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. Three bullets flew towards the Soviet soldier he was aiming at. One seemed to hit. He didn't really have time to see what happened, because then the T-72 down in the valley that had been aiming its main gun at him let fly. The shell went over his head but hit a rock some meters behind him. The blast stunned him for an instant. When he recovered, he felt shredded by the splinters. It took him several seconds to figure out which wound was the worst – that was the one that had torn the right side of his throat open. Blood was spouting from his right carotid artery. He tried to staunch the flow using his right arm alone, the left one no longer worked. It was like trying to block a waterfall. This is what I get for trying to help the mujahedeen, was his last thought before he finally lost consciousness. # When he regained consciousness, his first reaction was dismay. Oh no, he thought, please spare me the pain. He hadn't felt much while he was high on adrenaline, but he knew that when that wore off he would be in agony. Then he noticed that he didn't feel any pain. Had somebody given him morphine? Who? He sat up. He was still lying on the same slope, but the fighting seemed to be over. Then he looked down the slope and saw a line of Soviet infantry approaching. He rolled over and hit the dirt again before he noticed that they weren't paying any attention to him. Then he noticed another thing. His own body was lying just to his left. It looked convincingly dead. At the same time he was wearing a body that felt just like he was used to. He could feel the rough gravel beneath his hands, chest and thighs. He got up cautiously, looking at the approaching Soviet infantry. No reaction from them. He went forward to stand right in front of one. The soldier passed through him. Then he heard a clatter behind him. He turned around and saw three women on horses. The Soviet troops paid no attention to them either. That proved that they too had to be invisible to living people, as he seemed to be. Not only was it militarily irresponsible to ignore three women on horseback toting shields and spears, in addition those women would certainly have turned the head of any man who saw them – though he wasn't sure whether those stunning curves were real or whether it was just their gleaming armor that was shaped that way. They rode up to him and raised their spears as if in salute.
"Nathaniel Franklin Lindman, we have come to fetch you," the nearest one said. "Although you were brought up as a Christian, you renounced your faith. Therefore the Christian God has announced that he has no claim to you. Since you died a hero's death, we have come to take you to the gods your ancestors worshipped a thousand years ago," another one said. What the heck – were these women valkyries? "Please mount my horse," the nearest one said. The only stirrups he could see were the ones the valkyrie was using. What was he supposed to do – vault onto the horse like some comic-book superhero? Seeing his hesitation, the woman gave her spear to one of her comrades and her shield to the other, then gripped Nathaniel under his arms and lifted him into the air without any sign of effort. He obligingly lifted his right leg and she seated him in front of herself on the horse. Off they went. The horse didn't seem bothered by the extra weight. In fact, it didn't even need the support of solid ground. It went trotting off right into the air. Nathaniel was too astounded to pay much attention to his surroundings. All he remembered afterwards was that they seemed to ride through clouds, then over a rainbow. One thing he did remember clearly was the valkyrie's breasts pressing into his back. That might have been enjoyable if they hadn't been encased in armor. He decided not to complain, though. He didn't want to seem a sissy. However, when the ride ended, the first thing he did was to try to rub the sore spots below his shoulderblades. Only then did he pay attention to the enormous log hall in front of which he had been lifted off the horse. Frankly he couldn't understand how a wooden structure of that size could bear its own weight. Well, this place seemed to have its own rules. Maybe gravity only worked when it was supposed to. "Welcome to Valhalla," the woman he had ridden with said. The place was certainly sort of impressive, with the gigantic golden dragonhead at the end of the roofbeam and with the carvings on the colossal wall. Then the valkyrie took his left arm and ushered him in through the open door. The vast floor was covered with wooden tables and benches. In the distance were some fireplaces, each large enough to fry a small herd of cattle at the same time. On the benches were thousands of men, busily grabbing morsels of meat from platters in front of them with their fingers and quaffing some liquid from horns held in their hands. Many of them wore armor and helmets, though only a few of the helmets were horned. The only women in evidence were serving the men. He was ushered to an emty spot at one of the tables. When he had sat down on the bench, a serving maid set down a platter of in front of him and gave horn filled with a dark brown liquid. Seeing that this wench was unarmored, Nathaniel smiled at her. She smiled back but was apparently busy, since she went on her way. Was the sauciness with which she moved her rear deliberate? Well, he could wonder about that later. He noticed that he was in fact rather hungry. Dying seemed to have given him quite an appetite. What was this stuff on the platter? It seemed to be a broiled haunch, of what he couldn't tell. A wild boar, maybe? Did they think he was Obelix? What was he supposed to eat it with? He couldn't see a fork or even a knife. He looked at the others. They were holding their drinking horns in one hand, usually the left, and similar haunches in the other, tearing off meat with their teeth. He decided to follow suit. The meat tasted pretty good. Then he decided to sample the drink.
