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After breakfast, they dispersed to their rooms to pack and don protective gear. The hooded suit hung loosely over Agnet’s clothes. Its specially grown fabric supposedly allowed heat and sweat to dissipate while preventing contamination, but it reminded her of a cookbag she’d once used to boil oats. Snapping down the visor skipped her brain over to ‘fish tank’. Sort of relaxing, fish tanks. But nothing about radiation was relaxing, not after that shit-show in the Carolinas. She clipping the detection badge to her collar. Hopefully, they wouldn’t be out long enough for a significant exposure.

The suit added weight, inspiring her to pack light: the map, binoculars, a flashlight, blood-sugar-drop emergency snacks, the radiation meter—a functional meter, no thanks to Property. Lunch would take up the pack’s remaining space. She affixed her water bag onto the sip-tube, slipped on her holster, and hoisted her backpack. A chipped rectangular mirror glued to the door caught her reflection, a look combining astronaut and donut chef.

“Trainees,” gathered into clusters of five to ten, stared as the team crossed the compound. We’re risking our health for you; don’t mock us, she thought as excess fabric swished between her thighs. Sure, she looked and sounded idiotic, but better idiotic than contaminated.

Orl led them through a creaking gate, across a meadow of browning grass dotted with the fluffy white tufts of goldenrod gone to seed, and to a gap in the wood’s margin. Two impressive trees, still holding rich red foliage, formed an arch, between which a path ran ruler-straight into the thick and tangled forest. The path explained the faint linear break on her map. Orl craned her neck, as if searching for squirrels between the trees.

“Brandt said you saw something here?”

Philip relayed Orl’s story; she’d witnessing a foreboding, non-ghost presence observing her from the trail.

“Was it our visitor?”

Philip swiveled his mask toward Orl. “Possibly, though she’s not sure.”

She said to Philip, “Good to know. Now that you’ve synched up, could you report details such as foreboding presences when they occur?”

The perceivers exchanged a look. Cripes, she should’ve spoken to Orl directly.

“Of course, but, um—” Philip sounded exasperated through his speaker. “You’d claimed everybody was in bed. And she didn’t want to interrupt people’s sleep.”

Warmth washed up her neck. “Oh. Next time, wake me up.”

Ouff. That’d been the night she’d hustled Orl off to bed lest she’d freak out the prison community with mouthing and writhing. Was Orl calling out her fib? Also, she should’ve inquired when Orl had felt the presence. “Who, when, what, and where” were the basics. Dealing with Orl through Philip added a speed bump or distortion that threw her off kilter. Orl’s singular condition required some finesse; she’d need to upskill.

Brandt pointed down the trail. “It’s too straight to be natural. Is it an abandoned road?”

Jemin pulled out a tape measure and checked the path’s width. Then scraped the dirt away in several places with the heel of his boot.

They weren’t yet in the exclusion zone, but Agnet couldn’t resist saying, “Careful.”

“Am being careful.”

“I know, but dust is our primary concern.”

“Well aware. Ah. Old railroad. See?” He pointed to a rust-colored line visible where he’d removed weeds and soil. “Great carriages ran along these steel rails, an archaic and inflexible form of transport, dependent on fossil fuels and metals.”

“Who’d leave that much metal lying around?” asked Brandt.

“It’s heavily oxidized.”

Brandt regarded Jemin for a moment. “So you mean Powder got to it?”

“No Powder only reacts with pure metals. Oxidation is a natural process whereby oxygen and water react with metal, in this case iron—”

First year chemistry revised. The lecture moved on to steel and other alloys. Brandt’s lips moved, as if he wanted to interject, but Jemin was on a roll. Time to shut him down. “Bottom line: when Central designated this area non-lethal, the metal held no value. Left a nice trail, though.”

As she stepped beneath the trees, her foot caught. She lurched forward, a moment of free fall, then the ground slapped hard into her hands and knees.

