When some of us wake into the white, it is with a grand portent, like surfacing from a lake in a fairy tale. Emerging fully-formed from a prophecy of hope, we awake into the shining world with the innocence of babes. We slept knowing that when we woke, the world would already be prepared by the sacred spells. Ready for us to enjoy. As if we had gone to sleep with a terrible curse, being blessed by a wizard, knowing that when we finally woke that particular curse would be lifted.
Not all curses, though.
When others among us wake into the white, it is with a pit of dread in their stomach. These were the watchers along the journey; not fully awake, but in a dreamlike state, they have one by one taken the watch as we gradually traveled over the stretched-out millions of years. The growing black beauty of the final approach has shaken them to their ghostly cores, just like a sudden nightmare accelerating in the moments before waking.
So, while we all woke into the same bright whiteness and confusion, we saw it through very different eyes, indeed. This room was similar, but not quite the same as the spells of simulation we had awoken into, back on Terra. Something different, unnameable, felt wrong. Made the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up, as we climbed from the low, soft tables we lay on, and gazed at each other in wonder, unable to believe that the curse really had been lifted, and that ghosts had been gifted bodies again at last.
Then a window on the wall lit up, and a strange static-filled image of a man walked up and waved at us all. “Hallo, everybody! I’m the plumber ’round here. That’s what everyone calls me.” We hadn’t yet heard any Vatul pronounce it with reverence and give Him a capital P in Plumber, yet. So we looked at each other, in turn, confused and wondering if this was some kind of joke.
Yet we didn’t want to spoil the momentous occasion of first contact, so we held our tongues. Bethery cleared his throat and may have been about to say something, when the Plumber opened his arms expansively. “Welcome to the Sink! That’s our lil’ colloquial name fer it, here. It’s the magical research zone the Oldest civilization left spinnin’ in the center of the galaxy, and where you’ve been slowly sailing towards, all those years.
“You made it! We’re so happy to see you!” He paused, blinked a few times, and then clapped his hands with glee. “There’s so much to learn. We’re quite accomplished with visitors by now, I hafta say, but it’s always overwhelming in new ways. Just know that we’re here to answer all your questions.”
Haman bowed at the screen and intoned in a deeply serious voice, “Hello, plumber. What is your name?” The air fell out of the moment when Kardi started laughing nervously, and when we all turned to stare at her, she was nervously staring at her feet in turn.
The man on the screen laughed heartily. “Just ‘plumber’ should be fine. I don’t really have a name any more. No worries.” Then He seemed to remember something, and snapping His fingers, said: “Oh, right. We don’t know what yer moral basis is, but for now, just stick to not murderin’ an’ not intentionally makin’ people suffer and we should be good.”
At that last, Bethery had a look on his face like he had tasted a cursed lemon, mouthing “What?” at Remardu. The rest of us kind of nodded as if it was obvious. Coughing, Sama asked, “Do you, uhh… do you have problems with folks getting here and immediately jumping to… umm… murder?”
Grinning, the Plumber shook his head. “Not very often, fortunately. But it does happen. People tend to get quite flustered, what with all the overwhelmin’ weirdness and such.”
Bethery walked over to the window, trying to examine if it was a real window or a projection of some kind. “Well, we will do our best to follow your suggestions and learn.”
“Good. That’s real good. I’m going to give you folks some time to wake up after yer long ride, and then we’ll welcome you officially real soon now. If you need anything, just ask for the plumber, or smack that big button on the wall. Later!” And quite abruptly, he turned and walked quickly out of sight, and a comically large red button instantly appeared next to where the empty window stood.
We looked around, somewhat flabbergasted, it must be admitted, because this was not the somber ceremonial greeting we had been expecting. That would, as He said, come later.
Sama and Aliana hugged, the only two of us who really knew each other well in our lives before the voyage. The rest of us knew some of the ghosts, but on a boat of five thousand spirits, how many could one profess to know? The watchers began to slowly know each other only from the lonely messages in the dark. We began to re-introduce ourselves, smiling with the joy of discovery.