Yuck! It seemed to be some kind of beer or ale, but plainly brewing had come a long way since the time of these guys. The sooner a modern atheist brewer of Nordic ancestry died a hero's death, the better. Maybe noticing his grimace, the man on his right said, "New here, are you?" Nathaniel nodded. "I hight Sigmund," his neighbor said and then launched into a long tale of how he had wound up in Valhalla. At first Nathaniel listened with some interest, but as the story grew taller and taller he quit listening. While Sigmund droned on, he began wondering how he understood what the other guy was saying. He realized that Sigmund was speaking Old Norse but that somehow he was able to understand it all. He had never been much good at languages while alive, but apparently now he could understand everything said to him – a mixed blessing sometimes. If somebody could figure out that trick, he could make a fortune – except that, if it was necessary to die as part of the process, that wouldn't make it popular. A crash sounded somewhere behind Nathaniel. He turned around to see what was happening. Two men had stood up and were hacking at each other with swords. Apparently the evening's entertainment had begun. Even though he had seen quite a bit of violence in Afghanistan, and participated in it himself, he still felt sick as the two men chopped limbs off each other. Sick and dismayed. What kind of place had he wound up in? Sure, he remembered something about people in Valhalla regenerating, so that the morning after a swordfight like this they would be hale again. Even so, the possibility that he himself might wind up being hacked to pieces didn't appeal to him in the least, and the prospect of hacking somebody else apart wasn't particularly attractive either. He had had quite enough of mutilation and killing while he was alive, and he had no desire to experience more now that he was dead. He turned back to his meal and concentrated on it. Sigmund had been bragging all the time, but now he turned towards Nathaniel and asked, "Hey, bushter, are you lishtening?" "No," Nathaniel snapped, in no mood to listen to lies full of gore and totally void of any sign of intelligence. "Thassh impolite of ya – get it, impolite! Shtan' up an' fight like a man!" Being much less drunk than Sigmund, Nathaniel was standing in the aisle between their bench and the next well before Sigmund had disentangled himself from the bench. He used the time to back off a couple of meters and go into a crouch. Sigmund swayed back and forth a couple of times, drew back his right fist and ran at Nathaniel, striking with his fist as he drew close. But Nathaniel had ducked to his right, leaving only his left foot where it had been. Sigmund stumbled over that foot and went down. His jaw hit the floor with an audible smack. He showed no sign of consciousness after that. The applause didn't cheer Nathaniel up much. Instead of sitting down again, he headed for the door and kept going. Outside the hall, he saw one of the valkyries sitting on a rock, tending the left front hoof of her horse. "Where can I find the Christian heaven?" he asked. "Over that way. Just follow the Bifrost Bridge and you'll come to the mall where all major religions have their reception centers. What's the matter, don't you like it here?" "I've never enjoyed drunken brawls," Nathaniel threw back over his shoulder. He was already going the way the valkyrie had indicated. #
It was a long and tiresome walk down the rainbow-colored bridge, but at last he got to the foot of it. Sure enough, there was a mall-like building with people entering through one door and leaving through a number of others. He joined those going in. The Christian reception was easy to find, being marked by a large cross. He walked up to it. An old guy with a beard and wearing a robe was sitting at a computer keyboard. "What's your name?" he asked. "Nathaniel Franklin Lindman." "Umm," Saint Peter or whoever he was muttered while typing on the keyboard, "hmm – it says here you're an atheist. That means you aren't allowed into heaven." "But I do believe in God, heaven and an afterlife now." "A deathbed conversion?" "More like post-deathbed – not that I died in bed." "Hmmph... well, it seems you were a good person otherwise. Okay, I'll let you in. The angel over there will issue your robe, harp and halo to you." "Harp? But I'm tone-deaf." "No matter. Just plink something on your harp." Nathaniel wasn't really satisfied with that answer, but there were people waiting in line behind him and Saint Peter waved him on impatiently. # After exchanging his old, war-worn clothes for a shining white robe and having a halo fitted to him, he was admitted