Touched, Part Two

 by Tom Jolly



We were dead and flying to Europa. I tried to put Henri Lavoisier, the Martian Tour Guide, out of my mind, but there was still something there that bugged me.

Good to Martha’s word, the trip took less than a half-hour, at least as far as my subjective time was concerned. Along the way, I found out her name was Martha Appleheart. She died on April 27th, 1852, and remembered watching her own burial. She still visited her gravestone on occasion. Her husband remarried twice, so when he died, their reunion was a little strained. When his third wife finally died, he hung around with her ghost until they both faded away, satisfied with being together, but with no desire to live any longer. Martha flitted off to explore the solar system, more interested in the science of the ghost world than the weight of past relationships. She knew she was fading, though. Each day, the world just seemed to go on and on, and even though she made new discoveries nearly every week, just the infinite parade of strange things became monotonous. Essentially, it was just a matter of viewing new packaging on old, repeated themes. And with no goal and minimum physical interaction, how was it different from thumbing through an infinitely large book of photos?

And then we arrived at Europa. The light from the sun was much dimmer, but the reflected light from Jupiter made up for it. Likewise, our ghost light had dimmed. We stood on a broken plain of ice, with giant blue, white, and brown shards jutting up in jagged disarray around us, like a Tokyo skyline beat down by Godzilla. The orange-red swirls on Jupiter above us reflected their ruddy colors from the glistening curtains of ice surrounding us, shadows overlaid like multiple exposures with the white-lit ice from the sun. I caught my breath, then remembered that there was no breath to catch.

I can’t believe I’m here!

She gave a bored shrug. “The creatures and some of their ghosts swim many miles below. We must pass through the ice to reach them.”

Isn’t it a bit dark down there?”

The ghost light that illuminates us now passes through the real ice without dimming. We will not be able to see the living animals in the darkness, but you can see the many ghosts they left behind. They will glow in the darkness like lamps. Come.” She held out her hand. I reached to take it, and they passed through each other. She laughed at me teasingly, then plunged down into the ice. At least she had a sense of humor.

I followed close behind. It was hard to see her at first through the bright ice, but as we went miles lower, the ambient light faded away, and the two of us glowed with our own pastel luminescence as we flew. We eventually passed through a barrier into the dark ocean below, which I vaguely sensed more than saw. Around us, I could see the ghosts of dozens of other swimming creatures, none of them earthly. A few that I might describe as jellyfish, but tubular, jetting along as a muscular contraction traveled down their bodies, unaware that they were blindly repeating the action from life without any actual fluid to push. Insectoid stick-like creatures crawled across the underside of the shelf of ice, demarking where it met the dark ocean, looking for smaller things in the crust that they might eat, though there was no way for them to finish that act. Their bodies glowed with a soft blue ghost-glow. The one I examined had no eyes, only a bulbous nodule on the front of its tiny carapace buried among a dozen legs.

And what might be called fish swam in this hidden ocean. Some parallel evolution was inevitable, I suppose; the streamlined bodies and fins, a variety of sizes and dull colors, or clear skins with the internal organs displayed like a medical drawing; without any light down here, there was little evolutionary pressure towards pigmentation. Membrane-like filters hung down along the sides of their bodies, possibly for sifting food from the water, or for a heightened sense of smell. There was no lack of teeth and large mouths, and rows of sharp spikes and thorny ridges adorned many of their backs for protection. Like Earthly fauna, they evolved to eat one another. It was strangely quiet, and none of the ghost fish seemed to be in any hurry to hunt the others.

She was grinning at me, waiting for something. “How do the living fish hunt?” I asked. Then, she laughed again.

