Hester Greaves was on strike.
It wasn't bound to last long. There was going to be some sort of overpopulation issue that they'd have to resolve eventually, and of course, the Higher-Ups (and Lower-Downs) would voice their distaste over the matter. Either that or Bug would trigger a pandemic that Hester would have no choice but to respond to. The workflow never seemed to cease.
At present, Hester sat rigidly at the edge of their natty double bed, engulfed in purposeful darkness. Their hand instinctively wove a sewing needle over and under the fabric of a shirt that they were mending. After centuries of practice, they needed no light to do their hobby. But like all things, it got tiresome after a while, so they set their work aside and blew out a heavy breath.
Eventually, they picked up their most prized possession: a bone-white bass guitar. Their name was actually Pierce, and they were a semi-sentient shapeshifter who preferred the form of a string instrument when resting. Hester looped the strap over their bony shoulder and began to tune Pierce absentmindedly. The sonorous drones resounded throughout the floor of the tower, though no one else was there to hear them. Hester began to play the notes which were the foundation of a song they heard on a record from the seventies.
After a few minutes, Hester had begun to lose interest and ceased playing. Slumping over their bass guitar, they gazed into the bleakness of their bedroom. A distant ding came from the nearby elevator and they grunted in response.
The eventual knock reverberated on Hester's door, and they discarded Pierce onto their bed and slunk over to greet whoever was on the other side. Upon opening the door, they looked down and saw the slight figure of Amity standing there.
Amity, like Pierce, could shapeshift into anything convenient, though they could only take human forms. They could appear young or old, thin or fat: whatever looked welcome to the guests of Median Tower. If anyone lived up to their name, it was Amity. Friendly and a bit mischievous, their job was to make everyone feel at ease.
At the moment, Amity had taken a younger form, which was miserable upon further thought. Perhaps the last guest had been but a child! Nevertheless, they grinned brightly at Hester.
"Oh, hi, Hes! I just wanted to let you know that your shift had begun long ago and Justice doesn't seem too happy about your playing hooky." Their grin faded and they gave an awkward shuffle befitting of their childlike appearance.
"I am not playing hooky. I am on strike," Hester stated, their deep, whispery voice increasing in tenacity.
"Suit yourself." Amity shrugged. "Just don't say I didn't warn you when you get incinerated."
Hester blinked languorously, then yawned into a long white hand. "I dread to think what this lot will do without a reaper. The whole system will fall apart."
"Justice wouldn't stand it. He'll do anything to suck up to the big guys. That includes keeping his employees in line."
"Oh dear," said Hester without inflection. "Whatever will I do."
Amity threw their hands into the air. "Look, do you want me to get Jingliu or something? I'm sure she'll knock some sense into–"
"No!" Hester gripped the doorframe. "Anyone but her." Jingliu was the shy census-taker for the company's death toll. For whatever reason, the moody reaper acted oddly around her.
"I knew that would register with you. Now get out of that festering cave of yours and make money!"
At first, Hester didn't respond, merely looming in the doorway and blinking occasionally. Finally, they closed the door and could be heard shuffling about the room, stumbling once or twice over a fallen object. They reemerged in their black-hooded work uniform, carrying Pierce, now in scythe form, over their shoulder. Their head was uncovered and their dark, silky hair spilled down to their waist. Even though their features were meant to be concealed, Hester nevertheless had an equally as haunting appearance without their hood raised. Their thin lips twitched into an even deeper frown than they usually wore.
"Alright, you've bested me. I admit defeat. Back to the daily grind, as it were."
Amity rolled their eyes. "I'm only trying to protect you, Hes. Jeez. Stop being so... grim all the time."
The reaper quirked an eyebrow at the pun.
"Okay, sorry. That was in poor taste." Amity made a shooing motion. "Go on; you'll be late! I believe in you!"
"Very well. Thank you, Amity," acknowledged Hester, their countenance betraying the ghost of a smile.
"No problem, buddy."
With a slight nod, Hester locked their door and went slumping off down the hallway. Amity looked on after them, feeling a lingering chill. The reaper always left a glum atmosphere wherever they went. No wonder they tended to repel the rest of the Median crowd.
The job of the grim reaper was the only Median profession that took place outside of the tower itself. Hester clocked in on the employment floor, then took the service elevator down to the ground floor, which led to the Surface.
As far as Hester knew, none of the other employees had set foot on the Surface. This should've made them feel more positive about their profession, but the human world was one of such corruption and suffering that sometimes the reaper could barely stand it. It was from the Surface that Hester obtained their addiction to nicotine and their knowledge of unspeakable acts and epithets that humans threw at one another.
And then there was the job of the grim reaper itself, which needs no explanation. A necessary evil, Justice always called it, as if that would make Hester feel any better. It was the 'evil' bit that always got to them. How could they work soundly knowing that the most powerful man in Median Tower looked down upon their way of life?
