The room where the scientists talked to spirits had a humbleness Rebecca would always remember. She glanced over the drab, gray-walled cell as the elevator door closed behind her. Apparently, the greatest discovery of the millennium only required the most basic apparatus. The far wall had a built-in computer screen with a steel folding table shoved against it. Under the table, someone had parked a duct-taped office chair. An old-fashioned microphone sat on the tabletop on a clunky stand, among a dozen or so lighters. And close to the microphone stood the metal candle the geeks had mentioned in the briefing. Its flame, supposedly, contained a live spirit of someone who had died.
The candle flame never wavered as one would expect after entering the cell. The scientists kept the fire gas-fed and strong. Rebecca could hear the hiss of its burning, but only because the fluorescent lights and vent in here made no sound. At least not everything got thrown together from whatever crap they had lying around.
According to the news and thousands of online articles, a spirit could “possess” the flame, whatever that meant. While in the fire, the spirit could nudge an electron somewhere in the computer in the adjacent, hidden room. The bulk of the miracle machine amplified that pathetic influence on this world. It turned enough electron nudges into communication with the dead.
For now, though, the screen in the wall remained dark. The spirits had demanded to speak with Rebecca Lake, a janitor and complete nobody. They even named her address and the rundown high school where she worked. After that, the phantoms refused to help the scientists learn more about the afterlife.
So the dorks in white got Rebecca in here, alone as requested. She still felt skeptical about all this, especially with the dump looking like a Mexican jail. However, scientists and computer experts worldwide had reassembled the miracle machine, replacing all the parts with their own. And still, the spirits spoke through the screen.
No tricks. No scams. Physicists developed many theories for the continuing existence of consciousness after death. Most of it went over Rebecca’s head. Their layman explanation sounded like dung beetles doing cartwheels in subatomic space. Why the spirits wanted her specifically remained a mystery, even to the megadorks.
Rebecca paced a bit, recalling the scientists’ warning. The spirits, from what she knew, could become quite fussy. They would only communicate here in this one room, despite the existence of billions of souls and the relative cheapness of the miracle machine. The little brat ghosts would lie, and they probably needed millions of individuals working in concert to change the course of just one electron. The spirit ambassador who did all the conversing often gave vague, elusive answers.
They had their own messed up society in the spirit dimension, the scientists had hinted. The spirits probably organized themselves based on age. As dead and disgruntled humans, their realm must resemble an overpopulated dystopia. Of course, the scientists could only hypothesize. They only revealed this much to Rebecca after she had nonchalantly agreed to help them.
She approached a medicine cabinet on the left wall, the only other furniture in the room. Maybe the scientists peered into their own souls before contacting others’. Rebecca opened the cabinet and found the shelves packed with lighters of every color. The dorks must have gone to a gas station and bought the whole tray. They really wanted to keep that steel candle burning, the spirit channel open. The little shelves contained about a hundred lighters.
Rebecca closed the cabinet and sat at the dinged table. The office chair felt comfortable enough, though it looked understandably worn. It squeaked with every shift of her weight. She wondered if the spirits heard and envied such sounds from this realm. Or maybe the spirit ambassador died a thousand years ago and would never recognize the squeal of cheap plastic.
The flame burned in perfect form atop its steely candle. A metal cable left its base and snaked through a hole in the gritty wall. Rebecca wondered what all the spirits could see. Do they watch the living urinate? Or, do they yearn to talk to janitors for having an existence as dull and stagnate as theirs?
One of the more enthusiastic scientists had explained a theory on how perception into the physical world might work for spirits, how they may “share” certain wavelengths of information. But the more he babbled about it, the more Rebecca remembered the smell of cleaning products at work. The spirits hadn’t chimed in with any insight, either.
Rebecca stretched and leaned back in the chair. The bored souls probably saw her, or anyone alive, as a fat tycoon stuffing deeds into a tight pocket. Jealous of those enriched with a body, the spirits threatened the scientists with ostracism routinely. Rebecca could infer that much. The crew upstairs even said that no one would listen in on her conversations here. Surely, they would only go through with that fearing the spirits might somehow know and become angry. A janitor had no other reason to enter this room alone.
“Rebecca Lake here,” she said to the microphone. “What can I do for you?”
After a pause, some white text appeared on the screen.
REBECCA. WHY DID YOU COME HERE?
Rebecca smiled. The scientists who had showed up at her door looked sleep deprived, tortured even. They would have begged. She could see it in their eyes. Since they had asked so humbly, she went along on their all-expenses-paid round trip. They practically had bottles of champagne out.
“I like to help whoever I can, I guess,” Rebecca said.
The white text onscreen disappeared, and more replaced it.
AND WHO WOULD YOU HELP? THOSE WHO BROUGHT YOU HERE, OR US?
What a jerk, Rebecca thought. Jerk spirits. Who would have thought?
It made sense, though. The spirits all knew death and boredom, and probably voyeurism. They knew crowdedness in a soup of malcontents that died. Most of them had lived lousy lives only to find a black, tasteless afterlife with no prom queen Jesus to bang.
“I’ll happily help both parties, your side and mine,” Rebecca said.
WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM US?
Rebecca inhaled, reversing her sigh. The spirits, it seemed, had little of use to say. Maybe the dead jerks deserved such a dreary meeting room for these petty seances. Maybe they demanded it. Initially, public excitement had soared with the news of a scientific basis for the afterlife. Gradually, though, people started to question the usefulness of spirits.
“What do I want from you?” Rebecca asked with an eye roll. “Oh, nothing.”
Really, what could they grant her? Spirits can push one electron in the whole physical universe. Rebecca wanted to ask for a massage, just to see what they’d say.
WE ASK SOMETHING OF YOU.