There must have been a thousand ghost fish within range of my voice, and they all suddenly darted for my position, jaws gnashing away wildly as they tried to get a piece of me. I hate to admit it, but I screamed, and that just brought a larger host to bear, including one swimmer the size of a bus. Skeletons, innards, skins, dim colors, mysterious organs, every ghost overlapped in a flashing orgy of unsated feasting, their bodies all passing through me and one another with no effect. The noise of their cries and calls, moans and stuttering shrieks, pummeled my dead ears with its cacophonous roar. Above all those horrid noises, I could still hear the light tinkle of Martha’s laugh, like a sprinkle of powdered sugar on a loaf of bread. I moved my self away from the center of the chaos, watching the overlapping patterns of the tenuous glowing vapors as they mixed their bodies together, trying to get the ever-elusive bite. The storm of kaleidoscopic shifting colors was indescribable. Some of the creatures instinctively ran away from the sounds of larger predators, sneaking up into the solid ice, though that was no real refuge for them. After a good ten minutes, only the largest predators were left, sweeping back and forth, searching anxiously for the source of the noise that promised them food.

Martha joined me at my side. I mouthed out the word, “Wow”. She just smiled and nodded, and we just watched the strange luminous show in silence for a time. While we watched, I experimented with the segmentation of my ghost body like Martha had done on the Moon, creating a ball in one hand, tossing it to the other, and back. Martha laughed in delight, the way you would laugh at a child learning to walk, vicariously taking pleasure in each exploratory step. I could see the ball appear from the ghost-flesh of my hand, but I couldn’t feel it. It would pass to my other hand without impact, sitting there like a bulbous growth, part of my body. I tossed the ball a little away from me, and it drifted away, velocity unchanging. I moved forward and absorbed it. The third time I did this, an Earth dolphin appeared like a bullet from nowhere and snatched the ball out of the water, spun around and made a kak-kak-kak sound at me. The local wildlife chased after the sound, but the dolphin had already moved away from the epicenter of futile chewing, apparently as amused by it as Martha had been. My ball was gone. I looked over at Martha and she smiled and shrugged. The dolphin had absorbed it somehow and stolen a little bit of my body mass. Cute. I frowned at first, a little irritated. It was a cheap lesson on letting my body mass get away from me. What happened if I gave it all away?

I held my hand out and wiggled my fingers, a silent indication that I expected the dolphin to toss it back. I didn’t really think this would work, but I had to try. I wasn’t quite ready to start giving up my plasm.

A ball seemed to magically appear in its mouth. It tossed the ball back to me and waited expectantly. The ball hit me and became part of my mass. I created another ball and threw it, watching the dolphin dart unnecessarily around the other ghost-fish to snag the ball and return it to me. After five minutes of this play, it returned the ball and drifted close to me, peering at me with one of its eyes, as though memorizing me. It gave me a parting kak-kak-kak, resulting in another feeding frenzy from the locals, and then it darted away.

Martha finally pointed upward, and we passed yet again through the ice to the surface of Europa above.

You have a disturbing sense of humor,” I said, thinking of her morbid mirth when I triggered the first ghost-attack with my voice.

One must take advantage of death’s little pleasures where one can. Look!” Martha said, and pointed. I was on edge a little, wondering if she had a few more practical jokes lined up for me, but she was pointing at a massive geyser a mile away as it spewed into the cold, thin air. The column of water must have been hundreds of feet high, jetting up out of a monstrous crevice between two huge plates of ice. We flew over close to where the water settled onto the landscape, rounding out the sharp edges, crystalizing into snow and lacy ice as we watched. One sightless gray fish flopped around near the perimeter for a few seconds then died. Its gray body seemed to have less life in it than the ghost fish we saw glowing below, but a few moments later, its own small blue ghost squirmed away from the corpse and swam down into the ice, trying to return to its ocean.

Being a ghost wasn’t a bad thing, I was beginning to think. After a couple of hundred years, I might change my mind, but for right now, it seemed pretty awesome.

That wouldn’t last long.

The whole lack-of-touch thing would get old quickly, or might even drive me insane after awhile. There were some mysteries there to solve. Maybe if I chatted with some dead physicist, Bohr, Feynman, or Einstein, I’d find out that they’d applied their vast intellects to ghost-physics and all the answers would be laid out for me. Not that they’d have anything upon which to print their conclusions. You could only ask them questions in person, one ghost at a time, until they were so pestered by questions that they would go into hiding.

