Literary Challenge #36 : The Haunting of Deck 13
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Join Date: Jul 2012
01-10-2013, 08:15 AM
Personal log: Tylha Shohl, officer commanding USS King Estmere NCC-92986
"We don't even
a deck thirteen," I say crossly. The internal layout of the Tholian Recluse carrier is a complex tangle, artificial gravity pointing in whatever direction the builders felt convenient... we've marked it out into zones and sections, but conventional numbered decks are out of the question. Nyrik, sitting across the desk from me, looks as embarrassed as a Romulan can.
"It's - a term I have heard used, for that particular sector," he says uneasily. "I thought - I thought it official. The humans use it all the time, I know that much."
Nyrik is a civilian contractor, sent as a goodwill gesture from New Romulus; he is a thin, nervy-looking type, and just now he looks more nervous than usual. I suppose I can understand that. Here he is, aboard an alien ship, in the heart of the Federation - his people's traditional enemy - and I have to expect him to be stressed. But I also need the new modifications to my ship completed, and there are only so many allowances I can make.
has been in drydock in Earth orbit for nearly a month, now, and I need to be back on the front lines. Which means I need the reason why Nyrik's installation of the new fire control runs is taking so damned long.
official," I say. "But never mind that. What's the problem with that area?"
"It is...." Nyrik looks even more uneasy. "It is... hard to explain. It is a matter of, of
. I am not the only person who... feels something.... And it is worse when I am alone in the fire control substation, and often I
alone, because that part of the ship is - is - is
." His voice is growing louder, and there's a high edge to it that I don't like.
"A feeling," I say, for the sake of saying something. "What
of a feeling? - oh, never mind," I add, as he starts to look even more uncomfortable. "Computer. Cultural cross reference, human culture and the term 'deck thirteen'."
"Working," says the computer primly. "No specific reference to 'deck thirteen'. The number thirteen, in some human cultures, is held to be unlucky or ill-omened; buildings or floors of buildings may sometimes be re-designated to avoid using it. Cross references available with regard to Earth religion, Earth superstition, Earth pseudo-science, Earth timekeeping -"
"Stop," I order it. It will give me cross references all day, otherwise. I look hard at Nyrik. "Earth superstition? You're a Romulan, you shouldn't put any stock in -"
a Romulan," Nyrik snaps at me, his face flushing dark olive with anger. Well, it's better than nerves. "I was a Subcommander Engineer before the loss of the homeworld, I have seen military service, I have seen action, and my fears are
groundless, Vice Admiral. If I say I have
things in that place, then
there is something there
"But you can't say what," I say. I consider for a moment. "All right," I say. "When's your next scheduled shift in that substation?"
"0300 hours," Nyrik says. "The place will be... deserted. And yet there will be sounds that I cannot account for, and the computers will behave... oddly." His voice rises. "I suppose you intend to tell me that there will be nothing there to be scared of?"
"On the contrary," I say. "
"This is a lot of nonsense," Commander Lolha almost snarls. She gets up from her chair and stamps irritably around the main console. The rest of us watch her, all but Nyrik, who is absorbed in his work.
The fire control substation is a flattened, elongated cuboctahedron in shape; as with the bridge, the artificial gravity has been set to make its ceiling another floor. Most of it is empty space; in combat situations, it will be filled with photonic constructs, guidance and control systems for
's forward torpedoes. The Tholian thermionic torps have been removed, useful though they were, and now a whole new set of control runs is taking shape, to handle the more powerful Romulan hyper-plasma weapons. The fruits of our technology exchange with New Romulus... and I am itching to try them out, to give some Tal Shiar battleship a sharp taste of its own medicine.
Right now, though, my ship is in confusion, new systems being installed, old ones ripped out.... The unreplicateable components of the Aegis systems are on their way, now, across fifteen kilometres of space to the adjacent dry dock. Where they will be built into my
current command, formerly a Chel Grett cruiser and a mainstay of the Breen Confederacy, now the USS
. And it would be good to have
of those vessels in working order.
"I confess," Sirip says with cool Vulcan equanimity, "I do not see the necessity for our presence here."
"I want to find out what's going on," I say. "And the assault groups are all kicking their heels while the ship is in drydock, so you're best placed to make yourselves useful. Besides, this way I have a good range of different - viewpoints."
"Viewpoints, sir?" says Sirip.
