Larry Hodges has sold more than ninety stories. His third novel—Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions—was recently published by World Weaver Press. His When Parallel Lines Meet, a Stellar Guild team-up with Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn, came out this past October.
It was the night before Armageddon, and Satan was depressed. He knew the prophesies; he would lose. There was no getting around it. What good were his minions? Even his over-confident ace, the Antichrist, had no power over the Fates and God.
Satan’s black Oxfords click-clacked as he paced about on the Antarctic icepack, where he often roamed when he was troubled and needed to relax. He wore a black tuxedo and matching top hat. It seemed to him the appropriate thing to wear on his last full day of existence.
He wandered near the shore, and looked out over the Pacific, pondering the fact that “Armageddon” was an anagram for “Goddamn Era.” Just another one of God’s little jests, he figured. A penguin from a nearby group waddled nearby, tilting its head as it stared at him, like a football on a tee. Satan smiled, and suddenly sprinted at the creature, kicking it far out over the ocean. The penguin squawked as it flapped its tiny wings in a frantic attempt to undo millions of years of evolution, and then it fell into the icy depths. A moment later it reappeared on the surface, once again staring at Satan with its dark eyes. Satan pulled his eyes away and stared up into the sky. He’d done so many things in his long existence, all of them evil, but there was only one overpowering desire left, one that burned through him like a supernova that would consume him if not satisfied. And it would be satisfied, one way or another.
“I will give my soul to defeat God!” Satan cried. For even the Devil had a soul, unclean as it was.
There was a poof, and a shiny, silver sphere appeared, twice the width of a human head. It floated before Satan’s dumbfounded face.
“What are you?” asked Satan. “A refuge from the King Kong ball bearing factory?”
“I can be anything,” replied the sphere in a deep, booming voice, though it had no apparent mouth. “I can be you.” With a flash of light, it transformed into a huge, black serpent, fifty feet in length, its head the size of a horse’s body. Its forked tongue swished in his face as the jaws exposed twelve-inch, curved fangs dripping with bits of forbidden fruit. Satan recognized himself from long ago. Nostalgia swept over him.
“Or I can be the symbol of the adversary you seek to vanquish,” the snake hissed, its blue eyes blazing. It became a bloody cross, dripping red on the snow below.
Ah, the silly cross, Satan thought. Why would anyone make the instrument of their torturous death their emblem?
“Or we can just talk,” its booming voice continued, “one manlike being to another.” The bloody cross shone brightly for a second, and then turned into an ancient crone, her features lost in waves of wrinkles and flowing white hair. “Or perhaps more like this?” she croaked. Her eyes flashed, and she turned into a blonde bombshell, wearing a frilly white dress that exposed way too much to the elements. “Yes, I think this’ll do,” she said in a sultry voice. “Call me Marilyn.”
Satan wasn’t impressed. He too could change shapes. “What angel are you?” he asked, casually changing his own appearance rapid-fire: Hitler; Genghis Khan; John Wayne Gacy in his clown suit; Chuck Norris; Vlad the Impaler; a morphed version of Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan—they were the same person, after all, which is why you never see them in the same movie; Derek Gong Hsu, that really rude teller at the MVA; and Queen Elizabeth, alias Elizabeth Bathory, covered in the blood of virgins from the infamous baths that had kept her alive 450 years. Then, just for fun, he transformed into an eight-foot muscular version of the devil in common culture, with red skin, forked tail, and horns, with his top hat perched on one. He opened his mouth and flames shot out, covering Marilyn in a fiery inferno.
When Satan closed his mouth, Marilyn was giggling through her full lips. Steam rose out of her body but the flames had no other effect on her. “Looking for a hot date? No, I’m not an angel. Haven’t you ever wondered where you and other super-beings come from? You exist in a simple, four-dimensional space-time continuum, but I’m a few dimensions above you. To me, you’re just a pretty picture on a wall, like Justin Bieber to a teenage girl. I created you.”
“I thought God created us all,” Satan said, changing back to his chubby middle-aged bald white guy in a black tuxedo look. “He hangs that over my head every chance.” Did she just compare me to Justin Bieber?
Marilyn laughed again, the setting afternoon sun glittering off her white teeth and blonde hair and the surrounding ice and snow. “He would. And now, I believe we have business to attend to. You wish to defeat God, which I can arrange. In return, I want your soul.”
Now that’s a turnabout, thought Satan. After all the millions of deals he’d made with greedy humans, now someone was offering him a deal! But he was Satan, the trickster; nobody could match wits with him, other than that cheating violinist from Georgia. He knew all the ins and outs; no one had more experience at this type of thing other than a few dealers at Lehman Brothers, and he’d taken care of them with the market crash in ’08. The key was to make sure the language of the deal could later be interpreted creatively.
