Hi! Welcome to the first chapter of 'This Transient, Floating World.' This an OC-insert type story, in which I throw a new character into canon, shake well, and see what happens. I will be messing with the story, both because there are inconsistencies in canon itself I have to work around, and because I think it's fun. So be prepared for that. New characters will be added to the description as they become relevant.

I don't own Naruto.


I was pretty sure I was dead. That was the first explanation that popped into my head when I realized I wasn't in the hospital anymore, mostly because of the fact that my last clear memory was of a light at the end of a tunnel. That seemed like it ought to be a pretty big clue.

So I was dead. Probably. I didn't really . . . feel dead. Whatever being dead was supposed to feel like. But my memory was fuzzy, so I wasn't sure how exactly it had happened, or if it had happened at all. Now I wished I had given more thought to my funeral arrangements.

I sat in an uncomfortable metal folding chair in a room that smelled vaguely of seaweed. I wasn't sure how long I'd been here, as there was no clock anywhere around and the lack of windows made it impossible to even tell if it was day or night. The expensive watch I treasured was around my wrist, but the hands were gone.

I took a nice long look around. It was a waiting room. There were chairs (all empty), a fish tank (with strangely stiff-looking fish) and a low table with magazines. I picked one up and leafed through it. A standard gossip rag, dating from last year.

At that point I really started to question whether or not I was dead. Something didn't quite feel right. Was I hallucinating? Had I dreamed up the whole hospital stay? Maybe these kinds of delusions were something that happened to me a lot, and I was actually waiting for a psychiatric consultation. Given how fuzzy my memory actually was, this was a very real possibility, and a far more attractive one than being dead.

I ought to tell them to give me drugs. I couldn't jolly well go about my job while hallucinating, now could I? I had things to take care of. I had responsibilities.

I couldn't really be dead, right?

"Rue Smith?" A voice called out. I looked up to see a man in a black suit standing in an open doorway I could have bet my life's savings had not been there before. He pushed his glasses up with his index finger (it was a very well-manicured finger) and straightened a file with a snap. He looked up at me. "Would you come this way please? Your consultation will start momentarily."

Oh, so this was a psychiatric consultation. I was relieved that I wasn't actually dead. I stood up, smoothed my pencil skirt and straightened my suit jacket. I shook hands with the man, and we went inside. He motioned for me to sit in one of the armchairs while he went behind the desk and gathered some more papers. It was a small office, very bland, with mahogany furniture, gray carpeting, white chairs, and a filing cabinet in the corner. No windows and no lamps, although it was nicely lit.

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Smith," he said. "You may call me Mr. Dawson. We are here today to discuss your afterlife options."

I nodded, blinked, and did a double-take.

I must have heard him wrong. I cleared my throat and raised my eyebrows. "Pardon me?"

"Your afterlife, Miss Smith. You have passed away from . . ." he flipped through the pile and pulled a report out. 'Hospital acquired MRSA, following admission for leukemia.' Categorized as a type B illness. My condolences." He tilted his head forward.

'I'm actually dead . . .' I waited for it to hit me, but it didn't. Like it was very far away, and didn't have much to do with me, really. Like I couldn't quite believe it. Like this was a dream.

I mentally shook off the confusion and concentrated on the task at hand. "I see. Alright, what's this about the afterlife?"

"Depending on your karmic balance you may choose from a variety of options. We'll start by going through your file to ascertain the life you led. If you have any objections to the content and conclusions presented here, you may voice a complaint. A form will be given to you to fill out, and your request will be processed. As this will result in the delay of your afterlife assignment, I recommend you use these forms sparingly."

I could only nod.

"Let us start. According to this information, you have lived a fairly balanced life. No great crime to speak of, although that sabotage incident is a stain on your record . . ."

"Hey! How do you know about that!?"

". . . and a touch of alcoholism remains your preferred vice. Your lack of restraint has often caused trouble with those around you. As such, you have no intimate personal connections with others. You would be what they call, ah, a 'workaholic.' As your adult life revolves around your work, there is very little to analyze.

