The Ghosts of Los Hellas
by RJ Astruc
The sharp drop to Los Hellas Airstrip reminded Gig of ‘Nam. Not the real war, of course, but the twentieth century celluloid reproductions he often surfed past on late-night cable. Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket. Topographically it was a fair comparison. Cradled in the sweaty palm of the Pacific, you could easily mistake tropical Los Hellas for some outlying Vietnamese atoll. Lush palms fringed flat beaches speckled with shells and narrow-skulled gulls. Beyond them lay a limitless green stratified by shadow and a heat as intense as anesthesia.
The plane was a decommissioned military jet and the pilot was a decommissioned military Lieutenant in a sweat-patched airline uniform that bulged grossly at the belly and chest. Gig had hated the man at first sight and felt vindicated, later, when the pilot started cracking crude jokes. Disgusted, Gig spent the duration of the flight staring dreamlessly out the window. Even from several hundred feet he could still see the pale outlines of the new SWIFTWATER cables surrounding Los Hellas’ jagged coastline.
Lucas had mentioned the cables in his correspondence about the project, referring to them by the name coined by the Los Hellan natives. Gusano de agua – waterworms. Which was a fitting term, especially when you considered the burrowing intestinal waterworms you could contract in these parts, those thick fleshy invertebrates that snuck up your asshole in shallow water and could only be flushed out surgically.
That was the SWIFTWATER Corporation all over: tenacious and unashamedly parasitic.
Los Hellas customs was a skinny guy with a Hitler mustache and a one-eyed Alsatian called Rambo. Gig filled in a declaration form (No drugs, No alcohol, No weaponry) while the dog pushed its wet nose insistently into the back of his knees. By the time Skinny Hitler had processed his papers, Gig was certain of one thing. This project – whatever it was – had a strong public relations element to it. He’d been called here in part because of his face. The Los Hellans were Mexican-European half-breeds, but they looked like him.
Lucas Carter was waiting for Gig in the airstrip cafeteria, one hand on his wallet, the other marking jukebox time with a curly plastic straw. At nineteen the kid had transformed into a little corporate drone, his stiff suit fringed with the primary yellows, reds and blues of SWIFTWATER. Handsome, though – handsome in a small, neat way, with his button nose, cream skin, dark hair and brilliant green eyes. Gig was relieved to discover that Lucas had grown up to look absolutely nothing like his mother. Except, perhaps, for his mouth, which was wide and tender and somehow cynical, and made Gig’s heart stop – just for a moment – in a not-so-distant memory of Regina Carter’s kiss.
“I’m here,” he said, and slung his duffel bag – his only luggage – onto the fraying cotton seat to Lucas’ left.
The kid swiveled in his chair and stared up coyly from beneath thick eyelashes. “Barely. I saw you stagger in. You’ve a face as white as a mime. What happened, you loose your lunch to turbulence? Don’t tell me the flight in was that bad.”
“I’ve had better. Jesus, this weather. How do you cope?”
“You get used to it. You have to. The Los Hellans don’t believe in air-conditioning. If you’re too hot, they say, go jump in the sea. I’ve been on site now for eight months, since they finished laying the waterworms. After the first week you stop noticing the heat. Since acclimatizing I’ve hiked seven ways across the island, biked its perimeter, even jogged a ‘fun run’ for a local charity.” Lucas dug out a soft pack of American cigarettes – not Regina’s brand – and tapped impatiently on the base. “And of course I’m responsible for the digital encoding of virtual Los Hellas. Which sounds more impressive than it really is – the whole thing is just algorithms and global positioning co-ordinates. Did I ever explain the project to you?”
“No. Never.” Conspicuously, never. But that was nothing unusual. The Carters – both mother and son – liked to conduct their business on-the-spot; it gave their far-fetched requests a convincing urgency. Made it so you couldn’t refuse them. Gig scanned the cafeteria’s patrons warily: raisin-brown Los Hellan natives, fat Anglo-American tourists, a handful of sloe-eyed East Asian suits. “Do you want to talk somewhere more private?”
Lucas inclined his chair on its back legs and puffed cigarette smoke. Aiming for adult cool, Gig supposed, but succeeding only in cutesy teenage chic. “I’ve got nothing to tell you that you can’t read yourself in the Los Hellas dailies,” he said. “SWIFTWATER is putting a brand new spin on virtual reality. Instead of plugging into a digitalised world, you get to plug right into Los Hellas. Trot your virtual ass through the muck and filth of it. Pry and prod all you like. I mean these are real people, baby—”
“I’m almost twice your age. Don’t call me baby.”
“These are real people and these are real lives, McGuiggen. We’re going to put you, the SWIFTWATER public, right in the heart of something that matters. Something that has consequence. It takes virtual reality to a whole new level – call it virtual tourism.” Lucas’ fingers lingered momentarily over the SWIFTWATER emblem sewn on his breast pocket, sorting the individual threads like the beads of a rosary. “Naturally you can’t interact per se. No touching, no talking to the real people. But you can see. It’s a voyeur’s dream.”
“They’re letting you do this?”
“The Los Hellas economy is weak. And by weak I mean utterly pathetic. SWIFTWATER came to this place – this third world dump – and invested a hell of a lot of money. We improved their healthcare and their standard of living. We donated to their charities and we gave their tourism department the marketing boost it sorely needed. We’re like guardian angels, McGuiggen. We can do what we want here. We can do no wrong.”
It was a lousy speech, real ad-copy bullshit, an insult to Gig’s intelligence and his experience in the field. The kid had some nerve to lay that on him. The hype only served to highlight the too obvious question: If you can do no wrong, then why am I here? But that was the Carter way, Gig remembered. They told the story and let people fill in the gaps themselves. They built themselves unsteady empires then hired some poor dogsbody off the streets to cement the cracks.
“You’re having problems with the natives, aren’t you?” he said. “Let me guess–something blew up messily and you’ve brought me here to smooth things out with the locals. Maybe investigate a little, offer some public proof that SWIFTWATER means well. And of course if I’m an independent contractor, it’ll be harder for them to claim a bias-“
“Close enough.” Lucas waved a hand airily, limp-wristed. “PR, McGuiggen. It isn’t my strong suit.”
“My base rate is fifteen thousand a week plus expenses. I don’t guarantee results.”
