Merry Hell

Squirdle was starting to come to terms with the fact that he was not, in fact, a demon.

It had all been the fault of some idiot called Maxwell.  From a certain point of view, Squirdle hadn’t existed until Maxwell theorised him.  Unfortunately, from Squirdle’s own point of view, as soon as Maxwell came along, he had always existed, the difference in perspectives being caused by subtle but important interactions between narrative imperative and the fabric of n-dimensional spacetime.  Since Squirdle’s viewpoint was shared by all eternal beings, including the demonic population of Hell, that meant that until very recently there had been only one place Squirdle could go.

He had never really felt at home in Hell, but then he had always reflected that that was rather the point.  It had always been particularly difficult for Squirdle, though.  There is a limit to the pain you can inflict on a damned soul when you are only one inch high.  The other demons simply hadn’t taken him seriously, and he’d always been the one who ended up sitting glumly on the edge of the vat of molten lead, amusing himself as best he could by causing localised cold spots.  Being a particularly skilled thermodynamic manipulator, he could even cause parts of the surface of the lead to congeal into splendid caricatures of the surrounding demons, but this wasn’t something he did too often.  It isn’t a good idea to annoy a demon, especially not if it is hundreds of times your size.

There was something else, too, and it always bothered him a little.  Squirdle was suspiciously healthy, by demonic standards.  It is not generally known that demons suffer from health problems, but a little thought should make it obvious: health, after all, is a blessing, and demons are by their very nature a long way from blessed.  Every demon in Hell had some kind of illness, from Mephistopheles’ ulcers right down to that annoying junior imp on Pit 2538 with the permanent cold.  No wonder Harold Shipman had been excused the torture pits; instead, he’d been given a surgery that was invariably full of sick demons.  Squirdle strongly suspected he’d have settled for the Lake of Fire instead, had he been allowed the option.

Squirdle had tried.  You couldn’t fault him for that.  He had learned to affect both a limp and a cough pretty convincingly.  He’d even written a book, in which he listed 1001 really unpleasant things which could be done to a centipede.  The fact that there were no centipedes in Hell was, to him, a minor point.  One day, he reasoned, a centipede sufficiently intelligent to understand moral thinking would evolve, and if it should happen to be damned, why, he’d be the only centipede specialist in the whole of Hell.  The book had been quite popular among the other demons, but in the end it had been his downfall, or, perhaps more accurately, his uprise.

The first Squirdle knew of all this was one particularly gloomy morning, when a very important-looking demon in high heels bustled into the torture session he was attending.  She looked down at a clipboard in her talons.

“Is there a Squirdle here?” she asked.

Squirdle looked up from the wheel of the rack, where he was idly sitting waiting for the next victim.  “Er… who wants to know?” he asked, a little apprehensively.

The demon peered at him over her glasses.  “H’mm, you certainly fit the description.  Come with me.”

She picked him up, sat him on the clipboard, and hurried out of the room.  “Oy!” exclaimed Squirdle.  “I should come with you when I don’t know where I’m going?”

“I’m Beelzebub’s secretary, and I’m in a hurry,” replied the demon shortly.  “There’s been a hurricane in Florida, and now I’m up to my eyes in paperwork.  Half the damned souls have turned up with no identification.”

Squirdle’s eyes almost popped out of his head.  “You’re taking me to see Beelzebub, already?”

“Yes, of course I am.  Anyway, what’s with the Jewish accent?  You’re a demon, right?”

“Every demon ought to have a religion,” replied Squirdle sententiously.  “That way, they know what they’re avoiding.”

Before too long, a trembling Squirdle was sitting cross-legged on Beelzebub’s mouse mat.  “Er… you wanted to see me, sir,” he said, quite unnecessarily.

“Ah, yes,” replied the senior demon, steepling the arthritis-crippled appendages which, for want of a better term, we shall call his fingers.  “Yes.  I’ve read your book, young Squirdle.  Very interesting.”

Squirdle brightened.  “You liked it, sir?”

It was difficult to interpret the expression on Beelzebub’s face, since demons, at least when they are in their own form and not trying to look like humans, don’t really smile.  Certainly he showed his teeth.  “Yes, I certainly did enjoy it.  It was highly imaginative.  In fact, I’ve actually recommended that we adapt some of your suggestions for use on humans.  Well done, indeed.”

“Glad to be of service, sir,” said Squirdle, feeling extremely relieved.

“There’s just one… little… thing,” continued Beelzebub smoothly.  “An expert like yourself will, naturally, be aware that there are no centipedes in Hell at this precise moment.”

Squirdle coughed.  “I know, I know, already.  But maybe one day…”

Beelzebub waved a hand.  “Quite so.  However, it’s undeniable that your talents are being rather wasted here at the moment.”

“What are you suggesting, sir?” asked Squirdle cautiously.

“I’m going to send you to Earth, Squirdle,” explained Beelzebub.  “Your task is to go and corrupt at least one centipede to the point of damnation.  Get it into Hell, and you shall have your own series of seminars.  How does that sound?”

