56 copies sold and Two Four-Star reviews

I am sincerely grateful and humbled by the idea of my story being favored by complete strangers who want to a; buy the book and b; leave their thoughts and ratings is both gratifying and humbling.

So, thank you to all those readers from across the globe who bought Terror Australis, and a very sincere thanks to the two readers who awarded the book with four stars.

The Off-Worlder Chronicles: Terror Australis. Part three.

                                       7

 

Several hundred meters down the road, Devil meandered over to a patch of lush, green, wild couch. She lowered herself down on all fours, seconds before Ried rolled from the saddle to flop into the long grass. After a few minutes, the mare bowed her head and with soft taps, she nuzzled him until he stirred.

“Shit.” He looked around. “I guess it’s not a dream.” He sighed and clutched the reins, to pull himself up as Devil helped him by walking backward.

Marveling at the animal’s intuitiveness, but still feeling a little weak, he hooked his arm under Devil’s chin to hold her bridle for support. He then slid his foot across the thick carpet of grass. “Did you know I was going to fall off?”

The mare replied by lowering her head and cropping the top of the turf.

“You’re not much of a talker, are you? Well, at least one of us can eat.”

In the distance, a flock of large, black birds flew around in circles, cawing, and squawking at each other. While watching the distant birds, a small swarm of little bush flies started buzzing around his head, along with an annoying march fly. Ried waved and slapped at the insects attracted to the salt from his perspiration. It seemed like the more he waved away, the more insects appeared.

Then, he heard running water from within the nearby scrub, which stopped his windmilling waves and slaps.

“I suppose if I can’t eat, then I can at least have a drink.” He tied the reins to a small shrub and left Devil to feed on the grass, before making his way through the dense foliage toward the sound of the running water, still waving at the accompanying cloud of flies.

After several minutes of shoving and pushing, he stumbled out of the trees into a small clearing with a nearby running creek. At the sight of the small stream, and without the slightest hesitation, Ried jogged over to fall on its bank, and pushed his head under the running water.

The flowing water hit him like a jolt of electricity to recharge his tired, sweaty, and sore body. Christ, that feels so good. With his head underwater, Ried enjoyed the weightless feel of his arms and head floating in the cool creek. When he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, he sat back on his knees and let the fresh water drip down his body, before leaning forward with cupped hands, eager to quench his thirst.

“Look at what we’ve gone ‘n’ found, Muddgy.”

“I reckon we’ve got us a townie who’s lost and thirsty,” a female voice joined in.

“Bloody hell.” Startled by the sudden intrusion, Ried spun around, lost his footing, and stumbled backward into the creek with a splash.

“And he’s a cute one too,” she added.

Ried sat on the stream’s gravel bottom with the water halfway up his chest and peered at a man and woman who both appeared on the verge of feral. Christ. Where the hell did Grizzly Adams come from? He pushed himself upright to walk toward the bank but paused mid-step when a slow, menacing growl came from behind the man’s legs.

A muscular Rottweiler moved in front of the newcomer, and rolled its lips back, revealing a mouth full of yellow teeth and fangs glistening from saliva-fueled drool. The dog fixed its gaze on Ried and issued another threating rumble from deep in its throat.

“Easy now, dog.” The woman patted the animal’s head.

“Strewth. Give a bloke some warning before you sneak up on him.” Ried cautiously waded out of the knee-deep water, shivering under his sodden clothes, Easy now. Just stay calm. You’ve got nothing they could want. His focus shifted to the clean, oiled, and well-kept L1A1 self-loading rifle. The contrast between the weapon and the wild man sent Ried’s internal alarms into overload.

“We didn’t sneak up. You shoulda listened to what’s goin’ on around ya.” The woman grinned with a mouth full of yellow and brown stained teeth. “I like his clothes, Gazza.” She took a few steps toward Ried, who took another step backward, almost falling again into the water.

“Get away, Muddgy. They’re not gonna be yours to have.” The large man also approached Ried. “Now, don’t you move, pretty boy,” Gazza said. He looked Ried over, trying to figure out why old man Harris wanted the stranger. This bloke don’t seem like anything special.

“What is this?” Ried asked. “Have I walked onto the set of some new reality TV show?” He eased himself farther away from the creek. “You must have the crew and cameras well hidden.” He moved a couple more steps. The dog noticed, and lowered its head, offering another ominous growl.

“I told ya not to fuckin’ move, boy.” Gazza continued to stare at Ried.

Forget Grizzly Adams. I’m in some weird Queensland Deliverance.

Without shifting his gaze, Gazza raised two fingers to his lips and blew a warbled, shrill whistle. At the sound of the whistle, the scrub around the creek came to life.

More than a dozen men, women, and boys of mixed nationalities materialized from the surrounding bush. There were Caucasians, Aboriginal, and Asian – an eclectic bunch dressed in either skins and loincloths, or different combinations of repaired, faded, and torn clothes.

Every one of them carried one or more weapons: spears, lethal-looking clubs, and large knives. Most of the men also wore some type of hodgepodge body armor, yet not one of them, apart from the man who spoke, carried any firearms.

The half-dozen women in the crowd all sported similar hairstyles to the one called Muddgy, but less ornate. Much like the men and boys, the women also wore a variety of tattoos.

“Oh, Shit.” In an instant, Ried discounted the notion he’d stumbled onto the set of a TV show and went more with his deliverance theory.

“‘Shit’ just about sums it up,” Gazza said with a smirk.

Reality show or not, it didn’t take a script for Ried to understand who led them. The one called Gazza singled out two of his men from the encircling mob, who quickly moved in Ried’s direction.

He stepped back up onto the bank and pretended to fumble and slip on its wet edge so he could conceal a tennis ball-sized rock in his fist. “What do you want?” Ried kept his voice level.

Gazza smirked. “We want you to come with us.”

Okay, this is bullshit. “What if I don’t want to?” Ried took a step into more open ground. The dog rumbled another warning and stepped toward Ried, with every muscle coiled.

“No, dog. Stay.” Gazza knelt beside the dog and rested his arm on the animal’s shoulder.

