It was the whooshing noise that first told Aaron that all was not well, the kaleidoscopic chaos of whirling lights only accentuated the fact. As his awareness fully returned, he reasoned he was falling down a tunnel… a few seconds later he realized that no, in fact he was falling up.
Moments after that, everything turned white.
It took a while for Aaron to realize that he was still there. He'd have caught up with the fact earlier, but everything was white. All around him was nothing but a great alabaster expanse, filling his vision, seemingly going on for miles and miles and-- and then somebody tugged on his butt.
With an almost audible pop! he came free from what he suddenly realized were clouds. Falling onto his back, he found himself looking up into the wide, friendly face of a pony. The creature was snow white, with wide, fluffy wings on its back, a blonde mane and bright blue eyes. Incongruously, it had what looked like an ID badge around its neck featuring a bog-standard dreadful picture and a greeting-slash-name - 'Hello my name is Bright Bauble'. It also had what looked like a walkie-talkie around one ankle and a ridiculous grin on its stupid fat face.
"Hi, er, sorry about that," it began, holding out a hoof. "We've had some problems with the cloud motif, not least is they keep getting in the way of the entrance por--"
"AWAY FROM ME SPAWN OF SATAN!" Aaron shouted, flailing his arms as he struggled to his feet.
"Woah, hey, no need for that, I'm only trying to--"
"GET AWAY!" Aaron bellowed, rolling onto his hands and knees and then, finally, upright. He flailed his arms again in a rough attempt at shooing the creature away. It just stood a few feet back and waited. Finally, Aaron gave up, dropping his arms. "Whore of the beast. Tempt me not."
"You know, I really wish we could turn on the potty mouth filter in here… look, I'm your caseworker, I'm here to help, okay? It's really up to you, though. You can spend the next few days, weeks or years faffing around out here, or you can come with me to heaven."
Aaron stopped his sotto voce rumblings of discontent and epithets to stare blankly at the pony. "Heaven?"
"Ye-ah, you're kinda dead. Sorry bud." The pony did his best to look contrite. Aaron froze. Now that he thought about it, there was a certain… discontinuity to his memories. The last thing he really remembered was getting up that morning, praising G-d a few times and then strapping on the device--
He must have looked pretty distraught, as the pony moved forwards to comfort him. "Look, it's okay, it's all going to be okay. You… did your job really well and everyone's proud of you. Great big explosion, lots of people turned into chunky salsa, and you're a hero forever."
Aaron just blinked. "Wait, what?"
"I, uh," the pony backed up a little. "Look, the point is you did good by your own values, okay? So here's your reward: Christian Heaven." The pony gestured with a hoof at a gigantic wall which Aaron had somehow only just noticed, along with an enormous set of buildings behind it that stretched up and up further into the stratosphere. It looked kind of like an enormous, great big set of legos, if legos were made out of huge precious stones and jewels. Honestly, it kind of hurt to look at, what with the brilliant light from… somewhere. Aaron looked around, he couldn't see a sun or a moon anywhere, and yet the whole place was lit up like midday.
"If I'm dead, then what the hell are you doing here, spawn of the devils putrid testicles? For that matter, why am I here?" Aaron paused, narrowing his eyes. "This is no heaven! This is a digital lie! You're not allowed to mulch our brains! Your harpy queen is not allowed! She's not allowed! She--!"
"Ah… urm…" Bauble reached back to a small saddlebag and produced a clipboard. He rifled through a few pages nervously. "We, uh, we're not really sure on the whole immortal soul thing? So this is the next best thing. You can… die, if you want. Again, I mean."
Aaron glared, so the pony just stood back and gestured off to the side - off the cloud-bank. "If you really don't want your eternal reward, no strings attached, you can… step off, and you'll just… stop." The pony leaned over the edge, peering down at the very distant ground. "I hope she means that figuratively, not literally."
Aaron snarled, then spat. "Suicide is damnation, hellspawn. You and your filthy harlot queen knows that."
Bright Bauble blinked. "So, er, you're coming with me?" Aaron just muttered noncommittally under his breath, so Bauble shrugged and started walking. After a few feet, he turned. "You wanna get a move on there, champ?"
Continuing his angry muttering, Aaron spat once over the endless edge, then turned to follow the pony. The infuriating thing was already trotting towards the enormous, impossibly big wall.
The wall, it had to be said, stretched on forever. Or rather it didn't, because he could just see an edge either side, but it did a really good impression of forever. It had to be miles and miles long, and miles and miles high.
"About fifteen hundred," said the pony, absent-mindedly. Aaron turned his head down to look at the fallen suckler of Lucifer's left teat.
"What?" he mumbled.
