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As I moved through the halls, I was amazed at how realistic the orientation tour had been. This certainly didn't feel like a place I had never seen before - it seemed like familiar ground. It was only a short walk to the lounge, but before I arrived, Jeeves' voice sounded in my head.
The effect was a bit eerie - I had gotten used to hear Jeeves as a regular voice, albeit one that didn't come from a body. This was more like the effect of wearing really good headphones. The sound seemed to be coming from the center of my skull.
I hesitated for a second, but decided that I didn't have any way of answering other than out loud. Luckily, no one was in the hallway.
"If you would care for a suggestion, you might want to wait here for a moment before reaching the lounge."
I couldn't have been more than 20 yards away, but I came to a stop.
Just as I said that, a small man came around a corner and walked past me without a glance. Once I thought about it, I supposed people were talking to G-CIS all the time here. That interesting mental realization meant I didn't quite catch what Jeeves had said.
"I'm sorry. Did you say something about a companion?"
"Yes, sir. A companion is made available for your first social engagements here."
Before I could stop myself, I had a mental image of Inara's shuttle landing outside the castle. I shook my head and went back to the conversation.
"Wouldn't showing up with a paid escort give my fellow apprentices a bad first impression?"
Jeeves actually chuckled in a "My god, you are stupid, but I am much too professional to say so" way. I suppose Stephen Fry would have had a lot of practice with that chuckle on Jeeves and Wooster.
"No, sir. Not that kind of companion, although it is customary to choose someone that would make an impressive date. This is simply someone to handle all of the introductions. You will be meeting nearly 200 new people in the next week, after all."
"Couldn't you just do what you are doing now? Send me a skull IM to tell me who everyone was as I met them?"
"I could indeed, sir. However, again, the residents here choose to stay as human as possible, so a more traditional third-person introduction is preferred. What I can do is to, on subsequent meetings, compensate for your below-average ability to remember names and faces."
I started to protest, but I didn't bother. After all, he was right. I was terrible at it. I would see someone and know that I had met them several times, but have no chance of dredging their name out of my brain. When I had first starting playing soccer in England, I would run into my new teammates at a restaurant and have to bluff until I figured out which ones they were.
"OK, Jeeves, that sounds like a good plan. When will this companion arrive?"
The next words came from a few feet behind me, causing me to jump slightly. It was the first voice I had heard other than Jeeves since Kaitlyn left me more than 24 hours ago.
I turned around and saw a face that I wasn't likely to forget. She wasn't wearing a leather jumpsuit or one of those odd parachute dresses from the 1960s, so she looked a bit out of context, but this was clearly Diana Rigg circa 1965. The Avengers had reached its prime about 15 years before I was born, but I had every Mrs. Peel episode on DVD. Tracy had always teased me that I had only been interested in her because of her name - Diana played James Bond's ill-fated wife Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service - until I pointed out that she was dating someone with the same first name as the character from her favorite TV show, Knight Rider. That always ended the teasing, since my crush on a woman that was more than 40 years older than me wasn't nearly as embarrassing as her infatuation with David Hasselhoff. I was bad enough that we were graduates of the same university he had briefly attended.
While all of that had been going through my brain, I suspect I had been staring slack-jawed at the woman in front of me. She had noticed - her trademark lopsided grin was growing by the second. Like Kaitlyn, she hadn't seemed to have any problem adjusting to 21st century fashion, judging from her red party dress. There only seemed to be one problem.
"Excuse me, Ms. Rigg, but you aren't dead."
She laughed, causing me to see spots in front of my eyes.
"No, my dear, Dame Diana Rigg is very much alive. I am a G-CIS creation - the system didn't expect that you would want to attend a party with Jeeves, and concluded I would be a good substitute. You can call me Emma or Mrs. Peel or Diana or even Jeeves. Your choice."
I was surprisingly creeped out by the idea - a robot date in the shape of any female I could imagine? I didn't let myself consider the possibility of a android Tracy, but even a simulated Ingrid Bergman (circa Casablanca) or a 1980s Sheena Easton boggled the mind. Luckily, before my brain had a chance to get too lost, Diana spoke up.
"Since it is usually the next question, the answer is no. I'm only as anatomically correct as it takes to make me look good in this dress. I have no ability to function as a human woman in other ways other than walking and talking. After this evening's entertainment, this specific build will be recycled into whatever form G-CIS needs next."
Well, that killed any ideas of it being a date. It was still fun to be walking into a party with Emma Peel.
