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After a while, I realized I wasn't going to have any say in the matter. Even if I were the suicidal type, what good would it do? I'd been dead once and ended up here, so if I died again, they'd probably just make me start the orientation over again. Besides, can gods even harm themselves? Did I even have a body, or was this just a mental construct in order to make me feel like a human being?
I didn't know the answers to any of these questions, and at the moment, I wasn't sure I wanted to know them. Also, whether this was a real body or just a figment of my imagination, I was starving.
"Yes, sir?" came the instantaneous reply.
"I am ready for breakfast."
"Very good, sir. Would you like your usual?"
I paused for a long moment.
"Putting aside the fact that I've never eaten breakfast here, which would make it hard to have a usual order, I don't even know what my 'usual' would be."
"A three-egg omelet with sausage, bacon, ham and extra cheese, white toast, strawberry jam, black coffee and high-pulp orange juice."
I'm not sure I would have called that a "usual" - pro athletes don't get to eat like that very often - but it was certainly a guilty pleasure, and given my new circumstances, "guilty" didn't seem to apply.
"That would be fine, Jeeves. How long until we start orientation again?"
"About one hour, sir."
"Satisfactory," I said, for no reason other than to sound like Nero Wolfe. "I shall read during my breakfast."
That's what I did - shovelling down a wonderful meal while reading about Wolfe and Archie solving a pair of mysteries involving Black Orchids. I practically knew both stories by heart, so I was just skimming along while I ate, but it got my mind off what was happening. Dead women in flower shows seemed like a minor inconvenience compared to having to learn how to be a god before your corpse had gotten cold, which, granted, takes longer when they cremate you.
Now that I was thinking about it, my new life kind of put the lie to the religious traditions that said being cremated meant you wouldn't have a body for the afterlife. I had a body that was in spectacular shape, and wasn't even giving me stomach trouble with all the red meat I had thrown at it in the last 24 hours. However this place worked, it was certainly a defeat for every organized religion I'd ever read about. No one had guessed this.
While I was mulling over the idea of what kind of religion would worship a bunch of atheistic, macro-focused party gods, Jeeves cleared his throat.
"Are you ready to begin, sir?"
"Yes, but may I ask a question?"
"Of course, sir."
"This room is very beige. Is that because my own home was very beige, or do all newbies get neutral colors?"
"The latter, sir. You can, of course, ask me for any decorative style that you wish."
I briefly toyed with the idea of asking him to duplicate the hideous striped carpeting from my childhood bedroom, but decided against it.
"That's alright. This kind of reminds me of home. Tracy and I never got around to redecorating."
"A shame, sir. An attractive home is a happy home."
"You might be right, but we both spent a lot of time on the road. She was a star tennis player, you know."
"Yes, sir. There was a great deal of interest here in Miss Harris' recent performance at the Australian Open. It was a shame that she lost to Miss Sharapova in the final."
"People here watch tennis?"
"No sir, not normally. While there are a couple tennis fans among the residents, the interest in that particular match was more tied to your situation. We knew you would be joining us soon, and many of the deities were quite impressed with her ability to perform while you were hospitalized on the other side of the world."
I sighed, but with more of a sense of disappointment than grief.
"We fought about that - she didn't want to leave me, but Australia has always been her best chance at winning a Grand Slam. She called me after the award ceremony and said that Maria kept apologizing to her. I told her I suspected as much, since Maria had called me before the ceremony to apologize."
"She did. Maria is a good friend of Tracy's - they've played doubles together - and I knew she felt terrible about ruining Tracy's plan to win the event for me. I told her not to worry about it - she'd never won down there, and she played a spectacular match."
"Perhaps Miss Sharapova could help Miss Harris at Wimbledon. After all, she was won there a number of times."
I chuckled, but I also found myself blinking away tears. I knew we were supposed to be doing the orientation, but I suspected this was an important part of it. Talking about Tracy's recent achievements was reminding me that she wasn't dead, which is how I kept feeling.
"You know, it's a shame that Tracy got all the attention. No one would have watched me, because when I fell ill, my career ended."
"Actually, sir, that is not at all correct."
"No, sir. Goddess Kaitlyn actually discovered you while watching the 2002 World Cup - the British coverage included a story on your charitable work. She knew at that point that the Harvest God was considering going through the door, and was making a short-list of possible apprentices. By the time of the 2006 World Cup, she was fairly well decided on your promotion, so your performance was of great interest to the residents here."
"That's great. We were awful in 2006."
"Yes, sir. But you did have some fine performances for Sheffield Wednesday before your illness."
