The night had fallen clear and cold. A gibbous moon cast shadows across the nondescript rectangle of dirt, the old graveyard. Philip placed the lantern on a fence post. “The dead will stand out better if we aim the light away.”
Philip sighed. Nothing useful was ever easy. Popping ghosts had gratified his younger self. Hopefully, Orl would enjoy setting a ghost or two free. Be nice if he also enjoyed this outing. But any distraction from the post-lacuna doldrums and the watched-feeling was welcome. So bothersome, these alien feelings, layered over his usual self like coats of thick paint.
Orl stood staring at him, looking fey if not crazy, a dirty mop wrapped in a bulky winter coat. She folded her arms, as if impatient, but he needed a moment to prepare.
He hiked up the frequency on his chip and set it to auto-focus. Fuzzy gray smears gradually resolved into dimly glowing semi-transparent figures, the lay of the graves made obvious by the positions of the grave-clingers. Pathetic, those that tethered themselves to their own remains. Why not lurk some place with emotional resonance: a home, a park bench, or even a workplace? Why spend centuries tethered to one’s own moldering corpse?
Fortunately, grave-clingers often asked the same question, once shown their true situation. If everything went to plan, he and Orl would bond over ghost hunting and guarding NeuroCorp’s dirty little secret.
Why wait? Admittedly, he was stalling. But the Door had tugged at him, when he’d popped that last ghost. When? Maybe five years ago, and now, he was in much worse shape. Could he withstand the temptation? With only one step, thirty-two years of crap would evaporate. Small wonder NeuroCorp discouraged interacting with ghosts, given the cost of developing chips. He’d been avoiding ghosts, part of a strategy to hang in until forty. Most perceivers made it to fourty; why shouldn’t he?
Then stand Back. If they could communicate, he could supervise from a distance. The girl’s youth and stubbornness would defend her; look at her, tapping her fingers on her forearm like he was wasting her time. He could stand back, sprint and tackle her if she ran for the Door. He wouldn’t jump through while saving someone else. Would he?
It’s COLD! He stamped his feet to kick start some circulation. Sure was cold. Might as well get busy.
He surveyed the options. The ghost’s margins were blurred, meaning they were long-term leaseholders. One ancient relic wasn’t much more than a translucent energy smear. A more recent arrival, crisp and bright, paced by the barn. Best to start with the blurred crew.
“So, tune your chip’s visuals up-frequency until the remnants come into focus.”
He stood by Orl and pointed toward a few examples. She donned a pitying expression and nodded. Good thing she knew everything already, being eighteen. But at least she’d responded, after a fashion.
“Why, why, why?” chanted an indistinct specter, trudging a small circle around its grave, hands clutching a translucent halo of white hair.
“So, communicate with that one like you’d communicate with me. If you were communicating. Here, I’ll show you.” She rolled her eyes. Philip ignored her and shot his reply directly at the ghost. Why not?
Not a good Question. True. He’d learned not to ask questions of ghosts. But he it’d been the best he could do while cold, irritable, and being disrespected by a twerp he was trying to help.
Orl tugged on his sleeve and shook her head—as if communicating! Not verbal communication, but a sleeve tug was better than an eye roll. Had she heard his snarky question to the ghost and disapproved?
“If you have a better approach, don’t let me stop you.”
She stalked off and got right down to business. The ghost-frequency signal from her chip came through crystal clear. And her messages: the answer, your beloved, the truth, the whatever is through that passage, were to the point, but not unkind. No evidence of severe mental illness or organic brain injury here. And fortunately, Doors materialized and blinked out so quickly he didn’t feel the pull. The heavily degraded ghost even vanished spontaneously, possibly following the example of its fellows. Not bad work. Maybe her cohort snuck off during recess to the local bomb shelters and popped ghosts for kicks and giggles.
Only two remained. A rotund old man by the fence most likely a hedonist clinger, at worst evil-lite, more irritating than dangerous, but Orl, coming straight from a NeuroCorp training facility, probably knew little of earthly pleasures. Shooing this one through the Door might present her with a challenge. Time to mentor.
