Happy Halloween, everybody.
Ironically, I’m now 2/3rds finished with my first book that deals with the supernatural specifically throughout. The Ghost of Cahir Mullach should be available by this time next year (yes, publishing takes time). The story involves a medieval Irish warlord, a British Revolutionary War veteran, and an unscrupulous landlord who is about to evict an entire village. Fun times!
However, this will not be the first time I’ve dealt with the concept of ghosts. In my debut novel, Tales of The Screaming Eagle, there is a chapter entitled Ghost Ship, and it works as a stand-alone story in its own right. The entire book is basically a bunch of short stories told by an old spacer named Kilroy to a lost grad student. All of the tales are told in a bar at the edge of space where veterans are welcome and others can come to if they want. The chapter centers the tale of the ghost who haunts the Merchant Jump Ship Vagabond, Kilroy’s old ship.
A few days later the Low Boys gave Ms. Coleen their final offer to enter into a partnership. Rumor was that basically meant letting the thugs take over The Screaming Eagle lock, stock, and barrel. It didn’t take me long to get the history of this street gang; Kilroy wasn’t the only talker in the bar.
The Low Boys got their start on Hoover Street, in the warehouse district of Paradise City. They’d first gained power by discouraging public employees from coming to work. Thus, they took over such mundane services as sewer, water, and electric and started charging the locals for the services.
Of course, the rates did go up with the change in management.
People who didn’t pay usually saw their home or business busted up or burned down. Sometimes, a family member would be beaten and robbed by unknown persons…or sometimes raped. Appeals to the City Guardians were useless, and anyone who stood up to the gangsters on their own was typically cut down by bullets or laser beams. There were never any witnesses to the actual violence, funny thing. If the matter went to court, the guy who defended himself was often charged with assault and banished into the desert. With a situation like that, most folks gave in to the thugs while hoping to ride out the storm.
I found out about all this by talking to Mary. She was a native to Tarkan and grew up in Paradise City. That made her unusual in a bar full of off-worlders. Hanging out in the United Veteran’s Association post made her feel closer to her father, a man she’d never known.
Her dad was a marine lance corporal. He died at Altir when she was just a baby, leaving her mother to raise a daughter on a widow’s pension. Mary’s mom made sure to tell her girl all she could about her dad, but Mary still sought out that experience of really knowing him. Hanging out with vets and sharing military talk was a way to do just that.
She was an associate member of the UVA. Her Dad’s holo hung on the wall, among all the other fallen servicemen and women. I learned that each holo a wall of The Screaming Eagle served as a memorial to a comrade.
Mary made her living as a psychic consultant and was a good telepath and telekinetic. She also claimed to be a clairvoyant, but I’d always been skeptical of that sort of thing. I mean, reading minds and moving objects mentally was one thing. But seeing the future…kind of unbelievable.
“So, how did you find out that the Low Boys gave Ms. Coleen an offer?” I asked as I served Mary her breakfast. Ms. Coleen had said nothing to me about it.
She tipped her head to one side. “I’m a mind reader, remember?”
I was shocked. “You read Ms. Coleen! How could you invade her privacy like that?”
“I didn’t! I read the Low Boy who sat by the holo-vid last night.”
“Oh, sorry.” Invading a Low Boy’s privacy was something else altogether.
“She has a week to say yes. After that, they hinted at things that could happen. I looked into the head of another creep, who was actually planning to start a fire in Ms. Coleen’s apartment.”
Pangs shot through my spine. “It won’t come to that. Somebody around here will think of something.”
“Jan,” she said as her tone shifted down, “I had a vision. I saw The Screaming Eagle filled with people scattered all over on the floor. They were everywhere, and they were all people we know. I even saw Kilroy lying on the carpet.”
I didn’t believe in visions. If the future could be read, why did wars and famines still happen in the galaxy? I firmly believed that man was the master of his own destiny. The future, to me, was something we made, not something we were assigned. But there would always be a small quiet part of me that still believed in ghosts and other superstitions. Like most folks, I didn’t like to admit that.
Maybe hauntings by ghosts are a kind of universal metaphor? A way of expressing something in the human mind long before the science of physiology came around. In that sense, I knew I was haunted. The specters of Private Ramirez and an unnamed raider were still hanging around me. I saw their faces when I lay down at night, staring at me with accusing eyes. Did I cause their deaths? Was it my fault? The raider certainly—I shot him five times. God what an ugly memory! Was that right? Did that matter? At home, I’d have gone to confession and asked a priest. But there were no Catholic churches on Tarkan, and if there were, I wasn’t sure absolution would help.