"Ready?" I asked, fighting down the temptation to tell her we were needed.
That got me the grin.
She curled her arm through mine, and we made the short walk to the lounge. We entered through an unmarked door, and I just had time to notice that it was a very well-lit place - I had been expecting something like a nightclub - before I was swarmed by the other dozen godlings and their dates. Within 30 seconds, I had made a mental note to thank Jeeves repeatedly for sending me Emma. In a span of about five minutes, I met 22 people, all of whom seemed to be actual human beings, but my companion had handled the introductions smoothly and precisely. She had even managed to subtly whisper in my ear that, on a social occasion, I didn't have to refer to the two actual gods in attendance by any special title - Jeeves had told me during orientation that the style at work was "Yes, God Michael" and "No, Goddess Kaitlyn".
When the introductions were done, I still couldn't have passed a quiz as to which person held which job, but it was a start, and I certainly felt like one of the group. The only that that surprised me was the amount of dating within the pantheon, although Jeeves had hinted at it a couple times during the orientation. If I remembered correctly, the Justice and War apprentices were together, which struck me as an odd pairing, as were the Weather and Ocean apprentices, which seemed more appropriate. The Earth apprentice - someone I suspected I would be working with - had done very well for himself, as he was at the party with the God of Life, while the Goddess of Art seemed to be involved with her own apprentice.
Everyone else was there with a member of the support staff, and it was good to see that "God World" seemed to be a very tolerant place. Of the dozen couples, there might have been three that were "traditional" opposite-sex, same-race pairings. There were men with men, women with women, Europeans with Asians, Latinos with Africans and just about every other combination I could imagine. The only thing that surprised me is that there seemed to be a surprising lack of Americans. Of the 14 gods and godlings I had met, only two were from the United States - the God of Art had said he was from New York, and the Storms apprentice was from, ironically, New Orleans.
Since I was attending the party with a fembot, I was a little concerned at being the, well, 23th wheel, but within the first hour, I had learned that the concept of "relationships" was very fluid here. While most of the lounge was set up for a strolling buffet meal, there was a large dance area toward the back, complete with flashing lights and a neon-streaked floor, and the dancers didn't seem to be making any effort to stick with the partners they had introduced to me. Even more interesting was a sunken area built into an alcove in a back corner. It was barely lit, and seemed to be a maze of love seats, sofas and oversized beanbags. It was almost impossible to see what was happening, but the traffic wasn't limited to pairs, much less the pairs that had started out together in the receiving line.
I had spent most of my time eating and chatting, with the occasional interruption for Emma to introduce me to someone else that had just arrived. I met a few more Gods and Goddesses as they stopped by, and there were one truly bizarre encounter. The first came when Emma pulled away from a fellow soccer enthusiast - the Fortune apprentice - to introduce me to a young, handsome god, not that everyone in the room wasn't young and attractive.
"Harvest Apprentice, this is the God of War," Emma said. "John, this is Michael."
We shook hands, and I said it was a pleasure to meet him.
"I'll bet you never thought you'd be saying that to the God of War," he said in a strangely familiar voice with a strong New England accent.
"No, sir," I agreed. "It must be a tough job to do."
He shook his head ruefully.
"It can be - it certainly isn't the job I would have chosen for myself," he said. "But that seems to still be the story of my life. War followed me around on Earth, and now here. But I don't want to talk shop. Let me introduce you to my friend, the Goddess of Death."
None of the deities I had met that night had matched the mental image I would have had of their jobs, but this one topped them all. I was almost positive that I had never considered that Death would look like a blonde, blue-eyed movie star. If Raquel Welch, Jessica Simpson, Farrah Fawcett and every Playboy Playmate had combined their DNA in a blender, it would have produced the person who was now being introduced as the ender of human life.
We exchanged pleasantries, and I just caught a whiff of a Swedish accent before she dragged the God of War toward the fun pit.
I turned to Emma.
"You know, if it hadn't been for the accent, I might have thought the Goddess of Death was Marilyn Monr... oh my god."
"I just realized. Was the God of War who I think it was?"
The grin got wider.
"I was starting to wonder how bad your problems with names and faces was. That's him."
"Ok, in my defense, he died 16 years before I was born. In most of the footage I've seen of him, he was somewhat older."
"Yes, and not as healthy. Here, he doesn't have the war injuries or the Addison's disease."
"He also, not to be crude, has an entire head."
Emma's eyes sparkled with the sheer joy of teasing me, which was slightly alarming from a robot.
