Short stories

Also known as ficticulous. That is, ridiculous fiction. The stories below are sorted by character.

Haruki

The Green Nest

The Green Nest is an off-cut from the Fallouts series. It was originally chapter 5 of the first book, but for pacing reasons (and the fact that the first book is massive), it was left on the cutting room floor. My editor thought protagonist Haru should get to his PoQ – Point of Quest – as soon as possible, rather than investigating another paranormal mystery, which is what he does here.

Halfway between Shovelling and Ra, my letter tin began to rattle.

The wastelands stretched out from horizon to horizon around me, uniform grey in the distance, revealing patches of viridian and sepia in the foreground. I paused for respite on the crest of a great scrap mountain. Directly to the north there were a few townships, a forest of sorts and a chain of marshland. Ra lay further east, with no civilisation of note between it and me.

I rolled myself a cigarette, and puffed away heartily as I checked my letter tin.

‘Dear Haruki,

I hear you’re currently located in western parts of the Ra Wastelands. We have several other agents in the area, and all have refused to take on this job. Don’t let that dissuade you; I’m sure it’s the business of the mender’s lifestyle that prevents the others from acting.

I did mention a job, didn’t I? Yes, it’s in HarringtonFord. The mayor there, one Gunstav Elbow, has written to the Monster Squad asking for help with a bit of a bug problem. Well, you know the Monster Squad. They’re up to their eyeballs already in things what need swatting, so a couple of ladybirds and an earwig are the least of their concerns. The Monster Squad has passed the case on to us, and so I’m passing it on to you.

Go and have a look, won’t you? I’m sure it’s nothing a solid smack with a rolled-up newspaper can’t handle. Be a good lad and make sure whatever bug-spewing rifts in the area are closed once you’re done.

Cheerio,

Georgom Thorn,

Menders’ Guild, Department of Wandering Mender Affairs.’

I stared at the letter for several minutes. On one hand, I was pleased to hear from Georgom. Georgom is the epitome of bachelorhood and has been my best friend for ten years now. He taught me all the essentials of a life of bachelorhood—smoking, drinking, and cheating at cards—when I was fourteen and he was old enough to know better. On the other hand, I was less than pleased about being called ‘lad’, and scoping out HarringtonFord would mean another day added to my trip to Ra.

I rolled myself another cigarette, using the blank corner of Georgom’s letter to hold the scant amount of tobacco I had left. And that decided it for me. I needed tobacco. I needed paper. Harrington Ford was close by, and as good as stop as any for fattening up my tobacco pouch.

Puffing like a windswept chimney, I replaced my letter tin in my pocket, and started down the mountainside. It was time to swat some bugs.

Night had fallen by time I reached HarringtonFord, a pleasant town on the banks of the Serpine River. I blame the night for my failure to notice what would have been immediately obvious during the day.

Harrington Ford’s only tobacco merchant was kind enough to give me directions to the mayor’s house. I’ve been through the town a few times before, and knew it well enough not to get lost in the dark. There wasn’t much town to know. Mayor Gunstav Elbow himself answered his front door. Once I explained who I was, and that I was here to see about HarringtonFord’s bug problem, Gunstav welcomed me into his home like a long lost nephew.

I did wonder briefly over a dinner of cold ham and salad why all the curtains in the mayor’s house were so astutely drawn, so that not even a sliver of night pierced the rooms. I also wondered about the doors and windows being shut tight, despite the heat of the night, though not a single one was locked.

Suffice to say I did not wonder enough.

I slept in the lounge room, since it was more spacious than the guest room, and Gunstav refused to let me retire to the garden. My time in Shovelling had been an unusual week for me in that I slept indoors the entire time. Had it not been so necessary to the case, I would never have considered it. Sleeping indoors is something I’ve never had much patience for. I’m a deplorable vagrant, I know. What’s more, I should have known something was amiss when Gunstav insisted I stay inside.

You’re probably thinking by now that what was amiss was Gunstav himself. Like maybe he wanted to shackle me to the couch and torture me with maths jokes for years on end until I finally went insane and brained him with an abacus. Not so.

This is what happened.

Here’s me, sprawled like a wet towel on the couch, sleeping as soundly as my disdain of the indoors would allow. Some remote part of my brain was telling me it was morning, but since the curtains were drawn, the lack of ambience clashed with my natural alarm clock, and I stayed sleeping.

However, there are creatures more sensitive to light than I. Moths are one such creature. This particular moth detected the phantoms of light trickling in around the curtains, and decided it would hide itself away for the day.

Well, what looked like a grand hiding place to this moth was old Haruki myself, perfectly stationed for being molested by a moth in the wee hours of dawn. The moth dropped from the roof, and the whumph of its wings woke me. With most moths, you won’t hear their wings opening. I heard this one. And I saw it, a split second after the noise had convinced me that yes, this was morning, and high time I got moving.

I moved, alright. A moth the size of an open atlas dropped onto my face, feelers sweeping over my hair, giant hairy legs clawing for purchase against my shoulders.

All I can say to you if you’ve never seen a moth up close is, don’t. Don’t see it up close. Especially don’t see it up close when it has feelers as long as your arm and eyes like a couple of disco balls wedged in the nightmare of its face.

I managed to get one hand up under the moth’s spiny, spongy thorax, and pushed it away from me. The moth took to the air, buzzing around the lounge room in corking, bewildered circles. I promptly fell off the couch, scrambled up off the carpet, and sprinted out of the lounge room. I found Gunstav Elbow already awake in the kitchen, sipping his coffee. A roly-poly bigger than a cow’s head was perched on the wall above the sink. A snail I could have ridden hung from the roof.

