What would happen if good and evil were replaced with a more dynamic system based on sound economic principles? Find out in Tom Holt’s wickedly funny new comic novel!
Dad, as is tolerably well known, is omnipotent and can do anything. Some things, however, are more difficult than others, even for him; most notably, finding windows in his busy schedule for a little quality time with his dearly beloved son, with whom he is well pleased. On the rare occasions when they can fit it in, they like to go fishing together on Sinderaan, a small yellowy-red planet in the Argolis cluster. The problem, of course, is who they leave behind to mind the store.
In front of Dad the rainbow bridge sparkled with all the glory of light being ripped apart into its constituent themes. For the third time he stopped and turned back. “Don’t forget,” he said. “One rotation every twenty-four hours.”
“Six hours of rain in Lithuania, Monday and Thursday morning.”
“The keys to the thunderbolt cabinet are on the hook behind the bathroom door; don’t use them unless you absolutely have to.”
Kevin, the younger son of God, marginally less well beloved and with whom his father was not always quite so well pleased, stifled a yawn and pulled the collar of his dressing gown tight around his neck, because of the cold. “Yes, Dad,” he said. “You told me already, about a zillion times. It’s cool. I can handle it.”
His father winced. “If there’s a problem, you’ve got my number.”
“Just be careful, that’s all. Think about what you’re doing. And no parties.”
With a shrug, Dad turned, shouldered his backpack and rods and walked slowly up the rainbow to where Jay was waiting. If he was tempted to turn back one last time, he thought better of it. Before long, they were two tiny specks against the multicoloured curve, and then they were gone. Kevin sighed, pulled a face, wriggled his toes as deep into his slippers as they’d go and wandered back to the house. A light in an upstairs window of the east wing (the house had many mansions) told him that Uncle Ghost was awake, though the chances were that he wouldn’t transubstantiate into anything fit to talk to until much later, after he’d had his coffee and read the papers.
Six-thirty a.m., a ghastly time to be awake. Kevin sat down on the rocking chair on the stoop, stretched out his feet and turned on his LoganBerry. He was playing War in Heaven 3 (he was being Dad for a change; usually he was Uncle Nick) when a sharp cough behind him broke his concentration and made him jam the tablet in his dressing-gown pocket. “Hi, Uncle Mike.”
He’d been quick, but not quick enough to deceive an archangel. Uncle Mike didn’t approve of War in Heaven 3 for some reason. “Kevin. Have you got a moment?”
Irony, except he was pretty sure Uncle Mike wasn’t capable of it. “All the time in the world. Something up?”
Mike was frowning. “Cusp in the causality flow. Weneed a policy decision.”
“What, from me?”
Mike nodded sadly. “Looks like it, doesn’t it?”
“But Dad said it was all sorted out for the next three days. He said nothing was likely to come up.”
“Well, it’s no big deal,” Uncle Mike said. “Not a very big deal, anyhow. You’d better come inside and sort it out.”
“Dad said I wouldn’t have to do any policy decisions.”
“Ah well.” Mike shrugged. “Mysterious ways, Kevin, mysterious ways. Come on if you’re coming.”
The interface console, where the individual case inputs were coordinated into the predestination stream, was a dingy shade of concrete- coloured plastic, and the lettering was starting to wear off the keyboard. Kevin had been on at Dad to upgrade to a higher- spec system for as long as he could remember; these old Kawaguchiya XP7740s belonged in a museum, he’d said over and over again, what this outfit needs is the new Axio 347D StreamLine. He punched in the laughably archaic 3 ½-inch floppy that held the startup codes and waited for the shameful green letters to appear on the antiquated black screen. Pointless explaining to Dad that he had over ten times as much computing power on his phone than this entire system. Oh no. It had been good enough for dividing the waters which were under the firmament from the waters that were above the firmament, it worked just fine and he was used to it. A fan whirred. Kevin tapped his fingers on the desktop and stifled a yawn.
A few minutes later he strolled back out onto the stoop, where Uncle Mike was refuelling his flaming sword from a butane cylinder. “Uncle Mike.”
“You know how it’s the house rule that as long as they honestly and sincerely believe, trivial differences of doctrine aren’t important?”
“Well.” Kevin sat down, his hands folded in his lap. “There’s one sect that believes the entire Trinity is female.”
Uncle Mike nodded. “I’ve heard of them, yes.”
“So, according to them, and bearing in mind that in view of their irreproachable faith their interpretation is held to be equally valid, that would make me female too, right?”
Uncle Mike frowned. “I guess so.”
“You wouldn’t hit a girl, would you?”
Sigh. “What’ve you done?”