Jemin squatted beside her. “You alright? Sorry. I should have explained. Those slabs run between the rails are called—”

“Tripping hazards.” Dirt smudged her gloves and pants. No rips or perforations; the suit was well enough made. But the very idea of contaminated soil lying millimeters from her skin elicited a shudder. She wanted it off her, but didn’t dare wipe it off. Inhaling particles would be worse—wait. Take a deep breath. This was PTSD, a hangover from Wake County, too many people, stubborn, desperate, not listening to sense, living too close to a leaking source, animal and human grotesques stalking the countryside. Monitoring radiation this close to the farm would underscore her trauma.

After adjusting the weight of her backpack, implying an imbalance had caused her graceless clown maneuver, she stood, ignoring Jemin’s attempts to assist. She rotated her wrists. They’d born the brunt of the fall and would ache later. “Good thing that happened outside the exclusion zone. Please, everyone, be more careful than me.”

A spate of nervous laughter followed her comment, and they proceeded below a varied autumnal canopy; bare trees, thinning trees, trees loaded with yellow, orange, and red shuddering leaves. Tangles of vines, thick brush, and deep piled leaf litter covered the forest floor. Leaves lay thick on the trail, but vegetation hadn’t taken over. Must’ve been cleared relatively recently. But why?

They marched in silence, as if overawed by the rampant flora, most of them urban people, lives lived under a dome or underground. Jemin began to yak: this reserve was especially remote, the exclusion and buffer zones encompassing four thousand kilometers of woodland. Abandoned cabins and homesteads dotting the adjacent lands. No reason to live out here, unless you’d gone feral or crazy. Of course, animals didn’t read signs and had probably been multiplying like…animals. Bears, big cats, wild dogs, or maybe even wolves. She eyed a dark recess underneath a fallen tree.

A sound nearly jumped her out of her skin. Boy-o-boy, just Brandt asking, “What’s that noise?”

“Hold up.” Agnet raised her hand, stopping the others. So inconvenient, the tinnitus that’d followed last year’s flu, a “permanent infirmity” per the rat-faced specialist. Forty-two was too young for permanent infirmity. Embarrassing that she couldn’t hear over boots crunching on leaves.

Crreak-up, tick, creaak, creak-up, tick.

“Wind in branches?” offered Philip.

“You feeling wind?” Brandt raised an arm, impromptu weathervane style.

“No, given the containment suit.”

The noise was coming from up ahead. She took a few steps, and brilliant light flooded her vision. When her eyes adjusted, she took in a clearing, full sunlight beaming through the sparse canopy. A hazard-yellow sign at the path’s edge read “Danger. Exclusion Zone.” The global symbol for radioactive-as-a-plutonium-cured-ham-hock hung below the verbiage. The surrounding grove matched the signage: dead trees leaning at crazy angles or snapped at the base, bark peeling from skeletal gray trunks, curled rust colored needles clinging to wizened branches. Brittle twigs snapped beneath her feet. The ticking sound, now more a cacophonous rattle, came at her from all sides. “A hundred monkeys rolling hazelnuts on a tin roof couldn’t make this much noise.”

“Maybe this thicket has its own radiation meter,” said Philip.

She spun the backpack off her shoulder and rooted around for the meter.

“No. Not radiation. See those dots?” Jemin pointed to the treetops. Up high, specks zipped from tree to tree; must be insects but fairly large, if visible from this distance. “Those are late season borer beetles, only active where the sun’s directly hitting the bark. This pattern under the bark—” He pulled off a section of bark, revealing the trunk riddled with tangled grooves and dotted with holes about the diameter of a pencil. “The larvae live in these galleries, gnaw away, and can transform trees into matchsticks in a single season. And if this region burns—radioactive dust will spread for miles.”

“Just bugs making all that noise?” Philip wrinkled his nose.

“No, that sound is the grubs chewing wood. Millions of grubs.”

“That’s—kinda gross,” said Brandt.

“It’s fallout from the climate emergency and international trade. If Powder continues to lower temperatures, beetle damage may slow down.” Jemin sounded almost apologetic.

The team hushed and listened. Around them, thousands of chitinous teeth ground at heart wood, riddling the towering trees with tunnels. Sawdust formed piles at tree bases, and goobers of sap marred the trunks. Terrible place to stand in a windstorm. She wanded the grove for radiation, all this devastation but not a click above background.

“No fall-out detected. This mess is a beetle led tree-apocalypse. Let’s get moving.”

