Ah. Ghosts. Now that’s a subject firmly in my tongue-waggling domain. Every old ship, especially those big heirloom freighters and mobile stations, has a claim or six to be being haunted. Anywhere folk set down to live eventually becomes infused with the lingering spirits of the past. Maybe they’re just common memories, but they make good stories all the same. And out there, when the skies are all gray and white, it’s easy to make a mistake. Lots of mist and clouds riding unpredictable zephyrs and curling into all kinds of shapes and impressions. Could be your mind playing tricks, making a face or figure out of a pile of nothing, or hearing a human voice in the distant cries of birds or the whisper of winds.

But it’s hard to dismiss all the stories. Tales of spectral ships with (beg your pardon) skeleton crews, cresting like half-forgotten bad memories from the upper Churn layers, only to moments later dip back down into whatever unending hell lies below. Tales of shivers of presence riding your freighter for a spell, always on a certain route at a certain height. Banshees screaming out in a specific frequency in your nav/comm mix, but only when all else is quiet. Those time when you’re riding the outskirts of a storm and you see ships and souls in the flashes of lightning, complete with a residual echo on your own tracking screens.

Even when the skies around you look empty, how can you be so sure? How many ships were lost over the centuries, swallowed up by who-knows-what? How many souls are adrift out on trade-wind currents or captured in cyclical, entrapping winds? To say nothing of the countless lost in the fires of the great War, their ashes and untethered, unsettled souls dusted across this wide, windy world. For all we say about the Down Below not giving anything back, it sure seems like a leaky sieve when it comes to ghosts and spirits of the fallen rising up like so many fresh bergs. Maybe it’s the only way for humankind to cross back over that barrier.

Out here in the frontier there’s no shortage of lost or failed colonies. So many scattered like haphazardly sown seeds, only to fall into decay and loss. They’re forgotten and then rediscovered by freelancers or surveyors, only for those keen-eyed explorers to hasten back to their ships at the sight and cry of the original colonists, wandering through a spectral unlife. They’re bound to their chosen home and unable to let go of that indelible attraction of starting afresh, even in death. No proper survey report will tag a promising island with “Haunted”. But they’ll happily tag it with “Previously failed attempt at colonization” and let your imagination fill in the rest.

And it’s not just the tales of the skybound and wanderers. In Altani, on the far side of the Sheltered Sky, where generations of ships and crews failed the test of those dangerous passages, there’s a certain spit of land. It overlooks one of the old routes. When the proper mix of moonlight and mist hits that spot you can see a line of souls watching the straights. They’re waiting for their lost loved ones to make it through the passage. They’re gonna wait a long time. And just before the sun brightens the east, they all let out a single, sorrowful wail and depart. Perhaps it’s just visual trick and naught but the winds shifting with the incoming light. But that’s just one cliff-side of many, one supposed vigil of countless across all isles and continents.

Then there’s the Spirits of the Orventian Empire. Vision, Justice, and Virtue. You know ‘em. Their statues and sigils and emblems were all over the place. Hundreds of millions of people invested them with varying levels of belief. Now the scattered remains of the three dot private collections, or fountain squares, or the crowning on old buildings. The stonework’s too fine, the ladies’ meaning too ambiguous and broad to completely tear away. The Spirits remain, even if the Empire they blessed has been dissolved into component pieces. You can damn well say we’re still haunted by those three, at the very least.

So, ghosts? Sure. One way or another. I wouldn’t commit to such things being purely figurative.

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Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2017