I worked out in the hotel’s health club every day. The first day I was exhausted after an hour, the aftereffects of starvation on Glass saw to that. But the trainer sweated with me full time; weights, bike, hydrotherapy, 2G sprints and all the rest. It wasn’t too long before I was able to put in a five—hour day and I was feeling fit and perky. My morale was also cheered on by the fact that I had put all of my lost weight back on as muscle. The layer of fat on my love handles, product of all dissolute and boozing living on Lussuoso no doubt, was gone. I jogged and I swam and realized I could no longer put off the moment of truth. Because I was sure that Angelina would not like it.
“I don’t like it,” she said very affirmatively. “No.”
“My love—light of my life,” I said clutching her hands in mine. The bar was empty and only the robot bartender was observing this digital act—of passion. With a lithe twist she slipped her hands free, picked up her glass and sipped. I tried logic.
“H’ you look at the question from all sides you will see that this is the only possible answer”
“I can think of a lot more possibilities.”
“But none that will work. We need to know what is happening in Heaven. The more people that go bumbling around there, the more chance there is of someone being spotted. One person must go in alone. One super—agent of superlative talent and experience, a lone wolf, he who slinks by night, lithe, handsome, unbeatable—the galaxy’s best agent. And I can give you a hint about his name. Some call him ‘Stalowy Szczur,’ others ‘Ratinox,’ and even ‘Rustiniuna Stairato’—”
“How nice of you to say so! Now that you have spoken the truth aloud—can you think of anyone who is better qualified?”
She frowned and sipped her drink in silence, with perhaps the slightest gurgle from her straw when the last drop vanished. Stirred to life by this sound, the barbot whistled its wheels along the rails behind the bar and juddered to a stop. It spoke in a deep and sensual voice. “Does madam require a refill of her delicious drink, a Pink Rocket—popsy?”
“Why not?” A metal tentacle snaked out, curled around the stem of the glass and zipped it away out of sight. A door in the thing’s chest opened and a new chilled glass appeared, brimming with drink.
“And for Sire? Drinkey7’
I was in training and not ready to get smashed to the eyeballs on booze. “Diet—whiskey with a slice of fruit.”
“I can’t argue with that,” she finally said. “You are the best agent that Inskipp has. You know it and I can’t deny it. Mostly because you are not an effete trainee new to the job, or a dogooder officer of the law. Instead, you are basically a bent and twisted crook with a lifetime of experience—in crime.”
“You make it sound so good.”
“I should know. But that still doesn’t mean you go to Heaven alone. I’ll go with you.”
“No, you will not. You will keep the homefires burning, guard my back and..
“One more word of that male chauvinist pig dreck and I will claw your eyes out.”
When she used that tone of voice she meant it. I leaned back when I saw her fingers arch.
“I apologize, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. Misplaced attempt at levity. I grovel at your feet,” I said, dropping to the floor and doing a nice grovel and writhe.
She had to laugh and the air was cleared and I took her hands in mine again. “I have to go, and I have to go alone.”
She sighed. “I know that, although I hate to admit it. But you will take care of yourself?”
“A promise—that I will keep.”
“When do you leave?”
“I’ll find out this afternoon. Our dear friend Coypu thinks he has finally licked the communication problem between us and the next universe.”
“I thought he said that it was impossible.”
“That was on a bad day. Today is a good one.” “I’ll go with you.”
The professor had tidied up all the breadboarded devices and looping wires that had made up his machine. Everything had now been integrated into a hulking black console that was all readouts and twinkling lights, tesla coils and glowing screen. Only the giant electrical cable was the same.
“Ah, James,” he said when we came in, turned and rattled through a file drawer. “I have something for you.”
He proudly produced a featureless flat black disk with a hole in the middle, dusted it off and passed it over.
“A music recording?” I asked, puzzled.
“You must not act like you have the intelligence level of plant life,” he miffed. “What you are holding is a singularly remarkable invention. It is solid—state, has no moving parts, and even the electrons are pseudo—electrons, so they move at zero speed. It is impossible to detect it or affect it in any way. I’ve tried it in a number of universes and it works fine.”
“What does it do?”
“When activated it signals the mother machine here. Which reaches out and brings you back. Simple.”
“It certainly is. But how do I activate it?”
“Even simpler. It detects brain waves. You think at it and it takes you home.”
I stared at the disk with admiration. What a wonder. I spun it on my finger. All I had to do was to think “Take me home…”
Then I was across the room and slammed up tight against the machine, my hand held to its surface by the disk, my finger through the hole feeling as though it had been amputated.
“Can’t… breathe I choked out. Coypu hit a switch and I dropped to the floor. “A few little adjustments will take care of that.”
I stood up, rubbing my sore ribs, still clutching the disk as I pulled my swollen finger out of the hole.
