Middle Men - Part II
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This is Part II of the story. Read Part I here.
The Board called it a “rebranding.”
Death called it “getting fired.”
Because of a loophole in the laws governing the universe, the Board actually had the authority to fire Death. Well, technically they couldn’t fire Him, but they could send Him on a permanent leave of absence until the end of Time, which was effectively the same thing.
He sat at one end of a long, death-black table in a dark room surrounded by death-black walls. At the other end, separated by the death-black expanse of the room, sat the members of the Board.
This wasn’t the Board’s conference room, it was Death’s. If they were going to fire Him, they would have to come to Him and tell Him to His face.
Death’s bony fingers rapped the table as he waited for the Board to speak.
“Look, Mr. Death… is it alright if we call you Mr. Death?” one of the Board members began.
“Death,” said Death. “Just Death.”
“Mr. Death,” the anxious Board member continued, “you’ve done really great work all these years, we just don’t think you’re what’s right for our brand right now.”
There was naught but silence and emptiness under His death-black hood.
“We really respect your contributions up to this point,” the Board member continued, “but your methods – natural causes, famine, disease…that scythe – they’re just so…”
“Old fashioned,” another Board member chimed in.
“Right. Old fashioned,” continued the first Board member. “Look, the future is here. Technology is really taking off. Have you seen the ranged weapons armies have nowadays? And how about these torture devices? There are so many innovative ways to kill people, and we need to evolve with the times. More violence, more war, bigger wars. That’s where the world’s heading. We get the feeling you’re not really on board with our strategic direction.”
Strategic direction, Death thought to Himself. There was only one direction, and that was towards the grave. You didn’t slow it down. You didn’t accelerate it. You certainly didn’t treat it like a business metric to be manipulated for…what was it they were after, anyway?
Just then, Death felt Time calling to Him.
“Excuse me for a minute,” Death said. Sure, he was in a meeting with the Board, the reverberations of which were bound to upset the entire Balance of the universe. But Duty calls. He disappeared from the room, much to the confusion and consternation of the Board.
Death reappeared in a field, outside a small village at the foot of a mountain. There, a farmer was threshing wheat. The farmer paused his work and looked up at the dark figure standing before him.
“Oh,” the farmer said. Then he dropped dead from a heart attack.
Now the farmer’s spirit rose up from his body. He looked at his hands, noticing he could just barely see through them.
“So, I guess I’m…”
“Yes,” said Death.
“Oh,” the farmer said. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” said Death. “Your Time was up. So I came.”
“What’s next?” the farmer asked.
“I don’t know,” said Death. “I’m just the middle man.”
“Oh,” the farmer said. He stood silently for a few seconds, looking out across his fields. “What do I do now?”
“I usually tell people to try and relax. Think happy thoughts,” said Death.
The farmer nodded.
“Does that help?” the farmer asked.
“I don’t know,” said Death. “‘Happy’ is not something I am capable of.”
“Oh. That’s kind of depressing,” the farmer said. His spirit began dissolving into the air, beginning its passage into whatever came next.
“Try to relax,” said Death. “Think happy thoughts.”
“Okay,” said the farmer. He closed his eyes and did as Death suggested, until all that remained of his apparition was his neck and head. Those, too, were fading fast. He opened his eyes. “You know, that actually does help. Thanks.”
Then the farmer was gone.
Death was back in the conference room listening to the Board give a presentation about “innovation” or “growth” or something like that. He thought about the farmer, and for the first time in a long time He wondered where he was. Death didn’t hope, but in His own way He hoped the farmer was doing something more interesting than listening to this presentation.
“…and that’s why we’re putting you on a permanent leave of absence,” the Board member said, concluding the brief.
There it was.
Death didn’t say a word. He just stared straight ahead and rapped His bone-white fingers on the table. The Board members expected some sort of response, but Death would give none. They huddled together and whispered nervously among themselves. When they had finished discussing, they turned back towards Him.
“Well, this is awkward,” the main Board member said.
Death remained still, rapping His fingers on the table.
“So we’re going to have to ask that you collect your things and leave the premises,” the Board member said. “Or, uh, or else we’ll have to, err, call security.”
