Of Almost-Lost Souls, Eavesdroppers in Vents, and Incredibly Deficient Training Programs
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MR. FALTER, A SOUL

When I awoke, I was still dead.

I looked around to find an extremely long and winding line. Longer than usual, in fact. I expected the afterlife to be as much. Dead, gray grass was beneath me as I floated in the ever moving conveyor of souls. I knew almost by muscle memory what to do. It wasn't my first time doing paperwork. Dull little cardboard cutouts of people with overly exaggerated smiles and thumbs pointed upwards in a genial manner sought to "encourage" the souls forward towards a large building in the middle of the Dead Field.

I saw other souls there. They were quite frantic. Paperwork always had that effect. Even the Road was less frightening than the confines of paper and ink. As a man who had accepted my death days before, I felt no sorrow at no longer living. Unfortunately for those who had been murdered in their sleep, had been hit by cars, or who had met some other untimely demise, they did not share my resolve.

But I was here on a mission. I bypassed the line of souls to go straight to the front desk. The other human remnants protested wildly at my cutting, but I paid no attention to their jeers. I floated myself into the front office. There was a grey old man at the reception window. He seemed more dead than me, to be honest. He handed me a stack of papers wordlessly, and motioned for me to get to work. A wave of his hand sent me to the waiting room, a terribly decorated area with less than comfortable wooden chairs. What were probably once vibrant pastel polka dots painted on the wall were now faded and peeling. I sat and started on the paperwork. In my past life I had been the administrative assistant for a public school, so it wasn't too much of a problem.

There were a few others there with me, but only those who were officiating their 'annual' verification forms. Indeed, that is why there was such a line today. A new protocol the Sovereigns had established as a sort of census for souls. Instead, I was filling out another release form. For some odd reason, waivers still existed in a world where your actions are controlled by a shadowy group of omnipotent Managers. The Workers needed my expertise in their winding Maze of Records. So, instead of disobeying them and being forced to stay in a… less favorable Realm, I accepted.

After finishing the paperwork, I returned it to the old man at the front desk. He handed me a lanyard with an ID badge on it and waved me towards the restricted area door. I moved on down through the main offices, passing by a surprising amount of workers in the restricted area. Most of the time, they prefer to stay out of sight. I'm not surprised. To me, they all look like corpses shambling about. They were giving me awful stares, but they saw my ID badge. I suppose a soul doing a Worker's job was quite controversial.

When I finally got to the door to the Maze of Records, I looked for a handle. There wasn't a handle. Instead, there was a hand-shaped hole. Not having much of a hand, I reached out and inserted the bit of my soul that resembled one. The hole began to glow a bright red, and the door rolled into the floor. Suddenly, a wave of a indiscernible musky smell assailed what should have been my nose. The odor was so prominent, that even the dead could smell it. I took a tentative step into the room, adjusting my prescription glasses that I still required in spite of being dead.

A slimy mass of papier-mâché coated in a sheen of dust and glue inched forward to block the way. The papier-mâché skin folded in on itself to reveal a hollow space full of floating books, files, battered journals, pamphlets, and manila envelopes, all swirling in a wind coming from seemingly nowhere. Then, a large, green tome floated forward and opened in front of me. It was a popup-book. On said popup-book were a pair of feline yellow eyes. It floated there for a second, before the page flipped and revealed a similar image, except the paper eyes had narrowed. The page flipped again, and a small bubble of text now accompanied the eyes.

Why have you come, soul? Should not you be shuffling about doing nothing in some far-flung realm? The text read. All in questions, I noticed.

I grabbed my ID badge and lazily flicked it in front of the cardpaper eyes. The pages flipped and the eyes widened. Another speech bubble then appeared.

Then what are you standing around for? Why aren't you working? The page flipped yet again, and yet another bubble asked, Will you please get to Division 5, Sublevel D-S2J, and file all of these papers in the correct cabinets?

A mass of files flew towards me, a tower of paper near my height landing in my grasp. The creature of paper and dust slithered on away soundlessly, like some horrendous craft mealworm. In its wake it left a trail of documents and other esoterica that a band of workers picked up until there was no trace whilst following the beast. It seemed to be their job. Poor guys.

I looked out from behind the massive stack of paper only slightly larger than my college thesis and began to walk in the only direction I could. Instead of walls, there were filing cabinets. Instead of a ceiling, there was a seemingly infinite abyss where said filing cabinets reached up into said seemingly infinite abyss. I had no idea how to get where I was going.

To be honest, my job on Earth was worse.


MARS, A WORKER

As a worker, I'd had trouble being obedient. It was part of my nature to be rebellious.

So, when I spied a secret meeting between the Sovereigns, I knew I had to eavesdrop. Luckily, being more a conceptual ideal (I usually physically appeared to others as an office chair, though I had no idea why) than a corporeal form, vents were easy to slip inside. I listened in on their conversation, something I had repetitively done over the years. My disposition for anarchy and conflict had been of no little chiding from the Sovereigns I now listened in on.

