Ghosts of Earth (2020)
By Curtis C. Chen
I sensed the vibration—what would have been sound if I’d had ears—but couldn’t tell what it was. Ten years since we all died and became these weird energy ghosts, and I still couldn’t see through walls. Freaking annoying.
“Frank!” I cast down the corridor of the alien ship. “What’s happening in there?”
There was no way to tell if he had received the message I cast. The vibration was gone now. Had it been a door opening? Or closing? Something falling to the deck?
“Frank!” I called again, more energetically this time. Maybe the alien ship material was dampening our casts?
I considered leaving my post at the opening to the ventilation shaft. Whether or not I was guarding this square hole wasn’t going to make or break the operation. We knew the aliens couldn’t see us. If they could, they would have landed right next to one of our camps, or done something besides just sit around in their ship for days.
There were ten different vent shafts that led into the main corridor of the ship. Other ghosts had done the recon and mapped this whole place out already. Even if we got jammed up here, we could fly out one of the other openings. Me waiting around when Frank might need help was stupid.
I nudged myself sideways, drifting over to the intersection so I could see down the adjoining corridor. As soon as I cleared the corner, I saw Frank barreling toward me, his normally soft glow spiked with pinpoints of fear.
“Run!” he shouted at me. “Get out of the—“
Behind him, two aliens charged into the corridor. They didn’t look like I expected. I knew from others’ descriptions that they were lizard-like humanoids, but their heads looked really bulbous and shiny. Then I realized they were wearing helmets. And body armor.
One of the aliens held up a device, a flat disk with a short handle. The disk was translucent, and it glowed with moving lines and symbols, like a radar lollipop.
That alien said something to the other alien, who hefted a long tube with bumps all along the side, buttons on top, two handles on the bottom, and a long flat extension in the back which rested on the alien’s shoulder. It couldn’t have been anything but a weapon.
The first alien shouted something, and the second alien fired. A small projectile emerge from the front of the rifle, moving much slower than I had expected. Was that a wire trailing behind it?
Then the projectile exploded, creating an energy bloom nearly five feet across and causing a thunderclap of sound. It actually hurt for me to sense it. The explosion radiated all across the EM spectrum, and as I watched, it set the air itself on fire and burned through Frank’s sphere, tearing his energy apart. He cast out something I couldn’t understand. Then he was gone.
“Calm down, Katie,” Stewart said to me after I got back to camp. I didn’t like him much, but he was the leader of the hawks around here, and Frank and I were supposed to report back to him after we completed our haunting.
“Don’t tell me to calm down!” I made sure my cast had enough energy to reach everyone in the camp. “They killed Frank! He’s gone! Fucking dead!”
“Just tell us what happened,” Stewart said.
I told them about the rifle and the projectile and the energy blast. A few of the other ghosts began buzzing, not quite casting but starting to radiate their emotions. Sometimes it’s useful to be able to literally see into other people’s minds. They believed me, even if Stewart didn’t.
“How did the aliens know where to aim this... disruptor rifle?” he asked.
“They had another device!” I described the radar lollipop. The buzzing around us increased.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Stewart said. “Why didn’t they start shooting as soon as we started haunting them?”
Dale floated in to join our conference. I liked Dale. He didn’t treat me like a kid. He called me “Kate” instead of “Katie,” and he was always willing to listen to what I had to say.
You’d think that after all humans on Earth were stripped of their bodies and reduced to coherent energy patterns in an alien-terraformed atmosphere, prejudices like sexism and ageism would disappear pretty quickly. But most people still treat me like a girl, even though I’m a twenty-three-year-old woman. Or I was when I died.
“The aliens couldn’t see us before,” Dale said. “What Kate described sounds like some kind of handheld scanner. Like night vision goggles, or a thermal imaging device.”
“Yes! Exactly!” I said. “Except this thing detects us.”
“If they can detect us, why didn’t they do anything when they first landed?” Stewart asked. “Or why didn’t they whip out one of these hand-scanners immediately when we started haunting them?”
“Those are all good questions,” Dale said. “Kate. This—rifle, I guess we’re calling it. Did it look like a manufactured item? Something that had been produced ahead of time, not something the aliens cobbled together on short notice?”
I thought for a moment. “Yeah. Definitely manufactured.” I described what I could remember of the shape.
“So,” Dale said, “the aliens have pre-built scanners and weapons specifically designed to be used against ghosts, but they didn’t break them out when they first landed. If they knew we were here, then they chose to ignore us.”
