The clatter of cutlery on plates filled the mess hall. Agnet could be plowing into the plate she’d lovingly filled, instead of watching agitation and woe contort the warden’s brow. Fair enough, a monster had trashed the man’s private space and belongings, but breakfast was breakfast.
“Everything about last night was wrong. That horror show was larger than what my people reported. And none’s broken into the compound before. Why the changes? Why now?” He stared at her team gathered around the table shoveling down food. She could hear his wheels grinding: only a day after they’d arrived, a mouldering behemoth attacked the compound.
“Could be just random; you know, a coincidence.”
He glowered. “I’ve been warden long enough to have lost faith in coincidences.”
“You can’t believe any of us lured that thing inside?”
Honing studied his shoes. “No. Not on purpose. You’re a strange bunch, but not so strange you’d invite something that disgusting inside.”
At their table, Jemin scooped oats with dried berries, Philip sipped tea, Brandt was part way through what must be a peak-experience-breakfast, and Orl…was being Orl. Her omelet awaited, but she could be patient. The Warden was rightfully upset. Nobody wants decomposing company that eats furniture. Not convivial, that sort of company. “Maybe somebody generated an inadvertent homing signal, but could’ve been one of your people, too.” She winced internally. That comment was her mouth just running on its own.
He frowned like a thunderstorm.
She waved a hand to fend off any lightning bolts. “Listen, these monsters are a novelty. Who knows what rules they follow? So ask around. What were folks doing last night? If we discover some circumstance that draws them in, we could turn it to our advantage.”
“And do what? Invite in another blob of goo then watch it wreck property and smear the walls with filth and radioactive waste?”
“Mildly radioactive. Maybe we’ll lure on in, trap it, and study or destroy it. We’re here to help. Remember?”
The Warden’s expression broke up into little sheep clouds. The storm was passing. “All right. You figure out why that thing defiled my room, let me know. I have my suspicions.” He eyed Philip, then Orl. “Lucky it wasn’t heavily contaminated, but I’ve lost my room for the duration. Fat chance Central will send a credentialed clean-up crew to a site this remote.” A sheepish look crossed the Warden’s face; his eyes flashed to the floor again. “Good thing it wasn’t hot enough to hurt you or your team, and I appreciate your destroying it.”
“Thanks. And thanks again to your medic. And for use of the showers.” So much for yesterday’s clothes, but someday, she might feel clean again.
He plodded off, still looking disgruntled. Agnet took a seat and gulped her milk, fresh milk from the compound’s small herd. No wonder the inmates treated those animals like gods. Her team chewed in silence, four quirky strangers. Be nice if she knew and trusted them. But it’d take more than quirky to attract something that foul. No. Calling up that repulsive monster required insane. And everybody at this table was sane; weren’t they?
She enjoyed a few forkfuls of egg, then opened the discussion. “Morning everybody. Warden’s pretty cross. Make that extremely cross. Anybody got insight into that monster dropping by?”
Orl dropped her eyes, but Orl always dropped her eyes. And in Agnet’s mind’s eye, Evangeline, queen of labyrinthine treachery, smirked.
Brandt, holding food in one cheek, rodent-style, said, “Okay. I’m going to focus on the good news. That creature was a mess. Sure, it was bulky and…unique, but when it lost balance and fell, it collapsed like a turd in the rain.”
“Yes, poorly constructed,” said Jemin, as if he’d seen the monster disintegrate.
Agnet sliced into her egg on toast. Instead of pale yellow, the yolk ran deep yellow-orange, marigolds in the sunshine. “With any luck, we’re facing a being that’s disorganized and unintelligent.”
Philip cleared his throat. “Smart enough to smash into Honing’s room and almost kill Orl without touching her.”
Orl’s head drooped closer to her lap. She appeared fragile, as if a nudge would tip her into a catatonic stupor. If Agnet Krause had a lick of sense, she’d bench the girl right now. But she wouldn’t; she’d sully her career yet again by giving somebody a chance. Because she was that kind of stupid. When would she learn to do her own time?
“You talking yet, Orl?”
Philip replied. “Yeah. Planned to tell you. After dinner, we cleared out a yard full of ghosts; her chip worked fine. We communicated.”
“Fantastic!” And an immense relief. “How’d the—er—clearing go?”
“Really well, with a glitch.” Philip leaned close and continued in a low voice. “We uncovered a recent death, a murder. A prisoner backing out of a test subject deal with officials. They wouldn’t provide details, and he suspected the experiment was a one-way ticket.”
