The Off-Worlder Chronicles: Terror Australis – Part Two

4

 

A faded, but well kept, ambulance pulled up between the back of Dom’s house and the barn, scattering a brood of chickens. Doctor Thomas Mitchum stepped out of his van for his second house call since leaving Ried in Dom’s cottage. He collected his bag from the passenger seat, closed the door, and headed toward the back door when he heard his friend’s voice call out from down near the barn. Mitchum waved his hand and went down to greet Dom and Nicholas who rode up from the lower paddocks.

“Dominic?” Mitchum reached up and shook his friend’s hand.

“Before you ask, we’ve just been riding.” Dom dismounted his horse and ignored the doctor’s expression.

The doctor shook his head in weariness, something his slightly drooped shoulders only emphasized. Thomas Mitchum was the town’s senior physician and a combat veteran like Dominic and Jack. However, his battles weren’t that of a frontline soldier; they were those fought in the mobile triage hospitals.

His constant expression, shoulder-length gray hair and neatly trimmed goatee, gave him a European appearance. Within the doctor’s aged and lined face glinted a pair of bright emerald eyes, which defied his age and the façade of constant fatigue. They also hinted at a sharp, keen intellect beyond his sixty-plus years. Many people considered the doctor brusque, occasionally a little recalcitrant, and not much of a conversationalist – an opinion he never denied or chose to discredit.

“How are you today?” Mitchum asked Nicholas.

“I’m okay,” Nicholas replied quietly after he dismounted.

“Good to hear it.” Mitchum patted the teenager’s shoulder. He turned to Dom. “I had a house call near Maidenwell, so I thought I’d drop in to check on how things are going.”

“You’ve been down to the cottage then?”

“Not yet,” the doctor waved a fly away, “but I spoke with Abbey earlier on the phone. She told me our friend is healing remarkably well. A little too well by her description.” He followed the men and horses into the barn before the three of them headed for the house.

Inside the dining room, the doctor sat in front of Dom and lifted his shirt. He inspected the dressings over the cuts inflicted by Nicholas – during a violent psychotic attack on the night they brought Ried to the farm. “Well, they all seem to be healing nicely,” Mitchum announced. “How are you feeling otherwise?”

“I’m okay.”

“Are you?” Mitchum noted his friend’s tone, but he had no intention of allowing Dom the last word. “Regardless, I still insist you refrain from any heavy or excessive activity.”

“For how long?”

“Until I damn well say otherwise, and those damn stitches come out.” He then turned to Nicholas. “How are the cramps and nausea going?”

“The cramps are mostly gone, and I only feel like throwing up when I first get up…” Nicholas stared down at the floor, unable to face the doctor. “But this morning wasn’t so bad.”

Dr. Mitchum scrutinized Nicholas. The physical signs from the drug-induced episode seemed to be healing. Most of the bruises from Molly’s husband had lost their color. However, when the doctor probed his abdomen, Nicholas flinched. “Still a little tender, hey?” He gently laid a hand on the teenager’s shoulder. “Well, just keep up your fluid intake. I promise the bouts of nausea will pass.”

Mitchum wanted to tell the boy that his noticeable guilt would also ease, but concluded it wasn’t the time for a condescending medical or moral lecture. After completing his examination on Nicholas, Mitchum reached into his bag and pulled out a bottle of oily, pale-blue liquid. “If the pain and nausea get a bit much, then take three drops in some warm water.”

“No, thanks.” Nicholas slid the bottle back to Mitchum. “I’m done with taking anything from small bottles.” He nodded toward the kitchen. “Molly’s been giving me some of her broth to help with the cramps.”

“Molly’s broth, hey?” Mitchum grunted and reclaimed the medicine to drop back into his bag. “Bloody native witch doctor’s mumbo-jumbo.”

Nicholas slid his chair back, excused himself, and headed down to the cottage to see his sister. Dom also got up and followed his son, but only to the kitchen where he checked with Molly about their lunch

 

***

.

Sitting on the veranda, Mitchum patted his stomach. “Bloody hell, Dom. I’d gladly pay her double if she fed me like that every day.” Mitchum puffed on a freshly lit cigar, feeling quite full and satisfied from Molly’s repast of cold roast pork, assorted steamed vegetables, freshly baked bread, and followed by a double helping of scones with cream and jam.

“Don’t kid yourself, mate. Yesterday, she fed me cheese sandwiches and fruit.”

The two men drank coffee and talked for a while until the whine of Vigiles motorcycles coming down the drive broke the air of contentment.

“What do they want?” Dom made no attempt to conceal his contempt at the three uniformed men pulling up in front of them.

“I keep wondering why Marcus thought posting Gallio to replace him seemed like a clever idea,” Mitchum mused, recognizing the lead rider.

“I reckon, being nominated and then elected to proconsul clouded his judgment.” Dom studied the tall, gangly Roman dismounting the bike in his drive.

“Well, Marcus might be the quintessential master of people, politics, and the use of his military power. But this one–”

“–is an idiot.” Dom finished the doctor’s well-spoken sentiments.

“Mr. Harris,” Gallio said, after removing his helmet, and snapping down the bike stands.

“Gallio.”

Gallio stiffened perceptibly with the familiar manner Dom used in front of his men. He returned his best, humorless and polite smile before addressing Mitchum. “Doctor, what brings you out here?”

“Just checking on my patients.”

Gallio spotted the dressing on Dom’s forearm. “What happened? A farming accident?”

“They’re from my son. He had an overdose on that Enlightenment crap which turned bad,” Dom glared at all three Vigiles, “but you lot don’t give a shit about people taking drugs or even trying to catch the bastards peddling the garbage.”

“Dominic, I came by to discuss other matters,” Gallio rebuked, “not to discuss your son’s drug habits. However, the possession of drugs is taken very–” He took a hasty step back when Dominic strode right up to him in a flash of restrained temper.

Gallio quickly recovered his composure. He reminded himself who the two humans were, and how they, along with the former governor and other weak, liberal-minded Romans, worked to rebuild a sustainable society after the truce. But in truth, Gallio didn’t believe Dom’s acquiescence and neutral public stance toward the Romans, any more than he believed Decius’s theory about holes in space.

“Dominic, I sympathize with what has happened to you and your family,” Gallio said, raising an open hand to Dom. “So, please, understand I meant no disrespect.”

Dr. Mitchum studied the exchange between the two men, watching them ease back into their well-versed game of guarded diplomacy.

“It’s been a trying time of late,” Dom apologized, “between poor crops, a summer of little rain, and hotter days.”

“Yes, I am sure life on the land can be difficult.” Gallio pointed to the house. “Speaking of hot days, perhaps we can continue this inside?”

“All right.”

Gallio tipped his head, smiling with the sincerity of a striking cobra. He followed Dom inside the house and sat down on the couch.

“Please, make yourself at home.” Dom didn’t hide his sarcasm. “What can I do for you?”

“Doctor, do you mind if we talk in private?”

“Sure, but if you’re sick, I would have met you at the hospital.”

