The Big Freeze by Sherry D. Ramsey

Sherry D. Ramsey is a speculative fiction writer, editor, publisher, creativity addict and self-confessed internet geek. When she’s not writing, she makes jewelry, reads, gardens, hones her creative procrastination skills on social media, and consumes far more coffee and chocolate than is likely good for her. Although she writes almost all flavours of SF/F, the stories she most enjoys writing are the funny ones (at least, she thinks they’re funny). “The Big Freeze” is one of those, and first appeared in Semaphore Magazine in March 2010.

(The ice photo you probably clicked to reach this page is  by Aaron Burden on Unsplash )

 

“Is it getting…chilly in here?”

Beelzebub, the Devil, the Prince of Hell, (or Lord B., as he preferred his most intimate minions to call him) shifted uneasily on the polished red marble of his throne and stroked the tips of his horns. There was no doubt about it. They felt decidedly and unnaturally cool.

He’d been thinking it for some time, but now that he’d finally spoken the words, they hung hesitantly in the sulphurous air like lost souls unsure if they were in the right place. Imps ranged at humming computer terminals around the perennially smouldering room looked up, then glanced at each other. One rubbed his scaly hands together.

“You know,” he chittered slowly, “now that you mention it, my mouse hand’s gone a little cold.”

Another imp nodded. “And my tail. I thought I was getting a chill in my tail, and now I’m sure of it.”

“Right.” Lord B. straightened on his throne and bellowed, “Mr. Snizzle! Get in here!”

A slight, harried-looking demon entered the room at a trot. A pair of tortoiseshell spectacles perched on his nose, and he wore an unexpectedly conservative waistcoat tailored in tasteful ebony silk. “Yes, Lord B.?”

“Mr. Snizzle, run a diagnostic on the temperature controls. This room is falling below acceptable heat standards. Even the imps have noticed it.”

Mr. Snizzle, Lord B.’s administrative assistant, was well-versed in interpreting the subtleties of his employer’s speech. After several centuries in his current position without a vacation, that was hardly surprising. The relative politeness of the Devil’s request worried him. He nodded briskly and hurried back to his own computer to run the heat diagnostics.

When the analysis finished, Mr. Snizzle contemplated the data on his screen for a time, tapping one finely manicured fingernail to his lips, then ran the diagnostic again. The same results were returned. His programs were good, and he knew it, but the knowledge was a double-edged sword. Mr. Snizzle sighed. There was a definite downside to extreme competence, and no escape once one had become indispensable.

If there existed a less agreeable task than delivering bad news to Lord B., Mr. Snizzle had yet to encounter it, but he took a deep breath and steeled himself. “I have the report, My Lord,” he said, striding back into the Devil’s presence with grim confidence.

“And?” Lord B. drummed his fingers impatiently on the arm of his throne. The points of his long, yellowed talons ticked unpleasantly on the marble.

“Mean temperature in the Nine Circles has dropped by a full ten degrees in the past fifteen minutes.”

Two small puffs of coal-colored smoke emerged from Lord B.’s nostrils and hung in the air for a moment before dissipating. He looked at Mr. Snizzle through narrowed eyes. The bespectacled demon had been his assistant for centuries, outlasting the previous assistant by an exponential amount of time. They had come to know each other very well. There was more.

“And?” he prompted.

Mr. Snizzle shrugged. “And the temperature is still dropping. The heat loss distribution overlay indicates cooler temperatures around the outer reaches, encroaching steadily inwards.”

The Devil’s lips flattened out into a thin line, punctuated by the pointed tips of protruding ivory teeth. “Terminal! Furnace Room!” he bellowed.

A section of glowing floor beside the throne slid back and a massive computer system rose smoothly into view. The components shone a dazzling crimson, and the sixty-one-inch plasma flatscreen pulsed to life. The face of a fat, sweating demon appeared.

“Furnace Room, My Lord,” he said in a voice that trembled slightly. He didn’t look directly at Lord B., his eyes shifting nervously like flies afraid to settle anywhere lest they be squashed.

“What in Hell is going on down there?” Lord B. roared.