"You and Nyrik are both Vulcanoids, with above average psi potential - if there's anything of
kind going on, you have a good chance to detect it. As an Andorian, and therefore the only one here who's not one-third blind, I can keep a sharp watch on any... conventional... sounds or movements. Lolha, as a Tellarite, is probably
likely to be influenced by anything, well, fanciful -"
right, at least," growls Lolha. "And two humans? Why two?"
"Dr. Beresford, because I want medical help and medical opinions on hand right away," I say, "and Commander Kleefisch because it seems to be human gossip that got these damn rumours started."
Soledad Kleefisch looks at me with a rueful expression. Like Lolha, she's a relatively new addition to
's senior staff, and I've not had time to get to know her well. She is slim and wiry, with dark hair and the light-brown skin which denotes a mixture of human ethnic groups. "I'll try to make up for it, sir," she says, drily. Her voice is low and almost musical in tone.
"A lot of nonsense," Lolha repeats.
Nyrik looks up from his work. "No," he says, quietly but firmly. "I wish it were so, but there is quite definitely a presence here."
"I am not aware of anything," Sirip says.
I look around, take a deep breath, feel the currents of the air with my antennae. It
strange, here... but only the now-familiar weirdness of the Tholian ship. There is the vague distant thrumming of the electro-plasma system, the faint sigh of the air conditioning... somewhere, not too far off, the sound of footsteps on the metal deck.... The lighting is low, subdued, warm-hued; the Tholian panels and data stalagmites glow with golden light. Nyrik touches a control crystal, studies the results on a panel, frowns. "This is..." he makes a vague gesture at the panel. "This is one of the things I mentioned, Vice Admiral. Every so often, the panel flickers, with something else on it - data overlays that I have not requested; there for a moment, then gone. I have run all the standard diagnostics."
I frown, too. What that suggests to me is a long-dormant virus program; some piece of Tholian info-warfare directed against anyone who might take one of their ships.
's computers are being swept molecule by molecule for similar tricks - because we
the Breen will try something like that. Has
been checked just as thoroughly?
"So that's it," Lolha says with a derisive snort. "A few simple computer glitches, and it gets talked up into - into stupid human spook stories."
"Do Tellarites have no ghost stories?" Soledad asks. She turns to look at me. "Or Andorians?"
"We have them," I say, almost reluctant to talk about them, here and now. "I remember, from my childhood, hearing about things like roof-knockers and storm dancers...."
"Oh," says Samantha Beresford. "Now, I've heard those terms, on Andoria, but no one ever explained them to me - can you?"
I shrug, and it helps to dispel my vague feeling of unease. "Folk tales," I say. "Roof-knockers... when someone dies, out on the surface, sometimes they come back to their home tunnel and knock on the door, or the roof, asking to be let back in. Sometimes it's just because they don't realise they're dead - sometimes it's for revenge, or desire, or some strong motive. Storm dancers, now, they are spirits that live in the blizzards, they lure people away to dance with them, and those people never come back...."
"Interesting," says Samantha. "Of course, hypothermia in humans can lead to all sorts of aberrant behaviour - paradoxical undressing, for instance, where sufferers actually take off the clothes that are keeping them warm. I suppose cultures from cold climates on Earth have similar legends - I can think of some."
"There's always a rational explanation," Lolha sniffs.
"Of course," says Soledad in that musical voice. "But is the rational explanation always the right one?"
"It would seem logical," says Sirip drily. Soledad turns her dark eyes onto him.
"Yet your culture," she says, "
about survival after the body's death. Your
"The personality matrix of the
," Sirip says, "is a well-known and documented reality. The
is, therefore, almost by definition, not a ghost."
"Well-known and documented," says Soledad, "but I notice you do not say it is fully understood."
me your human mysticism." Lolha rolls her eyes theatrically.
there Tellarite ghost stories?" I ask.
"We... have some," Lolha admits, gracelessly. "But they're just
, everyone knows that. Stories about, say, a grudge between two families, and one side keeps it up even after they're all dead.... Fanciful nonsense, nothing more." She turns a glare on Sirip. "We're sensible people -
sensible, in fact, some Vulcans didn't even believe we had souls at all."
"My culture is not immune to errors," Sirip replies with infuriating placidity.
I turn to ask Nyrik about Romulan ghosts, but he is absorbed in his work. Well, at least the argument seems to be keeping his mind off his troubles. "Not immune to errors, yes," says Lolha, "in the same way that a black hole is not immune to gravity!"
