Sep 19, 2021 4:32 AM
Baruti encounters a harried bureaucrat
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There is a small office.

In the office there is a massive oaken desk laden with teetering stacks of paper, most confined to trays or clipboards or manila folders or three-ring binders, some simply loose. Several cardboard boxes clustered near the desk hold their own stacks of paper, variously tall.

Behind the desk there is a high wingback chair, upholstered in once-glossy red-brown leather that has long since begun to crack and peel with age; and from within the chair, behind the stacks of paper, there is occasional motion and a quiet muttering voice. There is also, standing against the back wall, only just visible behind the top of the chair, a tall wooden cabinet, its doors engraved with abstract whorls.

In front of the desk, there is a much less fancy chair, in somewhat better condition; its upholstery is a faded green fabric, but it's clean and comfortable and not wearing through in any visible places.

Each of the four walls bears two warmly glowing light fixtures. None bears a door.

It may take some time for a visitor to be noticed.

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The visitor looks around. 

This is not what he was expecting, but it looks like it also isn't anywhere any of his enemies would expect to find him, so it's not so bad. 

He demands to know the physical and magical composition of the room. 

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The physical composition of the room... mostly isn't? That is, it's very debatable whether anything in this room qualifies as physical matter. It gives a very convincing impression of physicality to the mundane eye, but the underlying reality is...

Magically speaking, the room and the papers and the desk and the muttering presence behind it are all sort of one thing. Baruti himself is a separate being contained within. The cabinet is part of the room-thing, but the contents of the cabinet are separate presences like Baruti, except... dormant, in some unspecified fashion.

 

An eye, or the visual impression of an eye, appears in the gap between two stacks of paper and squints out at him. "Ţ̴̧a̶̵ķ̨͟͞e̸̢—ah, excuse me—take a seat," says a friendly voice of indeterminate age, gender, and language; the first word comes out rough and hoarse, with overtones of howling sandstorm and oppressive tomblike silence, but they sound warm and pleasant and not at all eldritch as soon as they clear their throat and try again. "Welcome to the Reincarnation Office. I'll be with you in just a moment. If you prefer not to wait, just stand behind the chair and I'll put you on hold until I have time to take your case. Otherwise, take a seat or stand beside or in front, as you prefer. I do apologize for the delay." The eye disappears.

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...He sits down. He is very much not in immediate need of reincarnation, but he is curious. 

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After a minute or two of quiet muttering, the eye reappears between two different stacks.

"Thank you for waiting! Let me just have a quick peek at your—hang on." The eye blinks rapidly. "You're not even dead! What sort of—?!" The eye disappears. There is the sound of shuffling paper. Binders and folders and individual pages are yanked out of the middles of stacks, some shoved back into place immediately, some re-stacked in seemingly unrelated locations moments later. Despite the commotion, and the precarious swaying of the stacks, only a few loose leaves of paper slip free and drift toward the floor, and each one is caught by an unseen limb before it gets below the height of the desk.

"Well," says the voice, apologetic and mildly disgruntled. "I'm terribly sorry, but there's nothing for it, I'm going to have to put you through the same processing as the ordinary souls." Shuffle shuffle. "I can hold you pending a better solution if you like, but I don't expect one anytime soon, and you have a better chance of making it back to your home universe within a few centuries of your departure if I process you and send you forward than if I stick you in the back of a drawer and don't pull you out until the next full audit."

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"And compared to trying to go back the way I came...?" he asks, raising an eyebrow.

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The voice sighs. "It won't work. By all means try, I wouldn't dream of insisting you take my word for it, but it won't work. This place is very good at not losing track of souls. Souls leaving under their own power, well... it would be too easy for that sort of thing to turn into people launching themselves willy-nilly into oblivion because they miscalculated their transport method, you see?"

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"Mm." He steeples his fingers. "Alright. Tell me what the processing for ordinary souls is like."

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"We have an assortment of outbound pathways, all individually vetted for reliability, consistency, and," the entity sighs, "balance. The basic premise is that, on selecting a pathway, you will be sent through some manner of associated intermediary processing—some involve speaking with another entity like me; in others you'll be filling out a form; there are a few idiosyncratic ones I can explain as they come up—and, once you have made your choices, you'll make your way through the final processing layer and into a target universe, where you will be reembodied in some fashion appropriate to the pathway in question. I can't tell you what all of the available choices are in detail for any given pathway, but I can provide summaries, overviews, and notes on the associated entity or entities where relevant; some of them are a lot friendlier than others. In your case, I'm guessing you'd prefer pathways that land you within causal range of your home universe?" They pause for confirmation.

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"Certainly. How does reembodiment work when I haven't mislaid my original body?"

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"Ah... well... in a manner of speaking you have," the entity explains. "I believe," flip flip shuffle, "your magic should be sufficient to confirm that physical matter as such doesn't quite exist in this place? You have a—representation of your body with you, which maintains a record of all its properties. Many pathways will allow you to translate those properties directly back out into the world you end up in, but you won't be transporting the same physical body from source to destination; it'll be a reconstruction, varyingly faithful depending on the exact mechanics of the pathway. I'm sorry."