“No, Doctor,” Gallio rose to and pointed to the door. “I wish to speak with Mr. Harris. Alone.”

For several seconds, Mitchum held Gallio’s gaze and his ground.

“It’s all right, Tom.” Dom walked Mitchum out through the kitchen. “If you still need to check on Nicholas, he’s with his sister in Julia’s old cottage.”

Mitchum grunted, “Yes, well, I did come here to check on him too.” The doctor collected his bag from the floor, shook Dom’s hand and left the kitchen.

Sitting back in his chair, Dominic waited for Gallio to begin the conversation. Gallio, however, stayed silent, wandering about the room.

“I can assume from your comments outside,” Gallio lifted the top page of an open notebook, “that the Cooperative will be struggling with their quota this year.”

“Don’t fret. You’ll get your tributes on time,” Dom replied.

“Of course,” Gallio said,” I never doubted it.” He closed the notepad and returned to the couch where he discussed some changes to the region’s legislation and requests by the Senate, along with several more items revolving around the town council civic issues.

All right, you son of a bitch. What do you really want? “Gallio, I’m sure you didn’t come here to discuss local politics and the burdens placed on us by Toowoomba’s legislative changes.”

“Ah, direct as always.” Gallio moved across the room toward Dom. “What do you know about the unusual storm the other night?” He sat back down and gauged Dom’s reaction.

“Not much. Only that it was a bloody inconvenience.”

“How so?”

“For starters, it held us up overnight in Yarraman.” Dom saw no point in lying.

“Yes, I know. I received a report from the outpost there on those who were delayed or held over by the storm.” Gallio crossed his legs and adjusted his tunic.

Of course, you did. Dom resisted the urge to step over and punch the Roman senseless. Instead, he stood and went over to the drinks cabinet, returning with two glasses of local brandy. “And did those reports tell you it flattened about twelve hectares of my maze?” Dom handed the glass over to the Roman. “I also know some of the other crops in the area were also ruined.”

“Yes, I believe Mr. Bennett lost a sizable area of his corn crop.”

Dom took a sip and nodded. He’s fishing. All right, let’s run out the line a bit. “Did it come close to the solar station at Tarong?”

“It did cross the reflector field.”

“Much damage?”

“A few reflectors and some localized damage.” Gallio took a tentative sip of the brandy. “I’m more interested in what we found left behind from its passing.”

“I don’t follow.”

“On your trip back from Yarraman, did you see anything out of the ordinary?” Gallio studied Dom.

“Just some uprooted trees,” Dom replied. “One of them made the bridge over Barker’s Creek useless.” Almost enjoying the game, he poured himself another brandy. “Which meant we had to detour over Cuthbert’s Weir.”

“Why not the main road through Nanango?”

“The weir crossing is the shortest route to Jack’s place,” Dom replied. But you know that. “Can I ask what you mean by ‘out of the ordinary’?” Dom sat back in his chair

“The storm may not have been an ordinary storm.” Gallio held out his glass for a refill.

“You’ve lost me.”

“I’m told it could have been some sort of tear in space and time.”

“Come again?” Steady, Dom, just ease out a little more line.

“My scientists tried to explain it to me, but alas, I am just a soldier.” The Roman shrugged. “They described it much like a hidden and unstable tunnel through an impassable mountain range. Only, when something passed through the tunnel, it collapsed, trapping whatever passed through it on this side.”

“And you’re saying something went through this one-way tunnel?” Dom leaned forward. “Something dangerous?”

“Not unless you consider an automobile as dangerous.”

“I’m sorry?” And the bait’s taken. “It left a car behind?” Dom’s behavior and expressions would have done the traveling theater group proud. Time to start playing the line.

“Yes, and the driver and or passengers are missing, lost, or even taken.” Gallio leaned forward to rest his knees on his thighs.

“How do you know it was occupied?”

“The assumption is, we believe accurate because we found several tracks around the vehicle.”

“And you believe whoever left the tracks took whoever was in the car?” Almost ready for the net. “Is there anything I can help with?”

Before Gallio could respond, they heard a vehicle coming down the drive. Gallio went to the front door and raised a curious eyebrow at the faded, rust-stained blue Range rover coming to an abrupt, dust-raising stop near his men.

“Your friend, Mr. Bennet, walks a thin line,” Gallio said.

Jack stepped down with a broad smile and feeling pleased with his efforts. He strode past the two men who brushed the dust from their clothes. “G’day boys.” Only to snap to attention when Gallio stepped off the veranda.

“Praefectus.” Jack gave an exaggerated tilt of his head.

“Thank you for your offer, Mr. Harris,” Gallio called out. “But we have the matter in hand.” He ignored Jack, and approached the two Roman police, whispering to the taller of the two men, before he donned his helmet and mounted his bike. Gallio gunned the large electric motor to shower Jack in a wave of gravel and dust as he sped up the drive.

“Alien prick.” Jack brushed himself down and gave Dom a silent ‘does the bastard know’ look. He noted the barely perceptible shake of his friend’s head. “What did his lordship want?”

“Fishing and local politics, mostly,” Dom responded, eyeing the taller of the two young Vigiles approaching.

“I am Fir–”

“I know who you are MacMahon.” Dom snapped. “G’day, Michael.” Dom walked past MacMahon, shaking hands with the other slightly smaller and plumper uniformed man. “I see service in the Vigiles auxiliaries is treating you well.”

“Thanks, Mr. Harris.” Michael flushed.

Dom gave Michael a pat on the shoulder. He then stepped away and sized up MacMahon. Dom also caught Jack’s casual sidestep toward him and took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax. On more than one occasion, he had known men like MacMahon. They used others with careless disregard for the sake of their own advancement.

“Mr. Harris,” MacMahon stepped closer, “do you own a small, light-blue or gray-painted, two-wheel cart or buggy with white-spoked wheels?”

“I did have a pale-blue cart,” Dom answered truthfully. “Why? Have you found it?”

“Excuse me?”

“Have you found it?” Dom asked again. “Some bugger stole it just over a week ago, along with one of my better stallions,” he crossed his arms. “I’ll bet some nomads nicked it,” he rubbed his chin in contemplation, “or do you reckon some gypsy kids took it as a prank?”

“Um… no, we haven’t found it.” MacMahon found himself on the back foot with Dom’s rapid response and unexpected questions. “And you say some gypsy kids took it?”

“No, I said nomads, but if you know who pinched it then good.” Dom pointed his thumb over his shoulder, “Don’t bother looking for my horse, though. She came home a couple of nights ago.”

“Sorry,” MacMahon stumbled on, having lost all initiative from the questioning,

“the horse came back?”

“What about the cart?” Dom continued his own interrogation.

“If you’re asking for it,” Jack slid in seamlessly with Dom’s charade. “Then it’d be a fair bet you haven’t bloody well found it.”

“We saw it a few days ago near the old Nanango road, this side of Barker’s Creek,” Michael politely informed them. “We believe it may have been involved in an incident.”

