Designated Mourner: The Team's Back Together

Submitted into Contest #119 in response to: Start your story with an unusual sound being heard.... view prompt

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Speculative Suspense Fantasy

It was a sound a bit like a plastic spatula scraping the sky, if the sky were filled with tinfoil seagulls who did not particularly want to be scraped, Jonathan had just gotten used to the stillness of the planet, but the biweekly delivery sound was impossible to develop immunity to. 

It lasted three minutes and 42 seconds precisely and then a parcel appeared in the air about waist height and plopped onto the sand. This box was larger than usual, and he struggled to cart it up the path to the cottage.

After tripping over several predatory clumps of dune grass, he finally reached the door. He shook the red sand off his shoes and hoisted the parcel into the cottage. 

In his third month of his first rotation, he was now into the rhythm of this job. He was used to the glassy sea, the grasses that never rustled, and this cottage where the silence hung in the air like heavy velvet drapes. He was not really used to the solitude. He pulled out his celledrone and set it to speaker-hover. 

“Call Tianna.”

The mushroom plastic wrap that had protected the package during the ‘shift from subspace made a deafening crinkle as he pulled it free. He heard Tianna faintly.

“Hello? Jon? Seriously, are you punk-calling me? King of the klutz-dial strikes again...”

“Sorry, T, I should have waited till I had the box open. How’s your morning so far?”

“It’s fine. I got out for a run so I feel like I did something. Who’d you get? I haven’t opened mine yet.” 

Inside the box, Jonathon found three new urns. “Murphy, Wojahowitz, and Khali. No celebrities, unfortunately.”

“You’re still jealous I got Reeves.”

“You get gifts EVERY DAY because you got Earth’s favourite dead singer. Your ratings are crazy. Yeah, I’m jealous! Wait, there’s stuff here, maybe something interesting.”

He pulled out and held up a pink teddy bear, chocolate candies, and a well-padded case which opened to reveal a small bottle of whisky and two glasses. 

“Cute!” exclaimed Tianna. “Also, chocolate? Now I’m jealous.”

“I ordered the chocolate.” 

“Big spender! Hey, hold up the whisky. Ooooh that is a très cher kind, I think. Fancy.”

“Yeah, that’s cool. Let’s see what the deal is with it.” He found the small REM drive, which he popped into the viewer as he made tea. 

“Hello, Corps Member … Sanfraz.” The slight hesitation and glitch revealed the mail merge. “In your equipment parcel this month, you will find … special items.” 

Tianna snorted. "Très instructif as always.

“Thank you for your important work. New remains have been sent. You’ll find special instructions in the parcel and a … special treat you requested.” 

“That’s it, eh?" muttered Jonathan. “Hm. Wait, there’s a note too. Oh, It’s from Laszlo!”

“What’s Laz got to say?” asked Tianna. “How is he still working there? He should have retired two years ago.”

Jonathan read, “Hey, J,  The family of Murphy (Q125) has requested a special ceremonial toast with the old man. Drink up, buddy! But pour one for him too. You have all the fun. All the inform you need on the three newbs is on the jars, plus designated spots. Just upload a registration when you get them placed. The teddy bear is for little Aggie (VZ54) from her nan. Be sure to say that when you place it. Nan’s a real carpa shark, she’s been on me for weeks. 

Keep it together and keep it real. See you in three moon circles!”

“Good ol’ Laz. Working the mail room.”

“We’ll have to meet him for drinks when this rotation is over. Listen, Jon, I gotta run and get a start on my rounds - I’m on in 25 minutes, and I need to get fabulous. Chat later -- maybe when you’re ‘ceremonially toasted’.” Tianna cackled as she hung up.

He checked the clock. The parcel pick up had taken up his regular meditation time, or at least the time he tried to sit still and not squirm or daydream. He’d have to skip today. 

His daily calendar informed him that he had 10 stops. Only two had special requests--a song for Lang, and for Stanwith, a complicated pagan ceremony involving salt, bread, garlic and a special dagger. He added Aggie to the list and noted “Nan-bear.” He pulled together the items, and reviewed the ceremony directions. 

Next he inspected the new urns. Two were due for placement near his rounds today, including Murphy,  He wrapped these and added them to his bag, with the bear and the whisky kit.

Slinging his bag onto his back, he headed out, and up the path toward the Funeral Plains, the cameras bobbing along in his wake. The livestream started in about 10 minutes. 

His first bunch of stops were uneventful. He located the urns, said a few quick prayers, addressed the camera, and moved on. At Lang’s niche, he pulled down the urn and placed it on the bench in the centre so he could enjoy the full acoustic effects of the room. He pulled out his harmonica and warmed up, and then launched into the song, a little-known old Earth song called “After the Gold Rush,” which he had been practicing all week. When he got to the line, “Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun,” he gestured dramatically and knocked the lid off the urn. 

