Three thousand miles southeast of Hawaii, a mining ship hovered on the Pacific. It was past midnight. The cabin windows of the M.V. Ghost cast squares of light onto the dark water. The blue lights of drones and red lights of satellites blinked among the stars.
An 18-year-old girl in an oversized blue jacket walked barefoot across the main deck. Her braided hair emphasized her narrow face and the hawk’s-beak bump on her nose. Her right fingers tapped the rhythm of a Korean pop song.
She knocked on the door of the green cabin and pushed it open. Three of the four walls were hurricane-proof glass to let in sunlight. Lanterns cast an orange-gold radiance over the tables, which were covered with seed trays overflowing with tomato vines, lemon and orange trees, broccoli bunches, and other plants. She inhaled the green smells of soil, leaves, basil, rosemary, and thyme.
The girl looked over at the tactile map that hung on the only non-glass wall above some lockers. Green beads of light indicated where her former foster siblings were right now: the Morgana Base, Montana, Texas, Florida, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Mexico, Germany, the Congo, and Antarctica. Her dad had tacked on a little drawing of the moon labeled PRISCA for her one biological sister, who was doing the Luna internship.
Simon, the girl’s foster brother of three months, sat at a table in the center of the room where they kept the robot controls. His full-face white mask, frozen in a blank expression of seriousness or sadness, caught the light. The notebook beside him was full of mechanical doodles and scribbled notes.
“Hey, Simon, it’s me,” said the girl. “I heard the bell. What’s up?”
“Hey, Eve,” he said. His voice was somewhere between human warmth and mechanical coolness. “I got something weird on one of the robots – the Brittle Star. Could you look at it?”
Eve crossed the room and sat at the other side of the table, facing him. She put her right palm on one of the Biosonars, the one with the icon of a starfish with long, wavy arms, and closed her eyes.
Her vision, hearing, and sense of touch mirrored those of the Brittle Star robot a mile beneath them. She felt the robot pulse, and the black silence of the abyssal plain echo back: long flat sands pocketed with mollusks, sea cucumbers, and megafauna. She felt the hard fists of manganese nodules, which robots like this one would pick up and carry back to the ship for processing. And then something…other.
“Mmm,” she said.
“You feel it?”
“Yeah,” said Eve. “Nothing…”
She felt Simon’s hand – the flesh one, not the prosthetic – gently pull her hand off the sensor, and she was back on the ship. She looked at the blank face of Simon’s mask, wishing she could meet his eyes. The burn scars on the top of his head were fading from pink to white.
“Dad might know, but he and Mom are exhausted,” Eve said. “They had a company call from Boston at 4 this morning. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“I think it’s a submarine,” said Simon, getting up from the table and crossing to the only non-glass wall. “They can shield themselves against Biosonars. We need to seal the ship.” He reached for the intercom.
“Wait, wait,” said Eve, jumping up and grabbing his arm. She flinched a little as her fingers met the hard, unyielding plastic of his prosthetic. “Settle. We don’t know it’s a sub. The Brittle Star could be broken.”
Simon wrenched his arm free. “I tried five of them, Eve. Coffinfish, Dumbo Octopus, even the Glass Sponge. All twin. We’re under attack.” He punched in the distress code, 4857. The intercom beeped and turned red.
“We changed the code,” said Eve. “Since the last four times you triggered the alarm and woke everyone up. Simon, we’re safe. The Night Watch will catch anything the drones miss. Breathe.”
Simon turned to face her, more of a social gesture than a necessary one, since he was blind. “Eve, you think you’re the rational one here, but you’re not. This is how sea raider attacks begin.”
“The Pacific Guard wiped them out last year,” said Eve.
“Not the Arctic ones. I’m going to get the Night Watch.” He started for the doorway.
She stepped in his way, hands outstretched. “Simon, they’re on top of it. And why would Arctic raiders attack us anyway? We’re a mining ship.” She stopped as her watch beeped: a red alert across the Oceanic network. “Wait. Please wait.” Simon didn’t wear a watch, so she tapped a button on hers and let the alert fill her ears.
Calling the S.S. Ghost. Iron Order. The fugitive is an 18-year-old male wearing a mask.