“You undersell yourself,” said the kid, grinning. “But we’ll hire you anyway.”
The road to SWIFTWATER headquarters was totally M.A.S.H. – this tunnel of tattered foliage opening to green tents, chemical smells, white dust and brush tumbleweeds. Smocked employees strolled the area, smoking, chatting. For verisimilitude their travelling car was a jeep, but non-army standard, a hulking black beast of a thing, its engine exposed in glistening chrome. Flashy, expensive, and thoroughly tacky. Gig guessed the car had been Lucas’ choice. No – not guessed, knew. The car was an image thing. It said all the things about Lucas that Lucas couldn’t say himself.
Gig said, “You lost weight, huh? Regina mentioned you’d started some new diet-“
Lucas killed the jeep’s engine and looked around. “This is our base site,” he explained. “Direct access to the waterworm’s networks. We run all our virtual tourism walk-throughs from here. Or at least we used to, before the trouble started. Foreign politics, you know how it is. They’re all so bloody superstitious here. God, I hate America. The place was a shit hole even before the north annexed the south, and the people are impossible to work with. Little guys with big attitudes.”
“Kid, your mother’s an American expatriate.”
“Looks like they still haven’t cleared out the latest round of rabble-rousers,” Lucas said loudly. “Get out, McGuiggen, and I’ll show you what this Los Hellan mess is all about.”
Together they walked through two adjacent tents filled with bubble-wrapped hardware and liquid-crystal consoles lit up like electric bunting. A trestle of monitors displayed island landmarks, their feeds tagged simply in longitude and latitude. No cables, Gig noticed. Which was surprising, because any project of this size that required extreme detail was rarely wireless. Wireless was prone to interference and delays, and had the tendency to muck up other signals. Evidently Lucas thought he was too damn good to abide by the limitative laws of technology.
But hell, if SWIFTWATER had okayed the project, maybe the kid actually was that good.
Beyond the tents twelve Los Hellans sat cross legged in the dirt. Sweaty, t-shirt-and-shorts-wearing types, what Lucas’s mother (and maybe Lucas too) referred to as riff raff. Two of the Los Hellans were playing cards. The rest stared distrustfully at Lucas as they walked up. Just the shift in their postures – not exactly aggressive, just prepared – gave Gig the weird feeling that he’d walked into the latest outbreak of an ongoing domestic.
“This, boys and girls, is Mr Felix McGuiggen,” said Lucas. Enunciating like a pre-school teacher. “Who wants to tell Mr McGuiggen what’s going on here?”
“You can call me Gig, if you want, everyone else–“
A big Los Hellan, ripped with muscle, interrupted in careful, broken English: “Demons. You SWIFTWATER people bring demons here.”
“And nasty old ghosts too,” Lucas teased, actually simpering. “Big ghosties and evil things. Because we laid down the waterworms, the gusano de agua, and in laying them down we managed to rouse – oh, I don’t know how precisely, and neither do they – a host of nasty beasts, beasts that are now haunting the streets of Los Hellas. Terrifically scary creatures they are too. Big nasty teeth. And long claws. And some even shaped like sexy she-devils – these people have such imagination, McGuiggen….”
It was sickening the way he talked to these people but sickening also the way they did not talk back, and sat dumbly there, tight-lipped, wet-eyed, just taking it. Gig thought of Easter Island statues: these huge inscrutable dark faces filled with silent suffering, with silent pride. And remembered something Regina had told him once, a little slice of her childhood in redneck America. At school, she’d said to him, we always wore flat faces when the white kids teased us. Flat faces like mirrors. You let nothing out and you let nothing in either, and that made us stronger. In a weird way it gave us power. Sometimes silence is the path of most resistance.
He said aloud, “Okay, Lucas, I get it. Let’s go.”
“What do you mean, you get it?” the kid replied, incredulous. “You haven’t asked them anything!”
“I don’t need to.”
“You’re supposed to talk to them-“
“I’m tired,” Gig lied. “I need to sleep. Please? I can do this myself, another day.”
Lucas pulled a face. “Fine. Whatever.”
They drove into town in silence. Gig stared out the window, avoiding Lucas’s – this new horrible Lucas’s – gaze. And felt at once bullied and ashamed and very far from home. Which would have been terrible if Gig – the chronic self-loather – didn’t feel at least one of those things every minute of his life.
There were reasons why he’d come here, of course. Why he’d flown half way around the globe to some godforsaken island. Why he’d agreed to a job with no description. But they were Gig-reasons, permissible only by Gig-logic. Which held that if your lover wanted some space in the relationship, she meant several thousand miles. And if she wanted you to see more of her children, you booked them in from nine-to-five. And although Lucas claimed the idea was all his own, Gig was certain Regina had had a hand in it somewhere. It was a test – of faith, of love – and he was determined to pass.
Outside his hotel he gave the new Lucas a hug, missing the old Lucas, the flesh of him. “It’s kind of crazy to see you all grown,” he said, suddenly choked up. “I wish I’d been around more often, but you were always at your father’s anyway. Seeing you now, it’s a shock. I hardly know you any more. Regina said you’d changed, but I didn’t expect you to be this way.”
Lucas rolled his eyes. “This way?”
“You’re so confident and so…thin. You look like you’ve really got things together.”
“God, you’re such a fag,” said Lucas.
He pushed a roll of hundreds into Gig’s hand and drove away.
The night was hot–unsleepably so. Gig lay in a puddle of his own sweat and outlined conspiracy-themed theories in his notebook:
- The Los Hellans want SWIFTWATER out and have made up this ghost story to cause trouble.
- Radiation from the gusano is causing hallucinations throughout the Hellan populace.
- The ghosts are the product of mass hysteria as a result of extreme social tension, caused by SWIFTWATER’s presence and the sudden boom in foreign interest.
- The ghosts are real and SWIFTWATER has inadvertently unleashed an unspeakable evil upon this world.
When his ideas began to get too ridiculous he tossed his notebook aside and tried to meditate. He’d picked up the technique–cosmic attunation–from an aging q-base engineer he’d met at a hippy camp in Queensland. It’s not about leaving your body to explore the universe, the engineer had explained, it’s about letting the universe in to explore your body. If you focus long enough you find you can actually feel everything as a measure of air pressure. You can sense the world around you in terms of absence and tension.
