Prologue: Why does the afterlife look like a DMV?
“This is not what I expected,” Nathaniel Miller shook his head as he took in his surroundings. The afterlife was supposed to be all clouds, golden streets and pearly gates right? Or if not that then fire, lava and brimstone. This, this was neither of those, neither was it any recognizable variation on those either. Instead of the expected angelic or demonic he was surrounded by what could only be called the mundane.
It was grey, and not the purgatory sort of grey, but the grey of a surrounding series of concrete block walls. Concrete walls that had small windows set high in them that let in small squares of blue sky and the occasional cloud. He looked around again, causing the black thinly padded chair to groan and squeak in protest at the horizontal movement, the screws that used to hold it tightly together having worked their way loose some over who knows how long and how many bodies, or perhaps not bodies, perhaps souls, had sat there.
And he was not the only soul there, no, to his side and to the front and rear of him was a series of identical black chairs, each of which was occupied, each with a man or woman that clutched a small sheet of paper identical to the one in his hands. Well identical with the exception of the number printed on it. He looked at the large black number on the front of the page 8,344,370,602,224 looked back up at him in bold black numbers.
Yeah, when he thought of the afterlife he didn't see the DMV, but here he was, waiting in line, and it was just as slow as monotonous as the thing back on planet earth, he had been sitting there for what felt like an eternity, watching as men and women’s numbers were called and seeing how they got up from their chairs and shuffled awkwardly down the lanes of people in an attempt to not step on any toes before they emerged at the exit of their row and made their way up to a grey tellers counter, behind which immaculately dressed and rather bored-looking men and women worked, their smiles the same sort of mask anyone who had ever worked in customer services had cultivated.
No one spoke, everyone simply held their peace, either looking up at the counter or down at the paper in their hands, or some alternating variation thereof. Every time a spot along that grey counter opened up the receptionist behind would call out a new number, and every eye would fall to the paper to see if it was their number called.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, glancing at his paper, looking at the drab surroundings and the even more drab people that occupied them, but it felt like an eternity before he heard it. “Number eight trillion three hundred forty-four billion three hundred seventy million six hundred two thousand two hundred twenty-four,” he blinked and looked down at the paper, why in all that was holy couldn’t they call out the number as a series of numbers? He counted the comas as the teller called them again.“Number eight trillion three hundred forty-four billion three hundred seventy million six hundred two thousand two hundred twenty-four,” Nate was pretty damn sure that it was his number, not one hundred percent sure, but pretty damn sure. Deciding to take a chance seeing as it could potentially get him out of this purgatory he stood, and carefully working his way past knees he made it to the center of the aisle.
With only the slightest of trepidation, he made his way up to the teller, and placed his paper on the counter leaning in. Like most such countertops this one reminded Nathaniel of a castle wall, with higher sections behind which a man could almost stand and not be seen from the other side, and lower sections that were manned. Sure, it was a different sort of fortification, this one aimed more at protecting privacy than people, but still. On the other side of the counter a middle-aged man stood, his black business suit and immaculately combed black hair fitting perfectly with the red pen striped tie. On his lapel was pinned a tag, one of those fancy tags you see on the staff of a big bank, or hotel or some such, it was red, with a gold outline and flowing golden letters. Nathen leaned in to get a better look, his eyes slightly narrowed to read it. James, it read, and as he looked back up at the man apparently named James he smiled that customer service smile.
“Hello mister Nathaniel Miller,” he held out a hand and Nate took it and shook it firmly, not thinking about it in the slightest, it was just reactionary. “My name is James, would it be all right if I were to call you Nathaniel?”
“Just Nate is fine,” he said in reply, and watched as the mask of a smile stretched a little wider.
“Very well Nate, I suppose you have many questions?”
“You have no idea,” Nate said with a laugh, it was a rather short-lived laugh as James didn’t so much as twitch, no chuckle, nothing.
“I believe I do have some idea, I’ve done this job for quite some time, and I have had a few cases like you before.”
“Yes, all these-“ James gestured around, indicating the men and women that occupied the rows upon rows of seats, Nate glanced around, looking at all the faces staring blankly. “Have been dead for quite some time, they are here to lodge a formal complaint, you see, not everyone is content with how they died, many many people feel as though an injustice has been dealt to them, and thus they are here, seeking some form of recompense, you, well your case is different, and let me tell you,” he leaned forward, the fake customer service smile slipping off of his lips to be replaced with a real smirk. “It is quite refreshing to get a different case every now and again,”
“And what exactly is my case? I mean I just showed up here, number in hand, thought it was a dream at first, still not quite sure what is going on-“
“It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that there has been a clerical error that led to your premature death,”
“A clerical error?” he asked automatically but in word stuck in his mind, premature.
