The angel stooped on me out of the desert sun. I barely had time to shoulder my launcher and trigger a glory-seeking missile before he reached me.
Fortunately, the angel hadn't spent years honing his reaction times with video games. I threw myself flat on the ground just as he swooped over my head, trailing guttural Aramaic curses. Then my missile locked onto his emissions and began following his every move.
I rolled over to watch the show. The sky was otherwise clear, but I kept an eye out and jacked another glory-seeker into the launcher, just in case. Angels often hunt in pairs.
The angel jinked left, then right, the missile tracking every turn and spin until it flew right up his robes and blew him back to Kingdom Come. Literally. You can't kill an angel, of course, not permanently, but you can take him out of the game for a while.
I sat up and started dusting myself off.
"Thanks," I heard a low, sexy voice breathe behind me. "You saved my... skin."
Shit. Succubus. I hadn't even known she was there. And me without a sulphur-sniffer in my whole missile rack, after that last demon sortie.
I didn't turn around. As long as I didn't turn around, I'd be okay. Probably. Succubi don't normally get violent... they attack by other means.
"I didn't do him for you, hellspawn," I growled.
"Aww... look me in the eye and call me that, sugar."
She was toying with me - she could see I didn't have any rockets left for her. I still wasn't completely defenseless, though. I reached stealthily into my pants.
I should've known better. That kind of action drew her attention immediately. She moved closer and I felt the hot wind of Hell as she breathed down my neck.
"Whatcha doin', lover?"
I didn't answer her. I just kept digging in my pockets. Despite all my desperate attempts at self-control, I was getting an erection. Soon I wouldn't be able to resist her charms.
"Is all that just for me?" she squealed.
There! Got it, finally. I pulled the mirror out of my pants and thrust it at her over my shoulder.
"Here you go. Retro me Sathanas, already."
She grabbed the mirror out of my hand. I knew it'd be a while before she was a threat again, but I had to get back to camp. I picked up my launcher and angled away across the dunes.
I risked a look back when I was about a quarter-mile away. She was sitting on the sand; looked like she was doing something with her eyebrows.
Succubi. Never can resist the temptation to primp... and there are no mirrors in Hell.
* * *
Bastards. They're all bastards, anyway.
They came to Earth six years late. The millennial fever had finally broken, though there were still a few pockets of fanaticism left. The Millennialists had mostly given up expecting anything to happen for another thousand years, leaving the Rationalists to mutter 'I told you so' and try to reconstruct a world wracked by the carelessness of believers. Humanity as a whole had breathed a great collective sigh of relief, and gone back to business.
Then satellite recon and the reports of eyewitnesses began coming back from the blasted plains of northern Israel. The desert where farmers had again been struggling to reclaim the land was now covered with the heavenly hosts. Arrayed against them, the armies of Satan. Horsemen wheeled overhead, bearing plague and famine, war and pestilence. Humanity experienced another great collective reaction:
I don't know who launched the first surface-to-angel missile, but it created altogether the wrong impression among Lucifer's minions when it vaporized the seraph. They thought we were on their side... and it took a couple of tank divisions wiping up the desert floor with batwinged monstrosities before Satan got the clue. Then a few more of the Heavenly Host had to get their feathers singed before the adversaries began to realize that humanity didn't want either of 'em around anymore. We'd been through the Millennium, dammit, and come out the other side stronger, albeit a whole lot fewer.
Even the most dog-rabid Christians who were left finally came around, after a couple of captured cherubim let it leak that Jehovah'd already Raptured everyone who was going to be "saved," back in 1918: 144,000 of 'em, just as advertised. No one had noticed at the time, of course, because the disappearances were masked by some 30,000,000 deaths during the influenza epidemics going on at that time.
After that bit of news, the Jehovah's Witnesses who were left turned out to be the most vengeful of the lot - I guess they felt betrayed by all the hoops they'd been jumping through for nothing.
In no time we mere humans were kicking ass. Sure, they have divine power (or diabolical cunning, depending), but they wandered in riding chariots and waving flaming swords! That prehistoric crap turns out to be no match for smart bombs, jump jets, satellite communications, computer-controlled logistics, and all the other paraphernalia we've had to develop in ten thousand years or so of continuous conflict. Even the bunch of more-or-less modern humans Jehovah'd picked up during the Rapture couldn't help them catch up; they weren't that technically literate in the first place, of course, and we've come a long way since WWI. They wouldn't have had a chance at all if they hadn't had a deity as well as a deity wannabe on their side.