“They didn’t think we would be a threat,” I said.
“Surprise,” Dale said. I thought I sensed a bit of playfulness in his cast. It’s hard to tell with less forceful emotions; every ghost radiates a little differently. “Those first few hauntings must have really freaked them out.”
“And now they’re looking to kill us,” Stewart said. “Frank really screwed up.”
“Hey!” I pushed my sphere up against Stewart’s, making the air sizzle where our energies started interfering. It was hella uncomfortable, but he backed off before I did. Win. “We did exactly what you told us to, Stewie.” I knew he hated that nickname. “We went in through the vent and headed straight for the power plant. They caught Frank before he could finish the job.”
“It’s not their fault, Stewart,” Dale said. “We’ve been haunting these aliens for days. They must have suspected something after all those unexplained equipment failures. It was only a matter of time.”
“Well, now what?” Stewart said. “We can’t send anyone else in there now. The whole plan is ruined.”
“You know what we have to do,” Dale said.
Stewart glimmered in a variety of unhappy colors—if you could call them that—and spun in place for a while.
“Come on. This was never a long-term strategy,” Dale said. “We just wanted to scare the aliens a little.”
“We could have scared them away,” Stewart said. “Scared them off our damn planet.”
“Maybe, if they hadn’t turned out to have anti-ghost weapons. That’s clearly not an option now.” Dale cast a little louder, for the crowd. “It’s time to go talk to the doves.”
The first alien crystal fell on Los Angeles ten years ago, in the middle of rush hour, killing thirty-two people. Caltrans spent an hour trying to move the enormous mass before it drilled itself into the ground and disappeared.
Two hours later, another crystal fell into the Pacific Ocean. The Navy sent a submarine to track it, but they couldn’t go deep enough. Three hours after that, another crystal went into the water. Then a fourth one just south of Japan, causing a tsunami, killing more people.
What we didn’t know then is that the aliens weren’t trying to kill us. Not yet. Not really.
Somebody noticed that all four crystals had impacted on the same line of latitude, moving west. Governments evacuated cities down the line while the bombardment continued, every three hours, like clockwork: China, Iraq, Algeria, the Atlantic Ocean, South Carolina.
Then the tenth crystal hit off the coast of Mexico. They were moving south.
Five days later, the last crystal fell into the ocean west of Peru. There were one hundred and eight giant alien objects buried in the Earth’s crust, arranged in a precise grid circling the equatorial region of our planet. The aliens had parked their ship in space and let Earth itself rotate each target into position for them. Lazy bastards.
Research teams in eight different countries crawled down the tunnels drilled by the crystals, trying to determine their composition or purpose. At least one team was broadcasting when the crystals started burning. I was watching their livestream, and I remember feeling totally helpless.
The world burned for almost a year. Most animals and plants—anything that breathed air—died within the first day. The crystals didn’t just raise the temperature; they also caused chemical changes, ionizing and transforming the air. Making it into a home for ghosts.
The crystal fire destroyed our bodies, but the new atmosphere held on to our minds—some say souls, or spirits. Whatever. Nobody really understands it. We just know we’re still here. And we’re not happy about what these aliens have done to our planet.
It’s been ten years, but some of us are still pretty damn bitter. Some of us.
Dale led the way up the slope to the nearest dove camp. They’d been shadowing us for a few months now, not getting too close or interfering with anything we did, but always keeping an eye on us.
Every now and then, one of the hawks would roll up to a dove and hassle him for a little while, but nothing ever came of it. Physical violence is pretty much a thing of the past. We can poke at each other’s energy spheres, but we can’t actually hurt one another. That’s one good thing about being ghosts, I guess: no more random punching.
I moved up close to Dale and cast at a low level, so only he would receive me. “You really think they’ll help us?”
“It can’t hurt to ask,” Dale replied. “Besides, we have important new information to share.”
“How come you’re with the hawks anyway?” I asked. “I mean, I like having you here and all, but you seem entirely too reasonable to be hanging around these meatheads.”
“Have you tried sitting in the same place your entire life?” Dale said. “It’s boring as hell. At least hawks do some exploring.”
I couldn’t argue with that. As a rule, doves seemed to avoid not just conflict, but any type of meaningful activity. I could understand the purpose of meditating to get away from the physical distractions of your body, but when your whole being is mind energy? Doing nothing just seems gratuitously lazy.
