"Yes, children, three of them," Quince concluded, leaning back slightly and smiling his winning smile, "But they die very quickly, and you do it on account of all the virgins you think you'll get your hands on once you get to heaven."
Quince was a salesman, although he never went door-to-door. He never had the need. All his clients came straight to him, because there was simply nowhere else to go.
"I see," breathed the Poor Soul, "I suppose that makes it quite acceptable,"
It frowned slightly.
"But tell me," It went on softly, "What is a virgin?"
Quince levered his smile up a notch.
"My friend," he enunciated warmly, "If you take this life, then that question will never bother you again."
Quince was a salesman, but he'd never so much as held a vacuum cleaner or driven a car. What he sold was much more precious.
What he sold was life itself.
He sat in his office – which was both infinitely huge and immeasurably small, on account of the fact that it existed in a place outside of both space and time – and dealt out lives to the Poor Souls, who came to him ever and again. Technically, his realm was not quite the beginning of existence – but it was so close that he almost fancied he could see it on a clear day.
The only beings he ever came across – as far back as he could remember, at least, which was very far indeed, if not quite forever – the only beings he ever saw were these Poor Souls, these clients of his. Essentially, they were lifeless shells, waiting to be filled with whatever life Quince took it into his head to offer them. There was never a lack, either of clients or lives to give them.
Personally, Quince regarded existence as rather an obvious choice – a bit mainstream – and he was constantly surprised that his clients didn't look around more first and see what their other options were. But then, after all, why should he care?
As long as he had clients, that was all that mattered.
"No, I don't think you understand," said the scruffy-looking Soul, leaning back and regarding Quince with something that almost bordered on disdain, "I don't want that blasted life. I don't want any of your petty little lives, so just put them away and listen for a minute, won't you?"
Quince frowned darkly – he was unused to being addressed in such a tone – and shook his head woefully. But he liked to think of himself as a reasonable man – or at least, creature – so he put the life he had been offering the Soul away again, and cleared his throat wearily.
"And while we're at it, my name's not 'hey, you,' either, it's muttermutter."
"What?" said Quince, who couldn't stand people who mumbled.
"I said, it's 'Soul Dog'," repeated Soul Dog, at least having the grace to look abashed.
There was a pregnant silence.
"I see," said Quince at length. He paused, "Go on then, what is it you want?"
The scruffy-looking Soul looked surprised for a moment, as if it were expecting a little bit more of a fight. It recovered quickly, however.
"Right, yes," it began hurriedly, "Well, you've been here quite a while, haven't you?"
"Yes," said Quince coldly. "Forever,"
"Of course, of course," stammered the Soul. "Which is exactly why we thought we'd come to you first. Let you know, sort of thing. It was only the polite thing to do, we thought."
Something in the Soul's tone made Quince wary. He nodded slowly.
"And?" he asked, interested despite himself.
"To let you know, I mean." The Soul looked a little embarrassed now, "And, well, to see if you wanted on board. To be honest, we could do with having someone with your experience on the team"
Quince leant back.
"What exactly is it you are doing?" he asked suspiciously.
"Oh, that's easy!" exclaimed the Soul, "We're going into business."
After Quince had finished shouting and the Soul had left – seeming even more dishevelled than when it had arrived – he felt he needed a little break to calm himself down and regain his composure. He moved away from the endless queue of Poor Souls and wandered around aimlessly in his ephemeral realm.
What nerve. What nerve!
To even think of setting up a rival business! He shook his head ruefully. The quality of Poor Souls was certainly on the decline, if this was the sort of riff-raff the system was throwing up these days.
He wondered briefly how the fellow had ever managed to scrape together enough of a personality to exhibit such wanton arrogance. You could tell just by looking at the scruffy Soul that he had never enjoyed the weight of a proper life. Probably the wretched thing had simply spent some non-time bumming around the pathetic little nooks and crannies which littered the void this side of existence. More than likely he would call the whole thing a "valuable learning experience" or other such nonsense, and use it as a pretext in an application for some minor clerical position on The Other Side.
