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A Trickster's Tail - Part 14

Copyright (c) 1997 Phaedrus; All rights reserved

Then Keith found himself in another place.

The sun was high in the sky. He was standing on a sidewalk, next to an ordinary-looking two-lane street, the center line freshly painted. Nearby was a parking lot, and just beyond that, what looked to be a small office building, nicely landscaped. He couldn't see a name on the building, but everything about it screamed government.

He'd seen this scene a thousand times before.

Only this time, the street was empty. So was the parking lot. There were no other buildings in sight, no intersections, no traffic lights. Only the street, stretching all the way to the horizon in both directions. Everywhere else was a featureless plane of green.


There was no answer. And somehow, Keith knew Kickaha wasn't kidding this time. He was alone.

His chest felt cold. His magic was gone.

So. This is it.

He had never really given much thought to what being dead would be like. But this wasn't what he had in mind at all.

Numbly, Keith looked down at himself. He was human again, dressed in a blue knit shirt, slacks, leather shoes.

Great, he thought absurdly. I'm dead, and I'm still dressed for work.

He thought about it for a few seconds.

Well, it's not as if there's a lot of alternatives...

He walked across the parking lot, towards the door at the corner of the building. The windows were tinted, blocking his view. But as he got closer, he could read the sign next to the door: DEPARTMENT OF CLASSIFICATIONS. And below that, OPEN.

He reached the door, and stood there for a few seconds, gathering his resolve...

He barely had time to see someone run around the corner of the building, someone wearing a familiar-looking cloak. He didn't have time to avoid that someone. They went down in a heap.

Keith looked up into the face of his assailant, just a few inches from his own.


He stopped in mid-word. He might be human again, but he still knew more than the average human about animals now. And even the average human would have known that he was staring into the eyes of a fox, not a coyote.

"Oh, hi," it said, panting. "You'll need this."

It licked him on the nose.

Keith felt a gentle *snap*, like a static shock. He was at a loss for a response.

Then the fox hurriedly disentangled itself from him, got up on four legs, and ran off, gaining speed until it became a blur, vanishing around the other corner of the building.

As Keith picked himself up, he was nearly run down again by three more men rounding the building, racing past him. They were running too fast for Keith to see them clearly before they disappeared behind the building as well, but he got an impression of blue uniforms, badges.

Disbelievingly, Keith picked himself up, dusted himself off.

Curiouser and curiouser...

Then he noticed something... a trickle of warmth in his chest. Magic? Where did that come from? Could he use it? He thought about a spell, then hurriedly decided against it. If he had it... well, he'd need it.

He opened the door, looked in. And, for the first time since he arrived, he felt true fear. For he had seen these chairs, those podiums before--only five or six times, but that was more than enough. He probably would have run, if he thought there was anywhere to run to.

My God... It's the DMV...

The chairs in the waiting room were empty; so were the testing stations along the wall. On the other side of the room, there was the same old counter, the same old five windows with the same old bulletproof glass. Four of them were closed. From behind the fifth, a balding man wearing horn-rimmed glasses looked up from his computer, smiled at him. "Good day, sir."

"Ummmmm... hello."

"Could I ask you to please take a number as you come in? It's for staffing analysis, you see."

"Oh. Okay." The red TAKE A NUMBER reel was just inside the door; numbly, Keith grabbed the ticket from the reel, pulled it out. 423, it said; and in smaller letters, VALID TODAY ONLY--PLEASE WATCH DISPLAYS.

The clerk pressed a key. A bell rang, and 423 lit up above his window.

"Thank you, sir. Step right over, please. Is this your first visit?"

Keith walked over, timidly. He noticed the nameplate on the desk: JAY. "Ummmm, yes. As far as I know, anyway."

"That's fine, sir. Let me just pull up your records... Could I have your name and your last known birth date?"

"Ummm, Keith Antonio Dorner. June 9, 1966."

"Thank you, sir. It'll just be a moment..." He started typing rapidly.

"Sure. Ummmm, if you don't mind my asking... I would have thought the afterlife would be a little, well, busier."

"Most people say that, sir," the clerk nodded, typing all the while. "You see, things are pretty well automated these days. It used to be that we manually processed all the incoming souls. Now, of course, that would be impractical. Policies have been established to cover the vast majority of cases; the souls get routed to their proper destinations automatically. Now, we only handle the souls for which the policies do not yield a clear resolution for some reason. It's usually just a minor records discrepancy; we get it straightened out in no time."

"Oh. I see." Keith closed his eyes, trying to deal with this. The clerk continued to type, much to Keith's amazement; why was it that, even in the afterlife, government clerks and ticket agents always had to retype War and Peace from memory just to look something up? Keith still didn't know; but it gave him something not quite so disturbing to think about...

"Ah, here we go..."