“You don’t hear so good, boy.” The larger of the two new men waved his big knife at Ried. “The guv’na told ya don’t move.”

“I’ll tell you what.” Ried matched the stare of the knife-wielding man. “I’ll keep still if you do too.” He then directed his attention to Gazza without taking his eyes off the knifeman and his friend. “Maybe we can work something out.”

Gazza spat out a laugh. “Hear that? He reckons we can make a deal.” Gazza turned off his smile. “Just fuckin’ bag him,” he said.

The two men grinned with savage delight as they charged toward Ried. The quiet one took a couple of swift steps and dove at Ried’s legs, thinking he could tackle the stranger to the ground.

But the man carelessly telegraphed his move, which allowed Ried to skip out of his grasp. But, Ried stumbled on the uneven ground dropping his rock in the process. Before Ried realized, the first man sheathed his knife and charged up catching Ried off guard, with a brutal backhanded slap.

The blow sent Ried sprawling. He tripped over his own feet and came down hard. In a quick twist, Ried rolled onto all fours trying to replace the air in his lung between gulps of breath and spitting out a mouthful of blood. The side of his head feeling like an anvil just smashed into it as Ried blinked and flexed his jaw to stop his ear ringing, while the crowd coaxed and called out to their comrades.

Spurred on by the group’s encouragement, the brute picked up Ried by the shirt and pulled him closer. The larger man swore at Ried. Who flinched, almost gagging from the man’s foul breath.

Ried balked at the thugs feted breath while wrapping his legs around his attacker’s waist and dug his hands into the man’s greasy hair.

With a grunt, the man reached for the hands locked in his hair.

Ried took advantage of the man’s brief distraction, and in a whiplash move, rocked his head back, and then drove his forehead into his opponent’s nose.

The impact sent a white flare behind Ried’s forehead and shattered his attacker’s eye socket and nose sending out a stream of warm sticky blood.

Ried’s wounded and dazed attacker bellowed in pain and shock collapsing to the ground still holding Ried.

Dazed from the head but and fall Ried went to stand as the second attacker came in from behind. Caught by surprise, Ried felt the iron-clad grip of the smaller man, before he sensed it.

Although smaller, the second thug was all muscle. The man tightened his bear hug, arched his back, and lifted Ried up to drop him back down. The impact jarred Ried’s legs and forced the air out of his lungs and without pause Ried’s attacker retightened his grip and repeated the raise and drop move.

Ried’s diaphragm strained under the relentless vice-like grip. His head and ears throbbed from the increase in blood pressure. His lungs wheezed, and heart beat a furious staccato in his chest. In pure desperation, Ried raised his hands behind him to grope for his attacker’s ears.

When he found them, he clenched his fingers into his opponent’s thick, greasy hair. With the man’s head firmly in his grip, Ried took a deep breath, clenched his teeth, and then drove his thumbs hard into the man’s ear cavities, carving away the soft skin with his nails.

Ried ignored the man’s cries, and twisted his thumbs deeper, burrowing for his eardrums. Once he felt the vice-like grip slacken from under his chest, Ried withdrew his thumbs, twisted himself and his hands around to plow his thumbs into the man’s eye sockets.

At the same time, Ried pushed the man backward while he shoved his index fingers deeper into the man’s bleeding ear canals.

The man screamed and thrashed, but this only increased Ried’s resolve. Lost in anger and the red fire of rage Ried screamed as he squeezed the man’s eyeball from his head.

Blinded by the pain and loss of sight, the injured assailant thrashed wildly to loosen Ried’s arms and overbalancing them bot to the ground.

When they fell, Ried clamped his hands harder around the man’s head, rolled across the blind man’s body and twisted with a sudden jerk which silenced the screaming man.

Ried rolled back around and recoiled at the site of the twisted blood smeared dead face of the man oozing mulberry and honey-colored fluid from his torn eye sockets and ears.

The first man beginning to recover from the headbutt made a clumsy lunge toward Ried but misjudged his move through blood and tear-swollen eyes.

Ried, still catching his breath, caught the man’s move and rolled around, pushing down on his hands, and then throwing a desperate kick at the lunging man. To catch him between his ear and shoulder.

The force of Ried’s kick, combined with the other’s momentum, broke the attacker’s neck, sending him sprawling into the grass where his head landed with a bone-crushing thump on a large rock. The man spluttered with a garbled cough rolled his eyes back and died within a few heartbeats. The ground beneath his head turning to mud from blood and cranial fluid.

Ried crawled over to the dead man and relieved the corpse of its large knife. The side of his face burned with pain, and a couple of his teeth moved slightly when he pressed his tongue against them.

He stared in slow horror at the two men lying dead by his hand. Bile rose in his throat, which he kept swallowing back as he grunted and stood favoring his twisted ankle.

The sight of Ried holding the knife, and standing over their dead comrades, turned the cheers into threatening murmurs and hard scowls.

Ried stumbled back returning their looks through his weariness, confusion, and anger.

Then, came the snarl and bark and his world shifted to slow motion. Ried turned toward the attacking dog. He watched, mesmerized at how the animal’s paws spread out when they landed on the ground.

Ried then saw his other blood-stained hands grip around the knife’s wooden handle and let the pent-up emotions from the last two days surge through his muscles, now boosted with added adrenaline.

In Ried’s ears the sound of his incoherent scream of red rage, along with the dog’s guttural bark registered as a grumbling, phantasmal growl.

Chunks of dirt and grass floated in the air behind the dog’s paws after it launched itself from the ground.

Ried sensed no other movement around him. He focused on the dog’s face. Its lips rolled back to reveal teeth and fangs stained yellow and brown. The saliva flicked away to hang in globules, before falling to the ground and bursting like water balloons.

Ried’s own movements seemed drawn and slow when he slid under the leaping animal. He held the knife with both hands and slashed upward. The blade entered the dog’s fur and puckering the skin inward along the knife’s edge before the flesh split into a strawberry-colored smile to kiss the machete.

