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Excerpt from Ghost Talkers
A Novel by Mary Robinette Kowal
16 July 1916
"The Germans were flanking us at Delville Wood when I died."
Ginger Stuyvesant had a dim awareness of her body repeating the soldier's words to the team's stenographer. She tried to hold that awareness at bay, along with the dozens of other spirit circles working for the British Army. Even with a full circle supporting her, she ached with fatigue, and if she weren't careful that would pull her back into her body. It wouldn't be fair to force Helen to assume control of the circle early. The other medium was just as exhausted. Around them, the currents of the spirit world swirled in slow spirals. Past events brushed her in eddies of remembrance. Caught in those memories, scent and colour floated with thick emotion. The fighting at the Somme had kept the entire Spirit Corps working extra shifts trying to take reports from the dead, and the air was frigid with souls.
The young soldier in front of her had been with the 9th Scottish Division, 26th Brigade, theBlack Watch. Technically, Pvt. Graham Quigley was still a member of the Black Watch, until his unfinished business was completed and he could cross beyond the veil.
Belatedly, Ginger realized what he'd said. "So you could see the Germans? You know their positions?"
His aura rippled black with remembered pain, but a flash of amber satisfaction shot through it. "Oh, ma'am.Don't I just. The shell that got me made it clear as all that I'd not live through the day, so I had the boys prop me up." Quigley grinned. "I saw the Huns set their guns up not fifteen feet from where I lay bleeding."
"When did you die? The time. Did you see the time?"
"Eleven forty-seven." His spirit winked at her. "I had one of the blokes hang up my watch so I could see the time. Remembered my training, I did."
Most soldiers came in within a few minutes of their death, but sometimes their confusion, or the sheer number of them, meant that their report didn't come until hours later. Knowing when they died was vital. Ginger's shift would end at noon, so Quigley had only been dead for a few minutes. "Can you show me their positions?"
"Aye.That I can." The amber of his plea sure suffused and buried the dark pain of dying. If the Spirit Corps did nothing else, it gave these young men some meaning for their deaths.
"Give me a moment." Her circle, well trained as they were, made the necessary changes to their configuration. Taking care not to break contact with her, Mrs. Richardson, on her right, slid her grip up Ginger's arm so that her hand was free. An aide, seated in the centre of the circle, positioned the drawing board in front of her. Edna had already clipped a map of the village Longueval and Delville Wood to the board. Neither woman had the Sight, so to them the soldier was only a dim shadow, and only that much when they were in full contact with the circle. Without it, they'd feel nothing more than a spot of uncanny cold where he stood. But while the circle was in effect, with a strong medium to lead, all six of the sitters could hear him, and the countless drills they had done stood them in good stead.
If Quigley had seen where the Germans were, the command centre could hopefully find a way to stop those guns. A cluster of other ghosts waited, crowding the ware house until another circle was free to take their report. Dimmer flashes of living people walked through the room carrying stenographers' reports or updated orders as the casualties poured in.
Ginger reminded her body to take a breath before she turned her attention back to the soldier. She pushed her soul farther out of her body. The relief sighed through Ginger as her mortal weight lessened. Her soul blended with the radiance around her, but there was not time to permit herself to drift in the spirit plane and delight in the tangible flow of ghosts. "Show me, please."
She reached out for Quigley and let his soul wrap around hers so she could drop into his memories.
He is leaning against a wall trying not to look at where his legs used to be. The pain is not as bad as he'd thought it would be, but he'd give anything for a drink of water. He is so thirsty. The blasted Huns have overrun their position and are setting up their guns behind the wall of what used to be a church. No proper respect, shelling a church like that. He blinks, trying to focus, but the world is starting to go grey around the edges. The lance corporal had told them how important it was to the war effort to remember what they saw as they were dying. There are five Huns: three to handle the gun, plus another two to manage the horses that pulled it into place. The sound of thegun going off is deafening, but he's too tired to flinch. It's cold. It's a relief after the oppressive July heat. But why is it cold? The gun fires again, and he stares at it, willing himself to remember. It's a heavy field Howitzer--a Five-Nine--and the Huns look to be settling in to stay.
