The trees were downright soporific, standing so quiet, branches hanging heavy like an unpaid bill. She’d conk out if her calves didn’t ache from the walking, and this suit—the thick textile swooshing like a lullaby. But a bright dot of light appeared the distance and grew larger with each step. That dot was the trailhead, the exit from this dismal forest and the next step toward dinner. The promise of dinner would keep her lively.
Philip said, “Pathetic that returning to a prison work farm fills me with joy.”
“Me too. Can’t wait for dinner.”
“I’m dying for a shower. I’ll scrub away every memory of this excursion: the leaves, the twitching bones, that old man’s smell.”
“Interesting you equate leaves with twitching slime and a dying eighty-year-old.”
“Leaves cling, and I’m an urban person. The recreation quad near my building is sufficient nature for me. And speaking of nature, it’s calling. I might jog ahead.”
Agnet raised an eyebrow. “You could step behind a tree.”
“Leaves.” Philip trotted off.
A few minutes later, she stepped out into buttery late-afternoon sunshine, and nearly tripped over a pair of inmates crouching in the grass. They stood and whipped off their hats, a burly man with thick, black curls and a slight, balding man with spectacles.
Head of curls said, “Afternoon, ma’am. Warden Honing told us to watch for you and escort you to your campsite.”
They exchange names, but the men’s appellations shot out of her brain like a blown geyser. She would sign up for the memory training class again when she returned home. And remember to go, this time. She glanced around for Philip.
“He’s using the facilities.” The black-haired inmate pointed to an enormous boulder surrounded by yellowing joe pye weed.
“What’s this about a campsite?”
They exchanged nervous glances. The talker said, “A security precaution, nothing personal. The warden will explain.”
Agnet already knew the explanation. She waited for the others to gather in the meadow. Brandt arrived with Orl’s pack slung over his own. Orl exited the woods and stared around the field, wonderment all over her face, as if she’d portaled to another galaxy. Jemin dragged behind her, looking as if he could’ve used help with his pack as well. They grimly acknowledged the “campsite” news. Philip returned from “the facilities”, looking relieved.
“Leaves?” she asked.
“Problem was grass this time. I could’ve used a leaf.”
The Warden’s men had pitched five tents near an isolated stand of trees about two-hundred meters from the forest edge.
“Gee, thanks,” said Agnet.
Curly said, “These trees shelter the cows. They love standing in the shade and rubbing against the bark.”
“So expect cow pies.” Brandt said to Orl.
“Won’t be that bad,” said the skinny bald guy. “The cows haven’t grazed this paddock since spring.”
“Excellent,” said Agnet, “Luxury accommodations.”
After changing and surrendering her suit for decontamination, she crawled into her tent, stretched out on the thin pad, and propped her head on her tightly rolled sleeping bag. Wind rippled past the tent. She ought to catch a nap, but her worries rotated, a tattered pinwheel in her mind.
Brandt seemed ready to detonate explosives as if they were popcorn, possibly explaining his transfer to KP. Jemin, reminded her of an over bred albino goldfish, and brimmed with obsession. Orl acted like a psychiatric patient and might be poised for withdrawal. And Philip, recovering from brain surgery, was at least depressed and couldn’t resist goading Jemin. Consider herself, dispensing Orl’s happy pills to some random feral, and those funny scattered thoughts she’d had in the village. So random. Maybe the “Singer” had messed with her mind. And what about the Singer? A pox on that weirdness.
A rustle at the tent flap interrupted her downward spiral.
“Hello?” Philip’s voice, hesitant but smooth as always.
“Can I come in?”
Agnet tucked herself into a seated position. “I suppose you can fit.”
Philip crawled in and sat cross-legged on the sleeping pad. Light leeching through the jungle camo fabric stained his skin deep green, a leaf-hating woodland sprite. How paradoxical.
“Welcome to my suite.”
“Thanks. I see they gave you the luxury model with a window tie.” He flicked a fabric strip sewn into the canvas above the mesh window.
“As befitting my status.”
He gave her a salute. “The Warden walked over with the food service, and I asked, ‘Why the tents?’ He told me the prisoners decided last night’s monster was after us and figured they’ll be safer if we camped out here.”
“I kind of guessed.”
“Berg—I mean, the Warden apologized profusely when he explained and registered as sincerely embarrassed. But he wants to keep the peace. Unfortunate, because I’m not much of a camper and could use a solid night’s sleep, so I reminded him we risked life and limb to destroy the creature and the permanent damage amounted to one broken chair. He thanked me, reassured me he can build a new chair in a week, and said he regretted the interruption of our chess game. But he had a near riot on his hands yesterday.”
Chess game? Interesting euphemism. “Ah, then. I understand. And feel better about sleeping on the cold ground, a thin sheet of canvas between me and the monsters.”
He grinned. “Me too. But they are still feeding us.”
An attempt to improve her mood. She chuckled. “Good thing. I’m starving.” She flashed on the elderly feral’s bony wrists. Too bad he hadn’t wanted to join them.
Philip sighed; her face must’ve given away her dark thoughts. “Brandt’s gone all enthusiastic; he made a fire. Food’s warm and being served up. Want to join in?”