‘What god-awful business is going on here!’ I demanded, barely able to get the words out over my indignation. ‘This here isn’t a bug invasion—it’s a freaking monster invasion!’

‘Well, yes,’ admitted Gunstav Elbow, regarding me over his coffee. He had the morning newspaper spread out on the table. Just your regular Saturday morning, reading the paper before it was devoured by man-high snails. ‘It’s a bit like that. I thought you might be more inclined to help if you started with the smaller bugs and worked your way up to the biggens.’

I glared at him. I don’t really have what you would call a thousand yard glare, or the coiled potential of a cobra for intimidation purposes, but I believe Gunstav got my message.

He huffed. ‘There are bigger, you know. Widow Cabaggo on Pots Streets has been inconvenienced for a week by a ladybird the size of a bathtub living in her outhouse.’

I glared at him some more.

‘Tell me, master mender, do you believe this is in your line of work?’ Gunstav returned his attention to his coffee so he could ignore my glaring. Curse him.

‘I believe this is in the line of work of the 11th Squad Royal Terminators!’ I snapped, and stomped into the lounge room to fetch my backpack. Once I had it, I stomped pointedly past Gunstav and headed for the front door.

‘Wait!’ he cried, forgetting his coffee. ‘Please, don’t leave us like this! The other menders have all been too afraid to help!’

The other menders, yes. Georgom had mentioned them. Too busy with the mender lifestyle, he had said. Pah. Liar. The other menders were too sensible, more likely.

I knew I should go. Whether or not there was a rift to blame for this, as there surely was, it was not my job to take on hordes of bugs that swatted back. And I had to get to Ra. If I didn’t make it by Festival of the Dead, the curfew would keep me detained in the outer wastelands for another half a week.

The moment I had thought those words, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. Slowly, reluctantly, I turned to Gunstav Elbow. He stood clutching his newspaper in one hand and his coffee in the other. A cockroach as long as Gunstav was tall slid out from around the kitchen door and scurried up the wall. Gunstav turned a whiter shade of grey.

‘Show me where the bugs were first sighted,’ I told him, feeling rather pale myself. ‘I’ll see if there’s anything I can do.’

 

 

Having seen all I wanted to of man-high cockroaches and overly gregarious moths, I bid Gunstav Elbow a good morning, and made my way to the town centre.

Saturday is market day in HarringtonFord. People swarmed around me, over me, and in the case of one curious pig, under me. I stood beside the pokey-yet-stupidly-prosperous newsstand, figuring it was as good a place as any to hear the gossip.

The marketplace was no freer from bugs than anywhere else in HarringtonFord. Millipedes, driven out of hiding by recent rain, moved in a black tide across the houses on the south side. They were studiously ignored, despite being of such proportions as to saddle and ride across the chimneys. Fleas as big as my balled fist made a fun game of springing through the throngs of shoppers. A particularly massive dung beetle cleared a whole cottage away with its roll of dung.

No one paid the bugs any attention whatsoever, and whenever I asked about them, people would look at me as though I were quite mad. I had more luck finding dirt on the esteemed Mister Elbow than I did of hearing an answer about why that hornet was carrying away that cat.

‘So you’re the mender staying with our Mister Gunstav,’ an old lady crooned, latching onto my elbow. I hadn’t uttered a word of my being a mender to anyone except Gunstav himself, who lived alone, and I had arrived in the pitch black of last night to stay with him. I couldn’t figure out how everyone in the market knew me, until I remembered the tobacconist. But she had been blind, deaf, and only registered I was in the store when I put a packet of tobacco in one of her creased hands and the money to pay for it in the other. She’d smiled and counted out my change. How she had given a full description of me to everyone in HarringtonFord by dawn this morning was one of those miracles of small towns.

‘He’s a lovely fellow, isn’t he?’ said my new escort, age one thousand. ‘He’s done an awful lot for this town.’

‘Been in council for twenty years now,’ another passerby chipped in. ‘You’d never think there was that rule about changing office every three years.’

My escort scoffed at this. ‘Mister Gunstav changes job titles, just like everybody else there. He’s just very good at his job, so we keep voting him in. Don’t worry about her, love,’ she told me. ‘We folks here follow the rules. No consecutive voting of councillors for us, oh no.’

She was referring to the Midgardian law that every three years, anyone in a position of power must be cycled out of that position. There are ways around it, but if the Surps get a whiff of any in-housing, you can bet the next news headline will be Mayor Such-and-such and his entire party being shipped off to the Monster Front.

I didn’t bother to tell my escort I wasn’t a Surp. Everybody knew the saying: if you think somebody is a Surp, you’re wrong.

‘I hear he’s got his eye on Treasurer this year,’ chirped a lady who was almost entirely hat. ‘Mister Gunstav, that is. Tell him he can be sure of my vote.’

‘Not mine,’ grumbled some old man on his way by. ‘I wouldn’t vote for the bastard unless it meant writing my name on a morgenstern and lobbing it at him.’

‘Far be it from you to vote for a candidate who isn’t a life support for a pair of tits,’ scolded the old woman attached to my arm.

I nearly choked. ‘Excuse me! I was asking about these bugs, not your opinion on the next election!’

Roughly half the marketplace turned to me and said, ‘What bugs?’

I grabbed a low-flying woodlouse the size of my foot out of the air, and thrust it under the nose of the hat lady. ‘These bugs. These giant bugs! But if you’d prefer to live with ladybirds filling up your outhouses, be my guest!’

‘Now, now, let’s not be hasty,’ a senior citizen told me hurriedly. It seemed Gunstav wasn’t the only one to hear of Widow Cabaggo’s bug problem.

