013 Orders From Above: Episode 13 ‘Popcorn and a Movie’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

popcorn

A large white screen slowly and noiselessly descended from the ceiling and flickered to life with a grainy black and white countdown from ten to zero. Sweat beading on his forehead, Nigel sat staring at it, bemused and befuddled by the strange turn of events. Everything else in the mill, including Gabe, Nick and Uri – had they really said they were angels? – seemed to recede from his vision. The sound of a hundred trumpets boomed from concealed speakers, forcing Nigel to clamp his hands over his ears to prevent his eardrums bursting.

“Sorry, sorry,” cried Gabe, hastily pressing buttons on a remote control to turn the volume down. “Is that better?” He gently pulled Nigel’s hands away from his ears, “I said, is that better? Here, have some popcorn.”

A huge red and white striped cardboard bucket was placed on Nigel’s lap. Nick leaned over and grabbed a handful for himself.

The screen turned a sparkly pale blue while a deep voice announced: “Welcome to the Great Hall of All Angels.

There was another trumpet volley, and the camera panned through billowing clouds to a colossal white building. The great, gilded doors, more than twenty feet tall, parted and swung slowly inwards, revealing a hall of breathtaking proportions. At the far end, a staggeringly beautiful stained glass window glowed in jewel colours. The scene panned over a golden altar on a high platform, at each end of which were candle holders eight feet tall bearing huge creamy candles. Large silver bowls overflowing with bunches of grapes and other fruits of all shapes and sizes covered the altar’s surface. Nigel registered the sounds of birdsong and tiny, tinkling bells as he gazed at the amazing scene opening up before him.

The narrator continued, and Nigel felt as if it was specifically directed at him: “If you could have been there – which you couldn’t, of course, because you didn’t exist then – you would have been dazzled by the light and laughter of ten thousand angels.”

And he was indeed dazzled.

“Aaaaagh! My eyes. You’ve burned my eyes!”

“We always forget, brother,” drawled Nick, taking another fistful of popcorn from Nigel’s bucket, “how weak is the flesh of mortal men. Give him a pair of sunglasses.”

Nigel wiped his streaming eyes and put on the dark glasses handed to him by Gabe.

“I’m so sorry, Nigel. Are you OK now?”

Nigel managed a nod and focused again on the screen, where a throng of shimmering figures milled about.

“That’s us,” said Gabe wistfully, “All of us. The whole hierarchy of angels. We’re waiting for Father.”

A bell rang, nine deep, solemn tolls; Nigel felt the reverberation rise through the soles of his feet to the hair follicles on his scalp. A figure, a head taller than all the others, stepped up onto the platform and raised a huge, gleaming sword. The blade burst into flames.

“That’s Michael,” whispered Gabe, and Nigel didn’t miss the awe and respect in his voice.

“Doesn’t wield that sword much these days, ” muttered Nick.

Gabe shushed him and touched Nigel’s arm. “Now, pay attention. I’ll explain things as we go along. Popcorn OK, is it? Sweet and salty, absolutely the best!”

Dumbstruck, Nigel shoved some popcorn into his mouth for something to do that felt vaguely normal and watched the movie unfold as he chewed. The babble of indistinct but animated conversations dropped and then fell away to silence. The angels’ wings and bright white gowns shimmered and quivered as a huge shadow with a glowing edge appeared above, below and around them.

“That’s our father,” whispered Gabe, clasping his hands and sighing with adoration, “You can’t see him as he really is, of course, because it would be too much for your fragile mind, so he’s kind of represented here in light and shadow.”

The buzz of excited voices and laughter started up again and reached a crescendo, before dropping once more to sibilant whispers. Nigel spotted Gabe – or Gabriel as he should think of him up there on screen – amongst the crowd and Nick, no, Lucifer, next to him.

Gabe stepped up to the screen and pointed out various angels.

“That’s Zadkiel. And those two giggling together are Cassiel and Raziel. Ooh, and there’s you, Uriel!”