“Yes. Thank you, Donaldson,” MacMahon snapped.

“Anyone hurt?”

“Hurt? No, we didn’t find anyone hurt.” MacMahon frowned.

“Just a wrecked, weird-looking car,” Michael added.

“Donaldson hold your damn tongue,” MacMahon barked.

“Well, what about my cart?” Dom pressed. “Where the hell is it now?”

“We are trying to find your cart, Mr. Harris,” MacMahon stammered, “that’s why we–”

“Here’s a thought,” Dom moved slowly toward MacMahon. “Stop friggin’ about to ask me about my stolen bloody cart, and just find it.” He shoved a finger at the two Vigiles. “Better yet,” he planted his feet and leaned within centimeters of MacMahon’s face, “piss off and find the low-life mongrels selling the shit that almost killed my boy.” Dom edged closer to MacMahon. “Now, get off my friggin’ land.”

Jack rushed up and guided Dom back a couple of paces away from the two Vigiles. “Easy, Dom. Let it go,” Jack whispered and then continued in a louder tone. “Okay you pair, I reckon you’ve got your answers. So, get back on those battery powered toys and go hey.”

MacMahon stood there with his hand clenched around his nightstick grip. “Good afternoon, Mr. Harris, Mr. Bennett.” Without taking his eyes from the older men, he strutted back toward the bikes with Michael by his side. “Who does that old fool think he’s talking to?” he whispered. “I’d have taken the old bastard if that ape Bennett didn’t step in.”

“Not likely,” young Michael replied, donning his helmet, and climbing onto his bike.

“No one fucking well asked you,” MacMahon snapped.

Dom watched the two Vigiles officers steer their bikes onto the road before he marched back inside with Jack in tow.

“You gonna tell me about it?” Jack collected the two dirty glasses.

“Not much to tell,” Dom called from the kitchen.

“Bullshit,” Jack yelled back. “The bastard’s checking you out?”

“He knows we stayed overnight at Yarraman.”

“Yeah, well, those pricks have got spies everywhere.” Jack walked over to the drinks cabinet. “At least Marcus had been easier to deal with.”

“Gallio’s a soldier, not a politician.”

“Doesn’t matter. The bastard and his lapdogs are all as crooked as a dog’s hind leg.” Jack saw his friend’s expression when he returned from the kitchen. “I know, I know, we can’t prove it.”

“Just remember, his best lap dog bites.”

“Nothin a bloody bullet won’t fix,” Jack said under his breath. “So, what else did you and his lordship chat about?”

“He did tell me they found the car.”

“Shit.” Jack almost spilled the drink he had poured.

Dom helped himself to another glass and briefed Jack in on the conversation.

“I’m just glad a tree did fall across the bridge,” Dom added when he finished his relaying the afternoon’s events.

“Well, they obviously saw your boy and the cart.” Jack scratched his chin under his beard.

“If they saw Nicholas with the cart, Gallio wouldn’t have wasted time talking.”

“I guess so.”

“I got the feeling our esteemed governor knows a lot more than he’s letting on.” Dom pondered his glass. “Let’s hope when our guest wakes up he can fill in the gaps.”

 

 

5

 

The next morning’s early westerly breeze passed through the open window caressing Ried’s face with its slight chill. His brow furrowed above pinched eyes. The morning glare lanced through his eyeballs to stab the back of his skull. With a soft groan, Ried rolled his head away from the stream of incoming light.

Something’s not right? The ground. I remember lying on the ground. He tried to focus on the memory, but it came out jumbled, like a jigsaw scattered on the floor. There were the stampeding roos… A storm… Wait, I was in my LAV… but it was hot?

His eyes flashed open, an action he at once regretted. With each painful blink, his mind swept away the remnants of sleep. He found himself on a bed, in a room, instead of on the ground in the hot sun. He rolled his head and squinted through the window into the faint, hazy, and cloudless blue sky. Beyond the window, cast in silhouette against the morning sun waved the tops of several large gum trees, and on the breeze, came the melodic warbling song of magpies.

He went to massage his stiff neck. Jesus. A sharp, painful pinch in the back of his hand brought a stop to his actions, and he frowned at the IV needle in his hand. What the… He reached for the IV needle to pull it free, only to stop at the sight of a folding camp bed with the sleeping figure of a woman lying under a sheet.

Ried called out, but no sound passed his parched mouth and throat. After several attempts, he managed to raise enough saliva to ease the dryness in his throat. “Hey. Wake up.”

The woman stirred at Ried’s croaky command. “Oh, you’re awake.” She rolled over to sit on the edge of her bed and plucked a cotton dressing gown from the floor to cover her pale-green, cotton boxers and T-shirt. “Sorry, I must have slept in.” She stood and stretched with a yawn while massaging the sleep from her eyes.

The young woman walked around Ried’s bed to the window and closed the curtains against the morning glare. She flashed a smile before heading over to relight an old combustion stove. Happy with her efforts, Ried’s mystery roommate returned with a jug of chilled water and two glasses from a fridge which looked older than the stove.

His eyes followed the woman around the room. Who the hell is she, and why is she sleeping beside my bed?

He guessed the young woman was around his height. Her head of wavy, mahogany-brown hair flowed down and bobbed against her shoulders, and the way she tied off her gown did nothing to hide her slightly full hourglass figure.

Feeling a little embarrassed from his close study of the attractive young woman, Ried began to give the floor and the room more scrutiny than it deserved. This place doesn’t look like any typical hospital.

The inside walls and ceiling were made from tongue and groove boards, with the walls painted in a soft, buttery-yellow, and the ceiling painted white with old style light fittings hanging from the boards and flaking paint.

He paused his study of the room when he realized his roommate stood smiling down at him. She poured the water into a glass and passed it to him. He took the glass and tested the water with a sip before he greedily swallowed the rest down in gulping mouthfuls.

“Steady,” she warned him. “You’ll make yourself sick.”

Ried felt the taut dryness recede from his mouth and throat. He held out the glass for more.

“Now, sip it this time,” she scolded him.

“What happened?” He ignored her instructions and gulped down more water while searching through the fog in his mind.

“You crashed the other night, out on the flats during the storm,” the young woman responded. “When they found you, Dad brought you here.”

“Where’s here?”

“My dad’s farm.”

“And your father is who?”

“Dominic Harris.”

He handed her the glass for another refill. “I remember a couple of blokes talking…”

“The other one was Uncle Jack.” She refilled his glass. “He’s not our real uncle, but we’ve called him that since we were kids.”

“Are they the ones who took me out of the car?”

“Uh-huh. Along with my brother, Nicholas,” she replied. “Let me tell you, Dr. Mitchum was not happy they took you out of your wrecked car before he arrived.”

“And this is your farm?” Ried raised an eyebrow and again looked around the room.

“That’s right. We’re in my mom’s old day cottage,” she said.

“On your farm?” He held out the glass again. “Which is where?” The brunette’s company and her relaxed manner began to override his concerns.

“About ten kilometers south of town.”

