Middle Men - Part I
A short story
This story will also be posted on Royal Road.
“Gast! Administrator’s office now!” the manager shouted. Gastgedal was in the middle of a report, but you didn’t want to make the Administrator wait. He quickly closed the report and started heading toward the stairs.
“What’s it about?” Gastgedal asked. “It’s not about that prince from Wydovia again, is it? Because I told you I already cleared that case up with the VIP Assassinations Department.”
“I don’t know what it’s about, but she’s not happy,” the manager said. “Better hurry.”
The Administrator’s office was thirty floors down, far underground in the coldest, darkest, and most desirable part of the building. Walking would take too long, Gastgedal decided, so he opened a portal and jumped there instead. Floating through an interdimensional rift would give him a few extra minutes to think about what he would say to the Administrator, even though in real time he would arrive there almost instantly.
He knew his numbers were down, but it wasn’t all about the numbers, right? He worked for Life Departure Solutions, Inc., doing the job Death had done since the beginning of, well, since the beginning. Their job was to bring death to the right person at the right time and the right place via the right means. No more, no less. “The 4 W’s and an H” was their modus operandi. Who, What, When, Where, and How.
They didn’t worry about the “Why.” That was for the gods to sort out.
The portal jump went faster than expected, and Gastgedal found himself standing in front of the Administrator’s closed office door. It read simply “The Administrator.” Notably, it didn’t say “Death.” That title was reserved for someone else.
While Gastgedal contemplated the death-black letters carved by flame into the death-black door, it suddenly swung open. He was whisked inside by an invisible force and seated firmly but politely in a large death-black chair.
“Gastgedal, so good to see you. It’s been what, a decade since we last spoke?” The Administrator was always gracious and kind, which, given the nature of her job, made her all the more terrifying.
“Probably closer to two, ma’am,” Gastgedal said.
“Ahh, far too long for one of my favorite ferrymen,” she said. She offered him a hard candy from the jar on her desk, which he accepted. “I read a report on the work you did during the war in Kebros a few years back. Absolute bang-up job. Pure craftsmanship.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Gastgedal replied. That was one of his bigger projects recently, although the war ended almost a decade ago now. One of the sides was testing out a new siege technology and it made the whole thing a real bloodbath.
“I’ll cut straight to the point, because I don’t want to insult your intelligence,” the Administrator continued. “You’re one of our finest and longest-serving ferrymen. You’ve been here almost since the beginning. You do great work, Gast, but your numbers are slipping.”
She gave a wave of her hand and a chart was projected onto the death-black wall. On it were a number of bars going back ten years, two bars for each year. One was labeled “Annual Quota,” the next was labeled “Actual Soul Count.” The “Annual Quota” bars rose steadily each year, but the “Actual Soul Count” bars stayed roughly the same.
It looked like this:
“Gast, you had never missed a quota until a few years ago. But recently you’ve fallen off. What’s going on?” the Administrator said.
“If I may speak freely ma’am…”
“Gast, we’ve known each other too long. Please spare me the formalities.”
“I’m worried that this growth rate is unsustainable,” Gastgedal said. “Each year, we’re taking more souls than the last. If we continue at this rate for another century, there won’t be any souls left to take.”
The Administrator smiled. She understood. She’d heard this from plenty of other ferryman on the front lines before.
“Gast, darling, I know it’s tough. But times are changing. We have projections that need to be hit, investors to please,” she said. “The Board isn’t happy. We can’t do things the way He used to anymore, or they’ll shut us down, get rid of us all. If that happens, gods know what kind of abomination they’ll replace us with.
“I know you miss the personal touch. Being able to hold each and every soul’s hand and comfort them as you guide them towards whatever comes next, but that just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s all about growth.”
“I understand, ma’am,” Gastgedal said. “But some of these people, they’re not ready to go. They still have Time.”
When He was still around, a Ferryman wasn’t allowed to take someone until their Time was up, no matter what. Not anymore. The management still paid lip service to Time in official company policy and public relations, of course, but for the most part they ignored it.
“Unfortunately, our investors aren’t concerned about Time, Gast,” the Administrator said. “They’re concerned about numbers. It pains me to say this, but if you can’t get your numbers up, we’re going to have to pull you from the line.”
“Pull me from the line?!” Gastgedal shouted. “But ma’am, this is what I do. I’ve worked with you, with Him, since the beginning. What are they gonna do, stick me in the Records Department?”
“I know, Gast. I hope it doesn’t come to that,” the Administrator said. “You’ve been with us so long,” she held her hands up and conjured the illusion of a large rope binding them together, “but my hands are tied.”
Gastgedal couldn’t be mad at the Administrator. She was doing what she could to maintain the precious balance between Life and Death. She was the only one who could’ve done this job after He went away and the Board took over. The Board, with their data, and their investors, and their growth.
Who was the Board anyway? Gastgedal wondered. Always controlling things from afar, manipulating the universe with an invisible hand. They only spoke to the Administrator. She was doing her best to keep them out of day-to-day operations. But she was right. If the Board wasn’t happy, they’d all be out of jobs, and whatever they’d be replaced with would be much, much worse.
“I’m sorry, Gast, but I have to run,” the Administrator said. “I’ve got a meeting with the Board after this, and they don’t like to wait. It was great seeing you. We should catch up more often.”
Before Gastgedal could say goodbye, the Administrator opened a portal behind him and he was sucked through it and back to his cubicle.
Back to work. He opened up the report he had been writing and started thinking about who he would have to take before their Time was up.
Being a ferryman was a tricky job. You didn’t kill people, per se. You just kind of facilitated it. You didn’t even bring their souls all the way to the afterlife, you just sort of pointed them in the direction of how to get there, maybe gave a few words of encouragement.
