself that it is from exertion.

The Sullam slides closer, and Michael sees that ladders are hung at various points along all four sides of the superstructure. At other places, the latticework is close enough together to be climbed. There even seem to be some phones built onto it, hung at wide crossbeams where a caller could be more or less stable while making a call.

Michael isn't looking forward to the climb. His hands are sore, and his legs ache from the running he has done today. Yet what he is being asked to do is far easier than being thrown into the Lake of Fire. Michael knows he is a mule, caught between carrot and stick, but there is something familiar, almost comfortable about the feeling, and he accepts it. He is a mule who has work to do.

The skiff glides to the edge of The Sullam. The tower rises up from the lake, the burning liquid oozing thickly around the four legs, steel thrust into rolling magma, but the legs do not melt. When Michael reaches out and grabs a crossbeam, it isn't even warm. Thin flakes of paint came off in his grip, revealing a rusted but solid-feeling steel tube beneath. Grunting, Michael pulls himself up. The boat sails on beneath him, the tall boatman ducking his head as he slides beneath the beam Michael now stands upon.

The round pipe is slippery beneath Michael's ragged shoes, and he steadies himself by grasping a weathered piece of lumber that hangs down from above. The wood breaks off in his hand, causing Michael a moment of pin-wheeling anxiety before he recovers. The piece of lumber falls into the Lake, floats for an instant, and then bursts into flame.

Now that boat is gone, Michael can feel the heat of the fire bellow him. His hair and clothes ripple in the rising air, and his eyes go dry. He blinks and looks up.

A demon is drifting down towards him, its great bat wings held close to its body to catch just the smallest part of the fierce updraft. Michael draws his dispensation from his pocket. The demon alights near him, massive hooves ringing against the metal and causing the pipe to quiver beneath Michael's feet. Michael holds up the official-looking paper, and the thing bends its huge boar's head to read the notice. With a loud snort, the demon spreads its wings and rides the superheated air upwards without so much as a flap. Michael watches it go, wishing he had wings. Carefully, he eases himself over to a ladder that hangs near one of the tower's thick legs. He takes a moment to steady himself, and then he begins to climb.

####

It is a difficult climb. The steel of the tower is cold and greasy, and there are few ledges where he can catch his breath. Michael uses the ladders when he can find them, and moves as swiftly as he is able. Demons approach him and he shows them his dispensation. They read the letter and grudgingly let him pass.

After a time, he sees David, high above, but still far from the top. Michael keeps going.

Michael climbs and climbs, boots occasionally slipping on the beams and bars of the tower, and for one long moment he dangles by his fingers, his body swinging out over the enormous height, but he recovers and keeps going.

Above him, David has reached a point where thick iron chains hang down from crossbars near the top of the tower. David grabs one and climbs it as if it were a rope, shoving himself up with confident motions of his feet and legs. He is moving faster than on the ladders but Michael sees his opportunity.

Michael gains a ledge near the end of the chain that David is on, and, bracing himself, he takes the chain in his hands. As he suspected, the chain is slick with grease. Michael begins jerking the chain back and forth. The ripple travels up the chain and reaches David. David has to stop for a moment, hugging the chain to him. Feeling a thrill of success, Michael kicks off from the tower and swings out on the chain. The abrupt motion catches David by surprise, and he switches his grip, hanging on now for dear life. Michael spins his body, twisting the chain above him into knots. David's fingers became tangled in the links: he yanks his hands away in pain, and falls.

David streaks past Michael and strikes a pipe just bellow. His body folds in half, blood spouting from his mouth. Michael exclaims in delight and swings himself back up on the ledge.

Still, Michael knows this isn't the world, and David isn't alive. He might survive the fall, and worse, keep climbing.

Michael has to go and make certain.

####

When Michael reaches him, David is gurgling and wheezing.

Michael chooses a pipe that runs near to where David hangs, and slides out the middle of the tower. "Listen to me," David says, the same strange physical laws of Hell that Michael feared would allow him to continue climbing allowing him to still speak. "You can't kill me."

Michael keeps coming. "You're right, I can't kill you," Michael agrees. "I can kick you off of this tower, and it's not like murder at all."