Ried stumbled back into real time as the blade sunk into the dog’s body.

The dingo crossbreed gave a short, high-pitched yelp, when the blade sliced past its ribs, and into its lung and heart. The dead animals weight and momentum carried them both into the creek. When he stood and shook the water from his eyes, the crowd of feral people closed in on him.

The woman wailed at the sight of the knife buried deep in her dog floating in a spreading pool of blood-stained water.

“You murderin’ bastard.”

His clothes soaked through, Ried stood with his eyes wide, breathing deeply through flared nostrils. He reached down, pulled the knife from the dog’s body and dropped it into the water as he sloshed onto the bank.

Nobody moved or uttered a whisper. The only sounds came from the gurgling stream, and the increased drone of flies converging on the dead bodies.

Gazza moved forward, his gaze burning into Ried wondering how a simple snatch and grab could go wrong. The sound of Ried’s voice broke into Gazza’s thoughts. “What’d you say?”

“I… I just want to go home,” Ried pleaded, and then slapped at the sudden sting of an insect biting his neck. Damn horseflies. When he pulled his hand away, the flattened object in his palm was no insect. Within two heartbeats all ability to stand or move deserted Ried and he collapsed onto his knees, glaring up at Gazza through blurring vision. “You fuckin–”

Gazza’s shoulders slumped, and he stared at the blowgun wielding man behind Ried. “Damn it, Squat. If I wanted you to dart him, I would’ve told ya to.” Gazza walked over to his two fallen men and stood in front of Ried. “There ain’t no tellin’ what that shit’ll do to a person.” He pondered the young man laying at his feet. This is gonna cost the Colonel double. Losing two of my men had not been part of the arrangement.

***

Ried blinked to focus on his dark surroundings. When his vision cleared, he found himself imprisoned alongside Devil in what appeared to be a dark shed or cell lined with dank, moldy hay. “Shit. Could this day get any worse or weirder?” He knew the first thought he had was a little morbid, but Ried wanted to believe he lay in a hospital bed in a coma, experiencing one of those bleak, subconscious dreams.

But, if this is a dream, then how come it’s all so friggin real? Sitting beside Devil, Ried recalled the fight with vivid, gut-wrenching clarity behind his closed eyes. “Jesus.” He collapsed back against the wall.

The familiar voice of his platoon sergeant echoed from the back of his thoughts:

“Killing a man with your bare hands is not a job done lightly. It is primal. It is brutal. It is the most personal fucking form of combat you’ll ever experience. But remember this… If afterward you feel squeamish or want to cry like a fucking baby, then you’re alive, and you’ve done your job.”

Ried pushed the sergeant’s voice back into the shadows. He might well be alive, but his dream had transformed itself into a nightmare. “Christ, please let me wake up.”

Beside him, Devil gave a small snort and shuffled her feet. “Hey, girl.” He pushed himself out of the hay and checked out his surroundings. With measured steps, he walked around and reached out to feel the rough surface of a corrugated tin wall and wooden frame.

He groped his way around the confines of their prison. With his arm raised above his head, he jumped up and down in several places. “Well, I won’t be riding on horseback.” By his reckoning, the whole building or shed didn’t seem any bigger than a horse float. Dream or not. At least the old man and his daughter didn’t lock me in a cupboard.

Stepping over to the faint stream of light in front of him, Ried traced the door’s outline. He eased his shoulder against the corrugated lining, leaned into it, and felt the sticky mass of old spider webs brush his face. “JESUS.” He slapped his face and leaped back, colliding with Devil.

Ried continued batting the dust-covered, gossamer threads. “Bloody spiders.” When a piece of hay fell from his hair to land on his arm, he jumped back, slapping, and waving his arm about. “Oh, shit. Fucking spiders!” In a bout of embarrassed frustration, he lashed out at the door with all his weight behind the kick, but the only result of his action was to shower himself with dust and grit.

The dust from the shed’s rafters brought about a series of bellowing sneezes. Infuriated, he hammered the door with repeated assaults. “Hey. What’s going on here? Let me out,” he shouted between kicks.

Catching his breath, he stepped back and in between his deep breaths, the sound of voices; singing and shouting amidst children’s laughter. Ried began kicking at the door again. This time, with each kick, the tin bent and pulled away from the door frame, but the timber frame itself stayed firm. “One or two good kicks more…” Halfway through the motions of his next kick, something heavy banged against the side of the shed, and he heard a deep voice.

“Oi. Be still in there.”

The loud bang against the corrugated wall and voice startled him. “Piss off,” Ried called back, resembling a spoilt child with each kick on the door. Then, without warning, the door opened, and the momentum of his unobstructed kick sent Ried sprawling out into the night.

Rolling himself over, he sat up to face five sharp spears pointed at his neck and chest. To his right, the darkness fell away behind a lantern.

Gazza leaned out from the shadow of the lamp. “I’d be keeping still, mate,” he said, “or they’ll be good ‘n’ happy to stick you.”

“What do you want with me?”

“Nothin’, really.” Gazza scratched his ear and stood up, “but, you went and killed their mates…” Gazza let the sentence hang.

“You should’ve just let me walk,” Ried murmured. “Then, they’d still be alive.”

“Yep, and you’d most likely run off and dobb us into the bloody Romans quick smart.”

Ried frowned and tilted his head. First, the old man, and now this bloke talking about Romans.

Misunderstanding Ried’s expression, Gazza continued. “Those two clowns were only s’posed to grab you.” Behind the lantern light, Gazza’s eyes seemed filled with regret. “Now they’re dead ‘n’ cold, and you’re here.” He looked down at Ried, broke into a bout of laughter.

Raising his arms and eyeing each of the armed men and women around him, Ried found nothing humorous.

“Put your bloody arms down, boy.” He tapped one of the men on the shoulder and pointed over to the shed. “Get the horse.”

He looked back at Ried under the lantern’s glow and went to lean only to turn when they heard a wet, dull crack, followed by a shrill cry. In the washed light, a shadowed figure stumbled backward from the shed to fall at Gazza’s feet.

