The Ghost on the Server

Gregory Neil Harris

Illustration by Dante Luiz

The lighting had just switched from night mode to day when Ori stepped into the maze of junked interstellar freight pods known in Bottom City as the Emporium. Once home to the planet’s biggest shipyard, now it was a dimly lit tenement of narrow alleys and shipping containers dragged from the wasteyards and reassembled in Tetrisian fashion. Even at this hour, the shouts of vendors competed with the steam clanging through the overhead pipes, and the musty tang of caged chickens and frying onions perfumed the air.

Ori slipped easily through the alleys until he came to the double-wide pod of the best fence he knew.

Marvin was sitting under an improvised awning, frowning at a group of young men down the corridor hooting at the women walking by. His eyes lit up at the machine Ori put in his hand.

‘A P4?’ He turned it side to side. ‘Probably aren’t a hundred of these left on the planet. It works?’

‘Like new. Lovingly restored by yours truly.’ The restoration had taken him and Illy almost two years, cost every spare credit they had, and some they didn’t. That machine was supposed to be their ticket off this planet.

‘And you’re selling it?’

Marvin’s tone made Ori feel like he was the one being appraised, like his poor decision-making devalued his worth, like cracks in an old atomiser. He kicked at a spot on the floor.

‘Times are rough.’

They’d restored that P4 so they could use it to manufacture Illy’s designs themselves, but he had no idea it would be so hard to get his hands on the blanks it needed. Planetary Security restricted distribution of course, but he was sure someone would have a lead. But no one did. No one but Pablo. So Pablo’s where he went. Illy flipped when he told her.

‘Jesus Ori, are you kidding? The fucking Crips?’

‘It’s actually a good thing. When I told Pablo how those toppers stole your designs, he was all in. He’s all about empowering the people.’

‘Empowering the people? Ori, he’s a murderer.’

‘No he’s not. You gotta be in the game for Pablo to come at you. That ain’t murder, that’s just business.’

‘Well, thanks to you, now we’re his business. What if no one buys my mods?’

That was a possibility, but that was just fear talking. Illy was a design prodigy. She’d been designing implants since she was fifteen – she was better at cybernetic modifications than Warpspeed Williams was at racing pulsebikes, and he’d won the Sub-Warp trophy ten years in a row. A few years ago, she’d sold some of her designs to her old boss. Ten-thousand credits was a lot of money at the time. Three years later, the creds were gone, but the mods based off Illy’s designs were still top sellers. Raked in ten million so far.

It took three nights, working on that old P4, to program all the blanks they got from Pablo. Forty-thousand creds worth.

And just as he promised, Ori sold the whole batch. Every single one. In his early twenties, he’d worked as a maintenance attendant on Level Two. He’d done some work for a guy who was a mod collector. Dude had paid a hundred-thousand creds for some artisanal emotional enhancement mod to help actors give more evocative performances. He never even used it, just kept it in a scan-case in his office. A hundred-thousand creds. Illy’s mods were better than that.

He met with Dude at the Mid-City Promenade. Illy was still an unknown artist, but when Dude scanned her mods, he bought them all. Paid Ori double what he owed Pablo, and that was at the unknown artist price. Once Illy’s name got around, they’d make enough to leave this planet in no time.

And then Ori decided to walk home from the lift. At midnight. Like a fucking idiot. He was one corridor from home when he got jacked. They took everything.

Marvin tapping on the machine broke the reverie. He was still turning it this way and that, looking for something wrong.

‘Come on Marvin, it’s legit. You trying to buy it or what?’

Marvin looked around, then ushered him inside. Behind the closed door, he took a vial from his pocket.

‘I don’t have the cash that P4’s worth, but check this out.’ He tipped a single seed into Ori’s hand. ‘Scan that.’

When Ori did, his jaw dropped.

‘Is this a brainlink?’

Marvin allowed a knowing smile.

‘Some guys I know thought they had a snitch on their crew. Turns out he was Planetary Security undercover. They gave him what he deserved, and I made the body disappear. But I lifted that first.’

Ori rolled the mod between his fingers. No bigger than a poppy seed, it was the most powerful thing he’d ever touched.

Some modifications increased strength, or agility, or skill with equipment or tools. This one created a direct neural link to Planetary Security’s global supercomputer. An Operative with this mod could control anything on it with just a thought. All the surveillance, the data, and any door, lift, or drone on the planet.

‘That’s the Holy Grail right there,’ Marvin said. ‘We been trying to get ahold of one of those for years. If we could break the encryption, we’d have the same access PlanSec has. We could make some changes around here.’

Ori held up his hands. ‘You know I don’t want nothing to do with that.’ He hated PlanSec as much as anybody, but he wasn’t into all that revolution shit Marvin was always talking about. He just wanted off this planet.

‘Just relax,’ Marvin said, ‘I’m not trying to rope you in. I said if. It’s too damaged to crack. But it’s still worth a lot.’

‘Who’s gonna buy a busted mod? And don’t they deactivate these if the Op’s dead?’

‘PlanSec don’t track their Operatives, that way no hacker can either. They probably don’t even know he’s missing. And you know collectors don’t buy this shit to use it. They buy it to own it. The right one might pay a hundred for this, maybe one-fifty.’

‘So why you showing it to me?’

‘Because selling takes time, and I’m not comfortable with the risk. I’ll give you an even trade – the P4 for the seed.’

Ori considered. Dude who’d bought Illy’s mods would probably buy this too, but vidding him to ask was too risky. If he took the offer, he’d be taking his chances. No topper would want some Bajo just showing up uninvited, but what the hell.

‘Throw in a Top City pass and it’s a deal.’

‘You don’t need a pass.’ Marvin shook the vial. ‘You got a brainlink, and I got an implanter.’

Ori felt a sting at the base of his neck, then watched on the scope as Marvin guided the implanter between C3 and C4, punctured the spinal cord, and deposited the brainlink. It took a moment to complete its diagnostics, then released dozens of nanocules into his cerebrospinal fluid. Shaped and sized like glucose molecules, they crossed the blood–brain barrier, then a wave of chills swept over Ori while they linked him to the planetary Supercomputer. Connection established, he looked at Marvin, speechless for the first time ever.

It was a ten-minute walk to the Level Forty-five lift. He was nervous, trying to board without a pass, but sure enough, the brainlink got him on. He squeezed his way to a pole in the centre, just another Bajo migrating up top for work.

The jump from Bottom City made his ears pop, but it didn’t ease the pressure behind his eyes. By the time he got to Level Two, he was getting one fuck of a headache. He thought about pain meds, but in the time it would take to find some, he could get where he was going and take the brainlink out. Simply wondering about something sent a query to the global computer. In less than a second, Ori knew his collector wasn’t at his office. He’d gone to breakfast down in Mid-City and taken a drone home. It wasn’t like reading a file, it was like remembering. He even knew how to get there. He massaged his temples. Twenty minutes.

He vidded Illy while he walked. She was stepping off the lift when she answered.

‘Did you sell it?’

‘Sort of. I made a deal with Marvin.’

‘Ori, we don’t need a Marvin special, we need creds. We owe a certain someone forty thousand. You’re acting like he doesn’t kill people who owe him money.’

‘I know. I got this under control.’

‘Do you, though? You were out here getting robbed by corridor kids last week.’

‘Alright, I gotta go. I’m in TC now. I’ll see you soon.’ He hung up before she could respond.

He’d never been in Top City without a worker pass. The sense of being an imposter was powerful, but he squashed it down. And fuck that, he had a brainlink. He could go anywhere he damn well pleased. He stopped to rub his temples again. Anywhere within reason. This headache was turning into a real blinder.

He passed an ad for guided tours of the Rim colonies and stopped to watch. You never saw ads for star safaris down in the Bajo. He wondered how many ships left for the Rim every month, and Supacom gave him the answer, blasting a decade’s worth of port logs into his head – ships, specs, registrations. It felt like his brain was being twisted like a rag, and then everything went black.

Ori woke in a slate-grey room little bigger than his pod on Forty-eight. He started to wonder where he was, then cut off the thought, bracing for an onslaught of data. But nothing came. Gingerly, like probing a loose tooth, he asked Supacom a question. No answer. The link was gone. He felt simultaneously relieved and bereft, as if they’d amputated a dying finger.

‘You’re lucky you were close by.’

Ori nearly jumped when a medi-drone like a red-striped volleyball hove into view.

‘Your brainlink was damaged. It couldn’t handle the data flow, so I made you a new one. Five more minutes and you’d be dead.’

It assumed he was PlanSec. Probably thought he was the guy Marvin lifted the mod from.

‘You’re also the first active-duty recipient of a brainlink made with a P100.’ It held up the programmer clutched in its mechanical arms. ‘This is actually a pre-production model, but it works the same. The next academy class would’ve been first, but you got fried, so you’re the lucky one. Just waiting for approval to activate,’ the drone said. ‘Should only take a minute.’

Shit. They were on to him. He knew this was too good to be true.

‘I’ve gotta go.’ He swung his feet down and stood, still a bit wobbly.

The drone turned side to side. ‘That’s not recommended. We activate in a secure setting to prevent anyone from hacking the implant. If you’ll just relax, someone will be here shortly.’

Medi-drones weren’t designed for conflict, so it couldn’t resist when Ori grabbed it. He smashed it on the floor until all it could do was buzz like a fly with a missing wing, then he snatched the prototype from the floor and ran.

Out in the corridor, the nighttime lighting was on. He’d been in that lab all day. Illy was probably worried sick, but would vidding her tip them off? Or activate the brainlink somehow? Hell, they might activate it intentionally. What would they care if he got hacked? – he was a thief. He had to get it out. He examined the P100 he’d stolen. Newer programmers like this could program seeds and implant/ extract too. There had to be some way to make it extract, but he couldn’t find it. Illy could. She’d be working. He could get to her in forty minutes if he moved fast.

Fortunately, the lift heading down only made one stop. Ori was close enough to Illy’s mod parlour to make out the flashing sign when he felt a buzz at the base of his skull. Were they activating the brainlink? Stabbing pain drove him to his knees. He struggled not to retch while the people walking by pretended not to see. The pain was extraordinary, intense, consuming. But Illy was just half a corridor away. He struggled to his feet.

‘Eww, is that vomit?’ Illy said when he stumbled in. ‘It’s on your shoes!’ The paper towels she threw bounced off his chest before she realised something was wrong.

Ori slumped against the wall. The connection to Supacom was flickering like a loose lightbulb, but it was enough for it to identify the virus hacking the brainlink.

Codenamed ‘Phantom’, the virus was of alien origin and unknown age, possibly an artefact of the civilization that built Arys. Even as it strangled his brain like a constrictor, Ori was fascinated by what Supacom told him about it. In minutes, Phantom would commandeer the brainlink, sever his neural links to Supacom, then attempt to connect him to whatever alien computer it originated from. But that computer no longer existed, so the link would fail, and he would die. The estimated time was two minutes.

Ori staggered to the bathroom and slammed the door, Illy right on his heels.

‘Ori!!!’ Bang bang bang.

Her banging made it hard to think. He looked around. Sink, shower, towels. His eyes caught the device on his wrist. Electricity. He bashed it against the wall, cracked its access panel and stared at the blue arcing.

‘Ori!!!’ Bang bang bang.

He turned on the shower. The water was cold, but there was no time to wait. When he stepped in, the shock was so intense he didn’t even scream.

Awareness returned in a capillary trickle. Illy was crouched beside him, turning the water off.

‘Please be okay, please be okay…’

He opened his eyes, put a hand to his forehead. There was going to be a knot.

‘You electrocuted yourself!?’ She whacked him. ‘What the fuck is wrong with you!?’

‘There was a computer virus. It was the only way to kill it.’

Anger turned back to worry, but already, he knew what he told her wasn’t true. He hadn’t killed anything. Phantom was still with him. He started hyperventilating before he realised it wasn’t attacking, it was…embracing. Calming. Not his enemy; his friend. He didn’t know how he knew that, but he did. Better than that, he remembered. He remembered what Phantom was; what Phantom remembered. He remembered this planet before it was abandoned; the millennia Phantom spent here alone; its crackling excitement when humans first arrived. Phantom wasn’t a computer virus. It was alive.

‘So let me get this straight,’ Illy said, ‘You think there’s a ten-thousand year old alien ghost talking to you?’

‘I didn’t say it’s a ghost. I said it’s an energy being.’

‘You said it’s one of the Builders. But there are no Builders alive, so isn’t that a ghost?’ She watched him for a moment, but when he didn’t react, she tried a different tack. ‘So how’s it talking to you, exactly?’

‘The medi-drone made me a new brainlink. With this.’ He handed her the stolen prototype. Illy’s eyes went wide.

‘Ori! This is PlanSec’s next-gen programmer.’


‘Everything I’ve heard said they didn’t have these yet. How’d you get this?’

He wiggled five fingers at her.

‘Alright, so this Phantom’s talking to you through the new brainlink this made?’

‘Talk’s not really the right word. There are some words, but it’s more like feelings and certainties. It lets me know things. The Builders weren’t one species, they were two. One were physical beings, the other pure energy. The physicals had silicon-based mitochondria. Their brain cells worked like microchips. That’s how Phantom’s kind linked with them. A symbiosis. It’s using my brainlink as a substitute.’

Illy gawked.

‘Science has spent centuries trying to figure out the most basic information about the Builders – we don’t even know what they looked like – and you know details like that??’

Ori shrugged.

‘They were humanoid. About our height. Purplish skin.’ The knowledge was becoming clearer. He could remember them. ‘The energy beings, like Phantom, are called Elektria. And right now, the only one left is talking to me through my brainlink.’

‘What does it want?’

In answer, Phantom washed him with sensations of emptiness, of frozen valves and corroded bearings. He felt as if his bones were steel and in some dark place down below, sang a magnet. Dark, cold, alone.

‘It’s been stuck on a server under Bottom City for ten-thousand years. It wants out.’

More specifically, it wanted him to download it onto his brainlink. It could only be done on-site. Ori was ready to put on his shoes and go , but Illy was sceptical.

‘Just trust me, Illy. It can help us. There’s a ton of Builder tech down there, and Phantom can help us access it. With that, we won’t need Pablo. Or anyone else. We can finally get off this fucking planet.’

‘I still don’t understand why you have to download it. That doesn’t scare you?’

‘It has no physical form, so it needs a partner. I told you they were symbiotic. Pairing, it calls it.’

‘How come it hasn’t Paired with someone before?’

‘It’s tried, but until I got this brainlink, nothing worked. There were some unfortunate incidents.’

‘How do you know there won’t be another?’

He didn’t, but at some point, it came down to being willing to take a leap, and he was.

Phantom was no longer aliento him, no longer a danger. Now it was a partner. They were both orphans of sorts. His parents left him to fend for himself until they could return. The Builders left Phantom. Ori lost hope years ago, but Phantom never had. And now they had each other. But first, they needed to complete the Pairing.

‘There’s a node on Level Seventy,’ he told her. He zipped his corridor suit while she peered at him through her specs, probably scanning his brain waves or some shit. After what seemed a long wait, she shook her head and got her jacket.

PlanSec still didn’t know Ori’s identity, but they knew he had an unsanctioned brainlink and stole the prototype that made it, so they travelled surreptitiously. Fortunately, Phantom knew the hidden parts of Arys better than PlanSec, its kind built the city-planet after all, and five hours, four liftbikes, and four air ducts later, Phantom told Ori to kick out a wall panel, and they emerged into a cavernous, and clearly long-abandoned, area of Level Forty-eight. The lowest level known to humans. A forest of columns wider than tall rose from the floor to disappear into the ceiling above.

Illy cast around with the light on her wrist device. ‘What is this?’

‘Fusion chamber.’ Phantom had been feeding memories to Ori for hours now. ‘This room used to power the whole planet. It’s the first thing The Calamity wiped out. It’s why the Builders left.’

At the nearest column, Ori rubbed away the grime, then tapped a pattern. Illy gasped when an access panel opened and she saw the ladder leading down. It would be almost three hundred feet to Level Seventy. Ori went first.

According to Phantom, Arys used to have one-hundred-six levels, but most had collapsed over time. This hardened tunnel was all that was left of some.

When they stopped to rest, Ori braced himself to connect to Supacom. Connecting was easy enough, but it defended itself against Phantom, and its security measures made it so painful he couldn’t stand more than a few seconds at a time.

