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Thirteen Gods



Chapter 9


On Sunday morning, I nibbled on a bagel with cream cheese and sipped at my coffee. I wasn't sure which worried me more - the fact that I only had 24 hours before I started this job, or that I had to face Kaitlyn today. I knew she had a good reason to do what she did, and I knew it was an honor that she picked me, but that didn't go very far in soothing the anger. I was dead. I had lost my family and my friends and my career - literally my whole life - at her whim.


On the other hand, I was permanently dead. Even if I convinced Kaitlyn that she had made a terrible mistake, she couldn't send me back. My choices were to accept life here, which meant working with her, or I could go through the door. Even given the existence of this place, I still believed there was nothing beyond the door other than an off switch, so that idea didn't fill me with excitement. Death had always terrified me, because I didn't believe there was an afterlife, and I didn't want to end. That's why religion started - to give people a chance to live without that fear. It just hadn't worked for me.


So I was going to stay here, because it gave me a continued existence. The work seemed stressful and difficult, but playing in the World Cup hadn't been a low-pressure environment either, and you certainly couldn't beat these fringe benefits.


Tracy and I had studied Buddhism for a while after college, and I tried to fall back on some of those teachings. I told myself that Kaitlyn was just trying to end suffering and find happiness, and was doing what she felt would help achieve them. I told myself that, no matter what anyone did to me, my responses were my own choice, so I could choose to forgive her and to work with her. Most importantly, I told myself what we had once heard the Dalai Lama say in a live speech - that angst was not only useless, it was selfish. If there was something you could do about the problem, you were better off doing it. If there was nothing you could do, you were better off moving forward and letting go of the negative emotions.


So, by the time Jeeves informed me that the Harvest Goddess was waiting for me in the Chamber of the Gods, I was ready. I wouldn't say that I wanted to form a touring comedy duo with her, but I was pretty sure that I could deal with her in a pleasant manner. After all, she had seemed genuinely upset at what she had had to do, and had treated me with great kindness.


My optimism lasted about five seconds after I walked through the door. I entered the chamber, which was more impressive in person than it had been on GodVision, and I saw Kaitlyn sitting at the conference table. She was dressed quite sedately - a formless gray sweatshirt with the Irish flag on the front, blue jeans and white running shoes. 


"Good morning, Kaitlyn," I said, forcing as much cheerfulness as possible into my voice.


She wheeled around, her face contorted with anger.


"Excuse me?" she yelled.


I actually took a step back.


"I just said good morning."


"No, you did not. You used my name. When we are in this chamber, you will refer to me as Goddess, and you will speak to me only when I speak to you. This is not social hour at the bar. This is the most deadly serious thing you will ever do, and right now, my best hope is that I can survive with you as my assistant, but if you are going to try to duck responsibility for your own words and actions, that's not very likely."


I started to scream back at her, but I caught myself. I understood most of what was happening - Kaitlyn had apparently seen enough movies in the last 140 years to pick up the stereotypical drill-sergeant routine - but she also seemed genuinely upset. I didn't think she was a good enough actress to fake the fact that she was visibly shaking with rage.


"Yes, Goddess. I apologize for the lapse."


That didn't help. She snarled at me.


"Lovely. You're sorry. That will certainly comfort the six billion people that will starve tomorrow because of you. I'd say you could write touching letters to all their families, but there won't be anyone left to hear your stupid apologies."


I closed my eyes briefly and reminded myself that I could choose how to react to this. Luckily, I didn't keep my eyes closed for long, because when I opened them, Kaitlyn was hurling a robe at me.


"See if you can figure out how to put this on."


I pulled it on, and was surprised at how light it was. I had expected something heavy, because the video had mentioned its sound-dampening qualities, but the fabric seemed about as heavy as the t-shirt I was wearing. Apparently, gods had access to better materials than anyone on Earth.


Kaitlyn had flipped on her hood, so I did the same. Within seconds, I heard her voice. While I could tell from the tone that she was whispering, it came through perfectly clear.


"I'm going to activate our systems."


Almost immediately, the video display inside the hood came on. Like GodVision, there was no flicker as the picture came on. It was just there in perfect 3-D. I was looking at the Earth, serenely floating in the black sky. There were no green or red glows, just the blue planet with the browns of the Americas and the white of some random clouds. The only other item on the display was the word "Harvest", written in a large burnt-sienna font in the upper left corner.


Unfortunately, I only got to enjoy the view for a few seconds before Kaitlyn's voice returned.


"When we are hooded and online, I expect you to be doing nothing other than exactly what I tell you. You need to be ready every second to get me whatever information I require, and you need to do it with speed and precision. Do you understand that?"


"Yes, Goddess."


"I, on the other hand, don't have time to be listening to you chat. When you speak, it needs to be done as concisely as possible. If you can answer me in two words, good. If you can answer in one word, even better. Got that?"


"Yes."


This time, I was ready for the angry tone, and I got it.


"Yes WHAT?"


The Dalai Lama would have not been impressed with what I did next, but I couldn't help myself.


"Yes is one word, goddess."


She actually screeched, which was painful through the perfect sound system.