The man rolled around with his hands clutching his groin moaning pitifully, curled into the fetal position as he threw up at Gazza’s feet.

“Fuckin’ hell.” Gazza issued a heavy sigh and rubbed his forehead looking at Ried. “Get your horse.” He planted a sold grip on Ried’s shoulder, “and don’t be stupid about it.”

Ried stepped over the crippled man and whispered, “Karma’s a bitch.”

He stopped a little shy of the door. “Easy, girl,” he whispered. Stepping inside, he untied the reins and led Devil out. “It’s all right, girl,” he cooed, caressing Devil’s cheek and neck. Still holding the reins, he took a step back and felt the pointy tip of a spear pressing into his ribs, just above the small of his back.

“Don’t even think of being clever,” the woman warned with deadly intent.

Ried gradually spun around to face her and the rock-steady spear tip millimeters away from his liver.

“Back off, Molls,” Gazza ordered. “Bring ‘em to the big house.” Molls stepped up to Ried with a rope, and Devil lowered her head, rolling her ears, and shifting her stance. Gazza held up the lantern. “For fuck’s sake, woman. You want to end up rollin’ in the dirt like him?” He nodded his head at the other man still curled up at his feet. “Just walk the boy back.”

“What about Ned?” she asked, keeping Ried within reach of her spear while making sure she kept a safe distance between herself and the horse.

Gazza contemplated the scene before him. He scratched his ear and glanced over at the two other men pointing to the moaning Ned. “You two take him down to Tilly’s tent.” He then looked across at Molls, Ried, and the remaining man. “Come on, you lot.”

Walking behind Gazza, Ried surveyed the roaring fire and the people surrounding it. The wafting odor of cooked meat, and the image of everybody seated around the fire – eating and drinking – made his dry mouth moist from saliva. It also increased the pangs of his hunger.

The scene of the approaching nomad leader in front of Ried, Devil, Molls, and her remaining companion caught the attention of a group of curious children dancing and playing near the bonfire. They came running up to get a better look – along with a few of the adults – many of whom Ried could tell were quite drunk.

Seeing the growing crowd, Ried’s anxiety level rose several degrees. He expected to have rocks, mud, rotten food, and even animal dung hurled at him. Instead, the adults pointed and whispered, and the children did what children do – they giggled and emitted oohs and ahhs.”

Unsure of how to respond to the attention, Ried smiled at them, but not one person from the crowd smiled back or offered even a simple nod his way.

At least the villagers in Afghanistan smiled back. Discouraged by their lukewarm response, Ried kept his eyes on the ground behind Gazza’s feet and did his best to ignore the onlookers.

Ried looked away from the trailing crowd and into the night sky. “Christ. I really hope this is just one long, bad dream,” he mumbled.

Gazza burst into a fit of laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Ried glared at the laughing man’s back.

“Bloody hell. You need a better dream,” he called back over his shoulder. “Now me, I’d be on a beach with a bunch of naked birds doin’ me every pleasure.” Gazza’s face split into a huge grin at the thought. “Now, there’s a fuckin’ dream.”

Ried held back his opinion and looked at the old high set Queenslander they approached where the fires reflections sparkled in the only unbroken window of what Gazza called “the big house.”

Under the overhanging verandas, the original owners decided to enclose the high-set building to make some extra living space accessed by French doors. Even in the dark, with the bonfire’s dancing light, Ried thought the old farmhouse seemed in a far better state of repair than anything else he’d seen so far.

“Tie the horse over there.” Gazza pointed to the stump of an old mulberry tree.

“Can I at least take off her saddle?” Ried asked.

Gazza hesitated for a moment before he nodded his consent. He doubted their guest would do anything rash, but he waved Molls over to keep an eye on him.

When done, Ried put the saddle and blanket on the backrest of the bench under the veranda and flopped down heavily from the weight of his confusion, weariness, and incredible hunger. “Any chance of getting something to eat?” he asked.

“Dunno,” Gazza replied. “I’m not sure I wanna waste any of our food on you.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Just pullin’ ya leg,” Gazza said as he walked away.

Ried watched him go and found it difficult to shake a sense of dread from the big man’s comment about not wasting food on him.

As he sat under the veranda’s shadow waiting for his food, he began to go over the events of the last couple of days. How does crashing in a storm lead to being kidnapped by a bunch of doomsday preppers? Absently, he scratched at the stubble on his chin and tried to remember how many days the young woman at the farm said had passed since his crash.

Ried watched the one called Molls, and the other man left to watch him. Danger exuded from their pores. He decided not to let them intimidate him, so he adopted an aggressive stance. After a few minutes, Ried grew bored of the silent game between his captors and himself. Closing his eyes, he massaged his temples to try to ease an encroaching headache. When he opened his eyes, he rested his chin in his hands and gazed at the strip of night sky between the overhanging veranda and distant tree-line.

What’s with the stars? This far away from the town, the sky should be filled with them.

The sound of heavy footsteps distracted Ried’s musings.

Putting a tray of food and drink down, Gazza handed him a small bowl of stew, and a mug full of some dark, reddish liquid.

Ried raised a cautious eyebrow after accepting the glutinous broth and dark colored drink.

“Don’t fret, boy. It ain’t full of poison,” Gazza assured him. “They’d bloody well hang me up by my short and curlies if it was.”

His hunger soon outweighed any trepidation, and he started devouring the stew, ignoring the odd texture of the meat, and the gravies earthy flavor.

“I’m guessin’ you ain’t eaten in a while?”

Ried continued eating and shrugged his shoulders in response. After spooning the last chunks of the stew into his mouth, he replaced the empty bowl with the clay mug and sniffed the dark liquid with its sweet odor.

“What the hell…” He whispered and then sipped a mouthful, only to gag on its pungent sweet and sour taste.

“It’s good stuff, huh?” Gazza laughed. “We brew it ourselves from prickly pear and berries.” He laughed again at Ried’s reaction to the drink. “Try sippin’ it, and then rest it on ya tongue before swallowin’.”

With nothing else to lose, Ried followed the advice and found it made the drink only marginally more palatable.