‘There isn’t much we can tell you, dearest,’ said the specimen of prehistory who was latched onto my elbow. ‘I do believe Mister Adjango was the first to mention our little problem with the beetles.’

Now we were getting somewhere. I removed the woman from my arm, set her aside, and said, ‘Right. Where is he?’

A man with socks reaching to mid-thigh grunted, ‘Old Adjango’s got a farm on the outskirts o’ town. You follow Hansy Road to the end, you’ll find his place there. Got cedars in the front yard. Got a pig wants spittin’, too. Mind his wife, she bites.’

There was a general murmur of consensus around the market.

‘Thank you,’ I said, not as graciously as I should have. ‘If I ever need an opinion on which way to vote, I’ll ask you.’

The old woman laughed and slapped my arm. ‘We’re always pleased to have fresh meat in town.’

Rather than scream, I plastered on a smile and moved on. Most of the market-goers gave me a once over and approved, as though I was a horse out for inspection. One grumpy old fart muttered something about me corrupting the minds of his women. I ‘tripped’ and ‘accidentally’ booted him in the shin.

‘Terribly sorry, sir,’ I grinned.

‘Get outta here, ya big bastard,’ he snapped.

I didn’t need telling twice. With a skip, a hop and a jump, I was out of the marketplace and onto the street. Hansy Road wasn’t hard to find; anywhere else in HarringtonFord is hard to find if you can’t find Hansy Road. It cut straight through the middle of town, pausing only for the market square, and blazed on into the marshlands.

Adjango’s house was at the end of the road as promised. It was a cottage built on swamp, and cedars strained up from the wild front garden as if trying to fly free. A pig that could have taken on Widow Cabaggo’s ladybird in an even match was tied to one such cedar.

I gave the pig a wide berth as I clambered down the rugged garden path. The swine espied me across a nest of nettles and let out an almighty squeal. I hit the dirt, fearing imminent pig attack, and Adjango’s front door flew open. A thunderhead billowed out.

‘Who and what do you propose to be?’ the thunderhead demanded, kicking me stoutly as I struggled to my feet.

‘Are you Adjango’s wife?’ I ventured, not daring to give my name to such a frightening apparition. If she had my name and my nail clippings, she could hex me to death. It wasn’t a chance I was prepared to take.

‘I’m Adjango! Missus Adjango. Yella Adjango. You’ll be wanting Brown Adjango. Move along, boy, no use you sitting around on the path all day, the bloody pig will eat you. Get inside and I’ll make you a cup of tea. We’re having scones. You eat scones. Get inside.’ She must have sensed my reluctance to wander into a harpy pit, because she screamed and smacked me with her wooden spoon. ‘Get moving, stranger! Before I get sick of the sight of you!’

Since that particular event seemed to be no more than six seconds away, I hurried towards the house. The inside was a stark contrast to the front yard. It was immaculate. I was afraid to breathe lest my exhalations taint the polished air. Yella Adjango planted her wooden spoon into the small of my back, and pushed me through the house. A whole lot of embroidered cushions and crocheted kittens swam by until at last we reached the back verandah.

Here, perched at the table, eating scones, and looking very much like a mouse sitting on the trap to eat the cheese, was Brown Adjango. He was immediately unmistakable for anyone other than himself. He had the look of someone named Brown. He wasn’t really brown, not any more than the next lifelong farmer, but he was craggy faced and wild haired, with eyebrows obviously grown out for the express purpose of hiding from Yella.

‘You’ll be the mender, then,’ he said to me, before I’d had a chance to introduce myself. ‘Heard you’re staying with Elbow.’

‘Elbow’s a fool,’ Yella snapped. ‘Brown, mind your manners. Offer the guest a scone. Don’t slouch. You’re still slouching! I swear one of these days you’re going to slouch so much your spine will snap. Have a scone, boy! I’ll fetch the tea. You like it white with no sugar. I know the look of you. Sit down, what are you afraid of, electrified chairs? We only have them for Brown to stop him slouching.’

And Yella stormed off to rain havoc on the kettle.

‘The chairs aren’t really electrified,’ Brown told me, smiling apologetically. ‘I just pretend they are to please her.’

I took a seat warily. No electric shock. It must be my lucky day. The verandah overlooked an expanse of swampy farmland pushing against the tide of the scrap heap. A herd of donodin cast bulky shadows against the distant chain of ponds. The river widened at this end of town, spreading itself over half a kilometre of marsh. Between there and here I could see a swarm of giant gnats, a grasshopper devouring a fence post, a trio of cicadas bending a poplar tree to breaking point, and that wasn’t to mention the nest of prehistoric ants marching across the verandah ceiling, nor the ammonites swarming around our feet.

I checked to see that Brown Adjango hadn’t fled from his wife while he had the chance. ‘Those your donodin?’

‘Yup. Mine and Yella’s. Got about four hundred head of ’em spread about the place. Mind you, I lost half the calves this year to bugs. Reckon I never saw a dragonfly eat a donodin before, but there you have it.’ Brown’s expression was steady. His voice carried a note of sorrow. Sorrow, as opposed to downright terror, which I’m pretty sure I would have been expressing in his position.

‘I’m looking to help you get rid of those bugs,’ I told him, hoping I wasn’t lying. ‘I was told they begun appearing around your property before they showed up anywhere else.’