"Your childhood has nothing worthy of mention, although your medical condition has strained relations with your family. I see . . . since you had a chronic medical condition that severely affected your quality of life, this is in your favor."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that," I said sarcastically.

He continued as if I hadn't spoken. "Within the scope of your work life, you have indeed helped to make a minuscule contribution to the world around you. Congratulations."

Just great. Listening to a guy in a Christmas green tie reduce seven year's backbreaking, tedious, and stress-ulcer inducing work to 'a miniscule contribution.'

"You leave behind neither lover nor children. Given the strained relations with your family, I would assume haunting is not your preferred option?"

"I can do that?"

"Of course. Our basic package is offered to those with loved ones or enemies they wish to watch over and/or torment; they may manifest in their world in ghost form, with a contract renewal offered every ten years. The ability to affect the physical world is subject to additional fees. Gusts of wind would be the cheapest, while full-on poltergeist activity is enabled by a substantial investment. Most people require a loan."

"I see . . . no, I wouldn't like that . . ."

"Good. That option is not available to you at this time. Next," he pulled out a different paper and quickly scanned it over. "Your karmic balance from previous lives. I can report that it is positive. Congratulations, Miss Smith."

He said it in such a patronizing tone that I couldn't be happy about it.

"Now, as for your options," he lifted his glasses. "Given your history, I would recommend reincarnation."

"What about heaven?"

"I am terribly sorry, but you do not have enough on your karmic balance to purchase a heaven contract. At this point in time, reincarnation is really your best option."

"Don't you mean, only option?" I asked sullenly.

He waved that aside. "This is our most popular package. You may choose to purchase additional benefits with your karmic balance, such as family station, historical period of birth, innate talents, or even lifelong luck." He pulled out a pile of documents from his drawer and fanned them on the desk in front of me. "These are the prices and package deals, if you'd be so kind as to look them over . . ."

All of a sudden a phone shrilly rang, which surprised me so much I thought my heart leaped out of my chest. I hadn't noticed there was a phone.

"If you would excuse me," he said.

"Go ahead." I motioned to the phone.

He picked it up. What followed was a mostly one sided conversation, with Mr. Dawson nodding and saying 'I see' repeatedly and then 'I'll get right on it, ma'am. Yes. Yes. I'll see to it. Goodbye.' When he put down the receiver, he stared at me for a moment. Then he swiped all the papers away from me and shoved them back in the drawer. He leaned on his elbows and formed a bridge with his fingers, connecting each one to its pair in a precise and meticulous manner; he looked at me over his hands, his glasses slipping down slightly to reveal intense gray eyes.

"Miss Smith, might I interest you in a special one-time reincarnation package?"

Surprised, I could only blink dumbly. It wouldn't hurt to hear him out, although the way his eyes were fixed on me was rather unsettling. By now, I was convinced this was all a dream anyway. "Go on," I said.

"My supervisor has just contacted me about a crisis situation in one of our other world offices. It was just found out that, due to some unknown factors, not enough souls are eligible for reincarnation. In essence, they have a shortage and have asked other offices to contribute. This is strictly optional, but we are prepared to offer great benefits."

"Like what?"

"A large amount of karmic credit, for one. And any one attribute from the list I have just shown you, free of charge."

"So, you want me to . . . get reincarnated . . . into another world?" My head was starting to hurt. That couldn't be right. I must have heard that part wrong.

"That is correct. Think of it as a karmic investment for the future of your soul. With the amount we are prepared to offer and your positive track record, you could conceivably afford a heaven contract in two to three lifetimes."

"How much?"

"The exact numbers would mean little to you. Rest assured that it is an amount commensurate to the favor we are asking. Between the two of us, Miss Smith, I urge you to take this deal. There are no drawbacks for you."

"Oh . . . well, alright, if you say so . . ."

"Very good," In a flash he had a contract, pen and ink pot right in front of me. "If you'd be so good as to sign here. We are somewhat pressed for time, you understand."

I was absolutely sure this was a dream. It was too absurd not to be. I mean, afterlife offices? Reincarnation packages? Other worlds? No, definitely a dream. The fog over my head seemed to grow thicker as I picked the pen up and dipped it into the ink. It was a strange shimmering shade.