The message ended. Eve opened her eyes and stared at Simon. An Iron Order: anyone caught helping the fugitive would be exiled to Baranof Island.
“What?” Simon asked. “What was it?”
“You,” said Eve, staring at the mask without eyeholes that meant she couldn’t read his expression, the voice that held only the memory of normal human speech. “They’re looking for you. With an Iron Order. Why?”
Simon sighed and turned away from her towards the lockers. He punched in a code and opened one. “I’m sorry. They found me. We thought I had more time.” He pulled out a small remote control.
“Stop,” said Eve. “Stop. Look at me. What have you done?”
Simon stopped and looked at her. “I’m a ghost, Eve. Regenerite. They didn’t just fix my face and vocal chords when my school blew up. My uncle paid a Biomechanist to replace my lungs and heart.”
Eve took a deep breath and let it go. Regenerites: humans who were wealthy enough to pay for artificial organs that extended their lifetimes by years, even decades. NATO had outlawed the practice because it directed resources away from programs that served everyone, rich or poor.
While bio-regeneration is a fascinating display of human ingenuity, its ethical costs are too high, Eve had argued in her Bioethics essay thesis last semester. Seeking immortality is a folly as old as Eden, and leads to nothing but disaster. While grading it, her mom had crossed out “folly” and written “use modern language.”
Now a Regenerite, her foster brother, stood in front of her – her chess partner, swimming buddy, stargazing companion – dressed in a dark gray T-shirt and shorts, barefoot like her.
“My uncle’s the Chancellor of British Columbia,” said Simon. “He declared war on the Arctic raiders. They blew up my school. And me. He bribed the foster agency to put me here.”
Eve pulled a chair from the table and sat in it. “Who else knows?” she heard herself ask.
“I think your parents suspect,” said Simon. “At least, your mom. My trauma is different from other bombing victims.”
When Eve was studying human biology a few years ago, her mother showed her diagrams of the human heart and lungs: the branching veins and arteries of the lungs surrounding the heart like the roots of sacred trees, the atriums and ventricles of the heart like the courtyards of a temple.
She pictured Simon’s chest now: a gas-exchanging membrane artificially grown by stem cells, with a heartbeat regulated by a pump and motor – and other “innovations” the Biomechanists had tried to improve the human body: a Biosonar to let people echolocate like bats, a magnetic tracker to let them read the earth’s electromagnetic field like migrating birds, DNA resequencing to make them immune to sarin gas and other chemical weapons. She swallowed, feeling nauseous.
“Eve?” Simon tried to put a hand on her shoulder. She flinched and pushed it away; his touch felt like the skin of a snake. “I know this is wrong. I know I should be dead. I didn’t ask for this. I’ll just go, ok?”
He pressed a button on the remote control he had taken from the locker. A compartment in the floor opened to reveal a titanium drone the size of a motorcycle without wheels. The drone had a snake’s head and the body of a saddled horse. Eve recognized it: her dad and older sister, Prisca, had built it for the MIT Junior Engineering Contest last year. On its side was inscribed Deus ex machina, on her mom’s suggestion.
“Your dad and I were improving this,” said Simon. “I’ve been working on it at night. I’ll just go, ok? Just leave me a few minutes to get clear, and you can report me. Your family won’t get in any trouble.”
Eve and her mom had briefly studied the bio-regeneration experiments for the Bioethics class. The Biomechanists worried that the 2033 Campi Flegrei eruption and following asthma crisis would wipe out too many people to sustain Europe’s population. They rushed the trials, breaking many rules. People had died. Eve and her mom had ended that module early. “We don’t need to know any more about this,” her mom had said.
Eve tried to think of something to say. Before she could, the lights of the ship went out with a frizz. The ship trembled, and the plants in the room shuddered. A ripe tomato fell to the ground and rolled beneath one of the tables. Simon fell, and Eve banged her elbow against a table. “What was that?”
They both moved without thinking: Simon got up and put his hand on a barnacle sensor, Eve got a grideye fish. Eve saw a great dark thing above the deep that blocked out the stars.
“You were right,” said Eve quietly. “Yeah. It’s a sub.”