Squirdle put his head on one side.  “There’s a catch,” he said flatly.  “There’s always a catch.  What happens if I fail?”

Beelzebub showed his teeth again.  “Well now, my little friend,” he replied, “that’s for you to find out.”

* * * * *

Squirdle’s experiences on Earth were quite unexpected.  Captured by an investigator of the paranormal almost as soon as he arrived, he soon found himself embroiled in a set of unlikely adventures which had very little to do with centipedes at all.  The details of these adventures have already been recounted elsewhere, and so they need not concern us here apart from one very salient point: Squirdle made friends.

It took some time for the implications of this fact to hit him.  In all his eternal existence, he had never had even one real friend before, much less a group of them, and although it was an extremely strange feeling, he had to admit that he enjoyed it.  This was about as far as his thinking on the subject went, until one day he found himself chatting to one of the group, a certain Reg Office.  Squirdle wasn’t absolutely certain that he counted Reg as a friend, but that was all right, because everyone else seemed to have the same uncertainty too.  Reg, on the other hand, was quite clear where he stood: he looked out for himself.  That, at least, was a familiar component of normal demonic behaviour, but Reg wasn’t really very much like the demons Squirdle was used to.  For a start, he had a sense of humour.

Squirdle was flying around the room astride a banana when Reg walked in, a trick that is easily done when you have the ability to cause all the air molecules immediately under the banana to move upwards and slightly forwards at the same time.  Reg grinned, caught the banana, and let Squirdle walk up his arm and sit on his shoulder.

“’ello, matey,” he said cheerfully, starting to peel the banana.

“That’s not your banana,” Squirdle informed him, rather severely.

“Who cares?  Bet you didn’t ask ’em if you could fly it,” countered Reg.

“And if I put it back the way I found it, what’s the problem?” demanded Squirdle.

Reg laughed.  “Call yourself a demon!  You got more morals than I ’ave.”

For once, Squirdle was shocked into silence.  He had to admit that Reg had a point.  When he recovered himself, he said, “Of course I’m a demon.  I’ve got to be a demon.  It says so on my card.  Here.”

Reg turned round and squinted at the almost invisible sliver of card in Squirdle’s hand.  “You expect me to read that?” he said.  “Not without a microscope!”

“Oy vey,” sighed Squirdle.  “I’ll read it to you.  ‘Squirdle, Esquire, Residence 15399, 736th Street, The Fifth Circle, Hell.  Thermodynamic Demon and Specialist Centipede Torturer.  E-mail: squirdle@circle5.demon.co.hel.’  See?”

“No, I don’t see,” replied Reg.  “Got to say, though, I didn’t know they had the Internet down there.”

“The Infernet,” Squirdle corrected.  “Of course we have.  Where did you think spam came from?  Anyway, that’s not important.  I’m a demon, already.”

“No, you ain’t.  You’re a thermodynamic personification, that’s what you are.  You got morals and you got friends.  Betcha you can’t show me another demon what’s got them.”

“Well, if I’m not a demon,” insisted Squirdle, “what was I doing in Hell?”

“Beats me,” replied Reg.  “What were you doing?”

Squirdle shrugged.  “Mostly watching other demons torturing people.”

“Well, there you go!” exclaimed Reg triumphantly.  “Not doing any torturing yourself, were you?”

“I’m an inch high and I should be torturing people?”

Reg grinned.  “Mosquitoes manage it, and they ain’t nowhere near as big as you.”

Squirdle put his head on one side.  “Even if you’re right,” he said, “it doesn’t make a difference.  I’ve got to go back some time, and I’ve got to bring a centipede, or Beelzebub will probably try to do some of the things to me that I wrote about in my book.”

“Bring a centipede?” demanded Reg, incredulously.  “To Hell?”

Squirdle nodded uncomfortably.  “All the way.”

“But that’s daft!  Centipedes ain’t got the brains to get damned.”

“You know what?  I think Beelzebub knows that.”  Squirdle swung his legs disconsolately.  “I’m trying to think of a way to stall for time, at least.  Use my thermodynamic powers or something.”

“Thermodynamic powers nothing, mate,” said Reg decisively.  “What you need is legal advice.  If you ain’t a demon, then you ain’t got to do what that Beelzebub weasel tells you.  So what you got to do is prove you ain’t a demon.  That ought to be easy.”

“I’m not sure Beelzebub’s going to see it that way,” Squirdle observed glumly.

“What’s it got to do with him anyway?” asked Reg.  “I thought he was Lord of the Flies, not Lord of the bleedin’ Centipedes.”

“He’s a demon,” sighed Squirdle.  “You think he’s going to let that kind of thing bother him?”

Reg scratched his head.  “Point,” he conceded.  “There’s got to be something you can do, though.  Can’t you… you know… have a chat with the other side?  I bet they’d help you, if they knew you didn’t want to be a demon.”

Squirdle blinked.  “You mean, like, pray?”

“S’pose so.”  Reg finished the banana thoughtfully.

“I thought that was for humans.  There’s not really… any arrangement for demons,” said Squirdle.  “Or not-demons.  Or whatever I am.”