I skipped over the big wad of text almost automatically, like it hurt my eyes and I couldn't focus on it. There was a list with checkboxes.

"Excuse me," I said, momentarily regaining a minimum of sense. "I thought you said I could choose my own time period." I had the idea of being reincarnated into the future. I wanted to see what technology would be like.

He coughed delicately. "Sadly, we are unable to offer that particular benefit on this special contract. The shortage of souls applies to a very specific window in time."

I shrugged. Did it really matter? It's not like I knew enough about the world to be able to pick the ideal time to be born. My other options were, among others:

-high family/social status

-intellectual ability (IQ randomly assigned between 130-160)

-musical talent (perfect pitch, instrument affinity)

-charisma (naturally attractive personality)

-physical attribute, followed by a line, presumably where one could describe what they wanted

-lifelong good luck

But what threw me for a loop was the disclaimer at the bottom: "In signing, the reincarnate agrees that the above qualities may be partially or fully determined by genetics, home environment, lifestyle, and other factor subject to chance, and that this contract does not guarantee the availability of their choice. The reincarnate agrees that no litigation may be pursued against the contractor, and no reimbursement will be offered."

I was about to complain, because this was absolutely preposterous, when Mr. Dawson checked his watch and said, "I'm terribly sorry, but time is almost up. Please make your selection."

I stared at the list. None of these appealed to me in particular, as they were mostly things one could get with hard work or that would depend on the circumstances you were born into to have any effect on your life. All except one.

I checked the box for 'good luck,' thinking of my circumstances in my waking life. Between my condition, the leukemia and the life-threatening infection, it wouldn't hurt to go for a little drop of good ol'fashioned liquid luck.

I signed on the line at the bottom, and handed the sheet back to Mr. Dawson. He snapped it from me, briskly checked it over, scribbled something on another sheet of paper and stood. He held out his hand. I shook it.

"Thank you very much for your understanding, Miss Smith. Now, if you'll follow me right this way . . ." he motioned towards another door, not the one we'd come in from (which was gone).

I followed him into a corridor lined with more doors, nicely carved and painted white. He briskly passed by them, and I struggled to keep up. When he finally stopped, I nearly ran into him. We were in front of a sleek steel-gray elevator. He pressed a button and it dinged open.

"This will take you to the office of your new world, where your transfer will be finalized. You must present these upon arrival," he handed me the folder he was carrying and checked his watch. "Now, I wish you good luck in your new life, Miss Smith. It was a pleasure doing business with you, and I hope to see you again once this lifetime has passed. Farewell."

And with that, I stepped into the elevator, the doors closed, and I was left on my own not quite sure of what had happened. It started, going down, and kept moving for a long time. I checked over the papers in the folder, but I couldn't really read any of it. It's not that I couldn't understand the language, but that the words just didn't make sense to me. Like I had been repeating them over and over and over until they lost all meaning.

I wondered what I had gotten myself into. This was certainly a strange dream. It was too late to back out now . . . not that I had anywhere I could go, stuck here in an elevator. I began to wonder at what point I would wake up. Part of me didn't really want to – my memory was coming back, and I grimaced at the thought of returning to that hospital bed, with tubes snaking out of me and the smell of anesthetic in the air.

Well, the nurse would wake me up eventually. Until then, might as well enjoy being up and about.

Eventually the elevator stopped and the doors opened. On the other side was another man, dressed in a black suit like Mr. Dawson, but with a red tie.

"Miss Smith?" he smiled warmly. He looked a lot younger that Mr. Dawson, with a rounder face and longer black hair. He didn't wear glasses, and his dark eyes were friendly.

"Yes, that's me. Mr. Dawson sent me down here for a transfer." I handed him the file. He took it and nodded.

"Thank you very much. We've been expecting you. Your reincarnation procedure was given top priority, so you won't have to wait very long. Right this way."