Brown nodded. His gaze was on the paddocks. ‘Yeah, reckon so.’ He sighed, suddenly and heartfelt, and his plain face twisted up like he was trying hard not to cry. ‘Yella told me this place was cursed. Last year, like. Before, maybe. We had a mender out here before, had trouble with our main dam. Wouldn’t hold water. O’ course we had salinity issues before that and the whole bit about the foot fungus on the young donodin, but our trouble didn’t really get started until the business with the dam. Now this. Gonna have to sell up. Aw, shit. Nobody with a brain would want to buy this place, and I wouldn’t feel right selling it to a simpleton. Some days I reckon I ought to wander out into that swamp and let the dragonflies finish me off. Be kinder than having to watch this happen.’

‘There’s always going to be trouble of some sort. We’ll have these measly couple of bugs sorted out in no time.’ I gave him what was possibly an encouraging smile. ‘You mentioned there was a mender out this way before.’

‘Yup.’ Brown paused as Yella blew like a hurricane onto the verandah, slammed our tea down on the table, and dropped a fresh plate of scones beside them.

‘I’m going out,’ she declared, face thunderous, ‘I’ve got my society meeting in town. You fellahs feel in need of another cuppa tea, you’re just going to have to wait until I get home.’

And with that, she spun on her black leather boot, and stormed back into the house. Her tea was strong, though not bad, and she had arranged the scones on a lace doily, complete with a porcelain tub of cream and another of jam. How she hadn’t broken the tubs when she threw them down on the table was a mystery to me. The porcelain probably wasn’t game to break while Yella had it in her sights.

Brown and I waited in silence until the front door slammed open and banged shut again a moment later. We breathed a sigh of relief.

‘She’s alright, my missus,’ Brown said, a touch guiltily. ‘She’s all bark.’

There was a squeal as Yella punted a hundred kilos of pig off her azaleas. ‘Back off, porky!’ she roared, and even from the front yard, the vibrations of her bellow stirred ripples in our tea cups.

‘She’s a flower,’ I agreed. ‘Now, can you tell me about the other mender? You said you had trouble keeping water in the dam.’

Brown shook himself like a man waking from a dream. Or a nightmare, you choose. He said, ‘Our main dam, yeah. You can see it out there, oh, I suppose you don’t know where to look. It’s alright now. About a year ago though, we had a whole lot of rain. If I recall, we had a hundred and eighty mil in a week. That’s a lot for this part o’ the countryside. Anyway, as you can picture, all that rain flooded the swamp, and the dams along with it. Every one of our reserve dams was overflowing for weeks. Not the main dam. That went down to half full within about a day of the rain finishing. It just outright refused to hold water. No matter how much Yella and I drained the other dams into it, even got the pump running ’tween the dam and the marsh, the water would always drop to half. Within hours, it would. We were pretty soon out of ideas about it, so I contacted a bloke who knows the Wardens well, and they sent over a mender.

‘I went out to the dam with her. She wouldn’t pick it without me, you know what these city folk are like. No offence, if you are one. All I’m saying is you wouldn’t know a half full main dam from a full reserve dam if your life depended on it. Girl took one look at the dam, anyway, and threw in this bit of string with a couple of bells on, and called it a job done. I thought it strange at the time, believe me, but I saw soon enough that it worked. The dam started holding water proper again. Farm ran smooth as butter after that.’

‘Until now.’

Brown nodded. ‘Yup. Until now.’

I thought for a moment, looking out at the paddocks. Although I wasn’t a city boy, I couldn’t pick the Adjangos’ main dam from a muddy puddle. I figured Brown didn’t need to know this. ‘From what you’ve said, it’s fairly obvious what’s gone wrong.’

‘Uh huh.’ Brown raised one furry eyebrow.

‘Yuh huh. She mistook the source of the rift.’ I pulled my backpack onto my knees and rummaged through it. Between the plate of scones and the tea cups, I sat a length of transdimensional string and two bells, one bronze and one gold. I glanced at Brown, ‘Look familiar?’

Both his seaweed eyebrows crept towards his hairline. ‘That string sure does. It has a funny sort of colour, doesn’t it? Sort of like you can’t see the whole of it, only what’s there. And what’s there isn’t everything there is of it. Yeah, that other mender had string just like it. She threw some of it in the dam. Called it by a name, like super string, or transient diabetic, er?’

He looked to me for help. ‘Transdimensional,’ I offered. ‘It’s string capable of existing in two places at once, with the interim residing as raw potential, possibly in the form of pure energy.’

‘Oh, yes?’ said Brown politely.

In circumstances like these, it’s best not to bother. But the Menders’ Guild code states that we should bother, in case one day someone somewhere actually understands what it is we’re talking about, and then we can kidnap them and force them to work in the Guild of Extra-Dimensional Technology, our sister guild and science department.

I looked Brown squarely in his muddled brown eyes and attempted to do the impossible. ‘The string converts the space between the ends, both of which you see here, into a one-dimensional data string, which of course being one-dimensional is completely invisible to multi-dimensional creatures like ourselves. Er. You mentioned the string looks like there’s more of it than you can see. You’re right. Except rather than there being an actual length of string that you can’t see, there’s energy which believes it is part of the string. When it comes into contact with a rift, which I suspect is at the bottom of your dam spewing beetles, it is capable of existing both inside the rift space and our own space, and when the rift is mended, the string is taken as compensation so that the rift no longer exists in this space.’

Brown stared at me. He was drooling. ‘I knew that,’ he said, shaking himself to sit upright. ‘I don’t know why you bothered telling me.’

I raised an eyebrow at this.

‘Alright, I’m lying. I didn’t understand a damn word you said.’

‘Speaking of dams, shall we get going? Oh, and before I forget, which colour bell did the other mender use? Gold or bronze?’

‘Bronze, solid bronze. I thought about fishing it up and selling it,’ Adjango said, getting up from the table.

