The Ghost Stories We Tell Around Photon Fires
Cassandra Khaw, 2018
Originally published in Gamut Magazine, 2017.
Be careful with trusting navigation systems. Sometimes they lie. They say there is a place where world ships go when they know the end is close. A prism of stars, ravenous, burning like abattoirs, striated by temporal anomalies and transcendentally sublime. If you go there, you’ll see leviathanic corpses suspended between asteroids belts, their bones polished to incandescence by solar winds and cosmic debris. But don’t get too close. Not every ship waits for its crew to evac first.
Still, if you make that mistake, all is not necessarily lost. If you’re quick enough and clever enough, if you can inject the right code, the right algorithms before the first revenants appear, chances are you’ll be fine. Ghosts, whether allegorical or discorporate victims of recursive timelines, only want space to sleep.
At least, that’s what they say.
“You don’t really believe there are ghosts, do you?” drawls Fatimah through a mouthful of cherry cola gum. The tips of her black hair are knife-frayed, stained cinnamon and lime.
Allen bristles. “There’s no empirical evidence—”
“There’s no empirical evidence that the sun isn’t secretly rainbow-colored either,” Fatimah retorts as she decants from her perch, an elegant motion, a gymnast’s descent. She sweeps thick hair from a sharp-boned face, eyes liquid and bored. Against her brown skin, the vintage headphones, meticulously maintained, gleam like the ferryman’s wages. “But you don’t see anyone complaining about that.”
He scowls. Fatimah grins. Were it not for the way she makes his pulse jackhammer against the membrane of his throat, the way her voice makes reason the exception, he wouldn’t tolerate her. Allen’s sure of that. Stupid crush, he thinks before Fatimah’s proximity devours all autonomy.
Stupid crush, he thinks again, a smile trembling on the cusp of being. “Yeah. Well. Might have something to do with the fact we’re in the incinerator room.”
Fatimah laughs and turns, the sway of her hips keeping time with the pounding of his heart, to strut up to the dormant trash compactor and pat it like a recalcitrant puppy. Allen tenses with the urge to follow, but he knows better to react before Fatimah commands, knows better than to volunteer a voice to the hungry silence.
“Since you believe in ghosts—”
“I never said—”
Fatimah laughs, a clear, silver music that cuts to his spine. “Since you believe in ghosts, I’ve got one for you. It’s about the Nu Gui …”
A pulse of recognition. “That’s cheating. Teke-teke is old world mythos.”
“No.” Fatimah disgorges a wad of chewed-up gum, affixes it to the alloyed surface. It moans a whalesong reply and Allen twitches like a man impaled on a jolt of electricity, eyes sliding away from the dark corners. If he just withholds acknowledgement, surely, he can deny them existence, those jittering, staticky things in the margins of his eyesight. “She’s not. Teke-teke isn’t just a construct of Old China. She’s a metaphysical meme.”
“This is lame, Fa—”
“They say—” A defiant interruption. Allen shivers, riveted. Fatimah’s voice is silver, is gold resin, is entrapment honeyed and resonant, irresistible as the siren lure of a black hole. “—that myths can be divided into two categories: oral and memetic. One is deathless, one is not, surviving so long as the concept remains intact.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” Allen purses his mouth. Neither adolescent lust nor fear of the unknown can counteract candor. “Oral tradition is memetic. That’s the whole point. What you’re saying is an oxymoron, and Fa—”
“You’re making it too scientific.”
“I’m making it too scientific?” Incredulity wells, hot, metallic. “You were the one teasing me about believing in ghosts and—”
“So you do believe in ghosts!”
“Argh!” Allen chucks his arms into the air, a hundred heartfelt profanities interlaced with that single expulsion of exasperation. “No! That’s not what I meant! And even if I did, it’s beside the point. Anyway. My point is you don’t have a point.”
His diatribe is received with a look and then discarded with a laugh. Fatimah tosses her hair and continues, relentless, triumphantly brazen.
“They say—” She begins again, stressing the words just so, with just enough charm to make Allen’s heart jump. “—that the Nu Gui is the vengeful spirit of a suicide who meets their end in a bloom of red—”
Allen feels eyes on the back of his hands, his mouth, his skin, and he shivers in reply to the weight of their scrutiny. “You mean they slit their wrists?”
“Ugh. You have no poetry—”
“This isn’t exactly a laughing matter. You—”
“Whatever. Anyway, like I was saying, the Nu Gui is the spirit of a woman who either committed suicide while wearing red, or was buried in red. Ordinarily, it’s a one in five billion chance that the dead will return, but something about that color pulls at them, especially those who died unfairly.”
Here, Fatimah’s eyes turn glassy, glazed, carefully pared of emotion, her mouth the dark slit of an emptied throat.
“So, what happens if you die while wearing a blue t-shirt?” Allen demands, eager to distract from whatever had hollowed her stare. Behind him, the room whispers, thickens, as though occupied by a thousand spectators. “You come back like an emo-goth?”
Fatimah shifts gears, swaps her solemnity for a vivid smile, the parabola of her mouth a star chart of secrets. “No clue. But I think it’s time we find out if Nu Gui can be non-Chinese.”
Before Allen can react, before he can devise a scream, a plea to desist, Fatimah presses a button, plunges an arm deep into the glowing maw.
Steel shrieks shut.
They say you should be careful when speaking to the neural matrices of your ancestors. Not all of them are real. They say that one in every twenty million is erroneous, a digital ego populated by serendipity; baseless, frameless, causal offspring of a thousand compromised archives.
The danger with these constructs is they are also parasitic, accidents in binary, input-starved and predatory. If you let them, they’ll slither from network to neuron to nest, quiet in the cup of your skull. There, they’ll propagate, replicate, will complicate and instigate new branches of identity in the taxonomy of your memories, eliding fact into fabrication, until there is no “me” and only “we,” a deep mind rife with maybes and never-could-bes.
There is no cure for that, they say. If they get you, you’re as good as dead so watch out and read closely. Be careful, be slick. Be always vigilant against ghosts in grandparent skins.
“What do you think happens to the bodies?” …
Read the full story here, at Apex Magazine: https://www.apex-magazine.com/the-ghost-stories-we-tell-around-photon-fires/#comment-65018
About the Author
Cassandra Khaw writes horror, video games, tweets for money, articles about video games, and tabletop RPGs. These are not necessarily unrelated items. Her work can be found in professional short story magazines such as Clarkesworld, Fireside Fiction, Uncanny, and Shimmer. Cassandra’s first paranormal rom-com, Bearly a Lady, was released this year. Her recent Lovecraftian Southern Gothic novel, A Song for Quiet, is a considerably different animal.