A free short story
by Siri Paulson
14 May 18—, Earth reckoning
What a forlorn place this is! How far we have come from Mrs. Tattersall’s London Academy for Female Tutors. I hope you are finding Luna Station, and your young charges, more amiable than mine. How often I imagined the two motherless children here, starved for a woman’s gentle hand and eager to learn, as befits even the farthest-flung of Queen Victoria’s young citizens. Even the thought of being trapped on the station for three months until the orbits lined up again did not deter me. But I fear I have made a dreadful mistake.
My first sight of Heatherbrae Station from the ethership’s shuttle, as we made our approach yesterday, was daunting enough. The edifice loomed above us, ill-lit by the distant Sun, with the fantastic whorls of Saturn’s surface behind. The station has ornate crenellations like a castle, and pointed arches along its axis—for it is shaped like a dumbbell, the Alpha end for the workers and the shuttlecraft they use to gather raw material from the rings, the middle for processing, and the Beta end for Stationmaster Edmund Croyden and his children and staff…and me. The whole rotates to provide gravity at each end. Quite ingenious; but from the shuttle it was dark and grim, and about it hovered a queer white light that gave me the chills.
I must have made some sound, for the pilot turned to me and grinned. “Cheerful, ain’t it?” he said. “Welcome to your new home, Miss Okembe. Word is it’s haunted.”
“I do not hold with superstition,” I told him.
Do you know what he said, Millie? “You should.”
Well! I have not come so far from Nigeria only to withstand further mutterings and foolishness…or so I believed.
My first sight of the station’s interior gave me pause, however—an immense, dim space occupied by a forlorn cluster of people: a woman in trousers, an old man, the two children, and a man in his prime, with the bearing of a leader, though the eyes that met mine were shadowed.
I lifted my skirts, stepped out of the airlock, and curtseyed to him.
“I presume you are Miss Okembe?” Master Croyden’s voice echoed off the metal deckplates, the sound dying away into whispers so that the station itself seemed to be calling my name.
“At your service, sir,” I said in my best Received pronunciation, trying not to think about the pilot’s dire insinuations.
He looked me up and down. “I understand that you are fresh from Earth.”
Under his scrutiny, I feared my hair had gone askew—you know how impossible it is, Millie, all crimps and kinks, thanks to Father dear—but I resisted lifting a hand to check. “I did complete a two-week course for space newcomers on Earth Station, sir,” I said.
His mouth quirked. “Of course. Frederick, Charlotte, say hello to your new governess.”
The boy was the elder, a head taller than his sister. Their outfits were a good fifteen years out of date, which gave me pause until I thought of how pricy such items must be, this far out.
“She won’t last,” said the girl, looking up at me with eyes as cool as her father’s.
“Lottie!” said the boy. “Please excuse her,” he added, and favoured me with a graceless bow.
“As you can see,” said Master Croyden, “they are in need of a firm hand. I intend to send them back to Earth Station for school when they are older, but their education and social graces have been neglected thus far. Are you up to the task of taming them, Miss Okembe?”
His tone held no paternal warmth; he did not so much as glance at the children, nor they at him. Clearly the poor dears are even more alone than I dreamt. At that moment, I felt quite unequal to the task. But I am all they have.
“I shall endeavour to do right by them, sir,” I said.
Perhaps I was too honest. Master Croyden brusquely directed the trousered woman—the “housekeeper”, as it were, whom I shall call Mrs. H.—to conduct me to my quarters. I followed her to the hatch, and there looked over my shoulder. The shuttle pilot still stood at the airlock. He raised a hand in farewell, and I thought he looked sad; then the hatch closed behind me with a hollow boom. I fancied that a chill breeze made me shiver, but of course that is impossible in space. What am I to make of it all?
16 May 18—, Earth reckoning
The oddest thing has just happened. In the schoolroom—but there, I must first give you a picture in words.
