Category Archives: Novel Chapter

From Shattering, Ally Bodnaruk

Shattering is a young adult science fiction novel set in a far-flung future-city of August, where tensions between the Patron ruling class and anti-technology activists are building. At the centre of the controversy is the Imprint program, a new method of prolonging life using synthetic bodies and downloadable ‘imprints’ of the human mind. Mallory Li and her best friend, butler, and Imprint Bligh find themselves drawn into the mess when Mallory’s inquisitiveness sets her down a complicated path.

 

Chapter One

For tonight’s evening of never-ending torture, Mallory is stuffed into a pale-yellow dress that swishes and flounces and does nothing to keep her warm. It’s the old-school kind, the type that doesn’t know how to change colour or flash sparkling, star-bright lights. To complete the look the family’s pseudo-Butler, Bligh, carefully pins her hair up; he’s the best at not poking her scalp with the sharp hair clips, so she always shoves the box at him before Mum has a chance to grab them.

‘Make sure you leave some strands out,’ Mum instructs Bligh. ‘It’s becoming quite uncouth to have it all slicked and pinned back. Make it look a little more natural.’

‘Of course Ms Li,’ comes the butler’s response as he teases some of Mallory’s thick, black hair out of the bun, ‘is this better?’

‘Oh yes, dear, that’s lovely. Don’t you look darling Mallory?’

With the number of pins still sticking out of her hair where Bligh has yet to secure them, Mallory thinks she looks more like the bushes in the park during winter, all sticks and tufts of sad leaves rather than anything darling. Maybe she can sneak out to the park and hide in the bushes. Blend in and stay there until everyone’s either sick with worry or forget about her altogether. Whichever comes first. She can live in the park and jump out at passers-by, all wild and spiky, and be one of those human interest stories on the news.

‘Thanks Mum, it’s perfect.’

‘Call me Mother at the party, dear,’ her mother softly scolds her as she adjusts the dress straps. ‘And don’t go copying Laurel Sandifer’s weasel of a child and call me by name. They may think they’re setting a new trend, but I guarantee they just look like fools.’

‘Of course I won’t, Mother.’

Her mum pats her cheek and gives her a brief, pleased smile. ‘You are a good girl Mallory, you do your father and I proud.’

Where Did She Come From? Who Is She Really? Is There A Family Out There Missing Her? Find Out Next Week On ‘Wild-Park-Girl’.

Mallory spends most of the shuttle-ride to the party thinking about the rest of the opening credits. She’s curled up in one of the window seats, tucked against glass, while her parents sit in front speaking quietly to each other. They’re being hosted this week by Patron Ama, a biotech engineer who runs the biggest augmented reality company out there — S-A Industries. Mallory’s dad started out working under Ama, but he’d left the company a few years before Mallory was born. He doesn’t talk about it much, Jeremiah Li isn’t a man of many words — he always has too much work to do. But when he does he speaks fondly of his time at S-A, and with a great deal of professional respect for Ama in spite of Everything That Happened. That’s how her parents refer to it, capitalisation and all. Everything That Happened. From the professional disagreements, to the firing, to the law suits, to even more law suits, to her father’s own Patronage and Ama’s refusal to let the bestowing of the title go unchallenged. Most of it had gone on when Mallory was still quite little so she doesn’t remember much of anything, but she can hear just how bad it had been in the way her father describes it as ‘a hard time’ with a tired frown or her mother’s description of Ama as a despicable woman.

None of that means they can skip the damn party when Ama hosts it though. Mallory has checked. If she hates the parties with their roundabout conversations, bright lights, and intense scrutiny, she feels an incandescent rage towards the parties at Ama’s. The stares increase tenfold as people peer at her parents and Ama, waiting to see if someone cracks. They always talk to her as well, something about it looking worse if they didn’t. At least Ama seems to despise the little act as much as they do. Mallory thinks she does at least; it’s hard to get a read on her.

They have to travel through Mid-City to get to Ama’s mansion so their shuttle is gliding through the high-rises and densely packed apartment buildings. It fills Mallory with a lingering claustrophobia, so different to the meandering estates and sprawling corporate headquarters that make up the Upper-Echelon. Concrete walls rush by as the shuttle speeds along; beads of light spilling out of windows, the only thing breaking the monotony. As the shuttle line traces the buildings and edges closer to ground level, Mallory begins to notice bursts of red writing spattered against the walls.

ELITISM KILLS

PATRONAGE = MURDER

WE ARE THE OPPRESSED

The walls of August turned a canvas for those that call themselves revolutionary.

‘Pay them no mind, dear,’ her mum calls back to her. ‘All great societies must have their dissenters.’

Mallory hears her dad mutter, ‘Though why ours must be so pointlessly annoying,’ before her mum frowns him into silence.

When the revolutionaries first started becoming more active a few years back it had sent a frisson of excitement through the Upper-Echelons. It had sounded daring and brave and like their world was expanding into some great Epic. They did small things at first; graffiti and hacking jobs, a few labs got broken into. Nothing too disruptive. But then there’d been an attack in the Factories, one of the largest computerised production lines was put out of business for a week and the Patrons had sent in the Guard. There hasn’t been any revolutionary activity outside of Mid-City for over a year.

Secretly, Mallory has been a little disappointed at the lack of excitement.

As their shuttle pulls up outside Patron Ama’s house, Mallory’s stomach tightens. Ama’s house is almost a palace. It’s gargantuan. Pillars of marble and gold rise from the ground and line the entrance drive, like path markers to a temple they exclaim ‘I am here, I am grand, and you will worship me’. The house itself is a testament to technological and architectural wonders, but built in the old-time style everyone knows Ama favours. It looks like it’s made out of golden sandstone, edged in the same marble as the pillars, and decorated in elaborate gold-leaf and swirling carved patterns. But each brick is actually made of durable poly-synthetic-plastic and contains a computer processor linked back to a central server. Mallory loves it as much as she hates it. She loves the complication, the sheer brilliance of having a house built out of a computer, but she hates the arrogance it exudes. It screams power and status, a snarling beast that demands respect from all who pass through. Mallory has wondered in the past how hard it would be to hack; she’s considered getting Bligh to reprogram it to display childish images and insulting words. But actions like that would be enough to have her thrown in jail, no matter her parents’ status, so she leaves her plans as a fantasy.

Mallory imagines the house covered in sparkling butterflies and love hearts as they walk up to it just so she looks less impressed.

‘Why are you smirking? Stop it,’ her mum murmurs. ‘You have to stay in control, dear.’

‘Yes Mother, of course Mother,’ Mallory intones, pulling her face back to neutral. It’s possible, Mallory thinks, that Mum will only be pleased when Mallory successfully learns to replace her face with a blank piece of paper. Then whatever emotion she’s expected to have can just be drawn on.

Her mother gives her a cautionary look as they walk up the grand staircase and into Patron Ama’s party; Mother, Father, and Daughter — picture perfect family.

 

The ballroom is lit like gold. Opulence spills out of every corner of the ballroom, delicate flowers hang from baskets (the real thing!) while little bots flutter and flit like iridescent butterflies over their heads. But all Mallory can focus on is her shoe pinching her left heel; rubbing in a sharp, stinging way that heralds a blister. She tries to shift her weight to her right to relieve the pressure, but the movement only causes another stab of pain and a wince that she doesn’t manage to conceal. Her mum squeezes her elbow, though the conversation she’s holding with Patron Ama doesn’t falter. Mallory can tell that she’s going to get another lecture on poise and proprietary when they’re back at home. The reprimand makes her palms itch. She grits her teeth to keep the frustrated words down inside of her where they coil in her stomach like electric wires; sharp and shocking.

She’s never enjoyed the Patron Parties, endless parades of only the most powerful, the most influential. Her parents force her to attend because they think it will instil a greater understanding of August City’s politics. But the parties are boring in a way that goes beyond a lack of something to do. It’s people either ignoring her or talking down to her. We think of you as a mere speck if we think of you at all, their eyes tell Mallory as they look at her with disdain.

Mallory is not allowed to speak. Her parents are too afraid she’ll say the wrong thing to the wrong person. She’s just here for her parents to show her off while she studies the delicate balance of civility and cut-throat politics that keeps August running. She’d been fascinated by it when she was younger, the way the Patrons would circle each other with their words, talking round and round about everything except what they really wanted to say. Yet somehow they still understood each other. Her mum says it’s all about listening to the things they don’t say, the gaps in the conversation, and learning to leave those spaces in your own sentences. It had seemed kind of mystical up until her parents decided she needed to learn to do it herself.

Now it just seems stupid.

Twice a week she has to sit down with her mum and Bligh and work on her Politicking. She hates it. But Mum insists it’s what she needs to know to manage the world.

‘This is important Mallory,’ she says whenever questioned. ‘This is your future.’

Even Bligh thinks it’s important that she learns, which is saying something. Normally he agrees with her when she complains about all the dumb little things that constitute life in the Upper-Echelons. So she goes to the lessons and she tries to remember it all. She can’t help it if her inner-monologue, the one Mum is always telling her to rely on, is more interested in just screaming than in passive-aggressive implying insults.

‘Let them point out their own flaws themselves, if you can. Ask them if they’re going for a vintage style if their clothes are out of season. Wonder where their partner is if you know they called it quits,’ her mum recites. Mallory imagines punching them in the face instead.

Whatever. She swallows the thoughts down and watches old Street Fighters repeats on her QScreen in her room after every lesson. Her parents don’t like her watching ‘those kinds of shows’, the ones that are meant for the unsophisticated and uncivilised masses of Mid-City and the Factories, in no way for the daughter of a Patron. But Bligh is the only one who ever comes into her room anyway and he doesn’t care.

That’s not the complete truth. He does care, just not about what she watches. He just knows she only likes watching the fights when she’s feeling particularly angry. He even stood up for her and asked her parents if she should learn self-defence (they completely dismissed the idea, but she loves him for trying). That’s how it goes with Bligh, he just seems to get her. Ever since Dad brought him home from the lab it’s felt a little bit like it’s her and Bligh against the world. Sometimes she imagines they’re in one of the ancient cop shows Aunt Emmy studies, all well-timed jokes and a complete understanding of one-another’s psychology. Mallory and Bligh. Bligh and Mallory. They’d have pithy nicknames for each other like Robo-cop or Terrier and Mallory would always turn up late to crime scenes with a grin and two coffees while Bligh cracked jokes about crime waiting for no one.

