The Off-Worlder Chronicles: Terror Australis. Part One

 

Many agreed the summer days of 2021 were hotter than most, and Saturday, the twenty-third of January helped support the consensus.

The air shimmered under a hot baleful sun blurring the horizon behind a hovering dust beneath which drove a small convoy along the cracked bitumen of a decaying highway, 160 kilometers southwest of Toowoomba, the governing capital of the empires northern region.

The lead vehicle, an electrically powered, three-wheeled motorbike, veered onto a dirt access road in a plume of billowing dust. Behind the rider, a curved platform rose, protected by an armored screen shielding two manned Gatling-style machine guns.

Trailing the war trike came two motorbikes, sleek machines with their high-gloss plum-colored fairing flowing back from over the front wheel a pair of matching panniers forming an aerodynamic armored casing for both the rider and machine.

A six-door limousine followed the front escorts. Two small satin flags mounted above the headlights fluttered and snapped in the wind. The banner on the driver’s side gold cloth contrasted the jet-black silhouette of a bull above Roman numerals. The passenger side flag displayed a star within a red and green laurel wreath, above two crossed gladius swords, and the letters S.P.Q.R.

A kilometer down the arid dirt road, the cavalcade pulled up in front of a hangar at an abandoned airfield, leaving a trail of pale dust floating northward on a sluggish breath of wind.

In one synchronized movement each rider dismounted to form a cordon as Marcus Civilis Emeritus emerged from the vehicle squinting against the harsh sunlight. At his feet, a swirling dust eddy tracked a path across the powdery dust while the dry heat pinched his exposed skin. After a furtive scan of the area surrounding the compound, Marcus leaned into the limousine to retrieve his cloak.

In the distance, a small mountain and ridgeline lost focus through the shimmering haze behind a grove of long-dead trees.

Marcus draped the cloak over his shoulder and brought up his manicured hand to halt two of the bike riders marching over to him.

“Stand at ease, Centurion.” He glanced at the flimsy, rusted chain mesh security fence. “There is a reason we call out here no-man’s land. So, I suggest you all head over to the canteen. I will phone through when I am ready.”

“By your command, Proconsul.”

Marcus’s chiseled face offered the smallest hint of a smile before he turned toward the structure. Time to find out whether our investments are proving fruitful. On entering the building, he paused, blinked, and squinted from his pupils’ sudden dilation in their effort of adjusting to the lower light spectrum. The immediate drop in temperature, a result of the super-chilled air which streamed from the outside condensers, stung his warm skin. When his eyes recovered from entering the dark room, the scene reminded him of a tactical operations center on an orbital battle barge. Against the two longer walls stood an assortment of cabinets and desks, attended by three Roman science auxiliaries dressed in bottle-green overalls. Three of the men busied themselves in front of computers, typing codes on back-lit keyboards. A fourth Roman paced up and down, making notes on a clipboard filled with papers.

“Lafrenius, why do you insist on keeping the lights so dim?” Marcus blinked and donned the mulberry hued velvet cloak over his immaculate, ink-blue, two-piece linen suit. “And must the temperature always be so cold?”

“Marcus?” An older man poked his head from behind a two-meter-high data bank. “When did you arrive?”

“An impromptu visit.”

“You know my thoughts about such…visits.”

“A point you have made countless times before.” Marcus wandered through the room, mesmerized with glowing dials, gauges, and monitors filled with moving bar graphs and data streams.

“If you find the temperature too cold or the lighting too dark, you could wait back in my office,” Lafrenius said in a dismissive tone, “We are about to begin the trial of the new targeting matrix, and the bright lights make certain gauges difficult to read.”

“It would seem I came at the right time.” Marcus smiled at the aging Tribune. “Can I help?”

“Yes. You can ionize the mapping screen and then stay put.”

Marcus tipped his head in acquiescence and moved across to the back wall to activate a large rectangular screen. Charged gasses between two plates of crystal started glowing to coalesce into a cloud filled with swirling eddies of blue, red, green, and gray, appeared.

Lafrenius went about zig-zagging between the consoles and the operators, making notes with his stylus. Then he stopped beside a seated technician, referred to his scribbled formulas, and adjusted some of the dials. With a quick look to his left, Lafrenius grunted when a single red dot pulsed on the technician’s console. Lafrenius shifted his attention to the mapping screen where a smaller red dot flashed.

The scientist tapped his stylus on his nose and walked back to the bank of instruments to adjust more dials and type in added codes. “No. No. NO.” He trotted back to the technician with the pulsing red light. “You are not compensating for the spatial drift and phase variance. I have told you before; the two dimensions are not parallel. They are alternate.”

Lafrenius struck the younger man across the back of his head. “Now, rework the calculation for a…” he scribbled on his board, “…6.536 variation. That should be enough to counter the drift vector.” He swiveled his head between the two out of sync red lights. “Quickly adjust the Z axis.” He continued to tap the stylus against his nose until bot lights pulsed in a continuous rhythm. “Better.” He called across to Tiberius, “Bring the central console online.”

The operator closest to the proconsul walked to the opposite end of the room, where he sat in a cockpit style console station.

Lafrenius then made his way towards the mapping screen and tweaked several dials on the screen’s control panel. With each adjustment, the image of the cloud coalesced until a spiral-arm galaxy filled the right side. On the edge of one of the spiral arms flashed a tiny green dot.

“All right, Tiberius. Are the solar capacitors fully charged?”

“Yes, Tribune.”

“The backup batteries?”

“All at full capacity.”

“Excellent. Proceed with initializing the power relays, and then turn on the outside lights.”

In front of Tiberius, the wall began glowing to reveal a one-way mirror. Despite himself and the instruction by Lafrenius, Marcus made his way to the window accompanied by a distant hum growing more intense.

The control room stood on a raised platform, at the end of a hectare size warehouse structure covered by a curved roof. Thirty meters in front and below the window stood an octagonal ring carved from basalt. Embedded into the internal corners, contrasting the slate-gray rock, were eight tetrahedrons of quartz crystal set in place by brass straps.

Behind the ring, stood a circle of twelve brick sized magnets, each fastened to small, triangular columns interwoven by coiled cables. Once powered, the electromagnets lifted a Gyrosphere made from a bronze alloy to bob on a cushion of air. On the back side of the stone circle stood four steel tripods supporting giant drill-like arrays aimed at the octagon’s crystals in the twelve, three, six and nine o’clock positions.

Dozens of leads snaked across the floor to connect the six-meter-wide ring, the small towers, and the Gyrosphere, to a wall lined with transformers.

Tiberius activated his console and slid his chair forward, so his hands rested on two rotating balls nestled amid an assortment of numeric keypads and toggles.

When he flipped a toggle, compressed air hissed, and hydraulics whined to lift his entire station. A second switch brought up a holographic target array, Tiberius rolled the balls under his palms until the center ring of the array sat over the gyroscope. Satisfied with the holograph’s position, he thumbed two more toggles.

Marcus stood transfixed watching the center of the Gyrosphere begin to pulse blue-white, and then rotate with increasing speed until the apparatus resembled a golden ring around a white center.

Lafrenius manipulated the crystal screens and called over his shoulder, “Bring the particle beams online.” In front of him, the blurred image of the galaxy formed on the screen’s left side to mirror the first. Within seconds, a small red dot came to life on an outer arm of the new galactic spiral.

Hypnotized, Marcus watched in awe as the pointed nose of the drill-like objects faded behind a purple glow.

“On my mark…” Lafrenius said. “One… two… three… mark.”

