by Fran Wilde
~ originally published in Asimov’s April/May 2015
Officially, I don’t see anything I’m not supposed to. That’s in all the reports. That’s what I tell myself each night when I sneak into St. Paul’s cemetery like the local kids do. My eyes are still sensitive and weak from surgery, especially the right one. Even at night, light flickers at the edges of my vision, becoming open mouths, panicked hands, a fire-bright bird plummeting through a shattering roof. The ghost images appear and disappear, tainting what I’m supposed to see now: the cornfields, the wrought iron fence, the heron in St. Paul’s bicentennial tree.
My data-surgeon, Ben, says, “Hang tight, Eleanor,” when he visits. He’s working on new filters, and his bosses and IARPA are pushing him to move fast. Soon I’ll see perfectly again.
On my rounds in the cemetery, I stumble on a loose brick and fall forward, landing hard on both hands. My jeans don’t tear on the age-soft path, but the scar tissue on my left knee aches as I fight to rise and keep walking. My palms sting where they aren’t numb. A wave of light passes slowly across my vision from left to right.
“An ocular disturbance,” Ben calls it. The light resolves into more faces I shouldn’t see. “Bugs in the interface.” Faces with names I no longer fully know. Colleagues. Friends. I watch them scream: James, Mej, Sara. See them sheltering children with their bodies as they die.
After the explosion at el-Somewhere (I no longer know the name), Ben scraped my eyes clean as best he could. He hooked me up to monitors, rerouted my neural feed, and dug around in my implants, past the filters, into the backs of my eyes, my brain.
He rooted out places I’d been, asking, “Where were you?” and murmuring “Good,” each time I couldn’t answer his questions. My mind still tongues the gaps between details, searching for the stucco walls of the home Ben burned away; walls that once supported the roof that I can still see collapsing on my platoon.
At first, I’d felt a rush of relief when Ben pulled the data from me. I longed to forget more as he stripped surnames from soldiers I’d been embedded with, erased the days and hours we’d traveled together. He’d tweezed out each piece of classified information the explosion had seared past my implants’ experimental filters, onto my very human neurons. He did it as carefully as the battlefield surgeon had cut the ruins of my blue PRESS vest off me in the field, pulled shrapnel from my hands, set my leg, and doused my WiFi connection before packing me in ice and sending me to Bethesda.
Officially, Ben got everything. IARPA rewarded his company with more time to fix my eyes before they dropped the contract.
Unofficially, there are shards of data Ben couldn’t remove. Worse, the explosion— Ben calls it the incident—corrupted the interface’s database. Ben’s team has been re-tagging classified items since I left the hospital: military fonts like OCR-Alpha, munitions, certain high-end computer screens. Sometimes these stay classified, sometimes they don’t. Ben said as much when he visited my hospital room, flanked by company lawyers. Beneath my bandages, my vision pulsed black and red. The ghosts of my friends mouthed his words: contracts, obligations, recovery. I shook at the thought of going home, but Ben took me anyway.
He let me keep the eyes. Promised the disturbances would fade, but I should report anything new, just in case.
Ghosts aren’t anything new, though. So, officially, I’m not reporting them anymore.
Even local ones.
I pace the old churchyard’s red brick path, focusing on my footing. The four-hun-
dred-year-old swamp chestnut oak rises a hundred feet high beside the fence, ac-
cording to the bicentennial plaque. Its roots churn the ground; its branches filter the young moon. The dappled shadows here are all my wounded vision can tolerate.
I spot movement in a far corner plot, near Tallulah’s grave. See a screen-green glow. Kids, seeking their own haunts. I take the path in their direction. Two years ago, I couldn’t see a thing at that distance. Even with the buggy hardware, these eyes are better than the ones I was born with. I don’t want to lose them.
My left eye has less damage. The other eye still holds images that Ben and IARPA couldn’t strip: James, Sara, Mej. The roof that grew a hole of flame. The falling bird.
Ben took my platoon’s unit number and anything that would reveal the incident’s location, but I’m guessing most families don’t know what really happened to their kids any more than I do. I can see it in my friends’ faces all the time, especially in that eye.