Like the rest of the station, the schoolroom is bare and cheerless. The only books in it were a shelf of romantic novels, full of wild moors and houses with dark secrets—just the sort I like best, even if they are not morally uplifting, as you keep reminding me. Small wonder the children are such queer little things; such lurid material is quite inappropriate for youngsters. Of course I could not let that stand; so my first act as governess was to pack the books away and replace them with the more wholesome texts I had brought with me. Then I put up all the planetary maps and a timeline I made on the long journey here, showing the history of spaceflight, from the discovery of ether’s powers as a fuel source, to its replacement of steam in engines, and finally the expansion of the British Empire throughout the Solar System. On the whole, my attentions made the room far more homely, or so I fancied.
The children, upon entering the schoolroom this morning, stopped dead with identical expressions of dismay.
“She isn’t going to like this,” Charlotte whispered loudly.
“Hush,” said Frederick, with a glance at me.
“Do you mean Mrs. H.?” I asked, trying to picture her reading Jane Eyre, and quite failing.
The children glanced at each other. “No,” said one, but the other said, “Yes.” That was Frederick, who nudged his sister and went on, “She’s very particular.”
“Well, so am I,” I said. “And the previous arrangement was quite inappropriate for children.”
Charlotte hunched her shoulders, and Frederick winced.
Millie, I don’t mind telling you that my heart sank. But I managed to keep my smile. “So, let us begin,” I said.
I told them a little about growing up in Nigeria, and how my Negro father sent me to England to finish my education in honour of my poor English mother, whose constitution had not proven equal to her adventuresome spirit. I did not tell them, however, that he and I had barely spoken after her death, so unable were we to reach one another through our grief, nor that I had been glad to get away.
“Your turn,” I finished brightly. “Frederick, you first.”
He stared at me with a cool expression. “What do you want to know?”
“Anything. Were you born here? When did your parents come here? Where are they from?”
“My father is from England,” he said.
“And your mother?”
He glanced over his shoulder at the outer wall of the schoolroom.
That was when it happened. The temperature of the room dropped, and something white began…forming? Coalescing? No—apparently coming straight through the wall on whose other side lay nothing but the frigid, airless void.
All I knew was that terror came over me, a sensation that seemed to come from outside me rather than within, but was no less potent for that. I quit the room at once, pulling the children along with me, though they seemed frozen with the same terror. Even once we were in the corridor and the hatch shut behind us, I knew something fearsome was yet in that room, without knowing how I knew. Worse, as I shut the hatch, I thought I saw it coalescing into the form of a woman.
When I questioned the children, Frederick denied having seen anything, and Charlotte refused to speak at all. Neither of them would meet my eyes, and both seemed even more withdrawn than before.
I have never been superstitious, but now I fear the pilot was right. This place is haunted, and the children may be in danger, or at the very least, they are frightened. As cool as they are towards me, I cannot help but feel for them, poor things. For their sake, I must find out the truth.
What do you make of it, Millie? I know I shall not have an answer of you for some time, even if packages do come more often and faster than manned flights, but…do hurry and reply!
28 May 18—, Earth reckoning
[Letter begins with a discussion of Millie’s concerns, which are not ours.]
No, I have not seen the ghost again, but I have felt it—sudden chills, a fogged-up mirror, the sense of being watched, my corset-laces snarled. It is watching me, I feel certain. Am I in danger? Perhaps; but I cannot stay for months without knowing what is happening here, or whether the children are safe.
Since I last wrote you, I have been making inquiries, with small success. The children have been singularly unhelpful, as has the old man I mentioned, who is the cook; and of course I cannot ask Master Croyden.
Today I have discovered something at last.
I managed to catch Mrs. H. at a quiet moment in the dining area; she was having tea, and when pressed, she offered me some. I began with pleasantries: how long she had been topside, when and how she had come to Heatherbrae Station—as to that last, her husband is foreman on the Alpha module. She was a little reticent, as men and women of that ilk are wont to be; to them, talking has its place, but doing is better. So I was startled when, upon my asking after Master Croyden’s late wife, she said with some passion:
“Oh, she was an angel, Miss Okembe. Sweet as can be to everyone, and doted upon her children. It’s no wonder that himself missed her so badly after she passed on.”