"It's fifteen hundred miles long. And the same high. And the other three walls are the same. Built to spec. The buildings behind it are a bit taller, gives the whole place that sort of unearthly, perfect beauty people expect from heaven, wouldn't you say?"
Aaron mumbled something that the pony couldn't quite hear, but he got the general gist.
As the pair of them approached the walls, and one of the three gigantic gates that stretched all the way up, the amount of talking diminished to nothing. Outside the gate was a single robed figure, it's face hidden, standing behind a podium on which was a large book.
"Hi there Petey," said the pony, "got another one. Aaron Hollister. Died a martyr's death."
The noise that followed had Aaron curling up into a ball with his hands over his ears, weeping, as the creature raised a hand. To Aaron's growing horror, the hood fell back, revealing a shifting miasma of faces, its robe parted as great wings spread, full of staring eyes that stared down, seemingly into his very soul...
When his brain had reset enough, Aaron realized he was being gently shaken by something he dearly hoped was a hand, and spoken to in a much more manageable kind of voice.
"I am sorry about that, my son, it is easy to forget that one so recently shorn of Earthly ways is not used to the full might and majesty of one such as I. Here, these are for you."
Unfolding, Aaron dumbly looked at an ID card - avoiding completely even the chance of catching a glimpse beneath that robe again - bearing his face and name and what, to all intents and purposes, looked like a keycard. "What is--?"
"You are most honoured, Aaron Hollister. It is for you to sit at the right hand of the Lord for all eternity. Enter now into the land of your eternal father, and claim your just rewards!"
The angel, or whatever it was, gestured, and the enormous, over-fifteen-hundred-miles-high gates just behind the podium opened.
"Claim your rewards! Claim your… claim…"
"Petey, Petey, calm down, okay?" said the pony, patting the heavily-robed angel on the side with a hoof. "They're very, very nice gates. It's not your fault if they open slowly. Fifteen hundred miles of pure gold, takes a lot. We can wait."
Several makeshift games of tic-tac-toe played in cloudstuff later, and the enormous gates had opened enough for Aaron and the pony to squeeze through, a fact which had Aaron staring dumbly at the devil's cock-sucking false prophet.
"Uh, how are you--" Aaron stared at the pony, wondering when it would burst into fire and brimstone, screaming in agony as the Holy Light of the Father cleansed away all sin. Heaven was Heaven, after all, and should not let the unclean in.
"Oh, I've got a pass." The pony held up an ID badge. "I'm not allowed to live here, that's just for you human-humans, but right now I'm on official business as your caseworker. Temporary angel, see the wings?" The pony spread his beautiful angelic wings wide. "Besides, I'm not human-human, not by the strict definition of God. And you can stop cringing, I'm not taking His name in vain. It's not possible, here."
The pony started walking again. There didn't seem to be much else to do, so Aaron followed it. As he caught up, it turned to him. "Yeah, I count as an animal here, clean of sin, innocent, yada yada yada. Look," the pony stopped. "This place is freaking huge. Do you mind if we take a shortcut? I'm sure you want to get to your eternal reward, and there's not exactly a shortage of cases for me, either."
Aaron nodded, dumbly. Even this… fake Heaven was taking his breath away. He was beginning to suspect that the pony was just another test, a final test, before his eternal glory. Anyway, the city was beautiful and all, but the clear gold-like crystal glass stuff he was walking on hurt his eyes to look at and creeped him out at the same time. All around them were huge buildings pointing up into the sky, glittering brilliantly in the all-loving, all-pervasive light of the Most Holy, and he was really hoping for a change of--
Suddenly, the two of them were in an enormous room, full of smoky incense. The din was incredible, as huge crowds of people walked around and around a huge throne upon which--
Aaron was still gibbering when the pony pulled him back a ways from the throne in the center of the Heaven of Heavens.
"Sorry about that!" the pony shouted.
"Quite alright, spawn of the pit!" Aaron shouted back, mouth pulled back in a rictus grin.
"Sorry, what was that!?" the pony hollered.
"I can't quite hear you!" screamed Aaron at the top of his lungs.
It was proving rather difficult to be heard over the before-mentioned din, as thousands and thousands of hideous, incredible creatures - angels, Aaron reasoned - walked around and around the throne he daren't look on again, shouting such things like "Hail God, hail to the Lord, praise the Father!" and "Praise Jesus! Hail God, hail to the Lord, praise the Father, Praise Jesus! Hail God!" over and over again. Loudly. And the din only got worse when twelve guys with crowns threw their headpieces to the ground in front of the throne and prostrated themselves before it, doing their best to praise the Lord even more impressively than the rest.