We came over the ridge and saw a single dove resting on top of a flat rock. That was unusual. We’d seen this camp swell to over three dozen souls in the past month, as the doves spread their gospel of doing nothing all day.
Dale approached the lone dove and introduced us. “Where’s the rest of your camp? We need to talk.”
The dove—Owen, he called himself—shimmered and glowed a little brighter. “They have retreated.”
“Retreated? From what?” I asked.
“We observed your plans to attack the aliens,” Owen said. “My fellows did not wish to be present when they retaliated.”
“So why are you still here?”
“I wanted to see what happened.” Owen lifted off the rock and floated in the air. “I felt you deserved a witness, no matter how foolish your actions might be.”
“You were not wrong,” Dale said. He explained about the alien’s scanners and weapons.
“Thank you for the warning,” Owen said. “Have the aliens left their ship?”
“We didn’t stick around to find out,” I said.
“We were hoping you could take a look for us,” Dale said.
The one thing doves have over hawks is enhanced perception. We’re all still figuring out how to tune our new electromagnetic senses to approximate our old senses—sight was the most straightforward, but we haven’t worked out taste or touch yet. Things that don’t translate directly into electrical impulses aren’t really accessible to us anymore.
Anyway, sitting around doing nothing all day apparently gives the doves a lot of time to hone their senses and become attuned to the literal energies around them and all that New Age crap that actually is sort of real now. They can’t move as quickly or precisely as hawks, but they can see a lot more.
Owen raised himself into the air with maddening slowness. I might have offered to get under him and push, but I didn’t want to risk irritating our new friend. He hung up there for a moment, then slowly drifted back.
“Well?” I asked before he touched down on the rock again.
“They’re coming,” he said.
I’ve always been fast. I used to be a runner, back when I still had a body. Loved waking up early, lacing up my sneakers, popping in my AirPods, and jogging through hazy morning sunlight while rocking some tunes.
I didn’t have the music anymore, but I still liked to move. And as a ghost, I could fly.
Moving around after the burn turned out to be easier than anyone expected. This new atmosphere is some kind of “gaseous capacitance medium,” according to Dale, so our spheres can actually project a small amount of energy to push off the resting charge of the ionized air itself. Or something like that. Dale explains it a lot better than I can.
Frank and I and the other ghosts doing the first hauntings had been chosen because we could move the fastest, with the best control. Turn on a nickel, stop on a dime, and give you change. We were the runners.
Now, I hovered in front of a patch of purple alien shrubbery, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Frank. I hadn’t known him that well. We’d practiced our haunt together, every day for a week before we went into the ship, and now he was gone. Completely gone. Not just incorporeal, not just a ghost—Frank didn’t exist anymore. And the people who did that to him were walking up on me.
It had been tough at first, getting used to the idea of not having a body. I heard it drove a lot of people insane, because they just couldn’t deal with the strangeness: never having to eat or sleep, not being able to touch anything, not having any kind of physiological feedback. But most of us figured it out. And then we’d gotten used to feeling, well, immortal, I guess. Until today.
I couldn’t tell if the two aliens I saw inside the ship were among the group of six now headed up the slope toward me. Two of them waved their lollipop scanners around, and the other four carried disruptor rifles. But these rifles looked different than the one I saw before. I cast behind me to tell Dale and Owen.
“There’s some kind of extra attachment,” I said. “On the underside of the cylinder, between the two handholds.”
“Ammunition, maybe?” Dale said. “They could have used their sensors to find us. They probably know there’s an entire camp of ghosts out here.”
“This had better work,” I said.
Owen had told us where the doves were hiding, and Stewart had taken the rest of the hawks to join them. Dale and Owen and I had stayed behind to figure out if we could disable the alien scanners or weapons the same way we’d been screwing up their electronics.
The plan was for me to run faster than the aliens could shoot, making a distraction so Dale could sneak up and try to fry their gear while Owen watched with his X-ray vision. It all depended on me being faster than their shooters.
We hadn’t exactly had time to work out a Plan B.
“You just stay clear of those disruptor blasts, Kate,” Dale said. “You said the projectiles were slow enough for you to see them coming, right?”
“Yeah. Assuming these are the same kind of rifles.”
“Get them to shoot toward the mountains, and I’ll come up behind them and zap their equipment. Rifle first, then scanner. If I’m lucky I can get both in one sweep.”
One of the scanner aliens shouted and waved at his companions. He made more noises, then pointed directly at me. The rifle alien next to him got down on one knee and aimed his weapon.
