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31 January 2006

"The Wager": Part 3

(© 1998, 2006, Doug Tarnopol. All rights reserved.)


The Lord turned to Mephistopheles in frustration.

"I'd fire them all, but who'd replace them? Heaven's grown so much, even I can't keep track of it all without them. They've got Me by the balls."

Mephistopheles leapt at the chance to feign solace. "Listen, give me twenty-four hours to change Your mind."

"My mind's made up. I never change it. You should know that. I never let Lucifer back up here, did I?"

"Wild horses couldn't drag Lucifer back up here," Mephistopheles muttered.

"Excuse Me, I didn't quite catch that."

"Forget it. Look -- I think I can prove to You that humanity deserves to live."

Mephistopheles looked around the room desperately, drumming his claws on the table.

"Let me find a hundred righteous men."

"Oh, cut the crap. How senile do you think I am? You think I'm gonna fall for that shit again?"

"All right, all right."

Mephistopheles saw that his time was running out and he didn't actually have a plan. He considered giving up, but he was fond of human beings. They were chaotic and free; like children, they needed to be protected from themselves until they'd had time to mature. The Lord had never understood that.

You'd think an immortal wouldn't be so impatient! Mephistopheles thought. Even now, He's getting fidgety.

The Lord looked at His watch. "Look, Mephisto, I've go a lot to do today."

"Are You doing something new with Your beard? It looks terrific."

The Lord lowered His head and glared at Mephistopheles. "Don't patronize Me. What's the deal?"

Mephistopheles had an idea.

"What was it about those two that set You off?"

"What two?"

"Those humans. Henry and Helen."

No response.

"From Philadelphia? You know: the bus, he fell...."

The Lord looked at Mephistopheles blankly, fear furrowing His forehead. Mephistopheles sighed. Despite what the Lord said, His senility was getting worse. He had always been forgetful and it had caused problems in the past. For instance, Jesus was never supposed to die on the cross. But the Lord had just forgotten about him, and had been forced to give humanity an IOU, as yet unfulfilled. Who would have thought that the answer to "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" was that the Lord had been playing dice with a bunch of angels and had lost track of time?

"You mean, I wasn't supposed to die?" Jesus had asked incredulously, freshly arrived from Golgotha, rubbing his hands and feet.

The Lord shuffled His feet nervously. "Uh, well, no. Not really. Uh, I was going to save you at the last moment -- you know, like I did with Isaac?" He looked up at Jesus hopefully, but quickly turned away from His son's sad eyes. "Yes, well, uh, I thought it would have really given you a lot of credibility with the Romans. I was going to do it in style, with some birds and lightning bolts -- those guys would have eaten this shit right up. Omen city." The Lord scratched His head and continued addressing His sandals, growing increasingly uncomfortable. "I figured the Romans would adopt you as their leader, you know. They're ripe for a savior. The republic is gone, and Tiberius is no great shakes. Nobody believes in the old gods anymore, and people aren't digging the empire; the people want something more...an end to slavery, true class harmony, the pursuit of happiness, brotherly love. A new Golden Age, and so on. You were supposed to fulfull it."

"Yes, that's what I wanted. That's what I preached," Jesus said, his eyes welling up with tears. "What happened?"

"Look, I know what you're going to say, but I was in this dice game, and --"

"Oh, Father! Not gambling! I thought You promised me?" He burst into tears.

"Oh, Jesus, please don't cry. I'm sorry."

Jesus wiped his eyes and sniffled. He hugged his father.

"It's OK, Father. I forgive You."

That killed Him.

"Jesus, I'll make it up to you, I swear. I'll send you back for good as soon as I can. Hey, you'll make an even bigger impact that way!" The Lord smiled and held His son by the shoulders, shaking him gently, encouragingly. "I promise not to forget!"

All of Hell had had a pretty good laugh over that one. In fact, they had spent the rest of the first century rolling around in tears. Baalzebub wet himself around 98 AD.

Well, Mephistopheles thought, two thousand years and counting, and the Lord hasn't sent Jesus back yet. Keeps forgetting. Perhaps I should just leave now and hope He forgets to wipe out the human race? No, His angels would remind Him. They'd like nothing better than to lessen their workload; the Lord works them like dogs. A permanent lack of new souls to sort would be a great relief, and no one would be fired because everyone would still be needed to tend to existing souls.