"Is it cold in here?" Samantha asks, perhaps just trying to change the subject.
"I think so," says Soledad.
"The ambient temperature remains constant at 292 Kelvin," Sirip says, consulting his tricorder. "Colder than I would wish it, but there has been no recent deviation."
"This is also something that happens," Nyrik speaks up. "A sudden feeling of chill. It passes... usually."
I frown. Data glitches are one thing, but environmental changes - or imagined ones - are something else. The air doesn't feel cold to me... but, of course, it wouldn't. "Take another scan," I order Sirip; and then, over the warble of his tricorder, I hear something else. A faint sound, something like a rustle, something like a slither. My antennae stiffen on my head, quivering, searching the air.
The sound came from above. I look up, at the floor/ceiling over our heads. My eyes narrow: there is something there, among the consoles and the EPS relays, that wasn't there before... or, maybe, I just hadn't noticed it before. Something black and shapeless, beside one console. "Wait a moment," I say. "There's something.... I'm going to take a look."
I run forward, up one slanting wall, do the now-familiar forward roll and feel my stomach lurch as gravity flips the wrong way around... and then I'm jogging across the ceiling, my crew's faces looking foolish as they gaze down at me from the floor. I dodge around a tangle of wiring, and I see the black thing, lying next to the console.
"Now how did that get there?" I wonder aloud.
It's nothing, really. It's just a shapeless heap of black cloth, coarsely woven, slightly shiny, frayed along its edges. Perhaps it is some sort of cover for the console, perhaps the noise I heard was just it slipping out of place, caught by some stray air current. I reach out to touch it... and I stop.
to touch it. Something irrational, intuitive, in the back of my mind is saying not to - and, suddenly, I am afraid, and I don't know why. Perhaps if I touch it, I will feel something unwholesome, something loathsome. Perhaps, if I touch it, it will somehow move again, slithering suddenly away from me - or, worse, towards me....
This is ridiculous, I tell myself. Get a grip, Tylha. I reach out.
Then I hear Samantha Beresford shriek, "
The cloth thing can wait; I sprint across the ceiling, back down the wall, and am at the doctor's side in seconds. The others are standing, confused and alarmed, looking in all directions. Sirip and Lolha both have phasers drawn. Samantha's face is quite pale.
"I saw something -" She stops talking, shakes her head. "I'm sorry. I don't know - what it was -"
"I saw nothing," says Sirip. "I was watching Vice Admiral Shohl, of course."
"So was I," says Samantha, "but then I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and I turned to look." She points. "Over there. It was just behind Nyrik - just for an instant. And then it was gone. I'm sorry. I was more startled than anything else, I think."
"Unfortunate," Sirip observes, "that no one is in a position to corroborate your observation, Doctor."
Samantha positively glares at him. "I'm not an idiot," she snaps, and pulls her data monocle off her face. "I have this set to visual record," she continues, holding it out to him. "Play it back and you can damn well see what I saw!"
I touch her shoulder. "Put the replay on a PADD," I tell her, "and we can all take a look at it."
Samantha looks at me and seems to pull herself together. "Yes, of course," she says. "Good idea... just a moment."
Her fingers tremble a little as she sets up the interface. While she's doing that, I look up at the ceiling. It's my turn to feel uneasy; the black cloth isn't there any more. "Did you see that?" I ask Soledad in a low voice.
"Never mind," I say. I should have worn a recording device myself, I think.
Samantha has the PADD ready; she taps the screen and the playback starts. I see myself walk along the ceiling - and the black cloth is there, then, there is no doubt about it - and then there is a flicker of light at the edge of the screen; Samantha's point of view whips round, dizzyingly fast in the replay, and we see it.
For a fraction of a second, just behind Nyrik, something emerges out of thin air; something that glows, that reaches out in all directions with tentacles of flame and smoke; something with a crouching, hungry, expectant air. It's only there for an instant - 0.31 of a second, Sirip tells us all helpfully - but it's quite definitely there.
"Run it back and freeze-frame it," I order.
It takes a little trial and error - Samantha's fingers are still shaking - but we have our picture, eventually. The glowing thing crouches, frozen, in its brief moment of existence. I look at the red-gold glow, the sparkles and flashes and jagged lines of it....
"Well," I say, "I think I've got our next angle of approach."
