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April 15, 2024

Home Burn

By Jerry Seeger

"Thought I was going crazy there for a while," I said to the ghost.

She sat in the empty copilot's seat and stared out into the emptiness that surrounded us. "Understandable, considering," she said. "You know, your government has rules about spending too long out here alone."

I shrugged. It seemed natural that she would know Earth's spacefaring regulations.

The ghost scanned the stars -- hard cold diamonds, distant and uncaring. "Which one's yours?"

It took me a few moments to pinpoint Old Sol; I hadn't looked for it in a long time. From here it looked ordinary -- just another blob of hydrogen turning itself into helium. I had my own sun now, in the belly of my ship, freeing me from mankind's ancient dependency on the home star. Almost. "Over there," I said, pointing.

She looked in the direction of my gesture but made no attempt to identify the exact star. "You've been away a long time."

"When's the last time you were home?"

She took a breath, entirely for show. "It's been a while," she allowed. "Becoming a ghost is pretty much a one-way ticket."

"Which is your star?" I asked.

She continued to gaze out the window, but she wasn't looking at anything in particular. "It's far from here."

"Do you ever want to go back?"

"Sometimes. But the urge passes."

"Right now?"

She looked straight at me for the first time. "I wonder if my star even exists anymore."

"Maybe you should go back for a visit."

She shook her head slowly. "One-way ticket."

The silence stretched longer this time, filled with questions unasked and unanswered. We were neither of us conversationalists, but no one you meet out here is likely to be. In the silence I could feel the other soul solidifying, taking up space, crowding my own spirit. On Earth, when I had a conversation like this one, this was the moment I would declare I was taking a walk, and out the door I would dash, to disappear into the anonymous world. There was no dashing out the door now; what had seemed like the perfect escape had suddenly turned into a trap.

This time I would have to finish the conversation. "How old are you?" I asked.

She shrugged. "Old enough to forget. I'm not even sure the question means anything anymore." She looked at me speculatively. "How do you know you're not crazy?"

"All hallucinations, delusions and other figments of my imagination have to wear a special badge," I said. It didn't come out as funny as I had hoped.

She nodded. "What if I'm breaking the rules?"

"You seem like the law-abiding type of ghost to me."

"That's not terribly sound reasoning."

"Well, I'm the only one who has to believe it."

"What if I told you to go outside without a spacesuit?"

"You'd better have a damn good reason."

She smiled, almost, the reflected instrument lights creating sparks in her eyes.

Her appearance in my ship had been gradual and unsettling. At first she was just an indefinable feeling, the eyes-over-the-shoulder uneasiness that makes you think you're paranoid. At that point, maybe I was. Then I noticed a faint odor -- a tenuous smell with no source that disrupted the eternal sameness of the ship. When you live in the same three rooms for years, sealed and self-contained, there is nothing to surprise the senses. When I caught the first whiff of something odd, something that did not belong and could not be on the ship, naturally I took notice.

I checked every system on the ship, which didn't take long, since they all check themselves and each other constantly. Nothing was amiss. I analyzed every atom in the air supply, and the machines reported that all was completely normal; there was no variation in the chemicals I was breathing. Yet still I could smell something, a hint of cinnamon, perhaps.

The feeling continued to get stronger, and I began to hear and see things as well. A motion at the corner of my eye, a surprise reflection. Hints of something -- someone, I knew -- occupying the same space I was. After all that time out there, I was sensitive to the pressure of another personality upon my own.

Or of my own manufacture? Crazy, I had to admit, was a distinct possibility.

Spacers are exiles by choice, misfits, people who have never developed the hard shell around their personalities that one needs to function around others. When a spacer's shoes touch dirt they automatically turn toward The Shed, a safe haven with alcohol to dull the senses, an oasis of anaesthesia. It is a quiet bar with patrons who don't need to fill the air with jabber. Other spacers. A spacer can stay planetside for a few weeks, perhaps even a few months, loading up on the supplies and spare parts they resent needing, and depositing credits they will never spend. The banks are filled with money from vanished spacers with no families to declare them dead.

