After they’d stashed their gear in their quarters, Honing returned the team to the mess hall and excused himself. “Make yourselves at home. I have to count heads. I’ll touch base after supper.” A rectangle of late afternoon light silhouetted him at the door; then he was gone.
Jermin popped out of his chair and started to gander about, sticking his nose up, down, under the table, all the while jotting notes in his floppy, thick-paged ragbook.
“What are you?” asked Brandt. “The health inspector?”
His wide-set eyes, slightly bulbous, glistened blankly. Then he pursed his overly red lips, evoking a peeved catfish. “Do you jest? This place is a treasure trove. And I have one chance to collect observations.” He tapped the ragbook with his thick black pencil “A goldmine. Imagine, a colony, cut off for a century. Going its own direction—”
“Except for the steady flow of new inmates.” Philip hid a smirk behind a finger.
Confusion skittered across Jemin’s face. “Well. If the staff is permanent, and most of the inmates are lifers, a culture’s will develop. Did you notice the woodwork’s fantastic detail?”
Orl shot out of her chair, a shock of black hair covering one eye, her pale skin almost iridescent beneath her hood, completely trumping the woodwork. Agnet waited for a fit or tantrum. Instead, Orl tipped up her chin, pointed one finger at the ceiling, and croaked, looking and sounding like a half-blood crow.
Their faces turned to the shadows beneath the eaves. Agnet adjusted to the dark—there! A white form loomed above the hefty cross-beam, barrel-shaped, mushroom colored, probably a meter high. Could this be one of the Warden’s spooks? Agnet’s fingers curled around her sidearm. The creature swiveled its dish-shaped sensory array her direction.
Jemin inhaled sharply. “An owl!”
“A what?” Brandt’s hand also grasped his weapon.
He glanced at Brandt, emanating pity tinged with zeal. “An owl is a large predatory bird. This example is probably Tyto alba, the barn owl. Once widely distributed, now vanishingly rare. The outer ecosystem must be healthier than I expected.”
Agnet squared her shoulders and slid her hand from her pistol. Embarrassing, being spooked, so to speak, by a mere animal. “Is that over-sized pigeon going to poop on my apple crumple?”
“No. They’re carnivores and prey on rodents, then regurgitate the skin and bones, anything indigestible, as a pellet.” Now everyone was staring at Jemin, who cleared his throat. “In lieu of pooping, that is. So worst-case scenario would be an owl pellet, much drier than feces at any rate.”
Terrific, apple crumble with a side order of skin and bone.
“Though I suppose they must also defecate, to some degree.”
And a topping of bird poop.
The trainee setting up dinner called out. “Don’t let ole Bessie worry you. During the day, she holes up here. Come dusk, we open the doors for dinner, and off she goes to keep down the vermin.”
Agnet waved her thanks to the helpful stranger. “Just in case, let's move from under that bird.
They arranged themselves at a table outside of the bird’s firing range. Hopefully, everybody was now ready for business. Brother, did she miss her old just-get-down-to-business team.
“Jemin, do your anthropological research on your own time. Let’s focus on the mission. First up. Philip and Orl. What did you pick up from Warden Honing?”
“He’s mostly on the level,” said Philip. “But I detected lies or omissions during the discussion about the other teams.”
“So maybe he knows more than he’s letting on.”
Agnet searched for Orl’s eyes, but face was obscured in her hood’s shadow. “Orl, can you confirm?”
Philip fixed his gaze on Orl. But she started picking at her cuticles. He shook his head. “Sorry. I’ve been meaning to mention…was hoping she’d straighten out on her own. Something’s wrong with her or her chip, or both. Would’ve been nice if we’d been vetted as a pair before they packed us on the airship.”
“Least she’s not deaf and can follow a conversation. I saw her perk up when Honig mentioned spooks. You want to tell us about spooks, Orl?”
The girl glanced at Agnet through her bangs, shook her head, then retracted into her hood until only her chin was visible.
Agnet turned to Philip. “They supply you with her dossier?”
Philip opened his satchel and passed her a thin folder. “Pretty skimpy. Training completed with full marks. And her chip should be compatible with mine.” He shrugged. “But I can’t connect.”
Terrific. Her second perceiver was twice over mute. Perceivers could be daft as bed bugs in a frying pan, but they needed to communicate with the rest of the team. “Well Orl. We can make room for neurodivergence or minor psychiatric issues, but I expect all team members to perform their functions. You not sharing could jepordize our mission. We may have call to communicate over a distance.”
In her book, communication over a distance was the main reason to add perceivers to a team. Despite supposed enhanced perception, only some excelled at interviews and negotiators. Orl couldn’t interview at all. She lobbed silent curses at Human Resources, that tribe of sadists and bumblers who’d probably cackled while dumped the girl on her team. But ruminating wouldn’t help.
Philip murmured, “It’s all right. I’ve worked solo before.”
