“A Tale of Two Bureaucracies” by Jeremy Zimmerman
Trevor was reading a book when someone came up to his information window, bringing with him the sound of horse-drawn carriages rattling in the street outside as the door closed slowly behind the visitor. Trevor didn’t look up right away, wanting to finish the page he was on. It became clear that this wasn’t a fast enough response when the visitor rang the bell on the counter. For the third time that week, Trevor remembered that he meant to move the bell behind the counter when he was sitting at the window.
Without looking up or pausing in his reading, Trevor pointed out, “I’m sitting right here.”
“You hadn’t looked up when I approached, so I thought you hadn’t noticed me,” the man on the other side of the window explained defensively.
“I noticed you,” Trevor assured the man, still reading his book.
The man waited for a few moments before asking, “Is this where I go if I have questions?”
“Yes,” Trevor said testily, adding, “Just give me a moment.”
The man shuffled impatiently while Trevor hurried through reading his page. Finally, he looked up and said, “How can I help you?”
“I’m wanting information,” the man explained.
“Can you narrow that down a touch?” Trevor said with a long suffering look on his face.
“Well, this is the ministry in charge of the Gate, yes?” the man asked.
“The Gate that holds the forces of Hell back, right?”
“I want information about it,” the man clarified. “The Imperial Decree from ten years ago, in order to ensure transparency in government, allows us to obtain information about public ministries like this. Since I live in a city right on the edge of Hell, I think I deserve to know more about that.”
“That’s a broad category,” Trevor said with a sigh. “Really, narrow it down. First you’ll need to figure out what exactly you want to know about. Safety reports regarding the Gate? The allocation of the budget? How many sheets of parchment we order per year? Then you’ll need to put it in writing-”
“Why in writing?” the man interrupted.
“So that we have, in your own words, a record of what exactly you want to know about,” Trevor said tersely, becoming annoyed by the interruption. “And we will need three copies of the letter.”
“Three?” the man asked. “Why three?”
“One to put on file here in case it gets lost, one for the minister in charge and one for the clerk who handles the records you want a copy of,” Trevor explained. “I stamp them with the date when they arrive, and then we have five working days to get you an initial response to your request.”
“What do you mean by initial response?” the man pressed.
“Well, we’ll let you know if we can get you the information and how much it will cost you for us to have scriveners reproduce the documents you want,” Trevor clarified.
“I have to pay for this?” the man said, his voice indicating shock with a hint of outrage building at the edges.
“The support network in place for a ministry such as this is huge, and generates a lot of paperwork,” Trevor elaborated, trying to remain patient despite how often he had to describe the process. “If we made free copies of every document whenever people asked, our entire organization would collapse under the weight of all the reproduction. So we charge.”
“All this to find out more about the people monitoring the Gate into Hell?” the man sputtered.
Trevor shrugged and nodded, agreeing, “Yes. All this for that information.”
“But what if I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for?” the man asked.
“Try a library. Hire a solicitor who has experience working with the ministries. Make multiple requests for disclosure to find out what you want to find out,” Trevor suggested. “In the meantime, it is time for my lunch break.”
With that, Trevor slid the window shut.
For the fifth time that week, Nicodemus saw an army of demons marching towards him. The larger demon that seemed to be leading them slowed as they approached the information window that Nicodemus sat behind.
As the army drew near, the sounds of their cacophonous cheering and squealing quieted as confusion came to the fore. Nicodemus opened the window, the sulfurous smells of Hell rolling through to him.
“Can I help you?” Nicodemus asked.
“We are here to batter down the wall that keeps us from the mortal realm and feast on the pale flesh of those who dwell there!” the leader proclaimed. A cheer rang out behind him.
Nicodemus looked down at his ledger and said, “Did you have an appointment? I’m not seeing anything scheduled right now.”
“We have to schedule an invasion of the human realm?” the leader snarled, outraged.
“Not exactly,” Nicodemus said. “Following a decree from His Lowness Prince Belial, opportunities to assault the Gate are awarded after a yearly Request for Proposals. There’s an evaluation period, an interview process and finally a few demonic warbands are awarded the opportunity to throw themselves against the Gate when the stars align.”