Maybe not the best idea.

Still, I could see that quality-of-death for a ghost could easily hinge on the lack of touch or taste, even though I could be the ultimate universal tourist, flitting idly from planet to planet. What had I learned so far? We could just barely interface with real matter, our bodies little more than faint puffs of air to the living world. Gravity seemed to have no effect on us that I could see. Willpower provided the force with which to move my incorporeal self from place to place. What sort of matter acted like that? Nothing dreamt of in my philosophy. And our consciousness as ghosts seemed to dictate whether another ghost could absorb our own ghost matter; free-floating matter was fair game for any passing ghost.

When I started bombarding Martha with questions, she said, “You need to return to Berkeley with me and speak with the scientists there. And I need to let them know of my plans to visit Mars! Do you have some other place you need to be?”

Mom and Dad. It had been over a day since I’d seen them, and Dad might have planned a funeral by now. It might seem silly, but I didn’t want to miss my own funeral.

I need to see my Dad. He probably has my funeral scheduled.”

Martha smiled sadly at me, reaching out with a hand, but dropping it before I accidentally tried to take it. “It will be painful, you know. Come see me at Berkeley when you are done.”

***

It didn’t take terribly long to return to Earth. About forty hours had passed and it was early morning at my Dad’s house. Mom’s ghost was there, and she told me that my Dad was despondent, but staying busy and distracted with the arrangements, notifications, and dealing with my possessions. A lot of my stuff went to Good Will. He’d already made funeral arrangements, and decided on a family plot and conventional funeral versus cremation and a wake. It was to be held in two days, at 3:00PM. My lack of a cell phone or clock or calendar was a little irritating, but I guessed I wouldn’t be needing that very often in the near future.

A brief chat with my Mom, and I flew off to Berkeley, to find my...to find Martha. Not my girlfriend, I mean, how could she be? We couldn’t even touch.

I flew into Berkeley late morning after having spent the whole night exploring the solar system. After searching the campus for a while, asking some wandering raggedy ghost for directions, I dropped in on a ghost who took the appearance of an old man in a lab coat. He was carefully observing a ball of disconnected ghost mass, but not taking any notes. I stood quietly to the side, watching as the ball slowly rose from its current position while the scientist counted out seconds from a real-world clock. He sighed and reabsorbed the ball of ghost-mass before it passed through the ceiling, then turned to me. His examined me curiously and said, “Can I help you?”

Hi, uh, Doctor? My name is Jeremy. I’m a friend of Martha’s. Do you know her?”

The old ghost sketched a tiny bow, “I’m Doctor Grossman. Yes, of course I know her. She’s always poking her nose into our experiments. What I was just working on, for example,” he waved a hand at the air, since there was no instrumentation to look at. I must have accidentally looked interested, or he just wanted to talk. “Lacking any sort of physical tools, it’s rather hard to make any kind of accurate measurements. Ghost-mass, unaffected by gravity and left on its own, will go in a straight line, ignoring the rotation of the Earth and its orbit around the sun. Very Newtonian. As the Earth rotates, dropping away from the object, the object appears to rise and accelerate away from you. My observations are meant to determine if there is any effect at all from local gravity. This also explains why there are no permanent structures made out of ghost-stuff, as they would just fly away, unbound by gravity. Not that it would matter; some monstrous beast would just absorb them anyway.” He grumbled humorlessly. “Since there is some minor interaction between ghost mass and living mass, albeit extremely tenuous, my hypothesis is that there will be a corresponding minor gravitational effect. It isn’t panning out very well, I must admit. And even if it did, it’s not like I can write down my test results.” He shook his shaggy head.

I have a couple of questions, if you don’t mind.”

He shrugged, then tilted his head to me. “Of course. Enlighten me with your questions.”

