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A note from stellajo

A travel scene to introduce a few additional voices and add some backstory.

After a flail with possessions, equipment, and Philip Spool’s urgent messages to a friend—laundry in the wash, plants to water, perishables to consume—etcetera, Agnet and her team of strangers boarded an airship headed West. Ten hours of awkward conversation loomed in her future, and small talk was not her strong suit. Her strong suit was talking about a mission. She excused herself, retreated to her seat, and dove into the brief.

"Five hundred million years ago, a volcanic island collided with an ancient continent. The primeval cataclysm hurled immense jagged peaks toward the sky. At that time, this continental plate lay near the equator, so a dense tropical forest flourished, cycle after cycle of lush vegetation blossoming then decaying in damp, oxygen-depleted soil. This rich organic matter transformed over millennia into vast coal deposits. Then eons of ice, rain, snow, and wind whittled the mountains down to a series of near parallel ridges running tens of miles."

The map showed rows of irregular folds, like a carpet kicked into a corner. Ridgeland Penal Colony sat in a furrow between two creases. She flipped to the next page.

Rivers carved gaps through the oak, hickory, and pine covered crests. Bear, wolf, and owl hunted the forests. Then humans arrived: hunters and gatherers, farmers, miners, taking advantage of the rich soil, swollen rivers, and the energy-packed carbon, the population growing steadily until most of the major industries became non-economic.

All very interesting but remote. Shouldn’t a brief contained material about—oh, maybe—the present? Honestly. She skimmed, looking for anything useful, such as anything relevant to the Warden’s distress signal. Page seventeen explained the radiation meter in her gear. A nuclear accident had destroyed a power plant down river from the farm and spread radiation over the surrounding territory. But what about recent events: descriptions of the monsters, the timeline, the eyewitness testimony, images, anything? It’s not as if monsters—monsters?—are an everyday complaint. Sure, the situation on the ground and the brief never exactly lined up, but this write up was almost negligent, InfoCorp doling out intel the way an orphanage doled out jam, one teaspoon for every acre of bread.

As a team leader and veteran of hundreds of missions, real-world, adult-type missions, this document was an insult. She slapped the case file shut and stared at the sky.

The ship rose above a layer of clouds, both the ground and horizon hazy and uncertain. At the airfield, she’d kept expecting somebody to cry “gottcha!” and admit this ludicrous mission was a prank. But nobody had twitched a lip. Still, she’d held on to that hope up until lift off. Central would never waste precious air-time on a prank.
She loosened her grip on her pencil and shook a cramp out of her wrist. What did she have? Just “investigate the Warden’s complaint about monsters.” Hopefully, they’d find nothing more complex than mass sociogenic delusion, an enormous bear, or some other animal with a frightful mutation. She slumped back in to her chair. Please let this mission be straightforward: no hard calls, no deviations, no interpersonal drama. Because the tether that bound her to her career was attenuating by the minute.

And even more annoying, she no longer had an excuse to avoid chatting. She’d just have to haul her butt out of this chair and chat, learn about her team-members. An especially crucial task, given that the personnel briefs had been truncated to the point of dereliction of duty.

Some hours later, she slumped into her seat, her mouth and soul as dry as the insides of a vacuum bag. Chatting at length while obscuring the embarrassing truth that Central had given her no additional information had felt like an hours long one-sided tango.

Wind rushed along the carriage. The historian’s voice droned on, a different type of wind. Sure, all chip-heads loved their data and wanted to share. But this one… The man’s name was…Yoder. Jemin Yoder. Jemin. She really needed to lock in everyone’s name before they landed. Thanks to Yoder, she now knew even more about the region’s geology. He clearly lacked a boredom-in-others meter. Granted, she’d never worked with a historian before; maybe they were all like this guy. Every so often, he tossed his thick blond bangs out of those pale blue, bespectacled eyes. A bang-trim might be a better solution than the incessant hair flipping.

Chips hadn’t appealed to her. She’d had the scores, but her own mind was busy enough. Why add extra head noise? Might’ve led to extra pay; it’d be nice being able to afford clothes like Spool’s, but chips meant heavy debt and often led to mental problems.

Thinking of mental problems led her to the perceivers she’d worked with in the past: the lady who’d negotiated with that Canuck rebel leader, and a pair who’d helped her team prise out a traitor. Odd balls, all three. Unlike everybody else on the team, Spool had pertinent field experiencer. And superficially, he seemed normal, though with undertones of remote and damaged, but he might be skilled and level-headed. The girl, Orl—no last name—was still a wild card since she’d been asleep.