The dead clung to me closely, and they would for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to add Kilroy’s spirit to that menagerie.
A moment later, Kilroy and Burt came through the blue pressure door. The old spacers weren’t alone. They were with a young mutant lady whose bald head was decorated with distinctive jaguar-like spots. She was a young woman and quite good looking, in a petite sort of way. Her green flight suit was decorated with flowers embroidered on the shoulders and sleeves, Isis roses.
Ms. Coleen was not on shift yet, so it was up to me. As Kilroy and his friends took a seat at his favorite table, I approached with a bowl of pretzels. “Hello, guys. What will you have today?” I asked.
Mary came up behind me and also took a seat at the table.
“Kid, first I want you to meet Deirdre! Deirdre, this is the archeologist I was telling you about.”
“Anthropologist,” I blurted out, but that hardly mattered. I was a bar boy now, not an anthropologist anymore.
“Uncle Kilroy, you’re like, wow. I already met Jan months ago.” The mutant girl replied.
“You did?” Kilroy and I said in unison.
“Yeah, he was that cute guy I met on the flight back from Rama. I know I told you guys all about him,” she said, as Kilroy and I looked back and forth between each other.
Then I remembered. “You were that girl who had just taken some kind of test!”
“Yes, like, that was when I got my Pilot’s license. It was so totally cool. I got to fly a Mark II Trainer. And this inspector guy was so like, you shouldn’t be doing this, you’re too young, and I was like, no, the law doesn’t have an age limit. Now, let me take the test. And he did, and I passed on the first try, and it was awesome.”
Mary smiled and turned to Kilroy. “Are you sure you two aren’t actually related?”
Deirdre rolled her eyes. “Like, you’re the psychic?”
“She’s the closest thing to a daughter I’ve ever had, and I intend to keep on claiming her as kin,” Kilroy declared proudly. “Taught her everything she knows about flying.”
“Except somehow she is still good at it,” Burt added.
“You’re Ms. Coleen’s daughter from Isis,” I stated, still surprised to actually meet her, again.
“Be nice, kiddo,” Kilroy admonished. “Jan’s working for your mom now, so ya got to be good to the help. Pish, posh, and all that.”
His fake British accent was horrible.
“So, what will you have?” I asked, remembering my place.
Kilroy ordered Rocket Fuel Beer for everybody and paid for a mug for me too. I got the gist that something had gone really well for him at the starport, but I never got the whole story. Everybody was laughing and joking and interrupting each other too much.
Then Kilroy asked, “Well, kiddo, you ready to pilot a starship all by yourself?”
“Uncle Kilroy, you know I already have,” she answered with a sarcastic twist to her voice.
“The Mark II Trainer?” I offered, trying to keep up.
“No, the Vagabond,” she answered. She must have seen a surprised expression on my face, so she explained. “I flew it years and years ago when Uncle Kilroy and Uncle Burt took me up to deploy satellites in the system. At first, I was like, I can’t do this. But Uncle Kilroy was like, sure you can. He said if he could learn to fly anybody could.”
“How did Liddy feel about that?” I asked.
Then Kilroy got sullen for a moment. “Liddy wasn’t there. She left me in ‘54, October 14th to be exact.” I knew there was more to it, and I knew I was going to hear it, as Kilroy started storytelling…
After the Vagabond’s final voyage to Isis, business actually picked up for a while. They took every kind of freight to every possible destination. They were, however, just getting by. The Vagabond’s maintenance costs kept steadily wearing away at any profits. It was disappointing, but not near as disappointing to Kilroy as when Liddy got a tran-sat burst from the Schmidt family estate.
Liddy’s father, who she never even liked, had passed away. This left her the sole inheritor of his properties and holdings. He was a failed father but apparently a very successful businessman. When news came of his demise it was in the form of a letter from a legal office. There was never any will, no last requests or bequests, just a simple notice of the death.
Liddy didn’t mourn. She took the money and ran. Within a week, she liquidated her father’s fortune and purchased a new Valkyrie Class jump freighter. It was a sleek, new thing with automated features even Burt never heard of before. Small, but well equipped, it only needed a crew of one. To her this was a dream come true, the chance to be truly free. Liddy was, at last, mistress and commander of her own starship. She named it the MJS Sundancer.