“How did she die, if I may be so bold?” I asked.
Her face clouded. “No-one was there except himself,” she said in a low tone. “All I know is that they were outside together, she having begged and teased him to see what space was like from up close, like…and there was some sort of terrible accident.”
“But you never heard what happened?”
Mrs. H. leaned in close. “It had something to do with the Alpha module. That’s all I know.”
I hesitated. “You don’t suppose it was his fault?”
“Certainly not, Miss. Himself was a broken man after that. Only the children saved him, and even then he was never the same.”
“Is that why she…walks, do you think?”
She looked startled. “Who has been telling you tales, Miss?”
“No-one. I have seen her shade myself.”
Her expression grew guarded, and she made no response.
“Has no one tried to lay her to rest? Or, failing that, drive her off?”
“Let her be, Miss. For the children’s sake, poor dears.”
I leaned forward. “Why? Do you think they are in danger?”
Millie, that was precisely the wrong thing to say. I could not get anything else out of her thereafter, though she remained pleasant enough until I gave up and went away.
Can you imagine? The poor woman’s shade still lingers, watching over its—her?—children, wanting to see them safe; but they are frightened of her, and perhaps with reason. Even if she has good intentions, she may still pose some risk to them.
Presently, I plan to venture across to the Alpha module to make inquiries among the workers—or miners, as they are called, for all they do their “prospecting” among the rings of Saturn. It is perhaps not wholly safe, but then, I have been issued a spacesuit for emergencies, so I ought to be protected from wayward hands and industrial hazards alike.
By the time you receive this, I will have gone and returned long since, but still I must write—wish me luck, Millie!
1 June 18—, Earth reckoning
What an adventure I have had!
The other end of the station is quite unlike Beta, starting with the trek across. The entire station has been set to rotate, so the ends have gravity that is close to Earth-normal. But as you climb the ladder inside the tube that connects the two, the gravity wanes until the midpoint, where you float utterly weightless, and then—this is queerest of all—gravity begins again, but oriented in the opposing direction. So you push off, soar weightless across the centre, then point your boots “up” and your head “down”, and begin descending a ladder that is diametrically opposed to the one you just climbed. I had heard of this, but I could not and cannot imagine how it works; indeed, I would not credit it, had I not experienced it myself.
The ladders run through a vast tube where immense gears turn and pistons go up and down and steam hisses like a thousand snakes. The terrific noise and heat were frightening, but I could see people in spacesuits moving in and out of the steam. None of them paid me much mind, which was just as well, for we could not have heard each other’s voices. Thus I attained the Alpha module without being accosted.
The instant I set my booted feet at the base of the ladder and freed my ever-unruly hair from the constraints of the helmet, however, I became the centre of a curious circle of men and women. They seemed unnaturally limber with both hands and feet, and all chattered away in great excitement. I caught half a dozen languages from three continents before one of the men said, in English,
“You must be the new governess. My wife has told me of you.”
So I had met Mr. H. at last. “And I of you. You have been here as long as Master Croyden, she said.”
He nodded. “Aye, indeed.”
“Do you know him well, then?”
“Not very. He does not associate with us, naturally.”
This is a piece of English culture that I have never grown used to; for I used to play with the children of my father’s servants. But the English seem to think it is better to speak to no-one than to become friendly with a person who is beneath their “station”. It seems ridiculous, particularly in such isolated corners of the solar system; Millie, would you explain it to me, when you write back?
“Still,” I said, “you know him better than I, and I am still striving to understand him more, so as to better serve his children. I wonder if you might answer a few questions.”
Mr. H. glanced about him, and said that we had best step away for a moment, to the obvious disappointment of his miners. He showed me into a small office riddled with pipes, and after a moment’s hesitation closed the door behind him. “Do you Negroes drink tea, Miss?”
