I had been working for the Department of Afterlife Training and Reassignment for nine-thousand, four-hundred years, ever since dying in northern Mesopotamia at the age of seventeen. I do not remember my real name from that time - when spoken to, I was now called Uri - but I do remember how I died. I was one of the first human beings to ever drink themselves to death from the newly discovered drink of the gods: beer. It was not my choice to die, but the same could be said for most people.
And like most people, upon my death I had been given a choice. The first option was that I could be reassigned to a new body, upon which my spirit would be wiped of its memories but not the scars and phobias and mistakes of my old life. I would be released back onto Earth to gain a deeper understanding of the universe and my own flawed soul. The second option was to submit to judgement by the panel of eternal magistrates, who would weigh my deeds and misdeeds, and decide upon my fate. Should I be deemed unfit for what humans referred to as ‘the Elysian Fields’, or later, ‘Heaven’, the panel would either send me back to Earth anyway with some type of special barrier such as poverty or illness, or they would bestow upon me the ultimate punishment: work.
Suffice to say, I had not been classed among the great heroes and virtuous sorts of my time. A man of seventeen who had died doing the Neolithic equivalent of a kegstand didn’t get into the same place as Aristotle, you say? Quelle surprise. Nevertheless, I was assigned to the department responsible for explaining the process of reincarnation and judgement to the newly dead. I used to feel very empathetic towards them, many centuries ago. What a shock it is to die. One moment, you are bringing sweet air into your pink, fragile lungs, your delicate meaty heart pumping blood into your hale limbs. The next moment, you are being crushed by a horse, or some new disease has come along to evacuate the planet of some of its residents and you were one of the unlucky ones. But I wasn’t finished is a refrain I hear quite often, as is this isn’t happening, or can I go back. Many reply with dumb looks, and then look at their palms, as if the answers to the questions they have are contained in the scores of pleats and wrinkles on their skin. About one in twenty will ask why they look different in the afterlife. That, I do not have the answer for. I myself now sport the head of a dog. For this reason I find it a little absurd when people demand to know why they are now a short Indian woman as opposed to a tall white man. Why not? Was it that important to you?
Today, a man died. He was one of many people who died today, although I was surprised by how few have come by my office so far. Many spirits get lost in the hallways and do not find me until many years after they have passed away. This man had gone from dying to walking into my office within a matter of minutes, which I found impressive and also a prophecy of woe: I knew that this man would be extremely annoying. There is a profound correlation between spirits who navigate these halls with ease, and spirits who are demanding and trite in those demands. There was a knock on my door, even though it was open.
“Yoo-hoo,” the man said.
I looked up.
“Oh, Christ,” the man said. He tucked a finger into the collar of his button-up shirt and tugged on it, wincing. “Hey, Fido, don’t suppose you know where the exit is in this place? I think there’s been a big mistake.”
I nodded at him. This also a common refrain, the insistence that against all odds, the universe in its entire, infinite glory and knowledge has somehow made an error, and that this error has been stacked against one person who, more than anyone else, really, really needs to not be dead. Almost everyone believes this when they die, regardless of who they are and how important they actually were on Earth.
“There is an exit,” I said, “But before you leave, you must choose.”
I pulled out two pieces of paper. One was the first contract, the one that allowed us to wipe and reset the memory, and the other, a consent form for judgment. There was, of course, a third form that could be offered but once people heard the terms and conditions they seldom opted for it.
The man walked over to my desk and briefly scanned both documents with narrowed eyes, his head shaking back and forth between each document, weighing them, like Maat used to do with the feather when she still worked here. I watched him without blinking.
“Take all the time you need,” I said.
“To hell with this,” he declared, and threw the contracts back onto my desk. I stacked them together and put them back into a drawer on my desk. “I’m not going to die. I had things to do, you know. My brewery was about to win an award. An award. For my award-winning beer.” Beer. Nothing could have interested me less. I pulled out the third contract, and handed it to the man. He read this one a little more carefully.
“This says I would work for you,” he said.
“No, it says that you would work as me,” I said, correcting him, “You assume my position, and I am allowed to either retake my judgement, or move onto the next life. You rescind that option until such a time when a new soul opts for the third option. I would recommend against it, sir.”
“My name is Peter. Peter Baker, from Baker Brewery,” he said acidly, as if his name held any meaning for me. I did find ‘Baker’ funny, however. I had tried beer when I was alive, obviously, but bread had yet to be invented.
“I don’t care,” I said, “My point is that your chances of leaving the Department of Afterlife Training and Reassignment any time soon would be infinitesimal, if you do indeed plan to reject the first two options. Believe me, I have been here for more than nine-thousand years. Not once has anyone chosen to take my place.”
“I don’t want to take your place, I want my place.”
For effect, he slammed his hand onto my desk, just a moment after would have been natural. I wondered if he, “Peter”, realized that the corporal nature of my desk, and his body, was an illusion. We were all spirits in here. He could slam my entire chair into my face and I wouldn’t be able to feel a thing. Such was the beauty of departing from the mortal coil: no pain.
