The first sign that the ghosts around Jili and Aralas were something unusual came from the fact that they were neither translucent, nor surrounded by a cloud of ectoplasm.
“Umm, hello?” Aralas asked, looking at the crowd of apparently solid beings who were winking into existence throughout the building.
At his words, the nearest ghosts reacted like someone had popped a large paper bag unexpectedly near them. Jili saw their surprise and reached for the Void anima she’d discovered. The ghosts looked too solid to be consumed by it but Void anima was a potent weapon against a wide variety of threats.
“Who are you?” one of the ghosts asked.
“What are you?” another asked.
The ghosts were in the form of the spindly legged, bug-like inhabitants of the planet. Or former inhabitants to be precise. Sometime in the five thousands years since Jili and Aralas began their journey, the planet had been wiped clean of sapient life.
“We’re humans, we crash landed here,” Jili said. “What are you?”
“We are Dels, or we were,” one of the people said.
“Why have you come here?” another asked.
“We landed by accident,” Jili said. “There was an explosion on our ship and we managed to crash here.”
“Are there any with you who need medical attention?” another Del asked.
“No,” Jili said. The Dels were beginning to swarm around them, pressing in closer than Jili was comfortable with. She’d dealt with non-human’s before, but the Del’s physiology was sufficiently removed from basic bipedal template that she had no idea how to read their body language.
“Give them room people,” one of the Dels said. It was larger than most of the rest and its coloration was towards the more vibrant end of the spectrum. In response to its command, the rest of the Del’s moved back, expanding the radius of the ring around Jili and Aralas. They also adopted a sort of kneeling posture, which, Jili reasoned, might be how the naturally sat down.
“You speak Galactic Common?” Aralas asked, a note of surprise in his voice.
“It’s a translation spell,” one of the Dels said.
“We knew that we would need it once we were found,” another said.
“Once you were found?” Aralas asked.
“Our world is off the great trade routes,” the lead Del said. “And our people have passed. We are the Eternal Memory of the Dels, but what’s the point of remembering something if those memories can never be shared or passed along.”
“So you really are ghosts?” Jili asked.
“Of a sort,” the lead Del said.
“What does that mean?” Aralas asked.
“We didn’t die and leave behind ghosts,” one of the Dels said. “We imprinted the entirety of our consciousnesses onto an aetheric mold.”
“Uh, I have some training in Aether casting and that doesn’t make any sense to me,” Aralas said.
“To understand what we are you need to understand the tale of our people,” the lead Dels said.
“Maybe you could tell us about that then?” Jili asked. There were a lot more Dels around them than she was comfortable with, but as long, as they were talking, things didn’t look like they were going to get unpleasant, so Jili was all in favor of expanding their talking time for as long as possible. If she got lucky, some people from the ship might track them down before anything unpleasant happened. Or maybe the Dels would go away when the sun rose.
The literal buzz that erupted from the Dels at Jili’s words was frightening but, she suspected, also a good sign. They seemed excited and happy rather than angry at the prospect.
“From what contact we had with the other Galactic races, we know that we were not an old species. Nor a widely spread one,” the lead Del said. “From our own history, we gleaned that we were not a wise race either.”
“Was this your only planet?” Aralas asked.
“Yes,” the lead Del said. “We never developed the spellcraft to travel the stars ourselves, but we were visited by a few of the wide ranging galactic races.”
“What did you mean about not being a wise race?” Jili asked.
“We are gone now, all living members of our race extinct,” the lead Del said. “And the fault for that lies on no one but ourselves.”
“We believed a great ravager race was going to descend on us and take our world away,” another Del said.
“And so we built all manner of weapons and enchantments,” another added.
“But the things that we knew how to fight were each other,” the lead Del said. “And the people that we had the most reason to hate were the ones we saw every day.”
“What did you do to yourselves?” Jili asked, her fear diminishing as she was caught up in their tale.
“We found reasons to use our weapons,” the lead Del said. “There were radical ideologies to be stamped out, and ancient grievances that could never be forgiven. Imbalances of power that could only be adjusted by secret attacks and sanctions that could only be imposed by outright assaults.”
“But lots of planets go through that stage,” Aralas said.
“So we understood,” the Del leader said. “But also many planets do not survive their follies. As we did not.”
“What was the breaking point?” Jili asked. “You must have seen it coming to have time to do whatever you did to yourselves.”
“There were many breaking points,” the Del leader said. “Events that sealed our fate. Against any one of them, we could perhaps have thrown the weight of our might as a species and clawed out of a future for ourselves. By the time the Egg Eater Plague was released though we were too diminished to fight any further.”
“Someone released a plague to destroy your young?” Jili asked.
“It was only supposed to target a subsection of our population,” the lead Del said.
“It worked as designed too,” one of the other Del said. “But what it’s architects didn’t account for was that once the plague was released its victims had little reason not to modify it and release a version that targeted their enemies as well.”
