Ratcatcher by Amy Griswold

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WWI steampunk airship Ghostbusters. Seriously, there’s nothing more we need to say to introduce this story.

Ratcatcher

by Amy Griswold

1918, over Portsmouth

The souls in the trap writhed and keened their displeasure as Xavier picked up the shattergun. “Don’t fuss,” he scolded them as he turned on the weapon and adjusted his goggles, shifting the earpieces so that the souls’ racket penetrated less piercingly through the bones behind his ears. “It’s nothing to do with you.”

The two airships were docked already, a woman airman unfastening safety ropes from the gangplank propped between them to allow Xavier to cross. The trap rocked with a vibration that owed nothing to the swaying airships, and Xavier lifted it and tucked it firmly under his arm. He felt the soul imprisoned in his own chest stir, a straining reaction that made him stop for a moment to catch his breath.

“If you’re ready, sir,” the airman said, and Xavier forced himself into motion. He nodded crisply and strode out onto the gangplank with the ease of long years spent aboard ships, his gloved hand just brushing the rail. He scrambled down from the other end and got out of the way of airmen rushing to disengage the gangplank and close the hatch before the two ships could batter at each other too dangerously in the rising wind.

The Coriolanus’s captain strode toward him, and Xavier winced as he recognized a familiar face. He set the trap down, both to get it farther away from the casing that housed the soul in his chest, and to give himself a moment to banish all envy from his expression.

He straightened with a smile. “Hedrick. I see you landed on your feet after that muddle over Calais.”

“I’ve got a knee that tells me the weather now,” Hedrick said, scrubbing at his not-entirely-regulation stubble of ginger beard. “They told me you’d been grounded.”

“I’m still attached to the extraction service,” Xavier said. “As a civilian now.”

Hedrick’s eyes flickered to the odd lines of Xavier’s coat front, and then back up to his face without a change of expression. He’d always been good at keeping a straight face at cards. “We could use the help. We had a knock-down drag-out with the Huns a few weeks back—just shy of six weeks, I make it. Heavy casualties on both sides, and some of them damned reluctant to move on.”

“Only six weeks? You hardly need me. Chances are they’ll still depart on their own.”

“You haven’t seen the latest orders that came down, then. We’re supposed to call in the ratcatchers at the first sight of ghosts. Not acceptable on a well-run ship, don’t you know.”

“You’re also meant to shave,” Xavier said. “It’s not like you to comply with every absurd directive that comes down the pike.” He couldn’t help reveling in the freedom to talk that way, one of the few rewards of his enforced change in career.

“These are Colonel Morrow’s orders.”

“Mmm.” That put a different face on it, or might. Morrow supervised the ratcatchers, civilian and military, and his technical brilliance had saved Xavier’s life when he lost his soul. That said, it was entirely in character for Morrow to go on a tear about efficiency without regard for how much work it made for anyone else.

“Besides, there’s more to it,” Hedrick said as the Coriolanus drifted free of the Exeter. “We’ve been having damned bad luck of late. Pins slipping out of a gangplank just as one of the lads stepped on it—he just missed ending up a smear on the landscape. More engine malfunctions than you can name, and some of them dangerous. If the Coriolanus weren’t in such good repair to start with, she’d have burned twice over in the last month.”

“You suspect sabotage.”

“Some of the Jerries had their boots on our deck when they bit it. We tossed the bodies over the side, but still I’m not entirely easy in my mind.”

“Next time, don’t,” Xavier said. “The soul’s more likely to stay in the corpse if it’s well treated. Ill handling breaks the ties faster.” He directed his gaze out the porthole window of the gondola rather than at Hedrick’s face. “You weren’t using shatterguns?”

“We haven’t got them mounted. No budget for them in our grade, I hear. And just as well if you ask me. They give me the cold chills.” Hedrick glanced at the shattergun under Xavier’s arm.

“A necessity in my profession,” he said.

“Better you than me.”

