By Alexis Ames
For the fifth time this week, a baby’s cries wake him in the middle of the night.
Benzion knows that it’s useless to try to get to sleep again, even though his head pounds with exhaustion and he feels like death—and that thought is in poor taste, he realizes with a grimace as he sits up and swings his legs over the side of the bed. He sits with his head in his hands while the baby’s cries fill his senses, and mentally counts the minutes as they pass. At precisely five minutes—midnight, ship’s time—the baby falls silent once again.
Groaning, Benzion pushes himself to his feet. His limbs creak in protest, and one of his hips actually pops. Not as young as he used to be, he thinks grimly. He drags a t-shirt on over his head, and pads barefoot into the corridor.
He keeps only a skeleton crew on duty for third shift, and passes no one on his way to the galley. He brews the strongest cup of coffee he can find, from beans grown in Valles Marineris, and makes his way to the cockpit.
“The hell are you doing up, Cap?” Sophia raises a dark eyebrow as Benzion falls gracelessly into the co-pilot’s chair and rubs his face.
“Soph, is my ship haunted?”
“Of course it is. Why the hell d’you think you got her at such a goddamn steal?”
“There’s a ghost that likes to pace outside my cabin during second shift. Heavy boots, so he’s probably one of those astronauts from before the colonization of Mars. Andy’s got an actual specter in her cabin, but he only shows up during third shift, so that’s why she chooses to work nights and sleeps during first. What’s yours?”
Sophia’s nose wrinkles. “A baby?”
“Yeah, you know. Proto-humans?”
“Jackass.” Sophia shakes her head. “Ghost baby on a spaceship, that’s a new one. Though, with a ship as old as this, it makes some sort of sense.”
Benzion wracks his brain. He knows the ship is at least a century old; it’s entirely possible she was used in the early colonization missions, shuttling families out to the nascent Martian settlements. Those crossings were hard, even though Earth had been making them for fifty years at that point. It was typical for any given batch of colonists to lose ten percent of their number. Infants would have been among the most vulnerable.
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a few ghosts, Captain,” Sophia says, misinterpreting his silence.
Benzion rolls his eyes.
“Don’t be stupid, I grew up on Mars.”
Sophia laughs. “That’s fair enough.”
It’s said on Earth that you can’t go more than a hundred feet on Mars without running into a ghost of one of those early settlers, which is blatantly untrue. You can’t exactly run into a ghost, for one, since most of them aren’t visible at all—they’re a breeze, a whisper, a snatch of song. And while Benzion has encountered plenty of ghosts of the early colonists, there are also a fair number of modern ghosts as well. His own grandfather popped up once when Benzion was in his teens, a transparent figure that hovered near the workbench while Benzion worked on restoring his beloved vintage hovercar. Benzion had only known it was him when he caught a few hummed bars of a familiar song. The figure vanished when Benzion opened the door to let him out, and Benzion hadn’t seen him since.
“I’ll be in the archives if anyone needs me,” he says as he gets up from the co-pilot’s seat, and Sophia tosses him a distracted wave, eyes back on the readouts from her computer.
There’s no dust in the ship’s archives—or anywhere else on the ship, thanks to the oxygen scrubbers—but the room feels musty anyway. It’s as though Benzion has stepped into a library on Mars, but there are no books here, just three computer stations for all their research needs.
“It’s rather early for you, Captain, isn’t it?”
Benzion starts at the voice, and warm liquid sloshes over the side of his mug, his third cup of coffee already tonight. This morning?
“Sorry, Henry.” He wipes the console with his sleeve, even though the computer probably can’t feel it. This is his first ship with an AI, and he’s still trying to figure out how to act around Henry.
“My apologies. I didn’t mean to startle you. Is there anything I can assist you with?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be helping Sophia fly the ship?”
“I’m capable of performing millions of tasks at once,” Henry says. He sounds amused. “However, your pilot threatened to reprogram me if I ever attempted to interfere while she was at the helm, so I’m at loose ends, as you humans might say. What are you researching?”
He finds it endearing that Henry asks, even though he can just as easily pull up a record of what documents Benzion has been looking at on the computer.
“There’s a ghost in my cabin,” he says. “I’m trying to find out who it is.”
“Well,” Benzion says, and then stops. “To be honest, I’m not sure. I just need to.”
“I see,” Henry says, though it’s clear that he doesn’t. “Do you believe it will accomplish something?”
“I don’t know,” Benzion admits, because he’s only ever dealt with adult ghosts before. All you had to do when you ran into one of those in a building was make sure the doors and windows were open in a path that led straight outside, and the ghost would eventually find their way. An infant, however, wasn’t mobile.
“What era is this ghost from?”
Benzion thinks about this for a moment. Usually, ghosts leave a trail of clues—their clothing, their hairstyles, the pattern of their cadence if they happen to be speaking. He has none of that to go on.