I assured him we did, and was then astounded to see him fiddle with a knob on one of the pipes, whence came steaming hot water into a suspended teapot, which filled slowly and then tipped of its own accord to fill a mug. He deftly switched out the full mug for an empty one and, setting the full one on the desk between us, caught sight of my expression. “Please do not be alarmed,” he said. “The water is distilled, or it would be useless for any of our needs. I am sorry there is no milk, but we do have sugar.”
After the shock of the water’s provenance, I thought it better to decline the sugar. But, all things considered, the tea was quite acceptable.
The interview, however, was less so. Mr. H. flat-out refused to say anything ill of his employer, or much to the good, for that matter. Nor would he speak at all of the late Mistress Croyden. At last I gave up, and asked instead about the mining operation itself, more out of curiosity than any other motive. He grew enthusiastic then, and showed me out of his office in order to conduct me about the module and regale me with explanations.
Heatherbrae Station, he told me, was built by an Englishman with more money than sense—which explains the arches along the axis—who wished only to look at the rings of Saturn. But before long, he quit his retreat for reasons unknown and moved back to the inner reaches of the Solar System. To recoup his costs, he converted the edifice into Saturn’s first mining operation. There are others now mining the moons, but Heatherbrae Station remains the only one to mine the rings, owing to the expense and difficulty of the operation, for the rings are not as solid as they appear; they consist of innumerable small pieces all tumbling side by side, and each must be captured separately before it can be processed.
This was all engrossing, but my mind had been caught by an earlier statement. “Do you know,” I asked him, “why the station’s owner left so soon after building it?”
Mr. H. lowered his voice. “A personal matter. It is said he had begun to lose his mind, to see things—”
“Really, now,” another voice broke in, “must you fill my new governess’ head with nonsense?”
Mr. H. started in alarm, as did I. “Master Croyden,” he said, “I was only—”
“That will do, H.,” said the stationmaster.
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
Master Croyden’s gaze fixed on me, as Mr. H. hurried away. “And you, Miss Okembe, should not be here. This module is dangerous for the untrained. What in the Lord’s name were you thinking?”
I apologized, of course, and said that I only wished to explore the place, to better understand the workings of the children’s home.
“That is not your concern. You are to educate the children, and not go poking about where you are not wanted, is that clear?”
It was clear enough; and thus chastised, I made my way back to my quarters.
Millie, I do not like leaving this matter to lie, or rather, leaving an apparition to walk; but I dare not contradict Master Croyden’s wishes. I shall bide my time for now, and watch; but if I perceive the children are in danger, I shall act at once.
[Here there is a gap in the tale, where the letters speak only of trivial concerns; these we shall leave aside.]
23 June 18—, Earth reckoning
At last! I know you have worried, but I could not say more, for I feared Master Croyden was reading my letters; now I hope I have thrown him off my trail, and may write candidly again.
I have not dared to pursue my inquiries about the apparition. But what, you may ask, remains to be learned? I know its genesis now; but not the manner of her death, nor how her shade was created, nor how to vanquish it.
For I have grown more convinced than ever that the children are in danger. They move and speak cautiously all the time I am with them, as if constrained by a terrible fear. Though I have pressed—gently—they will not speak of their mother; I know the English have a terror of showing their emotions, but this seems to go beyond reticence, and cannot be healthy for them. And though I have hinted, they have never once mentioned the apparition…until today.
Today, I ventured to the children’s cabin for the first time. Frederick, upon opening the door, looked startled, but when I asked if I might enter, he invited me in like a perfect little gentleman. Charlotte was playing on her bunk, talking animatedly to some invisible friend; when she saw me, she stopped at once. On the wall opposite the door was a porthole, and next to that a daguerreotype of a woman, slender and beautiful, with a boy beside her—young enough to be unbreeched—and a baby in her arms. Behind her stood a man, so proud and cheerful, his aspect so different, that it took me a moment to recognize Edmund Croyden.
