Tufto's Snowbox

National Parks Starship A3-281 "Silent Running" was not a craft designed for comfort, but it was comfortable nonetheless. The functional, unpretentious engine rooms could become cozy retreats to the right mind. The hammocks strung over the cramped quarters gave a sense of camraderie, of shared hardship.

The vessel had been designed for maintenance and rescue work. It would fly to the edges of the Maw itself, lowering great hooks of obsidian to try to pierce the hole without warping. Usually, this did nothing, but once in a blue moon it would manage to rescue someone, anyone.

Early prototypes of the ship would include recovery rooms; padded walls, pleasant environments, staff on hand with cups of tea and a sympathetic smile. But as time went on, they realised that all that the people they'd dig from the Maw wanted was a sense of the solid, the real. So they stopped coddling them, and would house them in the engine room, with a blanket and a firm nod.

Their faces would be ashen, because in that place, they'd understand who they were.

In another part of the ship, three people sat around in boredom. Mehmed Osmanoglu was deep in a book, flicking the pages with lazy gestures. Mary Ogden stared at the ceiling, flicking her dark eyes towards her colleagues with inscrutable looks. Hisakawa Tsukiko stared into a mug of tea, divining something indistinct and lost.

Mehmed finally sighed, and put his book aside. "I am bored witless. It's going to be another week before we get to Celestrian space, and even longer to Gongji. There must be some way of biding the time other than staring into space or reading one of Tsu's metaphysical conceits."

Tsukiko frowned. "Harlequin is one of the finest poets of the early Imperial period. Just because her early work is a bit-"

"Ghost stories." Mary's voice was quiet, but rang through the room all the same. "We can tell ghost stories."

The others shuddered slightly. Five millenia without death had transformed the ghost story from a fireside tale into its own superstition. The idea of people who had died before the End, or those rare few who had discovered a mode of death afterwards, was something taboo and thrilling. Secret cults and gnostic heresies abounded, focused on the reincarnation or resurrection of strange ghosts who could bring about a permanent utopia, or death, or both.

The ghost story carried with it weight, even among those who weren't believers. It still put them in mind of cults they may well have once been part of. The lingering memory of that hope in mystery kept them going.

"A bit heavy, isn't it?" Mehmed reached for some water, gulping quickly.

"Maybe, but I don't know what else we'll do. We are cooped up in this cramped ship with only one another and a handful of Tsu's terrible poetry. We need an outlet."

Tsu glared, but relented after a moment. "She's right. Ghost tales are always warming, even if they are sinister. Who wants to go first?"

"I'll go. It was my idea after all." Mary cracked her knuckles, smiled, and began.

A few centuries ago, I was doing some work on New Scutari. This was before the migrations and its transformation; no bustling metropolis, just a few scattered mining camps, among the ice, extracting amber from the deep. You probably don't remember the Almohad Heresy, Mehmed, but those weren't great days. It was hard to get work anywhere for fear of being stuffed into one of the Caliph's spice prisons, or sold as slave labour to the Private Interests or the Conglomerate.

You took what you could get, and what I could get was minimum pay as a kinetomonitor at an amber well. It wasn't pleasant; seven hours a day, crammed in a box with two people even more annoying than you two. Worse, amber-golems would congregate around the well's edges, desperate to feed their addiction. Most of them were too cowardly to descend, bartering with us for scraps, but occasionally one would jump or fall. At night, you could hear them calling up from the dark, moaning in ecstasy and pain.

Back at our camps, we would swap stories. They were good people, Turkish and Azeri migrants fleeing the Almohad tortures. A lot of them had joined ghost cults on the journey over, and we'd spend the nights round campfires, listening to tales of the Rebellion of the Departed or the Dead Moors as the snow fell around us.

One night, we heard a noise, in the wilderness. We were always told not to stray too far, but we were hopped up on amber and tales of free spirits, so a bunch of us went into the woods to find it. We shot guns and swigged moonshine and whooped, until the cold got too much and we went home.

But one of us didn't come back.

We didn't think much of it. Out on the frontier, that happened. But then the next night, we heard the noise again- a low, howling sound, like a wolf. We all thought it was the wind, and so we went back again, in a spirit of fun.

But then another one was gone by morning. And then another, and another. So eventually, we stopped going out with whisky and cheers, and started going out with guns and knives.

We hunted that thing for weeks.

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