“She’s getting what? To who?”
The rain thundered against my house’s glass walls. Rivers of water slid down the panes, blurring the greyest afternoon I’d ever seen. With her arms crossed, Callista floated above the table while wearing a too-big smile.
“You heard what I said.” She feigned a yawn. “Your sister’s getting married.”
I sucked in a deep breath and leaned back in my chair. I felt calmer at once. It wasn’t as if I’d spent much time with Aly in the last several years. Whom she married and why wasn’t any of my business.
“I guess I thought she’d never do it,” I said. “I mean…you know how Aly is. She’s a loner. She’s always working, always doing her science.”
Cal floated down and sat on the table’s edge. She looked absurdly beautiful, especially with the grey rain dimming the world beyond her.
“I don’t think it’s love.” She stretched out her legs. “Not that I really know what love is like. I got the impression, without cheating and reading her eyes, she’s marrying him for business’s sake.”
I retreated into thought.
I thought she’d marry the young man who used to bring her flowers. If anyone, it should’ve been him.
This can’t be for love.
After what happened to us, she doesn’t want children.
I guess it’s ok…
…if this is what she wants.
“They’re moving to Arcadia?” I asked Cal.
“Moving?” Cal shook her head. “Nope. They’ve already moved.”
“Am I invited?”
She smiled. “I am your invitation.”
I stood and walked to the window. I had to step over piles of clothes, eating containers, and a mound of soggy towels. I wasn’t much for cleaning up after myself. My only visitor ever was Cal.
And she doesn’t judge me.
“When?” I asked as I gazed into the rain.
“Seven weeks,” said Cal. “It’s going to be lavish, whatever that means.”
“It means I’ll have to shave,” I murmured.
“And maybe dress in something other than a twenty-year old tunic,” Cal added with a grin.
A gust of wind caught the rain beyond my window. The day was as dark as twilight, and the sheets of falling water moving as though alive. I lost myself for a moment. In the spaces between the rain, I imagined eyes. In a peal of thunder, I swore I heard voices.
“Maybe she’ll listen now.” My voice was almost a whisper.
“Listen? What do you mean?” Cal floated to the window.
“If she’s marrying him, she’ll be wife to the governor. She’ll have his ear when he makes policies. She’ll be…influential.”
The thunder rolled, low and powerful. I touched the glass with my palm and imagined monstrous shapes moving in the rain. They weren’t there, not really.
And yet I see them.
“Don’t take it lightly,” I said. “If anyone can help make people believe, it’s Aly. She knows.”
“Everyone knows,” Cal argued. “It’s just—”
“They don’t understand,” I interrupted. “To them it’s just a story. It’s not real.”
Cal let out as long a sigh as a little blue nano-girl could. She knew exactly where my mind had wandered.
“The last time you tried to argue this with her, you two didn’t speak for a year,” she reminded me.
I know, I thought.
“And Aly, she’s the only person on this planet as stubborn as you,” Cal added.
I know that, too.
“So just how is it you’re going to change her mind? How, with nothing new to show her, will you convince her?”
I wish I knew.
“I have…information.” I pulled my mind out of the rain. “Two-thousand three-hundred thirteen more stars have gone missing since we talked. And it might be even more, but I’m only working with one orbital scope. No telling how many other stars they’ve destroyed.”
Lightning flared beyond the window. The rupture of cold white light burned shapes into my eyes. I caught myself shivering.
They’re out there.
“Joff?” I heard Cal say my name. “Joff, are you listening?”
I blinked, and the shadows fled my mind. I was just Joff again, standing in my kitchen. The only light in the house came from Callista. There were no Strigoi, at least not out in the rain.
“Sorry.” I wiped the sweat from my forehead.
“As I was saying, it’s not just about Aly,” Cal continued; she must’ve been talking the entire time I’d stared into the rain. “You’re asking an entire planet to mobilize against something they’ve never seen. You want four-million people to leave their lives behind and go to war.”
“Their lives…” I mumbled. “You mean the ones they won’t have.”
Cal went silent. In part, it was because she knew I was right. The Strigoi, eaters of the light, were out there. We’d seen them butcher hundreds of people on the planet Ebes. We’d heard their voices echo in the void. And we’d killed them together, burning away one of their planets using the only thing that truly caused them pain.
But Cal also went silent because she knew there was no point in arguing. We’d done the same dance several hundred times. I’d always tumble into a dark state of mind, and she always tried to pull me out.
By then, she knew better.
* * *
For the rest of Cal’s time at my house, I didn’t mention the Strigoi. I knew she hated it. All it ever accomplished was to put us both in foul moods.
So for her sake, I did my best to imagine a future without all the darkness. That afternoon, after I filled my belly with food, we took a walk in the rain. The worst of the storm had passed, and the warm drizzle felt as good as any shower. Even though I expected the wind and falling water to disrupt Cal’s nano-light, she fluttered through the storm with ease.
“How do you do it?” I asked her. We were tramping across a muddy field in the thick of the rain.
“I can survive in the vacuum of space.” She flitted between rain droplets as though dancing between swords. “I can turn myself into a stream of particles and travel down nearly any energized conduit. You think a little rain should bother me?”
“I just thought…well…” I stammered. “My dad used to say electricity and water were no friends of each other. And I found it out for myself one day. I used a powered wrench to fix a nut on a tractor’s coolant line. The line popped. So did the wrench.”
