“Have you heard the one about the ghost that haunts people’s connections?” Max asked her from the screen. Alexis chewed her lip and gave him a skeptical look.
“Are you trying to spook me right at the start of the only two months I’m going to be in this place by myself?” she demanded. His boyish grin was all the answer she needed.
“Now what kind of husband would I be to do such a thing?” he replied, feigning innocence. He smiled at her, waiting. After a few moments, she rolled her eyes and sighed.
“OK Max, tell me the one about the ghost in the connections,” she relented.
“Well, it’s not in the connections per se,” he corrected her, “but that’s how it gets to people.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, letting herself float out of her chair a bit.
“It’s like those old chain emails that still crop up every now and again,” he explained, “you know, ‘send this to 10 of your friends or you’ll be visited by something horrible,’ and then a creepy gif.”
“So this creature is an email marketing scam?” she commented, attempting to sound as bored as possible.
“Well there’s no message or anything like that, but the point is that with those chains, it’s getting the email that makes you part of the whole thing,” he pressed on, “in this case it’s video chat.”
“Oh, here we go,” she sighed, stretching out with her right side facing down so she was facing the screen while lying in midair.
“It kills the person you’re talking to, and then it comes through and waits for you to call someone else. Then, it kills you and goes through to—did you hear that?” he said suddenly.
“Oh knock it off,” she groaned, “how cheesy can you get?”
“No, I’m serious,” he said, deadpan, “I think there’s someone in here.”
“Come on Max, not funny,” she said sternly, her pulse quickening a bit in spite of herself.
“Just a sec,” he said distractedly, and walked out of view of the camera.
“You’re a jerk!” she called after him.
“Jowk!” she heard a small voice answer. Max reappeared on the screen, holding their three year old daughter, Charlotte.
“Turns out there was a little monster over here after all,” Max said with a warm smile.
“Hey Charlie!” she greeted enthusiastically.
“Hi mama,” he replied with a little wave.
Alexis had been out in the Pegasus galaxy for just over two years at that point. Up until then she had had a partner that she was working alongside, but his rotation was up. The company that ran the mining operation of which she was a part sent people out on four year stints, with each worker coming in two years into the stint of the worker before them. This minimized the amount of personal drama that could crop up between any two coworkers, created some degree of variety in an otherwise monotonous four years, and made it possible to get some on-site training from someone with more experience.
Alexis had made the painful decision to part with everyone she had ever known—and all but one other human being—to do a stint a mere one year after her daughter was born. The job just paid too well. Max was a fairly successful carpenter who made custom items for wealthy patrons, but his income was limited by the amount of work he was capable of doing in a year. Moreover, there was always the risk that his aesthetic would eventually go out of style, and he would be forced to compete with more commoditized, and therefore cheaper, items.
Serving a stint as maintenance worker for the vast mining operation in Pegasus paid more than ten times what they could have reasonably hoped their combined income would be during those four years. Moreover, though wormhole connections were expensive to set up, the company funded one and unlimited use of it was one of the “perks” of the job. Or at least, one of the things that made the job less lonely and soul-crushing. Management must have known that it would have been much harder—read: salaries would have had to have been even higher—to attract talented engineers without so much as a lifeline to the people they cared about.
Her departing coworker and she had gotten along well enough, but they spent most of their time either exercising separately, or using the connection—again, separately. They really only came together for meals and for daily reports on their respective maintenance checks. She hoped whoever replaced him would be as happy with that arrangement as she was; though she supposed it took a certain solitary type to accept the job to begin with.
The day after Max pulled his “little monster” stunt, Alexis returned to her room from her third daily jog to find that the connection was already on, and Max’s empty chair on the screen. She frowned—she was certain she had shut off the connection 12 Earth-hours ago, and there was no one else in the station that could have switched it on.
Some kind of power jolt perhaps? She didn’t like the thought of that, but it also seemed quite unlikely. Even if something had jolted the connection on, it wouldn’t have automatically video-dialed home. All the connection did was patch her into the Internet; where she went from there was entirely a manual process.
“Max?” She shouted into the microphone, “Max, are you there?” After a few minutes, she heard footsteps from the hallway by the kitchen, where Max had set up the equipment for video chatting her. Moments later, Max’s confused face appeared on the screen.
“Were we supposed to talk now?” he asked, “Not that I’m disappointed to see your beautiful face, of course.”
“No, the connection was on and we were dialed in when I walked into the room,” she said, feeling as confused as he looked, “and I have no idea how it happened. You didn’t try to call me?”
“I know there isn’t much point if I don’t know when you’re going to turn on the connection,” he said.
“Weird. I hope it’s not—” her first stab at a theory was interrupted by something she had never heard before; a shrill scream that could only belong to one person.
“Charlie!” Max shouted, panic written all over his face and in his voice, “Charlie, what’s wrong?” he bolted out of Alexis’ sight as her heart beat harder than a steel drum. She felt like she could not speak, could not breathe. She wanted to scream but seemed entirely frozen, entirely unable to do anything. As indeed she was, trapped lightyears away in a mining station, with only machines to keep her company.
She could hear Max shouting, but to her horror, could no longer hear her daughter’s voice at all. Finally, she found her voice. “Max…Max! MAX! What’s happening? Is Charlie OK?”
And then the connection died. With it, went the lights, and odds were, power to most of the station. She sat there, gripping her chair, her body coiled with tension, her heart pounding loudly in her ears. She tried to think—this must be related to what switched on the connection in the first place. The power was acting up. But she wouldn’t run out of air for a long time—they had redundant system in place for that. It would get quite cold, however, if she did not act soon.
But what had been going on when the power went out? Had it been another one of Max’s jokes? Her stomach churned at the memory of Charlie’s screams. She didn’t know if she wanted Max to be sick enough to do something like that to scare her, but she definitely wanted both of them to be OK, with every fiber of her being. But she wouldn’t be able to find out anything until she made herself get up, and go and do what she was paid to do—fix what was broken.
She forced herself to relax into the chair a bit, and gently eased herself up. It wouldn’t do to get over eager and crash into something, causing more problems.
She hadn’t moved far when she heard something, a meter or two away at most, in the darkness.
She heard the sound of something breathing.
There was something in the room with her.