Well, this sucks, came the thought so loudly it nearly reverberated off the alley’s walls. The sentiment was loud enough to be felt, if not actually heard, by the other elusive figure standing beside the thinker. It provoked a reprimanding glare, and if there was one thing many an unfortunate soul had learned, her stare had a damning quality all its own. Rodents, birds, insects, passing winos; in fact, just about every living thing within inadvertent flicking distance of that stare suddenly scurried for their lives.
That stare had more than weight behind it, it had the surety of time and the certainty of death behind it. Fairly impressive for a young woman still south of thirty who only a year ago had been wondering what t’do with the rest of her life, eh? Now, she wondered what she’d be doing for the rest of everyone else’s lives. It was a glare that not only stripped paint off the walls but also made the paint beg forgiveness for being applied there in the first place and for being too feeble to withstand a searing blast of eternity.
Unfortunately, the receiver of said glare was sadly unimpressed. Slightly annoyed would have been the opinion of any folk brave or stupid enough to witness the exchange. To be fair, the recipient’s lack of trembling could easily be explained in the fact that while the starer could name the time and place of every mortal death within a thousand mile radius, the staree could reveal and expound on the how and why of it. Such was relationship between these two local representatives of Fate and Death.
No one is certain when Death and Fate each took an interest in employing apprentices in their particular trades and no one wants to ask. It just isn’t done PERIOD. These two particular representatives had no clue whatsoever. The only qualifications they were aware of included accepting the job offers and their own slightly adversarial relationship. Fate and Death each seemed certain so that was enough to settle the minds of their employees.
The original gist of it seemed to revolve around Fate’s sister, Lady Luck, discussing the human concept of unions with her. Although, Luck’s type of union experience tended to revolve around large ham-fisted men settling disputes by pouring concrete around the loser’s ankles and taking them for a drive to the local swimming hole. The point of the exercise seemed rooted in Luck’s insistence that Fate take a vacation with her. Fate’s reply had been as foreordained as her own role in the universe, and Luck’s teeth ground under the eye roll that followed her suggestion.
Luck’s victory arrived when she inquired as to whether or not the multiverse hinged on Fate’s personal attention or not. For the first time in their millennia long relationship, Fate conceded that her younger sibling had a point. The only requirement was that the job be done. There was no fine print covering who had to be the one doing it. She’d always considered humanity a minor player in a multitude of dimensions, but they’d really hit on something with this delegation of authority concept.
After a few test runs on some even more insignificant worlds, she felt ready to try it out on a more sentient world. Of course, her preoccupations had caught the attention of her working partner, Death. It wasn’t an arrangement she’d wish for. It simply was. She knew that everything died, after all, she was Fate.
It just seemed that when she applied a little pressure here or there to get things back on track, that Death’s business picked up suddenly. It also seemed to happen every time she challenged her sister or one of her other friends to a game. For all his literal mindedness, and he was bloody well literally minded (emphasis on bloody), he was a decent enough sort. She knew Luck’s loathing and accusations of “ghastly fellow” this and “humourless, dry-boned old...” were based more on indignation at the unexpected removal of a favoured pawn.
Fate considered Death and came up with one conclusion. He wasn’t a people person. It wasn’t just the fact that he’d killed everyone he’d ever met, no, it went deeper than that. He, like her, was far too busy to ever step back from it all and just appreciate the wonder of infinity. Racing from one dimension to another in a single-minded obsession to efficiently kill every single being could leave a person rather... dour.
A good shaking up and he’d be his chipper, old... Fate got hung up on that one for a second, several actually. Several seconds may not seem like a long time unless you’re dealing with the greater whole of things. Fate couldn’t recall Death ever being chipper. She tried to imagine what he’d look like basking in the sun, wearing a goofy grin. That image alone almost made her call the whole thing off. The idea of a skeleton laying around on a beach wearing a Speedo, holding a fizzy drink with an umbrella, and leering at scantily clad women fleeing in abject terror was enough to momentarily rattle the most staid of anthromorphological personifications.
Death had saved her from one potentially dangerous assumption. Fate started her experiment with fairly sedate, unimaginative beings. Picking out a potential Fate for one world inhabited entirely by slime moulds had been a simple enough task. The moulds all believed in the eventual manifestation of history, because as soon as another mould developed with the ability to suck all the nutrients from their own infestation, well it was pretty much all She wrote for the older, swiftly consumed moulds.
