Another story in my series of "If I think about the US election any more, my pineal gland will burst."

Just like four years ago, writers have gathered in a Livejournal story-writing circle to take our minds off politics. This year it is ostrich_2008. The original post is here; feel free to leave comments.

The event was not as heavily attended this time -- maybe people were more interested in the election -- and I didn't wind up following the themes. (Dinosaurs and water balloons. Or "the Universe is antagonist enough," which... hm.)

Instead, I wrote a...

Ghost Story

Story copyright 2008, Andrew Plotkin
I tapped the shower panel, and heat and water began blasting the chill from my bones. Ghost water, but it felt as sweet. I blessed, as I did daily, the luxuries of ZOI and a Bose-light starship. Ghost soap hung at hand-height; I scrubbed, and warm lather rolled down me. And swirled into the grate at my feet, and decohered, and never-had-been. Bad luck for the water, but it let me step from the shower clean and warm. ZOI revoked the shower and the moisture, and then even the cubicle mirror was dry. Try that planetside.

I pulled shipsweats from the laundry roll, scratchy-brown but real. My four minutes of decadence had ended, and I faced four hours of kneeling in the quantum gap stacks, where ghost clothing was liable to pop on its own. Something was resonating odd in Number Three, had been all yesterday. If it slipped further, Three was out. If it pulled Two with it, that was all for quantum water and quantum soap and quantum drive too; we'd be a chilly comet dying three days or a hundred years out of Eridani Night. I cursed, as I did daily, Shipmaster's miserly refusal to refit Number One.

But financing a new gap stack was his job, and charming the ones we had was mine. Breakfast first. Chef had revoked grav in the mess, which meant loopcakes, and I swung down to the bar to collect my cloud of them. He flicked the fine coils of batter out of the IR beam just as they were crisping -- as I liked them, as he knew. A spray of butter, a spatter of maple (under the draft hood, yes, or I'd be skidding to my shift), chopsticks thrust through the steaming lace and a mint leaf flicked on. The scent of earthly paradise. I accepted breakfast, and bowed to the wrinkled grin that seemed more liable than ever to swallow Chef's face.

Shipmaster and the Cyberist were eating already. I quelled my desire to scrape Ships about refit finances; why spoil a meal? Loopcakes begged careful consideration anyhow; far too delicate to bolt while hurrying down a full-grav corridor, no matter how urgent your shiftwork. I put another mental tally towards "Chef does it on purpose," and finished breakfast while the three of us bounced around notions of which systems might be leaking noise.

The stacks, now. I was soon arm-deep in ZOI's guts, laser blocks spilling grainy red light all down the Hunyadi plate array. The warmth of shower and breakfast were decohered ghosts of memory, and the only steam in sight was my own breath.

I stood and walked from the stack bay, leaving tools scattered on the deck. Resonance shivered around me, leaking up and down the fractured worldline of a starship. What did a handful of humans make out of the dark?

An hour, two hours, and nothing was wrong with any part of Number Three. Check, check, 98% check. Except the resonance was still there, casting fugitive fringes of laser-light across the stacks. I blew another hour getting that last cross-reading up to 99%, and then six-tenths on top of that, which should be enough to sail home from Cassiopeia with a glass of champagne balanced on the ship's prow. The 'ferometer glared fringes regardless. Wound tighter than before, if anything. I slammed the array shut, shuddered my chilled muscles, racked my workspace, and went looking for Cargo.

I prodded helplessly at my breakfast. "I've been trawling my data feeds, like an old Cyberist should. Nothing kinked. Think you the commaser might be...?" But the breakfast deserved better than prodding, praise Chef, and I ate another strand of loopcake for his fine sake.

Sparks scowled without stilling her chopsticks. "Might be what, Grace? Powered up, in the Bose envelope, and we didn't notice?"

I shrugged. No one had noticed antennas melting off, that was true and fair, but I had none of a better idea. It was hard to be cross so early in a day, but this twitch in the stacks had us all unsorted. Well. At least Sparks had not torn into Ships over the hole in our spares. Fair worn that song had become, since we'd ghosted from Avalon.

"The nightshades, must be then," Ships murmured.

Bless him for trying to lighten the mood, but it cut nothing with Sparks. "We have enough trouble with ZOI's ghosts, without adding ghost stories--" she began.

Ships' eyes flicked up, ironic, and then he tilted his head. Sparks cut herself right off, nibbled her mint leaf -- for composure, so like a cat -- then went on, "Besides, we're on the ecliptic, and not a brown dwarf in sight. Who ever heard of the nightshades devouring ships in here?" I held off snickers, as we all nodded seriously at this folk wisdom. Chef, up the bar, chortled without restraint.

Sparks left for the stack bays, then, to begin yet another round of debugging. Ships went for the bridge. I finished my bacon knots, swung down to the grav-hatch, and paced thoughtfully back to ZOI.