David rolls off of the pipe, but keeps his grip. "It's a test, Michael" David shouts. "It's all a test. This isn't just Hell; it's YOUR Hell. Everything here - me, the angels, the tower, the demons - it's all just for you, to test you, to torture you with hope. If you kill me, you fail the test, and if you always fail, you'll never get free."

Michael stops, the toes of one boot over David's fingers. "That's bullshit," he says. "Why would they go through all this trouble just for me?"

"It's no trouble for God." David replies. His voice is steady now, as if he hasn't suffered any injury at all, as if he isn't hanging on by ragged fingertips more than a mile above the worst pain imaginable. "Believe me, Michael. Help me. Be generous and kind, and you may yet escape Hell."

Michael waits. The wind screams past him, carrying cinders and ash with it. "If that's true, then the Archangel is lying to me," he says at last. "Gabriel wouldn't do that."

"Testing," David corrects. "He's testing you."

"He's testing me." Michael says. "And how do I pass this test?"

David's face becomes calm. He looks Michael straight in the eye. "By letting me win."

Michael smiles. "Right." He rocks his body forward and crushes David's fingers beneath his shoes. They pop with a satisfying crunch, and David loses his grip. Michael watches David fall. He falls serenely; his face turned upward, his expression sorrowful, yet free of fear.

"Fucker." Michael says in way of goodbye, but his curse doesn't have much venom. Something inside of him is falling as far and as fast as David is.

####

Michael makes it to the top. He is very high; he can look down upon the iron mountains that ring the fiery plains, see all of Dys laid out across the valley in grids of fire and shadows. Above him is a solid black sky that could be the depths of a starless space, or the inner crust of earth. There is no blue sky.

To the west, the last fiery rays of Hell's rolling sun glimmer against the horizon. He has made it.

Michael takes the star out of his backpack. The heavy piece of glass remains as heavy and dull as when he first saw it. There are flaws and cracks all through it. It seems such a shabby thing, to carry so far. Michael approaches the low pile of steel and dirt that mark the center of the tower. He scoops ashes and dirt from the top, revealing a depression for the star to sit in. He cleans the seat well, thinking the star may work as an electrical element might, and needs a clean connection. He sets the stone in place. Nothing happens.

####

Michael wrestles with the thing for a nearly an hour with no luck. The top of the Sullam grows dark, and soon the only illumination is from two red lights that blink slowly on and off, like the aircraft warning lights of an earthly tower.

Michael's pager goes off. The last phone he'd seen is good ways down, and Michael climbs slowly, the pager stinging him all the while. After the usual difficulty dialing, he is connected to Pratchett. "Michael," the doddering fiend begins, "it seems we have a mix-up here. You got that fellow David's stone and he got yours. Sorry about that. See if you can catch up with him and switch." Michael's pager buzzes again. It is the Archangel.

Using the last of his change, Michael dials Gabriel. The Archangel picks up on the first ring. "Michael, I'm looking out my window towards the Sullam. Why can't I see a star?"

It isn't in Michael to reply. It is all he can do to listen.

"I'm disappointed, Michael. I thought we had an understanding." Michael thinks about the Lake of Fire. His hands sting with the memory of touching the other souls who had come from the pit. "I don't want to go into the lake," Michael tells the archangel, nearly weeping.

"What choice do I have?" the Archangel replies "If this is the best you are willing to give us, Michael, then how much have you really learned?" A soft, leathery sound reaches Michael's ears as demons drift down all around him. They have the heads of animals, and their eyes glow yellow in the dark of Hell's night.

"Don't worry, Michael" the Archangel continues, his voice soothing. "When you come out of the lake, when the pain is gone, I'll still be your counselor. We can begin again." The demons close in, their claws and hooves scraping on the slick steel of the tower superstructure. Michael drops the receiver and falls to his knees. The phone dangles on its cord, close to his ear.

"There is always hope, Michael," Michael hears the Archangel say. "Tomorrow is another day."

THE END


© 2009 Gregory Adams

Bio: Gregory Adams is returning to fiction writing after taking more than a year off to manage a small business and spend more time with his wife Cheryl and their newborn daughter Zari Marie. 'One Day in Hell' is his third story to appear in Aphelion. All three speculate on what happens after we die. (viz. The Importance of Being Khan, July 2006 (reincarnation) and See You In Hell, March 2005 (in which a damned man tries to win back his soul -- over a chessboard).

E-mail: Gregory Adams

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