It was a backhanded enough kind of sympathy that Xavier didn’t cringe away from it. “Any particular area of the ship most affected?”

“The crew quarters, I think—I’ve had men stirring up their whole deck with screaming nightmares, and not the usual nervous cases.”

“At least it’s a place to start.”

He followed Hedrick through the narrow corridors of the airship’s gondola to the cramped berthing area that housed the enlisted men. Only the night watch was there and sleeping, young men squeezed into claustrophobically low bunks, some with their knees tucked up to keep their feet from dangling off the end. A panel of canvas made a half-hearted divider screening the row of women’s bunks from the men’s view.

Xavier set down his gear and stretched out on the nearest unoccupied bunk. “Leave me alone, now, and let me work.”

“Funny kind of work,” Hedrick said, raising an eyebrow at his recumbent form.

“‘They also serve who only stand and wait,’” Xavier said, and tried not to sound bitter. “Now get out.” He closed his eyes at the sound of Hedrick’s retreating footsteps and schooled his breathing into the steady rhythm that would send him swiftly into a doze. The soul in his chest shifted once, making him break his rhythmic breathing with a gasping cough, but he spread an entreating hand across its cage and it quieted.

He knew he was dreaming when he saw Thomas walk into the room and sit down on the foot of the bed. For a moment the more rational part of his mind protested that it was impossible to sit down on the foot of an airship bunk, but his dreaming mind obligingly replaced the scene with a four-poster bed lit by streaming sunshine.

Thomas’s hair was limned with gold, his eyes bright and laughing. “Haven’t you got work to do?” He was dressed in the uniform he died in, but as Xavier took his hand, it faded like smoke to reveal freckled skin.

“I do,” Xavier said. “I’m most remiss.” He raised his chin unrepentantly, and Thomas grappled for him like a wrestler. He was aware of reality as soon as they touched, the sensation of Thomas’s soul writhing through Xavier’s body painfully erotic but nothing remotely like physical sex.

He heard himself gasp, unsure whether he’d actually made a sound the sleeping airmen could hear, and realized how genuinely unwise this was. He pushed Thomas away, and the other man’s soul retreated, dissolving into curling smoke, and then retreated too far, tugging away in unstoppable reflex. It felt like someone was pulling a rib out of his chest.

“Thomas—”

The smoke resolved itself for a moment into the golden-haired man, his face contorted. “I’m trying to stop,” he said. His shape exploded into smoke again, and twisted almost free of Xavier’s chest, leaving Xavier unable to draw a breath for long enough that his vision darkened. Then Thomas was back, sprawled against Xavier’s side as if in the exhausted aftermath of love.

“Christ, that hurt,” Thomas said. “Like trying to hold onto a hot iron.”

“You know it will only get worse.”

“And so what’s the point in talking about it?” The image of Thomas appeared to stand, now pressed and correct in his airman’s uniform, looking around the dim barracks-room. His soul lay quiet in Xavier’s chest, a weight that eased its lingering ache. “We still have a job to do.”

“So we do.”

“There have been ghosts here,” Thomas said. “Two, I think. I’d look in the engine room if I were you.” He turned, frowning. “And don’t lay aside your gun. At least one of them is in a dangerous mood.”

#

In the engine room, the thumping of the steam engines pulsed through Xavier’s bones, and the heat coming off every surface beat against his skin. Through his goggles he could see wisps of what looked like steam but were really the lingering traces of the dead, men and women who had died in the recent battle. Not ghosts but something more like bloodstains.

He turned a circle, looking for a more solid form, and settled the goggles’ earpieces more firmly against the bones behind his ears. A hundred sounds were familiar, the cacophony of airship travel he’d long ago learned to drown out. Under them was the faintest of animal noises, a tuneless moaning. He took a step toward it, and then another.

A rattling on the other side of the engine room distracted him, and he turned. A connecting rod was flailing free, its pin out and the mechanism it served shuddering with the interrupted rhythm. He crossed the deck swiftly, keeping his head lifted as if watching the loose rod, but his eyes fixed on the deck.

