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Friday, June 15, 2012

#FridayFlash: Ghosts in a Can

“Your qualifications look good, Paul,” said Cynthia Bluefield, glancing at the document in her desk. “Everything checks out there. Just one problem.”

Paul Temberson blinked and frowned, but looked out her synth-window at Tranquility Base for a couple seconds. Deimos Recycling needed him more than he needed them, and this HR flack knew it. But it wouldn’t do to piss her off too much; she might spite her own company to score a point. “A problem? What?”

“You checked ‘Other’ for Religion and wrote down ‘none.’ Our application has checkboxes for ‘Unaffiliated’ or ‘Atheist,’ if they apply.” She drummed four fingers on the edge of the desk, then tapped the icon that brought up his application. “We can fix that right now, if you’d like to change it. Then we can move on to some other paperwork.”

“Oh. I was going to ask about that,” said Paul. “I thought it was illegal to ask for religious affiliation, but I didn’t want to raise a fuss about it.”

Cynthia pursed her lips for a moment. He hasn’t done his research, she thought. “Actually, for us it’s the opposite.” She tapped at her desk for a moment. “Not only is it legal for us to ask, it’s a legal obligation. Here’s the governing regs. I’m surprised you haven’t read them already.” She pushed the icon across the desk, giving it a two-fingered twist. It opened, the corners throwing off sparkles and eddies, which annoyed her. “Section three dot four, paragraph six.” Pulling up the messenger, she tapped @IT - did you upgrade my desktop and not restore prefs? Plain theme, please. Sparkly isn’t professional.

“Huh,” he said, tapping the document closed and pushing it back across the desk. “I wouldn’t have believed it. I did my homework, but never expected that in the regs. So why do you have to ask?”

“Because we can’t put atheists on a salvage crew.”


“Yup. Insurers won’t cover that situation, and they got the government to update the regs so we’re covered.”

“But why?” Paul looked truly curious.

Cynthia leaned back in her chair. This was always the hard part. “Before you recycle a can, you have to take care of the ghosts.”

He looked baffled. “Ghosts. You mean like stealth hackware?”

She sighed. “I mean ghosts. The spirits of dead humans that haven’t moved on.”

“You’re serious,” he said after a long pause. “But what do ghosts have to—and what difference does it make?”

“This is something the government and the corps don’t like to talk about,” said Cynthia. “You can imagine why. But cans—orbital habitats—are abandoned after a few decades simply because the ghosts get to be too much to deal with. It’s something about dying in micro-gee. Habitats on the moon, Mars, even larger asteroids, don’t have that problem.”

“Well, you can change me to Unaffiliated.” Paul nodded. “But why do atheists have problems?”

“Because when faced with proof of an afterlife, a few of them lose it. Anything from nervous breakdowns to full-blown psychoses. The vast majority adjust their beliefs, but there are enough problems that insurers just don’t want to deal with it.” Cynthia tapped at the application.

“Okay, I can see that,” said Paul. “You hear things, especially from people from out past Mars, but you put it down to sendep. Sorry, sensory deprivation.”

A message popped up: Sorry. We’ve adjusted your prefs. Rebooting now.

“Not now!” Cynthia growled, then looked up at Paul. “Sorry. IT just rebooted my desktop.”

Paul laughed. “That’s one reason I’d like to take this job. Trank’s nice, but you don’t have to deal with flakes like that in orbit. Everyone’s watching out for everyone else.”

“Right. So when my desktop comes back, I can access the offer letter. You’ll need to pick a crew whose spiritual advisor is compatible with your beliefs, but we have most of the major rituals represented. The spirit guides—the ones who actually help the ghosts move on—are either Tibetan or Native American. But your interactions with them will be at a professional level.” She stood and stretched her hand across the desk. “Welcome to Deimos Recycling, Mr. Temberson. We’re looking forward to having you on one of our crews.”


  1. Heh, this was fun. Ghosts truly would end up being another factor to deal with in the corporate infrastructure. I loved the subcontracted spirit guides.

  2. lol, as an atheist who doesn't believe in the afterlife, I would be *delighted* to see ghosts :-D

  3. Thinking "None" doesn't apply in the Religion box so much as "None of your business." It is pretty important, though, when you're about to run into ghosts. Aside from stealth hackware.