Because the right eye’s more sensitive around the edges, Tallulah, former star of stage and screen, usually shows up at the corner of my left eye first, like she knows that won’t startle me as much.
Tallulah always knew where a camera pointed in life. Apparently this is true in death too. She’ll show in my left eye, smiling that half-smile from Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. If she stands still long enough, the nearby gravestones filter through the pattern of her dress and dapple her skin with last names: Beacon. Staunton. So far tonight, she’s nowhere to be seen.
When Ben brought me home from the hospital, he left after an awkward minute of not meeting my father’s eyes. Upstairs, my old room was too bright, even with the shades drawn and my news clippings and blue and gold Kent County pennants dark with shadows. So I lugged my gear down the back stairs and across the grass to the empty tack room in the barn. Windowless and stuffy from years of disuse, it had a light on a dimmer that I could dial all the way down. I messaged DO-NOT-DISTURB to Ben’s company’s servers, then took a pill one of the nurses had given me. The pill filled in all the empty spaces behind my eyes with more darkness, and I slept through dinner. Then I snuck out, past my dad waiting in the farmhouse kitchen, his fingers drumming a beat on a can of Natty Boh he wasn’t drinking.
I stumbled through the cornstalks and past the old battlefield by my family’s farm, all the way to St. Paul’s cemetery, looking for quiet. It was, I recalled, one place where WiFi didn’t reach. For the first time since I took the job and Ben installed the eyes and their WiFi implant, I was alone with my ghosts and what I could still remember.
St. Paul’s churchyard is well off the main highway, down a gravel road that passes through the deep cover of summer corn and kudzu-draped telephone poles near my family’s home. Caulk’s Field, a War of 1812 skirmish site, is a stone’s throw away, along one of the few lanes of tar-patched macadam that connects one small town to another on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In high school, the Frain twins and I went haunt-hunting all around here. Never saw a single spirit.
Now, weeks after I came home, I’d rather be at St. Paul’s than with my father in his kitchen, his face filtered through the images of dead friends I’m not supposed to see.
When Ben came back out to the farmhouse last week to tweak the filters, my father ignored him and I kept quiet about St. Paul’s. Ben’s company had designed my eyes to see only what they’re supposed to, and they needed to work for everyone to get paid.
When I’d signed on, Ben had promised me and my dad, “Best of both worlds. Huge improvement over the available augmented lenses.” He sounded like a brochure. I liked that as much as I liked the idea of twenty-twenty vision, and Ben knew that. He’d spotted my thick glasses and journalism textbooks from across the quad on a campus recruitment visit. He’d called up the size of my Chesapeake College student loan, too.
“Hiring full-time, not freelance. Experience in the field, with pay. See what few see.”
My father hadn’t been sure. “What if she sees too much over there?”
“The lenses let us keep classified info classified, and Eleanor can still do her job,” Ben explained. He said IARPA loved the implants, which were stronger and easier to filter than the usual wearables. He offered a few shares on any profits, if the military picked up a full contract.
I’d signed fast, barely looking at my dad or reading the small print. Rand, Eleanor. One of few in my class with a job. Nineteen years old and a war correspondent, with the latest vision augmentation, courtesy of IARPA and Ben’s company.
They fixed up my eyes with the latest extra-high-res implants and made me part of the information front line. My beat: slice-of-life stories. I would relay my platoon’s personal side, nothing classified. Their humanitarian missions. How James dealt with stress (computer games, mostly an old one called Portal); the personal touches Mej put on her battle vest (a teddy bear patch, flags, and a pink ribbon for her mom). The USO celebrities Sara had met (and the back-up singer she’d kissed behind the bandstand).
The project fast-tracked when my first field tests came back: anything flagged as classified either blurred or disappeared altogether. Until the explosion. Then I saw everything. The shattering roof. The terrified faces doubling, shifting, and the dead lifting away, passing right through me. I still see them. I see the dark gaps of what I no longer know, too. I close my eyes tight and wait until the images fade. The filters are fixed, I whisper. Things work now.
