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Inside the song, leaves drifted down, adding fresh color to the forest floor. Hidden creatures scuttled, rustled, and flapped, their Sounds blending with the melody. The Squirrel took notice of the music, pulled its body taut, tail twitching. In the Oak’s heartwood, a Worm gnawed to the beat. A message of slow Death, indigo blue and bleak, spread from the oak through the invisible threads which networked the porous soil. Scattered seeds sprouted between decaying roots, rejoicing in the chorus. The Song connected Life, death, and all Beings. The Pills would’ve ruined the Song, and now the pills were Gone, thanks to the Old Man. The team thought she’d given the pills to Help. But Rasp would perceive the truth and accuse her.

OUCH. She’d bonked her nose on something warm that gave—someone’s back, silvery containment suit fabric smelling of plastic and dust. She gathered her balance and rubbed the soreness from her nose.

Please pay attention. Philip masked his displeasure with a false smile, another form of Lie. She rooted amongst the litter lying on his mind’s floor, the most prominent thoughts a dislike of the woodland, the leaves clinging to his boots, rocks sabotaging his footing, the buzzing insect that flew onto his arm and gripped his sleeve with bristled claws. Discomfort scrabbled in the background: sweat, hunger, and ache. The Song spun his concerns into an orange thread of annoyance. A memory would soothe him. Here was one, him fitting a drawer with bamboo boxes to corral clutter into tidy packages. But did he deserve her help? No, he did not. She’d added to his irritation, but not on purpose.

Don’t Stop with no warning next time.

Everyone stopped. There’s someone ahead blocking the path.

He was correct. She should pay attention to People, but without the Pills, they were noisy. Easier to block their minds Out with the much more interesting Song. Sometimes, like now, the People intruded through the Physical world, and she had to choose a response, each choice a trial. What now, for instance? Philip still held her gaze. Would a smile would be appropriate? She curved her lips, but Philip had hoped for an apology and detected errors in the smile’s Style and Timing. He frowned and turned to The Stranger. She needed to practice smiling more often.

Granted, The Stranger was noteworthy. Skeleton-white paint caked his face, except round his eyes, which were outlined in black. Rough fabric swathed his body. Black boots similar to the type Beggers fashioned from scrap and husk encased his feet. He held a long cane in one hand. Its base rested in the Dust. Its tip glinted with metal and Sharp. She tested his thoughts. Like her, this rough sleeper coated in Paint, hoped to repel Others with his odd clothing.

Jemin, hoping to impress, raised his hands, palm out flat, toward the man. He started talking in a Language similar to English but harsher with guttural vowels and too many consonants, his language, a private joy.

The Stranger grimaced—no—smiled, waves of hilarity rippling from him. Jemin—all of them bright and earnestness in their bulky suits—amused the man. But disappointment flooded Jemin, who wanted so badly to Perform in his special Language.

“Suppose we ought to converse in English,” said The Stranger.

Brandt chuckled, caught up in the man’s amusement, no disrespect of Jemin intended, just a Big Man being open in the way of the Child with no Other Self.

“English suits me.” The Leader stepped forward, marking herself as Alpha and speaking as her Other Self, the one with no Doubts or Fears. “Agnet Krause, Chief Investigator with Central Intelligence.” She raised her gloved hand in greeting and paused, waiting for a Reply. He stayed silent but mocked them in his mind. The Leader continued. “Our team is investigating unusual activity at the work-farm yonder.” She waved down the path. “Have you had any trouble with—” She glanced at Philip, seeking suggestions for the best Noun.

Philip shrugged. “Loosely, one might call them zombies or ghouls.”

Zombies. The Leader had used this word to express '“dead things that moved.” Philip understood the emptiness of these Creatures. So Zombies might mean Mud Puppets, her private term for the things.

“Or mud puppets.” Philip glanced around, probably wondering where “mud puppets” originated. So amusing when her Words slipped into their heads.

The Stranger grunted. “I see them as the shadows fall, and I find their leavings.”

“Leavings?”

“Mud and rust, moss and bone.” He rubbed his fingers as if sifting through the Decay.

“They spontaneously collapse?”

“Must do. Though I’ve never seen it happen.”

She scanned him for Lies. No. He spoke his truth, but he hadn’t revealed Everything. His mind roiled with blood and bone, mouths gaping and rotten, a whiff of sewage, a scream. She pushed away his madness and fear, lest it devour her, extracted his Name, and inserted, “tell them” into his stream of conciousness.

Wouldn’t tell governmental snitches anything. Let them demons eat ‘em like they eat everything.

I know! Even furniture and chapstick.

“Yep. File cabinets, stones, anything in their path.” The Stranger skimmed the Team, struggling to figure out who’d Spoken. Her last insertion had sounded like a second Person in his head; she needed to be more careful.

The team exchanged confused glances, then the Leader asked, “Have you encountered anyone else out here?”

He pointed the direction they’d come from. “Yonder, an old man squats in his own filth. You could ask him.”

“We spoke with him,” said Jemin. “You from a different settlement?”

Sure, Jemin, butt right in, thought The Leader and Philip, almost simultaneously. Both disliked Jemin, as did The Stranger. Most people disliked Jemin. But most people had Bad Taste and disliked her, too.

The Stranger threw back his head and laughed. “No, this paint ain’t tribal markings. I’m trying to reduce my radiation exposure best I can. Don’t have a fancy white space suits for myself, do I? I’m no villager, just a hermit.”

Jemin opened his mouth, but The Leader shut it with a glare. “As I was saying,” she said, “we’re seeking information on those monsters and offer refuge. These woods aren’t safe right now. Anything you’ve seen—”

“I don’t have more to offer and don’t need nobody’s help.” His Lies felt thick and sticky as reheated oats. “Prefer my own company, these days. I’ve thrown in the towel on society.” Especially you freaks. Philip’s image was contrasted with that of a fellow seated at a desk. I recognize you from somewhere, pretty boy, and I don’t care for you. Jemin appeared; then a series of visages, all pale with bulging eyes, and white, yellow, or red hair. All from the village just over the border from his father’s home. And dough face, you look like one of them religious ferals to me. I don’t need your nonsense—make less sense than Granny taking readings offa knuckle bones.

The Leader caught Clayton Treadway’s hostile vibe and fumbled for a new Question. “You know anything about the old iron works? The door into the mountain looks modern, and we were wondering if—”

A frown curdled his face. “That’s a dangerous place,” his voice loud and raw. “You stay clear. Contamination, unsteady walls, and plenty rusted metal scraps to give you a blood infection.”

The man’s emotions hit the Leader like a storm surge, which she understood as instinct: something worse than blood infections waited under the mountain. Interesting these untrained people who heard a bit of the noise from Others. She’d be careful inside the Leader’s mind or she’d Notice. “Well, um. I’m sure you’re welcome at the farm. If you’re threatened, drop by for a good meal—”

Clayton Treadway chortled. Farm buildings and faces floated through his Mind. Decade of my life lost at that dump. “Not safe for anybody out here, you included, Lady. And I need to stick to my plan, or I’ll be in trouble when the cold comes. Speaking of which—” He skipped off the path and was Gone.

They stood in silence for a moment, watching Brandt charge through brambles and search behind trees. What should she do with Clayton Treadway’s unsaid Words and memories, revelations that would interest the Leader?

If she were a Good team member, she would tell. But she was not a good team member. And these clues, picked from the man’s mind, must stay Secret. If they knew her ability to slide into minds, they would dislike her more. They might ask Questions, even questions about Pills, the pills that made her Less. And same as Jemin, she wanted to be More.

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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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