By Richard Zwicker

From the September 2021 issue of Cosmic Horror Monthly

I awoke, hovering over the bridge of the Foroth starship. Though the bare floor, the controls, and the turned-off viewer screen were plain, I found them mesmerizing. Objects, shades of color, symmetry—I could see them again, something I couldn’t do during my years of enslavement as an energy cog. Encased in their tubes, I had known only darkness and a fuzzy lightheadedness as my life force powered the Foroth engines. The day I was taken from Earth prison and marched to the engine room, the Foroths said, “Your physical needs will be met. You will never have to make another decision. Once in place, let go of your mind. You won’t need it.” I didn’t need my muscles either, which atrophied from disuse. Madness, the only salve, came quickly. But I showed the Foroths. Despite their ingenuity in prolonging human life, I died!

My spirit freed, I could once again form words, sentences, and thoughts. I could consider actions, though in spirit form, I wasn’t sure of my capabilities. I watched a three-meter tall stick figure shamble to the ship’s main computer, then bend over and input information. Foroths have only four fingers, but they are elongated like a mosquito’s proboscis, making any digital manipulation look sinister. After finishing, he straightened and shambled away.

“Why did you come all the way to Earth to take human criminals?” I asked, a question long on my mind.

It stopped and turned its head 180 degrees to face me.

“To assuage our collective guilt,” it said, in perfectly modulated English.

“What did you do?”

“Selfish things.”

“Then we are brothers.” My words came in a torrent. “I was in real estate. I cut corners on a hotel and it collapsed, crushing 215 people. It was my bad luck that the prison in which I was to serve a life sentence was built to code. I wasn’t happy, but I accepted it as justice. Then you guys came and offered to take Earth’s worst criminals and force them into energy tubes. Where’s the justice in that? Does that take care of your guilt?”

“It helps.”

It didn’t help me.

And I didn’t really feel as if we were brothers. It was a short time I was aware that I was doing wrong. Mostly I was ignorant of lawbreaking, and I know that’s not a legal excuse, but it’s a mitigating factor, surely.

I was hundreds of light years from the Earth president who made this arrangement and the prison guards who turned their backs, but I could force a measure of justice over the Foroths. Why else was my restless spirit here? “I will haunt you until your heart explodes!” I screamed, though I was not certain Foroths had hearts. It turned and walked away. The only thing more unflappable than a Foroth was a titanium wall.   

As I brooded, I felt another presence. Could it be?

“Heide?”

“I’m here, Joel.” Her reedy voice had no visible source, and I thought: I’ve forgotten what you look like! I hadn’t seen my wife since our convictions. Then slowly, her waist-length hair, slender body, and piercing eyes materialized.

“Can you see me?” I asked.

“Yes.” She sounded detached and resigned.

“After all these years, we’re free.”

“I never envisioned this as the afterlife.”

I had never envisioned any afterlife. Sure was strange to have died at the same time. Maybe the ship had had some kind of accident, causing our deaths. The important thing was we were out of the tubes and together.

“They will pay,” I said.

She was on a different wavelength.

“Maybe this is Hell.”

“No!” If I had one talent, it was rationalizing my actions. “No matter what we did, we didn’t deserve to die inside the engines of a Foroth starship.”

“Neither did those people in our hotel.”

I felt the thread of my thought slipping. It had been so long since I’d had one. What was so complicated about avenging a wrong?

“We will size up the situation and take whatever advantage it offers,” I said.

She looked around. “I’m not seeing any advantages.”

“We’re ghosts! This ship is like a haunted house, except instead of spending a night, the Foroths are stuck here for months, maybe years. We have them at our mercy.”

“To do what? There is only our crime and our acceptance.” Her body hung like a lonely cloud.

 I reached for her, but my hand passed through. “The past is gone. The future is still there if somehow, we can achieve closure. Now, for the first time in years, we can do something about the present. Help me.” 

“I am here,” she repeated.

We sank to the bridge. I hadn’t noticed before, but it was dark, the only light coming from the control panel. No one else had been there since the Foroths left. We floated to the no-frills living area, which was darker than the bridge, but somehow we could see. Another advantage of being spirits. I’d heard that Foroths slept supine on the floor of their closet-like quarters, their long, thin bodies contracting down to only a meter. The door of each room was closed, but we could pass through. Not one room was occupied.