Ried continued drinking and raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Oh, sorry. Kingaroy.”

“Kingaroy?” He shook his head. “No… It can’t be…”

“Well, it is.” She humored him with a ‘don’t be silly’ smile.

“But I was headed toward St. George when the storm hit me.”

“St. George?” She shook her head. “You must’ve hit your head pretty hard. Maybe your memories are mixed up.”

“Not that hard.” He swiped her hand away to feel the dressing on his forehead. “What the hell am I doing near Kingaroy?” He studied the young woman and the cottage, his ease swept away with a caution. “Why did they bring me to this farm, and not the local hospital?”

“He didn’t say. Just that it was better if you stayed here.”

“On his farm near Kingaroy…” Ried didn’t hide his skepticism. What’s wrong with the hospital in town?

“Yes,” she took his glass. “Why, do you think I’m lying?”

“I don’t know…” Ried hesitated. “I just find it weird that he didn’t take me to the hospital. It’s like he doesn’t want any questions asked by the cops or local authorities.”

“Trust me. You don’t want the local authorities involved,” she told him. “I suppose Dad’s got his own reasons to not tell the Ro–” Her brow creased in a frown as she leaned closer to him.

“What?” Ried pulled back from the scrutiny of her dark gingerbread and emerald eyes. His skepticism turned to suspicion with her sudden inspection, and he scanned the room for a weapon but found nothing. Although, the way she tied the robe around herself came close to qualifying as a weapon.

“Your face.”

“What about it?”

Her eyebrows pinched a little, which accentuated her pointed nose. “Your black eye and bruises… They look almost healed up.”

Ried lifted his hands to his face, wincing when the needle pinched him again.

“You were pretty banged up when the doctor and I…” she trailed off when she lifted the bandage from his head. “Strewth,” she whispered.

“Strewth what?”

“The gash above your eye.” She knelt and reached under the bed.

Oh, shit. Ried stiffened, but then relaxed a little when she put a first aid kit on the bed.

“It’s almost healed over the stitches.” She sat beside him and leaned against him.

Ried’s caution merged with a wave of embarrassment at the proximity of her chest, and her pleasant, musky odor sent his emotions into overdrive, so he dragged more of the sheet across his lap to conceal his reaction.

“Hold still,” she chided. “Benjamin, please keep still,” she chastised him while she pulled out the last stitch, and covered the almost-healed scar with a Band-Aid. Then, with her hand still cupping his chin, the woman rested the back of her other hand against his forehead and cheeks. “You’ve still got a fever.”

Without any warning, she pulled back the sheet to inspect the bruise on his ribs. A little intimidated by her behavior, Ried made a show of dragging back the sheet, but she pushed his hand and the sheet away to check under the other bandages and Band-Aids.

“Okay, just stop.”

“Sorry.” She sat back down on her bed. “I told the doctor how fast your cuts and scrapes were healing, but he didn’t say anything yesterday when he saw you–”

“Hang on,” Ried frowned and backed away. “How the hell do you know my name?”

“I looked in your wallet.” She offered him a small, embarrassed smile, and shrugged.

“Really? And did you ‘look’ at anything else while I slept?” Ried quipped, pulling the sheet farther up his stomach.

“Don’t flatter yourself.” Collecting the empty glasses and jug she gave Ried a hard glare. “All I’ve bloody been doing the last couple of days is playing friggin’ nurse to you, along with my dad, and my brother.” she stormed to the kitchen table slamming down the tray spilling some water.

Before Ried could utter another word, she marched back in, waving her finger at him. He raised his open palms, not wanting to test her temper any further.

“And let me tell you, mate,” she continued, “there are better things I could have been bloody well doing.” The brunette thumped the chair beside his bed and sat down, grabbing his hand. “Now, I’ll take this out. Then, you can go and clean up.” She placed a thick Band-Aid over the exit wound left by the IV needle and pinched it down hard with her thumb.

“Christ.” He winced from her firm grip. Ried shoved her hand away and held his own hand over the Band-Aid.

“The bathroom’s through there.” She stood and pointed to the only door inside the cottage, before returning to the kitchenette. “Oh, and I washed your clothes while you were asleep,” she called out over her shoulder, “or is that also invading your privacy?”

Ried held his tongue and threw his legs over the edge of the bed. Two things followed: he pushed himself upright, and then crashed to the floor in a nauseating wave of giddiness.

“Shit.” With closed eyes, he swallowed away his nausea, and rose on his hands and knees before easing himself onto his heels, only to fall back against the bed, tangled in the sheet on the floorboards.

She rushed back to help him stand. “Sorry, Benjamin. The doctor told me you might be dizzy, but I forgot.”

“No problem. I just got up too quick.”

“I’ll get you a chair to sit on.”

“It’s okay,” he assured her and then walked into the bathroom, supporting himself on the walls and door.

“Well, I’ll wait out here then. Just in case.”

With the water running from the shower nozzle, Ried took off the splint from his left wrist and inspected the yellow-blue stain of the healing bruise. Standing under the flow of hot water, he flexed his wrist for a few seconds, before a small bout of vertigo almost sent him falling against the wall.

“Are you okay in there?”

“Yep. All good.” Bullshit, Ried. You feel like crap.

A few minutes later, Ried sat at the table where, against his better judgment, he devoured a basic breakfast to fill the bottomless void of his empty stomach.

“So,” he pushed the empty plate aside, “you wanna try to explain some more why your father brought me here?”

“I told you, he didn’t tell me.”

Ried frowned at her response, crossed his arms, and leaned back in the chair.

“Don’t give me that bloody look,” she snapped. “You could have at least bloody well thanked me for nursing you.”

“Okay–”

“If I’d known you’d be so bloody ungrateful, I would have told Dad to bugger off, and dump you in town.”

Jesus, this one’s got a temper. Come on Ried don’t push your luck. Just figure out if she’s a friend or a captor… “Look, this is just a bit of a shock and…” Ried mollified his tone feeling like he was back in school staring down a pissed-off teacher. “I’m sorry.”

The young woman stared across the table with her arms folded.

“No, seriously. I’m sorry, Miss…”

“Abbey, Abbey Harris.”

“Nice to meet you, Abbey Harris.” Ried gave his best apologetic smile.

“Nice to meet you too, Benjamin.”

“Ben or if you like, just Ried. Only my grandad called me Benjamin.” He watched Abbey unfold her arms and then noticed her brown eyes glinting with her smile.

“Do you remember what happened to you?” she asked while clearing the table.

“Not much. I only remember driving on the highway toward Gore.” He waited for a reaction. When none came, he continued. “Then, there was a storm, which I reckon drove me off the road.”

Ried puckered his brow as he tried to recall more of his accident. He began to feel feverish again, and he put down his cup to wipe some perspiration from the back of his neck.

“You’re sweating like a pig.” Abbey handed him a tea-towel. “Are you okay?”

“I’m not sure.” He hugged himself.

“I reckon your fever’s getting worse.” Abbey moved around the table. “Come on. Let’s get you back to bed.” She helped him back into the wrought-iron bed, and fluffed his pillows, brushing herself against him in the process.