Quince sighed heavily.
How he hated students.
After rather a lot of non-time had elapsed, Quince began to feel a little more like his usual self, and decided to make his way back to the heart of his realm and get on with the serious business of distributing the various shades of human triumph and misery which formed the ubiquitous colouring of every life he handled. But when he had made himself ready to receive his first client, he found to his horror that a most singular thing had happened.
Instead of the endless queue of clients stretching away into infinity, which usually formed the backdrop of his world, there was only one rather small, sad-looking Soul waiting for him.
The feeling of unease, which had been brought on by the visit of the scruffy looking Soul, and which he had only just managed to shake, retuned to him in full vigour.
Trying to stay calm, Quince hurriedly beckoned the Poor Soul over.
"Existence, pleas…" began the Poor Soul, but Quince cut him off.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded sharply.
The Poor Soul looked slightly hurt.
"But I thought we weren't allowed to ask that," the Soul wheedled, pointing to a sign that floated in the middle of nowhere above Quince's desk.
The sign read:
We thank you for not:
-Questioning the meaning of existence
Quince shook his head irritably.
"No, no, I didn't mean…." he rolled his eyes and spluttered incoherently, "I mean, well, where are all the others?"
"There aren't any," replied the Poor Soul, looking more pitiful than ever, "I'm the only one,"
"But there were millions of you here a moment ago," Quince pontificated desperately, "Where have they all gone?"
"They chose the other option," the Soul bobbed about a little and tried to look ingratiating. "I thought they were being silly," it added quickly, "I think your deal looks much better."
Quince – who could always be bought with flattery – found himself warming a little to the Poor Soul almost against his will, and calmed down somewhat.
"Well, it is, it is," he said more softly. "But…what could they possibly be offering that's more enticing than life?"
"Oblivion," said the Poor Soul simply.
"Oblivion?" ejaculated Quince, outraged.
"Yes, oblivion. Nothing. Nada. Void. Forever."
"And what on Earth is so appealing about that?" Quince was leaning very close to the Poor Soul now, staring desperately at it, willing it to answer him.
The Soul seemed to consider the question for a moment.
"We-ell," it said at length, "you don't have to get up quite as early, I suppose."
"You don't have to get up at all, in fact."
"And they all chose that over life?" Quince almost spat the question, "They could have had it all – excitement , adventure, fine wine, great sex, loss, and friendship, and ice cream, and love – they could have had it all, and instead they chose…not having to get up so early?"
The Poor Soul shrugged.
"No one likes having to get up," it said.
Quince marched resolutely through the vast expanses of nothing that composed his realm, the Poor Soul tagging along forlornly behind him.
He'd show them! Oh, yes, they wouldn't get away with this, not when Quince was around!
"I don't mean to be a nuisance," the Poor Soul said at length, "But would you mind telling me where we're going?"
"To stop this nonsense," replied Quince, grimly, "We're going to find the competition and make it very clear to them that they are simply not wanted. I mean, after all, how popular can oblivion actually…oh!"
At that moment they topped one of the strange crests of non-space, and Quince fell silent at the sight before him.
Stretching away into the deep distance they streamed, millions and millions and millions of them: Poor Souls, shuffling and silent and empty, floating from the blinding, unassailable light of the Beginning towards…what?
He could not make out where they were heading at first. Quince squinted; then he frowned; then he snarled – his quarry had been found.
He plunged into the queuing souls, bumping them aside with scientifically executed ill-humour, and made his way to the Establishment of his rivals.
"Excuse me, if you don't mind, thank you so very much," he muttered as he shoved the souls out of his way.