"Listen, jackass. I do not have time for your fucking games or your fucking attitude. I have a job to do, and if you want to be the class clown, go walk through that door and find someone to amuse on the other side. I'd probably be better off doing this job without an apprentice until I can find someone dying in a Bangladeshi AIDS clinic."


So much for Buddhism. My next words didn't come out loudly, but Charlie Daniels would have probably described them as an evil hiss.


"Listen to me, Kaitlyn."


She started to snap back at me, but I talked right over her.


"First, I'm not impressed with the drill-sergeant routine. I played for a dozen soccer coaches who thought it was the way to go, and they all did it better than you, and none of them scared me either. I'm a very intelligent man who knows how to work on a team and who is very good at playing an unselfish support role. I know you know that, because that's why you murdered me to drag my ass up here."


I didn't even give her a chance to break in - I just kept going.


"And that's the important point. I didn't ask for this job. You forced it on me. I'm not playing games, and I don't have an attitude. Do I want to be here? No, I want to be back in Detroit with the woman who, since 2008 is apparently over, is supposed to finally be my wife, or back in England playing soccer while she makes us rich playing tennis. There are a million places that I'd rather be, but thanks to you, I don't have a choice. I'm here, and I'm willing to make the most of it and try to do this insane job. 


"But I'm not going to treated like a serf, especially not by an Irish hothead with delusions of grandeur. I'll be a damn good apprentice, but I'm also going to be treated like a human being."


I bit back the concluding line about buying her a tiara if she wanted to be treated like a goddess. It would have felt good, but it wouldn't have helped any.


As it was, there was a significant pause before her angry reply.


"Yes, sir. Please inform me if I ever violate your high standards of dignity. In the meantime, we have work to do."


Within seconds, the display featured a bright blue bar across the top. On it, in white letters, was the message "Test In Progress". At the same time, the Earth pulsed and changed. The new image, which rotated slowly, had lost the clouds but added boundary lines and a hundred shades of red and green. Underneath, in what I was starting to think of as Harvest Orange, was the title "Overall Performance: 2008".


Before I could pick out any details other than an alarming amount of red, Kaitlyn's voice returned.


"I need the top five malnutrion sites."


I remembered the basic language from yesterday's video, and ad-libbed the rest.


"Overlay: malnutrition," I mumbled into my hood. "Table: Five Worst."


The display changed without a flicker. The globe spun and zoomed in on the single brightest red location, and a text box appeared to the left of the map.


"Eritrea. DR Congo. Burundi. Tajikistan. Haiti."


"Good. Five lowest life expectancies."


"Swaziland. Angola. Zambia. Zimbabwe. Lesotho."


"Combine those numbers and tell me which five areas we can do the most good."


More mumbling and a quickly-invented statistic.


"Burundi. Sierra Leone. Rwanda. Haiti. Malawi."


A slight pause.


"How did you get that ordering?"


"Population density."


"Was I supposed to have guessed that?"


I swore under my breath. I had actually gotten a vaguely civil tone out of her for a few seconds, and now the snottiness was back, and this time, it was my fault.


"No, Goddess."


"Concise is important, but precision is more important. I'm going to be making split-second decisions based on the information you provide, so I need to know exactly what you are thinking."


I was suddenly starting to feel like one of the characters from Chef!, but it wasn't worth another nasty-whispering match.


"Yes, Goddess."


That was how things went all day. The tone varied from nasty to neutral, but, although she would have never admitted it, we were working well together. I kept reminding myself that, even given the difference in time speed, she had done my job for 14 years, so I needed to learn from her, and I did pick up a lot of good ideas from her corrections and rebukes. The most important might have been about war zones. She basically wanted them eliminated from every list, because the War God's successes tended to trump anything we could do. Instead, we focused on nearby areas, hoping that extra food there could get to the battle-ravaged people.


It was well into the evening when she finally said "That's enough. You aren't going to get any smarter or any better at this if we stay here all night. We have to go with what we've got right now."


I got up and stretched. We had taken a 15-minute break to eat a grilled-cheese sandwich for lunch, but I'd been glued to the chair for 10 hours.


Kaitlyn was sitting in her chair, hood flipped back, staring at something a million miles away.


"Goddess?"


She blinked, came back from wherever she had been, and glared at me.


"Yes?"


"Why is this set up with so little training? There are two weeks between sessions - why not give the new apprentices more time?"


She sighed.


"You rallied and then died suddenly, and our collection equipment wasn't ready. It's complicated, but suffice it to say that it took us longer to get you here than we expected."


Well, it had seemed like a good idea at the time.


"Sorry about that. Good night, Goddess."


I headed for the door, thinking that hadn't ended too badly, but I heard a sarcastic voice behind me.


"Apprentice?"


I looked back over my shoulder.


"Yes, Goddess?"


"Don't go looking for a party. You're going to be bad enough at this tomorrow without spending a wild night at the club."


I bit back about a dozen replies before deciding on one last try at Buddhism.


"Yes, Goddess."


I walked out and headed to my room. I hadn't been planning on doing anything different - I never went out the night before games, and this seemed like the same kind of evening. It just would have been nice for the boss to have a little more faith in me.


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