Michael waved his sword and there was a lot of loud shushing until all the angels fell absolutely silent again and they all stood in alert stillness.

“You can’t hear Father’s words either,” said Nick with a mocking grin, “It would fry your brains. Literally.”

“That’s right,” chimed Gabe, throwing his brother a warning look. “Father believes it does us good to change roles every hundred thousand years or so, so what’s happening here is, as our names are called out, we step up to the altar to receive our new orders. See? And once they’re given, you’ll note that the angels kind of… dematerialise? Well, they rematerialise in that part of the cosmos to which they’d been assigned. Exciting isn’t it?”

Nigel numbly took another handful of the sticky popcorn and pushed it into his mouth. A particle in his bemused brain registered that the popcorn was absolutely the best sweet and salty he’d ever tasted.

The scene of the angels going up to the altar and disappearing went on for a while, until Nick snorted with impatience and picked up the remote to fast-forward the film. “Honestly, we’d be sitting here for decades if we were to watch every single assignment.”

Nigel had to look away, for the speed of the film made him nauseous. At last, Nick stopped the fast-forward at a point where just two figures stood before Michael in the Great Hall.

“Gosh,” said Gabe, stuffing more of Nigel’s seemingly bottomless bucket of popcorn and speaking with his mouth full, “I remember this so well. I got more and more excited as the places I really didn’t fancy were assigned to others.” His face took on a dreamy expression. “I was wondering, would I get Hephterion, with its silver skies and twin purple suns? Mazhtesh, which is entirely covered in ocean the colour of topaz? Either would have been very nice, thank you, but I really, really hoped it would be Eshmerien, which is populated with cute and cuddly, furry, chirrupy creatures that live harmless lives in beautiful magenta-leaved trees.”

“You mean there are such places?” asked Nigel incredulously.

Nick pressed the pause button and, his voice dripping with sarcasm, said, “Nigel, what humans know about the Universe wouldn’t even make a microscopic dot on the most microscopic of microscopic things.”

The figures on the screen started to move again. Despite the  dark glasses, Nigel’s eyes burned because he was finding it impossible to blink. Gabriel and Lucifer, larger than life against the brilliance of the screen, had turned and were looking at each other in confusion.

“Ah, now, you see us there? We’ve just been told that our destination was right where we’re standing now … Earth!” Gabe clapped his hands, clearly enjoying himself. Nick glowered at him.

Planet Earth, thought Nigel desperately. The blue planet. I’m on Earth. I am an Earthling. This is not happening.

Gabe started prattling again. “You humans think that Earth must be the most wonderful planet in the whole wide universe, but it isn’t really. Oh yes, the design of its geography and geology, its flora and fauna are the work of pure genius, but they’re not unique in the cosmos. Far from it! Angels have been on Earth since its beginning, of course, watching over what you call the primordial soup and on through the arrival of the great beasts that walked the land, flew in the air and swam in the oceans, followed by the new, improved and much smaller versions of birds, insects, sea creatures and plants that appeared.”

Nick stepped up in front of the screen to take over the story. His countenance was sorrowful, an expression Nigel would never have expected to see, as he said, “I was so innocent then.”

Nigel flicked his eyes from the two brothers standing near him, to the two, shimmering, quivering, winged creatures in the film.

Nick explained, “We were the only ones left and we knew at this point that we had been chosen for Earth. Then we were told about a new species. Humans.”

Gabe, who had been bouncing on his heels with impatience, butted in, “We found out that humans had been perfected after eons of frustration and many failed experiments, but, apart from a little niggle here and there, Father was pleased with the end result and expected great things of them. Of you,” he pointed at Nigel. “The male gender of the species handsome and strong, the females beautiful and placid. Of course, these attributes were not guaranteed in their offspring, but there’s only so much One can do.”

Nick said, “Father told us that he’d given them the entire planet to play in, although it was thought they’d largely avoid the North and South Poles, at least until they’d invented clothing, and the oceans would cause a few problems because you don’t have gills, and – and this was the pièce de résistance – for the first time ever, he’d taken the suggestion of one of the keen-as-mustard boffins that work in the laboratories and given all people brains that could operate beyond pure instinct.”