Floating in the nothingness, there it stood: a cheap, chipped desk, in front of a panel of three battered-looking chairs; behind the chairs, a wall hung silently, its sole reason for existence apparently to provide a place for the posters to go. Quince did not recognise the posters, though they looked vaguely familiar and filled him with a sense of instinctive contempt. The first showed a green leaf from a plant that some of the people involved in Life seemed to find quite symbolic of some thing or another; it certainly seemed to be something that many people thought quite important. The second showed nine pictures of the same bearded and behatted man, identical except that each image was reproduced in a different horribly garish colour. The final poster showed an idiotic looking fat yellow man clutching an item Quince vaguely recognised as being something sweet and decidedly bad for you. He loathed all three of them on sight; but not so much as he instantly loathed the three souls seated on the chairs behind the desk.
One was sucking on a nasty-looking little hand rolled cigarette. Another was sporting a pair of designer jeans ostentatiously complemented with designer tears. But it was the third soul that caught Quince's attention. It was wearing a fluffy little beanie hat (Quince found it intrinsically annoying, and would have done so were he not already thoroughly annoyed with its wearer anyway) and a ridiculous pair of cheap plastic sunglasses. It was the soul who had pestered him earlier about the setting up of this rival business. It was Soul Dog.
Even as he watched, Quince saw Soul Dog finish talking in a bored-looking way to one of the Poor Souls and lazily indicate which way the client should go. The Poor Soul floated around the back of the desk and into what Quince recognised with a sudden burst of complete non-surprise as a toilet bowl.
There was a thin, ersatz flushing sound and the Poor Soul promptly vanished into nothingness.
"Hahaha," said Soul Dog.
"Awesome!" exclaimed Jeans. "That was, like, well funny, Soul Dog!"
"Yeah man!" added Roll-Up. "Classic!"
Slowly, the laughter died away. Quince was not laughing in a very prominent way.
"What," he said.
"Is," he said.
"The meaning," he said.
"Um," said Jeans, looking at Roll-Up.
"Um," added Roll-Up, looking at Soul Dog.
"Um, yes," said Soul Dog, looking suddenly a little sheepish.
"You think this is funny, don't you?"
"You think this is clever?"
"You think you can just waltz in here and mess up a system that has been perfected over what is technically forever?"
"You think…" began Quince, who was almost starting to enjoy himself by now.
"…your mum," muttered Soul Dog.
There was a horrified pause.
Then Jeans and Roll-Up collapsed into balls of helpless laughter.
"You think…" Quince tried to rally, but was drowned out by the catcalls of the two cackling Souls.
"Oh, you burned him, man!" shouted Roll-Up.
"Your mum thinks!" exclaimed Soul Dog, somewhat encouraged.
The other two collapsed once more at this masterly display of wit.
Feeling disturbed and suddenly out of his depth, Quince decided to change his tack.
"And look, what's with all this Lifey rubbish anyway?" he tried desperately, indicating the posters and the desk and Soul Dog's almost unbearably annoying hat, "I mean, if you lot are hawking Oblivion, why have all these cheap bits of Life stuff knocking around?"
The three Souls stopped laughing for just long enough to exchange a disbelieving look, before bursting once more into a derisive cacophony.
"Er, duh!" shouted Roll-Up.
"He's so dense, man!" Jeans chimed in.
"Yeah, it's ironic, dude," Soul Dog rolled his eyes.
"But…" tried Quince, who felt things slipping away.
"Move with the times, granddad!"
"But…" he said again.
"Life is so last paradigm,"
"Yeah, man, nothing is the new everything."
"But…" he tried, one last time.
"Your mum's butt," said Soul Dog.
And that was that.
Some non-time later, after the laughter had died down (or at least after he had gotten far enough away that he could no longer hear it) Quince realised he was not alone. A Poor Soul floated nearby, apparently trying to be unobtrusive and slightly comforting at the same time.
"There, there," it said to him, vaguely.
Quince stared at it sharply.
"What is it now?" he demanded, "Oh, have we decided I do have a use after all? Oblivion not your cup of tea now, is it?"