For a few hours, they passed from viable to blighted forest several times, but amazingly, even this sickened ecosystem harbored life in abundance. Flocks of birds deserted their perches en masse to continue their journey south. A pair of stocky, long-haired, rodent-like creatures grazed leaves high in the branches, porcupines, according to Jemin. A herd of small equids, striped beige and brown, drank at the edge of a creek, their funny blonde goatees dripping water as they solemnly observed the passing humans.

A few minutes later, they bunched up on the path. Philip had spoken, but she hadn’t caught his comment, though she did catch the silence and the grim looks on everybody’s faces. Orl stood rigidly facing away from the team, pointing like a corpse dog.

“Sorry, missed what you said.”

Philip pointed. “Over that way, a town lay across the river. She’s sensing remnants. Can’t confirm, but I don’t doubt her. Heck of a range on this youngster.”

Brandt playfully punched Philip on the shoulder. “We are definitely are scoping out the ghost town, comrade-in-arms.” He turned to Agnet. “Aren't we Chief?”

“Suppose we could, if it were remotely relevant to our mission, though I’m having trouble working up your level of enthusiasm.”

“Don’t worry. Any monsters over there, you and ol’ Phil here can hashish ‘em with your trusty axes.” Philip’s eyebrows drew together. “Just kidding Phil.” He gave the man another friendly tap. “But seriously, our ace perceiving duo could debrief the dead guys. See what they know. Bet we’d collect terrific intel.”

“Um, remnants rarely provide useful information.” A sigh whistled through his speaker, angst as a breeze through a lonely windmill. Poor guy must be a mess. “The dead pay little attention to the real world, so recent events escape their notice.”

The corners of Brandt’s lips drooped. “What’re they doing, then?”

“Mostly replaying stuff from before. Before they died, that is.”

“Centuries on replay! Talk about boring. In that case, when my number’s up, I will flat out die.”

“Rest assured, if anything untoward happens on this mission, Orl and I will make every effort to ensure you a complete death.” Philip’s face betrayed no humor.

And Brandt seemed unphased. “I’ve full confidence in the psychic dream team.”

Philip’s next expression deserved patent protection.

“Well, then. Let’s leave the mass grave till later, but I’m sure it’ll be…good times.” She ushered further down the track and strolled abreast of Brandt. “This your first encounter with perceivers?”

“Yes, ma'am. Was working federal security and extraction, then KP until the cutlery accident. After I received medical clearance, they transferred me to this detail. But don’t get me wrong; it’s interesting, what you guys do.”

Had he said KP?

Some day, she’d ask him for the complete story, but not this moment, not in front of the others. Besides, the track now paralleled whooshing and gurgling water, impeding her ability to converse. She consulted her map, the Pocahauchta River.

“Snow melt feeds this river, so it’s probably seasonal,” said Jemin.

“I don’t recommend drinking, radiation or no.” Agnet took a reflexive sip from her tube. “Pleasant spot. Let’s break for a meal.”

Orl slipped off her backpack and crouched. Probably exhausted, this untrained, indoor-type kid. But she didn’t rummage through her bag looking for tucker, a hairbrush, or lip balm like a normal girl. She sat there staring toward the ridge, at least using the correct sitting technique, buttocks hovering an inch off the dirt. But what was she staring at? The hair stood up on Agnet’s arm. She nudged Philip and indicated Orl with a toss of her helmet.

“Something’s over there.” He glanced over his left shoulder. “Remnants echoing in a considerable structure—the ruins of a structure. I think it extends back aways. May be a complex of buildings backing right up to the mountain.”

Jemin’s helmet started bobbing. “Yesterday, I accessed a folio of black and white images: a town of rudimentary clapboard dwellings, disheveled men in caps and baggy work pants, a line of towering smoke stacks billowing fumes. Yes, this area has an industrial history, coal and steel. Raw materials from the mines would’ve processed at refineries.” He addressed Brandt, who seemed to be his favorite pupil. “To remove impurities from ore, not, you know, manufacturing tools or wire.” He stammered. “But I focused on recent history, so I don’t know all the details.”

A pig’s eye you don’t. Still, a good thing he didn’t have the balls to share the chemical details, business models, and environmental impact of the refining industry.