“In other words,” interjected Gabe, “You were given the capacity to choose your actions in a way a wild animal can’t…”

“If you don’t mind Gabe, I’m telling this part of the story. Now, where was I? Oh yes. All other creatures so far created lived purely by instinct, they didn’t really think beyond where their next meal was coming from, and where it would be safe for them to sleep so they wouldn’t, in turn, become a meal for something bigger and meaner. But a human can think great thoughts and make decisions and take responsibility…”

Gabe couldn’t help himself and butted in again, “It was something new and untried, and we had been specially chosen as your guardians!”

There was such pride in Gabe’s voice, but for the first time Nigel wanted to slap him rather than Nick. It was all too much.

But it wasn’t over yet.

“Specially chosen, my eye! I’d say we drew the short straw,” Nick drawled. “See us up there? Gabriel and Lucifer, full of joy and happy anticipation! Father’s words are burned into my memory. He cleared his throat and intoned in a sing-song voice:

“My children, humans will have an intellect way above anything else so far created, although, I have to admit, it will be hard to tell sometimes. I am experimenting by giving this new species a unique brain that will enable them to choose their actions and be accountable for them; but, as in all experiments, we need to run tests and analyse the results, and that’s where you two come in. I am particularly interested to discover which of them will be able to resist temptation to do bad things and which of them will dedicate their lives to selflessly doing good works. And to give them an incentive to be good, the boffins have come up with the notion of Paradise.”

The air above the angels turned from a white nothingness to an azure blue sky dotted with fluffy, gold-rimmed clouds. Unseen harps played beautiful music.

Gabe blew out his cheeks. “Nice, yes. But then Father said that there had to be an opposite otherwise it would be too easy, so there was also to be the concept of Hell.”

Lightning flashed and flickered in the Great Hall on the screen and Nigel watched Lucifer and Gabriel jump into each other’s arms, white-faced and clinging to each other like frightened children. The camera zoomed in on their terrified faces.

The ground beneath their feet turned from white nothingness to a roiling grey surface littered with rocks and scree. There was a deep rumble and the rocks reared and rolled and they had to let go of each other to keep their balance as the ground in front of them groaned and split with a mighty crack. It yawned open into a gaping, smoking hole.

The angels gingerly tiptoed forward, holding tightly on to each other’s sleeve, and peered over the ragged edge. The scene zoomed in for another close-up, this time to show bright red molten lava bubbling and burping far below, a veritable pit populated by menacing black figures wielding pitchforks. Flames like solar flares leapt upwards and singed the tips of the angels’ glorious wings.

The camera focused on the angels again as they both jumped smartly back from the brink and turned to face each other, their expressions mirroring blind panic.

“What you see is representative, of course,” drawled Nick, “There isn’t actually a stinking hole in the ground, Hell is far more sophisticated than that! But that’s by the by. The bottom line at this point was, one of us was to be the good angel and help humankind to be, well, kind to each other, and the other one would have to be, as it were, the bad angel taking care of the evil side of things.”

“Yes,” Gabe’s voice was tinged with sorrow, “and Father said we had to choose.”

Nick took up the story again. “Neither Gabriel nor me dared be the first to speak. Or move. We both understood the concept of ‘selecting a volunteer’, i.e. if no-one immediately puts their hand up to accept the mission, then the first one to blink, cough, scratch or fall to the ground in a dead faint, gets picked. We stood there like statues for, oh, I don’t know how long. Father went away to do other things, and kept popping back to see if we had come to a decision, but we neither spoke nor moved a muscle. He said he had more important things to do and handed the matter over to Michael, but we still didn’t move.”

Gabe said, “Michael also got exasperated with us, of course, and I asked if there wasn’t some other way to make the decision. He decided we’d flip for it, so our destiny was hinged on the toss of the Divine Instrument for Settlement of Conflict, the DISC. See?”