"No, I told you earlier, I wanted existence, please."
"Oh, yes, right," moaned Quince, suddenly remembering the Poor Soul he had met earlier, his last customer, "Well, I'm afraid existence is closed. Until further notice," he added grumpily.
"What's your name?" Quince asked at length, mainly because there was little else to do.
"I don't know," replied the Soul.
"Very well. I shall name you…" Quince paused, "Bob."
"That's a shame," said Bob at length.
"No it's not, Bob's a very nice name!" exclaimed Quince, rather scandalised.
"I mean, it's a shame about existence. I was quite looking forward to it. Bob's a good name."
"Oh," said Quince, mollified. "Is it? Doesn't seem that many of you people are missing it much."
And just at that moment, there was a blinding flash of light, out of which stepped a short man in a faintly shabby grey two-piece suite.
"I'm afraid, Mr Quince, that you are rather wrong about that," said the man. "People are, in fact, missing it a great deal."
"Ah," said Quince, looking suddenly nervous, "I was afraid this might happen."
"Well," said the man. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?"
"Yes, I suppose. This is Bob." He turned to the Poor Soul.
"Bob," he said. "This is God."
"What do you mean, 'revoke my charter'?" Quince exploded, "That's divine bloody law, that is! I mean, just who the hell do you think you are?"
"I'm God," said God, simply.
"A God, yes, of course, no question." Quince was trying desperately to keep his temper, "But don't get carried away with yourself, now!"
"There is only one God," said God. "We just have lots of little bits, that's all."
"Yes, and some of those bits are very little, I see," muttered Quince. "But, look, it's not my fault, OK? I mean, they were the ones who started the new business; I haven't done anything, have I?"
"Exactly," said God. "You haven't done anything. Some rivals move in, the whole of Existence going to rot and ruin, and what exactly have you done? Nothing, that's what!"
"Well," conceded Quince. "To be honest, I thought the whole thing would blow over in a couple of eons,"
"That's hardly the point." God pushed his horn-rimmed glasses back up his face; Quince noted without surprise that one of the arms was broken and held together with sticky tape. "The point is, down in Existence, not a child, not one child has been born since this nonsense started. You know why? I'll tell you why! No souls to fill the bodies! And that's just what's happening to Existence! Imagine the disturbances this is causing on The Other Side, and on Level Two!"
God rolled his eyes and made a little sniffing noise.
"When all's said and done, the whole thing's a ghastly mess. And that's why," concluded God, "I have been sent back here, back to the Beginning. To give you a little prod, as it were. Get the Souls flowing into Existence again, or your charter is officially revoked,"
"But," began Quince.
"No buts," said God sternly, "You're living on borrowed time, sunshine! Just you watch it, right?"
There was an implosion of light, and God was gone.
Quince was rolling his eyes, when God reappeared.
"Nice to meet you, Bob," said God affably, and vanished again.
Quince gave Bob a dirty look.
"Bugger," he said.
"This is so humiliating," muttered Quince, as they topped the rise and began drifting gently down towards the endless line of queuing Souls.
"Are you sure you don't want me to do the first bit?" asked Bob, kindly.
"No, no," he said gloomily, "It's my charter we're trying to protect. I should be leading this damn thing, I suppose."
They wondered a little way down-queue from the Establishment. Quince pointedly ignored the jeers and rude signs being made by Soul Dog and his cronies.
"So," said Bob after a while, "Should we start?"
"Yes, yes, I suppose so," snapped Quince.
He took a deep breath.
"What Do We Want?" he shouted.
"Existence!" Bob echoed.
"When Do We Want It?" Quince yelled.
"Technically Forever!" answered Bob.
The Poor Souls filed silently past. A few of them had the grace to look slightly abashed. Most of them just seemed indifferent.
After a while, Quince noticed that Soul Dog was coming over to them. He turned his back on the student Soul.