"Sir?" says Sirip. He actually sounds surprised. Good.
"Is it something you recognize?" Soledad Kleefisch asks.
"Not really," I say, "but it - sort of
something. Something, actually, we should have thought of." I grin. "We were talking about ghosts in our own cultures - Andorian ghosts, Tellarite ghosts - when we should have been thinking about the sort of ghosts we're most
to find here."
Lolha starts to expostulate, but Samantha cuts her off with a "What do you mean, sir?"
<There is no trace of Tholian computer viruses or other infowarfare attacks>, Lieutenant Dlyrene assures me in its emotionless artificial voice.
It's mid-afternoon, and we are in
's main computer room, the Tholian warfare specialist lying with its limbs extended over the central console, foreclaws caressing the control crystals, coloured fire shimmering on its crystal carapace. Not for the first time, I wish the Tholians were easier to read. Those flows of light and colour must mean something, must give some clue to the creature's interior emotional state... but it's not something I, or any humanoid, can decipher.
"We saw something very strange in the fire control substation," I explain. "It's - Lieutenant, are there ghost stories among your people?"
Dlyrene is suddenly completely still; colours churn and surge inside it, but its body is motionless. After a moment, it says <If I understand you correctly, Vice Admiral, I believe the answer is yes - in a way.>
"Can you explain?"
<I will try>, Dlyrene says. <Because Tholian consciousness subsists in high-energy electroplasma, there is a more direct interface between ourselves and our technology. We are not - I think the word for it is 'cyborgs' - nor do we form a collective mentality like that of the Borg, but we are - connected - in ways which your species is not. Aspects of memory, and even of personality, can be stored, shared, distributed. You may have heard some of us speak of the Lattice?>
"Yes," I say, doubtfully. "I've never clearly understood if it's a technological thing, or a religious one."
<It is both, and neither. It is the sum of the connected Tholian race, the architecture in which our memories live and are preserved. It is believed that the greatest of our species - the finest minds, the deepest and noblest thinkers - whether their physical bodies are functional or not, still live within the Lattice, guiding and shaping the minds of the rest of the Tholian race.> Dlyrene's foreclaws clash sharply together. <Sometimes there is dissension within the Lattice - but that is not of significance here.>
It might be my best glimpse yet, though, into the arcane internal politics of the Tholian Assembly. I lean forward, questions on my lips, but Dlyrene continues.
<It is possible, under traumatic circumstances, for memory or personality fragments to escape both the Lattice and the physical body. Any structure with compatible electroplasma formatting and sufficient storage capacity might - capture, I think, is the best word - a memory impression or personality engram from a dying Tholian and preserve it, in a sort of half-life.>
The fire control substation is packed with photonic generators, almost up to the standard of a full-scale holodeck... and all Tholian circuitry, Tholian interfaces. "So... our ghost might be a sort of piece of a Tholian mind?"
"Why has it only appeared recently, though?" These damned "deck thirteen" rumours can't be that old....
<The personality fragment might have remained in a static condition until some changes to its local environment caused it to react>, says Dlyrene. <The recent installations of new equipment might have provided such a stimulus.> Dlyrene's foreclaws clack and clatter again; it seems agitated. <Vice Admiral, if this is the case, something must be done. The mind fragment must be in a state of such agony ->
Dlyrene stops, abruptly. I think for a moment about a mind, a fraction of a mind, trapped in the fabric of the ship, maybe knowing it's dead, maybe not understanding... I think about that and shiver. "Is there anything we can do?" I ask.
<Yes.> The whole bulk of Dlyrene's crystal body shifts in apparent unease. <Any Tholian should be able to interface with the mentality fragment and - and purge it. All that is needed is the correct interface. And the will.> Dlyrene shifts again. <I will need my EV suit. The force-field and photonic emitters which enable me to operate without it - also block my avenues of connection.>
The networked emitters function like an old 23rd-century life support belt, letting the Tholians run around unencumbered in our environment... or so we'd thought, at least. "All right," I say. "You're offering to do this... this thing... yourself, then?"
<I must>, Dlyrene says, <now that I know. It is an obligation, Vice Admiral. A duty.>
It says nothing more, but I think I understand. Not all duties are welcome ones....
"An exorcism," Samantha Beresford whispers to me. "Bell, book and Tholian EV suit." I don't understand the reference; I make a mental note to look it up later.
