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Barabbas stares at Nothing on his way to work. Nothing is a colourless fog that does not move or smell or make any sound. It can be glimpsed, for a time, during the passage between the heavens and the earth that is the commute of all celestial entities. Everyone hates seeing Nothing. This is because it’s a matte null state whose fundamental property is the suspension of properties. This includes, but is not limited to, physical law, sensory experience, epistemological truth, conscious thought, mathematical certainty, temporality, and the existence of things like small get-togethers or capybaras, which might otherwise make such absences bearable.
Human theology has sometimes vaguely gestured to Nothing as purgatory, where souls are purified without being punished. Yet even the cherubs, who are dumber than cinderblocks, know that far worse than pain is the absence of any feeling whatsoever. Barabbas stares at that repulsively serene fog and feels every microorganism in his body collectively tell it to fuck off. There are three years left. Three years, to get his damnation percentages up to snuff before he is cast into that endless lack of color.
Celestials like Barabbas may be immortal but they are made for purpose, so when they stop doing their jobs effectively it becomes necessary to dissolve their consciousness in Nothing for a few centuries before reconstituting them. Workplace policy guidelines refer to this process as an “employee renewal,” but most celestials just call it “getting scrubbed” since no one ever comes back entirely the same. Folks that have been scrubbed are always a little out of it for the first few years after returning, but are ultimately fine once they develop a personality again. No guarantee it will be the same as the original though.
Barabbas likes his personality. Sure, his sensibilities may be a little archaic, a little over-refined perhaps, for modern damnation practices, but he has a genuine flair for the artistic that’s crucial for his role as a lust demon. You have to be damn creative to creatively damn people after six thousand years of human history and Barabbas thinks of himself as having a spark for the work, at least until recently. Sometime in the late nineteenth century his damnation numbers began to spiral downward.
The problem is every lust demon’s worst nightmare: impotence. It turns out there’s a lot of emotional labour involved in transgression for a demon. Even his manager, Lucretia, knows that his uncooperative nethers are just a physical manifestation of a greater underlying disenchantment with his work. Yet Barabbas is desperately aware of the looming threat of being scrubbed so that his sessions with Eugene, his new therapist, have a frantic undertone to them. When one is used to immortality there is something deeply traumatic to the sensation of time running out. Occasionally he’d encounter mortals – particularly where the Greed Division has been involved – whose longtime spouse had died after secretly running up insurmountable debts, and Barabbas fancies that his anxiety now mirrors their own. Specifically, a sense that what had felt so reassuringly self-evident had, in fact, never been there to begin with.
Barabbas has moved past Nothing by now and is well on his way to earth. His shift tonight involves an orgy in New York’s financial district. He tries to forage for enthusiasm within himself, rooting through the truffle field of his desires, yet the image of Nothing’s uncoloured fog absorbs anything that he uncovers.
Dull. Vanilla. Tedious. Dozens of humans and hell-beings are scattered around Barabbas, inserting foods, liquids, and bits of themselves into each other with extraordinary enthusiasm and elasticity. The penthouse apartment that he moves through is a pheromonal miasma, aware only of the dull roar of boredom within himself and the need to keep an eye out for his supervisor. He squeezes and pushes his way through the heaving bodies of the revellers so that, by the time reaches the bar, he is like an oversaturated rag, soaked in sweat, smoke, and semen.
“Peppermint tea, please.”
The bartender is a tentacled eldritch aberration named Othniel, mixing several cocktails while pleasuring a number of human patrons at the same time. The request causes most of its eyes to swivel towards Barabbas.
“An enema?” Othniel asks hopefully.
“No, in a cup please. For drinking.”
Othniel deflates – the suggestion of a sigh – and resumes its various duties while fetching a teabag and filling a styrofoam cup with hot water. The sharp smell of the mint is an oasis for Barabbas that cuts the reek of his surroundings and he finds solace in the steam it lets off.
