Mind the Ghosts
Derek Pratt sat at his computer workstation late at night, light from his computer monitor providing the only illumination in the room, and watched the screen, engrossed in the scene being played out in front of him. It was a dark room in a private home, most likely a formal dining room judging by the large, ornate table and matching chairs. There were two archways providing access to the room from the rest of the house, and finishing off the space he could make out some sort of china cabinet and several works of art on the walls. Just another stereotypical dark old house.
The scene had been recorded on a handheld, consumer model videorecording device. He could tell it was a fairly cheap model by the grainy low-light function, which cast everything in dark shades of green. Current models could do synthetic color enhancements to make a totally dark scene look almost like daylight. Oh well, not everyone had the good fortune to possess the expensive equipment he did.
He watched for a few seconds more, then heard the first disturbance. It sounded like the cameraman had kicked a chair as he was walking around, but after turning the camera back to look at the offending object, it looked as though it was too far away to have been bumped by the would-be documentarian. The abrupt camera motions tended to make him dizzy, sure signs the operator wasn’t accustomed to using the device. The camera was still pointed at the chair when it moved again of its’ own accord. It moved, slowly and in jerky starts and stops, but it moved the last few inches until it was pushed in against the table all neat and arranged properly.
The cameraman moved closer and pulled the chair back out a few inches, then stepped back to watch again. This time, nothing happened.
Then, from off screen, he heard it- a low, raspy voice that was almost below the ability of the camera to detect. Almost.
“stop,” Derek heard the otherworldy voice croak out. It sounded hoarse, as if whoever said it hadn’t used their vocal cords in years. “my room. such mess.”
Something must have happened off screen again; perhaps the cameraman felt something touch him, maybe it was the typical ghostly cold wind. Whatever it was, the man panicked and ran from the room, breathing heavily and swearing the same curse word over and over under his breath as he ran from the building into the night in front of the old house.
Derek stopped the playback and shook his head. Amateur.
He placed his hands on the smooth desktop, reactivating the sleeping computer, which obediently projected a keyboard onto the desk’s surface for him to type on. He picked up the small stylus and tapped one of several custom programmed hotkeys off to the side of the keyboard, watching on-screen as a dictation program activated.
“Alright, this is case 715-BR,” he began tiredly. “Standard residential incursion. Evidence presented on homemade video recorder, I placed a remote EM detector a couple days ago and confirmed paranormal energies. Looks like a standard ‘unfinished business’ with a little bit of ‘neat freak’ thrown in. Something doesn’t want the new owners of the house rearranging the dining set that came with the place.” He stopped for a second to take a sip of his beer, then continued. “We’ll start a full monitoring and cleanup program tomorrow, let’s meet there at six pm for the setup. This should be an easy one, folks.”
With a few more taps of the stylus and a few keystrokes to name the file, he encrypted it and sent the video along with his notes to the four other members of his team. He, like many others in his profession, preferred to do the bulk of his work and research late at night. It felt more right somehow to be conducting this sort of work with the lights out and the sun below the horizon. His team would most likely all still be awake as well. He realized he should get some sleep, though, since tomorrow he’d have to go banish another paranormal presence back to the afterlife.
Derek had started life as a computer programmer, just another in the masses going about their business. He hadn’t exactly been overjoyed with his life, but he was content, and as he’d grown up and sampled the adult world, he’d decided that he could survive on content.
Then one fateful day a few years ago, an uncle had asked him to come over and help set up his new holographic entertainment system. Everything seemed to work right, but every morning the power switch had manually returned to the off position, requiring a cumbersome re-initialization of the setup. He was called back repeatedly, and it happened often enough that he soon suspected his uncle was just pressing the wrong button and either didn’t realize or want to admit his mistake. So, he’d secretly set up a video camera to monitor the entertainment center. When he checked it the next day, he received the shock of his life. In the middle of the night, the set would flare to life, roll up through all the channels twice, and then the power switch would depress seemingly of its’ own accord. Shocked, curious, and more than a little disturbed, he at long last had enlisted the help of someone in the newly introduced field of Quantum Disturbance Investigations, or QDI for short.
The investigative team had shown up, set up their equipment, and shortly decided what was causing the manifestations and how to end them. The next night, it was over. No more late night channel surfing. Derek, however, was hooked.