“Why would I want to trade away my soul?” Satan asked, for he knew you had to play hard to get if you wanted the best deal. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”
“Ah, Matthew 16:26,” Marilyn said. “But let’s drop the hard-to-get routine. You consider yourself a soulless creature anyway, so let’s get down to brass tacks. I know what you want, you know what I want.”
“Why would a higher-dimensional being want my soul?” Satan asked, also wondering why she’d want a tax on brass production.
“Why would a super-being like you want human souls?” Marilyn retorted. “We’re both collectors. I told you that, to me, you’re just a pretty picture on the wall. Your soul is just another trophy.”
OK, Satan thought, fair enough, though the average pretty picture wouldn’t consider tearing your liver out, if you have one. “How do I know you can arrange for me to defeat God?”
“Does it matter?” Marilyn asked. “If I can’t, you are no worse off than before.”
True, Satan thought. And it was imperative that he win. If God lost, he’d merely step aside, while if Satan lost, he’d be destroyed by the Fates. It was totally unfair. But that was the bitter truth of being the challenger. Things would be different when he was in charge, he vowed. He’d make things even more unfair.
“Now, let’s make the language as clear as possible,” Marilyn continued, “so there’s no misunderstanding. In fact, why don’t you write the contract?”
Let’s find out how sharp this Marilyn is. He snapped his fingers, and the thick draft contract appeared in his hands. It was a thousand pages long, full of misleading statements, all cleverly hidden, which he could later interpret as he chose. Hell, he might end up with Marilyn’s soul, and that would be a nice trophy for his wall.
Marilyn’s blue eyes flashed. “Now look over my edited version,” she said, without a glance at the contract. The thousand-page document in his hand was now a single page, with all his machinations gone.
He read it over:
- This contract is between the multi-dimensional being known as “Marilyn,” and the fallen angel known as “Satan.”
- The contract is effective upon the date of signing, through the end of eternity, unless terminated as per article 3.
- If at any time Satan truly believes he has been misled, he may terminate this contract without penalty.
- In the battle of Armageddon between God and Satan, to take place at daybreak the day after the signing of this contract, Satan shall win clearly and decisively.
- Immediately upon Satan’s victory over God, Satan’s soul shall become the property of Marilyn.
- Satan’s soul shall continue to reside in the incarnate body of Satan for eternity.
- No harm shall come to Satan at any time, by Marilyn or any other being, by accident, or by any other way imaginable or unimaginable.
- Satan shall have free will for all eternity.
To Satan’s surprise, the deal greatly favored him. It irked him; he preferred to get such a contract by trickery, not have it handed to him so freely. Marilyn was a fool.
He parsed the language every way imaginable, and it was rock solid. He could not be harmed, he would have free will, and he could get out of the contract at any time if he felt he had been misled. And, of course, he’d defeat God and set up his own kingdom for the rest of eternity. His plans for the kingdom differed greatly from God’s; they involved a lot of stuff he’d learned from those long hours watching The Three Stooges. Best of all, he got to keep his soul in his body rather than have it hang on some multidimensional trophy case next to Justin Bieber.
Satan scraped his index finger against his forehand, drawing blood, and in a sweeping motion, signed the contract with his huge, swirling signature. She signed it “Marilyn” the old-fashioned way, with a ballpoint pen and small, meek handwriting. Satan braced himself for whatever revelation Marilyn would give upon signing, much as Satan had taken such joy in doing to so many others. But Marilyn simply smiled and said, “Good luck tomorrow.” Her eyes flashed, and she disappeared.
Satan thought about the turn of events as he continued his walk through the snow and ice of Antarctica. He looked out over the Pacific and saw that the penguin he’d kicked earlier had come ashore, staring at him as it waddled about with a bleeding wound in its side where he’d kicked it. That could be me tomorrow. But not holy; just dead.
Humans had many stories about how Armageddon was supposed to take place, with humanity supposedly split between those saved by the Rapture, led by Jesus, and those left behind to act as the army of the Antichrist. Most of it was wrong, Satan knew; he and God weren’t in the habit of sharing everything with mere mortals. Heck, he wouldn’t share a donut with the starving, unwashed masses, though he might lend them a bar of soap and some deodorant.
The battle at Armageddon would be a one-on-one battle between Satan’s and God’s surrogates: the Antichrist and Jesus.
The two warriors stood on opposite sides of a parking lot next to the United Nations Building in Manhattan. It was a little after five-thirty in the morning—sunrise—on a Friday in July. Already a few swarms of gnats had arrived for their daily shift. A dozen early risers of the human kind jogged by or loitered about watching curiously. None realized that the fate of humankind would be decided before their eyes.