We're in the fire control substation. Dlyrene is standing by the console, looking more than ever like some abstract sculpture inside his white EV suit. Nyrik is with us, to work the computer interfaces, and because his sensitivity may help us know if this - whatever it is - has worked. Samantha is here to provide whatever medical help she can, if something goes wrong. And I am here... because I have a terrible feeling one of my crew is about to put itself in danger, and I can't bring myself to look the other way while it does that.
<Engaging comms interface>, says Dlyrene. The computer-generated voice is utterly unreadable. I look at Samantha: she shrugs. Nyrik is doing something with the Tholian control panels.
I realize I am holding my breath; I exhale, slowly and carefully.
Nothing moves in the substation. There are faint whirring, whining sounds from Dlyrene's EV suit. Samantha flips open her medical tricorder, and the trilling of that shatters the silence. "Everything seems normal," she says, but there's a doubtful tone to her voice.
"There's a lot of data traffic on the interface," Nyrik reports.
"I guess that's what we expect," I say.
I don't know what I expect. Vengeful ghosts? Crazed Tholian holo-projections? Dlyrene's EV suit to come apart in a shower of ectoplasm? The Tholian stands immobile; opaque, impassive, uncommunicative.
I look up at the ceiling. There's nothing there.
"Neurological activity is elevated," Samantha reports.
"Computer traffic is -" Nyrik frowns. "A sector just... reformatted itself. Several thousand kiloquads of data erased."
"What was it?" I ask.
"Unknown," says Nyrik. "Deleted files, erased some time ago...
erased, in fact. There should have been nothing there but randomized bits...."
"Neurological activity... falling back," says Samantha. "Declining... continuing to fall... Now stable. Within normal range."
I have an obscurely frustrated feeling. A battle is going on... waged on a battlefield I have no way of seeing, with weapons beyond my understanding.
The EV suit shudders, skitters around on its long legs to face me. <The task is completed>, says the emotionless voice.
"You did... whatever you had to do?"
<There was a corrupted Tholian mentality fragment in the crystal substructure of the fire control computer. I have scanned and - > The voice seems to hunt for the right word < - reprocessed it. It is gone. Its suffering is ended. My duty is discharged.>
"Thank you, Lieutenant," I say.
"Yes, thank you," Nyrik adds with some feeling.
<You may expect no further manifestations>, the Tholian says. <I must return to my quarters now. It is necessary for me to meditate for a time.>
"Of course, Lieutenant."
Dlyrene scuttles away, its thoughts still a mystery to me.
Several things still bother me.
the Tholian do, to dispose of the - fragment? Dlyrene said "reprocessed" - what does that mean? Did it read the thing like a computer file, re-order and expunge it like any other piece of data? Or... Dlyrene spoke of personality engrams being shared, minds merging to exchange memories and concepts... Did Dlyrene
that mind fragment into itself, assimilating it? Did the Tholian
And if it did... how much did that hurt it? To take in all the frustration and the pain of that lost fragment of a life?
I can't stop thinking, though, of worse questions yet. When Dlyrene's mind met the fragment's, on that non-space battlefield of data transference... which of them was the stronger? Did Dlyrene eat the ghost, or did it eat Dlyrene?
Would I ever know? The fragment would gain all Dlyrene's memories, all Dlyrene's personality traits... how could I know? I don't have the power even to see into a humanoid soul....
But this abstract speculation isn't the thing that troubles me most. I found one of the other Tholians to talk to, later, and asked it about Tholian cloth.
<Tholian spider silk is well known to the Federation>, it told me. <Textiles are not in common use in the Assembly, however; they serve little purpose to us.>
"Tholian spider silk is... very fine, though," I said. "Is it ever made... coarse? And dyed black?"
<I do not understand the question>, the Tholian said. <Silk can be coloured in a variety of ways. But there would be no purpose in making a coarse weave. At least, none that I can determine.>
And that was where I left it.
Of course, the substation has all that photonic equipment. And who knows how a broken Tholian mind-fragment might think? The temporary materialization of a length of coarse black cloth might just be a random product of a random thought. I can't find anything in the holoprojectors' logs to show that was how they were used - but any amount of data was changed or erased when Dlyrene interfaced with the computer, of course.
A random manifestation of a defective mind, created using the photonic projectors. Sirip would certainly tell me that's the rational explanation.
But is it the right one?