to heaven. The angel showing him his place in the heavenly choir told him the rules: eighteen hours a day singing and playing his harp, six hours off. The dead didn't need sleep. Judging by the expressions on their faces, some of the people seemed to enjoy the singing and music. To Nathaniel it was just tedious noise. Nonetheless, he did as Saint Peter had said, occasionally picking at the strings of his harp – softly, once he had noticed what the neighbors thought of his playing. He also kept his mouth open as if singing but didn't actually raise his voice above a whisper. He endured that for a couple of days. Finally, however, boredom got the better of him. Although he couldn't sense a tune, he still had an ear for rhythm. But the slow, stately rhythm of the hymns was dreary. He began embroidering it, finally strumming jazz-like riffs on his harp. He got so engrossed in doing that that he initially didn't notice that a clear space had formed around him. Then a bearded, frowning face appeared in front of him, as big as his whole body. "Desist from that foolery!" it spoke in a thunderous voice. "You do not belong here anyway! LEAVE!" He complied. # Having got back his original splinter-torn clothes, it was time for him to decide what to do next. What I've read about the Moslem paradise seems nice, he thought. Let's see if they'll let me in. At the sign of the crescent he found another computer, this one staffed by something he thought was a djinn. While the computer at the Christian reception had been an IBM PC, this one was a Mac. Trust the Moslems to do things differently, he thought. "You are an infidel," the djinn or whatever responded to his question about whether he could get admittance. "However, you died fighting for the True Faith. Welcome! But we’ve admitted so many men to Paradise lately that we’re short of houris, so you’ll have to settle for four rather than the seventy-two that regulations call for." #
He was pleased to learn that here he wouldn't have to sing or play anything. He was even more pleased to see the four women assigned to attend to him and fulfill all his wishes – the houris the djinn had mentioned. They were more slender than the rather muscular valkyries, which also pleased him. And he was very happy to see that they didn't wear armor. In fact, they didn't wear overly much of anything. Those scraps of fabric concealed little. There was a possible problem. He recalled having read somewhere that houris were supposed to be chaste. Well, that was a question for later. Initially he was quite content to lie with his head in the lap of one of them and be fed dates and figs. After a while, however, he tired of that. Getting up, he took the hand of the houri that had been feeding him, the one with the long, black, wavy hair, and led her to a secluded nook. It turned out that she had no inhibitions about fulfilling his desires. Moreover, she did that very skillfully. Afterwards he dressed again – wondering where he could get his clothes laundered – with a rather pleasant feeling of lassitude. As he stepped out of the bushes surrounding the nook, however, the other three houris came forward. The blonde one touched his left shoulder shyly and said that she wanted her turn now. His jaw dropped. It was very tempting, but he simply wasn't up to it. "Sorry, ladies, I'm much too tired now, I need to rest," he said. "Please wait until tomorrow." With a pout, they turned away. # The others did get their turn later, one at a time. Nathaniel was very happy. The only problem was that the perennial diet of dates and figs, with an occasional grape or pomegranate, began to get boring. He began to wish the houris would show more imagination and variety where food was concerned. Especially, he would have liked some meat. The food he had been served in Valhalla began to occupy a prominent place in his dreams. The water and juice he was given to drink were also, in the long run, a bit unsatisfying. He began to remember fondly the evenings he had spent in various canteens and bars. Still, he could do without those things. He was happy enough in the company of the houris. Except that they no longer seemed to get along well with each other. The looks they cast at one another were beginning to seem a bit hostile, then more than just a bit. Occasionally he heard them whispering nasty things to each other. This culminated one evening after he had made love to the houri with short chestnut hair. He was dressing, sniffing at his clothes and wondering if one could find a washing machine in Paradise, when the blonde began screeching at the chestnut houri. "It was my turn this time! Don't you dare monopolize him, you slut!" "Oh? Who