“It’s been great, lover boy! I sure am going to miss your stories!” she said, as she walked off the gangway carrying her flight bags.
Kilroy stood at the top of the Vagabond’s gangway, looking down at the docking pad long after she left it. No deep tearful parting or promise to write, she just packed up her things and strode out of his life. For once, the great Kilroy Matterson was totally speechless. In fact, Burt later stated, Kilroy didn’t talk, aside from the occasional grunt, for over a week. But when he did, it all came out. He screamed in anger, cursed in disgust, and cried like a baby in his best friend’s arms.
Liddy was gone.
To her credit, she never promised to stay. Liddy also didn’t leave them in a bad spot. The ship was squeaking by financially and it still had a pilot. Kilroy would never fly the ship with the natural grace that Liddy once did, but he could fly it nonetheless. She taught him well.
Soon, they were taking off for other cargo runs to other places. But, they never hired another pilot, or a manager for that matter, intending to make do with what they had. The two old shipmates pressed on for years. But when the recession of 2360 hit, the credits stopped flowing almost altogether. Cargoes became fewer and farther between, and inflation ate up the credits they did manage to save. Maintenance problems continued to mount, which they couldn’t afford to fix. The ship became seedier by inches, and passengers became rare as virgins in New Vegas. Kilroy just let himself get used to the tap water being that color of brown but the fact was, despite Burt’s heroic efforts, the Vagabond was falling apart.
In December of that year, the MJS Vagabond made a jump into the Boss128A system. They were delivering twenty tons of lumber to Paradise City, and everything was going fine until the jump drive gave up the ghost. A few sparks, a bad smell, and then the automatic safety features came down like a hammer shutting; it down for good.
There was nothing Burt could do. He’d nursed that old thing along for years, hopeful that the next cargo run would pay for the delicate and expensive components he needed, but that never happened. Kilroy put his arm around his old shipmate and told him he wasn’t to blame. Shit happens is all, and sometimes there isn’t anything you can do about it. The rest of the trip to Tarkan was spent in silent contemplation as each man grieved for the Vagabond in his own way. The ship wasn’t dead but it would never be the same.
Their star hopping days were over.
They landed in Paradise City and, as the lumber was offloaded, the two friends took stock of the situation. The ship was still space-worthy, although without a jump drive it was impossible to leave the Boss128A system. The star was on the edge of the Confederation, and only one of its planets had been colonized, and they were standing on it. Not a lot of in-system traffic, there would be very little business they could do here. Still, it could be worse.
“It could be raining.”
“Smart-ass.” Burt snickered as his friend made his usual remark.
“Screw it!” Kilroy declared. “Let’s go find a bar.”
So, they started walking. They’d been to Paradise City a few times since the war but were always in a hurry to leave again to catch some other shipment to someplace else. Neither had actually missed the dust ball. It was still a hot, desolate, hick town on the edge of space. But since they were here, they got to talking about the old CJS Dart. After all those years, they were starting to feel a little nostalgic about the old days. They were younger then; they were healthier then; and, as they both vividly recalled, they were sexier.
Burt piped up, “Hey Kilroy, let’s see if The House is still standing.”
“I thought we were looking for a bar?” Kilroy wasn’t sure he wanted to see the dilapidated, abandoned shack. His clearest memory of the place was still Chief Hanson in her underwear.
“It shouldn’t be too far from here. Take five minutes, tops,” Burt said.
“Okay buddy, I’ll humor you. But then we need to go find a bar.”
As they turned the corner onto Armstrong Street, Kilroy’s jaw dropped. He stood stunned in amazement. It was as if he had found the end of the rainbow, and the crock was indeed filled with gold—not that other stuff.
Kilroy read the sign. “A UVA post?”
Oh yeah, he had to check this place out! Once they saw it, the two friends raced across the street and opened the blue pressure door to reveal wonders untold. This was too good to be true! The shack they remembered, with cots filled with sleeping spacers and sand lizards, wasn’t even recognizable. It wasn’t a transformation of The House, it was a resurrection! To make it even better it was a veteran’s bar. Neither Burt nor Kilroy had joined the UVA yet, but that didn’t really matter. This place was filled with their kind of people. They took their first steps on that plush, red carpet and walked up to the bar.
