NaNoWriMo continues and I haven’t dropped out or given in to the pressure. I have rediscovered what a SLOW writer I am. Yeesh! But it’s all good, all fun.
As you may have noticed, the old blog is rolling slowly on with a 4-part short story in place of my meandering thoughts. There’s a link to Part 1 here: Ghost Story Part 1 in the event you missed it and are interested in catching up.
If installments are bothersome, you can download the entire thing HERE and disregard me until December when I begin haunting your blogs again. I miss the daily browsing. Yes, I do!
Without further ado: Part 2
Ghost Ship (Part 2)
Two crewmen on his heels, Lieutenant Quinn Morales strides the curved corridor toward the holocell. He runs a hand through his black hair, certain a cut looms in his near future. That and a shave, his stubbled chin chafing against the old dress code he suspects will make a prompt reappearance. A nagging headache forces him to squint, the light-nodes particularly harsh—or perhaps it’s his mood that grates, or the rare foods he didn’t get to eat, or Captain Landry’s hurried assumption of command. Whatever the reason, his blood pounds on his brain and his nerves could use the stability of a stiff drink.
Caspar Chevall’s remembrance service had scarcely concluded when Landry hustled his officers from the post-assimilation celebration into the amphitheater for his promotion, oath of service, and acceptance speech. A stocky bull with a buzzed, blond top and something to prove, Landry’s first order entails shutting down Chevall’s holocell and beginning a system-wide purge of the virus, a protocol that will require the entire night to complete.
“The captain’s hardly cold,” Wilton mutters to Longrow, the men trailing, clearly as perturbed about the assignment as he.
Quinn smiles at the fondness behind the sentiment. The old captain was a hero to the crew, well-respected, even well-loved. Long before most of them were born, he relaxed the ark’s non-operational codes and customs. Rumor suggested he was something of a renegade as a younger man and wasn’t one to apply a different standard to the crew. As captain, he made life comfortable, turned a thousand military stiffs into a functional family with oversight of sixty thousand civilians. Life was good under Caspar, even if he loved his holo.
“Landry’s going to have us saluting, pressing our blues, and polishing boots,” Longrow grouses, the lanky crewman’s fist absently thumping the wall as he walks. “No one’s had to do that in near eighty years.”
“Haircuts,” Wilton groans. “Guard duty.”
“Fitness standards.” Longrow chuckles. “Good luck with that, Ben.”
“Remember the first time we saw her?” Wilton clears his throat, ignoring the gibe.
“Who could forget? No wonder he wouldn’t shut the thing down. I wouldn’t either, virus or no.”
“We have to do it,” Wilton complains. “Caspar probably should’ve done it himself. The program’s infected the ship’s autonomic and nervous systems. That’s pretty serious.”
“Right, and we know this because nothing bad has happened in four hundred years?” Longrow thumps the wall. “What if the old captain was right? What if we shouldn’t shut her down? What if something terrible will happen if we do?”
Quinn turns on his heel to face the junior crewmen who nearly stumble into him. He gives them a hard eye that belies the anxiety gripping his chest. “Caspar Chevall is dead. We’re under Landry’s command, now. Orders are orders. Make sure you remember that.”
“But Quinn,” Longrow persists. “What if Caspar was right?”
“Lieutenant,” Quinn corrects him, and then softens his voice, “We better get used to it.”
The lanky man’s shoulders sag. “Lieutenant, what if he was right? What if the ghost shuts down respiration? If the nervous system goes, nothing will communicate with anything else. We’ll be a floating piece of space junk full of dead bodies.”
The “ghost,” that’s what the old captain called her. With a sigh, Quinn leans on the wall. He doesn’t trust the assignment any more than they. “If the holo shuts down the system, we purge and reboot.”
His pudgy face in a frown, Wilton clears his throat. “What if she has a weapon or something? Blows us up?”
A smile quirks the corner of Quinn’s lips. “Holos are holos. You’re getting a little carried away, crewman.”
“Caspar, I mean Captain Chevall,” Longrow persists. “He refused to shut her down. Why?”
“Maybe he was in love with his holo,” Quinn suggests.
Longrow scratches an eyebrow. “But—”
“But this conversation is over. We have orders.” Quinn narrows his eyes, discouraging any further argument, and sets off again down the corridor. He’ll assess, in no more hurry than they to blow himself up, despite the orders.
Outside the holocell, he motions to Wilton and Longrow to halt. “You’re on the portal.” His hand brushes over the sensor, activating the chime. When the panel slides open, he steps backwards in astonishment.
“See what I mean,” Wilton whispers and clears his throat.
The holo is stunning, standing in the room’s vaulted center, waiting for him. Galaxies of blue light in her luminous skin appear to mutate, swirl, and shift into a shade closer to violet. Green eyes glitter softly as the slightest smile edges her lips, welcoming him. “Join me, Quinn.” She moves gracefully, her movements fluid, the silk of her indigo shift rippling, watery against her legs.
“You know my name?” he asks, noting her access to the ship’s memory.
“I’m Juliette.” From a small table she picks up two goblets, one extended toward him.
Shutting his mouth, he glances at the gawking crewmen and enters the room, waving the portal closed behind him. “This place is amazing.” He accepts the goblet and sniffs the liquor.
“Artemisia, Caspar’s favorite,” she says, taking a sip. “I created this room from the ship’s memory templates and the captain’s imagination. He possessed a sensory awareness brimming with detail, and he loved Earth’s ancient histories.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.” While she watches, he wanders the room, his fingers trailing along chiseled stone, wood scrollwork, rich tapestries, brocades and damasks, an ancient globe he sets spinning on its axis. He gazes up at the glittering crystal chandelier, sweeps his fingers through candle-flame, startling at the burning heat. “I can see why the captain found it hard to leave this place.”
