What You Are in the Light
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National Parks Starship A3-281 "Silent Running" was not a craft designed for comfort, but people always find a way when they're determined enough. The functional, unpretentious engine rooms could become cozy retreats, warm spaces soothed by the low humming of machinery. The hammocks strung over the cramped quarters gave a sense of camraderie, of shared hardship.

The vessel had been designed for maintenance and rescue work. It would fly to the edges of the Maw itself, lowering great hooks of obsidian to try to pierce the hole without warping. Usually this did nothing, but once in a blue moon it managed to rescue someone, anyone.

Early prototypes of the ship would include recovery rooms: padded walls, pleasant environments, staff on hand with cups of tea and a sympathetic smile. But as time went on, they realised that all that the people they'd dig from the Maw wanted was a sense of the solid, the real. So they stopped coddling them, and would house them in the engine room, with a blanket and a piercing stare.

The faces of the damned were ashen, because down there they'd understood who they were.

In another part of the ship, its crew was lying bored. Mehmed was deep in a book, flicking the pages with lazy gestures. Mary stared at the ceiling, occasionally flicking her eyes to her colleagues with inscrutable glances. Tsukiko stared into a mug of tea, divining something indistinct and lost.

Mehmed finally sighed, putting his book aside. "I am bored witless. It's going to be another week before we get to Celestrian space, and even longer before we reach Gongji. There must be some way of biding the time other than staring into space or reading one of Tsu's metaphysical conceits."

Tsukiko frowned. "Harlequin is one of the finest poets of the early Imperial period. Just because her early work is a bit-"

"Ghost stories." Mary's voice was quiet, but rang through the room all the same. "We can tell ghost stories."

The others shuddered slightly. Five millenia without death had transformed the ghost story from a fireside tale into into something more intricate and meaningful. The idea of people who had attained death - be it the memory of their pre-End ancestors or rumours of long-buried secrets - was a thrilling, taboo notion. The idea that their secrets could be unlocked and shared with the world, that mortality contained within it a lost connection to the divine, was even more exciting. Secret cults and gnostic movements sprang up everywhere, focused on the reincarnation or resurrection of strange spirits who could unite the worlds of the divine and human, creating a permanent utopia at last.

And so the memory of a hundred rebellions and a thousand heresies carried with it weight, even among the unbelievers. It still put them in mind of the cults of their ancestors. The lingering memory of that hope, in mystery designed to be beyond comprehension, kept them going on fireless nights.

Mehmed frowned. "A bit of a heavy subject, isn't it?"

"Maybe, but I don't know what else we'll do. We are cooped up in this cramped ship with only one another and Tsu's terrible poetry. We need an outlet."

Tsu glared, but then relented. "She's right. Ghost tales might be sinister but they're good for the long hauls. Makes you feel connected to something else. But who'll brave the others' scorn first?"

Mary smiled. "I will. It was my idea after all." The others leant in as she tried to remember one of her many pasts.

A few centuries ago, I was doing some work on Yeni Scutari. This was before the migrations and its transformation, before it became the New Jade Nation's capital: no bustling metropolis, just a few scattered mining camps among the ice, extracting amber from the deep. You probably don't remember the Almohad Heresy, Mehmed, but those weren't great days. It was hard to get work anywhere for fear of being stuffed into one of the Caliph's spice prisons, or sold as slave labour to the Private Interests or the Conglomerate.

You took what you could get, and what I could get was minimum pay as a kinetomonitor at an amber well. It wasn't pleasant work. For seven hours a day we'd be crammed in a box with two people, usually ones who were even more annoying than you two. And even worse, amber-golems would congregate around the well's edges, desperate to feed their addiction. Most of them were too cowardly to descend; they'd barter with us for scraps instead, never thanking us but fleeing in a cruel need to be alone. Occasionally, though, one would jump. At night, you could hear them calling up from the dark, moaning in ecstasy and pain.

Back at our camps, we would swap stories. They were good people, Turkish and Azeri migrants fleeing the Almohad tortures. A lot of them had joined ghost cults on the journey over, so we'd spend the nights round campfires, listening to tales of the Rebellion of the Departed or the Dead Moors as the snow fell around us.

One night, we heard a noise in the wilderness. We were always told not to stray too far, but we were hopped up on amber and arcane tales of free spirits. Youth can be intoxicating. So a bunch of us went into the woods to find it. We shot guns and swigged moonshine and whooped, until the cold got too much and we went home.

But one of us didn't come back.

We didn't think much of it. Out on the frontier, that happened sometimes. Everyone was a drifter of one sort or another, and when someone couldn't hack it they'd try some other mine or start hopping the stations. But then the next night, we heard the noise again- a low, howling sound, almost like a wolf. We all thought it was the wind, so we went back again, still in the spirit of fun.