The security officer, Brandt Collins, was a familiar type, recently out of the service and still adjusting to civilian life. He’d spent time on the border but hadn’t been hate-poisoned by the experience. In fact, he seemed remarkably open-minded. Not the sharpest tool in the shed, but a good egg.
The passengers settled in to silence; maybe Yoder had lulled them all to sleep. Maybe Orl had the right idea. She closed her eyes.

***

Using this configuration, Jemin Yoder’s chip could broadcast directly to his mouth and enlighten his seatmate while this other aspect of his mind observed. Such a pleasure, these new discoveries, though Central could’ve given him more time to practice before shipping him off. He’d need to log each experience and bounce his data off experts on his return.

His bulky seatmate probably spent most of his time in the gym, so some education wouldn’t hurt him. Much of this treatise on airships was irrelevant to the mission, but how interesting a part of his brain could survey the knowledge for useful tidbits, while this talky portion performed a meta-analysis on the phenomenon that was himself, a valuable professional, dispensing knowledge. The Common FolK thought historians were all chip and no brain. Ha.

Of course, he had to give the chip its due, but only his hard work and persistence had earned him a top-notch chip filled with data of the highest quality. Still, he was more than his chip. The Lord, praise be, had blessed him with natural gifts, the ability to select, curate, and cull information for each audience, distill essences, pull together bits from disparate sources, and generate novel hypotheses. Information was nothing in the absence of synthesis.

Observe how he’d enthralled the security officer. Machinery often fascinated physical types, a little boy's enthusiasm for vehicles persisting into adulthood. Yes, the chips were unnatural. And he’d abandoned the path of the righteous when seduced by all that knowledge. But ruminating about chip-debt and the sad demise of his academic dreams wouldn’t do any good. He could still provide a valuable service, not the career he’d hoped for, maybe. And somehow, he’d prove the faithful could function in the modern world. Maybe he’d uncover a valuable clue in historical documents and solve this mystery. Imagine revealing his findings to a packed audience of rapt admirers. Ambition, but in the service of the Lord on High.

He sighed, settling into the truth. He’d messed his life up beyond redemption, and now he was flying out to the country to chase monsters. Lead Krause hadn’t given him any details, meaning whatever she’d read in the brief was bad news. Lord, have mercy upon me.

The Lord couldn’t change his spectacles forever sliding down his nose and the body his bookish life-style had fashioned. No. He really wasn’t the monster-hunting type. Maybe the big man seated adjacent could take care of the monsters while he quietly pursued his ticket out of this mess—

Oh!

His seatmate had drifted off. Just as well; using the chip drained him dry. He should be more careful.

***

Brandt Collins had only said, “Is this ship excellent, or what?” And the ship was excellent. Sleek, silent, and ultra-emissions neutral. Could use a sexy flight attendant serving drinks on a tray, but overall a high-class ship, down to the silver-gray color. “Or what” was a turn of phrase, not an invitation to lecture. Sure the historian’s high-tech details would wow computer types, but he could only understand every fourth word. Good thing the chip-head seated next to him talked non-stop and didn’t ask questions.

The glossy carbon-black arm rest felt cool and smooth beneath his finger tips. A lecture was a small price to pay for this ride, an experience way above his pay grade and a great start to a fantastic mission. And the Chief, a fine looking older lady, impressed him. She had things under control, though the mission still felt unclear. But taking on monsters, rescuing helpless civilians, and probably rescuing four-eyes here would suit him. And best yet, the team included perceivers, that pair across the aisle. A fancy-pants urban guy and a quirky looking girl. He’d heard perceivers were kinda different, and that pair sure looked different. Yep. This mission would be incredible. He could feel it in his bones.

***

The stone-faced teen seated beside Philip Spool had stopped feigning sleep, but she still didn’t or wouldn’t speak. He’d expected endless yakking, although who was he kidding? His knowledge of teen-aged girls would fit in a teaspoon. Maybe stone-walling adults was all the rage with kids these days. Still, he’d had plenty of experience with trainees, and her behavior was definitely odd for a trainee; trainees answered their supervisor’s questions, hoping to impress or befriend them.

