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When the days have no number

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The first time it happened, Johnny couldn’t sleep. Something had jangled him, or not jangled him enough, he didn’t know. Just sometimes, after they’d put a warrant to bed, and had a drink, and set the lights to nighttime, space still felt too vast. Like it was getting under his covers. Like it was getting into his head.

It helped then, to get up and wander through Lucy’s corridors. To run his hands along the smooth walls on either side, like a cat feeling with its whiskers for the right path. The ship was solid, encircling. And yeah, it also usually helped to pour himself a drink from the cheap stuff they kept in the galley.

Which is what he was doing when he realized that someone else was in the room. “Dutch?” he said, not turning around. But then there was a rustle, heavy cotton again cotton, nothing Dutch would ever wear. And a scent, like damp outdoors. And worst, a low whisper, right at the threshold of hearing. “Hey, Bug.”

Johnny whipped around. He was staring at the blank, dark wall. No one was there. He stepped closer and sniffed, feeling ridiculous, but his heart was hammering in his ears. A trace, the barest trace, of turned earth and root vegetables, like nothing he’d come across in the Quad.

“Lucy, who’s aboard?”

“John?” A pause for him to elaborate. He didn’t. “You. And Dutch. Who’s sleeping.” Was that a hint of reproach?

“No security breaches? No one trying to hack in?”

“John.” The reproach was stronger now. “I am perfectly secure. You should sleep.”

He nodded in agreement, and dutifully made his way back to his cabin, not even bringing the bottle with him. But he didn’t sleep.

***

“Thought you maybe could use this,” Dutch said, holding out a steaming mug,

The sight of it made Johnny's mouth water. But he was almost literally elbow-deep in Lucy’s life-support system and the diagnostic he was running was at its most delicate stage. So he blinked dry eyes and said, “Later.”

“Suit yourself.” Dutch leaned a hip against his workstation and sipped the coffee herself. “Whatcha doing?” Her voice was studiously casual—it sounded all wrong on her.

Johnny lifted his head from Lucy’s innards, knowing he looked as tired as he felt. “I-I think there’s some kind of glitch in Lucy’s climate control system. You haven’t noticed? Too many revs on the air circulation, maybe?” He swallowed. “Causing cold spots?”

Dutch shook her head, giving him a wary look, just as Lucy said, “I’m fine, John. I doubt a fifth diagnostic will reveal anything the previous four have not.”

“Maybe you’re coming down with something. Working too hard. We’ve been taking too many warrants,” Dutch said, though it wasn’t true. “We could take a few days on Leith, go to that place with the hot springs—really relax and warm up for once.”

She knows, Johnny thought, with a twinge of despair. She thinks I’m losing it. Nearly six years together and the idea that Dutch would toss him out could still sneak up on him and kick him in the stomach. She could say she needed him as much as he needed her as often as she liked, but he knew the truth.

And how could she not have noticed that he’d been up every night for a week, drawn from his bunk by a loamy smell, a cold wind, and an inexplicable urgency. That he’d chased a glimpse of heavy skirts around corners to no avail, and heard an achingly familiar voice calling him by an old, old name.

“I’m fine,” he told Dutch, and tried to smile, though he could feel his lips tight against his teeth.

"Sure you are." She stayed and watched him and finished her coffee in silence.

***

Johnny knew Dutch was really worried when she sic’ed Alvis on him. Alvis, as a religious man, presumably having an expertise with lunacy that Dutch felt she lacked. She trusted the scarback, he knew, and had a connection with him into which Johnny deliberately did not delve. But the more visceral aspects of Quad religion still freaked John out, to say the least.

But Alvis didn't pull out any mystical mumbo jumbo when he showed up at Pree's bar. Just, “Hey,” as he pulled up a stool next to Johnny’s. Johnny had been trying to wait out as much of the night there as he could, reluctant for perhaps the first time to go back to Lucy.

“Hey,” Johnny said back, staring into his nearly empty pint.

“Dutch tells me you’re not sleeping.”

Johnny shrugged. He meant to say something like, Yeah, and you’re not wearing a shirt, what else is new?, or maybe just, And that’s your problem why?, but whether because of the hour, or the number of drinks he’d had, or plain old exhaustion, the words that actually came out of his mouth were, “You guys know about a lot of weird things, right?”

“We do.” Alvis quirked a tiny smile. “You might almost say weird things are our business.”

“How ‘bout the dead? You guys ever do business with the dead?”

