At moments like this, I wished Giffords still had a head, so I could smack him across the back of it and get him to calm down. He zoomed across the ship’s bridge, back and forth, wringing his blue translucent hands with excitement.
“Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod!”
I was the only one who could see Giffords. It took all my willpower to ignore him, but I had to remain perfectly still as Lieutenant Suri presented the details of our impending mission.
“You all know that research station Callisto Seven went dark months ago,” said Suri. “We don’t really know what happened, but we don’t expect any survivors. Our job is to assess the situation.”
“I can’t believe you get to set foot on Callisto!” I heard Giffords inside my head. “This has been my dream since I was a kid! I’m so jealous! When you get back, you have to tell me everything!”
I’d known Giffords since the Academy. We’d both been assigned to Rimor right after graduation: he to engineering, I to security. He’d wanted to explore space; I’d just wanted to be far from home. Far from all the relatives — my drunken great uncle, toddler aunt, somber grandparents — people who had long been dead to everyone but Mom and me; the two of us, sharing an uncommon gift. I’d cared for the ghosts, understood them, but their needs had seemed never-ending and I’d longed to be free. Then my Mom had become ill. After her death, she’d told me to go live my life and never come back, and so I had. Mom was the only ghost I’d ever missed.
There should’ve been no apparitions in the Academy, a brand new complex made of glass and steel. Yet, every year, a few students would fall into deep despair, and by the time I’d graduated, a dozen dead classmates had followed me around. I’d become better at tuning them out, but again couldn’t wait to leave.
I had finally found some peace on Rimor’s maiden voyage, until Giffords died in an engine-room fire. Now he was more smoke than person, yet still more excited than anyone else on board when the ship reached an orbit around Jupiter’s moon Callisto.
Our landing party entered Callisto Seven through one of the major loading docks. We encountered half a dozen dead bodies right away. The life-support system was inoperative — a likely cause of everyone’s demise — but the reason for the malfunction wasn’t clear. We split up to follow different distribution corridors and learn what we could.
I walked through a supply hallway that led to a hospital. My heart raced; a flashlight trembled in my hand. I’d never before set foot in a building where hundreds had died. If the power hadn’t been out, if the scattered bodies hadn’t been frozen, if this had been Earth, the stench would have been unbearable.
My chest felt so small, so tight, I couldn’t catch my breath…
So loud —
Fighting for space —
The ghosts —
All at once —
My mind —
So many —
My temples throbbed; I felt pressure in the back of my neck.
I couldn’t see —
Dozens, translucent, on top of one another —
Arms and legs and faces —
All around me —
I couldn’t —
My eyes —
Couldn’t see —
My head spun; I wanted to puke.
“You okay, Yang?” I heard Lieutenant Suri through the comms. “Your pulse and blood pressure readings are through the roof.”
“I’m fine, Sir,” I said. Suri’s voice in my ear piece cleared my head. “It’s all…a bit much, Sir.”
“That it is, Yang. That it is.”
As I regained composure, the voices quieted down. I could focus again.
In front of me floated a young woman. She reminded me of Mom — of how Mom looked when I was a child…of how hollow Mom’s eyes became after she’d died.
The woman waved me over. I followed her through the hallway and into the hospital. I breathed slowly, deeply, trying not to get distracted…
So many souls here —
Begging to be heard —
So many —
Keeping my focus on the woman took everything I had; I perspired like a hog.
She stopped by a room and motioned me in. She wasn’t Mom; I had no reason to trust her, but I did, so I went inside without hesitation. As soon as I did, the woman disappeared.
In the room lay six stasis pods; three were on. Inside each active pod was a child, between ten and twelve years of age: one girl and two boys. The girl resembled the woman.
Someone appeared at the door, behind me, and illuminated the room. I turned around and saw Lieutenant Suri, his eyes wide under my flashlight. The woman was back, floating next to him.
We stood in silence.
I opened a private channel to Lieutenant Suri.
“You see her, too, Sir?”
The woman moved to hover between Suri and me, right above the girl’s pod.
“This is my daughter, Maela.” The woman’s voice was soft but clear inside my head. “I was among the first to die…stranded on the docks, the station in lockdown, air pressure dropping everywhere. As I suffocated, I remembered these pods; they’re powered by a separate generator. My Maela, she’s like you two… Once I was dead, I could lead her and her friends to the pods, so at least they got a chance.”
Lieutenant Suri and I looked at each other.
“Please, you have to take good care of her…of all of them. Please,” said the woman, then disappeared.
My head was clearer than it had been in a long time.
“Sir, what now?”
Suri sighed. “Now, I believe, we need pressure suits and medical transport for our survivors.”
He leaned over the girl and looked at her for a while. In the glow of the flashlight, I could see his face soften.
“Giffords will love having a new friend to talk to,” he said.
I smiled. “Definitely, Sir.”
[First published in The Arcanist, Ghost Stories, October 2018]
Maura Yzmore is a Midwest-based writer of short fiction. Her stories have appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, The Arcanist: Ghost Stories, Coffin Bell, Asymmetry, and elsewhere. Website: maurayzmore.com Twitter: @MauraYzmore.