Night of No Return

Grace Seybold

Someone who’ll forgive me,” the ghost captain said.

Gilly wasn’t sure what kind of answer she’d been expecting. What was usual, for ghosts? What were they likely to be looking for?

Silent, she studied him. Her head came level with the middle of his chest, and his limbs were broad with muscle; her kind of ship called for a dancer’s lightness, and his for someone who could stamp and bellow. He wore a dark blue woolen shirt, salt-stiff and sweat-felted, with one elbow roughly darned with hemp twine. Conscious of her grey skinsuit’s smoothness and the transparent membrane covering her face, Gilly wondered what he thought of her.

“Forgive you?” she asked.

He nodded. “Hear my whole tale, told truly, and forgive my deeds, and all before the sun rises.” A callused hand fended off the low eastern hills. “It’s only this single night in a hundred years we make port, my ship and all my crew and I, to seek someone who’ll hear my story and the way I damned us all. And you—” now his look turned frankly appraising, “lovely creature that you are, seem to be the only one here.”

“Things have changed some,” Gilly said.

“They have,” the captain agreed ruefully. “The last two nights before this I could find no-one to speak to at all. My crew had begun to wonder if all were gone, and our hope of rest gone with them.”

“Not quite all,” Gilly said. “Not quite yet.” Over the captain’s shoulder, spectres crowded the wooden rail, jostling for place. She counted fifteen men, all with their own faces; they were part of this, themselves, she guessed, and not just background for the captain’s suffering, though none of them seemed able to speak. “Is that what you hope for, then? Oblivion?”

He gave a short laugh. “We’ve no hope of Heaven, any of us. And as for Hell, well, what should we hope for there? Unless this is Hell, and all our hope for release merely a torment—” He broke off, looking askance at her. “Do you know those words? Heaven, Hell—”

“I’m well read,” Gilly said dryly. “Yes, I know what you mean. Punishment or joy, forever.”

“That’s well.” The captain looked relieved. “The language changes, you see. This curse grants me a gift of tongues, to tell my story the better as the generations pass, but what use are the words when the ideas behind them are missing? I spend half the night explaining whaling and adultery and England and murder, and there’s scarce time left to plead for mercy. No knowing of murder, can you credit it? There was a woman one time, many nights ago—” He trailed off, and was silent for a long moment before giving a sudden shake of his head. “Pardon me, do. I maunder.”

“It’s all right,” Gilly said. She put out a hand as though to lay it on his arm, then thought better of it and drew back. To her eyes he seemed solid, and to her other eyes as well, but she was reluctant to make the test. “It is, though, truly. There’s time. This night will be long.”

“Are they getting longer?” the captain asked.

“Yes.”

“I thought they might be.” He sounded dubious. “Hobson, my second mate—he’s made observations with the telescope, he’s kept records. I brought him some books once that someone gave me ashore, children’s books, you know, that this little boy had—marvelous things like glass scrolls, they were, that told all about the sun and stars. There are ships up there, you know,” he added parenthetically, with grave wonder. “Marvelous— And Hobson said the sun was getting warmer, or closer, or some such thing. I thought he might be mistaken, it’s hard to take observations at sea, and time moves so oddly sometimes. But you say it’s true.”

Gilly nodded slowly, wondering how much to tell him. At last she said, “I’ve been out there, on those ships. Your crewman’s right. The sun is—well, it’s very old. When suns die—” She gestured around them, at the distant shadow of the hills, the stone pier where they stood, the shingled beach below and the frozen sea. The ancient vessel bobbed at anchor in an incongruous patch of shining water. It looked like moonlight, Gilly thought; Earth had had moons—one moon, at the time this ship had sailed. Old light, old shadows. “You can see what’s gone.”

“There were trees here once,” the captain said. “I remember it. This was a green place.” He frowned. “There was a rain of fire while we were at sea, some time ago. Some of us thought it was Judgement Day come at last. But it passed, and we were still afloat. Only after that, there was no-one here when I came ashore.” He scuffed at the stone with the toe of his boot. “This is the third time since then; three hundred years, it must be. I thought the trees might have grown back.”