I followed suit. We both stuffed our pockets full of scones. ‘Wouldn’t work. Fishing it up, that is. It was gone the second the rift was sealed.’

We set off across the paddocks before YellaAdjango could return and nag us to an early grave. After about a kilometre of swampy paddocks and barbed wire fences, I became aware of a mighty huffing and puffing behind us.

The puffing belonged to Gunstav Elbow. Against my better judgment, Brown and I paused for him to catch up.

‘Howdy, thanks,’ he gasped, breaking even with us. He huffed on to explain how he felt poorly for misleading me earlier, and wanted to repent by annoying me as much as possible. Maybe they weren’t his exact words. Maybe that’s just what I was hearing. Gunstav was alright as far as mayors go, but he was beyond retiring age, portly, and got hives when he ran. He wouldn’t be my first choice for backup against an army of bugs, or even my last. He just wouldn’t make the list at all.

His arrival meant I had to explain the situation again, although that was alright because I knew Brown Adjango was still struggling with it. People can have a hard time grasping rift theory, especially if they’ve not long ago woken up and expected the most they would have to do today is mow the lawn and read the paper.

‘The mender who helped you before had to decide whether the rift was sourced from the Gold World or the Bronze World,’ I told the pair, as we squelched through the paddocks, ‘She guessed wrong. Easy enough to do. In layman’s terms, it’s like this: a rift is a one-way passage between our world and another, and because of the natural laws of balance, rather than close the rift over, her actions projected a second hole to another world.’

‘You say Gold World and Bronze World, but I take it you mean the past and future of Midgard,’ Gunstav ventured.

‘No, I don’t. Forget that. Rifts are like magnets,’ I said, not willing to deviate from the issue at hand. Seeing the looks I was being given by Gunstav and Brown, I queried, ‘You do know what magnets are, right?’

‘Oh, yup, of course. They help you find north, and stick bits of paper to the salt box, that sort of thing,’ said Brown, eager to please.

Gunstav frowned. ‘Or do you mean magnets as in animal magnetism? I know several ladies of the town who have said that I have animal magnetism, and I take it to mean that I have the digestive prowess of a coal-powered goat.’

‘That’s animal metabolism,’ I said. ‘Animal magnetism means they find you attractive, or compelling.’

Or repulsive, I thought. Better to let him think the former.

‘Really! I did wonder how they knew so much about my digestion. It’s not a thing I tell many people about.’

‘Uh huh. Well, magnets and rifts are a bit like that.’

‘Speedy digestion?’ Gunstav suggested.

‘Forget about your digestion for a minute! A magnet has two poles, north and south. If you place two magnets beside one another, the sides that are similar, say two north sides, will push each other away. But if you have a north and a south side lined up, they’ll be attracted to one another.’

‘I see!’ Gunstav exclaimed. ‘Like how women are attracted to me!’

‘Sure, why not. Imagine that a rift is like a magnet. It has a north end and a south end. To close the rift, we need to use another magnet—these bells, which each represent a single polarity, say north or south—to hold it shut. And for that to work …’ I trailed off, wanting to test if enthusiasm to understand can lead to actual understanding.

‘For that to work, you’d need the magnets to be attracted to each other,’ Gunstav chipped in, ‘because if they were repelled, the hole would swing around the other way. But if they’re attracted, there isn’t any space in between the magnets, so the rift stays shut.’

I could scarcely believe my ears. He had understood it. And people say there’s no such thing as miracles. Ah, I’m rude. I should say, people say there’s no hope for humanity. And no miracles, either.

‘That’s exactly right. Gold star for you. I’m guessing the mender before me mistakenly used a bell that would repel the rift. Unlike magnets, repelling a connected space between worlds will create an opposite reaction, opening a rift between this world and the one not involved in the original reaction. That’s where these bugs are arriving from.’

I was getting funny looks again. Frankly, it was reassuring.

Brown gave a cry and pointed deeper into the paddocks. ‘There it is!’

His excitement over seeing a dam he had seen every day for the past twenty years without it being anything other than a dam that did dam things, was not in the least undue. I may have omitted to mention this, but all the while we were walking, the bugs were growing thicker and more furious around us. Cockroaches of standard size but torrential number swarmed over the knots of marsh grass. Black and orange beetles wheeled lazily in the sky like disorientated geese. Forgive me for not mentioning them. It seems the folks of HarringtonFord had the right idea in ignoring them—it wasn’t going to help us any to stand on chairs until the creepy crawlies went away. Still, Brown’s relief at finding the end in sight was unanimous amongst our muddy trio.

As we drew nearer the dam, moths the cousins of the one that had woken me that morning boiled over us like a thunderhead. I made to brush one away and its wings crumbled beneath my hand, showering me in dust. Their bodies were too fat, grub-like, as though they hadn’t fully metamorphosed before hatching.

‘This has got to be ground zero!’ I called over the drone of wings, trying to dodge the moths rather than crushing them. We three brave adventurers ducked under the swarm and ran for the dam.

Gunstav had more luck in running than Brown and I, who were hit with a descending wave of moths. Gunstav meanwhile cleared the swarm, and had just set foot on the clay verge of the dam when there was a sickening crunch and the eucalypt two metres to his left ruptured to splinters.

Brown and I ploughed through the moths and dragged Gunstav out of the path of the falling boughs. I left both men to check their limbs were accounted for, and turned back to the tree. The trunk had been wrenched apart clean down the centre, gory sap oozing from its splintered sides. Scurrying on the ground around it were cicadas as fat and heavy as hogs, desperate for cover. They had piled onto the tree until their weight snapped it.