“I don’t know,” he says again. “But this ship can’t have carried families for very many years, can it?”
“The Martian colonization project lasted for approximately fifty-three years,” Henry says. “This ship was in operation nearly all of that time.”
Well, that certainly doesn’t help narrow the field, he thinks.
He scrubs a hand through his short hair, shorn close to his skull back in port so it wouldn’t get in his way on the mission. He frowns, thinking.
“How many other ghosts are on this ship?”
“It’s impossible to say for sure how many. I can’t detect them on my sensors,” Henry says. “But from various conversations, I have learned that there are ghosts in nearly every cabin, the engine room, and the cockpit. The galley and most of the corridors seem to be free of ghosts.”
“And are any of those ghosts of the colonists?” Colonist hopefuls, anyway. The ones who never made it to Mars.
Henry is silent for a moment.
“Elias seems to have a ghost in his cabin that may be of a colonist,” he says at last. “He mentioned as much to Sophia last week.”
Elias doesn’t turn when Benzion enters the machine shop, but he says, “Hey, Cap,” around the toothpick he has stuck in the corner of his mouth.
“Evenin’, Elias. Henry says you’ve got a ghost in your cabin.”
Elias snorts. “Half the rooms on this ship are haunted, Ben. It’s not like it’s unusual. You got one in yours?”
“Yeah, and it’s damn unsettling.”
Elias looks around at last. “Thought you were from Chryse Planitia.”
“I am,” Benzion says, a tad defensively. “But some things are still creepy as all hell, and children are one of them.”
“Children?” Elias gives a faint shudder as he straightens. “Lived in an apartment once that was haunted by a kid. I lasted six months, had to break the lease early. They don’t leave, even if you open doors for ‘em. They’re just there.”
Benzion suppresses his own shudder. “This one’s worse, if you can believe that. A crying baby.”
“Yeah, I’ll take my ghost over yours,” Elias says. He rubs his shoulder and rolls his neck, and Benzion hears several faint pops. “Humming’s a hell of a lot better than a crying baby, even if she is humming lullabies the whole damn night.”
“Yeah, you know.” Elias hums a few bars of a familiar song that Benzion can’t immediately place. He’s not bad, Benzion notes absently. Elias smiles sheepishly at Benzion’s blank look. “Right, I forget. You’re not from the Valley. My mothers used to sing that to me.”
“Henry,” Benzion says abruptly, “that song Elias was just humming—what are its origins?”
“It’s an old Martian lullaby that dates back to the founding of the first settlement,” Henry says.
“It was brought from Earth by those early colonists, wasn’t it.”
Henry answers after a half-second pause. “Yes, it appears that way. Though the tune and lyrics have evolved over the years, the—”
“Check the old manifests,” Benzion interrupts. “Were there ever any families in my cabin, or in Elias’s?”
“Records from that time period are spotty at best,” Henry informs him. “But families were relegated to the starboard side of the ship, yes. Crew stayed on the port side. Families didn’t have their own quarters. They all slept and lived in the same large room.”
“The cabins were added later,” Elias says. Benzion nods once, mind racing.
“Can you see your ghost?”
“Not really,” Elias says, frowning. “Sometimes she’s visible, depending on the light. In fact…” He checks his watch. “She should be there right now. Want to go take a look?”
Benzion wonders how he could have missed the ghost in Elias’s cabin the few times they fell into bed together toward the beginning of their journey, but then, he’s never seen the cabin in proper light. He senses—and sees—nothing when they step into the small living quarters, and then Elias flips on the lights. Benzion doesn’t jump—he knew something of what to expect, after all—but still the sight is unnerving.
“Does she always look like that?” he asks, managing somehow to keep his voice steady. Elias nods.
“So I don’t keep the lights on much when she’s around,” he says with a small shrug. “She’s not usually so vivid, though.”
Benzion checks his watch. It’s three minutes to midnight.
“The baby’s crying,” he murmurs, and indeed, Elias’s ghost seems as though she is looking for something. She paces the room, back and forth next to the wall Elias’s cabin shares with Benzion’s. She’s wearing an outfit Benzion can’t make out fully in this light, but he does take notice of her boots—at least a century out of date, if he’s any judge. And then there’s the odd angle of her neck, and her wide, bulging eyes.
“Henry,” Benzion calls, “I don’t suppose there’s a record of a colonist hanging herself in this room.”
“Not that I can find, Captain,” Henry answers, “but suicides accounted for approximately ten percent of the deaths that occurred on spaceships during the colonization period.”
“Christ,” Elias mutters.
“My ghost can’t move,” Benzion says, “but yours can.”
“Opening the door does nothing. I’ve tried that. She won’t leave this room. And even if she could, where would she go? We’re in space.”
Clearly, Elias hasn’t drawn the same conclusion that Benzion has—that over a century ago, this mother’s child died on the way to Mars, and her grief consumed her before she made it to the planet herself.