The Vagabond had died, but Burt and Kilroy had gone to heaven! So, they decided to give their old ship an Irish wake. With the last of their credits, they bought a round for the house and proceeded to get drunker than either had been in years. After so long struggling to keep flying, to keep ahead of the maintenance, the bills, and expenses, this was a rebirth for the two old men as well.
Kilroy even forgot about Liddy at least for a little while.
Once they sobered up, they settled down. Each took jobs at the starport and semi-retired. What the hell, they’d earned it! Burt did engineering work on other people’s ships, and Kilroy dabbled as a cargo broker. They each got a place in town.
Captain Matterson and First Officer Folks vowed they would spend their evenings hanging out at The Screaming Eagle until the day they died…or something worse happened to them.
It wasn’t long before they got to know folks real well. This included Ms. Coleen and her precocious kid. Deirdre was always asking Kilroy about spaceships, but she didn’t want to hear just his stories. She wanted to know how the ships worked. Specifically, she wanted to know how to fly them.
Deirdre hadn’t been in space since that first trip from Isis to Tarkan years ago, but she longed for another voyage. She’d been a pest at the starport, always asking questions of the spacers and everybody there knew her. Her mother even bought her a flight simulator when she was twelve, but Deirdre didn’t know how to use it.
She asked Kilroy if he’d help her with it. So, one afternoon he sat down in Ms. Coleen’s living room with the console all hooked up, he explained it to her. When he checked in on her a week later the old man was amazed.
Piloting is an art as much as a science. You have to feel your way through the sky and develop an instinct for how to handle your ship. To Deirdre, that came naturally. In a week of simulations, she scored higher than Kilroy did in his first year of practicing. The few things she was doing wrong, were easy for Kilroy to explain. He wished Liddy were there to teach the kid. But if it was up to Kilroy alone, he had no intention of shirking his duty.
One day he happened to be out and saw her taking out the trash. He looked at the young girl and could tell she wished she was somewhere else. Glancing over to the starport gave him an idea.
“Hey, kiddo, you want to see my starship?”
“Like really!” she squeaked.
“Yeah, like really.”
“Awesome!” cried Deirdre. She left the trash where it was.
And they were off. A brisk two-kilometer walk and there it sat, in faded glory. The Vagabond docked on an abandoned naval pad, so Kilroy and Burt didn’t get charged rent. There were no fuel tie-ups or power stations here. A tarp was lashed over the Vagabond, to provide some protection from the abrasive sand that could damage the anti-radiation coating on the hull. To all appearances, it was a piece of junk. Deirdre didn’t care. It was a starship! He opened the gangway, and the kid ran on board like a shot. Kilroy smiled and slowly walked up after her. Soon, he sat her in the pilot’s chair and explained what all the controls did.
With reverent hands, the girl reached for the control stick.
It was a wonderful afternoon, and Kilroy even played co-pilot for her as she worked the powered down controls. Of course, Ms. Coleen was mad as hell when Kilroy got back. He forgot to tell her where Deirdre was going, and Ms. Coleen had been worried sick. In fact, a gang of patrons from The Screaming Eagle were out combing the neighborhood for the kid; and some of them carried clubs.
“…And if anything happens to that child, I will have your balls for breakfast! Do you understand me, Mr. Matterson?” Ms. Coleen demanded, at the end of a long and colorful ass chewing.
Kilroy found himself having a boot camp flashback. “Ma’am, yes, ma’am,” he said as he unconsciously stood at stiff attention. Then, all was forgiven—once Deirdre took the trash to the dumpster.
With Ms. Coleen’s consent, Deirdre often returned to the Vagabond with Burt or Kilroy or both. The two old men showed her everything. It was fun for them to relive their traveling days as they gave the kid an education. Deirdre ate it up like popcorn. She could never learn enough, and paid close attention to everything the two old codgers said. When not visiting the ship or practicing on her simulator, Deirdre would help her mom run The Screaming Eagle.
Without the distractions of spaceship handling, Kilroy could focus on the business side of cargo management as he brokered cargos for other people. He soon realized exactly what he’d been doing wrong since Sloan quit. He’d tried to be Sloan, the wheeler-dealer who hustled cargos. That didn’t work for him. He simply had to figure out how to do the job his own way, and soon he figured out how. He wrote a series of mathematical formulas to predict profitability of a given cargo to a given destination.