Officially, they do. I can’t read military fonts again. I can’t watch the latest blockbuster movies: modern tanks and guns vanish. Everything in order. Except for the ghosts—those details that had burned so deep, Ben couldn’t dig them out without blinding me and killing the trial.
Unlike war zones, St. Paul’s cemetery is a terrible place for trials and the information front line. Not many visitors, horrible WiFi. The dead zone in the churchyard lets me keep some things to myself. So here’s where I come when it gets dark. Here’s where I practice walking and trying to see, off the record.
When Tallulah doesn’t show, I go looking for her, my pace slow. I favor my right leg since the explosion at I-Wish-I-Could-Remember. Ben won’t tell me if the incident was friendly fire, and I can’t find any reports on the news that might fit in one of my gaps, which means it definitely was.
Tonight, I follow the crumbling brick path through the burial sections toward Tallulah’s grave, reading family markers: Blondell, Stockton, Frain. I glance over the poetry, the Ad Astras, Dulces, and the Prepare to Follow Me’s. The 1812 and 1918 markers cast lengthening shadows, while the salt-white Confederate and Union stones look squat and pale in the moonlight. The boxwoods grow around older stones, sheltering them. The heron—often the only other living creature besides me in the churchyard—huddles bloody-eyed in the bicentennial swamp chestnut oak and stares hungrily at the silver-black pond down the hill.
It’s beautiful at night; there’s no one here I have to watch die. It’s quiet too, without the WiFi.
Granted, if the signal wasn’t so crap inside the fence, Tallulah would be long gone the first time she caught herself on one of the new cameras. Now that I’ve told her everything, she keeps trying. Especially on nights when local kids slip through the wrought iron fence like foxes, looking to get sweaty in the creepy dark, or to lie on the tombstones to try and hear someone sing. Tallulah likes those nights, but I don’t.
I’ve dug for more fragments in my memory while talking through what I know with Tallulah. Looking for clues. Ben left me nothing else. The gaps aren’t a relief any more; they only highlight the shards I have left. Somewhere on IARPA’s servers, tagged classified, is whatever my lenses force-uploaded in a rush during the explosion, but I can’t see it anymore. So much for intrepid reporting. I stumble again and catch myself. Hang tight, Eleanor.
I spot Tallulah before she sees me. She’s sneaking up on the two kids—the owners of the green glow. They’ve brought a tablet to her slab. I hear tinny voices playing from a speaker: the kids have downloaded a movie to try and conjure her or get her singing. Much like I did, long ago. But Tallulah hasn’t complied and the kids have long grown bored. They’re splayed across her grave and her sister’s, the surname showing beneath them: Bankhead.
Tallulah’s by the bicentennial tree, just waiting for them to start taking pictures of themselves, which kids always do. If she can’t get on video, she’s hoping stills will be good enough.
I should never have told her about Mej, Sara, and James. About their upload and what I think really happened. Now it’s all she wants. Cameras. Networks. Once Tallulah gets out, who knows what might follow. All she needs is one good shot, and I don’t want to let her go.
The suits at IARPA have no idea what their optics can pick up. Ben doesn’t either.
“Too much data per pixel turns experience into electric pulses,” Ben mumbles when he visits. “Too little control over the upload.” Each visit, he takes my backup data patch, lays it on his fancy tablet, and fiddles with the settings, adjusting classified tags to control what I can and can’t see. Once he classified the cornfield, filtering out anything tall, green, and a few inches in diameter. I stubbornly bumbled my way through it, blind, until I crashed into the churchyard’s wrought iron fence.
Sometimes Ben blocks certain colors. I haven’t been able to see orange since he was here last.
He has no setting to filter out ghosts.
I watch Tallulah kneel so her face is level with the kids’ heads. She can go so still, sitting like that. As expected, one teen lifts her tablet to take a photo of herself and her friend lying on the grave. I cough.
They jump. Tallulah hasn’t planned on the kids spooking.
But it’s not her who scares them. I wasn’t put back perfectly after the incident. I limp and stumble. My hair grows patchy at scar-lines. My eyes gained an extra ring around the corneas that looks bright red in the moonlight.