“See what you mean,” agreed Reg.  “I suppose it’s kind of like falling through the benefit system, only on a celestial scale.”

“A lot of help you are,” sighed Squirdle.

“Yeah, but… dunno about you, but I think I’d rather deal with God than the DSS.”

Squirdle rolled his eyes.  “I would rather deal with Beelzebub than the DSS, already.”

“H’mm,” said Reg.  “Seems a bit hard, though.  I mean, with you being Jewish an’ all, you’d think there ought to be something in the regulations for you.”

Squirdle shook his head.  “How can there be?  Once a demon’s made up its mind to be a demon, that’s it.  No second chances.  Nobody expected there’d be someone like me, who only got to be a demon by default.”

Reg squinted at him.  “What about the laws of thermodynamics?” he asked, hopefully.

“Now those,” replied Squirdle, “I just might be able to use.”

* * * * *

The Archangel Gabriel’s office was as comfortable and well-appointed as you would expect.  Gabriel himself had just popped out to photocopy some sheet music, but nobody ever minded having to wait for him, since he was – as befitted an archangel – very generous in the matter of the use of his coffee machine.  It was a superb coffee machine even by celestial standards; it was pre-programmed so that everyone who might ever possibly have occasion to visit Gabriel’s office could have a cup of coffee to their exact requirements.  Yadael, centurion of the 159th Division of Quantum Seraphim, was currently enjoying a mocha made from a very specific blend of beans and with just the subtlest hint of vanilla.

Gabriel returned with an armful of papers, which he deposited on the little table by the window overlooking the Tree of Life.  “Ah, Yadael,” he said affably.  “Sorry to keep you waiting, old chap.  Coffee all right for you?”

Yadael smiled.  “Perfect, as always.  New music?”

Gabriel nodded, seating himself at his desk.  “Yes.  St Cecilia’s just written a new Sanctissimus, and it’s rather good.  I thought we might run through it at the practice on Thursday.  You wouldn’t mind taking a few copies when you leave, for the choristers in your division, would you?”

“My pleasure.”  Yadael sipped the mocha appreciatively.  “Now… I understand we’ve got a special case.  Do tell me more.”

“By all means.”  The archangel spread his wings a little so that they draped over the arms of his office chair.  “His name’s Squirdle, and he’s not actually human.”

Yadael’s perfectly shaped eyebrows lifted a little.  “So what is he, then?”

“Ah, now, that’s the question.  He’s the personification of a thermodynamic hypothesis, so he is an eternal being, but the crucial point is that he has never actually made a decision one way or the other.  Unfortunately for poor Squirdle, his subcreator referred to him as a demon, so you can imagine where he ended up initially.”

The quantum seraph winced.  “Oh dear.  Poor chap.  But how did he get out?”

Gabriel glanced at his computer screen.  “Apparently it amused Beelzebub to send him to Earth on an impossible errand.  During his time there, he has come to the realisation that he is not a demon.”

“So Beelzebub will call him back?” asked Yadael.

Gabriel nodded.  “Correct.  He doesn’t want to go back, and our brief is to ensure that he is free to make his choice.”

“That’s almost treating him like a human,” marvelled Yadael.

“Absolutely,” agreed Gabriel, “but it is, after all, the only fair way to do it.  Of course, once his choice is made, it will be confirmed for the rest of eternity.  Squirdle must become either an angel or a demon.”

Yadael thought about this.  “In his… unusual circumstances,” he mused, “I imagine he could find it rather difficult to acclimatise to the angelic life.”

“If he decides that he wishes to do it, then you are free to appear to him and give him any help he needs,” said Gabriel.  He typed some characters on the keyboard, then swivelled the monitor round to face Yadael.  “Here’s your instruction.  There’s an electron-positron pair here, formed by a quantum fluctuation just outside the event horizon of a tiny black hole in Coma Berenices, time approximately three billion years after the big bang.  As you see, the positron falls into the black hole, whereas the electron escapes.  Your job is to delay the quantum fluctuation by one-tenth of a nanosecond so that both particles escape and then mutually annihilate.”

Yadael grinned.  “Oh yes.  I know that black hole.  Mind if I just borrow your keyboard to get a more precise fix on the time line?”

“Be my guest,” replied Gabriel.  “More coffee?”

“No, thank you, though it’s truly superb,” said Yadael, walking over to the keyboard.  “Never take too much caffeine before you travel in time, not even if you are an angel.”

“Well, you’ve never got one wrong yet,” observed Gabriel.

“I nearly did,” admitted Yadael.  “Remember that old lady in China who was praying for her daughter?  I came awfully close to getting the wrong proton.”

“Well, you didn’t,” said Gabriel cheerfully.  “Blessed be the God of quantum mechanics and chaos theory, who has set up the universe in such a way that humans are unable to detect the tiny changes required to bring about the answer to their prayers, and so has allowed them to enjoy to the full their gift of free will.”

“Amen,” replied Yadael fervently.  “You could add to that: and who has, by means of this arrangement, provided a source of great joy and satisfaction to his servants the quantum seraphim.”