Now that did it. Death didn’t laugh often, but when He did it was terrible. He let out a screeching roar that cut to the Board members’ souls — what they had of them anyway. He nearly rolled out of His chair in laughter. The Board winced with horror.
When He had finished laughing and the Board members recovered, Death spoke.
“Security will not be necessary,” Death said. “As far as things, I have none. Just this.” He held up His scythe. “One day, you will see it again, when your Time is up.”
And then He was gone.
Senior Ferryman Gastgedal was on his way into work. It was a nice day in the interdimensional plane of nothingness that he inhabited, so he had decided to walk. His office wasn’t the kind of place one could walk to, per se, but his commute approximated walking of a sort. He hummed to himself while he strolled, songs which would have sounded familiar to many of the souls he had ferried into the afterlife over the course of millennia, for he had learned the songs from them.
Gastgedal loved his job. It wasn’t so much the nature of the job that he liked — ferrying souls between the world of the living and the world of the dead — although he did like that part. What he really liked was the people. They were a small team, the ferrymen. Always had been. They all reported directly to Death Himself. No bureaucracy, almost no paperwork. Just good old fashioned soul taking. They didn’t do it for money, or status, or to hit some arbitrary corporate-defined metrics. They did it because it had to be done, and they enjoyed the work.
As a boss, Death could come off as somewhat dour to an outsider. The ferrymen knew Him better than that. Deep down, there was something about Him that cared — truly cared — about the work. That was an inspiration, to have a boss that truly cared.
They were probably inefficient at times. They could have hired more ferrymen, or increased their soul count. But efficiency was not the primary purpose of their line of work. It was about the Balance. It was about people. It was about Time.
Death was what kept the universe in Balance with its more popular counterpart, Life. In Gastgedal’s opinion, Life was overrated. Death got an undeserved bad rap. You couldn’t have one without the other, and when you had a true artist like Him at the helm they complemented each other perfectly.
That’s strange, Gastgedal thought as the office came into view. There was a bustle of activity, dozens of people hustling in and out. Construction crews were hard at work. A few of them were hanging a sign over the entrance to the building that read, “Life Departure Solutions, Inc.” in a sleek sans-serif font.
Gastgedal hurried under the new Life Departure Solutions, Inc. logo and into the building. There in the lobby the other ferrymen were gathering for what appeared to be a company all hands meeting. After a few confused moments of trying to figure out what was going on, a sharp-dressed upper-management type took the stage and quieted the crowd. Gastgedal had never seen him before.
“Good morning, team,” he said. “As you may have noticed, there have been some recent management changes around here. We at Life Departure Solutions, Incorporated would like to allay any fears you may have about layoffs, organizational restructuring, or changes to company culture. Let me reassure you, everything is fine, and all of your jobs are safe. Our leadership is committed to the important mission that this organization has been accomplishing for millennia. That said, we see many opportunities for growth. Moving forward, we will seek strategic ways to drive innovation through a data driven approach that creates value for our stakeholders, aligns with our core principles, and promotes synergy across all workstreams. If you have any questions, you can file them with our newly-created Employee Relations Department, and management will provide you a response within eight to ten business decades.”
The speaker stepped down amid hushed conversation. The ferrymen shuffled hesitantly to their desks.
“What is this nonsense?” Gastgedal asked Neelor, a fellow ferryman who was always up-to-date on the latest office gossip. “There’s no way Death is on board with any of this.”
“New management,” Neelor said. “Death got the ax.”
“They fired Him.”
“They fired…Death? Who fired Him?” Gastgedal couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“They call them ‘the Board.’ Nobody really knows who they are. A bunch of suits, apparently. Gods maybe. Who knows?”
Ugh, gods are the worst, thought Gastgedal. Always getting involved in mortal affairs. Obsessed with status. All they cared about was being worshiped. They didn’t care how much war or hatred they had to provoke just for one more prayer, or one more statue of themselves in the city square. Luckily, even a god’s Time eventually ran out. Most of the worst ones from years past were already gone. But, of course, new ones were popping up all the time.
Death had to be around here somewhere, Gastgedal thought. He would help make sense of this.
