For every task there is an occupation. This extends to death, as well as life.
Karmic Solutions, Incorporated, stood in the centre of the town. But the only people who usually walked into the place were the staff. Well, they were the only living beings who went into the place, anyway. But life is not all that there is.
Carl worked at karmic Solutions, Inc, simply because it paid well and it was a lot better than being on the dole queue. Carl had come to Karmic Solutions almost straight from university, when he had discovered that a degree no longer got you the job which you wanted. But it had been enough to get him a job at Karmic Solutions.
It was a strange place to work in, because Karmic Solutions, if the management was to be believed, were responsible for examining the souls of living people, and telling them, if they died, who, or what, they were likely to get reincarnated as in the next life.
Carl was not even sure that he believed in reincarnation. His parents had been Church of England, but had never forced Carl to go to church, so Carl had grown up pretty much having an open mind. But he still could not see any evidence for reincarnation. That despite the Dalai Lama being a very nice man. If it was down to a choice between the Pope and the Dalai Lama as a dinner guest, Carl would have gone with the Dalai Lama every time.
Carl had been told that Karmic Solutions, Inc, had computers so powerful that they could easily tell what a person would be reincarnated as – as long as all of the necessary information was inputted into the computers. Even leaving out a tiny action could have big consequences, apparently, in the next life. It had been impressed on him that the company really had to be meticulous when they examined a person’s life.
All that Carl did was to input facts about a person’s life into a computer. Reams of printed or written data were plonked down on his desk. All that he had to do was to put it into the computer exactly as it came to him, without changing a single word or collar. It was not the most important job in the place. No, those were the interviewers.
The interviewers spoke to people who came in to ask what they would be in the next life. It surprised Carl that anybody came in to find out what they would be reincarnated as, or that they actually believed in such things. But a surprising number of wealthy people came in to Karmic solutions, Inc, to try to discover what they could expect in the next life.
Carl was not allowed to listen in to any of these conversations. They all took place in special booths, out of which sound could not travel, as people told their darkest secrets, the sort of thing which, presumably, any blackmailer would love to hear. Everybody had secrets, after all. And he was not considered to be important enough to be privy to all of those secrets. He just dealt with the mundane stuff.
Carl carried tapping away at the keyboard, putting in details of some man called Keith Kerber. Carl had never heard of Keith Kerber before. But, judging by some of the receipts which Carl was entering, Mr Kerber had liked the high life – especially if that had involved champagne.
Yes, even receipts got entered into the computers, although Carl did not really understand why. He did not see what difference they might make, one way or the other. But every possible detail was supposed to go into the computers.
Carl did not see what difference it could really make whether some receipt was entered into the computer or not. When he had joined the company he had gone to all of the lectures, where it had been pressed upon him and other new entrants how important it was not to leave anything out, and that, due to fractals and chaos and other stuff which Carl did not understand, even minor alterations could have big impacts. Like the whole butterfly wings thing.
But Carl reasoned that there were loads of things which would never get entered into a computer, being the sort of things which a person had forgotten, or which never got noted down. If even a receipt from some restaurant was important to a person’s destinies, then what about some iced bun that you might have bought in Gregg’s one day, and forgotten all about. What about some playground scrap when you were nine years old, and which you had forgotten about, as well? Wasn’t that important?
Carl had not liked the fact that he had had to enter everything about himself into the computer, as well, despite the fact that he did not really believe in reincarnation, and he was never going to avail himself of the company’s services. But he had been told that it was standard procedure for anybody working at the company. Everybody had to do it. If they didn’t do it, it was presumed that they were not in need of a job – and Carl badly needed an income of some sort.
Besides, the job was not so bad. He was inside, out of the elements. And he got to sit down all day. And the pay was probably more than he would get elsewhere, considering what qualifications he had.
There were times when Carl wondered if everything was what it seemed to be, or whether there was some deep, dark secret behind the company. Part of it was due to the fact that he still did not really believe in reincarnation, despite the fact that he worked for Karmic Solutions, Inc. he did not think that there were enough souls to go around, with billions more people on the planet now than even a century ago. Where had all of those extra souls come from?
He was more likely to believe in aliens than in reincarnation. There were times when he wondered if it was all part of some alien plot to take over the world. There had to be aliens out there, somewhere. He did not believe that mankind could be alone in the universe.
But Carl could never work out why aliens, engaged in some secret invasion, might want to learn such details as Karmic Solutions dealt with. It did not make any sense.
So Carl was a good boy and he carried on with his job. He did not go poking around the back offices of the company. He simply sat at his desk and entered details into his computer.
Then, one day, there was the day when things went wrong. And it was all Carl’s fault.
