Erin was a speck of dust on the map back home, trapped in the holographic border marking the edge of Human space. All around her, specks of dust were still exploding.
When she thought of home Erin meant West Virginia. Of all the places left on Old Earth, West Virginia might have changed the least. It was still poor. Still a backwater. Still hell, for a precocious young woman like her. If a person could still be precocious when they were dying, and young after they’d been to war.
Home wasn’t the Olympus and it never would be. Through the flash-frozen haze of her fighter’s leaking atmosphere Erin saw the supercarrier spilling another wave of T-60’s into the battle, the blue flares of their ion drives sparking to life in twelve ship flights as each Wing was disgorged from the launcher. Like a stark white crab claw belching fire, Erin thought, if some mad scientist had grafted a thousand gleaming eyes up the big part of the claw, blunted its tip into a bridge.
The viewscreen flickered and the magnification died. Erin was blind, adrift in the spacelanes between Idd and Gemmenon.
In West Virginia the clock next to the map struck twelve. October 31st crept into the cottage, seeped through the cracks of ancient, dry-rotting wood.
Three small shapes appeared in Erin’s cockpit.
They sat and stood across the top of her console like uncertain little porcelain dolls, strangely pale around the edges though one of them had dark, familiar eyes. There was a terrible sense of familiarity to all them in fact. The longer Erin stared the more they seemed to resolve, shaded in from their pale edges until she knew them.
“Meemaw?” Erin whispered. “Aunt Carla?”
She paused in the man’s dark eyes; she hadn’t forgotten that face, couldn’t, but to speak his name was an admission she wasn’t ready for.
“Hey there Rose,” he said, using her middle name.
A flash lit the distance, the ignition of a pilot’s life support and fuel cells, consumed by the universe and gone in an instant. “Oh God, you’re dead aren’t you?” Erin said to the man.
He shrugged. She could practically hear his leather jacket creak, smell the ancient tobacco burned into it by successive generations of his family line. “It’s good company,” he said casually. “They feed us well.”
“Ignore the boy,” said Aunt Carla, jowls shaking with her disapproval.
Meemaw was silent, thoughtful. She wore a white dress, hair a steel gray wave spilling down one side, all the tendons in her forearm standing out as she rapped her fingers against a bony knee.
It was, of course, impossible. Thirteen when Erin had last seen her meemaw, sixteen for Aunt Carla. Nineteen for Danny, the boy with the dark eyes and too-easy smile who looked to have become a man sometime before his death. What did he see, Erin wondered, when he looked at her?
And why was she seeing them now? Two women who had raised her and the boy who had taught her how to fly, racing his rebuilt T-32 across what used to be coal country.
She asked them, piped the question across the tinny speakers integrated into her flight suit. A light came on inside her helmet when the speaker transmitted, painting her lips blue. Meemaw spoke, gruff and to the point. “Because you picked a good day to die.”
Erin blinked hard. She tried to sit up further but the cockpit was cramped and something caught at the legs of her suit. Her head ached, when she sucked on her suit’s water catch-tube she tasted blood. “Huh?” she said.
“You got a calendar in that thing?” Danny stretched his long, lithe body, assayed the gap between the console and her knee. He nodded once, satisfied apparently, and then jumped. He seemed to soar a long time, hanging in the air and then descending without any respect to the lack of gravity. No weight when he struck. No sensation as walked across her leg, climbed her body, though he wore heavy boots and if she craned her neck down she could see him grasping handfuls of her suit. He was so small, perhaps as tall as her middle finger was long. Back home he’d had to gut all the safeties out of his T-32 just so he could fit in the cockpit. When he’d taught her to fly they’d done it with the windscreen down— Erin had sat on his lap, brown hair whipping in the breeze as they soared at the lowest possible speed, lowest possible altitude. She could’ve reached out and touched the trees.
Danny reached her shoulder, peered in through the foggy bulb of her helmet. “Shit Rose,” he said, “that’s no good! What were you thinking, joining up?”
Erin shrugged and he almost fell off. On the console Aunt Carla leaned into Meemaw, whispered something about Erin never learning. Finally settled, Danny peered in once again, rapped on her faceplate. “Happy Halloween,” he said. “I know it was your favorite.”
