(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.
So this Captain Rake character isn’t nearly as dangerous as he looks. To be honest, he’s an idiot. Somehow he managed to get himself this ship and he just about holds it together. Ollie stays with him because he’s self-flagellating; he hates being out in the dark, but claims to know nothing else. That makes him an idiot too. He could use his engineering skills worldbound as easily as he can in space. He’s obviously punishing himself for something. I don’t care what. A soul can’t be taking on all the woes of every sorry loser in the ‘Verse.
I still haven’t met this Timmo, the self-professed merc. Apparently he stays pretty much in his cabin. I guess I prefer it that way. This is a ship of psychos and the fewer of them I have to deal with, the better I like it. Rake’s lady, Sally, is the only one that seems relatively normal. But, of course, she’s with Rake, so how normal is that? But she cooks up a good feed and seems to cool Rake’s ire a little bit, so that makes her the most important one here as far as I’m concerned.
Seems like Rake meant it when he said I had to work my passage, even though I’d paid him well enough. Trouble was, he had nothing that really needed doing, so he got to making stuff up. I planned to leave this ship on Cerunia, so only two days of keeping my head down. And it’s even vaguely on my way towards Methesda, which is a bonus.
I’d checked my Reader and it seems like Cerunia is one of those religious worlds that started popping up after the Coexistence. I’d have to grit my teeth against the religion, but there should be plenty of pilgrimage ships coming and going for me to hop a ride out again.
Right now I’m more worried about what happened last night. I was sleeping off the day’s mopping when a strange noise woke me up. It was a kind of low humming, but really insistent and it seemed to be happening right by my ear. I sat up bolt upright and looked around, quickly shaking off the sleep. My hand was already closed around the hilt of my knife, but there was nothing there. I sat there in the dark for a long time, but nothing happened. Ollie was sleeping like a really ugly baby. So I laid down again. As soon as I closed my eyes the hum was in my ear again and there was a faint voice in it.
This time I jumped clean off the bunk and the humming seemed to recede from me, away through the door. It was hard to see in the gloom of artificial night on board. Knife in one had, torch in the other, I stalked out into the engine room. The hum of the engine was a very different pitch to the noise sliding away from me. I followed it, down a dirty corridor, up steps to the common room and back towards the stern. I could hear the voice more clearly as I went. It seemed to be saying, ‘Go back.’
This ship is a rear-docker. There was the airlock door right in front of me and atmo-suits racked up along one wall. Dead end. Now that insistent humming was all around me. It wasn’t a machine noise. It was like a bunch of people all humming under their breath. We used to drive one of our old teachers mad in school, when the whole class would start to hum real low. The teacher would look around and everyone he looked at would stop humming and smile while the rest of the class carried on. He’d walk around, but the people near him would never be humming while the rest did. It was a juvenile prank, but funny to a teenager. Now I was experiencing something just like it. It was as if all these invisible people around me were humming, but none of them close enough for me to reach out and punch. And periodically a single, distant voice said, ‘Go back.’ I had to admit, it was freaking me out.
I stood still and closed my eyes. Immediately the humming swept right up to my ears and the voice was quite loud. ‘Go back now!’ I yelled and snapped open my eyes, sweeping my knife around me. For a second, or a fraction of a second, I was sure I saw a pair of eyes, red and glowing, disappear into the shadows between the atmo-suits. I ran over and pulled the suits off the wall, knife held high, but there was nothing there.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’
I yelled again, spinning around. I quickly lowered the knife when I saw Rake standing there, holding a bottle of booze and wearing nothing but a raggedy pair of shorts. I realised that I was only wearing shorts too, but I had a knife in one hand, a torch in the other and I’d just scattered his property all over the deck in the middle of the night. I didn’t really have anything to say.
‘You hunting space rats?’ he asked.
‘Sorry. I’m kinda prone to sleep-walking.’ It was a lame lie, but better than trying to explain the truth.
His eyebrows raised. ‘Sleep-walking? With a knife? I smelled your weed, buddy. You wanna lay off that shit.’ There was an irony in that comment, given the bottle in his hand and the red in his eyes, but I chose not to mention it. ‘You’re off this ship as soon as we make planetfall on Cerunia.’
I just nodded and headed back to my bunk. I guess that’s something we’ll all be looking forward to now.
Man, religion drives me mad. When all the old religions admitted they were worshipping the same god and the Sanctuary of Coexistence was born it was supposed to solve everything. One of humanity’s defining moments, apparently. And, of course, it achieved nothing. A new religion was born, splinter groups formed and some people refused to combine at all, so Catholics and Muslims and all the others are still around and they’re all still fighting to try to prove who’s right. People desire power and, no matter how good a group’s intentions, organised religion is about the best way to seize it.
