Ghosted by W. E. Wertenberger

“Wake up!”

“I’m awake, I’m awake… status?” I asked, sitting up at my station, trying to blink the world back into focus.

“We’re coming up to the final nav point,” Sharri said. Her brown eyes raked me like a pulse rifle on auto. “I’d think you’d be more concerned here, considering the stakes.”

I shrugged. “It’s not that, just a habit I picked up in the service. Sleep when you can because you are gonna need it when you can’t.” I smiled at her and winked. All I got back was another burst of pulsers and a slight shake of her head. Hell, I knew she was nervous, made all the sense in the world. We had a lot riding on this one. Had everything riding on this one. I guess I’m just not the nervous type.

“Rex, how’s the geometry shaping up?”

Rex was our navigator. A damn good one too, even by Slath standards. Those scaly bastards knew their way around a complex equation, and navigating mid-space was as complex as it got.

“Well within the acceptable margin, Commander. We should translate back to norm on a vector that intersects the fixed position with little negligible displacement,” he said.

“How little is little?” Sharri asked.

“No more than a few fractions of a parsec.”

“See?” I added cheerfully. Sure, you can make your way around the galaxy just fine with your standard nav charts and computers, but getting this level of accuracy isn’t going to happen without a navigator with skills. And this job in particular was all about accuracy.

“Or the unknown displacement factor due to the proximity to the dark dwarf star could drop us well beyond that point. Again,” Rex said, and then licked his left eyeball.

“Oh, come on!”

“But you compensated for that this time, didn’t you, Rex?” I said.

“To the best of my ability, Commander.”

I spread my hands out in front of me. “That’s all I need to hear.”

We’d been down this road before: our first attempt to land on the nav point was way off because of that uncharted dark dwarf. That dense bit of unfactored gravity threw off everything, and we spent weeks stalled in deep space while Rex reworked his calculations. To save on rations and life support, Sharri and I hibernated in cryo. If we didn’t hit the mark this time, though, we’d have to head back into settled space or starve. Probably end up selling the ship too—we were in that deep.

“Translation in twenty,” Sharri said. She pulled her grav restraints into place and locked them down in preparation for return to normal space. Rex and I followed her lead.

“Translation in ten… five… three, two, one.”

I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes. Tried to steady my breathing. The few seconds of brain scramble during translation was never pleasant. It was worse when you lost your lunch.

“Translation complete,” Sharri said. She clipped the end off her status report and leaned her head back in her seat.

When my own gastrointestinal tumble settled, I brought up the sensors.

“Anything?” Sharri asked.

“Not yet.” This was normal. Scans in the big empty had a lot of space to cover, literally, and a lot of data to crunch. We were looking for a specific type of radiation and a rare type at that, maybe the rarest. Picking that wavelength out from among the multitude of background radiation generated by the universe took time. Even from a mega concentration like the one we were on the hunt for.

“If we translated anywhere near the correct nav point, we should get a hit soon,” Sharri said. She and Rex had left their stations and joined me at mine. Her hand squeezed my shoulder.

“Yep,” I said. I reached up and placed my hand on top of hers. We waited.

Moments ticked by like a weak heartbeat as we watched the scans play out across my screen in fractions and percentages. X-rays, gamma rays, muons, alpha particles, all lined up in neat columns of magnitude. Then the ping. Sharri sucked in a breath, and Rex licked an eyeball or two with a schlup, schlup sound. “That’s it,” was all I contributed. Then another ping and another two words added to the column: Ghost Particle.

I jumped up from my station, grabbed Sharri, and laid a kiss on her. “We did it, baby!”

“Yeah, we did, baby!” Sharri said and laid an extra long one on me. After we came up for air, I grabbed Rex too and brought him into our orbit.

“Couldn’t have done it without you, buddy.”

“There is much truth in that statement, Commander,” Rex agreed, as I crushed him with a hug.

