Aaron stared dumbfounded at Hans. “Did you say Mountie Hell? Like, Dudley Do-Right in the lake of fire Mountie Hell?”
“Oh my God,” Hans whined. “Stop needing explanations for things.”
“But why would Mounties need their own hell!?”
“Gee, Truman, maybe-ngh!”
“Chill, Kaplan,” Jake said as he tousled Kaplan’s hair. Hans twisted from beneath Jake’s grasp, batting at his hands. Jake simply replied with cracked knuckles and a lizard smile, which Hans tried and failed to return. “To answer your question, very few things need their own hell, but we’re pretty sure that everything has its own hell. Wiloughby’s even floated the idea that there are as many Other-petals as there are combinations of words.”
‘Other-petals’ are the closest thing we’ve found to a spirit world. Or worlds. The name comes from the fact that they grow out of our earth, surrounding it like petals around the stigma of a flower.
Unfortunately, that’s about all we learned about the things at the Academy. We were still civilians then, though it was starting to sound like Hans had gotten deeper intel somewhere. The rest of us were restricted to what had been public knowledge. It definitely wasn’t public knowledge that there were as many hells as there were words you could combine with hell.
Despite myself, I had to wonder… Did that include names? Was there a whole hell out there somewhere just for me? And if so… what was in it right now? No wonder they didn’t want people thinking about this.
I had to brush those thoughts aside. There was work ahead of us. I gestured at the obsidian pillar covered in runes and animal mouths, averting my reflection’s gaze. “So, how exactly does this thing work?”
“Eh… how it works is complicated.” Jake admitted. “How you use it is easy. This puppy is attuned to over three-hundred separate verified hell-petals. By dialing the cylinder just so and feeding the correct sacrifice to one of the mouths you can astral project anyone in the room.” He brandished a worn, rolled pamphlet from his pocket. “There’s a manual and everything.”
“Hell is boring,” Timmy warned. “You’ll hate it.”
“I’m aware that Carnie Hell made a lot of promises it couldn’t keep, but Mountie Hell will be better. There’s trains!” Jake clapped his hands together. “Alright, kids. Good tour. Let’s get you to the cafeteria so you can get a good meal before tomorrow’s trip.”
The cooks were willing to make just about anything we could think of, and had plenty of catered snacks readied besides- chicken wings, pizza, etc. I filled my plate with a healthy pile of wings and a couple of sandwiches before finding a place to eat. Hans was standing over the shoulder of the guy cooking his steaks while Aaron and Tim continued to browse the selection. Gail walked my way.
“Hey, you seem alright. I wanna get out of here before Ouija Boy back there finishes breathing down the chef’s neck. Join me?”
I nodded, grabbed my plate and followed her to the entertainment room. There were a few games set up- foosball, air hockey, that kind of thing- along with a movie projector and some recliners. I kicked back and dug into my food. “Hans is a serious creep. I know him from The Academy. He might be one of the worst people I know.”
“The Academy, huh?” She whipped her tie over her shoulder and brought a rib up to her mouth. “So you signed up for this, then.”
“Well, yeah. Didn’t you?”
She shook her head. “I was born into it, a bit like Timmy I guess. Except, you know, I was actually born. Had a mom and everything.”
“That part’s… complicated.”
“Oh… I think I understand. My birth mom left so long ago I don’t even know what she looks like.”
“No… I was conceived in a dream.”
“I know. Funky, right? But I prefer not to talk about it.” This girl was a tease. Her look sudenly grew a bit more serious. “Look, Rock, I don’t normally apologize, but I’m having trouble understanding something and there’s no good way to bring it up.”
“I just can’t figure out why you’d sign up to work for the Regime given that you’re… you know.” I arched an eyebrow. “…not exactly Bigley’s demographic.”
This girl had some nerve. A perverse part of me wanted to see just how deeply she could dig herself. I was mad enough to give in to it. “Oh, because I’m Presbyterian?”
“I uh, did not know that. No. But, I mean, you Academy kids are smart. The guy with the stick in his ass-”
“-Aaron seems dull but I’m sure he knows his periodic table backwards and forwards, or whatever. And you’re not nearly as sleazy as that Hans kid. So I know you know Bigley’s literally been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.”
“And doesn’t that bother you? Because… you know?”
“So, three things. One, we’re in the Supreme Service. The Supreme Service doesn’t work for Roy Bigley the man. We work for America, the country. Two, Bigley’s been president literally my whole life. What am I supposed to do, abandon our country ‘til he’s out of office? And three, of course it bothers me. It should bother everyone. It should bother you.”
“Of course it bothers me!”
“But it should bother me more, right? Because ‘you know.’” She squirmed in her seat. “And yeah, it does bother me more. But I don’t see what that has to do with my job.”
“Uh-huh…” she chewed thoughtfully, a bit like she was expecting something more.