“Any ghosts?” asked Brandt.

Philip shrugged. “You’d expect a few work accidents. Accidents are sudden, so people occasionally miss the dying part. The befuddle consciousness wanders about, trying to figure out what happened.”

Good gravy. Some people feared perceivers, but she’d always felt sorry for them, perceiving other’s pain and confusion. Now she felt extra sorry for them, tripping over the dead’s troubles, too. Orl glanced at her, some complicated emotion lurking behind her eyes, then looked aside. Orl rarely made direct eye contact, and this instance seemed like a response. But to what? Her mouth suddenly felt dry, so she sipped, the drinking tube a comfort. Like Philip had said, perceivers didn’t read thoughts; Central always vehemently denied the possibility. Reassuring, since so many thoughts were embarrassing. She set her face confident and decisive. “Anything foreboding presences or otherwise worrisome critters, Orl?”

She shook her head.

“Then we should inspect the grounds, but after lunch.”

She monitored the area, finding nothing. Even the water sample read as clean. So they could spread out on a slab of rock at the river’s edge, lift their visors, and eat comfortably. The farm provided lunch included a fresh apple, crisp and sweet.

Brandt held his apple between thumb and middle finger and gazed at it respectfully. “Gotta say, this apple bolsters my resolve to beat back those monsters.”

This guy had his priorities straight.

After lunch, they inspected a crumbling brick cube about ten meters square.

“Base of a smokestack.” Jemin spoke quickly, a trivia night contestant answering the hardest question. Mr. Encyclopedia.

“It must’ve been huge.” Brandt gaped as he looked upward.

“One hundred to one hundred and twenty meters. Had to be tall enough to release fumes above the local inversion layer so toxic smoke wouldn’t settle in the immediate area. Of course, the refinery released poisonous emissions directly into the atmosphere, part of the lead up to the climate emergency.”

Jemin sounded as if he were reading directly off his chip. But supposedly, chip-reading gobbled neurotransmitters by the bucketful. He didn’t look exhausted, babbling enthusiastically about atmospheric mercury levels. So either Jemin read up earlier and possessed remarkable recall or was reading at this moment and was remarkably resilient. At some point, everybody had sauntered around with little gadgets containing all the world’s information, no surgery required. Wouldn’t that’ve been convenient? And much quieter. Now they relied on chip-heads, remarkable individuals but pedantic.

Orl pointed at Jemin, and Philip said, “Watch your chip time. Imagine you’re just beginning a relationship. You need to ease in. Otherwise, things can go sour.” Her thoughts must’ve ricochetted, or the issue was just obvious.

The historian shot Philip a sullen look. Picking through broken brick and brambles, they passed through a broken brick arch and past a row of enormous, heavily corroded cannisters.

Agnet took a wild guess. “Silos?”

Jemin peeled a sheet of rust from the cannister revealing crumbling brick. “My readings of yesterday,” he glared at Philip, “would suggest blast furnace. As I thought, this place is an old metal works.”

“What era?” she asked.

“Early to mid-twentieth century.” Another spiel on metallurgy crested Jemin’s teeth, surged out of his mouth, then flowed over her head as she surveyed the grounds. Trees had busted through and lifted the surviving section of roof. Substantial curved pieces of crumbling rust suggested the remains of large pipes and girders. Orl and Philip jointly skirted something invisible. Best not to ask. At a pause in the lecture, she remarked, “Sad, all this wasted material.”

Brandt toed through a pile of scraps. “If we find anything valuable, is it one-for-all or everyman-for-himself?”

“One-for-all. And the finder carries the goods, so keep it small and don’t let the finding distract you.”

Ahead, the ridge jutted steeply up from the valley floor. And wasn’t that strange? A huge double door was set into the mountain side. Solid and dull gray, but unlike everything in the steelworks, it wasn’t rust-coated. “Suppose that’s the mine?”

“Huh?” Jemin left off tinkering with something on the ground and glanced up. “Well! Those are a surprise and from a different era. The mine that fed this plant would’ve been open pit style and could’ve been at a distance, given the proximity of the rail line. And those doors look relatively recent.”

Brandt, Philip, and Orl already stood at the threshold, gazing upward, probably taking in the scale.