Cal laughed. She scattered herself into a few hundred-thousand nodes and then retook her perfect shape farther down the path. I’d seen her do it countless times before. It never ceased to amaze me.
“Now you’re just showing off,” I said. “You must be glad to have your old body back.”
“I am. But didn’t you just call me a wrench?” she laughed again.
“Yeah. I guess I did.”
Most nights, we’d have stopped walking at the green river. But that eve, just as the rain began to die, we crossed a narrow bridge and entered the fields beyond. I didn’t mind being soaked to my bones. It felt liberating, as if I’d washed away the morning’s darkness.
In the day’s last light, I looked across the fields. I saw the remnants of all the work I’d done to help the people who’d lived in the village near my home.
I saw the tops of the drain pipes we’d laid, exposed after years of heavy rain.
I glimpsed the lines we’d carved in the soil, the pattern of the farm that once had grown.
The crops were mostly gone, having long ago weeded over. It was the trouble with farming on Sumer. The rains were so heavy and the crops grew so quickly that within a decade all the nutrients were sapped out of the dirt. And without much animal life to provide natural fertilizer, most farms wore out their usefulness far swifter than they would’ve back on Earth.
“It gets old sometimes,” I said as Cal and I meandered along the riverbank.
“You mean being human?” she quipped.
“No. I mean thinking of everything like a farmer would. I can’t walk anywhere without thinking about soil densities, nitrogen levels, and drainage.”
“Uh oh.” Cal made a face. “Is this where you tell me another story about farm boy life? About tractors and griddlecakes.”
“No, I guess not,” I grumped.
“I’m only kidding.” She circled me and sat on my shoulder. “You can tell me any story. You know I like to hear them.”
“Nah. Not tonight.”
Together, we sat on the riverbank. The last of the rain died and the fog slithered away into the dark. I pulled off my boots and dipped my feet in the river. Back home, on an Earth that was no more, the water would’ve been frigid. But the little green river swirled around my ankles, warm and pleasant.
“You think Doctor Abid ever imagined us sitting here like this?” I kicked up a little plume of water.
“Oh. Him.” Cal made a sour face. She’d never forgiven her creator for sending us into space, alone and likely to die. “I don’t think he imagined anything for us…other than dying.”
“You know, by putting us in the Sabre and shipping us off to Ebes, he saved us,” I pointed out. “If we’d have stayed on Earth, if someone else had gone in our place, we’d be dead. Just like…you know…Mom and Dad. Just like everyone.”
“Does that mean you’re thankful?” Cal looked at me.
“No. I mean, not exactly.” I couldn’t think of the right words. “It’s not like he did it to help us. There’s no way he could’ve guessed what would happen.”
Cal offered a slender smirk. “Well then there’s your answer. He didn’t imagine us here. Not on Sumer. Not sitting by this river. Not alive. Not together.”
“You’re right.” I nodded. “I’m sorry. I’ll never bring him up again.”
She didn’t answer. But I knew she was happy to hear it.
* * *
Later that night, as I roamed around the lower level of my house and clean up my messes, Cal drifted down the stairs and into the room. I worked by the light of three blue lamps, in whose light she floated and danced. Within one of the lamplights, she hovered longer than the others. The shadow she made on the pale wall was the same size as a person.
And for a moment I watched her.
When she left the light, her shadow vanished. She had a serious look in her eyes. She’d been upstairs for hours, no doubt plotting whatever she was about to say.
“Your sister’s getting married.” She flitted around me as I carried off a pile of clothes.
“Yeah. I heard.”
“She’s moving on with her life.” Cal ignored my sarcasm. “She’s making happiness for herself. She’s joining the rest of humanity.”
I dropped my clothes at the bottom of the stairs. There was no sense in avoiding Cal. She had something on her mind and she meant to share it.
“I know where you’re going with this,” I shambled back into the light.
“Well…” She crossed her arms. “I want to know what you’re going to do with your life. You’ve talked for years about dying early because of the Strigoi poisoning, but that hasn’t happened. Not even close. You have all these reasons for staying out here and being a hermit. And I…I just want to see you happy. This obsession of yours isn’t healthy. After Aly’s wedding, I think you should live in the city with me. We don’t have to move to Arcadia or anywhere fancy. But I think you should be with people again.”
“With people…” I murmured.
“Yes.” I could tell she was upset by the way the light in her body intensified. “Besides, I’ll have a body in a few months. A real one. It’s almost finished. I’ll be as human as you. Same voice. Same face. You don’t have to…you know…love me. But we should live close together. You should talk to other people. You should live a full life. I want it for you.”
I hadn’t expected her outburst, but I should have. For years, she’d dropped not-so-subtle hints about the hopes she had for my life. It was hard to see her so upset.
I stopped moving, stopped thinking, and gazed across the room at her.
“I like it out here. It’s peaceful,” I offered.
“No.” She shook her head. “You like it out here because you can walk in your field and stare at the sky all night. You like it because no one questions you or challenges you. You like it because you don’t have to be human. You get to pretend you died on Earth with everyone else. Well, guess what? You didn’t.”
I might’ve been angry.
But Callista was right.
* * *
Ghosts is the second chapter of upcoming science fiction novel, Shadow of Forever.
The first chapter is here.
Shadow of Forever is the sequel to sci-fi hit, Darkness Between the Stars.
It’ll be out in the first half of 2017.
Both books are by J Edward Neill
Both covers are by Amanda Makepeace.