Gazza nodded toward the big, chestnut mare. “You work for old man Harris?”

“Nope.” Ried relaxed back into the bench and shook his head. “Why?”

Gazza pointed at Devils rump, “That’s his brand.”

Ried turned towards Gazza. “You know the old man?”

“Let’s say we’ve had our dealins.”

Something about Gazza’s tone told Ried the old man might well be a bit dodgy. He took another more adventurous mouthful of the bush wine which sent waves of relaxing warmth radiating from his stomach.

“If you don’t work for old man Harris?” Gazza asked. “then how’d you end up with one of his nags?”

“Mmm. Oh, I crashed in a big bloody storm–” Ried lost the feeling in his cheeks. “What’s with the stars?” The purple-red liquor had made him more than a little relaxed.

“What and the horse?” Gazza asked.

Ried gave Gazza a big, cheesy smile. “You mean Devil… I nicked her from the old man.” His tone then darkened. “The old bloke and his daughter held me prisoner for days and days,” he puffed up his chest, “but I escaped after he gave me some bullshit yarn ‘bout space tunnels… I told him to fuck off, and then I pinched the horse.” He nodded in drunken pride, blinked, scratched behind his ear, and then pointed to the sky.

“What’s with the stars?” Ried rubbed his nose again. “OH, shit. Wuz the old bloke tellin’ the truth?”

With a sudden pang of guilt, Ried glanced toward Devil, gulped down wore grog and swiveled around wagging an inebriated finger at Gazza. “I wuz tryin’ to head back to town when you lot showed up… Ried expression dropped along with his voice. “Fuck… are they really dead?”

“My blokes?”’ Gazza shrugged, “Pretty much.”

“Yeah well… It was their fault anyway.” Ried scanned the area, “So where is here?” Ried flopped back against the saddle feeling tired and then sat up pushing the mug against Gazza’s arm. “She’s a beaut, though,” he blurted out.

“Who?”

“Devil,” Ried said, “and the old man’s daughter, too.” He made several attempts to wink and gave up and instead, nudged his elbow into Gazza’s ribs, almost falling over from the effort. He took in a lungful of air, followed by a comical yawn before he slumped against Gazza and dropped the mug from unresponsive hands.

“Shit. He’s a one-pot screamer.” Gazza pushed Ried away and stood to stare down at sleeping guest. “You’re a strange one all right.” He tried to make sense of the mixed messages the younger man gave him, but only found himself more confused in the process. “You pair take turns to watch him ‘til the mornin’,” Gazza instructed Molls and her companion.

In all his secretive dealings with Dominic Harris, Gazza couldn’t recall seeing the stranger about. So, where’d he come from? Mind you, it’d make sense that the old man and his daughter would help an injured stranger. He turned to peer at the sleeping shadow on the bench. “But, why was old man Harris so bloody insistent we find you, eh?” I reckon it’s time we packed up and nicked off to the west… after I figure out a way to return you and the horse without pissing everyone off. “I need another fuckin’ drink.” Gazza sighed.

 

                                     8

 

The next morning’s early light revealed, Ried, stretching and rubbing his cheeks and eyes in the cold and damp air. His stomach heaved, his breath tasted sour from his dry throat and mouth. “God. What did they feed me?”

In the distance, a chorus of crows greeted the day. On a closer front, his sleeping guards and their inharmonious snoring and grunting assault his ears. Ried hawked and spat in their direction and padded across the wet grass and pick up the empty pitcher. “fucking amateurs.”

Ried tossed the clay jug into a bush listening for any other sounds from people moving about. A child cried while two more called out in a game, followed by a woman’s voice shouting at the playing children. The tangy odor of hot ash and smoke wafted in the breeze. Nearby, Devil snorted and shifted her feet.

Still, Ried waited, but when there were no other signs of movement or people talking, he decided to take a chance at escaping. He moved past his sleeping guards and lifted the saddle and blanket before softly making his way across to the horse. He allowed himself a smile, when a patch of ground erupted at his feet, along with the immediate report of a gunshot.

Devil jumped and jerked her head, almost snapping the reins still tied to the stump. Ried dropped to the ground behind the saddle.

Molls and her accomplice leaped to their feet in surprise.

Ried peeked over the saddle to see a pissed-off Gazza walking toward him, and pointing a long-barrel, semi-automatic handgun.

Molls and her startled partner clutched their spears unsure of which way to move.

To the surprise of everybody nearby, including himself, Ried pushed himself up and took a step closer to Gazza.

“Not another fuckin’ step.” Gazza glowered at Ried. “I knew I should’ve fuckin tied you up.” The last comment aimed at Molls.

Ried hooded his eyes and stopped. But instead of standing still, he bent his knees and sprang to his left. His forearm struck the guard’s chin, and across his ear.

The man head snapped back as he twisted around to collapse in a silent heap.

Before the man hit the ground, Ried dove, rolled and kicked Moll’s legs out from under her. He grabbed the end of the spear lying in the grass to strike Gazza’s gun hand with a vicious snap knocking the pistol from Gazza’s grasp, and leaving a ragged gash along the back of his wrist and thumb.

Molls, holding her ribs, made a lunge for Ried’s legs, which he sidestepped after he scooped up the pistol in his hand, a heartbeat before Gazza’s desperate attempt to retrieve it.

“Not another fucking step,” hissed Ried, pointing the pistol at Gazza.

A crowd of onlookers, awoken by the gunshot, drifted in growing numbers from the other side of the old house to form a human wall between the house and the broken fence near the horse.

The closest people pointed at the scene before them with their murmurs and catcalling growing louder while in the back a child cried. Others began to make wagers amongst themselves on the outcome between the young stranger, Gazza, and Molls.

Who the hell are these people?

Out of the corner of his eye, Ried caught Molls shifting her stance. With a quick step, he moved closer to her and pointed the spear at her throat. “Don’t even think of being clever.” His arm stiffened. “isn’t that what you said.” Ried shifted his stance to let the spear tip press harder against her skin. “It’s good advice.”