Realising I was staring, I hurried back to Gunstav and Brown. Neither man was in the mood for conversation. Fine with me. We made our way quickly, silently over the dam wall so that we might better see the water and hopefully, the rift.

The dam’s surface was alive with flying, buzzing insects, from gossamer-winged ants to gnats and midges, to blowflies big enough to carry away a cow.

I fumbled with my backpack and produced the flat, resilient net that was my parting gift from Slazenger. I took an experimental swat at an overly amorous fly. The net worked better than expected; the fly uttered a snarling buzz and pinwheeled away over the lip of the dam.

‘Got any more of those?’ Brown wondered, his face ghostly white.

‘Sorry. I’ll try to keep them off you.’

We advanced through the mud at the dam’s edge. It was becoming terribly obviously that this would be no ordinary job. I could see the rift, a green eye hovering on the surface of the water, six metres from shore. Bobbing on the ripples below it was a ball made up of black and white hexagons. A thick rope was wrapped around the ball and presumably attached to a boulder on the dam’s muddy bed. The ball was so coated with slime that I never would have picked its original colours had I not seen one before, in a trophy room of fallout objects in the Valhalla Menders’ Guild.

‘That ball you’re using as a buoy,’ I said rather croakily to Brown. ‘That’s a fallout piece, isn’t it?’

‘Sure is. How’d you know?’ Brown seemed glad of any distraction, no matter how short-lived, and I couldn’t blame him. Giant bugs and plenty of them bustled curiously around us, in statistics too great to ignore.

‘Call it a hunch. I suspect it’s helped cause this mess. That buoy’s contact with an unevenly charged water supply created a friction blister between us and the Bronze World. When that popped, this rift opened up. I told you the mender before me mistook one world for another. That paved the way for a channel from the Bronze World to be opened up. The charge would have faded and the channel moved away, if this ball hadn’t been around. Think of it as a catalyst, ah, a trigger. I’m guessing the dam is back to half empty.’

‘You’re guessing right,’ Brown agreed. ‘And you’re right about another thing; when you’re living on the land, there’s always some shit to deal with. I only wish it would all stop happening at once.’

‘Welcome to the real world, sugar,’ I told him, and returned to rummaging through my backpack. This rift wasn’t a pretty little blister just waiting to be popped and repaired like the one in Ms Iyasuzi’s attic. This was open, and spilling bugs (in case you hadn’t noticed), and it needed to be closed now. I drew a length of string and two bells from my backpack, a bronze and a gold. Thanks to the demonstration I’d given Brown earlier, I had everything I needed sitting on top of everything I didn’t.

The string I cut in two, and tied to each bell. Then I changed my mind about how things should be done, and tied a knot in the string so that the two loose ends were joined.

‘I told you already,’ Brown protested, ‘That mender sheila did that before, with the string and the bells, and now this dam is worse than ever. Least before it didn’t spit roaches over the place.’

‘That’s why I’m going to do it again, and do it right. We’ll properly close off the rift to the Gold World, then round as many of these bugs as we can back into the other rift, and close off the Bronze World.’

‘Wait. Are you telling me that you want to send these critters back where they came from?’

‘Sure. Why not? They haven’t done anything wrong.’

Brown was incredulous. ‘Wrong! Are you kidding me? Not only did they eat my calves, and my wheat, and cause my old lady to—well, alright, she was bad anyway—but who cares what they’ve done or not done! Just close that damnable hole and me and Gunstav here will kill ’em all!’

I stared dispassionately at him down the length of my nose. ‘That attitude is exactly why I’m sending them home. You may not realise this, but that rift is a shortcut between two worlds, neither of which are Midgard, honey. Wonder why your water disappeared? It was distilled into two separate parts and sucked into the Gold World. When that hole was pinned directly to the Bronze World by means of that buoy, water from there began to flow into here in an attempt to restore the balance. Soon the hole was big enough to allow these bugs through. It’s getting to be of a ripe size now, ain’t it?’

Brown was meek, though I could tell he wouldn’t be mollified for long. ‘I s’pose so.’

‘It is. Well, guess what? That channel to the Gold World is still there, waiting to be opened, just as big as it was before. When that rift, that green eye there, grows to equal the size of the Gold World channel, those two worlds are going to be dragged together like the opposite poles of two magnets. You know where the ends will meet? Here. Right above your dam.’

We all looked at the rift. It looked back. Gunstav ventured, ‘Would that be bad? If the channels met, that is.’

‘Bad is one word for it. Sinkhole is another. The land for sixteen kilometres around this dam will be flattened, crushed, sucked into the sinkhole, and be gone forever. This area will be sealed off from Midgard for good. You’ll be able to walk from County Bisk to Shovelling in a single step, and it will be like HarringtonFord never existed. Got that?’

‘No.’ Gunstav said.

‘You’re saying that when that green eye, that rift gizmo there, when it reaches a certain size, everything here will be destroyed, right?’ said Brown, the less obstinate of the pair.

It wouldn’t be destroyed. It would be obliterated. A sinkhole is a vacuum which abhors matter, and any matter will do provided it’s close and it’s Midgardian. The theory is that when two rifts of equal weight meet, a shortcut between the worlds is created. It’s a shortcut that excludes Midgard. If a black hole opened up in your backyard one morning, you’d be dead, but you would also know first hand what a sinkhole is. The result would be a seam in reality so tightly stitched that no one would even know it existed.

I gave Brown and Gunstav a smile that wasn’t in the least reassuring. ‘Right. And I’m confident I can be far enough away in two hours that I won’t be affected, but the pair of you have your family and friends at stake as well as your own lives. Now, either we spare the bugs, or I’ll walk away. Run, even. Want to risk sitting on this until another mender happens along? It could be a while. Folks get busy around Festival of the Dead.’