“They’re shooting?” I cast in a flare of anxiety. “From way back there?” They couldn’t have been halfway up the slope.
“Fifty feet,” Owen said, “give or take.”
“Shit!” I could feel myself vibrating, wanting to move, not sure which way to go. “What do we do? Dale—“
“Push Owen!” Dale said. “Push him back, then run! Stick to the plan!”
I forced myself backward, through the plant, and felt the familiar prickling interference as the edge of my sphere repelled Owen. I pressed against him and shoved, hard, until I was sure he was moving, then propelled myself up and away at a forty-five-degree angle.
As I sailed upward, the purple shrub exploded with light and noise—more than I’d sensed in the ship when they shot Frank. I saw the aliens knocked back on their heels, even fifty feet away. What the hell were they shooting at us now?
While we’d been waiting to spring our trap, Dale had rambled on about his theory on how the disruptor rifles worked: he thought it was something like an EMP, an electromagnetic pulse, except instead of inducing destructive current in electronics—what we’d been doing to the alien ship—the rifle projectiles overloaded the atmosphere itself within a small area, making it impossible for a ghost to exist there.
I didn’t care how it worked. I just didn’t want to die again.
It took me a moment to spot Dale, skimming the ground and circling around to the other side of the aliens. I stayed in the air and cast as energetically as I could to draw their fire.
“Hey! Up here!” I shouted. “Come on, follow the bouncing ball, you stupid invading reptiles!”
Owen’s cast collided into me. “The aliens are preparing to fire again.”
I kept moving, and looked around but couldn’t see him. “Where are you?”
“Underground,” Owen said.
If I had still had a jaw, it would have been hanging open. “How the hell—“
“Later,” he said. “Drop straight down! Now!”
I flew straight down, right through the projectile and its trailing wire, and missed the blast by half a second at most. I hit the ground and scooted away from the line of aliens, skimming the dirt in a zig-zag pattern in front of them. If they were watching me, they wouldn’t notice Dale.
“Thanks!” I cast in all directions. Could Owen actually move while he was underground? Could he teach the rest of us that trick?
“I’ve got a clear shot! Going in!” Dale called.
I swung myself back up in a wide arc, making sure one of the scanner aliens was still tracking me. All six were still facing me. Dale charged straight at them. I could guess his trajectory. He was going to pass through the shoulder of one alien, hitting that one’s rifle and then the next one’s scanner.
Except he didn’t. He ran right into the alien’s shoulder and bounced off, spiraling up into the sky. One of the scanners began beeping loudly, and the alien holding it turned and pointed at Dale’s sphere. Another raised a rifle to follow.
Dale wobbled in the air, righting himself and drifting upward, not nearly fast enough. His sphere seemed to flicker. “Kate? What happened?”
“Get out of there!” I shouted at him. “MOVE!”
His light steadied just before I heard the pop of an alien rifle below me. The projectile flew straight up, as if it were chasing Dale, but slowed before reaching him and fell back down right before exploding. The edge of the blast missed him by what looked like an inch or two.
Thank God for gravity.
“Don’t know… what happened,” Dale said. His cast was blurry. “Must be… shielded armor?”
“That would explain why it appears so reflective,” Owen said. “It must be a passive repulsor of energies.”
“What about the guns? And the scanners?” I shouted down at the ground. “Do they look like the armor too?”
Owen hesitated before answering. “Yes.”
“Makes sense,” Dale said. “Anti-ghost weapons would need to be ghost-proof.”
“Shit!” I turned and headed back up the hill, hoping I was high enough to be out of the aliens’ weapons range. “Okay, time for Plan B: let’s get the fuck out of here!”
“How the hell are they doing this?”
“Who cares? How do we get away?”
“If we run they’ll hunt us down!”
The cave was crowded with ghosts, and a good number of us were literally bouncing off the walls. It was like a pinball machine gone crazy, but worse—the static of dozens of minds radiating emotion, like heat waves coming off a traffic jam of overtaxed engines.
I did my best to avoid the worst of it, which also helped me work off some of my own nervous energy. In a crowd like this, dodging ripples of unfocused, unguided emotion isn’t just a matter of getting away; the expanding bubbles of happy or sad or whatever interfere with each other and send new ripples off in every direction. Like tossing a handful of pebbles into a pond, except in three dimensions, and you’re floating right in the middle of the turbulence.
