A Caution for Ghosts — V.A. Sreeniketh

Cavehall was dark and sprawling, the blue buttons on its walls twinkling with mischief like stars, or, perhaps, the eyes of ghosts. They had been exploring it for what seemed like forever—though it had probably only been a few hours—wending their way through thin hallways and cavernous rooms, through crawl spaces so narrow she had to hold her breath to pass through, and alleys so wide that she and Aloran could stand beside one another with their arms spread wide, without ever touching the other.

“Inana?” her brother softly called from behind her. She turned. He jabbed a thumb to a doorway beside him. “You’re going back to where we started. This way.”

Inana had never picked up a navigational sense like her little brother, she thought as they made their way through a passage where the buttons glowed brighter than in the other halls. At least she had an excuse. After all, it had been at Aloran’s insistence that they ventured out at all. 

Their mother had been hesitant to send Aloran out in the first place and hoped to interest them in a book or a holoplay instead. “You know, your father says we have tens of thousands of holoplays on record—isn’t that what you said Laren?—enough to last four lifetimes if you watched them end to end. Oh and what’s so wrong with exploring around the Core? Governor can keep watch of you here, and it’s not like you’ll be bored, there’s so much to see here. You know Governor can’t keep track of you in the margins.”

“Watch out for the loose tile,” her brother called out just as she stumbled over a jutting section of the floor whose exposed wires looked like the guts of some mechanical god.

Governor was the name of the starship computer who kept track of everything on board the GSS Last Bastion, from regulating the food vats to energy management to the starship’s course, half a god on the ship. But Governor was not all-powerful. The nuclear engine of the Last Bastion, the ship’s beating heart, had been dying for a long time; the green flame of its blood no longer pumped as far, and it could only spare enough energy to regulate the inner layers of the ship. Thus, like the limbs of a dying man, the starship withdrew its heat into its core, leaving the outer rooms and passageways to their icy fate.

Even now, under three layers of clothes—the minimum apparel required to venture beyond the Core—Inana felt a shiver dance up her spine. Her mother had only agreed to humor Aloran after a week of begging and wheedling, and with the condition that his older sister would act as his ward. Inana dragged her feet and made a show of reluctance, but perhaps secretly was glad of the change in setting. There were only so many holoplays she could watch about the Great Conflagration before getting bored.

“It’s so big! Could you believe that we’d find so much in Cavehall?” The words echoed around the chambers in metallic susurrations, as if the ship itself were speaking to them. Cavehall, Cavehall, Cavehall.

Cavehall. The name reverberated in her head in time with the echoes. It was a silly name, too on the nose for her taste; naturally, Aloran had chosen it. Last week it was her turn, but today she acquiesced to let him take a chance. The naming was the one part of this whole exploration affair she felt better at than her brother. At least the name was apt—unburdened by the demure, constrained architecture that marked the inner sectors of the ship as the rooms they passed seemed more geological than man-made. Each sector of the ship held a unique hue in her memory. Starvale Manor—which, truthfully, was not a manor at all—was delicate, with undulating ceilings and thin fluted columns adorned with crushed-hematite hues. Hollowton was dark and austere, its rooms like barrels that echoed with each footstep. Some places looked abandoned more recently in others, and in the oldest of the rooms, she could almost detect a faint, sweet, sickly smell, fading as soon as she caught a whiff of it. She could almost construct a schematic map of the ship in her head now, though she could not write it down. The imbrication of sectors that comprised the starship was almost too much for her to comprehend. A mechanical labyrinth curled infinitely inwards on itself, floating through space for the rest of time. She shuddered, though with delight or terror she could not tell. 

“Look here.” Aloran trained his flashlight at a wall which sported a panel trimmed with silver-gray detailing. “Do you think it leads somewhere?”

Inana examined the panel, pressing a hand to it. It gave way under the warmth of her flesh, the detailing retreating into a recess as the wall gave way to a door beneath. She grinned back at him. “I suppose it does.”

Wide, wide, the door opened, groaning with faint delight. A faint pale light emanating from within. They stepped into the light, blinking; a great grotto greeted them, far larger than any of the rooms they had seen, as long as it was wide. The room was brighter than any other they had explored. Beneath her layers, Inana thought she even felt a tickle of warmth from the room. Along the walls flickered images of people, much like the holoplays she was used to, only stationary instead of mobile; figures tall and short, young and old, all looking down at them with dim severe eyes. Larger than life and ringing the circumference of the room, they loomed over the two living siblings like blue ghosts, the tallest of them scraping the ceiling with his head. They were portraits, Inana realized, arranged into families. Their clothing and hair styles varied greatly—centuries apart, if she had to hazard a guess—but their faces bore a sameness about them. At the base of each hologram was a projector in the form of a thin-sliced frustum, inset with buttons and knobs that must have borne meaning under the palms of a hundred nameless generations. A faint scent perfumed the air. There it is again, she thought, that sickly sweet odor.

