The Stars silently spun above, the moon glowed pale and calm, and The Song wove the camp flames into a tapestry. Immense and beautiful, this night, despite the Minds chattering, their noise Incessant, even when the talking slowed. Conciousness wasted on nonsense. That suit stank like a gym locker by the end of the day. So much Emotion: despair, yearning, and the Tired of Older people. Perhaps the pills had served a purpose: shielding her from the other minds.
Her thought about the Pills touched Philip, and he responded. I should ask Orl about those pills. He removed himself from the Group, and sat beside her, his location inconsequential but proximity was a Habit for him during conversation. She didn’t care, as long as he didn’t Touch. Philip could ask all the Questions he wished, only she could Choose what to reveal.
Are you ready for a hike over the ridge?
Any idea what we’ll find?
Sounds as if the man knows his pancakes. Curiosity battled Unease. The song called her, but what if the Singer was a trap? She enjoyed Pancakes too and didn’t wish to be Destroyed now that she was free.
What if we run into zombies? Brandt thinks they’re weak, but I was really worried about you last night. You were as cold as ice.
A shudder traveled through her at the memory of the Cold. She hugged her blanket close and savored the fire. A precious link to the past, and they allowed him to die, indeed encouraged it. She’d probed that monster too Close, trying to detect a Mind. She’d let it crawl through the Tunnel she’d created, attracted to her Life. A Mistake she wouldn’t try again. She can toast my marshmallow any day. How to explain to Philip while avoiding questions?
Brandt is safe. He has no Openings; he is Solid and One Thing. She picked up a rock to demonstrate. The rock was smooth and cool, solid, unknowing, unafraid. She handed it to Philip. But we are not all the Same. You and I, the Leader, we are at risk.
Philip stared at the rock, picking through her words for meaning, arriving somewhere close. I get why we’re at risk, but why Agnet?
She is Open in the way of the Solid.
Rambling like a street corner lunatic, this girl. Philip cast about for an appropriate Noun, settling on Empathy with a Question Mark. She assimilated Empathy with a Question Mark, envisioning the thin line of light that outlined a door opened just a crack.
What were those pills, Orl?
Finally, his question. You wouldn’t Understand.
But he would understand; she’d Lied. Not a minor social lie to smooth things over, a significant lie to suit her own Purposes. The worst sort of lie. But if Philip knew why she took the Pills, he would be Scared. They wouldn’t take her to the Singer. No. They’d contact Rasp, and she’d be forced to escape and locate the Singer on her own. She usually preferred Alone, but now...
All right, but if you feel poorly, please let me know. We're here to help. You're not on your own.
She didn’t reply. Philip sighed, annoyed at her but also Concerned. And not worried she wouldn’t be of use. Worried about her Own Person. Unusual. He was complicated, this Philip. His heavily layered self reminded her of soot on the brick of an old chimney. Lost and Alone lay beneath the soot. People didn’t Understand him either and were unkind or afraid.
He mulled over her Deficiencies. She almost desired to reassure him. Strange, and what could she say? The Truth would frighten him, and she didn’t wish to lie again. With discretion and care, she drew his attention to the campfire. He excused himself and rejoined the Others, his mind already structuring his chats with the Head and the Warden. A pang of Absence when he left surprised her.
Had she grown comfortable among these Unafraid but Annoyed people? Annoyed was better than Afraid; everybody at NeuroCorp feared her, even Rasp. But eventually, a team member would Notice and become Afraid. She should stop thinking with them and leave them to their own mistakes. Her ideas probably wouldn’t help them, anyway. When she Left. Rasp would be angry, and they would disappear.
Orl drifted away from Philip’s mind and touched the Forest’s edge. Last night’s monster had been looking for the Warden, not them. She felt sure, but she would keep watch tonight. And if a monster visited, she would wake Brandt first. Brandt had killed the Creature with gusto, like a big woolly Dog shredding a Toy; he’d almost found it funny. Unknowing and Unafraid. Strong and safe. He found her Difference fantastic with an exclamation point.
Alone and not alone, thanks to the Song and the other Minds, Orl sank back into the stars and watched.