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What if Earth be but the Shadow of Heaven?

By Judith Proctor
Page 1 of 1

The stairs ascended ever upwards. Blake climbed slowly. He wasn't tired, but he wasn't in any hurry either. This was a place out of time. When he paused in his ascent, the stairs moved of their own accord. At least Blake thought they did. It was hard to tell - there was nothing around him except a white mist, and it was hard to judge any kind of movement against that. He wasn't quite sure where he was going to or where he had come from. It didn't seem to matter.

      It could have been hours; it could have been days; or perhaps it was no time at all, before he saw the gates before him. Tall as the height of ten men, they gleamed white with the iridescence of pearl. To either side of the gates, a wall stretched off to vanish into the mists. Silence reigned. Blake stopped in front of the gates - even in his dream like state he could admire their beauty. Tall and elegant, the ribs of the supporting arch soared high above him. The gates themselves were carved in ornate detail. Curious, Blake studied the designs, but they made little sense. Creatures from ancient mythology adorned it, men with wings, beasts with multiple heads, predators, extinct animals from Earth's past, they were all there. Each carving almost alive in its exquisite perfection.

      His study was broken by the sound of a trumpet. High and clear its clarion note called. It pulled him, drew him towards it. Even as the trumpet sounded, the gates opened silently before him - their great weight moving with no sign of strain. Blake walked forward into the city that lay beyond.

      Tall buildings built of warm-hued stone rose beside wide, paved streets. Fountains played beside great trees whose shade cast a dappled pattern of light upon the ground. Along the streets people walked, chatting in groups beside the fountains, watching as a child laughingly played in the water's spray.

      He had come home to a home, to a place that he had never realised was his own. Then he saw the man waiting for him. A heavily built man, even larger than himself, arms folded across the massive chest, and a broad welcoming smile on his face.

      "Gan!" Blake shouted in delight.

      Gan's smile grew even broader. He strode over and embraced Blake in a casual bear hug. "It's good to see you again."

      "But, how?" Blake asked, with unaffected pleasure. "How did you get here? I thought you were dead."

      "I am," Gan said without concern. "So are you. This is Heaven."

      Blake laughed. "I never really believed in all that stuff."

      "But you believed in something - that's what counts," Gan replied. "Come on and see the place. It's incredible."

      Blake walked beside him down the broad streets, warm sunshine lapping on his back. Everywhere he looked there was something new to see. No two buildings were exactly alike, yet all blended into a harmonious overall pattern. The people, dressed in the colours and styles of a thousand civilisations, passed about their business. It would seem that Bake stood out as a newcomer in some way, because every now and then a total stranger would pause to smile and welcome him to Heaven.

      They stopped outside a building with tall fluted columns made from a pink-coloured marble. Gan guided Blake to one of a series of small wrought iron tables set out on the pavement and sat down on a chair. Blake followed suit.

      "What now?" he asked.

      "Breakfast," Gan said practically.

      Blake was slightly surprised. "Do we actually need to eat here?"

      Gan shrugged. "No, we don't. But eating is one of life's pleasures - most of us prefer to carry on doing it."

      A waiter appeared with a tray. Without asking any questions, he placed a bowl of steaming coffee in front of both men and a crescent-shaped bread roll.

      Blake looked questioningly at Gan.

      Gan's face broke into a simple smile. "You won't have tried this before," he said. "I picked up the habit from a Frenchman who died nine centuries before I did." He dunked his croissant into his coffee and took a hearty bite.

      Blake hesitated. It wasn't the unfamiliar food, it was the acceptance of death. He held his roll in one hand. "Gan," he asked, "how did I die?"

      Gan's face clouded over. "Wait a day or two," he suggested. "It will come back to you. In cases of violent death, they usually purge the memory to give the victim a chance to relax and settle in before having to face it all."

      "Memory purge!" Blake almost shouted in spite of his tranquil surroundings. "I've had enough of that in life - I don't want it all over again now I'm dead." It was the principle of the thing. Interference - even if for the best of reasons - was still interference. A violent death was more easy to accept: he'd never expected to die in bed. Not with the life he led. Presumably it had been another bounty hunter or a Federation soldier. "I just hope whoever got me ended up in Hell."

      Gan broke his croissant in half with unnecessary violence. "He did, Blake," he said shortly.

      "Good riddance," Blake retorted. Then he caught the look in Gan's eye. Suspiciously, he asked, "Who was it?"

      Gan shook his head slowly.

      Blake rose abruptly to his feet and slammed a fist onto the table. Coffee sloshed over the edge of his bowl. "I have a right to know, damn it!"

      Gan sighed in acquiescence. "All right. It was Avon."

      "Avon?" That stopped Blake in his tracks. Impossible! And yet... Their relationship had always been complex, balanced as much on hate as on mutual respect and friendship. And if Avon was dead, what about the others?

      "What happened to Cally? Vila?"

      Gan looked serious. "You have to understand, Blake, that things here aren't always the way you expect them to be."

      "What's that supposed to mean?"

      Gan lifted up his bowl and drank most of the coffee before answering. That alone was enough to tell Blake that something was wrong. Gan had never been one to avoid a direct question.

      "Cally is in Limbo," Gan finally replied. "So are Zen and Orac. Vila and Jenna are in Hell."