Okay, I'm being a little unfair. They're handicapped because they don't have a single side; the angels and devils are as polarized as they always were, and their respective leaderships want to keep it that way. Both Yahweh and Beelzebub have succeeded, for the most part, in maintaining their enmity, notwithstanding the odd alliances of convenience caused by our entirely unexpected opposition to both camps.
And, to tell you the truth, we mere humans would like to keep it that way. It's hard enough battling divine retribution when its attention is divided... Heaven has no idea what we'd have to do if we had to fight a unified front.
* * *
I was finally nearing our camp. The first sentry would be popping up any...
"Halt! Go thou no further."
I stopped in front of the angel with the flaming sword.
"It's me, G."
Gamaliel betrayed no sign of recognition. He's such an asshole.
"Know'st thou the password?"
"Shut the fuck up, or I won't show you how to get to the fifth level. How's that for a password?"
Gamaliel backed down, as I knew he would. G.'s a DOOMYST addict - it's what turned him for us in the first place, in fact. Old game, but I guess they don't get Gamerag in Heaven. I've got to admit, the game's surreal combination of peaceful backdrops and nonstop violent action had a hold on me too, for a LONG time, but that was years ago; I've moved on. Too much like real life now for my comfort.
I went on towards the center of camp, where Anne-Marie was sobbing.
I put down the launcher I'd been carrying all this time, but made sure I knew its location - there'd been constant aerial attacks and underground sappers from both sides trying to get into our camp, which was uncomfortably close to no-Man's-land - and rushed over to try to comfort her.
I knelt beside her on the sandy ground, put my back up against the tent with hers and put my arm around her. I don't know how she felt, having me there (though she did quiet down), but I started feeling a whole lot better. I tried to tell myself it wasn't just because Anne-Marie's a good-looking widow.
Just as Anne-Marie's shoulders stopped shaking and her sniffles slowed, and I began considering moving my hand from her upper arm and into more interesting territory, there was a commotion from the edge of camp. Dammit. I grabbed the launcher and stood up; Anne-Marie pulled out her machine pistol with its custom loads and stood beside me.
Gamaliel came towards us, shoving two strangers in front of him, one big angel hand on each one's neck. He brought them to the far side of the big camouflaged firepit in the middle of camp and stopped them for us to examine.
"These two miscreants I captured, strolling into camp all unconcerned. They know not the password," he grumbled.
"Okay, G, easy. Let up on 'em. Let's see what we've got here."
I said they were strangers but that's not strictly true. The one on the right was my old friend from the desert, the succubus. She stood with her head down, though, not attempting any glamour on me with both an angel and a flesh-and-blood woman close by.
"I brought him for you," the succubus said to me gloomily.
I looked at the other one. Nondescript, dark skin and hair, barefoot... could've been any of the locals.
She looked up, finally, and her eyes flashed fire.
"Look, mortal! He's-"
The other one raised his hand and the succubus fell abruptly silent. That's not the kind of thing succubi normally do. I took a closer look at the local and couldn't see any reason for her obedience, so I stepped a little closer, walking around the pit.
* * *
He wasn't any more impressive close up. Hadn't bathed in all too long, and his long hair and brown beard were matted and dusty. Didn't look all that strong, either, though you can never tell with these desert-dwellers - they're wiry. There was something odd about him, though it took me a while to figure it out.
He was calm. Too calm, for someone in the middle of an armed camp with a missile launcher and a machine gun pointed at him and a burly angel off to one side. He looked as if he had nothing to fear.
That impression was reinforced when he raised his own eyes to mine. Soft, liquid brown eyes gazed at me calmly.
"I have come to walk among you."
His English was pure, unaccented, the kind I hadn't heard in months. Sounded like home, in fact.
Anne-Marie jerked upright as he spoke. "Fils de putain," she muttered. I didn't ask her for a translation at the time, and soon lost my chance as she spun around and headed off towards the latrines without another word.
The little brown man stepped closer to me, closer than he should have gotten without Gamaliel stopping him. G. just stood there gaping, which didn't seem right either.
"You are the leader of this camp," the man said. It wasn't really a question.
"Well, as much as this camp has a leader. I'm the one they come to with problems, anyway."
"May I join you?"
No hint of pleading entered his voice; he was merely asking permission. I got the feeling that if I said no, he'd simply turn and walk out of the camp, down to the next one to try his luck there. He was the calmest man I've ever seen; he had an enormous amount of dignity. He was... saintly.
Okay, so it took me a long time to tumble. I hadn't been expecting a visit from... Him.
I must have spoken out loud; he winced.
"Please... call me Josh. That other name belongs to another life."
I put my arm around his shoulders and drew him off to one side. Felt strange, touching Jesus, but he was as warm and alive as any man. I got very close to him, in his face, in fact, not expecting to intimidate him really but just letting him know who's boss.