Martha told me that on Jupiter, the critters there are genetically unable to create ghosts. On Earth, we can’t touch each other at all, or steal mass except for what’s volunteered. On Mars, the ghosts there can absorb, or eat, other ghosts without their permission. Is all that correct?”

Dr. Grossman nodded. “It’s what I’ve come to understand.”

So how do the creatures on Mars consume other ghosts? Have the scientists here done tests?”

Seriously? We’ve had five scientists go to Mars and not a single one has returned. Nobody wants to go there to do any tests any more. And what test would you do? Put yourself in front of a monster and see how long it takes you to die again? You have to remember, my boy, that in this form you are essentially immortal if you are careful. A ninety-year old human or cancer-ridden man might throw his life away on a whim or noble gesture, knowing he has only a few years left to live, but when there are hundreds of years before you and an infinity of planets and a new existence to explore, well, that kind of changes your perspective on things. Even more so as a scientist.”

I tensed. If Martha heard all this, perhaps she’d have second thoughts about Henri’s offer. “Have you discussed this with Martha?”

She went off with some salesman about a half hour ago,” he grumbled. “Didn’t say where, just that she was off to make some great discovery. She’s always talking like that.”

A chill ran down my ghost-spine. I knew I shouldn’t be able to feel it, but there it was. Psychological, perhaps. “Was the salesman carrying a cane? And an old hat?”

A cane and a bowler, yes. And a whip. You know him, then?”

A few things about the man still troubled me. I ransacked my memory. The curious coincidence that he’d met us on the Moon; had he followed me there, after seeing me outside the atmosphere? There was the coincidence of his familiarity with Mars combined with Martha’s need to protect her descendants and her desire to learn more about Mars. Had he already known of her interest in Mars? Was he just setting a hook? And what else? My eyes lit up. “The whip!” I said out loud. Dr. Grossman raised his eyebrows. “His cane, I could see it was an extension of his arm. It was just part of his ghost-body. But he put his hand on the whip like it was a real thing. He touched it, I could see it.”

Dr. Grossman frowned. “Impossible. How could that be?”

Before he finished his sentence, I was on my way to Mars. Something was very, very wrong.

***

I had some time to think as I flew. So Martian monsters can eat ghosts. Whatever genetic evolution they had while alive followed them into death and made them different. Life patterns affected death patterns, and how they interacted. Strange. Did the Martian monsters, so long dead, absorb us like I’d absorb the ball? Or did they actually eat us, shredding our ethereal bodies. Because that would suggest a totally different sort of interaction. That would imply that they could grab and hold us. That they could touch us.

Like Henri could touch his whip.

Was it possible that the whip was made of monster hide? Could we touch them as they could touch us? Or had Henri come up with some technique to make his own ghost-mass solid?

The trip to Mars was brief. From what little I knew of interplanetary distances, I had to be going a major fraction of light-speed. Meaningless if I could go to another star in the same amount of time, but still interesting.

In transit, I toyed with the mass-separation trick that Henri had displayed when using his whip, and I tossed my ball hand to hand, trying to change the density of it without any success. Did ghost-mass have momentum? It also occurred to me that we weren’t actually using vocal cords to talk; that would imply an internal touching, vocal cords vibrating in a physical throat. If there was no physical vibration, if one ghost atom couldn’t move the adjacent ghost atom in a ghost body, then the atoms would all pass through each other and we would exist momentarily as incohesive clouds of atomic gas dispersing into infinity the minute we died. Somehow our minds kept it all together, allowed it to change shape, allowed it to vibrate the ghost-gas that sent sound through the ether. There was just no sense of being together.

Or it could just be some weird afterlife thing that didn’t obey any rules. Something totally different from the atomic structures I was taught about in school. It wouldn’t surprise me if dead scientists just evaporated from frustration after a few years of this madness.