After he did that, the job was a snap.
Kilroy’s position as a cargo broker got him in with all the folks who worked the starport. One of them, a guy named Inklebalm, worked at the Colonial Office. He’d received a shipment of satellites from the Confederation Station Service that would allow Tarkan to finally have its own tran-sat system. Finally, the backwater planet would be serviced by Confederation jump drones and be a part of the galaxy at large! Inklebalm’s only problem was there wasn’t any ship available to place them in the necessary orbits. Most of the traffic at the starport was from out of system or going out of system. There were no readily available in-system ships for short, domestic voyages.
“Inklebalm, you damn fool! Why didn’t you ask me?” Kilroy asked him over lunch at the starport cantina.
“Why? Can you get me a ship?” the man asked as he chewed his cheese and baloney sandwich.
“Don’t you remember me telling you? I own a ship. It’s parked out in the west quarter by the salvage yard. It ain’t what it used to be, but it can handle a little in-system run.”
“Can you have the satellites in place by the end of the month?” Inklebalm asked as his eyes lit up.
“Sure, if the price is right.” Kilroy began doing the math in his head.
The trip would last about three weeks as Kilroy plotted it. It would take them around the Boss128A system passing all the critical L points as they went. Deploying the satellites would be a walk in the park, and Burt and Kilroy could feel space again. They both looked forward to the joy of the thing, but what’s joy if it’s not shared? So they asked Deirdre if she wouldn’t mind going on a field trip as part of her vocational education.
Ms. Coleen had never heard pleading so intense from her little girl. By this time, the owner of the best bar on Tarkan had grown to trust the veteran spacers. But she cautioned them not to let Deirdre out of their sight. Knowing from her own days of star traveling, how dangerous space can be.
“Yes, ma’am, we promise,” Burt and Kilroy intoned.
The kid didn’t sleep at all the night before. As her mom got up that morning, she discovered the teenager petting her dog on the living room rug. Coleen made her child’s favorite breakfast. Just as Deirdre finished it, there was a knock outside. Sliding open, the door revealed two old men in flight suits. One wore an old beat up ball cap and the other wore cowboy boots. They both had flight bags in their hands and wide grins on their faces. Ms. Coleen smiled the half smile all parents manage when they know their child is growing up.
The tarp removed, the Vagabond fueled and ready, the three adventurers marched up the gangway and took their stations. Burt went in the engine room, of course, and Kilroy to the bridge. He still thought of the pilot’s seat as Liddy’s chair, but he sat in it anyway. Deirdre sat in the co-pilot’s seat, but her consoles were powered down. Kilroy had no intention of setting the kid up for failure. He intended to teach her the ropes one step at a time, and there would be no pressure.
A week into the cruise and Deirdre’s enthusiasm had yet to cool. She was totally enthralled by the whole experience. Truth was, Kilroy and Burt occasionally found her annoying…in a sweet way, of course. Borrowing someone else’s kid for a few hours is one thing, but full-time parenting is work. The only point of reference either of the spacers had was how they once treated recruits back in the navy. So they held a brief ceremony in the common room with Deirdre standing at attention; Burt pinned an old set of stripes on her collar and Kilroy read the “order” that made her an honorary spacer third class.
Then, they sent her to clean the toilets while the two old men enjoyed a cup of coffee in peace.
On the whole, things were going well. They were deploying the satellites exactly where they were supposed to be. One by one, the things were loosed from the cargo bays and sent to float forever in stable orbits. When they became active, Tarkan would be as modern a port as Isis or Rama, with ships able to broadcast to traffic control as soon as they came out of jump. And the people of Tarkan would be able to send bursts to other systems.
The Boss128A system has eight planets, but they only needed to go out to the sixth before turning about for the run home. Once the final satellite orbited that cold and lifeless rock the job would be done. Deirdre sat in her co-pilot seat as Vagabond came into the gravity well of the sixth planet. Kilroy was explaining to her how to slingshot a ship around a gravity well in order to save fuel and get a free return trajectory on a new course.
“Isn’t there a chance of like, getting pulled in and crashing on the planet?” She wanted to know.
Kilroy thought of his simulated crash into Pluto all those years ago. “Yes, the trick is not only to get close enough to get the full effect of the gravity well, but to enter it at the right angle and speed to get the slingshot effect.”