Keith opened his eyes, only to find that the world had just gotten larger. He stood up on tiptoe, trying to reach the level of the counter, but he couldn't quite make it.

"Um, excuse me?"

The typing stopped. "Oh, terribly sorry, sir; I must have made a slight error on the height..."

A few more keystrokes sounded, and suddenly Keith was back to normal again.

"Is six feet three point two inches correct, sir?", the clerk said, sounding contrite.

Keith swallowed hard. "Um. I think so. This feels right, anyway."

"Thank you, sir. Now, let's see what the problem is... Well. This is a bit unusual. Sir, according to this, you are by nature an agnostic, with Judeo-Christian leanings... but, for a period of time preceding your death, your body was cohabited by an extraplanar soul, with a conflicting belief structure. Is that correct?"

Keith almost laughed despite himself. I'll take Things A DMV Clerk Would Never Say for $1000, Alex... "Well... yes, I guess that sums it up, more or less."

"I see. We don't get a lot of that these days."

"I would imagine not."

"Well, that explains things. You see, souls are normally processed according to the standards of their belief structure--in this case, a modified Judeo-Christian--and routed to an appropriate afterlife. However, in cases of bodily cohabitation, there are issues of fairness--one's judgment could easily be influenced based on actions performed while under the influence of the conflicting ethos."

"I see." Keith paused. He was sure that the implications of all this hadn't fully sunk in yet, and he wasn't sure he wanted them to. "So... what does that mean?"

"Well, it means that a decision needs to be made. We can exclude the portion of your life in which the cohabitation occurred, and evaluate and assign you based on your original belief system as of the point of cohabitation. Or, since the cohabitation occurred at the end of your lifespan, you can be evaluated and assigned based on the ethos of the cohabiting soul--a modified Native American, in this case. Your case has been submitted to the Oversight Committee for resolution; based on the current backlog and the priority of the case, a hearing will be held in approximately... fifteen days. However, there is also the option of self-adjudication."

"Self-adjudication?", Keith repeated numbly.

"Yes, sir. Basically, if you were to formally select one of those options, your decision would receive automatic approval. Self-adjudication is offered in certain classes of cases, as a way to reduce the Committee's backlog."

"Wait a minute... are you saying that I get to choose my afterlife?"

"Not precisely. You can select the ethos you wish to be applied. The actual evaluation and assignment to an afterlife still takes place automatically, according to the policies established for that ethos."

"But... but..." Keith could feel his brain overloading, shutting down. Desperately, he latched onto a minor detail, something he could handle. "How can this committee have a backlog, when I'm the only one here?"

"Each field office only handles cases from a particular plane. Each Oversight Committee deals with cases from a number of field offices."

Even in his rattled state, Keith noticed a distinct lack of enthusiasm in this response; he knew an Official Line when he heard it, and this was definitely one. For some reason, this gave him some hope. All right, so I'm dead. But this is a bureaucracy, the same as any other. And if there's one thing I can handle, it's a bureaucracy.

"If you don't mind my asking, Jay, what do you do between customers?"

"Not much, actually," the clerk replied. "The paperwork essentially takes care of itself these days, and the case load is rather low. I was formerly able to access your plane's computer networks, but then a new policy was passed forbidding non-work-related materials on the system..."

"That's a real shame."

"Well, I can see the point," Jay answered, in a tone that strongly suggested that he couldn't. "It was never precisely wonderful, anyway; there was a temporal distortion in the firewall that they never repaired. It was somewhat hard to follow discussions when the replies usually arrived one to two years before the original messages."

"Yowch. And I thought a few days was bad. How long is your shift here, anyway?"

"I'm approaching the halfway point. Eighteen years down, twenty-two to go, as they say."

"A forty-year shift???"

"Well, yes. When I died, my evaluation was marginal, so I was given the option of a purgatorial assignment. If my performance reviews are positive, my permanent afterlife assignment should be much more favorable."

"Wow. Being here for eighteen years... even with a slow case load, you must really have seen it all by now."

"I have seen some interesting cases come through, yes. Normally, I would love to tell you about some of them, but... well, confidentiality requirements apply, and..."

"The purgatory thing. I understand. Say no more."

The clerk simply nodded, clearly relieved.

"I see. Jay... you've got more experience with these kinds of things than I could ever hope to. What would you do if you were me?"

"I do apologize, Mister Dorner, but... well..." He gestured to a sheet of paper taped to the desk. On it was printed: EMPLOYEES ARE NOT ALLOWED TO RENDER SPIRITUAL ADVICE. "Disobeying posted rules or regulations..."

"Policy violation."

"Exactly. I can answer questions of a factual nature."

"Okay; just stop me if I cross the line. Has Kickaha already been... er, assigned?"

"I'm sorry, but the confidentiality requirements..."