“What’s going on with you?” Othniel breaks the tea’s hold on him. Barabbas’s impotence is a known fact among his colleagues, but it is clear Othniel’s question is more holistic than this.
“I don’t know, Oth. It’s been a bit of struggle since the industrial revolution.”
“I get that. I think we all do. But you’re taking it pretty hard. You know it’s not personal right?”
“The way things have changed, the focus on quantity of damnations rather than quality, all the stuff that’s come up in the last two centuries.”
“I know that. I do. It’s just…” Barabbas gestures vaguely with the styrofoam cup around him. “It just feels like the mortal realm has gotten to the point where it fucks mortals harder than we ever could, you know?” Othniel seems a little concerned, so Barabbas decides to deflect his own moroseness with a joke.
“I mean this thing may be impressive,” he gestures to the flaccid penis that hangs like an unused firehose between his cloven-hoofed legs, “but it isn’t $150k in student debt.”
Othniel wobbles in a way that connotes laughter. Barabbas takes another sip of his peppermint tea.
“Lucretia is gonna be upset if she sees you taking a break.”
“I know, I know. Just do me a solid and don’t mention I was here.”
A jiggle of assent and Barabbas casts himself off from the bar towards the patio to get some air, still holding his cup as he steps gingerly around the blood, cum, and vomit pollocked across the floor.
Just as he is about to reach the sliding screen door a handsome pair of older mortals grab at his genitals and excitedly try to heft the bulk of his cock between them. They have supple, blemish-free skin that, at their age, suggests great wealth. They stroke Barabbas and rave about the chiselled crimson muscularity of his upper torso, the lovely chestnut fur of his goat-like legs, and the supple leather of the wings on his back, but after a minute of failing to be aroused, he brushes the pair away with a consoling “Good effort, you two!” before sliding open the door and stepping out onto the ample patio. The duo look upset for a moment before they see someone drinking wine out of a woman’s hair and rush over to participate, forgetting about him.
On the rooftop, Barabbas nestles the small styrofoam cup of tea in his hands and inhales the night air. Lower Manhattan is laid out before him as, no doubt, many of its employees are laid out in the penthouse behind. Barabbas’ musing is cut short by a voice that booms across the stonework.
BARABBAS, ARE YOU ENJOYING THE PARTY?
“Hey, Lucretia.” He turns to address a nine-foot-tall succubus, who stands casually while a dozen human supplicants minister to her. “Full disclosure: I’m struggling a little tonight.”
AH, THAT IS UNFORTUNATE. I KNOW THINGS HAVE BEEN DIFFICULT LATELY, BUT I WILL CONFESS THIS EVENING’S FESTIVITIES ALSO STRIKE ME AS A LITTLE DULLER THAN USUAL. She does, in fact, have a very neutral expression on her face despite the team of men and women focused on her various body parts.
IS THAT TEA?
“Yes, it’s peppermint, would you like some?”
Lucretia laughs and it is like being shelled by artillery.
YOU ALWAYS DID HAVE SUCH A DROLL SENSE OF HUMOR, BARABBAS. BUT DON’T INDULGE YOURSELF TOO MUCH, WE ARE ON THE JOB AFTER ALL.
“Yes of course, I’ll get right back to it.” There is a managerial glint in Lucretia’s eye that scares him. With effort, he plasters a smile onto his face. She plucks a man off of herself, lifting him easily by the neck.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE ME TURN THIS HUMAN INTO A LIVING HAND PUPPET? IT IS ONE OF MY MANY PARTY TRICKS, BARABBAS, IT MIGHT CHEER US BOTH UP.
“I’m good, I think.”
OKAY. Her disappointment alchemises into a teambuilding attempt, WELL, TAKE A MINUTE IF YOU NEED IT, BUT I KNOW YOU CAN STILL COMMIT SOME EXCEPTIONAL ACTS OF DAMNATION TONIGHT. LET’S TRY TO TURN UP THE HEAT ON THESE REVELS TOGETHER! She pumps a fist in the air, sending the human man flying perilously close to the rooftop’s railing, GO TEAM.