“Yes, unfortunately even as well an oiled machine as we have here has errors, mishaps, this will all be easier for you to understand if I lay out some basics for you, please hold any questions you have until I have finished,” Nate nodded and James went into a recitation that seemed rather scripted, so much so that it was delivered in the monotonous voice of a man who had to say the same thing so many times he could do so in his sleep. “The first thing you should know is that there are multiple different versions of earth, each one a mirror reflection of another, each one with the same people, the same animals, plants bugs and even microorganisms, everything exactly the same, and yet, each one subtly different, much like an actual reflection in a mirror getting distorted by some imperfection in the surface. These distortions are due to the fact that you and every other living being has free will, and each choice has impacts, each version of a person could choose to go about something a different way, and that has the potential to completely change not only that person’s future but also others they come into contact with. “ he paused taking a deep breath before continuing. “ The number of reflections of earth is a figure that would take longer to tell than you lived, than anybody lived for that matter, so we will simply call it infinite, though technically there is a finite amount of possibilities and permutations, and each one of these is watched over, carefully by a full staff, not my department, but another.”
“So-“ Nate began but James held up his hand in a silencing gesture and Nate decided to shut his mouth.
“Aside from the individuals making choices there is also the fact that the more an object is reflected the more warped it gets, often the versions of earth that are, for a lack of a better description, right next to each other are very very similar. There is also discrepancies in the way in which time flows on each version of earth, this is due to the different staffs watching over each planet having some freedoms with how they wish to watch over the plant, some are meticulous, and thus time runs slower there so that things can be studied in detail others tend to be big picture-oriented, and as such time moves quicker there, none of the actual occupants ever notice, as it is all relative and time feels the same to them. As such on most of these earths the version of you specifically as a person is either not born yet, or has died long ago, there is only a small percentage of worlds where you are alive in one form or another.” He looked expectantly at Nate, as though telling him it was now ok to ask questions.
“When you say a small percentage, how many planets are we talking about?”
“The number is astronomical, literally more than the stars in the night sky or the grains of sand in the Sahara.”
“Yeah, which is a whole lot of worlds and individuals that need to be looked after,” he smiled. “Which is why we have so many complaints,”
“Yeah, that is a big ass number,” Nathaniel said looking down at the paper on the countertop. James laughed, a real laugh, and what was left of the man’s mask cracked and fell away revealing a tired but amused-looking James.
“What if I were to tell you, Nate, that that number right there is reset to 1 daily, and we just are getting started on the workday today?”
“Holy shit,” Nate whistled as he glanced between James and the paper. “So, let’s see if I can recap everything,” James nodded and made a gesture that Nate took as ‘go on’. “Essentially there are multiple earths, each one different due to people having free will, but each one having the same people, more or less,” James nodded so Nathaniel continued. “Each world is watched over by a staff of what angels?”
“Hmm,” James said, giving a noncommittal shrug.
“Not going to acknowledge or deny that?” Nate asked, and James just smiled and shrugged again. “What about God? Heaven? Hell? Religion?”
“Do you really expect me to answer that?” James asked, one eyebrow quirking in apparent amusement.
“Well, I did, but uh-“
“Free will, remember? That includes thoughts decisions, and faith, if I were to tell you that you are right or wrong, which you are one of those two, then I will have taken away some of that free will, which is a big no no here, real big no no, so no, I am not going to answer any question of that nature.” His smile was warm this time.
“But, you are telling me somethings, like the fact that there is something after death, why else would I be here?”
“Well, that brings the question of whether or not you are actually here to mind does it not? How do you know this isn't all some hallucination that your brain is forming as you die?“ He leaned in a little, “here is the thing, we really don’t get cases like yours often, in fact, I can’t remember one in the past several thousands of years, so there are no real procedures for cases like this, I neither can nor want to tell you, if you happen to come to a conclusion, however, then that is your conclusion that you came to freely.”
“Okay then, but I’m going to figure it out whenever we are done here and I go to whatever is after.”
“Weeeeeeeell-“James stretched the word before continuing, “that rather neatly segways us into the actual reason you are here, as I said before, your death was premature due to a clerical error, you see, you were not slated to die, your number had not been called yet,” he tapped the paper with his finger. “Unfortunately, the, hmm, collector shall we say, was given the wrong address, rather than collecting the Nathaniel Miller of the earth right next door, he got you, it really was a small error, very easy to overlook that one small number in the sea of numbers that differentiates your earth from the next one down.”