"What Don't We Want?" he thundered.
"Oblivion!" answered Bob.
"Why Don't We Want It?"
"A Fundamental Opposition To The Extinguishing Of Sentience As Opposed to A Constant Evolution Of Consciousness Towards A State Of Total Awareness!"
"That's very good," said Soul Dog, without apparent sarcasm. "Really catchy. Did you write it yourself?"
"Humph," said Quince, "Why are you so keen to know? Do you want to steal that, too?"
"My dear Quince, we are not enemies, just business rivals," Soul Dog grinned.
"Um, no actually, I think we are enemies," said Quince, with mock-thoughtfulness. "I can tell by the simple expedient of looking deep within myself, and recognising the vast and roiling sea of hate I feel for you. It's a dead giveaway, I'd say."
"My dear Quince…" began Soul Dog again, but Quince cut him off.
"I'm not your dear anything!" he snarled. "And while we're at it, what's with all these words of more than four letters you're using? When I saw you with your friends it seemed that your entire communicative repertoire consisted of asserting certain relationships between yourself and my mother. Not that I've got one, but still…And now that your two idiotic friends are nowhere to be seen, it seems you're suddenly capable of articulate discourse once more."
Quince glared at him malevolently.
"Well, the others, you see," Soul Dog looked embarrassed. "They don't understand…It's important to talk to them in language they are reassured by…"
"You mean you're pretending to be cool so they'll like you," said Quince flatly. "Typical bloody student."
"Well, anyway," said Soul Dog, visibly trying to pull himself together. "I didn't come here to argue. I just came here to let you know, the offer's still there if you need it."
"The word from the Other Side is, you're in trouble," Soul Dog allowed himself to exude a smug little glow. "It seems Them Upstairs are unhappy with the way you've been running this show. Thought you might appreciate the offer. Why not take up with us? It's obvious you're pathetic little protest isn't having much effect. As endearing as the placards are, of course."
Quince couldn't quite stop himself from stealing a guilty glance down at the board he was wearing. It read:
OBLIVION – NOTHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT!
Soul Dog grinned.
"Yes, well," he said, "If you change your mind, you know where to find us. As I said before, we could use someone with your experience."
"Over my dead body!" yelled Quince.
"If your charter is revoked," rejoined Soul Dog. "It seems that is a distinct possibility. Farewell for now," he drifted away, before adding over his shoulder, "Or should I say: laters, dude!"
Poor Souls drifted past, but Quince did not have the energy to chant.
"What do we do now?" enquired Bob, at length.
"Plan B, I suppose. Tell me Bob," he asked the small Soul, "have you ever thought you might like dressing up?"
"But I don't want life anymore," protested Bob, "I quite like it here, I've decided. Can't I just stick around and sort of help you a bit?"
Quince rolled his eyes with exasperation.
"Look for the hundredth time, it's not a proper life OK?" Quince proffered the small life up for inspection. "It's just a little thing I knocked up, right? It won't take a moment, you'll hardly be gone at all. And it will be helping me, don't you see? This is Plan B! This is how we get the business up and running again!"
Bob looked uncertain, but he inched a little closer to the little life.
"Yes, that's it, that's it! Come on now, it won't hurt,"
Before Bob could change his mind, Quince suddenly thrust the life forward. The two connected, there was a brief flash of light, and Bob vanished…
…but only for a moment, and then he was back…
…only he looked rather different. He was still recognisably Bob – at least, when you knew that Bob was in there somewhere, and you actually looked for him – but he also looked like a rather podgy fellow in a black top hat, with wobbling jowls and a bulldog expression.
"What the devil was that?" Exclaimed Bob, "What the bloody hell am I wearing? And why on earth am I talking like this?"
Quince smiled. His plan seemed to have worked.
"Hey, you! Yes, you sir!" Quince pointed insistently at the random Poor Soul that had made the unfortunate mistake of catching his eye. The Soul was pulled inexorably towards Quince, where he stood behind his shabby makeshift stall.