"Oh, come on. If I'm supposed to be deciding whether to be evaluated like he was... will be... whatever, I'm at least entitled to find out something, aren't I?"

"An intriguing question. There may be an exception for cases of cohabitation. I would have to go in back to check the Procedural Guidelines; they're not online yet."

"Could you do that, please? I'd really appreciate it."

"Certainly. I'll be back in a moment."

The clerk put the CLOSED sign up on his window, disappeared down a corridor in the back.

Keith put his head in his hands. This is nuts. I could ask questions until this committee meets, and I still wouldn't know what to do. If I could just ask one or two questions without 'disobeying posted rules or regulations...'

He stopped. Posted rules or regulations...

He had an idea. It made no sense. But then again, suddenly being three feet shorter hadn't made sense either. And anyway, look where logic had gotten him...

He looked through the glass, concentrating on the paper, focusing on the letters. He closed his eyes, picturing one minor change. Please, let this work. He poked a finger at the glass, and felt that tiny trickle of warmth leave him.


He smiled nervously, and waited...

A few minutes later, the clerk returned. "Good news, Mister Dorner. There is a limited confidentiality waiver available in cases of bodily cohabitation."

"That's wonderful. I still just wish I could ask you for a little advice."

"I apologize, Mister Dorner, but we have gone through this. The policy clearly states..."

He looked down at the sign, and paused for a few seconds.

"Mister Dorner, I am fully aware that this sign has been altered, and I am fully aware of the policy. Are you responsible for this?"

Keith looked at the floor, shuffled his feet. "I'm really sorry. I had to try."

"Mister Dorner, are you aware of the potential penalties for tampering with official documents?"

"No, I'm not. But I can imagine."

The clerk paused for a few seconds. "Mister Dorner, I have been here for eighteen years, and I have seen a great many things, as I said. It would not be a violation of confidentiality to say that I have seen any number of people attempt to obstruct policy, in any number of ways. But in that time, you are the first person to ever cheat in order to attempt to obtain my advice." He paused again. "I must admit that I am flattered." Then, in a sterner voice, "Nevertheless, I must insist that you not attempt any similar tactics in the future, or I would be forced to refer you to the Disciplinary Board."

"I promise. I don't think I could anyway."

"I see. Well, I shall just have to print up another notice then. It's not as if there's a shortage of paper."

Keith had no idea what to say. He just stood and waited.

"Mister Dorner, I am not allowed to render spiritual advice. However, I am most certainly allowed to present certain facts relevant to your case, within the limits of confidentiality, of course. And such a presentation of facts would not fall within the meaning of 'advice', even if the totality of the facts presented would tend to lead a listener toward a particular conclusion."

"Oh. I see... Jay, I would be extremely grateful if you were to do that."

"I suspected you would. Mister Dorner, I assume that you are aware of the range of afterlife possibilities presented by your own religious upbringing, correct?"

"Yes, I guess I am."

"I am not allowed to divulge the specific afterlife to which Kick...your cohabiting soul has been or will be assigned. However, I am allowed to describe the range of possibilities of assignment under his ethos, and the factors entering into the evaluation process, in order to allow you to make a meaningful comparison with your own."

"But he's 'cohabiting' too; he could have chosen my ethos, couldn't he?"

"Yes. If he wished to be assigned to a permanent Judeo-Christian afterlife on the basis of his actions, he would be free to do so."

And monkeys would be free to fly out my ass. "Sorry I asked. Please go on."

"As I was saying. His ethos is rather unusual, in that there is only one possible evaluation, and one possible assignment."

"Only one? What kind of crazy scheme is that?"

"It is somewhat appropriate that you chose the word 'crazy' to describe it, Mister Dorner. His ethos is based around the Native American system of the Pacific Northwest region, specifically the Coyote archetype. Is that correct?"

"Yes," said Keith. And then something clicked in his brain, and his jaw fell open.

"And one of the fundamental tenets of that archetype is that Coyote routinely overreaches his capabilities, or simply falls victim to fate. And as a consequence of this..."

"He dies," said Keith numbly.

"Repeatedly. Yet, inevitably, he is restored to life, in the same corporeal form, with full memory of his past experiences, though generally without learning the appropriate lessons from them."

"So if I choose to be judged as Kickaha would..."

"Your assignment would be automatic. You would be restored to your former body, with full memory of your past experiences. And, since your cohabiting soul would be assigned in the same way, your cohabitation would continue, as you would both once again be reassigned to the same corporeal form."

"And, when we died again..."

"In that case, since you would have cohabited for your entire most recent life span, and since you would now both be under the same ethos, there would not even be a decision required; you would automatically be evaluated and reassigned in the same way, and the process would repeat."

"So that would go on... forever?"

"Barring a major policy change, yes."

Keith stared at the wall. "That's a hell of a decision to make."