‘Hold on there just a berry-plucking second there, boy-o. You’d seriously risk allowing everyone in HarringtonFord to be killed for the sake of a bunch of overgrown cockroaches?’ Gunstav demanded. He was too stunned to be mad, yet.

‘Without a second thought. Someone has to stick up for these bugs. Odin knows you won’t do it.’

The anger was starting to filter through. Gunstav sneered, ‘How do I know you’re not inventing this entire fiasco? It sounds ridiculous enough.’

I shrugged, and made to leave. ‘Wait and see, then.’

A hand on my shoulder stopped me. It was Brown. ‘Wait there, son. Gunstav. It’s true what he’s saying. I know you don’t want to believe it, and neither did I, but there’s another world on the other side of that eye. I know it. These bugs aren’t mice. They don’t just spawn whenever you leave a piece of hessian in the paddock.’

‘Get a hold of yourself, Adjango!’ Gunstav cried, taking Brown by the shoulders. ‘What you’re saying is mad! Everyone knows that on the other side of these, these rifts, there’s no other world. Just ours. Past and future. These bugs are just the throwback of our grandparents’ mistakes. There’s no such thing as, as, as places being sucked into these rifts. You’re talking nonsense!’

‘No, Gunstav, he’s right. The boy is right.’ Brown put his hands on top of Gunstav’s, and forced the other man to drop his grip. ‘About a week ago I was down here—I’m not in the habit of getting too close too often, since as you can see it’s a bog-heap in these parts and nothing better—and I looked into that eye and I saw rain. Rain pelting down onto the dam from no more than two hands above the surface. And these bugs just keep crawling out. It doesn’t matter if it’s past and future or if it’s bronze and gold or if it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. All that matters is that it is. We’ve got to do as the boy says, Gunstav.’

Brown and I regarded Gunstav expectantly. He glowered back. Eventually he stared up at the giant insects and sighed. ‘Whatever. Do what you want to. You have my promise as mayor that I’ll help you round these critters up afterwards.’

‘You won’t regret it,’ I grinned at Gunstav, not caring now if he glared or bit me or threw himself in the dam. ‘Let’s get this done. Brown, can you please hold this string?’

While Brown stood awkwardly with the mud up to his knees and the string and bronze bell in his hand, I waded out into the dam. I made quick work of sussing out the rift to the Gold World, which as expected was busting to be noticed. I looped my end of the string around it, and gave Brown the thumbs-up to pull the string.

As he did so, I pulled the folding knife from my pocket and split the Gold World channel open. It yawned into life. I didn’t give it a chance to start producing bugs or lions or anything else it might have in store for us. Instead I hauled the string out of Brown’s hands, and crammed it into the rift. It shut with a snap. There. Rift one closed. Now, to round up some bugs.

I was four lurching paces from shore when a ripple shuddered across the surface of the dam. A chill ran through me. Without a second thought I hit the water. There was a howling buzz, half drowned by the water sloshing around my ears, and a dragonfly soared from the Bronze World rift.

Gunstav and Brown scattered. Gunstav followed my lead and plunged headfirst into the warm, muddy water. Brown’s gumboots were stuck firm in the mud. He couldn’t run. He struggled out of them, and the dragonfly circled sharply overhead.

This was not the sort of dragonfly children would hunt on a summer’s afternoon. It was the sort of dragonfly which hunted children for fun, and likely ate them too. It darted down, wings a blur of gossamer. Brown screamed as the dragonfly caught him around the chest with four of its spiny legs. It dragged him from the mud, Brown screaming and beating at it frantically.

I was already on my feet and running, for what I don’t know. I’d left Slazenger’s fly swat on the shore, and I think I had some dumb hope of throwing it at the dragonfly to distract it. Gunstav was right beside me. We surged up out of the dam like a couple of mud men.

Gunstav cried, ‘Odin above, Haru, we’ve got to—’

And that was as far as he got before Brown’s screams reached a crescendo and cut off in a ripe splat. He had freed himself from the dragonfly only to be dropped twenty metres onto a fence post.

Gunstav roared and scrambled up the clay bank. He caught the dragonfly as it swooped down to pick Brown’s carcass from the post. Gunstav threw himself over the dragonfly’s carapace, pushed his arms around its thorax, and ripped its head clean off. Yellow bug viscera spilled out over the tussocks of marsh grass. I stumbled and hit the clay bank, staring, and nearly a minute passed before I felt well enough to make my way to Gunstav.

Even without its head, the dragonfly was mobile. It darted low across the paddocks before flagging sharply to one side, then flipped across ten or so metres of grass and shrubs before slamming into a eucalypt. There it stuck, twitching sporadically, a hundred metres away from its head.

‘He’s dead,’ Gunstav choked, as I staggered up. This of a man in little better condition than the dragonfly. ‘That bastard thing murdered him.’

‘And you killed it.’ I slumped to my knees. Gunstav was kneeling over Brown, too distraught to be nauseous. I was plenty nauseous. I was nothing but nauseous.

‘A man is dead! Damn the bugs! I’ll kill every one of them!’ Gunstav snarled.

‘I don’t think you can.’ I sighed. My tobacco pouch was drenched from my spontaneous dive, but I could smoke underwater at the moment. I rolled myself an exceedingly droopy cigarette and lit it with a match frisked from Brown’s jacket.

Watching me roll a cigarette, smoke it, and roll another gave Gunstav the time he needed to calm down. He said, voice shaking, ‘You’re one of them, aren’t you? A fallout. No one but a fallout could have sympathy for this lot of demon spawn.’