“How am I supposed to know the angle and speed?”
“You don’t,” Kilroy answered. “The navigator does. It’s his job to plot a course and it’s your job to follow it. Most times, you’ll have a chance to go over it before you reach the point where you have to commit. Never be afraid to ask the navigator a question about a course. That’s what they get paid for.”
“Okay,” she said and then turned her eyes to the canopy. Out of the plazglass, she watched as the port cargo bay door opened. The lift arm swung out slowly with the last of the satellites dangling from its claw. Kilroy was quiet, his eyes focused on the nav-comp where his course was displayed. He whispered, “Three, two, one” and the satellite detached to drift in the wake of the Vagabond. She looked over her right shoulder and saw Kilroy committing the ship to the slingshot trajectory. His movements of the stick were stiff and wooden. She imagined she could do better.
Around the planet they swung, hurtling into the gravity well at a precise speed and angle. Once in the grasp of the planet, there would be no way to maneuver. The ship would be piloted by Sir Isaac Newton and his word was law.
The bad luck came in the timing. Boss128A’s sixth planet was a dark and frozen waste, but under the icy surface, tectonic pressure was hard at work. The planet had a history of volcanic activity, and to the Vagabond’s bad fortune, it was about to blow one of its stacks. As Kilroy steered his ship into orbit on the light side, the dark side experienced a massive eruption. Over twelve million tons of rocks went skyward in a cataclysmic display of geological power.
As the Vagabond came about, it ran smack into the galaxies newest asteroid field.
“Shit!” Kilroy shouted when he saw the rocks in his path. There was no way to avoid them, this was going to be a hell of a bumpy ride. He looked to his left and saw that Deirdre wasn’t strapped into her safety harness. Damn noob! He cursed in his head, he should have seen to that. Fast as lightning, he unbuckled his harness and leaped over to where the teenager sat. Kilroy grabbed the harness and buckled her in it as quickly as he could and had no time to be gentle about it either.
“Stop! You’re hurting me!” Deirdre cried in alarm. She had no idea what was happening but soon learned. There was a loud crash and a slam as the Vagabond hit the first of the many rocks in its path. The ship’s hull was made of military grade alloys designed to resist the rigors of combat. But that didn’t mean it was invincible.
Another crash and the lights went out, leaving Deirdre in total darkness. She began to panic as the emergency lanterns suddenly flickered on. The dim light only illumined her injured friend. Kilroy lay on the deck in front of her chair. He wasn’t moving and blood trickled out of a gash on his forehead. She screamed at the sight but could do nothing about it.
For minute after uncounted minute, the rocks continued to bombard the Vagabond.
At last, they were through it. Deirdre looked around. Control panels were smashed and sparks flew from random places. She sat there for a moment, regaining her breath, then the comm unit crackled by her ear. “Kilroy, what the hell just happened? Kilroy! What is going on up there? Can you hear me, Kilroy? Kilroy.”
Tears ran down her face as she keyed the comm. “Uncle Burt, he’s hurt. I don’t know what to do.”
“You just stay put, sweetheart, I’m coming.” In seconds, Burt was there. Kilroy was breathing, but he wasn’t his usual talkative self. Burt looked for the first aid unit but it wasn’t in its usual place on the bulkhead. It had smashed into the nav-comp. He grabbed it and began checking Kilroy’s vitals. Burt hoped that the first aid he remembered from his navy days would be all that Kilroy required. He saw the injured forehead—a five-centimeter gash went from Kilroy’s temple to just above his right eye. The big man dressed the wound. Then carefully picked up his skinny shipmate, took the captain of the Vagabond to his stateroom, and placed him comfortably on the bunk. There really wasn’t anything else Burt could do.
Deirdre never left the bridge. In fact, she was still strapped into her seat when Burt returned. “I didn’t touch anything. Is Kilroy going to be all right?”
“Kiddo, you couldn’t have done that much damage if you tried. As for Kilroy, I just don’t know. He’s comfortable and he’s breathing. After that,” Burt paused, “it depends on how fast we can get him to a real doctor, I suppose.”