Marcus leaned closer to the glass when each emitter simultaneously fired a pencil-thin mauve beam at a corresponding crystal. The quartz balls flared from deep within to reveal twisting ribbons of lavender light creeping outward. The crystals outer skin soon sparkled from the energy bolts, and in less than a minute, each turned into writhing balls of energy.

Then a clap of thunder sent vibrations through the glass wall as a continuous beam of light met in the center of the ring to create a ball of chaotic energies.

“Status report?” Lafrenius asked.

“The portal is stable, but with only a half-meter dilation,” replied Tiberius.

“Excellent. Commodus, initiate the carrier beam.”

An assistant rolled his chair across the room and typed a command into a computer console. The instant he tapped the enter key, a bright white shaft of light shot from the spinning Gyrosphere’s center, and struck the writhing mass of energy in the stone octagons center.

Another sonic boom erupted from the ring. The proconsul flinched and stepped back from the quivering window. The atmosphere beyond the glass turned to white fog and rain, obscuring his view of the warehouse space.

Behind him, Lafrenius’s eyes darted between the two galaxies. He adjusted the dials to zoom in on the images, held his breath, and watched the screens. Within seconds, a thin orange line stretched from the green dot on the left to connect with the red dot on the right.

The air filled with static. A small console fell off the wall in an eruption of sparks and fused wire. Beyond the window, the rain and fog began funneling into the basalt ring. Within a minute, the internal squall disappeared.

“Increase the particle beams’ harmonics by a factor of 2.96.”

The vibration in the room increased. A half-filled coffee cup slid off a table to shatter on the floor. “Tribune Lafrenius…” Tiberius called out, “…the carrier beams are destabilizing.”

Lafrenius ran to Tiberius’s console. He studied the readouts while massaging the back of his neck. Something on the third monitor to the left caught his attention. “Tachyon particles are causing feedback. Something is creating a temporal loop. We need to re-modulate the frequency of the particle beam by a factor of seven.”

“And the carrier waves?” a technician named Quintus enquired.

Lafrenius wove his way to the mapping screen via several monitors, where he adjusted the controls to magnify the right-hand image. “Twelve percent added to the frequency output should be enough to compensate.”

“Tribune.” Quintus waved the senior scientist over to his monitor. “I am picking up an image.”

Marcus and Lafrenius joined Quintus in time to see a black and white image coalesce on his screen.

“What is it?” Marcus squinted at the monitor.

“What we are looking at is the surface of another planet in an alternate dimension, and, if these readings are correct,” Lafrenius proclaimed with a smug tone while crossing his arms in triumph, “it is also the birthplace of our ancestors.”

“Do you know when?” asked Marcus.

“It is hard to say.” Lafrenius darted to the mapping screen and adjusted the image until a blue-green planet filled the crystal display. His fingers massaged the dials in gentle caresses. The image zoomed in on hills covered in lush undergrowth, grass and trees, and the occasional village of stone houses and thatched roofs. “The images conform to the descriptions from the Novicus Patria scrolls.”

“Well done, my friend.” The proconsul patted the older man’s back.

Superimposed over the topographical display hovered a transparent red disc rimmed by bright yellow. “The portal openings appear stable enough…” The old scientist frowned and leaned closer to the readout overlaying the time-lapsed videos. “Tiberius re-modulate the beam by a factor of seven.”

Tiberius raised his hand to the bank of dials, but before his fingers reached the first one, his console erupted. Green flames and arcing energy blasted outward. The entire console spasmed when its hydraulic base collapsed. Tiberius screamed as his body turned into a writhing mass of burning flesh and clothes.

The mirrored window flexed before erupting into a horizontal hailstorm of glazed shrapnel. The atmosphere in the warehouse danced with pulsing flames, sprouting from clouds of lavender and aqua. A battering ram of air slammed through the control room in a pressure wave tipping tables, unfurling ribbons of perforated printing paper, and threatened to cast aside the four remaining Romans.

Twisting fingers of energy arced through the shattered window. Commodus, dazed and bleeding from a cut above his eye, died when a bolt of energy grazed his chest.

The floor buckled, and a bank of lights in the ceiling exploded to rain glass and sparks across the room. Marcus raised his head above the window frame, the sight of a single demonic eye stared back at the proconsul.

Shadows fluctuated with the moving lights in the warehouse. The basalt ring now glowed an orange-red, and the inside of the quartz tetrahedrons burned white. Beyond the stone ring, the eight emitters lay broken and scattered on the floor. Behind those and still hovering above the magnets, the Gyrosphere continued to spin.

Only now it cast out probing fingers of arcing energy to touch each of the crystal balls. When the last tendril and crystal connected, the Gyrosphere launched itself into the center of the ring. Inside the control room, the wind howling wind shifted into reverse.

A technician dragged himself back to his computer. “We’ve lost containment. The portal is drifting.”

Lafrenius stood, bracing himself against the sucking atmospheric pressure.

The stone circle hovered above the floor; its orange glow grew brighter until the entire thing morphed into a disc of pulsing light and colors. Lafrenius cast a quick glance at the monitor connected to a camera in the rear of the warehouse. What he saw made his heart race faster. Facing them was a disc of swirling multi-hued energy with a white center, yet, the image from the rear camera showed a circle of grey fog.

At that moment the dimensional rift bounced against the curved ceiling. The ionized gasses and particle clouds rotated into a cyclonic whirlpool around a brilliant white ball of the transformed gyrosphere. The faster the energy and gas spun, the smaller the glowing ball became until it disappeared at the end of a reversed tornado.

Lafrenius pointed to the rear camera’s relay screen. “Do you see it, Quintus?” Lafrenius clutched the technician’s shoulder for support. “The funnel extends back for hundreds of meters–”

“–yet the portal still appears flat.” Quintus toggled his head between the screen and Lafrenius. “By the gods… It’s beautiful.”

Around them, the negative air pressure increased to create a vacuum. Loose items, broken equipment, all began disappearing into the spinning vortex, along with the shattered beams and roofing. Absorbing the debris seemed to feed the eye of terror, which paused, and then smashed through the roof with a sudden explosive scream.

“Track it,” shouted Lafrenius.

Quintus ran to the mapping screen, where he spun dials and flicked switches. “It’s heading north-east, traveling at twenty-six kilometers a minute.”

Lafrenius helped the proconsul to his feet before he joined Quintus. Overlapping images replayed in the charged gasses between the crystal plates. In a translucent green circle, scenes of the local desert and salt-scrub terrain flashed by, while those in the red disc portrayed bitumen roads lined with headlights, pastoral lands, and townships illuminated by street lamps.

“Is that a storm?” asked Marcus.

“A possible by-product of the portal’s ionized field,” Lafrenius told Marcus.

“The images from the opposite opening… Something is different.”

Static filled the screen, the green circle wavered, before fading on the image of abandoned, ruined farms, and a broad undulating floodplain laced with gullies. In a brief flash, the mapping screen went black. Quintus and Lafrenius attacked the controls in a vain effort to re-establish a connection.

“Sorry, sir. By these readings, the portal has collapsed.”

A confused Marcus followed the old scientist around the room. “Lafrenius, what happened?”

“Gravimetric distortions, solar winds, increased radiogenic disruptions, and EM fluctuations…” Lafrenius walked across to an overturned printer and tearing off its printout continued his private conversation. “But, what caused the temporal shifts? What did I miss?” his face contorted with internal calculations. “A passing space body? No… No, it would require one with huge mass.” Something on the printout stopped his musings, he ran across to another printer and rifled through the readouts. “Of course, a simultaneous planetary alignment.”

“In simpler terms.”