“Sure.” She’d take her rightful place amongst the worst team ever and warm up. “Let’s be careful not to set the woods ablaze.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me if we did. Fire’s built like a fu—” Philip flushed.
“Um.” He brushed an invisible leaf off his shoe.
“It’s okay and morbidly appropriate, given the day’s events. So tell me, what’s in the pills Orl gave the old man?”
“No clue. She’s being cagey about it.”
“I’d appreciate a warning if she withdraws or otherwise goes haywire.”
“I’ll keep you apprised.”
“So what’s the ‘singing’? Is it the same as the déjà vu buzzing sound you were hearing?”
Philip idly toyed with the sleeping mat’s product tag. “Am ‘hearing’. Yeah. Canaan was talking about the same thing; he must have had nascent perceiver talent. Lucky for him, NeuroCorp doesn’t recruit ferals. Orl and I discussed it on the way down the ridge. We both noticed the presence on arrival. She also describes it as singing.”
“Does she sort of—er—groove to that singing?”
He winced. “Yes. I told her to knock it off, or she’d end up in a looney bin. But she doesn’t care. Says the song joins her to The Everything, her words.”
“Yep. She’s weird, even from my perspective.” He met her eyes, his expression somber. “Regardless, something’s up in the hills.”
“You think this—um—presence is dangerous?”
He went back spiraling the tag between his fingers, a shock of messy curls hanging over his forehead. “No. Maybe. I don’t know. I tried to ignore it, out of ennui at first, then out of fear. I worried the feeling was internally generated: lacunae damage, a chip syndrome, or an organic psychosis. Best thing about today was learning I’m not the only person picking up that signal. Anyway, I’ve been a wreck and not very nice, especially to Jemin. He gets on my nerves and with the noise in my head and those hills shooting straight up from the valley like walls… They give me the creeps or claustrophobia or déjà vu. The sun sinks into them so early and the shadows fall so dark…but no excuses. My better self could handle him tactfully, my apologies.”
Damaged, everybody was so damaged. But she needed Philip. A mess, but smart, a team player, and he alone could communicate with Orl. But she couldn’t let him know how much she needed him, or he might stick around to do the “right thing.” “Like I said, you should be home recuperating and the minute you need out. Just let me know. Don’t assume for one minute that your responsibility to the team trumps your responsibility to your health. Because if you drop out in the field, you endanger the team.”
Philip grinned. “I appreciate your effort on my behalf, but people always forget I see right through them.”
Oh, brother. She chuckled. “I meant what I said, even though you’re essentially mission critical. If you need to quit, just quit. I’ll back you. But first, was the old fellow right about the Singer’s location?”
“Yes. The feeling intensified in the village, the proximity, no obstructions. The signal narrowed when Canaan pointed. It definitely originates on that ridge’s western slope.”
“Can you and slash or Orl lead us to the source?”
“Yes. But, come on. Let’s crawl out of here, join the others, eat, find out what they did to deserve this assignment.”
“Kind of obvious, in the cases of Orl and Jemin. Uncooperative and secretive don’t translate into prime assignments. Brandt did something, although he may not have noticed, since he seems to believe KP duty is a natural followup to a stint in border security and extraction.”
Philip flipped back the canvas flap. “Probably best to leave it lie, then.”
They sat in a cluster, wind to their backs, and dined out of baskets. The campfire’s flames reached for the sky, which deepened to a rich purpled-blue. The moon rose, orange and magnificent, its pitted face softened by a hazy band clinging to the horizon.
Brandt gestured to the moon with his fork. “Reminds me of a beach ball and a seaside trip the Home won ‘cause we scored highest on a standardized test. Not that I contributed to the win. But everyone was invited, and they bused us to a nice spot.”
“An actual beach?” asked Philip.
“Must’ve been trucked in sand. But it was pretty clean.”
“Which district?” asked Jemin.
“I was South. We’re about the same age, so you must’ve beat us. I definitely don’t remember any special trips. Though I aced most tests.”
“Figured you did, smart man.”
So Jemin and Brandt grew up in the Homes too. Interesting. Though, the odds were high, considering the epidemics. On purpose. Logs crackled and snapped. A plume of embers spiraled skyward. She’d been placed in West as a baby, thanks to the Schism. Though the Schism was probably ancient history to this crew. She was a decade older than these folks. Orphans. She glanced at Orl, two decades. Perceivers were gleaned from the Homes, since nobody volunteered their kids for that extreme training. Unless the family was starving or the kid was unwanted for some reason. Either way, both Orl and Philip would be some form of orphan.
An orphan leading a team of orphans.
Heavily flawed problem-orphans.
Disposable. On purpose.
Disposable meant somebody or somebodies didn’t even remotely value them. But who genuinely values anybody? Your mother, maybe, if you’re lucky, your kids, and other family who love you or rely on you economically. Though a talented investigator, she was replaceable. Single, childless, an orphan: nobody depended on her. Others would take her place if she disappeared tomorrow. Hell, they’d be grateful for the promotion.
Agnet cleared her throat. “So just curious. Anybody married or have kids?”