For a brief second, Molls considered defying Ried’s suggestion. However, when blood pooled around the spear tip, she curbed her defiant thoughts.

With the handgun trained on Gazza’s chest, and the spear keeping Molls at bay, Ried caught a glimpse of a man moving toward them under the veranda.

Another shot rang out and the child screamed as the lantern, hanging on the wall exploded above the man’s head. The near brave man stood fixed on the spot with lamp fuel running down his contorted face.

The bullet may have struck the lamp more by accident than design, but for Ried, it produced the desired result.

“All you lot hold off,” Gazza instructed. “Molls get behind me and don’t be stupid either.” He locked eyes with Ried. “You’re pretty handy with that,” he said, “but I’d be guessin’ you ain’t never shot a man.”

“Not with a pistol…” he walked backward to Devil, “…yet.” Ried, doing his best at keeping his tone level and his expression fixed with a hint of ‘try me if you want.’

Gazza smiled at the comment, but his smile faded when at something behind Ried’s eyes a look he’d seen on men many years before. Regardless, he tried his own version of verbal bravado. “Anyways, there ain’t enough rounds in there to take us all.”

“True. But what difference does it make?” Ried told him. “I killed their mates, so, I’m as good as dead anyway.” He could almost see Gazza’s mind ticking over.

“How’s about you drop the gun so we can make some sorta deal?”

With a shrug, Ried dropped the spear and cupped the gun in both hands. He adjusted his stance, squared his shoulders, and stood firm with his feet at shoulder width. He shuffled his left foot just in front of his right and leaned forward at the hip.

“You’re joking. After you lot attack me, drug me, kidnap me, and then fucking well shoot at me…” Ried’s voice never rose an octave. “You decide now’s a good time to make a deal?”

“All right, you lot. Drop your kit and back off.” Hearing only the odd murmur behind him, Gazza shot a quick glance backward. “Drop your fuckin’ kits. Now!” Behind Gazza came the sound of grunts and curses as the nomads dropped their knives, spears, and other assorted weapons. He spared a look over his shoulder. “What part about back off didn’t you lot fuckin get.”

Ried held his stance and watched the crowd shuffle back.

Gazza rolled his head forward. “Done. Now, get on your horse and piss off.”

“Just like that?” Ried asked without lowering the pistol.

“Yep, just like that.”

Ried bent his gun arm at the hip with the pistol still pointing forward. He stepped back to untie the reins with his free hand and maneuvered Devil around so he could saddle her. At no time did the pistol waver from Gazza’s direction, even when he went mounted the horse. “Which way is it to the old man’s farm?”

“You’re shittin’ me…”

“Which way?”

“North-west, about twenty-five to thirty klicks,” Gazza answered. “Head left past the creek. Take the third road on the right and keep on it ‘til you get to a wide T intersection with an old service station. Turn right and then left.”

Ried walked Devil over to Gazza, and whispered through a smile, “Just a suggestion.” He leaned in closer while keeping the pistol aimed at his kidnapper’s chest. “I’d look to your own house before you bother chasing after me.”

Conscious of how and where Ried pointed the gun, Gazza swiveled at the hip to see three men standing apart and forward of the crowd. “Fuck me,” Gazza growled. He looked back at Ried. “Don’t s’pose I can have the gun back?”

Ried smiled and turned Devil toward the creek while keeping some distance from the crowd’s edge. Without looking back, he tossed the weapon into a nearby lantana bush and smiled at the rising voices in the background. Yep, karma’s a bitch all right.

***

After crossing the creek leading to Gazza’s enclave, Ried rode on for about fifteen minutes and then dismounted so he could readjust the saddle and girth belt. Satisfied he could sit in the saddle without the saddle or him rolling off he remounted and set off only to stop at the sound of an approaching truck.

He scanned the road and the surrounding bush for a place to disappear. The scrub and grass taunted him with a definitive lack of options. “Christ. Well, after the last twenty-four hours, things couldn’t get any worse.” So, he reigned Devil over to the side of the road and kept walking in the hopes the driver would pass on by.

When the truck crested the rise, Ried raised his eyebrows at the old Bedford which came to a stop beside him. “Isn’t there anything around here that belongs to the twenty-first century?”

Unfortunately, Ried’s hope of the vehicle driving by disappeared in the dust raised by the lorry pulling over in front of him. When the portly, older driver stepped down from the cab, he lifted a small towel from his trouser pocket and mopped his brow before redressing the wispy, long, blond comb-over. Ried could feel the morning heat through his cotton drill shirt, yet the man approaching him wore a tweed sports coat over a white, collared shirt tucked into corduroy jeans.

“Hello, young man.”

Ried relaxed a little with the man’s jovial features and casual nature. With a congenial smile, the driver walked up to Devil with casual ease and fed the animal three lumps of sugar.

“Care to explain why you are on Julia Harris’s horse?”

“I stole her.” Ried couldn’t see how a lie could change his situation. He also noticed the man take a firm hold of the reins just past the bridle. Oh yeah, karma is a bitch. After a few minutes, Ried squirmed under the balding man’s gaze.

“You’re the young chap I took X-rays of?” The man squinted with intent curiosity. “You seem to have healed remarkably well.”

“You took X-rays of me?”

“Indeed.”

“So, you’re a radiographer?”

“Good heavens, not. I’m the district’s vet.”

“A vet with a portable X-ray machine?”

“That’s correct. It might be a tad old and cumbersome, but my unit has proven itself useful on many occasions.” The vet puffed in a proud statement and then he shifted closer dropping his voice. “It was all quite clandestine. You see, neither Mr. Harris or Mr. Bennett would explain what happened to you.” He walked around the mare. “I must say, I was mildly curious why they chose to tend your injuries in Julia’s old cottage, instead of the hospital. Considering the extent of your… apparent injuries.”

“Can you help me get back to the Harris place?” Ried dismounted and held the reins out toward the stranger. “I’m beginning to think I owe him an apology. Mister ––”

“Yes, of course.” The vet held out his hand. “Lester Jennings.”