The way I see it, religion is anachronistic to our age anyway, but there seems be a persistent need for it. You’d think by now there would be some kind of proof if there really was a god. I tend think about god like I think about aliens. There’s a lot of people that believe in them too, but they still haven’t shown up. The further we travel and the longer and harder we look, the more the proof against them stacks up. The same applies to gods as far as I’m concerned. Of course, the Sanctuary, and most other religions for that matter, like to point out that the lack of aliens in the ‘Verse is actually further proof of their beliefs; humanity born on Old Earth but unique in the universe. Whatever. I don’t tend to lose sleep thinking about gods or aliens. I’m not really interested. But organised religion invariably pisses me off.
One thing that happened way back when was that the People of Sanctuary, as they like to call themselves, became incredibly wealthy due to the combined wealth of all the groups that joined together. They are the biggest religious group in the ‘Verse by far and they have whole planets as dedicated Sanctuaries. That’s what Cerunia is and that’s where I’ve found myself.
I’m glad to be off the junk that brought me here, no doubt about that, but I wish it had brought me somewhere else. I didn’t even say goodbye. Once the ship was down Ollie was tied up fixing a seal breach from the turbulence of planetfall. I left some of the Weed on his bunk and walked off the ship. I didn’t need to say goodbye to anyone and they certainly weren’t going to miss me.
As soon as I stepped through the gate of the port I knew I was going to hate it here. Religious icons were everywhere, the combined symbols of the cross, star and crescent moon adorning everything. Every wall was glaring with gold and bright, clean neon, people walked everywhere with the slow, measured pace of the self-righteously smug, all wearing flowing robes and carrying holy books. Imagine the editors job of writing the new holy text for the People, trying to combine all those old stories of fire and brimstone and cutting a swathe through the infidels with a sword of righteous vengeance. I have to be honest and admit that the old books seemed a lot more exciting than this new washed out, watered down faith for the masses. Still, quite a marketing ploy.
I slipped through arrivals control with some faked papers. I was hoping that word of my fleeing Gallenin hadn’t travelled further than me yet and I seemed to be right so far. I carry a number of fake ID’s and the ‘Verse is a pretty loose place. It’s hard to keep track of everything. Most often a guy travelling alone with a single bag can go pretty much anywhere without too much hassle. Flying under the radar is my natural disposition and you can do it in plain sight if you keep your cool and know the game.
I walked out of the main port and decided that I’d better get pretty much straight onto finding a way to Methesda. This Magicker mutant Gans was slipping out of my grasp a little every day and this was a paying job that I wasn’t going to let slide. Besides, I have a reputation to maintain. In a ‘Verse like this, sometimes a soul’s reputation is all that keeps them alive. And then there was my own personal pride.
So I headed for the busiest looking part of the town outside the port. This whole planet may be one big Sanctuary, but they still had business and commerce. In fact, they were some of the foremost experts at it. There’d be a travel agent somewhere nearby. I’d started thinking that I should travel as a tourist, use a fake ID and see if I couldn’t slip through the net all the way out to Methesda. If things got too risky I could always blag my way aboard a ship the same way I’d got here or even stow away. It wouldn’t be the first time and my own personal pride is a very flexible thing when it comes to getting the job done.
Then another damned weird thing happened. I’m starting to get very concerned about this freaky shit. A Guide walked up to me, holding his copy of God’s Word before him like it was a slice of pie for a starving man. ‘My son,’ he said, obsequious as all hell. ‘I’m glad you arrived safely.’ He looked kinda nervous and excited at the same time.
I looked over my shoulder to be sure he was talking to me. There was no one else behind me. ‘I’m not interested, thanks,’ I said and made to move past him.
‘Oh no, Mr Ghost,’ he said, white teeth flashing like the smile in a toothpaste ad. ‘I’m sure you are interested.’
My first instinct when the Guide said my name was to run, screaming like a little girl. I know this Gans scum I’m chasing is a mutant, a Magicker. We all know they exist. We all know that weird shit occurs all over the ‘Verse. There are numerous examples, too many to mention. Only recently on the wire was the story of that guy who tried to go beyond the Edge, further out than anyone had gone before. He turned up thousands of light years from where he’d started, raving about giant space blobs turning his ship inside out. He could have just been any other lunatic, but his ship was still being tracked by his support team on an outlying Globe. How had he suddenly turned up so far away, without his ship? Anyway, the point is, it’s a big ‘Verse out there and all kinds of freaky shit occurs. But not to me. That’s what has me bothered. This shit does not happen to me.
I managed to overcome the urge to bolt and even managed to maintain some level of dignity and calm. ‘What is it you think I’m interested in?’ I asked the Guide.
He smiled one of those smiles, the kind that were supposed to convey some greater level of knowledge combined with pity for a soul’s ignorance. ‘You are on something of a quest and that can be taxing. The Light of the Lord can ease the burden of your worry.’