He dove to catch it, the cameras zooming in on his discomfit. He saw his viewer numbers start to grow as word travelled, while he was in mid-roll on the ground. He took the roll into a pop-up and regained his footing, hoping the whole thing looked like a well-rehearsed stunt, and then turned to drop the lid on to the jar. He missed the square centre, and enthusiastically slammed the lid on the side of the jar, tipping it over.

Disaster. 

Lang’s ashes flowed out. Crap. There went his bonus. His ratings numbers were way up but the comment sentiment analysis was flashing “schadenfreude”. Giving up on the song, he quietly dug out his broom and pan and swept the ashes up. Lang’s daughter’s face flashed up on his celledrone and he blanched. Her angry and tearful tirade flashed up into his feed as she reamed him. 

Today was not a good day. 

He carefully attended his next three stops sombrely, and then reached Aggie’s urn. As he placed the bear, he floridly thanked her Nan to the cameras. His celledrone lit up again. Jonathan squeezed his eyes shut. What now? 

Again, the call was directed to his feed by the home-based producers, sensing the drama unfolding. Aggie’s father screamed through the ‘drone, “HER NAN KILLED HER, YOU DIPSHIT.”

Jonathan seethed. That wasn’t on him, that was on the producers. How had that gotten through? He darted an angry glance at the bank of cams and tramped away toward the pagan section of the maze of memory urns. 

He wasn’t feeling it, but he had to get through it. Today was the day the two moons on Memory Base Epsilon formed an eclipse, so today it must be. 

He got out the materials and suited up in the robe. He tossed the salt into the corners of the room.  He murmured the Latin phrases he had been rehearsing the last two nights and swallowed a clove of the garlic. He rubbed another across his palms and gingerly took down Stanwith’s urn. Placing it on the floor, he broke the bread and crumbled it around. He danced through the breadcrumbs, feeling the rhythm jarring his hips unnaturally. The ratings had smoothed out and were registering a fair amount of amusement but also some people were intrigued. He’d take it. 

Holding the knife aloft, he stopped over the urn and gave it the precise U-shaped flick he had practiced. 

Suddenly a piece of the air flapped open and a wisp of mist drifted up. Jonathan found himself unable to stop, and completed the ritual, drawing the knife across his right index finger to draw blood. The mist congealed, and the blood disappeared. 

“Thanks, man!” A translucent figure performed a few runner’s stretches, pulling see-through knees to its see-through chest. 

Jonathan shrieked.

“Are you getting this?” he cried at the cams. “You said there were no ghosts!”

The figure looked at Jonathan, holding out its hands soothingly. “Hey, quit freaking out. And I prefer “spirit’ if you don’t mind.”

Jonathan shook the dagger at the figure. 

“Careful there, hun, if you flick it wrong, you’ll open this place up wide and all these fine people will flood out here into life-land.”

Frozen with horror, at this prospect, Jon waited for the celledrone to tell him what weird reality show he was being featured on. No call came. 

“I put on your call waiting while we chat, hope that’s okay?” The figure was resolving itself into a more feminine aspect, and perched now on the bench in the centre of the room. She waved at the cams. 

“People are digging this, you’re doing fine,” she stage-whispered at trembling man beside her. 

Jonathan flumped onto the bench and carefully sheathed the knife. He ran his hand through his rough curls. “What is happening right now? Who are you?”

“OH! How rude of me. I mean,” the figure shot him a sardonic look, “my name is kind of printed on that urn AND your list, but sure, we should do this with decorum. For the audience! I’m Lucy Stanwith, she who was the Witch of Edgerton. Please to meet ya!” she raised her elbow for a bump, and Jonathon complied, although he felt only the faintest contact. 

“We should finish your rounds. You know, the people are waiting!”

Woodenly, he stood and gathered his bag, moving to the next aisle to finish his rounds. Lucy stood respectfully behind him as he did his mandatory five minute mourn for Chester Gupta, whose only living relative was a neon poet living on Centauri XII. 

“Ches is a decent fella,” Lucy murmured to Jonathan. “Killed by his wife, you know. She sicced the toaster on him.”

“What?”

“It was an AI toaster.”

Jonathan felt like the six months of training he had taken to prepare to be an off-Earth designated mourner had not even come close to preparing him for this. 

His ratings were through the roof, but he could barely register the fact. He was on another planet, talking to a witch ghost about AI toasters.

He could have been a tree planter, but no. He had been seduced by fame. He shook his head sadly. 

“You would have been an abysmally bad tree planter. It’s very physical work, you know.”

The ghost - spirit - could read his thoughts then. Super. 