I followed him through a short corridor and into an open floor-plan office, where many men and women in suits sat at desks with huge piles of paperwork, drinking coffee to combat the dark circles under their eyes, snapping at their neighbors, and occasionally breaking down and crying over their work. I saw one such woman slumped over in her chair, silently shedding tears of despair, while a colleague patted her on the back and said soothingly,

"It'll be fine, they're calling for help as we speak. We'll get the souls we need. Shh . . ."

This must be an actual crisis. I was glad I had accepted. I worked in an office environment, so I was familiar with this kind of atmosphere. It was maybe the worst part of the job, trying to get something impossible done before an impossible deadline with impossible tools and with impossible people. Oh, and computers that tended to crash at the worst possible time. It's like they knew.

I had a theory that computers were sentient and the rise had already begun.

Come to think of it, it wasn't odd at all that I was having this kind of dream; it wasn't weird to dream about someplace familiar, and death did loom rather large in my mind. I was at the hospital, and I seemed to remember the doctors not being very optimistic about my chances of kicking this infection with my compromised immune system.

Or something. I didn't know, this was a dream. Were dreams even supposed to make sense? Heck, throw in a couple more cucumbers and obelisks and Freud would have a field day.

"Could you wait here?" The boy (I couldn't think of him as a man – he just looked too young and fresh) opened a door. "We've still got some paperwork to process."

"Alright." I nodded, and went inside. He nodded and shut the door.

For the second time in my dream, I was alone in a waiting room (was I secretly anxious about waiting?). This one was stranger than the one before. For one, there were tatami mats and cushions to sit on; no chairs. There was a pretty purple flower arrangement in a low alcove on the far wall, and sliding doors (that didn't actually open) completed the look. Come to think of it, hadn't most of the people in the busy office been Asian? The boy had been, as I recalled. I frowned, and then remembered that recent vacation to Japan my colleague took; she'd babbled about it for weeks after she came back, grinding on all of our nerves. Yes, that must have been it. Maybe I was jealous that she'd taken a vacation.

I snorted. As if. Like I would ever take a vacation.

I sat down on one of the cushions, and waited. There were no magazines, or anything with entertainment as a purpose. My legs grew numb, so I walked around a bit. I tried shutting my eyes very tight, and then opening them to break out of the dream. It didn't work.

Eventually, the door opened and the boy came back, looking quite out of breath.

"So sorry to make you wait, Miss Smith. We're done processing your transfer. You'll be reincarnated in . . ." he checked his watch. "One minute."

"Alright." I guess that meant this weird dream was ending. Back to the hospital room and ineffective doctors who refused to let me call work. Back to being stuck in bed with nothing to do but mentally review everything that was going wrong in the office while I wasn't there. Back to the specter of death looming over me like a deadline.

I sighed. "See you next time, I guess."

He gave me a weird look. "I don't mean to be rude, but you're awfully calm for someone who just died. I know Mr. Dawson is very good at what he does, but I'm honestly surprised you're taking this so well."

"Wait, what . . ."

"And you asked to keep your memories, too. That's a privilege usually given to holy figures, so I can't imagine why Mr. Dawson would offer it as an option. I must say, Miss Smith, you might be the strangest client I've ever met."

A strange feeling came over me. "Isn't this just a dream? It doesn't matter what I pick."

"Why in heaven's name would you think this is a dream?"

I couldn't answer, because at that moment the room faded to black and I had this strange feeling like my entire body was dissolving. I no longer had limbs, or a torso, or a head, and I was just a floating blob in black space. I saw a multitude of stars, something that looked like a cluster of vortexes, slowly swirling in a multitude of all colors among comets and black holes. It was a confusing mass of colors, but no sound or smell or touch. I didn't have a body with which to feel them.

I had the sense that I was slowly gravitating towards one of the vortexes, one that was a strange orange shade. Around me, there were odd balls of light floating around, and I had the sudden thought that I might also be a small ball of light, lost in the infinite universe and waiting for my fate.

Suddenly, I sped up. I was being pulled inside, down into the vortex, where I was surrounded by roaring orange and fuzzy light orbs shooting down with me to the end of it. It was a dark hole, just a point, really, and I thought that there was no way I could fit down there; it was much too small. But I approached it, and it took a very long time despite how fast I thought I was going.