He caught the movement and stopped short as a hatch swung open in front of him, steam rising from the gaping space he had been intended to step into.

“A creditable try,” he said. “Pity I’ve seen these tricks before.”

He raised his shattergun, keeping his expression calm despite his awareness of his danger. A ghost could only move small objects, but here there might be a hundred small objects that could release steam or poison fumes or heavy weights if moved.

“Why don’t you go in the trap like a good lad?” he said, putting the trap down on a section of deck that he made sure was solid. “This is the end of the road, you know.”

Silence greeted him. He turned a slow circle, raising the shattergun.

“You’re dead,” he said. “Stone cold dead. Your corpse is sinking to the bottom of the Channel or spattered across some unfortunate farmer’s hayfield. All that remains for you is to let go your precarious grip on this plane of existence and go to whatever awaits you.” There was no answer. “Or I can shoot you with this shattergun and destroy your soul. Would you like that better?”

He heard the moaning again, rising to a ragged wail like a child’s crying. He took cautious steps toward it, aware of every rattle in the machinery around him.

A wisp of smoke was curled up in a niche between the steel curves of two large engines, wailing forlornly. He raised the shattergun, and the smoke solidified into a dark-haired shape in an English airman’s uniform. It was a woman, and when she raised her head, he could see from the jagged ruin of one side of her skull that she’d met her end in an abrupt collision with some blunt object.

“Don’t shoot me!”

He lowered the shattergun cautiously. “I would far rather not.”

“I don’t want to be dead,” she said. “I’m still here, I’m still here—”

“You died weeks ago,” Xavier said. Six weeks ago, assuming she was a casualty of the most recent skirmish. “Your body is miles away and decomposing. You are dead, and the sooner you grasp that, the sooner you can move on.”

“I won’t go in that thing.”

“You will,” Xavier said briskly, knowing gentleness would be no mercy now. “The trap will confine you painlessly while I remove you from the site of your death.” He hefted the shattergun, but left the safety on. “Or I destroy your soul. That, I promise you, will hurt.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said, lifting a stubborn chin. It took stubbornness to be a woman in the service.

“There’s been sabotage.”

“It wasn’t me.”

“No, I don’t think it was,” he said. He was watching her face, and he saw her eyes move past him, fixing on something behind his shoulder. She cried out, but he was already moving, and threw himself to the deck as a blast of superheated steam singed the back of his neck. Steam swam in front of his eyes, and something darker within it: a second ghost, and one that was up to no good.

He pushed himself up to one elbow and reached out with his gloved hand, thrusting its mesh of wiring into the yielding substance of the new ghost and then clenching his fist. The ghost was a chill weight as he began drawing his hand back toward the trap. He had expected it to be too clever to be caught so easily.  

There was no resistance. He understood why a moment too late as the ghost rushed toward him, and then into him, reaching for Xavier’s heart. Clever after all, he had time to think, before the sensation of being hollowed out from the inside sent him plunging into shellshock-vivid memory, a predictable and yet unavoidable descent—

#

—Xavier ducked under the web of grappling lines that bound the two ships together and fired between them, flattening himself against the remains of the breached gondola wall to reload. Through his goggles, he could see souls curling up out of the bodies that littered the deck, drifting free or swirling in snakelike muddled circles as if seeking a way back in. The wind screamed.

He reached down with his gloved hand to yank the nearest circling soul firmly free from its body, and held it flailing in his fist. He found his trap with the other hand, or what remained of it, shattered fragments. He shoved the soul at them anyway, but it wouldn’t go in.

“Never mind the sodding dead!” someone shouted, firing from beside him, but the only certainty he had in a world full of flying debris and blood was that the souls needed to come out of the corpses, extracted like rotten teeth. He raised his head, and saw the shattergun pointed at him from across the narrow gap between the ships.