Another message pinged across her consciousness without her consent. “Ow.” The words scrolled across the insides of her eyelids. A smooth, plastic voice spoke in her eardrums:
Hailing the M.V. Ghost. This is the A.S. Narwhal on behalf of the British Columbian Navy. We are pursuing a Regenerite fugitive, Simon Garris, who we believe is one of your passengers. We have a Caput Lupinem and Iron Order for his arrest and immediate execution.
Caput Lupinem, wolf’s head: a medieval law that removed certain criminals from the protection of the law – anyone could legally rob or kill them. The North American Treaty had reinstated it in marine law after the brutal sea raider attacks at Kitimat and Lahaina.
The message came with a link to a Google page of headlines:
British Columbian military contracts with Arctic sea raiders.
Canadian Federation joins Arctic sea raiders to hunt Iron Order fugitives.
“Wow, you got that right, too,” said Eve. “The Arctic raiders are after you.” Her voice sounded cold and stiff in her own ears.
Simon looked from the drone to the window. “If I can just get high enough…” he said. He began turning on the drone’s navigation system, programming coordinates.
A series of metal clangs outside from outside on deck: grappling hooks, most likely, with ladders leading on deck. The Night Watch would stall them for a minute, but they had no authority to stop them.
Eve looked between the door and Simon, the sea raiders about to board her home and take the thing she called her brother.
“What about the other people at the school?” she heard herself ask. “Why didn’t your uncle pay for them?”
“They died. My uncle couldn’t afford it – he paid millions just for me. I know it’s not fair,” said Simon, “believe me. I know. And I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I woke up with no face and fake organs last year. All my friends died. I wouldn’t let the Biomechanist do anything else to me after that.”
“Where will you go?” she said.
“Mexico, probably. My uncle has allies in Acapulco.”
Raised voices out on the deck: the Night Watch and the sea raiders, probably arguing about jurisdiction. The crew were solid and trustworthy as seamounts, but they couldn’t argue against an Iron Order. Stupid, Eve told herself. Fool. Think.
Her gaze swept the control panel before her: the Brittle Star, Dumbo Octopus, and other robots her father built. When he began, other deep sea mining companies were harvesting manganese by sucking up the sea floor with bulldozers, obliterating ecosystems. He made the robots to masquerade as native creatures and harvest nodules without doing any harm, like ghosts.
Ghost creatures. Without souls.
A whisper. A hush. Something rushed through her like a cool wind rippling blue water into waves:
And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh…
“Wait,” she said. “You’re not going to make it that way. They might have nets. And it will take hours to get to Mexico. You’ll need to stop and rest at the Morgana Base.”
“Eve, they’ll have heard the Iron Order, too.”
“One of my foster brothers is there,” Eve said. “José Medina. I’ll tell him you’re coming. He can help you.” She walked to the window and opened it, so the salty ocean air rushed in and mixed with the smell of soil and plants.
He looked at her, tilting his head slightly. “Why?”
Eve started to speak, stopped, and then grabbed his hand – the flesh one, not the prosthetic. She walked him to the world map on the wall, where the lights blinked her siblings’ locations, and pressed his hand to it. “Oh,” he said, running his fingers over the ridges of continents and the green beads that gave off a gentle warmth against the cool map.
He nodded, and then turned and hugged her. She felt the flesh arm and the prosthetic, and barely touched the smooth plastic that covered this chest.
“Bye.” Eve gave him a last squeeze, then pulled away. “Go.”
Simon keyed the drone to life and launched out into the night. Shouts rang out on the deck as he fell towards the water, and then rose and sped off like a dragon over the sea.
Eve watched him disappear, then touched the scanner on the wall with her index finger. She closed her eyes and mentally clicked through the ship’s mainframe. In a few minutes, she erased Simon’s records from the system. Opening her eyes, she watched as the blue flicker of Simon’s drone faded in the dark sea and sky. All she had left was his ghost.
Alicia Pollard grew up in New England and earned a B.A. in English from Grove City College. She works as a technical writer for software. Through her blog, aliciapollard.com, she explores “yearning” (related to C.S. Lewis’s idea of Joy) and storytelling as a medium of worship and witness.
Alicia Pollard, “Ghost,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 2. (Summer 2020), 27-38.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/ghost/