"Ah, good of you to come to me!" Quince grinned. "Quite the right choice. Now, sir, I have a question for you: what on earth are you doing in that silly queue over there, when we have such unbeatable offers here?"
"Well," began the Soul, but Quince didn't give him time to answer.
"For instance," Quince continued, "did you know that right now, and for a limited time only you can get not one, not two, but three lives for the usual price?"
"Really?" asked the Poor Soul, a glimmer of interest beginning to show through.
"Yes!" exclaimed Quince, "Imagine that – three lives! There are people down there who have frittered away their first life just trying to find a way of getting one more, and you could get two extra for free!"
Another couple of Poor Souls had strayed away from the big queue, curious to see what the commotion was.
Quince swelled his chest and began to feel that things were not hopeless after all. It could work, it could really work…
"Well, I don't know…" one of them began.
"Well, of course you don't know," Quince jumped in quickly; this was what he had been waiting for. "You've never had a life, have you?"
The assembled Poor Souls shook their heads sadly.
"You don't know," he went on, "But I've some people here who would like to talk with you, some very satisfied customers, they'd like to tell you how absolutely wonderful my service is!"
Under the stall, he gave Bob a little kick.
There was a burst of light, and all at once the fat man of the black hat and bulldog face was standing next to Quince.
"Hello, my friends!" exclaimed the man. "I understand you are interested in taking a life? May I be the first to commend that choice!"
"And…who are you?" asked one of the braver Souls.
"A fine question," sang the man, "A great leader! I came when my nation called, and was honoured for it! And if you chose life, maybe you could do the same!"
"And tell me," said a new voice. "Was the whole affair sunlight and joy then?"
Quince looked up sharply.
"Bugger off, Soul Dog!" he said quickly, but it was too late; a cloud had already passed across the bulldog face.
"Oh it's not Soul Dog that bothers this one, Quince," said Soul Dog. "This one's got another dog that haunts his steps; and I'm not black."
"It is true, I must admit," the man stumbled over his words. "I was not always what you might call happy, exactly…"
He took a step backwards, head hung low, and he barely resisted as Quince swung him round and forced him into another of his pre-made little lives.
There was a flash.
The podgy fellow was gone; in his place stood a tall, elegant man with dark skin, a thick fuzz of dark, tightly packed hair, a brightly coloured bandana round his head, and a guitar slung over his shoulders.
"Listen to me, baby," the man crooned in his rich, honeyed voice, "Life is sweet; take of that tree, and eat all you can."
"Ah, yes," said Soul Dog. "And if you eat too much, well, that's what the vomiting reflex is for, isn't it?"
The man's guitar seemed to droop somehow, and all the fire fell from him.
Quince narrowed his eyes still further, and gave the man a shove.
There was another flash of light.
Now a woman stood there, with sultry lips and platinum blonde hair, and a skirt that danced and swirled in a wind that blew from an unseen grate.
"Take a life, boys," she smiled sweetly at them, and blew them a kiss. "Be born today, I'll sing you all your happy birthdays,"
"Ah, but nobody's perfect, right?" Soul Dog sighed. "And all lives have barbs, my dear, do they not? Sometimes, lives end on those barbs."
"Enough!" shouted Quince. There was another flash. Bob looked about, confused.
"What…Um, what was that?"
"My point exactly," said Soul Dog smoothly. "Now come on children, you've had your fun." He began ushering the Poor Souls back towards the queue. "You see then, Quince? If that's the best Existence has to offer, then surely my Oblivion is better?"
Quince began to speak, but at that moment there was another flash of light.
Quince looked suddenly very sick.
"Well, Mr. Quince?" asked God.
"I'm…" stuttered Quince, "That is to say, I'm in the process of…"
"You mean you still haven't done anything, don't you?" asked God, not unkindly.