Mars came into view and quickly swelled to fill the sky before me. I came to a stop near Phobos, hovering there and wondering where the hell to start. I mean, there was a whole planet to search. Martha could be anywhere. I shouted out, “Martha! Henri!” I didn’t really expect any sort of an answer, but I also didn’t know how sound attenuation would work in the ghost world. Perhaps they could hear me a hundred miles away. Maybe they had to be within sight to pass sounds back and forth.

After a minute of hovering, I got the brilliant idea of making myself huge. Even with limited ghost-mass, I could create a hollow shell that still looked like me, but a thousand times larger. I swelled up bigger and bigger until I challenged the nearby mass of Phobos with my gargantuan self. “Martha!” I shouted. “Henri!” My shouts weren’t any louder than before, which disappointed me, but I did see a ghost flit by, appearing, disappearing, then appearing again, almost like it was teleporting.

It stopped and stared at me. Not Martha or Henri. It approached cautiously, and I shrank back to normal size.

It was another woman, dressed in white, like a wedding dress, but more casual. She stopped in front of me. “I thought you were some new monster that had consumed a million other ghosts. Some new eater that Henri had trained and sent to space.”

Henri? You know him?”

The evil bastard was my husband. I was the fourth wife that he killed before he was captured and hung. What do you know of him?”

She must have read the panic on my face. “I have a friend...he brought her to Mars to show her the eaters...said she’d be safe.”

The woman snorted. “He has his own mission. When he was alive, it was purging the world of sinning women. In death, he sees himself with an eternal mission to send ghosts beyond the limbo of their existence to their eternal rewards. He just likes the killing. He lures unsuspecting ghosts here to ‘view the monsters’ when he is the greatest monster himself. Then he feeds them to the eaters, and they cease to exist. I stay in orbit around Mars to keep the unwary away, and warn them of the true monster, Henri.”

My whole frame twitched. How could she not see my agitation? “Where is he now?”

She pointed. “There is a place where the monsters congregate, though no one knows why. Do you see that row of three giant mountains? He will be on the upper side of the center one, near those two smaller craters.”

Near Pavonis Mons,” I said.

I have heard it called that before,” she replied. “You could go there, but I don’t see how you could help, now. He is skilled at what he does.”

Without a word of thanks or acknowledgement, I flew away like a bullet toward the volcanic mountain until I was less than a mile above the terrain. Sweeping back and forth, I looked for the bright splash of green clothing against the red terrain.

I didn’t find Martha’s green petticoat. But Henri came into view, struggling with his whip. At the far end of the whip was a black spiky ball with a head sticking out of it, the whip wrapped around its pink neck. Snapping at the large spiked ball was a thing out of my nightmares, like a giant insect. Nearly twenty feet long, six sharp chitinous legs, crystalline eyes, drooling mandibles, and a gelatinous abdomen dragging behind it. It ignored Henri, but if his ex was right, he might have trained the monster with the whip. If it could eat ghosts, it could feel the sting of the whip.

So what was the black spikey ball?

I flew closer. “Martha!” I shouted.

Jeremy!” the head in the spike-ball shouted. “Fly away, save yourself!”

Henri glared up at me, his face twisted in anger, and jerked backward on his whip. The whip handle was twisted around his arm like a giant vein. Martha, who had apparently transformed herself into a highly difficult-to-eat spikey form, fought against the whip’s grasp. She leapt into the air and Henri dragged her back down. Broken black spikes from her ghost-body littered the landscape as the monster snapped at her.

The whip. It all boiled down to that clue.

The whip had to be treated some way so that it could interact with ghost matter; that was the only way it could be restraining Martha. The only other thing here that could do that was the monster trying to eat her. The beast’s own fluids or skin had somehow been applied to the whip so that it could entangle other ghosts. He was using the monster’s own fluids to help capture Martha. But if the monster could touch us, we could also touch the monster.

They could be killed.

Now, it was just a matter of timing. I elevated over ten miles in a matter of seconds, created a ball of plasm from my body, aimed and accelerated toward the monster at nearly twenty miles a second, the best speed I could muster given the distance. I released my home-grown cannon ball from my body a fraction of a second before impact, veering to the side to avoid splattering my body upon the vile Martian creature. The ball struck home on the monster’s thorax and the entire thing exploded in a blast of pale, clear slime, hard plates, and bug guts.