I was too busy trying to light my second cigarette with the stub of the first to be offended. ‘You got me. I prefer fallout to demon spawn, mind you. Is there a problem with that?’

‘We ought to call the Monster Squad. They’ll destroy every last one of these blasted bugs.’

I took this to mean that no, he didn’t have a problem with my being demon spawn. Ah, I mean a fallout. I glanced at him over the bloody remains of Brown Adjango. ‘Let’s not. I can agree with the dragonflies. It won’t do anyone much good to have things like that buzzing around. As for the rest, I’ll write a letter to the Menders’ Guild and have them send out a team from the Beast Recovery Department. They’ll take the bugs away, no need to kill anything. For now I recommend you have everyone in town light their fires and keep their windows closed. The smoke might discourage any bugs thinking about sneaking indoors.’

‘What happened to sending them home?’ Gunstav wondered, eying my cigarette enviously. It was not a thing to be envied, but these were exceptional circumstances. Thank Odin I didn’t pour myself a brandy; Gunstav likely would have strangled me for it.

‘I’ll concede you this; we’re taking too much of a chance leaving that rift open. Who’s to say more of those dragonflies won’t happen through while we’re rounding up ladybirds?’ I almost smiled, but then remembered I was practically sitting on a dead man. ‘Help me close the rift, then we’ll take Brown back to the house. We’ll sort the bugs out later.’

Gunstav agreed. Maybe he would kill the bugs the moment I left town, or maybe not. For now, we had Brown to think of, and his wife to inform, and that was a thought that scared me more than the dragonfly.

Night had fallen by time we reached the Adjango household. The Bronze World rift was safely sealed up and showed no signs of re-opening. Bummer. It meant I had no reason not to face Yella.

She greeted us on the verandah. Her usual thunderous manner soon dissolved as she learnt what had happened. Thankfully her reaction to her husband’s death was slow. She was shocked, but not yet ready to grieve. Moving as one entranced, Yella saddled up a mule so we could transport Brown’s body into town, and bid us a good evening.

Gunstav handed Brown over to the town mortician for safe keeping, left the mule tethered in the funeral parlour garden, and we both trudged the few remaining blocks to Gunstav’s house.

And that’s where we stayed. Bone weary, and in need of more than tea, but feeling revived after a hot shower and some sort of food that Gunstav apparently cooked himself. I can’t tell you what it was, other than that he called it food and that I obliged him by not commenting on how many shades of blue there were on the plate.

There were still bugs in town, but that was a challenge for tomorrow. I reckoned the fires would help. Me, I was doing my part to keep the beasties away by smoking constantly. Soon I would be a pyre of my own device, and able to scare off bugs a hundred yards distant. Well, maybe.

For what it’s worth, Brown Adjango, I’m truly sorry.

I’m sorry for the dragonfly, too.

I wish we could have found a way.

–*——————————————————-*–

The Baron

The Candle People

I was home at the time. So was my father, and Elis, my sister. Mother was visiting our closest neighbours, some three days north, to borrow some sugar, delaying the cup of tea I had standing on the sink by upwards of a week.

To take my mind off the tea I went to see about the rumours of these damn candle people straying closer to our home. Elis insisted on coming with me. She’d often dealt with fey, and while the candle people certainly aren’t fey, I’d feel better for having Elis with her sharp wit and silver sword with me in the search of the vast, strange, ancient forest which surged around our family home.

We spent a day and a night searching, without luck. The second night we camped on a rocky ledge peering as a granite island over the sea of trees extending in every direction around us. We sat on our bedding while the colour drained from the sky and night fell upon us, a soft, cool wind churning the higher branches of the trees, so indeed the forest moved like the restless surface of the ocean.

Night is the best time to hunt the candle people. And night is when they are at their most terrifying.

We sat there that night, Elis on watch, me drinking wine from a goblet enchanted to be unbreakable* and reading to Elis from a small hide-bound book I’d found whilst abroad. Elis didn’t much care for tales of romance between gents, but she would do her best to enjoy it, as it was damn well all we had.

*i.e. plastic

One moment we were sitting there, the cool wind licking our boots, and the next, the next, my words fell loud and flat as the wind fell still. A stirring in my marrow prompted me to guzzle down what wine was left in my goblet, and read a little faster, because we were up to the good bit and there would be no distractions from that.

“And Senaius leant into me, and brought his lips up to mine, so that our moustaches tangled-”

“Charl.” Elis’s voice was urgent and full of warning.

“Don’t fight it, Elis. You’ll like it eventually, it’s an acquired taste. Senaius growled-”

Elis hissed, “Not that, you dolt. I see them. The candle people.”

I dropped the book to my bed and was immediately by her side. I followed her gaze out over the treetops, and though the cloak of night robbed us of a horizon, I saw in the very great distance a light, then many lights. A trail of them. Wan, and amber, and drifting from cave mouths lost to the night, punctured into some black unseen slope, a giant’s staircase of eroding slate reaching into the dank swirling vortex of the fitful clouds above us.

“It’s far,” I cautioned Elis, seeing her clutch the silver hilt of her sword. “We won’t make it tonight.”

She nodded, her eyes never leaving the faint lights now cascading down the remote hidden mountain. I counted a dozen, then fifty, a hundred. The strange candle people, with their bowls of burning oil carried atop their flat heads. In the day their moulting olive skin hid them perfectly in the forest, but in the night they were a beacon, a river, a flood of alienness across the sleeping land.

And though we did not know it then, they were a herald, of war.

❤ ❤

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