She went through a phase when she was fourteen of asking Bligh, ‘what’ve we got,’ every time she saw him.

Breakfast Scene. Enter Mallory. Eyes crusted with sleep, dressing gown falling off one shoulder. Bligh stands at the counter, apron covering his blue button-down, a plate of eggs in one hand and a piece of toast in the other.

Mallory: What’ve we got. (It’s a statement and not a question). Serious voice.

Bligh blinks.

Bligh: ‘Breakfast?’

Yeah, it always worked better in the old shows. Bligh’s not as witty as she sometimes likes to think he is anyway.

 

Her shoe is still hurting. Damn thing. Bligh had told her to make sure to wear them in before the party tonight but she hadn’t listened. Well, she had listened; she’d just decided she had better things to do. Now her heels are burning, practically on fire, and all Mallory wants to do is take them off and sit down in a corner somewhere and douse her feet in ice.

‘And how are you doing in school, Mallory?’ Ama turns to speak to her just as Mallory is gearing up for another pain-relieving shuffle.

Mallory nearly falls over. It probably just comes across as a slight waver, a rocking movement as though Ama’s words have lashed out like a punch and tried to knock her over. Ama doesn’t speak to Mallory. No one speaks to Mallory. It’s an established fact of the world. Like gravity. Or that Bligh can always tell when Mallory is lying.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Her mother’s eyes are drilling into her. Do not disappoint! Telepathy is not needed for Mallory to know what her mum is thinking.

‘It’s going well.’ More detail, don’t freeze up. ‘We’ve begun studying the Theory of Synthetic Intelligence.’ Something else, something else. Oh. ‘Carrie might have mentioned it?’

Perfect. Ama’s niece is Mallory’s age, but is absolutely hopeless at biotech. She works in the class below Mallory for Tech Lab.

‘No, I don’t think Carrie’s class has begun that unit yet,’ Ama says pleasantly enough, but the way Mallory can see her mother smile in her peripheral vision means Ama is at least a little put off.

‘Oh, well it’s a very interesting topic.’ Neutral, keep your face neutral, she thinks. Show no fear.

Mallory thinks it’s working. She’s about to give Ama a politely snide smile, lift one corner of her mouth and duck her chin just like she’s practiced —

The ballroom is suddenly filled with darkness as the lights go out. Everything goes quiet as conversations grind to sudden halt. The lights at a Patron Party don’t just go out.

Mallory freezes in shock like everyone else. She wants to reach for her mum’s hand but doesn’t dare move because what is happening? Harsh breaths and trembling fingers. Is the room really filled with darkness or is it just empty of light? she thinks, somewhat hysterically.

Quiet voices begin to fill the void of dark silence that surrounds them.

‘What’s going on?’

‘Did Ama plan this?’

‘Why did the lights go out?’

The lights come back on as suddenly as they went out and nothing has changed. Except. No one is moving, wide-eyed as they look about the room trying to determine if this is something they need to be concerned about. No one wants to be the first one to panic.

‘Nothing to worry about!’ Patron Ama shouts suddenly to the crowd, ‘I told maintenance they had to wait till tomorrow for the tests, but clearly I need new employees.’

There’s a titter from the crowd as they pretend to relax, but Mallory can see the Guardsmen on duty racing out of the room as Ama glances around with a tight expression. A flash of red from above catches Mallory’s eye. Instead of the soft gold from before, the bots are twinkling blood red.

‘Oh dear,’ her mum says from beside her as she too looks at the ceiling. ‘We’d better go find your father.’

 

Download a pdf of Shattering

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From Young Warrior, Jacqueline Brown

Young Warrior is an adventure novel for middle school children. Eleven year old Kevin Jones stumbles on a strange and mysterious dojang, from where he is transported to a fantastical realm to train with Master Cheng, and to be taught the ancient secrets of the monks, martial art and combat. But when the magic force that keeps peace in the realm begins to fade and Master Cheng goes missing, Kevin will need to use everything he has learned, as well as a few tricks that only a modern kid would know, to save Master Cheng and his world.

 

Chapter One: The Strange Shop on Orchard Street

Today wasn’t the first day Kevin Jones had stood outside the strange shop that was tucked in the corner of Orchard Street. Its narrow red door had a brass knob no bigger than a brussels sprout. Its little square windows were dirty and grey. Hanging from the roof on rusty chains was a small wooden sign that might once have been colourful and grand, but was now tired and faded.

The sign read:

J.Brown_image1

For a long time Kevin hadn’t even known about Orchard Street. Kevin’s quickest route from his school to home was to turn right out of the front gates, pedal all the way down the main road, then turn left, right and left again. In a hurry, with his school bag over his shoulder and a jumbo juice-box in his hand, he could make it home in four minutes and fifty-two seconds, if he threw his bike down on the lawn and his mum had left the front door unlocked.

J.Brown_image2

But it hadn’t been fast enough. Not after Levi Baxter transferred to the school. Not after Levi Baxter, who was two years older and twice the size of Kevin, took a special disliking to him. Not after Levi Baxter started waiting for Kevin at the school gates, chasing him down on his pushbike that was bigger and fancier than Kevin’s (whose bike had been bought in a ‘Bargain Sale’ of unpopular stock the shop was desperate to get rid of). Four minutes and fifty-two seconds was no longer fast enough for Kevin to make it home without his tie missing, a dead arm and his grubby school shirt pulled over his head.

The last time Kevin cycled the main road home was on the Thursday before Easter. His class had been let out early for the school holidays, and he was flying down the street, his skinny legs pumping on the pedals, a giddy grin on his face. ‘In your face, Levi Baxter!’ he shouted. ‘Let’s see you catch me today!’ Then as Kevin rounded the corner…

Levi Baxter stepped out in front of him. Kevin turned the front wheel sharply to the left and tried to ride straight past him, but Levi grabbed the strap of his school bag as he went past, and yanked. Kevin yelped as his bike slid out from underneath him, and he dropped to the ground. Levi’s meaty face stood over him, grinning. ‘Caught you, Jones!’ Then he wrestled Kevin into a headlock until he couldn’t breathe.

That was also the last time Kevin saw his school bag. By Easter Monday, Kevin heard that his exercise books were seen strewn around the local oval — lodged between tree branches, hanging over the goal posts. One was even stuffed up a down-pipe. Levi Baxter had been busy.

Kevin Jones had spent his Easter holidays devising a new route home from school.

 

Kevin’s New Plan To Ride Home

  • Do NOT go near the front gate! Exit by back gate instead.
  • Go down the concrete steps (twenty-two of them, must stand up and use legs as shock absorbers or Owww!)
  • Zig-zag through the back streets (practise my wheelies!)
  • Peddle down Mrs Mac’s driveway and across her yard (get a good speed first so I won’t get caught)
  • Go through Mrs Mac’s back fence where the palings are missing
  • Go across the oval
  • Then under the trees on the far side (duck for branches)
  • Peddle up the dirt jump and over the creek (Whooooooo!)
  • And cut through the very end of the odd little street to HOME!

 

The ‘odd little street’ was, in fact, Orchard Street, a street which Kevin had only just discovered. The quiet dead end street seemed forgotten by the whole neighbourhood. At the very end was a narrow path between two fences (just wide enough for Kevin’s handlebars to fit) which popped out onto Kevin’s street. From there he could make it safely through his back gate and home. Kevin wasn’t as big and his bike wasn’t as fast as Levi’s, but he was nimble, he could weave in and out between trees and land small jumps easily. He was certain if Levi tried to follow him home on this route, he wouldn’t get caught.

J.Brown_image3

On his last day of school holidays Kevin had timed it on his stopwatch. In a hurry, with his new school bag worn like a backpack and with both hands on the handlebars, he could make it home twelve minutes and ten seconds.

But he never did. Because at eleven minutes and thirteen seconds each afternoon since that day, Kevin stopped outside the strange shop that was tucked in the corner of Orchard Street, and pressed his nose to the dirty glass.

Can you see it on the map? It’s the little rectangle in red.

The first time Kevin looked inside, the windows were so dirty that he couldn’t see in. He pulled the sleeve of his jumper over the heel of his hand and rubbed on the glass. It made a loud squeak. He jumped back. Had the people inside heard? He turned to pick up his bike to leave, but stopped. Who was inside? What did they do in there? Kevin pulled up his sleeve and rubbed again, this time a little more carefully so he didn’t make a noise. After a moment, the dirt began to come off and there was a small patch in the middle that he could see through. He pressed his nose firmly against the glass, cupped his hands around the side of his face to cut out the glare, and stared in.

The room was dingy and dim. There was no furniture and the grey walls were bare. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling on a long wire, giving off a pale light. In the centre of the room stood a squat looking man dressed in long robes of orange cloth, with large panels of gold embroidery around the collar, on the sleeves, and on the bottom hem which brushed his bare feet. The man was staring downwards, the bald crown of his head towards Kevin. His arms were outstretched, and between his hands was a gold bladed sword, its tip touching the stone floor in front of him. Suddenly in one swift motion (Kevin would swear from outside he heard a ‘whoosh!’ as the air parted) he lifted the sword high above his head and…

Kyup!’

Kevin leapt away from the window. What was that? He looked around. No-one else was on the street. No-one else was there to notice. He crept back up to the glass, and when he peered in again, he was astonished.

The little room he’d been looking in was utterly different. It was bright and modern. Lights were on, the walls were painted white and packed with photographs. There were mirrors at the far end, with two flags above them. Kevin recognised the Australian flag, its blue, red and white, with the Union Jack and Southern Cross. But the second flag was unlike anything Kevin had seen. It was square, on a turquoise background with a golden tower in each corner and a red flame in the middle. Through the glass it almost looked to Kevin as if the flame was flickering. There were blue mats across the floor, and a bald-headed man (who Kevin was certain he had seen a few moments ago wearing robes and holding a sword), was dressed in a black outfit with red edging. He was pacing along the front of the room, shouting instructions with a sound Kevin hadn’t heard before.

There were four students, lined up in two rows of two, each dressed in black pants and jackets, (‘dobok’, Kevin would later practise saying, enjoying the way the ‘bok’ burst from his lips). They had coloured belts around their waists. Every time the instructor shouted a different word, the four students punched, and gave a funny yell.