We celebrated that night with the champagne we picked up on Cathar V just before setting out. Kind of a tradition with us. It tasted wonderful, just as good as the real thing. Had I ever even tasted the real thing? Didn’t matter, it tasted sweet nonetheless. When you spend the better part of two years skipping across known space, bribing border officials, forging credentials for access to archives so ancient to call them incomplete was being charitable, and acquiring restricted nav charts, it begins to take a toll. So we let loose well into the wee hours and got back to work the next morning with a hangover, but recharged for the final stretch.

It took another eight days on ion engines alone to reach the deposit, which I spent fine-tuning the bottle. Capturing Ghost Particle isn’t an off-the-shelf engineering matter like maintaining magnetic containment on a fusion reactor. It required as much art as it did mechanical aptitude. The problem lay in the matter being contained. Fusion reaction is predictable, controllable. Ghost is a twitchy supernova with a knife. Fusion: a natural function of the cosmos. Ghost: a paradox in function and form, something that needed seducing as much as containment.

I cleaned and fit the last accelerator coil into place and stood back to look over my masterpiece. It wasn’t pretty, but I was sure it’d do the job. Caught by a notion, I stuck my hand in my pocket and pulled out its contents. I held it between my thumb and forefinger: a squared piece of silicon, manganese, and silver oxide thread, all to cage a minute spark of Ghost at its center. A penny rai worth one hundred credits back when I got it. The smallest denomination of Ghost ever issued, and kind of a collector’s item now. Probably go for nearly a thousand to the right collector. My dad gave it to me on my tenth birthday, one of the few birthdays he was able to attend in person. His job kept him off-world a lot. He said I could spend it any way I like, but he suggested I cash it in and start a savings account. Years later, after he’d retired, he asked what I did with it. Told him I kept it. He said I never did appreciate the value of a credit.

I held the penny rai up to the light. “Sorry pop, just couldn’t seem to part with it.” The Ghost caught fire then, and for a split second flared to life in a spray of color within the silicone encasement. I smiled and pocketed the trinket.

“Keep watch on your HUD and call out anything peculiar,” I said over the open communication line.

“Copy that,” Sharri called out.

“As you wish, Commander,” Rex seconded.

After completing our burn to the coordinates of the deposit site, it had taken an extra day and a half to pick our way through the massive debris field that was once an intact Harbinger habitat ring. The scrap that made up the field alone was enough to keep a score of salvage companies busy for years, and they’d pay through the nose for Rex’s charts. But if we were right about the size of this Ghost deposit, money wasn’t going to be a concern for me or my descendants for generations to come.

When we finally set the ship down on the large, partially intact central hub of the station, the hunk that conveniently contained the deposit of Ghost, we spent the next few hours checking equipment and kitting out the expedition. We set out in the morning on two SLEDs, with two pack-bots trailing behind us with the heavy equipment. We kept the SLED’s light in case of trouble, with the extra fuel packs on the larger utility type and full weapons load on mine.

“This corridor runs about another five hundred yards into an antechamber, then expands into a larger central space,” Rex said. “The deposit of Ghost is located there.” He and Sharri rode tandem, with Rex in the seat behind the pilot. He monitored and controlled the flight of peeper drones out front of us. The passageways and corridors on this intact bit of Harbinger Station were twisted and scorch-marked, but otherwise intact.

“Any signs of life?” I asked

“No sign of any life yet, Commander, carbon-based or otherwise.”

I took a breath and let that digest. Seeing no sign of other claimants on the deposit didn’t surprise me. This was about as far away as you could get from settled space. With the uncharted dark dwarf running interference, this derelict, as massive as it was, might never be found. What rankled me was the complete lack of Lurkers. Almost every deposit of Ghost I’d ever come across had Lurkers buzzing around in some numbers. Those cephalopodic automatons, aimless wanderers of the spaceways, seemed drawn to Ghost like comets caught in a star’s gravity well. Normally they were oblivious at best to their fellow travelers, but when they got close to the Ghost, they became aggressive. With a deposit this big, not seeing any Lurkers was a puzzle.