“It’s that stupid computer. I keep telling them, we’re so behind the times it’s unreal. It’s amazing stuff like this doesn’t happen every single day.”
“Stuff like what?”
“I think it’s the keyboard. Someone must’ve spilt coffee on it or something, because the springs don’t work properly. I told Dad a thousand times, that system is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Uncle Mike knew him too well. He frowned. “Kevin?”
“I guess it got tired of waiting.”
A long sigh. Uncle Mike turned down his flaming sword to the bare flicker of the pilot light and put it carefully on the table. “What have you done?”
“It wasn’t me. It’s all the fault of the system.”
For some reason Uncle Mike sort of smiled. “Sure,” he said. “You’d better show me.”
An hour later (linear time doesn’t pass in Heaven, but never mind) Uncle Mike leaned back in his chair, finished his now-cold coffee in three mammoth gulps and massaged his forehead between thumb and middle eh, finger. Kevin stepped up and peered over his shoulder. “All done?”
Uncle Mike nodded. “Kevin.”
“Yes, Uncle Mike?”
“Where’s that list of stuff he left for you to do while he’s away?”
Kevin scrabbled in his pocket, found and uncrumpled it. “Here. Why?”
Mike took the list and tucked it away in the sleeve of his robe. “It’s OK, Kevin,” he said. “You leave all that to me. No need for you to bother. Just go and do whatever it is you do all day.”
For a moment or so Kevin stood perfectly still. Then he said, “Uncle Mike.”
“That’s not fair.”
Mike looked away. “Sorry, kid.”
“But it’s not. It says in the rules, doesn’t it? You’ve got to forgive. Not just seven times but seventy times seven. I think—”
Mike sighed. “Seventy times seven is four hundred and ninety,” he said. “Personally, I stopped counting back in the low thousands. It’s fine,” he added, and Kevin guessed he was genuinely trying to be kind. “Some people just aren’t cut out for this kind of work. That doesn’t make them bad people. I’m sure there’s all sorts of things you’d be good at, in an infinite Universe.”
On the other hand, Uncle Mike being kind made Vlad the Impaler look cissy. “Uncle Mike,” Kevin said, “I know I can do this stuff. I know I can.”
Mike pursed his lips. “No,” he said. “Sorry.”
There are times when you just can’t speak. This was one of them. Kevin turned away and walked out onto the stoop, sat down and poured himself a glass of orange juice. In the near distance a new galaxy hatched like a fiery egg. He threw a pretzel at it. He missed.
The family business.
Not everybody wants to follow in their daddy’s footsteps, as witness the considerable number of people called Smith who don’t spend their days pounding hot iron. Traditions fade. Teenage Amish dream of working for Google, and young Clark Kent leaves the farm and heads for Metropolis. But Kevin had always believed, always assumed . . .
Unlike so many kids his age, Kevin was pretty sure he knew who he was. If he’d had blood, the family business would’ve been in it. That was what made him so mad, sometimes. Take the computers. Why couldn’t Dad see that the whole system needed replacing? It was obvious that was why mistakes happened. True, they only seemed to happen when Kevin was at the keyboard, but that was simply because Dad and Jay had got used to the stupid, obsolete old machines and could anticipate their ridiculous quirks. That was what it came down to, basically. Which did Dad think more highly of, his own son or a beat-up old Kawaguchiya XP7740? And that was one of those questions you just don’t ask, for fear of the answer.
He picked up his LoganBerry. War in Heaven 3 – a ridiculous game because the good guys always win, inevitably, no matter what you do. A thought crossed his mind, and he grinned. He switched the LoganBerry to phone mode and tapped in a number.
It rang six hundred and sixty- six times. Then an angry voice snapped, “What?”
Sigh. “Oh, hi, Kevin. Look, can it wait? I’m a bit tied up right now.”
He could believe it. Uncle Nick’s department was eh, chronically overworked and understaffed. Nevertheless, he hardened his heart and said, “Uncle Nick, you know how Dad’s always going on about me getting work experience in all the departments?”
Another sigh. “No, Kevin.”
“Forget it. Not after the last time.”
Kevin scowled. He’d explained. It hadn’t been his fault that Hell had frozen over. “Uncle Nick—”
“It’s not up to me, kid,” the voice said. “I got strict instructions from your old man. Not allowed to set foot Flipside ever again. Not exactly a grey area.”
“He said that?”
“Gospel truth, son. Sorry. So, if you don’t like it, you’ll have to take it up with him. Gotta fly, I’ve got someone on the stove. Bye now.”