The trick usually did good things for Gig’s mental state, but tonight it wasn’t working. It wasn’t just the heat– there was a definite disturbance in the air, an ominous sensation like the calm that preceded sea-storms. His whole body bristled with the potent current of the cosmos.
Shaken, he got up and poured himself a glass of water, knocked back a handful of hormone pills. On a whim he tried Regina’s number, but only got her answering machine: “You’ve reached Regina Carter. I’m currently away on business. Please contact me by email or send a virtu-text to company reception. Thank you for calling.” Hanging up, Gig recalled she’d mentioned something about a trip to Taiwan the last time he’d seen her. Signing a new contract, finalizing a new licensing agreement.
Picking up cute Taiwanese boys.
He hit the internet (mercifully, the hotel was wired) and browsed Los Hellan sites for information on native superstitions. The pages he pulled up on the subject likened the Hellan’s beliefs to the voodoo practices of the West Indies, with a touch of medieval paganism thrown in. Ghosts and spirits and demons and curses and witch doctors–known in Los Hellas as the hamm’d duja, a word that had no apparent European root and was almost certainly a linguistic relic of an earlier, pre-colonial dialect. There were still practicing hamm’d duja all over Los Hellas, many of whom (bless the technological revolution!) actually had their own websites.
Gig jotted down some hamm’d dujas’ addresses and phone numbers on his hotel admission docket. It was six-fifteen now: practically mid-morning in the tropics. At this time he expected most locals would be shopping at the island’s markets, and that meant the esoteric industry would be at a virtual standstill. Chances were that he wouldn’t find a better time to call.
The first two numbers on his list had been disconnected, but the third went through.
The voice was female and old. Not old in a creaky, faded fashion but a loud, sonorous old. A baritone old.
“Hello? Do you speak English?”
“Some little English.”
“My name is Felix McGuiggen, I’m a consultant for the SWIFTWATER Corporation. I was hoping to–“
“What are you belief?”
“My religion? I’m not really part of anything like that–“
“No, no, you belief.”
He had to think about that one. “Well, I guess I believe in ghosts. And curses too–heck, I’m half Scottish, we all believe in curses. And fate, I believe in fate. I believe there’s always a reason for everything–that there’s a reason that I’m here now, for instance, talking to you, even if that reason isn’t immediately clear. I believe everything is connected, too, but I’m a geek, and my model for reality is usually digitalised. And I think I believe–well, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t think you understand what I’m saying anyway–”
“Okay you come here.”
She hung up. That, apparently, was how they organised business meetings in Los Hellas. It was fortunate he’d penciled down the hamm’d duja’s address before closing his web browsers. The way she’d spoken to him, the phonetic resonance of her final words, appealed to him. Okay you come here–it was an order, an order that reminded him (as everything did) of Regina and the recondite joy of being completely under someone’s thumb.
He left a message for Lucas Carter with the hotel concierge: “Went to meet the locals. Will call in when I get back. If your mother phones, say hello from me.”
Helloparis was a ghetto, but a happy ghetto — the kind you saw in American musicals. It was a ten-minute bus ride from the good side of town and Gig’s hotel, and the streets here were thinner, the dirt thicker, and the buildings taller, made of cheap proto-plasmic bricks imported from North America. Long, winding alleys extended from the main road, urban tributaries crisscrossing the muddy terrain of Los Hellas’ West Side.
After he’d rechecked his bearings, Gig headed in. Skinny-legged brown children played basketball on a half-court delineated by shoelaces laid end-to-end. Pretty girls in white smocks brushed their hair on overhanging balconies, their ankles twined about the black iron railings. Old men and women tossed dice around plywood tables. It was picturesque the way poverty sometimes was and Gig felt obscurely as if he was walking through a photo set for National Geographic.
If his features had marked him out decisively as Anglo or Negro or Asian, Gig guessed he would have been hassled–for money, for autographs, for stories of exciting foreign destinations. As it was no one gave him a second glance.
Fifteen minutes later he found the house of the hamm’d duja, a terraced flat shawled in creeping vines. A twelve-foot hamandu dragon that had been sunning itself on the flat’s porch rose gamely onto its forelegs as he approached, and flared the thin, grooved frill along its spine in a display of prehistoric one-up-manship. Gig swatted its blunt muzzle with a rolled up tourist map and the thing lumbered off indignantly.
He knocked on the door. A thin woman opened it and leant, expectant and silent, against the doorjamb, arms folded. She had a freckled, angular face, topped incongruously with a shock of those fluffy, soft ringlets that Regina liked to call ‘Creole curls.’ It was not a face Gig could easily reconcile with that deep, demanding phone-voice: She looked more sulky than sultry, like an adolescent trapped in an adult body. Something of her bearing reminded him equally of Lucas and Regina in a way he couldn’t explain.
“Felix McGuiggen,” Gig explained, pressing a hand to his chest, anticipating the linguistic barrier. And added, hopefully, “Looking for hamm’d duja. You,” pointing, “hamm’d duja?”
The thin woman rolled her eyes. “Me no hamm’d duja,” she replied bitterly, in a voice more soprano than baritone. “My name is Celie and I speak English. I studied at Oxford, England and wrote my thesis on the economical injustices within developing nations. Where did you study?”
“I’m kind of a drop-out,” said Gig.
She ushered him off the street and into a small square room with walls the color of cream cheese. He sat uneasily on a wicker chair while she fetched the hamm’d duja. There was a deliberate line of dirt on the floor circling his chair that smelled–when he bent double to investigate–like roasted cinnamon. Beneath the chair, threaded between the braces, swung small black talismans carved in the shape of expectant, open hands.
He sat up as Celie re-entered with the hamm’d duja. As he’d expected the mystic was an older woman, but her costume was eccentrically youthful: a loose bush shirt and low-belted flared skirt in the fashion of Helloparis’ balcony girls. Massive gold rings distorted her earlobes, and she wore no make-up saving a white powder on her upper eyelids. Ever courteous, Gig rose and committed a short bow — and pretended he didn’t hear Celie’s mocking laugh, or see her roll her eyes again at yet another Hellan faux pas.
