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art by M.S. Corley

Holy Diver

Grá Linnaea is an editor for Shimmer Magazine and member of the Science Fiction Writers Association. He's a past winner of Writers of the Future and attended the 2008 Clarion Workshop. His serial novel, The Curious Investigations of Miranda McGee, and other fiction, music, and art can be found at gralinnaea.com.

Things you were supposed to believe in, but you didn't really until He told you for certain:
The Garden of Eden.
God's plan.
In hell, being a priest makes you a punk. You have to fight for respect; there's a hierarchy to the damned, and fallen priests are dead bottom. You don't mention you're here on His plan.
So you try to blend in, be inconspicuous. If the demons notice you for any reason, well, let's just say it's just that much less delightful.
Count the number of times your watch's hands go round; You've been damned for what would've been a month if time existed, but since it doesn't down here, it's been forever.
Yeah, you still have a watch, Timex 465 with a steel band. Catch yourself winding it more often than you really need to.
Most people here end up naked. Maybe that's a blessing, what with all the heat, but you hoard your clothes just the same.
You regenerate if the demons mess you up too badly, or burn you, or rend you, or mash you, but you regenerate minus the clothes. You're careful, so you're still wearing what you were in when you died, complete with clerical collar. That alone made the first few days pretty dicey.
You lose the collar damn quick, and the rest of your clothes look ratty now, indistinguishable from the other rags.
The smell pervades everything, not brimstone, more like plastic and hair. Somehow your clothes smell even stronger than the air around you.
But blending in is more than just clothes. People learn to watch body language. Like dogs with smell, you learn to read each other like a sixth sense. You notice, he moves like a librarian, he moves like a gardener, he's a banker. To throw the others off, you remember how you moved when you were a soldier.
There are no women. Maybe they don't go to hell; maybe they get their own.
Hell looks pretty much like the storybooks say, like an iron factory, like the inside of a volcano. Demons look like birds and lizards and bulls, sometimes parts of each. The landscape stretches for forever, nothing but rock and fire.
It doesn't take too long to map the surrounding area in your head. You learned that in the army.
Good thing too. There's no paper down here. Someone says hell keeps growing at the edges, but there's no time to explore all of it anyway. You have a job to do.
Officially, you're here because you ate a gun halfway through your sermon on Jesus and Judas and forgiveness.
The suicide was a technicality. Not to say you didn't pull the trigger, but God held your hand.
Just an hour earlier you'd taken the gun off a kid. At the time you couldn't have explained, even to yourself, why you kept it in the pulpit. His plan was elegant. You saved a kid and then rushed down here. God always plays multiple angles.
Information is difficult to gather. The damned don't say much. The upper demons do a decent job of beating some down, favoring others, keeping resentments high. Every few spins of your watch dial, someone tries to band folks together, get people to stand up. Your heart goes out to them, but you avoid them like the plague. They get just enough hope to make it hurt when the demons come destroy it.
The guy down here God wants you to find is the proverbial needle in the haystack. He's somewhere amongst the rocks and the lava and the endless masses of the damned.
But you'll know the guy when you see him. God etched his face in your mind. More importantly, God etched how he moves.
God doesn't tell you why, just find him and wait for further orders.
Luckily, things aren't very organized in hell. You move around. If the demons see you wandering, they beat you and put you to work. After a while they forget you're there and you move on.
And don't you know it, there he is, moving stealthily next to the lava mountain. As you angle closer, you're careless and get singled out by a demon.
You use soldier body language, so the demon goes easy on you. He only makes you break big rocks into little ones with your bare hands.
The guy is still obvious from how he moves, like a professor or a scientist. He isn't really working, just checking in with folks. He even exchanges words with a demon. None of them lay a claw on him.
The next time you look up from your rock, you see him slip into a crack in the mountain. You wouldn't have even noticed the crack if the guy hadn't stepped in.
When the demons aren't looking you heave a medium-sized rock at some poor guy's head. A man on the ground draws demons quicker than anything. While they're distracted you follow the guy into the mountain.