Ginger pulled herself back, sinking toward her body. It had gotten even colder in the vast warehouse--no. No, that was just a residual from Quigley's memory. Her body shuddered with it anyway, and she wanted to push back away from her heavy mortal flesh. The circle pulled her soul down, anchoring her. Ginger checked to make sure her body was still breathing and nodded to the soldier. "Thank you. That is very good information. I will make a commendation to your superior officer."
Back in the mortal sphere, Edna was slipping the map from the board. Upon it, Quigley had used Ginger's body to draw the location of the gun and the Germans at the time of his death. A runner would take the map to the intelligence officers, and they would relay the information back to the front line. Ginger sent up a prayer that they could stop the gun, even while knowing that there would be more deaths. There were always more deaths facing her.
At the edge of her awareness, a familiar spark entered the room among the living. Captain Benjamin Harford. Even from here, his aura crackled with anger and worry. The worry wasn't unusual. It seemed that Ben was always worried about some- thing these days. The anger though, and the way it twined into the heavy grey worry like a scarlet serpent, was not like her fiancé.
"Am I finished, ma'am?" Quigley's presence pulled her attention back to where it belonged. "They said in the training that we could send a message after we reported in."
"Yes. Of course." Ben and his worry would have to waitanother ten minutes until her shift ended. "What message would you like to pass on?" She would just repeat his words, and let the stenographer take a note instead of spirit writing. It seemed unjust to complain of being tired when speaking to the dead, but her entire body ached with other people's memories.
"Tell Alastair Olsen that he owes me five bob. He'd bet that I was too daft to remember to report in, and I guess he was wrong." The soldier twisted the memory of his cap in his hands. The amber faded, and for a moment his aura went deep purple with grief. "And tell my mum that I love her and that I'm sorry about the table leg. I meant to fix it before I went to war. Tell her I'm sorry I didn't. Hell-- tell Alastair Olsen to give the five bob to Mum and she can use that to get the leg fixed. Only don't say I said hell." He looked behind him, and the edges of his spirit blurred. "Oh . . . that's the light the lance corporal was telling us about, I guess. Huh. It's yellow."
With a sigh, Quigley let go and diffused away from them. The eddies of his passing tugged on Ginger's soul, nudging her to go along with him on his journey. Her circle stood fast, holding her to this mortal coil. With her spirit, she held a salute as Pvt. Quigley's soul passed fully through the veil to the next plane of existence.
And then another soldier took his place. "Private John Simmons of the 27th Brigade, reporting."
Ginger brought her soul into alignment and passed control of the circle to Helen. Together they waited to find out how Pvt. Simmons had died.
At noon, a soft chime echoed through the great ware house. Ginger could feel the relief from her team that their shift hadended. She held them steady while Helen finished with the soldier she was taking a report from.
He had lied about his age and was only fifteen. Ginger bit the inside of her cheek as he gave his final message for Helen to pass on. He was hardly the only boy shot down so young, but his death seemed harder because his commander had held him back, knowing he was too young to be there, and a chance grenade made it over the lines to kill him in the trench. Likely the two other boys he was with, as well. He hadn't even seen anything useful to report. Not that Helen had let on. She let him believe that he'd died with purpose, for a higher cause.
Still, it was a relief when he felt released and slid past them to go through the veil. Ginger clamped down on Helen, using the weight of the others in the circle to keep her soul from billowing out in the wake of his. She waited as the other medium settled back into her body. Across the circle, Helen lifted her head and took a deep, unsteady breath.
"Well . . . that's done, then." Her Caribbean accent came through more clearly in her fatigue. Her dark skin did not show the circles under her eyes as clearly as Ginger's, but it had gone ashy at the effort expended today. Even alternating control, their three-hour shifts were soul-numbing. The sheer number of deaths over the past two weeks had forced all the mediums to go to double shifts, and Ginger was not at all sure how long they could continue that pace. Already one girl had lost her grip on her body. They were keeping her physical form comfortable, in hopes that her soul would find its way back, but it seemed unlikely.