The kids go shrieking back over the fence, shirts billowing and catching on the twists in the wrought iron. I hear the loud sound of cotton ripping thread from seam.
They’ve dropped the tablet in the grass between the Bankhead sisters’ gravestones. By the time I pick it up and put my thumb on the camera, Tallulah’s looming over my left shoulder, her profile sharp and close. The hair on my arms rises. Her mouth makes a shape that would sound like “tsk”; her skin’s smooth as a twenty-year-old’s, and she’s decked herself out in a black plunge-neck dress and pearls the size of my knuckles, straight from one of her publicity shots. A cigarette dangles from her fingertips.
“Nasty habit,” I say. I’m glad she’s here with me as the kids’ shrieks echo in my ears.
She looks at me mischievously from the corner of her eye. Taps the ghost-ash onto the tablet, where it disappears. “Nice dress,” I add.
I know little about fashion, and am only now learning about black and white movies and history. Still, Tallulah preens at my comment. Her pale-as-night fingers brush her neckline. She holds out her hand for the tablet and pouts.
“No. Not for you.” I look at what the kids downloaded. Sigh. “It’s Devil and the Deep.” I’d rather hike back to the tack room and get another movie, if she wants to watch something. I wait and hope. I’d downloaded a bunch of films and footage: Lifeboat, where she played the war correspondent; a newsreel of Tallulah booing that South Carolina Senator during Truman’s inauguration parade; a few of her Batman appearances. We like to watch those. We aren’t so big on Devil and the Deep’s jealous love triangle.
Tallulah shakes her head, sending her finger-wave hairdo into a wild nimbus. I laugh. Then she puts her hand through my arm. That freezes me. I hit the panic switch Ben installed when he scraped my memory.
My vision goes dim around the edges, then black everywhere. Only the ghost image of my friends stays, seared behind my eyes. I wait, breathless and cold in the dark, until Tallulah pulls her hand away. Then I slowly switch my neural gear back on, so I can see again. I feel myself breathe once, twice. Feel my heart pound. Tallulah’s never tried to touch me before. She shouldn’t be able to. Tallulah only appears in my cameras because of how high-res the lenses are. Because the hardware is buggy, not the rest of me.
The rest of me is off limits.
I want to hide inside the eighteenth-century church’s red brick walls until the sun rises again, blinding me with light. But I have to report this. Ben will see my biodata the minute I step out of the graveyard. He’ll wonder what I’m not telling him. So I force my feet to move up the path. Left, then right, until I’m past the heron and the bicentennial tree and through the gate.
That bird gives me the creeps, squatting like an old man trapped in a feathered body.
When I cross the parking lot that separates churchyard from cornfield, I feel the WiFi signal tickle my hardware, what’s left of it, and lock on. I ignore the waiting messages and send a quick flag to Ben. Then I pace all the way back to the tack room in the barn, wishing I’d disappeared with my friends.
I open the door expecting darkness. But the light is on and Ben’s standing in the tack room as if he owns it. I jump like I’ve just seen a ghost.
Going by Ben’s creased khakis, the navy-blue jacket folded over his arm, and his wind-twisted hair, he’s just arrived. I didn’t see his Jeep by the farmhouse. Of course not. He must have filtered it. Still doesn’t explain why he’s inside while I’m outside.
“Figured you’d be here. Door was unlocked,” he mumbles when I hit the dimmer switch, then stare at him, forcing an explanation. “What the hell happened? Your biometrics went nuts, then shut down completely.”
Ben holds up a tablet that’s orders of magnitude sleeker than either the one I’d rescued from the cemetery grass or the one I use to rent videos from the library. A tablet with a screen so filter-blurred, I can’t see my own data.
“I got spooked, I guess.”
“And you hit your panics? You’re supposed to only do that to keep an upload from happening.”
I step inside, squeezing around Ben. He’s taking up most of the tack room. I set the teens’ tablet on my cot, atop a worn army-surplus blanket.
“Kids set off firecrackers in Caulk’s Field.” I try to breathe easy so my biometrics won’t show me up as a liar. So Ben won’t come up with more questions. I follow quickly with, “You’re early.”