“I hope you realize that by choosing no option, you are in fact making a choice. You will be judged by the magistrates, and the fact that you were unable to let go of your previous life will be taken into account. Despite your protests, you may end up there,” I said, pointing. There was of course the empty office down the hall, previously occupied by another department drone who had convinced a recently deceased toddler to take her place in the office, and that toddler had been promoted to the panel of magistrates. And so the office laid empty for the last two-hundred years.
“Yes, fine,” he said, “I choose nothing. I want to see this panel, maybe I can talk some sense into them. I can tell you’re not going to be any help.”
A disadvantage to the afterlife was that if I reached over my desk and began to gently strangle this ‘Peter Baker’, nothing would come of it. He would not feel my icy fingers over his windpipe. I would be essentially giving his neck a tiny, numb hug. By choosing the third option, I had to attend the judgement with him. The spirit failing to move on was, in the eyes of the judges, a failure on my part to properly ease the newly departed soul into understanding. I rolled my eyes and got up out of my chair. The leather groaned. I hadn’t gotten up in some time.
“Let’s go,” I sighed.
Peter followed me down the endless teak hallways, trying to make small talk and touching things that he shouldn’t be touching.
“Say, how much do you get paid?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said, “You are not paid here.”
“Nothing? You do all this work for nothing?”
“What would I buy?” I said.
I could practically hear him thinking behind me, the rusty cogs of his mind squeaking. It was difficult for some people to grasp that once they were dead, they were also penniless, and that this didn’t matter anymore.
“Hey, is my dad here?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“If he is, I want to talk to him,” he continued, “There’s a thing or two I’d like to say right to his face, I’ll tell you what. I’m getting an award. He always said I wouldn’t amount to anything.”
“And was he wrong? Look...” I trailed off, trying to remember his name, and then gave up. I turned around and looked at him. “If your father was here, he has moved on, as you should have done. Instead, I have to now sit in on your judgement.”
“What’s the matter, got somewhere to be?”
He smirked at me. Since I now had the head of a dog, it was easier for me to conceal my annoyance, as my eyebrows had been reduced to spherical tufts of slightly darker hair and whiskers.
“We’re here,” I said, and turned away to open the door to the chambers of judgement.
Sophia was sleeping in her crib. Over the last two centuries, she had somehow managed to elevate herself to the position of head magistrate, a position that had thus far not existed in the afterlife. The title was ceremonial and meaningless, but she did get to have the last word, as well as a crown made of flowers. Qiang, another judge, looked up from a book.
“Hello, Uri,” he said without interest.
“Qiang,” I said, “This is… Peter. He has chosen the third option.”
Qiang rolled his eyes and dropped his book to the floor.
“Sophia, wake up,” he said. Her heavily lidded eyes opened to half mast, framed by plush eyelashes.
“Goddamnit,” she muttered. She hoisted herself up from her bedding and opened a gate on the side of her crib. As she walked down the steps to her chair, the other judges put away their books, Gameboys and playing cards, and took their own seats, except for Qiang, who never left his chair as far as I could tell.
“All rise for the great honorable Sophia,” Qiang said, not getting up. Sophia clapped three times, humming in a low baritone.
“What the hell is happening?” Peter said.
“Your judgement,” I replied.
A hole in the ceiling opened, and ribbons of soft, warm light poured into the chambers. The walls began to shake and the judges began to shout and scream. The sound was deafening. Were a mortal to enter these chambers, their ears would be bleeding. The floor turned to blood and scores of butterflies erupted from nothingness. A moment later, everything was gone.
Peter was on his knees, clutching his head, his mouth agape. Sophia reached into a pocket and pulled out a stone, and then dropped it onto the ground.
“Oh, that’s a weird one,” she said. The other judges huddled around the stone and stared at it. Lief, one of the older judges, laughed.
“Ha! Should we?” he said.
“I can’t see why not,” Qiang said.
“Ironic judgements!” shouted two of the magistrates, breaking out into laughter and high-fiving each other. I myself could not read the stone, but the judgments rarely mattered to me and so it wasn’t necessary for me to understand them. However, for the first time in centuries, I felt anxious. Anything that the magistrates could deem “weird” would likely be very, very unusual indeed. Peter had still not gotten up. He seemed frozen. Sophia waved at me, smiling.
“See you later!” she said. I pointed to myself, and she nodded.
The next sound I heard was a rhythmic, pulsing beep, like an electronic heartbeat. Waves of warmth washed over my body. My body? I opened my eyes. It took a few minutes to understand the geography of my surroundings. While a human being might be able to instantly recognize where they were, I myself was overwhelmed by feelings that I had not felt in thousands of years. Air, for example. Gravity. The fact that the space around your skin has its own temperature and that temperature is often at odds with the temperature inside of your body. In this case, the temperature appeared to be both too hot and too cold, depending on the whims of my blood and skin during every passing microsecond. I shuddered and coughed, but there was something lodged in my neck. The beeps were becoming louder, and a snake was pulled from my mouth. I gasped, a rush of air storming my raw throat. Hovering over me, men in white robes stared at me with wide eyes. They were saying something to me, but I couldn’t understand them. It was as if they were shouting underwater.
“What?” I said hoarsely.
“Can you hear me? Mr. Baker, you almost died.”