When we got close to the end of the corridor, I called a halt. “Hang back a bit, I’m going in to take a look around.”

“Be careful,” Sharri said.

“Always,” I said, and eased my smaller tactical SLED forward. This wasn’t bravado, me going in first. I went in first because that was part of my skill set, what I brought to the team. Yeah, I was a decent engineer, but that was mostly self-taught, out of necessity for my current line of work. But before I ever fitted my first roller bearing, I commanded a Force Recon platoon in the Corp. The fast tactical SLED was what we trained on and used in the field. I was as comfortable in a SLED skimming the surface of a moon at two hundred mph as I was taking an afternoon stroll in a park. So yeah, I went in first because I’ve been here before.

When I cleared the corridor and entered the central hub, I marveled at just how big this space was. The sensors on the SLED gave me a decent picture out to a couple hundred yards, double that when patched into the peepers. Even with that span of coverage, I barely mapped out a fraction of the whole as I crept forward. And that was just ground level. For all I knew this space literally had no ceiling, and if I climbed high enough, I’d be back in the void.

From what I could make out so far, there wasn’t much to see. Some scattered debris floating weightless, most of it kicked up by my passing SLED’s elevator field, but otherwise nothing. It had been a long time since anything ambulatory had trod this deck. I continued for another few hundred yards when the peepers squawked an alert.

“You reading this?” Sharri said over the com.

“I am. Heading in to investigate.”

“Copy,” she said, and I was alone again. Just me, my SLED, and numerous contacts reading a germanium-base. Lurkers. I kept my speed steady with no sharp course corrections.

“I’ll be damned, there must be hundreds of them,” I said. Every bit of ground the peepers covered revealed more contacts. I slowed the SLED as I entered the field of Lurkers. I switched the overhead illumination and focused it on the nearest inanimate lump. If the peepers hadn’t scanned it, I would have guessed it was just a pile of debris—covered in a millennia’s worth of settled dust.

I switched over to my suit’s autonomous mic, “I’m going in for a closer look.” I set the SLED on overwatch and grabbed my pulse rifle.

“Copy. I’m coming to join you,” Sharri said. I didn’t argue the point. Surrounded by comatose Lurkers tended to make one feel awfully vulnerable. I popped the canopy and stepped out; the deck had at least an inch or two of accumulated dust. Like walking on a lunar surface as opposed to a space station. I was only a few steps away from the Lurker and the truth became obvious to the naked eye. I poked it with the muzzle of my rifle just to be sure, then squatted down for a better view.

“I think we’re in the clear, guys,” I said and brushed away the dust covering the Lurker with my gloved hand. This one was about double the size of a human and its carapace was cracked in numerous places, the bio-circuitry below exposed in the light coming from the SLED.

“Clear how?” Sharri said.

“They’re not asleep, they’re dead. At least this one is.” I grabbed one of its prehensile limbs and lifted it to get a better view. Blue liquid sprayed from the cracks along the juncture and splattered the faceplate of my helmet.

“Son of a bitch.”

“What’s wrong?” Sharri came back.

“Nothing, I must have activated a control valve or something when I was examining the body. Got Lurker blood on me.” I tapped a control pad on the forearm of my EVA suit and it winked to life in a warm golden glow. I pressed the self-clean icon for my helmet and a spray shot down over the faceplate. The gel mixed with the fluid and became a rubbery putty. I reached up and peeled it off, clearing my vision. I flicked my hand and the gelatinized fluid floated away.

“I’m going to check the other bodies near me, make sure we’re dealing with a matching set,” I said and moved on to the next pile of dust and Lurker.

“Copy that, we should be with you in fifteen minutes.”

By the time Sharri and Rex caught up with me, I’d poked or nudged nearly every Lurker pile within the perimeter of my SLED’s light. All were as dead as the first. I turned to watch the larger SLED come gliding into view. It stopped and Sharri hopped out.

