Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Tales from the Brahma • Episode 5: “Ghosts” • by Pete Wood

[skip intro]

Welcome aboard the Brahma!

Now a century out from Earth and en route to HD 133600, a remarkably Sun-like star and planetary system in the constellation of Virgo, the Brahma is the last, desperate, crowning achievement of human civilization and engineering. A massive three-hundred-kilometer long modular mega-ship, a gigantic ark in space consisting of two hundred and sixteen separate habitat pods, each the size of a small city, at launch Brahma carried two million passengers and crew, along with everything their descendants would need to build new lives on the worlds of HD 133600.

For the Brahma is a generation ship: all the original passengers and crew who left the Earth a century ago are long since dead. Everyone now on board was born on the ship; most will probably die on it. If their mission succeeds, their children or grandchildren will live to see the light of HD 133600.

Right now, the Brahma seems to be on-course and everything appears to be working as designed. The ship is cruising serenely at just slightly below c, a tribute to the engineers and craftspeople who designed and built her a century before. Many on board pray daily that the ship contains the best of humanity, and not the sorts of politicians, criminals, cultists, crazies, and dishonest leadership their ancestors thought they’d left behind…



Episode 5: “Ghosts” • by Pete Wood

Reverend Nancy Tucker stood by the hundred-year-old wooden chapel’s organ and studied her father. Dad had been dead for twenty-three years.

She didn’t believe in ghosts.

She believed in the Gospels of Jesus Christ, as interpreted by the Methodist Church at least. She believed that life in a small county in Iowa had to be better than anywhere else.

Dad sat on the front pew and picked up a hymnal. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave.

“Dad?” she asked.

He shimmered and vanished.

¤     ¤     ¤

Nobody left Bremer County. Sure, the Co-op reps came down from Des Moines to pick up corn and potatoes and other vegetables, but they didn’t live here.

A week ago, Gail Jackson, a new rep, had headed down the main road to Des Moines. And then the quake hit, the first quake anyone could remember. Jackson returned with a story about a collapsed bridge. Nancy had put her up in the parsonage’s spare bedroom. Unlike Dad, Nancy had never had kids.

An earthquake. The first overnight guest in generations. And then ghosts.

Gail sat on a rocking chair on the back porch. Nancy’s guest sipped whiskey and stared out at the fields of corn that flanked the town. A half empty bottle sat on the uneven floorboards.

Nancy took the second chair.

“They’re not coming,” Gail muttered. “It’s up to me.”

Her guest held up the bottle. Nancy shook her head. Gail shrugged and topped off her glass.

“A lot of strange things have happened since you arrived,” Nancy said. “An earthquake.” She paused. “Other stuff.”

“You ever think maybe you’re not in Iowa?” Gail asked.

Nancy stared at her. “What?”

Gail focused on the wind rustling through the tassels of corn. A crow squawked.

“You’re not in Iowa,” Gail said, her voice slurring.

Nancy forced a smile. “What do you mean?”

“You’re not even on Earth. You’re on a ship. Your county got detached from the main ship last Wednesday. We’re fifteen lightyears from Earth. The ship left Earth one hundred years ago. It’s going to a distant star where….”

Nancy listened as Gail rambled on about how Bremer County was really a spaceship. How much had Gail had to drink?

Gail stopped in mid-sentence. “I know you don’t believe me.”

“You’re drunk.”

Gail glared at her. “You’re living in a goddamned fantasy.” She gulped the rest of her glass.

¤     ¤     ¤

Nancy didn’t sleep that night. The Gospels said to welcome the stranger, but what if the stranger were insane?

Around two a.m., she detected a figure sitting on her bed.

Nancy sat up. “Get the hell out of my room! Keep your crazy—”

“I thought you’d be glad to see me,” Dad said.

Nancy turned on the light. “You’re not real.”

“You believe in miracles and heaven and that you turn bread and grape juice into the body and blood of Jesus, but you won’t accept what your own eyes see,” Dad said.

Nancy’s heart raced. “How can you be here? Why are you here?”

“So many questions? What about faith?”

A tear ran down Nancy’s face. “I’m sorry.”

“I don’t know why I’m here,” Dad said.

“Where were you?”

Dad smiled. “Faith, remember? You’ll find out eventually. You will not be disappointed.”

“Dad, I—”

“Nancy, don’t ignore what your eyes and ears tell you. Faith doesn’t mean to ignore evidence. Listen to your visitor. She is not lying.”

A second later, not even an indentation in the mattress remained.

¤     ¤     ¤

Gail led Nancy through the corn fields until they reach the wilds. They tramped through a few hundred yards of briars and weeds and vines for over an hour. The county had never tried to plow this over. Nobody questioned why.

They came to a wall and a door labeled NAVIGATION.

“This is going to be a shock,” Gail said. She opened the door to a room that would dwarf First Methodist’s sanctuary. Equipment and machines that Nancy did not understand.

“What is this?” Nancy asked. She tried to keep calm.