      "What!"

      "Cally was a clone," Gan answered uncomfortably. "It's not yet been decided whether clones have individual souls. It may be several centuries before a decision is reached. Zen and Orac are machines - another problem."

      "That's ridiculous! Of course Cally has a soul. I'd give high odds for Zen too, although I might draw the line at Orac." But whether he'd liked Orac or not, irritating though though the super computer might have been, Orac had undeniably had a mind and a personality of his own. Blake took a deep breath and looked around him at the couples sitting happily at the other tables. Could machines actually have a place here? He rubbed his bad eye, an unconscious habit he'd acquired, and realised for the first time that the scar was gone. How did people appear here? As they saw themselves? Would Orac look like Ensor in such a place, or would he still be a perspex box of flashing lights?

      That still didn't explain Jenna and Vila though. Why shouldn't they be with him after all they had gone through?

      As though reading his thoughts, Gan elaborated. "Vila's a thief - that's against the law here. Jenna took four gunships with her when she died - that's murder."

      Well yes, all right, they hadn't been perfect people. But then you couldn't be perfect and fight a revolution. In that case, how come he was here himself? "I've killed people too," Blake pointed out.

      "It was a close thing," Gan admitted. "The way you died finally tipped the balance. You were judged to be a martyr."

      It was coming back to him now. He could see Avon standing there, pointing that damn great big gun at him, dimly recall the excruciating pain as the bullets tore into his chest. Hell was where Avon deserved to be. But not Vila. Not Jenna.

      "Is there any way I can see them?" Blake asked.

      Gan pushed back his chair and stood up. "There's the omniscope," he said, "but I don't recommend it."

      "Why not?" Blake said roughly.

      "It's difficult to watch."

      "So, show me anyway."

      The city still seemed beautiful as they walked on. They passed through colourful bazaars; wide spacious parks with mature trees and vibrant flowers; and an open-air theatre where twenty or thirty people were watching a play performed by actors in Medieval costumes. The tower housing the omniscope was tall and built of a weathered, grey sandstone. They climbed all the way up: there didn't seem to be any sign of an elevator. By the time they reached the 'scope room, they were both short of breath. Light came in through narrow Gothic windows, but not enough to detract from the large white screen that dominated the room. The screen seemed flat and featureless, but as Gan stared at it, an image began to form. A woman with dark flowing hair looked at something out of sight and screamed. Gan turned away abruptly and the image vanished.

      "Who was that?" Blake asked in surprise.

      "Kara." When Blake showed no sign of comprehension, Gan added, "She was a priestess of the false god Cygnus. She saved my life."

      "I see." Blake did see too. "And worshipping false gods is against the law?"

      Gan nodded.

      There seemed no obvious way to operate the screen. Blake looked at it and let his thoughts turn to his friends of the {"Italic" on}Liberato{"Italic" off}r. An image wavered into view, then solidified. A naked man manacled to a rock wall. Avon. He was staring directly into Blake's face. He pressed himself back against the wall. "No," he muttered. Then louder, "No!" Avon stated to tremble, stark terror overtook his face and he screamed - a high pitched sound that seemed to go on and on forever.

      Blake forced himself to look away, realising to his surprise that he was sweating all over. "What did he see?" he asked Gan hoarsely.

      Gan didn't look much better than Blake himself. "Whatever he's most afraid of," Gan replied.

      Blake tried to recall some of his own worst nightmares. There were an awful lot of them. "I wouldn't wish that on anyone," he said slowly. "I wouldn't even wish it on Travis."

      This was wrong. He felt it in his guts. A system that condemned people to eternal bliss or eternal happiness was too extreme. No one deserved to suffer for ever, no matter what they had done. Besides, what was a crime? If Gan's priestess had truly believed in her god, then that made her a better person than Vargas in Blake's eyes.

      Out of the tower window, Blake could see the city spread out before him. Beyond it lay open fields, orchards laden with fruit, the silver trace of a meandering river. A butterfly hovered a moment in front of him - the casual beauty of its iridescent wings flashing in the sunlight. This place was his. He deserved it. He had earned it. After a lifetime of hardship and pain fighting for what he believed in, surely he was entitled to peace in death?

      "I'm with you, Blake," Gan said from behind him.

      Back on Cygnus Alpha, Gan had been the first one then. A pledge of support that had led Gan ultimately to his death. And yet he was willing to risk that once more. To follow one tarnished hero wherever it might take him.

      "You realise that we don't stand a chance?" Blake asked, seeking for an excuse, a way of avoiding fighting all the hopeless battles once more.

      Gan said nothing, just stood there solidly, somehow his very presence giving a sense of support.

      He thought of Jenna, of Vila, of Cally, of all the thousands, millions of others condemned to eternal suffering or non-existence. It seemed to him that he was condemned to repeat his life all over again. He thought that Avon might have been amused by the irony of that.

      "We could face Hell and worse," Blake warned.

      "I'm with you, Blake. To Hell and beyond."

      He might have known that Gan's support would never be half hearted. Gan had faith. How could Blake ever have forgotten? Perhaps even enough faith to help him restore his own shattered ideals. Blake smiled abruptly and clasped Gan firmly on the shoulder.

      "To Hell and beyond."


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Judith Proctor

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