“Yes,” said Frederick beside me, making me jump, “that is Papa.”
“And that must be your mother?”
“It used to be,” said Charlotte, “but not anymore.”
I nodded sympathetically. “Because your mother is now merely a—”
“Don’t say it!” Charlotte fairly screamed.
I approached her, but she scrambled away from me. “What are you so afraid of?”
They stared at me. Behind them, in the porthole, I caught sight of the barest flicker of movement. Then it was gone; but I was sure I had seen it. Outside.
“I’m not going to hurt the children,” I said, speaking to the porthole. “I’m trying to help them. And you.”
Charlotte climbed off the bunk and stood in front of Frederick. “We don’t need your help. Now go away, Miss, please.” She was almost in tears.
I glanced at the porthole again. “It’s out there, isn’t it?” I asked them. “The answer.”
There was a frozen silence. Then Frederick shook his head. “Don’t, Miss. If you go outside, you won’t come back. And Papa will be angry.”
“Is that what happened to your mother?” I said on impulse.
As one, the children rushed at me, Charlotte pummelling and Frederick shoving and both of them shouting, and before I knew what had happened, I was standing in the corridor with the hatch shut in my face. After a moment, I heard a woman’s voice singing, something gentle that sounded like a lullaby. I scrabbled at the door, but it would not open, nor would the children answer me.
That is the last straw, Millie. The children are clearly deranged. I shall get to the bottom of this if it is the last thing I do.
24 June 18—, Earth reckoning
What a fool I have been! My last words were prophetic; for now I have angered my nemesis.
I determined to venture across to the Alpha module and consult with Mr. H. again, and I chose a time in the early morning, hoping that Master Croyden would be asleep. The miners had not yet come on shift, so the tube was empty. The only sounds were the clank of my boots on the ladder rungs and a queer hissing noise that I suppose should have been my first clue. But, ignorant as I was, I kept going even as the hissing grew louder. I began to worry, but there was no breeze, so it was not a hull breach. Still, there were so many pipes…and among them I saw a flicker of a long white gown.
One of the pipes above me shuddered. I had just time to flatten myself against the ladder before it burst, sending a geyser of steam so close that I could feel a hint of the terrible heat against the back of my spacesuit. The geyser did not abate. I waited for rescue, but that also did not transpire. After a quarter-hour I dared to clamber down, one rung at a time, to the base of the ladder. I managed to hold myself in check until I reached my quarters, and only then allowed myself to succumb to the trembling and the terror. The back of my neck was reddened and painful, despite the helmet I had worn; so close had I come to being steamed alive.
My only comfort is that if the apparition is trying so hard to injure me, I must be drawing close to an answer. As I am frightened, so must it be equally frightened. But, Millie, I must discover the answer before it tries again, lest the next attempt prove its triumph, and my demise!
For the children’s sake, I know what I must do, but…if I do not write you again, will you send my letters on to my father in Nigeria? Tell him I would have liked to see him again, and I am sorry our paths did not cross once more in this world. And the same for you, dearest Millie.
26 June 18—, Earth reckoning
I was wrong. There is a ghost. And yet there is not.
After my last letter to you, I contrived to get myself to an airlock; upon my attempting to operate it, an alarm sounded, and I hastened through before anyone could come to stop me.
My first impression upon quitting the hatch was of the stars. Myriads upon myriads, they wheeled about the station, for the whole edifice was spinning like a wheel to create gravity; something I had nearly forgotten while inside. The thought of this movement made me a little queasy, and I could not help but think of the vastness of the empty space around the station; then Saturn rose, more immense than anything my mind could grasp, and I felt nearly ill. The station itself was a dull black hulk, like the wreck of a ship or a great sea creature dashed upon a rocky strand. Its blackness hid the brilliance of the stars and turned again to hide Saturn, huge as it was.