“Benjamin Ried. But please, just call me Ben or Ried,” he said, accepting Jennings outstretched hand.

“Glad to meet you, Ben,” Jennings said with a broad smile. “Now, let’s load up Devil and get her back home, eh?” He tied the reins around one of the large hinged rings mounted on the truck’s side, before opening the rear door, and sliding out a ramp from under the floor frame. He locked the ramp in place, and they walked Devil inside the enclosed truck. Jennings leaned against the open door while Ried tied her reins to a small rail and removed the saddle. After which, he set about clearing a spot for himself beside her.

“Good heavens, son. You can’t ride back here.”

“Why not? Besides, you don’t even know me.”

“Which won’t change if you’re locked back here.” Jennings watched Ried gently stroke the horse before he stepped down the ramp into the morning sun. “Excellent choice.” He beamed.

“I don’t suppose you have anything to eat?” Ried asked candidly.

Jennings stepped up into the cab of his truck and brought down a basket covered with a clean, white piece of calico. “This should do the trick.” He lifted the cloth to reveal goat cheese, grapes, dried pork, a cob of bread, and a bottle of white wine. “It was gifted to me this morning.” Without prompting, Jennings gave a full account of his overnight visit and consultations within the small community at the old hamlet of Maidenwell, tending their various pets and animals.

Ried helped himself to the bread, fruit, and meat. Jennings, on the other hand, helped himself to everything in the basket, including the goat cheese, which Ried avoided.

“You don’t eat cheese?”

Ried only shrugged and continued chewing on the pork. On his deployment in Afghanistan, he had eaten his share of goat cheese, but he had never acquired a taste for it.

Jennings continued to devour the cheese with a handful of grapes. Without prompting he uncorked a bottle of wine which he passed over to a reluctant Ried who listened to Jennings continued banter about his adventures. Ried took a sip of the homemade wine. He would have preferred water, but the light, slightly sweet drink seemed palatable enough, especially after the taste of the nomad’s potent home brew.

According to Jennings, the Maidenwell community was the northern regions’ premium wine and cheese producers.

Ried wanted to ask what he meant by the northern region but found himself asking about Devil instead.

The vet explained how Dom’s wife, Julia, had found the newly born mare beside the remains of her mother, who some nomads shot and butchered for meat. “You see, Dom’s Julia always had a way with injured or lost people and animals, so she adopted Devil. Since that day, the animal had become very protective of Julia. No one else could ride her.” He broke out into a jovial chuckle. “In fact, it took about two years of constant visits, before Devil would let me be alone with her.”

“I think Devil only tolerates me because I give her sugar.” He smiled at his own joke. “The animal will tolerate Dom grooming her, but nothing else. And since Julia’s passing, Devil had not allowed a soul to ride her.” Jennings raised an eyebrow and glanced sideways between more mouthfuls of food and wine. “Yet, you managed to saddle her, and ride her from Dom’s barn.”

“My mom is the best person I know when it comes to horses. She made sure me and my sisters all grew up around them. I suppose I picked up her genes.” Ried shrugged, and then he broke into a broad grin. “She did give one of those feral blokes a good thump.”

“Ferals?”

Jennings’s expression morphed into one of horror when Ried talked about the people who had attacked and kidnapped him.

“Dear lord. Those were nomads, and you escaped them?”

Ried saw the color drain from Jennings’s face, while he scanned the bush around them.

It took a certain amount of convincing on Ried’s part to assure Jennings they were safe, and the nomads weren’t coming after them. Eventually, Jennings calmed down and continued eating and drinking. In between mouthfuls, he patted Ried’s shoulder to reassure him Dominic would be more relieved than angry when he saw both Ried and Devil were safe.

After consuming most of the food in the basket, Ried could feel his strength and alertness improving. The warm sun and a full stomach had a soothing effect on him. He stretched himself to ease the stiffness from his awkward night’s sleep on the bench and two days of riding. Even the fight and escape from the nomads seemed a distant memory.

Ried stood beside the truck in the sun and listened to the breeze rustle the leaves, serenaded by the chirping of cicadas. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to accept the calm and beauty of the morning. And now, there’s somebody to take me to a phone to contact my family, and hopefully, help get the car back.

Off in the distance, a faint and unusual whining sound ended his moment of bliss. Ried walked out to the middle of the road. “What’s that noise?”

Jennings put down the empty basket and walked over to join Ried. “Oh, dear me.”

“Relax I don’t think it’s the nomads.”

“No, but what is coming could be much worse.” His jovial mood evaporated into the humid morning air. “Hurry. Get in the back and try to hide,” he urged.

“Hey, stop pushing.”

“Hush, boy. Please, just do what I ask.” With persistent nudging, Jennings maneuvered Ried toward the back of the truck. He ushered the protesting Ried into the vehicle and pointed at a shelf above the truck’s cabin. “Quickly now. Get yourself up there and keep quiet.”

Jennings’s abrupt change in manner, along with his hyper nervous insistence, resembled the reaction of some Afghan villagers when suspected Taliban troops were nearby. Before he could ask what had spooked him, Jennings had slid the ramp inside the truck and closed the door, leaving Ried and Devil standing in the gloom.

Unsure of what just happened, Ried followed Jennings request and climbed onto the storage shelf above the truck’s cab. He wriggled closer to the side and peered through the truck’s timber slat wall. He could see Jennings nervously wringing his hands at the sight of a sizeable group of oversized motorbikes coming to a stop nearby.

The large, unusual bikes were unlike anything he had seen before, with their streamlined cowlings enclosing the frame and engines, and then sweeping back up and over the rear wheel to form a set of fixed panniers. He shifted his head to get a better look at the plum-colored machines and wondered which bikie gang the riders belonged to. He tried to see the emblem on the front cowling, but couldn’t get a clear view of the symbols.

What spooked Ried the most about the bikes was their riders. This gang looked almost militant, with their ink-blue uniforms and heavy black boots and molded body armor. He shifted to get a better look at the closest rider and his body armor.

Bloody hell… It looks like what I found yesterday.