The Antichrist wore a full set of black titanium armor; only his confident eyes showed through his helmet’s visor. The matching black obsidian sword was massive, far too heavy to be carried by a normal man, yet he casually twirled it in his hands like a baton. He was the janitor who cleaned the UN Secretary-General’s office, the one who collected the shredded top-secret documents to take to Satan’s house, along with janitors at the White House, Kremlin, Vatican, Forbidden City, and Trump Tower, for jigsaw puzzle night.
Jesus, dressed in blue jeans and a white polo shirt, looked back mildly. He was skinny and unarmed, listening to John Lennon’s Imagine on an iPod. Jagged scars marred his bare feet and hands. A white headband barely contained his shoulder-length brown hair. He’d shaved his beard off. Contrary to many pictures, he was of course of Middle Eastern descent, with dark hair and bronzed skin.
Marilyn hadn’t shown. Satan and the Antichrist were on their own.
The two stared at each for a moment. Then the Antichrist charged across the parking lot in his heavy boots, his raised sword flashing in the sunshine. Jesus stood meekly, watching his approach. A Hard Day’s Night began blaring from his iPod.
Satan had spent countless hours trying to figure out how Jesus would win this battle, as it was ordained. Or would he? He looked about, but still no sign of Marilyn. He swore he’d never trust another ball bearing–shaped multidimensional being again. But he had a well-armed Antichrist, as powerful as Darth Maul, but unlike in the movies, armed powerful beings usually win against skinny pacifists.
At the last second, Jesus, a Mona Lisa smile on his lips, raised his hand as if to say, “Halt!” The Antichrist was slammed to the ground as if by a bull, his body cracking the concrete. The sword lay a few feet away, broken in two.
Eyes flashing, the Antichrist rose and stared at Jesus. A chainsaw appeared in his hand as he charged again. Again Jesus raised his hand, again slamming the dazed Antichrist and the broken chainsaw into the concrete rubble next to the broken sword.
Now a machine gun appeared in the Antichrist’s hand. He charged, filling the air between them with bullets and dead gnats. Jesus raised his arm, and the bullets bounced off his hand. A moment later the dazed Antichrist again lay on the ground next to the broken machine gun. Soon a flamethrower, a bazooka, and a top-secret Pentagon ray gun lay in the growing pile of broken weaponry. A growing crowd watched from a safe distance.
Satan dropped his jaw in frustration, a habit he’d picked up in recent decades while watching All-Star Wrestling. “Dammit!” he cried, closing his mouth as he realized he’d swallowed a gnat. But it was time for the Antichrist to get serious.
The Antichrist came at Jesus with an upgraded Abrams M1 battle tank, firing its cannon at speeds far beyond what it was designed for. Jesus ducked and dived like a drunken deity doing a Keanu Reeves impression. Then he chuckled, and with a hand gesture, the tank’s turret tied itself into a pretzel. With another gesture the tank teleported to the pile of broken weapons, leaving the Antichrist floating in mid-air for a second before he fell on his bottom in the concrete rubble.
He came at Jesus with an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and an F-22 Rapter fighter jet, with the same result. He tossed a W54 portable nuclear warhead, but Jesus booted it toward Alpha Centauri with a perfect soccer style kick.
Then the Antichrist disappeared, leaving Jesus alone and victorious in the field of battle. Jesus raised his arms in triumph. His iPod began playing Strawberry Fields Forever. Armageddon was over; God had won.
Then the ground began to tremble. Jesus lowered his arms, his eyebrows arching inquisitively. Something broke through the concrete like Bruce Lee punching through rotten plywood. A periscope circled about, then centered on Jesus. Then the ground began to shake. It broke apart as an LA-class nuclear submarine surfaced in the parking lot. The missile tubes for its nuclear-armed Tomahawk missiles, which normally aimed upward to launch assaults on enemies worldwide, had been jury-rigged to aim forward. All pointed at Jesus.
Satan’s jaw dropped again, but he closed it quickly as he glanced about for gnats. Even Jesus can’t survive that! He knew his own limitations. He might teleport one or two missiles away, but then it would all be over. Goodbye New York, he thought as he prepared to teleport himself away. Neither a deity nor a major city could survive such a nuclear bombardment. Even Jesus looked a bit disconcerted as dozens of nuclear-armed missiles came at him at 550 mph.
Then Jesus waved his hands and the missiles froze and fell to the ground, and one by one winked away. His iPod began playing Yellow Submarine as he strode forward and grasped the front end of the submarine. With a powerful twisting motion reminiscent of his form when he won the gold medal in the discus at the 1348 Galactic Olympics at Betelgeuse, Jesus hurled the submarine against the UN building, which crumbled and collapsed. Satan had a “Devil in the headlights” look as his jaw once again dropped open. He gulped, unknowingly swallowing twelve inquisitive gnats. He now realized he and the Antichrist never had a chance.
