The ghosts gather on the burnt trees like a murder of crows, hungry-eyed and conspiratorial. Black feathery wisps dance around them, while talon-like hands grip to charred branches. They can see me, but they don’t yet know I can see them.
As I walk across the scorched earth, crunching ash and bones and a dead civilisation beneath my feet, a murmur carries on the air. A chatter of ghostly voices, awaiting their prey. I imagine them coming for me, skeletal hands peeling back my exosuit until my body is laid bare, ready for my soul to be consumed. I shake the image away. Only one person, dead or alive, is doing the soul consuming here.
When I’m opposite the tree, I stop, locking the exosuit knees so I can lift the equipment from my back without breaking something. It’s easier with the upgraded parts from my last job. That one had been straightforward—a clean sweep of the ocean floor of a civilisation taken by an apocalyptic flood. The ghosts there were placid and calm, drifting like jellyfish in the deep. Here, the heat and dry has made them hungry and irritable. Dangerous. But hungry and irritable means more energy, which means better wormhole-fuel to sell. I count the ghostly figures before me. Twelve lost souls on this tree alone.
The harvesting equipment props up like a tripod, a mirrored lens on the front. Four petal-shaped plates fold out, and I angle them towards the ghosts. There’s an eerie silence as I wait for the machine to whirr into action. But nothing happens. I bang the side of the equipment twice and adjust the angle. The delay is just enough for the ghosts to realise something is happening. As the machine finally judders on, one of them lifts an arm and lets out a guttural cry.
The harvesting machine petals are rotating now, but they’re going too slow, not fast enough for an effective gathering. Hands shaking, I check the mechanism. There’s a dusting of sand in one of the levers. I brush the particles off as fast as I can, my breath rasping inside my helmet. With a rattling crack, the petals finally begin spinning at full speed.
I look up to check how much time I have. The ghosts are already closing in.
I step back to run, but a skeletal hand grabs my leg. I flail, trying to bat it away. Then one is facing me, eyes black-hole-hollow. Its mouth opens, and it screams, a long echoing caw. Bony fingers reach towards my heart where the control panel in my exosuit lies. If it damages it, I’ll be dead in minutes. I struggle and strain and—
And in a blink, it’s gone.
There’s a familiar hissing sound as the machine petals slow and the gathered souls settle. I hold my hand to my chest, checking the control panel to make sure everything is operational. I’m safe. The gathering is over. No more ghosts. No more screams. Only ash and dust and nothingness remain.
From the base of the equipment, I unhook the charged cannister – the metal is cold, condensation forming resisting the heat of the desert. But the gauge is only showing eleven souls harvested.
I look around. Other than the charred trees and desolate mountains, I’m alone here. Maybe I counted wrong, or one escaped into the distant dry. Either way, there’s nothing I can do by staying here. So, cutting my losses, I clip the cannister to my side, and hurry back to my ship.
Enroute to the nearest trading port, I check the storage bay four times to make sure the cannisters are safely in place. I can’t shake the feeling I’ve missed something. My hand hovers over the latest one, the near-miss. I wish I could link it to the ship’s drive and jump straight into the astral plane myself, using it as a wormhole to cut my journey to hours instead of days. But my ship isn’t advanced enough yet to risk the force of the shift, and I’d rather remain firmly in this plane for the time being. Besides, I’ve had enough ghosts for one day.
As I head back to the bridge, passing the corridor to the docking bay, something moves in the corner of my eye. I freeze. A dark figure stands in the vestibule beside the airlock. Breath held, footsteps slow, I turn the lights on…it’s just my exosuit attached to the wall where it should be. Though, not exactly how it should be. One arm is slightly raised. As I bend it back to its neutral position, I shiver like the ghost hands are on me once more.
But I tell myself I’m being irrational. I must have been in a hurry to get the cannister in storage when I got back to the ship and left the suit in the wrong shape. I return to the storage bay to check the cannisters again. There’s always something unsettling about knowing what lingers within, and I briefly wonder if they understand that they’re trapped, if they have any sense of the process. Though, at least this gives them a purpose in the afterlife, I suppose. Still, the sooner I get these things off my ship the better—they’ll be bought up by a trader or exploration vessel, and I’ll be onto the next gathering until I can afford a bigger ship and a crew of my own. It’s not an easy job being a soul trader, but someone’s got to do it and why shouldn’t I be the one making my fortune? I look around the sparse docking bay – the mismatched metal walls patched from scraps, visible wires and cables held together with duct tape, the floor panels I know to avoid because they have a tendency to come loose. There’s a faint sulphuric smell too, so the air supply systems must be playing up.