Each week on the rock is more difficult than the one before, until it is all a spacer can do to dash from his room to a waiting shuttle and back up into the comforting silence of the void. There is no better moment than when your drive kicks in and all that noise and chatter and all those other people are behind you, far behind. At that moment it is easy to contemplate not coming back. Eventually, however, the solitude itself becomes oppressive and you point your tin can back toward the mother star.

Unless something happens.

"I like watching you eat," she said.

I put down my fork. "Why?"

"I was like you, once."

She was more solid now; I had the feeling that if I tried I might even be able to touch her. Her long, dark hair reflected the galley light in waves. She wore a simple jump suit like mine; on her right breast was a cloth badge reading "Official Non-Figment." A smiley face adorned the other side: "Have a Nice Day!"

"How can I see you when none of the instruments can?"

She smiled and plinked me on the forehead, her laugh echoing through the ship. "You're seeing me here, silly." I laughed as well at the gesture, so familiar, so playful.

"Why are you here?" I asked.

She pulled back in the chair and opened and closed her hand, watching her slender fingers as they flexed. "I'd almost forgotten what it feels like. This comes from you, you know," she said, holding out her hand for inspection. "This shape. I haven't been so ... concentrated in a long time." She shrugged and in a fluid motion took my hand. Her skin was soft and cool. "Even ghosts need company now and then."

Among spacers, the leading cause of death is "Unknown". People simply leave the mother planet and never return. The rest of us like to think that the missing have perhaps found what they were looking for, out among the stars, a paradise to shelter their fragile souls, and they have cut off communication with the rest of us simply because there is nothing left for them to say.

There is another reason spacers disappear, one we never mention but is always lurking in any spacer conversation. In the grand silence, with nothing but your own mind for company, the dark thoughts come, and there is nothing to drive them away again.

I was dirtside when Spider Bob came in on his "home burn", his exhaust plume lighting up our scopes as he braked with everything he had. Every couple of years an old-timer will come blasting in from the far reaches, drive on the verge of meltdown in a flat-out race between the pilot and the demons who pursue him. If Spider Bob's drive had failed he would have passed through the system, never to be seen again, unless he ran into something first.

There were three of us and a bottle of whiskey waiting in The Shed when he staggered in, his face pale and haggard. "Heard you got a speeding ticket," Blackie joked.

I poured Spider Bob a shot. He drank it, took the bottle from me, and poured himself another. I paid little attention to his poor manners; I was looking at his eyes, open a little wider than was natural, pupils dialated, darting from face to face before coming to rest on something only he could see, far away.

Spacers don't go back out after a home burn.

"Blow the hatch."

"I bet you say that to all the guys." I played with her hair where it cascaded over my naked chest.

She pushed herself up on her elbow to look me straight in the eye. "Blow the hatch," she said again. Not smiling.

"What? Why?"

"Come with me. Out there."

"I -- "

"You're already more like me than like them. Free yourself. Free yourself from Earth, free yourself from this ship and all the machines you need to keep yourself alive."

I sat up in the narrow bunk, looking down on her now, careful to not push her onto the deck. "I -- I can't."

"You don't have to do anything. Just open the hatch; I'll do the rest. You just need to have faith." She rubbed against me, sinuous as a cat. It felt good, what she did. "You've been looking for it all your life; take it now. Become a spacer. With me."

Spacer. We were an odd club, a congregation of people who did not belong. Each of us, however, knows in our own way that as long as we remain tied to Earth we are not true star men. The ones who never come home, the Unknowns, are the true spacers in our pantheon. Now I could be one. I could know the stars.

I rose but didn't get dressed; I would leave humanity the same way I arrived. I made my way through the galley to the door I had not used in more than three years. When I had last sealed it I had heaved a sigh of relief, leaning against it and feeling my heartbeat slowly return to normal as the jangling of humanity faded from my frayed synapses. I had wondered, then, if I would ever be able to open it again.

The ghost was behind me, watching, careful not to crowd me. I punched in the emergency code, and a green button on the panel changed to red. I looked at it for a moment, staring so hard the red square seemed to float before me, a tiny red star I could reach out and touch. All the stars will be that way, soon. I put my thumb over the button and hesitated.

I turned as she stepped up behind me and took my other hand in hers. "We will be together forever."