A large golden coin filled the screen. It flew high into the air, paused as if enjoying the view from up there, then tumbled down again, glinting as it spun over and over in the dazzling sunlight.

Nigel heard Lucifer say, “Heads, I stay.”

And at the exact same time Gabriel said, “Tails, I stay.”

The camera panned in to give a close-up of the DISC as it landed on the floor of the Great Hall, puffing up a small cloud of silvery dust. It teetered on its edge, turned slowly seven times, then tipped and fell with the merest tink of metal on stone.

The angels, clutching each other’s sleeve again, stooped down to see how the Disc had landed. There was a long silence.

Until Lucifer exclaimed, “Damn and blast!”

The words ‘The End’ appeared on the screen before it went blank and rolled silently up into the ceiling. Uri announced that he would make some coffee and Nick suggested that  Nigel might benefit from a slug of brandy first.

Nigel downed the brandy in one gulp, gasped, and croaked, “So you lost on the toss of a coin and went to Hell?” In his heart of hearts, he still didn’t believe any of it, but felt he had no choice but to behave as if he did; these individuals were clearly deranged and he wanted to get out of there safely.

“Yep. End of my innocence, as you can imagine. I didn’t think it was fair, though. I mean, it should have been best of three at least. But that’s by the by, it was a long time ago. The thing is, I accepted the challenge as my destiny. I asked only one thing.”

“And that was …?”

“When good and evil had been thoroughly tried and tested, all the kinks ironed out, and fully understood by all concerned and utilised fair and square by the people,” he paused to take in air, then ended with a rush, “Then Gabe and me would swap. I would return to the golden angelic hierarchy and Gabe would don the mantle as Lord of Eternal Darkness.”

“Yes,” said Gabe, rather sourly. “I didn’t think Michael would listen to any conditions, but he actually chuckled and agreed to it. To my utter dismay, I might add. The DISC was transported to Earth and buried deep. We weren’t allowed to know where. There it remained for thousands of years until it was dug up here, in the churchyard, thereby triggering the swap.”

Nick took over. “At the time of the DISC’s burial, Michael, Defender of Goodness and Chief of all Archangels, devised The Plan which we are now implementing. Uriel is Michael’s right-hand man and is here to keep an eye on things. You see, in order for us to prepare for our new roles, we have to have a little practice.”

“Yes,” said Gabe, “Nick has to tempt a bad person into doing something good …”

“And Gabe has to tempt a good person into doing something bad. And then we will swap jobs.” Nick patted Nigel’s shoulder, “You’re the Witness.”

Nigel, seriously beginning to wonder if these madmen would let him live to see another day, said, “Er, Witness?”

Gabe sighed. “People will have to know, Nigel! You’ll have to inform the world that Lucifer has returned to the Heavenly Hierarchy and that I …”  His grey eyes filled with tears and he was unable to go on.

Nigel leapt up and whirled to face Nick and Gabe, his tormentors. “This is insane!” he yelled. “I don’t know what your game is, but I want no part of it. Angels? It’s preposterous! You… you… can’t be angels! You don’t even have wings!”

There was a soft sound, no more than a sigh. A light breeze ruffled Nigel’s hair, and before his very eyes a pair of giant feathery wings sprouted from Gabe’s back as Uri carried in the cups of coffee and large slices of Battenberg on a tray.

“I must say, my man,” said Nick, clapping him heartily between the shoulder blades, “You’ve gone awfully pale.”

Not knowing what else to do, Nigel crammed a big piece of cake into his mouth.

Uri laughed at his bulging cheeks. “When you’ve finished that I’ll walk you back to The Anvil. I don’t think you can take any more today!”

Almost weeping, Nigel swallowed the cake and allowed himself to be led from the room. Only later, after he’d downed almost a whole bottle of wine, did the ominous meaning of Uri’s words occur to him.

More? What did he mean by more?

Next episode: ‘coup de foudre’

~~~~~

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