You were sort of a middle man.
But you were an important middle man. You were the last thing a person would see in their life, and the first thing they would see going into whatever came next. It was a thankless job, but it meant something. Dying wasn’t always easy. It helped to have someone there to smooth the transition.
Only He was actually allowed to take a life, and even then He never did so until their Time had run out. It’s a common misconception that Death only showed up in person for VIPs — prophets, kings, and the like. He did his fair share of prophets, sure, but He actually preferred to take regular people.
They were much more interesting, He’d always say. They complained a lot less.
But now that He was gone, things had gotten complicated. The lines had become blurred. Ferrymen were encouraged to interfere more directly, to cause people to die before their Time was up, in order to make an ever-increasing quota.
And people were dying. Fast.
A bell dinged beside Gastgedal’s desk and an order appeared in front of him. It told him his next job was a certain Sir Shaldsley, a famous and successful knight. Sir Shaldsley still had three years of Time left, but a high profile taking like this would help Gastgedal make up for his deficiency in overall numbers. He had a feeling this one came directly from the Administrator herself.
Reluctantly, he opened a portal and stepped in.
A few seconds later he was sitting on the tilt in the middle of a list, the barrier that divided a jousting arena down the center. Two knights charged towards him from either direction, their lances at the ready. The larger of the two was Sir Shaldsley.
Gastgedal closed his eyes in meditation as the two opponents approached the point of impact. They charged on their horses at full speed, their lances aimed directly at the point where Gastgedal sat. At the last second, without opening his eyes, Gastgedal casually lifted his hand and passed a finger across the tip of Sir Shaldsley’s lance, causing it to miss his opponent by an inch. In his surprise at the sudden misdirection, Sir Shaldsley lifted his head just enough for his opponent to land a blow to his neck, throwing him from his horse.
Gastgedal stepped down from the tilt and walked to where Sir Shaldsley lay on the ground, blood spewing forth from his throat. When his body was done writhing, his spirit appeared, standing above it.
The spirit grabbed quickly at its throat to stop the bleeding, but there was no blood left to bleed. It saw Gastgedal standing before it, then looked down and saw its former corporeal form lying in the dust.
“No,” Sir Shaldsley’s spirit said in disbelief.
“Yes, I’m afraid,” Gastgedal said.
“But, but, I still have my whole life ahead of me!” Sir Shaldsley cried.
“Well, three years anyway,” Gastgedal said. “Technically you still had three years. But orders are orders.”
In a wild rage, Sir Shaldsley drew a translucent sword from his scabbard and swung it at Gastgedal. It passed right through him. He swung it again, and again, with the same result. Defeated, he dropped the sword and fell to his knees in anguish.
“Why me?!” he cried. “It’s not fair!”
Gastgedal scratched his head. They usually weren’t this emotional. It was the first time in a while that Gastgedal had taken an egomaniac before their Time was up. The Regulations had changed so much recently that he wasn’t exactly sure how to react. He decided to consult The Regulations. He pulled out a large book and flipped through it until he found the page he wanted: Chapter 9 - Approved Responses to Common Reactions Upon Premature Departure from Life.
Under the heading “IT’S NOT FAIR!” The Regulations stated the appropriate response:
“Due to a recent policy update, Life Departure Solutions, Inc. no longer collects metrics on fairness. At this time we are unable to determine if your early demise was or was not fair. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience your untimely departure from life may have caused, and we wish you the best in whatever comes next.”
That seemed a little cold, Gastgedal thought. So he shrugged and said, “You’re right. It’s not fair. Look, I am sincerely very sorry. I usually would have let a case like yours slide, but I’m under a lot of pressure from my boss to make quota.”
Sir Shaldsley’s spirit stared at him in disbelief, with its jawed dropped open, as it slowly disintegrated into the air.
Gastgedal sighed, opened a portal, and transported back to his desk to write up the report.
“How’d it go with the Administrator?” Neelor approached Gastgedal’s desk just as he returned. He was always looking for the latest office gossip.
“Not great. She’s got me under a lot of pressure – she’s under a lot of pressure from the Board – to make quota,” Gastgedal said. “My numbers are down.”
Neelor clicked his tongue.
“Don’t wanna mess with the numbers,” he said. “Me, I take a few extra souls every day just in case.”
“Even if they still have Time?” Gastgedal asked.
“I don’t have time to worry about Time, Gast,” Neelor said. “Not with the quotas I need to hit. I haven’t been here since the beginning like you. I don’t have that résumé to fall back on. I need to earn my keep out on the line. Only way to do that is to hit quota.”
“Aren’t you worried this will, like, tear at the fabric of the entire universe? Upset the Balance?”
“What’s this ‘Balance’ you’re always complaining about, anyway? Everything seems pretty normal to me. Little plague here, little volcanic eruption there, what’s the difference?”
Neelor patted Gastgedal on the back. He didn’t actually cause the volcanic eruption in question, but he did conveniently redirect the lava flow to a nearby village.
“Don’t worry, buddy,” Neelor said, playfully nudging Gastgedal in the shoulder as turned to go back to his cubicle. “It’ll all be okay.”
Deep in a vast expanse of nothingness a bottle cracked open and a shadowy figure took a gulp.
The figure lay back and watched a projection that was floating in the nothingness in front of it. It was a scale. One side was black, the other white, and it was visibly off balance. The scale was tilting heavily towards the black, and tilting more so by the second.
The figure shook its head and finished the drink. It tossed the bottle into the nothingness then cracked another.
What Death knew for certain — something that the more astute ferrymen at Life Departure Solutions, Inc. only suspected — was that it was all very much not okay.
To be continued…