“There was no need. Your ship is peaceful, this galaxy without threat. You could travel for millennia without strife.”
“That’s hard to imagine,” he states, though he has no idea why. Four hundred years have passed since they departed Earth, and nothing perilous has occurred in all that time.
“Though I’ve deeply loved every one of you I’ve encountered,” she explains with a glint in her eye, “Earthlings are still by nature ardently primitive. You’re wonderfully charming, adventurous beings, yet you defy logic to your own detriment. You garb yourselves in your sentiments.”
“Coloring our every choice,” he says with a laugh. She speaks the truth; he’s made his share of decisions based on a hot head or lusty heart, with mixed results—decidedly more sour than sweet.
He pauses before a tall, ornately carved tower that looks oddly like a timepiece and cants his head toward it. “A clock?”
“Time is amorphous, Quinn.” She joins him. “Your construct of time doesn’t exist here.”
“It has twelve numbers instead of twenty.”
“According to Caspar, on Earth your days were divided into twenty-four segments, two rotations of these arrows.” Her fingertips touch the glass face. “All based on the rotation of your planet.”
“We divided the rotation into twelfths?” He chuckles. “That’s so peculiar.”
“Custom,” she replies. “It appears your early civilization counted finger joints instead of fingers. Each of your human fingers has three joints.”
“No odder I suppose than a system based on ten fingers and toes,” he marvels, continuing his survey of the room, vaguely aware his headache is gone. He pauses before a stone staircase that curves as it rises from sight. “May I?”
“Of course.” Appearing content to wait out his exploration, she accepts his goblet and curls on a chaise, tucking her feet under her legs.
Fascinated by the moss on the stone walls, he ascends the narrow stair, its treads worn smooth as though others have climbed this way for thousands of years. Minute details astonish him, down to the acrid smell of the smoke coiling from fiery torches. At the landing, he encounters a sturdy wood door, iron-bound and riveted, set on heavy hinges. He takes a moment to figure out the latch and swings it open.
The round room is a bedchamber with no ordinary bed. If forced to describe it, he would say it looks like a primordial tree, a colossal version of the arboretum’s meticulous cultivation. Gnarled roots curve outward, cradling a sleeping pallet strewn with blankets of gray fur. Serpentine branches arc overhead, draped with sheer webbing that billows gently in a warm breeze. He rests a hand on a branch and strokes the fur, holding his breath. Outside the open windows, a verdant world borders a silver expanse of sea, twin blue moons rippling on the waves. If the rest of the holo strikes him as Earthly, this is decidedly alien.
When he returns to the main room, she pats the chaise, inviting him to sit beside her.
“You know why I’m here,” he says, sinking to the plush velvet, the goblet again in his hands. She smells alluringly of…flowers.
“Your captain believes I’m a virus infecting your ship. He wishes me eradicated and intends to destroy me even though in all these years I’ve done nothing to harm you.”
“I’m sorry.” He sips the Artemisia, the heady flavor coating his tongue as he avoids her eyes. His regret feels genuine, though it makes little sense to him. She’s a holo, like all the other programs he’s activated and deactivated, hundreds of times in his thirty years.
“What would you do, Quinn, if I told you that I am your savior? That in destroying me, you will only destroy yourselves? That all your lives will come to an abrupt end, and you’ll never see a day of the years stretching ahead?”
His eyes narrow as the muscles in his neck tense. “Is that a threat?”
“A warning of a consequence over which I have no control.” She rises and glides to the massive stone hearth. From the timber mantel, she lifts an ivory box, its sides carved with roses. When she returns, she sits closely beside him, her thigh and shoulder touching his, the box offered in her palm.
His goblet set aside, he accepts the box. “What is it?”
“Your data-crystal.” She strokes the lid’s carvings as she rests her cheek on his shoulder. With her fingertips, she pinches the ivory handle and opens it. Inside, a softly glowing crystal, larger than any he’s ever seen, rests in a slotted base.
“Why are you giving me this?” He twists to study her, not understanding. Was it a dare? A plea? A threat?
“Because you will find it,” she whispers, her voice infused with unfeigned yearning and regret. She lifts her gaze to him, green eyes flecked with silver, the silk of her hair and dress brushing his forearm. “I can’t stop you if your wish is destruction. I can only ask that you trust me as Caspar trusted me. Have faith that I would never do anything to harm the ship or all her lives.”
Quinn rakes a hand through his unruly hair, the conversation disconcerting, the nearness of her body, her scent, and the feel of her distracting. He’s having a debate with a holo as if she’s a person, an alien albeit, but close enough. Disentangling himself, he stands and walks to the hearth, tamping down an unexpected surge of blood and desire. This isn’t supposed to be happening. He stares at the crystal, at the leaping flames, aware of the heat, the whole display so incredibly tangible. “I have orders,” he says, releasing a long exhale.
“Then grant me a few intervals of your favor.” She raises her empty goblet and tilts her head toward the crystal decanter. “I ask only that you glimpse what you’ll destroy before deciding our fates.”
The way she phrased it gives him pause, and he struggles to shake his uncertainty. He can’t do anything now without apprising Landry of the situation, and it won’t hurt to have evidence corroborating or contradicting the established suspicions. The excuse to linger sounds plausible enough. He nods, the brief reprieve welcome.
The holo smiles and rises to kiss him.