He had thrown himself into the vocation, as a hobby at first and apprenticing himself to the very company that had swept his uncle’s house. Eventually, he picked up his own clients, and within the year had quit his programming job to do QDI full time as his new field gained acceptance and popularity. Now, four years later, he had his own team, his own business, and several hundred investigations under his belt.
He spent the next morning sleeping in, grabbing brunch and eventually wandering over to his offices. He lived in the completely rebuilt downtown portion of Old Boston, only fifteen minutes from his condo by rail or his own car. On worknights, he drove his car so he could carry the expensive equipment without worry of a careless commuter sitting next to him accidentally knock a ten thousand dollar wide-spectrum video device onto the ground.
He sat down at his desk in the tasteful but spare office. It was decorated with lots of modern touches, all steel and glass, and resided on an upper floor of a prestigious new downtown office building. Whereas once upon a time, a profession such as his would have had to set up shop in his own basement, nowadays he was just as respected as the dentist down the hall or instant cosmetic surgeon upstairs.
Clients often came into the office, preferring to discuss their disturbances face to face, as it they were afraid to admit to the fact over the video phone. Modern encryption made it as secure as anything, but nothing brought out the old-fashioned tendencies in people like having to admit that their house was haunted. Boston, any old Northeastern city really, made for a great base of operations for a QDI firm. Lots of old houses and buildings for people to depart this world from, centuries of inhabitation, and one minor pandemic over the last few hundred years made for a wealth of spirits clamoring for attention. While most of his jobs were within a days’ drive of the city, he did have a few cross-country treks in as well, though he preferred to be able to drive home at night after work.
The public’s initial reaction to the QDI field was, rightly so, one of skepticism upon the pronouncement that researchers had actually discovered the physical properties that made paranormal appearances possible. There had been uproars from religious groups, the scientific community, and more. But, he mused, it was always the same with something that pushed the bounds of technology and knowledge. It was what led the jaded Derek Pratt to eschew following any particular organized religion. In the beginning of humanity, anything that couldn’t be explained by science was judged to be the work of God or another divine power. Storms, plagues, extinction of species, any number of amazing but ultimately explainable events, were claimed by religion. Years would pass and eventually science would catch up, and what once was explained as the work of witchcraft or divinity was revealed to have a perfectly normal origin. He thought about modern supersonic airliners, 3D holographic projections, jawbone implanted communications devices, and mused that hundreds of years ago he would either be lauded as a wizard or burned as a heretic for displaying or describing such devices.
Such as it was with the paranormal. Eventually, people discovered that a combination of brain energy and patterns, combined with atmospheric conditions such as electromagnetic field variations and the quantum phase of subspace itself, actually allowed those that passed to in effect ‘hover’ between life and what lay beyond. It was a matter of right place, right time, as not everyone could pull off the act of sticking around after their day had come. Just the lucky few, or maybe unlucky, depending on your point of view. He had yet to get a concrete answer from a spook on what the Great Beyond actually looked like, but he didn’t discount the existence of one, either. It was simply his job to send to that place those that couldn’t make it on their own. The job was not without adventure or danger, of course. In fact, one of his first employees had actually suffered a heart attack during an investigation a few years back. He had of course expected people to be frightened and had all employees subjected to full health exams before employment, but somehow it still happened. The doctors assured him the man was in perfect health, and they dropped the matter in a fashion that suggested they were chalking it up to one of those things that just happened sometimes.
His crew all met that evening, each one dragging large cases jammed full of detection equipment. Derek personally carried the gear necessary to seal rips in the fabric of subspace, effectively sending to the other side once and for all the entities that were bothering the living. It was expensive, dangerous, and highly licensed and controlled, and as such he was required to keep possession of it at all times. He had a feeling this wouldn’t take long- just go kick around the dining room, mess it up a bit- and that should tweak the spook enough to get him to show his face.
The team entered the house while it was still light enough outside, stringing cable and setting up their gear. They set up cameras that operated in several wavelengths, electronic and magnetic field detection gear, and ran everything through a powerful laptop computer that could generate a real-time synthetic image of what was being seen by the monitors.
The mood was always lighthearted as darkness fell- in spite of the creepy nature of their job, the people doing such work were usually thrill seekers or oddballs who liked the adrenaline rush.