‘Hana!’             

‘Kyup!’

‘Tul!’                 

‘Kyup!’

‘Set!’                 

‘Kyup!’

‘Net!’                

‘Kyup!’

‘Tasot!’             

‘Kyup!’

Suddenly the instructor stopped shouting and looked through the clear patch in the window straight at Kevin. Kevin stepped back. He shouldn’t be peeking. But the instructor merely nodded slowly in acknowledgement of him, with a hint of a smile, then turned his attention back to his students.

‘Yossot!’            

‘Kyup!’

The four students threw another punch.

Kevin grabbed his bike and pedalled home, his heart beating fast. He felt a little scared, a little excited, and most of all, he couldn’t wait to look inside again tomorrow.

For two weeks each afternoon after school, Kevin stopped at the shopfront, pressed his nose against the window and watched the students on the blue mats. The tall student with a blue belt around his waist could somersault over a pommel horse and land back on his feet! The student wearing a green belt kicked quick and high. The other two children were small, and the legs and sleeves of their uniforms so long, that they had been rolled up. They were wrestling on one of the mats. Kevin watched the students curiously. If he could learn to do that, would he be better prepared against Levi Baxter? Then he pictured his mum. ‘Maybe next year,’ he saw her saying, as she always did when he asked about something that needed money. She would follow it with a quiet sigh. Plus, he was still in trouble for ‘losing’ his school bag (completely unfair as it wasn’t even his fault!) Besides, there was something else that bothered him. It was the instructor.

Only occasionally did Kevin try to get a peek at the instructor. Shorter than the student in the blue belt, his head was shiny and domed like the top of a brown egg. When he demonstrated kicks, his legs moved so fast Kevin only saw a blur, followed by a crisp thwack as his dobok pants snapped. But even out of the corner of his eye, Kevin couldn’t forget the image of the orange and gold robes, a glinting sword, the sound of a whoosh as it cut through the air…and it made him shiver.

 

Today, as Kevin was pedalling out of the school grounds, dark clouds blew over the sky. By the time he reached the oval, raindrops were falling. He stood up in his pedals and rode faster. Too wet to stop today, he thought. He jumped his bike over the creek, and turned onto Orchard Street when a fierce wall of wind howled down the road and hit Kevin from behind. Woomph! It blew through his woollen jumper and chilled him from his back to his elbows. Where did that come from? he thought. Kevin mounted the curb and cycled down the footpath, out of the rain. But the wind followed him. Wooooomph! It hit him again, this time whipping around his legs, and he wobbled on his bike, but he kept pedalling. He was almost at the shop when the hanging sign began to swing on its rusty chains, sending an eerie whine down the footpath. Kevin stared up at it as he cycled underneath and then WHAP! A piece of paper smacked him right in the face. It covered his eyes, he was cycling blind! Kevin snatched the paper away with one hand, just in time to see the shopfront directly in front of him. His bike slammed into the wall, and he tumbled to the ground.

Owwww!’

Kevin rolled over, and lay on his back for a moment, catching his breath. He rubbed the back of his head, a small nugget was already forming there. He examined the rest of himself. A few scratches on his knuckles and he’d have bruises tomorrow, not too bad. But his bike hadn’t been as lucky. The front wheel was bent and the tyre had burst open. The handlebars were scratched and the shiny bell dome was dented. Kevin pressed the thumb lever. Instead of a sprightly ‘briiiiingggg’ to announce itself, the bell made a disappointing ‘vvvvvvvvvvv. Kevin slumped. Replacing the bell would take the last of the ninth birthday money he had stashed in his piggy bank. The rain was getting heavier. And he would have to push his bike home. What a stupid day. He stepped forward to see if anyone from inside the shop had heard anything, when a dreadful sound boomed from the end of the street.

‘Jones. I SEE YOU!’

Levi Baxter!

‘This is how you’ve been getting away!’ he shouted.

Kevin stepped backwards, and reached down for his bike. ‘Stay away from me Levi, or I’ll…I’ll…do something!’ he said. He swung his leg over his bike and pushed on the pedal, but with the bent wheel it wouldn’t move. Levi started to laugh.

It must be explained here that Levi Baxter didn’t laugh like other eleven year olds. His laugh was slow and menacing, and his chin and throat puffed out like a bullfrog (Josh Sampson had passed a note around the class while they were watching a video about bullfrogs in science lesson — ‘Looks like Levi Baxter’s twin brother!!!’ it said. The note made it half-way around the class before their teacher Mr Hutchins spotted it, and Noah Samuels ate it on the spot). Now Levi was pacing, step by step, down Orchard Street towards Kevin. ‘What are you going to do?’ he said. He was close. Too close. Kevin pushed on the pedal again, but it wouldn’t budge. Levi had nearly reached him. Kevin threw down the bike and started to run. ‘You’ll never outrun me, Jones!’ And Levi leapt after him.

Without thinking, Kevin changed direction and threw himself at the red door. He grabbed and turned the brass brussels sprouts handle, threw the door open and jumped inside. Bang! There was an eerie echo as the red door slammed shut behind him. Kevin stared, terrified, as the door handle rattled and the red door shook, but it didn’t open. Levi banged on the outside. His voice was muffled through the door, but Kevin heard him. ‘You can’t hide in there forever! Next time, Jones. Next time I’ll get you, you wimp!’ He heard the sounds of his bicycle being stomped on. The crunch of metal. A final ‘vv v v v v v …’ from his bike bell. Then silence.

‘Phew.’ Kevin turned away from the door.

Standing in front of him was the bald-headed instructor.

The instructor looked calmly at Kevin. Then he slowly bowed his head. When he raised it again, Kevin noticed his face was older than he’d thought. His golden skin was wrinkled like a shrunken balloon and his eyes were little half-moons. His eyebrows were pale with flecks of gold. Unsure what was expected, Kevin awkwardly tried a bow.

‘Welcome,’ he said. ‘I am Master Cheng.’ His voice was gentle but confusing, an accent Kevin hadn’t heard before. ‘I am waiting. You are here for free lesson.’

Kevin looked blankly. Master Cheng nodded in the direction of Kevin’s hand. Kevin looked down. Clutched tightly in his fist was the small piece of paper that had hit him in the face as he had cycled down the road. He hadn’t realised he was still holding it. He smoothed it out and read what was on the paper.

J.Brown_image4‘And you are owner of paper, yes?’ said Master Cheng.

Kevin thought about it. If it flew into his face, did that make him the owner? The door behind him had stopped rattling, but he had no idea whether Levi was now waiting quietly in ambush outside. So he nodded. Master Cheng smiled.

‘Then your time has come, young jeonsa.’ My young student. And he pointed Kevin in the direction of the dojang.

 

Download a pdf of Chapter One of Young Warrior

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From Slipstream, Kylie Nealon

Slipstream is a Young Adult novel, set in a parallel contemporary society, in which teenagers with ‘extra’ abilities are being recruited as part of an elite programme. At the d’Orsay Academy in central London, Scarlett, the protagonist, and her peers attend the corporation’s ‘school.’ We follow Scarlett and her three friends as they explore their new-found abilities within an organisation that is rigid about how their talents should be used. This leads to the questioning of what each of them knows about themselves, where their moral boundaries lie, and how far each of them will go to protect what is important to them. 

 

Chapter Five

‘Jeez,’ Scarlett shivered in her jacket as they gathered later that day in the courtyard, ‘this is summer?’

Conor looked a little insulted. ‘Do I look like I’m controlling the weather here? This is England, not the Outback. If you want someone to direct your complaints to, I’d suggest you blame global warming.’

He made it sound like global warming was a company with a customer services department, and she was amused by the thought. Mike interrupted them, clearly impatient to get going.

‘Why are we talking about the weather? Let’s go already,’ he said, shoving his hands into his pockets. ‘You’ve got the picture, right?’

Scarlett nodded and pulled out the folded up image of the Manhattan comic store. She’d spent the afternoon studying the picture, ignoring the algebraic equations she was meant to be doing.

‘Okay,’ she said, ignoring the niggling voice that was telling her that this was a really bad idea. ‘Take my hand,’ she told them and Conor grabbed Lena’s hand. Scarlett bit back a smile. Mike let out a dramatic sigh and took her hand. His fingers felt a little clammy wrapped around hers and Scarlett tried to ignore the dampness. Other than that, he gave no outward sign of nerves, and for a brief second, she envied him.

‘Don’t let go, no matter what.’ Scarlett took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Letting her mind relax, she recalled Mike’s picture. She saw the store with its canvas awning and battered trim take shape in her head as the sound of cars, pedestrians and faint music drifted in. So far, so good, she told herself. No sign of anything out of the ordinary. The ground shifted, and the smells of a city that ran on smoke and gasoline brought the image in her head to life. Cracking one eye open, Scarlett peered out. The other three seemed to be holding their breaths, and Mike’s grip was becoming uncomfortable.

‘Yes!’ she said, more than a little pleased with herself. ‘You guys can open your eyes.’

The other three opened their eyes, and Mike dropped his hands, breaking their circle as soon as he spotted the store. The looks on their faces confirmed they hadn’t really believed that she could pull it off. As she stood there, smug in her achievement, the others broke away, wandering off to check out their surroundings.

‘Stay connected!’ Scarlett said, sounding sharper than she intended. Even to her, her voice sounded like it was coming from somebody else. She softened it a little. ‘At least until we get to the door, okay?’

‘Don’t you think that’s going to look a little weird? I mean, I’m fine with the holding hands thing now,’ Mike said, briefly scowling at Conor as if daring him to contradict him, and then turned back to Scarlett to continue. ‘I mean, we can’t walk in there together holding hands.’

Scarlett bit her lip. ‘We have to stay together. What happens if someone wanders off and gets caught?’

He raised an eyebrow, as if to say something, but changed his mind, and nodded his reluctant consent. He grabbed Lena’s hand and shuffled over to the store’s window. A fleeting look of jealousy crossed Conor’s face. Scarlett saw the stiffness in Lena’s body as she stood there with Mike, which loosened just a smidgeon as she let out a small giggle at something Mike said. Walking over to them, Conor unwound his scarf and handed it to Mike. ‘Here, wear this. If you’ve got something of mine, you should be okay.’ Mike looked at him, surveying him, as if waiting for the sarcastic comment to follow. Lena dropped her hand, a faint blush staining her cheeks.