"Would you like to hear another relevant fact, Mister Dorner?"

"Yes. I would very much like to."

"Thank you. Under the circumstances, it would be within my authority to leave your file flagged for special handling. That would mean that you would return to this field office at the conclusion of each life span. If you wished to continue under your current ethos, then it would simply be a rubber stamp, as it were. On the other hand, it would also be within your rights to file a request for return to your former ethos."

"And who would have to approve that request?"

"The Oversight Committee. And, based on my experience, it would be extremely unlikely for such a request to be rejected. The Committee tends to react very favorably to requests to make things more... conventional."

"I see. Won't the Committee see the results of this case?"

"Yes, they will."

"Well, if the Committee... appreciates the conventional so much, then if I choose to take Kickaha's ethos, won't they just overturn my decision?"

"That raises an interesting point. In theory, all these sorts of decisions must be approved by the Committee. In practice, under the Committee's own self-adjudication policy, your decision has the force of their approval, eliminating the requirement for them to consider the matter. Therefore, if they wished to reverse your decision, they could not simply do so on their own, since they have technically already decided. They would have to appeal their own decision to a higher level."

Keith started to smile. "And that, of course, would require the Oversight Committee to admit to their superiors that they didn't consider actual oversight of the case to be worth their time in the first place."

"That would be inappropriate for me to address," the clerk replied. But the corners of his mouth turned up a bit. "Of course, if they considered the outcome of the case to be undesirable, they could change the self-adjudication policy, and evaluate such cases personally in the future. But that would only affect your case if it were made retroactive, since your future evaluations would not require a decision. And retroactive policy changes would require approval at a higher level..."

"Which they wouldn't do, for the same reason."

"That would be inappropriate for me to address. For the same reason."

"You know, I think the facts presented are leading me towards a particular conclusion."

"I suspected they might. And, if I might say so, based on the...initiative you displayed here, the ethos in question does not strike me as particularly inappropriate."

"That's pretty close to giving spiritual advice, isn't it?"

"You have a point. But I suspect that my superiors will not be raising any aspect of this case for further review."

"That would be inappropriate for me to address."

"Probably so. I take it, then, that you have decided to adopt your cohabiting soul's ethos?"

"Yes. Yes, I have. And thank you."

"Very good, Mister Dorner. I'll just print out the self-adjudication forms for your approval... and there are two other points that you should be made aware of."


"First, bear in mind that if you do decide to return to your own ethos, your final afterlife assignment will be based on all your actions, including those made while cohabiting. So, if you wish to keep your options open, you may wish to avoid reckless excesses of behavior."

"Thanks. I'll certainly bear that in mind. And second?"

"There is one other policy involved. Humans are not allowed to reincarnate with memories intact; it creates too many societal disturbances. You could theoretically apply for a waiver, but that would require approval at a very high level... given the low priority of the case, it would probably take at least two millennia to even come up for consideration. So, since the policies governing this case would reassign you to such an ethos, a conversion to a nonhuman genotype is automatically approved."

"You're saying... I have to pick a new species?" The thought didn't disturb him nearly as much as he thought it would; but it still came as something of a shock.

"Yes, sir. The policy is very firm on that, I'm afraid. I've loaded up the appropriate choices on Station 3; you can visually make your selection there. The default choice is the current form of your cohabiting soul, but that is not required; any form appropriate to the belief system is acceptable. The choices available to you have been constrained accordingly."

"All right..." Keith walked over to the console; Kickaha, minus the cloak, was on the screen. He thought about it, tapped a few buttons, rotating the image this way and that. It might make things simpler, matching Kickaha for once. And it was kind of cute, in that primal-homely kind of way...

But it wouldn't hurt to at least explore the possibilities first. He looked over the controls available, and pressed GENOTYPE SELECT. He looked over the list of choices, tried a few, surveyed the changes on the screen. Bear? Too imposing. Crow? Naaah; too small, and having hands on the ends of your wings like that looked way too awkward. Deer? No way; he'd put somebody's eye out with those antlers...

Then he touched Fox, Red.

He stopped, stared at the screen for a few seconds, jaw hanging loose. He didn't need a computer to know what this body looked like from all angles. He had seen it before... just a few minutes ago.

He looked away in disbelief, staring at the front windows for a moment. This is like something out of a bad movie...

Then something clicked in his head.

He started laughing, softly at first, then building momentum. He lost his balance, toppled backwards, sprawled on the floor, eyes closed, arms spread wide, laughing like he would never stop.

Maybe he was wrong. Maybe he was imagining things.

But he didn't think he was. A pun like that was just too horrible to happen by chance.

And he couldn't wait to see how this was going to work out.

"This is the one, Jay," he finally gasped. "I think I'm going to like this..."

<- Part 13   Up: A Trickster's Tail Index  Part 15 ->