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In the late afternoon, Agnet seated herself at an owl-free table in the mess hall, the best spot for a meeting, despite the noise from the kitchen. Besides, meal prep sounds, the clattering of utensils, pots, and pans soothed her. Funny how busy kitchen activity not involving herself settled her nerves. And increased the odds of a palatable meal. The team dribbled in and joined her.

At her request, Jemin led the report, first blushing like a sixteen-year-old handed a rose. “A confidential source—um—informed me about an—um—witness.”

An amazed look flashed across Philip’s face. “Confidential source?” He snorted. “Are you under the impression you’re something other than a government agent? What? A doctor? A lawyer?”

The pink on Jemin’s cheeks flushed red. “No, but—”

“A source! Great. Who?” Brandt slapped the historian’s shoulder, the blow meant as friendly, but Jemin’s glasses fell into his lap. He gave Brandt a sidelong glance and reset them. Boy, those lenses were thick; he must have spent his entire childhood inside, in the dark, nose in book. Brandt apologized.

“An elderly man living in the woods—”

“A feral? I know my ferals. Worked the border down South. May have to take that testimony with a grain of salt. Some ferals are full of crap or moonshine, depending.” Brandt’s eyes glowed. Every one of his days must be a grand adventure.

Jemin pursed his lips. “If you know your ferals—” He dropped air-quotes around “ferals”. “—then you know the term covers many groups, each group with a specific name, depending on ethnicity, village, or culture. And each individual “feral” varies, depending on life history and temperament. So we won’t be able to gauge the witness’s veracity until we interview him.” Having finished lecturing Brandt, he turned to Agnet. “The village is also of historic significance. You have to understand, the last recorded contact was about seventy years ago.”

“Or maybe journalist. Maybe he thinks he’s a journalist.” Philip lobbed the comment to her gently, as if he was tossing a peach, a mildly insane and possibly volatile peach.

She rested her temple on her fist. Worst team ever without a doubt, absolutely clueless. “Jemin. Great lead, really. Thanks tons. But reveal your source. We’re a team here.”

The historian leaned forward, twisting a pencil in his finger, and whispered, “I…I can’t. Really. To the point, I debated mentioning the witness at all. Just know that the source means no harm and has done no wrong.”

“Twenty questions?” asked Brandt. “Are we talking, inmate?”

Worst team ever.

“No. The source isn’t a pris—trainee, but is under the Warden’s protection. Even so, the source’s position is precarious; I don’t wish to compromise anybody’s safety or privacy. Oh, and the source arrived this summer, perhaps explaining the wobble Philip noted in the Warden’s testimony, that lie about ‘no other people passing through,’ evidence the Warden was protecting the source’s privacy. It’s delicate. Trust me. And divulging the source’s exact identity wouldn’t add anything.”

Agnet pinched her forehead. “Well, no. It would help, but I’ll let this go for now, so we can concentrate on the witness.”

“We should go talk to that guy pronto.”

Thanks, Brandt, brilliant. “So may I ask ‘witness to what’?”

“The witness has pinpointed the source’s location. Uh. I don’t mean my source, but where the monsters come from. Originate. The monsters. I mean, the witness knows where the monsters originate.”

A brief silence fell. Philip's expression bespoke skeptical. Orl hid beneath her hood, possibly napping. Jemin, all jitters, dabbed his forehead with his sleeve. Brandt blurted. “We definitely have to talk to this guy.”

Thanks again, Brandt. “Agreed. You say he’s in the woods? Where exactly?”

“Yes.” Jemin opened his rag book to a hand-drawn map. “In a settlement down a trail and halfway up the ridge.”

Brandt signaled to Orl. “Maybe this trail is the alley you showed me.”

Orl’s hood bobbed assent.

He added to the team, “South-west of the compound, trees arch over a shadowy trail. She says there’s something interesting that way.”

“A shadowy trail?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

All right. Now she had a location but— “A village? There? How the heck were they living out there?”

Jemin drew in his chin, looking affronted or perplexed. “Hunting, nuts, root vegetables, and dairy, probably goats.”

“No! I meant the contamination.” Agnet pulled the regional map from her bag and pointed a bow-shaped curve of the river. “The Riverbend ruins are here, the perfect site for a nuclear plant, until it blew. Here, in this valley right below your village.”

Jemin turned pink again. “I wasn’t aware. You told me to stay recent, so I narrowed my search to the last fifty years.”

“I’m not angry. I’m just stunned. Who could survive that level of exposure?”