Elund was the first of us to notice. “Wait,” she said loudly. “We’re the seven originals. No copies.” Originals was our name for phantasms, back then. And copies were the ghosts. We called them that before we learned that such connotations were frowned upon, by some residents of the Sink.
It was true. There we were, seven ex-Sleeping Beauties, staring at each other, woken by the kiss of the Sink. And they… we… were the seven phantasms who had been directly killed, in a way, to make the journey have a flavor of permanence, a more focused intent.
“Why are we the only ones here? Mister, uhh, plumber?” Aliana walked up to press the button, but before she could get there, the plumber ran back up to the window.
Catching his breath and leaning on his knees, things we would later take as clear affectations meant to make us feel more at home, he held up a finger. “Just a sec. Whoooo! Umm, I forgot to explain that. Right. Well, don’t worry. The ghosts are going to be woken up soon enough. But your little tiny ship didn’t have enough information to pay for you seven, even! Some Vatul-Alphas gathered the scratch and donated enough for just you guys. You’ll have to thank them later.
“Point is,” he continued, taking another set of ragged breaths, “They’re all fine. All your friends are just fine. Trust me. You phantasms just got… preferential treatment.”
“Ain’t that always the way of it,” Bethery said, sarcastically echoing the Plumber’s adopted accent. “Some lucky bastard wins the coin flip, and everyone else gets the shaft.”
The Plumber looked a bit askance, and began backing away again. “Well. I wouldn’t assume you’re the lucky ones, folks. Uhh, I gotta go.” As he turned and hustled off, we heard him in the distance say, “More answers later! I promise!”
Shaking his head, Haman looked over at Bethery. “I’m starting to think you’re right to be distrustful. Promises are like pie crusts…”
Elund gave him a strange look. “I don’t know that one.”
“Made to be broken,” he finished.
“Yeah, and silence is more musical than any song, right?” Bethery turned away, shaking his head, and didn’t see Haman’s eyes go wide.
Introspection did descend then, as we mumbled quietly amongst ourselves. Phantasms thrown back into their bodies after so long floating through the void don’t always know what curses remain inside them, and we were just beginning to get a vague inkling of our later difficulties.
Pulling at… well. Hmm. They… It’s difficult to write about Remardu, now. It would have been hard, then, too… but it’s a confluence of things. They preferred the pronoun they, and their strict religious beliefs, along with what happened later, make us want to leave them out of the story. But we can’t. Each ghost plays a piece.
Pulling at their hijab, Remardu began to breathe so heavily and loudly that we all ceased our separate thoughts and murmurs, to unpolitely stare at them.
“Are you okay, Remardu?” asked Aliana.
“This… clothing. This is exactly what I would have wanted to wear, when I woke up. But this…” and with that, the words closed up in their throat. Remardu put their head in their hands and tried to breathe deep breaths.
Haman said, “I don’t understand. The nanofactories would weave the necessary clothes, yes.”
With a snort, Bethery filled in the piece we were all missing. “Yes, but this isn’t our factory. This isn’t our home, rebuilt, even though it looks the part. We all feel it. We’re in the plumber’s house.”
“Hmm. I suspect this is… some kind of message.” Elund began to pace, hands on hips, as she had instinctively wanted to do all through the long years of being a bodiless watcher. “If they’re as powerful as they seem, they’re telling us something, by letting us know they used their spells, and not ours.”
“They’re telling us to watch ourselves.” Bethery rolled his eyes. “Not very subtle, if you ask me.”
“There’s more to this than just the kind of magic.” Haman fingered his bright blue tunic, then clapped one hand around the other fist, and the noise echoed around the curved white walls like a faraway gunshot. “Silence is more musical than any song,” he mused again.
Then the doors opened, and we were ushered into our Welcoming.