“Don’t forget Murphy!” the spirit chirped as they headed across the quad between funerary edifices. 

“I would never forget one of my clients!” Jonathan retorted, indignant.  They reached the right building, and Jon located the section where Murphy would spend eternity. He placed the urn, cracked open the whisky, repeated a few lines of verse he vaguely recalled as Irish, and poured two glasses. 

“Hello? How rude.”

He sighed. “There are only two glasses, Lucy. Do you mind? This is my job.” He poured the whisky around the urn, and tossed his glass back. As the heat hit his head, he thought he heard a noise in the shadows. He pulled the dagger out of its sheath and pointed it. As he looked away, Lucy whipped the lid off the urn and tipped the bottle toward it. Then she jogged the elbow of Jonathan's knife arm as some of the whisky slipped in with the ashes.

“Now look what you’ve done!” Jonathan felt the whisky burn his throat and his head throbbed. Two urn mishaps. He was going to be booted out of the program. 

“Lucy Stanwith, you shady bitch!”

Both he and the ghost started at this voice. A wisp of mist escaped the mouth of the remains jar, and the pools of whisky disappeared. The mist coalesced.

“Are you kidding me right now.” Jonathan watched a figure form. His ratings were astronomical. He felt exhausted.

“Maeve Murphy, you sad old tit-sock.”

The two figures high-fived. “Damn, lady! We did it!” cried the shade of Maeve. “Who’s junior? He’s a little young for you.”

“He’s our jailbreak, be polite. Jonathan, this is Maeve.” 

“Of course it is. Pleasure to meet you,” he nodded. He wondered how Tianna’s day was going. 

On cue, the cellodrone lit up. “Um. Jonathan. What the hell, man.”

“Hi, T.”

“Ghosts? Really? You’re stealing all my audience, you bastard.”

“Like I planned this." Jonathon's voice sounded hysterical. "Also, they prefer ‘spirits’.”

“I’m actually okay with ghost!” called out Maeve, who was peeking into other urns. 

“I should go. I don’t know what’s going on, but I think these two need supervising.”

“Hey are you two...” Lucy made a rippling bawdy motion and winked. 

Tianna laughed. “You have your hands full. See you in two days for supper, right?” Their weekly catch up ritual. He wished it were tonight. 

As the celledrone cut off, he sat down and took a long drink of whiskey.  

The cams were fading as his shift ended, and messages were flashing through the system, telling others to tune in tomorrow.  

The ghosts reappeared before him.

“We planned this when we died.”

“We weren’t sure it would work.”

“So much depended on the right mourner, who could say the words correctly.”

“And then the whisky getting here on time.”

“Why?” Jonathan asked. “What’s your game plan? Now you’re stuck on possibly the most boring planet in the universe, with me.” 

The two ghosts stilled and looked at each other. “Damn.”

“We didn’t think this through.”

Maeve floated around Jonathan, sizing him up. “I don’t know. I think this has the makings of a great party!” The whisky bottle floated toward her.

Jonathan groaned.

***

The producers were gathered in a virtual conference room. 

“We always knew this might happen. We just switch to Risk Mitigation Strategy delta-zero-zero Ghost Protocol,” huffed Svenson, who was the Memory Base Epsilon floor producer. He was already tapping on his tab, no doubt preparing to send the message to retrieve Jonathan and shut down Zone Foxtrot-6578 until decontamination and exorcism teams had been through.

The Boss waved her hand, and the heads of the fourteen men swivelled to her. “Let’s just let this play out.” A smile spread across her face and she pushed a button, ending the meeting. 

The Boss tapped a code on her tab and tapped into the Memory Base Epsilon cam bank. She had worked hard to get into this position, where she could manage this end of the work.

Lucy and Maeve had succeeded, now it was up to her to keep the show going. 

November 12, 2021 15:14

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6 comments

Jeff Otken
17:13 Nov 18, 2021

Great blending of magic/mysticism and scifi. Adds so much more to a story when genres are put together the way you did.

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Jon Casper
23:42 Nov 15, 2021

What an original and entertaining piece. Outstanding dialogue and characters. I loved it from start to finish.

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Trish Beauchemin
04:26 Nov 13, 2021

Your opening line had me hooked. It reminded me a bit of Douglas Adams' style. I agree with the other commenters - this could make a very interesting longer story!

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Cooper Armstrong
15:20 Nov 12, 2021

Wow. Very well done Charlene! I am very very proud and honored to be the first person to tell you how awesome this story is!

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21:02 Nov 12, 2021

Thank you!! It’s part of an idea I have had rattling around for a while. Eventually it may be more than a story, but I had to start somewhere.

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Cooper Armstrong
02:44 Nov 13, 2021

Awesome! I can’t wait to see more.

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