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Agnet dumped the meter at the staging area with the rest of her gear, noted that four additional piles had accumulated in her absence, and headed to a D-wing briefing room. D-wing telegraphed obscure, and she wasn’t expecting high-level staff to attend. But she ran a hand through her cropped hair to feign presentability.

Her early missions had originated in D-wing. And now, twenty years on, thanks to politics and a few disasters, she was returning to D-wing to hear about an assignment that smelled like “sidelined”. And sidelined had a high correlation with untimely demise.

Blistering chicken skin. Ahead, Evangeline Ramirez, head of Human Resources, clicked down the hall, a miniature pig on stilts. The woman hated her for questions and suggestions Agnet had made over the years. But she’d never intended to undermine Evangeline’s empire. She’d chimed in trying to be helpful. Still. Evangeline, an inveterate and invertebrate rule follower, despised her.

With a patently fake smile affixed to her moon-pie face, she stopped to speak with somebody standing at HR’s door. The woman’s sociopathic-kindergarten-teacher-delivery-style drifted into her ears, triggering an emotion reminiscent of PTSD. As Agnet drew near, Evangeline shifted her position, using conversation and her back to eliminate any potential for inclusion or even polite greetings. Seventh grade all over again. Taking the not-so-subtle hint, Agnet swerved around the pair, but glanced over her shoulder, and met the gaze of Alice Drew, her former team’s medic. Was that pity in Alice’s eyes? Good grief. Her situation must be more fragile than she’d assumed. She picked up her pace.

Five people had beaten her to meeting room D-24a, a couple of suits, a bruiser, a bookworm type with outrageous white-blond hair and spectacles, and—wow—an exceptionally elegant man. No, not handsome, he was beautiful, tall, dark, and look at those cheekbones! He might be too slick for her taste, but he was sure a joy to view. The bruiser noticed her, jumped up and saluted; she waved him down. Central was civilian, not military.

“Chief Krause.” One suit approached, a gaunt older gent with a somber countenance and—oh, yeesh—a NeuroCorp insignia on his blazer. “Allow me to introduce myself, Dr. William Rasp.”

They exchanged handshakes; his grip chilly and lank. She fought off the urge to wipe her hand on her pants.

A younger man wearing a rumpled CIU uniform, presumably Project Management, jostled forward. “And I’m Chuck Teaser, good to meet you.” He pumped her hand as if he expected her to spurt water. “Meet you again, actually. We met one time. Just once. But you wouldn’t remember me, a junior face in the crowd. Honor to work with you, Chief Krause.”

Honor? He must be out of the loop. Even so, nice to be appreciated. “Pleasure, gentlemen.”

More introductions flew, the names vanishing in her ear quicker than licorice on sale. The big ex-military guy was security, as expected. The bookworm was—a historian? But worse, the looker was a perceiver. And perceivers meant strange: strange missions, strange clients, and strange teams. In short, a administrative nightmare. Could this day get any lousier?

Agnet smiled and nodded, playing it cool. “Just the one perceiver?” The weirdos usually came as a pair.

The NeuroCorp rep—best not to know why he was attending this meeting—replied. “We’re not anticipating too much drama on this mission; the working hypothesis is mass hysteria, so we felt the assignment would be suitable for training. Hence, the second perceiver is a trainee. She’s being collected.”

Collected—like an exotic bug? The lead perceiver’s elegant facial muscles did not twitch in response to the news he’d be supervising a trainee. Noteworthy, his excellent self-control.

“And you’re a historian?” She grinned in the general direction of four-eyes, his eyes impossible to meet, wandering as they did behind those thick glasses, soap bubbles in the breeze. He was plump to boot, not an easy accomplishment on CIU rations—unless you were in management; he must be profoundly physically inactive.

His milky cheeks reddened. “Yes, uh. Fitted out with the latest InfoCorp chip set, and at your service.”

She glanced at—cripe. What was his name—Project Management—Pleaser? She hoped her expression transmitted her questions about the mission’s objectives.

He tried for a meant-to-reassure grin. “We’re air lifting you inland to Ridgelands Penal Colony, a work farm out west. Low-risk, low-security. No hardened types incarcerated on the premises. It’s just the Warden is reporting—well—he’s reporting monsters.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me right, monsters.” He pressed the air in front of his hips away with his hands, as if fending off unspoken objections. “And I appreciate that ‘Monsters’ sounds ludicrous, and probably is ludicrous. But the Warden’s worked himself into a state. Quite a state. ”

“I can imagine. Any details on the—uh—monsters?”

“No details. None provided. A shame, an egregious shame. Always parsimonious with the pigeons and paper, Warden Honing. But a brief with all the known and relevant facts will be ready when you ship. You can catch up on board. Departure is tomorrow, 6AM sharp. Early bird catches the worm, and so on.”

She lifted her eyebrows.

He pulled a handkerchief from his front pocket and dabbed his upper lip. “Sorry about the rush-rush. It’s just that the mission’s been marked top priority. The toppest.”

“Top priority?”

“Yes, well. Temperatures are dropping out West. Freak winds from the North Pole, bitter cold, and so on. The Warden’s anxious about the apple harvest.”

She let her incredulity hang in the air for a moment. “Oh, well. If it’s apples.”

“Exactly. We’ll drop by Staging, pick up your gear, and load up. You’ll be ready to roll—or fly rather—at dawn,” his reply suggesting he’d either missed or ignored her sarcasm.

“Fantastic! First flight on an airship for me,” said Muscles.

“Mmme too,” said Bespectacled.

Handsome shot her a look that may have said, “Are they green, or what?”

This mission was shaping up like a box of chocolate dipped turds: no time to test her equipment, no time to collect the street-opinions about her team, and no information on the—can we be entirely serious—monsters. On the other hand, given the team’s makeup—no medic, no sharp shooter, no bomb detecting canine—management wasn’t concerned about bodily harm. Maybe someone with a knife to twist wanted her out of town for a few days and had dreamed up a minimal-risk excuse. Which was fine with her, if fresh ripe apples were involved.

NeuroCorp’s representative shaped his mouth into a half circle, a smile-equivalent learned from the lizard-folk who must’ve raised him. “Best of luck, Chief Krause. We’re counting on you.”

“Thanks.” She passed an eye over her team. Luck would help. And luck offered by NeuroCorp might be better than no luck at all.

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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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