The women sat opposite him. The hamm’d duja spoke to Celie, who translated, “She says it’s honourable for a man like you–bound to a corporation like SWIFTWATER–to seek answers amongst the Los Hellans. If that’s truly what you’re here to do.”
“It is. I need you to tell me about the ghosts.”
The women conferred.
“She says the gusano de agua are like a noose around the heart of Los Hellas, strangling all the spirits from it,” Celie said. Her accent, toffeed by British college, still carried a unique drawl. “Our ancestors are buried in the island’s earth and they have been disturbed by SWIFTWATER’s machinery. They have planted forces on our island, alien energies, and they are swelling and spiralling.” Her hands described an inverted gyre. “Our ancestors are confused and angry. They want to find out who has woken them. They are coming to us in spirit-form, as monsters and white-ghouls, seeking answers.”
Gig wondered how Celie–world-wise, intelligent, Oxford educated–could stand to pursue a serious conversation about an invasion of ghosts and monsters. “What do they look like?” he asked. “The ghosts, I mean.”
“They are as large as a man and take all forms,” replied Celie, this time without consulting the hamm’d duja. “Some are only half-shapes, foetal things, arms and legs. Some are clearly men and women. Some take the form of aliens, with arms made out of steel and small red eyes that flicker. They have blades, and guns that that give off bright light. Others are huge bubble-creatures that bounce and waddle. They are always white, the colour of death, and they disappear when the sun touches them.”
Her descriptions were bizarre, especially when you considered that Los Hellas was essentially a closed culture. With no cinemas, no televisions, no international newspapers and an internet subscription of point five percent, there was little chance of the average Los Hellan hallucinating a robot wielding a laser-gun. These automaton-inspired images were beyond their cultural comprehension: it would be like a man who’d never seen the night sky accurately describing the surface of the moon.
“We don’t have a word for robot in our language,” Celie said, mirroring his thoughts.
“There’s always the internet. And you have foreign books, surely…”
“Surely we do. But only if you read and speak a language other than Hellan. If you don’t, the only translated books are period romance dramas–that’s where the demand is. Los Hellas suffers something of an epidemic of bored housewives.” She repeated herself to the watching hamm’d duja, who let out a strange barking laugh of amusement and slapped her chest.
“Who has seen the ghosts?'” Gig asked.
Celie and the hamm’d duja compared notes, concluding, “The ghosts have been seen by everyone, everywhere, by children and by fishermen, in Helloparis and at the docks. Even the boriche-Los Hellas’ rich-have seen them. They come here to tell the hamm’d duja because they are too scared to tell their families, their foreign psychiatrists. Seeing ghosts is very bad luck in Los Hellas. The boriche pretend they are not superstitious to their rich friends and Westerners, and then they come here and ask for amulets and protection spells. But the hamm’d duja cannot help them now. The ghosts are too strong for her to deal with.”
“What can I do to help?”
“You can tell your friends at SWIFTWATER to go away. Tell them to find another island. Maybe then the ghosts will rest in peace.”
Before leaving Gig thanked the hamm’d duja for her time in the broken tourist phrases he’d gleaned from a hotel guidebook. Charmed by his effort, rather than his eloquence, she took his hand in hers and pressed her lips to the soft skin his inner wrist. Up close she seemed more frail than he’d expected. Just an old woman.
“Handsome. But not man, no?” she said, parting from him.
“Modern genetics. It’s all about technicalities.”
She nodded. “You do what right.”
Celie showed him out and retook her sentinel position against the doorjamb, one hand fanning awkwardly through her scruffy hair. How old was she? Gig wondered. Initially he had figured her to be his age — those early, uncertain thirties — but now, looking at her closely, she could easily be a decade younger.
But whatever her age, he doubted she’d ever been a balcony girl. No grace, no style, and too much damn pride. “You’re an educated woman, Celie,” he said. “You’ve been around the world. Do you believe in all this ghost stuff?”
She looked at him as if he was mad. “Of course I do,” she said briskly. “Do you know what she meant when she said you weren’t a man?”
He did. The hamm’d duja had sensed in him that fundamental vacancy, the cool plastic core hidden beneath his fleshy corporeal shell. “I’m a lab kid,” he explained (patiently, carefully, the same way he’d explained it a million times before). “Designer genes bought off the shelf. Ninety percent human, ten percent scientific inspiration. Pleuro-plasmic chromosomes. I’m packing some pretty expensive DNA.”
“Oh, that,” she said, and closed the door.
“What do you need all this damned stuff for?” Lucas wanted to know. “This isn’t part of your job, McGuiggen. You aren’t meant to be investigating us.”
“Kid, my brief was to investigate unusual phenomenon that may be linked to SWIFTWATER’s new virtual reality project. Of course I’m investigating you.” Gig jammed the last sliver of hardware into his case and closed it. “I’m going to send these over to my cousin Ruth in Melbourne–she deals with all my tech autopsies. I guarantee she’ll have them back in good condition within forty eight hours.”
“Investigation? You were supposed to come in with your debonair half-breed looks and smooth things over for us with the locals. Not become prey to their paranoia. That gear you’ve bagged isn’t allowed to leave Los Hellas. It’s covered by SWIFTWATER privacy law. You take one more step and I’ll get security!”
“And I’ll call your mother.”
He left Lucas growling impotently in the tech-tent, hands curled into fists, ears bright red, eyes narrowed to little green lozenges, literally shaking with rage. The kid was mad. Or rather (to be more accurate and much less charitable) the kid was throwing a tantrum.
But there were extenuating circumstances. Exonerating circumstances. Lucas was only nineteen, Gig reminded himself. And for all the money the kid’s parents made, Lucas hadn’t had an easy life. Regina Carter was never exactly a loving parent, even when she tried. Even when she tried so hard you could see it was physically hurting her to keep that proud maternal smile in place. Lucas Carter had always been a fat rich boy who never had any friends; too smart to hang out with kids, too immature to hang out with adults. Who, five years down the track, probably still didn’t have any friends.
There were things you couldn’t change and things you couldn’t accept and it bothered Gig that so many of them seemed to be his fault.