Illy fished the stolen prototype from her pocket. ‘Ori, please let me make you a new brainlink.’

‘No. What if it doesn’t go right?’

‘It will. This has PlanSec’s whole mod library on it. It can make one and implant it in like twenty seconds. It’s designed to let you change mods like changing shoes.’

She started programming it, but he gritted his teeth and connected. The pain was immediate, but he got what he needed and dropped the connection before she could finish.

‘Drones are close,’ he said. ‘A lot of them.’

A faint electrical hum came from above. They turned off their lights and huddled in the darkness. Ori looked up just as a nugget zipped past his ear.

Seeker drone. Seekers were unarmed, all they could do was fall on you. He thought he could see the bottom below. Maybe they could just drop and run. He was trying to gauge the distance when Phantom told him there was no need. It had shut the drones down. Then came a sound like the pipes clanging in the Emporium, and the whole swarm of grape-sized steel crashed onto his head like a giant bucket of bolts. He lost his grip. The bottom was closer than he thought, but he hit every rung on the way down, and that was before Illy landed on top of him. She seemed unscathed, but Ori had two broken ribs and sprained his shoulder. But they were on Level Seventy.

These drones were done, but more were coming. And PlanSec knew where they were now. Three times as they walked, Ori linked with Supacom, and three times they had to wait for the resultant convulsions to pass. Before long, they were coming even when he didn’t connect.

After what seemed like miles, they came to a sealed door. Before he could even ask the question, Phantom told him what was on the other side.

When the fusion generators failed, there’d been a mass exodus. Eight thousand ships left Arys in two weeks, heading for what they hoped would be a new home. One stayed behind in case the exodus failed. A repository of their history, their technology, everything they were. A year after the exodus ended, that ship’s crew shared a last meal then boarded through this door. Ten-thousand years. It hadn’t opened since.

There was a heavy clank when Ori pressed the switch, but aeons of disuse meant they had to put their backs into it to slide the door open. The passage inside branched in several directions, but Phantom knew where to go, and at the end of a long hallway, they entered a circular chamber with cryo-pods around the circumference.

Ori went to one. The viewport was clouded, but the being inside was visible. Time had faded the blue and yellow uniform to tan, and desiccated skin stretched like papier maché over limbs too long, a face too flat, and a mouth of pebbly teeth.

‘They were supposed to sleep until they received a message,’ Ori said. ‘Or until a thousand years had passed.’

The ion storm that killed them came without warning. Phantom happened to be active at the time – while the physicals were in cryo-sleep, the Elektria took turns monitoring the ship’s systems. It tried to wake the others, to reroute power, to unplug the cryo-pods, but nothing worked. After 700 years of silence, calamity took just minutes. When it was over, Phantom was the only one left. It took refuge on the ship’s computer, the only place it could survive.

Ori tapped a button to eject the corpse, and the pod opened with a hermetic whoosh.

‘I don’t think you should,’ Illy said, but he was already climbing in.

This was it. The reason he’d come down here. He closed the door.

Ori couldn’t hear the plasma generators powering up, but the hairs on his neck stood. Glowing plasma filled the pod with light, and suddenly, he could feel every nerve in his body. White light seared his optic nerve until it separated into red orange yellow green blue indigo violet, and those each separated into colours Ori had no words for. The sounds of wind and waves, of pulse drives and symphonies, all rushed through his auditory cortex, and memories he’d forgotten years ago played across his eyes like watching an old viddy found in a drawer.

Ori had never thought of himself as being alone. But in that moment, as Phantom initiated the Pairing, he realised how alone he’d been. Everything he’d ever had was external. But not anymore. Now the stars, the dust, the pull between atoms, were part of him. He knew this was taking mere seconds, but as the Pairing progressed, it was as if time were a pendulum, and he was at the end, swinging out over the stars as the universe flowed around him.

A buzzing from the corridor intruded. More drones, and these weren’t seekers; these were hunter-killers. He was back in the present, watching Illy hunt around like a kitten for a crevice to hide in, but in the circular chamber, there was nowhere to hide. He shouted, but none of his shouts were reaching. She was peering into one of the cryopods now, disgust plain on her face. Illy wasn’t squeamish, but the pod was like a coffin, complete with mummy. She ejected the body and got in just before the drones arrived. They attacked immediately. The cryopods were designed to withstand decompression, ejection into space, even particulate strikes. These drones should’ve been nothing. But they shattered Ori’s viewport. The plasma surrounding him sealed the breach, incinerating drones by the dozen.