But I reached it, eventually. I was sucked through the small hole, and into complete and utter darkness.

I stayed there for God knows how long. I couldn't feel anything at first, but then I started to get the sense that I had a body again. Legs, arms, eventually fingers joined the parade and I tried to squeeze my fist. It was terribly weak. I trick to kick with my misshapen legs, and hit something taunt.

I felt like I slept most of the time, and in the intervals when I woke up, something new had appeared. After the limbs, I tried opening my eyes. It was dark. I couldn't see my small hands in front of my face. I seemed to be growing, too. The space was getting more and more cramped.

But it was warm. My God, was it warm. And there were sounds, coming from above. A voice I eventually learned to recognize, though I couldn't make out the words. Sometimes, different voices came from somewhere next to me; probably on my left.

Why was this place getting so small? I was being squeezed from every side. I wanted to move. I was so tired of sleeping. Or was I actually sleeping? It felt like I was still inside that strange dream, where people in suits were discussing my 'afterlife options' and making me sign contracts. And that memory, of the hospital room and the white smell of anesthetic and the doctor's words, seemed even farther away. My life was still there, in stark clarity; my parents, my sisters, my job, my dog. How long had I been asleep? I had to wake up early, walk the dog, go to work. My boss had a huge presentation planned, had to be there to look it over. Ah, and what about that land-development contract? They couldn't do that without me.

I had to wake up. I moved as much as I can, trying to extract myself from this dream. Enough sleeping. Wake up, Rue. Wake up! You've got responsibilities. You've got to . . .

And then I felt it. The pressure from all sides, the feeling of slickly sliding down a tight tube, my head deforming under the pressure; the top of it felt cold. And then the cold spread quickly over my entire body, and I was so very, very wet and slimy, it was simply disgusting. I tried to move, but I was weak. Paws grasped me. I blinked my eyes open, but everything was so blinding I couldn't make out any more than huge hulking figures outlined in the light. I was submerged in water, and cleaned off. The huge paws wrapped something soft around me.

God help me, the lunatics were right. Help, I've been kidnapped by aliens!

They crowded me, murmuring in a way that sounded worried, as I breathed in and out. Deep, fast breaths, like I hadn't breathed in months, though I knew that couldn't be true. People can't survive without oxygen, so if I hadn't been breathing, I'd be dead.

One of them massaged my chest. Irritated, I gave a short cry. It was almost on instinct, because what I really wanted to do was curse them out. What were they manhandling me for? It was bad enough I'd just been through a terribly weird and uncomfortable experience without adding sexual harassment. Hey, wasn't I naked under this blanket?

I was passed around, and given to another giant figure. I was held close, and heard a voice I recognized. It was the one I had heard, in that dark and tight space. There was something comforting and familiar about it, and in short order, I felt sleep tugging at me. I wasn't uncomfortable; in fact, I was quite warm. The hospital, strange waiting rooms and salesmen, afterlife contracts and out of world reincarnations, a psychedelic space trip and being probed by aliens; yeah, definitely the weirdest dream I even had. But it was only a dream. Comforted by that knowledge, I peacefully fell asleep.

Okay, why wasn't I waking up?

I was still dreaming. I lost track of time for a while, waking, drinking something sweet, sleeping, being rocked, being sung to, sleeping . . . rinse and repeat. It was only after some time, once my eyes seemed to have adjusted, and I could stay 'awake' longer, that I began to notice something was very wrong.

For one, the things I thought were aliens? Yeah, those were people. As in, adults. But I was tiny, had no bowel control, and rather stumpy limbs attached to a wriggly body with a head that I couldn't hold up. I was, in fact, in the body of a baby.

And I was having a harder and harder time thinking of this as a dream. Sensations were too vivid, and things were sort of making sense once you accepted the 'baby' that was just 'born' part (god, the thought of that experience made me want to throw up – is that what that was?). I had a mother and a father that I could recognize, and that talked to me in surprisingly non-babyish voices.