“Well that sucks balls,” Nate said, “just a small error, and I died before I was supposed to huh? Is there any way to you know undo that? Rollback the clock or something?”
“Unfortunately, we do not reverse time, we can control its flow, speed it up, slow it down, but reversing it has too many consequences, so, no turning back the clock is not an option.” He pulled out a manila envelop, like what police often did in those crime shows and movies. “Mr. Anderson,” he said with a rather decent agent smith impression.
“Watched the matrix huh?” Nate chuckled.
“Of course, I've seen multiple versions, though I must say, my favorite is the one where the Witkowski brothers were allowed to use their original concept for why the matrix was made and uses humans, you know, for processing power, not for batteries, it just makes so much more sense.”
“There is a version like that?” Nate asked.
“Of course, neer infinite possibilities remember?”
“Right,” Nate said, “that's hard to wrap your head around.”
“So I have been told,” James said, tapping the top of the envelope. “This is your life, all in writing,” he reached in and pulled out a small stack of papers. “This is rather on the thin side,” he said more to himself than to Nate, the comment stung a little, but before he could say anything James went on speaking. “Nathaniel Miller, age 49, married twice, divorced twice, one child, and no notable contribution to the world aside from that one child.”
Ouch, now that really stung Nate. “Well Mister Miller,” James said, as he flipped through what seemed to be five pages of single-sided paper stapled together. That was all Nathaniel’s life amounted to, five pieces of single-sided paper. “You have lived a rather sedate and mundane life, haven't you?” James asked and looked up to see the way his words affected Nate. “I always wonder in cases like this, was it because you were scared to really live? Or did you have a goal in mind and this was the best way to achieve it?” Nate didn't really know how to answer that, so he simply kept his mouth shut. “It wasn't a bad life, not as long as it should have been, and you did have a son, a son who, according to the file, turned out quite well.” he paused and looked at Nate, who silently looked back. “I always wonder, would you change things if you could?”
“Change things?” Nate asked.
“Yeah, if you could go back, would you do it differently? How differently? What would you change?”
“A lot of things,” Nate said with a shrug, “I would definitely try to make that folder more interesting to read through, that much is for sure.” James smiled at him.
“Well, Nate,” he said, tucking the small bundle of papers back in the envelope, “today might just be your lucky day,” he leaned forward like he was about to share a secret with Nate. “you remember how I said the collector picked up the wrong Nathaniel? Well, that Nathaniel one world over’s time is up, his number has been called, and I’m thinking, we can’t really give you back your old body, after all, dead is dead, but what if we were to slip you into this one?” he smiled slyly.
“Wait, I would take his place? Wouldn't that kill him?”
“He is already dead, or rather he should be and the collector aims to fix missing that appointment, which is not our department mind you, so it’s out of our hands, but you are due for a little compensation of sorts,” Nate was about to open his mouth to protest, he didn't want to be the cause for another him’s death, but at the same time the thought of getting to live again was rather seductive.
“You said each world is slightly different, how different are we talking?” Nate asked instead, looking for more information.
“This earth is a direct reflection of your own, or yours is a reflection of it, it really depends on how you look at it, and it runs slower, relatively speaking that is.” He looked at Nate, “the stewards that watch this earth decided to try something a little different, they suppressed technology development but only slightly, meaning the overall technological level of that world is a little older, and there are a few other differences, but honestly, they should be negligible.”
“I see,” Nate said nodding slowly as he assimilated the information, ”and uh, the other me, the thing that would have killed him-”
“As we speak he is laying on the ground, in the rain, supposed to be dead of a rather nasty head wound from misstepping, but as of right now not dying, I am sure however the collector will be along shortly to fix that, they tend to be rather, shall we say zealous about doing their duties and do so in a timely manner. As such you don’t have a lot of time to decide,” he paused, leaning back and looking Nate deep in his eyes. “Opportunities like this are rare, rarer than I could ever tell you, you have to decide, now, ” he tapped the folder like the clicking of a clock. “Choose, quickly.”
“Oh- ok, I accept then!” Nate said leaning forward his voice raised to a panicky stressed pitch.
“Good, I’m glad,” James said a genuine smile on his lips.
“What now?” Nate asked, “how do I get there, is there some gate I have to go through to get there or-?”
“You already are,” James laughed good-naturedly, and as he did Nate’s vision started to become hazy, and a strange sort of background noise slowly built in his ears. “Good luck,” James said picking up the envelope, “I expect the next read-through to be much more fun,” he said waving it back and forth as Nathaniel Miller’s vision faded to nothingness.