“It means, Proconsul, the experiment was a failure.” Lafrenius threw aside the paper in frustration.

“Sir,” Quintus interrupted. He sat at his computer and re-ran the recording from the mapping screen with superimposed codes and formulas. “The last image we recorded.”

“Just passing scenery,” Lafrenius said. “We can analyze the data stream later.”

“No, sir.” Quintus twisted to face both Marcus and Lafrenius.

“Explain.” Marcus leaned closer to the paused blurred picture.

“Something was pulled through from the other side,” Quintus said.

Marcus fixed his gaze on Lafrenius. “Is that possible?”

“In theory,” the gray-haired scientist shrugged. “Our objective is to move objects or people, but not at this stage of testing.”

“Are you certain of your findings?” Marcus continued to study the blurred image.

“Yes, sir, and…”

“And what?”

“By these readings, it appears to be an artificial construct,” Quintus paused to highlight a line of code on the screen, “and the object also contained at least one life sign.”

“Lafrenius. Where is your sub-ether comms unit?”

“In the phone exchange beside the canteen building.”

Marcus pulled the scientist to one side. “Do you trust the men in this room?”

Lafrenius hesitated and gave his proconsul a worried frown. “They have kept our secret this far.”

“Yes.” Marcus smiled and patted the scientists back. “Well, let us make sure they continue to do so,” he said as he turned and left the shattered control room.

2

 

On a Thursday afternoon in late August in 2014, Ex-Sergeant Benjamin James Ried sat silent and alone at a roadhouse café, 150 kilometers due west of a small country town in Queensland, called Gore.

A cattle truck, trailing a thin cloud of gray-tinged dust, shuddered to a stop beside the twin set of diesel pumps. In less than a minute, the dry, stale perfume of old manure mixed with bovine piss pervaded the air inside. The diner’s only patron twitched his nose at the intruding odor.

He listened to the muffled cries of its cargo. “Poor buggers. If only you knew what your future held.” He washed down the remaining sinewy piece of his steak sandwich with a mouthful of tepid percolated coffee. The coffee, toast, meat, and salad fought against his stomach acids. Ried burped and swept his hand through his cocoa-colored hair. The early dinner did not fall into the category of the worst food he’d ever consumed, but nor did the meal rate anywhere near the best. Still, it did abate his hunger.

To his right, the images moving across a wall mounted flat-screen TV depicted the decisive moments of the station’s afternoon movie, a 1960s war movie where the hero defeats the hapless Germans, saves the damsel, jumps in a Jeep, and drives off to his next mission of glory.

A lopsided smile creased his cheek. “What a crock of shit. Where in the real world does a soldier save the day, defeat the enemy, and drive off with the girl?” He picked up a two-day-old, dog-eared newspaper left abandoned on the chair beside him. “Not this soldier, that’s for sure.”

“Give me a break.” The front page’s headlines, cast in bold typeset, highlighted another football player’s drug scandal. The journalist went on to question the player’s integrity leading up to the September 2014 finals.

Farther down the page, the article about another soldier killed over in the Middle East barely received a decent sideline piece. He flipped the paper face down beside his plate and closed his green-flecked, hazel eyes.

With a sigh, he rubbed his temples. I suppose nobody gives a rat’s arse about what we are doing anymore. Well, if the world doesn’t care, maybe I shouldn’t either.

Ried rubbed his eyes. The weariness from his trip begun to catch up with him. Casting a brief look around the café, he nudged the empty plate aside, rested his head on crossed arms, and dozed off to let his past dreams float upward.

 

“What the hell are they playing at?” He tapped his throat mic. “Foxtrot two and three, why have you dropped back?” Ried’s earpiece crackled before a tiny voice vibrated through it.

“Sorry, skipper. A mob of goats and a farmer ran out on the road.”

“Push your way through.” Ried pulled out his briefing notes and scanned the coded page. “Shit.” He turned to a soldier manning the twenty-five-millimeter cannon behind him. “Jimmy, rotate and scan for hostiles.” He did his best to keep his voice calm. “Matchbox two and three, reverse your twenty. I say again, reverse your twenty.”

“No need. We’ll just go ’round the–”

“NEGATIVE. I repeat, NEGATIVE. Do not go off-road.” Ried flipped the safety of his Styr and turned to his driver. “Simmo, do a 180, NOW!” He thumbed the mike. “Foxtrot two and thre–” His earpiece erupted with a burst of static. “Fuck.” He pulled out his satellite phone. “Garage, Garage. Matchbox one, two, and three under assault–”

His ears popped when the vehicle’s cannon fired at a small ridge.

“Skipper! Tallies on our nine and six!” The gunner fired another shell. “Simmo, get us the fuck out of here.”

A twisting train of smoke arced toward the LAV. The ground in front of the reversing armored vehicle disappeared behind a ball of flame and dirt. The cannon fired another two rapid shots.

“RPG! RPG! They’ve got fucking RPGs!” the gunner shouted seconds before his turret ruptured amidst an expanding ball of flame concussion.

 

“Shit.” Ried sat upright his hands gripped the table’s edge, his knuckles white. His ears pounded from the increase in blood pressure. His breath came in hyperventilating wheezes as his heart thumped against his chest.

Looking around, he blinked his eyes until they refocused on the diner. A wave of embarrassment washed over him. His ragged breathing returned to normal, and he forced himself to release his grip to wipe away the sweat from his face.

Cleaning the diner’s floor, a waitress turned and glanced his way.

Ried lowered his eyes and stepped out of the booth to duck into the restroom. His reflection in the mirror held a familiar shadow of torment.

Survivor’s guilt, the shrink called it. He squeezed his eyes closed and flexed his neck muscles. “Fucking oath it’s guilt.” Turning on the tap, he splashed water on his face.

Come on, Ried. Maybe it’s time to stop running and settle down and sort your shit out. He massaged the front of his right shoulder, sighed, and left the washroom to return to the table.

The waitress abandoned her monotonous sweeping and sauntered over to stand near his booth. She gazed at the younger man while combing her mousey-blond hair around her right ear with her fingers.

Ried tried his best to ignore the hovering woman by concentrating on the mud-colored liquid in the mug cradled between his palms. He caught her arching shoulders above an overemphasized straight back.

Really? Her actions gave off less subtlety than a rifle butt on his forehead.

“Are you all right?”

“Sorry, bad dream,” he murmured.

The waitress bent down to retrieve an envelope lying near his foot. “I think you dropped this.”

“Oh, thanks.” He put the letter beside his empty plates.

She walked off through the swinging door into the kitchen. Her cloying citrus and vanilla-scented perfume lingered in her wake. When she returned with a tray and cleaning cloth, Ried couldn’t decide which smelled worse: the woman’s cheap scent laced with the odor of stale cigarette smoke or the residual aroma of the cattle truck.

The waitress tossed Ried’s dirty plate and newspaper on the tray. She moved the letter, reading the name and address written on the envelope. “Lavarack Barracks, huh?” she pried. “You’re a long way from home.” She leaned closer, wiping the laminate surface of the table above his waist. “You on leave?”

“Discharged,” Ried picked up the envelope and slid it into his pocket. He then picked up the cup, but instead of drinking, he swirled the tawny liquid. Disillusioned is more like it.

“I once knew a bloke in the air force,” she continued. “Are you headin’ home or takin’ a holiday?” She slid into the bench opposite him.

The corners of his mouth rose and fell in a quick “you can go now” smile. “New job out west,” he replied.

“So, you alone, Benjamin?” The woman stroked her earlobe, oblivious to his subtle rejection.