Christ. Is she doing that deliberately? “How long was I out for?”

“Since your accident, maybe four or five days all up.”

“What!” He gawked at her in disbelief, his chills forgotten. “Shit. I really need to make some calls.” His eyes explored the room. No phone. “Have you seen my mobile?”

“You’re what?”

“My mobile. My phone.” Ried paused at the questioning look on Abbey’s eyes.

“Sorry, you’ve lost me.”

It was not the answer he’d hoped for. Ried climbed off the bed, and slowly wandered over to where his belongs lay stacked against a wall. He rummaged through the bags until he found his phone. When he turned the mobile over, he sighed at the shattered screen, “Shit.” Ried threw the mobile with back in the bag and stood wiping his sweaty brow.

His suspicions came back hotter than his fever. He looked around the room again, absently rubbing the front of his right shoulder as he charged out of the cabin.

This place reminds me of a bad ‘80s movie. And what’s with the bullshit about being near Kingaroy?

“Where are you going?” Abbey called out.

Ried ignored her. He studied the cleared area around the little house. On the eastern side of the small ridge ran a line of dense scrub. To his left, cut into the hill, was a campfire pit with a couple of old, weathered, gray logs for seats.

The only path he saw branched off a vehicle track and disappeared up over a small rise to the right. Without hesitation, he stormed over to the path. All right, Ried. It’s time to find out what the bloody hell’s going on.

“Benjamin, please wait,” Abbey called out, running after him. Strewth, he’s quick. When she eventually caught up to him, she pleaded between breaths, “Benja… Ben, you still need to rest.” She tried to grab his arm.

He twisted his arm from her grasp and held up an open hand. “Five days? I reckon I’ve rested enough,” he barked, before heading toward a small gate set in a waist-high, timber, and chain wire fence, extending around the back of the main house.

Ried swung the gate aside and headed toward the back steps of the house. Standing in the open door at the top of the stairs, watching on with a look of concern, was an Aboriginal woman in her forties, her short, curly hair highlighted by wispy grey streaks. Her hands rested in the large pocket of her jacquard cotton apron, which she wore over a floral, full-length, sleeveless dress.

“It’s okay, Molly. He’s our guest from the cottage,” Abbey said as she grabbed Ried’s arm again. “Is Dad inside?”

“He’s in the dining room.” Molly examined the young man through anxious, hooded eyes. “Is he okay, Miss Abbey?”

Hearing raised voices outside, Dominic stepped past Molly onto the top step.

“Mr. Harris is it?” Ried freed himself from Abbey. “You need to tell me what the hell is going on.”

Dominic wore a neatly trimmed mustache on an otherwise tanned and clean-shaven face. He stood dressed in denim trousers, elastic-sided boots, and a khaki, cotton, drill shirt. But, the man’s commanding blue-gray eyes caught Ried’s attention above his other features. Their color gave them a hard look, but behind the tough exterior, he sensed a hint of compassion.

“Do I…?” Dom crossed his arms and looked at his daughter, who shrugged her shoulders.

“Sorry, I’m Benjamin Ried.” He climbed the steps with an outstretched hand, which Dom accepted on reflex. “Most everybody calls me Ben or Ried.”

“Benjamin Ried,” Dom repeated in a hushed voice and went inside.

Ried took Dom’s exit as an invitation to follow him through the kitchen, and into their lounge room.

In the lounge room, Ried paused at how the furniture seemed a little off. It wasn’t off in a bad context; it was just odd, looking neither new nor modern. A couple of items were old, yet it all appeared well cared for. But, rather than being antique, most of the pieces looked dated and tired.

Dotted about the wall were three solid, timber, vintage-style cabinets full of well-worn books and a scattering of ornaments. In the corner behind the couches, Ried saw an old-style analog phone – the kind with a rotary dial on its face – sitting on a time-worn roll-top desk.

“Are you feeling all right, son?”

He could feel the slow trickle of sweat running down the back of his neck and accumulating on his face. “Honestly, I feel like I’m burning up.” Ried flopped into the wooden swivel chair in front of the desk to reach for the phone.

“Let’s go into the dining room,” suggested Dom. “Abbey, get the boy something cold.” Dom moved beside Ried and helped him up. “Are you sure you’re up to having a chat?”

“Yes,” Ried insisted. “You’re the one who found me?”

“That’s right. We saw your crashed car last Sunday–”

“Sunday? But I crashed on Thursday night.” Ried shook his head and plonked down on the chair again with a weary thump. “That’d mean I was lying out there for almost three days.”

“I think you’re a little confused, son. The storm came through Saturday morning, and held us up overnight at Yarraman.” Dom leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table. “That’s how we discovered your car on Sunday. Because it wasn’t there last Saturday when we drove through.”

Ried didn’t say anything else. Instead, he sat back with his arms folded, watching Dominic. Why won’t the man look me in the eye?

“Can I ask where you were headed before the storm hit?” Dom dismissed his guest’s silent and arrogant pose.

“Out west, toward St. George. Then, the storm came and started to…” Ried paused when a flash of memory came back. He felt unsure whether to reveal what he remembered.

“Started to do what?”

“This is gonna sound nuts, but I reckon it chased me.”

“Storms don’t chase people, son.”

“Yeah, well, you weren’t there, were you?”

“Benjamin, were you named after your father?”

“Excuse me?”

“Sorry, I just assumed.”

“Well, I wasn’t,” he said. “Look, what do you want with me?” Ried leaned against the table. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad you helped and everything, but I want to know what’s going on.”

“Do you remember anything else about your accident?”

“Like I told your daughter, I drove off the road, and crashed from the storm.” Ried leaned back. Okay, this is getting tedious and a little more than odd.

“You don’t remember how badly you were hurt?”

“No. Why?”

“You were pretty knocked about. You had a fractured left forearm, two fractured ribs, and you also had severe bruising and swelling around your ribs, spine, and hips.” Dom pointed to the Band-Aid on Ried’s head. “Not to mention the nasty gash on your forehead.”

“Give me a break. Your daughter told me it’s only been a few days since I crashed.” Ried raised his eyebrows in disbelief. “So, how come I don’t feel like I’ve been through the wringer?” He stood to go out. “You lot must think I’m crazy.”

“Sit down, son,” Dom pleaded. “Yes, we rescued you, and took a hell of a flaming risk doing it,” he shrugged. “Or maybe I should just hand you over to the bloody Romans and let them deal with you.”

“Romans.” Ried leaned back and furrowed his brow. “Romans? Who the hell are– What the hell are you talking about?” He glared at Dom. “Just where the hell am I, and who the bloody hell are you people?”

“I’m trying to ask the same of you.” Dom delved into his pants’ pocket. “I went through this last night.” He flicked Ried’s wallet across the table. “Tell me where you came from, son. Because what I saw in there,” he gestured to the wallet, “didn’t make any sense.”

“I guess looking through people’s stuff runs in the family.” Ried scooped up his wallet from the table.