Jemin crossed his arms. “Marginalized people live on marginal land.”

Philip said, “The location challenges your source’s reliability. Why should we hike through an exclusion zone, putting ourselves at risk, on the word of your dubious source?”

Jemin spluttered. “That village has been thoroughly documented! It’s there. It’s always been there, witness or not. Isolated sure, but real as the nose on your face.”

Philip narrowed his eyes. “You’re quite interested in isolated cultures. So perhaps you invented the ‘secret source’ to justify a visit.”

The ragbook in Jemin’s hands jumped back and forth like a rabbit stuffed in a pillow case.

Brandt leaned in, ending Jemin and Philip’s deadlocked staring contest. “We should still go look. So we suit up? No big deal.”

“I agree.” To put Jemin at ease, she asked, “Did your search turn up anything interesting?”

He opened his top collar button. “I looked for the usual scenarios, a cold blooded organization trying to run the farmers off the land. The usual tediously unimaginative motives: profit and power. I found some talk of AgroCorp co-opting the farm, improving efficiency, trialing a top soil removal process, doming the valley as a precaution. All sounding impractical and unpopular, no surprise considering what happened down South with domed agriculture. But don’t quote me.” He shot Philip a snarky look. “I also found feasibility reports for extracting mineral resources from these mountains using mining robotics left over from the asteroid debacle. EarthCorp’s desperate to make use of those robots somehow, but that talk was some years back. The project must have quietly failed.”

Brandt asked, “How about real estate? Any dirty development deals in the offing?”

Worst. Team. Ever. Except for Philip’s eye roll, excellent performance, ten out of ten. “Look around, Brandt. No connectivity, minimal local industry, no attractions, and surrounded by an exclusion zone. Who would live here?”

Jemin continued. “And the farm’s a media darling. Any number of fluff pieces discuss the bracing effects of the countryside on a person’s character. In short, I doubt we’re looking at a corporate scheme to take the farm.” Jemin folded up his notes and blushed. Why? Why another blush? If he was hiding anything else, she might have to choke him. Or at least hide his clothes.

Orl snickered. Agnet looked around for whatever was funny. Nothing. Hopefully, Orl was daydreaming not being psychotic.

“All right. Let’s prep for exploration. Pack for a day hike in a contaminated zone with potential undesirables, alive and undead. And Orl and Philip, you two need to sync up.”

“What do you mean, sync up?” asked Jemin.

“Well, since we’re sharing information. Philip and Orl have been experiencing communication difficulties.”

Philip’s neck apple bobbled. Orl stared at her lap.

Brandt pointed Orl, then Philip. “Don’t perceivers normally read each other’s thoughts?”

Philip cringed. “No! We don’t ‘read thoughts’. We pick up emotional detail from subtle physical cues, temperature and color changes, pupil dilation; it’s all psychology and a bit of silicon circuitry, nothing more. Sure, we message each other via chip. But messaging is similar to talking. We sort of hit a mental ‘send’ button for each message. Right now, I can’t reach Orl on her chip, which may have malfunctioned, or—”

“Don’t worry, man. I’m sure she likes you.” Brandt leaned his head so he could peer into Orl’s hood. “You like him, don’t you Orl?” She hunched and pulled down the hood.

A red patch might be forming over Philip’s cheek bones, but he was dark enough to hide it. Pity he felt embarrassed, but the team needed to know. Being short one perceiver limited their options in the field. Splitting up, for example, would be impossible.

“We’re working toward fixing it.” Agnet turned to Philip. “What’s your plan?”

He coughed into his fist, then spent a long moment dabbing his lips. An obvious stall. “Well. We could clear off the ghosts in the yard.”

“You could?”

“Yeah. It’s a thing we do on the rare occasion a ghost becomes bothersome.”

“Good beans! I’m sure the warden will be thrilled.”

Philip’s eyes widened. “No. No, don’t tell him. Don’t mention it on your report, either.”

Brant slapped Philip on the back, possibly a bit too hard, given Philip’s gasp. “You’re in luck! Orl knows exactly where the ghosts are; I’ll bet she’s an expert at ghosts. Can I watch you run them off?”

Philip tightened the corners of his mouth. She couldn’t tell is he was grimacing or trying not to laugh. “Um. No. Really. Would be better, just Orl and me, so we can…focus. Sorry. And no record, no talk, here or back at Central. Seriously, NeuroCorp doesn’t generally condone…uh…ghost hunting.”

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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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