“Go team!” He tries to meet her fist pump without spilling tea and is unsuccessful. She nods, satisfied, and stalks away decisively through the patio doors, leaving behind a trail of mortals who scramble to follow her inside like naked ducklings. Barabbas lingers in order to finish his drink and keep feeling sorry for himself.
The urge to stretch his wings to their full length and fling himself into the night sky is almost irresistible. He wants to charge upwards towards the moon, a demonic Icarus fleeing a poor quarterly. Barabbas thinks he would prefer to die as he is, rather than be scrubbed, but alas – his exquisite celestial form betrays him by preventing this. So, when the time comes, he turns around and re-enters the orgy, absent-mindedly holding his empty cup until he can find a garbage can.
He is back in his hell-home, lying on his sulphurous couch and drifting on the gentle seas of his own hopelessness.
Sleep is what he wants, but he has an outrageous headache from the fistful of sildenafil pills he had taken at the orgy, enough to defile some mortals with a partial erection. None of them had died during the act but Lucretia was still encouraging. ONE STEP AT A TIME, BARABBAS. KEEP IT UP! She’d said, before apologising for her insensitive choice of words.
A bell rings throughout his home, one long deep note that makes everything rattle. Barabbas sits up. He has forgotten about his therapy appointment tonight. As the reverberations trail away, the mind-shattering vision of an abstract yet unmistakably living entity appears before him, its countless eyes embedded in shifting interlocked wheels framed by heavenly fire. Barabbas groans, dazzled.
“Hello, Barabbas. How are you feeling?” The angel’s greeting is a dulcet whisper that arrives in the brain the way a brick arrives in a bowl of spaghetti. Eugene’s words are seared into consciousness forever, literally impossible to forget, outside of being scrubbed.
“I’m alright. My shift in New York tonight was uneventful. It’s still a struggle.”
“I find it interesting that you still respond to my questions about how you are feeling with answers about your work.”
“Isn’t that what we’re here for?”
“Certainly, but have we not agreed previously that each of us is more than our labour? While we might be trying to solve problems around your job performance, the topic of these sessions remains you. We are trying to map, without judgement, the rivers of the self. It is within that deep rushing water of the soul that I expect we’ll locate what ails you.”
Barabbas struggles for a response. He can’t seem to summon any meaningful anecdotes to offer, though this doesn’t worry him. The awkwardness of their initial meetings by now has melted into a pleasant rapport.
Admittedly it does still feel strange sometimes to have an Ophanim, one of the guardians of the throne of God, as his therapist. Yet heaven and hell recognise the mutual self-definition their existence provides each other. Barabbas sees the value of his work in similar terms. The pleasurable disorder that arises from a good lay, a rich meal, or a potent drug is essential to the entire enterprise of mortal life. In transgressing the bounds of something, you affirm the existence of the boundary itself. Without sin, there is no grace.
Their conversation meanders aimlessly for a while before Barabbas mentions in passing his admiration for a plumber named Rakesh he met in Sault Ste Marie in the mid-seventies. Eugene asks for more details, and the lust demon recounts how Rakesh had arrived at a home in the middle of a drug-fuelled swinger’s party Barabbas had arranged. The mortal was completely unfazed, and took a half hour to methodically fix the jacuzzi without being distracted once, despite the numerous solicitations of the partygoers. Barabbas spoke to him a little afterwards out of curiosity and the only explanation Rakesh offered for his concentration is that he had “seen worse,” and that the party “was just some white people shit.” This led to a brief period in which Barabbas had desperately wanted to be a plumber, although he now recognises he had been fetishising manual labour in a problematic way.
“It strikes me as significant that what you admired in this mortal was his inattention, the ability to not be present to what is occurring around him. Isn’t this precisely what you are struggling with in your work?”