“She won’t go through the door because she won’t leave her baby, and this is the closest she’s been able to get to him,” Benzion says, tilting his head pointedly in the direction of his own cabin. “But this wall, this wasn’t part of the original construction. We could probably take it down fairly easily.”
Elias casts a skilled engineer’s eye over the wall.
“Probably,” he agrees after a moment. “I’d need a few things from the machine shop and another pair of hands, but it shouldn’t be too difficult. Can you spare a couple of hours?”
Benzion grins and gets a certain amount of relish out of saying, “I’m all yours.”
The ghost fades sometime during first shift, Elias has learned, so they wait until then to begin their work. Benzion drinks another two cups of coffee and starts to seriously wonder if his heart is going to beat right out of his chest. Elias, collected as ever, chews three toothpicks down to nothing and drinks two glasses of scotch while he watches the ghost pace a metaphorical hole into his carpet. Eventually, the ghost fades to the point that they can’t see her even with the lights on full, and that’s when they set to work.
More than a few of the crew stick their heads into the cabin, drawn by the noise that dismantling a wall makes. They watch Elias and Benzion for a while, shrug, and go on their way. Even though the ship is only a couple of weeks out of port, most of the crew has already learned that their captain and their engineer/doctor are an unusual sort, even for those who choose a life in space, and they have long ago stopped questioning just what, exactly, they’re up to.
“We didn’t really think this through,” Benzion grunts as they haul a section of durasteel out into the corridor, dumping it on top of the rest.
“No?” Elias seems unconcerned as ever. He pops a fresh toothpick into his mouth and says, “How d’you figure?”
Benzion drags the back of his hand across his forehead. “Won’t this affect the structural integrity of the ship?”
Elias gives him a wounded look. “You think I wouldn’t’ve thought of that by now? I’m an engineer, Benzion, for Christ’s sake.”
“Thought about what you’ll do with it all, then?” He gestures at the growing heap of scrap metal.
Elias shrugs. “Figure something out. I always do,” he says. “You know how old this ship is. She needs new deck plating, and something to reinforce the weak spots in the hull. This’ll come in handy.”
The last of the wall comes down with a clang that reverberates through the deck. Benzion winces, and down the corridor someone shouts at them through their cabin wall to keep it down, damn it.
“Could’ve planned that better,” he mutters, and Elias shrugs.
“Got the job done, didn’t it?” he says. And as usual he’s right. Second shift has come and gone, and it’s creeping toward midnight.
Benzion surveys the cabins, or cabin, rather, taking in the utter mess they’ve made. Sweat has long since dried on his skin, making it tacky, and every now and again he catches a whiff of himself and grimaces.
“Did you finish that scotch?” he asks, and Elias presses the half-empty bottle into his hand in answer.
Darkness has always been a comfort. Light brings out the ghosts—even if they are harmless, he still knows they’re echoes of the long-dead, which in itself can be an unsettling thought. But darkness means safety and peace, because even if the ghosts are there—and the ghosts are always there—they at least aren’t visible.
Benzion can’t remember the last time he felt such trepidation while lying awake in the complete darkness of his cabin, but his heart trips uncomfortably against the inside of his ribcage as the glowing numbers of his clock creep toward midnight. He has no way of knowing whether the ghost in Elias’s cabin left her spot by the now non-existent wall to find her child, or even if that was her child. It might have all been for nothing.
Elias, of course, is fast asleep, because the man can sleep through anything untroubled. Lips parted, he snores lightly against Benzion’s bare shoulder. At five minutes to midnight, Benzion tenses, muscles cramping from head to toe as he strains to listen—but there is nothing.
Complete and utter silence.
Midnight comes and goes, and he lets out a shuddering breath as the ship’s clock ticks over from one day to the next. Perhaps he was right after all.
He closes his eyes, hopeful that he’ll drift off even with the lingering adrenaline thrumming through his limbs. And then he hears a sound that has no earthly origin, that certainly doesn’t come from him, and his eyes snap open again, heart racing.
“… and when all the stars in the sky have—”
He digs an elbow into Elias’s side, and Elias wakes with a grunt.
“Listen,” Benzion whispers.
Elias is silent for some seconds. Even his chest doesn’t rise and fall, like he’s holding his breath. “It’s her,” he says finally. After a pause, he adds, “I’ve never heard her sing before.”
“The baby’s not crying,” Benzion murmurs.
“Looks like you were right after all, Cap.” Elias’s voice is softer, thicker, like he’s about to drop off again at any moment. He rolls over, and Benzion feels his warmth all along his side.
“It’s not the first time,” Benzion murmurs, but Elias has already fallen asleep again.
Benzion follows him not long after, lulled into the first peaceful rest he’s had in ages by the lilting soprano, and sleeps like the dead.