Great but, the way he stared into space every so often suggested he could use backup. Be better for everyone if he could coax the girl out of her shell.
“Don’t throw in the towel. We’ll make time for this communication issue and get it straightened out.”
Brandt tilted his head and spoke to the darkness beneath Orl’s hood. “Do you know anything about spooks, kid?”
Her head moved almost imperceptibly.
Brandt looked at Philip. “See? She knows something! Can she write?”
Philip rolled his eyes. “First, she wouldn’t write about spooks because NeuroCorp could use a document against her.”
The last part of Philip’s statement was spoken with emphasis probably meant for Orl, as if he wanted to hush her. She’d always knew NeuroCorp was strange but petty came as a surprise. “Given world’s rather dire state, why would NeuroCorp have an issue with trivia, such as ghost stories?”
A pained look crossed his face. “Use of the term ‘ghost’ is expressly discouraged. NeuroCorp disapproves under the theory that ‘ghost’ bolsters the concept of ‘soul’. Proof of souls might cause more insurrection on the border.”
Brandt asked, “Can ghosts can run a still or dry good-time weed?”
“Then nobody on the border will give a hoot. Come on, tell us your ghost story. I love a case of the goose bumps.”
Agnet gave Philip a tap on the arm. “You can’t dangle ‘we’re not supposed to talk about ghosts,’ especially if it’s relevant to the mission.”
He briefly massaged his forhead with thumb and forefinger. “Usually missions are normal, no monsters, people talk… Anyway. If I tell you about ‘ghosts’, keep it quiet. For your own good, at the very least. But also, the things people call ghosts aren’t a big deal.” Philip glanced around the table, meeting in turn each team member’s eyes.
“I, for one, have no difficulty with discretion, especially in service of a greater truth,” said Jemin, his watery eyes floating behind those thick lenses.
“Don’t keep many of my own secrets. But don’t have a problem keeping other people’s.” Brandt lifted a finger to his lips. “Silence is golden.”
Agnet leaned into Philip’s gaze. “I’d sew my lips shut to hear whatever’s so weird it freaks out NeuroCorp. Get on with it.”
“Fine. Please, none of you, make me regret my candor.” He made pointed eye contact with Jemin and Brandt, then continued. “Consciousness persists as a high frequency energy signature that usually—um—dissipates after death. But sometimes, that energy remains in place, vibrating. And that persistent energy is a ghost.” He threw air quotes around ‘ghost’.
Agnet searched his face but found no traces of fun-making. “Sounds like a slice of crazy. I’ve never read a mission report mentioning ghosts. None of my neighbors have complained about them. If ghosts are real, why don’t they come up more often?”
He waved a hand, a dismissive gesture. “They’re leftovers, a stain on the present, and rarely affect what we perceive as reality. Our reality operates in a much lower energy state.”
Brandt practically glowed with excitement. “Wow. Can you see them?”
He looked suspiciously blase. “Well—”
Brandt thumped the table, which shuddered. “Seeing ghosts. That. Is. So. Excellent!”
“Or it’s a non-useful side effect of my chip.”
But a side effect that explained why perceivers walked around invisible obstacles and stared at things nobody else could see, giving everybody else the willies. Sort of like house cats, and house cats were a bunch of low-key psychos. She was a dog person. “Ghost vision might come in handy on this particular mission.”
Philip waved a dismissive hand. “This situation doesn’t sound like ghosts to me.”
“Let’s keep our options open. Tomorrow, Jemin, resisting any urge to go down a pottery-shard lined rabbit hole, scan your chip for any and all pertinent and recent information on this compound, the Warden, and the adjacent lands. Keep an eye out for repairs, major projects, visitors, inspections, prison breaks, new personnel, etc. And don’t fry your brain in the process. Keep in mind your implant’s fairly new. Philip and I will interview the witnesses.” Brandt would treat Orl as a fun new adventure, same as he treated everything else, so she asked the pair to survey the compound and the perimeter. “Stay on prison grounds for now. We’ll ask the warden’s permission before we explore the fields and surrounds.”
“That’s Orl and Brandt, the A team.” He gave the expressionless girl a thumbs up. “Maybe Orl and I can rustle up some ghosts.”
Philip looked aghast. Agnet cleared her throat. “So tomorrow, first stage, collect information. Tonight, play nice at dinner. Obviously, don’t go on about either ghosts or monsters. No need to stir the pot. And remember the ‘trainees’ are criminals with maladaptive social behaviors who’ve made poor life choices.”
She scanned the team. Orl sat in a twisted pose, one arm keeping time to an imaginary beat, her mouth moving as if she were chanting. Jemin was sketching a free-standing cupboard pushed up against a nearby wall. Philip, a look of vague despair crinkling his brow, gazed off into the distance while Brandt grinned like a kid in a candy store.
Here she sat, with a pack of kooks deployed on a ridiculous mission. A pox on Central and all its minions.
On the other hand, this team would fit in just fine at dinner.