The Lorelei Signal
Ghost Town Girl
Written by Robert Dawson / Artwork by Marge Simon
“Mom? Since there’s nowhere to go trick-or-treating and all my friends are offline, can I go out for a while?”
“At this time of night, Lauri?”
“Mom! It’s only eight. I just want to go out and look at the Northern Lights. Next year I won’t be able to do that.
“I suppose so, honey. But take your headlamp and make sure your satphone’s on. And wear your electric boots.”
Five minutes later Lauri was outside. Snow crunched underfoot; overhead the stars blazed. To the northwest, what was left of Pika Mountain was silhouetted against the cold green fire of the Aurora Borealis. She gazed up at the spectacle for a few seconds; then, having made good on her word, she sprinted across the deserted townsite toward the graveyard.
It was almost the only part of Pika the salvage crews hadn’t touched after the mine closed. They had taken down the school, the store where she had bought candy, the skating rink, the hospital, all the other homes, even the two churches that had flanked the graveyard; but the high iron fence and headstones were still there.
The gate was always locked, except for the rare times when somebody made the long drive from Whitehorse or Fort St. John to visit a grave, and Mom or Dad let them in. But the graves were crowded so tightly that a few of them were almost against the fence; and the night was quiet. Lauri walked up to the fence and held the railings with her gloved hands.
A metre away, white LEDs slowly brightened, revealing an inscription “Penelope Ruiz, 2029-2042.” A smiling girl with long dark hair, a little older than Lauri, appeared on the video screen, and a slightly crackly voice asked: “Is that you, Lauri?”
Dad said the simulacra were not real AIs. When people died, their families would pay a company to spider their social media pages and create a program that looked and sounded like the dead person. They could recognize speech, and chat with people, he said, but they didn’t really understand anything.
She’d never told him about Penny.
“Yes, Penny. I came to talk to you. All my other friends are of trick-or-treating.”
“Have people come back to Pika? You told me your family were the only people living here and there were no other kids to play with.”
Lauri was about to answer when the gravestone next to Penny’s lit up too. A gruff male voice said “Hello? Who’s there?”
“It’s Penny Ruiz, Mr Kirby. I’m talking to Lauri,” said Penny’s simulacrum. Behind Mr Kirby, yet another headstone lit up, and a woman’s voice started speaking. Lauri held her breath. She had seen this a few times before. The simulacra were not designed to interact, but the graves in the Pika cemetery were crowded together, and on a still night like this, one simulacrum could wake the ones near it. Slowly, one headstone at a time, the murmur of voices rose. The pale light spread in a slow dance like an aurora fallen to earth.
“The friends who are trick-or-treating live in other places,” said Lauri. “There’s nobody here anymore but me and my parents. The uranium ran out about twenty years after you died.” It felt strange to say that to somebody.
“I wonder if Mama and Papa will come to see me. It’s the Día de Muertos. Maybe this year they will come and put candy on my grave.”
Lauri reached in her pocket and brought out a few molasses kisses. “Here, Penny. I brought you some Halloween candy.” She tossed the waxed-paper-wrapped lumps in front of the headstone; they sank into the fluffy snow.
Lauri peeled one for herself, put it in her mouth, and chewed on it for a long time before she spoke again. “Penny?”
“Penny, I’m going to have to go away soon. They’ve taken everything away now, so Mom and Dad are finished here.”
The cold night wind was beginning to sigh down Pika Canyon from the mountains above; it carried a whiff of wood smoke to her from the cast-iron stove that warmed the cozy living room. What was that far-off howl, away up the canyon? That was a wolf, not the high bark of a coyote. But she was safe: the crews had left the high electric fence in place around the town site. She shivered deliciously.
“I’ll miss you, Lauri. When will you be going?”
The murmur of voices rose and fell. Slow waves of light washed from headstone to headstone.
“In a few weeks. I’m sorry, Penny. I’ll miss you too.”
“You said your parents knew this would happen.”
“And you said that was why your brother Hunter isn’t buried here, didn’t you?”
“That’s right. Hunter was cremated because they knew…they knew we’d be leaving.” There was a lump in her throat. She sniffed; the bitterly cold air made her nostrils prickle.
“It’s good that you’re going, Lauri. You’ll make friends again, and you will be healthier.”
“What do you mean?”
“This town isn’t safe, Lauri. Dr. Singh says there are far too many people buried in this graveyard, far too many young people. It is a very bad situation, very bad indeed. The mine wastes are not well contained, and there is much contamination. I died when I was thirteen, Lauri. Your brother Hunter died when he was seven. Mr. Chouinard says the maudit company was always cutting corners on safety. And you know something else, ma cherie? Because of the war and the power shortages, the sacré government inspectors didn’t want to know a câlice de tabarnac de chose about it.” Penny’s voice was tranquil, her expression innocently serious.
“Huh? What was that about? Are you telling me Pika’s been killing people all these years?”
“That’s right, Lauri.”
“But…how do you know? You’re—you’re only a simulacrum, not even a real AI.” Lauri bit her lip.
Should she have said that? Could you hurt a simulacrum’s feelings? Even if you couldn’t, it didn’t feel like, well, playing the game properly. She leaned forward to look as closely as she could at the little screen, careful not to let her bare cheek touch the iron railing.
Penny didn’t seem offended. “That’s right.”
“So how do you know all this? You didn’t know this stuff when you were alive, did you?”
“No, but some of the grownups did. Old Doctor Khan had everybody’s health records. They didn’t get copied into his simulacrum, but his diary was. And Mr Chouinard, over in the corner, was a safety engineer; he kept files on all the violations. He died in an accident before he could tell anybody; but the web search found the files, so they’re in his knowledge base. And when we talk to each other, like they’re doing tonight, we share what we know.”
“So you knew how dangerous Pika was and you never told me? If I’d known, maybe I could have kept Hunter safe!”
“Simulacra are programmed to avoid influencing the actions of humans, particularly children. But now that I know you’re leaving anyway, I shall be able to talk to you about it.”
“That’s so stupid! You let Hunter die, you’d have let me die, rather than tell me about things that could hurt us! I’m—I’m glad I’m going away, and I’m glad I’m going to have real friends who will be nice to me and be on my side!”
She turned and ran toward the warmth of home, tears freezing to her eyelashes. Somewhere in the night the wolf howled again; her heart pounded and she ran faster, keeping her eyes fixed on the warm house ahead.
Back within the iron fence, the light shifted restlessly, like moonlight dappled under leaves. Eventually, one by one, the solar-charged storage batteries ran down. The simulacra slept and did not dream.
Robert Dawson has been writing science fiction for more than ten years. His work has appeared in Nature Futures, Amazing Stories, Year's Best Military and Adventure SF, and numerous other periodical and anthologies. He is a member of SFWA and on the executive of SF Canada. He believes the world needs more bicycles.