Carl was sitting at his desk, tapping in details, and scanning bills into the great computer of Karmic Solutions. He was putting in some of his most recent receipts. As a worker at the company, he had to put in all of his receipts, whether from the gas company or the local pie shop. He did not know why it was so important. It was not like he was particularly bothered about his karma. He did not think that he would ever get reborn. When you were dead you were dead. You got no second chances.
He supposed that it was just the company keeping a check on its workers. Karmic Solutions was one of those companies which seemed to think that you could not have too much information.
He scanned another bill into the machine and pressed enter. Although why his council tax bill should be important, Carl did not know.
Then, glancing up at the computer screen, Carl suddenly realised that it was not his name up there, but that of some silly old woman by the name of Margaret Hedge. She was some blue-rinsed old bat, who had more money than sense, and actually believed that by paying Karmic solutions loads of money that she might be able to ensure that she would have a better life once she was reincarnated. Yeah, like that was going to happen.
Always check that you have the details correct before you press Enter. That had been one of the first things which Carl had been told, upon coming to work at the company. But he had not done that. He had thought that he had closed down the file of silly old Mrs Hedge, and opened his. But he had clearly not done so.
He tried pressing the Delete key on the keyboard. But it was too late. The details had already been entered, and processed. Not only that, but all of the details which he had entered in the past twenty minutes had been his, rather than concerning Mrs Hedge. Twenty minutes worth of incorrect information had gone into Mrs Hedge’s account. It would already have been processed. Carl did not know how to undo it.
He sat at his computer, staring at the screen. His first instinct was to do nothing, and just ignore it, and hope that the problem would go away. It was not like it was really going to affect Mrs Hedge, was it? She would die, and be put in her grave, and that would be it. She wouldn’t know.
But, at the back of his mind, there was the idea that somebody else would find out. if that happened, and he had not said anything, he knew that he would be for the high jump. and he felt that he was too young to lose his job due to incompetence.
He had to tell his boss what he had done.
Carl went and knocked on the door of Mr Neck. It had always struck Carl as being a very strange name, Mr Neck. It was not like you met anybody called Mrs Shoulder, or Ms Knee, or Fred Lower-Back. Carl had never encountered anybody with the name Neck before. It seemed a pretty silly name to him.
But it did not seem so silly now that Carl was standing outside Mr Neck’s door, about to go in and admit that he had screwed up royally.
“Come.” Mr Neck said. Not come in. Just come.
Carl opened the door and went in.
There had always been something about Mr Neck which had unnerved Carl, and Carl had never been able to quite put his finger on what it actually was. Perhaps it was the fact that the skin looked just a little bit too sallow for somebody who was alive. Maybe it was the fact that Mr Neck never took his sunglasses off, no matter how dark the day was outside. Maybe it was the way that Mr Neck never seemed to talk in anything but a whisper, yet his voice always seemed to carry. There was just something creepy about the man.
“What is it?” Mr Neck said, looking at Carl. Well, Carl thought that Mr Neck was looking at him. But it was hard to tell with those thick, black sunglasses.
“I think that I may have made a mistake.” Carl said.
“You think that you may have made a mistake? Either you have made an error, or you have not.”
Again, Mr Neck whispered, but Carl heard the words perfectly well. Maybe the man was some sort of a ventriloquist, adept at throwing his voice.
“I have made a mistake.” Carl admitted.
“Good. Now we are getting somewhere. What grievous error have you committed?”
Faltering in his speech, Carl explained just what he had done. Carl would have said that Mr Neck did not look very pleased. But it was not that easy to tell.
“So, what should I do now?” Carl asked, wondering if he was about to get the sack.
“You do not realise the problems that you have caused.” Mr Neck, getting up from behind his desk. He was a tall, thin man. He towered over Carl. “Come with me. I must show you something.”
Mr Neck opened a door at the back of his office. Carl had not even noticed that there was a door there, until Mr Neck had slid it open. The door had fitted flush with the wall, and there was no door handle which Carl had been able to see.
Carl stepped through into the passage beyond. This passage looked old; far older than it should have; far older than the company which Carl worked for. The floor of the passage was old flagstones. There was old, flickering gas lamps set into the walls of the passage, rather than modern electric lights.
“Karmic Solutions, as a force to be measured, predates our advertising our services.” Mr Neck explained. “We have existed for a long time. In the past who we advised, with regard to their souls… was more limited, shall we say? Come, this way.”
Mr Neck strode along the passage, Carl almost having to run to keep up, as Mr Neck’s legs were a lot longer than his were. Here and there Carl could see cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. But Mr Neck did not seem bothered by them. He simply ducked under any which were in the way.