The helmets on the riders’ heads were also a polished black, with plating to cover their ears, and a dark, polarized, drop-down visor, which only covered the riders’ eyes.

Ried craned his head and neck to listen when he heard Jennings step away from the truck after the rider dismounted. From the look of the rider and the uniform he wore, Ried assumed this was the gang’s sergeant-at-arms.

A blood-red sash wrapped around the man’s waist under a wide, dark, leather belt, decorated with a dozen leather straps situated over his groin. On each hip, Ried could see some pouches the handle of a knife, but when then Jennings stepped in front of the rider blocking Ried’s view. Who the hell are these blokes?

“Dr. Jennings.”

“Centurion Mettius.”

Ried frowned and mouthed the word centurion.

“Why are you here?” The man looked around and then studied the truck.

When Ried saw the man’s black-on-black eyes, he almost swore aloud. Okay, that’s just creepy. Who the hell would cover their whole eyes with all-black contacts?

“My truck overheated,” Jennings lied. “While it cooled down, I thought I’d have some breakfast.” In a bid to show he spoke the truth, Jennings timidly held out the empty food basket.

“Next time, for your own safety, I suggest you find a better place to stop.” Mettius ignored the basket. “This is scavenger territory.” Before Jennings could respond, he looked past Jennings, when he heard a noise from inside the truck.

Ried looked over his shoulder toward the horses moving dark shape. Jesus Christ, Devil.

“I’m taking a horse back for treatment,” Jennings said.

Ried watched as Mettius scrutinized Jennings, and then signaled the first three riders to join him beside the truck. Ried tensed, his ears pounding with the blood pumped by his adrenaline-fueled heart.

He heard them move around the truck, watching their bodies through the slatted side walls. With exaggerated slowness, Ried slid toward the front of the shelf area and waited. His internal alarms clamored, and his gut told him something was wrong. Very wrong. The big bikes, the riders in body armor, and their ominous, blacked-eyed sergeant-at-arms who Jennings called Centurion Mettius

Behind him, Mettius had opened the truck’s rear door.

Ried froze from the increased light spearing into the back of the truck.

“You see? Just a horse. There’s no need for your pistol,” Jennings said.

Holy shit. They’re armed? Ried’s gut knotted from Jennings warning.

“What’s under the blanket?”

“More wine and cheese. In gratis for my service.”

A long silence followed Jennings continued lies. When the door of the truck closed, Ried closed his eyes and willed his heart to slow down its juddering beat.

“Are you looking for somebody?”

Ried peered through the split between the boards to see Mettius spin around at Jennings question.

“Why would you ask that?” Mettius demanded.

Jennings pulled out his little towel and started mopping his head. “Well…” He avoided the cold, black-on-black eyes staring back at him. “Um, I’ve seen your patrols over the last couple of days, and, well, they don’t typically consist of so many men.”

“In fact, we are seeking out the scavengers, and one or more escaped prisoners.” Mettius moved his face closer to Jennings. “Or those in league with any of them.”

“I’ll be sure to report anything I see to either you or the governor,” Jennings said.

From his vantage point, Ried thought Jennings was about to faint.

“You look unwell.” Mettius stared at Jennings before he turned to march back to his bike.

“Too much wine and cheese, I fear.” Jennings continued to mop away the dripping perspiration.

“Just be on your way,” Mettius barked after mounting his bike.

Ried watched the twenty-plus bikes ride past, and when the last one passed, he jumped down and peered through the doors.

“All right, my boy. You can come out now.”

“They were armed?”

“Obviously.”

Ried paced in a circle while frowning at Jennings answer. It’s a bloody, bold move for any bikie gang to display their weapons. “Who are the scavengers they talked about?”

“I believe they were referring to the nomads.”

“The nomads?” Ried grabbed Jennings’s shoulders. “Shit. We have to follow them.”

“I will do no such thing.” Jennings clamored and went on mopping his face. “Those are armed men.”

“With a clear agenda against people mostly armed with spears and knives.”

“And it has nothing to do with us. So, we should do what the centurion told us to do.”

Jennings’s face paled to the color of ash and couldn’t seem to stop sweating.

Bloody hell. Whoever those riders were, they scared the shit out of him. Ried knew forcing the man’s help was a pointless exercise. So, he gave Jennings a smile and a nod of understanding, and thanked him for the food, before turning to run down the road after the bikes.

“Wait,” Jennings called out after a moment. “I’ll do it.” He looked miserable. “I’m not sure who’s madder; you for running after them, or me for driving you.”

Ried patted his shoulder and climbed into the cab after him.

It took a six-point maneuver to turn the truck around to follow the bikes. A few minutes down the road, Jennings pumped the brakes to stop when they rounded a bend, and they saw the last bike veering off the road.

“I don’t suppose you have a rifle?” Ried asked, climbing out of the cabin. Jennings shook his head. “That’d be right.” Before he closed the door, Ried insisted Jennings return Devil and pass on his apologies to old man Harris. But before Jennings could answer, Ried disappeared into the scrub.

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.

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.

ATTENTION… ATTENTION!!!

Hello all. Did the heading get your attention? I hope so because I will be releasing a preview of Terror Australis a few chapters at a time over the next few weeks.

OMG! Why?

Well, the answer to the question is a little of a multi-faceted response.

To begin with, I have the manuscript entered in a competition which won’t allow any published version with a barcode or ISBN, but chapters released via blogs etc are okay.

Also for the majority of the last thirty months, I have sweated and swore over the manuscript from start to the last recent copy edit. so I feel, taking above into account, my story needs to visit the world beyond. By doing this I hope to receive a more expanded and open field of feedback.

A sense of relief…

I know the general consensus states to write the first draft, no matter how bad it may be. Well, the minute part of my psyche containing a hint of OCD occasionally acts as a sea anchor, which stalls me until I get things in a better shape. But this morning I have, after getting things back on course with chapters 15,16 and 17. I decided to haul in the anchor and crack on to finish last nights session with over 70k words on Bread & Circuses. OH Yeah… Oh Yeah…