‘Thanks, man.’ He shrugged and wound the scarf around his neck. The biting wind was finding its way in to the nooks and crannies, and Scarlett envied the warmth he had around his neck.

‘That was nice of you,’ she said to Conor, her voice low.

He shrugged. “Nice’ wasn’t why I did it,’ he said, giving her a sly, knowing smile.

‘Um, maybe we could go inside now?’ Mike asked them, his tone plaintive.

‘Yeah, sorry. Let’s go,’ Scarlett said as Mike, finally given permission, almost took the door off its hinges in his haste to get inside. Mike headed over to the ‘new release’ section, and, having found what he was looking for, was making strangled noises of rapturous pleasure that set Lena off in a flood of giggles. Looking around, Scarlett saw that every available space of the shop was crammed with comics, posters and young guys, hanging out, flicking through the vast selection. To her relief, nobody had given them or their appearances a second glance, and she felt her shoulders sink away from her ears a few millimeters.

‘This is seriously boring,’ Conor announced. ‘What are we meant to do now? Wait for him to finish his private moment? I’m out.’ He looked at Scarlett, as if waiting for her to disagree, given her earlier warning about staying together. She said nothing, and he smiled. ‘Let’s check out next door. Some kind of music shop, I think.’

‘Yeah, but only next door,’ Scarlett warned. They made their way over to Mike, who was poring over each page in a reverential manner that Scarlett found a little uncomfortable.

‘Hey,’ Scarlett said, keeping her voice down. They’d pretty much gotten away with being here, and the last thing she needed was her accent being picked up on. ‘We’re going next door, but we’ll be back in ten minutes, okay?’ He nodded, only half hearing her and she gestured to Lena.

‘Thank you,’ she said to Scarlett as they left. ‘I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted in there.’

‘Me neither,’ Scarlett replied, ‘so not my thing.’

The record shop was next door, and they stood aside to let someone come out, an old-school LP tucked under his arm.

‘Wow, this is totally retro,’ Scarlett said to Conor. This was more like it, she thought.

‘Tell me about it,’ Conor replied. They headed over to the ‘new music’ section and began flicking through the new releases, laughing over the photos on the covers, filled with people in lurid clothing and big hair. The look of the day seemed to be girls working bows in their hair and massive skirts, with the boys rocking gelled hair and knitted cardigans. Scarlett picked up an LP of Bobby Rydel’s Greatest Hits, looking like he’d stepped out of the movie, Grease.

Dropping it back in to its slot, she picked up a smaller 45 record and scrutinised the label. ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight),’she read out loud. ‘Oh, come on. That can’t be real.’

Conor leaned over her shoulder and sniggered. ‘Where did they come up with these titles?’

Lena leaned in. ‘What do you reckon our kids will think of the stuff we listen to now?’

Scarlett shoved the LP back into the section she’d pulled it out of and pulled another one out. ‘It can’t be any worse than these,’ she told her. ‘I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door,she read. Conor joined in.

You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, he told Lena, who blushed.

They traded titles back and forth for a few minutes until they were interrupted by the arrival of Mike, who looked more than a little flustered.

‘We have to go,’ he said. His eyes were glittery and red patches had stained his cheeks. He looked like he’d run five miles, not from next door.

‘Why?’ asked Scarlett, ‘where’s the fire?’ She slid the record she’d been holding back in to its slot, a small frisson of alarm shooting up from her stomach.

He glanced around. ‘We have to go, like, now, okay? I’ll explain when we get back.’

Lena and Conor had come over to see what the fuss was about. ‘What’s the deal?’ Conor said. ‘Annoy the crap out of someone else with your comic-book back-stories?’

Mike looked a little annoyed. ‘No, I didn’t, but thanks for asking. It wasn’t my fault,’ he began to elaborate but Scarlett cut him off with a wave of her hand.

‘Just stop talking now, okay?’ She saw the scowl cross his face and knew he’d stuffed up — big time. ‘You’re an idiot,’ she stated. ‘No,’ she held up one finger, ‘that’s not up for debate. I guess we need to get out of here pretty quick, then?’

‘Yeah, like now, okay?’ He glanced over to the window and they all turned to see a few of the boys from the comic shop, peering through the glass to see if he was in there.

‘Why did we go with this choice again?’ Scarlett asked nobody in particular. ‘Come on,’ she told the other two, ignoring Mike. She nodded at Conor, and as he pushed open the door, he reached behind him and linked hands with Scarlett, who grabbed Lena. Mike was lurking at the back of them all and seemed hesitant to go back out. Lena grabbed his hand and they walked out, primary-school style, onto the sidewalk. Conor’s scarf, still around Mike’s neck, snagged on the doorframe, and tugged itself free.

The boys looked down, stunned, before picking it up and talking in excited tones that didn’t sound good at all.

‘Leave it,’ Scarlett told him, ‘just keep moving.’

‘But-’ he tried to say.

‘Well, we’re stuffed now,’ Conor said, his voice sounding a little sick. ‘I think we’re going to have to make a quick exit. And we can’t do it stuck together. When I count to three, we’re going to run for that alley, okay?’ He indicated a small opening about a hundred meters ahead of them to the left.

‘Why?’ asked Mike. ‘Why can’t you just get us back from here?’ he said to Scarlett.

‘Because I can’t just stand in the middle of a sidewalk with people walking into me, can I?’ she said. ‘I need some space. And Lena’s not up to lifting all four of us just yet. So we head for the alley.’

‘Yep,’ Lena agreed. ‘Let’s just get out of here.’ She glanced back at the boys. ‘Like now.’

‘Agreed,’ Mike said, his voice high with tension. Scarlett was seething. Angry with Mike, she was mostly annoyed with herself. So stupid, she thought. Conor broke the link and the four of them became visible again. Not the most discreet exit, Scarlett thought, looking around at the startled looks from the pedestrians who were disconcerted to find human-shaped roadblocks appearing in their paths. The group of boys spotted Mike on the sidewalk and began walking towards him as if he were some kind of Messiah. One of them was holding Conor’s scarf.

‘Jeez,’ Mike said, nervous. ‘This is not what I had in mind.’

‘Yeah?’ said Conor, ‘And what did you have in mind, exactly? Drop a few hints, look like the big man?’ They were moving along the sidewalk, trying not to run but not far from it. The boys were dodging pedestrians, their pace picking up.

‘Shut up, okay?’ Mike said, a little out of breath. ‘Maybe if you’d stayed in the shop with me instead of wanting to spend a little more time with your girlfriend, none of this would’ve happened and we wouldn’t be running along the street like criminals.’

Scarlett reached the alley and pulled Lena in, giving Mike an extra shove for his stupidity as he came past her. He stumbled, but didn’t say anything as he shot her a dirty look. They took a few seconds to get their breath back along a dirty brick wall, the entrance of which was partially concealed by large rubbish bins. It looked like the gods of time travel had come through for them, Scarlett thought. Nobody would think to come down here, surely. The first to recover, Mike ducked back to the entrance and peered around the corner, scanning the sidewalk. ‘I think they’re gone,’ he announced, a confident tone evident.

‘Not so fast,’ Conor said, pointing. The boys were beginning to gather, and they could hear the excited babble of noise and shouting as they tried to get Mike’s attention.

As the group advanced, Scarlett grabbed Conor’s hand. ‘Join hands,’ she instructed them all, ‘and stay quiet. This is going to be hard enough.’ They nodded and she shut her eyes, but couldn’t block out the sound of the strangled sounds of concern from around her. Focusing harder than she ever had before, she pictured her room at d’Orsay, and the world around them began to dissolve. The shouts from the boys began to fade and the ground disappeared and reappeared underneath her feet. She caught the lingering smell of her perfume and the wet towel she’d tossed over her desk chair earlier that morning. She opened her eyes with a sigh of relief.

‘We’re here,’ she told them, as the others opened their eyes, mirroring her relief. Mike looked around.

‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Tidiness is not your strong point, is it?’ as he took in her scattered belongings.

‘How about you keep your mouth shut?’ she countered. ‘You’re not exactly in my good books right now.’

He sat down on the edge of the bed, tossing a few clothes on to the floor as he did so. Lena took the desk chair and Conor sat on the floor, cross-legged. All three of them sat, waiting.

‘Well, that was exciting,’ Conor said, breaking the silence, sarcasm dripping from every word. ‘What’d you do to get them so wound up?’

Mike cleared his throat. ‘Nothing. I mean, I got talking to one of the guys in there and I kind of forgot they don’t know what’s going to happen. And maybe I got a bit carried away. But it’s not like I did it deliberately,’ he said to Scarlett, indignant.

‘Yeah, that makes it all okay, then,’ she told him. ‘Look, Maggie told me that if I started playing around with anything when I went time-travelling, then things here would change. So I don’t know what this means, but it can’t be good.’

‘Weeeelll,’ Mike began, ‘I guess this isn’t good, either.’ He drew out the first edition of The Fantastic Four a little crumpled, from inside his jacket. For a minute, nobody spoke. Lena let out a strangled sound, and Scarlett caught her look, as though afraid of an explosion.

But Scarlett felt like someone had zapped every last bit of energy from her. All she wanted to do was throw up. Taking a few deep breaths, the others waited to see what she’d do. Lena eventually got up to sit next to her, clearly concerned at her silence, but Scarlett held up her hand to stop her, and the other girl stopped and sat down again.

‘Did I not tell you to just go and read it and then we’d come back?’ she asked Mike. ‘Why would you do that?’ All of a sudden, she felt incredibly tired. ‘That’s it for me. I’m so out of here.’ Why am I so surprised at him? He’s only doing what I knew he would. Tom would be so disappointed in her, she knew.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, sounding a little contrite. ‘I didn’t think it’d make that much of a difference. I thought that you were exaggerating.’ His voice trailed off as he finally grasped the enormity of his error.

Conor shook his head. ‘Man, for a smart guy, you are seriously slow on the uptake. Why couldn’t you just leave it there?’

Mike looked miserable. ‘I couldn’t. It’s a first edition. Does this mean that I’ll have to give it back?’

Give it back? That’s what you’re worried about? Yeah, you could say that!’ Scarlett leaned over and snatched it out of his hands. ‘Give me that!’ The comic felt like it was pulsing with some kind of energy between her hands.