He shrugged and almost told her he preferred Ben or Ried rather than Benjamin. However, as always, he struggled to converse with the opposite sex. Besides, he didn’t want to indulge in her obvious flirtations.

After a few seconds of awkward silence, Ried checked his watch. “I should be back on the road.” He excused himself with an apologetic smile and exited the diner.

***

The jarring bump and the gravel drumming under his car blasted away the fog shrouding his concentration.

“Shit.” Christ, Ried. Are you trying to kill yourself?

He jerked the wheel to bring the car back onto the bitumen. The tires squealed in protest, and the rear end swung in short erratic arcs. Twenty meters down the road, Ried pulled over and forced his arms to relax. His cheeks and mouth puffed with an exaggerated release of breath. The semi-digested steak sandwich clawed its way up his throat on a bubble of gastric juice. He swallowed back the burning regurgitation and forced his heart to return to a constant beat.

Ried reached across for the bottle of water rolling around on the floor behind the passenger seat, unscrewed the cap, and washed away the unpleasant taste. When the last of the liquid flowed across his tongue, he rubbed his eyes. If you had any brains, you’d pull over and sleep. Instead, he massaged his neck and peered through the dozens of dead insects glued to his windscreen. Or they’ll be scraping you from the inside of the glass.

Ried accelerated his car under the moonless star-filled sky. On a typical night, plumes of light would herald the passage of cars and trucks driving along the highway. However, except for the few vehicles detouring west of Warwick, the only headlights on the road this night belonged to his car.

The dashboard’s pale green light reflected off his tired and drawn face, giving him a haunted, hollow appearance. A frown creased his forehead after he glanced at the digital clock. “Ten-thirty,” he grumbled. Christ. It’ll be hours before I get there. Bloody roadworks. In the distance, a flickering glow pulsed in a cloud bank on the horizon. And I am not in the bloody mood to deal with a storm.

Resetting the cruise control, Ried willed the far-off storm to drift south-west. He then stretched his legs and rolled his shoulders, an activity which did little to ease the fatigue swamping his muscles. A quick check of his mobile’s GPS confirmed his next fuel stop, a roadhouse on the outskirts of Gore, was fifteen kilometers away.

Don’t give in now. You can sleep at the truck stop. Until then, bloody well stay awake and drive.

However, within minutes, his body started betraying him; not from his heavy eyelids, but from the urging of a full bladder. “Well, when you gotta go, you gotta go,” he said, bringing the SUV to a stop.

A blast of chilly air slapped his face when he stepped from the comfort of his car. “Strewth.” He recoiled from the oppressive, wet, sweet, and sour odor of some nearby roadkill in slow decay. “God, I miss the smell of the bush.” The crickets went on chirping in the long grass, oblivious to his sarcasm.

The malodorous, chilly breeze snaked its way past his collar and tickled the hair on his back, rippling his skin with goosebumps. The night’s cold caress also hastened his need to pee. Ried hurried through the beam of his headlights, away from the highway, and released the pressure from his bladder. The sensation produced a sigh of almost pure rapture. A tart, metallic odor wafted up from the warm stream of urine near his feet.

A childhood ditty popped into his head. “Who wrote the new book Rusty Bedsprings?” he asked aloud. Once done, he cried, “I pee nightly!” He re-zipped his jeans, grinning at his joke.

With his back to the road, Ried closed his eyes and stretched his tired body. At the completion of his calisthenics, he opened his eyes to find the storm clouds had drifted closer and now filled the sky.

Damn it. I was hoping it would cross– He squinted into the gray-black gloom. “Sounds like something’s in a hurry…” To Ried, the noise sounded like a medicine ball bouncing through the paddock’s grass and salt scrub. Overhead, a lightning bolt streaked between two clouds, lighting the surrounding fields.

“JESUS.” Ried threw himself on the patch of urine-soaked ground when a kangaroo leaped over a nearby bush. With a weighty thud, the enormous marsupial’s taloned paws landed to bracket his head, before it leapt over both him and the car.

“Bugger me…” He went to push himself back on his haunches but fell back on his rump when another roo swooped out of the night, to land half a meter away from his right foot, before it too leaped away, its tail brushing the nape of his neck when it passed. “Holy shit.” Ried scurried backward against the front passenger tire of his car. The air expelled from a short, nervous laugh condensed beneath his nose. Then, with comic slowness, he turned to peer over the bonnet and watched the animals melt into the night.

From behind him came a muffled, drumming noise, with the crack and snap of dry shrubs. He flinched when a long, blue-white ribbon of light skipped under the clouds.

“HOLY SHIT.”

A further series of brief flashes revealed hundreds of leaping marsupials pouring from the trees and shrubs in a tsunami of brown and gray fur. The sound of their paws beating the ground, the snapping of branches and the whipped rustle of grass, drowned out the purr of the idling motor.

Overhead, lightning bolts continued to pulse, and in the flashbulb glare, Ried realized the animals were stampeding in one direction: his. Oh, shit. He fell on all fours to dart around the opposite side of the SUV when a stout, muscular wallaby collided with the car only to have the ensuing mob trample its body. Ried paused in shocked silence to watch the thronging mob jostle the wallaby backward. A final kick from a giant red sent the battered corpse sliding from sight, down the road’s slight embankment.

“BLOODY HELL,” he cursed again, scuttling to the cover of the driver’s side as the space around himself and the car filled with kangaroos and wallabies.

If I stay here, these bloody things would likely kick me to death. Ried dropped on his stomach and rolled under the car.

Another of the animals misjudged its leap, bounced off the bonnet, and skidded along the gravel, before it twisted upright to leap across the road, thereby avoiding the wallaby’s fate.

After several minutes, the mob’s numbers thinned, until only the sound of their continued flight echoed from the scrubland across the highway.

Ried’s quick breaths puffed the dirt under his nose. He didn’t move. Instead, he watched, listened, and waited. He stared wide-eyed through the letterbox view beyond the car’s wheels. When no more roos or wallabies came bounding out of the darkness, he crawled from under the car.

What the hell brought that on? Overhead, the dense cloud bank continued to pulse with lightning and Ried shielded his eyes when a forked blue-white rope of energy lanced downwards before twisting skyward.

Something about the kangaroos’ stampede and the look of the storm didn’t seem right. Without checking any of the damage done to the car, Ried jumped behind the wheel, started the engine, and accelerated back along the highway.

Confusion replaced Ried’s awe from the stampeding kangaroos when the night suddenly fell into abrupt darkness. What the hell… What happened to the lightning?

With a jolt, increased wind squalls buffeted his car. The air became a frenzy of swirling twigs, leaves, and dry grass, yet, except for the wind, all other signs of the storm had vanished.

Strewth… I’ve never seen a storm move that bloody fast.

After several minutes, a reflection in the mirrors grabbed his attention. Huh? He frowned at the storm approaching from behind. Can’t be the same storm? His rear-view mirrors filled with reflected lightning.

No claps of thunder or rumbling followed the lightning. I’ve never heard of a dry storm, in the middle of August? Ried focused on the door’s side mirror.

Two storms within minutes and right after a mob of roos came charging at me out of the scrub? “And I thought the Ghan was full of weird shit.”

The only sounds Ried heard came from the tires and the static screeching from the radio speakers. Distracted by the ear-destroying shriek and hiss, he diverted his eyes from the road to silence the radio. At the same instant, he caught some movement on the road ahead.

“JESUS CHRIST.” He slammed on the brakes. Ried heaved hard on the wheel, while the pedal shuddered under their anti-lock system. In place of the swirling flora and litter, the beams of the headlights filled with an assortment of cattle, horses, and wild deer.