“Not exactly certain, but the man’s clothes and conversational style imply recent. But I obliquely asked Berg—the Warden about the cemetery and deaths on site. My reading suggests he’s unaware of this fellow’s death.”
“Ghosts wear clothes?” whispered Brandt.
Philip chuckled. “They usually project an image that reflects their last earthly appearance.”
“Which agency ran the experiment?” asked Agnet.
“He didn’t know.”
“Did you get the prisoner’s name?”
“He didn’t offer one and didn’t respond when we inquired. Probably run-of-the-mill ghost-denial: having a name means being someone. And being somebody raises uncomfortable questions, such as, ‘why am I endlessly pacing a track in front of this old barn?’”
Agnet turned to Jemin. “Experimenting on prisoners—that legal?”
Jemin flushed as if she’d caught him with his hands in his pants. “I’ll have to look it up.”
“Welp. Do so when you have a chance. Now Orl, what happened with the monster?”
The girl wrapped herself in her arms and shook.
“Cold,” replied Philip, taking up the role of translator. “It emanated cold. I felt it too, through the door. But it didn’t affect me as much. She tried to find its…essence? I suppose that’s the word. But she went in too deep, and the cold seeped into her core.”
“Could either of you tell it was eating the Warden’s furniture?” asked Brandt.
Orl picked up her fork and opened her mouth wide.
Honestly, they’d been reduced to charades. NeuroCorp, those sickos, needed a kick in the read; mental skills weren’t everything, especially in the field. People needed to converse.
“Good job at the door, Orl, Philip, Brandt.” She gave the big lunk a nod, and he grinned like a kid on prize day. “But it sneaked in and left a mess, physical and social. Thought Honing would burst a blood vessel over the state of his room. I’m pretty sure he believes the monster broke in because of us.”
Philip tutted and folded his arms. “Completely unfair. It might’ve been after Honing or nobody.”
“True. But given the dark looks I got in the breakfast line, some inmates likely share his concern. So, as if your job depends on it, which it does, keep conversation with the Farm residents entirely reality-based and rational. No monsters, no ghosts, no offense Philip and Orl. Use big science words.” She glanced at Brandt. “Or short tactical words.” She caught Jemin’s eye. “Nothing mythological, mystical, or weird. Anything similar happens, and they’ll boot us, and waiting for our ride in the woods holds no appeal.” She twirled her fork. “I hoped for more days of this chow.”
“We need to leave, anyway. Last night was an incursion, meaning the source is outside.” Thanks for the vocabulary lesson, Dr. Yoder. Jemin continued. “The witness is also outside. So if you’re not exhausted, we should head out.”
Silence fell like a turkey to the ax. Jemin’s “exhausted” had sounded like an accusation. As if they’d purposely tired themselves out demolishing the monster. She must be mistaken; nobody was that obtuse. Philip gave her a side-long glance that said, “can you believe he’s that obtuse?”.
Jemin twisted his hands, looking anguished. Had he noticed everybody’s stunned disbelief? “But if you all are too tired, I certainly understand.”
Philip quirked one side of his mouth. “Dealing with that hideous and huge creature was rather exhausting.”
Jemin ignored the dig. “Still, I am eager to interview that witness. Maybe we could split up. You guys could rest here—”
Agnet rapped her knuckles on the table. “No. We don't know what we're up against, so we won't split up. Not yet. We stick together and investigate as a team.”
Brandt clapped Philip’s shoulder. “We’re ready for a hike, aren’t we Phil? And while we’re gone, Warden Honing will probably forget and forgive.” Philip rolled his eyes. Oblivious, Brandt plowed forward. “We got our maps and the path Orl pointed out yesterday. I say let’s move out.”
“Yes, absolutely. Let’s do.” Jemin shone with enthusiasm. Not a warrior, but perhaps an ardent explorer.
Philip raised an eyebrow. “So we set off into the exclusion zone following a map hand drawn by a secret source, and confront an unknown witness about something we don’t understand?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Brandt.
A trainee scowled as he passed by their table. On her plate, fluffy bits of egg nestled against golden brown toast. Looked perfect, but maybe a disgruntled cook had added extra “ingredients” to her meal. More talk wouldn’t help. Only progress on the case would smooth relations.
“Me too. Eat up, and let’s roll.”