Philip’s fork clattered onto his plate. He’d picked up on her drift.
“No sense in getting married if you’re stationed on the border.” Brandt fixed a white blob to the pointy end of a stick. “Pretty nice of them sending marshmallows. Store-boughts are softer, but this’ll do me fine.” He thrust the stick into the flames. His desert flared and vanished in a puff of smoke. His face fell as he inspected the black glossy tar coated the stick’s tip.
Jemin pinched his desert, bit, and smiled. “Tasty. Apparently meringue is more flammable than marshmallow.”
“Here, have half of mine.” Agnet said to Brandt, and she snapped her meringue in half. “No reason not to share, since—”
“Since none of us will be missed,” Philip said quietly, light from the fire reflecting in his wide eyes.
“Well. I was going to say ‘since we’re close to the bakery’.”
Philip whispered, “As I mentioned, most people forget I see right through them.”
Caught like a fish on a line. She sighed.
Lies are Bad.
Since when? Smooth-it-over lies were a crucial component of her social toolbox, though probably a habit to avoid during this mission. Perceivers were lie-bloodhounds, and being caught in a lie, even a white lie, wasn’t much fun.
“Wonder what we orphans got ourselves into,” said Jemin.
Agnet shrugged. “Not sure. But I assume something dangerous and tangled with a power or money.”
“Yep.” Brandt must’ve caught up. Maybe his obliviousness wasn’t so oblivious. “That grandpa talking about corporate types out in the forest didn’t sound good neither.”
“The suits bother you? I’m more bothered by the gooey child-monsters,” said Philip.
“Nah. Those things are weak,” said Brandt. “Think about it. Us three took a big out with no injury. A gator would’ve been more of a challenge. Way more. Sure, a monster dragged a guy into a pond, but not everybody’s standing by a pond. Not everybody has a faulty ticker. Can’t understand why the inmates are so upset. With all the shovels and pitch forks lying around, criminal types should be fine.”
Agnet inspected her meringue. Could the genius who baked this delicacy toss a monster into his oven? Doubtful, but you never knew. He or she could be a beefy street brawling lunatic. “I take your point. But the most people are normal, Brandt. And monsters scare normal people.”
“You think we’ve been set up?” Jemin looked highly aggrieved. Poor guy had had a lousy day.
“Possibly. But by who and why? Makes me curious. And sort of ornery.” And truth be told, she cared about this goofy dysfunctional team, about the farm, and definitely about the apples. Heck, she even cared about that ancient fellow they’d left up the mountain. Sure, caring didn’t make a difference, career-wise; she wouldn’t succeed in the hierarchy’s eyes, even if she saved the entire freaking world. But screw it tight as a weevil dug into a corn kernel; she’d save the world anyway, just to spite them.
“Of course, my curiosity might get someone killed. So if any of you want to sit this one out, I won’t blame or report you. That said, is anybody game to chase down an eerie presence?” “I’d estimate a two to three-day hike with a night or two in the woods.” Philip, Mr. Outdoors man, looked grim.
“I’m in. Anything for that cookie-half.” Brandt grinned and held out his hand.
Agnet passed the cookie-half over. Brandt was her best defense against monsters, but she couldn’t track the signal without perceivers, so she turned in their direction. Orl nodded. Philip shrugged. Tepid, but she’d interpret that shrug as a yes.
Jemin, on the other hand, would be dead weight. “How about you, Jemin? Are you up for more adventure after today’s disappointments? Would you prefer a few days here to interview more prisoners and staff?”
He shoved his glasses up his nose. “Today didn’t discourage me. I’m a professional. I know field work is random. Sometimes you win, sometimes your colleagues assist the suicide of a key informant.”
Philip grimaced. “We’re all sad about Mr. Canaan, really. But I believe the Chief mad the right decision, given the situation.”
Brandt delivered one of his friendly shoulder punches; now Jemin grimaced. “Sure be nice if the geezer was sitting here, eating a good meal, and telling his stories. Well, after a bath maybe. But it didn’t happen that way. Just the breaks.”
Jemin sighed. “No. It didn’t happen that way. But I’m curious, and in pursuit of the truth, I’ll gladly venture over the ridge.”
A line appeared between Philip’s eyebrows; he must’ve been hoping Jemin would stay put. But why not believe Jemin could rise to the occasion?
“All right. Here’s the plan. We follow our only lead, this presence on the other side of the ridge. If that lead is a bust, I’ll call in, tell Central we hit a brick wall, and request a lift out. Brandt and I will train the farmer to demolish monsters on their own while we wait for our ride. Doubt the locals will miss us.”
Agnet bit into her meringue half, crisp and sweet, with a slightly chewy center. The work farm wouldn’t be an awful place to land, despite the zombies. Almost worth committing a crime. The place was low security. Maybe back home, she’d take up shoplifting.
“I have a few questions to ask my source,” Jemin said.
“I have a few questions for the Warden,” said Philip. “And, I need a shower.”
“Sounds reasonable. So one more day here, ask your questions, clean up, eat as much as you can hold while seeming polite, then let’s go meet ourselves a presence.”