A Song for the Live Ones

by

stellajo

Kept Quiet, Gone Feral, or They’re Dead

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A note from stellajo

Back from a computer crash, new computer set up, and related whopper of a migraine!

A thin strip of yellow haze heralded actual morning—how he disliked witnessing this far too early in between state. But here he was, thanks to the cold and several stones beneath his sleeping pad. Philip plucked a strip of rotted cloth off his tent. It was oval in shape with an inner oval on one side. Yep. A costume bunny ear.

“That’s a monster ear. Orl woke me. The girl stayed up all night looking out for us. Lucky for us, because the chief, who was on watch, didn’t hear a sound.” Brandt looked much too enthusiastic for the hour. “She and I clobbered them.”

“Great job! Most appreciated you didn’t wake me, but feel free if needs be.” He hoped he sounded convincing.

“Wasn’t much of a challenge, given their small size. I actually felt kind of stupid. Reminded me of being startled by a spider, smacking it, then noticing how tiny it is when it curls up all dead.” The big man’s face fell; nice to learn he didn’t take killing lightly.

“Eliminating a threat before it’s a significant problem is standard procedure. Right? Brutal as it may seem, disposing of those things early before they expand may be the key. Be happy you’re uninjured.”

Brandt grinned like sunshine through rain. He seemed to be a person who’d slip through a keyhole to restore a positive outlook. “Who knows what we’ll find in the forest? Maybe they’ve already absorbed trees and elk.”

“Giant blobs with antlers and tree limbs sticking out?” As if that’d be fun.

“We’d better be ready.”

He trotted off, probably looking for a portable battering ram.

Philip tucked his hands into his armpits and jogged in place, trying to drum up some heat. Several trainees were trotting breakfast across the field, no sign of Berg. He’d have to chase him down and make pleasant conversation after spending the night in a tent, sleeping bag zipped to his nose.

He rubbed his nose, an iceberg, poor thing, returned a trainee’s narrow-eyed stare with a pleasant smile, then hid the bunny ear behind his rear. The prisoners were probably correct in their suspicions; the zombies were most likely attracted to them, Orl in particular. Best to toss this bunny ear into the fire and not mention last night’s attack. No need to spook the inmates further.

Jemin stepped close. “Good thing Brandt’s not around to jaw about bashing monsters.”

“Man does enjoy a story,” said Philip, noting the zipper indent on the historian’s cheek.

“I was wondering—would you accompany me on a fact finding mission? I want to interview Warden Honing, and since he’s taken a shine to you—”

“He’s quite the chess enthusiast.”

Jemin turned hand-dyed-poodle pink. “Yes, well. Chess. I see. Anyway, I need a few minutes with the Warden. And if you could—you know—scrutinize his responses.”

A quick evaluation of Jemin’s stance and countenance suggested a lack of social confidence prevented him from approaching Berg alone. Philip scanned for an excuse while Jemin waited, a combination of hopeful and obstinate. He also needed to speak with Berg about that vengeful ghost and several other matters, but crap. Dragging Jemin along held no appeal.

“Let me check in with Orl.” He bought time pretending to link, but Orl was zonked out in stage four sleep, recovering from her all night watch. Silly girl should’ve informed him of her plan and shared the burden. The trainees departed; Agnet began rifling through a basket. Brandt walked toward the feed, a hefty branch in one hand.

Jemin glanced at him, wearing a triumphant smirk. “We better hurry or they’ll eat everything. Afterwards, we can locate the Warden.”

Out of stalling maneuvers, and cognizant of his resolve to be nicer to the irritating historian, Philip accepted Jemin’s invitation.

 

A layer of thin, low clouds obscured the sun, and the wind whipped as they crossed the stubbled field. A gravel double track, probably an access road for equipment, helped them stay out of the mud. Philip ran his hand over his chin, rehashing his dislike of stubble. Jemin huffed and puffed beside him. Not evil person, remember. Just socially inept, and overly focused on his own interests.

“It’d probably be best if I did most of the talking.”

“Of course, Philip Spool, expert interviewer,” said Jemin, a pinched tone to his voice.