“We’ve got terrorists with super-powers and literal demons trying to find ways into our world. We learned minutes ago that there’s infinite hells out there, just waiting. We’re stronger together. Safer.”
Gail snickered. “Of all the things that ever made me feel safe, I don’t think Bigley’s ever been one of them.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t exactly see a better option. Nor do I feel great about you coming at me like that.”
She nodded sharply. “You’re totally right. That was shitty. Um.” She steepled her fingers. “Thanks for being willing to talk this out. Sorry for making it weird. I guess I don’t really understand.”
“Nobody really understands anything. But don’t do it again. And learn to say what you mean. Right now I’m just angry. But my anger’s a lot more gentle than my judgment.”
She smiled. “Understood.”
I still felt strange, caught in some mix of embarrassed, tired and mad. After a few minutes of awkward small talk I bailed to my room. I’d put a few decorations up since moving in- the old pair of gloves dad used to knock out The Philadelphia Phist, a failed attempt at a painting from my one failed attempt at a boyfriend and a vintage poster of the original Torchbearer that Jake had hung up before I arrived.
The argument with Gail wouldn’t stop bouncing around my brain. Parts of me were still wound up and angry, other parts were convinced I’d blown the whole thing out of proportion. She never came out and said ‘you don’t belong here.’ But did she need to? It was written all over her face.
Maybe this was why the original Torchbearer had avoided politics. I’d have given anything to stop ruminating on some hokey white girl’s remarks and just get some sleep. Instead I was seated on the desk, maglight in my hands, staring at a dead man’s face.
Nope, I decided. Cram it all back. Flush out the doubt. But brains are terrible listeners. How do you just not think about something? Even as I sat up and rubbed my eyes I couldn’t help but think that there was a way of dealing with these self-doubts. Answers were available.
I turned the Torch over. The word “TRUE” was carved on its side in witchly scratches. Before it had occurred to me what I was doing I had already pulled the stationery from my desk and written the phrase “I am unworthy” on the biggest piece of paper I could find. It made perfect sense in the moment. Why agonize and reflect when you can just get answers?
There was the crisp click of the switch as I turned the Torch on, followed by familiar disappointment as the page flooded with a rainbow of annotations and marginalia. In lime ink, an actuarial estimate of the value of a human life adjusted for my skillset, age and ability. In lavender, the script of an old Thor comic. In scarlet, goldenrod, turquoise and onyx there was nothing but nitpicking, puffery and needless diversion.
I turned the Torch off and threw it onto the bed. It went exactly as hard as I wanted- which in that moment was more than enough to shatter the bedframe. Stupid. Worse still, seconds after throwing it the damn thing returned to my hand.
* * * * * * *
Sleeping in the wreckage of my bed didn’t quite make me feel better, but it dulled the angry voices in my head to a dragging moan. I’d be able to talk, walk around, function… but there was a heaviness in my chest that I could tell would be there all day.
We met inside the chamber from our tour, everyone fully suited up for the first time. Dad dressed exactly as she had the night before with the addition of a slick black jacket decorated by a YOUTHFRONT armband. Timmy had no armbands on at all, and judging by the red-and-yellow threads poking from his sleeves they’d been ripped off in haste. Truman looked appropriately embarrassed in his costume, while Hans argued with Jake about the alterations he’d made to his.
“The trenchcoat stays,” he insisted.
“You look like a school shooter.”
“Good!” Underneath, he appeared to be in a form-fitting mylar suit, chest emblazoned with a giant pink brain wearing a horned viking helmet.
Jake shrugged. “Kid, when we have our first press conference you will be in authorized dress. It’s up to you if you want to delay the inevitable.” He clapped his hands together. “Okay! Take your stations, kids.” We each sat in a circle of ash around the pillar while Jake bent over to open the briefcase at his feet. Inside stood a tiny cage, about the size of a shoe box turned on its side, with an even tinier horse contained within. Along with the horse were two weird mice or maybe baby rats.
He twisted the segments of the central pillar into the right sequence and crouched down next to the vulture’s beak jutting from the bottom. “Now, you’re only going to be astrally projecting into the petal, so don’t worry too much about getting hurt physically.” He tossed the baby rats into the vulture beak and slit the horse’s throat. A tiny whinny pierced the air. “You might suffer some passing spiritual injury, but nothing we can’t help you recover.” He tossed the horse in with the rodents. It choked the whole mess down as if alive. “You’ll start off scattered, so your first objective is to join back up. Afterwards, you’ll need to collect the living mustache of a native Snidely and find your way to the return rig.” Before we could ask what a lick of that meant, smoke rushed forth from the vulture beak and the world got all wiggly.
My back ached like it was strapped to a metal bar and the air was crackling with too many colors. Jake walked slowly around the pillar sprinkling pink Himalayan salt and muttering something in a language I didn’t understand. The smell of burning hair filled the room. Everything in my ears was screaming, and soon the world went black.