I clung to the hull, feeling very small, and tried to remember to breathe. Portholes glowed around me, their warm light comfortingly domestic. Master Croyden’s rooms, there; the children’s room –
A woman in a white gown floated, impossibly, just outside their window. The light from within illuminated her dress so that she glowed almost like a star herself. The vision arrested me in its beauty.
Then she turned, and I saw her face…and where her eyes should be, only a deep blackness.
In an instant, she had vanished. But I felt that…something…was still watching me.
“Ma’am?” I called, though I knew that was silly; she could not hear me in vacuum. “Mrs. Croyden?”
No answer. I took a deep breath and edged forward, holding fast to the hull. My spacesuit came with a tethering line, which clipped onto rings set into the outside of the station. Moving forward was slow, clipping the line to the next ring before unclipping the last. My breathing sounded loud in my own ears. It must have taken me an hour to reach the children’s room.
At last I passed the porthole next to theirs. The woman in the white gown had been right here…
An icy chill ran down my neck. The forward tether in my glove went slack. Suddenly I was drifting away from the station. I grabbed frantically, missed, and went spinning free. A jerk brought me up short—the rear tether at its full length—and the world spun dizzyingly around me. All right, I was still attached, I could still—
::Leave us alone.::
The voice echoed within my helmet. At the other end of the line, the woman in the gown appeared, standing on nothing.
“I’m not trying to hurt your children,” I said.
::You are prying into secrets that should be left buried.::
“Your children are frightened.” Of you, I did not say.
::I am watching over them. They know it.::
I thought of my father, who did not know how to comfort me when my mother died. “They are not alone any longer. I am here to protect them, to nurture them as Master Croyden—and you—cannot.”
::He is their father. He loves them.::
I swallowed. “As he loved you? What happened the night you died, ma’am?”
A barrage of images pounded through my head, almost too fast for me to make sense of. I squeezed my eyes shut, but they kept coming. A watcher, pale in the starlight—two spacesuits, strong love stretching between them—the watcher is seen—the woman reaches forward, but the man pulls her back—a spacesuit catches on one of those Gothic arches and the fabric tears—a life trickles away—an overwhelming sense of grief—a picture of the woman in the man’s head—and the watcher moves forward, is no longer merely a watcher, tries to make the picture live again.
Not a ghost at all, but a being that lives out here in the beautiful, icy cold, has lived here since long before the station was built. A being that can read minds and try, in its own way, to offer comfort. A being that chased away the station’s first owner, too afraid of what lay in his own mind.
A ghost that is and is not a ghost.
But, I thought, there was still the matter of the children in danger.
Motion caught my eye at the edge of my helmet visor. I twisted awkwardly to look. Another spacesuit was emerging from the hatch. From the height and the colours, I recognized it—Master Croyden.
His voice sounded over the farspeaker in my suit. “I am sorry. I warned her.”
The ghost swelled in my vision, drawing near.
“Master Croyden!” I called through my own farspeaker.
The ghost halted. His spacesuit swiveled to face me.
“This is not your wife. She’s gone. Your mind is creating this…this pale shadow of the woman you loved. And your children are in danger.”
“I don’t think so,” he said.
“But…this is an apparition! It tried to kill me!”
“It has never hurt the children—only you, when you have pressed them. Am I not right?”
The children have been afraid—of me. The ghost-that-is-not-a-ghost has comforted them—it told me as much, then, through more pictures in my head. I have been determined to unearth their secret, but the secret did not wish to be found, and it fought back. No; I have been determined to dry the tears of the poor motherless children; I have been telling myself a story about them, and it has been wrong all this time.
I have called it a ghost, but a better term—even if not true in the strictest sense—would be guardian angel.
This is not a broken family, Millie. They need a teacher, not the rescuer I thought I was. Therefore, when the orbits align once more, I shall be leaving…to return to Earth and attend to the ghost of memory that has lain for all these years between my father and me, and the words I could not say.