“I know,” said Gabriel.  “It’s a wonderful job, isn’t it?  But I just do the easy ones these days.  I find the choirmastering takes up so much time, and, of course, that’s very fulfilling in itself.”

“Ah, yes, of course.  The music.”  Yadael walked over to the table and picked up a sheaf of photocopies.  “It does look rather good.  Couldn’t we rehearse it a fortnight ago so we can perform it this evening?”

Gabriel shook his head.  “No, a fortnight ago we’re doing the Gloria In Excelsis she’s going to write next spring.”

“Oh, so we did.  Well, I’ll see you…?”

“Yesterday.”

Yadael nodded.  “Yesterday it is!”

* * * * *

“Well?” demanded Beelzebub.  “I believe you were going to bring me a centipede, were you not?”

Squirdle trembled.  All he could think of to say was that Beelzebub’s mouse mat was absolutely filthy, and he was pretty sure that would only get him into more trouble.  “I… I couldn’t find one, sir,” he stammered.

“Couldn’t find one?  Earth is crawling with centipedes!”

“Oy,” sighed Squirdle.  “Not centipedes with moral consciousness.”

“How do you know that?” demanded Beelzebub.  “Have you been round interviewing them all individually?”

“Well, no, sir,” admitted Squirdle, “but if a centipede’s got a moral sense, you’re bound to notice it already.”

“In precisely what way?  I suspect, young Squirdle, that you have been so busy amusing yourself with your new companions that you have not even bothered to try.”  He leaned closer, almost suffocating Squirdle with his foul breath; though demons do not actually need to breathe air, there are times when it amuses them to do so.  “And let me tell you that we take a very dim view of that here.  There is no room for slackers in the infernal legions.”

“I don’t want to be an infernal legionary!” wailed Squirdle, before he could stop himself.  Beelzebub let out a menacing growl.

“Oh, you don’t, eh?” he sneered.  “Well, let me tell you this.  There are only two kinds of people in Hell, Squirdle.  There are the ones who do the torturing, and… I hardly have to tell you who the others are.  If you aren’t prepared to be the former, then you will have to be the latter, won’t you?”

Squirdle panicked.  He darted round the back of the monitor, only to run full tilt into a pile of old sweet wrappers and fall flat on his face.  As he felt clawed fingers lift him into the air, he wondered dizzily exactly what Beelzebub liked so much about mint humbugs.

“Now,” said Beelzebub.  “I am well aware that you have a gift for thermodynamic manipulation, and I realise that this could cause a number of possible modes of torture to go wrong.  I am therefore going to keep you in a jar on my desk until I can come up with something suitable.  In fact, I think I shall get some of the senior demons together and have a meeting about it.  It would be good for you to attend.”

“Aaaargh,” managed Squirdle.

“Pathetic.  You can make a great deal more noise than that, as I intend to have you demonstrate shortly.”  So saying, the demon dropped poor Squirdle into a coffee jar and screwed the lid down firmly on top of him.

“I’ll sue!” threatened Squirdle impotently.

Beelzebub laughed.  “Well, there are plenty of lawyers here, little imp, but do you really think any of them will be prepared to fight Me?”

“I’ll… I’ll…”  Squirdle kicked a passing hydrogen atom so hard that it went straight through the glass.  Sadly, this fact was entirely lost on the demon.

“Rage away by all means,” smirked Beelzebub.  “I’m off to arrange the meeting.”

“Arrange it yourself?  What happened to your secretary?” asked Squirdle.

“Oh, I gave her the afternoon off to go to the torture pits.  Some of the things she can do with those heels are quite, quite magnificent.”  So saying, he loped out of the office, leaving Squirdle seething in the jar.

“I don’t want to be a demon,” he declared loudly to Hell at large.  “I want to be an angel.  Well, anything really that isn’t a demon I’d be happy with.”

There was a gentle pop, and to Squirdle’s utter astonishment a figure appeared.  He was clearly some kind of angel; the dazzling white wings rather gave that away.  However, Squirdle had always imagined angels as being dressed in long white robes, not a set of rather natty overalls with several pens and what appeared to be a slide rule sticking out of the top pocket.

“Huh?” he said.

“Good afternoon, Squirdle,” replied the apparition courteously.  “My name’s Yadael.  I’ve been helping you, and now that you’ve made a definite choice, I’m free to appear.”

Squirdle blinked.  “Helping me?” he asked.  “This is where I get when I’m helped?”

“Yes, well, actually, it’s a great deal better than where you would be by now if I hadn’t,” Yadael assured him.  “I’m a quantum seraph.  That means I go back into the past and make subtle alterations to quantum events, which are then magnified in a chaotic way to produce macroscopic effects.  If I hadn’t delayed a certain specific particle decay, by now you would be toast.”

“How?” demanded Squirdle.  “That ugly goniff doesn’t know enough physics to have any idea what’ll hurt me.”

“I know that,” replied Yadael patiently, “but if I hadn’t done what I just said, he would have had a degree in the subject.”