“But it didn’t just target their enemies,” another Del said.
“Or more people modified it as well,” another said.
“We never discovered what the truth was,” the leader said. “And in the end it didn’t matter. There were too few of us and we’d lost too much of our knowledge and too much of our industry to repair the damage that was done. In the end all that mattered was that our eggs were destroyed and any new ones would be as well.”
“What did you do?” Jili asked.
“We became as we are now,” the leader said.
“You need to tell them more than that!” one of the Dels said.
“Let me,” another said.
“As you will Cicil,” the leader said.
“What you see before you, what we are, is not quite a ghost, and not quite a living being.” Cicil said. “A ghost is a fleeting imprint, the remnants of a life engraved on anima. We are closer to a living spell, bound by our wills and formed in the image of our progenitors.”
“So, why did you appear only after the sun went down?” Aralas asked.
“A restriction of the spell,” Cicil said. “By night the planet’s anima is quieter and it is easier for us to form these bodies.”
“How long ago did you become like this?” Jili asked.
“We don’t know,” the leader said.
“We are eternal but, as a result, limited in many aspects,” Cicil said. “We remember our lost lives because we ingrained those memories into the the anima that makes us up. We have only a small amount of anima beyond that to hold new memories and so anything beyond a week is difficult to remember and anything beyond a month is impossible for us to retain.”
“We remember who we were, who our people were, but we can never really change,” the leader said. “Anything new we discover, anything we learn, it’s all forgotten before long.”
“Why do this then?” Aralas asked.
“Because it was the only chance we had to endure, the only chance anyone would ever know about us,” Cicil said.
“We could carry your stories out to the galaxy,” Aralas offered.
“That is all we ask,” the leader said.
“But you won’t remember we did that,” Jili said. “Once we leave you’ll forget that you gave your stories to us and you’ll be back to waiting for someone to tell them too!”
“Yes,” the leader said.
“We can’t do that then,” Jili said. “There’s got to be some better option here.”
“We do not suffer in our existence,” Cicil said.
“Is that really true?” Jili asked. “You recorded yourselves at the end of your civilization as an act of desperation.”
“Yes, we know, every moment, that our world is lost and we are forgotten,” Cicil said. “But we’ve accepted that.”
“That’s not…not entirely true,” one of the Dels said.
“What do you mean?” Cicil asked.
“I thought I was ok with this, but to be honest, part of me wasn’t sure we would ever be found, or that the creatures that found us wouldn’t be monsters of some sort,” the Del said.
“You’ve existed all this time, worrying about that?” Cicil asked.
The other Del twitched in a gesture that seemed to be the equivalent of a nod.
“And the rest of you?” Cicil asked. “Are there others who are built with that same kind of fear?”
Many others twitched in the same nodding gesture.
“We were always a foolish species Cicil,” the leader said.
“It’s not right to leave you here like this then,” Jili said.
“Um, we can’t really stay though? Can we?” Aralas asked.
“We would not object,” the leader said. “Our hope was always to see our world repopulated and full of life.”
“There’s a problem with that though,” Jili said.
“The biosphere here is poisonous to us,” Aralas said.
“Why would that be a problem?” Cicil asked.
“Did that not translate properly?” Jili asked. “Do you have a word for poison in your language?”
“Of course,” Cicil said. “We developed a vast array of toxins to defend our world with and then an even vaster array to wipe ourselves out.”
“And you don’t see why it would be a problem for us to try to live on a toxic world?” Jili asked.
“Do your people not know how to convert biospheres to suit your needs?” Cicil asked.
“Convert biospheres?” Aralas asked. “As in change the entire planet?”
“Or selected parts of it,” Cicil said.
“Not like that,” Aralas said.
“Actually that’s true for us,”Jili said. “But I heard the Crystal Navy folks talking about terraforming a lifeless world for us. There’s a lot of those to chose from but it was still going to take years for one to be ready.”
“Years?” Cicil asked. “Well, ok, I suppose if you’re starting from a lifeless husk it would be more difficult. Very little anima to work with that and jump starting the process would take a lot of work, but our world isn’t like that.”
“Do you mean we could change this world to be suitable for human habitation?” Jili asked.
“We could change this city by tomorrow,” Cicil said. “The rest of the world would take a little more time.”
“And you would want people like us to move in here?” Jili asked. “To live where you lived? To use these buildings and the artifacts you left behind?”
“If there is anything we could trade to convince you to do that, you have only to name your price,” the leader said.
“You know, I think we might be able to work something out,” Jili said.
Jili looked at Aralas and imagined the million humans in orbit above them, the millions of humans with no where to go who’d been promised the chance of a new life on a new world. She imagined them living with the Dels rather than destroying them as the Nophilans had intended. The future rose before her in the picture of a new world, full again with life and carrying on the legacy of a people long past but whose knowledge and spirits lived on.
Despite the Void anima she carried, Jili didn’t feel empty at all anymore.