A moment later the Antichrist strode out of the rubble of the building, bruised and bloodied but still not beaten. He continued his attacks, but in his weakened state he was reduced to attacking with daggers and other small devices. Soon he was shelling Jesus with bits of rubble from a slingshot. In the distance, sirens wailed; the police were on their way. Jesus’s iPod went back to playing A Hard Day’s Night.
Satan felt the blood drain from his face as he watched, his heart racing. He held his top hat in front of him by the brim with a white-knuckled and trembling grip. It was happening as ordained. He could barely believe that after all these eons, his ambitions, his very existence, was about to end like a puff of smoke. His hands suddenly flew apart; he looked down and realized he’d torn the top hat in half. He tossed the torn pieces aside, just as he would soon be torn and tossed aside by the Fates. It was so unfair.
Marilyn appeared, smiling sweetly. “If you had an iPod, you’d be playing Yesterday.”
“Yesterday is all I have left,” Satan said. All his troubles were here to stay, and the Fates were no doubt on their way.
“Time for the cavalry to come over the higher-dimensional hill,” Marilyn said. “And keep your mouth shut—you’re swallowing gnats faster than we can make ’em.” Her eyes flashed.
Again the Antichrist charged, now holding a short sword, and again Jesus held up his hand. Only this time, the Antichrist kept right on coming. With a swoop of his little sword, the Antichrist chopped off Jesus’s head.
A shocked look came over Jesus’s face, and then, with the rest of his head, it dropped to the ground, making a sickening crack. It rolled a few feet before coming to a stop on its side. His body crumpled and fell, the iPod smacking into the broken cement and skidding a few paces away, still playing A Hard Day’s Night.
The Antichrist raised his sword in victory as bystanders screamed. He threw off his helmet and looked down at Jesus with triumphant eyes. Then, his purpose complete and no longer needed by Satan, and with a surprised look on his face, the Antichrist crumbled into dust, which sank into the cement rubble.
He had won. According to the deal they had made so long ago, enforced by the Fates, Satan was now the ultimate leader on planet Earth. God had to step aside.
“You have won, Satan,” Marilyn said. “I have fulfilled my end of the bargain. Your soul is now mine.”
Satan had a squeamish feeling in his stomach. And yet, he knew there was no way out for Marilyn or God; the contract was clear, and he’d defeated God. How many other deities could claim that? He gave a devilish grin. He was the best!
“You have my soul, but it remains in my body,” Satan said. “You cannot harm me, or control my will. You once called this realm a simple, four-dimensional space-time continuum, but I am now the ultimate power here.” He glanced over at the iPod, and blew it up to stop the irritating music—though it had been a hard day’s work, judging from his sweat-soaked clothing, and not just from the heat. The police sirens grew near; he had quite a welcome planned for them, involving barbed wire and whipped cream.
“Yes, you are,” Marilyn said. Her eyes flashed and she transformed into a burning bush. “I’ve always liked this incarnation when giving news,” she said, still using the Marilyn voice. “All that you say is true, and you may do as you will. But now that I own your soul, I can do something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.” The flames blazed brightly for a second.
“And what may that be?” Satan asked. But even as he spoke, he felt something cold inside himself suddenly turn warm. A fuzzy feeling came over him, one he hadn’t felt since…the early days. He looked at the fallen Jesus, and felt…remorse? No, it wasn’t possible. He shook himself and focused on his future plans. All the good things he would do for others. What? Where did that come from? And why did he suddenly want kittens? They’re so cute and furry! To think of all the ones he’d snacked on over the years…
“Already you feel the change,” the burning bush continued. “For I’ve just given your soul a good, thorough cleaning.”
“No!” Satan cried. “I mean, yes! I mean…I don’t know what to think.”
Marilyn beamed at him. “Now that that dirty job is out of the way, I give it back. Your soul is yours.”
With great difficulty, Satan recognized the new feelings and thoughts that now flooded his heart and mind. Guilt for all the evil he had caused. Compassion for his victims. A sudden desire to dress as Santa Claus and ring a bell on street corners.
The body of Jesus strolled over, carrying its head. “If you’re going to put me through this every two thousand years I’m not sure I’m sticking with the family business,” said the head of Jesus. The body placed the head back on its neck and began stitching it back on with a needle and thread. “Could have been a carpenter…” he muttered, shaking his head. The head fell off, hitting the concrete with another crack. “Dammit!” he cried as his head bounced about like a soccer ball.
“Sorry about that,” the burning bush said to Jesus as the police cars pulled up, their lights flashing and sirens blaring. Then the bush transformed into a penguin with a gash in its side. It pooped on Satan’s shoes. “That’s for kicking me. Try soccer-style next time, you’ll get better distance and accuracy. And now, I leave you this realm; do as you think best.” With a flap of its short wings, the penguin flew off into the sunrise.
Copyright © 2018 by Larry Hodges