The Gothic Sector Ghost

Summary: A phantom thief is tasked with stealing an ancient artifact from Earth's most secure facility. Sometimes, success leads to unexpected problems.

I awoke after death, as my spirit fled the smoldering ruins of Earth. Despite the annihilation of all on the surface, my most immediate concern was a selfish one. My soul was bound to my client, whom I'd just failed. Arcanotechnical consciousness transfer meant I did not fear death, but my client was capable of far worse.

I remembered our first meeting, in the Dippel Medical Research Institute on Phobos. He was an obsessive devotee of the station's namesake. Doctor Johann Dowell sat calmly across the table with his hands folded and slight smile on his face. He'd lasted beyond the limits of senolytics treatments, thanks to the full-body prosthetic he designed for himself. We sat alone in an empty conference room, with only a servitor robot for company.

The Good Doctor was as pale as his lab coat, with his shit-eating grin stretching from ear to ear. He slipped a paper across the table to me as though to rid himself of it. He ran his hands over his non-existent hair while his brow-less gray eyes fixated on me. I skimmed over the paper, realizing it was the same thing as I'd read on my way over here.

"One you know how to call a phantom, catching them is trivial," Dr. Dowell explained. "Like a moth to a flame. It's almost as easy to study their mind."

The body I borrowed for the meeting was that of a brain-dead clone with the correct implants within. It lacked the specialized cybernetics and bioware I preferred, but I'd use another one for the assignment. I was astrally projecting myself from a corpse-farm in the Vodun Sector of the Caribbean on Earth, so acquiring bodies was no object. The Doctor was in no mood to talk such trivialities, as he hurried to a bookshelf propped against the wall. He pulled a medical textbook, and the hidden door swung opened.

Against my better judgment, I followed Dowell into the corridor beyond. The dim corridor was illuminated by shifting, soft blue light, as though we walked through the ocean depths. My trepidation rose with every step, as I saw a newfound spring in the scientist's step. He turned to observe objects set into translucent containers in the walls, and a slight grin crept across his face. His fingers pointed to a few select pieces in his macabre museum.

The first was the most predictable, given his expertise. The empty gazes of a half-dozen heads in life support jars tracked our progress through the corridor. Next was a row of archaic computer circuit boards merging with disembodied organs, which pumped brackish ichor into the wall. Beyond that was a quivering mound of flesh grafted to machinery, with both human and lupine features barely recognizable. An all-too-human eye blinked with a translucent lid, pitifully pleading for release.

"The Splay-Wolf drive was the first faster than light system, utilizing a captive lycanthrope's ability to shift mass to other dimensions," the Doctor explained. "This is one of the original prototypes, and I'm proud to say, still alive after these two centuries."

He continued down the hallway, and my borrowed body followed. We briskly passed a few other exhibits, which he'd no doubt gush about if given the chance. They were less prominent in his grotesque gallery, and far less nauseating. I recalled a bronze Egyptian curved sword, a khopesh, propped beside a row of canopic jars. Skimming over the plaque, they were donated from the New Khemet Federation on the Martian surface, by the prior High Pharaoh Rameses IV. After that was a ceremonial suit of hellplate power armor, with pentagram symbol of the Hellguard displayed on the breastplate. There was a cherry-wood handled laser Broomhandle pistol with Chinese characters on the script, a tool favored by the Neo-Taoist exorcists.

"Mere centuries ago, humanity thought itself master of an empirical, materialistic universe," Dowell said. "In science, the burden of proof rests on the affirmative. The effective demise of thermodynamics, classical relativity, and quantum physics was necessary to bring about the miracles of our current age."

Dowell walked onwards, and I compulsively followed. By now, I realized control over my borrowed body was naught but a comfortable illusion. Each footfall dragged into an artificial eternity, as I feared what awaited me at the end of the corridor. I stepped forward, unsure what surprises awaited me in the darkness ahead. The Doctor walked faster, and part of me was glad not to be alone. I just did not want to be left alone for long.

Dowell flicked a switch, lighting a room at the end of the corridor. I expected to see tanks of abominations. I expected to see a horde of slavering cyborg abominations. I expected to see some horrid apparatus for removing brains from human heads. I expected to see a tank of networked brains directly wired together. I expected to see a vault of grimoires, bound in human flesh. What I saw was far more disconcerting than any of those.

Dowell illuminated an otherwise unremarkable office. There was a standing desk beside a bookshelf, with an old-fashioned desktop workstation on it. There was a cabinet with chocolate chip cookies and other snacks, with a small fridge beneath it. The only potentially dangerous object in vision was a trash chute, which undoubtedly feed to the ship's nano-recycling system. I would have relaxed, but the normalcy of the room had the opposite effect.

"The source responsible for the greatest paradigm since Einstein and Shang was recovered from Miskatonic University's archives, where it sat in ignobility for decades," Dowell said, pausing for dramatic effect. "The Pnakotic Manuscripts."

Immediately, I knew what he had in mind. He wanted me to steal the most heavily guarded historical tome in the universe, one guarded by the best security Earth's money could buy. I saw a satellite photograph of the location pinned above his desk. Remembering the earlier information he sent, I recognized the five corners and circular walls around the Pentagram, and realized just how brazen of a theft he wanted.

"You are the only human I am aware of with the required skills," Dowell said as his shit-eating grin returned. "The Hellguard have proven unworthy protectors. We must rectify this."

Dowell reached into a drawer, and he pulled out a baroque, archaic pistol. It was of ebony-alloyed steel, embroidered with gold trim. The ammunition chamber was placed in such a way to evoke an ancient revolver, but seemed angular and aggressive.

"Come back to me once you've recovered the artifact," he said, pressing the barrel to my throat. "I'll be able to tell if you've succeeded."