Dale and Stewart were doing most of the arguing while other ghosts swirled around them and narrowcast their own opinions into the fray. I kept an eye on the spillover and danced out of the way of anything that looked too overwhelming. It’s easy to eavesdrop on other ghosts, but most of time you don’t want to.
My bopping around gradually brought me closer to the floor of the cave, and I noticed some people clustered in one corner. I spotted Owen and went over to him.
“Hey,” I said. “Can you show me how to do that trick? Going underground?”
Owen drifted up to my level. “It’s really not that difficult. When the aliens burned the sky, their crystals also altered the fundamental composition of—“
“I don’t need a science lesson,” I said. “Just show me how you move underground. I’ve tried it before, but I can’t pass through solid objects. I thought we could only travel through air.”
“It’s true, this new atmosphere is our natural home,” Owen said, “but everything around us has changed. Did you ever stop to wonder why we became ghosts?”
“Because the aliens killed us.”
“They didn’t kill us?” He was starting to annoy me. “Am I going to wake up in a little while and see Auntie Em?”
“What I mean is, our deaths were a side effect.” Owen radiated patience. “The alien crystals transformed the basic chemistry of the Earth and everything on it, including our human bodies. Perhaps we were not killed, but merely freed.”
“You’re just messing with me now, aren’t you?” I made a point of casting right into the center of his sphere, where he would be sure to feel my irritation. “Look, I’m not going to join your dove cult, so you can spare me the metaphysical bullshit. If you don’t want to show me your trick, just say so.”
“I’m sorry for being long-winded,” Owen said, “but you have to understand how this works. It’s not about doing something. It’s about not doing anything.”
“If you tell me I have to become one with the ground, I’m going to smack you.”
Owen radiated something that might have been a chuckle. “I’ll rephrase it. You must... allow yourself to exist differently.”
“Remember what I said about smacking you?”
“This isn’t easy for me either, Kate. We don’t have the vocabulary to describe all the new things we have to deal with now.” Owen’s sphere fuzzed out a little, the same way I’d seen other ghosts do when they were deep in thought. “The doves taught me a lot about expanding my senses. It’s like meditation, except you don’t want to clear your mind; you want to focus inward and just... receive. Be passive.”
Just thinking about it made me squirm. “I think I could handle maybe ten seconds of that before going crazy.”
“The first few times are the hardest,” Owen said. “Come on, let’s find a quiet corner and you can practice sitting still. It’s not always about moving fast.”
“This is all about moving fast,” Stewart said, with his usual manic intensity. “And you’re the fastest one here, that’s why we’re asking you.”
“I’m the most expendable,” I said. “That’s why you’re asking me.”
I glared at Dale. I hadn’t expected him to ever agree with Stewart on anything, much less this suicide mission.
“Kate,” Dale said, “if we could think of another way, we’d try that. But now that the aliens know we’re a threat, they’re not going to leave us alone.”
“So your solution is to kill them all?”
“It’s them or us, man!” Stewart’s sphere wasn’t actually any bigger than mine, but it still felt like he was looming over me. “Are you going to let them kill everybody here? All your friends? Your family?”
“My family’s dead,” I said.
Dale nudged himself forward. “Stewart? Could you give me a moment alone with Kate?”
Stewart spun away, radiating annoyance. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
I waited until he was on the other side of the cave, well out of eavesdropping distance, then narrowcast at Dale. “What the hell’s going on? Since when do you agree with hawk-guy?”
“We don’t have a lot of options,” Dale said. “I still think we can find a way to communicate with these aliens. But we can’t do anything if they’re hunting us down. We need to buy some time. Make them think twice about coming after us.”
“By killing them.”
“They killed us.” I’d never sensed anger from Dale before. “All of us. Nearly seven billion human beings. It’s a miracle we didn’t start a war as soon as they landed.”
“Maybe we did,” I said. “We don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the planet. Maybe that’s why they broke out the guns.”
“Speculating doesn’t do us any good,” Dale said. “We have to work with what we know. And we know these particular aliens, in that ship down the hill, are looking for us. Our lookouts tell us they’re sending out more patrols, sweeping wider areas. It’s only a matter of time before they find us. We know what happens then.”
“What about the prime numbers thing? We could try that—“
“Kate.” Dale knew exactly how to make me feel dumb without being mean about it. “We didn’t decide this easily or quickly. A lot of people have hashed this out over the past few days, while you were hanging out with the doves.”
“I wasn’t hanging out,” I said. “They were teaching me.”
“Okay.” I could tell he wasn’t listening. “But we need your help now, Kate.”