"You probably don't want to mention that to him. And don't ask him about grassy knolls. He says he wasn't really focused on where the bullets hitting him were coming from."
"That makes perfect sense. Besides, Oswald acted alone. Everyone knows that."
Shockingly, Emma had a great poker face, but before I could ask anything else, my brain took a sudden detour.
"Wait a second! Are you saying that someone here arranged for his assassination?"
"Some gods prefer accidents, some prefer illnesses. The previous Goddess of War had a flair for the dramatic."
My mind was still trying to process that bit of information - at least Tracy hadn't had to clean my brains off her dress - when I felt a pair of arms embrace my waist from behind.
"You are still talking, sunshine. You need to dance."
I twisted my head around to see the Weather apprentice, the one from New Orleans. I just had time to realize that I had forgotten her name when Jeeves' voice popped into my head to save me.
"Chantel, I am a terrible dancer."
"That's fine, because I'm good enough for both of us."
She had a point, especially most of what we did required me to only hold my body tightly against hers and follow her swaying lead. Some of it was probably dancing, but a lot of it seemed more like vertical, clothed sex. Well, I was clothed - she was in a dress made of random strips of yellow cloth. It covered everything it needed to cover, and it covered other places that you wouldn't particularly be looking at, but it didn't leave a lot to the imagination. The most impressive part of the design was that, as we danced, every place I put my hands was bare.
"So, cheri, you can dance after all," she said during a rare break.
"Your style is hard to mess up - I just have to hold on, which isn't much of a burden."
Her caramel-colored face lit up. It went without saying that Chantel was gorgeous - this place obviously only picked the beautiful people - but she had an exotic mix of features that helped her stand out from the crowd.
"I grew up in the French Quarter, so I learned to party at an early age. And when you come from a long line of what used to be called mulatto ladies of the night, you don't tend to worry much about being demure."
I grinned at her.
"No, dear, you are certainly not demure. Do I get dragged over to the party grotto next?"
She laughed, twisting her face into an exaggerated pout.
"Alas, no. You are off-limits until your first day of work."
"Yes. It is a tradition, and I have pushed the edges of the rules tonight, but I wanted to make sure I got a spot on your dance card."
I'm sure I blushed.
"You have certainly done that, but that leads me to a question."
"Ask, mon ami."
"I'm the apprentice to the Harvest Goddess. You are an apprentice to the Weather God. Right?"
"Yes," she replied. "And you want to know if that will not make us deadly rivals?"
"Well, more or less. Won't your storms be wiping out my crops?"
"They will. More of them or less of them, depending on the skills of our masters and, to a lesser extent, to our own skills. We will certainly be competing against each other very intensely."
"OK, but doesn't that tend to put a strain on romance?"
She shook her head, still smiling.
"Maybe at first, but you learn to put those feelings aside when you leave the Chamber. It's the only way for this to work - it isn't personal between us. The ones that take it personally are the ones that go through the door in a hurry."
"But isn't that hard when you do storms for a living?"
The smile faded, but it wasn't replaced by the negative emotions that I expected.
"No, because this place is about balance. If your crops grow unchecked, we end up with an overpopulated globe. If my storms become too fierce, we wipe out too many people. We all do our jobs to the best of our abilities, and the system keeps everything in check."
Once again, the system, no matter how much it seemed unthinkable, ended up making a lot of sense.
I took a deep breath before my next question, but Chantal stopped me with a finger on my lips.
"You don't have to ask. I cried myself to sleep after Katrina. I only left Earth in 1999, and I was only 29, so that wasn't just my city, those were my friends and my family. It broke my heart, and I've never watched any of the footage."
I put my arms around her and pulled her against me. Her tone dropped to almost a whisper, her mouth a few inches away from my ear..
"That's our part of the balance, and it had to happen. I just wish it hadn't happened with the gods aligned the way they were - Justice in seat #13, Life in seat #12, us in seat #1 and Death in seat #2. That's what made it so bad. That's what made it so hard to watch."
I looked at her face, and tears were streaming down her cheeks.
"They always tell us that we're doing what we need to do, and they all seem to believe it. But I haven't even been here for a year yet, at least not by our standards of time. It's still hard to see the effects of what I'm helping do - and when it meant destroying my own home..."
Her voice trailed off as she cried into my shoulder. I held her and stroked her hair until she regained control.
"Now you know why we party so damn hard," she said softly, tears still in her voice.
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