“Never seen so many in one place,” she said, walking up toward me. She had her rifle slung low, but she moved slow, wary. I felt it too. “You think this is where they come to die? Like an elephant graveyard?”

I didn’t know what an elephant was, but figured she might be onto something with the graveyard thing. “Maybe. They definitely died here, but a lot of them look pretty beat up. Could just be age. Not like anyone really knows much about these things… could be something else.”

“Commander, Ma’am,” Rex said over the comm.

“Yeah, Rex, I copy. What is it?”

“Commander, I have a status report regarding the Ghost,” he said. “I’m afraid this Ghost has gone nomad.”

“Jesus,” Sharri said.

Nomad. The term we use in the trade when Ghost starts moving around. Not only is Ghost hard to find—it’s even harder to find when it doesn’t sit still.

“Which way is it going?” I asked.

“Straight toward us,” Rex said.

“Jesus,” both Sharri and I said at the same time.

“Douse those lights, Rex, then get your ass out here!” I said, then spoke to my SLED. “Shut exterior lights off. Go into standby mode.” First Rex’s large SLED went dark, then mine. They both settled onto the deck to await their next orders. Sherri and I ran to my SLED and began unloading my equipment. Rex joined us moments later.

“How much time?” I asked him.

“It’s rate of speed was—”

“Rex! The time!”

“Four and a half minutes at best, Commander,” he said.

“How did it sneak up on us like that?” Sharri asked, and reached into the cargo pod on the side of the sled. She grunted as she pulled out a large component of the bottle. I grabbed it and ran to set it with the others.

“Unknown,” Rex said as he began assembling the parts. He was as familiar with the design as I was as he ran most of the numbers during the mockup. “One moment it was stationary, the next it wasn’t. I am as perplexed by this seemingly instantaneous jump in space-time as you both are.”

Actually, I didn’t care why. Ghost did weird shit, the end. This was just one more oddity to add to the list as far as I was concerned. What I did know was that if we didn’t get the bottle and capture snares in place, we could kiss this operation goodbye.

“Less chatter guys, more assembly.” That cut the conversation short. We got the whole kit slapped together and the power humming within three minutes. What can I say: we are a damned efficient team.

With time winding down I took what was left to make sure the snares were spaced well enough apart. With the SLEDs powered down, the lure built into the unit should be the strongest energy source for the Ghost to home in on. Then I joined Sharri and Rex in cover behind the SLEDs.

“Not long now,” Rex said, and we all peered into the impenetrable darkness and waited for the telltale visual presence of Ghost.

“There it is!” Sharri said and pointed.

So minuscule at first, you could be excused for thinking it an optical illusion. But as it grew, the unmistakable flare of color reminiscent of agitated Ghost particles began to fill that black void.

“It’s beautiful… my God it is so beautiful…” Sharri whispered over the comm. I couldn’t disagree with her, in fact or sentiment. Ghost was indeed the rarest and most beautiful substance in the universe. And we were looking at the motherload right here. As it drew closer to the bait, the ripple of color intensified. It grew exponentially until the ripple became a torrent and the swirl of color was a whirling dervish of spectral light.

“Are you sure we can contain this?” Sharri asked, just as the first snare tripped and the magnetic coils began to spin.

“I am sure. We over-designed and over-built this rig for a reason, and this is it,” I said. The containment bottle was working as designed. The Ghost was caught fast on the snares and the containment field was forming, we just needed to give it time to finish integration. Then my SLED came online and squawked a warning, its guns swiveled to intercept the threat a split second before a massive tentacle smashed it flat. The three of us were thrown backward.

“It appears there is a live Lurker in our midst,” Rex said.

I scrambled to my feet and grabbed Sharri. I half dragged her behind the closest cover I could find, a Lurker death mound.

“I think you’re right, Rex,” I said, with no hint of irony. I peered over the mound and watched as that tentacle dragged my SLED away and chucked it into the black recesses of the gallery. “Guess we know how those Lurkers died now.”