His employees dressed in work clothes of a sort. He had no real official uniform, though he had sprung for short sleeved polo shirts in a variety of colors with the company logo embroidered on them. They were expected to wear those, but the rest was up to their discretion. Most usually wore some sort of cargo pant and equipment vest like the professional photographers of old- there were plenty of bits of gear to haul around, and people like his appreciated the many pockets.
Derek, on the other hand, dressed up a bit. Not for the sake of the apparitions, of course, but for the property owners and any media or prospective clients he might run across. He usually favored nicer pants and a sport jacket, eschewing the tie lately as it was currently fashionable to not sport any neckwear. Every once in a while he would wear a suit and tie, especially if it was in a high profile location. He’d never admit it, but he did love the look and feel of a nicely tailored suit, and relished the times when he could justify wearing one. Today he wore the sportcoat.
“Make sure you ask for the lotto numbers this time,” one of his camera operators urged him as Derek walked through the front hall.
“Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they’re psychic. I tell you this every time…”
“Still. After that last one asked you to go out drinking, I thought you’d be more open to the idea.”
Derek smiled, for it was true. They had run across a man who had enjoyed his liquor, though apparently his death had been of unrelated issues to that particular vice. It was actually a tempting offer. Who at the bar could come up with a better story than the guy out drinking with a ghost?
Showtime, as he thought of it, neared.
The house was dark now, and his team made sure all lights were off, silenced their comm. frequencies, and began the long wait. It was rare that anything abnormal happened for the first few hours after dark, prompting the more whimsical in his profession to wonder exactly what kind of hours people kept in the afterlife.
True to form, two and a half hours later, the first chair moved. This was followed by a picture frame getting straightened on the wall behind Derek. That sort of thing used to give him the chills; nowadays, it wasn’t a consideration. He hated to think he was getting jaded about this career just like his last one. He put the thought from his mind.
He turned to look at Casey, his computer reconstructionist. The young woman noticed his glance and nodded. She handed him a small tablet PC, showing a slightly fish-eyed video feed of the room they were in. It was from a camera mounted above the doorway they had entered, and it covered all the places an apparition was likely to appear. The computer would take all the sensor inputs, fill in the information gaps, and create a composite image on the screen that would be of use to them in communicating.
Sure enough, right by the picture that had just been straightened, was a human-sized IR image. It was essentially a person, but in the IR spectrum you saw no details like facial features, fingers, etc. It was there, however, reinforced by the EM field detectors and given solid, definable shape on the screen.
“Hello,” Derek began, facing right at the haunt. “My name is Derek Pratt. I represent the people who now own this house. Can you tell me why you’re here?”
The apparition turned to face him as well, though it made no movement other than that.
“No, really, we can see you. I’d like to know why you’re here disturbing the nice people who own this house.”
“my. house.” The low, almost whisper of a voice was disconcerting, Derek had to admit. The energy of the apparition would cause the air itself to vibrate, much the same as a person’s vocal cords. Voices seemed to emanate from all around you, and initially it tended to freak out everyone in the QDI business. He had experienced it enough by now that he catalogued this in a disconnected sort of way. You just got used to it.
“Yes, I hear that a lot. Are you aware of your state of being? By that, I mean do you know if you’re alive or dead?” It was a callous thing to say, but years of documentation by him and others in the QDI field had led to the technique of getting right to the point. For those that were still around because they hadn’t realized they were deceased, it was a shocker. Half the ‘don’t know I’m deads’ disappeared right then and there.
This one, however, didn’t vanish.
“still mine. go.”
That was also typical. Derek resigned himself to doing it the quick and emotionally draining way.
“I hate to tell you this, but you’re dead.” He recited the rest from memory- the preparation for the job was what separated the pros from the less dedicated. “You died one year ago, of a car crash three miles from your house.” He paused for a second to make sure his voice stayed solid and didn’t waver. While not scared of the spooks (he often thought of them by slang terms like that, instead of the more upstanding industry-standard terms like apparition or paranormal energy convergence), he needed to show them he was in control of himself and the surroundings. Same went for his employees. He pressed on.
“An out of control hoverbarge lost lift from a lane up high and broke through all the safety tractor fields. It landed right on your car while you were stopped in a red lane. You had no family in town, so your relatives sold off what was here, including this house.”