"Well, let's not be harsh on him," said Soul Dog, looking rather smug. "I mean, he has been trying. It's just that the simple and unavoidable fact is that his days are past. Change must be our watchword; nothing lasts forever, that's what we say."
God peered at Soul Dog over the top of his horn-rimmed glasses.
"We?" he enquired.
"Yes, me and my colleagues," Soul Dog went on, "We run the Establishment which has usurped Quince's little business."
"Ah, yes, I see," said God, warmly. "I must say, we have been following you people with some interest. You see, now that it seems Mr. Quince here has been unable to fulfil the terms of his charter, Us Upstairs have been looking at the alternatives."
"But…" Quince began in a thin, broken voice.
"Not now!" said God, quite firmly, and Quince drooped like a wilting flower. "Anyway, Mr., err, Dog, like I say, we have been looking at the alternatives, and well, it seems that we might be able to come to some sort of arrangement."
"How interesting!" said Soul Dog, smiling shark-like. "And how exactly do you see that working? We specialise in Oblivion, after all."
"Yes, yes, we are aware of that," God stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Well, the thing is, you see, that the Universe has been going on for quite some time now, getting bigger and brighter and expanding and throwing out billions upon billions of Souls…anyway, you know the picture, I won't bore you with the details."
"Of course," prompted Soul Dog. "Do go on."
"Well, as things have worked out, your little Establishment has ended up bringing Us Upstairs round to questioning a few things. And it seems that we may have reached the Point of Reversal."
"The Point of Reversal?" echoed Soul Dog, intrigued.
"Oh yes, the Point of Reversal," went on God. "It has been a theoretical possibility since the Dawn, of course, but no one ever really took it seriously. Until you boys came along, that is. You see, the very fact that you have been so wildly successful in promoting your Other Option could be taken as an indication that the Point of Reversal is due."
"And…what exactly does that entail?" Soul Dog was looking rather eager now, hungry almost.
"Oh, basically what it says on the tin, hahah," God gave a dry little laugh. "When the Universe reaches its point of maximum expansion, there is a moment of absolute stillness, and then the whole thing starts running backwards. Lives stop being lived, children stop being born, the dead begin to, well, un-die, and that means…"
"That means," interrupted Soul Dog, "that means that all the souls who have ever existed, all the lives that have ever been lived, they all need to be…unmade."
"Bingo!" exclaimed God. "Ahahah."
Soul Dog swallowed.
"My God," he said softly."We're going to be enormous!"
"Yes, I am," said God happily. "And yes, you are."
"This is brilliant!" said Soul Dog. "I knew, I always knew my idea was terrific!"
"Oh yes, so it would seem," grinned God. "Quite inspired, I must say,"
"Yes, I've always been very inspired," agreed Soul Dog. "A generally inspired Soul, that's me,"
"So all that remains, if you are amenable," said God, "is for you and your colleagues to come and sign the necessary paperwork, and we can draw up the new charter. Which would make you official, of course."
"Yes, of course, of course," Soul Dog grinned. "But, well, do we really have to leave to sign the blasted forms? I mean, you can see how busy we are!"
He indicated the endless queue of Souls.
"Ah, I see your dilemma, yes." God frowned for a moment, but then his expression cleared. "But wait! The answer seems simple to me – why not just take on an extra pair of hands? After all, it hardly seems fair that someone like you, an ideas man as it were, needs to bother himself getting his hands dirty. Surely there's someone here who could work for you, and relieve you of some of the day to day tedium of your wonderful work?"
Their eyes met, and they turned silently to look at the forlorn Quince.
Soul Dog smiled.
"Well, he doesn't much look the part," observed Soul Dog.
"That can be easily remedied," said God, and clicked his fingers.
There was a puff of smoke. Quince was abruptly wearing a garishly coloured tracksuit. On his head was a horrible little plastic-coated cap, with the logo of The Establishment printed on it in big bold letters. He was wearing a badge that said,
Hello! My name is
Please can I take your order
"Oh yes, that looks much better!" Soul Dog enthused.
