Chapter 3: Ghosts
If there was one thing I learned about *Hyun-ae the first day I spent on the Mugunghwa it was that she was absolutely relentless. Instead of talking to someone who was curious about the ways of the world, it felt more like I was being interrogated. When I got done cleaning myself up a little she lead me to one of the many rooms on the ship. It was a small place, and she said something about it being an unused peasant block, but I wasn't paying much attention at the time. The bed was unused, and there were no sheets or anything, but after wiping some dust off it I decided that anything was better than sleeping in the pilot's seat of Thalium's ship. It looked comfortable, but in reality it was really stiff.
I sat down on the bed and let out a sigh. It had been a long day, and I really needed to relax.
"Sorry about this," said *Hyun-ae over the PA. "It's safer to stay in an unused room. Who knows what kind of mites are lurking in other places. That and there's a lot of skeletons around."
I balked at the thought of tripping over a skeleton, but so far I hadn't seen any. Strange, that.
She continued, "There's not even a monitor in here, so I guess you'll just have to put up with my voice. Can I ask you more questions? I've got a lot."
I nodded absent-mindedly and laid on the bed, putting my hands behind my head. "Shoot."
"What's Earth like?"
I sighed, "That's a pretty broad question. You'll have to be more specific than that."
"Okay... um, do women have jobs."
"They generally avoid the more physically demanding fields, but yes they have jobs. I take it that wasn't allowed on the Mugunghwa?"
"No, it wasn't. Okay then, have you always done jobs like this?"
"No, this is an exception."
"What do you normally do?"
"A few years ago I worked with AI constructs, like you."
"So you know how I work."
"... What happened a few years ago?"
I tossed it around in my head for a minute, considering whether or not I should tell her. Eventually I remembered that trust is a two way street. I'd just finished giving her a lecture on hiding things from me, and it wouldn't be fair to start omitting facts from my own story. "My wife died."
"Who was she?"
"Her name was *Cami. She was an AI."
"Is that... unusual?"
"In my opinion? No. Different people tend to have different opinions. Even after the Construct Rights Act there was still a stigma surrounding relationships between humans and AIs. When I started getting interested in *Cami I decided to do some research. The first recorded case of Artificial Constructs was back in the nineteen-eighties, when the internet was just getting started. Somehow, written programs were gaining intelligence, hell, even consciences all on their own. Eventually this process was streamlined, but there had to be laws implemented. People couldn't just go around writing AIs as they pleased. It's basically giving birth to a digitized human. They won't bleed, but they feel, they do good and evil things, just like us."
"I see." Once again, her voice had a hushed tone in it, almost as if she were remembering something terrible.
In time I would learn what she was so reluctant to tell me, but for now it was enough to have her company. Even though I had just met her, space was a lonely place.
Loneliness could drive people mad.
When I dreamt it was usually hard to remember what exactly I was doing in my own head upon waking up. That morning, though? That morning I remembered very vividly. I remembered seeing my old apartment complex. I remembered putting the key in my door and swinging it open. I remembered hanging my coat up and shivering from the leftover winter air I had brought in. "We're making some real breakthroughs," I said as I shut the door behind myself.
It was a day like any other.
At least until I realized that there was no response to what I had said.
It took me a minute to realize I was still on the Mugunghwa. It was mostly a relief when I did.
"Good morning," said *Hyun-ae through the PA, "Would you like your eggs scrambled or sunny side up?"
I laughed, "Yeah sure, if you had the hands to cook it. I'll get some astronaut breakfast from my ship and we'll head to the security room."
"Jeez, you're just all work and no play, aren't you?"
"Dunno about you, but I wanna leave this place as soon as I can." I swung my feet over the edge of the bed and stood up with a yawn.
"Well, I suppose it can be forgiven, then. You remember how to get to the security room?"
"Yep, I'll be fine."
"Ugh, too bad I can't join you for breakfast. Eggs sound really good right now."
"How would you know what eggs taste like?"
"Would you get mad at me if I told you you'll find out eventually?"
"... No. Thanks for not hiding anything, I was starting to worry what I said went in one ear and out the other."
"You're the first person I've seen in hundreds of years. I need to listen to you. It... it makes me feel better."
It was hard not to feel pity for her, it really was.
The security room was just as we left it, reflecting the fact that the Mugunghwa was long abandoned. It was easy to forget where I was when I was with *Hyun-ae. "So where are we going to start today?" I asked.
*Hyun-ae's face popped up on the same security screen it was on the day before, still with that smile, "Same place as yesterday."