He flung himself to one side, and the blast caught him on the side of the chest rather than between the eyes. I’m still here, he thought, I’m still here, and then saw the curling smoke trailing away from his chest like a ragged cloud torn apart by the wind. His breath caught in his chest, and then stopped, like something he’d forgotten how to do a long time ago.

He didn’t breathe, but he still moved, crushing the soul in his fist against his chest, reaching out mechanically for the remains of the trap, pressing it to his chest, then pressing harder. Harder, until the glass cut through skin and flesh, trapping the soul coiled half in, half out of his chest. Harder, until he bled, and breathed—

#

—He gasped for breath, and he was in the hospital ward, with Morrow sitting in a straight-backed chair at the foot of the bed, a look of interest on his stubbled face. “You know, it never occurred to me to try what you did. Not that it would have worked for long.”

Xavier looked down, and saw an alien construction of glass and metal wrapped around his chest, smoke swirling in its depths and an electric buzz humming against his skin. He breathed, trying not to gasp like a drowning swimmer. Each breath came more predictably than the last, but not more easily.

“I built you a more stable housing for your passenger,” Morrow said. “Tell me, what is it like? Having someone else’s soul animating your body?” He leaned forward eagerly, chin rested on his fist.

“Who is he?”

“Corporal Thomas Carlisle. Now unfortunately deceased. His service record is brief and unenlightening. You haven’t answered my question.”

“I’m alive,” Xavier said, but he had seen his soul shattered. Had felt himself dying. He reached up with one shaky hand and spread his fingers across the warm metal. Someone else was there as well, holding on to the inside of his chest as if wrapping desperate fingers around his ribs, determined not to let go—

#

His head snapped back and he tasted blood as Thomas’s shadowy form erupted from his chest, thrusting the invading ghost out with him and holding it at arm’s length.

“Possessive, are you?” Xavier managed, reaching blindly for the trap and finding it thankfully intact. He maneuvered it closer to where the ghost was writhing in Thomas’s grip, trying to ignore the warning ache in his chest.

“You know it.”

The German ghost was solid enough now for Xavier to see his uniform and the grim set of his jaw as he fought Thomas’s grasp. Xavier’s thumb slipped clumsily off the trap’s trigger the first time he tried it, and then slipped again. The increasing pain was becoming a problem. Finally he hit it solidly, and watched in satisfaction as the ghost became a rushing fog that swirled into the trap and disappeared.

His vision blurred, and he realized he hadn’t breathed in some time. He spread one hand in warning, and felt the soul rush back into his chest, its grip tightening, but still not as firm as it had been even a few hours before. Xavier spread his hand across the soul cage, a habitual gesture that still brought irrational comfort. Not much time. But enough to finish the business at hand.

“Your turn, now,” he said to the English airman’s ghost, as lightly as he could manage. “Don’t dawdle, we haven’t got all day.”

She slipped down from her perch and approached the trap, hanging back a healthy distance from its electric hum. “What happens after this?”

“There’s an air base in Manchester where we’ll empty the traps. It’s far enough from where you died that you’ll have no trouble moving on.” And considerable trouble doing anything else, with no death energies to give her a grip on the world of the living.

“I mean…what happens after that? Where do we go?”

“I’m not going to find out,” he said.

She met his eyes, something like sympathy kindling in her expression, bearable from someone already dead. “I am sorry,” she said, and then bolted away from the trap.

He already had his gloved hand out to catch her. “So am I,” he said, and crammed her ghost into the mouth of the trap, thumbing the switch to suck the swirl of angry fog inside.

Footsteps clattered on the metal decking, and an engineer stuck his head in, probably in answer to alarms from whatever essential piece of machinery the German ghost had employed in his attempt to kill Xavier. “What’s all this?”

“Tell the captain I’ve taken care of his pest problem,” Xavier said. “And that he can drop me in Manchester. I’m going to sleep until then.”

#

The moment he closed his eyes he could feel Thomas lying beside him, as if they were ordinary lovers indulging in a late morning lie-in.