Gilly shook her head. “They won’t. The air itself is burned away, now.”

“Hobson said he thought the stars were clearer.” The captain gave his short bark of a laugh again. “I suppose we didn’t notice. The air, truly? But you’re breathing still.”

“With this.” Gilly touched the interface at the base of her throat. “It’s a sort of machine. It breathes for me, and the shield keeps my skin from the cold and the vacuum—the lack of air. Actually, down there, the sea—that’s the air that’s left, that ice. I’m not even sure how I’m hearing you, to be honest.” She saw that he wasn’t following her train of thought, considered explaining, and decided a lecture on physics wasn’t the best use of their time. Physical law only seemed to apply sporadically to him and his crew anyway. “Well. I came protected.”

“How marvelous.” The captain glanced back at his ship. “Then you don’t live here.”

“No-one does,” Gilly said. “I told you I’d been on starships; in truth, I fly one.” Not truth, exactly; but that explanation would be even more difficult than frozen air. “I only came here for a little while, to do a task. And to see.”

“Then I should tell you my sordid tale now, before you have to leave again,” the captain said. “Before the sun rises.”

The sharp stars hung over the hills, their light giving edges to everything. “This night will be longer than you think,” she said.

“You told me that before,” he said. “How long?”

Their eyes met, and locked.

“The sun is dying,” Gilly said bluntly. She hadn’t been sure, before, how much to say, but she couldn’t remember now why she’d wanted to hold back. Pity, perhaps? This body had been troubling her with stray feelings since it had come to her, and she was still sorting them out. “This world is dead already. When suns die, they grow swollen and kill their planets in their dying. Then their fire recedes, and they shrink to a kind of ember. The world can’t turn as it did before; it becomes tidally locked. Do you know what that is?”

“I—no. Tides I know, but—well, go on. I’ll follow as I can.”

“The world slows,” Gilly said, “and then it stops. One side faces the sun, for always, and the other looks outward to the stars.”

“Forever,” the captain said slowly.

“For as long as the sun burns at all. This night won’t end, Captain. The sun isn’t going to rise.”

“I must tell Hobson,” the captain muttered. He started to turn back toward his ship, then stopped. “No, what am I doing? Forgive me, fair one. I need to tell you my story. But if you—if the sun doesn’t rise, if the night—” He shook his head, bewildered. “What happens to us now? Do we sit at anchor forever? Do I keep telling my tale to everyone who comes here, without sailing in between?”

“No-one else will come here,” Gilly said quietly. “I’m sorry, Captain. That’s the rest of what I have to tell you. I’m the last. I’ve come to dismantle the gate here, now that Earth and Mars are dead, and take it elsewhere. T-space gates are valuable; we can’t build them ourselves, only scavenge the ones that exist already, and no-one wants to leave a gate here when it’s so badly needed elsewhere. Not even the species’ first home is worth that much, not as a monument alone.” She was surprised at the bitterness her voice betrayed. Feelings, on and on. “Forgive me, Captain. My people’s politics aren’t your problem.”

“They very much are, I think,” he corrected her mildly, “if they determine my crew’s future, and my own. And you’ve yet to answer my question, lovely one. What happens to us now?”

“Now—” Gilly shook her head. “Captain, I confess, I have absolutely no idea.”

“Can you stay for me to tell my tale, at least?” the captain pleaded. “You may be my last chance.”

“I may,” Gilly admitted, “but I don’t think I can give you what you need.”

“Try, at least,” the captain said. “If you’ve any mercy at all in you—”

“I truly don’t.” Gilly saw his stricken look, and added, “That’s not a slight against you; I mean it literally. I’ve no mercy, no, nor much else in the way of feelings. You perhaps noted that I showed no surprise at seeing you, when your ship appeared.”

“I wondered at that,” the captain admitted.