With a bit of reluctance I sat in the chair and put the helmet on my head. Much the same as before, the darkness and the falling feeling I had returned, as well as the white space with no edges. This time *Hyun-ae greeted me right when I entered the space, waving and smiling. "Let's get started," she said proudly, clapping her hands to open the holo screen. With a few flicks of her wrist, the world around us began to build. "October 30th, 316, Kim Yeong-Seok's new residence. Yeong-seok was adopted into the main branch of the Kim family on October 29th in order to allow more room for growth in the Kim family. It was a pretty bold move for the Kim family, who were next to worthless in the Emperor's eyes."
Again I found myself in one of the ship's many rooms. This one was lightly decorated. It was easy to tell that whoever lived here was not very wealthy. However, when the area fully formed there were two people there. One of them was a proud looking middle aged man, and the other was a young buck, both were dressed to a tee in extravagant formal wear, and the way they carried themselves screamed that they had money.
"The guy your age is Yeong-seok, and the older one is his new father, Kim Jung-su. The adoption was triggered by the son of the main branch dying, as well as Yeong-seok's father. Heirs were often objectified and put into roles that they couldn't refuse. Everybody was disposable income on this ship."
I didn't say it was horrible. I didn't have to, it was a given. People put into roles they couldn't back out of, no freedom of choice. It seemed like men had command over women, but that was simply an illusory freedom when they were the ones working their asses off to support this corrupt society. "How did people live like this?"
"Life is important," she said softly. "Even if life is horrible, people are afraid of dying."
With that final word the events in front of us began to play out.
"I'd like to personally welcome you to the main branch of the Kim family," said the father.
Jung-su looked like he carried himself with an unspoken dignity. It reminded me of my own father, but there was something off about it. It looked stiff, like he was doing it out of obligation rather than any actual pride or masculinity.
"This is strange," I muttered, "Both parents should be here."
"Thank you," said Yeong-seok.
It was a simple little clip, but it got the point across. *Hyun-ae sighed and opened her window again, "I suppose I can give you more about Yeong-seok, but it'll probably just make you angry considering the way it is back on Earth. Yeong-seok was an ambitious pup, and I can't really blame him for that. His family was in a lump, and considering how important family was on the Mugunghwa I would compare what he was feeling to a feeling personal danger."
The room melted away, and was replaced with another, smaller one. This room held a bookshelf, and a computer desk in the corner. At the desk sat Yeong-seok, and peeking over his shoulder was a girl who appeared to be about fifteen years old. With another motion from *Hyun-ae, the log began to play.
The girl leaned further over his shoulder, her eyes narrowing and her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth. It was actually kind of cute.
"Something wrong?" asked Yeong-seok.
"I'm not sure, but... do you mind if I take a look?"
After what seemed to be a moment of careful consideration, Yeong-seok nodded and stood from the chair. "You have my permission."
I think I felt my right eyebrow twitch a little at that.
The girl sat down in the chair previously occupied by Yeong-seok. On the screen were long charts with numbers. At a closer look they appeared to be keeping track of the money garnered from farming. "This isn't right," said the girl, "Corn is cycled out at a yearly rate so as not to harm the soil on the ship. It's on its out cycle, so it should be slightly more expensive because demand is higher."
"Are you sure about this?" asked Yeong-seok.
"Positive. I wouldn't have spoken otherwise."
"I'll tell the magistrate that the farmer is skimming off the top. Thank you for that. Would you mind helping me with matters like this in the future?"
"Not at all," she said with a smile.
The log paused at that, and when I turned to *Hyun-ae she had a frown on her face, "See anything wrong with that picture?"
I sighed and shook my head, "Let me guess, that girl was his wife."
"You won the prize Kyle."
"Not to mention she needed to ask permission. If she saw something wrong she should have just told him."
"Finally! Someone who agrees with me. It was actually weirdly common for women to learn how to read on the ship by looking over their husband's shoulders. The wife here is making a big deal out of it, but I guess that can be expected of a teenage girl. Anyways, I'll show you the next log I have on Yeong-seok."
The next setting was an open market. It felt like it was in a center part of one of the ship's decks. Every few feet there was a stall either selling food or some extravagant decorative trinkets. The signs were colorful and the place was absolutely crowded. "It's wonderful, isn't it?" asked *Hyun-ae, a smile on her face as she walked towards me. "So many people, so much to do."
"I'm surprised a place like this was allowed to exist."