“Sorry, but it’s not. You were dormant for ten months, until someone finally bought this house. A couple weeks ago you showed up and started trying to straighten up the place. It’s understandable, typical even, but you don’t need to be here anymore. Your home is in good hands; you can go now.”
Derek hated it when it came down to this. “Look, you’re dead anyway, the house has been sold to some nice new people who will take good care of it. The new owners are a little freaked out by you trying to redecorate on them. That’s why I’m here. You can leave peacefully, or I can force you out. You still end up in the same nice place, but it’s probably better if you do it on your own. I would guess our version has a bumpier ride.”
This was the part of the speech where Derek never looked at his team. He didn’t make eye contact, even sneak a glance. Regardless of his thoughts on religion, the afterlife, and the morality of threatening someone who was already dead, he’d prefer to be able to talk the being into choosing to leave on his or her own. Usually treating them with respect helped that case. In fact, something like seventy percent of his jobs dissipated peacefully. You could tell by their tone right away, and this one was headed in the wrong direction. This place was his, and he wasn’t going to make it easy.
“Last chance. Please consider leaving here on your own.”
There was silence, long enough that Derek glanced back at his tablet. He hadn’t even realized it, but he had been looking right at the wall where the apparition stood, foregoing his electronics for the senses his humanity allowed him. To his disappointment, the figure still stood there, not moving.
“Alright then. By the authority granted to me by the legal owners of this dwelling, plus the Commonwealth of the State of Massachusetts, I am deploying our EM/subspace repair device.”
He raised his hand, holding the small gadget in it. For a nuclear powered quantum manipulator, it was certainly a dainty looking thing. It fit in the palm of his hand and had a touchscreen that reconfigured itself based on the mode of use. Currently, it only showed three buttons- arm, sync, and engage. He pressed the arm button to activate the circuitry, and then sync to tell the device to talk to the computer that was mapping the room. Having used the computer’s compiled data to locate the tear in subspace that allowed the deceased’s energy to remain in this realm, the device chirped that it was ready. There were no theatrics involved; no wearing of goggles, issuing of warnings or donning of lead lined vests. Derek simply pressed the engage button- he didn’t even have to point it at anything. Though there were probably a half dozen people in the world who really understood what it was doing, essentially the device located the rift that allowed energy to cross realms, then manipulated it at a quantum level to restore its’ integrity. At the same time, the ‘abnormal’ energy, that being the deceased, was pushed through and sent to whatever lie beyond. It all took about three seconds. The device chirped again to proudly announce that the damage was fixed. He checked his tablet to be sure, and was relieved to see the image of the room was once again clear.
He cleared his throat and placed the device back in its’ special carrying case, then stowed it on his belt.
“Ok folks. We’ll leave everything here like usual, keep it recording all night. Tomorrow morning, Casey and…” he looked around to select the other lucky one who got to help repack all this gear. “Who was the last one here?”
All eyes turned to Blake, who had a habit of showing up late and being assigned cleanup duty with Casey. Everyone, Casey included, knew he had a crush on her and wanted the few hours of one on one time. She didn’t mind- he didn’t really seem like her type, but you never knew what you might learn about somebody. He was a sweet guy, in any case, and she liked the company.
Derek sat again at his desk, reviewing video of the night’s activities. He rarely got to sleep before dawn after returning from a job. He was too engrossed in his task- cataloging the event, writing reports, and indexing the various media he brought home. It was something he always preferred to do himself, and he took it very seriously. He had a long standing routine; work all night, finish up around breakfast, and head out to the restaurant a few blocks down the street. It was a small, greasy spoon sort of place, but they made great waffles and the bacon was always cooked just right; not too crisp, but not too chewy. It wasn’t the healthiest way to feed himself, but it was his ritual and he stuck to it. As he had left his home, he saw a team of utility company repairmen working on his condo as well as the building next door. They were partially blocking his garage, and he elected to take the rail rather than go through trying to get them to move their trucks so he could use his car. His first annoyed thought was that his datalines better not be out this evening; there was still work to be done to close out last night’s job.
He rode the train back to his office, sitting quietly in his seat just like all the other commuters, and watched the city streak by. The performance of his job had served to make him feel distanced from the rest of humanity a bit- how many people truly grasped and, what’s more, accepted, what they could become after death? He felt like himself and those in his profession knew some sort of profound secret that everyone else was incapable of possessing.
