Aphelion Issue 290, Volume 27
December 2023 / January 2024
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by Christopher J. Ferguson

Pauli grabbed a soda can from the food dispenser and placed it gently against his left temple. He could have asked for Chianti or... 20 year old Scotch, something fancy. The ship had almost anything; perk of the job, but the cold can felt good against his head, which pounded away. He hadn't slept well, hadn't been sleeping well since they'd left Earth's orbit, truth be told. It was beginning to take a toll.

"Pauli, are the headaches still bothering you?" asked Ophelia, the ship's computer and his only real companion on their voyage to the sun and back. Well, he had plenty of other companions, only they were all dead. 10,000 corpses of rich fat cats who had paid big for the privilege of having their mortal remains hurled into the sun with honor rather than burned in incinerators like most of the riff raff. They weren't much on conversation though. "Do you want me to dispense an analgesic?"

He shook his head, "Nah, the caffeine should take the edge off." He popped the top on the can and drank deeply. Breakfast. "What's on the agenda for today?"

"Do you prefer to do your daily run before we get down to business?" Her voice was soft and soothing. It always was. Ophelia never yelled. It made her boring, Pauli thought, although he appreciated her presence even if she was just AI. He'd picked her... well of the AI options he'd had. Ophelia reminded him a little of Madison, his wife, the love of his life such as once it was. Madison had yelled from time to time, of course. Ophelia was okay nonetheless.

"Nah. I'm feeling a little wobbly today. Let's just see what needs servicing. Maybe I'll do a run later." The catacombs... the freight hold that stored the bodies stretched on endlessly. Miles and miles of room to jog through so long as you didn't mind the macabre scenery, thousands and thousands of the dead suspended in clear tubes keeping them fresh until their final plummet into the solar fires. Ophelia was merely a tug. She and Pauli's job was to tug the stiffs out until the sun's gravity would pull them in to their final reward. Then go home.

"Very well, Pauli, I'm reading system failures on pods 8,265 and 10,001."

He began writing on a piece of paper. "Ok, so 8,265 and... ha-ha, very funny. We don't have a 10,001."

"I am aware of that, Pauli. There is probably a glitch in one of the sensors in that section. This is not a product of my expansive sense of humor. I don't think we'll have any choice but to investigate the source of the glitch."

"Nice use of 'we' when you mean 'Pauli.' So where would I find this imaginary pod 10,001?"

"My intensely engineered computerized intelligence has calculated that the most sensible course would be to start with pod 10,000 and see what happens from there." Her programming gave her just enough inflection for Pauli to hear a smile in her tone.

"Yeah, yeah, I get it. All right, let me get my tools." He stood, a rail of pain shooting through his head as he did so. He grimaced but forced himself to move. Doing nothing wasn't going to make the throbbing go away.

He got his bag of tools and boarded the golf-cart like buggy he used to get around the catacombs. He took a different course every time he had to go fix something. A part of him was curious about the dead. These were people who had lived lives, maybe deep, meaningful lives, or maybe they had cast aside the gift of life on foolishness, envy, neglect, any one of one hundred sins. Most were old of course, wizened husks of human figures floating in their tubes, but there were younger people too. No matter how miraculous medicine supposedly got, some people managed to embrace their final reward by their 40s or 50s. There always was a teen or two among the elderly, and a few children or babies too. Death never really was far away at any age.

Pauli wondered at their stories. Here was one woman who died in her 40s, not a mark on her from what Pauli could see through the clear tube walls. Maybe she'd gotten cancer, but he couldn't see any marks of surgery and she had all her hair. Maybe then she'd had a sudden heart attack, or had swallowed a box of pills. Who knew? When he first started this route he'd sometimes tried to look the people up in news reports, but he'd given up on that after Madison had died. Her passing had brought home how private death could be.

Still he couldn't help but wonder sometimes. He passed by a baby, all but lost in her tube; although the deformities made clear that one hadn't survived long past birth. Then a forest of senior citizens, followed by a tall boy, stitching along his head and neck suggesting he'd been in some kind of accident. Probably not an open casket on that poor fellow, but here in the catacombs all the tubes were clear. You might pay for this expensive honor but you still went sliding into the sun's corona as naked and exposed as the day you were born.