Something was, if not kinked, then fair curvy. Or foul. I pored over subroutines and simulative matrices, then did them all again, and I couldn't catch it. By lunchtime I was entirely of a black temper. Ghost screens and data dumps were stacked all around the server well, and all I'd learned was that virtuality was running six percent hot in qubits, eight percent in absolute cycles. Flying a dusty nebula might do that, or a thrashed message queue, or if Sparks was tending to a cracked Hunyadi. None of that was so. There wasn't a rhyme, reason, or ruddy alliteration behind any of it.

I left the ghost equipment piled high and stomped towards lunch. Shipmaster could quote regs at me when the ship was singing clean. It wasn't like I couldn't revoke all the hours of clutter with a word to ZOI, any wise.

I found Sparks and Cargo sitting in mess -- grav this meal, for sandwiches, for hurry. They were spooling over The Mary's load, crate by crate. I sat down, cut crusty bread and hard fragrant cheese, scraped fig jam with a crumby spoon.

"The solid hold has nothing -- hey, Grace -- nothing noisy, it's all perfume essences and spice-jelly and liquor and furs --" Cargo was shaking his head.

"Not smart liquor?" interrupted Sparks.

"Chemically smart, maybe. Nothing nano, no ghost-chasing."

Sparks grunted and dunked her last bite in thick black vinegar. "Well, I've been tearing the stacks apart for four straight hours, and there's no fault there. How's ZOI?" she asked me.

I left mess without a word to her. I paced the lonely corridors. The isolators would crash and burn. Nothing on the ship had caused it, nor -- looking the other way -- would anything prevent it. I passed through the well, peering at screens that flickered and faded as they crossed my vision. These beings sought something, surely, so near the end of their evanescent reality.

"Unhappy. Fretting worse," I answered. "I won't call it bad... yet, but I can find no source, so I won't guess how bad it might get." I peeled prosciutto from a plate that Chef had slipped out for me. (Cargo was Abrahamic, Sparks a greenworlder.) "What's the tale on the comp hold?" I asked unclearly through ham and cheese and crust.

"Six k-pages of correlated bits, the usual mess of license keys. A bunch of partial mind variants but they're cold on cubes, ice-cold, there's nothing. I'm about ready to print them out on paper, God help me, to make sure they're not leaking into ZOI."

"Do that," I said, and my tone made no joke of it.

I held my frustration when Sparks grilled me on my cargo. Hardware failing without cause was her nightmare, and I could tell -- she said right out -- that she didn't have a cause to pin anything on. Then Grace arrived and I went through it all again.

I went to check with the Shipmaster, leaving Grace and Sparks to slurp their tea.

"What then?" Ships asked, without turning around, as I climbed into the bridge.

I dragged my attention from the lacy splendor of the pure-state Galaxy surrounding us. "Grace wants me to dump the data hold to dead media -- anything that could possibly run hot. I can't think of a damned thing in the manifest that could be causing this, but I can't think of anything else to try either. Damn it."

"No chance the manifest lies?" If there was hope in his tone, Ships wasn't owning to it.

"There isn't a radical AI hiding in the license keys, if that's what you mean." I matched his detached amusement, and for the same reason: it was better than panic. Bad things could happen to a ZOI in flight, and not-so-bad things... but the inexplicable ones were the bad ones.

Ships sent me down to the task. I dug into the data storage manifest with vigor (because I was doing something at all, I tried not to think). I asked ZOI to evoke a holographic printer of some antique public-domain design, and then a mill-press to make foil blanks out of some aluminum bar stock. (Real aluminum, of course.) Then I started printing, labelling, and stacking. Holofoil had way more density than the paper Grace had talked about, but thirty cubes still mapped to an unholy pile of foil sheets.

I paced the hold, walking through the never-had-been machinery. I had transformed this data with no entropy increase. Was that the need? I kicked foil into a glittering cloud, data into chaos, but learned nothing. I returned to the stack bay, smashed the Hunyadi arrays, let their icy suction evaporate. It answered naught. I left them untouched and went to look again at these stars.

Too many stacked foil sheets. I counted, calculated, and counted again. Then I pulled the cubes I'd wiped, went back through them, checked their logs. Calculated some more. Then I gave up calculating, because I was getting the same answers every time.

I yanked open the hatch to the gym cubicle, where Sparks was working her usual shift-close routine. "Nerd conference," I said.

"Nerd dinner conference," she parried. I tilted my head; oh, yes, hungry. Sparks flung her free weights at the wall. (They decohered at the edge of the mat, and hadn't Ships worked to break her of throwing them at our heads.) I went looking for Grace.

By the time Sparks'd finished the latest of her showers, Chef was twisting pasta into the kind of sauce that cannot be made in any gravity at all. The hot cauldron barely spun, on the edge between spilling blobs of dinner everywhere and collapsing the liquid-foam of egg-yolk and tomato vinegar and delight. Every revolution, a tortellini flew in. Wafts of heaven drifted out. We tied on napkins and tried to concentrate on work.

"I pulled more partials out of the hold than are on the manifest," I said baldly. Grace and Sparks stared at me. "More than I put in," I added.

I swung around the mess table, hovered before the other humans, looked into their eyes. Did they behave differently near the thither ends of their worldlines?