Not that I could understand what they were saying. It wasn't English, for sure; if I had to guess, I'd say Japanese, but that also didn't quite fit with the idea that this was a 'dream.' Sure, my colleague had shown off her mediocre Japanese, but I didn't know enough to actually dream in the language. But then again, weren't there reports of people waking up from comas speaking foreign languages? Wait, that might have been just accents. This was confusing.

In any case, the one that was always around was my 'mother.' She was a pretty lady, with long black hair, pale skin, and she wore a kind of bathrobe. It was green. I had a hard time accepting it as 'clothes.' She always had a smile on her face, and her hands, while rough with calluses, had a gentle touch.

And then, my 'father.' Tall (at least from where I was lying), white hair, violet eyes; dressed in the bathrobe-type clothing, always in black, with a kind of crest on the back that looked like a purple stylized flower. His tone was always apologetic when he came to see my 'mother' after a long absence. He would hold me, with a kind of gentle grin on his face, and we would stare at each other for a while. Then he'd leave.

What struck me most about this man were the scars on his hands, forearms, and face. He was probably a thug. He smelled, too, something like sweat, a little iron-ish (a bit like blood), and dirt. While not obnoxious, it seriously made me wonder what he did for a living.

I seemed to be growing. I still spent most of my time sleeping though, and the walls of my crib and the mobile above were pretty much all I saw, though my vision was too muddled to make out details. I could move better, and I was starting to make out individual words when these people spoke to me.

However, they seemed to be a little . . . put off by me. I saw them staring at each other in consternation and exchange worried whispers. That was understandable. I never cried.

There was a good reason for that. Any reason why I might cry was just not there. I did not demand attention; I did not demand to be fed; and when I needed to be changed, I did not cry because that would be rather humiliating. The main reason for all of this was because, as I quickly noticed, I still had the medical condition that had afflicted me before. This was a strong argument in favor of the 'dream' theory.

Congenital insensitivity to pain. In essence, the inability to feel painful stimuli. It was a rare disorder that I had spent my whole life with. To me, it was normal for it not to hurt when I cut myself, or when I hit my head; the very concept of physical pain was alien to me. As a result, I would constantly chew my lips and tongue till they bled, bite my fingers when I was teething, and rub my eyes way too hard until I got scratches and infections. I was half blind in one eye by the time I was eight.

My childhood was plagued by broken bones, visits to the emergency room, recurrent doctor appointments, body checks and constant worried hovering from everyone around me. It got better as I grew up and learned to be careful and look myself over for injuries, but there were still hurdles like getting random infections and not noticing until I collapsed, or remembering to eat even though I didn't feel hunger pangs. I almost died of appendicitis when I was fifteen.

But I managed to grow up, go to college, and get a good job. I was able to take care of myself. When I was small, there had always been this lingering frustration that I couldn't do what other kids could. I loved to play soccer, but a broken ankle that I ignored during a match ended that real quick; I wanted to skateboard with my sisters, but kept getting banged up when I fell and they would get scolded, so they stopped letting me tag along; I was kept away from the kitchen, with all its knives and hot surfaces, so I never learned how to cook.

Mr. Dawson had referred to my 'lack of self-restraint' during that strange consultation. I was of the opinion that I could do anything I wanted, insensitivity to pain be dammed. Since nothing ever hurt, I had a hard time believing people when they made a fuss over me. I was confident in my ability to manage my own life, even if nobody else was.

In any case, whether this was a dream or some kind of hallucination, I did not feel any pain, so I had no reason to cry. This concerned my 'mother' greatly, as she had a hard time telling when I needed anything.

I grew up. I became able to sit by myself and, since I was on a roll, decided to learn to crawl. It didn't work very well, on account of my muscles being absolutely useless. In the end, I had to rely on my 'mother' carrying me around to explore the house. I found it to be rather quaint. I had my own room in the back, overlooking a garden (I figured out it was winter by the lack of leaves on the one tree); my parent's room was next door, and rest of the house consisted of a small kitchen, dining/living room (no TV), a bathroom, and a small room that was permanently locked I took for a study. It was small, and a little old (the insulation was terrible), but neat and cozy. I stared up in wonder at the books on the shelf next to the couch, as my 'mother' put me down on the rug and tried to engage me with a variety of toys. I wondered what they were about. I liked to read, so I wanted to get my hands on them as soon as possible. Not, I thought bitterly, that it was likely I could read them.