decides whose turn it is? He decides, and if you're too frigid to satisfy him..." The blonde attacked the chestnut houri, scratching and tearing. This had to be stopped. Nathaniel rushed in, trying to separate the two. The blonde attacked him instead, tearing a strip of skin off his right shoulder. That hurt in a most un-paradisic way, more appropriate to the other place. Nathaniel shoved her hard, so that she stumbled backwards and sat down. "Now behave yourself, ladies," he shouted with his hands on his hips, trying to avoid losing his temper entirely. "This won't do..." "Do you think I enjoy seeing you go off into the bushes with that slut, getting you for myself only once every couple of weeks?" the blonde shouted. "Please show me some consideration!" "Hah!" Nathaniel answered. "Do you think I'm happy here? I'm fed up with those dates and figs! I
want some decent pork, something for a man to sink his teeth into! And," he went on without noticing how the houris blanched, "I want something to drink besides water and juice! A six-pack of beer would be just fine, with a glass of whisky now and then..." At last he noticed that the chestnut houri was holding her fists in front of her mouth, and the other three also looked shocked. Uh-oh. He'd done it again. The djinn apparently thought so too. It materialized in front of him. "Pork. Beer. Whisky," it said, shaking its head sorrowfully. "I made a mistake in letting you in. You don't belong here. Go." Nathaniel dressed hurriedly and complied. # Where to go next? Would he fit in anywhere? In fact, this afterlife business seemed rather overrated. A disgusting drunken brawl in one place, boring hymns in another, in the third a tediously one-sided diet – didn't people in Paradise get deficiency diseases? – and jealous women... True, those women had their good points, he thought, remembering the feel of their breasts in his hands. But too much of a good thing had its problems. That wound on his shoulder hurt like blazes! Until now he had been rather unenthusiastic about the Buddhist Nirvana. Surrendering his individual identity hadn't seemed too attractive. Now, however, as the drawbacks of the alternatives were clear, Nirvana began to seem worthwhile. # So, back at the mall, he made his way to a place with a golden Buddha statue in front. Entering it, he found a room with a counter stretching across it but nobody behind the counter. There was, however, a bell on the counter. He hesitated for a moment, not wanting to disturb anybody. However, the bell was presumably intended to be used, so he picked it up and shook it. After a few seconds, the door at the rear of the room opened and someone who looked just like the statue in front, except that his skin was brown instead of golden, entered. Before he closed the door, Nathaniel got a glimpse of other figures in the next room. One of them had a head looking like that of a dog. "How can I help you?" the Buddha asked. "I'm sorry I wasn't here, but the Egyptian gods don't get many believers nowadays. They are bored and lonely, so they drop in for a chat here now and then." "Could I please be admitted to Nirvana?" The Buddha closed his eyes and seemed to meditate for a moment, then opened them again. "No, I'm afraid your lifestyle was too violent. You're not ready for Nirvana yet. However, that violence was committed while fighting evil, and you were mostly a dutiful son, kind to animals, a considerate lover and so on, a good person in general. You're ready for a promotion, you'll no longer be reborn as a human but as a higher being. In fact I'm glad to have you here, there have been so many of those higher beings born lately that I'm running short of qualified souls to put in them. There's one that's already overdue for a soul, it was born some minutes ago..." Without giving Nathaniel time to get a word in edgewise, ore even pointwise, the Buddha touched Nathaniel's forehead. Nathaniel found himself in an unfamiliar body, quite unlike the human body he was used to. In fact, he couldn't even see. The shock he felt at noticing that faded quickly, however, along with his human memories. He didn't need to see, anyway. Guided by instinct and his sense of smell, he knew which way to crawl over the soft rug. Soon he found a furry belly, then he located a teat and began sucking at it.
Meanwhile his mother licked him all over, purring contentedly. Author's note: This was originally written in the spring of 2001. Since then I have made one small modification. "Demetrios Wilkander" is not my real name. I consider it best to use a pen name in case this is read by a humorless ayatollah, imam or whatever.
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