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Jemin escaped the mess hall’s din and bolted for his room. Enervating, all those close packed crude prisoners making unpleasant jokes, and that snide apostate, Philip, sitting beside him insisting that “a consciousness persisting as high frequency energy” differed from a soul. Imagine the blighted ideology that could produce such drivel. Communing with his chip in blessed silence, praise be, would be a relief. Every archive would reveal valuable clues, and he’d present them brilliantly to the team. Envisioning the Chief Krause’s face suffused with gratitude and awe, he rounded the dormitory’s corner and slam, smacked into a person.

He stepped back, so unpleasant, physical contact with strangers. “I beg your pardon.”

But the boy just stood there, looking awkward, his long arms dangling. The other two cowered behind the first. With relief, he noted their scrawny frames and the not-fed-enough-protein-growing-up look that accompanied dental problems and a sparse head of hair, the look of those who lived outside the dominant culture: street urchins or the children of pariahs. Given their fair hair and light skin, he guessed the latter. These boys weren’t thieves or thugs. They were kin. But why were they lurking in a Common Folk prison?

Their apparent leader raised his palm and murmured, “greetings, brother,” the lilt and cadence, the rounded vowels of the old tongue caressing Jemin’s ears. It’d been so long. Jemin, shaky with the language, took a moment to reply in kind, keeping his voice low, lest someone overhear.

The young man gestured ‘round the building. “Turn here with us, sir, if you would. We seek words with you.”

Jemin followed, curiosity trumping fear of discovery. He could always claim to be conducting interviews and attribute his facility with an archaic dialect to his chip.

They led him into a washhouse, empty except for a row of washing machines, one chugging slowly, sounding reluctant or sluggish, probably significantly underpowered thanks to the scudding clouds and the chill.

He drew himself into a formal posture, accentuating his seniority. “Greetings. I go by Jemin.” Better to hold back his family name; some people stewed over strife between clans for centuries.

The boy who'd greeted him held out his hand. “Malakai, good sir.” He hardly looked the part of leader, with that thick rope hitching up the pants of his prison uniform. Must be the most outgoing. Jemin gripped his hand firmly and shook, ignoring the risk of contagion in favor of tradition.

“What lead you to this place of the Oppressors?” Jemin waved an arm, vaguely indicating the farm and surrounds.

Malakai grinned. “Not by crime, praise be. The Warden, a righteous heathen sent by the Lord, took us in when we left the wood.”

“The wood here local?”

“Aye. Hereabouts.”

Then they’d just left the settlement he’d meant to study! Jemin waited a beat for further explanation. None forthcoming, he added a prompt. “These fine woods are far from their cities.”

“Yep. Fine woods. Would be amongst them today, but first the disease passed through when we was kids, somebody making a mistake of trading with a stranger. Then the village burned, and only a few survived. We struggled a time. Tried wardings and prayer when the dead rose, but finally had to move on.”

“The dead? You mean those monsters Warden Honing complains of?”

“Yes, sir. Those things. They aren’t right.”

Pandemic, fires, monsters—they should’ve braved everything and hung on. Because it wasn’t fair. No significant scholar had surveyed this area in three generations. That village was ripe for study, a private project to make this mission and all his recent choices bearable. And this boy was telling him he’d missed an intellectual peach by a matter of months? A curse on fever, fire, and all forms of devastation.

He glanced around, trying to latch onto anything that’d explain this mistake. Nothing here, just a mop and bucket sitting in a dreary prison wash house. An urge to crush the bucket with his foot and scream in frustration flooded him. Instead, he clenched his hands into fists. The secular majority always expected the faithful to respond with heedless passion, but he’d moved beyond their stereotypes. He could bury his impulses, will self-control, dispassion, and intellectual rigor. He hid his fists into his pockets, acting natural as possible while his heart slammed in his ears. “So the entire village cleared out?”

The boys exchanged nervous glances. “One stubborn old coot refused to come with us, thinking we’d lost the way, but we ain’t. We just couldn’t make it, and them ghouls was the last straw. The Lord don’t want us killed by ghouls, do he?”

Jemin withstood a wave of nausea, but the youth also looked stricken. He groped for pity, but the boys should’ve stayed at home and provided him with a unique and isolated study population. And what had the boy meant by wardings? Had they dabbled in the occult? But harsh judgment would drive these boys away, and he needed information. A kindly elder would offer words of comfort, even if those words were lies or undeserved.

“No. Our merciful Father wouldn’t ask you to die in the woods. You did right.”

Relief washed over Malakai’s face, and talk poured out of his mouth. “The Lord sent you and those govenmentals to stop those ungodly risings. We thank you and wish you God’s speed. We’re trapped here by those ghouls, and they’s interfering with the harvest. Mid winter, we’ll be trapped here without enough to eat. We sought you out, our brother, because we know something of them undead and wanted to tell you. In case it helps.” He gestured at the room: baskets of dirty linen and supply shelves. “But private-like, in case you travel quietly.”

“I always travel quietly. I don’t need their eye on me.” He had a career and chip-debt to worry about.

“And we don’t need to be beaten to death by a one of them faith-hating convicts.” Malakai and Jemin sought proof of secrets well-kept in each other’s eyes.

Secrets weren’t a problem. Jemin knew secrets. For years, he’d calculated what to say and what to hold back. Now, he needed to do the same with his own kind. What believable story would answer the question: what’s one of the Fold doing on a governmental team?

