A Catalog of Lights
by Anna Lewis
Issue 3: Knowledge | 2,087 words
She met Cheng-han in the crypt in the aftermath of another attack. It was cold; fans whirred to keep the stacks from overheating. “They didn’t steal anything?”
“No, but some hardware was damaged in the fight. It’s best if I show you.”
Their footsteps echoed as they walked between the stacks, passing between row after towering row. Jessica’s head swiveled as she took in the vast darkness towering above and around them, punctuated only by blinking status lights. Nowhere else in the ship was afforded such generous proportions, but it still felt cramped, full to the brim with souls ticking over.
There had been no deaths this time. A relief. Apart from anything else, they were running out of storage space.
“I was in the Medical Bay when you called,” she offered. “It’s taken them a long time to get used to working without Em’s leadership.”
“It’s been a year. They’re a capable team. I’m sure they’re doing good work.”
She hesitated. “And… you? Are you—”
“We’re almost there, your grace.” He stopped suddenly. Lights shone far to their left, beams filtering distantly down the narrow alley between the storage towers. “Your eyes will have adjusted now. You need to see before we join the others.”
She let this slide, only because they were still out of earshot of subordinates.
It was quiet, and dark, the kind of stillness that let her feel blood moving sluggishly in her veins. The stacks whirred all around her, that distinctive whisper of souls in the machine.
Out of the emptiness came a shape—humanoid, lifelike. It walked slowly in front of them, then disappeared further down the row before appearing again, in the same spot as before, repeating its motions over and over.
“What is that?”
“She died a few months ago—”
“I know who,” she hissed. “I can recognize the people stored in my own goddamn crypt.”
Cheng-han let out a long, tired breath, one he’d been holding in for a while.
At the breach, the entire wall had been levered away, allowing the crew to operate on a tangle of machinery that didn’t look like it should be exposed. Meters of wiring spilled out like so much technical offal. Interfaces were plugged into the wall, code spurting across their screens. They had jerry-rigged some emergency lanterns in a loose circle around the work site, but the wan glow did little to comfort.
“There’s no pattern so far.” The head technical officer was a wiry man, usually sprightly in staff meetings but now sombre. “We do know the ghosts tend to be close to their physical resting place.”
“Possibility of corruption?” Cheng-han was graphing the information they had so far on his tablet, trying to see a pattern. Jessica watched as he paused over a data point.
“Long-term, yes.” Cheng-han stared at the screen.
Jessica jumped in, rescuing him. “Can we fix it?”
“Unclear. It’s started to affect software.” The officer ran his fingers tenderly over the equipment as he spoke. “It’s broadcasting, essentially. The data isn’t meant to be read this way, not until it’s downloaded onto the universal network.”
“We won’t reach another major planet for months,” Cheng-han said.
Seven and a half, Jessica thought. “Can you give me a timeline? How long until irreparable damage?”
The officer considered. “A few weeks. But we’ll fix it before then. There’s a reason every other common brigand is desperate to steal our technology.” He laid a fond hand on the wiring. “Best in the universe. Lovely to work with.”
“Glad to hear it.” Jessica paused and watched the team beavering away at the damage. Beside her, Cheng-han hovered, clearly hoping this visit would be over with soon. She wasn’t done. “What kind of hours are you planning for this?”
“Constant,” Cheng-han said. “I’ve got several tech crew on shifts.”
“That’s a waste of resources.” She continued without responding to the other’s surprise. “We can’t risk exhaustion. I want you to schedule some downtime each day.”
“Your grace—” Cheng-han caught himself, but both of them were waiting for him to continue now, Jessica with her expression carefully marshaled. “If these souls get damaged before we can upload them then they’ll never have a proper grave. Once this information’s destroyed, it’s lost forever.”
“I understand the urgency. I’m the one with ultimate responsibility for bringing these souls to a safe harbor.” She shifted closer, not a full step, but enough to infringe on the boundaries of personal space. “I’m also responsible for ensuring that this city fulfills its voyage to the colonies with as many people as possible in one piece. That won’t happen if I’ve worn out my best crew panicking over a problem that will, in time, be solved.”
Cheng-han didn’t meet Jessica’s eyes. “I’ll send you the updated schedule.”
Soon the apparitions grew so strong that they looked almost corporeal. The crew had begun to report other occurrences, too. They heard voices, sometimes ones they recognized, laughter and shouting. One of them said he could smell his parents’ homemade soup, said he could tell how long the fish had been smoked for. His family plot lay close to the breach site. Jessica had taken him off the repair team, though he had begged to stay.
The reports were thorough, but it was something else to walk through this cavernous bank of wandering souls. The crypt was awfully lonely without anyone inside it.
Jessica crept through, torch low at her side, on her way to a place she had not been for a long time.
The voices that shouldn’t have been there echoed louder in the now cavernous emptiness. Without the sickly glow of low-power lighting, the ghosts looked more solid than ever before, as if the darkness afforded them mass.
A year is a long time.
Finally, she reached the grave. She was filled with a stillness that she’d cast off as a luxury in the busy world above. Here, she sat and waited.