“Right,” said Squirdle dubiously.  “Only now I’m stuck in a jar already.  Are you going to take the lid off, or can’t you handle anything larger than a top quark?”

“Actually I can’t take the lid off, for the simple reason that I’m not physically here,” explained Yadael.  “Or, to be more precise, I am here, but I’m far too large to take the lid off.  Neutrinos are no problem, but when you’ve got something on the scale of an infernal coffee jar…”

Squirdle scratched his head.  “You’ve lost me,” he admitted.

“It’s all to do with the solution of a certain set of cosmic equations involved in superstring theory,” replied the seraph.  “To put it in a nutshell, it’s not possible to distinguish between a macroscopic universe and a sub-microscopic universe from the point of view of an internal observer in either one, because the equations come out the same.  Only God Himself, being the ultimate external observer, can distinguish between the two.  The entire universe that you know as Hell is, from the point of view of Heaven, an infinitesimal grain of matter that makes an electron look staggeringly vast by comparison.  I can therefore appear to be present, but I’m not in a position to take the lid off your jar, unfortunately… though I certainly would if I could.”

Squirdle thought about this.  “I did wonder how an angel could get in here,” he conceded.

“Why, this is Heaven, nor am I out of it,” said Yadael.  “If you’re interested, from my perspective your universe is currently blowing around on a nitrogen molecule about half a mile from the Pearly Gates.  But, though this is undoubtedly a fascinating conversation, it’s not really my business here.  I need to tell you how to get out of the jar.”

Squirdle grinned.  “Now that I like,” he replied.  “Can you tell me how I can stick Beelzebub while I’m at it?”

“Ummm.  That’s really Michael’s pigeon.  He’s the leader of the heavenly host, you know.  I’m a quantum seraph, not a soldier.”

Squirdle nodded.  “Horses for courses, I suppose.  Go on, then.  Tell me, already.”

“Well,” said Yadael, “listen carefully and don’t interrupt, because it’s not going to be what you expect…”

* * * * *

Beelzebub had arthritis, mostly in what passed for his fingers.  This was one of the reasons why he had a secretary.  It really wasn’t too bad by demonic standards, though… or, at least, it hadn’t been until now.  He was struggling to remember the last time he had been in so much pain.

It didn’t help that he was supposed to be seeing Mephistopheles at ten o’clock.  He tried to pick up the telephone receiver, and gave up after a few blistering curses.

“Zog!” he shouted, and the high-heeled secretary stuck her head round the door, keeping her half-painted talons discreetly out of sight.

“Yes, sir?”

“Get Mephistopheles on the phone and ask him to come here instead, would you?  There’s no way I’m going to get to his office.  My knee’s giving me the most fearful jip.”

“Yes, sir,” said Zog smartly, and disappeared.  Beelzebub sighed, and glowered at Squirdle in his jar.  The damned thing – and it most certainly would be as damned as Beelzebub could make it – certainly wasn’t a demon, whatever else it was.  It always looked as fresh as a daisy.  Beelzebub was sorely tempted to go and do something about that by dropping it, jar and all, into the Lake of Fire, but he knew perfectly well that no extremes of temperature can hurt a thermodynamic… entity.  Or whatever.

Mephistopheles eventually arrived in a very bad humour, which was nothing unusual for a senior demon.  “What’s this about your knee?” he demanded brusquely, as soon as he entered the office.

“Arthritis,” Beelzebub snapped back.  “I’m having a bad day with it today.”  Indeed, he privately reflected that it had been getting steadily worse for more than a week now, but he was hardly going to tell Mephistopheles that.

Mephistopheles was just opening one of his mouths to retort when there was a loud crash from the adjacent office.  Since Beelzebub was clearly in no condition to move fast, Mephistopheles bounded across to the door and threw it open.  Zog, the secretary, had collapsed unconscious on the floor.

Beelzebub peered in as best he could from his current angle.  “Oh,” he said.  “She’s diabetic.  She’s been a bit wobbly all week, but I’ve never known that happen before.  She’s probably on one of those stupid crash diets or something.”

“I really can’t see why she should think she needs to lose weight…” began Mephistopheles, and then vomited.

Beelzebub raised a hairless eyebrow ridge.  “You can clean that up yourself.  The bucket’s in the cupboard on your left as you go out.”

“Ulcers,” muttered the other demon.

“Never mind your ulcers, what about my carpet?” demanded Beelzebub.

“It really isn’t appreciably worse than it was when I came in,” retorted Mephistopheles tartly.  “I know you.  You’re the kind of demon who uses a bacon rasher for a bookmark.”  He swatted away a large bluebottle irritably.

“You have a problem with that?”

“I happen to think there are some sins that shouldn’t even be committed in Hell,” snapped Mephistopheles, “and that’s one of them.  What’s that thing in the jar, by the way?  Did it by any chance evolve from the remains of the take-aways under your desk?”

“Oh, that,” growled Beelzebub.  “It’s a thermodynamic imp.  I’m trying to think of a sensible way to torture it.”

Mephistopheles blinked.  “What do you mean, a thermodynamic imp?  And why can’t you just fry it?”