Quince shot him a look that managed to encompass both bottomless bile and utter defeat.
"Come on now, Quince," said Soul Dog firmly. "Time to go to work,"
Quince followed God and Soul Dog as they led him to the Establishment. Roll-up and Jeans were working frantically behind the desk, sending Soul after Soul to the little porcelain toilet bowl floating in the middle of nowhere.
"Easy there boys," said Soul Dog, clapping his hands. "Why work so hard? Look, we've got a new employee!"
Roll-up and Jeans looked at the sad figure of Quince for a moment, and then collapsed into helpless fits of laughter.
"That's right," exclaimed Soul Dog. "We did it! We won! It's easy street for us now. Come on Quince! Get behind the desk and get stuck into your new career!"
Quince sighed. Slowly, he walked over to the desk and sat down with infinite misery on one of the chairs.
"Oh, and when you address me, remember to call me, 'boss'," Soul Dog added, gleefully.
Quince did not even have the energy to look disgusted.
"The controls are fairly basic, I'm sure you'll pick them up pretty quickly," said Soul Dog. "Go on, try pressing that button there,"
Quince reached out a tentative hand and pressed a little green button on the desk. The toilet flushed. For some reason, Soul Dog and his Colleagues seemed to find this immensely amusing.
"Ah, that's it, I knew you were a quick study, Quince," laughed Soul Dog. "Good work! Now," he went on, turning to God," you mentioned some paperwork that needed signing?"
"Yes, yes!" said God. "My counterparts Upstairs handle all the paperwork. I shall arrange transport for you…ah, directly!"
As he finished speaking there was a small sighing noise. They all looked around, to see an elevator descending slowly from the endless sky. It stopped in front of them, and its doors slid open with a nice little "ping" noise.
"Please, gentlemen," said God, indicating the elevator.
Grinning widely, Roll-up, Jeans and Soul Dog trotted over to the elevator and stepped inside.
God shook each of their hands in turn.
"Wonderful doing business with you gentlemen," said God. "Send my regards to my people Upstairs, won't you?"
"Of course, of course!" said Soul Dog, a little peremptorily, "Now, how do we make this blasted thing work?"
"Oh, I think I can handle that for you, 'boss'," enunciated Quince.
Soul Dog just had time to glance out of the doors and shoot Quince a glance of mixed confusion and fear.
"N..." he began, but at that moment Quince leaned forward and pressed the little green button.
The doors of the elevator slammed shut.
There was a thin, ersatz flushing sound.
The doors opened.
The elevator was empty.
Quince let out a long sigh and allowed himself a smile.
"He was right, you know," he said, cheerily. "The controls are fairly basic. And not too difficult to re-wire, I see. You can come out now, Bob."
There was a flash of light, and God disappeared.
"Oh my," said Bob, "That was an interesting one!"
"Yes indeed," agreed Quince, who was busy getting rid of the desk and the chairs and the posters and all the other trappings of the Establishment. "It was like I said – having a 'plan B' is all very well and good, but sometime the thing it's most useful for is making them think you don't have a 'Plan C'."
"It almost makes me wonder if I wouldn't like to try a whole life," went on Bob.
"Well, that's what I'm here for," said Quince merrily, as he put his old office back together. He checked his desk, and was happy beyond words to find all the lives piled up there as usual, just waiting for Poor Souls to come and live them.
"Although," began Bob uncertainly.
Quince stopped moving things around and looked at him.
"Yes?" he asked.
"Well, the thing is, you see," Bob stammered nervously, "I wondered, um…well I thought, you're going to be awfully busy now, after all that business, and I sort of wondered if maybe…"
"Yes?" Quince asked again.
"If maybe you needed an assistant?" Bob looked at him hopefully.
Quince smiled broadly.
"Bob, my friend," he said. "Welcome on board."