Gastgedal headed straight to Death’s office. The death-black door was closed. He knocked a few times but got no response. It was unlocked, so he went in. Empty. It was always empty, but now it was even more so. Death’s office was filled with the same black nothingness it had always been, but there was no Death. No note. Not even His scythe. He really was gone.
“Excuse me, sir. You can’t be in here.” Some construction workers stood outside the office door. They were in the process of blocking it off with caution tape. “This section of the building is under construction.”
“Do you even know whose office this is?” Gastgedal said with a mild air of vexation. “What exactly do you and your little enterprise have planned here, anyway?”
“I don’t know, man. I’m just the carpenter.”
Fair enough, Gastgedal thought. He apologized for his discourtesy, then wandered back into the hall and towards his desk.
What a mess, he thought. So he did what he always did when things were a mess: He took a deep breath and got a cup of coffee.
Every ferryman recalled those weeks
When far too many a soul was reaped.
Those first few weeks were rough, after Life Departure Solutions, Inc. took over. For a while nobody died. Management was so inept that they had no idea how to accomplish even the simple task of ferrying one soul to the afterlife. Then, when it became an emergency and it looked like the whole universe would collapse in on itself, they wildly overcompensated and way too many people died.
Finally, the Administrator stepped up and returned some semblance of Balance to the universe. The Board, seeing her competence and business savvy, immediately put her in charge. She was good enough for now, but she wasn’t Death. And she worked for the Board, which all of the ferrymen loathed.
Gastgedal remembered coming into the office in the morning and finding a tall stack of task orders piled up on his desk.
“What gives?” he said to his manager. “There’s no way I have this many to reap already.”
“Not my directions,” said the manager. “It was the computer.”
“It was the what?”
“The computer,” the manager said. “It’s a tiny demon that can process task orders faster than you can reap ‘em. The Board says it’ll help restore the Balance. They’ve programmed it specifically to get the Balance to optimal levels and keep it there.”
What does the Board know about the Balance? Gastgedal thought.
He started skimming through the documents, figuring it was a mistake. This person has three days left. This one has two weeks.
“All of these people still have Time,” he said.
The manager shrugged. “Maybe they’re still working out a few bugs.”
Gastgedal rolled his eyes, and without reading the rest of the task orders tossed the entire stack in the trash.
In the deepest bowels of the recently rebranded Life Departure Solutions, Inc. lies a room. A room that, until now, was accessible only to Death Himself. The room is a vast corridor, infinitely long and infinitely high. Along the walls are stacked hour glasses, each with a name.
This is the Hall of Time. Or, was the Hall of Time. It is now marked as “Utility Room 47B: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY” on the Life Departure Solutions, Inc. floor plan.
The members of the Board stood in Utility Room 47B, gazing upon the vastness of Life within. They were the “Authorized Personnel” now. Before them sat hour glasses, each bearing the name of a Board member. Attached to these hour glasses was a machine. Had Death known that such a machine existed, someone’s day would have become very, very unpleasant.
The machine’s purpose was this: to funnel Time from other people’s hour glasses into those of the Board members. They figured, there was so much Time out there, why not take a little extra for ourselves? Skim a little off the top? A couple days here, a couple weeks there. No one would notice. No one except the dupes whose Time they were taking, anyway.
So that was their plan. The Board was stealing Time.
The Board members shook hands and lit cigars as they fired up the machine in celebration. They laughed and said things like, “We’ve really outdone ourselves this time, gentlemen.” It was a fine moment in Utility Room 47B. A moment of triumph.
Then the machine stuttered and backfired. A look of concern crossed each of their faces. But the machine quickly resumed normal operation.
“Just a jam,” one of them said. “Probably some ferryman refused to complete one of those task orders we just assigned them. No matter. The system accounts for a bit of error.”
At around the same time, in a dimension more familiar to us mortals, Sir Adelbrand of Storkbottom was surprised to find himself without a head.
It wasn’t so much the fact he had lost his head that surprised him — he had been fighting in a battle after all, and people lost their heads in battles all the time.
It was the fact that he was still very much alive.
To be continued…