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A note from stellajo

Sorry it's been a few days. Life got in the way of fiction, as it will. Hope you enjoy.

“That’s right, a floppy hat and an officer-style jacket, all raggedy but looked like it’d been fancy once. Fringes on the shoulders. Then a little hand shot out of the water and grabbed Lincold’s arm. He hollered, tried to wrench his arm free, but then he stopped fighting. Clutched his chest, moaned, and toppled head first into the water.” The woman heaved a sob. “That thing dragged ‘im under. So I ran. I’m not proud of it, but I ran.”

Agent leaned across the cafeteria table and squeezed the woman’s callused palm. “We’re not here to blame or shame you. It’s natural to run from that kind of…” No, don’t use horror, too intense a word. “situation.”

“You couldn’t have done much more, given the circumstances. Other than getting yourself killed.” Philip set a cup of brew next to the prisoner—trainee, Bea, who was serving her time in the compound’s machine shop. Hopefully, she could sip past the trauma and not fall to pieces like the last interviewee.

Agnet jotted a few notes. She’d learned little from the interviews, a parade of body odor, dingy overalls, fear, and wily manipulation. The warden had already laid out the visitation’s pattern: people in twos or threes respond to what appears to be an oddly dressed child waving or gesturing. Curious or trying to help, they take a closer look, then recoil in terror, and run like mad. Each encounter occurred near the settlement’s edge where farm met forest and mostly at dusk, tired people glimpsing something in low light. Unfortunate Lincold drowned in the lake had been the only fatality.

Bea, thankfully the last witness, babbled, clearly in thrall to Philip’s handsome face. She finished her tea, then plead for a sick note. He politely obliged, and she left him with a wink.

Agnet gathered her papers and tapped the edges straight. “So in short, um—manifestations in a narrow geographic radius, the uh—perpetrators not particularly aggressive, but horrifying, and capable of inducing lasting fear. The prisoner’s stories are consistent but could be rehearsed.”

“I didn’t pick up dissembling.”

“What about Bea’s testimony?”

Philip shrugged. “The chest clutching suggests a heart attack, so maybe he died from a combination of natural and very unnatural causes. Either way, seems Lincold’s death was enough to scuttle the harvest.”

“You’re sure she didn’t shove him in?”

“Positive. She was speaking her truth.”

“So unless a growth hormone deficient commando without diving gear can lurk in a freezing lake, we’ve excluded human culprits.” Though she wished a few more people had witnessed Lincold’s demise.

“What would be the point of making up stories?”

Agnet shrugged. “To avoid work?”

“Makes sense until you consider they survive off of this farm’s produce.”

She tapped her pencil. “You’re right, apple crumple is at stake. So let’s take the prisoners at their word: they’re seeing creatures of some sort, not animals, not humans, too solid to be projections. So what are they seeing?”

“Not ghosts.” Philip punctuated his statement with a dismissive hand slash. “Ghosts rarely affect the present.”

“What would the very rare instance look like?”

“Something minor, a marble rolling off a desk, a pool of cold air. Grabbing and pulling are well beyond a ghost’s abilities. Even if a ghost’s energy level drops into the visible range, most are too self-absorbed to bother with the living. But don’t tell Brandt. I wouldn’t want to disappoint him.”

They shared a laugh.

Agnet said, “He’ll recover because we’re back at monsters. And he claims to be a monsters man; ghosts are just a sudden enthusiasm. You have any experience with monsters?”

“Just the human kind.”

“Me too. What about this place? You sensing anything out of the ordinary?”

He set his face and put out his feelers. Or whatever they did, these perceivers. Must be a nightmare, being exposed to so much weirdness. Five minutes ticked by. Agnet sipped what the facility passed off as tea, boiled bark and sticks, most likely. Every assignment came with its own outlandish attempt at tea and/or coffee. Old traditions died hard.

Philip returned to reality with a sharp shake of his head. “Well, here on the compound, a few incorporeals; what you’d call ghosts and don’t quote me, are loitering in an old cemetery.”

“I didn’t notice a cemetery.”