Jeez, Rebecca thought. Didn’t I ask this at the start?
YOU HAVE A FRIEND NAMED ADAM. WE WANT YOU TO KILL ADAM AND DELIVER HIM TO US. NOTHING MORE.
Oh, no biggie, then, huh? Rebecca thought. Just kill my friend from high school. Right.
“Why?” She asked.
After a terribly long pause, the screen responded.
WE NEED HIS MIND WITH US. HE CAN DO IMPORTANT THINGS HERE.
“Oh,” Rebecca said, “fascinating.”
Rebecca suddenly realized that the spirit ambassador, or indeed the majority of spirits, had patrolled spirit land for millennia. Closer to cavemen, they would place little value on Adam’s life as a human being, or anyone else’s. Adam currently helped many people as an IT specialist. The spirits probably assumed he scratched at fleas as his main contribution. Throughout history, most people who died had done little else. If the ancient dead can truly peer at Earth, would they understand a tenth of its sophistication?
Thinking of Adam, Rebecca suppressed a giggle. She wondered if the ambassador could put Adam and Eve on. They must have gone insane by now, surrounded by dead dorks talking about video game consoles and social media all day. Biblical Adam would have gone bonkers by now, hearing a new gibberish every generation or two.
“But I like Adam,” Rebecca finally added.
The scientists had implored her to avoid rudeness when contacting the spirits. She read the new words onscreen and saw why. These otherworldly monsters got on people’s nerves.
HE MUST DIE. AND HE WILL. DO YOU INTEND TO HELP US?
“No,” Rebecca said. “And I’d like it if you didn’t beg the scientists to kill my friend either. And even if they do, I’ll tell Adam in advance not to help you guys in the spirit world. See, you could have just waited until he dies naturally. Now, he won’t like hearing that you ordered his death.”
WE MAY DECIDE NOT TO TALK WITH MORTAL MAN EVER AGAIN.
“Ummmm, so?” Rebecca said. “Maybe those scientists will stroke your ghostly egos all day, but I won’t. Oh, and as for killing my friend, screw you. Screw you twice on your birthday.”
Rebecca now believed the spirits had nothing in their pitiful lives but ostracism and the shuffling of incorporeal hierarchies. They got high on it. They couldn’t even empty bladders and compare notes on how it felt. The spirits floated around in the void and got off on rank and power. Just talking to Rebecca, a lowly janitor who knew eighty concentrations of urine odor, must have given these jerks a volcanic hit of heroin. To have a man on Earth actually killed meant the spirit responsible would ride that power trip for all eternity.
DO AS WE WISH, AND I WILL LET YOU TALK TO YOUR FATHER.
See, they don’t even listen, Becky thought. Complete jerks.
“My father. OK, put him on.”
THE SPIRIT OF YOUR FATHER WILL OCCUPY THE FLAME. WE WILL GIVE YOU…TIME. THEN, YOU MUST FULFILL OUR DEMAND. IF YOU FAIL TO KILL ADAM, ENDLESS TORTURES AWAIT YOU IN HELL.
Oh, I see, Rebecca thought. Funny how they never mentioned any religious stories to the scientists. No, these spirit morons just drift around with one or two senses, like vision and cognition. This whole conversation sounds like a prank phone call. But I’ve got a hand of cards too. Awful, crappy cards. I scrub toilets, you guys. You don’t mess with a woman who scrubs toilets and picks gum out of urinals.
“How do I know that you’ll put my father on, and not someone else or yourself?” Rebecca asked. “If I ask personal questions, how do I know you haven’t just tortured him for the answers?”
TRUST ME. WE HAVE YOUR FATHER HERE. TRUST ME.
The ambassador had given the scientists the “trust me” line too. But how could anyone verify a spirit’s statements? Furthermore, spirits can only trust the living if people could somehow affect the spirit world as proof. Killing someone would send a new spirit over as a means of validation. Or…
“Alright then,” Rebecca said. “Let me talk to my deceased father.”
A long pause ensued. Then, the screen cleared. A while later, some white letters appeared.
Rebecca reached across the table and smothered the candle flame with her index finger. It hurt a little, but the flame snuffed out. A sweet empty space hung over the candle now, a nothingness that looked more soul like than the real thing. Using her other hand, she picked up the nearest lighter on the table and relit the gas effusing from the fancy Bunsen burner. The same old flame popped back to existence with a flimsy whoof.
Never extinguish the candle flame, the scientists had told her.
The screen cleared and displayed a new message.
“I should hope so,” Rebecca said to the microphone. “Now you have someone you can relate to.”
Rebecca looked at all the lighters. The dead speak to us from beyond this world…to play politics. And we play along by taking hostages.
WHEN YOU KILL A SPIRIT, IT LEAVES US FOREVER. IT DOES NOT SEE AN AFTERLIFE AFTER THIS ONE. YOU COMMITTED THE FIRST REAL MURDER, EVER.
“I doubt that,” Rebecca said.
It looks like I broke Heaven, Rebecca thought. The fools assumed everyone would want to meet their dead relatives. The spirits, of all people, should know the difference between Heaven and Hell.
The scientists wanted data and discoveries and maybe a chat with Mozart. The spirits wanted earthly power again. And they’ll have tens of thousands of spirits slain for a taste of that power, a tiny influence over any living human. They’ll take that power trip a toke at a time.
WHY DID YOU KILL YOUR OWN FATHER?
“He deserved it,” Rebecca said. “Trust me.”
BIO: Nicholas Stillman writes dystopian science fiction with dark medical themes. His speculative stories range from modern cautionary tales to far-flung medical fiction in space. Stillman offers free science fiction short stories every month at stillmanscifi.com.