The so-called higher functioning beings posed a far greater challenge. As Death kindly pointed out, they were so wrapped into their own conceptions of self-determination and egocentric realities, that the belief in a manifest destiny for the multiverse was beyond their. Fate finally decided to settle on selecting someone on the single merit that they believed that the universe was moving towards a great, final conclusion. Since they would then be responsible to the being directly responsible for insuring that the various realities remained on track for achieving this manifest inevitability, such belief would likely prove handy.
After that, it was just a matter of screening applicants. To be fair, Death had an easier go of it. No one doubted the existence of death. It permeated everyone’s daily lives.
To be equally fair, since turnabout is fair play, or so they say. It never actually seems to be the case when applied and only seems to provoke even stronger emotions than were already present. This in and of itself wouldn’t be so bad except humanity as a species seemed to have a gap in the genetic coding for a sense of timing and only applied rules like this when doing so would do the greatest amount of harm to themselves by invoking it.
Death may of had an easier go of it in candidate availability, he had a much harder time in making the job look appealing. He was quite surprised when the slogan “Dying: a growth industry” didn’t garner a more enthusiastic response. They adapted by conducting joint interviews. When you possess the ability to step out of the linear timeline, it’s fairly simple to arrange schedules.
The joint interviews introduced yet another snag. Since the two candidates would work closely together, they needed to possess a certain dynamic. They finally narrowed the list down to Matt Sloane and Anna Glinski based upon that criterion. The interaction between the two was even more tumultuous than that of their employers.
Of course, none of this was running through either of their minds as they stood in a dank, smelly alley. They weren’t often thrust into environments such as this. As a rule, they rarely interacted with other mortals. When they did, the others weren’t generally aware of their presence. The religiously devout and magically inclined could spot them in a hot second even if they were trying to occlude themselves but that was part of the trade. By the time most of those groups reached that level of ability, they were seeing too many other things to bother with Matt or Anna.
Anna was always involved in the final moments of the previously listed. She wasn’t entirely clear as to why, but Death had insisted that it was part of a fundamental contract dated back to the beginnings of time. Put simply, those souls refused to depart the body unless she was there with her blade to cleave them from its shell. Her master was a sentimentalist in essence and generally stuck with the dark burlap cloak and swinging scythe motif.
Anna herself preferred leather and wool. Italian leather if she had a choice, and with the ability to enter any room she liked without a trace, her choices were fairly limitless. Scottish wool accentuated her choices quite nicely. She personally oversaw shearing season if her schedule allowed. She insisted that since the wool was technically alive while connected to the sheep, she was there to herald it into its afterlife.
Matt tended to heckle her a bit regarding this proclamation and repeatedly demanded to know why she never oversaw the skinning of the cows and lambs who “donated” their flesh for her wardrobe. He drifted towards cotton himself and had no sense of urgency about directing the path of the year’s harvest. A few woollen items littered his wardrobe, but they were either coats or sweaters. Leather was largely reserved for shoes.
Anna’s demeanour reeked of sombreness. She had two modes: serious and angry. Usually she tried to balance herself out by simply being seriously angry. She’d put the grim back into reaper.
No one knew exactly why Anna acted and felt this way. She didn’t want to talk about it. This was well known because she often proclaimed it when asked about her behaviour.
Matt, on the other hand, was also serious but in a rather sarcastic fashion. It had strongly been suspected Fate chose him because he’d already accepted the inevitability of all things. It all started when he was rudely ejected from the womb. As he grew older, he began to realise the Irish had been right all along, the universe was out to get you so you’d best just accept it and move on just to spite the forces governing life. Fate had appreciated this rather fatalistic outlook .
It had been rumoured that Death selected Anna on the basis that he’d rather her work for him than have to face her. No one knows exactly what was said or why she accepted, but Anna became Death’s agent for the planet Earth. He still covered some of the big jobs, but was seen less and less frequently She hadn’t seen the boss in almost nine months, and frankly, was getting a little worried. However, that did not mean she was going to discuss her concerns with Matt Sloane.
“We’re here to do a job, so button it!” she said through clenched teeth. It was amazing how she could clearly enunciate through a locked jaw. If she ever tired of the Scourge of Life gig, she could land a job as a voice talent without even trying. When she opened her mouth, she could really perform some oral feats.