Derek noted with interest the looks on people’s faces that typified someone riding the rail to wherever they need to go- glassy eyed stare, detached, most of them not wanting to appear personable enough to have someone attempt to strike up a conversation that they weren’t interested in having. As he eyed up the people in his car, young and old, of all persuasions, appearances, and lifestyles, he only thought one thing about them; would he ever have to banish any of these people?
What should have been a light afternoon at the office was interrupted by a rare emergency call. A large hospital not far away had called reporting a serious and sudden paranormal event. It was extremely disrupting, with all the classic signs of someone who had passed but was in serious distress, hampering their ability to peacefully leave this plane. The hospital’s administration was concerned enough to pay the hefty fee for an instant and dedicated response, and as a result Derek and his team were gathering in the hospital’s administrative waiting room just as darkness began to fall. They carried their full load of gear, as well as extra detection and suppression equipment meant to deal with an uncooperative subject. Today was one of those days when Derek wore a suit obtained from his closet at the office, and hoped the job would be noteworthy enough to at least make it into the late night news shows as a bit piece. As far as advertising went, free advertising was his favorite kind.
The hospital’s VP of something or other- Derek found elaborate and convoluted titles to be distracting tools of those who didn’t feel important enough- gave them a brief overview of the afternoon’s events. Something had appeared on the second floor, an ER wing that dealt with critical cases as they entered the building. It was causing power disruptions, moving equipment, and generally making medium-grade chaos out of their operating rooms.
Derek dealt with the VP quickly, then got his team underway. He briefed them in the elevator. “Alright, we’ll do this like an angry ‘don’t want to leave’ case. Let’s find out where the breach and energy is centered, then try and map out the boundaries of its’ travel. Casey, Blake, set up the main computer and data hubs somewhere centrally located on the floor, preferably near a main corridor.” He looked at the other two, each in turn, and continued. “Garrett, you get the IR and EM cameras and detection gear ready. Carrie, you get to run the first sweep for the breach and tear. Let Garrett know where to drop everything off. I’m going to go have a look at what our friend has done to the place.”
Whatever had manifested itself in the ER wing was serious about getting attention. It hadn’t necessarily been destructive, but had caused a lot of chaos by opening and emptying drawers, cabinets, and supply carts. He swore he felt a cold chill; he quickly spun around and naturally saw nothing. This would be interesting.
He got the call from Casey that everything was ready. She had set up shop in a reception area, using the desks and power stations that were there for the hospital’s normal business. They gathered around the monitors and began the wait, though Derek had a suspicion that it wouldn’t take long. He was right. All the monitors and detectors in one of the ER rooms lit off at once. Not too surprising, actually, since the trauma of a death on the ER table had caused many a soul to linger. He removed his suit coat; there were no cameras here and he was starting to get warm, which was unusual for him.
The team then brought their extensive gear to the ER, which had been rapidly cordoned off by the hospital staff. It was a typical operating room, filled with the stainless steel appliances, banks of lights, and computer monitors that he would have expected to see.
The cameras pinpointed the energy to one corner of the room. Looking at them revealed the same human-sized blob of energy he always saw. This one, however, kept jumping around. Not too far, but it almost seemed to twitch, as if full of nervous energy. That was something he rarely saw. Hard to guess what kind of contact this would be.
Time to go to work and find out. He took two steps forward and addressed the spot on the wall where the energy was located.
“Hello. My name is Derek Pratt, and I’ve been hired by this hospital to contact you. Can you tell me why you’re here?”
The energy moved around again, darting towards Derek, then heading back towards the corner of the room. He almost flinched when he saw that on the monitor, then silently chastised himself for reacting line a newbie in front of his people. This would make some good highlight reel footage, what with that thing bouncing all over the room.
It failed to respond, so Derek tried again.
“I need to talk to you and find out what you’re doing here. The owners of this building want you to leave, and it will help to know why you’re here.”
“stay,” was the response, the voice seeming to come from all around him.
So, it wanted to stay. Nothing new there.
“I’m sorry to say, you can’t stay here. You need to go. We can help.”
“You want me to stay? Sorry, but the décor here really isn’t my style. I’m more into earth tones, not metal.”