Alvis shook his head. “The dead rest, John. They fertilize the roots. Their time with us has passed.”

“But do they ever, you know, try to get in touch?”

Johnny waited, but Alvis didn’t laugh, or even change his annoyingly kind expression. “Scarback monks will go to extraordinary lengths to communicate with those who have survived them—they’ll write messages on their own skin if they have to. But no, I have never heard of anyone returning from the grave.”

“Right.” Johnny looked down at his glass, wondering whether to risk another. “Okay, then. Thanks.”

Alvis looked thoughtful. “But ours is not the only tradition, even here in the Quad. I have learned never to dismiss experience, my own or others. Just remember, in death, as in life, as many acts are motivated by love as anger.”

***

Dutch was waiting for him when he got back to Lucy, a bottle of very expensive Haqq in front of her on the table.

“If you’re going to drink yourself to sleep every night,” she said, “You might as well not kill your brain cells with the cheap stuff.”

Johnny wasn’t sure whether good booze killed fewer brain cells than bad booze, but he accepted the glass she offered him gratefully. He sat down next to her on the couch, and didn’t even wait for her to ask what was going on.

“I think my mother has been haunting the ship.,” he told her.

“Your mother.” Dutch took a sip and held it in her mouth for a minute before swallowing. “The ghost of your mother?”

“The cold spots, the drafts, the weird smells. It’s not Lucy. So either I’m going crazy, or, yeah, a ghost.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy, Johnny." He almost believed her. At least, he could detect no trace of ridicule or condescension in her voice. Ever practical, she added, "But, a ghost? What are we going to do about that? You know I’d kick the ass of anything that tried to hurt you. But a knife would probably go right through its transparent behind. Fists, too.” She mimed hitting something that dissolved into air.

That got a slightly hysterical laugh out of Johnny. But it warmed him more than the liquor to hear Dutch say she’d fight for him.

“I don’t know. If it is her, I don't know what's she doing here. We were crap at being a family, y’know.” Dutch nodded like she did. “But mom was the best of us. We lived in some real shit holes, but somehow she always found a bit of earth. She loved that, planting things, taking care of them. She was good at it, too. A lot of the time, things she raised were the difference between eating and going hungry." Johnny could almost taste it, his mom's turnip green soup, the comfort of its bitterness. "I loved helping her, when I was a kid. She used to say I looked like a junebug, a little beetle, hopping around in the mud.”

As if conjured by his voice, that turned earth smell seeped into the galley again, penetrating the dry, filtered air.

“When she died, she didn’t go slow, but she didn’t go quick either. She lasted long enough for me to come back and see her, at any rate. I think she knew. She knew what would happen to me and dad when she was gone. Don't lose hope, that’s all the advice she had for me. Hope for what? That dad and I would stay in touch? Those were some damn long odds." He snorted. "We buried her in the same plot of ground she grew her vegetables in. I don’t know why she’d come out of that grave except to cuss me out for letting her down.”

The smell was stronger now, and some of the light in the room seemed to be coalescing in one corner.

“You see that?” Johnny breathed.

“I see something,” Dutch whispered back uncertainly. She took his hand, her palm reassuringly warm and solid against his. "Want me to punch it?"

Johnny shook his head. He saw his mother, her brown hair scraped back into a bun, her face lined and tired, wearing her familiar faded grey dress.

"She doesn't look angry, John," Dutch murmured. "She looks sad."

“I’m sorry, ma,” he said. “I tried, but I… I couldn’t…”

“Oh, Bug,” the ghost said. The words sounded like they'd traveled huge distances to get to him--light years, or perhaps just the chasm between life and death. She seemed to be trying to say more. Her lips moved, but all that escaped them was a muted roar, like conversation on the other side of a thick wall.

"Can you make out what she's saying?" Johnny asked Dutch, hearing the desperation in his own voice.

"I think," Dutch said, her voice also taut with strain, "I think she's saying, it's coming. Or maybe--" Her nails bit into his palm. "Or maybe: he's coming."

Dutch must've hit the nail on the head, because the ghost smiled. It transformed her, easing the worried creases on her face until the light she was made of glowed through her like a benediction. She began to fade or dissolve, the dark wall behind her showing through until that was all that was left.

"Ma," Johnny pleaded, but she was already gone. "What do you think she meant? He's coming--who?" Johnny asked Dutch.

Dutch had let go of his hand and crossed her arms in front of her self-protectively. "I don't know," she said, but her voice held secrets. "I think for a while we'd better watch our backs"