“We’re driving all furnaces at full capacity, sir,” the unhappy demon insisted. “It just doesn’t seem to be enough.”

“I’m cold,” an imp to the other side of Lord B. complained in a low voice.

“Oh, shut up!” yelled the Devil. He sent a thin bolt of crackling yellow energy in the imp’s direction.

The imp cringed away from the zap and fell silent, but he wrapped his thin tail around his shoulders defiantly and stuck his tongue out once Lord B. had turned away.

“Get more heat out of those furnaces,” he growled at the fat demon in the Furnace Room. “I don’t care what—or who—you have to burn to do it.” He whirled back to the imps, who had been watching and listening gleefully. “Everybody back to work! I’ve said you’ll get a day off when Hell freezes over, and today is not going to be that day!” But he rubbed his hands together surreptitiously.

Mr. Snizzle blinked. “Hmmmm…If I might, My Lord?” He gestured toward the Devil’s workstation.

Lord B. frowned, but grunted assent.

Mr. Snizzle used the network to access his own terminal, then ran the diagnostic again. He shook his head. “As I feared,” he said. “The temperature is still falling, and more rapidly now. It’s almost down to freezing at the perimeter.”

“Snizzle,” Lord B. growled, “I don’t want to hear the f-word again in my presence. Do you understand? It won’t happen. It’s the most highly improbable event there is.”

“True, My Lord,” Mr. Snizzle replied. “That’s exactly why I’m worried.”

Before the Devil could ask for an explanation of that enigmatic remark one of the imps piped up.

“Report from Red Hot Coals, sir. The coals have cooled considerably. Some of the clients have actually stopped hopping in eternal agony and are simply standing about looking…annoyed.”

Lord B. glowered. Why some demons insisted on ‘clients’ as an annoying euphemism for the souls of the damned, he’d never understand. “Well, get them out of there and send them in to the Flame Caves,” he ordered irritably.

Another imp broke in. “Report from the Lake of Fire, My Lord. Cooling is apparent there as well and scattered regions have ceased bubbling entirely. Clients who should be eternally melting are…” His voice trailed off uncertainly.

“Are what?” the Devil snarled between clenched teeth.

“Are…are swimming, sir.”

Lord B. lashed his tail behind his chair. “It’s Him, isn’t it, Mr. Snizzle?” he said in a low voice. “The Upstairs Tenant is signalling the start of Armageddon. He’s invading, trying to gain the upper hand before I can take action!”

Mr. Snizzle pursed his lips and shook his head slowly. He disliked disagreeing with his employer, but sometimes the Prince of Darkness could be a bit of a hothead. “Mmmm, no, I don’t think so, My Lord.”

“Oh? Why not?” Lord B. fixed his yellow-irised eyes on Mr. Snizzle. The administrative assistant found it difficult not to look away.

“Well, there’s the small matter of Revelations, My Lord. I don’t really see how all the criteria have been met yet…”

“Hmmm, right.” The Devil looked disappointed. “So you don’t think I should gather the boundless hosts of my terrible minions and ride forth shrieking into battle?”

“Er, no, sir. I’d hold off on that just yet.”

Lord B.’s impressive muscles rippled suddenly as a shiver coursed through him.

“My Lord!” The imp’s voice was shrill with panic. “Report—from the Outer Circle. Fires there have actually gone out! Clients are rebelling, throwing chunks of hard, cold, white stuff—”

“Ice,” said Mr. Snizzle calmly, without looking up. He was back at Lord B.’s terminal, tapping the keyboard steadily.

“Okay, ice, whatever, at their demon overseers. What should they do?” The imp’s voice broke in a terrified squeak.

Lord B. trembled all over now, not with cold, but with barely-contained rage. He stood suddenly, sat down again, and looked at Mr. Snizzle through slitted eyes. Steam rose from his back and arms in the cool air like smoke from a funeral pyre.

“Tell the overseers to get out of there for now,” Mr. Snizzle offered. “There’s nothing else they can do. They’re not equipped to deal with ice without more power from the furnace room.”