“Where is everyone?” I asked. No one answered. As we drifted through one of the endless corridors, we found a Foroth standing against the wall like a sentinel. It could have been the one I’d seen before, but they all looked the same. I blurted out a blood-curdling moan, which it ignored. I felt ridiculous.

“Let’s just open one of the hatches and be done with them,” I said. But we lacked the solidity to unlock a hatch. I could think of only one other thing a spirit could do.

“I will possess this Foroth.” The thought repulsed me, but it would be fitting if I overwhelmed his mind as they had done to me.

“Don’t people have to allow spirits to possess them?” asked Heide.

“In that case, we’ll see if I’ve lost my persuasive touch.”

I braced myself and entered without resistance.

“It’s a robot!” I said. I could no more manipulate its limbs than I could open an airlock. What if they were all robots? What if we were ghosts haunting a ship with no living beings, except for the poor souls serving as cogs? We didn’t even have a guarantee this ship would ever reach a destination with sentient life.

Hungry for information, we returned to the bridge.

“Computer,” I said, hoping it responded to voices. “How much time in Earth days has passed since humans were taken from Earth and put on this craft?”

 “Twelve years, three months, and seven days.” The answer was without inflection, identical in tone to what the Foroth had said.

“How many Foroths are on this ship?”

“None. Once nominally manned, this vessel is now run solely by AI.”

“What is the ship’s current destination?”

“Exploration of the Andromeda galaxy. Estimated arrival date: two and a half million years.”

So dying had been no release, just another door to an endless, empty corridor. Maybe this was Hell. After all, had I ever done anything not determined by self-interest? Had anyone? But people change. That’s what makes us people instead of cold, hard facts. But the Foroths had stolen my chance. Prisons are supposed to rehabilitate, not just… imprison.

If we were dead, why weren’t our spirits at rest? There had to be a reason. Perhaps there was a path to redemption.

“How many living humans are aboard this ship?” I asked the computer.

“Forty.”

I turned to Heide. “That will be our unselfish act. We will free the other humans.”

“What good will that do?” she asked.

“It will give them the option of ending this.”

“What can we do without substance?”  

“I’ll figure something out. I always do.” The one thing we had was time. All Heide had were doubts.

“You go and tell me what you see,” she said.

“We both have to go there. The thought of that place roils my senses too, but it can’t hurt us now.”

She was adamant.

“I’ll go check it out.” After all, I knew everything about the inside of the engines, and nothing about the outside. I also thought it was odd that my spirit had materialized on the bridge, rather than inside or just above the engines.

“Heide, where did you first materialize?”

She shrugged, like a caterpillar. “You were the first thing I saw.”

It didn’t make sense, but this being my first day as a ghost, how could it?

“Stay here. I will come back for you.” I immediately remembered every promise I had broken, but I meant this one.  

Armed with purpose, I felt pulled as I drifted back to the engines. Their energy generated a dull light, where I could just make out the rows of tubes. They emitted a soft roar that sounded like a perpetual ahhhhhh! It was almost soothing, but it never became like the hum of a new refrigerator that one got used to and stopped hearing. These engines you’d always hear. They’re your heartbeat. I started feeling nausea and the weight of existence. How could I, when I didn’t even exist?

As I got closer, I saw each tube contained a human. Their skins were pale and pocked, their eyes unseeing, their bodies alive. I couldn’t open the tubes from outside, nor could they be opened from the inside, so there was no use trying to possess their bodies.  

I wanted to return to Heide, but then I remembered her words: “You go and tell me what you see.” Why would she say that when she knew what they looked like as well as I did? It was because her sentence had been twenty years on Earth, not life. The Foroths had not taken her. How could I have forgotten that? But I already had the answer: when the brain can’t accept reality, it creates a tolerable fiction. I hovered over a body that looked a little like mine, the way a corpse at a funeral never quite looked like the deceased. The Foroths said I would never make another decision. I would prove them wrong. They could stretch my life for millions of years, but I would never return to that energy tube. I watched my sunken chest rise and fall like idiot waves, back and forth. Then, for the first time since I’d found myself hovering over the bridge, I felt the substance of my body, the weight of my crime, and the yawning abyss of centuries to come.

End.

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