Mr Neck came to a set of stone steps going down. He walked down the stairs, Carl following a few paces behind. Carl had no idea that these passages existed. The modern office building of Karmic Solutions must have been built up around them.
The stone steps ended at the entrance to a large cave. Carl realised that they must be underground.
There were large machines in the cave, almost filling it, only just leaving enough room to walk between the lines of the large, oblong machines. Carl did not recognise what they were. They had moving parts, and there was wiring linking them together. He could hear a clanking noise coming from somewhere.
“What is this?” Carl asked, staring at the strange machines.
“They are Babbage engines, from the time that what would become Karmic Solutions was founded.” Mr Neck said, proudly. “Their processing power is limited, but they have still been working down here for over a century and a half, making accurate predictions and analysis. You see, Carl, by knowing what a person’s soul is like we can tell not only what they might be like in the next life, but we can gain insights into the general future. The more people who we interview the better, so that we can expand Karmic Solutions, ensuring our success. We can see what we need to do to become successful, in a world in which many businesses go to the wall. At the moment the offices above are still the only Karmic Solutions in the world. But, given enough time, and enough insight, we will be able to expand, so that we control… er, ha ha, so that we cover the entire world.
“Except that, when incorrect information is entered into out computers, it slews all of our predictions for the future. We not only come up with inaccurate predictions of who people will be reincarnated as; we also cannot be sure of what we need to do to succeed, and make sure that the company endures. The company must become immortal, Carl. You can see that, can’t you?”
“Yes, I suppose so.” Carl said, although he was not quite sure what Mr Neck was going on about.
“You see, our destinies are pre-ordained, despite what people may think about free will.” Mr Neck said. He spoke like he was giving a lecture to a bunch of ignorant schoolchildren. “By the most meticulous examination of the facts concerning that person you are, in effect, able to predict the future, and not simply how they will be reincarnated. But little changes can cause big differences over time. You have heard of chaos theory, have you not?”
“Vaguely.” Carl said. He had wondered with chaos theory how Karmic Solutions could function.
“You see, there is another, parallel world in which you did not make a mistake, and mix up your details with that of dear Mrs Hedge. In such a world, Carl has a future in the company. By discovering what little changes are necessary to achieve a certain result all manner of wonderful things can be achieved, including quantum immortality.”
“I founded Karmic solutions, in an attempt to stay alive. I have no desire to be reincarnated, Carl. I like this life. I have made myself an emperor among men, although nobody realises that. With the help of the computers, and now with the extra assistance of karmic Solutions feeding in more information, I have been able to ensure that I never take those little decisions which would lead to me dying in other worlds”
“But you must be…”
“I am over one hundred and seventy years old.” Mr Neck said. Carl did not believe him. He only looked around a third of that age, at the very most. “I have examined my future self, should I die and be reincarnated, and do you know what I would come back as, Carl? A cockroach. Yes, should anything happen to me to disrupt my quantum immortality, I would be reincarnated as a cockroach. So you can understand when I become more than a little annoyed when somebody like you enters incorrect data into the system.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose.” Carl said.
“Come with me.” Mr Neck said. He led Carl out of that room, through an archway, into a much more modern chamber. This room was the opposite of the one which they had been in.
The equipment in here was so modern that Carl had no idea what it was. The room was dominated by some kind of Perspex tube in the centre of the room. The Perspex tube was filled with blue liquid. In the tube, at around eye level, there was something which looked like a brain of some sort, floating in the tube, but with loads of wiring coming out of it. But it was bigger than any brain that Carl had ever seen before. It certainly could not be a human brain. Well, that was what Carl thought, anyway.
“Living computers, that is the future.” Mr Neck said. “The processing power and speed is far in excess of purely mechanical ones. But I need more material for this computer. It has already almost reached its limits. And I cannot risk doing anything which might lead to my demise. I do not wish to be reincarnated as a cockroach, Carl.”
Carl did not see Mr Neck press anything. But he must have done something because, suddenly, a metal arm came out of the wall and caught Carl in a sort of huge pincer. The metal pincer trapped Carl’s arms against his sides. He struggled, but there was no way on earth that he was going to break free.
“I need to make the brain bigger, Carl. I need more processing power; and I don’t need people who made mistakes. Goodbye, Carl.”
Mr Neck walked out of the room as more metallic arms came down out of the ceiling of the room. One of the metallic arms ended with some sort of robotic hand. But the other arm ended in a miniature buzzsaw.
The robotic hand grasped Carl’s skull, as the buzzsaw moved in. And, although Carl screamed extremely loudly – for a while – nobody came to help him avoid his ultimate destiny.