But who else could keep the population at bay? Such was the question circulating among the Higher-Ups (and Lower-Downs) once the powerful and elusive you-know-who went overboard and gave the Earth too much life. They thought death was the most reasonable answer and needed someone to collect the souls for them while they sat in their lofty chairs, stroking their beards. While they let the self-employed Mother Nature take care of almost all of Earth's biodiversity, they left the most intelligent Surface-dwellers–humans–to a separate employee. After all, poor Mother Nature had too good a heart to rid the Surface of the souls of such an understanding newly-evolved race.
In theory, the job of the grim reaper was the most important to Limboco, Median Tower's residing business. After all, it kickstarted the company and, if the position were removed, would cause the business to fall apart. And yet, Hester was hardly acknowledged (or paid) for their work at all. They'd never even wanted to be a reaper in the first place. They were born into the profession, and one of their earliest memories was learning to harvest the 'soul' from a training dummy with their shapeshifting scythe.
The only time Hester had revealed themself to humans was an accident. One day they'd decided after their shift to take a stroll in the countryside in real-time. It was a worthwhile experience, even though the regular pace of the Surface felt a bit jarring. Thus, they hadn't expected to come across a human in the endless expanse of field, until they near-collided with a farmer. Their exchange went as follows (and has been translated for the reader's convenience):
FARMER: Whoa there! You scared me half to death!
HESTER: Death is my profession.
FARMER: An assassin? Get away from me!
(The farmer began to flail around wildly with a sword. Hester looked on, unimpressed.)
HESTER: Do stop that.
(The farmer stopped. Hester is rather good at controlling people.)
HESTER: Good man. No, I will not kill you. I don't even kill to begin with. I just finish the job.
FARMER: What... are you?
HESTER: I'm a grim reaper.
FARMER: And what's that supposed to mean?
HESTER: I reap souls from dead bodies and feel awfully grim about the whole business.
FARMER: And what's that strange stick you're holding?
HESTER: My scythe. It harvests souls.
FARMER: Say... do you think I can borrow that idea and use it on my crops?
HESTER: Whatever tickles your fancy.
Of course, he didn't do it right the first time. But word eventually got out about this mysterious harbinger of death, the so-called grim reaper, who wore a black cloak and toted around a farming tool. The news became so widespread that it was only a matter of time before it reached the ears of Justice. Needless to say, he wasn't pleased.
Justice had many jobs in Median Tower, but above all, he was a judge. He mostly oversaw cases regarding the guests of the building, but occasionally, he tried employees. Their fates usually weren't pleasant. In Hester's case, he did let them go but gave them a warning: the next time they were caught interacting with humans, they would be incinerated.
Being incinerated was similar to being fired, save for the fact that the former involved getting engulfed in flames. Not a very delightful endeavor, to say the least. So Hester promised to never speed up time again.
How they wished to speed up time again.
At least in slow-time, they could get away with stealing objects from the Surface. Over the centuries, they'd acquired a veritable library, miscellaneous cat figurines, sewing tools, and hundreds of years' worth of cigarettes.
After making sure that their watch was set to slow-time, they pulled out their Limboco-distributed smartphone and opened the Soulfate app.
"Hmm, hmm," they murmured to themself thoughtfully. "The first harvest of the day is in Shanghai. Obvious place; very populous. Right, let's be off."
They set a Shanghai hospital as their destination in the phone's GPS and boarded the Death Cab that always waited in the alleyway outside the entrance to Median Tower. Turning the key in the ignition and setting their phone music to a classic rock playlist, they sped out of the alleyway and into the International Connector Tunnel, an ethereal portal that led to anywhere on Earth. They soon exited the tunnel and were rewarded with a view of Shanghai's utopic metropolis. Driving quite literally through the traffic (the Death Cab had the ability to pass through objects, a handy way of getting past obstacles) Hester watched in their rearview mirror as the tunnel faded away from view. The hospital waited ahead.
Hester's customers were usually elderly, so the current one's being an eighty-something-year-old woman was hardly surprising. She lay rigidly in an otherwise plush hospital bed, while a nurse stood beside her and checked her vitals. Of course, slow-time made it appear as if the two humans were frozen in place, and Hester felt rather like they were part of a life-sized Frances Glessner Lee dollhouse study.
Clicking their tongue sympathetically, Hester ruminated on the customer. "Humans... they're only young forever. A sad harvest, this one, but not unexpected. Safe travels."
And with that, Hester swung their scythe and the deed was done. The old woman's soul bounced bubble-like across the floor and Hester scooped it up and placed in the rucksack they wore beneath their cloak. Then they left. One down, many, many more to go.
Once they boarded the Death Cab and set their next destination, the tunnel appeared before them again, and they were on their way.
As the saying goes, there's no rest for the wicked. But shouldn't it at least get one day off?