*Hyun-ae sighed and kicked the ground with her foot, "It was more tolerated than anything else. People need to make money somehow, even in an oppressive society." With that final word she pointed behind me, a bit to the left. I turned and saw two familiar faces at a table in a local restaurant, as well as a new one. Yeong-seok sat with his wife, and across from them was a man of tall stature. They were all smiling and clearly enjoying the meal. "I'd like to pass my position on to you," said the man.
Yeong-seok's eyes widened, "What?"
The man held up his hand, "As of now it's just a possibility of course, but soon it will be time for me to be High Magistrate. I'd like the position to be taken by someone with a good head on their shoulders, and you seem the type."
I leaned towards *Hyun-ae, "Who's that?"
"He's Magistrate Park. Pretty much the right hand of the emperor on this ship. This took place on October 18th 321, a little more than two years after Yeong-seok married his wife."
"Seems like he moved up quick."
"Yeah... he did," she said, her gaze falling as she frowned.
In another moment, this scene was replaced with another. "A year later, 322," said *Hyun-ae."
The place we were in now was a small living room. Yeong-seok's wife sat formally on the floor with a bottle of wine next to her, and the man himself was pacing with a glass in his hand.
I noted that his wife was starting to look a little more his age.
Yeong-seok scoffed to himself, "I just wish they'd give me more credit. I exposed all that cutting and thuggery that was going on. Everyone is saying it's because of the Pale Bride that I got my position, but I earned it."
His wife sighed and shook her head, "I know. We both know that." She leaned forward when he handed her a wine glass and brought forward the bottle at her side, pouring him another. "If I were you," she said with a smile, "I would enjoy what I'd earned."
Yeong-seok raised an eyebrow at her, as if what she had just said was unusual. Then, his expression turned into a full on grin, "You know what? You're right. You are completely right." Yeong-seok downed his last glass of wine, then leaned down to kiss her on the lips. "Far sweeter than any wine," he said softly.
The log paused, and when I looked at *Hyun-ae she was standing there with clenched fists, and it looked like she was trying really hard not to think about something. "You okay?" I asked.
"Yeah... yeah, I just need a minute." She took a deep breath and shook her head, turning to me, "Anyways, as you can see, it all comes back to the Pale Bride."
"What was up with her?"
"She was the emperor's trophy wife, to put it gently."
"Hmm. You wanna take a break?"
She nodded, "Okay. One second while I shut down the holo system."
With a clap of her hands everything went black, at least until I opened my eyes. I stood from the chair and stretched, just as I had the day before. I walked to the security monitor and leaned on it. "I've got an idea," I said.
She leaned towards the screen, adjusting her glasses, "What is it?"
"Can you show me the marketplace? Or at least what's left of it."
*Hyun-ae led me down twisting white and grey corridors of the deck above our headquarters. I was starting to see those skeletons I had missed before. Some were laid out in the halls, decaying garbs still draped over them, others I caught a glimpse of in the rooms we passed. All had one thing in common. None of them had been sitting in a desk when they died, or doing some sort of other activity. "It wasn't sudden," I muttered as I made my way down another hall.
"What was that?"
"Everyone dying. It didn't just happen suddenly. It was slow... painful."
*Hyun-ae fell silent.
I could only presume this meant she knew something about what happened here.
For some reason I was starting to wish she would start lying to me again.
I decided to change the subject.
"Why was the deck we were on pretty much empty?"
"From what I can tell... the birth rates on this ship weren't exactly what one would call stellar. Considering how base society was, no one ever really figured out what was causing the issue. Not that it mattered in the end, anyways."
The conversation died, at least until a few minutes later when the corridor opened into a large wide space. The bustling sounds of busy people were completely gone. The remnants of market stalls lay strewn about in different places, their color dulling with the time they had spent here. It looked like if I tried to touch something it would crumble in my hands. The most jarring thing was the smell, and even more skeletons. I brought a hand to my nose and frowned. It was hard to imagine what had happened, but judging from the fact that everyone died slowly and the oxygen wasn't on when I got here...
It was easy to get the jist of things.
I sat down cross-legged on the floor at the entrance of the market place. I looked outward, trying to see all the vendors, the people shopping. I looked at what was left of the restaurant Yeong-seok and his wife ate at with Park. I tried to imagine them sitting there, enjoying a meal and chatting about business.
I really tried.
All I saw, however, were ghosts.
"What is it?"
"Nothing... I was just making sure you were still here. I'm glad."
"... Me too."