Anniversary of the Ghost of You

by Thomas Cooper

"Why have we come here Nanna?” Alice’s voice had an innocence that Susan never tired of. Although in this case it usual serenity was tempered by the fact that this was an awkward question, one she hoped she wouldn't have to answer.

"Your Grandpa comes here every year on this day.” Susan replied in a tone she hoped would dissuade further questioning.

"Why?” Dammed if she hadn’t heard that question from too many children, too many times.

"He comes here to remember someone he knew a long time ago.”

"Why doesn't he look at a picture or call them, that's what I would do if wanted to remember someone. It what I do to remember mummy and daddy when they are away." Alice seem to be proud that she had pointed out this obvious oversight on her grandpa's part and sighed, looking out the window of the car, she seemed to be concentrating on something in the distance. After a few minuets she spoke again in a very clipped tone.

Did they die?” She's smart this one. As quickly as she could Susan weighed up the pros and cons of continuing this conversation and came to the conclusion that any attempt to deflect Alice would be instantly recognised and most likely steel the young girl's resolve.

Yes.”

So are they buried in those woods?”

In a way. They used to work there, your grandfather and this person, he goes into those woods to remember and talk to them.”

You mean pray?”

You could say that dear.”

"What were they called?"

"Her name was Grace." This seemed to satisfy Alice's curiosity momentarily and she stared out of the car window once more.

Was grandpa a wood cutter then? I thought he was a scientist?” Susan was seriously regretting her earlier conversation with Christopher about the little harm there would be in bringing the grandchildren. This line of questioning was becoming troublesome.

He was a scientist dear, his old laboratory is in those woods, well the remains of it anyway. Its nothing but ruins now.”

At this point Alice’s older brother Craig spoke up, Susan let out another mental groan and knew she had already said too much.

“Ruins! I want to see ruins! Is that where grandpa’s accident happened?” Susan's mental groan rapidly became real when she saw Alice’s eyes widen.

Accident, what accident, what does he mean Nanna? What accident Craig, tell me, tell me!” Craig looked rather smug as he described how he had come across this little secret the adults had tried to keep so ruthlessly.

"I heard Dad and Aunty Julie talking late one night, I was going to the loo and heard them downstairs, I snook down and hid behind that big cabinet in the hall. They said Grandpa was becoming obsessed with the accident at the laboratory and it was effecting his health. They wanted him to stop coming here." Craig looked at his grandma with an intense stare. "Is that why grandpa is always locked away in his study all day? Is he studying the ruins? I've seen inside the study there are lots of computers in there."

"Craig you know your not allowed in the study! Your grandpa will be very angry if he finds you in there!" This seemed to deflate Craig's pride at revealing his little espionage campaign.

"You won't tell him will you Nanna?"

"No, not this time, but don't you go looking in there again or both me and your grandpa will be very angry with you!" The seriousness of Susan's tone seemed to stem the tide of curiosity, at least temporarily. Another 20 minutes passed with Craig retreating into his hand-held game console and Alice reading one of the hundreds of books she seemed to carry around with her in her ever-present rucksack. Susan checked her watch, Chris had been gone longer than usual. She knew he was probably taking his time walking back, he wasn't as young as he used to be and the overgrown ruins were difficult for him to navigate when he was a young man let alone now at the ripe age of 75.

"Kids, I'm just going to go and see where your grandpa is, see if I can't hurry him along so we can get you guys some lunch." Craig and Alice protested at great length that they wanted to come with her and see the ruins, but she flatly refused, making them promise that they wouldn't leave the car or unlock it for anyone else but her or grandpa.

Susan set off from the road into the thick woods that lay behind the perimeter wall. The wall had once been a formidable construction keeping all but those with some very high level clearance from passing. After the accident it had been reinforced to prevent prying eyes but in the intervening years it had become a shadow of its former self. It was overgrown and infused with the roots of countless creepers and vines it could almost be classed as a living entity in its own right. Susan picked her way over the rubble of a long since collapsed section of wall, passing the faded government signs warning of severe punishment for any sole that should cross the border they marked. She followed a route through the dense foliage, it was a path that only she or Chris would recognize. A casual glimpse would show nothing but leaves and bushes. The sharp transition from the outside world into the dappled interior around the ruined labs was striking, a true division of light and dark. A few steps inside and you would not know if you were five meters or five kilometers from the edge, one of the many reasons for not bringing the children. Susan moved further towards what was left of the laboratory's main complex, it was only through many years of experience that she knew which direction to head in, these woods played tricks on the uninitiated. She made it to the shattered lobby and climbed gingerly over the cracked and warped concrete, like Chris she was not as young as she used to be. She paused by the fountain just inside the main doors, watching the tangled paths of water hover in the air, moving in slow motion, writhing like the mating dance of some mythical sea serpent. The first time she had seen this sight she was speechless for the longest time. Chris had stood their patiently while she poked and prodded the water,  breaking off droplets and pushing them through the air until they left the zone of instability and reverted to the normal laws of physics splashing all over her. He had laughed, one of the few times she remembered him doing so. She continued on through ruined offices, past desks and chairs that hung motionless in the air, frozen in mid flight after being propelled by the first stages of the accident. She paused by one desk where papers blew in an invisible wind only to suddenly repeat the same motion, caught in an infinite loop. The effect was eerie, it looked like something in one of Craig's video games. She gave all these phenomenon a wide berth heeding Chris' long standing warning of not staying close to these 'instabilities' for longer than absolutely necessary. She passed from the administration block and into the laboratory proper, through the shattered and blast scared corridors to the core chamber. The chamber was the only truly recognizable structure remaining, probably because its walls were five meters thick, only three walls remained and the roof had gone but its still stood over three stories tall, poking just above the tree line. The missing wall allowed the early afternoon light to filter in, slightly warming the cold, imposing edifice. Susan passed through the giant blast doors that led into the chamber, staying clear of the massive reinforced steel gates which where bent into what looked like throws of agony. The analogy was reinforced by the fact that the surface of the doors had pockets of instability throughout them, rippling in places and pulsing in others as if blood flowed beneath their burnt surface. This was the most disquieting aspect of the whole journey, she could never shake the feeling of walking into the throat of some giant beast. Inside she heard Christopher's low tone peaking gently over the hum of the machine adding a soft background to the russeling of the densely crowded trees outside. The floor of the chamber was covered in the accumulated waste of many autumns, she shuffled through a large pile of leaves creating just enough of a distraction to force Christopher to turn his head from the scrolling readout in front of him.