A knock sounded at the door, startling them.

Scarlett swallowed and opened the door. Gil was standing there, with a look that seemed to go beyond ordinary anger. He scanned over the rest of them before coming back to rest his attention on Scarlett.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back. Scarlett, I’d like a word, please?’ The formality of his words belied the bristly body language, arms crossed, and a mottled pattern creeping up his neck as he bit back on elaborating.

‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘There’s no point delaying the inevitable. And you three,’ he said, directing his attention to the others who were now hovering in the hallway, ‘go and wait in the common room. Your Mentors are looking for you as we speak. And I’ll take that, too,’ he said, reaching for the comic. He glanced at the cover. ‘I’d have been disappointed if it’d been a DC one.’ Mike looked surprised, but closed his mouth as he saw the expression on Gil’s face. The older man sighed, as if suppressing some other emotion. ‘You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?’ he asked them, his voice holding a thread of fear in it. He looked up at her. ‘What have you done, Scarlett?’

 

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From What She Knew, Vanessa Ryan

This is an excerpt from a novel in progress entitled What She Knew, which is written for an adult female audience and falls into the genre of Contemporary Literary Fiction. Kitty is a traumatised and emotionally numb young woman trying to run from the ghosts of her past by changing everything she can about herself, partying hard and travelling the world in her quest for a perpetual summer. However the ghosts won’t leave her alone. She soon realises that she has to face up to the fact that her father is a murderer and that she is the sole witness to that murder twenty years ago.

 

Chapter One

June 2007, Berlin

On the day Kitty is forced to give up her fake life she calls in sick to her job as an English Language Teacher and heads to Viktoriapark to drink cheap white wine with her best-friend Sylvana.

‘This looks like a good place to sit,’ says Kitty, plopping herself on the ground in the deep shadow cast by the wide arms of a willow. She slips her shoes off and flexes her toes over the soft grass. Her skin is as white as a ghost-gum from avoiding the sun for years because she grew up in Australia and is paranoid about skin cancer. Sylvana is from Malta and doesn’t give a crap about skin cancer. She stretches out in the sun, lowering her bra straps over her shoulders to avoid tan lines.

‘I always wondered why the ground here is so uneven,’ says Sylvana looking at the grass field that slopes up and down like a toddler’s drawing. The lawn is dotted by groups of sunbathers, drinking beer or wine, smoking dope, reading books, eating hummus, playing the bongos. A group of Turkish boys kick a ball around, their dark hair soaked with sweat.

‘There are World War Two bunkers under the ground,’ Kitty says. ‘I think people used to hide in them when there were air raids.’

‘Ah, right. Mystery solved. You’re so smart Kitty.’

Kitty shrugs. ’I just read about it in a guidebook once.’ She opens the wine bottle with a Swiss Army Knife, pours it into two plastic champagne glasses and hands one to Sylvana. They hold their glasses up, Prost!, Kitty sips delicately, the wine is tart and makes her mouth pucker.

‘Anyway. Do you know that so-called photographer, that pink-haired Swedish girl?’ asks Sylvana.

Kitty nods, recalling the pretty Swedish girl with washed-out pink hair, who turns up at art shows regularly, looking hip and vain.

‘Well, I heard that she’s not a lesbian. She says she’s a hobby lesbian so she can score cool points with the gay art community and all the lesbians have a huge crush on her. She’s a pussy tease. She’s as straight as a…’ Sylvana searches for a word, ‘as straight as a banana.’

Kitty frowns, ‘Bananas are crooked?’

‘She is crooked,’ replies Sylvana.

Kitty snorts and lights a filter tip cigarette, takes the bottle of wine and tops up her plastic cup. She leans back on her elbows in the grass and feels the earth under her fingers, spongy and damp. She smells water in the air and knows that the good weather isn’t going to last long, so she decides to enjoy this moment, the air still and calm, the sun’s rays rinsing the world in mellow amber. Kitty has a vision of them sitting in a moving painting, and she and everyone around her perform these orange-hued, warm actions over and over again in a simple sepia-stained loop, always framed in gold. Before her lies the sea of possibilities, winding out like every mid-summer evening, the heady scent of summer flowers, a constant stream of wine, every person an old friend who is happy to see you, the music swinging, the sound of laughter.  She wants to freeze this one perfect moment and keep it in a locket around her neck.

Sylvana chatters on about the saga of her almost-ex-boyfriend and his intense hatred of her new boyfriend. Kitty is nodding along, when her relaxed mood is interrupted by the sound of a low rasping voice, talking intensely.  A chill shoots through her. She listens harder, Sylvana becomes background noise as Kitty concentrates on the rhythms of the speaker. She recognises her father’s timbre, hollow and singular. Her stomach clenches, the wine sloshing uncomfortably. She glances up, and wills her head to turn in the direction of the voice, trying to look casual, and is relieved to see it isn’t her father, but a man in his mid-thirties, talking in the ear of a woman who looks stricken. The pair standout like a dirty smudge on the bright green grass, the woman dressed in a drab grey track suit, the man wears a filthy white baseball hat and a pair of dark sunglasses. Kitty realises that if she stands, walks over to him and whisks the glasses from his face, she will see the same eyes her father had, animal and hypnotising, like a lion. He rests his arm casually over the woman’s shoulders, owning her with that one gesture. The woman’s body leans away from him, her eyes searching, as if looking for help, and for a moment she locks on Kitty, who turns her head and stands suddenly.

‘I have to go,’ she says slipping her shoes back on.

‘Are you ok?’ Sylvana asks, ashing her cigarette.

‘I forgot, I promised to meet Fabrice in half an hour, so I should go,’ says Kitty shrugging her shoulder.

‘Sure, ok. Call me later, yeah?’ says Sylvana, handing Kitty her bag.

‘Ok,’ says Kitty, who turns and walks out of the park, not daring to look to see if the man is still there.

 

Kitty and Fabrice are lying naked on Fabrice’s bed, the sheets are soft from sweat and smell like sex and dope from the countless afternoons they have laid there talking and dreaming. A browning orchid sits on the windowsill, a pile of dirty clothes are heaped in the corner next to Fabrice’s drum-kit.

‘Tell me a secret,’ she says, her head in the crook of his elbow.

Fabrice takes a drag of his joint and blows a plume of smoke out above his head, the earthy smell of marijuana floating in the room.

‘A secret? I don’t have any secrets,’ he says, his voice slow and soft, his French accent stronger now that he is stoned. She looks at his face, high cheekbones, aquiline nose and thinks to herself that it is carved from pure light.

‘Sure you do, everyone has secrets, sometimes they don’t even know they’re hiding them,’ she says running her finger around his nipple.

He catches her hand. ’That tickles,’ he says laughing.

‘Come on, you must have something,’ she says. Suddenly she has to find out what is behind his placid smile.

‘Ok, uh, when I was in Nepal I snuck over the border of Tibet in the back of a truck, and then the truck driver tried to blackmail me into paying him a hundred dollars or he’d turn me over to the Chinese government, so I hit him and ran off and hitched a ride back with a different driver who I paid a hundred dollars to get me out of there.’

‘That’s not a secret, you’ve told me that. That’s an adventure story,’ she sighs, plucks the joint from his hand, rolls over and takes a drag.

‘Ok, sorry my secret isn’t secret enough. Do you have a secret that will show me what type of secret I might be secretly hiding?’

‘You’re so stoned!’ she laughs.

He laughs too, his white teeth flashing, eyes half closed. She takes a drag of the joint and sits up, her naked body cold in the smoke-filled room.

‘Yeah, I got a secret, a real weird one. I think my Dad is a murderer. I think he killed two girls,’ she says. Her voice echoes in her ears, and she feels that what she’s saying can’t be true, it’s an absurd joke.

‘Bullshit,’ he laughs, taking another drag.

‘Yeah. It’s true. I was just a kid. But I wasn’t Kitty back then, I was Lisa,’ she says, her former name rolling around her mouth like a slippery stone. She feels her hands shaking and holds them trying to stop the tremor, but her arms start to shake instead. Fabrice looks at her, confusion on his face.

‘Really, I think he killed two girls that lived next door to us and hid their bodies. The police questioned him and everything, but the bodies were never found,’ she says. Her chest wells up as if a tight white ball is inflating inside her and she’s afraid that if she says anything else it will explode and her body will fly apart.

Fabrice sits up, his smile gone.

‘That’s heavy,’ his shoulder slumping, a line furrowing between his brow.

She snaps back to the room, realising that she’s said too much. She doesn’t want him to ask questions, she’s scared she’ll blurt everything out and then she’ll have to face things she doesn’t want to know about. She doesn’t want to know what she knows.

‘No, I mean. Nothing happened. The police just wanted to question him, and they did and then nothing happened,’ she says, backpedalling.

‘Really? Then why did you say you think he’s a murderer, when he only got questioned?’

‘Because, I don’t know, I don’t remember,’ and it’s true, she can’t remember.

‘I’ve got to go,’ she says, untangling herself from the bed sheets. She picks out her fishnet stockings from the pile of clothes next to the bed and pulls them on.

‘I’ll come with you,’ says Fabrice, grabbing a pair of ripped jeans.

‘I want to be alone,’ she says glaring at him.

His hands, holding the crumpled jeans, stop in mid-air. He looks at her and doesn’t say anything. She smiles.

‘It’s bullshit,’ she says, zipping her black denim skirt shut and picking up her bag.

‘Ok. See you at the show?’ His eyes are hopeful.

Kitty sighs. She’d almost forgotten they had to perform that night.

‘Yeah. See you,’ she says, walking out of the studio apartment, slamming the door.

It’s only when she is half-way home that she realises she forgot to kiss him goodbye.

 

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From Desert Rose, Kristine Barrett

Desert Rose is a realistic fiction piece that is primarily set in the central national forests of Arizona, North America. Samara’s father, Steven Banik, has been found dead inside his lapidary business in Gerringong after a suspicious fire. While Samara grieves and tries to make sense of her family’s secrets, she begins to unravel the complex relationship she’d had with her father. In Steven’s testament, he leaves behind a letter and a small desert rose (gypsum mineral). These items lead Samara to Arizona where Stevens’ old friend, Honani, reappears. While the remaining Banik family members pursue the fleeing Samara across the Pacific Ocean, she discovers the real reason her father fell in love with Arizona.