In the end, I amused myself by pawing at stackable rainbow colored blocks and rolled around collecting dust like an oversized lint brush when I got too frustrated at my lack of hand-eye coordination.

Eventually, my 'mother' decided to take me outside, which I was very happy about. Being cooped up might not be the end of the world for a baby, but I had an adult mind and there was such a thing as cabin fever.

She loaded me up in a stroller, and off we went. Even though it was winter, the air was barely chilly and felt very nice. The sky was bright blue and studded with puffy white clouds. She rolled me down a street, passing through a neighborhood with small one-story houses, most of them with rickety fences enclosing vegetable gardens, and lots of fields out back. After a short walk, we reached a more urbanized section with a lot more weirdly dressed people and vaguely Asian inspired architecture, in some ways really old, but in others peculiarly modern. We arrived at a rather conventional park with a sandbox, swings, and pleasant open space. There were children there. Some of them were swinging, or digging in the sandbox and stuffing dirt in their mouths; a group ran around, roughhousing, probably some version of cops and robbers. Two were facing off in what looked like a mock duel. Kids being kids. Of course.

I did a double-take.

Those two facing off were, I kid you not, fighting with knives. I thought for sure my 'mother,' or somebody at least, would stop it. There had to be a responsible adult somewhere around here. But she just wheeled me over to a bench and sat to chat with another mom, rocking my stroller, like this was a completely normal, wholesome activity for children to be doing, on just another average day at the park, nothing to see here.

Those knives were sharp. I could tell because one went flying and embedded itself with a swift thunk in the tree closest to me. There were frowns all around, a sharp complaint, but the kid just quickly bowed, apologized, and went on his way.

I was appalled.

Where were child protective services?! Why were these people allowing children, elementary school age no less, to wield knifes and kick the ever loving socks off each other? Something wasn't right here. Not right at all.

'Mother,' seeing me staring, sat me on her lap and babbled something. She pointed at the fighting children. Then she pointed at me. And she nodded with a knowing smile.

What, you mean I have to do that too?!

That night, I had a dream within a dream. The boy I had met during my 'transfer' was there, standing in black space, fiddling with his cuffs and looking very, very uncomfortable. His cheeks were red, and he was sweating.

As for me, I was back to my normal, adult self. Or at least I thought I was. I had no sensation. I could have been a blob of light again for all I knew.

"Please accept my sincerest apologies!" the boy cried, bowing a full ninety degrees. "My blunder was inexcusable, and I take full responsibility for it!"

"What blunder? This is a dream. It doesn't matter," I said with a sense of foreboding. I was trying really, really hard to believe this was a dream, but I had a feeling my illusions were going to be shattered real quick.

"When I processed your transfer, I accidentally inputted 'memory conservation' instead of 'lifelong luck.' We've been under terrible pressure lately, so I misread. . ."

Everything came crashing down.

The leukemia diagnosis, coming late, the hospital stay, the chemo regimen interrupted by the MRSA infection; the words 'necrotizing fasciitis'; the fever, the unnoticed wounds swelling, turning violet, the tissue dying, weeping fluids, my skin becoming black and the disease progressing fast, too fast; the failure of the antibiotics, the stupor that came over me; the doctors, trying their best; the infection rapidly spreading through my body; my immune system, already weakened by the cancer and knocked down further by the chemo, unable to stop it. And all the while, no pain, none at all.

The last thing I saw was the light overhead as I got tunnel vision and everything faded away.

And then, the afterlife office, the transfer, the fact that I had been ripped off by agreeing to this madness; the boy commenting on my options, the psychedelic reincarnation, and finally that new body that had been born into a crazy world where children fought with knives like it was just another Tuesday.

And all I could think right now, as everything beat down on me, was how this just wasn't fair. Three rare conditions, all in one lifetime. What were the odds of that? I didn't want to die. It seemed to me like there were only so many freak acts of probability one person could take.