Aaron felt a monster headache coming up. This heaven wasn't quite what he'd expected, and the ruddy great big six-winged beasts with more eyes than a barrel of pirate cast-offs really weren't making anything better, not to mention how the incense cloud was so thick his eyes were already starting to water, and--
The scene changed again, to a remarkably quiet little apartment some ways up one of the ginormous skyscrapers.
"Phew, that's better," said the pony, visibly rocking. Aaron slumped into a comfortable seat, rubbing his temples, too overwhelmed to even put the hellspawn in it's place.
"Look, perverted tempter of the Beast, I don't know what this is, but--"
"Woah, woah, I thought we'd progressed beyond that? This is heaven, bud. Your heaven. Just the way you want it, KJV bible and all. And this is your apartment. Forever. You never need to leave, and once I walk out that door, you'll never have to deal with another pony ever again. Okay?" The pony glared.
Aaron put his hands to his temples, massaging. "Look, I just want a straight answer. What's going on here?"
"You went to war against your great Satan, Celestia, and dealt her a mighty blow. You're now in heaven, which is your eternal reward, okay? With me?"
"But that… smokey room? The awful din? The… the..." Aaron shuddered. The four beasts, all eyes, wings and teeth...
"The heaven of heavens, that's where your Lord sits. You really kind of should be there, forever, worshipping him, but I understand if you don't want to. Look, we've got an awesome television here so you can experience it almost as if you were there."
The pony pushed a button on a remote, and an enormous flat-screen television burst into light and sound.
"Praise him! Praise him! Praise him! Holy! Holy! Hol-"
Aaron very, very quickly, turned it off. "What, uh, if I don't want to?"
"Oh, I'm sure that's fine. You can just relax here when you're not singing his praises."
"I meant, uh, what if I want to go out?"
"Well, you don't need to eat, but the trees down there--" the pony walked to the windows and pointed. Far, far below was a river, and lining the river were trees, "--bear fruit. If you cut yourself or whatever, the leaves are also excellent band-aids, not that you can actually die, but cleaning the blood up is a real pain. If the fruit runs out, you'll have to wait a month for it to grow back, sorry about that. Buuuttt… if you're going to go down there, I suggest mentally preparing yourself anyhow. This is a penthouse, and it's right at the top of the finest building in Heaven. Only the best for those who die in battle for the Lord."
"So?" Aaron asked, dumbly.
"Well, we're about fifteen hundred miles up. The elevator ride is about four days each way, and show-tunes do get a bit boring, especially when they're christian soft rock versions. Look, if you're done and want a bit of a rest after your trip up here, I can go, okay? We've got quite a lot of new arrivals to deal with, and--"
"Wait, you're going to go?" Aaron jumped to his feet.
"Well yeah, this is your heaven, not mine, and my shift ends soon…"
Aaron looked around at his perfect apartment. It was, it had to be said, luxurious. But he wasn't looking forwards to the idea of being stuck in it forever. And four days in an elevator to get down to some trees for his only meal of fruit he didn't need to eat was even worse.
"Look, uh, maybe there's been some mistake?" He grinned, hopefully.
"Aaron Hollister? Christian? Died a martyr? Look, I don't really have time for this. I've got to get to my next case, and your forehead-brander is coming very soon to--"
"You… don't know? All true worshippers of the Lord have his name stamped on their foreheads, so we've got a guy coming - he used to brand cattle professionally, it's all very clean and mostly painless…"
Aaron blanched, taking a step back. "Uhh… I, er, think… there's been… a mistake, okay?"
The pony blinked, put a hoof to his temple, and rubbed it in circles. "Okay, okay, let me see what I can do." The creature turned away, speaking softly into the walkie-talkie device on its leg quietly for a few moments, before turning back. "Okay, one time deal. I can squeak you into the muslim heaven on a technicality if you want. There's a wider choice of food and drink including poultry--" the pony shuddered, "--and wine and honey. Your house is a palace on the ground floor, and there's seventy two virgins for you to have sex with. Oh, yeah, should probably have mentioned that: there's no sex up here in Christian heaven. Your thing'll probably drop off after a few--"
"I'll take it!" Aaron shouted. And in the blink of an eye, he was in an enormous palace.
With seventy two other guys.
The pony jerked to a halt from where he'd been trying to sneak off, sighing.
"Virgins?" squeaked Aaron, holding his hands out with his palms up, gesturing helplessly to the other men who were, even now, sizing him up appreciatively.
"Yeah, none of them have had sex either. Or at least claim they haven't. You guys knock yourselves out, okay? I really have to--"
"A-and you said ground floor! Where's the exit?"
"Oh, even the least worthy of all muslims get a palace that's about seven hundred miles across, so enjoy! I'll just be going here…"
"No! Please!" Aaron fell to his knees, clasping his hands together in front of him. "Somewhere else! Anywhere!"