This unwelcome advice was considered. “Do it,” Lord B. finally growled at the stricken imp. “And stop with the reports! I don’t want to hear anything else until I say so! Snizzle, what are you doing now?”

“Just running a few probability algorithms I’ve written, sir,” Mr. Snizzle said. “I should know more in a moment.”

“Probability algorithms? What the—”

Mr. Snizzle, still peering through his spectacles at the screen, slightly raised one finger in the classic ‘wait-a-second’ gesture.

The Devil fell into shocked silence. He had been shushed! His eyebrows drew together in a dangerous alliance. Perhaps a few centuries was too long for one administrative assistant to be on the job. His hot breath quickened, turning annoyingly to pale, impotent steam as it emerged.

Mr. Snizzle took no notice. “Ah-ha!” he said softly, and nodded.

He turned to his employer, noting at a glance the level of rage which had been attained while he was otherwise occupied, and spoke hurriedly.

“In my considered opinion, sir, a powerful improbability wave has spontaneously spawned. The wavelets are reverberating inward through the Circles and causing the temperature to drop.”

Lord B. stared carefully at Mr. Snizzle for a long moment, forcing himself to draw slow, calming breaths. The streams of white vapour which accompanied the release of those breaths did not enhance their calming effect.

“Mr. Snizzle,” he said finally, “What the—what in—what are you talking about?”

Mr. Snizzle licked his lips, then drew a deep breath himself. “A proper explanation would take longer than we probably have,” he said slowly. “May I be brief?”

“By all means, Mr. Snizzle,” the Devil grated, “Please be brief.”

Mr. Snizzle removed his glasses and began to polish them nervously on his waistcoat, a habit which always infuriated the Devil almost beyond reason. The presence of the waistcoat itself came close to doing that. Only the assistant’s unfailing competence kept Lord B. from ever mentioning it.

“The universe follows many laws which are as yet unknown to humans and not fully understood even by those of us who reside on the other planes,” Mr. Snizzle explained. “One of these cosmic laws seems predicated on the principle of balance in all things.”

“Well I know that,” the Devil snarled.

“Humans on earth have achieved a highly developed awareness of predictability and understanding of probability,” Mr. Snizzle continued, “Both in the natural world, such as predicting tides and the movement of celestial bodies, and in the psychological realm, such as understanding how they will probably act in a given situation. In fact, my algorithms—”

“Which you wrote when, exactly?” Lord B. asked in a scathing tone.

“My algorithms grew out of the ‘Cumulative Human Influence’ reports you had me compiling last year,” Mr. Snizzle said primly. “I noticed some trends and—well, at any rate, the algorithms show that an immense imbalance has built up on the side of probability. Our own actions have not helped—”

Our actions?” Lord B. jumped up from his throne and began to pace in front of it. His hoofed feet clattered jarringly on the marble floor and his tail lashed about like a whip gone mad. “What are you talking about? I’m the Prince of Pandemonium! I take pride in spreading chaos! Unforeseen accidents! Sudden rages in mild-mannered workers! Severe, unpredictable weather! Wholly unexpected election results! Dreadful books morphing into bestsellers! Predictability? I think not!”

“Sorry, sir, but that’s small change, and really, it’s contributed to what’s become predictable.” Mr. Snizzle counted on his fingers as he continued mildly, “Politicians who reliably lie, cheat and steal. Most murders committed by close relations. Absolute power corrupting absolutely. Computer system crashes. Bad weather on the day one wants it least. We sprinkle around a little bit of chaos, certainly. But what we’ve actually managed to achieve is an immensely high probability that, one, people will be ruled by their baser instincts, and two, things can usually be counted on to go wrong. And they know it.”

The Devil contemplated this for a moment. “And so the universe has spontaneously generated an improbability wave to cause the most improbable event—Hell freezing over—to happen in order to counter all that probability and restore cosmic balance?”

Mr. Snizzle replaced his glasses, almost beaming. “Correct! Got it in one, My Lord.”

Lord B. snorted dangerously. “Don’t look so surprised, Mr. Snizzle. But if what you’re saying is true, then I should be able to reverse the wave by getting down to business and spreading more chaos, right? Less predictability! More improbable accidents! I’ll just take chaos theory to the next level!” He chortled. “Humans won’t know what hit them—and neither will the universe.”