Within a thousand steps you lose him in the pitch black. Trying to breathe, you don't think about how tight it is in here as you feel your way along. You try to pretend there aren't hundreds of tons of rock above you.
Eventually the crack opens into a narrow cave. You hold the watch to your ear and count the seconds as you shuffle along. It's about another hour before you notice light again.
And that's the thing. In hell, light is always red from the fire and lava. This light is different, more bluish. It's been a long time since you saw anything but red.
You finally make out the shape of the guy, barely visible in the distance.
Something else you haven't felt in forever, cool air. It makes you so giddy that you have to shake your head to get back on task.
Ahead, the light gets painfully bright, cool air blows your hair from your forehead. Your eyes adjust and you see him step through a crack the size of a doorway. You run.
You're blinded by the light and with your first step out of the tunnel you trip over him. He was bent down, smelling some flowers. He tries to scramble away, but you're on him.
"No, no! It's not ready!"
Holding him down, you realize you don't know what to do next. You assumed God would tell you. Tough luck so far.
You roll him over. "Where are we? What is this place?" The stench from your clothes fades and you smell something that makes you remember your childhood. Your eyes refuse to adjust to the light.
He places his palms on your chest, like he could lift you. "You can't be here, it's not ready."
You slap him a few times, desperately trying to wrack your brain for something to threaten him with. What can you use to threaten anyone in hell?
He puts a hand up against your cheek. It's the most intimate thing you've felt in forever. "You can't tell anyone you saw this. It hasn't grown enough. They'll ruin it if they find out too soon."
Your eyes clear a bit and you see from the look in his face he's said too much already.
You bat away his hand. "Spill or I'll bring every man and demon from hell in here." Your eyes finally adjust and your peripheral vision is filled with green.
Tears stream down past his ears. "Look around you."
Remarkable; nobody cries in hell.
A leaf, golden and cool, lands on your wrist. You look up.
How do you describe love as a place? It's like the volcanic jungles of Hawaii. It's like the evergreen forests of the Rockies somehow interspersed with the stark beauty of the Savanna plains. It's warmth and cool breezes and sleeping in grass.
All the despair, all the anger drains out of you. The fire inside cools, and for a moment you are at peace. This was what people meant when they said perfection. Tears blur the scene, and you have to close your eyes before you burst.
"How." It's the only word you can get out. You're surprised it's audible.
"Lucifer's trying to undermine the system. He's giving us an out."
Lucifer, the fallen angel. He wants to buck God.
You're too scared to open your eyes again, scared that it will be a trick. Maybe scared you can't take it all in, that you've forgotten how.
You wipe your face and get up off of him. "Lucifer stole Eden for the damned? Out of the goodness of his heart?"
"I'm just a biologist. Eden's grown from a seed. It grows exponentially. Soon it'll fit everyone in Hell. It'll break down the wall between women's world and men's. It'll damp down the fires and cover the stone." He grabs my pant leg. "Please, don't you see? We're so close."
And you can feel it. The vibration starts in the ground and moves up your legs. You know your purpose.
Peace drains out of you till you feel nothing but a terrible resonance like an avalanche of trains, all pointing straight down at you.
The gardener notices it, too. The sound is so deep you feel it below your ability to hear. It builds, louder, closer.
A tight laugh breaks your lips. You're marked, a lightning rod for the Lord.
The gardener cowers like a deer, frozen in blinding light. In a remote fading part of your heart, you feel for him. If you had a cigarette, you'd light it and put out the match under your foot.
"It was good while it lasted," you say.
"Who are you?"
The watchband sticks as you pull it off. "Call me Judas." You drop the watch onto the moss. "You might say I'm a sort of a double agent."
You recall your favorite passage in Exodus. "God is the fountain of happiness, and no creature may be happy but through Him."
The bolt of power comes down from the sky, slow and relentless like a wave. The last thing you feel before Eden is annihilated is your eyes burning out of your head, then every other part of you.
When you work for God, you sometimes take it in the teeth.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 18th, 2013
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