Farewell to Angels
My job was called Ghost Watching. I was alone in the depths of space, but I was the sort who enjoyed my own company. Slumping in a chair, I put my feet up on the navigation station and closed my eyes, waiting for the moment when we travelled faster than angels dared: light speed. The ship shuddered as we pushed on faster, almost twice the speed of light. There was worse to come when we reached double light speed and the angels would be left far behind. Double light speed, often referred to in training school as Ghost Speed.
“There’s a speed, Jay,” dad had told me when I was a kid, “where we travel so fast that things begin to happen.”
I remembered the colour draining from Dad’s face as he spoke. There was a distracted look in his eyes. “What happens?” I asked, breaking my father from a sudden thoughtful silence.
My father sighed. “Have you ever seen a ghost?”
I was a ten year old boy back then, and I had always wanted to see a ghost. “Nah, mum says they don’t exist.”
Dad gave a half smile. “Oh, they exist, but they travel so fast we can’t keep up. But when we hit double light speed, we hit Ghost Speed. That’s why a ship’s crew have to be put in suspension, all except the pilot.”
The curious part of my nature wanted to know more, but the part of me that was scared of the dark cowered away. “Why?”
Dad sighed. “After the Tau Ceti incident. It was the longest distance a ship had travelled faster than light. It was going to be a year long flight, but six months in the crew went crazy. The only survivor was found hiding in the cargo bay, talking about ghosts.”
That was when I realised that Dad was a hero: it took a strong man to travel at Ghost Speed and keep his sanity. They had experimented with the onboard computer taking control of the entire process, but computers tended to malfunction at these speeds. So the pay for a qualified pilot meant I could retire after ten years. This was number nine, the same year Dad had made it to.
One of the computers beeped at me and I sat upright, flicking off the alarm and realigning the flight path by the smallest of fractions. We were heading to Bernard’s Star for a transfer to a deep interstellar ship and the fraction would have sent us towards Sirius. Checking our speed, I noticed we were well into Ghost Speed and hitting four times faster than light. The stomach cramps from crossing the light barrier had stopped, but I began to sweat as I thought about ghosts. In nine years, I had only heard a few whispered words, an unexplained clanging or a door opening by itself. So far, there had never been a manifestation. These normally occurred at six times light speed and on the shorter flights we would keep below that. Six times light was Super Ghost Speed. That wasn’t the scientific term, but it was widely used. Ever since Tau Ceti, ships avoided Super Ghost Speed.
But like this flight, there were times when we had to be quicker. If we missed the transfer at Bernard’s star, we’d be stuck waiting out there for the next ship to dock. Barnard’s Star was so boring that I didn’t mind risking Super Ghost Speed to avoid time spent there. Just as I began to relax, the warning came on that we are nearing Super Ghost Speed. Hitting the override, I pushed the ship on.
Getting to my feet, I strolled around the bridge. Everything appeared to be functioning, but I had the strangest sensation that something was watching me. Was this how Dad had felt on his last voyage? That had been a simple run to Alpha Centauri, but the corporation hiring Dad had insisted on a tight timescale. So like I had just done, Dad pushed the ship to Super Ghost Speed. It wasn’t that uncommon to do, especially when large amounts of money was at stake. Dad had done it a ton of times and had even seen full manifestations. But he never really spoke about those and I could tell he was trying to forget.
When his ship arrived at Alpha Centauri, they found Dad slumped over the navigation station with his wrists slit. The sleeping crew were safe, and I wondered if they would have remained so had my Dad not taken his own life. My eyes went to the navigation station and I imagined myself slumped over it, blood dripping from my wrists.
“Why did you do it, Dad?” I whispered, desperate to break the silence.
There was a sudden loud clang. Jumping, I span round, looking for the source. No one was there. A bead of sweat ran down my face, though I shivered. There was another loud clang, from the cryogenic chamber. Nervously, I edged to the corridor and peered down towards the sealed door. No one there. It was nothing, I told myself. These were things I had experienced before. They are not really ghosts, I told myself. They were probably just hallucinations brought on by traveling such high speeds. Einstein said we couldn’t travel faster than light; that was a warning to us, not a rule. Breaking rules had consequences. Man was not meant to be this fast because now there were no angels to look after us.
We were in a strange zone between the living and the dead.
“You’re being silly,” I said out loud, reassured by the sound of my own voice. Science had never found an explanation for Ghost Speed and dismissed it as a psychotic episode. With that in mind, I found a new sense of braveness and went to the cryogenic chamber, punching in the release code. The door hissed open and I entered, walking along the banks of coffin shaped sleeping units. There were at least a hundred sleeping bodies here and I felt like I was in a morgue. As I walked among the frozen sleepers, the lights went out and darkness wrapped around me. I stood still, listening to the sound of my heavy breathing. There was the tapping of feet across the metal deck and I backed away from it, banging into a cold sleeping unit. My hands stretched out in front of me, I blindly made my way across the chamber. Behind me, something sped their pace up.
“We are now at six times light,” the computer warned. Super Ghost Speed.
The lights flickered on and around me a hundred figures sat up from coffins, silently staring at me. When the lights went out again, I ran through the dark, crashing into a sleeping unit. I backed away, desperately feeling for the way out.
“Join us,” voices whispered from behind. It was cold and my entire body shook. Hands grabbed me and tried to pull me back, their fingers frozen daggers in my skin. The lights came back on and a sea of tortured faces stared at me, hands reaching out. Once again I was plunged into darkness and I pushed my way through a crowd of the dead. Suddenly I was free from the Cryogenic chamber and quickly sealed the door behind me. It was light again and I staggered to the bridge. The ship shuddered and I fell onto the cold floor just short of the navigation station, slamming my head against hard metal painfully. When the lights went again, the whispering of a thousand dead souls filled my ears. I whimpered and curled into a ball, a single scared human in the depths of space. All alone.
But I wasn’t going to be beaten by them. If I could reach the console, I could drop below Ghost Speed. Unable to force my legs to work, I dragged myself across the floor, aware of more ghosts gathering, taunting me and clawing at my body. The lights flickered on and I saw a crazed face before me, manically grinning at me with dagger teeth. A hand clamped tightly around my left foot and dragged me back towards the Cryogenic chamber as the ghost snapped his teeth at me. Kicking out, I managed to free my leg and jumped to my feet. I ran to the airlock and sealed myself inside. Looking through the small window at the bridge, I watched dark shapes floating around the bridge. Behind me was a door to the stars. A pale face appeared at the window, blank eyes staring at me. It was going to get inside. My eyes looked behind the ghost towards the navigation console where my salvation waited. There was no way past the ghosts. Backing away, I bumped into the outer door and it was the coldness of space. The ghost grinned at me and nodded, urging me to do what I had to do to join them. My fingers felt along for the airlock release leaver.
“No,” I said. My hand punched the inner door release and I ran onto the bridge, pushing against the dead as I made my way towards the navigation station. It was like walking into a fierce wind, pushing me back towards the airlock. Hands grabbed at me and I pushed on against the coldness. My legs gave way and I fell short of the station, my fingers reaching out uselessly. Slowly, they dragged me back towards the airlock.
“Speed dropping,” the computer said.
The ship gave a gentle shake as it slowed below Ghost Speed. The cold hands released me. Something hissed a protest in my ear and the air grew warm again. Looking up at the navigation station, I saw Dad at the controls, bringing us down to a safe speed. He looked at me and smiled, but he was already fading.
“Dad!” I called desperately. I hurried towards him, but I found myself fading with him. Turning, I saw my body sprawled on the floor. The ship dropped out of ghost speed and the world left me behind as I remained at that speed where angels dared to go.