Our next meeting isn’t until Monday. Today’s Friday. (I look at my watch: it’s Saturday now.) I hold my ground. I’d signed waivers, sure, a neophyte journo, eager to do anything for an edge. Signed more after the incident too, when they’d put me back together.
I haven’t signed a single document that says Ben can sneak up on me without calling first.
He doesn’t say anything, just holds out his hand. He knows I’m lying about something. I pull the data-patch from the back of my neck and give it to him. The patch blurs where the military font—OCR-Alpha—spells out Rand, Eleanor, in classified letters.
“Close your connection, just in case,” I say. If Tallulah can touch me, what else might she do? Jump through my cameras onto Ben’s tablet?
Ben’s forehead furrows like it did when I told him about my visions in the hospital,
but he nods. “Nothing goes up without a filter anymore.”
There’d been a server crash just after the incident-that-didn’t-happen, Ben had admitted a couple of weeks ago. The explosion, he said while waving a hand like it was nothing, had pushed too much data through too fast. Too much energy through the lenses. “A ghost in the machine,” he’d joked lamely. I groan at the memory.
Based on the no-sender emails that keep coming to me from the server, and the jumble of lost-file messages circulating at Ben’s company, they’re still having problems. “How’s the cleanup going, anyway?” I ask. Sometimes I can get Ben talking, especially if he wants information from me.
He looks up and winks. “Better.” Then he focuses on the tablet.
“Anyone pick it up on the news?” I know I’m annoying him while he’s trying to do
his job, but if news does get out, my peaceful recovery will come to an abrupt end.
Ben and IARPA made a bit of a PR show out of my equipment trial. Giving a new reporter with failing eyesight the chance of a lifetime. The only civilian journo to take the deal on the new hardware. Later, a nurse had mentioned others, while she’d watched me swallow huge antibiotics and the immunosuppressant that made me pee orange and move slowly down the hallways for days, but Ben shook his head when I asked. “That’s classified.”
Now his smile tightened. “Nope, no news is good news, as always.” He looked at me carefully. “How’s your research coming?”
The hospital therapist had suggested I work on a story for the Galena-Gazette. A way to keep my skills up and reconnect with my hometown. Ben agrees that that’s great cover for what we’re really working on. So I told folks, my dad included, I was doing research on the battlefield and the graveyard. I’d downloaded some articles and films at the Chestertown library. Making my own cover. Learned more about Tallulah. I shrug. “It’s a project, I guess.”
Ben frowns in sympathy. “I know this isn’t what you thought you’d be doing. But we’ve got big plans for your eyes, once they’re fixed. And the area’s history, that old battlefield, the fact that the churchyard’s supposed to be haunted, those are great details. If you could really see ghosts, this is the place they’d be, right?” He punches my shoulder lightly.
I stare at Ben through the lace of my friends’ faces. Sara, James, and Mej, trapped between us, with no way home.
I know how historic this area is. A long-dead great-something uncle had been the first to report on the Battle of Caulk’s Field to the Boston Independent back in 1814.
At school, we all had to learn about the battle. I’d hiked through Caulk’s Field at night on a dare and then to St. Paul’s. Hadn’t seen a single ghost back then, and went on WKHS county radio to talk about it, because the Frain twins had a show. Dad had been so proud.
Since when has Ben been interested in the area’s ghosts? In any ghosts at all?
A light goes on at the farmhouse. My dad’s shadow appears in the window. I wave out the door and he turns the light off. Giving me my space. Time to heal. I can’t look at him without wanting to weep.
Ben misinterprets my expression. Bumps my shoulder again with his fist. “We’ve got new filters, Eleanor. A new plan too. We think your platoon ghosts might be a feature, not a bug, if they’re really . . .” he pauses, “Properly presented and constrained.”
He swallows hard enough that I can hear him in the stuffy room. “Imagine what ghosts could show us.” Ben laughs too loudly, making me jump again. “So tell me what happened out there tonight.”
I press my lips together. I’ve let him take too many friends already.