When they drew close, Brandt said, “Size reminds me of an airplane hanger I saw once on the Georgia coast near Waycross.”

Jemin shook his head.“Hanger doors require a hydraulic lift—”

“Lighten up. I’m just taking about the size. Lift or not, these doors were expensive.” He stroked the surface. “High-quality, reinforced fibercarb.”

“Check out the man door,” said Philip.

The builders had cut a smaller door into the left mega-door. Agnet touched a panel, slightly rough and cool, but not cold. She tried the door handle. Locked, naturally. “So we follow a reasonably well-maintained trail to these centuries old ruins and find a gigantic modern door. Is Honing using this space for storage?”

Philip shrugged. Orl and Jemin inspected their boots, those two with their perpetual reluctance to share.

“Can you sense inside?” Agnet asked Philip.

Philip and Orl shared a hive mind moment. “No. The rock, the doors, their thickness or material, blocks us.”

“Should I blow the doors now? The big one may be high quality, but I’ve got her beat.” Brandt shifted his pack forward and unzipped it. “Or I could use the light explosive to blast through the little door. Might be tidier.”

Philip almost yelped, “Explosive?”

And yeah, explosive? But Brandt had patrolled the border, and the range of weaponry ex-border guards packed always amazed her, including that big gal who’d hurled hand crafted incendiary devices with a slingshot. “Other thoughts, anyone?” asked Agnet, hoping for a bit of entertainment.

Jemin’s face was apoplectic through his shield; he tugged on the fingers of his gloves. “Oh, no. No. No explosives. This could be a storage facility for something records, maybe even a clean space holding computer equipment. Who knows what knowledge lies behind these doors?”

“Or toxic chemicals, bio-hazards, barrels of radioactive waste.” Philip was speaking a bit too quickly.

Jemin’s helmet bobbed, peach laden branch in a high wind. “A definite possibility. The state was home to several pharmaceutical corporations, though not here locally. And nuclear power plants dotted the rivers. All phased out after a waste storage crisis and a series of accidents worldwide, including the accident at Riverbend. Just down river…” Jemin paused and looked about, as if trying to figure out how he’d materialized inside his helmet. He mumbled, “Nuclear power plants produced radioactive waste that had to be stored somewhere.”

The entire team knows about Riverbend and nuclear waste, Jemin.

Philip tapped a finger on his helmet. “See what I mean? Go slow.”

Brandt studied the beige cylindrical container in his hands, his expression mournful or confused. “Thought this was my chance to lite her up, but I see your point. Don’t want the place going off in our faces like a pigeon full of popcorn.” He tucked his gear back into his pack.

A pigeon full of popcorn? What’d he gotten up to, during his stint in KP? “I presume that device is chemically stable.” A stupid question, but the answer might put the others at ease.

Brandt replied. “Stable as a judge, ma’am. Until she’s detonated.”

“That’s comforting, in its way. Explosives standard issue on the border?”

“Not unless you’re working demo, blasting illegal encampments and hep-hep labs, etcetera. I worked demo. Thought that’s why they brought me on board.”

Agnet asked, “Who gave you that impression?”

“The NeuroCorp weasel.” Orl interrupted with a snort and a wheezing sound, possibly her version of laughter. “He gave me specific instructions: ‘if you come across a control room in an old mine, destroy it’. Surprised he didn’t mention it to you, Chief.”

“Mentioning a potential explosion would’ve been normal procedure.” She asked the rest, “Any of you told anything about a mine or explosives?”

Jemin shook his head. After a brief mind meld with Orl, Philip said, “No.”

This mission got stranger by the minute. “NeuroCorp said ‘blow up a control room in a mine,’ but we’re not sure this place is a mine. Jemin thinks not, in fact. If the penal colony or some other agency stores documents or toxic waste here, the last thing we want is damage during forced entry. The Warden’s already peeved by the thrashing of his bedroom.” Agnet peeked at the sun, thirty degrees from the ridgeline and blazing in a clear blue sky. Despite the sun, the looming mountain had sucked away all warmth. And whatever lay behind those doors smelled like trouble. Awful trouble. “Let’s file these findings under ‘collect more information’ for now and carry on.”

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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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