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Ship of Ghosts

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It begins in catastrophe. Nobody wants to be the lone survivors of their race and home world, but they have hope; they have the Quest. It’s an heroic rescue mission to take the gifts of the gods that destroyed them all and use them to start again. There is a kind of glory in it.

They do what they must and chase the lost P7E, the object of the Quest. They follow a rigid routine – there are so few of them now, and they must be prepared for the long haul. They cannot allow many concessions to weakness, or deviation from that purpose. But they are still alive: as the first grief fades, they take in the wonders of the cosmos as they go; they fear for the lost ship, for the race banks; they hope, no, even believe, that they will succeed in their Quest much sooner than the readings predict.

Jackson checks the instruments, and then looks to the stars, standing like a sailor on the prow of his ship in times long since forgotten, ever-watchful. They cannot allow anything to stop them, not even death: they are as the gods themselves.

***

The first death is like no other.

Jackson is the one who finds that out first. It isn’t planned, but it is fitting: he is the captain and he should lead by example.

When they carry him into the regen chamber, to the machines, he refuses to show any sign of fear; he will not need pacification. This is merely something that they will have to do many times as the Quest goes on and that’s how he will consider it, no matter what his inward doubts.

But this is the first time for any of them, and while they know it has been done back on Minyos, there are also fearful tales of the dangers of testing the powers of the gods. They say it can go wrong; that you can die in great pain; that the outcome might be worse than death; that it always is worse than death in the end. And Jackson is tired – he has almost outlived his natural lifespan, and that should be enough for anyone; that should be an end to the Quest for him.

Except they do not stop for death, and Jackson is renewed.

The energy spreads through his being; the transformation sudden and dizzying, and then he sits up, sharp and young again and ready to lead. It seems, he thinks in that first moment of fleeting euphoria, that now they are themselves gods.

***

Each lifetime they live is a little shorter. It isn’t a difference worth mentioning; it would still be many thousands of years past the predicted length of their mission for it to become a problem that would cause them to fail, but it eats away at them, little by little. The energy that comes with the renewal fades faster each time; the lifespan not only edging shorter but losing colour, flavour, texture, or perhaps it’s something in the soul that cannot be restored by the process.

There is the Quest, though; there is always the Quest, only the Quest. They cannot lack for purpose. If they are reduced to operating as machines, what is that, compared to their objective? As long as the rescue is made, it will all be worthwhile.

The light within fades, though, and Jackson wonders for the first time about their fallible gods, and whether they found it so, too, or if it’s just that all the gifts of the gods are cursed in the hands of mortals.

***

Each of them experience at least one brief, malfunctioning cycle; some of them more than once. The longer the Quest goes on, the more likely it is to happen. It comes at different times for each, and takes different shapes, but it ends in sickness, or wildness that requires pacification, and an early death; a wasted regeneration.

Jackson discovers this on the twelfth time. It’s an aborted regeneration, the cycle failing before it had even begun, a lifetime somehow thrown away in a minute. That was nothing, though, he finds, on his ninety-seventh time. He says nothing, and it doesn’t show like the fury that nearly consumed Herrick, or the constant physical infirmities that plagued Orfe last time, but terror seizes him in his rest periods, again and again. Emotion has become something of a stranger already, and this fear – that he is no longer Jackson, that Jackson was lost centuries ago – he has little left with which to fight it. It’s a monster, waiting by his bunk, with claws. It stops his breath some nights, threatening to rob him of the complete control that has been in all his other cycles one of the few things he has left, save the Quest.

After his ninety-eighth regeneration, he sits up and finds that all such unscientific fears have gone; they are only a distant echo of another life.

***

Everything falls away into the same deadness of spirit in time. They record what they see mechanically; it takes something truly extraordinary to awaken any curiosity in them. Trapped for thousands of years on one comparatively small vessel, they don’t even bother to use all the available space. There is no need. There is only the Quest. (The Quest is the Quest).

How it was at the start feels like a memory of an ancient tale – that there had once been more than the endless duty and routine. Jackson had full feelings once, but it takes a long time to delve into his mind to remember what they were: what things the small crew once found amusing, what irritated them or gave them pleasure in each other’s company. The grief of losing their home and people is something that does linger on as an echo, part of what keeps them going onwards.

It is a life of endless, almost identical days, with no end in sight. Jackson performs his tasks; rigid in doing his duty, but everything else is subsumed by weariness.

There is one emotion left in him, though: the longing for the end, to lie down and rest; to let go of this life that is no longer life. He is the mere ghost of himself; he observes it in the others, too – even Herrick, who has more strength than the rest.

The Quest, though, is the Quest, and it never ends.

***

Everything nearly ends in catastrophe, as it began.

His mind is set in inflexible lines. It’s been so long operating in the same ways, with no new input, that Jackson is himself like the old ship, set in his path and hard to turn. It takes another of the gods to do it; this Doctor forcing him to set unwilling cogs and wheels in process. The unbending isn’t easy and it will take time to learn not to regard these wretches with mistrust – his people, another alien thought. Perhaps it will take more time than he has left. He finds that an immeasurably cheering thought, ironic though it is. There is a new quest now, but this one at least is finite; the endless weight of the other has gone.

They will take this ship to its new home and give up their burden of immortality. Jackson wondered once if that might prove hard to do, but he knows not now. His reaction to failure, to any ending, proves otherwise. They will reach home with the race bank, and he will lay himself and his weariness down in the ground and this time not have to rise again.

In the meantime, there is work to do, more changes to make, decisions to be made, a new course ahead, and it feels to Jackson almost like another regeneration, or better, a renewal of spirit: suddenly there’s a flicker of life within.