I was annoyed. ‘I’m not burdened by anything but a holy man with an inflated sense of his own importance. How do you know my name?’ Not that he got it right anyway; what’s with all the Mr Ghost crap lately?
The Guide held his God’s Word out and for a moment I thought he wanted me to read some enlightening passage or other. Then I saw the image on the book’s screen. It was a picture of me. There was some text beneath it. I snatched the book from him and had a closer look. The text was concise:
“A ghost, dangerous and unpredictable, prone to irrational behaviour. Integral to the Plan, he will need to be treated with respect and caution.”
Nice. It made me smile a little bit to read that. Then something occurred to me. ‘You call your approach cautious?’ I snapped, throwing the Guide’s book back at him.
That damn smile again. ‘I have nothing to fear.’
My face darkened and my scowl must have exuded heat. Talk like that can kill a man; it’s a matter of principle. The Guide took an involuntary step backwards and that made me feel a little bit better. ‘I am just a messenger. You are expected.’
My voice was a low growl. ‘Who the fuck is expecting me? I didn’t even know I was coming here. Did one of those freaks on that creaky old boat call ahead?’
‘No, sir. We’ve known for years that you were coming.’
‘How many years?’ Disbelief and panic were racing each other for supremacy in my addled brain, but they were massively outpaced by my terror. The thought of the biggest religion in the ‘Verse having my face in their book and expecting my arrival was just plain wrong. What had I done to deserve this?
‘Since the visions of Haliotep, over a century ago. I should take you to the Guide-Prime.’
‘Is he the boss?’
‘The Guide-Prime of Cerunia is the most senior member of Sanctuary on the planet.’
That sounded like a plan to me. ‘Right, take me to him.’
The office of the Guide-Prime was a study of ostentation. If a rock star or businessman showed off this kind of opulence they would be reviled. But apparently it’s okay to waste millions if it’s glorifying your god. And this was just the ante-chamber. There was a huge, golden door with ornate bas-relief in front of me. ‘He in there?’
The Guide nodded really slowly and started to say something about requesting his audience. By the time the Guide was halfway through his nod I was halfway through the big, stupid door. ‘But wait, you must…’
I flipped him the bird over my shoulder without looking back. ‘Read your damn book. It says to expect irrational behaviour.’ Ironically, in my mind, this was the most rational course of action there was. I guess rationality is at least partially subject to perspective.
The room beyond the big door made the door itself look plain and understated. I didn’t take much of it in. There was an old guy sitting behind a massive desk and I approached him like I meant to eat him. He stiffened in his oversize gold chair. ‘Why, Ghost…’
At least he didn’t say Mr. ‘What the hell am I doing in your book?’
He raised a placating palm. ‘Please, calm down. Let me explain.’
I stood still. I was furious, but I didn’t really know what at. I suppose I was actually more scared, fearful from a complete lack of understanding about what was happening. And people often respond to fear with anger. I used that very principle against any number of scum on a regular basis; make a soul angry and they get sloppy. I forced a deep breath into my lungs and let my anger subside as much as possible. ‘Explain now. Make it concise and accurate.’
The Guide-Prime made a face like he respected my request. Good for him. ‘Our holy books have been regularly updated when members of Sanctuary have religious experiences. Visions, visitations and so on. Over a hundred years ago a monastic Guide named Haliotep had a series of powerful visions. One of those visions resulted in him scrawling an image on the floor of his room. The image was a face. It was the face of, to quote Haliotep, “A ghost, dangerous and unpredictable, prone to irrational behaviour. Integral to the Plan, he will need to be treated with respect and caution. A ghost that will cause turmoil and upset. He will pass through the Sanctuary and he can be aided or hindered by the People. Their choice in this matter will determine the future of the universe.” Are you with me so far?’
‘It’s not high literature. Go on.’
‘Well, it’s simple really. The face was yours.’
‘I was a lot of decades short of alive back then. How could it be me. And your monkey here has a photo in his book, not a drawing.’
The Guide-Prime nodded. ‘Well, yes. A number of years ago the Sanctuaries all simultaneously received an anonymous sat-feed. It contained that image, the photo of you, and the text from Haliotep’s vision. Along with it was a note that said, “This man is called Ghost. It is time to make the choice.” It was simply signed, “A Believer”. We compared the photo to Haliotep’s ancient drawing, but it was academic. Everyone that knew of Haliotep’s visions would easily recognise you in an instant. We asked our prophets what to do, whether we should track you down. They said that you would come to us in your own time, so we’ve waited.’
‘All this was years ago? How come no one has mentioned this to me before? How come no one has recognised me before?’
The Guide-Prime smiled. ‘I suppose you don’t spend much time with people that are familiar with God’s Word.’