He ambled over to her and pointed out the oldster. “Eyeballing that guy, I’d guess he’s attached to pleasures of the flesh: food, drink, carnal desires, clinging to his body. Body-clingers can be tenacious because they crave what is here on Earth, and passing through won’t solve their problem. However, his era may help you out. The waistcoat, breeches, and stockings date Tweedle-dum to the 1700s when the religion promised an earth-like paradise after death, and body-clingers are all about paradise. So promising paradise is an option.”
She slashed the air with her hand, and a transmission, NO LIES, arrived like an explosion of needles, prickling his skin and setting his teeth on edge. Great to receive a direct communication, but if she delivered every word like a lightening strike, chatting with Orl wouldn’t hold much appeal. What was NeuroCorp thinking, overpowering a kid that age?
A repeat, no lies came at lower voltage.
He messaged back. Thanks for dialing it down. That first ‘no lies’ singed my arm hair. He waited for a laugh but she continued to stare, the one eye glowering out from behind her ratty hair, the female adolescent incarnation of Odin. Just needed the raven on her shoulder. He soldiered on. I'm glad your transmissions are coming through. What fixed the problem?
I found you.
Well...good. Whatever 'found' meant. So you don’t like lies. Neither do I, most of the time. But I’d talk out of both sides of my mouth, nose, and ears to blink out a body-clinger. And paradise is your best bet because body-clingers of his era often fear reprisal for sin in an anti-paradise. So go ahead, try a ‘no lies’ strategy and see what happens.
She approached the remnant, now tapping virtual leaf into his pipe. He “lit up”, took a deep inhale, then blew nothing out into the chill night air. With a flourish of his pipe, he proclaimed to the desolate yard.
Is it not natural for a prosperous man to indulge? Are not the fruits of our labors a bulwark against arduous toil? Do not these pleasures distract us from sin’s siren song?
Yep. A body-clinger, the glutton variety, fear of reprisal subspecies. The vain were easier. One clear-eyed peek at their rotting remains, and poof, off they’d go.
Fine wine, a velvet chair, a waft of French perfume, these things distinguish us from lowly beasts.
Now with a pompous glutton, Philip Spool could spout lies like a fly spews a brood of hungry larvae: forty virgins, harp slinging angles, bosomy Valkyries serving pitchers of mead—anything to shut them up.
Looking Outside, because Inside feels Unworthy, Injured and Alone. Sure. Like most of his acquaintances, prowling around for distraction: high-quality clothing, elegant meals, and a warm body in bed. But he—they were happy enough. Danger only lies in the extremes... Honestly. He should’ve sucked on a MindEase before heading out. One lateral thought after the other, hitting too close to the bone. He tuned in to Orl’s conversation with the remnant.
Nothing is fancy here. Just a square of dirt in a prison yard. She spread her hands wide, indicating the mundane surroundings the ghost had been ignoring for hundreds of years.
He tucked his chin, affronted. Do you take me for a fool, Mistress? The lamp of experience guides my feet. I judge the future by the past. This fecund orchard is no prison yard. Nay, I stand in the blossom bedecked bosom of nature’s bounty.
And he was correct, in his way. Ghosts notoriously ignored new stimuli; after all, a lack of sensory hardware dampens one’s ability to interpret reality.
You stand in a Graveyard in the moonlight.
You sully my orchard with the appellation “graveyard”? He took a spectral puff off his pipe.
Orl pointed at the semi-translucent pipe. No smoke. Cold air. Hollow chest.
He spread his arms. Come now. Do not hoax me, here in the company of fine friends—
A dog yipped from the barn, probably not appreciating the ghost’s bellowing. Friends? This man would never have been his friend. Hmm. He could use that fact. Sexuality would’ve been an issue in this specimen’s era. But bisexual was too modern a term. What’d been the era-appropriate slur? He drew a blank. One memory slip after the other, his chip and the lacunae must be punching holes in his cortex. But enough brains cells survived to remember that religion and pigmentation had been fraught, too. And as one of the proud few who wasn’t post-bottle-neck blah, Philip Spool might pass as “black”. He’d stir up a little discord.