Mephistopheles tried again. "The bus? Henry and Helen? Remember?"

The Lord studied Mephistopheles intently for a few seconds. Then it clicked.

"Bring Me My fire and brimstone! Those ingrates! Damn them!"

"Wait, wait! You already called for that. Don't You remember?"

"Oh, yes. Yes, I remember now." The Lord sat down at His desk, leaned forward and clasped His hands together. "So, what can I do for you?"

"I have a deal for You."

"What about?"

"Are You kidding me?"

"Right, right, humanity. OK, let's talk deal."

"Those two humans infuriated You today. Why?"

"They're just the last straw."

"A rather slender straw, don't You think? Look it's obviously something more than just these two grad students."

The Lord shuffled His feet uncomfortably. "Well, they just represent everything that's wrong with humanity. Human beings are sinful, selfish, unable to love, unable to understand each other. That's the trouble with those two, that dork and that oversexed vixen."

"She was oversexed?"

"What do you mean? That's all she was thinking about! She's lucky she didn't get hit by a car."

Mephistopheles shook his head slowly. "You've never gotten laid, have You?"

The Lord's ears turned red, but He didn't back down. "You've forgotten about Mary? I do have a son, you know."

"Trust me, having some dove fly through a window so a beam of light can fall on a woman ain't the same thing as getting laid."

"She got pregnant, didn't she?"

"Yes, she did. But we're not talking about impregnation. We're talking about knocking boots and liking it."

"I wish you wouldn't be so crude." The Lord's face was beet red now. He couldn't look at Mephistopheles, who kept pressing his advantage.

"You couldn't even approach her Yourself! You had to send an angel to set it up!"

"So, I was shy. Sue Me."

"Shy? What would Zeus have done?"

The mention of the Lord's illustrious predecessor was designed to goad. The Lord had been waiting in the wings for a long time, coveting cosmopolitan Greece from dusty Palestine, scorning what he considered the Olympians' lack of restraint. His son had been a key part of the plan to overthrow the Aegean gods. The Lord had managed to get the Jews to accept Him, but they had been too sequestered from the rest of humanity by the Lord's overly strict moral code to build enough support for a real empire. To be sure, the Jews were as vicious as any other tribe, and the Lord had no compunctions about sanctioning the genocide of the odd Canaanite tribe, but that was par for the course in human history. The problem was that the Jews tended to insist that everyone follow the Lord's suffocating morality. Not conducive to successful imperialism. What the Lord needed was a brutal and efficient tribe that didn't much care about imposing its metaphysics on conquered peoples. Better still if they lacked a metaphysical mindset. That's why He had concentrated on the Romans, and up-and-coming tribe of notable brutality that also happened to be gifted in all the things necessary for empire-building: war, law, and engineering. They also couldn't care less what the natives worshipped, as long as the tribute flowed and the peace was kept.

The Romans had prepared the way for the Lord admirably, conquering large chunks of the West by the turn of the millenium, by which point they had discarded their quaint republicanism for cities of marble. True to his genius -- or perhaps simply because he didn't want to end up a pincushion like Caesar, his adoptive father -- Augustus had kept up the appearance of republicanism just enough so that the Romans could continue, gratefully, to think themselves self-ruled. He'd even had Macaenas drop a few hints over stuffed flamingo that Virgil ought to whitewash Augustus' coup d'etat by connecting the First Citizen, via the Julian gens, to semi-divine Aeneas, son of Venus, and to Troy, the enemy of effete, envied Greece.

The Lord had liked that move -- the only god the Romans really worshipped was Mars, and here they were linking themselves to the Western incarnation of love! That was exactly the kind of self-delusion the Lord was looking for: any tribe that could think that flexibly was definitely ripe for a new religion.

The Lord's key angels had requested a meeting around the middle of the first century, BC.

"It's time to mix it up, Sir," Michael had said.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, endlessly regulating all aspects of life has only alienated most humans. The Jews can barely take it as it is. If you really want to compete with Zeus, Cybele, Mithras, and the rest, You'd better come up with a tangible, charismatic figure."