As she moved down the hall, she noticed the holograms were getting smaller; portraits with twenty people gave way to those with ten, then seven. At the far end of the hallway, the runt of the litter, was a family of five, a father and mother and three children, two boys and one girl.

“She looks like you,” Aloran breathed, pointing at the middle kid.

“Does not.”

“Does too, look at her.”

Most of the holograms were supported by plinths, as if all the weight of their airy glow were stone that needed to rest upon some sturdy base. Many of the plinths, in turn, held slots within them, and those slots bore artifacts. Relics of the dead, that once held significance to them in life. Aloran peered inside. “There’s a set of chrome gloves in here. A locket, though of what I can’t tell. A shining gem of some sort–probably a data crystal of some sort.” He pulled out one of the gloves, dangling it between his thumb and forefinger. The ages had not dimmed its luster, though a faint cloud of dust billowed out from the slot in protest of this theft. “I could use some gloves.”

“No. We ought not.” Inana looked around with searching eyes. “It’s bad luck to steal from the dead.”

“I didn’t know you were superstitious like that.” He grinned at her. “Afraid *they* might come back for it?”

“Put it back, Aloran.”

“Oh, c’mon. It’s not like anyone else is even using it. You can take it, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“Put it back, or I’m telling Ma.”

He huffed, stuffing the glove back in its place. “You’re no fun.”

Inana looked up at the luminescent holograms which loomed above her, their faces warped by her low angle of view. The face of the matriarch was the sternest, peering through her wrinkles as if through time. No one of comparable age could be seen. The rest must be her children, and her children’s children. She raised a hand up to run it through one of their feet–she could not reach higher, for the plinth was almost as tall as she was–before she thought better of it. Is that rude, she wondered, to reach through a ghost? From somewhere in the chamber there came a faint susurration, its echo rippling through the interior. “Look!” Aloran pointed behind her. She turned sharply. Only silence and stillness greeted her, that and the faint hum of holo-tech which she had learned to tune out long ago. When she looked back Aloran was adjusting his jacket, his hands shifting beneath its layers. “Thought I saw something.” He scratched at his collar as if chafing at it. “It’s getting cold. We should start back.”

The rest of the exploration passed uneventfully. After finding the jackpot that was the Hall O’Grams (Aloran’s name again), the other rooms seemed boring in comparison, like a pale dying star against the glory of a nebula. When they made their way back to the Core, Governor clicked at them, blinking a red pattern in familiar greeting. When they were back and warm in their beds, their mother had asked them if they had found anything. “Only more hallways,” Aloran said quickly, before Inana could say anything. She shot him a quick glance, but said nothing.

Days passed, days that turned to weeks. One night, when all the others had gone to bed she crept out of her sheets on tiptoes, down, down to the room of ghosts. Yet when she found the old room the faces were not the same, placid and smiling. Instead they leered down at her with half-melted eyes, too many rows of teeth in their mouths. A howl pierced the air as they danced around her, their voices tinged with sorrow and fright that made her hair stand up on end. A snarling woman reached out a clawed hand, down, down, until it touched her shoulder and—

She awoke with a start, her brother peering up at her with wide eyes of concern.

Inana had decided to forget Cavehall and its secrets. She grew to busy herself with holoplays and old sonovox recordings. The starship continued on its meandering course, tracing out the same position in interstellar space it had for as long as anyone could remember, propelled forward only by gravity and the inertia of its past.

The screen shuddered with the weight of ages as Aloran thumbed through its crackling tapes. Harsh discordant voices rang out from nameless eras, corrupted by the degradation of time: Aloran caught little of what they said, but knew their contents all the same, having played each back at least a dozen times to grasp their words. The steady hum of the recordings had become old friends to him, the words and static melding together to give each the impression of a song. For the greater part of two months, he had pored over the records of the data crystal he had swiped from the Hall O’Grams–Inana had never even suspected that it was stolen. The files on the crystal were a miscellany of data: recordings of conversations between friends, audio for holoplays (the data for the holograms were on the tape too, but had degraded far more than their audio counterparts), books, schemata for redecorating an apartment that must have belonged to the owner of the crystal (he thought he recognized the architecture as from Hollowton, and wondered if he had walked through the same apartments too). Now he had gone through the last of its files, and his mind buzzed with as much activity as those old tapes.

The room he had chosen for his research was a secluded one, still part of the ship’s Core but peripheral enough that he could be left alone without raising questions. He could hear the boots echoing down the hallway of anyone who approached. Aloran wanted to have something substantial before he shared it with anyone else. The wall on his right cut a window onto space, though its view of the stars and quasars and swirling nebulae was abutted by one of the ship’s quadrants, viewed from the outside. He placed a hand on the window, tracing out the outline of the quadrant.