I head to the bridge to run a system analysis. The oxygen levels have dropped slightly, so I reroute power from lighting into electrolysis. The bright lights are replaced by energy-saving ones that seem to watch me as I head to my bunk to turn in for the night.
I’m woken late at night by a creaking sound. I sit up in the dark of my room, the low corridor lighting just visible from under the door. Everything is quiet as a shadow passes by, breaking the slither of light at the base of thee door.
I jump out of my bunk and hit my palm against the door mechanism. It opens with a series of clicks. Thunk, thunk, thunk. The noise echoes eerily in the dim light.
Holding my breath, I peer out into the corridor. The hairs on my arms stand on end, and I feel like I’m not alone. Like someone, or something, is watching me. Quietly, I walk up and down the length of the ship, then check every room, searching cupboards, crawl spaces, anywhere that might be hiding something. Could I have a stowaway? Or have I been out here alone for too long with only the cannistered ghosts as company, so that now I’m imagining things lurking in the shadows? No, there’s nothing else here. Everything looks fine. Auto-pilot is still on track. Oxygen is almost back to normal. The cannisters are all in place.
I shake myself out of it. I must have been dreaming. Or maybe there was just a momentary flicker of the lights outside as they adjusted to their new settings.
That night I dream of ghost hands reaching out, with their black wisps and skeletal limbs wrapping around me pulling me into the astral plane. Even as I sleep, I can feel their anger. They are lost and aimless, hungering for revenge. When I try to pull free, it’s as though I’m caught in zero-gravity, drifting with nothing to grab onto, lost in thoughts of being trapped and alone.
When I wake, I shiver and push any lingering guilt down as far as it can go, as if it’s one of the ghosts in the cannisters, compressed and invisible.
I’m doing my daily exercise when there’s a clattering from the back of the ship. I turn the treadmill off, heart still racing, unsure if this is just another imagined sound. But it comes again. Thunk, thunk, thunk.
I head out into the corridor and hurry towards the source, coming to a sudden halt at the entrance of the storage bay. Loose cannisters are rolling around on the floor. I pick them up and return them to their holders, counting as I go. One is missing.
I search everywhere in the room for it, opening cupboards, boxes, even the small hatch in the floor in case it somehow fell into the grate. Even though I know I didn’t leave it open. I check the holders again, as if expecting to find the missing one suddenly in its slot. But it’s still gone. I look at the gauges on each of them. The one that’s missing is from my last haul – the one with the eleven souls.
Where I thought there’d been twelve—
This is ridiculous. I harvest and trade ghosts. I shouldn’t be scared of some slight noises, and flickering lights.
Thunk, thunk, thunk.
My heart just about stops. The noise is coming from the docking bay this time.
I run towards it, but enter slowly. My eyes sweep the space three times before I realise something is missing. The exosuit. It’s gone.
I feel sick. Possibilities spin through my head. That the suit somehow switched itself on. That something is on board my ship and stole it. That—
And the image is suddenly clear, as if emerging from a haze of a dream. A skeletal hand reaching for the control panel. The hollow-eyed ghost there and then gone in an instant.
I need to find the exosuit—
Thunk, thunk, thunk.
The sound again, but closer this time. Right behind me. I turn. The exosuit stands in the doorway, holding one of the cannisters, hand firmly on the lid.
“Wh-” The words catch in my throat.
With a single rotating motion, the lid twists off. Fingers appear from out the top of it, as one by one the ghosts pull themselves out, bodies stretching in an amorphous mass. I step back in horror towards the airlock, and my foot falls through a loose floor panel. My ankle buckles, and I yell out as a sharp pain shoots up my leg. I can’t move. I’m trapped.
Thunk, thunk, thunk.
Black wisps billow into a flock. An ear-splitting screech echoes. Eleven sets of arms reach for me. No, twelve. The exosuit will reach me first.
Want to read more from Lyndsey Croal? Have You Decided on Your Question, Croal's debut novelette, was released recently and "takes a clever premise and spins it into a taut narrative of regret, loneliness, and obsession." -Nicholas Binge, author of Ascension
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Lyndsey Croal is an Edinburgh-based author of speculative and strange fiction. She is a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awardee and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in over fifty publications, including Mslexia’s Best Women’s Short Fiction 2021, Dark Matter Magazine, Orion’s Belt, and Air and Nothingness Press. Her debut audio drama “Daughter of Fire and Water” was produced by Alternative Stories & Fake Realities and was a Finalist for a 2022 British Fantasy Award.
Copyright ©2023 by Lyndsey Croal.
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