“I don’t like it,” I said. “I don’t want to kill anyone.”
“They killed Frank,” Dale said. “You said they killed him in cold blood.”
Not being able to close your eyes really sucks. “Yeah.”
“And what happened to your family—“
Not being able to glare also sucks. “We’re not talking about that.”
“We just need to buy some time,” Dale said softly. “We just want to give them pause. Keep them at bay. It’s not only this one ship, Kate. There are dozens, maybe hundreds more—“
“Okay, okay, I’ll do it!” I made sure he could see I wasn’t happy about it. “But this ‘run faster than they can shoot’ plan is stupid. I have a better way to get inside their ship.”
Years ago, when I still had a body, my father took me scuba diving. I thought it would be like swimming. It wasn’t. I completely freaked out. Being submerged like that, not just a few feet underwater like in a pool, but way down there on the ocean floor, with water pressing against my ears and the sound of the regulator filling my head—I totally lost my shit. Didn’t even feel embarrassed about it until later.
Owen was right about being underground. Just like scuba diving, it’s not getting there that’s the hard part—it’s staying there. Learning how to meditate wasn’t actually that hard, with Owen’s calm voice guiding me. But I swear, the first time I sank into the ground, it felt like—I don’t know, like my energy sphere was hardening into a brittle shell. I popped out right away. I might also have been casting something like a panicked scream.
According to Owen, the weird sensations are caused by ionization, because the energy that makes up ghost-me is actually bonding to the matter—like it normally bonds to our new air, but solid objects are much denser. It took me a couple of days to get over that crazy weird feeling of being stiffened and compressed at the same time, and I could actually hide underground.
Moving around took a little longer to figure out, but I got that too. It wasn’t like moving through air, which was like swimming, pushing against the medium; moving through the ground was all about relaxing and letting the medium pull me in one direction. Owen called it “seeping.”
The only problem with being underground was that I couldn’t see through to the surface. Owen could, thanks to his years of being one with everything, so he guided me out of the cave, under the patrolling aliens, and down to where the alien ship was still parked.
“Good luck,” he said as I floated up from underground and positioned myself below one of the ship’s ventilation ports.
“Thanks,” I said, then paused before going in. “Aren’t you going to lecture me about how I shouldn’t do this?”
“Do you want me to?”
I wanted to smile at him. “I’ll see you soon, Owen.”
He disappeared into the ground, and I squeezed myself into the vent.
Dale and Stewart had made me memorize the sequence of turns to get to the ship’s engine room. One of the other ghosts had mapped it out on an earlier haunt.
My plan was pretty simple: get into the ship, get to the engine room, zap anything that looked important until the power plant overloaded. Once that happened, I would run like hell to escape the blast. I actually felt pretty good about that part, now that I had successfully snuck into the ship. The later the aliens realized I was here, the less time they’d have to shoot at me.
I was almost to the engine room when I saw a shiny metal grid crisscrossing the vent shaft. That was odd. I hadn’t seen any others like it on the way in, and why would they need a grate inside the vent?
I crept up to it slowly. As soon as I got within a few inches, I felt a familiar tingling at the edge of my sphere, pushing against me.
A ghost-proof barrier. Just like the alien body armor.
I couldn’t pass through that. Maybe I could seep around it, through the walls of the vent? But I wouldn’t be able to see where I was going. I’d have to reorient myself wherever I popped out. And what if there were aliens with guns in the random location where I chose to emerge?
I backtracked along the vent shaft, returning to the last opening I’d seen, into what looked like a storage room. The aliens hadn’t ghost-proofed this grate. Probably nothing vital in here that a ghost could mess up.
I had memorized the layout of the ship—as much as we’d been able to scout out previously. I still had four more turns in the vent shaft before reaching the engine room; that probably translated to twice as much distance through the main corridors. But I was fast. And now I had the seeping trick, so I could hide if I needed to.
After a moment to psych myself up, vibrating in place, I pushed through the grate and into the storage room. There were two doors on adjoining walls. I picked the one farthest from the vent and seeped through.
I had expected to end up in a corridor, but instead I was in another room. The first thing I noticed, before I registered anything in the visible spectrum, was that the air felt… different. I’d gotten used to a feeling of expansion when I emerged from ground back into air, my sphere re-bonding to the less-dense medium, but I hadn’t felt that when I came into this room. Was the air thicker in here?
And then I saw the other ghost.