I nodded to myself. I had been pretty good before I got sick. I wasn't a global star like Tracy, but I did well for an American soccer player.
My reminiscing came to a quick end, though, as something Jeeves said blinked into my consciousness.
"You and Kaitlyn have both made reference to the Harvest God 'going through the door'."
"What does that mean?"
"A very important question, sir. First, you already understand that you will not age here, and you will not suffer from any illness."
"That is also true for the support staff, by the way, not just the deities. You will also learn that it is impossible to physically harm a resident of this dimension, other than consensual, superficial injuries."
"Why would I want anyone to injure ... never mind. Don't answer that."
I suspected I was blushing, but Jeeves didn't do anything to show that he had noticed.
"Very good, sir. With no aging, no illnesses and no injuries, the people here are, for all intents and purposes, immortal."
"OK. But where does a door come in?"
"It is a specific door, sir. To be exact, it is an ornate door in the Chamber of the Gods that is kept closed with six locks. It is the only exit from this dimension."
As he said it, GodVision came on. I was sitting in what appeared to be a large conference room, facing a dark wooden door. It appeared to be mahogany with rectangular panels and golden locks, and it gave off an aura of solid safety. This was a door that served as a barrier, not as a portal.
"What's on the other side?"
"Whatever comes after death for every human that doesn't end up here."
"And what is that?"
"No one knows, sir."
I waited for more of an explanation, but none seemed to be forthcoming.
"Hasn't anyone ever told you?"
"No, sir. Going through the door is a permanent decision. There has never been any communication from those that have left us."
"What happens if you look through the door without stepping through it?"
"You see a small foyer that includes a bench large enough for three people. You can enter the foyer and nothing will happen until the door is closed and re-locked."
"Your guess is as good as ours, sir. If the door is locked, immediately unlocked and reopened, the foyer will be empty without any sign of the people that had been inside."
"So why would anyone do it?"
"There have been many reasons given. Deities tend to want to escape the stress. Others cite boredom, or a chance to see their loved ones again."
"Even though they don't even know if there's anything on the other side?"
"Yes, sir. Most of them figure that it the same chance that every person faces when they die."
"But most people don't choose to die!"
"Yes, sir. However, many people do not fear it, either. They think there will be something better after death. A Buddhist who comes here expects going through the door to start the rebirth process. A Christian expects to find Heaven."
I thought about that for a while.
"They still believe that, even though this place seems to prove that their religions were wrong?"
"Yes, sir. After all, is this place truly outside the possibilities of the Christian religion?"
"Of course it is! There's supposed to be one god, not 13!"
"Yes, sir. But while the residents of this place refer to themselves as deities and gods, might they not actually be overseers appointed by a god that is charge of an entire universe?"
I had to think about that for more than a while.
"I suppose that's possible. I find it hard to believe, but I didn't believe in the Christian god to begin with."
"Yes, sir. Someone who does believe in that god would, obviously, find it more plausible."
"That makes sense, I guess."
As I spoke, I looked around the room for the first time. It was mostly done in the same dark wood as the door, and it appeared to be about the size of a football field. There were long tables along each wall, and at least five large television screens on each side. In one corner was a refrigerator and the opening for a dumbwaiter that must have done food delivery.
All that was just decoration, though. The room was dominated by an enormous rectangular mahogany table that would seat each of our gods with all the elbow space they could have wanted. I was vaguely surprised that the table wasn't round, but that might have been too much of a cliché.
Behind each chair were what looked like the world's most comfortable office cubicles, including bookshelves, a desk and what looked like a high-end Mac.
"So, Jeeves, I guess this is the Chamber of the Gods."
"One chair for each god?"
"No, sir. If you notice, there are only 12 chairs at the table."
I looked again, and it was obviously correct. I had been distracted by the cubicles, but there was one chair at each end and five on each long side.
"Didn't you say there were 13 gods?"
"Yes, sir. At each session, 12 gods sit at the table, with their apprentices in the small offices behind them. The 13th god sits in the northeast corner."
The room's perspective changed by 180 degrees, so The Door was now behind me. In front of me, past the center table, I could see another chair and another cubicle, looking utterly isolated.
"Which god gets stuck over there?"
"Do you remember what we discussed yesterday about time here as opposed to time on Earth?"
I did - I had been running through some of the math in my head while trying to fall asleep last night.
"Yes, you said that an Earth day took about 30 minutes here."
"Yes, sir. That is approximately correct. The actual link is that each four-week work session here handles one Earth year - one season per week."