Beelzebub sighed.  “Because it’s capable of grabbing all the slower-moving molecules – which means the cooler ones – out of the air and creating its own low-temperature buffer.  Put it in a pan and it’ll just sit there and laugh at you.”

“Impressive,” murmured Mephistopheles.  “I’m sure there’s a use to which that could be put… ah… excuse me…”

This time he made it as far as the corridor.  He returned a few moments later, looking distinctly green.

“Meph,” said Beelzebub, “have you been eating pickled gherkins again?”

“Certainly not!  I can’t imagine what brought this on.”  He stared at Squirdle.  “A thermodynamic imp… are you saying it can reverse entropy?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Beelzebub, “but why would we want to do that?”

“Well, it would certainly benefit your office,” replied Mephistopheles drily.  “Much as I’m in favour of entropy in normal circumstances, there is a little more in my immediate surroundings than I am generally comfortable with.  I think you have a decaying fish in your desk drawer.”

“It’s salmon paste,” said Beelzebub defensively.  “It’s just a little past the sell-by date, that’s all.  Perfectly all right.”  He winced.

“H’mm.  You really ought to go and see Shipman with that knee.  But the imp…”  He peered more closely into the jar.  “How exactly does it work?  Does it actually break the second law of thermodynamics, or just circumvent it somehow?”

“I don’t know, and to be honest I don’t particularly care.  It does stupid things.  Yesterday it made all the flies fly in formation so they made up a word.”

“Which word?” asked Mephistopheles, interested.

“It meant something uncomplimentary in Yiddish,” growled Beelzebub.

“Fascinating,” said Mephistopheles.  “If it can do that sort of thing, what’s to stop it rearranging someone’s atoms from the inside?”

Beelzebub frowned thoughtfully.  “I don’t know.  I suppose there must be something, though, because as far as I know it’s never done it.”

“H’mm,” said Mephistopheles.  He picked up the jar and gave it a little shake.  Squirdle glowered at him.  “Does it talk?”

“Yes, it does.  Not that you want it to.”

“I think I shall be the judge of that, Beelzebub,” replied Mephistopheles, recovering some of his usual hauteur.  “And while we’re about it, one of your wretched horse flies has got into my ear.  Do something about it.”

Beelzebub waved a hand irritably, and the offending insect shot out as if propelled by a rocket.  “They’re not very bright, Meph,” he said.

“And neither are you.  I want to know what this thing can do, and how it does it.”  He brought the jar up to his face.  “What are you, creature?”

“I’m Squirdle,” replied Squirdle, “an eternal entropic entity, dynamic and in no sense demonic, manipulator of molecules and Planckian prestidigitator.  Already.”

“And a fan of Stanislaw Lem, apparently,” observed Mephistopheles.  “Don’t try being clever with me, small creature, or I shall… aaaaargh…”

He dropped the jar and ran out of the office without ceremony.  The jar caught the edge of Beelzebub’s desk and smashed.

“Hey!” yelled Beelzebub.  “You clumsy oik, look what you’ve done!”  He tried to leap up, but the pain in his knee made him collapse immediately back into his swivel chair.

It was several minutes before a very pale and quivering Mephistopheles walked uncertainly back into the office.  “Seven circles, I feel rough,” he moaned.

“Oh, stop whining!” growled Beelzebub.  “I’m in agony, and you’ve broken the jar and lost me that Squirdle thing.”

“Well, it can’t have gone far,” said Mephistopheles.  “Stop fretting.  Post its description on the Infernet, and someone’s bound to pick it up soon enough.  In Hell, you can’t hide.”  He gulped.  “I need a glass of water.”

“Get your own,” snarled Beelzebub.  “You’re as much use as a chocolate branding iron, you are.”

The fight that ensued was an ignominious affair, even by demonic standards, since both demons were really too ill to come to blows.  Had he seen it, Squirdle would probably have found it rather amusing… but he was, at least from their perspective, a very long way away.

* * * * *

“Well done!” said Yadael brightly.  “Did they guess?”

Squirdle blinked.  He was sitting on a branch overhanging a low wall, and Yadael, now dressed in the more conventional angelic white robes, was relaxing in a deckchair with a laptop in front of him.  Birds were singing, there was a delightful fragrance in the air, and several lambs were cavorting in the field on the other side of the wall.  The large golden lion who was peacefully snuggling up with two of them seemed not at all out of place.

“This is Heaven, right?” he ventured.

“Correct.  Your new home, should you so wish.”

Squirdle looked at himself doubtfully.  “I don’t look much like an angel,” he observed.

“Well, you do have a choice in the matter,” Yadael reminded him.  “Now that you’ve collapsed your quantum state to angel, as it were, you have far more control over your physical appearance.  You can look the part any time you wish.  Try it.”

Squirdle concentrated, leaping off the branch as he grew in size.  His scarlet colour faded to a pleasant olive skintone, dazzling white wings sprouted from his back, and a flowing white robe appeared, almost as white as the wings.  His face changed shape, and long dark hair grew from his head.  He grinned.