"Hello Susan." The soft female tone still sounded odd coming from the tinny speakers on the base of the machine. Susan turned from Christopher's upturned face to the shimmering collection of shadows and light collected withing the spars of the machine.

"Hello Grace, how are you?"

"A little cold actually, Chris' latest update has added some sensory input, it is much colder than I remember." Susan placed her hand on Christopher's shoulder, he had returned his attention to the machine and was slumped over the terminals screen staring at a constant stream of data. He acknowledged her presence with a slight tip of his head, a few seconds passed and then he placed his hand on hers, as if realising his  nod might not be enough of an acknowledgment.

"Bloody prediction matrix was out by point zero zero one! Zero zero one! Can you believe it! A years calculations wasted because ......" His voice faded into mumbling grunts as he inputted more commands into the machine.

"Well at least there is more convergence, temperature sensing is big step!" Susan tried to inject support into her voice without sounding too patronizing, she knew she hadn’t succeeded.

"No where near enough! She should be able to interact with solid matter! Point zero zero one!" Susan sighed, she knew it was no use trying to talk to him when he was like this. Whatever upgrades he made were never good enough.

"Chris, considering the fact that a few days ago I was some abstract pattern on the surface of the universe it is amazing to feel anything, I'm sure you will get it right next time." Grace's computerised tone managed to convey a hint of longing, Susan could just make out the shape of a woman inside the chaos of light within the machine. She swore she could see the barley coalesced form staring at its hands and moving them in front of its face. The figure suddenly jerked "Owch!"

Susan snapped her head back to Christopher as he let out a equally loud howl!

"Ha there it is got the little bugger! A harmonic in spa 4, shoddy bloody workmanship that is, useless Japanese rubbish! I told them how to build every last nut, bolt & transistor and they still got it wrong! I can work around that though.....yes this is progress! You felt that right?" The shimmering form within the machine had its hands on its hips.

"Yes I bloody well did, I suppose you did that on purpose!"

"If you felt that then the upgrades are partially integrated, next time I may be able to get full convergence!" Christopher turned and smiled at Grace's form "We could get you back!" Susan never saw him smile like he did when he got a few step closer to convergence, one step closer to bringing her back. She was glad to see him happy, it happened so rarely these days, but felt the familiar darkness in the pit of her stomach. She glanced at the clock on the machine console.

"Two minutes Chris." She gently squeezed him on the shoulder as she said it.

"Already? It seems to get shorter every time." Grace sounded forlorn or at least the machines best guess at what forlorn should sound like.

"Shorter! It lasts approximately 30% longer now than it did after the accident, thanks to my sheer brilliance!"

"Oh that's just typical, you have 2 minutes to say goodbye to me and you want to spend it arguing."

"Why break the habit of a lifetime?"

"Smart arse!" Susan shook her head amazed how a few minuets with Grace would revert Chris to his youthful, cheeky self. It reminded her of the man she had fallen for all those years ago. Chris got slowly to his feet, clearly labouring under the effort. Susan lent in to help him and was surprised when he let her.

"You look like you could do with your limbs oiling old man!" Grace's incandescent form was standing at the edge of the machine's radius.

"At least I have limbs, light bulb girl!" Chris rebuked in a blustering tone as he shuffled towards the spas of the machine. He rested his right hand on the thick metal trunk of the containment structure, the scared and warped skin of his arm stretched as he spayed out his palm on the weathered metal, a reminder of too many run-ins with the instabilities of the ruined lab.

"I will have one day Mister and you'll be getting them straight in your sides" they chuckled together, Chris finishing with a sigh.

"Soon Grace, soon. I got some really useful data today, I know I can get convergence."

