I saw her again in the Decembrist
Canteen, sipping a citron sour as she picked at her food,
her light hair and sky-blue eyes standing out against the
other, darker wayfarers. She had that hopeless melancholy
familiar among the stranded, the neglected, the dispossessed
of the station, who shuffle its corridors for months or even
yearsbut somehow, I thought, it only heightened her
radiance, as she sat there drumming her fingers against the
fake ivory tabletop. This time the little girl was not with
"Hiya, remember me?"
I asked, deciding on the instant that I was going to sit down
there, I was going to talk with her.
She looked up suspiciously,
then broke into a clear smile. "Oh, you're the man from
the Information Ministry!"
"The name's Foresh,"
I said, extending my hand awkwardly across the table. "And
where's your little girl... Melis?"
"Melissa," she gently
corrected me. "And I dropped her off at a Children's
Center for awhile. Heck, she'll have more fun playing with
the other kids than standing in lines with me. But I'd like
to thank you for your help yesterday..." She blew a strand
of hair out of her eyes. "I did get my DNA card, so at
least I'm an official person now."
That 'at least' made her sigh.
I knew from her fair looks and strange accent that she must
be from one of the small, isolated colonies established by
independence-minded settlers from northern Europe or North
America in the last century. And I could tell from her anxious
expression and poorly made clothing that she was a refugee,
recalling vaguely news about a bloody coup on one of those
colonies, Superior, I thought. And she understood that I knew
this, and had come to offer what I could: a little company.
"Oh," she said,
looking up, "and my name's Heather. So what brings you
to this lovely space station, For... Foresh? Are you going
"Neither," I answered
with a smile. "I'm meeting someone here." Her brows,
which were a shade darker than her hair and drawn in a graceful
arch, went up slightly. "Sure," I went on, "it's
a popular place to hold meetings between parties on different
worlds. No one really has to go through customs then, there's
a lot less red tape. Anyway, I'm meeting a fellow from Foxheath,
about drain pipes."
"Honest to god. Foxheath,
it's one of the rainiest colonies you can go to, a real jungle,
and where I'm from, on Tarrymore, we have the right metals
to make good, light drainpipes. So we're trying to work out
a deal." I'd rehearsed the story so many times that it
came out smoothly.
echoed, her blue eyes, like two blue stones under water, taking
me in. "That's one of the places I've applied for. I
hear Tarrymore's divine."
"It's kind of dry,"
I said. "And not a lot happens there. A sort of sleepy,
bedroom colony. But I like it."
"Sounds like heaven,"
she breathed, and again there was that melancholy.
A canteen waiter wheeled over
to take my order; it recited the specials in a calm, unctuous
voice that centuries of engineering had still failed to make
sound human. I ordered corn and bean pie and biscuit, and
Heather tapped her now-empty glass. "Huh, it's funny,"
she said. "Ordering from a robot." Now that I was
getting used to her accent I could tell, from a soft slurring
in her voice, that this hadn't been her first drink of the
We sat comfortably for awhile,
looking on the parade of humanity that was passing before
us: families on holiday, business travelers looking up at
the clocks, lovers, kids bumming around the stars for the
year. Station workers zipped by on quiet mopeds or in small
cars, going about their everyday tasks oblivious to the strangeness
of the place. And there were regulars like me, jaded dealers
who knew the entire menu at the Sparkler Lounge or Deneb's
Lair. But most were new to Alun Seritz and they wore looks
of wonder, of exhaustion, of fascination, still a bit puzzled
that there was no sky to look up into, no gravity but the
whirling of the station. Most would stay only a day or two,
appearing out of one transport door, going through customs
and bacteriology, and vanishing through another. Fifty years
ago it would have taken a year or more to travel by ship from
one colony to another; now that it was only a matter of stepping
through doors, space stations like Alun had taken on added
significance: they were the only thing preventing pests like
grasshoppers and wheat rust from spreading everywhere. And
they were the only thing keeping refugees like Heather from
going where they weren't wanted.
"This how I imagine the
old airports were," she said, breaking the silence with
her rather husky voice. "You know, on Earth."
"Airports," I said,
leaning back and savoring the strange word. "Isn't that
where they coordinated air transportation?"
"Yes, in the 20th and
21st centuries. They had docking bays and security, customs
and bag checks, restaurants and hotels, just like Alun Seritz."
"Interesting. You sound
like an expert."
"I teach history,"
she said, smiling demurely and teasing her hair back a little.
"At a university. I mean, taught," she corrected,
her expression faltering.