“When the stars align?” the leader asked, clearly looking confused. His army was slack-jawed that their warlord would be stalled by a skinny demon in an information window.
“Yes. I guess there was an extensive evaluation of the Gate a century ago and they determined that the wards were weaker when the astrological portents were most auspicious. With such narrow windows of opportunity, His Lowness decided it was most efficient to only allow the most qualified demon warbands through.” Nicodemus shrugged. “We don’t have any Requests for Proposals at the moment, but if you want to get onto our mailing list we can notify you when the next one is coming up.”
“And what is to stop me from just overrunning this information booth and taking the gate by force?” the leader asked.
“I have a lever to pull that seals off my window and releases mnemovoric worms through the area, which will eat your thoughts and leave your drooling, mindless bodies behind,” Nicodemus explained.
“I’d like to be on your mailing list, please,” the warlord said sheepishly.
Trevor tried not to gag at the taste of his coffee as he sipped it. No amount of sugar or cream would beat it into shape, but it at least neutered the flavor somewhat. As he turned to head back to his desk, he nearly tripped over a small, blonde-haired person. He let out a small noise of exclamation as he tried to keep his coffee from spilling out of his cup.
“Trevor, have you met my daughter?” a woman asked.
“Um, no Sheila, I haven’t,” Trevor responded dubiously, looking down at the seven-year-old girl at his feet. “Though for a second I thought we might have had another gnome infestation.”
Sheila shuddered and said, “Don’t remind me. Elizabeth, this is Trevor. He runs our information counter.”
“Nice to meet you Elizabeth,” Trevor muttered. Elizabeth gave a shy wave in response. “You decide she needed to start a job as a bureaucrat early on?”
“It’s Children’s Day,” Sheila explained. “Imperial citizens are encouraged to bring their children to work. You know, show them how to be dutiful working members of the Empire and all.”
“I have a gesture for that, but I won’t use it in front of your child,” Trevor said.
“Your discretion is admirable, Trevor,” Sheila said. “I figured it would be neat for her to see the Gate. Maybe later you can show her what you do.”
“Yeah, there’s nothing more exciting than spending eight hours a day telling people that their meeting isn’t here and this isn’t where to get their pets licensed. But sure, bring her by. If you need me, I’ll be at my window.”
“Nicodemus!” called out a rotund demon. “How goes it?”
The clerk looked up and said, “Not too bad, Nergal. Chasing off warbands, giving people directions, the usual. I don’t mean to alarm you, but I think you have a parasite on your leg.”
Nergal chortled, picked up the small, lithe demonling and said, “Oh, no this is just my little spawn, Lilith. Thought I’d show her around the offices here, maybe let her see the Gate we’ll break down someday. Say ‘hi’ to Nicodemus, sweetie.”
Lilith, almost in a whisper, said, “Hello.”
“Hey kiddo,” Nicodemus said with a wave. “Have fun checking out the… big scary Gate.”
The Gate was in a cave underneath the ministry offices, its fifty feet of height filling one of the cave walls. It was a baroque edifice wrought of true gold, covered in glowing angelic script and images of the armies of heaven. At eye level, thick sheets of frozen air allowed people to see through to the dark realm beyond. For centuries, guards had stood sentinel in the room to observe the other side and warn of massing armies. But over the last several decades, a decline in activity coupled with budget cuts resulted in the room being empty most of the time.
“This is what keeps the monsters away?” Elizabeth asked her mother, her small voice echoing through the cavern.
“Yes, dear,” Sheila assured her daughter. “It is.”
From behind them a man’s voice called out, “Oh, there you are Sheila. Do you have a moment? I have some questions about this report you wrote.”
“Sure thing,” she said. “I’ll just be right over here Elizabeth, don’t get into any trouble.”