“Very impressive, “ Angelina said. “Thank you, Professor.
I’ll have less to worry about now. When does he leave?”
“Whenever he wants to.” He threw another switch and bolts of lightning coruscated deep inside the machine and the tesla coil snapped out loud sparks. “But there are a few other factors that must be considered before he departs. I managed to poke the tip of a universal analyzer through into Heaven. Some very interesting results. See.” A screen lit up filled with rolling numbers and wiggling graphs.
“See what?” I said. “Makes no sense to me.”
Coypu snorted with disgust and sneered with superiority. In that order. Then tapped the screen of the spectral gas analyzer. “It is obvious.”
“Only to a genius like you, Professor. Explain, please.”
I was sorry I asked. He explained at great and boring length. Gravity, air pressure, oxygen tension, speed of light, all that was okay. But there was too much more of electron spin, chaos dispersion, water quality, sewage disposal, fractal fracture and such. When he got on to analysis of atmospheric components I stopped him.
“What was that you said about some kind of gas?”
He pointed to the analysis bar on the screen. “This. A compound I have never seen before, so it has no name. I call it nitoxcubed. Because it acts somewhat like nitrous oxide.”
“Correct. But with the pleasure factor cubed. So everyone goes around half—stoned. Then, if they leave Heaven, they get withdrawal symptoms, as is noted in the interviews in the record.” “I don’t like that,” Angelina said. “Could be habit—forming and Jim has enough bad habits right now. Can you do anything about it?”
“Of course.” He held up a vial of purple liquid. “This will cancel the effects, an antidote. Roll up your sleeve, diGriz.” He filled a subdermal injector and gave my arm a spritz, blasting the antidote through my skin and right into my bloodstream. “This is the only precaution you need take. Are you ready to go now?” He pressed a button and power surged through the machine.
“No rush!” I said, suddenly feeling rushed. “I need a good meal and a night’s sleep first. We’ll do it tomorrow morning, nice and early, at the crack of dawn. I will be off to Heaven.”
We went out on the town that night, savoring the pleasures of this holiday world for the first time. Angelina and I held hands while Sybil had each of the lads by the arm and it was a great evening. The sound and light display was something else again, with an aurora borealis in the sky above and a two thousand—piece orchestra in the pit below. Food, the best. Drink, better. Except for me; with morning getting ever closer I stuck to the diet—whiskey.
At dawn, leaving Angelina smiling in her sleep, I tiptoed out of the bedroom and headed for my appointment with destiny.
“You’re late,” Coypu said belligerently. “Getting cold feet?”
“Kindly knock off the pep talk, Prof. I’m ready whenever you are.”
“Do you have the interuniversal activator?” “Sealed inside my bootheel. We shall not be parted.”
“Good luck, then.” He threw more switches and the chine buzzed ominously. “The door is unlocked.”
I opened the garage door and peeked. It looked good. I threw it wide and stepped through.
Nice. A warm yellow sun shone in the blue sky above, very different from the bloated red one in Hell. A small white cloud floated by at shoulder height. I poked it with my finger and it bounced away, giving off a pleasant chiming sound.
The landscape was most serene, low rolling hills covered with short grass. A grove of trees nearby shaded what looked like a paved road. I walked over and poked it with my toe. It was indeed a road, paved with soft cobblestones, It wound out of sight among the trees to the right. To the left it curled up a valley into the hills. Which way should I go?
There was a distant rumble like thunder from the direction of the hills. Curiosity, as always, won. I went that way. Curiosity paid off pretty quickly when I saw the road junction ahead with pointing—finger signs. I approached them with great interest.
“Three ways to go,” I said, peering up at the boards. “I have apparently come from the direction of RUBBISH DUMF—Which does not sound too exciting so I shall not retrace my steps. But, problems, problems, how do I choose between VALHALLA and PARADISE?”
Paradise sounded Paradisical, and brought to mind that fine planet named Paraiso Aqui. Which indeed did become Paradise Here after I had been elected president. I had dim memories of Valhalla from my religious research, something to do with snow, axes and horned helmets. Paradise sounded much better
Then I noticed the piece of paper that had been nailed to the pole supporting the signs. It read PARADISE CLOSED FOR REPAIRS. Which, as you might imagine, made my decision much easier
The road wound up into the hills and through a small valley. It ended at what appeared to be a high and crudely constructed wall. Large tree trunks, still covered with bark, were set into the ground. There was a metal door waiting invitingly, set into the wood. It was a false invitation. It had a handle that would not turn. I pushed against the metal, which resisted strongly. I was about to try my luck in Paradise when I noticed the sign above the door.
SERVICE ENTRANCE it read. Which implied strongly that there had to be another entrance. Which I would have to find.