What the– Every animal crossing the road seemed confused and were careening off each other in twisted circles performing an abstract animal dance of absurd chaos.

Ried then noticed something far more disturbing than the whirlpooling behavior of the beasts. Somewhere in the stampede’s earlier path, many of the animals had become ensnared in barbed wire and fence posts. Foam and sweat, stained pink from blood, covered the terrified animals’ chests, flanks, and legs.

In their dusty wake, the all too familiar aroma of fear, adrenalin, and blood filtered through the SUV vents.

Ried scanned the direction from which the manic herd came. “What the hell is out there?” he muttered. Visions of terrified animals still haunted his eyes. He considered pulling over to investigate, but another volley of wind battered the car. “On second thought, I’ll let the cops at Gore figure it out.”

He slipped the gears into first and eased down on the accelerator. Above the speeding car, the clouds churned into a swirling eddy, illuminated from within by more flashbulb bursts of white-blue.

“Jesus. Is that a tornado?” That’s gotta be what spooked them.

The car’s movements became more erratic as Ried avoided the larger pieces of debris tossed about in the maelstrom winds around him. The storm then unleashed a solid wall of torrential rain and hail, which stopped within minutes, as if he passed beyond the curtain of a waterfall.

That was quick. Another succession of wind gusts threatened to push him off the highway. “Pity the bloody wind didn’t stop too.”

He scanned each of the rear-view mirrors, the road ahead, and then glancing upward, his eyes caught the tumultuous clouds twisting into an electrified, reversed vortex.

What the fuck?

He divided his attention between driving and looking up into the swirling inverted funnel laced with strings of crisscrossing energy.

“No way…” he whispered in reverent awe. Must be a trick of the lightning. “Time to be somewhere else I reckon.” When Ried increased his pressure on the accelerator every light in his car flared into life seconds before the fuse box, mounted under the dashboard, exploded in a crackling series of fizzling sparks.

His car died.

Shit. He tore off his jacket and batted the spitting flames, and then threw his ruined jacket across the car. The sharp, pungent odor of burned wire and plastic smoke clawed at his throat and lungs, and with no fuses he could not open the window for any fresh air.

“Damn it. Fucking electric windows.”

More lightning burst from the cloud’s funnel. The flashes rent apart the slate gray of the night.

Alone in the lifeless vehicle, Ried found himself hypnotized by the electrical tempest outside.

None of the arcing bolts touched the ground. Instead, the ribbons of energy curved back into the funnel without a single clap of thunder. Everything he heard outside sounded like the sky suffered a massive short circuit.

The car rocked and bucked from the increasing wind and battering from small airborne bushes and trees. He cringed when a shrub screeched and scraped across the bonnet.

When each returning bolt of light struck the funnel wall, an explosion followed by a gunshot blast to create dozens of micro-supernovae. Every one of those eruptions spawned hundreds of smaller bolts, glowing with the vibrant hues of the rainbow.

“Jesus. The whole fucking sky’s gone mad!”

An unremitting dread crawled up from Ried’s subconscious. He pictured the spiraling maw evolving into a ravenous monster, sent to feed on his fears and himself.

Instead, the world outside disappeared, hidden behind a mass of swirling fog pulsing with iridescent lightning. The mist and obsidian-colored clouds churned faster. The walls of its vortex pulsed in indigo, purples, and brilliant greens. The wind continued to assault the car.

Holy mother of– The sight of the glowing tempest changing dynamics stretched his beliefs.

The debris and fog gyrating around his car started to disappear within the inhaling vortex. Within minutes, only the droplets on the windshield, and the shallow puddles decorating the bitumen gave evidence of the storm’s brief deluge.

What the– He followed several drops climbing up the glass. In disbelief, he looked on, intrigued by the upward flow of the water. The area around the car grew lighter with each passing second. He tried to open the door, but when the fuses blew the surge locked the doors. “Fuck and FUCK.”

With the darkness turning to light, he jammed himself hard against the windscreen, to better see the sky above the car. In the distant apex of the funnel shone an alabaster glow.

Ried threw his arms and hands over his face. The cloud’s inner wall flared into the blue-green fire, encircling the catapulted alabaster light. Bolts of energy spat out from the turquoise flames and assaulted the car and road. His body tingled and itched. Discharges of static electricity latticed his skin with every move he made. Ried couldn’t think. He couldn’t speak. He could only scream.

With a sudden jolt, the front of the car began to angle upward. He ignored the pin-prick stabs of pain and clutched the steering wheel. The back of the car see-sawed as the field of electrostatic energy faded. Ried braced himself, expecting the tornado to lift and hurl his car into the surrounding bush.

Instead, the car launched upward, and the sudden g-forces slammed him back into his seat. A nerve-splitting sensation of a muscle tearing in his shoulder’s radial joint convulsed down his arm.

Pinned by the seatbelt, his head, arms, and legs, swung wildly about as the car flipped and spun out of control, swept deeper into the vortex on ribbons of ionized flame. Winded, stunned, and whiplashed, Ried, lurched forward with the abrupt head-spinning sensation of weightlessness and threw up.

Around the car, the green flames changed in hue. The funnel filled with white and purple fire. Bolts of energy whiplashed the hapless vehicle.

“No fucking way…”

A reflected image in the rear-view mirror showed a brief glimpse of the Western Queensland highway shrinking behind a closing iris of emerald fire.

The misshapen globules of his vomit merged into one larger spheroid. Ried pushed his open palm against the foul-smelling orb. His fingers slipped past the thin, oily film, into the bile and gastric juice decorated with his semi-digested meal. His stomach heaved.

The rising temperature seared his throat and lungs. Ried felt like a piece of meat in a microwave. His nose burned from the rancid fumes of heated vomit. His mind threatened to shut down from the unyielding abuse hurled at his senses.

Then, the brutal force of gravity returned, multiplied tenfold. The car and its unexpected drop snapped the seatbelt. Ried’s lungs expelled their air like a bursting balloon. The gelatinous mass of vomit ruptured against his chest. His head slammed into the front driver’s side door pillar with an appalling smack.

The last thing Ried recalled was the way the vortex turned itself inside out and spat the car out in a halo of tangerine fire. His expelled vehicle crashed on its side amidst torrential wind and rain, jarring open the rear driver’s side door and shattering the windows sending glass, mud, and water into the rocking car.

Tangled between the front seats and steering wheel, bleeding, and coated in his vomit, Ried passed out to the sound of rain hammering the car.

***

The light washed away the blackness of his brief coma. He tried to open his eyes, but only one would obey the instruction. A shadow emerged, surrounded by a flaring corona. Ried blinked several times with his uninjured eye until the grey shape dissolved into the face of an older man in his late fifties. His tanned face had deep laugh lines, with a mustache under a long equine nose protruding down between a pair of piercing blue-gray eyes.

Ried’s head followed the man who moved beside him. He tried speaking, but only a raspy croak escaped from his dry throat.

“Ah, you are awake.” The old man rested his hand on Ried’s shoulder and peered down with a tilted smile. “Easy, son. Just lay still, hey.” With gentle, steady hands, the old man lifted Ried to allow a small trickle of water to flow from a chipped enameled mug to moisten his lips and tongue. “You’re lucky we spotted you and your car this far off the road.” The old man tipped the cup again. “I’m sorry, but until Doc Mitchum’s had a look at you, I can’t risk giving you any more.” He lowered Ried’s head and placed a wet cloth on the younger man’s forehead.