Burt surveyed the damage. The coffee maker would never brew again and the lighting needed rerouting, but the worst damage was definitely the nav-comp. Burt could easily replace it with another onboard computer. Problem was, he couldn’t replace the lost memory. Specifically, the course Kilroy plotted was gone and wouldn’t come back with their only navigator out cold. Burt remembered back to his days as a new spacer on his first ship. He’d spent an hour with a geeky guy learning the basics of navigation, and then he got his comp scanned. That was a long time ago, and he didn’t even remember where he’d put his astronaut wings since then, let alone the things he’d done to earn them.
“Kiddo,” Burt asked, “did Kilroy ever teach you anything about navigating?” He suspected he already knew the answer.
“Was he supposed to?” she asked.
“It would’ve been nice,” Burt said as he plopped into Liddy’s old chair. He took a few moments to explain the problem to the teenager. No point in hiding bad news, he figured.
“Aren’t we on a free return trajectory?” she asked. “That should like, mean we’re going in the right direction. Aren’t we?”
“The right general direction yes, but if we’re off by just a few degrees, we could go millions of kilometers off course. Navigators always have to make adjustments after a slingshot. It’s reflected in the fuel consumption of the engines,” Burt answered.
“Can’t we call for help? Maybe some other ship’s navigator could plot a course for us?”
“I wish it were that easy. If we were in the Sol system that’s exactly what we’d do. But we ain’t in Sol. There are no other ships in this part of the system, and since the new tran-sat net isn’t up yet, our comm will only carry a wave so far. Our long range antenna hasn’t worked in a long while. We’ve been using the short range one. Which is against Confed shipping regs, but we didn’t have much of a choice these past few years. Yell on the comm all you want, kiddo, but there ain’t nobody to talk to round here.”
Burt let a moment pass while he considered the situation for himself. “I’m gonna get to work fixing what I can…which is almost everything,” he said with a grin. “Whatever happens next, I want the Vagabond to be ready for it. Starting now, Spacer Third Class, you’re checking on Kilroy every half hour. If he gets better or worse in any way, I want you to come running to fetch me. You got that?”
She nodded, and he left the bridge to go get his tools. The good news was that Vagabond had passed above the volcano at a high enough altitude to avoid the really big rocks. It was nothing Burt couldn’t handle, and in twenty-four hours, the systems were all up and running again. Burt however, was exhausted. He went into Kilroy’s stateroom and took a nap in a chair by his friend. He told Deirdre to get some rest too, but she couldn’t.
Deirdre sat in the co-pilot’s seat, rocking back and forth trying to think of what to do. She could fly the ship. She was sure she could. All she needed was a course and she could follow it. She tried to remember what Kilroy did when he plotted a course, but he never explained that part to her so it would be all guesswork. They had plenty of food and water on board, and sooner or later they would be reported missing. Help would come, but it might come too late for Kilroy. All she needed was a lousy course.
Then she saw red, something red out of the corner of her eye.
He was sitting in a pilot’s seat, but not the actual one. His seat was a phantom thing to the left and forward of the real, physical one. At first, she thought he was a holo-projection, but he lacked that techno-color glow. Also, he was somewhat translucent, his image fading in and out without rhythm or pattern. He smiled at her. She smiled back, wondering if she was sleeping. Maybe she was, but she didn’t much mind.
His red flight suit looked like some sort of uniform. He was handsome, with wavy brown hair and twinkling eyes. The apparition winked at her. Then he reached for the comm unit, again—not the actual one, but a phantom unit near his phantom chair. He spoke, but she couldn’t understand him. His Common English muffled, the words running together.
She heard a response. More garbled words coming from the not there comm unit. When he finished his conversation, the specter turned back to smile at her. Deirdre smiled back, why not; this was probably a dream anyway.
For a while, nothing happened. She and the man in red just sat there sharing the bridge. Then, a flash and a shimmer of light could be seen out of the canopy. It was a ship, a very old ship. So old in fact that it had a rotating section to provide artificial gravity for its crew. No one had flown in a ship like that since back before the Azanti War. Deirdre looked to her red uniformed companion. He was pointing at the old ship as if to say, ‘That way, stupid,’ and then he was gone.
Deirdre powered up her control panel and took the stick. Easing up the controls, she carefully guided the Vagabond in the direction of the ghost ship. She tried to make out details, but the ship was far away and kept fading in and out like the man in red did.
No matter, she wasn’t going to take her eyes off it!