Or did they correlate thither? I looked at the entropic arrow of the beings before me, the ship around me; I compared it to the ancient slow drift of space. Hither dominated their states, vastly so. I considered what this might mean.

Grace started two sentences, gave them up, and settled for a "More than you what?" (Ten semitones above her range, and wouldn't that be a record for her... oh, yes, if we still existed tomorrow.) "What might that even mean?"

I wished I had an answer. "Bad stuff, I think," seemed inadequate.

I sat the bridge; I ate the sandwich Chef had sent up. Old stories would have me leap forth to save the ship. With a sword and a wrench, or perhaps a rod and a wench. Old stories had such, with trumpets and ripped shirts.

I had a crew, was all I had, and they were already at their work. I sat the bridge and I watched the stars and I sweated where no one could see.

The Cargomaster reported, and I gave the nod to the Cyberist's notion of clearing the hold. Useless work by any rationale, but rationality wasn't working for us this flight. I sent him to it.

I closed half my vision and, experimentally, wondered about thither -- no, the future. I was blind. I collapsed and shrieked in fear until my heart burst.

I looked ahead at the delicate web that was Eridani Night in pure-state. Nightshades, I'd said, and now I wished I could shake the thought. At a whim I tuned in one of the correlate channels, the odd ones that skipped across Bose space and condensed noise into whispers. Nightshade whispers, said stories, the newer stories of the light-ship crews.

The correlate whispers made no more sense than ever. I tried to convince myself they weren't more urgent. Then I resisted turning them off, because that would mean I'd been afraid of the dark.

I thanked the Mechanic when she brought me Chef's coffee, but she didn't stay. Leaving the whispers on had been a mistake, then. Easy to admit now that I had an excuse. Well. Tomorrow's problem, if we had one.

I flung the beverage away, poured it onto the deck, gulped it and burned my throat. Did humans revolve around this? Chemical energy and neuroreceptors?

My morbid mood lasted until the entire crew bounced onto the bridge, waving napkins and talking at once. "Partial mind branching" said Cargo, and "Hyperfine transitions" said the Mechanic, and "ZOI isolator collapse" said the Cyberist.

I got them still and repeated that last. "What of the ZOI, Grace?"

Her flood of an answer started with self-replicating qubits, and then turned into an opaque snowbank. Not a simple virus, or even a radical AI, I gathered. The quantum systems themselves were branching, instead of collapsing -- antientropic, impossible in an observed universe. In the holds, in ZOI, in all the shipsystems; in us, even, although the shift was still imperceptible in matter not subzero and crystalline.

The Mechanic pointed out that our drive isolators would crash out long before our flesh sublimed into quantum foam. "And then hello to the nightshades after all," I devoutly wished to joke, and didn't. It wasn't something a Shipmaster could ever say.

"Ideas, then," I asked instead. Cargo looked worried. Sparks looked bleak. Grace... looked afraid, but not of ship-wreck and certain death. Of saying what she was about to say. I tilted my head at her.

"Ask ZOI to bring up a ghost ZOI," said Grace. "Evoke a fair new quantum computer from nothing."

Fantasy, plus a hundred failed laboratory tests, was the notion of self-hosted virtual computation. Sparks began to say as much -- and stopped; frowned. "Leverage the replication we're seeing? Use the antientropic progression?" She stared blankly out at the Galaxy. "The limit theorem wouldn't apply, I suppose..."

I fled the bridge, fled my crewmates. Their choices all led to the same end, which meant they had no choices. All their expertise and training, irrelevant. I battered my fists against metal. I moved hither and ran through the voyage, again and again, and I had no choices either.

I tapped my fingers sharply. "Mechanic. Will it work?"

Sparks returned from Eridani. "Might work. Might do nothing. Might fall under the observation threshold, and decohere The Mary on the spot -- which would be no worse than waiting for the isolators to blow, I admit. Or the anentropy might run away, and then we'd be pure-state spread like -- I have no idea." She shivered, and pretended it was a shrug. "It might work."

"Other ideas?" I asked, pro forma.


I did my job, which a Shipmaster hoped never to face once in his career: I gave the word. Within half an hour, Cyberist and Mechanic had the parameters set, and Cargomaster had the ship as trimmed as a metal tube containing messy warm flesh could be.

I finished my coffee. It was fragrant and swirled with cream. It tasted wonderful.

I reached for ZOI's panel and

I realized that I would die.

tapped the control

I whisked the batter a final time, and tasted it on the back of my hand. A drop more almond. Oh, nice. I cranked up the infrared; Grace would be in soon, and then the others. I spun the first loops and parked the jug. Bacon for Grace, nutmeats to send down to Cargo when she was hungry.

No need to worry about lunch. But dinner, now, I'd never gotten Avalon sauces up to my standard, and I wanted another shot. I'd have to start the emulsion now if it was to stabilize. Sparks would just light up if I got it right, and I fancied even the Master might crack a smile. Warm the eggs, then. Check the cask of mead, probably needed a turn or two. And then I'd have to see if I had enough ginger for a marinade, the mushrooms for tomorrow wouldn't plump themselves...

Updated November 4, 2008.

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