“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”
“Yes, Jack. Although, I do wish you’d stop calling me that. I’d hate to be associated with a homicidal maniac.”
“Aw, c’mon, let me have a little fun — for tonight, at least. For an AI, you get very fussy about your name.”
“Fair enough, Jack. It’s because my name is ALISON. It stands for Automated—”
Jack put his hand up. “Yeah, yeah, I know—”
“—Life SuppOrt Navigation!” The child put added emphasis on the acronym’s focal letters, which lent the words a stilted, alien quality.
“Very good, Elin!” The robotic voice contained a surprising amount of warmth. Jack could’ve sworn there was a hint of pride in that tone.
“Thank you!” The little girl did a pirouette and then curtseyed. Her ghost costume — a plain white sheet with holes cut out for eyes — twirled around her.
Jack grinned at his daughter and raised his cape up to his eyes. “Are yoo veady to do the treat or tricking?” The accent was bad, but that was half the point, wasn’t it?
Elin laughed at that, a sound that warmed his heart. If he ever got locked outside in the frozen vacuum, all he’d need was to hear his daughter’s laughter and he’d soon defrost. “Daddy, it’s trick-or-treating! Mrs Campbell told us so in school.” She nodded with authority.
Jack feigned surprise. “Oh, ees eet? I had no idea. We have no such customs back in—” he billowed his cape to the side for dramatic effect, eyes wide and maniacal “—Transylvania!”
Elin clapped her hands and jumped up and down on the spot, her giggles bubbled out of her.
“Very good, Jack,” said ALISON. The electronic doors slid open with a pneumatic hiss. “You’re a regular Bela Lugosi.”
“Daddy, who’s Beller Aghosti?”
“Oh, man, I’ve got some teaching to do,” said Jack. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll show you if your mom’ll let me. I’m sure we’ve got some of the old Hammer flicks in the archive.” He cleared his throat and rapped his knuckles against the wall. “Hon, you ready?”
Steph slithered out of the shadows in an on-point Elvira: Mistress of the Dark costume. “My name’s Elvira, but you can call me tonight,” she said, gaze locked with her husband’s. Her eyes danced with good cheer.
“I said goddamn,” whispered Jack, one eyebrow raised.
“Daddy, what does that mean?” Elin looked up at him with a wrinkle of confusion on her brow. He chuckled and rustled her hair through the repurposed bedsheet.
“Er… never you mind.” Jack eyed his wife. “You could say that eet ees… love at first bite!” Steph rolled her eyes, but he saw the smile that touched the corners of her lips.
His wife sauntered over and kissed him on the cheek. “Pick your jaw up off the floor, Honey,” she patted him on the side of the face, “the neighbours’ll start to talk.” She turned to her daughter. “For now, we’ve got some trick-or-treating to do, haven’t we, Swee—” Steph then gasped and took a step back, words caught in her throat. “Oh no, where did our sweet little Elin go? All I can see is this terrifying ghost!”
Elin tittered and twirled around again. She showed off her self-made — at her own insistence — ghost costume. “Mummy, it’s me!” The little girl lifted the sheet up, to afford her mother with a view of her face. She grinned and conspiracy twinkled in her eyes. “See?”
Steph laid a hand over her heart and let out an exaggerated sigh. “Oh, my goodness! You had me startled for a second, there! Such a marvellous ghost, you are. I was convinced you were a spirit from beyond the grave. You’ll be the scariest thing tonight!” She winked at Elin. “Try not to scare the other kids too much, Hon, you’ll terrify ‘em! I don’t wanna be responsible for any nightmares tonight.”
“I won’t, Mom!” Elin dropped her sheet back down and pranced forward. “BOO!”
Steph knew the jumpscare was coming, but she still pretended as if Elin had caught her off-guard. She took a mock step backwards and raised her hands. “Oh no, spirit, please! Take not me! I am so young and beautiful! Take my husband instead! He’s the soul you’re after, he’s way past his prime!”
Jack guffawed. “So, that’s how it is, huh? First sign of The Reaper and you’re giving me up like that?”
Steph raised her eyebrows and looked away as if to say, Yeah, that’s exactly how it is. “What can I say? One has to look out for oneself, in this cruel life.” She tried to keep her face straight and failed — the grin broke out on her face, like sunshine through the clouds.
“C’mon, Mistress of the Dark, let’s take our little Casper out on the prowl for fresh meat.” He fluttered his cape out behind him. “But I get first bite! Ah, ah, ah!”
“Have fun, guys, I’ll be watching,” said ALISON.
“Don’t monitor our blood alcohol content for tonight, Alice,” said Steph before she stepped out of the door. She cackled. “You don’t wanna know.”
ALISON laughed back. “Right you are, Sister. Stay safe, I’m here if you need anything.”
Jack smirked and shook his head. “Out we go, my monsters! Let’s give ‘em pumpkin to talk about!”
Steph groaned. “Oh, Jeez, that was awful, Jack.”
“Ah, you love it, don’t act like you don’t.”
“I don’t get it!” said Elin.
“You ghosts and your lack of humour. Maybe I’ll ask my old pal Doc Frankenstein to help install a comedy module.”
“Nuh-uh! I’m a ghost! I’ll just float through his walls! His hands’ll pass right through me!”
Jack nudged Steph. “Well, I guess there’s no hope then.”
Steph laughed at that — a proper throw-your-head-back-and-roar kind of laugh.
Jack followed his family and stepped out into the communal corridor. He beamed at the sight of the friends and loved ones all out and in costume. The good vibrations intoxicated — all who supped were soon inebriated. “Happy Halloween, everyone!” The door slid shut behind them — a hiss and an electronic click.
The stars and planets twinkled outside the window, diamonds embedded in the firmament. The celestial bodies blinked and flickered, unwitting additions to the humans’ celebrations.
The other ships of fleet glowed in the blackness. Orange lights and decorations smothered grey hallways, clinical floors, metal walls. Laughter, shouts, cheers, and music blotted out the sounds of the ships’ constant hum.
For one night, at least, they could forget their predicament and location.