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After setting Canaan up with food, water, and an exit strategy, they hurried down the slope, nobody enthusiastic about spending a night in the woods. Agnet allowed the team a break when they’d reached the valley floor. While they rummaged through their packs, she squatted on the pebbles beside the stream, balanced the radiation meter on her thighs, and collected another water sample, crystal clear and no sediment. She’d monitored this area earlier, but to confirm, she wanded the tube, picking up just the odd click. Nothing above background. Nothing.

So what’s the use of this stinking suit?

“Folks, you're welcome to fold your helmets, since it’s all clear to the farm.” She flipped back her face shield, unclipped the helmet, collapsed the clunky thing, and luxuriated in a lungful of fresh air. The others followed suit, and they gathered together, ready to make tracks.

Jemin wiped his sweaty slapped-red cheeks and muttered, Could’ve made that call up top the ridge. ” He shifted his pack front ways and rooted around.

Philip curled his lip. “We are in a hurry.”

“Hang on,” said Jemin as he pulled a—a drum? Yes, a drum. A small barrel-shaped drum, brown with a white skin.

“Hold my pack, would you?” he asked Brandt.

Brandt hoisted Jemin’s bag like it was a feather pillow. “We planning a circle? ‘Cause I normally do my male bonding over automatic weapons.”

“Ha. Ha. Hilarious.” Jemin slung a strap over his shoulder, allowing the drum to hang in front of his chest. “Okay, now hold the pack so I can slide my arms in and latch the closure, please.”

Brandt obliged. Once on the railway path, Jemin started drumming and chanting. The team exchanged perplexed glances. She ought to ask what the flip he was doing, but the answer would be long and condescending, and she was tired.

Brandt called out. “Hey Jemin, the ferals into drumming?”

Jemin paused his thumping, his expression a prickle bush of irritation. “Like I’ve told you, over and over, ‘feral’ is a very nonspecific term and inaccurate, if you consider that many fringe-dwellers live in stable societies.”

“Sure. Sure. I know. You’ve got faith-based who want to stay faith-based. You’ve got your political dissidents. You’ve got crazies and back to natures. I’m not meaning to offend anybody; it’s just that—”

An odd expression flittered across Brandt’s face, and he didn’t finish his thought, so Agnet intervened. “Jemin. ‘Feral’ is a catchall term almost everybody uses for out-dwellers. Give it a rest.”

“Well, you all should consider the general history of catchalls.” He glowered at Philip. “Some of you more than others. But answering Brandt’s question, different groups reacted in different ways to marginalization. Some identified with ancient indigenous populations and amalgamated their culture with traditions originating from those tribes. Or popular culture variations on those traditions, hard to say at this point. Drumming is a big part of those cultures. This drum might attract people from that background.”

Brandt responded with his usual enthusiasm. “You mean Indians? Indians would be fantastic.”

Jemin pinched the bridge of his nose .

Philip said, “I read most indigenes died in the bottleneck plagues. Whether HLA antigen profiles or health care inequity were to blame is quite the controversy. I can’t recall the details.” He frowned, as if forcing up a memory. “Something about a coverup?”

Jemin smirked. “Oh. You vaguely know your history.”

Philip gave her a pained look. Sarcasm and Jemin weren’t a good match; he couldn’t keep it light. And seemed they’d confused Brandt, evidenced by his knitted eyebrows. She’d try to clarify. “Jemin’s drumming to let drum-beating locals know we’re interested in a parlay. If they respond, hopefully with words, not arrows, we’ll talk.”

Jemin nodded. “If anybody else is out here, we should speak to them, seeing as we’ve permanently lost our best witness.”

Fortunately, everybody knew better than to reply.

Jemin trotted several paces ahead, which must’ve taken effort, given those cheeks. The rest fell in behind and walked at a brisk pace, much aided by Jemin’s skill on the drum. Orl followed behind them, skipping and twirling, starring in a private show.

Brandt caught Philip’s eye and jabbed his thumb backwards. “She grooving to that ‘singing’?”

“I think so. But incredibly, she’s not my biggest concern.” Philip leaned close. “Usually, Jemin seems like a typical InfoChip carrier, a group not known for compassion or tact.”

“I’ve noticed how you’ve taken to him.”

He rolled his eyes. Sarcasm wasn’t her strong suit, either. “Like I was saying, most are more bonded to their chip than their team or reality. But he was genuinely stricken when we discussed euthanizing that old feral gent. Initially, I figured he was grieving the loss of a data set, but then I realized the upset went deeper.”

Brandt whispered in her other ear. “And that guy really knows a lot of weird stuff.”

“He has a brand new InfoCorp chip, so of course he knows stuff,” she replied, sounding curt in her own ears. But the conversation bordered on gossip, and she didn’t wish to follow a rabbit down the gossip hole. Though she could relate to Brandt’s comment. Most folk in her orbit kept extraneous knowledge to themselves; no need to stick a target on your tail. She’d paid a price, ignoring that nugget of wisdom.

Philip continued. “I’m not troubled by the knowledge. It’s other things. Him characterizing the ferals as ‘marginalized,’ for instance. The party line is they resisted modernity to the point of plague, insurrection, and terrorism. The government gave them a choice: participate, meaning go with the flow, or leave. So they left. That version of the story would be on Jemin’s chip.”

Brandt added. “Army told us the ferals were tolerated far past common sense, and ideas to the contrary were treason.”

“So you think we got ourselves a traitor?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Philip.

“No,” said Brandt.

The drumbeat stopped, drawing her gaze forward. Ahead, an outlandishly attired individual blocked the path, and Jemin had come to a halt. She held up a hand. “Leave this for now, because speaking of ferals, yonder, is a fine example.”

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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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