“Where are your proper papers?”

“My papers?” Flabbergasted and disbelieving, Ried opened his wallet and removed its contents, spreading them across the polished table. Across from him, Abbey had returned, dressed in her regular jeans and a checked blouse, carrying a tray with a glass jug of iced tea and three glasses.

“Look,” Ried said. “I don’t know what you mean by papers.” He stabbed at each of his cards. “This is my driver’s license, these are my gun permits, and the rest are my debit and credit cards.” Ried’s face dripped with perspiration. Mopping up his sweat as best as he could, he held up the plastic cards one by one.

“Credit cards?” Dom straightened two plastic cards scattered on the table. “Credit cards haven’t been around for decades.” He then tapped a finger on each license. “And why bother to carry cards that show they’ve been endorsed by the Queensland Government?” He slid them back toward Ried.

“Because they were.” Ried held his stance.

“Here’s the thing, son,” Dom continued. “The Queensland Government hasn’t existed for nearly forty years–”

“Piss off.” Ried jumped out of his chair. “What kind of bullshit is this?” he wiped more sweat from his neck and face. “How about you tell me why you didn’t take me to a hospital, and why you brought me over two hundred klicks from where I bloody well crashed?”

“I can assure you it isn’t two hundred klicks to Barker’s Creek,” Dom replied. “And taking you to the hospital didn’t seem prudent.” He softened his tone. “Please, sit back down.”

Ried stayed standing, almost preferring to fall against the wall in defiance.

“If I took you to the hospital, then the authorities would have locked you up ‘til the bastards figured out where you came from.”

“Here’s a heads up for you,” Ried shot back. “I came from Brisbane and was driving to a new job in Western Queensland.”

“All right, son, you–”

“I’m not your son.”

Dom shrugged. “Ried, you might want to sit down for this…” And then Dom explained, to the best of his ability, Gallio’s theory of how Ried ended up in their world.

“Bullshit.” Ried almost laughed when the explanation concluded. “You’re trying to tell me I fell through a hole in space?” I don’t know what weird bloody game they’re playing at. But, I’ve no intention of playing.

“It’s what their scientists reckon.” Dom sat back.

“And just who the hell is this mob you keep calling the Romans?” Ried pinched the bridge of his nose before massaging his forehead and gulped down a glass of the cold tea.

“It’s complicated.”

Ried palmed away a growing film of perspiration on his forehead. The action alone added to the pinched look of frustration he wore.

“Are you okay?” Abbey reached across for Ried’s hand.

But Ried pulled his arm back, and swept up the cards from his wallet, glaring at them both. “You lot are fucking nuts,” he spat and rushed from the house.

 

 

6

 

Ried ran through the gate and down the path to the cottage and realized it would be the first place anyone would go looking for him. When he heard voices emerging from the house behind him, he ran at a crouch toward the barn and dove headlong into the damp grass and dirt behind a water trough.

Hugging the cold moist concrete wall of the trough, he crawled on his stomach to peer around the end closest to the barn. From his vantage point, he saw Abbey and Dom standing at the back door, having an argument or heated discussion until Abbey pushed past her father.

Dom trotted down the small set of stairs after his daughter, pausing at the gate he surveyed the barn and sheds for a few seconds, before going back inside.

When Dom disappeared inside, Ried was about to run across to the barns open door and caught the movement of a vague silhouette in the shadows beyond the door.

“Clever bastard,” Ried said and waited.

Once it was all clear, he counted to three and then darted inside the barn hoping to find a car or motorbike to make his escape. Instead, all he found only bales of hay in the dust-filled shafts of light and several horse stalls on his left.

“That’d be right…” he faced the small stables and puffed his cheeks. “Okay, on horseback it is.”

Behind his back, something metallic moved with a clink and tap.

“Shit.” Ried’s gut clenched and his diaphragm lurched. He crouched, turned and moved against the wall opposite the stalls. Ried balked for several seconds at sounds source. Despite his fever, Ried’s blood chilled from the vision.

A wall of implements, all drawn from the stuff of murder; scythes, long shears, double-bladed axes, and different-size cane knives hung on the wall, swaying in the breeze.

“Bloody hell. I’m never gonna read Stephen King again.”

Farther along the wall, he spotted a rope and tackle system trailing from a winch motor in the rafters. An L-shaped rail jutted out from the wall to the left of the tools and farm blades. Slung along the rail sat six saddles and blankets.

Inside the nearest stall, a chestnut mare lifted her head, pointing her ears forward, stepped back and snorting at the intruder.

Ried kept his movements slow and controlled as he approached the stall. “Aren’t you a beauty. You must be, what, fifteen hands high?” He admired the animal’s long neck, draped in a well-groomed blonde mane and toned body and legs. Three of which ended in white socks and a black one on her front left forelock, which the mare casually pawed through the hay covering the floor. He ignored the pawing hoof to look past her full white blaze, punctuated by a reddish-brown star, and inter her deep brown eyes.

“All right you. Let’s both stay calm, eh?” He backed up to the rail and crept forward with the saddle and blanket in hand.

The mare watched Ried step toward her, snorted and rolled her head forward, and lifted her snout.

Without breaking eye contact, and with unhurried actions, Ried stepped inside the stall and lowered the saddle and blanket to the ground.

“Good girl,” cooed Ried stepping in front of the animal.

In reply, the animal bobbed her head and curled back her top lip taking a deep breath.

Standing still, he studied the mare. She’s frightened… No, it’s something else…

“Easy girl… I’m not going to hurt you…” Easy Ried, an angry or upset horse in a small stall means a bad ending for both of us. The dust in the air clung to his fevered sweat making him itchy, and it took all his willpower to keep calm and ignore the tingling desire to wipe the sweat and scratch.

Ried softly stroked her neck with the palm of his hand, while resting his hand on her nose. His mother’s words rang through his mind:

“Horses are no different from people. A soft, gentle caress is far more soothing and respectful than a series of slaps, gentle or not.”

The horse’s muscles shivered from his touch. “Shh. Easy, girl.” He kept his movements slow and rhythmic. “How about you take me for a ride, hey?” Conscious of how her pawing front leg could lash out and cripple him he stepped up to caress her under the chin.

After a moment, the mare calmed down and pushed herself against Ried.

“That’s it. See? I’m not so bad.” He reached for the blanket and froze when he heard voices outside. He slipped back into the stall and peered around the rail toward the door.

Through the open barn door, he watched Dom, Abbey, and a young bloke with a ponytail standing with his back to the barn. Beside them stood a man with well-tanned skin, who left them to make his way toward the barn.

“Shit.” Ried ducked, taking care not to spook the mare or raise any dust. He held his breath when the man stopped at the door to count the horses.

When the horse lifted her head, snorted, and stomped her black-socked hoof on the ground, Ried almost shouted.

In the barn, the man approached the stalls, “Quiet, Devil.”

But the closer the man came, the more agitated the animal grew. Ried balled his fists. He didn’t want to hurt the bloke, but he had no intention of allowing them to keep him here either.