“Don’t worry, I’m practiced at holding my tongue. My kin died in the first wave, and the State took me in. Kept myself to myself, and now I work with them when my Faith allows, solving problems outside the city, where their know-how peters out. Like these undead disturbing the farm workers.”

He paused, leaving his partial truth hanging in the air, like an open window awaiting a pie on the sill. One boy rubbed the floor with the toe of his boot, his withered arm dangling uselessly from his left sleeve. “Old Cain says the undead come from over the ridge.”

“He’s got the sight; he do,” lisped the third.

The “sight” reminded Jemin of Philip’s pagan talk of ghosts and energy vibrations. More evidence the boy’s settlement had drifted from the Word. “Who’s got the sight? You young fella or the oldster back home?”

Malakai laughed. “Not Brennan, here. No. Grandfather Cain who hears and sees at a distance. Well, he don’t see with his eyes too good anymore, but when them ghouls first started their waving and dancing, he sniffed the air then laid his ear on the ground and listened. Some time passed, and he stood and pointed with his cane to the origin. So we traveled right quick in the opposite direction, met up with the Warden, and came to this farm.”

“Don’t blame you.” Though he absolutely blamed them. “Food isn’t bad.”

“Yep. The food’s right fine. The Lord blessed us when he shepherded us here.” Malakai clasped his hands in way of gratitude. “Warden Honing was walking the road the very day we walked off the mountain. He hid us, keeping our secrets from the other trainees.” The lisping boy spoke with a hand over his mouth, probably hiding a cleft lip or palate. Jemin bore most of the Fold’s usual physical stigmata; the light complexion, blue eyes spaced a bit too far and hidden behind thick glasses. No surprise this trio had recognized him as one of their own. But the good Lord had spared him a blighting that broadcast “too many generations born of too few mothers”.

The fellow with the palsied arm piped up. “He gave us clothes and told us to fit in until we decided what to do.”

Ah. The conversation was meant to be an exchange, information for advice. But young men welcome unsolicited advice as easily as a mule traipses through a mouse hole. He waited for one of them to ask.

Malakai shuffled his feet and looked askance. “We ain’t sure what to do, exactly. Adel here says ‘no’ to their halfway house. Brennan and I are unsure.” He paused, eyes fixed on Jemin’s face.

That look was the asking. But Jemin, having lived an unhappy life betwixt and between, felt uniquely unqualified to give advice. He wasn’t a social worker. All he could do was report a version of his own experience; they’d have to decide for themselves.

“You boys brought up in the Word?”

They nodded, looking earnest.

“All right then. Best to let the Warden guide you to understanding social workers; I bet he knows a few. Without papers or family, they’ll place you in a shelter. Keep your tongues still; You don't want to be recognized by the other residents. They won’t know by sight; most of the Common Folk have never met one of the Fold. And plenty of them’s touched by contamination too, so your deformities won’t give you away.” Adel flinched; had he used the wrong word? “But even if they recognize you as faith-based, don’t believe your old Aunty’s tales; they won’t feed you to the lions, or anything.” The kids would mostly pretend they didn’t exist until a bully decided it was time for a thrashing. “Start preaching and you’ll land in re-education, subject to lesson about their ways. Earnestly taught lessons about science and rational thought, explaining how our beliefs are foolish and dangerous.”

The lisper looked close to tears, and rightfully so. Jemin had buried the faintly cloaked disdain, polite curiosity tinged with amusement or pity, and the endless well-meaning questions, like scalpels dissecting a frog lying in a pool of holy wine. Those cursed lessons had sparked a search for truth that’d eventually shackled him to InfoCorp. He should’ve been a bricklayer.

“In re-education, you won’t learn enough to survive amongst the Common Folk. But in mainstream classes, you can learn a trade. And many of your classmates will be inebriates, disrespectful, or temperamentally unfit to work, giving you an advantage. Keep to yourselves, and you can live quietly amongst them and follow the Word; I’m living testament to that fact.”

Well, more or less.

A moment passed. Given their faces, his optimistic portrait of their future hadn’t gone down well.

Adel, his eyes desperate, tucked his palsied arm into his coveralls, as if foreseeing cruel comments and lost opportunities. “Sounds like a lonely road, praying alone, no fellowship or family. Any more of our folk living outside the Commons?”

Jemin inspected the wall, recalling degraded refugee Folk, mired in liquor and drugs, women-folk and kinder terrorized, false prophets entertaining visitors with all kinds of superstitious rubbish passed off as the Word. He inhaled deeply.

“I’ve not found a village peopled by the Godly. If you travel far enough, you may. But be careful of those calling themselves the Fold. Hold your judgment while you lay your eye on them. Deeds reveal the truth of people, not words. If you find yourselves amongst the Godless, keep quiet, keep your faith, and move on.”

The boys looked grim, so he drew the conversation to happier matters like the common room’s fireplace, buckwheat groats, and apples, and eventually, they were joking about the prison men’s clumsy ways with tools and crops, and the bold and whorish convict women. Every word rang precious, this outpost of the modern world as viewed by the surviving members of a sect that’d lived separate from the mainstream for over five-hundred years, three youths, the closest to kin he’d encountered since his sister’s death all those years ago. He’d need to interview them later, in depth.

When the patter tapered off, Jemin asked after their village’s exact location. That old man was an invaluable source. He’d hike to that village alone, if he had to. And he’d better move fast because ailing and possibly demented “Grandfather Cain” had been alone on that mountain for at least a month. Only God’s grace could’ve kept the man alive.

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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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