They found Berg in a machine shop and waited for an opportune moment to interrupt. Jemin began explaining the various tools, the inverter, how dust-rich air could spontaneously combust. A worker, radiating a toxic halo of anxiety, glanced over his shoulder.

Philip whispered. “Lower your voice and be careful what you say. These people are nervous, and they’re not looking for knowledge or information; they’ll only remember how you make them feel. So keep spontaneous combustion, and any other explosive topics, to yourself.”

Jemin gave him a quizzical look, wandered toward some equipment, and began jotting notes. The guy’s skull was as thick as the Southern Wall. He leaned against the wall, mindful of the rough wood planks’ ability to pull threads, and observed Berg dispense directions about tools and wood. A pine sap smell, sawdust or newly cut wood, suffused the air, despite the industrial vacuum system whooshing in the background. Ouch. He pulled his hand off the wall and sucked a splinter from the fleshy pad of his index finger.

He wasn’t a tool user, never had been. Always had to call a fix-it type when knobs came loose or light switches failed, tradespeople who either didn’t show up or who were exorbitantly expensive. Be nice to have mechanical expertise in-house. Berg beamed in his direction, as if he’d picked up on Philip’s vibe, perhaps another regular person with low-level perceiving abilities; he wouldn’t have pegged a prison warden as the type, but you never knew.

Berg finished conversing with his men and came over. “I’m sorry about last night. Just couldn’t think of another way to settle my people down.”

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll settle these zombies down, and then you and I can have a rematch.” Philip couldn’t resist tilting his head and smiling in a manner that got ‘em every single time. The Warden smiled in return—score one for Philip Spool, master of flirtation. He raised his perceiving level and hunted for an energy signature. There, a nimbus spinning like cotton candy surrounding Berg’s head. “But speaking of those zombies, I have a few questions, follow-ups to yesterday’s excursion. Does the lockup have any facilities in the woods?”

Berg visible startled. “Facilities in the woods? No, nothing out there. What would be the point?”

“We wondered why that trail’s being maintained and by whom.”

“Carson noticed that cleanup this summer,” someone said in a shrill voice that came from behind the Warden. “Said alls a’sudden he could see straight down the trail, as though somebody’d cleared it.” Berg turned, revealing the speaker, a carrot-top, who looked up from his sawdust covered work table and grinned as if he’d solved world hunger.

The Warden glared. The inmate ducked his chin and stuttered, “He only stood at the trailhead, looking. He didn’t walk off property. I guess he might’ve been wrong.” He gave Philip an apologetic glance. “Th’only folks out that way are your ferals. And they’re not known for tidying up, especially so close to the farm.”

A twitch of Berg’s lips sent the prisoner scampering to a far corner. He ushered Philip toward the door, away from any other curious ears. “Perkins can’t keep his trap shut, and Carson’s usually full of shit, but he’s right. Guards reported the spruced up path this summer. I didn’t think to mention it, and our zombie problem started in summer too.” He sighed. “As I’ve said, I’m not a believer in coincidences.” Berg’s field rippled slightly, a light disturbance. Hopefully, he was regretting the omission.

“You heard of any activity at an old ironworks on the trail, renovations of any kind, maybe mining or a waste or research project?”

A thousand tiny muscles played around Berg’s lips and eyes. His aurora pulsed and warped as he held back the truth—in this context, no other phenomena could explain such a high deflection. At least, he didn’t lie easily or with pleasure.

“That heap of rubble and rusted scrap? What made you believe someone’s working there?”

“A newer structure built into the mountainside. We couldn’t get past a pair of heavy duty doors but were curious.”

Berg was silent for a moment, stalling. The spun sugar glow writhed while he stroked his jawline. He sported a light stubble, too, but it looked good on him. A shame to think this guy might be up to his elbows in an evil scheme. “Decades ago, EarthCorp tinkered around at that site, but that was before my time. I figured they’d run a salvage operation. What else could it have been? But I’m unaware of anything recent.”

A blatant lie.

His expression went stern. “Whatever it is, somebody worked hard to keep it private. A sign, in my long and not always pleasant experience, to not look to close. So I’m the opposite of curious—anti-curious—and glad it’s downstream of the farm.”

