[The idea for the following came to me a long time ago, and gradually took form until finally the Muse hit me upside the head and told me to stop lollygagging and write it down.]
THE LAST QUESTION
Armageddon was over, and a great peace filled Creation. Most of the Heavenly host had departed, but many still remained, cleaning up the battlefield. There were, of course, no bodies - all the combatants being angelic spirits or immortal souls - but there were great mounds of armor and weapons, broken or dropped in flight, and uncounted myriads of feathers.
Lucifer lay in chains, waiting until the time came to be thrown with his legions into the Pit. He called out continually, until finally the Archangel Michael came and asked what he wanted.
"I want to speak with the Marshal of Mankind," said Lucifer. "I want to ask him a question."
So the Archangel Michael summoned the Marshal of Mankind and brought him to Lucifer. "What do you want to know?" asked the Marshal.
"How did you do it?" asked Lucifer.
"How did I do what?"
- the Army of Mankind. How did you do it?"
"I'm sorry," said the Marshal, "but you'll have to explain."
"Look," said Lucifer. "Before the battle, I was certain that your army would be of no account. In all my dealings with Mankind, you have proved pathetically weak. I never got anywhere, try though I might, with any of the ninety and nine righteous peoples of Creation, but you
fell into my hands from the start. Three times I almost won, forcing Him to adopt the most desperate expedients: the first time, He had to wipe out almost all of you and start over; the second, He had to make Himself manifest and work innumerable miracles in order to free His Chosen People from the sentence of slavery and death which I had imposed upon them; and finally, He had to sacrifice His own Son.
"Going into this late battle, I had almost as many of you on my side as He did on His - and they were useless. Half of them were shirkers and skulkers, and the other half turned and fled at the sound of the opening trumpet.
"And when we arrayed our forces for battle, there you were, far out on one flank. I had expected as much - even He had the wit to keep you well away from the real fighting.
"But what happened? As soon as battle was joined, you smashed through the legion facing you, turned and flanked the next, and began rolling up my right wing. You forced me to commit my reserves early, and you broke them as well. You fought your way to the very center and there you met the ninety and nine righteous peoples, who combined got there no faster than you did alone.
"How did you do it? What secret weapon did He give you?"
"I'll tell you," said the Marshal, "but you won't believe me."
"Try me," said Lucifer.
"Very well. Yes, we had something which the ninety and nine didn't have, nor did any other army in His host. But we didn't get it from Him. We got it from you."
"Impossible. I inspected my armory myself before the battle. Nothing was missing."
"We didn't steal it from you. You gave it to us freely; in fact you insisted on doing so, and would not take 'No' for an answer."
"The ninety and nine could not have been better prepared for the battle than they were. They had studied, they had trained, they had drilled - they were flawless. But they had never been in
battle: they had no idea of what it really is, and it took time for them to come to grips with it.
"But Mankind had been in constant battle with you from the beginning. In the course of time you struck at us with every weapon in your arsenal. You used every ruse, every tactic, every maneuver you could imagine. And so we were forced to learn how to counter each of them. By the time the trumpet sounded, there was not a stratagem you could try which we could not anticipate and foil before it started. Moloch, Mammon, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles - they were old acquaintances.
"Thanks to you, we were veterans before this battle started. Armageddon was just another day's work for us."
After the Marshal had finished, Lucifer lay still, buried in thought, for a long time. Finally he said, more to himself than to the Marshal,
"What a mistake I made. I should have scouted that flank more carefully. It's clear enough to me now what He did: He disguised His best soldiers as you, and hit me where I was wasn't expecting them. A clever trick, but an ignoble one…I would not have thought it of Him…"
The Marshal gazed sadly at Lucifer but said nothing.
After a while, Lucifer spoke again, "And now He's stuck! He's so concerned with His reputation, He can't ever let it out that He stooped to a trick! So to cover it up, He has to let you take the credit…Oh, I can hear already the boasting and bragging you'll do! And the ninety and nine - will they put up with that? They fought bravely and well, and they see poltroons and skulkers making off with their glory? No, they will boil over with jealousy and injured pride…There will be war in Heaven again!" His eyes blazed. " And one side or the other will be wanting allies…and they'll have to turn to me
...oh, yes, I'll come back, I'll have learned from my mistakes, and I'll win! I'll win!!"
"I told you that you wouldn't believe me," said the Marshal of Mankind.
And he went away.