Ruth promised the SWIFTWATER autopsies would arrive within forty eight hours. “The whole system sounds suspect,” she agreed. “Lucas is an idiot to even consider designing a wireless virtual reality to cover that kind of distance. Too much potential for interference, never mind your esoteric issues. Hey, you ever heard of EVP, Electronic Voice Phenomenon? You let a tape run in an empty room and when you play it back you hear the voices of the dead. No spook-story, it’s an honest-to-god proven fact. I’ve downloaded plenty of examples off the internet.”
“Yeah, and the internet is such a reliable source of information.”
“Don’t be snide when I’m doing you a favor, dear cousin. I usually charge through the nose for the kind of work you want done. And from what you’ve told me, a visual form of EVP sounds like a pretty fair explanation. I’ve got some hardbacks in the basement on it. I’ll dig them up and see if I can recreate the EVP experience with a wireless q-base loop.”
“Too much geekery,” Gig complained, clutching his head in mock pain.
Ruth groaned and rolled Marilyn Monroe’s eyes. They were talking in virtual reality, and Ruth–a huge fan of twentieth century cinema–was wearing a ‘skin’ based on the actress’s appearance in The Seven Year Itch. Gig, who’d once had a Monroe pin-up on his bedroom wall, found Ruth’s skin choice somewhat disconcerting, but less so than the time she’d shown up as a cigar-smoking Sammy Davis Jr.
“Buzz me when you get things done,” he said. “I’ll be wandering about the island somewhere.”
“I hear Los Hellas is like paradise,” said Ruth. “What I wouldn’t do to have your job.”
The sun was setting as he left the hotel, its heavy pink head disappearing lethargically into a hammock of low-hanging clouds. Gig dry-swallowed a palm’s worth of assorted hormone pills and made for the beach. A sea-salt wind kissed his mouth and cheeks and left them frosted with an invisible, but tangible, ocean glaze. The light was too dim to see the water clearly, save for the occasional ladder of white froth, but he could hear it there, the reassuring heave of tides.
Further along the sand some people–kids, probably–had built a bonfire out of salt-bleached driftwood, branches of which still rose bone-like from the flames like a giant’s ribcage. Couples necked in the shadows of dunes, black bumps on a grey plain. Larger groups laughed and tussled near the water’s edge–and this was Americana, too, of the sophomoric teen-drama variety. Kids on the beach, lighting bonfires, having fun.
Except that image, that Hollywood-derived sensibility, was part of an older America. An older, younger America, if that made any sense. So…1980: pre-plasmic, pre-tech, pre-virtual reality. He stood back and framed the scene between index fingers and thumbs like a movie director judging a camera angle. Like paradise, Ruth had said, but maybe what she’d meant to say was like the past. Los Hellas was a backward country not because it had a shitty economy but because it was the ultimate time warp: It peddled Hollywood nostalgia fifty years out of date.
Someone called his name–Felix. He turned to find Celie behind him, sitting alone in the lee of a rising dune. Her hair, highlighted by the bonfire’s flames, was like a paint-splatter against the backdrop of sand.
“I thought you’d still be in the office at this time,” she said, rising, shaking out her long skirt. “Crunching numbers. Working overtime.”
“I’m not good with offices. Or numbers.”
“I thought you were some kind of computer expert?”
“Not really. Companies usually hire me to talk to people.”
She had started walking and he had started following her, filling and overflowing her footprints in the sand. “Because I’m inoffensive,” he said. “Because I don’t get angry. Because I’m persistent. Because I care.”
“You say you care, but you don’t believe.” Celie shook her head, her wild hair. “You’re a skeptic. I could see it in your face from the beginning–it was like talking to a wall. You don’t believe in ghosts. You’re a man of science, made by science. You were happy enough to sit and listen patiently to the natives chattering about their voodoo dreams, but you’re still looking for a logical explanation.”
They had reached the edge of the beach, where the land dipped to a gutter of fallen palm leaves then banked sharply into greenery. Her hand rustled along an outlying fern’s branch, pausing before the tip.
“I heard on the grapevine that you just sent a box of hi-tech SWIFTWATER gear across the Pacific for tests,” she said, facing him. “I can tell you now that you won’t find anything. Listen, Felix–all the answers you’re looking for are right here.”
“Maybe, but I keep missing them. To be honest, I don’t even see the connection with waterworms and raising the dead. Do you think that it’s the electricity that angers the ghosts?”
No. Conspicuously, no. A conspicuous Carter-esque no. The inference? He was asking the wrong question. Gig tried again. “Do you think it’s the progress that angers…”
“That’s what you’ve been thinking all along, isn’t it?” he pressed. “Your ghostly ancestors don’t give a damn about SWIFTWATER and the waterworms. You think they’re coming back because they’re afraid that with all this publicity, this technological exposure, Los Hellas will lose its culture. Its heritage and its identity.”
“And am I wrong, Felix?” Her freckled face was suddenly fierce in the dim light, and she pushed it closer to his. “How many times has it happened before? I can’t begin to count how many other Pacific islands have been transformed into ‘resorts.’ The corporations move in and suddenly everything is so modern. And then no one gives a damn about the old language, about the old stories, about the hamm’d duja and all they represent. Everyone is too busy watching television, playing computer games. Having genetically modified children.”
It was a cheap shot and he was man enough–ninety percent man enough–to ignore it. “If you hate the outside world so much, why did you bother to study overseas?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter any more.” She plucked angrily — impotently — at the fern branch, scattering its tiny leaf-petals at his feet. “Ever since I was little, I wanted to make a difference to this place. That’s why I went to Oxford. I studied health and town planning, I studied international relations and education, I studied economy to help Los Hellas become rich and civilized. I wrote my final thesis on our backward ways. I was a model scholar. Then I came back here and noticed something I’d never realized before.” The branch ripped in her hands. “Everyone was so bloody happy.”
Gig looked toward the bonfire and the dancing teenagers, the cuddling couples, the laughter and the chiming clink of bottles — and was conscious, suddenly, of being outside the frame he’d made for them, an alien in their happy-go-lucky American moviescape. Which was how, he supposed, Creole-curled Celie felt all the time.
“I’m crying,” said Celie. “I’m sorry. It’s not like me. But every time I connect to the international news-feeds I see that skinny Carter asshole prancing about in his neat little suits, talking about Los Hellas like it’s some kind of cultural museum. And it makes me so angry and it makes me so sad, because on some level–on that educated, scholarly, Oxford level–I know what he’s talking about.”