Tallulah keeps me company on dark nights. She sits by me, saying nothing, while I try to drive the last of the ghosts from my eyes. She senses when my moods darken, when I want to shut down completely, to hit the panic switch and not reset it. To pluck out my eyes and throw them at the heron. She dances around the tiny gravestones, the ones lost in the bushes and tangled in the roots of the bicentennial tree. Reenacts scenes from her movies. She brings friends, sometimes. Her sister. Once, an old soldier who didn’t know what to make of my eyes and went muttering back to his grave. A child who threw ghost-white rocks at the bicentennial tree, but couldn’t shift the heron. None of them fill the holes in my memory, but they distract me. Tallulah does that for me.
Now Ben stands over me, waving his sleek tablet. “Why did you lock down, Eleanor?”
And I tell him a little about Tallulah. Not much. About the feel of Tallulah’s hand through my arm. I don’t know what I expect to happen next. A quick Jeep trip to the hospital, maybe.
But Ben’s lips tighten in a thin smile. He puts his hand to his chin. “That’s very interesting.” He uses the tone people adopt when interesting means dangerous. His gaze goes all hunting-bird and he hefts the backup patch in his other hand. Looks hard into my eyes. “I should take you to Bethesda, but you know what will happen there.”
I do. They’ll disconnect almost everything, and I’ll be worse than blind until they can figure out what’s happening. Trapped. Unable to stop seeing the dying ghosts. I pray for Ben to suggest something else, no longer trusting my own voice.
He clears his throat and gives me an apologetic smile. “We have a new filter I’d like to test. So if there is a ghost out there at St. Paul’s, or over in Caulk’s Field, you can safely capture it.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. In the hospital, I kept telling him that when the blast broke the filter chip the first time, I saw everything—the dying and the dead— as a bird fell burning through the hole in the roof. What I didn’t tell him was that I saw my friends’ faces doubling, lifting from their bodies, passing through me.
The dead were looking for a way out. It seems they always are.
Ben hadn’t believed me then.
One night, I told Tallulah about the whole mess, thinking she’d tilt her head and mouth the long syllables for “Dar-ling.” But I’d forgotten how smart she was. Everyone always forgot that. That’s not the story you hear about Tallulah in town. There, she’s just the ghost of a hard-partying star who loved the limelight. I know better, now. Tallulah pays attention.
When the explosion happened, my footage went through me and uploaded filterless. James, Sara, Mej, and the kids caught in the explosion—seared onto my eyes, and maybe onto files and footage where they didn’t belong, getting everywhere.
James had loved computers once, as much as Tallulah loved the camera.
So Ben’s team is testing the filters again. Making them stronger. Trying to trap themselves some ghosts. “What’s in it for me?”
Ben smiles, looking genuinely pleased. “Getting your vision under control, for one. Two: a bigger stake in the equipment. Three: a new assignment, back in the world. Somewhere more connected.”
“Doing what?” I can’t believe they’ll put me in the field again. I’ve seen too much, and I keep seeing more, even though I shouldn’t. Even though facts are blurred and the details disappear.
Ben reaches into his bag and takes out a folder. The font is Futura, not OCR-Alpha, so I can read it just fine. Ben explains anyway. “This is the new marketing plan for the recorders. If there really are ghosts, people will be able to control their ability to see them. Maybe eventually interact with them. Imagine the potential, Eleanor. Imagine what we could learn.”
I sputter. Marketing? Taking the implants public? “No one’s going to want this, once they realize what it means.” When I think about it, I feel sick. Ben’s right. The public will love the idea.
People always want to see what they think they shouldn’t.
“We can test out the filters tonight, while it’s still dark. I have a demo right here.”
Ben holds up a pair of what look like night-vision goggles, with extra knobs. “And a software update for you.”
Ben’s other stakeholders must be desperate to get something—anything—on the wider market.
“No.” Ad Astra Per Aspera, the gravestones in the churchyard say. Dulce et Decorum Est. Rest in Peace. Prepare to follow me. I remember sneaking through the fence as a teen. The comfort of not seeing anything in the graveyard besides the stones.
“I hate to tell you what you already know, Eleanor,” Ben’s voice wavers. “You really can’t say no.”