Friends? You mean a dog, a witch, and a black man?”
Okay, maybe Orl wasn’t exactly a witch. And maybe his own skin wasn’t quite “black”, but the specter froze and gaped. His affronted expression confirmed that Squire Tubbs was not a member of his era’s tolerant minority. He drew himself straight, then—wow—elongated to about three meters tall, becoming in the process haggard and gaunt.
“This move would terrify a civilian, but it’s ghost-fear; a spooked specter attempting to survey its surroundings. See his ‘eyes’ flicking from side to side? He’s trying to take in information from his real world surroundings. I hope he sees enough to penetrate his defenses.”
A Negro? The ghost wailed.
Well, go figure. Aversion to pigment had trumped “witch”. Philip would’ve bet on “witch”.
Orl lifted her arms over her head, her hands drooping down, as if she were casting a spell.
Attend the painful truth,
All is dust and crumbled soot,
Your time on earth is at an end,
The Door ahead your only friend.
Her message blew like a chill wind and whipped the specter’s pipe from his fingers. Brilliant! But how’d she do that? He’d never been able to effect a single hair on a ghost’s head. Every touch or shove—the shove a cringe-worthy memory—had traversed empty air. Still, he loved the witch act. Very creative, shoring up “witch” and thereby “Negro” with a “spell”.
Fat-ghost abandoned this mortal coil with a sudden steep drop in barometric pressure. Philip cleared his ears.
I didn’t like him. Orl glared up through her lashes. And I’m not a witch. The air crackled around her, somewhat negating her assertion.
He stepped away lest she zap him. “Well done, anyway. As you saw, ghosts often aren’t the best people. So I don’t think you should worry about lying to—”
I don’t like lies. She furrowed her brow. Yeesh. The girl was eerie. Thankfully, she dropped the witch's arms.
“All right. No lies. Don’t be grumpy because you’re doing great. Look. Just one left to free.”
Mr. Pacing-By-The-Barn’s outfit, an ill-fitting prison jumpsuit, a headscarf, and canvas shoes, confirmed a recent demise. Funny that Berg hadn’t mentioned this death. Closer now, Philip could hear muttering.
Going to kill the bastard. Squeeze his neck till his eyes pop out. Then I’m gonna dig out those eyes and shove them down his throat.
Ah, cheesits. A revenger. “Revenge is a powerful motivator, a kind of justice gone savage. But it tends to boomerang and smack people in the head, leaving behind ghostly road kill. Same as the other outward focused emotions, anger, hate, lust, greed, and envy. Hot emotion raises the possibility of “hard evil” and real danger. A remnant this strong and fresh has options, including possession.”
Seeming to agree, the dog inside the barn bayed and growled. Philip pulled Orl out of the ghost’s range. She thanked him with a glare.
“First step, let’s see if he’s still sane.”
“You can’t be sure.”
I hear him.
A long day, and she was telling him riddles. Philip tried to meet her eye. Her eyes shot left like marbles. Funny how kids toggle from arrogance to insecurity in a heartbeat. “You hear him? So what do you hear?”
Orl waved toward the prisoner. It’s all there at once if you listen. He wanted to back out. But they wouldn’t let him.
“Back out of what?”
Going somewhere to be in an experiment.
“As a test subject?”
Odds were high, Orl could relate to the ghost’s predicament. “You think our ghost deserves his revenge?”
“We could offer to avenge him in exchange for exiting.”
We can’t lie.
“We won’t lie, but let’s be clear. We avenge him within the bounds of the law. No shoving eyes down anybody’s throats. Don’t go avenging on your own. Run any vengeance plan by me first. And until we have more information, keep it to yourself. Murder begets murder. All right?”
Had he just made her promise to keep a secret? He must be exhausted.
“Good. Then let’s have a chat.”