“Would be unmarked by this point, but it shouldn’t be hard to find…” He wrapped his arms around himself as if he’d caught a chill. “And I’m receiving a buzzing or humming sensation with an undercurrent that makes me feel…observed. Started when we landed. But I can’t pinpoint the source. It seems familiar, as if déjà vu, but déjà vu is a known lacuna side effect.”

“Lacuna?”

“Yes? Wasn’t the procedure mentioned in my file?”

“No! How recent?”

“Just over a month ago. Or so.”

She stared at him, realized her jaw had dropped, and snapped it shut. “What the pup are you doing here?”

Philip sighed, looking persecuted. “I don’t know. I couldn’t turn down the assignment. Bills for the lacuna started rolling in, and the mission was urgent. The apple harvest, after all. Only I was adequately qualified and available, blah, blah. Sounded like purest bullshit to me, but here I am.”

No wonder he seemed vague and depressed. “You should be recuperating. Don’t strain yourself or hide symptoms, no matter how steep your bills are. Let me know. All right?” Personnel must be losing their collective minds.

He pressed his lips together, probably controlling their trembling, then said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I’m carrying medication and can jump on any serious sequelae. And I hope the humming comes from Orl, maybe related to that funny dancing or mumbling she does. That’d mean her chip is live and repairable. ” He inspected the tabletop, not meeting her eye.

“What else? Don’t hold back on me.”

His grimace suggested an unpleasant taste had spread across his tongue. “I’ve been mulling it over since she sort of…er…squawked at that owl. NeuroCorp recruits perceivers from State Home Services, selecting certain types: kids with high emotional IQ, introverts, intuitive types, so weird kids, ‘different’ kids, outsiders. But according to unofficial news passing through the perceiver community—so please don’t quote me—they’ve honed in on kids with communication difficulties, abnormal affects, cognitive processing dysfunction, aberrant theories of mind, kids well past ‘different,’ kids with real problems for whom the other option is institutionalization.”

“So Orl doesn’t talk because she’s autistic or something?”

“Well, maybe, but they might’ve stripped her vocal cords.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ve heard NeuroCorp mutes these kids to force communication through experimental chips.” He dropped that bomb and kept talking, visibly struggling to maintain a conversational tone. She struggled to pay attention because fury threatened to blow the roof off her scalp. “—brutal training and social isolation would leave a person pretty odd. After that squawked, I thought she fit the profile.”

“Seriously?” Ah, please, no. Inside her head, she’d made fun of Orl when she’d croaked at the owl.

Philip squirmed in his seat, looking miserable as he struggled into his urbane mask. “Yeah, I know, barbaric. If I’m right about her, she’s the first of these new-style perceivers I’ve met. But buddies of mine tell me Orl’s cohort is a crap shoot. Some can’t function. Some display amazing talent. So I’m not sure what we’re going to get out of her.”

“So now NeuroCorp is mutilating at-risk kids? Do they also bill them for the privilege?”

His chin dipped, conceding reluctantly.

“If Orl goes belly up, how will she pay off her chip?”

He gazed off, his eyes flat and blank. “We probably don’t want to know.”

Suddenly far too warm, she ripped off her jacket. Cripes. NeuroCorp had always given her the creeps, and her instincts had been dead on. Serve them right if some rogue perceiver stomped in there and blew all those sick bastards to dust. “I think we owe her a chance.”

“Why?” He’d recovered his feigned indifference, but Agnet saw through to his fear. How would NeuroCorp treat him if he couldn’t pay off his chip?

“Because we do. Because she’s one of the team. Because we need to preserve our humanity. At least that’s how I see it.” And to stick it to NeuroCorp, which could dissolve in a heap of stinking ostrich poop, as far as she was concerned. “I was hoping her troubles were just teenage drama.”

Philip’s face relaxed. “Can’t exclude a component of teen drama.”

“Can you deal with teen drama? Because it’s not my area of expertise.”

His eyes went wide. Apparently, teens weren’t his strong suit either.

“Welp. Let’s continue to draw her out, include her in trivial tasks and the conversation even if she doesn’t respond. We could use two functional perceivers if we end up scouting beyond the compound. Not much line-of-sight in the woods.” And he might need backup, because he was a mess, and they were heading into battle, a battle she wanted to win, both for Orl’s sake and for the apples.

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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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