“In a way, I’m a ghost as well, though not like you,” Gilly continued. More difficult than frozen air, indeed. “This body, this young woman whom you call fair, suffered an accident that killed her mind but left her flesh intact. When that happens to someone, we have a use for the bodies, we ships. It was given to me to be my other half, to give me—flexibility, you could say. My mind, my self, my continuity, is a machine. This body, with its feelings and its wants, is peripheral; I can pity you, I can care about you, through this part of me, but it’s transient, not part of my core. It would only be the feelings of the dead. I’m not sure I can help you, captain. I can listen to your story, I can decide whether I think you were justified in what you did, but I don’t know that that would be forgiveness. And even if I feel as though it is—well. Coming from me, I don’t know that it would count.”

Silence, while the waves lapped the pier in that circle of otherworldly sea. “But you must try, fair one,” the captain said. “Fair machine person. Whatever you call yourself. You must. Even if you are a, a ghost of sorts. You’re all we have.”

“That isn’t so,” Gilly said, and all at once caught up with herself, and knew why she’d decided to explain after all. “Not to my thinking. If the forgiveness of a ghost is enough, and I don’t deny it might be—then can’t you forgive each other?”

Long silence.

The captain spread his hands helplessly. “How could that be? We were there. We know what happened, what I did, what they did. I’ve carried it so long—”

“And have you once,” Gilly inquired, “in all your wandering, asked your crew to forgive you? For leading them to this?”

“They wouldn’t,” the captain said, but uncertainly.

“They might,” Gilly said. “Ask them.”

“But if I go back aboard,” the captain said, “I may not be able to return to you. I may not get a second chance. I should—”

“Hedge your bets?” Gilly finished gently. “I never believed in ghosts, Captain; all I know of them is stories. But the logic of stories tells me—that’s not how this kind of thing works. You need to make a choice. Trust, captain. That’s where this goes. Laying your story on strangers—maybe that was never going to work. Let your crew judge you, and forgive you, and move on.”

She saw the agony of indecision chase itself across his face. He looked back, over his shoulder, at the blurry figures clustered along the rail. How much could they hear, or see? The captain looked solid, unwavering, fully in the world to everything her flesh eyes and her sensors could determine. Except the world was an airless stone, cold as space, and he stood before her in his mended sweater as though it kept him warm enough.

“I don’t think I can,” he said.

Gilly shrugged. “Then tell me your story,” she said. “If that’s your choice.”

“I don’t—” He stopped, shaking his head. He couldn’t choose, Gilly thought. All these billions of years, these billions of nights doing what he’d been told (by whom? she wondered) was his only hope—he’d gotten well out of the habit of volition.

She was guessing, as she always had to guess when things moved beyond verifiable data. But she was more sure than was usual for her, when logic failed. This body, this latest one in the long line of corpses she wired herself into because human brains dealt so much better with fragmentary systems than her core self did—with this latest body she’d found a new confidence in stories, a closer and clearer sense of the narratively appropriate; and how else, after all, did one deal with ghosts, except through story? It made no sense, and complete sense, and on that thought Gilly found herself turning back toward her landing site.

“Wait, fair machine, wait,” the captain called after her, reflexively, she thought. Not true choice. She would choose for him.

“If I’m wrong,” she said without turning, “forgive me.”

Her feet crunched on the frozen ground as she walked, sending little shocks of vibration up her legs. The ship, the rest of her, glowed coral-coloured on the ridge. He didn’t follow, or couldn’t. If she was wrong, she thought, perhaps she’d be condemned herself, in narrative symmetry, doomed for her hard-heartedness to wander the endless stars.

But that was her fate regardless, she thought, as light spilled from the airlock and she welcomed herself home: to wander endlessly, and to be alone. The missions changed, the planners changed, she was rebuilt and rebuilt and rebuilt. Perhaps it was only that the latest body was mad, or broken; but she had begun to wonder, lately, if she was lonely.

Perhaps that’s the fate of all ghosts, she thought.

The ship rose up and left the world behind.