Ried let his head roll to the side so he could survey the area around where he lay. It looks like an old, dry floodplain. Looking around through the translucent waves of dry heat, he noticed the distorted shapes of several small trees and shrubs taking root in the compacted silt and rock deposits.

More sound and movement near his wrecked car drew Ried’s attention back to his rescuer, who shaded his eyes against the morning sun. Ried wanted to shade his eyes from the hot sun as well, but instead, his vision blurred, before he fell into an exhausted deep sleep.

 

 

3

 

The old man wiped away a trickle of sweat running down his neck with his sun-tanned hand. Several hours had passed since they pulled the injured man from his wrecked car. He looked at the young crash victim and chided himself for not shading the young man from the late morning’s heat. Gently, the old man placed his worn slouch hat over Ried’s face.

The man unfolded a tarp beside Ried and sorted several of the branches he had collected earlier into size groups. He brushed his hands against his gray denim pants, rolled up the sleeves of his khaki drill shirt, and set about building a shelter over Ried. When he fixed the last rope in place, the old man turned at the scrape of footsteps through the dirt.

A younger man in his late teens stepped into view from behind the wreck. The old man reached down, removed his hat from Ried’s forehead, and turned toward the thin teenager, whose cheeks showed deep craters from acne scars. He never understood why his son kept his black hair so long. It needed tying off in a shoulder-length ponytail

His son’s face twisted into a frown above his mahogany-brown eyes. “Why bother with the shelter? We should take what we can and leave him here. I mean, he’s almost dead anyway.”

The father sighed heavily. “And what if a Vigiles patrol found him?” He tested the last tie-down. “No, Nicholas, we are not leaving him here. Besides, do you know what Gallio would do to him?”

“Who cares?” Nicholas shrugged. “We don’t know him, and if he’s stupid enough to crash, then let Gallio find him.”

A shrill whistle carried across the floodplain. The father and son turned to see the blurred figure of a man leading a horse and cart through the shimmering air.

“Jack, and about bloody time, too.” When the father reached Jack, he snatched the reins. “I thought you were getting help.”

Jack ignored the father and squatted in the lean-to’s shade and wrinkled his nose. “Strewth, Dom. It smells like horse shit and old oil.”

“Don’t worry about the tarp. What about the help?”

“Sorry, mate.” Jack shrugged. “Everybody’s getting a tad more nervous with the increased patrols, and those who aren’t don’t want to waste their gas.” He gave Dom a cheeky grin before finishing. “I managed to get hold of Doc Mitchum, though.” He nodded toward the cart. “After that, I decided to get the horse and cart. I figure it’s less conspicuous than your old flatbed.”

“Fair enough.” Dom looked disappointed. “Since Gallio and his pit bull arrived, the whole bloody region’s too afraid to do much of anything.”

Ignored by the two men, Nicholas strolled across to lay under the cart, where he crossed his arms behind his head and closed his eyes.

Jack raised an eyebrow at Nicholas’s dismissive behavior but said nothing. Standing next to the Dom, Jack outsized his friend in bulk and height, but unlike Dom, he sported a full beard and a thick mop of curly, dark red hair, streaked with gray from the temples.

“I don’t wanna question you on this.” Jack scratched his chin.

“But you’re going to,” Dom sighed.

“Damn right, I will.” Jack waved his hand toward the road. “With all the extra bloody patrols looking for those friggin’ nomads,” he said, “are you sure taking him back with us is the best idea?” Jack turned to study the sleeping man. “Besides, would he even make the bloody trip back to town?”

“For the love of–” Dom threw his arms skyward. “I’ll tell you what I bloody well told Nicholas.” He jabbed a finger toward the sleeping Ried. “We are not leaving him here.” He pushed his hat back on his head. “Besides, Julia would never forgive me.”

“Okay, mate.” Jack headed over to Ried’s car, “I suppose you’ve considered the fact he could be one of ’em?” He strolled around the wrecked vehicle. “I mean, this isn’t your average bloody junker.”

“Yes, the car’s different, and yes, he might be a damn Roman,” Dom regarded his friend, “but the lad’s hurt and needs help. Our help,” Dom emphasized. “Anything else we will sort out later.”

“Fair enough.” Jack shrugged as he placed a fresh, damp cloth on Ried’s head.

Dom smiled at his friend and whispered, “You’re such a tosser.” He moved across to horse. “Come on you two,” He said grabbing the reins. “Nicholas, bring the machete and axe, will you?”

“Why?”

“I reckon your old man plans on hiding the wreck ’til later.”

“And let’s hope we haven’t lost our knack at concealment,” Dom quipped.

“Here’s hoping.” Jack flicked his thumb toward Ried. “What I wanna know is where you’re gonna hide our injured friend.”

“My place.” Dom walked past Jack and patted his shoulder. “We’ll take him there after Tom’s had a look at him.”

“Doc Mitchum won’t be happy.” Jack passed his eye over Ried. “He’ll want to make sure the blokes not sashed up inside.”

“When we get back to the farm I’ll send for Jennings and his portable X-ray unit–”

“Struth, now you wanna involve the vet.” Jack laughed at his friend. “I can’t wait till you tell old Mitchum that.”

“Don’t worry about Tom. I’ll sort him out,” Dom said.

“Anyway, just where at your place are you putting him?”

“We can put him in Julia’s day cottage.”

“Julia’s cottage?”

“I know what you’re thinking, but Abbey’s been cleaning the place up for a while now.”

“And I suppose you’re gonna get her to play nursemaid with our new friend.”

“I’m sure she’ll agree to it.”

“Well, I don’t fucking agree with it,” Nicholas spat.

“No one asked you, and mind your tongue.” Dom shook his head and ventured out through the simmering heat to harvest some trees.

“I don’t care what my father says,” Nicholas complained. “I agree with you.” He studied Jack. “We should take what we can and leave him for the crows.”

“Who said anything about taking his stuff?”

“I don’t get why my father’s always helping everybody,” Nicholas grumbled in a petulant tone, “or sticking his nose in other people’s business.”

“Sticking his nose in…” Jack drove his finger into the younger man’s shoulder. “You bloody well know how much your old man’s respected around here.”

“Oh, yes, the great hero of The Wars,” Nicholas sneered. “You know, the only reason he helps everyone else is because he feels guilty about losing to the Romans.”

“Guilty…” Jack’s spun around with narrowed eyes. “The only thing he should feel guilty about is bloody well having you.”

Nicholas dropped the tools and tried to take a step away from the big man, but Jack’s arm whipped out to grab his collar.

“And when it comes to helping others out,” Jack wrenched Nicholas closer, “it’s his nature.” He shook his head in pity. “What you don’t see is people asking him for help.” He shoved Nicholas backward and retrieved the tools. “Come on. We’d better catch up to your father.”

After returning to the crash site with the harvested trees and shrubs, Dom asked his son to strip the car of any luggage, papers and loose items to load in the cart and take back to the farm, while he and Jack waited for DR. Mitchum.

“I still reckon we leave him for the crows and sell off his stuff,” Nicholas grumbled aloud.

“And just head straight back home,” Dom said, “I don’t want you going anywhere in town or the pub with that lot.”

While Dom and Jack busied themselves with the collection of cut trees and shrubs, Nicholas did what his father asked and then climbed into the cart and rode across the floodplain.

Out on the road, Nicholas cast a spiteful glance at Jack and his father. “I don’t care what he said. Any driver who crashes his car that far from the road deserves to die. Which he will. So, why not sell his stuff and make some extra coin?” Nicholas pondered aloud.

The horse’s only response was to swish his tail to swat the flies tickling his rump.