“But it feels different. He could focus on his job and I can’t.”
“Yet there’s no difference within the mind. You and Rakesh both disassociate in order to focus on what you feel is important, and you clearly feel there is something more important than your work with the Lust Division. What is going through your mind when you can’t focus on the sensual delights you are supposed to inflict?”
Barabbas takes some time to respond and Eugene waits, their rings in slow rotation.
“I think… I think I am judging them, the mortals I mean. I think I have lost my respect for them.”
“Is it necessary you respect them to do your job?”
“No.” Barabbas frowns. “Perhaps. I don’t know.”
“This seems like a good thing to reflect on. May I suggest the possibility that your judgment of them is a judgment of yourself? That you may, in fact, identify with the mortals? You have often voiced your irritation about the way in which our celestial labour practices have come to reflect their earthly ones. Does thinking of their lives as pointless and painful allow you to safely express what you not dare think about your own life?”
“I can try to book an appointment if you’d like to talk, although the Trinity rarely descends to its consubstantial elements so getting a timeslot can be a little tricky.”
“No, no. That was just a lot to take in.”
“Of course, and I should be clear that I’m not attempting to be definitive here. But putting out ideas like this and having you consider them can be a fruitful approach. If you’ve experienced an intense response to my statement, then it may be worth following that thread of discomfort to locate your feelings.”
Barabbas is silent, processing.
“I see we’re reaching the end of our time. But I believe it would be helpful for you to consider these questions for our next session Barabbas. Take care.”
Eugene’s apocalyptic visage winks out of his mind and Barabbas is left feeling deeply alone, as anyone does when an angel withdraws their attention. He lies back on the couch, thinking about self-respect.
Certainly, part of the issue is Lust Division’s modern focus on metrics-based damnation, in which a mortal soul is treated more like a number in a spreadsheet than a transcendent shard of sentience, sensation, and experience. Barabbas has to cast his mind back at least two hundred years to recall feeling proud of himself. An inner wave of nostalgia arrives for the artistry of this earlier work.
One of his proudest damnations was of a man named Filibertus, who had been the prior of a French abbey in the Dark Ages. The monk had ultimately been corrupted, but it had taken years of regular temptation to manage it, and Barabbas fondly recalls the various food-based sins he innovated to cater to the holy man’s culinarily oriented fetishes. To this day, the prickly burdock chastity belt he had developed, along with the sinful tea it produced, has never been seen since.
Yet this sort of truly bespoke damnation is totally unthinkable these days. It is a pity the heavenly order is so firmly set, he thinks, otherwise it might be worth pitching a boutique service that seduces only the most upstanding mortals.
Ah-hah. There it is. A shimmer of excitement at this idea. Barabbas folds his attention around that gentle spark within himself. For the first time in several years, Nothing, and the risk of being scrubbed, is absent from his mind.
Lucretia is seated across a formidably sized table for his performance review panel. She is flanked by two ethereal wraiths from Demon Resources that can barely be seen. She gives Barabbas an encouraging thumbs up before the meeting begins.
SO! BARABBAS! WE ARE SEEING SOME IMPROVEMENT THIS PAST YEAR. A 17% INCREASE IN YOUR DAMNATIONS IS A GOOD SIGN. YOU ARE ON THE RIGHT TRACK.
“There is still… the possibility… of an employee renewal…” slithers one of the resource wraiths with a voice of frost.
THAT IS TRUE. Lucretia seems irritated by the negative statement. YOU NOW HAVE LESS THAN THREE YEARS TO MEET MINIMUM QUOTAS BEFORE POLICY DICTATES THE NEED TO CONSIDER AN EMPLOYEE RENEWAL. This last word is echoed several times by the wraiths, who seem delighted by it.