I had a whole heap of thoughts running around in my head like chickens when the farmer comes along with his hatchet. I needed a few minutes to collate just what the hell was going on here. The Guide-Prime started to speak again and I held up one finger. The look on my face held promises for the finger that made the Guide-Prime wince and he sensibly closed his mouth again.
I walked over to the big stained-glass window behind him. Through a clear panel I could see the port laid out below, people milling around like ants, ships cruising in and out in the distance. It all seemed very surreal. I sucked a long, slow, deep breath in through my nose and started rounding up the chickens in my brain.
The Dems had given me a job to track down this Magicker goon named Pietre Gans. My leads so far had led me to Gallenin where I found one stuck-up broad that lost her grip on her panties for a moment, one entrepreneur that couldn’t seal a deal and one businessman that had ended up dead. Out of all this I had a lead to Methesda and the dead guy had prepared a ‘slide for me. The police had decided they wanted to talk to me some more about that, so I did the natural thing and legged it. I wanted to go to Methesda. But, on bolting, I randomly ended up on a crappy boat that dumped me here on Cerunia, religion central in the region. And it seems that I’ve been a star feature of Coexistence literature for a hundred years. What were the connections? Were there any connections? More importantly, what the fuck was I supposed to do now?
There were three specific threads to follow up on now. One was getting out to Methesda and trying to pick up the trail of Gans. That was a pretty straightforward proposal and my main priority.
Number two was trying to figure out why that dead guy, Darver Phelms, had left a message for me when we had no idea of each other’s existence. That was possibly connected to Gans. Had Gans set that up? If so, why? Just to fuck with me? Then a thought occurred to me. Maybe that was designed to trip me up. Maybe Gans knew that it was me that was after him and had arranged all that so that the police would at least hold me for a while and give him a chance to get away. But that didn’t add up. The recording had been made and Phelms killed before the Dems had even given me the job. So that little chapter in this whole thing was still a mystery.
So, what about thread number three, which was: What the hell am I doing in the prophecies of the Coexistence? Then a slightly profound thought occurred to me. Who cares?
In the grand scheme of things, everything important is connected to Gans and Phelms. This whole Coexistence thing was just a weird and irrelevant coincidence that had no relevance to the case I was working. At least, it seemed that way.
I decided to let my curiosity stretch its legs for a minute, then get back to business. I was intrigued, but not prepared to let this bizarre turn of events distract me from my work. I’ve got that reputation to maintain, remember?
I walked back around the desk and leaned on it. The Guide-Prime was still a couple of metres away from me where he sat behind it. Thoughts of Freudian compensation gusted briefly through my mind. ‘Show me the drawing.’
The Guide-Prime blinked. ‘What?’
‘This Halitosis guy…’
‘Whatever. He drew me on his floor, right? You must have a copy of the original drawing. Show me.’
The Guide-Prime nodded and turned a holo-screen to face me. Slipping his hand among the holograms on his desk, tapping at them, an image came up. It was a still of what looked like an old fashioned prison cell, concrete and stark. There was something on the floor. I reached into the screen and pulled the image up, zooming in on the floor. It looked like it was drawn in charcoal or something similar and it was definitely a face. And it did look a hell of a lot like me.
The Guide-Prime cleared his throat nervously while I stared at the image. I didn’t attack him so he decided to try talking again. ‘For nearly a hundred years we’ve used face recognition software through security cameras, scanned entertainment and news feeds, had Guides always on the lookout. But we never found you.’
I shrugged. ‘When I see a religious sort I tend to look the other way. And cameras are anathema to my line of work, so I never look at them either if I can help it. I’m more interested in other people that get seen on cameras.’ I was still staring at the image. It was giving me the creeps.
I saw the Guide-Prime nodding gently from the corner of my eye. ‘I suppose you eventually came up on someone’s camera,’ he said quietly. ‘Inevitable, really. And that someone knew our prophecies and anonymously sent out the word.’
A question had been bugging my hindbrain for a while, like a mosquito repeatedly buzzing by yours ears at night that you just can’t catch a hold of. Then it suddenly caught a hold all by itself. ‘You knew I was arriving here today. How?’
The Guide-Prime smiled that shit-eating smile they all seem to have. I could imagine them practising it in the mirror. ‘We have a visionary here among us,’ he said proudly. ‘He recently had a vision of you arriving here so we’ve had a Guide at the port for the last few days, waiting. And sure enough, here you are.’
I made a wry face. ‘Yeah. Here I are. I want to see this visionary of yours.’
I had pretty much decided to ignore this whole freaky business and get on with the job at hand, but I just wanted to learn a bit more first. I could just walk out and get on with business, but while I was here a bit more info on this whole prophecy thing might work out well for me at some point. Like I said before, in my line of work intel is worth more than diamonds. And, in the long run, there’s no such thing as irrelevant intel.
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(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.