The closer the man came, the more agitated Devil grew from his intrusion. She flicked and snaked her head with wide eyes and ears flat against her head and her breath puffing through her nostrils in harsh snorts.

Ried crept past behind Devil and peered through a split in the stall’s timber wall.

The man raised his hands, cursed the horse, and walked out of the barn.

The moment the intruder left, Ried stood up beside Devil’s head to look over the stall. Devil’s aggressive behavior stopped, and she nudged her cheek against Ried’s shoulder.

Ried reached up and stroked the mare’s neck, “Hello Devil. I’m Ried.”

With another quick glance at the open barn door, Ried quietly made his way out of the stall. He followed the outside voices as he approached the wall near the barn door to spy through a hole in the timber boards.

Dom and his daughter entered a larger shed about a hundred meters away. The man from the barn ran toward the cottage, while the young one with the ponytail went back into the house.

Holding his position, Ried waited for Dom and Abbey to exit the other shed and heard a motor start followed by them driving out in an open-backed ute, heading around the front of the house.

A sense of relief washed over his tension as he stepped back to finish saddling the horse, and then get the hell away from the farm with its family of nutcases.

He dragged his hand across his sweat-drenched face and wiped the gritty moisture down his pants and led Devil from the barn into the midday sun. In the brighter light, he inspected her hooves and rechecked the saddle, bridles, and girth buckles. Satisfied, he adjusted the stirrups and then lifted himself into the saddle.

The second the Devil felt Ried’s weight, her ears rolled back, and she walked backward. He leaned forward, and grabbed the horn of the saddle, expecting the mare to throw him. He continued whispering to her until she relaxed under him. When he felt sure Devil accepted him in the saddle, he twitched the reins and rode past the house.

When they passed the main gate, he stopped, unsure of which way the old man went, or even which way he should go. He looked both ways along the road and shrugged his shoulders. “Okay, do I go right or left?” Without hesitation, Devil turned and walked down the road. “Alright, left it is.”

 

The following day, Ried reached a T-intersection in the road. He paused and rested his elbow on the saddle’s horn. “No doubt about it. I’m lost.” His stomach gurgled from hunger. He straightened back up, flexed his shoulders, and massaged his stiff neck. He nudged Devil into the shade of a stubby gum tree and stared into the surrounding hills and scrub.

Frustrated, lost, and confused, Ried wiped sweat from his face. His night in the country on the road hadn’t done anything to improve his fever or chills. The intersection looked no different from the others he had passed.

On his left, the ribbon of patchy, dark-gray bitumen disappeared around a bend shrouded by trees; on the right, the road followed the gradual rise of a small hill.

Sweat trickled between his shoulder blades, and down his back, as he walked Devil across the road to a pair of rusty steel posts jutting out of a thick, woody patch of weeds and creeper vines.

Ried dismounted and squatted down to tear away at the mass of woody, vegetation until he revealed a faded road sign. Wiping away the dirt and grime, to reveal almost illegible letters against the oxidized and sun-bleached background color.

He spat on the sign and continued to scrub away the accumulated decay and grunge until the faded lettering revealed a name: Kingaroy.

“Bloody hell.”

From where it lay in the grass and weeds, the sign’s faded arrow pointed ahead of him. Without much else to guide him, Ried mounted Devil, “Okay girl. The sign points that way. So, that’s where we go.”

After several minutes of riding, Ried shivered under his fever induced perspiration. Unsure of how else to treat the symptoms, he kept riding in the warm, mid-morning sunlight. As he rode, something niggled his senses and thoughts. Ried stopped Devil to regard the sun shining down from above his right shoulder.

“The sun’s on my right. This time yesterday, it was on my left… Which means I’ve turned myself around.” He glanced back along the road and frowned at the shadows, and then raised his eyes skyward. It must be close to midday, but… Ried scanned the horizon and then squinted back toward the glowing white orb in the pale-blue sky. “It’s way too hot for August, and the sun’s in the wrong spot.”

The warm breeze blowing in from the south-west soon evolved into a light wind, cooling his balmy perspiration – a sensation he hardly found refreshing. In fact, it only enhanced his fevered chills.

“Where the hell is everyone?” he asked Devil. “You would’ve thought I’d have seen somebody since yesterday?”

After a while, he came across a bridge standing in the middle of a swamp-filled gully. The road leading toward the bridge washed away by years of floods and erosion, left a gap just over two meters wide, and filled with bulrushes.

From his vantage point on Devil, Ried saw the deeply scarred roadway and the exposed broken and rotten timbers of the bridge’s foundations.

“Christ. Have I stumbled onto the set of an Australian Walking Dead?” Everything about the old bridge and gully spoke of something more than neglect. “Bloody hell,” a feeling of defeat ebbed at him. “it’s the same bloody bridge we saw yesterday.” Shaking his head, Ried tugged on the reins and turned the horse around.

On his left was the side road they took yesterday, a little farther along another side road ran off to the right into a wooded valley. “What do you reckon Devil, if we’re gonna stay lost we might as well do it in some shade.”

After riding for four hundred meters down the road, the valley widened, and the grove of trees thinned to reveal more remnants of barbed-wire fences and old, termite-ridden fence posts standing in the dry, waist-high grass.

At one point along the way, his excitement grew when he spotted a track leading off the road, carving its way through the grass lining the road’s edges. Ried steered Devil along the track, and reined her in by a broken, rusty gate.

Beyond the gate stood the remains of an old farmhouse, surrounded by a field of swaying grass and weeds. Much of the house and roof had fallen in on itself. The front stairs, having long collapsed, into the long grass.

Morbid curiosity enticed Ried to wade the mare into the long grass to inspect the derelict property. A small herd of wild cattle roaming around the house skittered at Ried’s approach. He stopped her under the shade of a tree while he took a closer look. From the road, he first thought the house had fallen in due to age and decay, but from his new vantage point, the scene told a different story.

He dismounted, draped the reins over his shoulder, and walked toward the nearest wall with Devil in tow. The old farmhouse was nothing more than a weather-beaten facade hiding the shattered roof, trusses, frames, walls, and floor.

“Huh. Must have been one hell of a storm.”

After tying the reins around a broken floor joist, he edged closer to the jagged back walls, avoiding the fresh patties of cow dung. Ried inspected several pieces of the broken weatherboards, “this wasn’t done by a storm…” he turned sideways, spreading his arms to estimate the angle of impact and trajectory. “Whatever hit the building,” Ried traced an imaginary line with his finger, “came in from this way, and crashed somewhere over there.”

Ried zig-zagged past the houses broken skeleton and waist-high ryegrass, cobbler’s pegs, and blackberry weeds toward a nearby tree line. Twenty-odd meters past the house and to the right, he spotted a weather-stained metal frame amidst the grass. “I guess it crashed closer than I thought.”

When he parted the grass, what he found looked like the remains of an inline cockpit with the left and underneath side of the triangular frame crushed and twisted. Any padding on the seats decayed to leave only frames and springs, the instrument panels were nothing more than broken metal with cracked or missing gauges.