“Got time for a creepy thought?” Asked Blake.
“I think I know what you’re going to say. There’s no reason for it to be Mike. That was years ago and he had no real unfinished business.” Derek wanted to put the brakes on that line of thought right away. Blake apparently thought that the visitor was their former colleague, Mike Tabor, who had suffered a heart attack while on the job. He had in fact died in this hospital. Still, Derek had no reason or desire to go there.
“Alright, I can’t stay, and neither can you,” he said. “Last chance. It’s better if you leave on your own.”
“don’t make me.”
With a sigh, Derek fell into the rehearsed lines he’d recited so many times over the years. “By the authority granted to me by the legal owners of this dwelling, plus the Commonwealth of the State of Massachusetts, I am deploying our EM/subspace repair device.”
He looked over at Casey, who nodded her readiness. He looked at the tablet PC he held in his left hand as he held the quantum manipulator in his right, and saw the energy was bouncing all over the place. It’s not as though it could escape- the energy was tied to the rift anyway and couldn’t run far- but it was definitely agitated. It would be better when this was all over.
“Goodbye. We’re releasing you from this place. Rest well.”
The rift was sealed seconds later, something which all the detection and monitoring equipment confirmed. Derek felt drained, but of course would never admit it to the crew.
“Ok folks.” He checked his watch; it was just after ten pm. He started speaking even before he looked up again. “We’re going to fall behind on our work here, so everyone to the office by noon tomorrow. Blake, I won’t pretend to ask if you were last. You and Casey get to clean up tomorrow morning before you stop by.” He went and retrieved his coat, signaling that the debrief was over, then headed off to give a report to the hospital administrator.
Derek sat at his workstation at home, repeating the same process he’d gone through countless times. He reviewed the day’s work, though even as he catalogued the information he knew in the abstract sense that he was only half concentrating on it. He went to the kitchen and opened the fridge to grab a beer, but thought he noticed a smell. It was faint, and he couldn’t place what he’d call it, but there was definitely something there. He eyeballed the fridge, looking for an open container of old food or something similar. Seeing nothing, he grabbed his beer and went back to the computer workstation.
The smell now was obvious by the computer. He couldn’t quite place it, and then it finally hit him. The utility men outside this morning, the smell- it was natural gas. A leak, and a bad one by the looks of it. Then he heard a muffled boom downstairs. He felt the pressure wave roll through his living room, felt the heat from below as well. In an instant of panic he jumped up and ran to his door and the hallways beyond. He heard a continuous roar now, but couldn’t localize the sound. He felt his front door and looked through the peephole. The door was hot, and he saw rolling dark smoke with a hint of bright orange flame beyond. He turned and dashed to his balcony, running across the kitchenette and living room. He saw the balcony disappear in a sheet of flame as the windows exploded inward, shards of glass cutting like shrapnel through his living room. Backed into his hallway towards his bedroom, he ran into it in the hopes the window in there was clear.
His hopes were dashed. Bright orange flame engulfed the floor to ceiling windows much like the ones in the living room. He felt the building shudder again. Now he felt another heat wave wash over him. The front door was gone, and flames were washing down the hallway towards his bedroom. The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than ten seconds. He was sure the whole building was going down. He was sweating like crazy, both from the fear and panic as well as the scorching heat coming at him from all sides. He concluded that this was it; he was too high to jump, fire blocked the windows anyway, and the hall was impassable. Flames were everywhere. Then the realization hit him- it had been Mike at the hospital, it had to be. Somehow he was trying to warn Derek about the condo; maybe he even knew about the gas leak. His former employee had been trying to save him, he just hadn’t been willing or able to make the stretch. Instead he had sent Mike away.
Fire engulfed everything now. Furniture suddenly burst into flames, glass popped, wooden supports and wall members cracked under the heat. From start to finish, the process had taken no more than twenty seconds.
He tried to scream, but the heat scalded his lungs, and all he could do was cough and gurgle violently. Time seemed to slow down, but he knew that at least it would be over quick. This was an explosion, not a slow burn.
He’d always wondered what his last thoughts would be if it ever came down to it, or frankly if he’d have time for last thoughts. The last conscious idea through his mind was to wonder whether his former employees would keep the company going, and whether they’d have to banish him someday. It would be fitting, he supposed, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.