Nicholas calculated what he would get for the stranger’s belongings. Whatever he got would at least keep him stocked up with ‘E’ for another week, and plus while he was in town he could spend more time with Gemma.

Proud of his disobedient and selfish decision, Nicholas relaxed on the cart’s bench and flicked the reins to bring the animal to a trot.

***

A company of Roman motorbikes drove over a small rise above the floodplain. Leading them was the largest motorcycle, supporting an open framed sidecar whose passenger waved and bounced around.

“Stop, Praefectus. STOP. This is the area,” he bubbled with excitement. “Yes, yes. This is the spot.” With extended arms, he lifted an encyclopedia-size scanner and waved it back and forth in a series of long and short arcs. With each pass, the excitable Roman scrutinized the twitching needles and readouts on a small screen.

Near the center of the screen, a bright green blip of light blinked so fast it almost became a solid dot. The little Roman launched himself out of his seat before the bike had even slowed to a complete stop.

Unlike his excited passenger, the rider dismounted his war bike with the arrogant, self-righteous ease of someone long schooled in the art of military discipline and used to being in command. An ornate plumed helmet sat upon a chiseled, neoclassical face crowned in trimmed, dark black-brown hair. His deeply set, light-brown eyes scanned the area and each of the remaining dull-red Vigiles bikes when they pulled over in a protective cordon.

The lead bike, unlike the red of the ubiquitous squad bikes, reflected the morning sun from its deep blue gloss paint. Various effigies and symbols decorated the forward cowlings, the most dominant, an embossed golden Aquila on each side above the protruding barrels of twin-mounted semi-automatic machine guns.

With a sense of pride, he admired the bikes and their riders. The praefectus derived immense pleasure from reinstating what he called “lapsed discipline” over the last five years since his appointment by Marcus, his predecessor.

The praefectus, like his men, wore lightweight composite body armor. Segmented manica covered his shoulders, held in place by six buckled straps, three along each flank. The sculptured chest and stomach section reflected the sun, as did the polished alloy grieves protecting his shins above thick soled, lace-up boots.

He wiped the dust from his boots and grieves before he cast an eye over the surrounding scrubland. “I don’t see anything unusual,” he sounded bored, yet his body language suggested he was annoyed. He folded the cloth into the pocket of his burgundy tunic. To relieve the tension of the ride, he stretched his stocky, muscular body, and rolled his shoulders. The sculpted body armor flexed, and the leather manicas protecting his shoulders and upper arms squeaked in reply to his actions.

His passenger’s excitement at an anticipated discovery aroused a higher level of confidence in him.

“Yes, well, what we seek may be more than unusual.”

The praefectus adjusted the cingulum militare around his waist. “You forget yourself, Decius. I’m not one of your lab rats.”

Decius shuffled backward and tipped his head in mute subjugation. Unlike the praefectus, Decius did not wear the standard blue and reds of the military or Vigiles. He wore the uniform of the science auxiliaries: a dark green one-piece and a bright green sash draped across his left shoulder.

“Forgive me, Praefectus Gallio.” Decius kowtowed and then rushed to keep pace.

Even though Gallio, who held the role of regional governor, wore no weapons, Decius still feared him. He stepped away and offered a comical but nervous salute, before adjusting his black box until the screen produced a different image.

Excited by the result, Decius took out a metal rod from his pouch and connected it to the scanning unit using a coiled cable. With one arm cradling the scanner, and the wand held in the other, he scuttled about the area and crisscrossed the road, adjusting his oversized, wire-rimmed glasses repeatedly.

The sound of two approaching bikes took the praefectus’s attention away from the fidgety little scientist. Gallio returned to his bike, placed his helmet on the handlebars, and waited for the latecomers to pull over.

“You two fell behind. Why?”

“Praefectus, my bike developed a malfunction in the motor,” MacMahon snapped to attention with a brisk salute, “and while repairing it, we spotted a horse and cart in a gully, sir.”

With a cold regard, Gallio studied the two men standing at attention before him. Since MacMahon’s recruitment, the young human proved himself to be a competent and useful lieutenant. MacMahon showed a useful talent for extracting payments from many of the weaker businesses and farm owners.

Donaldson was a good choice for a Vigiles. The younger human held a certain naivety for upholding the law, and all the legitimate duties of the Roman police force. But he, and the rest of Gallios’ display troops, were guided away from the darker side of the local Vigiles business.

“It seemed abandoned,” MacMahon finished.

“Abandoned?”

“I believe it belonged to a farmer or gypsy who’d stopped for a pi–… to relieve himself in the bush.”

“Did you see this farmer or gypsy?”

“Um, no, sir.” MacMahon tried to hide his embarrassment. “They must’ve been deeper in the bush, poaching.”

“I want you to continue down the road,” Gallio commanded, “and investigate the gypsy camp near Yarraman. After which, you can go back to where you saw the cart and search for the missing owner.”

“And if it’s gone, sir?”

“You search for it,” Gallio continued, “and submit a full report to Mettius when you return to the barracks.”

MacMahon glanced toward the Roman centurion Gallio had referred to. Out of habit, and from a measure of fear, MacMahon stiffened slightly and shuddered inwardly when the praefectus castrorum stood back from his bike and adjusted the braided, blood-red insignia sash under his sword belt.

Gallio raised the corner of his mouth at the change in body language displayed by the two humans when his second-in-command approached. The centurion’s tall, lean muscular frame moved with lithe, predatory grace, and his silent, watchful, emotionless manner, unnerved those around him. Perhaps, it’s his haunting black-on-black eyes.

Mettius, Gallio learned through time, cared little for people and their opinions about him. They either respected him, feared him, or died by his hand.

With twenty Romans like Mettius, the Senate and proconsul would understand what power truly meant. Gallio found it difficult to hide his pride for Mettius, who, unlike himself, always carried his small arsenal of weapons. On his hip hung a gladius, and on the other sat a pugio – the traditional Roman sword and dagger – along with a semi-automatic carbine pistol holstered under his left armpit. Gallio’s second-in-command proved to be the epitome of a humanoid predator. In fact, few matched Mettius’s skill with sword, shield, dagger, and gun.

A shadow crossed the ground near his feet. Gallio shifted his gaze upward to admire a circling eagle. Ah, what better creature to signal good fortune. Without taking his eyes from the bird, he dismissed MacMahon and Donaldson, while Mettius issued instructions for setting up the portable command tent.

“Praefectus.” Mettius pointed toward a small, odd-looking collection of shrubs.

“Well spotted, my friend,” Gallio replied. When they arrived at the concealed wreck, he inspected the camouflage screen. “This screening shows a skill I’ve not seen in decades. I don’t believe this handiwork is nomad or gypsy.”

Mettius focused on the ground at his feet and crouched on his haunches. “Whoever they were, there were at least three men and some sort of vehicle.”

Gallio looked from his second-in-command to Decius, who trotted his way across the dry, dusty plain.

“Have you found somethin–” The little scientist stopped with a squeal, and his feet skidded in the loose dirt. The scanner jostled in his frightened hands, and he hugged it against his chest to keep it from falling.

A cruel smile creased Gallio’s face. He felt sure the annoying little man came close to emptying his bowels and bladder.

Seconds before Decius’s squeal, Mettius sprang from his crouch with whiplash speed, drew his pistol, and pointed it unwaveringly at Decius.

“Decius, if you come running in without announcing yourself again,” Gallio approached the quivering man, “I will let Mettius shoot you.”

“With absolute delight, sir,” Mettius whispered in icy pleasure, effortlessly holstering his sidearm, leaving his hand resting on its grip to further intimidate Decius.