As a group, they dropped the circle and let go of each other's hands. Ginger's palm chilled as the film of sweat, which always formed during their long sessions, met the cool air. At least they would not have to be back on rotation until seventeen hundred today.
Letting her soul slip a little out of her body, Ginger paused to do the required check on their team. They had seven members in their team, as per regulations.A circle consisting of two mediums and four unsighted, with an aide for corporeal needs. Mrs. Richardson and Mr. Haden were clearly well and had matching rosy glows to their auras.
She flexed her fingers and turned to Mrs. Richardson on her right. "Thank you for the support during the drawing."
The elderly woman smiled and patted Ginger on the knee. "Of course, dear. It is the least I can do for the war."
"Aye. That and knitting." Mr. Haden gave her a sly wink. He wore a pair of fingerless gloves that Mrs. Richardson had made for him out of a thick grey wool. His arthritis bothered him in the perpetually cool ware house, but he hadn't complained. It was simply hard to hide aches and pains from a circle. Even those without the Sight could sense at least a little of what the others felt when the mediums linked them. Which is how she also knew that Mr. Haden was sweet on Mrs. Richardson. Neither of them admitted it aloud though, pretending to be oblivious and flirting the old- fashioned way.
Lt. Plumber picked up his crutches and gave her a brief nod as he levered himself to his remaining leg. He could have sat the war out on disability, but he opted to be an anchor in the Spirit Corps instead. He wore the blue uniform of the disabled with pride. The dark tinge of pain in his aura seemed no more pronounced than usual.
Joanne was already leaning in to whisper to Edna. They were no doubt planning to head straight to the WAC's hospitality room to dance with as many officers as they could, if the cheery mixture of light red and yellow were any indication.
Ginger stood and stretched with a groan. She glanced to the side of the room where Ben waited for her. He was leaningagainst the wall of the ware house, scribbling something in the tiny black notebook he kept perpetually tucked in his uniform pocket. His long, lean figure had always been dashing in evening dress, and seemed to exhibit the British Army uniform to equal advantage. His hat was tucked under his arm, and a lock of his dark curls had worked its way free of its pomade to hang over his forehead. The line of his mustache was turned down in a scowl as he concentrated on his notes.
He looked up, as if he felt Ginger's gaze, and a smile briefly lifted the worry from his face, though it did nothing for his aura.
Helen caught Ginger's eye and gave a nod toward Ben. "Looks like you have other duties awaiting you."
"Yes, well." Blushing a little, Ginger tried to appear nonchalant. "We do have to prepare for a staff meeting."
"Mm-hmm." Helen winked. "I'm sure he's looking forward to your report."
Laughing, Ginger crossed the floor past the other circles that were still in session. Most of the mediums were women, but some were men who were unfit for duty on the front. Their anchoring circles were also largely women, mixed with injured veterans and men too old to fight. Braziers stood every few feet, trying to knock back the perpetual chill of the vast warehouse--Potter's Field, they called it. Ginger kept her head down as she walked and her soul tucked tightly in her body, trying to keep her awareness of the dead soldiers to a minimum. Without being linked in a circle, she wouldn't see a full vision of any of them, but their auras still tugged at her, begging for a chance to tell how they died. She pulled further into herself, trying to confine her sight to the mortal sphere.
Ginger stepped past the line of salt that marked the edge of the working area. The temperature was a trifle warmer here, butthat might have been simply due to Ben. Just his smile of greeting heated her skin.
"Good morning, Miss Stuyvesant." He tucked his little notebook into his pocket.
"Captain Harford." Their engagement was not a secret, and the wedding had only been delayed because of the war, but the brass still preferred them to be discreet. It was "distracting," apparently. "To what do I owe the plea sure? Come to help me collate my reports?"
"I thought I'd take advantage of the cool." His smile did not reach his eyes, and his aura stayed dark. "Walk with me?"
"Into the heat? You are a contradiction."
"I like to keep you guessing." He gave her a little bow and gestured to the door. "It is the role of an intelligence officer to avoid predictability at all costs."
"Mm . . . and here I thought you just enjoyed being difficult."