Forever, out here, where I belonged. Where I felt comfortable and safe. Wandering the stars, hand in spiritual hand, expanding with the universe, an eternity to find what I was looking for.

A shudder passed through me. What if it didn't exist, whatever it was I was looking for? What if I was just as lost, but without any boundaries, without any hope? Alone. I'd never managed to stay with anyone for any period of time before. What would the ghost and I talk about after a thousand years? I looked out the tiny porthole in the door. The stars all looked the same. "Seen one, seen 'em all," Wild Tom had said when he retired.

She read the look on my face and squeezed my hand to her chest, looking into my eyes, desperately, imploringly. "Please. Don't leave me out here alone. I don't think I can face that any more. Not after this." Her dark eyes looked right through mine, into my soul, finding my own loneliness where I had tucked it safely away, brushing off the dust and unfolding it until it was exactly her shape, the shape of the void that would be left in the boat after she was gone.

I moved my thumb the last inch until it touched the cool plastic of the button. Just one twitch and all doubt would be erased, all fear expunged. I would be a spacer, a true wanderer of the stars, either as a frozen corpse tumbling through the void or as a ghost like my visitor. I would not be alone, her gaze told me. She would be with me, and no doubt others like her as well. Still I hesitated.

With a growl she jabbed out, and I barely moved my hand in time to prevent her from pushing my thumb into the button. We froze for a moment, then she collapsed to my chest, weeping. I put my arms around her, comforting her and pinning her arms to her side, and moved her away from the hatch with its beckoning red button. Even as I steered her I felt her becoming less substantial.

"Stay," I said.

She shook her head but said nothing.

I looked back over my shoulder at the button, glowing steadily red with the apathy of a machine. "We still have some time," I said. "I don't need to go back yet."

"What do you know about time? Dammit, you brought me here. You can't just send me away." she was breaking down, clinging to me even as she was thinning, losing her realness. "It's not fair."

"I'm sorry," I said, trying to anchor her there with my arms, like grasping a ray of light and almost succeeding.

Her kiss on my cheek was a breath of air, nothing more. Her eyes were black holes, gateways to infinity, closing to me. She opened her mouth, closed it, and after a moment said simply "Goodbye." Then she was gone, leaving behind the faint scent of cinnamon.

"Goodbye," I said into the emptiness.

I will wait for you, I almost thought I heard.

I knew what it was she had not said, and I knew that if she had asked once more I would have pushed the button and left the universe of man. With a shudder I hurried over and canceled the code on the hatch. The red button turned to green, and I was safe from myself for the moment. I stood, more alone than I had ever been before.

I will wait for you. Real or imaginary, she was still on the other side of that hatch. I let out a shuddering breath, the same air I had breathed thousands of times before, air that had never passed through her lungs, and ran my fingers through my hair. "Time to go back," I said to myself, but it was not my voice I longed to hear.

I walked to the command cabin, the first steps deliberate but each more urgent than the one before. Feverishly I punched in the course that would take me back to Earth, activated the drive, and sat back, working my jaw, wondering how I was going to survive the next weeks as I crept back through the emptiness that surrounded me. I wondered what I could do to keep myself from blowing the hatch during that time, in some cinnamon-scented dream.

As I sat my unease grew. I calculated the time I would cut off the trip if I pushed the drive past its ratings.

Nineteen days. Almost three weeks less I would have to cling to my sanity before I reached the shelter of other voices, the pressure of all those souls that would help me build a shell to shut out her siren song. The teeming streets would drown the whispers of longing and uncertainty in my heart.

She could not reach me through all that noise; as painful as it was for me, it would be impossible for her. I would learn to survive down there and she would be alone once more.

Alone beyond imagining. Solitude all the more painful for its brief interruption. She had not asked me that final time to come with her; she had left it in my hands.

I took a breath and canceled the new program. I would return to Earth; I would wrap myself in the cacophony and remember once more what it means to he human. I would walk the streets and look at the sky and listen to sounds that came from far away. I would drink in The Shed with whoever happened to be dirtside, trading stories and silences. But there would be no home burn for me; I was coming back out, to wander once more between the stars. Only now I knew what I was looking for.

-- Jerry Seeger

Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-06-05
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