A recycling collections vehicle
sped past, its large yellow bins adding a splash of color
to the gray-white scene. Mani was driving. He caught my nod
and waved at us.
"You know him?"
Heather asked, looking at me quizzically.
I said. "Yeah, I come out here pretty often, on this
or that sort of business."
The waiter rolled back with
my food and another citron sour. She sat stirring it for a
while, looking at me meditatively, while I pretended to be
absorbed in cutting my pie into little bites.
"So you know about the
ghosts then?" she asked, holding the glass to her lips
but not drinking. Something had eased ever so slightly in
her body posture, in the tone of her voice. But it changed
everything. Suddenly she was not addressing a stranger in
a canteen, but chatting with a friend on her own small-town
"Ghosts," I said,
wondering suddenly whether she was playing me. Then, seeing
she was in earnest: "Well yeah, there's quite a local
folklore here concerning ghosts. You know, travelers getting
frightened by things tapping on their window in the night,
objects that seem to move, a... a feeling of a certain presence
in the room with you. The science folks have always brushed
it off as people with nerves in a strange environment."
"And what about you,
have you ever seen anything?" She was still looking directly
at me, her hands clasped in front of her. It made me a little
uncomfortable, but I was charmed at the same time.
"Well once, down in Warehouse
3, I... I thought I heard something moving near by, behind
some boxes. Then I thought I heard someone call my name. I
looked, but there was no one there, and when we checked the
room surveillance it turned out I... was the only one in the
"It called your name?"
she interrupted. "Really? So it called you too..."
"A couple nights ago."
I looked down and saw that her two hands were now clasped
around one of mine. "I was in bed, and I heard this tapping...
at the window. And I thought I was at... was home, and it
was the rain. And then I drew back the curtain and almost
screamedthere was nothing there! No world at all, no
person, no rain, just the pitch dark of space. And then then
I thought I heard someone call my name, very faintly and rather
muffled, as if they were outside the station."
"was in the next
"The tapping," I
said. "It could be space dust. You know, microscopic
"It was a regular tapping.
It was something tapping for a purpose. Something wanted in."
"Well it must be the
ghosts, then," I said, throwing up my free hand and laughing.
"Yes, the ghosts,"
she returned. The color had risen in her cheeksI could
see it because of her fair white skinand it seemed she
had enjoyed telling her little ghost story. She saw me looking
at her hands, still clasping mine, and then glanced up and
smiled, as if daring me to say anything about it.
"The old space mariners
used to talk about chamblins, ghosts that haunted the void,"
she went on. "It was believed they were the spirits of
dead mariners, who had been lost in shipwrecks. Who were eternally
wandering the airless, godless regions of space, looking for
some human habitation, trying to get in from the cold..."
"Poor ghosts," I
"Yes, poor ghosts,"
she said, trying to smile, and suddenly she was close to tears.
"Listen," she went on after a pause, "I'm from
Superior colony. You know, that dreadful place where they
just had a coup? Well, my former mate, Melissa's father, had
a small part in the uprising. He's in prison now. We're not
closed any more, our contract came up four years ago and we
didn't renew it... but still he's my daughter's father. And
he won't talk. And on Superior to get people to talk you sometimes
take their sons or daughters and"
"Yes, and so I brought
Melissa here. There was nothing else I could think of. We
have false IDs because of course the authorities on Superior
wouldn't let us"
"Right," I said.
"And I'm trying to pretend
I'm just looking for work, for a better opportunity, you know.
But hell, what am I good for? We're a farming colony, a backwater.
I don't have the skills to do anything but replace these robots
here," she said, motioning to the strolling waiters.
Somewhere in all this she had gotten her citron sour refilled
"What about history?"
"Ha! Well, turns out
that history teachers are a dime a dozen everywhere else,
no thanks ma'am. What they need are technology wizards. Me,
I don't even know what a circuit is. I couldn't tell a boson
from a bra."
"How long do you have?"
"Five more days,"
she said, sucking the air in as she spoke and downing the
rest of the drink. The fingers of her left hand were holding
the fingers of my right, and I felt them pull urgently. "Then
they send us home."
"Did you talk to the
Ministry of Refugees? I think you have a good case."
"Of course. But it takes
time to build a case. And everyone else on this revolving
hunk of metal seems hellbent on sending me back to Superior.
It's impossible to get around them, they have every little
corner of this place guarded and watched by surveillance,
they have DNA scans and retinal scans and all these questions...
You know the feeling, when you're not wanted?"