“Oh, my… Please forgive me, Praefectus.” Decius dipped his head and gave a feeble, shaky salute before he helped dismantle the camouflage screen.

At the sight of Ried’s car, Decius bobbed up and down in glee. “A gift from the gods…Yes, indeed. A gift of the gods.” Decius walked around the smashed SUV. “Indeed, a blessed gift from the gods… Yes. Yes, a blessed gift.” The little scientist fidgeted with his scanner. “There is no residual radioactivity, or other harmful emissions, or bacteria.”

The trio then rocked the car until it stood upright on its four wheels. Gallio and Mettius stepped back to avoid the resulting small dust cloud. Decius opened every door to inspect the car’s interior before he raised its unlatched hood, propping it open with a nearby stick.

Decius almost drooled in salacious delight when he explored, touched, sniffed, and scanned the engine bay. “This is some type of combustion motor, but nothing I have seen before.”

Engrossed in the mysteries of their find, Decius ignored his two superiors and started speaking to the voice recorder on his scanner. He described the style of electronics, the unusual manifold and exhaust system, and the lack of a conventional carburetor. Decius abandoned the engine bay. He wandered around the car, finding, and cataloging the differences between Ried’s SUV and the older vehicles in current use.

Mettius, who had little time for the small ferret of a scientist, walked away and scrutinized the ground around the car. “Sir.”

Gallio looked to where Mettius stood, studying the ground between the road and the car. “You’ve found something else?”

Mettius pointed to the faint tracks imprinted in the dirt. “Someone tried concealing their tracks. These tracks look like a van’s, or a small truck, and over here…” he drew Gallio’s attention toward the right, “I’d say by the hoof prints and thin tracks, they also used some sort of small wagon.”

“A cart.” Gallio looked at Mettius. “MacMahon told me they came across one hidden by the road on the way here.” He motioned Mettius to follow him to where his men had set up the open gazebo. Once under its shade, he asked for the map bag from his bike. “Something else is odd,” he thought out loud. “Why is there no evidence showing the car being driven off the road?”

“The storm may have washed the tracks away.”

“Normally, I would agree, if the storm had brought more rain.”

“Then how did it get so far off the road without driving or crashing there?” Mettius asked. “It certainly didn’t fall from the sky.”

“Excuse me, sir.” Decius cautiously approached them from behind. “It shouldn’t be ruled out.” He hesitated. “Of course, what I have is only a theory.”

“Enlighten us,” said Gallio.

Not often in such a bright spotlight, Decius’s nervous manner went into overdrive. The Roman scientist bobbed and fidgeted as he explained his theories. He reiterated the vehicle and how different it is, and where it sat on the broad floodplain, so far from the road. He believed that the car had traveled through a rupture in space and time itself.

To help add weight to his arguments, Decius darted to the sidecar. The scientist rummaged around until he produced a canvas carry bag. He rushed back and emptied the contents of the bag onto the table. Shuffling the documents, he showed them readouts and reports printed from the weather instruments.

“The most interesting anomalies recorded all came from the sonar, pyranometer, and ceilometer systems during the storm,” Decius said. “The accumulated data showed unique electromagnetic fluctuations, along with a range of abnormal gravity and atmospheric anomalies.”

“What anomalies could come from just a storm?” Mettius’s face twisted with scorn. “Ruptures in space and time – they’re dreams of playwrights and fools.” He looked toward Gallio, ignoring Decius. “For thousands of years, the Empire had sailed between the stars, conquering countless worlds. Yet, no one had ever recorded a hole in the galaxy…” The centurion dismissed Decius with a contemptuous glare, “…because they don’t exist.”

“You know this… how?” Decius’s tone surprised himself. “I meant no offense, Praefectus Castrorum.” The chubby little scientist cowered away from the returning glare of Mettius. “I’m merely trying to explain a theory.” Decius produced several of the fused lumps he had collected from around the car.

“So, now you collect rocks?” Mettius scoffed.

“These are not rocks.” Decius sighed. “They are the result of some form of plasma energy striking the ground.” He sighed again. “My report will explain it all, including my findings on the vehicle.”

“Decius, I’ve known you a long time,” Gallio smiled humorously, “but this is the most fanciful theory you have ever had.”

“Do you remember the records and scrolls from Novicus Patria?” Decius continued, regardless of their ignorance and mockery.

“What about them?” Mettius sat on a folding chair, leaning against the armrest, and resting his head against his open hand.

“They told the legend of the ninth legion, who fell from the heavens amidst a tunnel of fire and lightning, summoned in battle by the heathen Brittany gods of the wood,” Decius’s face flushed with reverence, “cast across the heavens, and reborn to create the first founding.” Decius knew his paraphrasing of the ancient scriptures sounded like a priest’s sermon, but he wanted the military-minded brute beside Gallio to accept the possibility.

“Your point, Decius?” sighed Gallio.

“I believe the car, and whoever its occupants were, came through a similar dimensional portal which bore our ancestors.”

Decius took a reflexive step backward when he saw the disapproving look on Gallio’s face. He considered offering further explanations, but instead, the scientist fidgeted and shuffled his feet.

“Decius, I will feed you to Cerberus if you don’t keep still.”

“Yes, Praefectus. I’m sorry, Praefectus. But, um, well…”

“By all the gods, man. Just say it.”

“The vehicle, sir.”

“What about it?”

“Surely, we aren’t going to, well… leave it out here?”

“For a clever little man,” Gallio replied, “you can be remarkably stupid.”

Decius’s face blossomed into a livid red flush at the insult. He tried out-staring Gallio, but his miserable attempt at defiance waned under the strength of Gallio’s returning gaze.

“Of course, I’ll have it brought back so you can play with it.” Gallio pushed out his chair and paused to consider the map. He left the cluttered table and made his way toward the edge of the gazebo’s shade. With his arms behind his back, he contemplated the strange-looking car on the mud plain. “Do you know how many occupants there were?”

“No, not until I run more tests.”

“Well, somebody does.” Gallio returned to the table and focused on the maps with Mettius at his side.

Decius stood and waited, ignored by the two men who stayed bent over the map chart, continuing their discussion. Hurt by his superior’s rudeness, Decius saluted their backs and exited the gazebo to continue with his onsite studies of the car.

Gallio peered over his shoulder toward the exiting scientist. “First, have our spies concentrate on the Yarraman gypsy camp and see what they know,” he commanded, before returning his attention to the map.

“I’m assuming you want the farms searched.”

“Start with the closest – those three there – and then move on to the abandoned properties.”

“Two full cohorts split into four groups should be enough.”

“Agreed,” Gallio said. “This will be an ideal opportunity for purging the region of any nomads. It will also send a clear message to any others who would follow.”

Mettius nodded with a cold, dead smile. “Burn the whole body rather than cut off the head.”

“As for the farmers, there is a need for more discretion. The town council grows more suspicious with each passing week about our other activities. Instruct the others to hold off on our collections and filter down the sale of Enlightenment for a few weeks, until we find who or what we are looking for. Then, flood the market with E’s and increase the price by fifty percent to cover what we’ll lose.”

“Won’t the loss of revenue raise issues with our supplier?”

“I’ll use some of our reserve funds to cover any shortfall. The last thing we need is our benefactor, or his committee in Toowoomba, poking their noses around.” Gallio rested his finger on the map. “I will call and talk to this one myself.” He moved around the table and stared across the floodplain again. “Have the trackers brought back here,” he instructed over his shoulder. “I want the surrounding terrain searched for at least five kilometers.”

“By your command.” Mettius saluted and headed toward his parked motorbike.

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