"It is an occupational hazard, I fear." With a passable imitation of a heartfelt sigh, he opened the door and ushered her into the corridor that ran along the length of one wall. Doors to a warren of offices opened off the side of the hall opposite Potter's Field, but Ben walked her down to the exterior door. The hall was warmer and mercifully clear of ghosts. A swirl of men and women filled it as they hurried outside, away from the cold of duty. "Speaking of occupational hazards, Axtell ruined my copy of Chaucer."
"The one I gave you? Humph. I never did like him."
He laughed and shook his head. "Darling, I would not trust him with one of your gifts. Besides, he doesn't read Middle English. This was my Pitt-Taylor translation."
"Even so. I am surprised he had any interest." Ginger's sensible boots clicked against the sharp green and white tiles as she walked with Ben to the end of the hall. She was simply fatiguedat the end of a shift. Nothing more. "Or was this an illustrated edition?"
"He was using it for a book code."
"Well . . . if it was for the war, I suppose you had no choice." She paused by the door. "How did he ruin it?"
"He was shot. It stopped the bullet, apparently." He pushed open the door to the outside, and a wall of warmth met them.
Ginger wore a heavy linen skirt as part of her uniform, and a shawl on top of that to ward off the chill of Potter's Field. It was easy to forget, while locked in the dim and cool warehouse, that France was in the midst of July.
"Perhaps we should put a copy of Chaucer into the standard kit." She took the shawl off, folding it over her arm. In sticky, humid New York City, this would have been accounted a pleasant day, but it was still overly warm in her uniform.
"I would not object, but the troops already carry nearly fifty pounds in their kit." He gestured toward the trees that lined the walled yard surrounding the ware house. "Shall we seek the shade?"
The members of the Spirit Corps broke into knots of twos and threes as they left the confines of the ware house. Likely, most of the mediums would go back to their billets at the old asylum, to rest before their next shift. If her own fatigue level was any guide, they simply must figure out a better staffing arrangement. With luck, her aunt would have found some new recruits on her most recent trip back to England.
In an odd way, Ginger envied the mundanes who would go on to their volunteer hospitality duty at the Women's Auxiliary Committee's hospitality room. The WAC provided a convincing excuse for the vast number of women who were in Le Havre and would, hopefully, help keep the precise nature of the Spirit Corps secret as long as possible. Serving tea to living soldierssounded very appealing. Perhaps she could convince Ben to go out. After she had a nap.
Ben settled his hat back on his head and steered them to the long row of plane trees that lined the wall surrounding the ware house's large cobbled yard. Their papery bark peeled in a thousand shades of brown beneath vast spreading crowns of bright green. Ginger let him carry on in peace for a moment until they had reached some undefined appropriate distance from the ware house.
He glanced back at the building and sighed. People still thronged around it on the way to and from their shifts. Stop- ping, he leaned against the trunk of a tree so his back was to the building."Ginger . . . pretend I'm trying to wheedle a kiss?"
"Am I to take it that I won't get one, then?" She smiled and turned her back on the building as well, shaking her head as if denying him. They had acted out this ruse before when he needed to listen in on something at a party. She would rather have had a kiss.
He took her hand, running his thumb over the backs of her knuckles. "Assume I've given my standard disclaimer about this being completely confidential, please."
"We've received reports that the Spirit Corps is being targeted by the Central Powers."
"Ah . . ." She resisted the urge to look back at the building. "Do they know where we are?"
"We aren't certain, but they most certainly know about the program." He let go of her and tugged at the cuff on his uniform jacket. "They've started blinding our wounded."
"We thought that they knew . . . reports that I can't go into. But one of the reports that I can talk about came in todaythrough the Spirit Corps-- one you'll hear about at the staff meeting. A soldier was left behind enemy lines, dying-- all standard thus far-- but when the Germans found him, they put his eyes out."
She swallowed against nausea. Bad enough that these young men died, but to have their body desecrated in such a manner was an unlooked- for horror. "Surely that's just brutality. They may not have even known he was alive. I mean, that's part of what we count on, isn't it? That our boys can stay behind after their positions are overrun, and report what they've seen."
He gave a bitter laugh. "The last thing he heard was, NocheingespenstigerSpion . . . Another ghost spy."
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