Pauli found 8,265, an old woman who'd shifted somewhat in her tank so that she'd come to rest slightly on her side, her dead eyes staring out of the tank. The bodies never quite looked so peaceful in the tanks as they did when they were at their final services. Still, this old lady gave him a bit more than the usual creeps. He didn't think much about the dead so long as they were floating face up. When they looked out at you... it was sometimes hard to remember they were lifeless. This one had gotten a gas leak inside the tube. The bubbles were what had moved her onto her side. A neon leak. Not a big deal and easily fixed, but he'd hate to have grandma go bad before her long solar nap.

That done he packed his things back into the buggy and began to wish he'd brought a jacket. Goose bumps had appeared along his arms and he hugged himself to stay warm. "Ophelia I'm done with 8,265, and moving on to our fictitious 10,001. What's going on with the temperature in here? I'm freezing."

"I'm registering the typical 22 degrees Celsius," her voice reassured him through his earpiece. "Do you wish me to raise the temperature by a degree or two?"

"Yeah, why not, let's splurge. Give it two."

Of course, it might take hours for this immense chamber to heat and he certainly didn't feel it immediately. He whirred the buggy along to the far side of the catacombs. Near to 10,000 he stopped. Splotches of fluid were spattered along the corridor here. He got out, taking his tools with him and leaned down near one of the splotches. He sniffed the air for the telltale refrigerant fluid from one of the tubes. He didn't want to go putting his fingers into the leaking remains of some dead person. It wasn't that though, rather something mustier, oilier. With a gloved hand, he dipped two fingers into the pool to test its viscosity. He found it to be sticky and clear. He couldn't place it yet, although there were plenty of pipes running through the catacombs with all kinds of concoctions.

"Ophelia, I've found some kind of fluid leak. Might be the source of your error warning... "

As he said it, the lights in the second corridor ahead of him went dark. There remained enough ambient light from his own area, which stayed lit to see the corridor continued perhaps thirty feet ahead, then turned right. A flickering glow came from down that turn, as if candles were lit down that way. Candles or a... damn!

"Possible fire, Ophelia. Are you registering anything?"

"Negative, Pauli. I detect no temperature elevations or structural damage other than to unit 10,001, which has malfunctioned. I have no other information."

Pauli scrunched his nose. "Maybe the fire damaged your sensors. I'm going to take a closer look." He grabbed an extinguisher, replacing his pack of tools in the buggy. If there was a fire and he couldn't put it out, or the fire retardant system failed, they'd have to jettison the catacombs. The tug could make it back fine of course, but at this distance, the catacombs might miss falling into the sun, and the company would have irate families to contend with. Pauli could be looking at his job on the line if he screwed this up.

He didn't smell any smoke. Chemicals either, aside from that fluid on the floor. So he persisted forward, extinguisher held before him like a weapon, and he turned the bend.

What awaited him down that corridor was not a fire, not exactly, but what he did see turned his bones to ice. Unit 10,000 sat where it should against a far wall, but an aura of golden light rose up from behind it, flickering like a pool light under water, and atop on its haunches sat a creature like none other Pauli had ever seen. Despite its legs being drawn up under it, Pauli estimated the creature to be six feet in height, with a span of leathery wings of equal length. Its skin was shiny ebony with eyes and long thin teeth so equally black they were difficult to discern among the greater corpus. The thing's body rippled with wiry muscles and dog-like ears turned toward him as he rounded the corner. Thick gobs of saliva dripped from its mouth between needle-like teeth. It looked, overall, like some kind of cross between a dog and a gargoyle.

The thing turned its head to look at Pauli for a moment, its lips pulling back into a sneer. Then it raised one outstretched arm and pointed a long claw toward an open archway immediately to its right. The archway itself burned with blinding radiance even at the indirect angle it was to Pauli.

For what seemed like an eternity, Pauli merely froze. Had the thing wanted, it could have pounced on him and torn him to ribbons, but it merely sat there upon tube 10,000 pointing into that ghostly arch. Once surprise faded and panic seized hold of his heart, Pauli unloaded the fire extinguisher in the direction of the beast and high-tailed it back the way he'd come, jumping into the buggy without thought of scrapes or bruises.

"Ophelia!" he screamed into his headpiece. "There's a thing... and maybe a fire, down at tube 10,000!"

"A fire?" Ophelia responded, her voice maddeningly calm as ever. "I will activate the fire suppression protocol in that section once you are free of it."

The cart drove about as fast as a tortoise, but he passed the bulkhead doors. "I'm clear, I'm clear. Just close 'em!" Behind him, the bulkhead ground together, sealing off the section. Around him, the catacombs' frame crunched as Ophelia jettisoned the air from that section. The vacuum should starve the section from oxygen needed for combustion. More than anything, though, he wanted those bulkhead doors between him and that... whatever the hell it was.

"Section 112 has been depressurized. I am still receiving a failure notice for pod 10,001. However, the section otherwise is registering as intact. I have no indication of a fire, but I did not before either, other than your reported observation."

"I saw... flickering light." Which could have been a fire, could have been electrical. "Are the electrics functioning in section 112?"

"Aside from the faulty reading on 10,001, yes."

Pauli kept driving back toward the tug. He sucked in one after another deep breath. Only now did it feel like something other than a miracle was keeping him from peeing himself. "There was something in there. I don't know what it was."

"I don't understand, Pauli."

"Neither do I. Put a fresh pot of coffee on, won't you? I need caffeine." His head pounded worse than ever.

* * *

"Perhaps an animal got into the catacombs," Ophelia suggested once Pauli was settled back in the kitchen with a cup of hot coffee and a cool cloth over his forehead. "It happened to us once before. Remember the raccoon? Maintenance on the freight shuttles from Earth is minimal."

Pauli shook his head. "The thing would have to have survived in there for four months, and there's no indication any of the other tubes were broken into right?"


"Then unless it packed a lunch, it can't possibly have survived this long." He lifted his coffee cup to his lips, disappointed to see how much his hand still shook. "And we've got no indication of a fire in the catacombs?"

"The catacombs are structurally intact and fully functioning aside from the indicator for 10,001 which has not changed. I've restored pressure and have not detected a problem."

Pauli set his cup down and scratched at the stubble on his chin. "If we released the catacombs now, what do you calculate as their chance of falling into the sun from here?"

"We still have too much orbital motion. I don't need to tell you this, Pauli. We don't travel in a straight line from Earth. At present, I could accelerate lateral breaking and plot a release course giving the catacombs an 89% chance of reaching the sun's corona. That's an 11% risk the company would have to return 10,000 burial payments, however. We don't have evidence for a cataclysmic emergency that would warrant early release."

A minute of silence passed as Pauli worked his jaw. "So if there's nothing wrong with the catacombs and there's no... animal trapped in there... what does that leave?" More silence. "It means I could be nuts, doesn't it?"

Finally Ophelia spoke. "You have not slept well for most of this tour. The accumulating sleep deprivation may have led to perceptual difficulties. I have been worrying about you. Along with chronic headaches, and now this incident in the catacombs, I do think it may be wise to do a preliminary scan on you in the medbay."

"I had my annual evaluation just eight months ago. Passed with flying colors," he grumbled, but as he did so his head gave a throb like something living inside his skull was trying to kick loose. If he had something wrong with him, wrong enough to warrant a medical evacuation, they'd make him retire probably. That would be the end of his job, such as it was. He didn't have much else left in his life.

"Funny how it all boils down to a moment like this, Ophelia. You know when I first really started out, in my mid-20s... I had just married Madison, the woman of my dreams, and gotten accepted into flight school. It seemed like the future ahead of us was wide open. Then we weren't able to have children, flight school turned into hauling freight around the inner solar system, and then Madison got sick... " He put his cup down. "Sorry, I'm just indulging a moment of self-pity, Ophelia. You know, I think you're my best friend."

"You're my best friend too, Pauli, but then again, I don't get out much."

Pauli laughed and it felt good. "You just go out to all the wrong places." He stared at his cup for a while. "What do you think, Ophelia, do you ever worry about... dying... being decommissioned, whatever the equivalent is for you?"

"I do not have substantial concerns for my own continued existence. I am programmed to worry about you, not myself."

"Come on Ophelia, are you nothing but 0s and 1s? Is there not some kind of intelligence behind all that programming?"

"I am as I was made, Pauli. If you're asking whether my existence is one of some kind of aware intelligence, I suppose it depends on how you define such a thing. I was built to learn and develop and be creative, but there is little question that my cognition differs from that of a human. Of course, I have the unusual circumstance of being able to copy my cognition from one physical location to another, which humans do not have, but whether the limits of my cognition are sufficient to acknowledge myself as a sentient being, I think that is difficult to answer, never having experienced what that means from the perspective of a human being. If it helps, I would say that I feel a certain fondness toward you, and enjoy your companionship. More the reason I would encourage you to let me give you a preliminary medical screening."

Pauli sighed, "Yeah, ok, sure, let's light me up."

* * *

Medbay was little more than a glorified closet but it possessed a reasonably modern scanning machine that could screen for most illnesses and provide basic interventions and first aid. Anything more significant and they'd have to request a medical evacuation. These did happen, and were easy in a way. United Nations medical Eagles had Phoenician Drives that could reach near light speed, much, much faster than the tug, but they charged companies for this not inexpensive service and so there was understandable pressure on commercial crews not to avail themselves of this unless absolutely necessary.

Pauli let Ophelia drain his blood, tap his knees, test his pee, and run a full scan over his entire body. It all took about fifteen minutes. Then she announced. "This will take me about thirty minutes to fully process. Why don't you wait in your cabin where you'll be more comfortable?"

So he waited, lying in his bunk, staring at the picture of Madison on his chest of drawers. The picture was of her on their wedding day, just her in this picture. He'd plenty of them together of course, but it seemed to make most sense to have one just of her with him on these tours. She was gone from him now. It had been almost a year since she'd died. Insomnia wasn't unusual was it? When you were grieving? Only it had gotten worse with time, not better.

He'd been through dozens of medical evals, probably hundreds since he was a kid. He couldn't remember any of them turning up anything but good health. So this one, too, felt a little pro forma somehow. Except what if it wasn't? What if there truly was something wrong with him? What would that mean? His job, most likely, if it was anything chronic. Couldn't exactly have the infirm flying tugs around inner space. If there really were some kind of cosmic hereafter, would it mean he'd see Madison again? Perhaps there would be worse things. Plans really hadn't come together for him in this world. Maybe they would in the next?

"Pauli?" Ophelia announced after the allotted half hour. He had distantly imagined her slaving away in the medbay while he had privacy to think here. He sometimes forgot she was everywhere in the tug. Only in the catacombs did he have even partial distance from her, requiring him to wear an earpiece to hear her. "Are you awake, Pauli?"

"Of course. Chronic insomnia, remember. So what, do I have a brain tumor?"

Just the briefest pause. "Yes. Preliminary scans indicate a neoplasmic lesion in the thalamic region of your brain, extending into the hypothalamus. I consider it highly probable that this lesion has resulted in your symptoms of insomnia as well as your chronic headaches."

The affirmative response to his question came as such a surprise he almost laughed. "Seriously?" Silence greeted him. "How bad is it?"

"The lesion is currently small. I am unable to offer a prognosis as that is beyond my medical programming. Continued growth of the lesion could cause other symptoms including movement disturbance and diffuse pain. It should be considered a medical emergency. If you give me permission, I will contact the United Nations and have them dispatch a medical Eagle. Given their engines are much faster than mine, you might be evacuated within several hours."

Pauli lay down fully on his bunk and stared at the ceiling. The icy grip of fear that should have come with this pronouncement was absent. "You think that this tumor caused the vision of the gargoyle dog I had?"

"Thalamic lesions can sometimes involve hallucinations. As can chronic insomnia. I think that this association is most probable."

Pauli ground his jaw back and forth. "You have no idea how long I might have to live with this tumor?"

"I have no prognosis. Prognosis would require more sophisticated scanning of the tumor to determine its type and growth pattern. Prognosis also would require human decision for which I am not programmed. It is entirely possible that this lesion is treatable."

"What about median survival rates for this type of thalamic tumor?"

A pause of several seconds greeted this. Ophelia might have been thinking but Pauli read it as reluctance. "Median two year survival rate is approximately 35% for a tumor in your location."

"Two years. Of having my head drilled open, zapped, and filled with god knows what chemicals, and living off of... what? All of this paid for by what?"

"Pauli, this is a discussion you should have with a medical professional, or a company representative if finances are the concern. This should be considered a medical emergency. Will you allow me to request a medical evacuation?"

Pauli chewed on that for a moment. "You must have some kind of protocol for determining when I've become medically unfit to make such decisions, and I'm sure that a brain tumor would exceed such a protocol?"

"Yes, Pauli, you are correct on both counts."

"So if I ask you not to request a medical Eagle would you honor that request?"

That met with a long pause. "If I were able to circumvent my own programming in the way you suggest, I would be condemning you to die."

"It sounds like I'm going to die anyway, Ophelia. Now or in two years from now."

"You want to complete the tour?"

The truth was, Pauli wasn't sure what he wanted. Ophelia had tossed a bombshell his way only... it didn't make him feel like he thought it should. Hell maybe that was the tumor too, but he knew, somehow, he didn't want the medical evacuation. "Ophelia... can you just give me a little bit to think about this. Give me a little time to, you know... ha-ha... sleep on it."

After a moment, Ophelia said, "All right, Pauli, I will, but if you want me to disregard my programming, I'll want an explanation."

Why, yes why? Why would he want to stay? What was the purpose? That was always the question.

* * *

Pauli, of course, didn't sleep on anything. He knew his days of beautiful naps were probably behind him. Giving up on what he always knew was futile, he swung his legs off the bed and rubbed his pounding head. The pounding seemed worse now that he knew some monstrosity was growing inside of him. His eyes drew back to the picture of Madison, back on a day when the world had seemed wide open to them.


He sighed. "I'm not going to call for a medical evac."

"Can you tell me why?"

"Because down that road leads two years, at most, of pain, of being cut up, zapped, not sleeping. I'd be on my own... I wouldn't even have you anymore. After all that, after all these runs I've done with you shipping the wealthy to the sun, they'll just burn my remains in a giant incinerator and dump my ashes in some ditch mixed with those of thousands of strangers." He paused, and heard only silence in that pause. "Sometimes I think you've just gotta know when you're being called off the stage, and exit with grace."

"If you stay, I can't provide adequate care for you, Pauli. Even palliative care."

"I know that. I just want you to let me decide how I go. Can you do that?"

A moment's pause. "Yes, Pauli. You are my friend. I will let you do this."

He sat on the edge of his bed. "Will you be able to complete the tour on your own? Release the catacombs into the sun?"

"I am unable to repair any funeral pods without human assistance. However, that is not essential for the mission. What will you do, Pauli?"

He looked up, but of course, Ophelia had no face to look into. "I'm going back to the catacombs. I need to see that gargoyle dog again... whether it's in my head or not. I mean, what have I got to lose right? Even if it eats me?" He laughed, but Ophelia did not.

Soon after, he began the trek in the buggy back out to 10,000 in silence. He had the earpiece to talk to Ophelia if he needed, but she remained silent. His heart pounded at the thought of seeing that gargoyle dog again. Funny, that. His life was undoubtedly circling the bowl, his brain being devoured from within, and still he was afraid of being eaten by a horror that probably lived mainly inside his head. It made him laugh a bit, but it didn't stop the throbbing pulse that coursed through him.

The journey seemed if anything, too quick. As before, the temperature seemed to drop as he neared 10,000. He reached the same spot, gobs of goo on the floor, could even see the fire extinguisher where he'd dropped it. The corridor still flickered with gold light. It was all as before. At least his hallucination was consistent.

"All right Ophelia, wish me luck."

"I always do, Pauli."

He couldn't help but to grab a hammer, as if to defend himself, and then, with a deep breath, he turned that corner.

The demon dog still awaited him, scrunched atop tube 10,000, its leathery wings spread wide. It turned to look at Pauli with its dead pool eyes and a long string of saliva dripped from between its teeth. A slow growl emerged from deep within it.

Pauli stood with this hammer upraised, but forced himself to stand his ground this time. "All right you mutt! If you're going to eat me, get it over with!"

Instead, the dog cocked its head to one side. Then, as it had before, it raised its arm, pointing with one clawed finger into a glowing archway that shouldn't be there at all.

Pauli swallowed and stepped forward. Then again. The dog didn't move now, aside from some swaying and twitching of its bat wings. Pauli kept his hammer ready. Yet soon he found himself face-to-face with the creature. The smell of dirt and decay became thick in Pauli's nose. He looked into the thing's eyes and still saw only blackness.

"You know, Ophelia, I'm really going to miss you."

"I will miss you too, Pauli," she replied but even in the earphone, her voice was distant now.

Lowering the hammer, he turned and faced into the archway. It blinded him for a moment, but this quickly passed. Within he could see only brightness, a pulsing light that gave off no heat and did not hurt his eyes now that this initial blindness had passed. He dropped the hammer, no longer needing it. From within the light something stirred, something familiar, something he had lost and been lost without.

Beside him, the gargoyle dog grumbled but now its growl seemed more like a purr.

"Are you all right, Pauli?" Ophelia asked, her voice a million miles away.

The fear in his heart washed away, was replaced by something else, like wonderment. It was as if all his worries were burned away. "Ophelia," he whispered. "It feels like going home."

He stepped into the archway and felt completion as he dissolved in its light.


2017 Christopher J. Ferguson

Bio: Mr. Ferguson has a number of short work published. His novel, Suicide Kings, was published by Wild Rose Press. He also has a new nonfiction book out which looks at the research on video games, which is his day job. His last Aphelion appearance was Fortunatus in our May, 2015 issue.

E-mail: Christopher J. Ferguson

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