“He used to be fat,” said Gig. “He was nicer then.”
“Lucas Carter. He used to be fat. And he used to be scared of the dark. And he always held my hand when we got in elevators. And he cried a lot, in a horrible, desperate way, for no reason at all.”
“How do you know?”
“I was in love with his mother. But not–but not with him. I think that’s what made the difference. And now it’s too-“
“With his mother? You’re on his side?” Her shaking finger hung between them, luminously accusing. “I thought you said came here to help us, Felix.”
“God no,” he said. “I came here to help myself.”
She punched him in the chest with both fists and then ran weeping up the beach in an ungainly, jagged way, slipping and sliding on the loose sand. He knew he’d never see her again, which bothered him on the slow walk home. It was a bad habit of his to end relationships this way: without resolution, and without the possibility of return.
He tried calling Regina Carter the next morning–no answer. Disheartened, but not distraught, he plunged gamely into virtual reality. Ruth, kitted out in a badly rendered Ava Gardner skin, dragged him into a private chat-room the moment he opened his digitally rendered eyes.
“Spent all night playing with Lucas’ crummy set-up,” she said. “I even constructed my own wireless system to see how it worked. Trust me, Felix, the whole deal is a bad idea. Not only is the system just asking to record EVP, but the interference is so bad even on a small scale that I could actually see the corners of objects sparking away in the real world. Like radio static, except this is visual. God, who was Lucas trying to kid?”
“I really don’t know, Ruth.” Gig was still struggling to get his bearings; the chat-room she’d picked was a shapeless, surrealist mess of colours. Disturbingly the only solid focus in the room was the severe-looking SWIFTWATER logo at the bottom corner of the wall. “And the ghosts?”
“EVP, baby.” In reality they were separated by several thousand miles, but Gig could actually hear the smug grin on Ruth’s face. “See, the system records the spirits in real world while it’s meant to be passing information into virtual reality. I can’t work out how the ghosts manage to appear outside the virtual reality, but I’d blame the static-effect. What do you think?”
“I’m starting to think I don’t believe in ghosts.”
Ruth–Ava-Ruth–stuck out her tongue. “Just because you may not have a soul, it doesn’t mean everyone else doesn’t. Look, how many reports of ghost sightings have there been in Los Hellas?”
“Many. Maybe fifty, maybe a hundred. And from what I hear, most of the ‘sightings’ have gone unreported, so there could potentially be hundreds more.”
“And these reports, do they come from all sections of society?”
Gig closed his eyes against the technicolour swirl. “Well, allegedly,” he began. “That’s what people say.”
“Do the Los Hellans seem like a naturally hysterical people?” she pressed. “A suggestible people?”
“Well, they are–I mean, well, technically, no.”
“And what does this tell you?”
He opened his eyes to glare at her. “Christ, Ruth, let it alone. This isn’t a conversation I want to have.”
Ava Gardner’s face creased in amusement. “You’re the one who contacted me, remember?” Ruth snickered. “I’m sorry I’m not able to tell you what you want to hear. Or what Lucas Carter wants to hear. Or what you want Lucas Carter to report back to his sexy black momma–which is the real issue here, wouldn’t you say?”
Sure, it was the real issue. It just wasn’t the point. Gig unplugged from the virtual reality unit to spare himself further embarrassment. Ruth had a shark’s sixth sense for spotting weakness, and once she’d sunk her teeth in…. He expected he’d be hearing variations on this story–How Felix McGuiggen Chased Ghosts to Please His Woman–for a decade’s worth of family Christmas dinners.
How Felix McGuiggen Chased Ghosts To Please His Woman.
How Felix McGuiggen Chased Ghosts to Please His Woman’s Bratty Son and the SWIFTWATER Corporation.
How Felix McGuiggen Went To Paradise But Spent Most Of His Time In A Dirty Los Hellas Hotel Room Obsessively Calling Regina Carter.
The kitchenette’s mini-bar was empty. Gig doodled curlicues in the condensation behind the door. Just the sensation of the cool liquid sliding against his forefinger made his head spin. He blamed thirst and frustration and Ruth: The combination was screwing with his head.
He left his hotel room to stalk a vending machine, ears pricked to catch the tell-tale hum, that long sonorous ohm that described so well the Zen-like pulse of electricity. Barefoot and alone he scuffed his way down the hall, toes curling against the patched blue carpeting. Muffled music sounded from room 310; something oriental featuring erratically pounding drums. Further away a baby wailed and loud crashes followed.
The vending machine was at the end of the hall, an old soda dispenser with the slogan DRINK POP BE POP printed in luminescent graffiti across the front. Gig pulled a handful of shiny SWIFTWATER dollars from his pocket and fed them into the slot. His soda choices were limited: Post-its with the words ‘sold out’ printed on them were taped next to nearly every selection. So this is what ‘Third World Country’ means these days, he thought, jabbing one of the few available buttons. Less than five flavors of soda, and all sold at twice the price.
As the machine rumbled out his order, Gig turned around.
A man stood at the door of room 308.
He wore a fedora and a tweed suit and black leather shoes. His forehead was crinkled and his eyebrows were posed at a curiously welcoming angle. His eyes were sincere and dark, his lips thick. He was smoking a fat cigar. His jaw was strong and somehow familiar. Also: he was translucent, transparent. He was like an image projected on glass.
Gig started to speak, started to ask–
–but then the door to 310 opened, music and florescent light spilling dizzily into the hallway, and the man at 308 faded into nothingness like an old-fashioned scene dissolve.
Gig said, breathless: “Jesus Christ.”
“Busy night?” the occupant of 310 asked, digging busily in her shorts for change. She was a skinny Anglo kid with disheveled hair and a torn tourist t-shirt riding high over her flat stomach, but her solidity, her comparative realness made her attractive. “I hear the natives do fireworks and beer on the beach every Saturday. Kind of like in the stories my old man used to tell me about college. Hey, is this your soda?”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“Sure love this place. Pity about the weather, this stinking heat, but you get used to it, right?”
Gig cracked open his soda can on the walk back to his hotel room, the vending machine’s hum still buzzing in his ears. Despite his recent encounter with the supernatural he was pleased to discover that his thoughts were calm and rational. He thought: I’m here, and I’m sober. He thought: It means something, that I saw it. He thought: But I don’t believe in ghosts….