"So, Josh, how do I know you're not spying for Daddy?"
He was unfazed by my suspicion.
"We've had a falling out. I don't think he's handling the campaign at all well - too, well, Old Testament. Retribution, all that 'vengeance is mine' shit. I... don't like that kind of role-playing."
"You sound like a Californian," I said, making it sound like a curse.
He grinned wryly.
"Some of my best friends are Californians - or so they'd like you to believe, anyway. Hey, the weather's nice at least, but you'd think after a couple of earthquakes, fires, floods and plagues they'd get the message, right? They may like me, but Dad doesn't especially like them."
"But you digress."
He acknowledged my jibe without resentment; I was really starting to like this guy despite all the shit I'd given his relatives lately.
"But I digress, indeed. Here's why you should take me on: I want the same things you want."
"And those are?"
"An end to the War, with humans left alone to go on about their separate salvations and damnations as they wish, without our interference. Free will, not just lip service and grunt work on the last battlefield. And to get laid."
"You know, like you with Anne-Marie. Oh, I know about that, of course. Don't worry, though; it's not my problem any more what you do sexually, or whom you do it with. I never really liked that part of the job, anyway. And I don't want your girlfriend specifically - but when I became incarnate, My Father wrought better than he knew. I've got appetites... and it's been a LONG time since Mary Magdalene."
The succubus had been listening in, it seems, because she perked up at this last and came over to us. But where I'd expected her to saunter up seductively, displaying her Hellish charms, instead she came walking over modestly and actually asked Jes- Josh, that is, "May I show you around?"
Anyone who could have that kind of effect on a succubus, creatures not known for subtlety under the best of circumstances, was definitely someone to keep around. I clapped Josh on the shoulder, noting as I did that I'd been right initially - he was a lot more muscular than he appeared. His muscles were stringy but tough.
"You're in, Josh. Glad to have you aboard."
He acknowledged me with a quiet "thank you," but his eyes were locked on the succubus' and they began walking in lockstep towards the sleeping quarters, where somehow I knew they'd find an empty tent.
"My girlfriend," huh? Well, if Jesus - Josh, dammit - thought she was my girlfriend, maybe there was more to it than I thought. I went searching for Anne-Marie again, and found her; eventually I got her to explain what "fils de putain" meant, and pretty soon we'd graduated to more complicated phrases like "brouter le cresson..." True to his word, Josh didn't hassle us about our developing relationship - it would have been the height of hypocrisy anyway, because he himself was cutting a swathe through the local eligible female population that couldn't possibly have been any wider. Once word leaked out, as it had always been bound to do, that we had the one and only Son in our camp, Josh was able to extend his attentions even farther, and always, amazingly, without any unpleasantness. Almost enough to make a believer out of me.
Josh turned out to be a real asset to the camp in many ways, in fact - although he wouldn't carry a weapon, of course, he could sense the approach of an single imp or cherub from miles away, and was able to give us plenty of warning for the bigger attacks. Plus he used his carpentry training to replace the frames of our tents and rig cots, tables, and shelves, when we could find the lumber. When Anne-Marie told him she was pregnant, he knocked together a perfect little suspended crib so we could rock the child to sleep, and she threw her arms around him and kissed him in a way which, if it'd been any other man, would've made me jealous. But that was Josh; you couldn't be jealous of him, because you knew he was honest... the only truly open-hearted one in the whole sorry lot of 'em.
* * *
I don't mean to imply that everything was idyllic, though. Jesus' defection hit Jehovah hard, as hard as it heartened human resistance, but it wasn't a decisive blow, and of course there was still Satan to contend with. The three-cornered standoff maintained itself for years.
The battle at Megiddo was supposed to have been swift - one or two days' fighting, tops, and then Satan gets cast into the lake of fire for a thousand years. It seems to have upset a lot of plans when we decided not to cooperate, and had the tech to back ourselves up.
One day, for no reason that we could see, the patience of God wore too thin - not that he'd been the most patient of deities in the first place. The plains of Megiddo, full of campaigning angels one instant, were bare the next. The minions of Satan, abruptly deprived of their adversaries, took a little longer to clear out, but by the end of that day they, too, had abandoned their flaming trenches, leaving only human beings and our contingents of defectors in possession of the field.
But those of us who held silent while victory cheers split the air were soon proven correct, as the evening turned into full night. Jehovah had left one last surprise for us.
Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
* * *
Until we turned them ON again.
* * *
 ObAttribDammit: Clarke, Arthur C. "The Nine Billion Names of God."
This was the top-rated story for September, 1996, as voted for by the readership of the Usenet newsgroup talk.bizarre.
Original content on this page © Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.