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He frowns. "Alright. What can you tell me about pathways I can choose between?"

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"I have a short questionnaire I like to hand out before I start in on individual options, and then if you'd like we can work out your broad criteria and I can run a search and describe the results?"

A clipboard scoots sideways out of a stack, retracts behind the desk for a moment, then reappears with a pen clipped to the top and extends toward him, held vertically to pass between the stacks. The questionnaire is indeed pretty short:

WEIRD SEX STUFF ------------------------- (Y) / (N)
IMMEDIATE RISK OF DEATH ------------ (Y) / (N)
HOSTILE ADMINISTERING ENTITY --- (Y) / (N)
MISCELLANEOUS WARNING FLAGS - (Y) / (N)


"Please just check off Yes on anything you're willing to see included in your search results and we can get started. I'm happy to answer clarifying questions if you have any."
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He raises both eyebrows, considers, and checks yes on everything. 

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"Right then. My best guess about a good preliminary search for you would be: endpoint within causal reach of your home universe, allows you to keep your current magic, exploitable using traits you possess, high achievable power level? Let me know if any of those sound wrong to you or if there's something else you want to specify."

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"No, that all sounds good." He considers this. "Preferably no oppressive power structures of the sort that would take a tedious amount of social engineering to dismantle, but I'm flexible on that point."

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A pen scratches against paper. "Good, good, that'll do for a preliminary search. Let's see now..."

There is a flurry of shuffling, much faster than the last time. It goes on for a solid couple of minutes, insofar as time can be said to be passing in here at all—if he consults his magic by way of a clock it'll get very confused.

And then, eventually, something heavy thumps onto the desk—a smaller stack of binders and folders and pages, mostly occluded by the larger stacks in front.

"Here we go. Okay, the first one on the stack—sort order's always a pain, sorry, the next ones might be better—scores very high on Weird Sex Stuff but very low on immediate risks otherwise, and pretty high on achievable power level. Looks like it's the kind where you fill out a form and then we insert your data into the target universe and the endpoint organization finds a contract in their records and embodies you according to their own protocols. Information on oppressive power structures looks debatable but it doesn't seem like there's anything too egregious. It's called Fantasy Life. Shall I set that one in the Maybe pile and keep going?"

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"Yes, please."

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The ruffle-thump of a manila folder alighting on the desk. A page-turning rustle.

"Next up, hostile administering entity, high risk of death, and I'm sorry to say I would have to call that a very oppressive power structure indeed—Soul Graft Battle Royale. Looks like it's highly exploitable by your magic system, though, and the achievable power level's not bad. Miscellaneous warning flags: incentives encourage harming others for your own advancement. Shall I stack it with the Maybes or start a more dubious pile off to the side?"

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"I don't object to all oppressive power structures, just ones that can't be quickly toppled with brute force," he clarifies. "Let's set up the dubious pile."

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The slap of a stapled packet landing next to the folder.

"Well, not with the kind of power you've got on you at the moment, anyway—oh! That gives me a notion—now that you've been here under your own power once, there's, technically speaking, nothing to stop you from returning deliberately if you choose. If you can manage it. I don't know for sure that you can, but—I'm very sorry about not being able to send you home right away, and it seems like the least I can do to expedite you looping through multiple times in quick succession if you choose. I don't have any control over when you come back, but I can promise that I'll see to you as quick as I can if you do."

The entity picks up the next packet.

"The miscellaneous warning flags on this one include 'sapient symbiotic bondmate acquired', is that all right with you or shall I put it aside and move on?"

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"...Can you give me any more detail than that? It sounds potentially acceptable, depending on the details."

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"The pathway is called Borderworlds. The choices available will customize the personality and attributes of a person, a young member of a species called Endlings, who will bond near-irreversibly to your soul on arrival. The bond will allow both of you to access new powers and abilities, particularly shapeshifting and psionics. Cases of irreconcilable differences between bondmates are rare, but," flip flip, "not totally unheard-of, if the chosen personality conflicts badly enough with the chooser's. The destination will involve some risk of death, but mostly not immediate."

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"Hmm. Put it on the dubious pile."

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Plop.

"Let me see..." Rustle flip. "Ah. The next one is called Abyss Diver. It has the Weird Sex Stuff warning and also the 'entrapment' warning, which... hmm, hmm..." flip rustle "...ah, yes. So, in general, the entrapment warning indicates that some aspect of the pathway or its destination can cause someone to be trapped somewhere unable to leave, potentially forever without hope of escape even in death. In this case, the pathway and its destination are intertwined, and consist of a lengthy expedition through successive levels of a place called the Abyss, where at each level one may become trapped if one is unable to gather the supplies and pay the costs necessary to progress forward or turn back. It seems your magic will very likely make you much more able to move freely between the levels of the Abyss than usual, but will not give you complete freedom of movement there, nor save you from the entrapment effects if you run afoul of a particularly thorny one. The potential rewards are very high, though. It's hard to quantify these things but the power and resources you could gain here are undoubtedly much greater than any of the others we've seen so far, and very few pathways will have anything comparable."

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"Let's put that on the Maybe pile, then."

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