It occurred to her that this might be the wrong thing to do. What if she took them farther away from Tarkan, not closer? She had no idea, but the man in red seemed sincere, and she didn’t know what else to do. All night she followed the strange vessel, and its course never varied. Just before dawn, ship time, the mysterious craft vanished.
When Burt woke up, it was to the sound of Kilroy babbling.
“Kilroy, you old son-of-a-bitch!” he shouted with glee.
But his friend’s eyes were unfocused and one pupil was larger than the other. The old spacer was awake, but he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Kilroy was talking, of course, but wasn’t coherent. Burt tried to get him to drink water and take some modo-aspirins. Then, he laid his buddy back down and let him rest. Kilroy fell asleep a moment later, and Burt went to the bridge to tell the kid the good news.
“Holy shit, what are you doing?”
She was steering a powered-up joystick, that’s what she was doing. He thought the kid had the sense not to do that. There was no telling where the hell they were right now!
“Like, I’m following the course that the other ship showed me,” she answered.
“What other ship?” Burt demanded to know.
Deirdre didn’t seem to want to say too much about that other ship just then. “You know, we aren’t the only ship. Like, I saw this ship going in the system and I followed it.”
Burt pressed her. “What did the ship look like?”
“Like, you know, a ship.”
He wondered how long she could keep this up.
“What did it look like, Dierdre?” he demanded.
And then she started describing the Yang-He; the old explorer ship that had been lost for a century. Rumors had spread of occasional sightings of Captain VanDer’s lost vessel, but Burt never really believed them. Burt checked the new nav-comp he’d installed the day before. He didn’t know a course from a longhorn steer, but they seemed to be going deeper into the system.
Turning to Deirdre, he suddenly saw a man standing behind her chair. He wore the distinctive red uniform of the Mars Self-Defense Force, and he was giving Burt a thumbs-up.
Burt’s eyes grew wide. He wanted to be sure he wasn’t the only one seeing this guy. So he looked to Deirdre who was intent on her flying. When he glanced back behind her seat—the man was gone.
Kilroy seemed to get better the next day. He was coherent for a while but nauseous with a massive headache. Then he went downhill, passing out intermittently and slurring his words. By the second day, he was bedridden again and slipping.
Three days later they encountered a tanker called the MJS Strumpet. It popped out of jump off the Vagabond’s starboard bow. Strumpet was a big enough ship to rate a nurse on board. Within hours, Burt and Deirdre heard the clicks and bangs of grapples going home, and then the thump of the airlock. The tanker’s nurse found Kilroy slipping into a coma, due to a swelling of fluid around the brain. Fortunately, he had the right medicines to reverse that and was in time to use them. A few days later, Kilroy sat up in his bed as Burt spoon-feed him rice soup. Burt and Deirdre couldn’t thank the nurse enough.
Kilroy just nodded and said, “That’s nice.”
As much of a natural as Deirdre might be, she wasn’t a licensed pilot yet. The Strumpet’s co-pilot came aboard with the nurse. And as the nurse looked after the patient, the co-pilot flew the Vagabond back to Tarkan. The manager of the Strumpet didn’t charge them for these services. There would never be a bill, only an understanding. Space is a dark and dangerous place and no one knows when they’ll need help out there. People on the frontier take care of each other; it only makes sense. This is the unwritten and often unspoken code that spacers hold dear. This code is held so dear in fact, that some of them seem to cling to it even after death.
“Kilroy, that’s the most bizarre tale you’ve told yet,” I said as the old guy sipped his beer.
“Well, it wasn’t all mine to tell. When I woke up in my stateroom, Burt and Deirdre filled me in on the weirder parts. I sure would have liked to catch a glimpse of the Yang-He. Sorry, I missed that,” Kilroy mused.
“Like, I didn’t even know about the Yang-He until Uncle Burt told me what it was,” Deirdre put in.
Then Mary spoke up, “Ghosts are real all right. They just aren’t always what you think.”
“Did you ever see the crew of the Strumpet again?” I asked.
“Sure did. Invited them to The Screaming Eagle and paid for their drinks. Damn near bankrupted me,” Kilroy said laughing, but the humor was short lived…
At that moment, Ms. Coleen came in and she wasn’t in a good mood. In fact, she seemed at her wit’s end. She pulled up a chair at the table next to us and put her face in her hands. No one said a word. We all stared at her, worried. After a few moments, she found her voice.
She looked up, “Guys, we have a problem.”