He thought: …but I know that man.
A day passed.
His phone rang.
“Nice to hear your voice, Gig. It’s Regina. I traced sixteen hang-ups to your mobile in the past two days–big points for tenacity there. No points for not pissing me off, though. Hear you’re having trouble with the kid. Still fooling about with the Los Hellans?”
‘The kid’ meant Lucas. Regina wasn’t comfortable with the implicit co-dependency of words like mother and son.
“I don’t know what’s going on here,” Gig whispered, cradling the phone in both hands. “The ghosts, the cables. I’m starting to believe the natives are onto something.”
“Is that why you keep calling me? You want my help?”
She had trouble with words like love, too. Love and marriage and even dating and going steady. She had trouble hearing desperate, passionate things like I missed you and I need you and ‘Gina, you’re killing me inside.’ And Gig understood that the same way he understood Lucas, and had learnt to work around it, like builders had to dig around unstable ground in order to lay solid foundations.
“Help? Babe, I just need a fresh perspective.”
“Perspective? On ghosts? What the hell do I know about ghosts, Gig?” She laughed. “Taiwan is a bloody riot, you know. The locals throw some crazy parties. No drink, no drugs, but the best music I’ve heard in a long time. And everyone is so polite. You even been there?”
“My Y-chromosome was made in Taiwan.”
She was silent for a minute. He heard her breathing on the other side of the planet as loud as if she was right beside him.
“When I was twelve years old we moved to a trailer park in Springfield, Ohio,” she said presently. “Dad was an unemployed drunk and mom worked weekends behind a Walmart counter. We got by on government handouts and discount coupons. Because I was poor and black and female I was selected by the school science board to go on a field trip with a prominent local archaeologist. I figure they thought I was so fucking culturally impoverished I’d get something out of the experience, I’d be fucking spiritually grateful for the chance to dig holes with Anglo professionals. I’d feel so blessed for the chance to do something intellectual I’d be telling this story to my grandkids. And maybe they were right, nearly right, because here I am, telling this story to you.
“The archaeologist’s dig was a mile out of town on this big old property. The guy who’d lived there had recently died and his house had been bulldozed to make way for a new mall. Only when the developers bulldozed it they discovered a mound underneath, and that was when the local Native Americans stepped in. It was a sacred site, they said, and got one of their wise elder-types to make a statement. Something to the effect that the ghosts of young Amerindian braves still walked the land – you know, the old Indian burial ground spook-story.
“Now in Ohio you can’t dig anywhere without turning up a handful of old Native American arrowheads. So the Indian burial ground story was feasible. More than feasible. So feasible that instead of leaving these braves to rot with equanimity, our resident archaeologist decided he’d dig them up and put them in a museum. Study them for cultural and sociological purposes. Wire their bones together and stick them in a glass box. Academics are such sensitive people.
“So we started the dig. We had all kinds of tools, these special picks and spanners and brushes, but mainly we used spades. We’d been digging only for a couple of hours before we hit bone. Lots of bone. The archaeologist pulled me back when that happened, but in the ensuing commotion I managed to get a good look at what they found. Sure, there were bodies. Haphazard bodies. There were bodies lying over each other, like they were hugging each other. Others curled up, other’s spread out. All of them dried out and gone to bone, brittle, green-tinged bone, like maybe they’d been painted with some weird varnish.
“I don’t need to tell you that American Indians, Native Americans, they don’t bury their dead like that. There’s an order to it. They bury them carefully and they bury them lying down and they sure as hell don’t just toss the bodies randomly in a pit and fill it in. And what we’ve got here is a definite pit-tossing scenario: these are bodies that have been thrown in willy-nilly, squeezed in, squeezed down. And there’s that issue with the colour of the bones – that green tinge, and this weird, medicinal smell. Like acid, like those strong bleaches you get for cleaning drains.”
“Good god. Was it a mass murder?”
“It sure wasn’t a mass misadventure, Sherlock.”
“What are you trying to tell me?”
“I’m telling you that sometimes even the wisest old man can’t tell a proud Amerindian brave from a pile of hacked-up white teenagers,” said Regina. “I’m telling you that people only see what they want to see. I’m talking to you about perspective, baby. Don’t you get it?”
He pressed his fingers to the receiver’s yellow sieve, imagined her breath warming their tips. And wanted her unbearably. He said, quietly, “I love you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Regina. “Look after my son, okay?”
Later, he got it.
He didn’t know precisely how he’d got it or even when he’d got it, but he had it now and that was all that mattered. It wasn’t a solution but it was an answer, which was the best Gig was likely to do in the circumstances. He wasn’t in the mood to mollify the natives and anyway, he figured Lucas could do with an opportunity to practice his people skills.
Of course, actually proving his theory was going to be the real problem. Ruth had emailed him a text-copy of her report on the waterworms, but her commentary relating to the ghosts was strictly Twilight Zone. She was sticking with the EVP story–Electronic Visible Phenomenon, in her idiom. Gig excised the EVP references–about eighty percent of the report–then jumped online to do his own research.
He spent the remainder of the afternoon combing the internet for stock photographs of Humphrey Bogart. That jaw, those lips, that bloody fedora. He ran the best shots through a graphics program, inverting colours, highlighting outlines, adding appropriately spooky ‘luminate’ effects. The results weren’t conclusive but they were certainly convincing. Gig could imagine the playbill, 1940s-style:
The Ghosts of Los Hellas, starring Humphrey Bogart as Mr Room 308.
He looked up virtual reality skin designs, too. According to SWIFTWATER’s official website the current craze was science-fiction skins. Invading robots, blobs from outer space, supermen and genetically enhanced women. But the virtual reality in-crowd, the hardcore geeks like his cousin Ruth and Lucas Carter, always went for the old Hollywood stars. Like Ava Gardner. Like Marilyn Monroe. Like Humphrey Bogart.
Humphrey Bogart was an image thing, Gig guessed. The man’s broody sex-appeal said all the things about Lucas that Lucas couldn’t say himself.
He compiled his notes. He ordered room service: rice curry and whiskey. He ate. He drank. He smoked a cigarette–Regina’s filthy habit, not his, but the smell always made him feel closer to her. He dialed out and booked a flight on the next plane to Mexico. He put on a respectable-looking tie and then went downstairs to hitch a lift to SWIFTWATER headquarters.