“Did you, staff, or trainees look for monsters in that direction?”

“Heck, no. Prisoners aren’t allowed off property, and the staff sticks to the compound, given the ferals, the contamination, and now the monsters. If there’s been a rare few that’s wandered down that way, they’ve kept quiet, gone feral, or they’re dead. Me personally, I’ve explored the path and ironworks, but not in a long while. I’m too busy for nature walks.”

Jemin, hovering at the edge of the conversation clutching his rag book, said, “So you didn’t visit an old man in the village up-slope from the ironworks?”

Philip cringed. Tactless, questioning Berg’s truthfulness, but when Berg frowned and answered “no” in a gruff tone, the man’s magnetic field warped like a palm tree in a hurricane.

Jemin, despite his obvious rabbit-eyed terror, asked, “Any inmates friendly with the local sects?”

“The what?”

“The ferals.” Philip clarified.

“Not that I know. Most of the trainees hate ‘em because of tall tales, mostly. In reality, the ferals are poor. Real poor. And diseased. Because of the health issue, I encourage the community to steer clear and don’t try to stamp out their stupid scare stories.” Berg shifted from foot to foot, looking over their heads, acting out a desire for escape.

Jemin peered up from his notes. “Can you elaborate on those stories?”

“Uh, snatching babies. Leading the lost astray. Cannibalism. They supposed to be magical, talking to beasts, flying, cavorting with the underworld. The usual.”

“Fascinating. Can you refer me to one of the storytellers?”

Berg frowned. “How’s you gabbing about fairytales gonna help us run off these monsters? Leave my people alone; they’re jittery enough already.”

Philip gave Jemin’s ankle a tap to bring him on topic. Jemin’s eyes blinked behind his glasses, as if surprised not everyone shared his arcane interests. His neck flushed red, but he asked, “Any new arrivals over the summer?”

“Oh, sure. A few new trainees, as usual. Those teams that came through, like I told you.”

The energy around the warden wavered again. That same fluctuation. And that eye movement, a mere flicker, but telling. Philip launched a trial balloon. “Anybody other than inmates?”

“Who the hell else would…oh, you mean staff? No. We haven’t added new staff.”

Berg thrust his hands into the pockets of his overalls, holding fast to his story, but still concealing the truth. Time to obliquely broach the subject of the vengeful ghost. “Tomorrow, we head out for two to three-days, investigating the woods. Anybody we should look for? Anybody recently gone missing?”

“We’re down six since this ghost business started. One dead, pulled into the pond, as I explained. Five…took off. Good luck to them.”

Jemin’s eye went googly. “You mean escaped!”

“Yeah, escaped.” But Berg was merely following Jemin’s carelessly provided lead; the reliable deflection revealed another lie. But the curve of his lip indicated sorrow lay beneath the lie, not the more common fear or sense of triumph. Berg wasn't happy with either the cover up or circumstance. Or both.

“Could you provide descriptions of the five escapees, a list of names in case we come across them out in the forest?”

“Sure. But don’t concern yourselves. None of them are violent offenders.”

“Any idea of why they left?”

“Rumor was the monsters spooked them, and they set off for New Delphi. No protective suits. No counters. No papers. Just took off.”

No doubt Berg started that rumor himself.

“Bad choice, Delphi. Bet they didn’t like what they found, if they made it,” said Jemin.

Berg’s face clouded. “I gathered. No produce orders out of Delphi for four months. You got news from there?”

“22N23, kappa variant. Public Health blames a mutant of last year’s strain passed through an avian intermediary.” Jemin shot Philip a self-satisfied look. Even if the information was tragic, the guy loved doling it out.

Berg crossed his arms and stared out the shop’s double door, his face stamped with the tired of a powerful person who’s carried the load for too many others far too long. “Some days feels as if this planet don’t want us no more; can’t say I really blame her. Look, I got to get back to work. You two talk to Roselle in the office, the small building next to the mess hall. She’ll give you the files on those five men. I hope you find them. They’d be better off here, zombies or no.” He slapped a straw hat on his head and stalked through the door into the yard’s bright daylight.