I had feared that mass and momentum would fail me in the ghost world. I got lucky.

Henri and Martha were both knocked back from the explosion of entrails. Both were covered in bug bits and slime. Henri struggled to sit up, his whip lying loose on the ground. I flew down and retrieved my bowling-ball-of-death. He crawled toward his whip, the slime appearing to slow him down considerably, shouting at me, “I will see you die!”

Well, that kind of settled some qualms I had. This guy was a serial murderer in the real world and the ghost world, and he had nearly killed Martha. Plus, he’d just threatened to kill me, and I’d already died once this week. God knew what damage he would do if he were allowed to leave this place. I looked down at the ball; yes, I could feel the hard surface of the slime-coated thing, my fingertips tingling with the touch, and I accelerated the short distance between us, perhaps going no faster that a few hundred feet per second, and the ball, suddenly isolated from my own mass by the monster’s slime, slipped forward as I came to a sudden stop, carrying its ghostly momentum yet again into the chest of Henri.

Henri died. It was strange to watch, since, unlike the Martian, his ghostly essence turned to a vaporous gas as he exploded, and there was no gore to ponder. I stared into a dispersing gas cloud, satisfied that he was finally gone. I turned back to the scattered remnants of the monster behind me.

Martha was retracting black spikes into her own body, struggling to get up from the weight of alien slime. I walked over to her and held my slime-coated hand out and she took it without thinking. Then she stopped. Her mouth opened in a silent “o” and she squeezed my hand hard, pulling herself up slowly. She put one hand against my chest, then the other, and stood there looking me in the eyes. I put my hand on her face and she sighed, leaning into me. Touching. Feeling.

A hundred and fifty years,” she said softly. She took a finger full of that clear, disgusting slime, applied it like lip gloss to her lips, and kissed me deeply. Just as well that I still couldn’t taste anything. Her kiss was slow and wonderful.

We didn’t linger on Mars; there were undoubtedly still hungry monsters about. But we did gather up a bunch of the monster slime and some of the hard plates from its exoskeleton, even though both of us were a bit physically distracted by now. Ghosts have some sensations that I hadn’t expected to carry over from the living world.

Monster slime! I hoped there were a lot of those beasties left, because we intended to start a business selling the stuff. A vial of vile Martian monster slime might become the unit of currency for Earthly ghosts. Ghosts could touch other ghosts. Ghosts could build using ghost-mass. Ghosts could create unique objects, separate from themselves. Ghosts could buy stuff. In that one moment of fate, we’d potentially created an industrial revolution for the ghost world. Ghosts that were slowly fading away suddenly could find new reasons to live. Tools could be created to expand our knowledge and understand our environment better. Paper could be invented. Everything had changed.

Martha and I were rich, in ghost terms, and it was a fortuitous chance of fate that we really enjoyed one another’s company. I could hunt the monsters on occasion, though they would likely be extinct in fairly short order, taken down by other phantasmal fortune-seekers, and competition for the few remaining resources would eventually make other ghosts more dangerous than the monsters themselves. Hopefully we could find another source during that time, or figure out a way to re-seed any extant bacterial life remaining on Mars to make more creatures that shared the same genetic heritage.

Around Mars, I eventually located two of Henri’s ex-wives, the other two having been fed to the Martian monsters decades before. They were elated that Henri met the fate he deserved, and looked forward to a long-overdue vacation.

As for Martha and me? Well, I heard that the planet Gliese 667 has some unusual sights to see, so I intend to pop on over there in the next few days, maybe visit the galactic core next month to see what wonders await us there. The introduction of star maps printed on Martian Bug SlimeTM paper has made it fairly easy for wandering ghosts to find their way home. Death, such as it is, has a lot to offer, and there’s a big universe out there waiting for us.



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