 

Chapter Eight

Everyone fights their own skin in the beginning. Honani had the same argument himself a long time ago. But he wasn’t about to tell Samara that just yet. Through the corner of his eye, Honani could see tears falling onto Sam’s parching skin as thick coils of smoking sage spun into the air. Honani turned away and bent over the smouldering fire pit, chanting quietly to himself. The more he feigned disinterest, the louder Sam’s frustrated curses became. And as Sam’s tears and sweat smeared into white salty plane trails down her face, Honani grinned.

The fire sputtered as a gritty wind picked up. Samara tossed the sagging skin onto a rock as she left the circle. The man was infuriating! All he did was hum and chatter to the earth or himself — she never quite knew which. Her stupid deerskin was too dry, yet again, and becoming impossible to stretch over her lopsided frame. Damn man, she seethed as she sat on a nearby rock, closing her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, the sun had run half-way across the sky. A shadow loomed over her.

‘Back to work Sam. Unless you have magic mice in your satchel, that drum won’t make itself.’

She followed his gaze towards the blackening mountains. ‘There’s not bad weather coming is there?’ She looked back at her tortured skin dangling off the rock. Her heart sank at the thought of trying to finish her drum in a desert downpour.

‘If the weather turns,’ Honani smiled, ‘as it always seems to with you around, then you need to be finished. That’s the way it is.’ He returned to his side of the fire pit, busying himself with an embryonic rattle. His efficient fingers managed to stretch the reluctant skin while holding and smoothing it out all at once.

‘That’s ridiculous!’ Samara was seething as she prodded the fire savagely. ‘I have no control over the weather! Maybe I’m not cut out for this Honani. Maybe I can’t piece the bits back. Maybe —’

‘Maybe you should stop talking and start stretching.’ Honani studied the withering skin. ‘It needs soaking again.’ He nodded over her shoulder. ‘You’ll need some water from the river. The pot’s empty.’

Samara felt like screaming. After two days cleaning the dead smelling skin, a traumatic four-hour ordeal nailing ninety-three holes, cutting the tough hide, collecting water from the polar river and kneading it feather-soft until her hands were drooping like the print on her mum’s wall of Munch’s The Scream, she felt defeated. Almost. Sighing, she grabbed the water pot and headed down the gravelly slope to the snow-fed river. She felt Honani’s steady gaze following her as she suddenly lost balance, skidding down the slope on her backside.

‘Watch the loose gravel,’ Honani yelled.

‘Oh hah bloody hah. Aren’t you supposed to be my teacher and spirit guide or something? What happened to timing?’ She glared up at Honani. His gnarled fingers wrapped around several strings as he pulled the skin tight, downwards over a balloon shaped bundle of dried weeds.

‘I’d say my timing was just about perfect, Sam,’ he laughed. ‘I give you the essentials, watch out for a scorpion or two and the stars give you everything else.’

‘Stars? Seriously? I don’t want stars up my bloody arse!’ she said, pulling bits of grit from her knee.

‘Just get some water on that skin before it turns into jerky.’ Honani heaved himself upright, disappearing behind a rocky outcrop.

Numb and knee-deep, Samara pushed the pot under the water. At least the iciness seemed to help with her graze. She had to admit that the nature-spirit aspect of life seemed to evade her. Honani’s faith in her and something greater was even more unnerving. She shook her head. As she headed back to the fire, she wondered what her dad would have said, watching her and Honani’s bonding of animal skins. Another soaking with the freshly boiled water made the skin workable again. Samara knew Honani was right. She waited in silence at the fire pit: threading, tugging, holding, hauling the skin closer, readjusting it along the frame and repeating.

Honani was silent as he returned. Samara’s thoughts rumbled through her ears. They seemed so irritatingly loud; she wished she could take the nail hammer to her own head just to create a new noise. A stick suddenly cracked off to her right as she spun around, searching for the offender. Something small bounced through the scrub.

‘Desert squirrel?’ Honani offered.

‘Squirrel? You sure? That just looked like furry dirt flying across more dirt.’

Honani smiled and pointed to the mess in her lap. ‘Skin. Today. Please.’

‘Right! But can we talk as I weave?’ Her fingers crunched together as she held the last few woven loops tight in her bottom three fingers while weaving the opposite side through with white string. Each of the ninety-three tiny holes around the edge of the circular skin had to be threaded from one side to the opposite side, drawing it in around the frame one painful centimetre at a time. The skin faced down with the frame on top so Samara could work from the bottom. It weaved like a flattened figure eight. Glancing across at Honani, Samara saw his brow crease. She knew he was watching her fingers twist clumsily over each other. The bottom three kept a good tension. She thought so anyway, even if the skin was a little saggy on this side.

‘This is land time,’ he finally said. ‘I understand that you want to chat, but this—’ he waved his hands at the exposed valley, ‘this should be done in silence.’

‘Right. Well, I’m not so good with up here at the moment.’ She tapped her head. ‘I don’t know how Dad survived all those years out here. Silent.’ Two days of very little talking was enough for Samara. Her vocal chords were getting rusty and her brain was threatening to disembark completely.

‘Steven was a unique man,’ said Honani. ‘He wasn’t silent the whole time though.’ He looked across the flames at her, his eyes glistening. ‘But this isn’t his journey now. Even though we follow the trail of others, we walk with fresh feet on entirely new ground. You are not your father but you are definitely his resilient kind-hearted daughter. We all lose our way sometimes, Sam. We wouldn’t be alive if we didn’t.’

Samara nodded tearfully, thankful for Honani’s presence over the past months. Words were lost as her throat clamped shut yet again; she felt her ears roaring with unshed tears and her jaw clenching. Her chest thumped painfully as she focused on an eagle soaring overhead, calling to her mate across the sandy ridge. The descending sun shot bright pinks like a laser into her stinging eyes. It hurt; it all hurt.

‘Let it out Sam.’ Honani was smiling at her with those clear blue eyes. ‘A skin will crack and sag if holding too much heat or moisture. We aren’t designed to withhold.’ His eyes left her face and resumed the intricate weaving of the rattle. She shuddered with resistance, letting out a splitting cry that was instantly answered by tiny startled shrieks. Samara laughed. Poor desert squirrels, she thought.

‘Better?’ Honani asked. Samara nodded before picking up her frame and half attached skin. ‘Good, because you just gave all the squirrels a coronary.’ She burst into a hiccupping laughter. ‘I’m serious Sam, check your hide because you may have brought that deer back from the dead,’ Honani chuckled.

Lightning streaked across the distant peaks. Honani felt relieved as he watched Sam hold her creation up to the fading light. His heart bloomed as her small smile broadened. He hobbled around the fire to inspect her handiwork. He lifted it up, searching the bottom and tugging the weavings. From the underside, with the drum held high, each lightning strike illuminated the veins and vessels within the hide, sizzling them into new life. It wasn’t too bad for her first drum. He grinned.

‘Congratulations, Sam. He’s perfect.’

Sam wrapped her arm around him. ‘She was definitely worth the trouble.’

Thunder began to rumble in acquiescence. Honani nodded in some shared agreement at the advancing clouds. He poked at their loyal fire, sending sparks high. After a moment, he retrieved his own first-made drum from his bag.

‘Let’s play!’ Honani bellowed, spinning around with a playful smile, drum in hand.

Beating a steady, cavernous pulse on his prairie-painted drum, Honani began shuffling around the fire. He noticed Sam hesitate, likely wondering what people back home would think of her dancing around a fire pit, playing a deerskin drum with an oncoming storm in the middle of a desert. Her dad would have been proud, that much he was certain. There was not a soul in sight except Sam and himself and maybe a few recovering desert squirrels.

‘What the hell!’ Samara shrugged and picked up the beat.

Sam’s new drum, exceptionally taut and not yet reposed, reached a significantly higher pitch than his moderately aged skin. Honani knew the young skin resisted its containment at first, reverberating off the surrounding rock with a hair-electrifying ping. Little stones along the camp floor danced with each beat as the two resonant drums — one baritone, the other like little Christmas bells through a megaphone — slowly began to synchronise. Two twinkling lights appeared on the distant track, followed by the faint hum of a truck. With Sam’s complete focus on him, Honani stopped circling but maintained an ear numbing beat, keeping Sam facing him.

Good. The boys are here.

 

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Leporine, Alexandra Parsons

Primal is a young adult novel set in Australia, in the not too distant future, after a corpse-reanimating disease has swept the globe. We follow a group of young martial artists as they fight for access to a ‘safe zone’. After a mission in the bush, our main protagonist, Kaye, has been bitten by one of their infected friends (Tirin).

 

Serena drove the knife down into the back of Tirin’s neck. She leaned on it, pushed down with her weight. She could feel the blade grating over vertebrae and it sent reverberations up into her chest.

The outstretched arm that had reached towards Kaye clanged down onto the tray like a headless snake. It twitched once and then finally, the thing that had been Tirin, was still.

Thoughts began to rage through Serena’s mind like a bush fire. Had Tirin really spoken? Had she really heard the word? The plea for death?

She knelt in front of her sister, blocking the view of the body, but Kaye stared straight through her. It was as though she could still see the corpse of her friend there, reaching out for help in her final moments.

Kaye held her wrist tucked close to her chest like an injured paw. The bite mark bubbled red with puckered skin.

Serena had been looking over the top of the Ute, out to the battlefield, when she had heard the scream. Then she had seen the bite – Tirin’s barred teeth melding into flesh. She had smelt the salt of a fresh wound.

It was pure instinct that had caused her to kick out at the thing attacking her sister, like it was a rabid dog. Now the idea that it was Tirin who lay dead beside them was unfurling, hot and painful, in her mind. And worse, that Kaye might end up the same.

‘Get the med kit!’ she shouted to Fyke and Gruff. She could see a rectangle section of Fyke’s face in the rear-view mirror, panic-stricken.

She cupped her hands around her sister’s face like she had once seen her mother do.

‘You’re alright, Kaye-Kaye. It’s fine. You’ll be fine,’ she lied.

 

Fyke pushed himself out from the front seat of the Ute and vaulted into the tray where Kaye was folded in one corner, wrist drawn tightly to her chest.

He saw the body, Tirin’s blood already coagulating with grit and rust. Guilt licked a cold tongue down his spine.