“You could be wrong,” Thomas said.

“I think my clock keeps good time.” Even in the dream, he could feel the ache in his chest, his hands and feet cold.

“I hear Gottlieb thinks that the shattergun doesn’t really destroy the soul, just keeps it from being able to manifest as a ghost.”

“Gottlieb is a German.”

“Does that make him wrong?”

“Morrow thinks his work is fundamentally unsound.”

“For Christ’s sake.”

“Morrow has occasionally been wrong,” Xavier said, but he couldn’t believe the world was fundamentally merciful enough for any part of him to survive when the link between Thomas’s soul and his body rotted away. They would put him in the ground, and that would be the end.

“How long?” Thomas asked finally, his voice more even.

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

“You’re the ratcatcher. I was just an ordinary aviator. Blow those men down for king and country, yes, sir.” Thomas saluted jauntily, rolling away from Xavier in bed to do it. The ache in his chest worsened, and he ignored it.

“A day or two, I should think. Time enough to report to Morrow and offload these poor sods.”

“Maybe Morrow can do something.”

“We’ve discussed the problem. He hasn’t been optimistic.” Morrow’s soul cage had lasted for months longer than Xavier’s own bloody improvisation would have, but it was still failing, the link between Thomas’s soul and its electric cage fraying faster every hour.

“A day or two,” Thomas said.

“Yes.” Xavier was certain it wouldn’t be two. He slept until Hedrick shook his bunk to wake him.

“Manchester,” Hedrick said. “Come on, sleeping beauty.”

“It’s a harder job than you’d think,” Xavier said, following Hedrick up to the observation deck to debark. “Or would you like me to put them back and you can have a go at rounding them up? You were right, by the way. One of them was a Jerry, and up to considerable mischief.”

“I suppose that’s patriotic, by his lights,” Hedrick said. “But I’ll tell you this, if I die up here, I’ll go quiet as a little lamb. No more fighting for me. I’ve had my share and that’s a fact.” He clapped Xavier on the shoulder. “Next time I’m in Manchester I’ll stand you a drink.”

“Have one for me,” Xavier said, and stepped onto the waiting gangplank.

#

The air base towered above Manchester, an iron tree twenty stories high with jutting piers and thrumming generators that made the floor gratings shudder under Xavier’s feet. Morrow met Xavier on the pier.

“Good news,” he said, falling in beside Xavier as he walked. “I think I have a solution to your problem.”

“You said it was insoluble.” Hope rose unbidden in his throat, a hard knot that he swallowed down ruthlessly.

“I’ve worked out a technical solution. A side application, actually, of another process. Not that way,” he said, as Xavier turned toward the end of the pier, eager now to release the souls in his care and free himself to find out what Morrow had concocted. “Bring the trap down with you.”

Xavier frowned, but followed Morrow to the lift cage. It clattered downward, descending through a hell of industrial machinery past levels that bustled with airmen and engineers down to the quieter cargo bays. The lift stopped on the ground floor, generally deserted except when shipments of raw materials were brought in by truck. Bare electric lights swayed overhead, casting harsh shadows.

“You have no idea how much we all owe you,” Morrow said as Xavier followed him out of the lift. “What we’ve learned about how to maintain a ghost’s link to physical objects—it’s invaluable.”

“You mean physical objects like my body,” Xavier said. His chest was aching again, Thomas’s soul stirring uneasily in its housing. He wished Morrow would get on with it and either offer up whatever fix might help him or stop holding out hope.

“Incidentally. Not most importantly.” Morrow had been leading him through the shadowy bay toward the heavy bulks of vehicles, and stopped now with his hand caressing the hard lines of a tank. Its turret swiveled toward Xavier, and he froze in momentary alarm. “There’s no danger, its guns aren’t loaded.”

“I didn’t think these things were radio-controlled.”

“They’re not.” Morrow drew a bulky pistol from his coat pocket that Xavier realized after a moment’s examination was a shattergun, though a smaller model than any he’d seen before. “Can’t you see it?”