“What kind of job is this?” Matt complained bitterly.
“It’s a you whisper into this guy’s ear something horrible or inspiring, or maybe horribly inspiring, and cause him to run out in front of a bus kinda job.” It was amazing how every word ground even though her teeth didn’t. It was as though the words were taking the abuse spared her terrified incisors.
"And this a task that requires that requires the services of Death and Fate?” Matt inquired scornfully, “He’s a wino for God’s sake! He’ll be dead in two years owing to cirrhosis of the liver.”
“And you know this how?” she asked, the raised a hand, “Don’t answer that.”
“There must be some reason.” She plodded along with her weakening defence, “Maybe this guy figures out how to destroy the world or something.”
“Along with his liver? I don’t think so. I don’t think this guy’s had a coherent thought in twenty years.”
“All I’m saying is that there must be some profound reason, otherwise our presence wouldn’t be required.”
“Why do I have the feeling you’ll be saying that until the end of linear time?” he asked wearily.
“Because it’s all part of the rules.” She ignored the gibe, “We’re only required to attend or influence the pivotal moments or individuals. Everything else is up to our own judgement.”
“But haven’t you noticed They’re getting sloppy?”
Anna’s eyes swelled so rapidly, Matt thought they’d explode, “What???????????”
Matt was amazed at her ability to make even the question marks a grinding sound, “You can’t tell me you haven’t noticed. We used to get advanced updates before an appearance was needed. Now we’re lucky to get thirty minutes notice.”
“It’s not like we’re the only representatives of Fate and Death in this universe.” Anna protested, “There are untold billions of other reps all requiring updates and notifications as well. It’s probably all just a bureaucratic glitch.”
“Where?” Matt asked scornfully, “It’s not like these things arrive via the Post Office."
Anna had to ponder that fact. This alone irritated her. The fact her “associate” provoked this response only added to her ire. She could very well imagine hearing about this for centuries to come.
Matt waited as Anna considered his observation. It wasn’t as though she was slow in anyway; it was simply that new ideas had to traverse the blast furnace that comprised her mind. Her seething anger formed a protective wedge around her mind, shielding it from unnecessary exertion. Her conclusions were concise, unshakeable, and invariably lethal.
Matt supposed her thought process explained how she’d acquired her job. Creativity seemed a liability in her field. Her attitude always struck Matt as a tad trigger happy or slicing happy, since Anna used a sword to cleave the more reluctant souls from their hosts. Death himself was a staid traditionalist and always wielded a scythe. Anna complained that a scythe didn’t compliment any of her outfits and demanded alternative implements. However her mind worked, Matt was certain he didn’t want to delve into its inner workings. The outer workings were disturbing enough. He liked sleep and sanity too much to jeopardise them by traversing that path.
“So where d’you suppose they come from?” she finally growled.
Matt sighed. It was a forlorn, weary sigh. It was a sigh Anna knew and hated. That fact alone demanded its continued usage.
“Well?” the question held a promise of pain.
“We get our assignments in separate ledgers right?” Matt asked.
The system was really quite simple, located on two pedestals at the heart of the Greek styled mountaintop villa provided as their residence. The rather lavish and appointed manor sat atop the actual Mount Olympus. The Olympians had been forced to leave their ancestral estate owing to a foreclosure and repossession. Even gods can’t escape accountants and collection agents.
The two books read like an appointment calendar and were continuously updated as though written by an unseen hand as new tasks were assigned. Matt and Anna had no idea how the process worked, since like nearly every part of their jobs, their training consisted of equal parts deduction blended with trial and error. Death and Fate weren’t big on training, preferring to simply hand over a paper with a few FAQs and call it good.
Grudgingly, Anna agreed thus prompting Matt to venture further; “These ledgers supposedly contain the same information possessed by our employers regarding the events attested to on said ledgers.” The intensity and excitement in Matt’s voice grew, “We’ve a tendency to perceive Fate and Death as cosmic forces themselves, but what if they aren’t? What if they’re merely like us but acting on a vaster scale?”
“Are you suggesting they’re just… people?” the word seemed distasteful to Anna.
Matt nodded, “Exactly. They’re nothing like us but they’re essentially two beings caught in the same multiverse we are. They interact with larger portions of it at a time but what’s become clear is that while they may enforce the twists and turns of fate and finality, they aren't the authors of what those turns are. They read from the ledgers and act out their assigned roles just as we do.”