Elizabeth nodded to indicate she understood right before her mother walked back towards the entrance to the cavern. Catching sight of motion from the Gate, the young girl walked cautiously forward until she saw another person her size on the other side of the frozen air. The other girl was pale and thin with long, straight black hair. She waved to Elizabeth. Elizabeth waved back.
“Mama,” Elizabeth called out. “There’s a girl trapped in there with the monsters!”
“Just a moment, sweetie,” her mom called out in reply.
Elizabeth frowned in concern, looking around to see how she could free this kindred soul trapped with the monsters. As luck would have it, the Gate shared a very critical feature in common with other doors: It had a handle to pull on.
The girl ran up to the handle, which was a little above her head, and reached up to pull back hard on it. She felt a sharp pain and jerked her hand back. A line of red showed that she had managed to cut herself on the handle of the door. Undeterred, she reached up again and pulled at the door handle again. She gave a small yelp of surprise as the Gate began to swing slowly open.
The room filled with a grinding roar as the Gate slowly opened up. Bells could be faintly heard ringing in the distance. Elizabeth felt her mother’s arms wrap around her waist as she was dragged out of the room.
Over the roar of the Gate, she tried to call out, “But there’s a girl trapped in there!”
“Nicodemus!” Nergal called out, his breathing labored from his brief run to the front of the offices. “You have to come down and see this!”
“What ‘this’ do I have to see?” Nicodemus called back from his seat at the information window.
“The Gate!” Nergal gasped out.
“I’ve seen the Gate before,” Nicodemus responded. “Unless clerks have disappeared down there to get it on again, I don’t care.”
“The Gate is open!” Nergal managed to finally explain.
Nicodemus spun around on his stool, and stared slack-jawed at Nergal before scrambling out of his seat and running towards the Gate. Through the offices that had been erected around the portal to the mortal realm, the two of them hurried down to join the other office demons staring through the opened Gate.
The demons stared, stunned, at the open portal. On the other side, ashen faced guards were shakily holding halberds and muskets, clearly dreading the notion of having to fend off the hordes of Hell.
“Do you realize what this means?” one of the infernal clerks gasped. “We can invade their world!”
The other demons made similar overjoyed exclamations, before Nicodemus interrupted them saying, “No, we can’t.”
“What do you mean we can’t?” Nergal asked, his breathing almost back to normal.
Nicodemus turned to face his fellow minions of Hell as he explained, “We aren’t part of some demonic warband. We work in an office for a reason. When word gets out that this Gate is open, the big ass-kicking demons are going to plow through here and we will be out of a job. All we have in this horrible netherrealm is the ability to tell other demons to stick it. If we lose this, we’ll be back to picking lice off the backs of bigger and hairier demons.”
A discontented grumble moved through the crowd of assembled demons.
Nergal stepped forward towards the Gate and called out, “Excuse me? Who is in charge over there?”
A pasty-faced mortal bureaucrat behind the line of guards raised a hand and said, “I am. Lord Milton, Minister of Gate Security.”
“Excellent,” Nergal said. “We are willing to keep other demons from learning that the Gate is open if you can hurry up and fix whatever wards you had up. Does that seem reasonable to you?”
“And so it is with joy in our hearts,” Lord Milton said to the assembled crowds before the ministry offices, “that we can commend the brave men and women in our ministry who, through their courage and their dedication to their work, were able to hold back the hordes of Hell to keep our fair city safe.”
“I’d complain that we deserve a raise,” Trevor muttered to Sheila as they stood in their best clothes behind the minister, “but since we didn’t actually do anything, I feel like I don’t have any room to complain. Still, a certificate hanging in our office praising us for fighting off the hordes of Hell seems a little half-assed.”
“And here I’d think you’d be grateful to be alive,” Sheila muttered in return. “Hell, I’m glad no one connected Elizabeth to what happened.”
“I’m ungrateful and belligerent,” Trevor said. “If I didn’t have that, how would I serve the fine people of this city at the information desk?”
Jeremy Zimmerman has been a contributing writer in the roleplaying game industry. In his secret identity as a County bureaucrat, he hopes to someday be good enough for government work. He lives in Seattle and has more cats than sense.