This week's prompt from Flash Fiction Friday was to write about the afterlife. A different sort of one, with a story associated with it.
Your challenge: write a story that includes an afterlife. Bonus points if you create a totally new and original version of it. And remember, it should be a story – with characters, where something happens – and not just a description of your imagined next life.
1200 words max.
Here's mine - thx to Millie for the ideas. This came in originally just under 1200, but as I went back and tweaked it crept over 1500 words.
"John, where are we?"
He seemed to be floating in a cloud of white, featureless, without smells or sounds. Other than his wife's voice.
"I'm not sure Marsha," he said, "but I don't think we're in Kansas anymore. How do you feel?"
"The pain is gone," she said. "That's a relief. Does this mean they found a cure for my cancer? Was I in a coma or something?"
"I don't think so," said John. "I saw you die, and I'm pretty sure my own bullet for me was fatal. I couldn't have missed. No, I think we've somehow moved on to something else."
"You mean to some sort of afterlife?" she said. "We're atheists, we both know this doesn't exist."
"And yet here you are," said a voice.
"Who's there," said John. "Marsha, did you hear that?"
"Yes, she did," said the voice. "I'm Achmed. Hold on, the overlays should kick in any second now."
John suddenly found himself sitting at a cafeteria table, across from his wife, Marsha. Next to her sat a slender man, bearded, brown-skinned, dressed in a simple robe, and smiling at them.
"Yes, I'm Muslim," he said. "No, this is not heaven. At least not what the various religions thought it was. It's just the afterlife, where all souls end up - be they Catholic, Muslim, Buddist, atheist - whatever."
"Hmm," said Marsha. "At least it's pain free, but - a cafeteria?"
"It's a comfortable place for newcomers from Earth to start their orientation," said Achmed.
"Orientation? Like college?" said John.
"From Earth?" said Marsha. "As opposed to from ...?"
"John - yes, like college, just to get you going," said Achmed. "Without the hazing. And Marsha, yes, there are many races represented here in the afterlife. For now you can't see them, this is the Earth group, but as you progress in your studies and are elevated through the levels you will interact with other races."
"What do you mean, studies?" said John. "Don't we just - I don't know - hang out?"
He still wasn't sure this was more than a hallucination, but decided to play along and see where it went. He certainly didn't want to have to worry about classes and exams, though.
Achmed laughed. "Hang out?" Well, maybe for a week or two while you get your feet, but no longer. We need you in the control centre. Here, I'll leave these brochures with you while I do grab some lunch - pizza OK for youse guys?"
John flipped through the brochure. Apparently they were going to be Celestial Controllers, somehow directing the actions of select groups of people back on Earth, steering them through life. After some undefined period at that, it looked like they would graduate to the next level, some sort of planning and oversight body.
Marsha looked up from her copy, smiling. "Wow, this looks great," she said. "All this responsibility, and before we know it - a promotion. And we get to do it together. Forever."
"So, what do you think?" said Achmed. He set a large pizza down on the table, along with some paper plates. "Any questions?"
"Yes," said John," several. For starters, what's with this controlling thing, is it for real? Is everyone down there - were we - just a bunch of puppets?"
"It's not really that direct," said Achmed. "It's complicated. We've seen the same pattern on other worlds. As a civilization evolves, we encourage them to develop a good sense of morals, of ethics. This gives a predictability to their actions, with almost every decision dictated by their religions and social structures. The world pretty well runs itself. Lately, however, atheism has spread on Earth, along with a general erosion of morals and ethics in favour of business competition. It's chaos now - who knows where it will lead to?"
"So what? That's the world now," said John. "Just let it happen."
"I don't think they want to," said Marsha. "Keep on reading, John. There's an overall purpose to the Universe, a direction that has to be maintained."
"Exactly," said Achmed. "The Executive board has a long term plan here, tens, hundreds of thousands of years in scope. We can't have some unruly race messing it up. Of course we leave them the feeling of free will, we allow some little wars, famines, floods to keep them challenged. We steer things by targeting selected people, the influencers, nudging them in the right direction."
"Like guardian angels?" said Dave.
"Sort of," said Achmed. "But not like the good angel/bad angel thing - that was a cartoon invention. We have to take on both roles. It's quite rewarding work though. We have an initial trial period but I'm sure you'll love it."
Once John got over his feeling of being a voyeur, he found that the controller job did challenge him - nudging people according to the overall plan, coordinating with the other team and section leads on bigger operations. It still made him feel like he was meddling, though. After his shift was done there was plenty of leisure time, but Marsha and he didn't seem to be together as much as he wanted. Before her death they had been inseparable, but now it seemed she was always either talking about her latest project, or studying for the next levels. Even the leisure activities themselves were pretty low key - most people were into things like golf, or reading, or painting.
He sometimes missed those good old days on Earth, the parties and the hangovers, the garden shed he and Marsha built together, the fresh powder skiing and the pulled muscles, the soaring loves and the crashing heartbreaks, the triumphs and the tragedies. Marsha, however, seemed quite content here.
The tipping point for him was the tsunami. It was a huge operation, with thousands on the project team, all working together to ensure the horrific disaster went smoothly - for the good of humanity, as the project manager said. John - controlling several dozen now - had to override their initial urge to flee and nudge them all back into a nuclear power plant.
"I can't do this, Achmed," he said. "Send us back - it said in the brochure you could do it."
"I can, if you're sure," said Achmed. "But I can't send you back to who you were - that body is long since gone and buried. You'll have to go back as newborns."
"Will we know it's us?" said John. "Will we remember everything we've been through, including all this?"
"Yes, when you start off you'll have those memories," said Achmed. "I promise. I do wish you'd reconsider though, as we'd hate to lose you two, especially Marsha. She's showing remarkable aptitude. Talk to her, then let me know what you've decided."
Unfortunately Marsha didn't share his enthusiasm for a return. "I'm sorry, John," she said. "I like this job. Back on Earth I was a minor clerk, then a mother, then a fading grandmother with cancer. Here I'm valued, I have direction. I'm on several planning committees, and have even been asked to sit on one of the local boards. Why return and take my chances?"
John argued and pleaded, but her mind was made up. They'd had a pact, he'd given up his own life so that she would not die alone, and yet now she was content to carry on without him. He did get her to promise to not act as one of his controllers, and to do all she could to make sure no one else did either.
"Guess it's just me," he said to Achmed. "When can we start?"
"Right now, John. Take a deep breath, and close your eyes."
He let his breath out in a lusty cry and squinted at the bright lights. He felt cold, and wet, and small. Someone wrapped him in a warm cloth, then handed him to another person. Before he could cry again he felt a nipple in his mouth. He smiled to himself - he'd always been a boob man.
Here he was, having lived a full life already - teenage years, a job, married life, kids, a dying wife and a suicide, a career in some type of after life, and now a restart. The memories were still fresh, all there. He'd have to be careful with his secret, but it would be helpful as he went through life again, using his previous experiences to help him with his choices. His own choices. He cuddled into the blanket and burped. He could remember a busy time, as part of a team, with someone special. That had been nice.
"Such a cute little baby," he heard. "He looks so wise. Like he wants to tell us something."
He smiled up at the face, content now, his cold and harsh start to the world already fading into his past. The face smiled down and made some more noises at him.
He closed his eyes and relaxed. Just before he drifted off he heard a voice in his head.
"John, it's Marsha. Just wanted to wish you a long and exciting life - all your own. Love you."
"Who's Marsha?" he thought.