Erin wanted to laugh but she knew laughter would hurt. A few seconds later she did it anyway. She was dying already, why not?
“No Halloween out here,” she choked out afterwards, flecks of blood dusting the inside of her helmet.
“Samhain, child,” Meemaw said. “I taught you better than that. Do you think the Gods care a whit where you are?”
“Wrong side of the border,” Aunt Carla interrupted.
Meemaw glared her into silence. “Samhain is in your blood dear, not your stars. First thing we figured out, when the old ways went new.”
“And why are you all so small?” Erin asked, still struggling with it all. Her thoughts moved slowly now. Maybe the blood loss, maybe the plasma burns. Maybe that was just what happened when a flak burst took out your entire Wing.
Danny rapped on her helmet again. Why could she hear that, if she hadn’t felt him crawling? “Ghosts don’t like to leave where they died. We can do it sometimes if we’ve got a really strong connection to a person but it takes a chunk out of us and frankly Rose, you’re far as shit. That’s why we can’t have you dying out here, you know? Worth a poltergeisting. Purely selfish. Promise.”
Images swam before her eyes, washed out the dolls in front of her. Their last night together, the T-32 landed on the side of a dead mountain; brown and gray saplings had risen up from the dry earth like an old man’s stubble. A ragged owl tried to fill up the dark.
Curled into Danny’s side in the patchwork cockpit, tobacco scented leather as a blanket, she had almost missed it when he whispered “Will you marry me?”
Breath catching between her lips, Erin froze. Through the corner of her eye she could see him staring towards D.C. where the spaceships blasting off from Bolling lit the night like exploding stars.
Frozen. Silent. After a while even the owl gave up. Danny never said it again, though something caught in his jaw and there were signs of a struggle around the knot.
Erin had enlisted the very next day.
“She’s doing it again,” Aunt Carla said. “I told you, she’s doing it again.”
“Shut up and work,” Meemaw said.
Erin opened her eyes, unaware that she’d even closed them. The darkness only half receded. On the console in front of her Aunt Carla and Meemaw were flipping switches, adjusting dials. The engines coughed behind Erin’s head, sent a rumble through the ship. His own head cocked, Danny listened carefully. “Ah. Two operational drives, one on each side. We’re in business, ladies!”
He scrambled down Erin’s shoulder, down her arm. Erin didn’t have the strength to speak anymore, she simply watched it all. Watched as her Meemaw who had never known a thing about flying brought the thrusters into alignment, as Aunt Carla who should never even have seen a hovercar worked diligently beside her. “Don’t worry, I didn’t bring any booze into the afterlife,” Aunt Carla said. “And in any event I’m not the one flying.” She disappeared below, towards the foot pedals.
In the viewscreen the line of explosions receded until they disappeared among the stars. Chatter came through the comm, but in her state Erin could hardly understand the encoded battle-lang. She recognized the tone of the voices though, no longer so desperate, just grim. Vengeful. Maybe they were winning.
Meemaw gave Danny a single measured nod and then she too disappeared below. The world looked like the inverse of how the ghosts had. Dark around the edges, too bright in the middle. Erin gathered herself, croaked out a few more words. “How… How did you die?”
Danny didn’t look up. Gently, he disentangled her fingers from the flight stick, then climbed up her hand again to stand on top of her wrist, body leaning heavily into the stick. Stars shifted, the Olympus came into focus.
Finally, Danny glanced back. In the half-light of her half consciousness, Erin couldn’t tell if he smiled or not. “Looks like that old T-32 was good for something,” he said.
Darkness took her.
Back home in West Virginia the speck of dust caught in the holographic border dissipated into a dazzling aura, unseen. On the border between Idd and Gemmenon a lonely T-60 limped back to its hangar, damaged engines sketching lazy blue lines through space.
Her body frozen by the last act of her suit’s life support, Erin remembered the cold of another October night, three years ago to the day. Ancient tobacco and a question.
When she woke there were no ghosts.
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Good stuff mate. Compact and evocative. I hope you spin out more chapters with characters like this.
Amazing work. It's a joy to read sci-fi that is both creative and heartfelt. I'm in awe of your ability to set a scene. Congratulations on making the shortlist!