It wasn’t human. I could tell that right away. The colors were all wrong, and it flickered like a campfire. But it was definitely a ghost. An alien ghost? What the hell?
Then I realized that the ghost wasn’t actually in the air—it was contained inside some kind of transparent round vessel, like a crystal ball.
No. The material was just like one of the crystals that had rained down on Earth. It was a smaller version of one of the crystals that had burned us all to death.
The sphere of the ghost moved from side to side and up and down inside the crystal, making little flashes appear whenever it made contact. And there were glowing symbols marked on the crystal surface. Was this alien ghost—working some sort of control panel?
Something made a noise on the other side of the room. I turned my attention away from the ghost inside the crystal ball and saw an alien standing behind a console, wearing a visor that glowed in the same spectrum as their lollipop radars.
The alien made another noise and pointed at me.
I ran for it. Didn’t even try to sneak back out the vent, just pushed straight up through the ship and then made a beeline for the cave. I might have gloated about setting a new speed record if I hadn’t been so freaked out.
“Slow down,” Dale said.
“Am I suddenly speaking a different language?” I said, spinning with agitation. “Four different patrols out there! I wasn’t exactly stealthy on my way back here, they tracked me right in, we have to leave, now!”
I wasn’t talking to Dale. He and Stewart had already sounded the alarm, and the hawks were jetting out of the cave in small groups. I was talking to Owen and his small band of newly converted doves, who were still just sitting there.
“We can hide,” Owen said. “We’d only slow you down anyway. Go. We’ll be safe until the aliens leave.”
“What if they never leave?”
“We can travel underground. We’ll be fine.”
“Goddammit, Owen!” I dropped down to the ground. “I don’t want to lose anybody else I care about.”
I couldn’t read his emotions at all. “I’m sorry, Kate. I can’t abandon my people.”
At that moment, I hated him and I loved him and I didn’t care if everyone within fifty feet could see those emotions boiling off my sphere like steam. “Fine. Stay here. I’ll be back soon.”
I zipped out of the cave, brushing past the latest group of escaping ghosts. One of the alien patrols was moving slowly through some underbrush but getting awfully close. I didn’t have much time.
I focused below me and saw Dale chasing me. I slowed my ascent so he could catch up.
“What are you doing, Kate?” he asked.
“I’m finishing the job,” I said. “Back to the ship, into the engine room, and zap every damn control until the power plant overloads.”
“That’s a suicide run.”
“Oh, like it wasn’t before? Get the hell out of here, Dale.”
“I can’t let you—“
“You’re the one who gave me this stupid idea!” I increased my speed and widened the gap between us. “I’ll stay up here, out of the aliens’ weapons range, then dive-bomb the ship and blow the damn thing before they can line up a shot.”
“We can find another runner,” Dale said. “Please, Kate, you’re the only one who saw the alien ghost, or whatever it was, inside the ship. We need to talk about that, figure out what’s going on here.”
“I don’t care what they’re doing with their ghosts!” I screamed. “I just want these bastards to leave us alone, and if killing them is the only way to do that—“
“Please! Kate!” I had a moment to be surprised that Dale was actually still keeping up with me. “This could be a very important discovery. If that ghost was a creature from another planet, if these aliens are collecting souls or—“
“Shut up, Dale,” I said. “And unless you want to join me in the engine room, you’d better peel off now.”
He radiated frustration, then confusion. He slowed down, then came to a dead stop and hovered just short of the parked alien ship. “What the hell is that?”
I braked myself and looked down. A ramp had extended from one side of the ship, and there was a small cluster of aliens gathered at the bottom of the walkway, surrounding a piece of equipment. I recognized one of the aliens—it was the one who’d been in the lab with the trapped ghost, wearing radar goggles. And the equipment looked like another one of those crystal chambers.
I told Dale as much, and we both circled around the ship, watching as the aliens shouted and waved at each other.
“Looks like they’re arguing,” Dale said. “What about, I wonder?”
The goggle-wearing alien waved above his head, looked up, and did a double-take. He pointed straight at me and shouted even louder at the others.
One of the armed aliens raised his disruptor rifle. I shot upward, but before he could fire, Goggles knocked the rifle away. The charge went wild and exploded against the side of the ship.
Now the aliens were really angry. It looked like they were all arguing with Goggles, and Goggles was trying real hard to persuade one in particular, a tall lizard wearing a round collar.
“Maybe we should just leave,” I said. It didn’t look like I would be getting back inside the ship anytime soon.