Twenty minutes later he was picked up by a group of sunburned European girls in a panel-van. Maybe Greek, maybe Italian, maybe even Sicilian–he didn’t speak the language. The girls thought he was pretty and communicated their interest by touching his hands, his face, running their small fingers across his eyelids and the rims of his ears. They were gentle and kind and cheerful and so unlike Regina that it made his heart break, just a little bit.
“How you like Los Hellas?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he mumbled.
They giggled. “Okay! So how you like us?”
They dropped him just outside SWIFTWATER headquarters and drove off laughing. Easy come, easy go. Standing there in the sunshine, in the crazy dusty cheerful humidity of the Los Hellan summer, Gig realized that he did love the place, but only in the way you could love a dream or an idea or a distant adolescent memory. It was a nostalgic love; it happened in the past-tense. Right now Gig wanted out, he wanted off, he wanted city-lights and Chinese take-out and concrete, he was getting cabin-fever on this damn island, but he knew that later, as his plane winged its way north over the gusano de agua, he would miss Los Hellas.
Like he missed Lucas, maybe, possibly.
He found Lucas in his office: a small, over-branded tent at the fore of the temporary SWIFTWATER complex. A ribbon of stale cigarette smoke escaped through the tent-flap as he stepped in. Inside, Lucas was sipping a bottle of diet-pop at his desk, half hidden behind a fort of clumsily stacked cardboard boxes. He looked a bit bewildered and lost in the midst of all this junk, like a child surrounded by piles of opened Christmas presents, too exhausted by the unwrapping to play with his new toys.
“Hi, Lucas,” said Gig.
The kid’s voice was sulky. “Hello, Mr McGuiggen.”
“You know the fake-sugar in those diet-pop things gives you cancer, right?”
“Everything gives you cancer, McGuiggen.”
“Is this just a social call, or do you actually have a reason for being here?”
Gig shrugged. “I worked out your ghost problem.”
“I sincerely doubt it.”
“There are no ghosts.”
“Well, I’ve been saying that for months.”
“There are no ghosts,” said Gig, “but that doesn’t mean people aren’t seeing them. Lucas, you set up a faulty wireless system which maps both real and virtual terrain. Problem is that all the interference causes instability and visible projections. The Los Hellans aren’t seeing ghosts. They’re seeing digital impressions of the virtual reality skins you and your co-engineers have been piloting through the streets.”
He tossed his jumble of notes onto the desk–this crazy tide of paper washing over Lucas’ carefully laid plans. “I think it’s kind of ironic in a way. The whole island looks like something out of an old movie, and here you are, populating it with dead Hollywood stars. Honestly, you’re lucky you have those Hellan ghosts to blame it on. Better ghosts than explaining to SWIFTWATER that you’ve mishandled the execution of a billion dollar project.”
Lucas yawned. Gig knew what that meant; the kid was shit-scared. Yawning was a typically Carter reaction–the worse their predicament, the cooler they became. “Let’s, for the sake of argument, say I believe what you say is true? What kind of recourse do I–“
“You have to shut it down. Or you have to live with it. Or they have to live with it.”
“I see.” The kid’s fingers curled and uncurled over the papers as if unsure whether or not to form a fist. As if unsure whether or not this situation required it. Jesus Christ, but he was his mother’s son. “Will you tell them?” he asked.
It was an open ‘them.’ It meant everyone: the Los Hellans, SWIFTWATER, the media, Regina.
“No,” said Gig.
“Do you expect me to?”
“I don’t expect anything from you, Lucas. I gave up on that when I realized you were spying on me. You, in your Bogart skin. Which doesn’t suit you, by the way. I think you’re a little too young and far too annoying to try the dramatic handsome loner shtick.”
Lucas didn’t flinch. “You’re really angry at me,” he said quietly. “I didn’t think you ever got angry.”
“I’m not angry. I don’t like what you’re doing here, but I can’t stop it. I don’t like what you’ve done to yourself, either, but I think I lost the right to comment on that five years ago. So I’m disappointed, sad, frustrated, maybe, but I’m not angry. Except maybe a little at myself, for thinking I had to come here, that I had to play this mug’s game, in order to prove a point I don’t even understand.“
“I don’t believe you,” said Lucas.
“That’s your prerogative. I’m going.”
“Skin projection? That was the best you could do? You must be mad if you think you’re walking away from this. You are not even close to walking–“
“I’ll bill you.”
“What am I supposed to do with this…with this junk? These papers! This stupid country?”
“Honestly, Lucas? I wouldn’t have a clue. Catch you later. Enjoy your life.”
He turned to go. Lucas caught him before he made it to the door. Caught him, hit him, hugged him, and then kissed his cheek in an angry, desperate way. It was a climax of sorts but it sure didn’t feel like it. Gig had expected relief or, better yet, release, a long psychological exhale of built-up tension.
But…nothing. Extricating himself, not even bothering to touch his cheek, not even bothering to register it, Gig said, “I should really be going. I’ve got a plane to catch. It was nice seeing you again, Lucas. Maybe we can catch up sometime and do lunch when you get back to civilization.”
“I’d like that,” said Gig–feeling suddenly charitable. “I think that would be nice.”
He called Regina from the airport lounge. She picked up on the third ring. In the customs office next-door, Rambo the sniffer dog was humping an American tourist’s leg and Gig had to block his ear to hear her over the din.
“Bloody hell, Felix, do you have any idea what time it is?”
“I got it, Gina,” he said breathlessly. “I got it.”
“Your Los Hellan thing? It’s about time.” She yawned. “So will I’ll see you tonight, or do you intend to play around a little longer on the SWIFTWATER dollar?”
He laughed. It was easier than he’d expected.
“Wait up for me,” he said. “I’m coming home.”
R.J. Astruc works in publication marketing in Dublin, Ireland, and was previously a journalist in Australia. She is a submission reviewer for The Harrow and a book reviewer for Road to Romance. Her science fiction has appeared in Visible Ink and Quantum Muse. Her website can be found at www.rachelastruc.com
Story © 2006 RJ Astruc. All other content copyright © 2006 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish