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
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
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
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
"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 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
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
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
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
"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,
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
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.