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The dawn rose misty and wan, leaving the hills lightly coated in frost. Brant zipped his field jacket and flexed his hands in his pockets as he crossed the yard, then entered the warm and welcoming commissary. A few prisoners—whoops—trainees even greeted him. So he joked with them, even though he felt like slops. After toast and two much needed cups of chicory…or something, he joined the team in the admin building’s courtyard. Despite the chicory, Brandt’s head clanged like he’d been sleeping with a grenade launcher.

Walking the perimeter would shake off the hangover and distance him from these offices. Too many civilians busy doing civilian-things. Should start thinking of civilians as people, but he could almost smell the paperwork. He felt sorry for the prisoners assigned to admin. A body in motion stays in motion. A body at rest stews over the past or worries about the future. Good men turned sedentary and made bad decisions. Decisions he planned to forget. No. Anything worrisome should be real, right in front of him, and prepared to die. And here was the Chief, bright eyed and bushy tailed; along with her other assets, she must have a fast booze burning metabolism.
“Ready for patrol, ma'am. Where’s Orl?”

“Orl? You here girl? Time for patrol. You need to help Brandt. Look for things he can’t see.” Chief Krause may have called out to the girl, but she’d kept her eyes fixed on the forest edge like a raptor looking for mice, an Amazon in profile. Kept her hair too short for his tastes, but he could see the sense of short hair in her situation. Still, her hair was glossy and thick, nice hips, a narrow waist, an excellent pair. He wouldn’t turn her down, even though she was older. Older could mean eager, and better funded, a private apartment, higher-grade rations—

He glanced away, squelching the fantasy, and his eyes met Orl’s. She stared straight at him like she could see his innards, even though she was using just one eye. A shock of black hair covered the other—be the stereotype. Barring ferals, this girl and Jemin were the whitest people he’d ever seen. Though Jemin was more pink than white. Families must’ve picked up mutations along the road.

He whispered to the Chief. “There she is. I’ll do my best to draw her out, but don’t get your hopes up.”

The Chief grinned encouragement. “Nah. You’ll do fine. Just talk to her. If she doesn’t reply, figure out a communication strategy. Apply it. If she senses anything, and she tells you, report the information. Simple.”

Fair enough. He like this Chief’s style, low key, no pressure, leaving the situation to his best judgment. He saluted, kicked himself for forgetting he was a civilian, gestured for Orl to follow, and sauntered across the paddock toward the fence.

He sensed her behind him, a mildly uncomfortable feeling, witchy-girl with her bone-skin, snarled hair, ratty long skirt, and that hideous shawl. Reminded him of moths, that shawl. Never liked moths, always clinging to clothes hanging from the line. He’d be unpinning a pair of pants, and end up with dusty wings spasmodically flapping in his face. But flail out and kill one of ‘em, and there it’d lie, tiny, fluff and dust, him feeling small and stupid for over-reacting. Plus the other kids and the matron would laugh at him jumping around. Maybe it’d be better if Orl stayed behind him, so he wouldn’t have to engage, now that he’d given himself a case of the heebie jeebies.

But Orl slipped past him and shot ahead. Who knew she could move so fast? He jogged a few steps to catch up. “Don’t touch the white tape. It’s electric,” he warned her, even though she should already know, if she’d read the brief. If she could read.

But she wasn’t paying attention to him. She stood at the fence as if frozen, her hands lifted chest-height like she was feeling the air. Then she pointed toward two substantial tree trunks curved toward each other, creating an arch about two meters tall, looking like the entrance to a hall or alley.

“Something interesting down that way?”

Orl flinched, then turned her head toward him real slow, her eyes narrow and suspicious. She almost imperceptibly nodded, keeping her gaze fixed to the dark space between the silver smooth trunks. Lots of cover in that forest. Could be a monster behind every tree, if they were slim. “You see a ghost?”

She pointed again, her mouth fixed in a grim line.

“Not a ghost? Something else? Well. Whatever it is, we’ll inspect. Suppose we’ll need lanterns. Looks like a few steps in, and it’s pretty dark.”

They walked the rest of the perimeter without event. The air finally warmed up. The trees were all sorts of colors. The grass or hay or whatever had turned a golden brown. Sort of like going to school camp, this prison farm. Though he doubted the Warden offered target shooting or archery.

Be nice, a country stroll with a pretty girl on his arm. But brother, this mission was slim pickings female-wise. Consider the options: one scrawny teen with mental problems, completely off limits for any number of reasons, if he was interested, and he wasn't, or a pack of bony, grim-lipped criminal-ladies. Sure, he could dream about the Amazon Chief, but as his commander, she was also off limits. Way off limits. He’d never open that can of worms. Never. Well, maybe not never. But it’d be easier if he came across a local homestead and met the farmer’s daughter. She’d take him out to the haystack—

Something tugged on his sleeve. Ah. Orl. She pointed. He looked. Pointing and looking must be their communication strategy. The Chief would be proud. But the view wasn’t exceptional, just a barn and a cluster of outbuildings.

“You see something I can’t?”

She nodded.

“Like Ghosts?”

For the first time, she looked directly at him, her pale face earnest. She gave him a bigger nod this time, almost looking like a regular kid.

“So there’re ghosts up there? Excellent! Show me where.”

She led him to the barn’s door and paced off a weed-strewn rectangle. Looked pretty drab. He’d haunt an old mansion or museum, if he were a ghost. Something with character. And why no sensation, like a chill or tingle, hairs raising on his arm? He must not be one of the ghost sensing types. No surprise really, him being a reality-based person.

Brandt marked the rectangle’s corner the with bricks scraps, while Orl paced the yard. Occasionally, she’d stop and listen…or something. Occasionally, she’d kind of gurgle, almost a rhythm to the sound, like bits of song sung through a garden hose. Oddly tuneful, but spooky and outside of his remit. He’d turn this info over to Slick Phil.

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About the author

stellajo

Bio: Writing about unusual people in unusual situations with works falling somewhere between science fiction and contemporary fantasy. Author of Harmony Lost and Discord and Harmony, available direct from website or multiple ebook retailers.

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