But then another one was gone by morning. And another, and another. So eventually we stopped going out with whisky and cheers, and started going out with guns and knives.

We hunted that thing for weeks. Seventeen people di- went, in all. I don't know where they are now. Some of the younger members, having listened to too many ghost stories, started going in there in the hope that death lay in the trees, but I don't think it did. We were just somewhere we shouldn't have been.

One night I couldn't take it any longer. My friends kept dropping like flies, the mine authorities did nothing, and those campfire stories had all but stopped. They'd started congregating around a preacher, a Solstein Zoroastrian who would tell us again and again that it was Ahriman who dwelt in the woods. That all my friends were corrupted, and that we must engage in the battlefield of work to rid ourselves of his corruption.

His dull drone was like screaming to my ears. So I staggered off, half-drunk on cheap vodka and cheap Manichee wine. The trees were dark and a blizzard was coming on. I remembered a poem, some second-rate Earth verse about thick woods and promises and snow. It felt like I was stepping away from reality and into something else. A place where, slowly, everything was falling away and leaving only the shrieks of the wild.

I trekked on. I didn't care whether I lived or died, or whether I was myself or something else. I wasn't meant to be here, and this place was changing me. Who was Mary Ogden, anyway? Who were any of us when removed from our context?

I stopped in a clearing. The twin moons were still overhead, bright anchors half-obscured by the torrent of snow. Nobody would notice my absence.

Then I saw the footsteps.

They were small, petite things. Not a child's steps; too thin, too lean. They twisted this way and that, prising a path through the dark. Beside them was a larger groove in the snow, with distended splotches scrabbling and clawing from the side. Something had been dragged.

I turned around and fled. I haven't been to Scutari since.

There was a silence among the crew, which Mehmed broke. "Very good, Mary, but as horror cliches go, the "monster of the snow" thing is a bit overdone."

"We don't lie about ghost stories", Mary quietly said.

"Maybe not, but that doesn't mean we can't choose which ones are told. We've all been alive for centuries. We all know that life is full of its own unique horrors. The trick is finding which have meaning and which are just the chance hells of the universe."

Tsukiko snorted. "Well then, Mehmed, enlighten us. What meaning has the universe bestowed upon you?"

"One which interrogates the self. Now, listen closely…"

Earth is not what it once was. It is no longer the hub of all creation. The artists are gone to Chateau Etoiles, the painters to Manichea, the commerce to Fenster. But as long as the Emperor's court still presides over its concrete halls, our ancestral home still has its secrets.

I was born and raised in Istanbul but travelled to America in my 20s. I was young and rash. I'd just got my doctorate and was looking to launch my career. My eyes were full of stars. I was going to revolutionise kineto-frag technology, win the Nobel Prize and launch a distinguished career in Oscurita or somewhere. My mind was open to all sorts of possibilities.

Planes aren't allowed any more, of course, so I came across the water. It really is like those old films say it is. Liberty rises before you, her lamp's flame reaching towards the sky. The holographic fire they've added in recent years really enhances the effect, piercing through the omnipresent smoke billowing from the city. It seemed less like a siren of the city's freedom and more like a courageous rebel, standing in defiance of its alleyways, its factories, its downcast poverty.

I rented a one-room flat in Brooklyn, right next to a seeth-station. The light was sometimes unbearable, but usually the clouding smog made it no more than a faint glow. It would filter through the windows at night like the lights of some distant city. But when I could see it, gazing out at sunset with my shirtsleeves rolled, the lights of the atom fragmentation and the mute howls of the people suffering it made me glad I could walk to work.

Every day, I would heave myself off along the same route. Even now I can remember it. There were the Moses Columns, those strange torture-monuments built in the Philistine Era to commemorate the death of the past. Now they'd become part of that past, officially preserved and listed while their victims' mourners stood in silence before them. There were the Sixtus Crossroads, where street-food merchants congregated in their strange old-world rituals. There was the Brooklyn Bridge, so far in the distance, unbreakable through strange curses which saw so many buried beneath the Columns. And there were the three huge, dark alleyways, tiny slivers of space sandwiched between immense black buildings.

I'd stare into them sometimes, wondering why I was afraid to go in. I could see their ends. Anyone trying to assault me would be only a few feet away from the crowds. It would be impossible to mug me without alerting someone. But still the images kept circulating: my head parallel to the floor watching my blood flow away.