"Like Alexander, or this Caesar fellow?" Gabriel suggested.

Without taking his eyes off the Lord, Michael pointed at Gabriel. "No. Military geniuses are a dime a dozen. We need some serious kick-ass miracles to get people to sit up and take notice."

"I'm listening," the Lord said.

Michael turned to Raphael. "You want to take it from here?"

"You bet." Raphael turned to the Lord. "Basically, Sir, with all due respect, no one gives a shit about Your so-called morality. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of humanity lives under crushing economic restrictions. The last thing they want is more restrictions. They want miracles, something out of the ordinary to take themselves out of their miserable lives of exploitation."

The Lord stroked His beard thoughtfully. Raphael continued.

"The common people need a religion that praises them. A religion that promises a wonderful afterlife to make up for this shitty life. Something to distract their attention from those that are exploiting them in the here-and-now." Raphael thumped a set of reports down on the Lord's desk. "We've gotten a lot of customer feedback, and our biggest clients are getting worried that the more people learn, the greater the chance they'll find out they're getting a royal screwing. Those fucking Greeks have, almost against their own desire, spread this...this" -- Raphael's face twisted in disgust at having to let the word pass his lips -- "democracy bullshit all over the place."

"I know," said the Lord. "It's a real problem."

"Absolutely. How the fuck are we supposed to keep the system rolling along if every filthy peasant thinks he deserves his due...just for being human? Luckily, if we can come up with the right kind of religion, we can keep the working classes in each tribe hating their opposite numbers so much, they won't realize that it's the throats of their masters they should be cutting, if anyone's. But the key is that the religion has to be based on love. People have to really believe that they are acting out of love for their fellow man or else they won't kill as many as we need them to."

"Plus," Gabriel interjected, "humans really want to love and be loved, so if we can lift that desire out of the world and project it onto a lofty, inhumanly perfect figure, we'll be able to satisfy that need without risking the growth of solidarity among the lower humans."

"Right," said Raphael. "And Michael's been doing a lot of eavesdropping on human desires recently." Raphael instantly turned white.

The Lord was silent. "Without My approval?"

The angels looked at each other. Michael finally piped up. "Well, we thought it was security issue. We never meant to tell You" -- he glared at Raphael -- "so that You'd always be able to deny it."

The Lord looked upon His angels and saw that it was good. "Deny what? Get on with it. What did you find out, Mike?"

"Well, it's amazing, actually. Humans are almost unbelievably suggestible, probably because they're social mammals."

"Yes, I created them that way."

"Right." The angels looked at each other and dodged that mine.

"Anyway, if we can find someone that embodies their most exalted, and thus most secretly hated, beliefs about goodness, they will worship that figure. After they kill him, of course, which will only increase the tie they feel, through guilt. What do You think?"

"I like it so far. But I don't want to just jettison all of Leviticus. I worked hard on that with Moses. He'll tear Me a new asshole."

"Oh, fuck Moses," Gabriel spat out derisively. "If he'd become Pharoah, he wouldn't have needed You. He'd have become a god himself."

The Lord considered this. "Be that as it may, I want this new religion to be seen as an outgrowth of the old. We've spent a lot of money on branding; I don't want to flush that all down the crapper."

"OK," Raphael said. "We can definitely do that."

"I have some other ideas," the Lord said.

The angels looked at each other, half-smiling. They knew their Chief; He was nothing if not clever. They had banked on His being receptive to their idea for a new religion. But the Lord was already way ahead of them.

He told them about His Roman strategy. It was clear He was sick of screwing around. He wanted to dominate the West...perhaps even make inroads into other lands.... He saw big opportunities for monotheism in Africa and Asia in six or seven hundred years. They were untapped markets. The angels gazed at the Lord in awe. He was now summing up.

"So, my winged friends, we stand on the brink of a new millenium. Incredible opportunites for expansion abound. This is a special moment in history; it won't come again. The other gods are weak or have fallen. Now is the time to strike hard. We must keep our eyes on the strategic objective: global leadership. We must stop being reactive. We must stop concentrating on short-term tactics. We must pre-empt all comers; we must meet crises before they happen. The only question is our own resolve. Are you with Me?"

The angles cheered in assent.