Thomas’s soul was writhing in alarm, and Xavier squinted at the tank, adjusting his goggles. When he turned them up to maximum sensitivity he could see the curl of smoke at the tank’s heart, swirling in tight unhappy circles and then battering itself against the walls of an invisible cage before returning to its circling.

“It’s haunted,” Xavier said.

“Inhabited,” Morrow said. “By a ghost with the power to control it without risking any living men.” His eyes were alight. “The next step in modern warfare.”

“Its occupant doesn’t seem very pleased.”

“They never like being in a trap. Surely you’ve learned that as a ratcatcher. There’s a certain discomfort involved in being bound into something other than a living body.”

By discomfort Morrow generally meant excruciating pain. “How long can you keep it there?”

“Indefinitely. Which provides a solution to your own problem, by the way.” He extracted a glowing puzzle-box of glass and metal from his pocket, something like the central cage within the maze of glass and wiring on Xavier’s chest. “But this is the real promise of it. There won’t be any more need for our men to leave the service just because they’re dead. No more excuses for desertion.”

“I wouldn’t call it desertion.”

“Retreating from the field,” Morrow said. “Going to their rest. Well, no one’s resting until this war is over.” The glitter in his eyes suggested that it had been long since he slept himself.

“As long as it’s voluntary.”

“Of course it’s voluntary.” Morrow brandished the shattergun and bared his teeth. “So far they’ve all preferred it to the alternative.”

“I see,” Xavier said. He was very aware of the weight of the trap under his arm, the souls within it only dimly aware, but moving restlessly in response to Thomas’s agitation. “One of these is a German,” he said. “Not good material for your purposes.”

“There’s an easy cure for that,” Morrow said, thumbing the safety off the shattergun.

“Of course.” He wondered how long it would take for the German high command to hear about this, and how fast the order would go out to destroy any English soul found haunting German battlefields. It couldn’t take much longer for Gottlieb or someone equally clever on the other side to replicate Morrow’s process and fill the battlefields with machines powered by the unquiet dead.

His vision swam, and he gritted his teeth in mingled panic and frustration—not yet—before he realized that Thomas was pulling him down into a waking dream, appearing at his side overlaid on the shimmering forms of tanks.

“The man in that tank was a gunnery sergeant,” Thomas said. “A good soldier. He’s in incredible pain, and Morrow threatens him with the shattergun whenever he makes a credible effort to tear himself free.”

Xavier spread his hands in acknowledgement, but did not reply. Morrow was in no state to hear objections to his plan, and if he objected too strongly, Morrow had the life-saving soul cage to withhold from him. The hope Morrow had kindled beat in his throat, a desperate desire to live at any cost. All he had to do was accept.

“We’re dead men anyway,” Thomas said.

“So we are,” Xavier said, and opened the trap.

The ghosts erupted out of the trap and streamed as one toward Morrow. Thomas followed them, striding forward, and Xavier staggered back, his chest burning.

“Xavier,” Morrow said, disapproving but not afraid yet.

“So clumsy of me,” Xavier said. He managed to take a breath, and then couldn’t remember how to take another one.

Morrow pointed the shattergun at Thomas’s chest, and Xavier strained to move, but his limbs felt filled with lead. Morrow pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t fire. The safety was engaged again, and clearly stuck fast as Morrow struggled to disengage it.

Xavier could make out some individual forms within the roiling mass of souls, the faces of dead men and women, all painfully young. The soul of the woman airman hung back, reaching into the tank with both hands, tugging the ghost inside free of its metal bulk.

Other ghostly hands were on the shattergun, twisting it in Morrow’s hand, pressing its muzzle toward his temple. Morrow tugged at the gun, and then fought for it, still looking more annoyed than afraid.

For a moment Xavier met Thomas’s eyes. He knew he should shake his head, forbid murder, but he took refuge in the weariness that made shaking his head a Herculean task.