And I know that, too. I sit on my cot in the tack room and let him run the install. Feel the filters drop over the centers of my eyes like a slightly darker shade of a color I can’t see.
Then we go back outside. Me, stumbling slightly in the dark, and Ben wearing his ridiculous goggles. Looking for Tallulah.
We cross the parking lot and, beneath the shadow of the bicentennial tree, I open the wrought iron gate and let Ben step through first. I follow, my feet tentative on the moss-woven brick path. The signal flickers and Ben groans.
“Sorry, I should have warned you,” I say. “When’s the last time you were off-signal?”
Ben pushes past me and steps back through the gate. “New plan.”
“Where are you going?”
“The filters won’t work without a signal,” he says. “I’ll boost yours from here.”
At Ben’s voice, the heron unfolds its wings and drops from the big limb overhanging the cemetery. It knifes past me, its neck stretched out to the deadly point of its beak; all objective and mortality. Its huge grey wings seem to span a whole churchyard section as it glides to the pond, skimming gravestones.
The bird’s silent flight makes Ben gasp and step back farther into the parking lot. “That thing is huge.”
“If you won’t come inside the fence, how are you going to test the filters?” I say. My breath passes ragged between my teeth.
He points at me. “You can test them. We need this, Eleanor. We can boost your range just for the test. These?” he lifts the opera glasses, “are stuck.”
I wait again. My feet wobble on the brick. I’m inside the fence, and he’s outside. I don’t have to do a thing, and it will be morning soon. He’ll send me to the surgeon. Everything will go dark.
Ben isn’t all that great at keeping secrets when he wants something badly. He told me about the upload problem, the way the filter failed in the explosion. He’ll tell me what he really wants if I wait long enough.
While I wait, I see movement in the corner of my eye. Imagine I smell cigarettes.
But Ben doesn’t speak. He only stares back at me, pleading.
“Look, it’s nearly dawn. I haven’t slept. Whatever you want here will have to wait until tomorrow.” The heron returns silently to its branch.
“Please, Ellie, just try? So I don’t have to go back and tell them your rig is malfunctioning and they take you back in?” he finally says.
“Why, Ben? What’s so urgent?”
He plants his feet outside the fence and leans on the railing, wincing when he feels the signal go away again. “I have a big presentation on Monday. If they don’t get what they want—and they want this to go live—they’re killing the program. Know what that means, Eleanor?”
I do know. No more support for me or my gear. Either they’ll let me degrade out here, in peace, or they’ll disconnect me entirely. I don’t know which would be better.
I think back to what I’d wanted to be, before the surgeries, before the explosion-that-wasn’t. To the fresh-from-school journalist who thought telling everyone about everything I saw was the key to the world. I wonder if I can see my dad one last time.
“Know what, Ben? I’ve been doing my research,” I said. “On the implants. On Tallulah. On everything. On Caulk’s Field. You know that in 1814, the British heard an entirely different story at home than our folks did? That their brave Captain Parker who sailed up the Chesapeake didn’t ambush farms and burn the coast, and that he wasn’t routed by a small band of untrained farmers and a teenager with a gun and some buckshot?”
Ben looks confused. “So?”
“So there’s always been an information battlefront. Part of the story’s always filtered out.”
At the corner of my left eye, I see Tallulah has changed her clothes. She’s wearing the white shirt and dark pants from Lifeboat. Typing my words on an improbable ghostly Remington portable.
The ghosts in my eye, who had been my friends—James, Sara, and Mej—seem to be watching her. Can she help them find their last names in all the data? Take the real story to a wider audience?
I look across the graveyard, to where the family stones are: Stamford, Beamton, Rand. See souls dreaming of stars, escape.
Since I told her everything, I’ve worried Tallulah would get loose and run wild across the networks. Cause a scandal.
I stop pacing the brick walkway. Turn to face Ben. “You want me to catch a ghost for you. A soul. And send it where?”
He shakes his head. “It’s not like that. They’re not souls. They might be left-behind electrical charges or figments of very active imaginations.” He winks at me. I stifle a growl and he keeps talking. “They’re like data—pulses of energy. They’re not really people. The explosion in your cameras caused havoc on the network that first time like ball lightning does. And storm surges. It’s just data, Eleanor. It’s all data.”