“Boy,” he said, “they’d hate this in Hell!”

Yadael smiled back.  “They would indeed, if they ever had a chance to see it,” he replied.  “You can no longer even enter Hell, in the way that most people would understand it.  All you can do is project a simulacrum of yourself, as I did when I spoke to you in Beelzebub’s office, and even then you would have to have clearance to do it.”

“So… he can’t touch me any more?” asked Squirdle.

“Correct.”

“Wow!”  Squirdle flapped his new wings experimentally, and rose a little way from the ground.  “H’mm.  These don’t work by any conventional kind of aerodynamics.  I shouldn’t have been able to get airborne so easily.”

“Well, this is Heaven, after all,” Yadael reminded him.  “Oh, and incidentally I’m now your commanding officer.  It was decided that, given your existing talent, you were ideally cut out to be a quantum seraph, so you’ve been assigned to my division.”

Squirdle looked immediately doubtful.  “You mean I’ve still got to obey orders, just a different lot?”

“It is rather what being an eternal spirit is all about,” said Yadael mildly.  “On the other hand, you’re very likely to find that you get orders that you really enjoy obeying.  That’s always been my experience, at least.”

Squirdle descended to ground level and sat on the grass next to Yadael.  A thought struck him, and he tried gesturing to summon a deckchair.  It promptly appeared.

“You’re getting the hang of this very well, I can see,” said the angel.  “Now, we do realise that you’re not accustomed to the angelic life, and that you were very much enjoying your spell on Earth.  Therefore, in consultation with Gabriel, I’ve decided to send you back, at least for a while.”

Squirdle brightened.  “That I could handle.  I’m not sure I could get used to Heaven all at once.”

Yadael nodded.  “So we understood.  If you prefer to continue in your old form while you’re there, that is also fine with us.  However, we’d like you to report back here from time to time.  There’s no pressure about that – just come and see us whenever you feel you need a break, since you can always return to the exact moment you left.”

“I think I’d better use this form while I’m here,” observed Squirdle.  “I know you’re all angels and you probably wouldn’t mind me being an inch high and bright red, but I’d feel like a pork chop at a bar mitzvah.”

“Whatever you wish.  It’s completely up to you,” said Yadael.  “But when you’re ready, I’m going to take you out on your first assignment.  Your friend Reg Office has a prayer that needs answering, and I thought it would be appropriate for you to handle it.”

Squirdle stared.  “Reg Office?  Praying?”

“Yes, it’s the first time, so obviously we’d like to encourage him,” explained the seraph.  “He has a terrible hangover, and since nothing else will shift it he has resorted to prayer.  Your job is to adjust a couple of tau mesons so that he didn’t get as drunk as he currently did.”

Squirdle laughed.  “You’re right.  You’re so right.  If all the orders I get are like that one, it’ll be a pleasure.  OK – so where are these mesons already?”

* * * * *

Reg Office shook his head.  “I don’t get it, mate,” he said.  “I mean, kudos to you and all that for getting away from them demons, but I don’t understand why they got sick.”

Squirdle, back in his more familiar form, sighed.  “I should explain to you the laws of thermodynamics again?  I told you.  I concentrated all the entropy.”

“Yeah, you said that, but I don’t get what you mean,” said Reg.

“All right, all right, I’ll start again.  Beelzebub is Lord of the Flies, right?  Even you know that.”

“Yeah, but…” began Reg.

“Where do you get lots of flies?” demanded Squirdle.  “Round a rubbish heap, that’s where.  Beelzebub’s office is one big rubbish heap.  It’s not even just untidy, already.  It’s filthy.  There’s rotting food everywhere.  Even Mephistopheles complained.”

“Yeah, but you said Beelzebub had arthritis and Mephi… Meph… the other bleedin’ demon had ulcers,” complained Reg.  “Those ain’t the sort of things you get from hanging about on a tip.”

Squirdle rolled his eyes.  “I’m a thermodynamic manipulator,” he explained patiently, “but I’m subject to the laws of thermodynamics myself, just like you are.  If I decrease the entropy of the air in a room by concentrating all the upward-moving molecules underneath me so I can fly, that entropy doesn’t just vanish.  It has to go somewhere.  It usually means something else gets a bit warmer.  What Yadael told me was that there are other ways of redirecting entropy.”

“But why did the demons get sick?” asked Reg helplessly.

“I’m coming to that.  What I did was to reduce the entropy in Beelzebub’s office slightly, and concentrate it so it all ended up in the demons.  Because there was so much entropy in the office, there was no way anyone could tell the difference, except he may be a bit surprised when he discovers he can find his stapler all of a sudden.  But if you increase a demon’s entropy… well, it can’t die, but it can get very sick.”

“And you didn’t know that before?” asked Reg.

“Well, either I didn’t know or it wasn’t possible before Yadael did his quantum stuff,” replied Squirdle.  “I’m not sure which.  Either way, he had to explain how to do it.”

“So how did you know they were going to break the jar, then?”

