First published in Dark Stars anthology
Dedicated to DayDogWalker, who's got me thinking about Saki and O'Henry
The crew of the Recursive Nightingale gathered in the mess hall. Someone had lined up the chairs so that they all faced the metal-glass window.
Cho, the ship's translator, poured out thimble-sized cups of his legendary shaojiu. "To toast the Recursive Nightingale's first passage through the Ghost Nebula," he explained, as he passed out the cups.
"Only astronauts from New State China will travel through the Ghost Nebula," said Jinkers, the ship's engineer. His unremarkable statement was given a glamour by the fact that he was the only member of the crew to have crossed the nebula. "Western ships fly light-years to avoid it." He chuckled. "Can you imagine? Why are they so afraid of spirits?"
In the Ghost Nebula sleeting particles of exotic dust flick a switch in the mind and make the unseen visible.
The crew laughed and began to tell each other extravagant stories of vengeful spirits and of crews driven mad by unreasonable visions.
"Of course, that was before they knew what to expect. Can you imagine that? Those first ships crossing the Ghost?" Jinkers enjoyed his role as Ghost expert.
"And before the policy of stasis," said Xing, the science technician.
"There it is," shouted Deshi, one of the ship's two cadets.
The Ghost Nebula hung like an eye in space. At the heart of the eye was the shrinking white dwarf radiating light and dust; the strange, ionized dust.
"It doesn't look like I expected it to look," said Deshi.
"What did you expect?" asked Jinkers.
"Perhaps you'll get a closer look tomorrow," said Xing.
Tomorrow, the crew would draw lots, to see who would remain conscious during the transport through the nebula.
When Jinkers started to tell his story about a husband and his seven dead wives, Deshi tapped Sung Li on the shoulder and pulled her into a corner, "Will you come to my cabin, tonight, Li? I've been saving my rations to fab a celebratory meal. Shrimp with green tealeaves is your favourite, isn't it? I think you mentioned that once. After all," Deshi turned his head and nodded towards the nebula, "it's a special occasion."
Sung Li was a member of the crew so silent that she was easy to overlook. Even her voice was a whisper, "Thank you, Deshi. That's so kind, but I have an appointment with the captain, tonight."
"The captain?" said Deshi so loudly that a few members of the crew turned around to stare at them.
Li thought she saw Jinkers winking at Xing.
"Why do you want to see Captain Feng?" asked Deshi, quietly.
"I have a request for him, Deshi. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow."
"Do I understand your request, Sung Li? You're volunteering for the Ghost Nebula shift?" Captain Feng was a charismatic man, an important quality for a ship's captain. It was a quality that was sadly lacking in Li. She knew that she will never progress much beyond her cadet's stripes.
The captain reminded Li of Uncle Jun who had lived with Li's mother for three years. Li had thought that he might stay with them forever. Uncle Ju was an easy-tempered man -- he had to be to live three years with Mother. He had always looked to Li to share his humour, but she never knew quite what to say to him. The few times she had tried to please him with some small joke, she felt that she had got the tone wrong. It was best to say little and be silent.
"You understand the nature of the Ghost Nebula, don't you?" asked Captain Feng.
"Why would you request such a thing?"
Li shrugged. Her reasons were impossible to explain.
If Captain Feng was disappointed by her silence, he didn't show it. He took in a long indrawn breath while he considered, "Well, you're a member of the crew, albeit a junior member. I have no right to deny this request.
"Thank you, sir."
"I thought you would've told me first," said Deshi. He'd heard the news from Jinkers. "I thought we were friends."
"We are friends, Deshi. I didn't want to say anything, beforehand, in case the captain refused. The news spread so quickly, before I had a chance to tell you. I'm sorry."
"Okay. Well, that's fine," said Deshi. Li watched him as he struggled to hide his disappointment. "You'll look after me when I'm asleep?"
"I will, Deshi."
The crew climbed into the stasis pods, laughing and making loud nervous jokes. Li wondered if they were reluctant to leave their safety in the hands of a cadet. Within a few minutes they had entered status sleep. Li checked the status readings and noted their baseline bio-signs. All was well. She lingered over Deshi's pod, watching him sleeping. She even says a few words to him, the things that she would never say when he was awake.
The uniform was laid out on her bunk. It had taken months of rations to fab it. It was hers to wear -- at least for a few days. Li dressed in the captain's uniform.
She had travelled far from the factory slums of Neo-Shanghai, rising like a leaping salmon from the swarms of her contemporaries. Li walked to the mess hall to watch the approaching Ghost Nebula. It would be soon. She smoothed down the captain's uniform, and she smiled.
Sung Li had travelled far. Sung Li had travelled a thousand light years from her childhood.
Sung Li was looking forward to seeing her mother. She has always known what to expect from Mother. Mother would be disappointed.
In a few hours Sung Li would greet her mother's ghost with silence-- comforting, familiar, defiant silence.
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