"OK, I figured that had to be roughly true, since you said the gods work 40 weeks a year and did 10 Earth years per God year."
"Very good, sir. At the end of each four-week session, the active deities are ranked from 1 to 12 on the basis of how well they performed their duties during that session. That ranking determines their seating arrangement for the next session. Whichever god finishes first gets Chair 2 for the next session, and the god that finishes last is banished to Chair 13. The god that had been in Chair 13 for that session moves to Chair 12 for the next session."
I had about 100 questions, and no idea which one to ask first.
"You do this orientation for every new god, right?"
"So you know all the questions I'm probably going to ask."
"Go ahead and start answering them. If you miss anything, I'll let you know."
"Yes, sir. Very good, sir."
I sipped at a glass of water that was on my tray. I didn't remember it being there before, and I hadn't asked for it, but I was getting used to life here, so I just listened to Jeeves.
"You certainly would have asked which gods sits in Chair 1. The answer is that it rotates on a 13-session cycle. If a god would have been banished to Seat 13 in the same session that they are scheduled to be in Chair 1, they escape banishment, and the god that finished 11th is banished instead.
"You also would have asked if there was a practical difference between the chairs, or if it is just a matter of filling out a seating chart. The answer is that yes, there is a real benefit to being in Seat 1. The god that is in Seat 1 has a noticeable power advantage over the god in Seat 2. There are smaller differences from Seats 2 through 11, and another large difference between 11 and 12."
"How does that manifest itself?"
"That, sir, will have to wait until tomorrow, when I explain the workings of the system. At this point, you don't have the information needed to understand the answer to that question."
That made sense, since I had no idea how we actually influenced anything on Earth, but I still thought I saw a flaw.
"The god that is in Seat 13 has no power at all, correct?"
"And after that session, they move to Chair 12? Where they have the lowest amount of power?"
"What would stop two gods from getting caught in an endless cycle between Chairs 12 and 13?"
"Very good, sir. That does indeed happen at times, but it is nothing something that most newcomers expect."
I chuckled. This was one time where being an athlete gave me an advantage, apparently.
"I played in the English soccer league. Every year, a group of teams get promoted to the Premier League, and the same group of teams is generally relegated the next season. It's the same basic principle. They come out of the Championship or Seat 13, and aren't strong enough to survive, so they go right back."
"A quite impressive analogy, sir. The gods here have one advantage that a team like Norwich or Sheffield United lacks, though."
"The year in Seat 1?"
"Yes, sir. Even if they get trapped in a "Loser's Dance", as it is commonly known, they will eventually get a year in Seat 1 and, with some intelligence, can solidify their position."
"That's a good idea. It's like giving every team one shot at the Champions League every few years - the money they would earn would give them a stable run in the Premier League."
I mulled that over.
"I played for Sheffield Wednesday. Using Sheffield United as an example of a team that gets repeated chances to play in the Premier League was a bit cruel."
"Yes, sir. But I knew it was an example that would catch your attention."
I couldn't argue with him on that, and it had been cute that he had used Norwich as the other example, since Stephen Fry was a well-known fan of the team.
I didn't have any other questions about the Chamber, so I allowed Jeeves to give me an audiovisual tour of the rest of "Godworld". It was an amazing place - like the world's most opulent resort, but done with holodeck technology from the Star Trek shows. During our two-week breaks, groups or individuals could use one of the "cabins" - dome-shaped outbuildings that could be converted into any vacation spot imaginable. You could be in the Caribbean in two minutes, jump to Alaska the next day and on an African safari the day after that.
Even if you never left the main building, you could eat any meal you wanted, go to a party in a nightspot that changed motifs every couple hours, or just hang out with your friends. There were only 26 deities, counting us lowly apprentices, but a large portion of the support staff seemed to exist mainly to keep us from running out of interesting people. I was curious to see that in action, but if I did get feeling anti-social, I could stay in my suite and read any book I wanted or watch just about anything imaginable on the world's greatest entertainment system.
After a couple hours, I had the layout memorized and was somewhat up to speed on the social customs.
"Congratulations, sir. You have completed the first part of your orientation. Do you think you can find your way to the deities-only lounge?"
"Yes, Jeeves. You just showed it to me."
"Yes, sir. If you make your way there, your fellow apprentices will be waiting. It is time for your welcome dinner."
I started to ask Jeeves about the door issue, but as the tour video faded away and my room came back into existence, I noticed a door right next to the bookshelf. I knew it hadn't been there before, but I wasn't about to ask.
I took a deep breath and walked into Valhalla.
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