Fiction: "A Ghost Story"

Story by Geoff Tuffli

++++ DATE 4.4.2469
++++ TIME 23:01 MST
++++ LOCATION Waka Ama shipyards around Makemake, in the Kuiper Belt

Hannah Taylor scrunched up her nose, the combination of dust and bright light causing her eyes to water and threatening a sneeze. She glanced surreptitiously behind to reassure herself that the others were still following her. After concluding to her satisfaction that none of them were straggling too far behind, she pressed on through the dark access tunnel, the dull thrum of the life support systems here only a distant rumble.

"Tutae kuri," muttered Liam Walker. "How much farther are we going, Hannah?"

"Pissing already?" Hannah retorted.

"No," Liam. "I'm no quitter."

"Good. Because..." Hannah paused, stopping at a T-junction. She clipped the light to a service line and pressed her hands to the panel in front of her. Grimacing, she pushed harder, and it moved with a pop. "We're here," she said triumphantly. "Everyone in!"

"About time," a girl named Anahera Hineira Kaa Singh muttered under her breath. Hannah glared daggers at her, and Anahera wilted, looking down at her feet as she ducked into the small room beyond.

"I can't see anything," complained someone.

As the last of the small troupe pushed in, Hannah grabbed the light and stepped in herself, securing the panel behind them. She reaffixed the light to the low ceiling above them, looking around the group. "Well?" she said. "What do you think?"

"What is this place?" Anahera asked, eyes darting around the blackness.

Hannah shrugged. "An old storage room, probably. It doesn't matter."

"It's pressurized, though, isn't it?" Liam asked diffidently.

"Obviously. Or we'd be dead." Hannah looked around at the five of them - three boys, three girls, including herself. "Don't look so worried. Nobody will look for us. It's nightcycle, and everyone is asleep, anyways."

Anahera put down the blanket she was carrying, sitting down gingerly. "This was actually a pretty good idea, Hannah. But what now?"

Hannah tossed her head as she took her own seat. "We tell ghost stories. That's what you're supposed to do when you do things like this."

"There are no ghosts in space," Anahera scoffed.

"You're wrong," Hannah said. "Oh, I'm not saying any ghosts followed our grandparents and great-grandparents when they came here from Earth. But we have ghosts of our own out here. Haven't you ever heard your parents talk about the Kehua Woman?"

"Pokokohua," Liam snorted. "You're such a liar, Hannah."

Hannah shrugged. "Like I care what you believe. Do you want to hear the story or not? Because my sister told me when she wasn't supposed to, and got into a ton of trouble for all it."

Liam exchanged a glance at one of the other boys. The other boy rolled his eyes. Liam turned back to Hannah. "Alright. Go ahead and tell it. But that doesn't mean I'm believing a word of it."

Hannah swept her hand in front of her. "Most of us have lived our whole lives up here in this station. We don't think anything of living in a shipyard, families with mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of shipyards throughout the solar system, but this one is special.

"This one is where we Makemakeans are continuing the work of the Last Diaspora. This one is where we are building something attempted by no other humans ever in all the history of humans. Here, on the outer edge of the solar system, all of our families - you, and you, and me and everyone else - are building the Waka Ama, the greatest ship ever built.

"Because the Waka Ama isn't just a spaceship - it's a starship. It will be bigger then half a dozen super dreadnoughts all stuck together, and in its belly will live generations. Our generations, our children, and our grandchildren, and our grandchildrens' grandchildren."

Hannah shook her head. "You all know this. I know this. But it needs to be said, because this is more than a thing that we do, this is a thing that we are. Our grandparents carried the Diaspora here to the edge of the solar system, but we will be the ones to leap into the endless black and carry on the Diaspora past anything that anyone has every dared before."

"I'm still not hearing anything about any ghost," Liam grumbled. Several of the others shushed him.

Hannah pretended she hadn't heard him. "Why am I saying this? I say this so you remember why where we are, what are doing here is so important. The people who came before us believed in this dream in a way beyond our own simple acceptance.

"Nineteen years ago," Hannah said. She paused suddenly, looking around the circle, stopping to hold the gaze of each of the boys and girls.

"Nineteen years ago, work on the Waka Ama had just begun. The slipway had been laid out, over two kilometers long, connected to the linked set of habitat rings from all the ships that had come out this far to Makemake, but weren't going to make their way back again to wherever they had come from. On the slipway, the superstructure for the great ship was being laid in clean prefabricated sections brought in from manufactories down on Makemake, or Pluto, or even Triton.

"The early days of construction were a true struggle. Delays, missing shipments, labor shortages. Many feared the Diaspora would end here, and never go farther. The Chief Engineer was a man named Manole. Now, I'm not going to say he was a good man, or a man well-liked, but without him the Waka Ama would never have been, so we have to give him that. His designs were daring, they were bold, they would not accept the limitations that others would put on him."

Hannah shook her head, the movement making the shadows play across her face. "For weeks Manole was tormented by bad dreams. He couldn't sleep, couldn't do anything but work on his masterpiece, this ship he had dedicated his life to. The problems kept growing worse. The air scrubbers in one of the transport tubes to the slipway stopped working, and since they could barely afford anything, they let it go. The O2 balance, well, it went bad, and there was a fire, and a lot of people died. There was talk about shutting down the project entirely.

"In Manole's dream, a man came to him and said: 'My name is Tagaro, and I want to help you. If you want the Waka Ama to sail through the black ocean, then you must give up to your creation someone valuable, someone beloved to you. A ship such as this needs a soul, for without that soul it will only be dead metal, and will someday betray you.' Night after night, Manole would have this dream. He would close his eyes, only to see the laughing eyes of this Tagaro mocking him.

"One day, not long after the fire, Manole called his wife to eat lunch with him there in the belly of the great Waka Ama. They laughed together and drank wine, when Manole suddenly exclaimed, 'Ana, let us play a game! I am going to build a fort around you from these polycrete panels.'

"Probably," Hannah said with a sad look, "Ana was too drunk to realize that Manole was not nearly as drunk as he himself was playing at, and so she agreed, laughing. The panels went up, and out, and around, until at last, Ana was all but closed in by the panels that were now epoxied to the Waka Ama's bulkhead. She must have felt a glimmer of fear then, for she cried out, 'Beloved, it is dark in here, and cold. Let me out.' Manole laughed and joked and shushed her to be quiet, and as he affixed the last panel he leaned towards her and murmured, 'Be still, and I will set you free in a moment.'

"And the darkness enveloped her, and despite the pounding of her fists on the polycrete walls, her desperate cries were in vain, and her husband Manole left that place, going back to his work, now comforted that his Waka Ama would live through the soul of his own beloved's.

"For years afterwards, there were accusations and questions and inquisitions, but nobody could ever prove anything, and anyways, the problems with the construction stopped, and the pace of donations increased, and the Waka Ama began to take form faster than ever before.

"But sometimes, those who work deep in the belly of the Waka Ama will swear that their hand terminals will get interference, and strange messages pleading for help will play across them. Others claim to have heard pounding on the bulkhead, but when they investigate, they find nothing at all."

Hannah straightened up. She looked again around the circle into the alternatingly shocked and doubting faces of her coterie.

"When all of you are finally old enough to take duty working on the Waka Ama itself, maybe you'll hear it too. I know my sister has, though she made me swear to not tell anyone else, a promise I am now breaking for all of you."

The darkness around them seemed colder somehow, and for a moment, Liam was positive he heard a woman somewhere sobbing.