"Yes and in the meantime I will blink my eyes and you will age another year." Chris stared into the heart of the shimmering form that was all that remained of Grace, he held his hand up as she began to fade, becoming less resolved, less focused as she slipped out of alignment. The machine began to tone as the 20 second mark came up.

"Go to your wife. She is waiting for you." Susan looked up from the leaves she had been staring at and forced a smile as Chris glanced in her direction.

"Goodbye Grace."

"Goodbye Christopher." The machines countdown had reached its climax, Grace's form was completely gone now, only a slowly fading cloud of shadows remained. Christopher looked at the fading light for a few moments more then turned and headed over to where Susan was standing on the other side of the chamber, she had already collected his things from the terminal. As he slowly moved through the fallen leaves the spas of the machine withdrew into there recesses in the floor of the core chamber, the terminal folded away into the wall and the place was back to its tomb-like self again. As Susan helped Chris through the remains of the lab the instabilities and feedback loops began to fade until the place was still once more. No more than a memory, a pile of uninteresting rubble that hinted at deeper meaning, in 50 years only a handful of people had come across the ruins and that was all they had seen. Only once a year was it anything more.

The machine emitted a loud tone and moments later the seldom disturbed leafy carpet of the ruined core chamber stirred. The thick spas of the machine rose out of their recesses like some ancient beast waking from a long slumber. They creaked and groaned, an eerie sound made all the more chilling by the strange cathedral like acoustics of the high walled space. As the spas locked into place the superconducting cables crackled and snapped and the air inside the machine began to resonate. The readout on the machine terminal showed the increasing level of alignment between the two zones, one locked onto the earth, the other to the sun. Once every year the zones crossed, allowing Grace to achieve consciousness. Without the machine she was just a shadow, something in the corner of your eye, a trick of the light. That was how Chris had discovered she had survived the accident, coming here every year and seeing her ghost. Susan stood patiently by the machine terminal as Grace's incandescent outline began to form within the spas.

"Hello Susan" Grace paused, Susan assumed she was scanning the room. "Where is Chris?"

"He won't be coming." Susan said bluntly.

"The last two times no one was here, I assume that has something to do with Chris not being here now, is he OK? Tell me he is OK!" Susan turned to the terminal and typed a string of commands into the dirty, faded keyboard, she was aware of Grace's graze upon her despite the young scientists undefined form.

"Chris wanted you to have this." As she said it Susan bashed the enter key, the terminal clicked and whirred as it digested the torrent of commands she had released, the spars began to resonate, the cloud of light that was Grace began to dart around within the machine, its erratic movements echoing the panic in her voice.

"Ahh what did you do, it hurts, what did you..." The speaker died with an abrupt flash of static, the next sound to come from the machine was altogether more human.

"What did you do?" Grace was crouched down in the center of the spars, no longer a collection of shadows and light but a solid form, her lab coat still as crisp and white as it was the day of the accident.

"After the last time we were here Chris was able to the use the data to obtain near full convergence, this is his final upgrade." Susan watched as Grace touched the cold metal of the machine, she looked like a child, discovering the world for the 1st time. Subjectively for Grace it had only been a month since the accident, but even a month as an undefined cloud of light would disturb even the strongest mind. She walked to the edge of the platform and tried to step off, as she swung her leg forward it shattered into a million faceted shadows.

"There is one problem, I am afraid you will only be able to exist within machine's radius. I'm sorry." Grace returned to the center of the machine and starred at her reformed leg. She looked up with a determined expression that Susan had seen many times before, often defending her position on the countless TV interviews that took place in the run up to the accident.

"But I can interact now, I can use the machine terminal, I can help Chris with the calculations, I can..." Grace paused as she saw Susan's face. “Where is Chris?” Susan turned back to the terminal, she stared at the keyboard for many minutes.

There is no way to bring you back fully, this is the best Chris could do, it means that you no longer need the machine to reform during a convergence, every year you will be as you are now.” Susan tapped a command into the machine terminal and powered it down, Grace flinched as the spars retracted into the floor of the chamber, unused to their absence. Susan started towards the chamber gates. When she was half way to the door she turned, Grace still seemed stunned.

I found a file on Chris’ computer, a program he wrote along time ago. It predicts the orbit of the earth and the positions of the zones, there is a slight precession of the earths orbit, fractions of a cm a year but it is there. He predicted how long it would be before the zones would be too far apart in their orbits to converge, how many more times you would return before this is over.” Susan trailed off, the tears wouldn’t stop. Despite all the wasted years, all the anger, she pitied this lone girl and the time she would endure. She turned from the machine for the last time and headed towards the undulating chamber gates, their pulsing motion already decreasing as the zones began to drift out of alignment.

"How long Susan?" She continued on, not looking back. Grace's voice was strained, curiosity giving way to desperation.

"How long? How long Susan?...How long?"

Susan passed out of the core chamber, Grace was screaming now. Susan's face was covered with a constant stream of tears, she didn't look back.

It was finished. 

"How long?"

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Word Count: 3377

 Anniversary of the Ghost of You - Thomas Cooper