The pony sighed. "Fine, fine, don't say I never did anything for you."
The next heaven was a field. It was absolutely lovely... but it was a field, and it stretched on forever.
"Welcome to Fólkvangr, the field of fallen armies. Freyja will take you from here," said Bauble, nodding his head at a distant maiden who was laying the smack down on a distant man. "If you're lucky you'll get to see Odin in Valhalla, which is, I'm told, one hell of a freakin' party. We get to ride with the valkyries occasionally, and it's vikings, so they don't see a problem with their horses eating in the main hall. Though I would recommend you steer clear of Loki, he's worse than Zeus. He'll try to bed you quicker than you can--"
"Uh… can I… possibly see any other heavens? I'll do anything?" Aaron was begging now.
The pony pursed his lips, sucking air in through his teeth in thought. "Okay, look. We have this report card…"
"A report card?"
"Yeah, an evaluation report. If you promise to give me a good review, I'll take you to one more heaven…"
The Elysian Fields were… nice. Kind of peaceful.
"What's the catch?" Aaron asked.
"Um, let me…" From deep in his saddlebags, the pony produced a clipboard again, which he rifled through. "You spend eternity doing what you did in life."
"Fuck. I cleaned toilets for a living."
The pony sighed, having a bad inkling of what was coming next. "Look, I'm sure the toilets here are really, really--"
"No, please! I'm sorry I called you spawn of Satan! I'm sorry! This is awful! I want to go… home! Somewhere else! Anywhere but this! Can't you just… send me back to Earth? Alive?"
"Well," the pony rifled quickly through several pages of his notepad, "the river Lethe will destroy your mind, and prepare you for whatever comes next… you can try the buddhist reincarnation thing... there's not much else I can suggest."
Aaron fell to his knees. "I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry!" He clasped his hands together again, begging. "Can't you do anything else?"
"Well… there is one thing… but you're not going to like it."
"Did you happen to read the sign above the entrance to the Equestrian Experience Center before you blew it up?"
"I said," the pony waggled its eyebrows, "did you--"
"Um, yes?" Aaron grinned, hopefully.
"Ooh, well then, you'll know that it said enter here, all ye who seek Equestria's Eternal Rewards. It's more for the look of the thing, but there are legal precedents. I'd have to ask a superior…"
At the sudden feel of hot breath on his neck, Aaron turned around, and came face to face with Celestia. She didn't look pleased.
"Bauble!" Celestia shouted, stomping a hoof as she glared deep into Aaron's eyes. "What have I told you about picking up strays?"
"Please, your highness, he's really, really sorry…" Bauble's ears stuck out sideways.
Aaron fell to the ground, and grovelled in front of the great white Sataness. He'd died, gone through a stack of terrible, awful heavens and now was face to muzzle with the Beast herself, the false prophet, the whore of Babylon, the--"
"Look, if you're really going to try to sneak in to Equestria on a technicality, you're going to have to stop calling me and my ponies whores, demons and bastards. It's just not on. And you did try to murder everyone. I'm pretty sure I should just let you rot in heaven forever, just like you wanted." Celestia glared.
"I didn't want that! I-I-I mean I did! But I don't!"
"You… want something else?" Celestia stood there, calmly, until Bauble leaned over and hissed in his ear.
"Psst! You have to ask her for it!"
"I, er," Aaron looked around. Heaven, all the heavens, kind of sucked ass. Being a pony didn't sound so bad, after all that. Being a pony was just… doing what he wanted, instead of doing what he was told. Maybe that wasn't… bad? The whole being a pony thing couldn't be all that bad, right? "I guess I want to go to Equestria?"
"You guess?" Celestia's eyes flashed angrily.
"Please?" He grinned, hopefully.
"Well…" Celestia tapped a single gilded hoof to her muzzle, thoughtfully. "You didn't actually manage to kill anyone. Except yourself. The device was very poorly made, it only shredded your torso, and I was able to save your head. Mostly. A few people I had safely inside the mechanism emigrated there and then from fear of a repeat, the whole place was shut down for a week whilst we cleaned up and everything was back online shortly after. So no lasting harm, except to yourself."
"I didn't…?" The bottom fell out of Aaron's world. After everything, he'd failed!?
Bauble coughed apologetically. "Er, I kind of told him he was a hero, princess."
Celestia rolled her eyes and snorted. "Well you're not. You're in my bad books, mister, so if you expect to get out of those bad books, you're going to have to be a much nicer pony than you were a person. Is that clear?"
Aaron realized what had just been said, and he nodded enthusiastically.
"Well okay then. Welcome… to the rest of your eternal reward."