He had known only three other souls in all his years of living; all the rest, all the souls that must have teamed through this ship in its heyday, had meant little and less to him. But that was then; as he had made his way through the contents of the crystal, the pieces of his life had fallen into place, and the architectures of the ship made sense, no longer detached from their histories. The voices etched into that crystal were not unreal like the characters in a holoplay, but instead felt kindred to him, as if they were family separated by time. And indeed, who was to say that they weren’t?

He had made out the basic history of the starship. Once, the ship had teemed with life. Under the Empire (it was always the Empire in the recordings, so well-known that it was) the ship had housed hundreds of merchant families, so prominent in interstellar trade that their wealth combined built the magnificence of the starships. But when the diminishment and later the Conflagration came to the Empire’s lands, two families–the Lyddons and the Errolets–stole away with the ship, fleeing the collapse with the whole of their families (each numbering in the hundreds, so prolific were they through the ages) and several lifetimes of food. The owner of the crystal, it seemed, had lived through the late collapse of the empire, and one of the recordings spoke of pirate ships approaching their own for food and loot, driving them further and further out from the empire’s margins. Eventually, they were left in some hidden corner of space, so safe from the collapse that they could hear no news of the empire. Perhaps there was a new empire now; no one could say, for even the signals from their old lands were too distant to be heard.  All the while, their biomass dwindled as it cycled over tens of generations, each generation but a pale shadow of its predecessor. 

This all made sense to Aloran, but there was still a puzzle at the center of this that he couldn’t figure out, gnawing at the center of his mind. Why had the faces of those ghosts seemed so familiar?

He had figured out all that he could. It was finally time to tell Alka what he had found. 

Nani scoped another spoonful of pumpkin yeast into her mouth. The week had gone by uneventfully. She and Laren had gone over the food inventories, reviewed Governor’s gravitic path trajectory calculations (by hand, no less), and swept the Core for any malfunctions in the wires. Whatever routine maintenance they did not feel like doing fell to Governor. The kids had occupied themselves with their own tasks, Inana with her sonovoxes and Aloran with—whatever Aloran did. At the table, Laren looked down at his plate, eating his meal dutifully as if a soldier marching off to war. Though he never admitted, pumpkin was always his least favorite flavor, even when they were kids. 

On the farther end of the table, Inana and Aloran were having a silent conversation with their eyes. The spar between them went on silently, each seeming to countervail the other. Finally, their glances fell back to their plates.

Finally, Inana cleared her throat. “Pa, did you have a brother?”

A flicker ran across the face of Laren, so imperceptibly small that someone might have mistaken it for a trick of the light. “Why do you ask?”

“We saw your holo-portraits on the far side of the ship, yours and Ma’s too. You looked just like us. There was someone else your age too. I didn’t believe it at first.”

“We found it while exploring the Margins, a few weeks ago.” Aloran supplied. 

“His name was Marru.” This time it was Nani who responded, her face as steely as the walls of the ship.

“Marru,” echoed Laren.

“He was our brother, your father and mine both.”

“But…you are both our parents. How can he be brother to you both?”

Laren brushed the hair of his son off his forehead. “Aloran, sweetling. You have too much curiosity. You were named after me, and Inana after your mother Nani. But you were not born in the same way that your beloved characters from your holoplays were born. You were born the same way that I was, and your mother, and your grandparents, and theirs before them. The biomass of your forefathers were fed into the ship, and it was the ship who recombined their atoms to cells, those cells to flesh and bone and sinew. Do you get it? It was the ship that gave birth to you truly, as it did all of us.”

Aloran and Inana were both looking at him now with an inscrutable expression on their faces. “I don’t understand,” said Aloran finally. “Why?”

 “Because this ship has been a long time dying,” supplied Nani. She had been expecting this conversation for a while. “Once upon a time there were enough of us to live on and propagate as people do. A hundred lifetimes ago, this ship teemed with life. Now it is just us left, the leftover bits of legacy, the parts that didn’t decay. There’s barely enough biomass to spare for four people to live at once. When we die, our bodies will serve as fuel for your children. There isn’t much biomass left on this ship anymore. There used to be room for five”—her voice broke—“but no longer. One day, you will inherit this legacy, you and your sister. You understand, don’t you?”

Inana’s skin crawled at this, but Aloran only nodded solemnly. “I thought as much. I saw a vat in a room, and instructions on the corner. That’s how you made us too, isn’t it?”

“It is. We recycled our genetic material, as our parents did for us. This ship is caught in a cycle. We don’t know how to escape it. We bequeath it to you so that you may find a way to save us.”

“Look to the stars,” murmured Nani. “Remember Marru. It is her we honor as we float through the galaxies.”

These walls are haunted by memories, Inana thought. There is more than one kind of ghost on this ship.