With that, Dowell pulled the trigger. Time slowed. He grinned. The explosion from the muzzle caused me to flinch. I felt the slug enter me, hot and angry. The sensation dragged on, and my attachment with the material slipped. My world went black.

I awoke in the astral, ethereal fugue between dimensions. There was no light, no darkness, no color, nothing. I'd been here before, and I always found it more than a little disorienting. This was the oblivion between life and death, the fabric beyond morality and mortality. Aside from my frantic counting, time vanished in any meaningful sense. It was through force of will that one left it, a process I cannot easily translate into words. Focusing on my mission, I once more returned to the living realm.

I would have been seething with hatred for Dowell, but I expected something like that. He was the only one I've met who figured out my power and its limits. He would not be alone, so he figured he'd make the most of it while the rest of the solar system was unaware. I'd already acquired enough to secure my own well-being, but Dowell's scheme appealed to me on some level. I had no love for the Hellguard, and it would be my pleasure to humiliate those lunkheads.

I projected myself above the fortress, as though I was an ectoplasmic satellite. They stored their private collection of plundered artifacts in the Pentagram. Surrounded by the ruin-filled marsh, their fortress was reinforced in multiple ways. It was once an office building, but was now defiled by Satanic mercenaries who slaughtered their way across the solar system. Humiliating them would be fun, and perhaps even a public service.

The Hellguard defenses looked formidable on the surface. I saw anti-aircraft missiles and forcefields on the roof. The outermost walls were a maze of muddy trenches, gun emplacements, and artillery reminiscent of the First World War. There were perimeter patrols of armored death-bots, augmented with conventional forces and killer nanoswarms. The foundations were reinforced with arcanotechnical alloys and armed traps. Arcane wards were strategically placed around the building to trap extraplanar invaders. Both conventionally and unconventionally, it was like a steel onion of layered defenses.

It would be boring to recount the specifics in too much detail. Their conventional forces were totally ignorant and unable to interact with me. Their forcefields and wards were intended to counter very well-defined entities, unlike me. I slipped through their stolen stronghold, observing the boorish brutes trudging through its halls. I phased a shelf of security procedures, memorizing the texts as I passed. With great care, I effortlessly entered the vault that held their greatest treasures.

At the center of the Pentagram was a spherical chamber. Neither the guards nor security system were a concern for me, but the contingencies I noticed were. Opaque spheres, each a concrete-filled metal vessel, were sorted into niches and slots by robotic hands. I wondered what artifacts, what wonders the Hellguard kept stashed here. I understood what would happen if my ingress was detected. A contingency would destroy everything in the room with a small nuclear blast, followed by unspecified 'extreme measures.'

I wished I searched through all those spheres, determining which objects the Hellguard saw fit to hide from the world. From the cement entombment and strict countermeasures, I starting considering what sort of things might be stored here. If I interfaced with the wrong sphere, my powers would be all for naught. I left momentarily, retrieving an index from the commanding officer's quarters. I found exactly what I was looking for.

I find the sphere that held my prize. I did not care to interface with the heavily monitored computers, nor indulge in a cathartic smothering-spree. I phased into a sphere at the top of the dome, and I saw my prize. It was a book of metal pages, with characters no human hand had ever scrawled. I stuck a spectral hand through it, and it spoke to me.

For a moment, I found myself outside of the present, in a place I never saw before. It was a city of black, angular basalt, with clone-like beings moving about on peculiar, boat-like vehicles. The pages of the book were being printed by some strange machine, which bound them together like a strangely archaic tome. The world faded, and I found myself back in the present.

Me touching the Manuscripts had caused them to glow, as golden light radiated through cracking concrete. Other spheres shock violently and cracked, like hatching eggs. I tried to pull the Manuscripts with me to the ethereal plane, but an unknown force repelled me. As time slowed once more, I beheld the true extent of the Hellguard contingencies.

The atomic explosion was the least destructive of them. I was not there to feel the heat of the blast-wave, nor the pressure that vaporized that chamber. I was not there to see every alarm in the Pentagram erupt into red alert. I was not there to see the panicked response by the formerly stoic soldiers. I was not there to see the entire building leveled by the secondary warhead used as a secondary failsafe.

It was the tertiary failsafe that I had not been expecting. My soul was already snapping back to my body, but the third one prevented that. A relativistic cannon, positioned on the moon, impacted the surface an instant later. Earth's crust rippled outwards like a pulse of burning slag, converting my homeworld into a burning ruin. I realized I was no longer being drawn towards the now-annihilated Caribbean, but through space to the waiting Doctor.

To both my relief and shock, I found myself once more in a surrogate body. Dowell hovered over me, his face a grinning mask. I exhaled, fearful of what torments he was planning for me. I had failed catastrophically, far worse than I thought I'd been. I struggled for some justification for my actions, and I only half-listened to Dowell's words.

"The price of success was higher than I thought," the scientist said, looking at some distant monitor. "It is a good thing I set up this extra body for you, given what happened on Earth."

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"The Manuscripts can implant themselves on the minds of the unwary. By comparing your memories before and after Earth was blasted, I was able to acquire the information I sought."

"That's all?! What about Earth?"

"I'll admit, I underestimated the degree to which the Hellguard were willing to go to protect their loot," Dowell said. "But you are still alive, aren't you?"

It was then I saw myself in the reflection. I was one of the heads displayed in the Doctor's hallway. His wards trapped me here, as part of whatever failsafe he'd developed. I would have screamed, but my vocal cords did not respond. The Doctor muted my voice, as though I was a noisy television. He closed the window, and he turned off the light. I was now part of his collection, stuck here until he found another use for me. Part of me wonders if this was not always his plan.