The line went dead. Kevin scowled horribly at the screen and switched off. Fine, he thought. No problem. If Dad and Jay want me to slob around the house all day, I can do that, you bet. Who needs the stupid business anyway? It was enough to make him turn atheist. (Except he’d tried that once, and it hadn’t been a conspicuous success. Dad had argued, plausibly enough, that if he didn’t exist, neither did the fridge, the sofa, the TV or Kevin’s bedroom. After twenty- four hours shivering in the existential void, Kevin had solemnly burned the collected works of Richard Dawkins and been allowed back into the kitchen. Never again.)
Ungrateful, he thought. Wicked, ungrateful. Right now there were countless millions of ex- humans (lawyers, politicians, investment bankers) who’d give the charred stumps of their right arms to be where he was now rather than down there in Uncle Nick’s gloomy jurisdiction. But that was the point. Countless millions of other ex-humans had striven all their lives to be virtuous and good, and had thereby achieved Heaven; he’d grown up there, never been anywhere else. So, if Uncle Mike and Uncle Nick were right and he wasn’t cut out for the business, if he didn’t belong here, if he didn’t belong in his own home . . .
The door opened, and Uncle Ghost wandered out onto the stoop. In one hand was a coffee cup, in the other yesterday’s Herald. “Kevin. You seen my glasses anywhere?”
“You’re wearing them.”
“My other glasses.”
Kevin stood up and made a show of searching. “What do you need to read the paper for, Uncle? You know everything that’s going on.”
“Passes the time.”
Time, that old thing. There had been a time when Uncle Ghost had been the driving force of the business: its energy, its spark, its dancing breath of fire. Hard to imagine that these days. He’s done his fair share, Dad would say, he’s earned the right to take it a bit easier. Trouble was, Uncle Ghost didn’t seem to be taking it easy at all. If anything, he was taking it very hard.
“Damn glasses,” Uncle muttered, lifting a tablecloth and putting it back crooked. “Can’t see a thing without ’em these days.”
Was Uncle Ghost old? Well, he’d existed before Existence itself, but sequential linear time didn’t apply to the family, in the same way that fish can’t drown. The mortals say you’re as old as you feel. So how do you feel when you’ve been everywhere and seen everything? The official answer to that was wise, compassionate and understanding.
The glasses turned out to be hiding under the cushion of the chair Kevin had just been sitting on. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’ll straighten them out for you.”
“Don’t you dare.” Uncle snatched them away and eh, stuffed them down the front of his shirt. “I’ll have Mike or Gabe fix them. You break everything.”
“Thanks, Uncle. That’s just exactly what I wanted to hear right now.”
“Was it? Why?”
Uncle Ghost sighed. “Why not?” he said. “These days, forgetting’s what I’m best at.”
More than just trace elements of truth in that assertion, which was why Uncle Ghost didn’t do any actual work any more. Overdue sunrises, March winds and April showers in July . . . He’s a menace, Dad had told Jay one dark midnight as they hurriedly dragged clouds in front of a crescent moon that should have been full. Kevin hadn’t been meant to hear that, of course. It was also significant that celestial mechanics had been added to Jay’s chore list. It was the easiest part of the business; a child could do it, or a fool. But not a burned- out old man. And not, apparently, Kevin.
He yawned. Through the open door he could hear the mechanised voice of the answering service: Sorry, there’s no one here to hear your prayer right now, please leave your name and we’ll get right back to you. He felt ashamed. Of course he didn’t begrudge Dad – or even Jay – a little time off now and again; they worked so hard, they deserved it. But there should always be someone on call to hear the prayers, it was in the Covenant. (Or was it? Offhand he couldn’t remember. But if it wasn’t, it should be). Nominally, Uncle Ghost was the duty Trinitarian, which was good enough for the Compliance people but cold comfort for the poor saps down there who actually believed.
Face it, bro, you just aren’t cut out for this line of work. Jay had this unfortunate streak of honesty. He claimed it came with the territory, though why he couldn’t sometimes be content with just being the Way and the Light, Kevin couldn’t say. The truth can be unkind, and surely kindness was more in line with the essence of the mission statement than mere factual accuracy. But if he was right . . . Well, was he? So far, Kevin’s record wasn’t impressive, he’d be the first to admit that. But maybe that was because they’d never given him a chance, never explained to him how things should be done. And besides, Jay would add at this point, we’re so rushed off our feet we simply haven’t got the time to show you. Quicker to do it ourselves. Quite.
The soft buzzing noise was Uncle Ghost snoring. Kevin got up, went inside and fixed himself a coffee – just instant because when he’d tried to use the cappuccino machine something had gone wrong with it, and Dad hadn’t had time to mend it. He flicked on the TV, but it was just reruns of Touched by an Angel. I’d pray, Kevin said to himself, but who to?