But Mr. Snizzle shook his head sorrowfully.

The Devil stopped pacing just in front of the slight demon, barely restraining himself from grabbing his assistant and shaking the bejeezus out of him. “What? What’s wrong with that?”

Mr. Snizzle turned back to the giant plasma screen and tapped the keyboard again. A split-screen view appeared. On one side were the familiar concentric outlines of the Nine Circles. On the other, a 3D view of the Earth rotated slowly.

“Well, for one thing, it’s too predictable. It’s exactly what the universe would expect you to do. And it would take too long, anyway,” Mr. Snizzle said. “See here?” He pointed a trim black nail at a shimmery white overlay. It inched inexorably from the outermost perimeter of Hell towards the center. “We’re more than fifty percent frozen already. It’s gaining speed all the time.”

He indicated the globe then, where tiny yellow dots popped into existence with increasing rapidity. “This is the concurrent, real-time incidence of all events that humans have stated would happen ‘when Hell freezes over.'”

Lord B. looked puzzled.

Mr. Snizzle continued patiently. “Highly improbable events. Bitterly estranged couples are reuniting. So are temperamental rock bands. Incompetent employees are being promoted. Mothers are allowing their children to keep stray animals and stay up late. Long-standing feuds are ending, employers are spontaneously handing out raises, nerds are dating supermodels. And that’s just the beginning.”
He turned to the Devil. “There’s a chain reaction of improbability, since many of these events trigger even more improbable repercussions. It’s going to take something big, something really big and extremely improbable, to stop this now.”

Lord B.’s crimson brow furrowed in thought. “So what you’re saying is that if something happened that was even more improbable than Hell freezing over, the balance would be restored, and we could reverse this?”

Mr. Snizzle shrugged and clasped his hands sedately. “That’s what I think. I don’t know for sure.”

Lord B. dropped heavily onto his throne. “Then we’re sunk,” he groaned. “I’m damned if I can think of anything more improbable than Hell freezing over.”

Mr. Snizzle glanced around at the staring computer imps, then leaned in close to his employer’s ear and spoke quickly and low. “I do have an idea. But it won’t be easy.”

The Devil sighed, rubbing his throbbing forehead carefully just below the horns. “Just tell me, Snizzle. I’ll try anything. You ever make a kid stick his tongue on a flagpole in the middle of winter? I think the same thing just happened with my tail and this throne.”

Mr. Snizzle still hesitated. “You won’t like it,” he warned.

“Dammit, Snizzle, I don’t like any of this! Just spit it out!”

The administrative assistant leaned even closer, to carefully whisper in his master’s ear. “You could do something…nice.”

As soon as the words were out, Mr. Snizzle pulled away and straightened up to meet Lord B.’s smouldering, inscrutable gaze. He shivered, but it wasn’t the cold. He was probably the first denizen of Hell to ever proffer such advice to his employer. It was entirely possible, even probable, that Lord B. would respond by eating him alive. Or something even less pleasant.

But Lord B. suddenly nodded, snapping his massive head up and down decisively. “Highly improbable. Unheard-of, in fact,” he said with a wicked grin. “But I can do that.” He made as if to jump up from the chilled throne, but instead stood up slowly and carefully, twitching his tail.

“You!” he thundered at one of the computer imps. “Dispatch a thousand imps disguised as Boy Scouts to the upper world to help little old ladies across the street.”

The imp stared at him. “My Lord…sir…don’t you mean to push them into traffic? The old ladies? Sir?”

“If I wanted them pushed into traffic I’d say so, you pathetic twit! Now send out those orders!”

“Y-yes, sir.”

“And you!” Lord B. turned to another imp. “Influence a thousand inveterate gamblers to stop and collect their winnings the next time they’re ahead, and go home before they’ve lost everything.” He thought for a moment, a sudden clammy sweat beading his brow. “And swear that they’ll never gamble again. And mean it.”