“No, no,” Dale said. “They seem to be very interested in you.”
“Well, the one wearing the visor recognized you.”
“Great. My pal the mad scientist. What makes you think anything good is going to happen here?”
“He didn’t let them shoot you. That’s the first time we’ve seen them not try to kill us.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
Whatever Goggles was saying, it seemed to be getting through. Tall Boy helped calm down the rest of the armed aliens, then delivered a long monologue directly at Goggles. The smaller alien hopped from one foot to another the whole time, then replied with a short, loud burst of lizard-speak.
Tall Boy waved the other aliens back, and they formed a ragged circle around Goggles and his equipment, weapons down but at the ready. Goggles fiddled with the gear for a moment, then looked up and shouted at me and gestured emphatically.
“I think he wants you to go down there,” Dale said.
“And do what?” I asked.
“Maybe—if that’s the same kind of machine you saw inside the ship—maybe he wants you to... interface with it?”
“Oh, hell to the no! I am not crawling inside one of the fucking things that killed us!”
I don’t tell anyone how my family died. I don’t want to think about it, myself, but the memory’s always there, racing around my sphere, burning like a fuse.
I can’t forget seeing that crystal smash through the hood of our car, killing my father instantly and trapping the rest of us inside. I can’t forget the look on my mother’s and sister’s faces as they tried to free themselves, tried to save me. A hundred times a day, I see their bloodied hands go limp and slide apart.
A hundred times a day, I wonder why I didn’t die too.
If I’m running, if I’m flying, if I’m exerting, I’m too busy to think about it. If I have to worry about something in the present, I won’t have time to think about the past.
So I run. I know I can’t run away from it completely. I know that. I just need to keep it farther away.
Just a little farther away.
It took me a while to refocus, to notice that Dale was nudging me with his own sphere. I vibrated myself back to attention and said, “What?”
I turned my senses downward. Goggles was holding something in one hand, a small cylindrical device. He called to Dale and me, then pressed one end of the cylinder against his neck.
Tall Boy shouted and took a step forward. Goggles did something to the cylinder, and it made a clicking noise. Half a second later, Goggles crumpled to the ground, his entire body gone limp.
“What the hell?” I said.
“That was unexpected,” Dale said. “I thought that was going to be a translator device or something.”
One of the rifle-wielding aliens said something to Tall Boy, who barked in reply, causing the rifleman to cower. Everyone else seemed to be looking at Goggles.
The alien’s body started glowing, first red, then orange, then yellow and even white in some places. My senses aren’t as good as the doves’, but I can tell when something’s burning.
“Oh my God,” I said.
“Did he just—kill himself?” Dale asked.
“Why would he do that?”
As we watched, the glow consuming the alien’s body coalesced into a globe of light and floated upward. It became a swirling sphere of energy, radiating differently than either of us, but still unmistakably a ghost. Just like the one I’d seen inside the ship.
Goggles’ ghost drifted up toward us, bobbing unsteadily. As he approached our height, he radiated billows of unfamiliar emotion, then cast a wave that I perceived as something between a wail and a scream. There was meaning there, a definite structure, but nothing I could comprehend.
“Fuck me,” Dale said. “He’s a ghost!”
I looked at the aliens on the ground. They seemed just as confused as we were up here. Tall Boy didn’t seem happy. He was shouting up at Goggles.
“They’re all ghosts,” I said. “Just like we are.”
“So, what, he’s dead now?” Dale said.
“No,” I said, starting to understand. “He’s still here. And he can use that crystal—thing. They must have other ghost-enabled tools.”
Goggles cast something else, then drifted back downward. I knew where he was headed. I followed.
“Kate!” Dale called, not moving. “What are you doing?”
Goggles touched down on top of his equipment. He didn’t go into the crystal ball; he just bounced around on top of a flat white panel, making it light up each time he made contact. It took me a little while to understand what he was doing.
Two bounces. Pause. Three bounces. Pause. Then five, seven, eleven, thirteen…
Dale got it a moment later. “Prime numbers?”
“Hawks and doves,” I said. “We have factions; why wouldn’t they? We were unlucky enough to run into the hawks first. But this one’s a dove. He didn’t see us before. But now he knows. And he wants to talk.”
“We don’t know if that’s even possible,” Dale said.
“Let’s find out.”
I drifted down next to Goggles, who moved away from the touch panel. He had stopped at nineteen. I started with twenty-three.
Originally published on Curious Fictions, 2020.