Ball lightning. And surges. Fine. I take a deep breath and focus on the image still pale in my augmented retina. I focus on James, Sara, and Mej. The kids they’re sheltering. All their faces, scared and screaming.
“It’s not just data,” I say. “Data doesn’t haunt a network. It doesn’t disappear files and send emails to people who should never receive them. You can’t contain this.”
He shakes his head. Puts on his sport coat. The graveyard’s getting chilly. “Every system has gremlins and bad code.”
“Not like this,” I whisper, blinking the image away. I step farther into the graveyard.
Ben leans over the gate. “Where does she usually come from?” He looks back and forth, the lenses of his goggles shining an oily red.
I realize what he wants, finally. “You want to put Tallulah in your presentation? Upload her?” Trapping Tallulah would buy Ben’s project more time for certain. He’d have a real proper show on his hands.
Ben nods, eager. “Can you help me? Can you tell me where she is? Or any of them? Or can you see one for me and upload it to my tablet? The network’s filtered and locked down. She won’t ever get any farther.”
I think about how much farther Tallulah could go. Probably work her way right back into the movies, and love it. Or, thinking about what I’ve learned about her, probably finding some jerk to yell BOO at. If she made it all the way out, she’d make the news. Movies. Commercials. Anything she wanted. Tallulah would love that.
Motion at the corner of my right eye. Long fingers holding a pale cigarette. She’s done her hair in a late 1920s bob, and is wearing an empire-waist, sleeveless beaded gown that, if anyone could hear it, would clatter when she walked.
“What are you staring at?” Ben asks. “Is it her?” He puts his hand over the fence and touches my arm, raising gooseflesh.
“A pile of heron crap,” I say. He lets go of my arm and backs out from under the tree, brushing reflexively at his jacket. I keep talking. “You’d keep her off the wider network? Use her only for the presentation?”
“I would,” Ben says. “She’d stay in here,” he taps his tablet. “No way out.”
Tallulah tilts her head in my peripherals. The center of my vision is filtered thanks to the patch, but Tallulah never comes straight at me. She frowns and taps her cigarette. Furrows her brows. When her sister appears, Tallulah waves her away. Doesn’t want her to be caught and boxed.
No more than I do.
“I can’t see her clearly, Ben. Go ahead and bump up the signal as high as you can.” I pull my patch from my neck and hand it to him.
He’s eager to get this done. Slaps the patch on the tablet. The sky beyond the pond is turning a paler shade of night. I watch the tablet screen glow, then fade.
He passes the patch back to me. “Good to go, Eleanor.And don’t tell a soul, okay? This is classified until further notice.”
“My pleasure, Ben.” I feel the signal boost as I reattach the data patch on my neck. Sense a bit of the network beyond Ben’s tablet. Turn my head so I can’t see Tallulah, and sit down on her gravestone. Feel a chill as she comes to sit beside me. “Ready?” I say.
“Ready,” Ben says from beyond the fence. Tallulah nods, too.
She comes in from the side of my right peripheral, looking beautiful. Like a young movie star. Winks at the filter and “tsks,” like it’s nothing. James is there, with Mej and Sara. All the kids. Waiting for her. James points out a path and together they slide right past the filter. They reach the wider signal.
They turn and she blows me a kiss. Shoulders a portable Remington typewriter. Her lips form the word “Darling.”
She waves at the other ghosts. Draws their pale shades with her. Out into the broader signal. Out where they can tell all the news.
I catch Ben’s eye and smile sadly, my head tilted to one side. “I don’t see anything I’m not supposed to see, Ben.”
The heron readjusts its wings with a clatter. Across the churchyard, the sun rises.
My eyes see what’s around me clearly for the first time in years. I rise from the gravestone and start the long walk back through the cornfield, where there’s a light in the kitchen that means home.
~ END ~
Copyright, Fran Wilde, 2015. You are welcome to link to this page, but no reproduction of this material is allowed without specific, written permission.
~ originally published in Asimov’s April/May 2015~