There was a path trampled in the grass and I followed it along the wall until it turned a corner.
“Now that’s more like it,” I said with sincere admiration.
No service entrance this! What looked like solid gold pillars held up a jewel covered pediment above a massive golden door. The precious stones glowed with inner light. There was the sudden blast of unseen horns, followed by loud and heroic music. Marching to its very enthusiastic beat I approached the entrance with great interest. When I came closer I saw that the Jewels spelled out a message that I was unable to read. Probably because it was in some unknown language made up of strangely shaped letters that looked very much like crossed sticks. Not only strangely shaped but in an unknown alphabet, unknown that is, at least to me. Above the jewels was an immense golden ax crossed with a golden hammer.
“Looks great, doesn’t it?” a voice said.
I jumped, turned, landed ready for action. The music had covered the sound of his approach. But there appeared to be no threat from the newcomer. He was middle—aged and plump, wearing an expensive business suit and a white lace shirt with a blood—red necktie, and was smiling in the most friendly man—
“You here same as me? Take a look at Valhalla.”
“Sure am,” I said, relaxing. And taking note that woven into his tie with gold thread was the same crossed axe and hammer that hung above the entrance. “Valhalla here we come…”
“Not yet!” he said quickly, raising his hand. “A look, sure, that’s what I’m after. A quick look to see what the afterlife holds. Not quite ready for the real thing quite yet—”
His voice was drowned out by a blasting blare of horns and a tremendous drumroll as the golden door slowly swung open. As the music died away a woman’s voice bid us welcome.
“I bid you welcome. Enter, good followers of the League of the Longboat and Life Friends of Freya. Enter and behold that which one day will be yours for eternity. As long as you pay your loyal tithe. Here is Valhalla! The mead—hall at rainbow’s end. Come—forward—and don’t trip over the snake.”
Some snake! It must have been a yard thick and vanished out of sight in both directions. It writhed slowly as we stepped over it.
“Uroboros!” my companion said. “Goes right around the world.”
“Be quick,” our invisible guide called out. “for you do not have much time. I shall part the veil, but can do this only briefly. Only by special dispensation of the gods is this possible. Thor always smiles upon warriors of the League of the Longboat, and Loki is away in Hell right now, so Thor, in his generosity, permits your presence for a quick peek at that which is yet to come. So look, breathe deep and enjoy for someday, one day; this will be yours
The interior was veiled in darkness which slowly lightened. I stepped forward for a closer look and slammed my nose into an invisible barrier. It went down to the ground, stretched higher than I could reach. My companion rapped it with his knuckles.
“The Wall of Eternity,” he said. “Glad it’s there. You have to be dead to pass it.”
“Thanks. I’ll pass on passing. Zowie!”
The exclamation was pulled out of me by the bizarre scene that was suddenly revealed on the other side of the bather. A fire roared in a massive stone fireplace and some entire giant beast was being cooked over it. At long wooden tables lots of big men with long blond hair and beards were really living it up. There was plenty of mad drinking and eating. Great mugs of drink were slopped onto the wooden tables, to be seized up and guzzled down. With one hand, because in the other hand most of the men held steaming meaty bones or the legs of very large birds. Their voices could be dimly heard like distant echoes, shouting and swearing. Some were singing. Great blond waitresses with mighty thews and even mightier busts were passing out the food and drink. An occasional shrill cry cut through the roar of masculine voices as buttocks were clutched; occasionally there was a thud as quick female action slammed a mug into a groper’s head. Yet the large ladies laughed and tweaked many a Viking beard with more than a hint of orgies to come. In fact, dimly on a table in the distance, a meaty couple appeared to be doing just that, giggling in distant laughter. Which died away as darkness descended again.
“Isn’t that something!” my companion said, eyes staring with admiration.
“Not for a vegetarian,” I muttered, but not loud enough to spoil his fun. “I wonder if we belong to the same church?” I asked smarmily.
There was no answer—because he was no longer there. Opportunity missed; I should have been prying information out of him instead of goggling the joys of Valhalla. I went outside, but he really had gone back to wherever he had come from. Behind me the door slammed shut and the glowing jewels stopped glowing.
The show was over—and what had I found out?
“A lot,” I reassured myself. “But this is surely not the Heaven as Vivilia VonBrun described it. Valhalla looks like a man’s idea of a night out with the boys going on forever. Which means there must be more than one heaven in Heaven. Perhaps she saw the other one, Paradise. Which means I should take a look at it—even if it is closed.”
Prodded by this stern look, I retraced my steps to the signboards, turned and followed the path to Paradise. It twisted its way through a thick stand of trees and brush.
Then I stopped as I heard the rumble of a vehicle’s engine ahead. Putting caution before boldness I dropped to the ground and crawled forward through the bushes.
Parted the last one and looked out.