COULD YOU OUTLINE FOR THE REVIEW COMMITTEE YOUR PERSONAL STRATEGY FOR MEETING THESE QUOTAS? She holds a pencil expectantly above a paper rubric and offers a fanged smile of genuine warmth and support.
“I’d like to propose that we ignore my minimum quota.” Barabbas is steady before the flutter of outrage this statement causes. The resource wraiths become more visible in their agitation, purple-green smears in the air above the desk. Once things have settled, Lucretia looks at him, no longer smiling, and asks for an explanation.
A PowerPoint slide is turned on. Barabbas begins by reviewing Lust Division’s strategy of taking a volume-based approach to damnation in the 21st century, in which a large number of minor sins are indulged to leverage the deep reservoirs of depravity contained in the internet-addled mind of the modern mortal. It’s a good approach. One that ensures the Division’s underlying contribution to the celestial order is maintained and does not require its employees to exhaust themselves trying to out-transgress the staggering level of filth vomited out by the worldwide web.
“The problem is that the reputational profile of the lust portfolio has fallen significantly among the Seven Deadly Divisions in the last thirty years. Just look at this record of mentions collected by our communications unit.” There are several downward lines coloured a rich unhappy purple. “The other divisions think we don’t need to try anymore. Despite our continued success, there’s a feeling that it’s easier now for us to tempt mortals when they are coming pre-programmed with every conceivable deviance, and this isn’t helped by our aggregated approach. As a result, our work isn’t showcased at the top level and we get less recognition. Good numbers only go so far, you need good stories.” Cautious nods now from the panel.
SO, WE HAVE A PUBLIC RELATION PROBLEM. HOW IS THIS RELEVANT TO OUR DAMNATION UNITS INSTEAD OF DIVISIONAL COMMUNICATION?
“Because we can build a small team to target only high-profile damnations.” Now Barabbas is fired up, excited. “I’m talking about only the most righteous souls on earth: wellness influencers, right-wing economists, people who post in the comments section of the New York Times, Nobel Peace Prize winners, raw food vegans…” He flaps his wings for emphasis as he speaks.
“If we start producing a handful of boutique damnations that emphasise extraordinary individual souls and innovative temptation techniques, then we show everyone that Lust Division still has what it takes to bring anyone to sin. We’re not just mass-processing the souls of investment bankers and men’s rights activists, we’re damning urban gardeners, single moms, Mennonites, everyone!” He has them, Barabbas can feel it. Lucretia is straightening in her seat as he talks.
“We give Communications something they can actually work with. They could include testimonies in our promotional materials, detailed breakdowns of the temptation process, profiles on the demons involved, that sort of thing.”
WHAT SORT OF RESOURCING DO YOU THINK WE NEED FOR THIS?
Barabbas asks for himself to made a full-time project lead, operating under Lucretia of course, along with two part-time staff secondments to assist him as direct reports. He proposes a three-year pilot program, after which – if leadership isn’t happy with his work – he will volunteer to be scrubbed. There is a beat as the performance review panel absorbs his presentation.
“This… could function…” hisses one of the wraiths.
Lucretia makes a six-foot vertical leap from a sitting position, shattering the enormous table into pieces with enough force that fragments are lodged in the drywall. Her fist is raised, triumphant.
EXCELLENT INITIATIVE BARABBAS! SUPERB DATA ANALYSIS! FANTASTIC KEY PERFORMANCE INDICATORS! THIS WILL BE DELICIOUS. She lands on her feet and slaps him on the back, sending him sprawling.
LET’S HEAD OVER TO COMMUNICATIONS RIGHT NOW. WALK WITH ME.
Barabbas staggers to his hooves. As he begins to follow Lucretia’s charge down the carpeted hallway something heavy hits his shin. Barabbas looks down to find a slight, almost delicate, tumescence to his penis.
His sense of calm arrives quietly. It cracks a beer and sits down on the deck-chair of his interiority and makes a single promise to Barabbas: we will not experience Nothing, and that is enough for now.