Austin Severs came to with a gasp. He didn’t feel the first lick of pain. What in the high hell?
He’d been stabbed. Clean through the heart. By the serrated pincer of a Neptunian warlord that other Austin Severs had set on his tail. How’d he survive?
Austin found himself standing on a field of clouds that just kept running forever into the distance. Not only was his body free of pain, it didn’t have a single scar remaining from a lifetime of collecting them. A woman of unimaginable beauty stood in front of him, her amber eyes reflecting all the light of heaven.
“On the day you were born, your name was entered into the Eternal Book of Souls,” the woman said. “And since that day, Heaven patiently waited for the moment it could welcome home its son, Austin Severs.”
Well, crap and damnation. He’d survived everything from the poison jungles of Kappa Ceti to the slave pits of Iota Persei to the sentient venereal diseases of Zeta Herculis B. He’d even survived that time a teleporter mishap created a duplicate of himself and they spent darn close to a year hunting each other. At least he’d thought he’d survived it. But before he shot that wily bastard dead, the son of a bitch gave his enemies the location of every one of his favorite hideouts – every bar, every brothel, every… well, truth be told those were the only two kinds of places he ever hid out. It was just a matter of time until somebody caught up with him, and his luck had finally run dry.
“Well, hello there, darlin’.” Austin displayed his most charming grin. “I’m new in these parts. You going to… show me the sights?”
She smiled. “Absolutely. But first, it is my honor to tell you how you earned your place in the afterlife.”
“I figure I lived a pretty decent life.”
The woman raised an eyebrow.
“Well, uh, I might have slipped up once or twice…”
“You were not particularly faithful to either of your wives…”
“Hey, those women in the Tau Ceti system have pheromones that, like, mesmerize guys or something. Completely out of my hands.”
“Your go-to move for extracting yourself from legal troubles involved a kick between the legs…”
“Those Martian cops are eight feet tall and they’re all on the take. Only did what I had to do.”
“You seem to have made a part-time career out of swindling other card players…”
“On Proxima Centauri, if you’re not cheating, they wonder why your parents didn’t teach you how to survive in the real world.”
The woman smiled kindly. “None of these are mortal sins. God forgives you your small weaknesses.”
Austin let out a heavy sigh of relief.
“But…” the woman said, “there was the unfortunate result of your teleportation accident.”
“The bounceback glitch? What of it?”
“Do you think we don’t know that you fought to the death with yourself after the teleporter malfunction created two of you?”
“Well, sure. But he was trying to steal my life!”
“You understand the technology well enough to know that neither of you had any more claim to being Austin Severs than the other.”
Austin threw up his hands in surrender. “Alrighty, fine. But he and I both knew one of us had to die. He fought me just as much as I fought him. And with the same intent, I’m damn sure of that. It doesn’t count as murder. Does it? It was self-defense!”
“From a moral standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with defending yourself,” the woman said.
Austin let out an even grander sigh.
“However,” the woman said, “they simply cannot let the same soul into Heaven twice. It mucks up that precious Book of theirs. And you made the mistake of sending him there first.”
“What do you mean ‘there’?”
The woman said nothing. Her smile no longer looked kindly.
“Wait…” Austin said. “Where am I…?”
As the fluffy white clouds dissolved beneath his feet, Austin Severs realized they’d been billows of smoke all along.
David VonAllmen’s work has previously appeared in Marvel Comics, Galaxy’s Edge, the Writers of the Future anthology, and other professional magazines. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and children, who write some pretty good stories of their own.