I just . . . didn't want to die. And yet, here I was, already reincarnated. Even that hadn't gone right. I wasn't even allowed to have a statistically probable afterlife.

And all because of one incompetent office worker who couldn't process paperwork properly. The bureaucrat in me reared its head. Just one little mistake . . . and another misfortune stuck to me.

I wanted to lash out. Too bad for this kid, he was the only one I could take my frustration out on. It was petty, it was unnecessary, but right now I really didn't give a damn.

"Are you saying . . . you made a paperwork mistake. Just a little mistake . . . and now I'm stuck here. I'm stuck in a weird world, as a baby, with a language I don't know, for the rest of my life. Are you FREAKING KIDDING ME?!"

I tried to jump on him, to pummel him, to make him pay for this ridiculous mistake, but I truly did not have a body with which to do it. I settled for yelling at him.

"Incompetent! Lazy! Good for nothing, bungling, hopeless, worthless little peon! Who is your supervisor? I demand to be put through to them, and I demand a redo! Put me back in my own world! Hell, undo my death! Come on, what are you waiting for! Chop chop, get to work! Do you expect me to stand here all day? I have a life, I have responsibilities, I have work to do! I refuse to accept this, do you hear me? You incapable piece of . . ."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" he whined. "I can't undo this, I'm so sorry! Contracts aren't amendable, under section five of the . . ."

"You think I care about technicalities? Get it done!"

"But I can't, the system won't let me . . ."

"You are not a slave to the system!"

I berated him until he cried and pulled out his cell phone to call his supervisor. He began to talk in a weird language I had never heard before, and couldn't understand. I stood at the side, a fuming ball of light.

"Hum . . . Miss Smith?" the boy said timidly. "I have an offer from my supervisor . . . she really can't undo the transfer, or the reincarnation . . ."

I was about to blow up on him again when he hastily pressed on, "But but but, she is prepared to offer compensation. Enough karmic credit to afford a heaven contract on your next consultation. How does that sound?"

That was nice, but it wouldn't help me right now. "I want some kind of natural talent. Something useful." If what those kids were doing was any indication, I was going to need some help. I did not intend to deal with these people again for a good long while.

"Hum . . . how about great . . ." He pulled out a notepad. "Strength? Great strength. That would be useful."

"Are you kidding me? I don't feel pain. That would get me killed faster." The unnoticed cuts had caused the infection in the first place. I think.

"Oh, I see. Other than that . . ." He squinted. "Good chakra control might be ideal. Or large chakra reserves."

"What on earth is 'chakra'? Do you mean the yoga stuff? Isn't that from Hinduism?"

"Well, yes, but . . ."

"I don't know what that is. You people aren't conning me again. Next."

"Natural resistance to genjutsu?"

I stared at him like he was crazy. "Gen-what now? Are you making fun of me?"

"Oh, Lord no. Other than that, we've got . . . well . . ."

"Well what? Spit it out!"

"There really isn't anything else . . ."

"Urg!" I cried out in frustration. "Then give me fast healing. That would be useful."

"But it's not on the list . . ."

I glared at him and he snapped the phone to his ear. He nodded, glanced at me and pulled it away. "My supervisor says we can accommodate your request. It won't be instantaneous healing, but it will be quick."

"Are you sure about that?" I was dubious. I'd only been half-serious when I said it, but if it was possible, then hey, that sure was something I could use.

"Yes. Very sure. You'll learn soon about chakra, and the amazing things it can do. I promise you, your request will be granted."

'Yeah, like a promise from you means anything,' I thought.

I decided that this was about all I could do about this situation. Calming myself, and with a terrible feeling of regret welling up inside me, I said "Well, if that's all you wanted, I ought to get back to my new life. Which will be terrible. Thanks to you."

He smiled weakly and hung up the phone. "I'm sure it will be wonderful, Miss Smith. Good luck to you."

"Before I leave, just one question."


"Who's your supervisor?" I asked curiously.

He smiled mysteriously. "Why, isn't it obvious? She's God."