  4. A really engaging read! I love the idea behind it.

  5. An unusual concept Larry.

    You've got me wondering about all those beer cans I've taken to the recycle bank over the years now. :)

  6. Thanks, Tony! Ghosts may be a new thing, but HR is forever, right? IT too.

    Mazzz, see? You'd be fine. I know a few though, I call them "evangelic atheists," who go around insisting to anyone who will listen that there's no God. It's like they're trying to convince themselves… those would be the ones to crack. :-D

    JohnW, that's exactly what Paul was thinking, but didn't want to get *too* snippy.

    Thanks, Sonia!

    Natalie, welcome to the free-range insane asylum! Glad you liked the story, and I hope you'll hang around.

    Steve, you should be fine—after all, you've already consumed the spirits within!

  7. that was truly funny! :D

    Have a wonderful day,
    Sylvia @ Playful Creative

  8. Ghost whisperers in space. I like it. I think John will agree with me, it would me an interesting movie

  9. Very creative, Larry! I can definitely imagine HR and IT still being the same in the distant future.

  10. Spooky idea. But me likes it!
    I think Tony has a big point.
    Great story, very interesting and fun to read.

  11. Gorgeous world building here! I really like how you captured this sense of the world where ghosts live on space station and the recyclers that need to put them to rest.

  12. Thanks, Sylvia!

    Craig, I think there's one more flash in this… where they actually go to recycle a can.

    Chuck, some things never change, huh?

    Glad you liked it, Cindy!

    Thanks, Aidan — much appreciated.

  13. I loved the idea of ghost whispering to those at the space station, shame they had to be put to rest ^__^

  14. Great fun indeed. Nice job as always, Larry.

  15. Huh, I would have thought the religious types would have at least as much trouble with ghosts -- given that most Christian branches, at least, have a policy that ghosts don't exist (because they conflict with the idea of going to heaven or "the other place" -- a haunting means you're unjudged and free to be elsewhere).

    Still, I like how this was set up and conveyed. I'd love to see more instalments if you were planning any! What would a ghost astronaut be like, anyhow?

  16. Helen, it's only courteous — they're tearing apart the ghosts' (ahem) old haunts, after all!

    Thanks, Jack!

    Katherine, official policy is one thing. What people believe in practice can often be quite different. (Witness how many American Catholics flout the Church's commandments on birth control.) C.S. Lewis implied that ghosts aren't unjudged, but taking a vacation of sorts. Besides, it doesn't seem important *what* the faith is, just that the recyclers have one.

    Yup, there's at least one more story in this, where we'll see some actual action…

  17. I'm not sure ghosts are proof of God, but then I guess that would be one of the debates of the age... Once you've proven ghosts are real, that opens up whole areas previously thought 'kooky' to serious debate and, dare I say... science... ;)

    (Not that I'm calling religion kooky, more the spirit whisperer/ occult areas that are sidelined to fairgrounds and select TV channels)

    Really love the idea here, Larry, and I really like the way you've woven it in with near-future tech and recognisable IT/ HR woes.

    Out of interest, why Tibetan or Native American? Does that not risk moving the spirit on to the wrong afterlife? Would that in itself not cause outcry amongst other religious groups?

    So much food for thought. =)

  18. Oh, and afterthought...

    In Mike Carey's Felix Castor series there are spirits returning from the afterlife to inhabit their old bodies (zombies, but not the aggressive eat-your-brains type), and this raises (as a minor sub plot) the debate over what rights they have. Many are homeless as their property has passed onto their children, and what responsibilities does the state have.

    So if these ghosts are provably the spirits of actual humans, do they want to be moved on? Or is it like sending in a 'ghost hit squad'?

    Or is it possible I over-think things...? ;)

  19. Not necessarily sure that an atheist would have no belief in an afterlife, but I still love the idea of Richard Dawkins having a mental breakdown at the sight of Casper!

  20. JohnX, interesting questions. I think the nationality of the spirit guides (as they're called) is more because they tend to be most effective at the job for whatever reasons. [Handwave!] I didn't get into how long a can might be abandoned before a salvage company secures the rights to it… and there's always the possibility that squatters might have to be removed. There could be all sorts of mayhem, legal or physical, involved. I'll have to get into some of it on the sequel.

    Icy, I'd love to see that meeting animated! :-D


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