“This isn’t a graveyard—it’s a damned killing field,” Sharri said as she crawled up next to me.

“You okay?”

She nodded, her head bobbing inside her helmet. “I held onto my weapon. Just like you always taught me to do,” she said with a shaky voice.

I gave her a thumbs up. “That’s my girl. Now hand it over cause I dropped mine when I panicked and ran.”

She laughed, still shaky, but gave it over. “Not a lot a pulse rifle is going to do against that thing. It’s as big as our ship. We need to get to the utility SLED and get out of here.”

“I’m nearly there now, Ma’am,” Rex said.

I spun around to see Rex belly crawl toward the SLED. “Freeze, Rex! That Lurker is way too close.”

Too late. The Lurker spotted him and a tentacle whipped out and latched onto the unfortunate Slath.

I slumped behind the Lurker death mound, unable to watch anymore.

“What are we going to do?” Sharri asked in a small voice.

I took a breath and said, “We’re going to get out of here. When you see a window, get to the SLED and rendezvous with the baggage train. I’ll meet you there.”

“What? No!” she said but I was already up and running. I fired into the mass of the Lurker and it lurched around, its sensor stalks searching the gloom for the new threat. Good.

I dived behind another Lurker mound, popped up, took careful aim, and fired on full charge. The shot landed square with a burst of white sparks, a sure sign I did some damage. I took off again, looking for the next mound to hide behind in a direction away from Sherri. The Lurker had locked onto me now and came in hard. Problem was, it had to go around the Ghost struggling inside the containment field as my movements had placed it between the Lurker and myself. No one knew if a Lurker possessed anything above a rudimentary intelligence, but I guess it knew enough to give a flaring Ghost a wide berth. This gave Sherri her chance and I saw her sprint toward the remaining SLED. Just as the Lurker cleared the obstructing Ghost, the SLED rose and peeled away toward safety.

I smiled and brought the rifle up to my shoulder. “Ah, what the hell, it was only money.” I pulled the trigger and my shot landed square again, this time on the generator that powered the containment rig. The generator died as the shot impacted and so did the containment field. The Ghost was released and spun up in an irregular pattern as the energy siphoned off by the bottle snapped back to its original host matrix. Excess energy in the form of plasma filaments erupted outward. One such tendril struck the Lurker, gashing its back in a sensational burst of white-hot vaporized carapace. This sent the behemoth stumbling in a semicircle until it crashed over on its side, one more corpse to add to the killing field.

I watched as the filament discharge expanded and rolled toward my small bit of shelter. I thought about making a run for it, but a voice in my head that sounded a lot like Rex told me the numbers didn’t add up. Guess I’d run out of options. I closed my eyes and waited.

“Wake up!”

“I’m awake, I’m awake… status?” I asked, sitting up at my station, trying to blink the world back into focus.

“We’re coming up to the final nav point,” Sharri said. “Whoa… what the hell just happened?”

We were back on the ship, and back a few days prior, by the look of it. “Rex,” I twisted around in my chair and found Rex staring at me. “You’re alive.”

Rex blinked his big eyes. “It does appear so, contrary to my last, vivid memories. Very curious,” he said and began tapping at his control pad, no doubt digging through the latest sensor data.

“At the risk of being redundant, what the hell just happened?” Sharri said again.

Caught by a notion, I reached into my pocket. I pulled out my penny rai and held it up to the light. It was warm to the touch, almost hot. And instead of a Ghost flare, all I saw was a neat hole no bigger than a pinhead, scorched through at its center. I thought of my dad and him saying how I never did appreciate the value of a credit.

“Well old man, I sure as hell appreciate it now.”

W. E. Wertenberger grew up in Northern Ohio and currently lives and works in Kentucky. His work has appeared in the fantasy anthology Thunder on the Battlefield, The Dark City, and at the online fiction magazine Close 2 the Bone.