The ghosts were moaning, now, a rising wail of single-minded purpose. Even without goggles, Morrow looked as if he could hear them now, or perhaps he only felt their chill as they swarmed him, writhing against his skin.

“You’re all dead men,” Morrow said.

There was acceptance in their voices. Their grip on this world was loosening, the pull of whatever lay beyond growing stronger by the second. Now, he mouthed in choking silence, and he saw Thomas nod, his eyes smiling. It seemed all right then to let his eyes close. He heard, rather than saw, the safety catch on the shattergun give, and as if from a long way away he heard it fire.

#

Time passed, and went on passing. He could feel hands inside his chest, holding desperately tight to his ribs, familiar and yet strange. The metal grating of the floor was cold against his cheek. He lifted his head.

Hurry, someone urged. Xavier tried to stand, and failed. He crawled instead, inching his way toward Morrow’s still form. Morrow’s chest was moving shallowly, but his stare was sightless.

He felt across the grating until he found the soul cage that had fallen from Morrow’s hand. It felt warm even through his glove. He tore open Morrow’s collar and pressed it to Morrow’s skin. Wires sprouted from it, burrowing into bare flesh. He felt a surge of envy, and the presence within him writhed in denial and anger, holding on tighter.

Morrow opened his eyes. “Maybe not such dead men,” he said, the voice Morrow’s but the tone teasing and familiar.

“Morrow?”

“I expect I had better be.”

“If you’re in there …” Xavier spread his hand across the soul cage on his chest.

“Airman Anna Lambert,” the woman airman said, as close as if she were sitting on his lap, not a position he’d ever been in with a woman. He could feel her amusement at that thought. “You’d better get used to it, since I don’t want to die and neither do you.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

“Such pretty manners, yet. I think we’ll do all right.” She retreated back into the soul cage, settling in like a cat turning round before curling into its basket.

Morrow sat up cautiously, fingering the soul cage where it pulsed against his skin. “We need to find another one of these to house your passenger in the long term,” he said, and then frowned. “Unless he made only one?”

“Morrow never made only one of anything.” Xavier looked around at the empty trap and the motionless tank. Souls still roiled within the others, aching to be ripped free. But first things first. “What are we going to say happened here?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Morrow said, looking at him with Thomas’s most level gaze. “I admit I’m not feeling…entirely myself. A touch of shell shock, maybe. Requiring a holiday from my work while I figure out what in blazes Morrow was doing here and how to give the impression I understand it.”

“His mind is gone?”

“Gone wherever shattered souls go. Gottlieb might still be right.”

“I’m not going to weep for Morrow either way,” Xavier said.

“I’m Morrow. You’d better keep that straight.”

“A touch of shell shock myself,” Xavier said. “I don’t know what I was saying.”

“Think nothing of it, old chap,” Morrow said, and turned to regard the tanks. “Gruesome things, aren’t they? I think we’ll be writing this off as a failed experiment.”

“You mean that you’ll be writing it off,” Xavier said. “If you can transplant Lambert here into more permanent housing without accident—I expect Morrow left good notes—”

“I devoutly hope so.”

“Then I’ve got work to do in the field. This war won’t stop making ghosts.” He felt a twinge of loss at the thought of making those bloody rounds without Thomas curled under his breastbone, and told himself angrily not to be a fool.

“Kiss him, for Christ’s sake,” Lambert said. “I would.”

Xavier coughed, and Morrow looked at him in alarm. “My passenger has an unfortunate sense of humor,” he said by way of explanation.

“That ought to suit you,” Morrow said. He looked as if he felt a certain degree of loss himself.

It would have been madness to make any such gesture in the air base, but Xavier reached out and caught his hand, and Morrow held it, his rough fingers unfamiliar in Xavier’s own.

“I’m still here,” Xavier said, and went on breathing.


Amy Griswold writes fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, and gaslamp fantasy. Her novel Death by Silver won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for best LGBT SF/F/Horror and the 2015 Gaylactic Spectrum Award.

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