So every day I'd walk in front of them, and every day I'd glance into them. I was being absurd, I told myself. I'd walk past them again on the way home, as the smog turned orange. I needed to stop looking, I told myself. Then I'd start coming out at night and staring at each one in turn. Somewhere in that dark, I could have sworn I saw a silhouette staring right back.

This was my first encounter of the periodic madness we immortals all enjoy, and I am rather ashamed that it first came during my mortal lifespan. It wasn't a madness from our condition but from my own neuroses, my own twitching insecurity. I'd stand with a hand pressed on the surface to either side of the alley, caressing the walls and staring into it.

One night, it occurred to me that I had never seen anyone else do what I'd done. Not just the strangeness of my obsession, but even looking at these paths at all. Nobody ever walked into them. Nobody ever came out of them. They were just, well, there.

I went to the local coffeehouse and asked the patron. He grimaced and looked away. I asked the others, and they all shifted uncomfortably or hurriedly left, apologising under their breath. Only one woman, smoking beneath a broad-brimmed hat, looked up at me and smiled. "We all go in eventually", she said, "and we all remember." That was all she'd say.

I steeled myself. This was preposterous. I was a man of science. I held my head high and walked into the middle alleyway.

The dingy, damp feel of the place was warm, almost comforting. I moved along, running my hand against the mossy wall. The buildings on either side had been concrete but here they were made of stone, the cobbled kind of old York's streets. The effect was homely and oppressive all at once.

I came to the middle of the alley and stopped. Had I seen something? I shrugged, and continued, and then I realised what it was. A shadow. In front of mine; thinner, leaner, longer than my own.

I turned around and a woman stood there. She was beautiful but pale, her face looking aghast. A scar ran around her neck. I felt a strange urge to hold her, to tell her it was all going to be alright, but I just stumbled back in surprise.

"You didn't save me," she whimpered. I touched her cheek; it was like ice. "You didn't save me", she repeated, again and again and again, as bit by bit she crumpled and folded and melted into the floor.

I ran. I didn't think. I locked myself in my room and breathed, hard, again and again. The next day I skipped work. I went to the coffeehouse and ordered something hot. I tried to explain but barely had I started when they all nodded, sympathetic but determined not to speak, patting my shoulder and plying me with food. The only exception was the broad-hatted woman. "It's the road not taken, because it's the road you took," she said. I didn't know what she meant. Day by day, I put it out of my mind. I slowly went back to work, life, and like all the rest I never spoke of or looked at the alleyways again.

Some sixty, seventy years later, I found myself in Fenster, working for an engineering firm that wanted some fragproof shields placed on the Hauer Gate. If you've ever been to its principal world, Vergehen, then you'll have a clear picture in your head: orderly streets, baroque architecture, strains of Bach emanating from cosy cathedrals. The streets are merry and relaxed and the skies are clear. It's the polar opposite of New York. I was sat at a bar, listening to a girl sing. I couldn't see her face from my seat but I saw her hair, dancing all around her.

It was beautiful music, equal parts passionate and frail. As it wore on, I became more and more transfixed. I could barely see her but I was still in love at first sight, like all men believe they have a right to be. I had to talk to her. I climbed down from the veranda where I sat, approached the stage and stopped dead.

It was the girl from the alley. Less pale, bedraggled, thin; no scar, no haunted look. But the face was unmistakeable. Decades of memories flooded to the surface as I ran, and ran, and ran.

I took me a while to work it out, but in the end I thought back to what the woman in the coffeehouse had said and it all clicked together. The ghost in the alley was the singer, years into the future. It was her after our love affair was over, after the recriminations and the hate and the lies, after the passion and the pleasure and the pain. What was left of her came back, to show me what I was, to beg me not to talk to her that day.

I was horrified. I was thankful. Whoever she is, she's out there now, living a life that's free from whatever I could do. And when I think of that, I can't help but feel a twinge of regret. If I had stayed, talked with her, loved her, then she would have found a way to die. And I think that everyone deserves that right when the madness gets too much.

Mehmed leant back and sighed. Mary squeezed his hand. "Thanks," he said. "But it was a long time ago. These things are part of life, at least in this corners of the sky."

"Are they, now?" said Tsukiko. She seemed deep in thought. Mary and Mehmed shared a look as the older woman closed her eyes and sighed.

"You're all transfixed with what these stories meant to you, how they affected you. You want a ghost story? I'll give you one. But I'm not sure you'll like it."

The first thing you need to understand about the SCP Foundation is that they are psychopaths. It's not their fault; it's what happens when you get drawn into a system like that. We've all flirted with inhumanity at some point. It's what happens when you're immortal and have infinite research grants. And when your goals take no human considerations into account, you'll eventually reach the stage where you cannibalise your own.