I heard the unmistakable grumbling of Flain first, "I don't see why we're so reduced to something like this. Management has been changing the rules lately, and I for one am not a big fan."

"I like the idea, personally! You all are such a drab bunch, and it's getting me down!" Laughed Drez. I hated that guy.

"Where the hell is Ohj?" Asked Ortiz to the others, "I expected tardiness from Althkyr, but Ohj has always been punctual."

I heard the flipping of a page. Paper has a very distinctive sound.

"Ortiz, we all understand it's your thing to be a pathological liar, but I think you've offended Ohj by pretending it's not here." Said Drez with that stupid chastising tone he uses with us. He walks around in a Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, and cheap plastic sunglasses, and treats us like immature children. It's no wonder he's in charge of the Suburbs.

"Oh, sorry Ohj. I definitely didn't see you there. Really! You know, the whole 'never making a sound thing' kind of makes it difficult." Ortiz then mumbled something about being dragged out from under his waterfall by Management just to sit in a room full of idiots.

"On to more serious matters," Angrily interjected Flain yet again, "The trainee. What are we going to do with it? It's been a literal eternity since there has been another Sovereign. I don't want to sound whiney when I say this, but I feel it extremely unwise for them to take the position. They seem… obnoxious at best."

A Sovereign I didn't personally know, but who was named Sylapsi spoke up, "I'm just wondering where we left the New Sovereign Training Tape." She sounded odd, almost like she had multiple voice-boxes and was speaking in multiple voices.

In unison, the others responded with a groan, "In the color control room."

"It's a shame the Firsssssst can't even be here to discussssssss it. Though, being immobile makessssss it tough to get in here, I ssssssuppose." Hissed a Sovereign named Hakal. Hakal was the multi-headed ruler of the Snake Room, a Realm consisting entirely of snakes. Oddly, both his heads resembled Ox, not snakes. It was a mystery as to why he hissed all his 'S's. Those who landed in the snake room were often those who delighted in unsavory sexual practices. And lawyers.

One of them coughed, and the room went dead quiet. There were multiple minutes of silence before one spoke up. "Why the hell is there an office chair in the vents?" Asked Flain, "Seriously guys, don't just put random appliances in the vents. There are rats up there, and we don't need another Supersized rat problem! You guys know how expensive an Interdimensional Exterminator is. I seriously do not wanna have to explain that again to Accounting."

"It's not an actual chair, it's Worker 34-5NB-21M-887Y, otherwise known as 'Mars'," Said Drez, "And he is yet again eavesdropping on our meeting. Really Mars, I expect more from you. Tsk tsk tsk."

I groaned, asking, "Yeah yeah yeah, alright! Double-maze duty, then?" Really it was my attempt to get out of the situation before the sovereigns change their minds.

After the distinct noise of flipping paper, and a few hushed mumblings from the other Sovereigns, Drez finally administered punishment, "Triple duty. And an added quota. You're to follow Ohj and pick up the paper left in it's trail."

"Damnit. Fine. I'll do it, just don't do the thing with the eyes."

I wasn't afraid of Drez, just… Cautious.

I decided to get back to work in the Maze of Records to fill out my hours. Usually I worked in the Suburbs, but I really didn't mind the Maze. Mostly because it meant I didn't have to deal with that causal-clad menace Drez. On my way to the Maze, I wondered about what I had heard. New Sovereigns were rare, near-unheard of. Whoever it was, I hoped they were less annoying than the other ones.

Of course, I knew that to be impossible. It's their job to be annoying.


EILAM, A SUB-SOVEREIGN

Suddenly existing isn't the best experience. But, The First grew old, and Management needed a replacement. Someone needed to run its realm. There had always been 12, and if I could complete training properly, I'd rule over the first one1 created. A high responsibility. I heard something about a lost tape or something of the sort, so most of my training would come from the current Sovereign itself.

The First took on the appearance of a gnarled old pine tree. Its red needles dripped with a slimy substance, not unlike mucus. It had a face, but not a face of bark. Instead, on the trunk of the tree was the head of an anteater. A scaly tongue consistently shot out of its snout to taste the air, and to eat the termites that had long ago made their home in its roots, but to no avail. The tree was dying, and if it died, so would the realm.

I was about to speak, but the First did so before I could, "Eilam. The Thirteenth. Welcome to the First Realm."

The old tree was solemn, as a priest offering a sacrifice might be. It's voice sounded like the wind rushing through leaves, but pitched lower to a reasonable level. The tree had no ability to turn, so I walked up to it's face.

I bowed, "My name is Eilam, and I am to be your replacement, great Sovereign."

In contrast to the Sovereign, I looked very different. I had chosen my appearance just moments ago in the 'Mirror-Room', apparently the place where all newly-created Sovereigns begin their tenure here. I thought I looked quite formidable, but the First did not share my ideation. Apparently an entire body made of stringy hair-like fibers wasn't up to style here.