The seat’s cheap plastic fabric grated against his pants as he leaned forward to tuck her dossier into his satchel. NeuroCorp hadn’t listed any neurological or psychiatric problems. So why didn’t she respond? He wasn’t usually intrusive, but now was the time to switch tactics. Should be easy; their chips were supposedly compatible, or so the dossier said.

He switched on and lobbed a few polite questions as language-equivalent transmissions. The moment hovered like a frozen pendulum. The transmission should have hit her auditory system almost at the moment of conception. By now. Well by now. Might as well scream into the abyss. Disgusted, he faded the communications module.
A blast of air buffeted the ship sideways. The aerodynamic equivalent of an egg crate, this plane, and probably held together by hoof glue and packing string. He’d flown before and yet, he’d broken a sweat, while Orl just sat, a statue staring out the window.

Communication over a distance was a perceiver’s trump card, a skill that’d left him and others not-dead many times. NeuroCorp could experiment with chips all they wanted, but they shouldn’t…no…they couldn’t mess with the communication function. And maybe, they didn’t recruit normals, but some basic social skills should be mandatory.

Please let immaturity explain her silence, because the next most likely option was malfunctioning circuitry, or worse, a malfunctioning brain. If her problem was technical; they were doomed. Because nobody at a remote, rural work farm could help them with a chip glitch.

Slivers of memory glittered at the edges of his consciousness; somebody raving in a stairwell, red splatter against a window, the scent of mildew. Thoughts like space junk wheeling through a vast and empty cosmos, no context, nothing rang true. Shut this down, or he would seize. He groped in his pocket for a vial of MemStop, crushed the ampule and snorted. A rush, then—

An unfamiliar place, a tube fitted out with seats and little round windows. The place smelled of plastic. Something damp lay in his fingers. He glanced down. A MemStop ampule, meaning a seizure. But where was he? The instructions on the ampule told him to wait. Forcing reality would make things worse…

Ah, yes: the airship, the silent girl, the idiotic mission that nobody, not even the Chief could explain. No wonder he’d had a seizure.

And he should be at home recovering, but here he was, deployed and responsible for a trainee. Barely able to work up enthusiasm to take a piss, he was in no condition to train bright young things. Or dull young things like Orl with her baggy, black clothing, a perpetual scowl, and silence.

He twirled a stray a thread on his shirtsleeve. Complaining and fidgeting combined might stave off memory, a trap lurking dank and black, a pool in a dark cave.

***

The Man buzzed in her ear, but she ignored him. She could ignore him. Now that she’d stopped taking the Pills. Triumph. Victory! (No, not Yet). But still she felt Good, a warm glow, a Rush of excitement.
She could Leave.

That one thought Persisted when all other thoughts had flowed like tea leaves down the drain. Dregs of who she was Before. She wasn’t that person anymore, the one who was supposed to Do Something. What? What had she been supposed to do?

No matter. She was Light and Water. She could Spread. Anywhere.

She reached out. But the ship-people, though she could hear a smattering of their thoughts, their mind’s were Closed to her. She reached out, a filament but pulsing with energy. Beyond the ship she touched a Consciousness, a small and simple mind. The consciousness became a glowing dot, an energy deposit she could flow toward.

Swoop, flap, swoop, flap, the rushing air, the forest below, gravity’s pull, the glinting sun. Falling! Orl’s stomach lurched.

Confusion and fear swamped her small host, a bird who dove, expecting a hawk, danger from above, not understanding Orl was the source of sudden alarm. It spiraled, a moment of Panic, wings flailing. A flash of Earth then sky as they somersaulted. Small! She must be small, a buckwheat Groat, a Grain of sand, hiding from the bird until it righted and flew as if nothing rode in its Mind.

The wind filled their wings, the journey and Hunger tugging the fabric of their reality. A new sense like a smoky cloud guided them. “Go now,” it insisted, “Leave, fly.” Yes, this bird’s mind suited her victory, sky-bound, clean and simple, Free and Leaving.

They flew. And Now, having flown, she could never return. They’d drug her, then Know what she could become. Rasp would twist her so she’d never leave. The treatment room, the sharp smell of antiseptic, the bench sticking to her naked thighs. Her fear sent the bird diving again, more danger from above, the Hawk… Orl slipped.

Snap.

She was in her seat, the human minds around her chittering, the cool of the ship’s casing. But it’d been time to Return. The bird was traveling far. And she couldn’t be a bird forever, though the bird had accepted her. People would never understand. Take this man next to her; His Aggravation hung in the air like a foul smell.

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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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