He nodded to Mr. Snizzle, rubbing his hands together shakily. “That one’s got a lot of repercussive value, you know. Marriages saved, suicides avoided.” The Devil was breathing faster, but swallowed hard to calm himself.

Mr. Snizzle refreshed the split-screen view on the monitor. “I don’t think you’re there yet,” he said, as the frost blanket continued its inward crawl.

“Hmmm…nice, nice…you there,” Lord B. pointed to a waiting imp. “Have five hundred politicians see the error of their ways, resign their posts and repay anything they’ve stolen or mis-reported.” He looked at Mr. Snizzle and raised his eyebrows in hope.

“Better,” Mr. Snizzle said. “But—”

“I know, I know, not enough.” The Devil was sweating profusely now, despite the rapidly-cooling air. He ran a trembling hand over his horns in exasperation. “This is too hard! Thinking this way…it’s not natural!”

Mr. Snizzle nodded encouragingly. “You’re doing fine, my Lord. But perhaps something that affects you personally…it might have a bigger improbability impact.”

“Personally?” Lord B. stared at Snizzle. “Nothing affects me personally. I’m the Lord of the Underworld! Sure, I like making people do bad things and then torturing them about it for eternity, but it’s just for fun, really. Something to pass the time until Armageddon.” He turned to pace again, then looked back at Mr. Snizzle defiantly. “I’m not going to resign or repent, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Mr. Snizzle shook his head and half-smiled. “No, I think that would swing the balance too far in the other direction for any good to come of it. Something a little less—dramatic, perhaps.”
Lord B. paced a few more steps uncertainly. His cloven hooves echoed hollowly on the floor as the marble cooled, and the light dimmed to a red-tinged twilight as all around them fires burned lower. Silent seconds inched past. The imp at the computer terminal on the far end suddenly gasped. The Devil whirled.

“What? What in the name of Me is it?”

“My—my computer, sir,” the imp said in a trembling voice. He looked up from a solid red screen with some white-lettered text in the center. “It’s…it’s frozen, sir. Red screen of death.”

Lord B.’s hands balled into giant crimson fists and he looked frantically around for something to bash. His gaze stopped on Mr. Snizzle, patient, competent, uncomplaining, thumbs tucked into the pockets of his waistcoat. So annoyingly undemanding. Then he went still, the stillness of a sudden epiphany.

The Devil straightened up, relaxing his hands, and swallowed hard. “Imps,” he said calmly, “Take the rest of the day off.”

For a long moment the imps stared at each other, then scampered off with incredulous high-fives and cries of “W00T!”

Lord B. glanced over at the view on his enormous monitor. The layer of white frost seemed to hover uncertainly, neither advancing nor retreating. He looked at Mr. Snizzle with a fearsomely pleasant grin, although his forehead wrinkled as if in great effort.

“Mr. Snizzle,” he said slowly and deliberately, “Why don’t you take a little vacation? You’ve earned it.”

Mr. Snizzle hesitated for a moment. “Vacation, sir?” he repeated blankly, obviously torn between this incredible, miraculous offer and the call of his duty to stay and see the current crisis through.

“Two weeks. With pay,” Lord B. added, flicking his tail with a triumphant flourish.

“Thank you, sir,” Mr. Snizzle said briskly, and disappeared.

A tumultuous roar echoed through the Nine Circles as the great fires leapt back to life and sheets of ice superheated and cracked. The din faded quickly into the rustling susurration of ice melting and water vaporizing as quickly as it had formed. Screams echoed again from the near and distant reaches of the Circles, as afterlife in Hell resumed normality.

The Devil ambled back to his red marble throne and sat down tentatively, then lounged fully back in the seat as welcome heat coursed through his body. The throne room was quiet against a muted backdrop of shrieks and screams, and for a moment he thought it was rather pleasant. That line of thinking might be dangerous, though, and he tried to concentrate on how inconvenient it was going to be without Mr. Snizzle around for a while, and how selfless and, well, nice he’d been in giving him some time off. The room continued to warm up, so it must be working.

The power of probability and improbability, he mused. There must be some way to turn that to his advantage. He sat and contemplated the possibilities for a long time as Hell warmed up around him.

END

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