What Ried found most fascinating was the pieces of fuselage sheeting left attached to the framework. At first, he thought the metal was rusty, but when he rubbed away the grime, the light reflected back from the sheeting deep-bronze patina. Only, from what he could tell, the stuff wasn’t bronze or copper. Curious about the odd find, he searched the grass, distracted from his uncomfortable fever.

A few meters away, he kicked at a cylinder covered in the same ultra-thin sheeting. He knelt and wrapped his arms around the tube, and then rocked and tipped the short, fat cylinder until it broke free from the soil and weeds growing inside.

He tugged the plant and its matted roots from inside, to reveal a multi-bladed fan. “What the fuck…” He flipped the tube over. On the cylinder’s outer casing, he found two opposing bracket mounts. The segmented and hinged section of the cylinder behind the fan resembled a venture thrust nozzle. “What kind of jet nozzle is this?”

Ried dropped the cylinder and walked back past the skeletal cockpit, to poke and prod amongst the grass and weeds with his boot. Excitement and curiosity overrode his hunger and chills when he unveiled part of a broad delta-shaped wing. He bent down to lift the wing from the matted grass and soil and found it lighter than expected.

With its shelter taken away, a bulky, flat-headed lizard hissed at him. “Shit. You’d be about the ugliest blue-tongue I’ve ever seen.” He waited until the gray and brown reptile waddled into the grass, before he rested the wing-shaped object on one edge, to let the sun stream through the dozen holes punched through its thin sheeting. “Bullet holes?”

He rubbed his hand across the brown skin until he could make out the etched symbols in the metal: a bull below a few letters in either Latin or Greek. Ried frowned at the images and crouched down pushing his palms against the metal and stood while pushing his arms out. Ried grunted with puffed cheeks I his efforts to tear the length of metal wing from the blanket of weeds and grass. The underside gave him no more clues to the metals origin.

Without thinking, he dropped the wing and stepped across the metal sheeting which popped back into shape after each step. The only evidence of him crossing the wing were his footprints, smudged in the dirt and grime.

Ried turned and bent back over the unusual wing, and rubbed his hand along the metallic skin. “What sort of alloy doesn’t dent?” Frowning, he turned to continue separating the grass with the toe of his boot, until he found what he had dislodged. He lifted the rotting piece of plastic-like material. “Body armor?” Ried frowned at the familiar pattern of the pressed material. “Who wears body armor like this?” He glanced back at the wing with the strange symbols. “C’mon, you’re imagining things. It’s just a piece of someone’s flight suit.”

When he turned it over, several dried rib bones and vertebrae fell at his feet. He dropped the armor in disgust, and wandered back to the house, only to trip and stumble from a piece of metal half buried beside a shrub.

“Gimme a break.” Ried kicked away the dirt around its edges and then wriggled it free. What the hell? He lifted the piece of metal and rolled his hand around. “A sword?” He looked back at the broken body armor, the wing, the remains of the cockpit and then back to the rusted sword.

He stood there, contemplating everything he found. The strange metal sheeting on the fuselage, the wing with bullet holes, the back end of some sort of jet engine, and a piece of armor and sword for a gladiator – It didn’t add up.

He dropped the rusted sword. “It’s official. I’m lost in a bizarre ‘coma’ dream, or I’m still asleep in the diner,” he concluded, though he wasn’t convinced of either theory.

On his way back to the road, Ried stopped near the gate to give the house one last look. The scene and old building resembled a derelict vessel on an undulating sea of beige and grays, a decaying guard hiding a bizarre secret.

Beside the track, he spotted the rusted hulk of an old truck. The chocolate-brown rust contrasted the long grass it lay shrouded in. Tree saplings forced their way through the splintered floorboards of its tray. The truck’s rubber tires, long since perished, left the rims rusting on the ground.

Both doors were missing, revealing the interior of the cab, including the buckled wireframe of the steering wheel and its shaft, protruding from under a skeletal dashboard. Any upholstery, lining, and fillings had all rotted away. The rusted hulk’s body showed dozens of small black holes – old bullet scars from somebody’s past target practice.

“C’mon, girl. Let’s get out of here and find some help.” He tugged on the reins to head back along the road, with a nagging, growing sense of unease and melancholy.

The rhythmic, hollow click-clack of Devil’s metal shoes on the bitumen echoed back at him, a haunting sound in the still air. Ried maneuvered the mare into the grass and creeper vine beside the road. Unfortunately, the swish and padded thud of the animal’s hooves through the grass did little to ease his sense of loneliness and melancholy.

He rode in silence, scouting the surrounding country. Surely there must be somebody working out here. When he and Devil crested a small hill, Ried spotted a line of high-voltage towers with their cables hanging slackly to the ground. Beside the broken towers, trailing into the distance, were smaller ones. Unlike their taller companions, the wires appeared in good condition and draped from tower to tower.

The combination of mismatched towers running parallel to each other struck him as a little odd. Then again, the last couple of days were nothing but odd.

Ried stroked Devil’s neck. “How about you tell me what’s going on around here?”

The mare merely shook her head and flicked her tail.

“Well, something or someone is getting power, so let’s see where they lead.” Ried sat back and spurred Devil into a trot.

The motion of the trotting horse, the fluctuating fever, sweats, and growing stomach cramps, soon made him feel more than a little unwell. He eased Devil back to a steady walk, and patted his face dry with his sleeve, swallowing back the bitter bile burning his throat.

The images of the last two days played on his mind. The ruined farms and bridges, abandoned machinery and the weird ultralight plane. Then, there’s the old-world look of the cottage. The odd assortment of furniture in the old man’s house –  which looked like it came from a recycled store.

“Hell, even their bloody phone looked like something my grandparents would’ve owned.”

The horse gave a small snort.

“And what about all the weird bullshit the old man spun me?” Devil swung her head around to look at him. “What, no reply? I figured you’d be on his side.” He rubbed the animal’s neck.

With a determined grunt, he decided to try retracing his steps back to the farm to find out where his car was, and then head off to the nearest cop shop.

Ried tugged on the reins and almost fell from the sudden cramp in his stomach. The sharp, intense pain folded him over the saddle and left him resting on the mare’s neck. He took several deep breaths until the contractions eased enough to let him sit back upright. The see-sawing fevers and sweats, along with the onset of cramps, ground down his strength. Lack of water made his head throb from growing headaches, and his vision wavered in and out of focus.

“Come on, Ried. You’re a member of the second R.A.R.” He rubbed the front of his right shoulder. “You’ve been through worse. So, get your shit together,” he berated himself, yet, he couldn’t remember ever feeling this sick. He felt like every muscle argued with his organs in a snowstorm, while he stood on a lava flow.

Devil continued down the road, feeling the weight of the rider on her back increase before he fell forward and slumped across her neck. She walked at a steady pace while rolling her neck, shoulders, and hips to keep the non-responsive rider from falling out of the saddle.

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