“One of two things was going to happen,” said Squirdle.  “Either Mephistopheles, who’s a lot brighter than Beelzebub, was going to realise and let me out before Beelzebub could stop him, or one of them was going to pick up the jar and drop it because they couldn’t hold it.  Either way I’d be out of there.”

Reg grinned.  “Are they going to get better?”

“Oh, yes, more’s the pity.  The entropy will normalise pretty fast now I’m not there to push it.”

Reg considered all this.  “And you’re now an angel?  Cool!”

“Sort of trainee angel,” Squirdle clarified, a little embarrassed.

“Yeah, well, don’t knock it.  You get to go off to Heaven when you want, don’t you?”

Squirdle nodded.  “You should mend your ways already.  You’d love Heaven.  The Archangel Gabriel’s coffee is to die for.”

“Coffee?” asked Reg.  “What about the wine of the Kingdom?”

“It’s served with meals,” replied Squirdle, poker-faced.

Reg sighed.  “You’re going to tell me no-one gets drunk next,” he said.

“They should want to?”

“Why not?  Anyway, I’m going down the pub now.  Want to come?”

“You know I hate pubs,” protested Squirdle.  “They’re noisy, everyone ignores you, and eventually you slip on some spilt beer and fall in the ashtray.”

“All right, suit yourself.”  Reg departed, whistling.

As soon as the door had firmly closed behind Reg, Yadael popped into view.  “Squirdle,” he said gravely, “we have a problem.”

Squirdle shifted into his angelic form.  It somehow seemed more appropriate when talking to Yadael.  “We do?” he asked, surprised.

Yadael nodded.  “Reg Office has been dead for the last two weeks,” he announced.

Squirdle blinked.  “He looked pretty much alive to me!”

“That’s because there was a slightly crossed timeline.  I’ve patched it up for now, but we need to get it sorted out properly.”

“How did he die?” asked Squirdle.  “As far as I knew, he was in good health.”

“He was crushed by a piano falling from an airship,” explained Yadael.  “Now, that’s not good.”

“I should say,” murmured Squirdle.  “At least it was quick, though.”

“What I mean is,” explained Yadael, “he shouldn’t be dead.  Any human being who is of an age to make moral decisions has got to be given at least one chance to repent.  Some theologians argue that anyone can choose to repent at any time, but of course it’s not as simple as that.  Usually, although there appears to be a choice in theory, there is none in practice because there are so many things going on that the human either can’t see that there is a choice, or can’t see how to make the right choice.  The point is that Reg has never had that opportunity open to him.”

“But how can things go that badly wrong?” asked Squirdle.

“Mephistopheles,” sighed Yadael.  “We’re quite certain he’s behind it.  He seems to have worked out what happened with you, and either he is doing quantum manipulations himself or he’s got other demons trained to do it.  We suspect the latter, because he isn’t the kind to leave Hell.”

Squirdle shuddered.  “Where’s Reg at the moment?  Is he in Hell?”

“No, he’s in Limbo, though I’m afraid he is rather lonely there as it’s not much used,” replied Yadael.  “We need to get this sorted out as quickly as possible.  You’re going to have to turn detective.”

“Me?  Take on Mephistopheles?”

“You’re an angel now,” Yadael reminded him.  “You’re also probably the best we’ve got at this kind of job.  You have to find what the demon did and stop it happening.  If you need space-time slice charts or anything, by all means pop up to Gabriel’s office – he’s got all the resources you could need.”

“Including a perfect latte,” observed Squirdle rather wryly.  “Oy vey.  What do I tell the others?”

“You don’t,” said Yadael.  “Humans tend to have real problems getting their heads round temporal manipulation.  At the moment, Reg died two weeks ago and a version of you attended his funeral; I’ve just patched the timelines together, so you should get the memories of that once your brain adjusts.  Once you’ve sorted out the problem, though, he won’t have died and nobody will remember the funeral, except you, since you’re not human.”

“You think it’s just humans who get confused?  OK, I’ll go and see Gabriel and see what pointers he can give me.  Don’t want to leave Reg in Limbo.”

“Good chap.  I know this is a difficult one, but then you’ve got the skills… and a personal interest.”

“Suppose so.”  Squirdle sighed.  “He’d better repent after all this trouble.  I suppose you do know he spends most of his time pinching anything that isn’t nailed down and smuggling cheese between parallel realities?”

“Of course,” replied Yadael, “but we have plenty of good saints who used to be far worse than that.  The important thing is that he gets the choice.”

“Same as me,” said Squirdle thoughtfully.

“Exactly the same as you,” agreed Yadael.

* * * * *

Somewhere in the region of Rigel, approximately six hundred million years ago, a small figure flitted through the depths of space and time.  It was no more than an inch high, and it was red, since if it were too obviously large and white it would reflect the starlight and there was a chance that its adversary might see it coming.  It did, however, have a tiny pair of wings, which beat in the airless vacuum purely for effect, and on its bald head was a very small deerstalker.

The Angel Squirdle, newest and most unconventional quantum seraph of the 159th Division, was taking his responsibilities seriously.

 

 

Deo Gratias

Date unknown

 

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