"Excellent. You supply the poor Jewish family; I'll supply the miracles. My son will take over Rome, and we'll be done with the Olympians for good." The Lord smiled and folded His thick arms over His barrel chest, nodding His head. "Oh, yes. Zeus won't know what hit him."

"What will You do with Zeus, and all the rest of them?" Michael asked.

The Lord laughed. "Oh, I have that covered, believe Me. Zeus and his crew will be spending eternity in Tartarus."

The angels were flabbergasted by the Lord's vengefulness.

"With Cronus?" Raphael gasped.

"Yep. I'm gonna moira his ass."

"Don't You think it might be a bit awkward down there?" Gabriel asked in disbelief.

"They'll all have a long time to work it out."

"Adonai!" said Michael. He was impressed. The Lord would not merely overthrow Zeus, He would humiliate him by meting out the same punishment Zeus had given his father, Cronus.

The Lord was reveling in His plan. "It's been an old-boy network around this pond for ages, now. Fuck this 'Earth Mother' shit -- I did all the work creating everything; they just sauntered in with their fancy literature and pretty togas and took over."

The angels looked at each other, but said nothing. No god had created the Universe; only the Lord claimed credit for that. They wisely let it slide.

"Well, it will soon be over. Uranus, Cronus, Zeus -- all of 'em. It will all end soon, all their violent, rutting, distasteful shenanigans. You'll all be there to see it."

The angels cheered again.

It had more or less come to pass, although the Lord's weakness for dice had thrown off the schedule by a half-millenium or so. By the time the Lord recovered and cut a deal with Constantine, the Romans were beginning to run out of steam. Heaven had had to readjust on the fly, sending Gabriel to Mohammed in order to use the Arabs to hold onto Roman gains, and to make inroads eastward. After a stumble, monotheism was again on the march. Thanks to Islamic and European imperialism, by the beginning of the third millenium, the Lord could claim sovereignty over about half the world. He was now working on a plan to oust the Hindu pantheon.

The Buddhists -- and especially the Confucians -- would be tougher. But the Chinese, the Lord thought, seem to like keeping to themselves...perhaps they could be ignored? Soon I will control the world...soon...soon....

"Hey!" cried Mephistopheles. "Aren't You going to answer me?"


(© 1998, 2006, Doug Tarnopol. All rights reserved.)

4 comments:

  1. The last line really threw me - I went with the digression and forgot Mephisto's "WWZD?" question, and had to backtrack and do a ctrl-f to get it. Maybe needs a little more of a smoother transition back to the present because of this, or I just need more of an attention span.

    All in all, a good story. Pt. 3 especially was an entertaining romp through early religious history. I think you have teaching in your blood even in your fiction!

    However all the history seems too much for what is the core conflict here - how the story touches on some deeper stuff that I would like to hear more about - namely the nature of human impulses to anger and sex and their relationship to evil.

    A nice device is the reversal of making the Lord prideful and pompous (unlikeable) and Mephisto caring and solicitous (likeable). Who's really looking out for humanity here? Its funny! But the characters motivations are a little vague. Both protaganists seem a little too standoffish with respect to their own commitment to what they want. As the more sympathetic figure, Mephisto especially needs more "oomph" to him earlier on to counteract and vie with the strong emotions of the Lord character, who should also have his senility established a little earlier in the story to make him more consistent.

    Anyway good story, there's a lot here.

    Looking forward to more. Also I don't agree with that seminar stuff that "writers shouldn't comment on their own stuff during crit" not that this has to be opposite of that. But anyway, I would really like to hear where you were going with this story and if I'm wrong, missing it, or what.

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  2. There's a lot more to come, so I'll let that happen before commenting...

    This story goes where it wants (not necessarily where even I want, as writing draws from wells other than the conscious); it's a rewrite of an older story, and I actually don't know where it will end up. I'm sure the characters will tell me.

    I don't think I really ought to tell you where it is meant to go, both because such things aren't "meant" -- especially when rewriting after 10 years -- and why should I pounce on others' readings?

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  3. Thanks for reading, of course! And all comments are welcome...

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  4. very interesting take on history dug.
    have you sneaking around spying on 'big biz'? :-)


    love that the 'Lord' had a problem with dice...nice.

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