"Shh, calm down now,"
I said, for her voice had started to rise and some of the
diners around us had looked up from their meals. At the other
end of the canteen a large bearded man, surrounded by several
others, stood up and shook hands with an older man wearing
I leaned over the table close
to her and whispered. "There's other ways to do this,
okay? You see that big man there, the one with the beard?"
She nodded. "That's Marfu Nonnan. His business is shirts,
and he owns stores all over61 Cygni, Brikell, Earth.
And he doesn't pay any tariffs on the shirts. You know why?"
She shook her head. "Because he's a crook."
"They actually have crime
here?" she asked, a touch of cynicism showing in her
impossible blue eyes. "How? How could anyone possibly
get away with anything?"
"Because he's on the
board of governors," I smiled. "Of Alun Seritz itself.
I mean technically, it's a sovereign world of its own. And
a lot of other board members get anonymous gifts every monthless
than the tariffs, but right in their own accounts."
"And what am I supposed
to do?" she countered. "Go marching up to him and"
"No," I said, and
this time it was me grabbing her hand. "Don't go near
him. I only mentioned it to illustrate... there are ways around
things here. Nonnan isn't the only one who"
"You," she said.
"Not exactly," I
replied, leaning back and watching Nonnan and his party walk
out and get in their own richly furnished shuttle. "But
I know people. I... I'll put in a word for you. First thing
"You... you'll do this
for me, honor bright? You're not just playing me?"
"Of course not,"
I said, giving her hand a little squeeze. "First thing
tomorrow. I'll do what I can. You know, old Alun SeritzAlan,
he was called, he had blond hair like youhe wanted the
station to be a place of peace, a place where different worlds
could build bridges. Now they just seem to be building walls.
Anyway, I've got to get some work done now. Where are you
"Not far, over in the
"Let's pick up Melissa
then. I'll walk you over."
"Oh, you needn't bother.
I know the way," she protested.
"Yes, but it's past 1900
now. It's night. This isn't quite the safest place, at night."
"You're kidding me!"
she cried, looking about. "Crime rising at night in a
space station? You can't even tell it's night except for the
"Old habits die hard,"
I said, my voice going low again. "There are fewer people
out. And there's another reason why they say there's ghosts
on Alun Seritz, you know. People like Nonnan, sometimes...
they play pretty rough. Get kickbacks from thieves, muggers.
It's getting pretty bad. And anyway, you're drunk."
"Okay," she agreed.
"Hey, I am a bit tipsy. Which is a perfect excuse for
telling you what a dark, handsome devil you are."
"And you... you remind
me of an angel," I said, "with that blonde hair,
those eyes. If you make it to Tarrymore, will you have dinner
with me sometime?"
We kept up this sort of banter
until we got the Children's Center, where we picked up Melissa.
I asked the chestnut-haired little girl if she'd had fun with
the other kids, what her favorite color was, that kind of
thing; it had been a long time since I'd talked to a kid,
and realized I missed it. On the way to their room Heather
and I strolled with our hands locked, and it felt natural.
The strangers we passed must have thought we were a family,
and for some reason that made me feel good. And she was in
good spirits as well. I don't think she believed I could do
much for her, but just to have someone there, willing to help,
gave her a lift. And every second step it seemed she was stopping
to thank me. All the same, the bitterness was still there
in the back of her voice, betraying the darkness of her position,
"You know," she
said, as we stood in the elevator, "when people first
pioneered space travel, it was thought we would leave all
the tragedies of Earth behind... the poverty and murder and
racial hatred and iniquity. But we've failed, we've failed.
The shadow of our past comes to haunt us, even here."
"Yeah, it's not exactly
paradise on Alun Seritz. But we do what we have to to get
by, to make a decent life for people," I said, with an
edge to my voice.
We got to her door and she
unlocked it, and I said I'd stop by in the morning. Then,
just as she was about to go in she rushed back, and kissed
me on the cheek.
"Thank you," she
whispered, one more time.
I went down the elevator,
and a couple of corridors over, to where the more spacious
suites are situated. Outside the Palmetto block I opened a
small fire hose door, picked up the proton gun where Mani
had left it. Then I walked into a shadowy alcove and waited.
Soon I heard the booming voice of Marfu Nonnan, saying good
night to his bodyguards. As he went to open his door I stepped
out. I couldn't really misstwo shots to his heart, and
the smell of singing hair and flesh. "Bastard assassin..."
he choked out, before slumping to the floor. I walked quickly
away, leaving Mani to return with his collections vehicle
for the cleanupanother ghost for Alun Seritz's permanent