“Are you sure you have a life at all?” Anna asked scornfully, “Because if you do, it must be the most boring one ever chronicled.”
“Considering everyone I ever knew thinks I’m dead, I spend my days travelling about as an ephemeral phantom to everyone else and the one person I interact with is you.” Matt stopped for an angry pause, “I’d say I most certainly do not have a life and were I to consider this paltry existence living, I’d surely kill myself.”
“C’mon, it’s not that…” bad was the word Anna was searching for. Since compassion and reassurance weren’t her forte, she never got the chance before Matt interrupted.
“You’re the one that wanted to die when Death approached you.” He reminded her bitterly, “I had no plans or desire to expire suddenly when Fate plucked me from harm’s way and gave me this job as a way out. Accept the role or die, that’s a helluva choice.”
Anna was finally concerned. Unlike her, Matt had never revelled in his unexpected role, but he had carried it out with stoic fortitude. His previous mentioning of feelings towards his circumstance could have been compared with making a passing remark about a fungus. Oh look, There’s a toadstool. Isn’t that splendid? No, I rather think not. And back on the merry way he’d be.
“So what do you want to do?” she asked simply.
His eyes met hers, really met hers for the first time in a long while; “I’m going back to Olympus, tracking down Fate and finding out why we’re getting screwed up orders. Something’s wrong and I intend on finding out the what and why. Are you with me?”
Anna shrugged, “Why not? It beats standing around waiting for Mr. Thunderbird Breath to croak.”
As they slipped away through the folds of three-dimensional space, a third elusive figure emerged from the alley’s shadows. It looked upon the space the two Representatives had just occupied and clucked his tongue at their wayward disappearance. It threw back the cowl covering its head, revealing itself to be both human in appearance and male. He studied the forlorn drunk sprawled across discarded boxes.
The man and the trash seemed an apropos metaphor for one another. Each generated a new generation of the other, an everlasting cycle of abuse and dissolution. Men created refuse that other men subsisted off of and in turn spawned other consumers and producers of the human and material waste. Each herded the other in a vain effort to reshape them into their image of acceptability.
The man shook his head at the thought. Some days, it looked as though life on Earth was trapped in amber. Never changing, frozen in place desperately seeking release. The language at least changed. He could remember hundreds and dozens of words for the world he tread upon. Therein lay the glimmer of hope. The amber was about to be broken, and no one knew it yet.
That brought a smile to his face that the puckish side of his nature revelled in. The unleashing of the human spirit would require the ignition of several flames. The failure of the two Representatives irked him. Fortunately he’d come as well and could complete their neglected task.
Wrapping the darkness about him, he wove it into the finest materials available and stepped forward into sight immaculately dressed. The tailors on Seville Row would have panted in envy over the cut of his jacket. Straightening his Persian silk tie, he strode over to the sleeping man.
Olfactory glands were assaulted by the waves of cheap bourbon and vino fumes eking from the man’s every crevice and orifice. If your nose could survive that, it then took a second barrage from the man’s soiled undergarments and layers of caked filth. The suited man joggled the inebriated man. He didn’t rouse but did release a flatulent discharge that stunned nearby rats.
“Wake up.” The man demanded as he jerked the other man around.
“Wha..!!!?” the drunk erupted with flailing arms and legs. The suited man edged away in case words weren’t the only thing to erupt from the stupefied vagabond. “Wha’s goin’ on? Who’r ya? What’cha wan’?”
The suited man gave him his most beatific smile. A thousand campaigns could’ve been launched with that Smile. It could have sold rat poison to gerbils. “I don’t want anything, friend. You, however, have a lifetime of unfulfilled ambitions. I’m here to change all that.”
The drunk tried in vain to focus in on the bleary visage before him, “What’tu mean?”
“Just answer one question,” the suited man assured him, “did you ever want to grow up and be President?”
“Yah.” The drunk agreed with an unsteady wave of his hand, “Shore did.”
The Smile flashed again, “Then welcome to the campaign. We’re going to make you the Leader of the Free World.”
The intended President replied with an acidic belch and drifted off to sleep. Smile vanished with the oblivious drunk cradled in his arms. Several stunned rats began to regain consciousness, wishing they were dead instead. A nearby stray cat availed herself of the opportunity to fulfill that particular wish.