But his pod was only active because he was Pairing. Illy wasn’t. She didn’t have any plasma, she was just hiding. A crack appeared in her viewport and the drones focused in.

‘Illy!’ He screamed, even though she couldn’t hear him.

And then her pod filled with light.

When Ori stepped out, fully Paired, the air stunk of burnt electronics. Illy’s pod was still closed. He had no idea how she’d activated the plasma, but the ash of incinerated drones mounded around her was proof that she had. The glowing plasma suddenly winked out, and he could see her. And, he realised, he could feel her too. In the back of his brain, in the same place he felt Phantom, a little tucked-away nugget of emotion. The look on her face matched what he was feeling. She was thrilled.

‘I’ve never even imagined anything like this,’ she gasped when he helped her out.

‘How’d you activate the plasma?’

‘I made a brainlink and implanted myself. I’m Paired now too. This is…’ She looked around with wonder.

‘I know. It’s amazing. But there’s more PlanSec coming.’ He started tapping the next cryo-pod over. ‘Let’s eject these bodies and power up the plasma. We can defend ourselves—’

‘Ori, let’s leave! This is a ship. We’re Paired now, we can fly it.’

He paused. ‘You want to leave?’

‘I mean…we can’t stay. PlanSec knows who we are now. Everything we’ve been working toward was so we could leave. We’ve got a programmer and a Builder ship full of Builder tech. We’ll figure the rest out later.’

He cleared the pod he was standing beside. ‘Okay.’

Paired, they barely had to talk to ready for launch. On the bridge, they worked seamlessly, starting generators, activating artificial gravity, initiating life support.

An alarm sounded as a PlanSec squad made it to the external door.

‘Sixty seconds,’ Illy said, bringing propulsion online. ‘Anyone you want to say goodbye to, now’s the time.’

Ori vidded Marvin.

‘I got busted. PlanSec’s coming for you.’

Marvin didn’t ask any questions. Ori heard furniture scraping, people moving. He scanned the stolen prototype’s data port. ‘I’m sending you something.’ He heard the ping that meant his transfer had gone through, then a whispered, ‘holy shit’.

‘That’s PlanSec’s new programmer,’ Ori said. ‘It has all their designs, all their top-secret shit, even the brainlinks. There’s your Holy Grail. Do some good with it.’

‘Twenty seconds, Ori!’

Ori cut the vid. On the monitor, the PlanSec troops advanced cautiously down the hallway. But they were too late.

Ignition pushed Illy and Ori into their seats. They blasted through the launch channel and climbed from the planet’s surface like a homesick angel. In less than a minute, they were joining the dance of ships in orbit. There were hundreds of them twinkling like fireflies against the black of space, some holding position, others streaking into the darkness.

The viewscreens let them see in every direction, as if they were in the centre of a crystal ball. Phantom used their visual inputs to give the nav computer its first celestial fix in ten-thousand years.

Ori looked at Illy. ‘Where do you want to go?’

Antares had always been her dream, but the cost was insane, not to mention the prospect of thirty days in basic class. But that was before they had access to a Builder ship. At the speed this ship travelled, Antares was thirty hours away.

A shared glance was all the discussion they needed, and then they were en route, the glowing orb where they’d spent their whole lives receding in the viewscreen.

Ori’s hand slid across the console and found Illy’s. Her excitement matched his own. The thrill in her pulse, the warmth in her palm. Hope chattered brightly along their connection.

She squeezed, and he squeezed back.

The galaxy was wide open. ∎

Gregory Neil Harris lives in Washington, D.C. with his dog. When he’s not writing, he can be found wandering nature, playing guitar, or people watching on city streets.

Dante Luiz is an illustrator, art director for Strange Horizons, and occasional writer from southern Brazil. He is the interior artist for Crema (comiXology/Dark Horse), and his work with comics has also appeared in anthologies, like Wayward Kindred, Mañana, and Shout Out, among others. Find him on Twitter or his website.

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