Em manifested first as a glow at the edge of her vision. Jessica turned her head and there she was, solidifying into reality: a woman made of pale blue light, still dressed in the officer’s uniform she had died in.
“Hello,” Jessica whispered. The spirit didn’t respond. This was just a small clip of the vast reams of data that had been stored on Em’s death: a cache of memories. No interface. No consciousness to speak of.
This particular memory seemed to be of surgery. She was bent over, focusing ferociously, her hands moving with delicate precision. Jessica remembered her working like this in the aftermath of so many attacks. She was inexhaustible; never let anyone go who could be saved.
A startled “oh” interrupted her reverie. She turned to see Cheng-han, wrongfooted and surprised. He didn’t say anything, digesting the scene, but the guilt on his face softened into curiosity.
Jessica waved her hands, a what-can-you-do gesture. “I miss her too.”
He sat next to her, cautiously, as if her mood might change at any moment. “This is why you changed the shifts.” She nodded.
They both watched their dear dead woman operate on a patient who they couldn’t see. Jessica was fixated by the strands of hair that had escaped from her ponytail, by the mole above her lip, by the twitch of frustration when something went wrong.
When the ghost faded, Jessica broke the silence. “I thought you might come. I wasn’t sure.”
Moments later a laugh was echoing vibrantly around them, quiet then loud in the emptiness, unmistakably hers.
She glanced at Cheng-han and saw his cheeks glistening in the glow of the status lights. He stared straight ahead, his jaw set.
She stood up slowly. “I’ll leave you alone with her.”
When she reached the end of the row, she turned back to check on him. A small figure now in the long dark room, he had hunched down even smaller. She could no longer see his face.
He wasn’t always there. Sometimes she would arrive to empty stacks, and she would be the only breathing object in that whole stale room. There was a guilty pleasure in those times. She sat and let Em loop and loop and loop. The ghost liked work, reading, and laughing. It would be rare for Jessica to come down and find her doing anything else—once, a memory from long ago, a child fidgeting in school uniform; another time, an echo of singing, muffled by steam and the splash of water. Jessica hadn’t known that she sang in the shower.
When he was there, she wouldn’t stay for long. In life, they had known how to spend time together, all three of them, easily slipping between shared meals and long crew meetings. Now she could barely last ten minutes before she stood to leave again.
Three weeks in he said, “We’re fixing it tomorrow. Some final hardware work and a full rewrite overnight.”
“I haven’t authorized this.”
“You don’t need to. The crypt is my responsibility.” Em’s voice echoed all around them. It was difficult to make out the words, impossible now they’d started talking, but Jessica suspected that she was teaching the medical trainees, long before the start of their big trip out to the colonies. “We’re risking serious damage if we leave it any later. Once we stop the apparitions the data is safe.”
Jessica leaned back and closed her eyes. It was just her and Em’s distant voice and Cheng-han breathing. “You’re right,” she said. “Of course, you’re right.”
“You should be here for the shutdown.”
“I’ll come,” she said, and that was the last of it, though they spent almost an hour together in silence as Em’s ghost tumbled through iterations.
There was a lot of preparatory technical work for which the Captain was only minimally present. She found a spot at the edge of the light and whiled away time by checking their progress. Seven months until they would reach the last outpost. After that they’d strike out into the cosmos, heading for one of the many newfound settler planets, now sparsely populated and technologically rudimentary. Another year to get there, another two until they had capacity to access the graves stored on the planetary network.
They insisted she do the honors of initiating the rewrite. She refused, deferring to Cheng-han. “The crypt is his authority, really.” All he had to do was enter a few passwords and scan his ID. Lights blinked as he confirmed his intentions.
“It’ll take a few hours to degrade,” they explained as the little work camp was cleared up—emergency lights taken down and chairs folded for storage. “Then everything should get back to normal.”
When the rest of the team had left, they walked to Em’s grave with the last emergency light swinging in Jessica’s hand. She was there as she had always been for the last few weeks, absorbed in a book. They sat and switched the light off, the better to see her.
“At first I was angry with you,” Jessica said.
“What did I do?”
“I don’t know.” She watched Em turn a page, then, with a flicker, reset to the start of the loop. “When the ghosts appeared… she was the first thing I thought of.”
“I didn’t understand why you weren’t shouting. Why you didn’t insist on seeing her.”
“Me neither,” Cheng-han said. He wouldn’t look at her directly. “I almost didn’t come, that first night.”
Jessica reached out to the apparition. Her hand passed through nothing but light. Em kept reading, unperturbed. “I know why now.”
He looked at her abruptly, as if wounded. “Why?”
“It’s not her.”
Em faded. They were in darkness. A moment later a new ghost appeared, an Em who smiled deeply at something neither Cheng-han nor Jessica could see. She had always had the kind of smile that made people want to join in. As the rewrite set in, the image before them dimmed and swelled. Parts of it fizzled out, then reappeared in different orientations. They watched her face change. Now she was laughing. Now she was sad.
As the hours passed, neither of them moved. In the early hours Cheng-han fell asleep, at first fitfully and then for real, his body slumped against the stack. Jessica didn’t sleep. She kept watch through the night as the spirits broke down.
Anna Lewis makes stories, bad jokes,