Philip motioned for Jemin to follow him outside. They walked by a group of trainees fixing some kind of farming implement, then another group rubbing rust from tools with rectangular gray stones. Once they were out of earshot, he said, “Warden Honing lied about walking that path and about new arrivals. But you knew that.”

Jemin’s eyes flicked every which way but toward Philip’s.

“Out with it.” Philip casually inspected his nails, feigning indifference.

“Fine. My sources entered the farm this summer. Honing encountered them on the trail and invited them in. He’s given them safe harbor.”

“We’re talking about the feral boys who abandoned the village?”

“Well… Yes.” Jemin’s expression conveyed a stuttering defiance. “The convicts don’t take kindly to ferals, so those boys’ situation is precarious, and they asked me to keep their secret.”

“You think Berg visited the old man and invited him to shelter?”

Jemin nodded. “Yep. Couldn’t imagine anybody else making the offer. The crazy man we met on the path wouldn’t help an elder.”

“I understand why you kept quiet about those kids. And I sort of understand why Berg would hide them; he probably isn’t sure how we’d react to ferals.”

“Naturally. Federal policy is pretty harsh, and we’re a government team.”

“I’m not crazy about religious ferals, personally. They used to string men like me up by the ankles. Imagine gradually suffocating as your intestines crush down on your lungs. Hard to understand why brutal murders pleased an all loving god. But if it makes any difference, I don’t have a strong prejudice against those particular boys. That village and that ancient man just saddened me. Nobody called for to be born out here, isolated and brought up to believe in the supernatural. I wouldn’t report them.”

Jemin gave him a complicated look. He clearly had something else to say, but he merely nodded.

“One more detail,” said Philip. “Berg also lied about the five individuals who absconded.”

“Didn’t know about those guys. And I didn’t notice him lying. Not my job to nose inside other people’s heads.”

Implying “I don’t care” and “that’s your job.” Jemin had reverted to his usual pissy self. He slapped his notebook shut and slid it into his jacket’s oversized pocket. End of conversation, apparently.

“You going to talk to those fer—those villagers?”

“No. I’m going to research the nuclear accident, the fallout, the ironworks, the surrounding townships, cover about three-hundred years. I’ll be useless when I’m done, buzzed-up but too tired to move. The chip really burns through acetylcholine.”

“Sure, but when will you tell them about Canann?”

Jemin glowered. “What would I say? They consider suicide a mortal sin. And how would I dodge the legal and ethical implications without lying?”

“So lie or omit the details. Just let them know he passed. For closure; you know?”

The historian squirmed. Philip waited, sensing a struggle to express emotion or divulge a confidence.

Pink splotched Jemin’s cheeks, and he blurted, “They’ll grieve, and other people’s grief confuses me. Sure, I feel terrible about the old man’s death, but those boys will feel terrible in a different way I won’t quite grasp.”

Now Philip felt uncomfortable, the admission so intense and raw. “Well, they were close, kin and or compatriots.”

“It’s been worse since the implant, as if the chip puts a damper on my feelings, primitive midbrain impulses,” Jemin quietly added, almost to himself. “I’ll have to investigate the topic…later.”

Typical, transforming anxiety into a research project. “Glad you noticed the change. Be mindful of your perceptions, especially this early on. Engraftoxenophobia is a real issue.”

Jemin straightened up and firmed what passed for his chin. “I am self-aware enough to realize emotions were never my strong suit,” his tone snippy. “Don’t worry. I won’t a take a bottle opener to my skull. And unlike perceivers, we usually don’t commit suicide.”

Maybe not. But you do turn into robots.

Verbal distancing accomplished, the quirky little man added physical distance by marching off toward camp. Philip headed to the office and chatted up the adorable Roselle. She supplied him with the information on the escapes and favored him with smiles, fluttering long eyelashes, and displays of significant cleavage. Pity she was playing to the wrong audience. On the long chilly walk across the barren field, Philip Spool speculated about those missing prisoners, Berg’s personal integrity, and Jemin’s personality, such as it was, eroding with each use of his chip.

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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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