Casualties are a part of war, son, came his father’s voice in his mind.

He stepped over the body.

He saw Serena crouched over Kaye. Then he saw the bite mark and knew what it meant.

He gripped the handle of the Dragon sword on his hip.

Kaye’s head was turned away from him and away from Serena. Eyes down. Resigned.

The leather grip creaked against Fyke’s palm as his hand tightened. He felt the loose rust from the tray’s edge there. Tiny flakes of metal embedded themselves in his skin.

He could feel the midday sun burning on his hair and rippling hot waves over his oilskin jacket. Sweat droplets were sprouting in his palm, making the grip slippery and uncomfortable.

The world has no time for sentimentality, his father’s voice said.

Already he threatened the whole team by bringing an infected host into the compound. Every second she lived, the parasite grew within their walls.

Unblinking, he slid his eyes over her form. He located the soft, pale skin of her neck.

He swallowed hard.

It’ll be quick, he told himself.

In that moment he noticed small things – the sweat droplets making mini river courses down her neck. The tiny, fine hairs disappearing into her hairline. The determined line of her mouth that he knew well.

Then he saw the blood escaping from the wound, rising over jagged flesh mountains, down valleys of puncture marks.

The parasite would already be spreading.

This is how we survive, his father had said.

Survival at all costs.

Fyke gripped the scabbard with his left hand. He flexed his right and re-grasped the hilt. He took a deep breath. And drew –

 

The blade thunked through bone and muscle, solid and final.

It glinted in the fire light and in his father’s green-grey eyes. But he didn’t once look up at Fyke.

Now his father hacked the rabbit’s extremities off with precise, well-practiced blows – head, front legs, back legs, tail. He tossed the parts into the fire and Fyke looked away. But he could still smell the burning meat.

The audible rip of his father pulling the skin from the carcass broke the silence. He gave a few final tugs to free it from white sinew and muscle. Fyke didn’t want to see that pink, mottled body.

‘This is how we survive,’ his father had said. Then he tossed the limp, hollow skin at his son’s feet. In the dusky half-light, Fyke couldn’t help looking at the twisted fur.

The softness was all gone now.

Fyke thought of when he saw the rabbit that morning. He had felt stifled in the morning sun, the heat just building up for a summer day. It was reflecting off the grass, evaporating the 4:00am dew still clinging to the cuffs of his camouflage jacket and pants. They hadn’t shot a single thing yet and he could feel his father’s frustration growing at the clumsiness of his son’s ten year old feet. Compound bow hunting required silent stalking and Fyke kept scaring the rabbits away. He would step forward and suddenly the brush would flicker with movement as they scattered away.

‘Be patient – a soldier has got to be patient,’ his father had said. But that had been hours ago. He hadn’t said a word since.

Then Fyke had seen something that wasn’t the disappearing white flash of a tail down a hole. Instead, it was a rabbit with its back to him, loping on the outskirts of the grasses. It was young, a kitten.

It nibbled obliviously in the morning sun. Fyke could see its nose twitching, its mouth chewing tiny mouthfuls. He even noticed the texture of the rabbit’s sooty brown fur. And when it moved, the light picked up hints of amber and gold.

Too easy, thought the predator in Fyke. But also too young, he thought.

He went to turn away. But his father, crouched behind him, blocked his path. Eyes locked on the kitten.

‘This is survival,’ he said in a low voice. ‘We’re not here to play games.’

Fyke looked at the rabbit. He hoped for a fleeting moment that it had moved into cover. But it remained, mouth chewing furiously and full of grass. The arrow was already nocked. The arrow release mechanism was on his wrist and clipped to the string.

He looked back and his father’s eyes were on him.

So he raised the bow.

The rabbit seemed even smaller in the circle of his sight.

He could feel his father behind him, like a weight pushing between his shoulder blades.

Fyke took a breath and pulled the string to full draw.

‘Survival at all costs,’ his father whispered.

 

It was when his father made him retrieve the body that he felt the frail weight of the creature. He felt the tiny bones sliding under the fur. He had run a thumb over its ears, briefly, so his father wouldn’t see. And they felt just like the plant that was named after them – ‘rabbit’s ears’ his mother had told him as they knelt in the garden. Because the floppy leaves were covered in fine, soft hairs.

That moment – when the sun cut across the grass and picked up the golden flecks in the kitten’s fur – it was just a memory now. Just a moment of sentimentality.

And the world had no room for sentimentality.

That’s what his father had said that night by the camp fire. And he had said it many times since. When Fyke had sat alone in the stands after losing a Taekwondo tournament. When he was found reading a battered copy of T.S. Eliot’s poems. When he came home with his first black eye. And when he watched the black hearse that held his mother’s body drive away.

 

As the sword cut through the air, he looked at Kaye, hunched leporine-like and shaking. He saw the fine, soft hairs running up the curve of her neck, inches from the blade.

No room for sentimentality, his father had said.

But his father wasn’t around anymore.

He had opted out long ago.

Every muscle in Fyke’s body seized. The joints and ligaments froze and screamed as they tried to stop the sword’s path. The blade sped towards Kaye’s jugular vein –

But it stopped.

He stood panting. His arms felt ripped apart and he could barely lift them to sheath the sword. It slid back with a shink and Kaye looked up at him. In the light, he saw that her brown eyes were flecked with gold.

 

Leporine

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Custodian, Lindsey Hodder

Shadows blew across the ground, gently caressing the streets of packed dirt. Ghostly echoes of the clouds that threatened to blot out the moon the shadows provided ever growing opportunities to be taken advantage of, if one wished to remain unseen. One did. Emme hovered in the meagre shadows cast by the piles of debris that were all that was left of the shipwright district. Misty clouds of wasted breath hung before her in the cold night air. She hugged her shawl tightly to her ribs as she waited for a brief break in the clouds to pass.

In… out – mist, in… out – mist; she narrated her breaths with a single minded concentration. Overhead the clouds thickened as rain began to spit down, adding a layer of damp to her freezing form. She jolted herself to movement once more. Darting from one dark shadow to the next. Always on the lookout. Always listening for a hint of activity. She swore her staccato heartbeat could be heard back through the city all the way to the citadel proper itself. It mimicked the tramping of soldier’s boots, and she shook her head at the thought. Not now. Not tonight.

She paused beside a blackened shell. Once a house, the roof was now gone – the walls dark with ash that would never wash off, no matter how hard it rained. These houses, this district, had once been the pride of the city. It had been the first thing the invaders destroyed. She shook her head again, harder this time. She had to keep her mind sharp. This was the most important part. All her care was for nothing if she was spotted now. Living on the streets she had been constantly on the wrong side of the law simply to survive. This was so much bigger than all of those times. She wouldn’t be able to wriggle her way out if she they realised what she was caught up in. She’d be thrown in one of the dungeons in the cold and damp and dark to rot and –

Shrink back against the wall. Let your eyes lose focus. Watch for movement. Count three times to one hundred. The memory of the spoken words calmed the hammering of her heart for a moment as she forced her thoughts away from capture. She wasn’t going to get caught. She ground her teeth together in frustration. She hadn’t been so jumpy since she was a kid. The rain was growing harder, the smell of burnt wood filling her nostrils as the ground was slowly soaked. She wrinkled her nose and tried not to think about that either.

She reached her third one hundred, forcing herself to make the full count despite growing winds that tore at her, lifting her hair and thrusting the cold deeper into her bones. One last glance up the street and she was satisfied she was alone, pushing off the wall with sweaty palms. One, two, three steps… her heart began racing anew. She darted across the last laneway, each step propelling her faster. The pile of rotting wood on carefully disguised hinges protested at its abrupt opening as she thrust it into the air, the screeching sound caught by the wind to echo down the street. Emme jumped down through the trapdoor, almost landing on the figure that caught the timber before it could slam back down.

‘Were you seen?’ Nicolai’s words were harsh, abrupt. She shook her head, the pounding in her ears subsiding now she was safely inside. He stood behind her as she secured the latch of the trapdoor. She could feel his glare on her as she tied the knots he couldn’t. The knots he should have re-tied after his own arrival. The reminder that she bested him, in this at least, once would have soothed her. Tonight, she hated it. ‘Are you su –’

‘I wasn’t seen!’ The words came out louder than she intended. Who was he to question her? To doubt her? The older boy’s face tensed and his arm jerked halfway to her face. His glare deepened before he closed his eyes and relaxed with conscious effort, his hand returning to his side. He hated the situation even more than she did. She turned her back and started walking deeper into the makeshift shelter. Last week he would have hit her. The strain of their situation was forcing him to civility even as it was turning her into a cowering wreck.

She didn’t make it two steps before he lunged forward to drag her back.

‘You have to convince him to stay.’ She could hear fear and anger in his voice, mingled with familiar disdain. What was he afraid of, anyway? He wasn’t going to have what she was sure would be the entirety of the continent after him. ‘He won’t listen to me. Tell him tonight’s no good.’

Emme yanked her arm out of his hand. ‘What good do you think it’ll do, huh?’ She turned and started down the corridor again, pretending it didn’t bother her even as she wrapped her arms around herself once again. The damp wool of her jacket smelt of wet ash. The entire district smelt of wet ash in the rain now. It used to smell like freshly sawn wood and drying varnish. Usually, she hated the new smell; yet another reminder of the war. Tonight she desperately wished she were back outside – anywhere but here. On the threshold of the old cellar she paused. How did you get into this mess? The sound of Nikolai’s footsteps in the hall jolted her to action. She wouldn’t let him see her moment of weakness. She hugged her ribs tighter, disgusted with herself for needing the extra comfort, and forced herself into the old cellar.

Light flickered from a sputtering candle, illuminating a frail figure hunched over an old door balanced on piles of rubble. The makeshift desk had been buried in precarious stacks of moulding paper and rotting books for months now. Paper, Elias had told her, was precious, fragile. It was meant for palaces and libraries – not the damp air by the docks. It had been the first time she’d seen books up close, though she’d tried to hide her interest. Palaces and libraries didn’t welcome the likes of her. The papers and books that had covered the desk had been a fraction of Elias’ collection. Yet they had been all the scholar could save when he fled from the citadel during the war.