It laughed heartily, like it had just been told a joke, saying, "Oh, youth. Always so adventurous. Never can just go with the norm… I suppose that's the truth of existence."

"What? Does it not look good?"

It grimaced, the pain of the termites evidentially growing stronger, "Enough banter, we must train you. Since I cannot move, I have enlisted the help of Virgil here to give you a short tour. Virgil? Virgil? VIRGIL!"

A soul wandered out from the high circular walls of the Citadel, yawning. Virgil nodded to me, coming closer to the grassy courtyard where me and the First now conversed. The First cleared is throat, "Alright. Take Eilam here around on the tour we discussed."

And so I left the First Realm and into the Inbetween and Around. I had an uneasy feeling about this place, as if the walls had eyes and ears. In some places, the walls literally did have eyes and ears. It was rumored that the entire Afterlife was actually one massive sentient semi-organism, and I didn't doubt that. But it wasn't that that frightened me, but instead was the constant glaring from Workers passing by. There was animosity there, between the Workers and the Sovereigns. Even more so, they seemed to hate my guide. Virgil nonetheless took me down2 a hallway, sideways across a set of inverse stairs, and through a skybridge that wasn't connected to any buildings.

Eventually, we reached an odd door without a handle. Instead, it had a handprint. Virgil extended an extremity that vaguely resembled a hand,3 and inserted it into the hole.

"Why are we here? This isn't even my Realm, man." I asked the philosopher as the door slid into the wall.

"Yeah, I don't really care. Here's what's gonna happen," He responded, somewhat irritably, "I'm going to go browse the Maze for recent events, and you're going to tell the First you went on a full tour, capeesh? Then we all get exactly what we want."

"What I want to get is proper training!"

He just walked off, perusing the Maze of Records at his own whimsey. Even though my guide was counterfeit in his intention, I took the experience as a learning opportunity. I began to walk down the filing cabinet floors, opening a few on my wander down the hall. I made close intention to leave a literal paper trail. Every so often, I'd grab a random file and fold it into a little hat. I left these in my wake, making a path of breadcrumbs to follow back.

Eventually I got to a large hole, where filing cabinets jutted out at odd angles to make a bridge across. The large pit was filled to the brim with papers of all types and colors. It seemed to be a bulk storage for items deemed near-useless. I saw a few Maze Workers walking around in the massive pile, seemingly looking for specific files. How inefficient. One of those workers stood out among the rest. It was almost transparent, the edges of it's humanoid body fogging like frost on a window. I reasoned it must've been my ancient escort, Virgil.

Feeling awfully, awfully bored of wandering, I searched for a way down into the pit. Just then, what looked like a mobile office chair approached me. It's wheels were spinning seemingly autonomously, rolling along the way I had come. I watched the odd creature use some sort of telekinesis to lift one of the paper markers I had left, and refile it.

"Oi!" I yelled, angry that I was now lost. But the chair paid no heed, it just continued down the path until it reached me.

"Oh, hey!" It said cheerily, though it had no mouth, "Name's Mars! How're you?" Something invisible then violently shook my hand, even though I had not extended it.

"Hey! Actually, I'm pretty terrible, now that you've right gotten me lost!"

Mars swiveled in confusion, "Ohhhh, were those papers yours?" It laughed.

"Yes! And now I'm bloody lost!" I was distraught. I began pacing, attempting to conjure up a idea on how to leave here, "I need to get to that soul right down there. He'll know the way."

Mars laughed again, possibly with a hint of disbelief, "Alright, I'll float you down!"

And quite suddenly, I was hurtling through the air. It took a few seconds for me to finally reach the bottom. When I did, I landed with a thump in a large pile of envelopes. Spluttering, I spat out a wad of paper and patted myself off. Virgil was nearby, picking up documents. I ran over to the floating human soul, only to discover it wasn't Virgil at all. It was just a random depressed looking modern man. He readjusted his spectacles, looking me up and down with contempt.

"You're not Virgil."

"Why, thank you." A hint of sarcasm in his monotone voice, "Name's Falter. If you're looking for him, I saw him at the new digital section. Though that might have been one of the other knowledge-addicted Greek toga-wearers. Hard to tell 'em apart, to be honest."

I stood there, looking around. The soul sighed, "You have no idea where it is, do you? What kind of worker even are you." He muttered and gestured for me to follow.

"Sovereign, actually."

If he heard me, he evidentially didn't care. There was a tall filing cabinet all the way to the top of the pit. The soul used the metal handles as rungs to climb up the height. I follow, stringy feet often getting ensnared in the dubious attempt at a ladder. After much grumbling, and some sorry attempts at small talk, we reached the top.

"Alright, where's the digital section?" I asked.

"Thirty miles due North, as the carrier-pigeon flies." He responded.

"But we can't fly, and this is a maze."

"Yup. Better get a-walkin'."

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