This was two hundred years before I left them. I was about to exchange my body for a new one - some defects in the right foot were causing me aches and pains. So I volunteered for an experiment to raise a few extra funds. Bodies weren't cheap in those days.

The experiment was the kind of bizarre thing that the paraphysical department used to come up with. When every experiment you can do has been done a thousand times before, you end up going mad. And so they decided they wanted to see a ghost.

Ghosts are drawn to remote places, but it's hard to see them in the dark - perhaps that's the point. So the trick was to find a place that's both remote and visible. So I was taken to the ninth planet of al-Sakhra, a desert world at the far edge of the Eastern Arm - the general idea being the increased light needed would be compensated by increased remoteness. It was also rumoured to be haunted by numerous djinn, but I was assured that as men of science that did not factor into their equations.

In the centre of an outcropping of rocks and mesas, far from the nearest settlement, they built a square from four mirrors. For a month, I was to live there, watching and waiting. I was given rations, books, tools for a campfire - often essential, they said - and told to wander the stone alleys until I saw something. Cameras and other sensors lined the walls, but I was told the mirrors were the key thing - a natural lure for any haunting spirit. They had been positioned very carefully so that wherever I was, I could look into a one and see the ghosts reflected.

They flew away and left me there. It was lonely but pleasant work; good preparation for the Maw, in retrospect. I would spend my days reading, contemplating life, listening to the wind. The need for constant light meant that I was near the pole, stuck inside an endless day. I'd stare at the setting sun, trying to divine when setting became the rising one.

Then one day I saw something. In the corner of my eye there was a figure. Something indigenous to this world, perhaps? I didn't know, but I was elated. I padded through the alleys, staring into the mirrors, desperate to catch another glimpse.

I thought I saw it a dozen times. A being of fire, maybe, like the ifrits I was promised? It seemed to burn brighter and brighter with each glimpse. I would stare and flick my eyes across my vision but could never see it directly. I clambered over rocks, pounced around corners and leapt towards the mirrors in the hope of surprising it. But it was always there, just there, just out of reach. Always acting as the other.

The joy started to turn to fear. What this thing? Was I stalking it, or was it hunting me? I started to see footsteps in the sand, padding to and fro. Were they mine? They were thin, slender, but so were my feet. Carrion bats would flit above me, staring down and waiting.

I wondered if this was just another madness. Was I just projecting? The light of the sun was always shining down. Was I just simply seeing its reflection? Between the mirrors lay hallways of nature that had been here forever, jutting and rising from the ground. How could I, a frail foreigner, hope to perceive its secrets?

The mirrors circled me, and I'd find myself staring more and more into them. Was that my reflection? Was it someone else's? I saw all my past bodies lining up, laughing, mocking. All the things I had been were whispering, lounging, yawning, their grotesque faces slamming into mine each time I turned away. It was all me, just me, a four-walled echo chamber reverberating my own self a thousand times over.

I sank into a stupor that seemed to last an age. When I awoke the sun still shone down. I got up and started walking. Something was wrong, and I didn't know what it was. The stones seemed claustrophobic, the air oppressive and thick.

I raised a hand to shade the sun and it wasn't there. I looked down at my shadow and there was nothing there. I stared into a mirror and there was no reflection.

I screamed and no sound came out. I ran, panicked, through the stones, fell through one and out the other side. I fell to my knees to pray and started to sink into the sands. I turned around and the stones were gone. I looked down and the floor was just another mirror. Everywhere I looked, nothing was reflected back into nothing, except for the sun beating down overhead. Nothing was coming for me and it hungered. A ghost without a shade.

I fell, and kept falling, twisting myself into the light and into nothingness. Because that's what you two-

"-don't get. There are no ghosts without us."

Mary frowned. "But there must be. I saw marks in the sn-"

"Yes, you did. You wanted oblivion, Mary, even if you didn't know it. All your friends did. And so some sly predator emerged from the trees to give it to you, just like that."

Tsukiko closed her eyes. She rubbed the bridge of her nose. Mehmed had never seen her wear her age so much. "And you, you wanted a narrative. Your life was not what you had thought, so you and your coffeehouse dwellers created, together, a spirit to give you context. I do not know if ghosts are real, but what gave them shape was us. They're our own mirrors. And when you realise that, that all you are is the lies you tell, the mirrors reflect each other back and there's nothing in between."

Tsukiko stared at her hands. They'd been given to her centuries ago, after they'd found her naked and delirious on the desert surface. She still wasn't sure if it had been madness or not. Before these hands, there'd been other hands, and other hands, and dead hands, some right and some wrong, all the way down to that child in Japan. And she wasn't sure if that had ever been her.

There was silence, and this time no-one broke it.

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