“A place I hoped I wouldn’t have to visit. I’m supposed to be undercover.” Gail smiled. “But nobody seems to be in a hurry to rescue me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“If something happens to the ship, the living pods can detach. That’s what happened last week. Each pod acts like a lifeboat. This room steers the pod. It can sustain the environment and match the speed of the ship.”

It looked like somebody had smashed the machines with a sledge hammer and pulled out wires.

“Somebody didn’t want this pod returned to the ship,” Gail continued. “I came out here yesterday and found they disabled the radio too.”

“I don’t know,” Nancy said.

“I didn’t want to do this.” Gail flipped a lever on the far wall. A screen rose.

Nancy staggered to the window. She saw blackness with pin pricks of light. She collapsed to the ground and grabbed her knees. She rocked back and forth and sobbed.

¤     ¤     ¤

Nancy didn’t know how long she sat on the floor. She looked over at Gail who fiddled with a screwdriver behind a smashed machine.

“Jesus Christ!” Gail shouted. She stood up. “They broke it real nice.”

“Why are you telling me everything?” Nancy asked.

Gail set the screwdriver on a console. “Because I don’t want to be the only goddamned person who knows the truth. We need to get back to the ship. Somebody jettisoned your pod. We just don’t know who.”

What did Gail want? Nancy said a silent prayer. Did Gail expect her to find somebody to fix the pod and fly it home? The best mechanic in the county was Carl Sullivan, but this wasn’t like getting a tractor running. She faced Gail. “This is the second impossible thing I’ve seen this week.” She exhaled. “I’m seeing ghosts,”

Gail blinked. “Ghosts?”

“My Dad. He’s been dead for twenty years. Why would he come back?”

“Maybe you imagined it.”

“I didn’t.”

“Okay. Okay.” Gail closed her eyes. “I’m no engineer. Maybe… So, interstellar ships move in sort of a hyper drive. A dimensional rift. Maybe when the pod’s engines kicked in, it caused some sort of crossover between this world and somewhere else. The pod hadn’t engaged its engines in a hundred years. They could have been compromised somehow.”

“No,” Nancy said. “I’ll believe we’re on a ship. I don’t want to, but I’ll accept it. But I refuse to believe that some machine can open a door to heaven.”

Gail frowned. “Why not?”

“Because it’s preposterous.”

“It goes against your faith?” Gail snorted.

“I’m not saying that.”

“Did you ever think that faith is God’s way of saying ‘Because I told you so’? Maybe science can explain heaven, but God just figured we couldn’t understand the explanation.”

Nancy mulled this over for a few moments. For a nonbeliever, Gail had hit on something. Maybe God hadn’t changed from the Old to the New Testament. The angry God who caused plagues and floods might be the same as the tell-me-your-problems God of Paul and the Gospels. The parent who punishes his toddler is the same as the parent who has a beer with their adult child.

Nancy sighed. “So, you’ve found a door to heaven. What now?”

“Enjoy it while you can.”

¤     ¤     ¤

“Don’t tell the county,” Nancy said to Gail as they walked through the fields of corn. “I’ll help you, but don’t destroy their world.”

“We need help if we’re going to contact the ship. Do you think their faith is that fragile?” Gail asked.

“I’m not saying that. There’s more to religion than faith and scripture. It’s also about being there for each other and following some pretty good rules about living. I’m not talking about the mumbo jumbo. Just about being decent to each other.”

“They can be decent to each other and know they’re on a ship,” Gail said.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” Nancy said. “It’s about being selfless. I guess science doesn’t teach you that.” She paused for a second and lowered her voice. “Give me a few days to deal with this. My Dad came back. I’m not in Iowa. I have to be there for my church. If I’m trying to cope with everything and you spill the beans, what kind of support can I offer?”

“Okay,” Gail said.

¤     ¤     ¤

Nancy preached about ghosts. Traditions and ideas that should be allowed to fade. But also, about ghosts that help people grieve. No ghosts stayed around forever. Loved ones reassured us and moved on.

Sarah Monroe, a widow of five years, waited until all the other parishioners had filed to the picnic tables behind the church for the congregational lunch. The aroma of slowed cooked pork wafted to the church steps.

“I saw Tim,” Sarah said. “He visited me last night.”

“What did he say?” Nancy wondered who else had been visited.

“He sat on the bed and let me know everything would be okay.”

“It will be,” Nancy said.



Pete Wood is an attorney from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to becoming a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them.

For the past two years Pete has been in the process of evolving into a fiction editor, God help him, first with The Pete Wood Challenge, then with Dawn of Time, then with The Odin Chronicles, and now with Tales from the Brahma, a shared world saga that will be running here on every Wednesday for the next few weeks, and that features the creative work of Roxana Arama, Gustavo Bondoni, Carol Scheina, Patricia Miller, Jason Burnham, and of course, Pete Wood. We suspect that Pete’s real love is theater, though, as evidenced by his short movie, Quantum Doughnut — which you can stream, if you follow the foregoing link.

Coming next week: Episode 6 of Tales from the Brahma, “The Silver Lake,” by Jason Burnham.

See you next Wednesday!