Now the desk before the old man was almost empty – the books and papers burnt, though their musty smell still lingered. Emme hadn’t seen the fire-blackened base of the door that had served as his makeshift desk since they first pulled it from the wreckage of the house the next street over. Being the closest to the docks these streets had borne the brunt of the destruction, though the invaders hadn’t neglected to ruin the rest of the district. Setheyi’s famous shipyards were now ruined, holding only the crude shelters the invaders had thrown together to hold their prisoners. The shipwright district itself had been abandoned, the jagged remains serving as a ghostly reminder of just how broken the city had become. It was, Elias had explained when she had first been roped into helping him, the perfect place to hide.

The candle flame flailed in an errant gust of wind from the building storm outside. Nicolai rushed to Elias’ side as their shadows danced on the walls, fiddling with the shutters on the old lantern until the flame was strong once more. Elias remained still, his attention on the thing in front of him. Emme watched as Nicolai opened his mouth once, twice. Hovering.

‘Are you sure there’s no other way?’ Nicolai’s last ditch objection burst forth, breaking the old man’s concentration.

Elias finally turned, his eyes meeting Nicolai’s. ‘It must leave the city. It must have the best chance. There is no other way.’ His slow, careful way of talking infuriated her almost as much as Nicolai’s general manner. Elias turned to her and her annoyance faltered; the lines etched across his face were deeper than she remembered from even yesterday, the mouth turned further down at the corners. ‘Emme is its best chance.’

‘But –’

‘Alchemy is a feared art, Nicolai, you know this. Misunderstood, but its accomplishments must be saved. And my time has run short.’

Emme shivered. The thing still gave her the feeling of spiders crawling up her spine. Her brief annoyance seemed petty in the face of fear. It was suddenly so very real, what she was helping them do. She had been the one to learn the guard was getting close to locating Elias, the one that had pushed Elias’ plan into motion. She and Nicolai had debated hard that night, on the same side for once, for him to simply move his hiding place, bide his time.

The alchemist had declined, caring more for its safety than his own. He repeated his words tonight, eyes unfocused, staring past the patched walls of the cellar into a past she had no part in. ‘I am tired of hiding in the damp. I wish to see the citadel one last time.’ If she’d known what his plan had been that night she would have argued harder. If she’d known from the beginning she would have abandoned them both long before she’d grown to care for the patient old man.

Now he moved away from the worktable, holding his hand out to Emme. She crept forwards, hesitant to the last; still wary of the trust he’d managed to steal from her. Nicolai couldn’t come, for all the alchemist’s apprentice had fought to be a part of saving his master’s creation. He had even been willing to put up with her. But he was on the run as much as Elias was, though the price on his head was smaller, and the mannerisms of a privileged life made him too noticeable. Elias was too old, and he didn’t want to go. The task fell to her, the street rat who’d made the mistake of trying to steal from an alchemist. She was the hateful thing’s best chance, the one with the personality to adapt and the skills to hide in plain sight.

She stepped up to the bench. Propped up on the old vase filled with the ashes of Elias’ precious books the manikin sat with its long spindly limbs splayed across the table – the old man’s life work. She was to take it far from where it would surely be destroyed. Elias had been cast out of the citadel for daring to believe the thing possible even before the invasion, and both sides of the war had been earnestly looking for the old scholar before he could complete it. Once they learnt that he had… she would be pursued without restraint. Even in the midst of a war, the existence of such a thing was a blasphemy that must be destroyed. She was to take it out of the reach of all of them, to the place Elias had told her its protection would be ensured. Then it would no longer be her problem.

Pulling the rucksack off her back she placed it on the table beside the manikin and opened the flap. An army of spiders swarmed up her spine as the manikin picked itself up, dusted itself off, and stepped in.

 

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From When the Dust Settles, Ellen A. Williams

 

When the dust settles, Elsie is running; running into the quiet suburban night, retro kitchen scales clutched to the ridges of her side. The dish was lost a block back, the clang onto the concrete barely registering above the rhythm of pounding feet in her head, pounding blood in her ears. The dial jerks between the grams, an unhealthy clunking in time with her beat. Her feet burn. Tiny footpath rocks imprint into her raw skin, make her faster. Elsie runs, leaving those conclusions behind.

 

The frosted doors slide open and there they all are— the faces, so many expectant faces. Elsie’s gut steps up a gear. The crowd’s shoulders drop. She pushes the trolley down the ramp and scans across the disappointment for a flash of the familiar. A toddler runs loops around a bollard, foil balloons hover impatiently. A squeal somewhere, then hands waving as if trying to shake them off at the wrist.

Elsie lingers in the collecting pool of fatigued travellers and feels the back of her neck. It feels strange still, three (four?) days after the cut, or ‘hack’, as probably better describes the moment of madness with the Danish girl’s fold-up scissors.

‘Keep movin’ thanks,’ an ocker voice instructs from Elsie’s right. She doesn’t know why it sounds so strange— it’s only been a month, and there was never a lack of Aussie accents broadcast across hostel common rooms. Will Ryan sound funny? It was hard to tell in her last jittery Skype conversation.

The plastic clip of her mum’s old hiking pack scrapes along under the trolley. Disappointment swells to her eyes. She’d had twenty-six hours to contemplate the greeting— the hug, the kiss, the ‘I missed you so much’ whispered urgently into her ear.

Elsie finds a seat at Krispy Kreme, scrapes at the gravy stain on her t-shirt and tries to forget the memory of her reflection in the baggage claim toilets.

Will everything be the same?

She closes her eyes against the surrounding clamour. The patterned darkness behind her eyelids is inviting. She forces them open to keep a look out.

A thatch of hair catches her eye; not quite blonde, nothing close to a strawberry. Her heart knocks in her chest. She can see the line where his hat has been. ‘Ryan.’

He turns, recognition, then confusion settling on his brow. ‘Elsie.’ He doesn’t hurry towards her.

Elsie’s hiking boot catches in the bag strap as she gets up. She grabs for the trolley handle. Ryan’s arms shoot out to steady her. Her face burns. ‘Thanks,’ she manages. It feels like their first date all over again, dorky and clumsy.

Ryan looks at her shoulders, where hair used to rest in a limp nothingness. Elsie waits for him to say something. Do something.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ he recovers, ‘didn’t know there were so many arrival gates.’

‘Do I get a hug?’ Elsie feels stupid.

‘Der!’ Ryan pulls her in under his arms. She breathes in his hoody. The deodorant and faint engine smell makes her want to cry. ‘You’ve had a haircut,’ he says carefully.

Elsie pulls away. ‘You haven’t!’ She reaches up and ruffles his hair.

‘Careful. Haven’t washed that for awhile.’

‘Meh, me neither.’

‘Gross!’ He laughs. His usual, unforced smile, dimples beneath his stubble. Elsie grins. She’s home.

 

The tiles are cool and the water hot. Elsie props herself up with her forehead and closes her eyes against the blackness growing in the grout. The water surges onto the back of her neck, and she retrospectively misses the shower. She’s glad her parents haven’t fitted a water-saving showerhead, and notices for the first time this contradiction given their eco-warrior stance on everything else. Right now, she doesn’t particularly care about those unnecessary litres.

Elsie thinks about her last shower; the mass of blonde hair in the drain, the pubic hair taunting her from the sticky shower curtain, the lukewarm needles she forced herself under. She doesn’t want to know how long ago that was, or how long she wore those undies for.

She pads along the hallway to her bedroom. Her eyes flick around the wall­— band posters, the photo collage; it’s all so familiar, but distant like a memory or déjà vu. She stares longingly at her bed.

‘Want a coffee, Hon?’ her mum calls from the kitchen.

‘No thanks. I’d love a tea, though.’

‘Oooh, how very proper.’

Elsie laughs and scrounges in her wardrobe for her favourite trackies.

Coffee and baking hang in the warmth of the kitchen. The lightshade splays its woven pattern onto the roof.

‘Better?’ Elsie’s mum shimmies Anzac biscuits from the oven tray.

‘Much.’ She pulls up a stool next to Ryan, already wearing his Man U jersey. He tears an Anzac biscuit in half and drops it onto the plate. He blows on his fingers.

‘Soft ones, my favourite.’ Elsie smiles at her mum, and looks around the kitchen. The pantry door hangs from the one hinge still. Her postcard of The Giant’s Causeway is pinned on the noticeboard over the electricity bill. ‘When did the kitchen shrink?’

Ryan looks at her like she’s gone mad.

‘Now, now, world traveller,’ her dad scolds from across the room. He lowers the form guide. ‘Don’t go outgrowing your own home.’

‘She’s been out in the big, wide, world.’ Her mum leans her chin into her hands like a child, and gazes at Elsie. ‘Now let’s have a proper look at that new ‘do.’

‘I just washed it. It’ll be all fluffy…’

‘It’s a boy’s haircut. We’ll have to call you Elsie-Ray instead of Elsie-May.’

‘Oh shut it Greg.’ Elsie’s mum tosses the oven mitt at the paper. His eyes stay on the print, but his smirk stretches into a smile. ‘It looks fabulous,’ her mum gushes. ‘So mature, don’t you think?’ She looks over at Ryan.

‘Yeah, it’s nice I guess. Different.’

Elsie knew he didn’t like it. She had a feeling at the time he wouldn’t like it. But she adored Marta’s pixie cut, admitting how much she wished she had a face that suited short hair. Marta reckoned everyone’s face suited short hair. ‘It is only hair. I will buy you a hat if it looks terrible. Or you could follow Islam…’

‘I was feeling adventurous,’ Elsie says into her tea. She doesn’t feel adventurous anymore; she is beyond tired.

 

At the edge of her subconscious, Elsie is aware of another presence. At the other end, black fatigue paralyses each muscle and fibre of her body. In the fleeting semi-awakeness, Elsie panics that she is dead, that her soul is disengaging from her body.

A mug is set down next to her head. She recognises the big old speaker that Ryan uses for a bedside table. Her vision sharpens and settles on the grey scuffmarks on the white ceramic. Elsie hates drinking tea from mugs.

‘Hey, sleepy monster.’ Ryan drops down, too sudden, too heavy.

Elsie practises movement in her mouth, and wipes at the sourness on her chin.

‘It’s six.’ He curls around her banana body, pressing himself into her tailbone. The doona is a safety blanket against his gentle poking.

‘I can’t wake up.’ Her eyelids lock back into place.

‘Did you come to see me or to sleep?’ An acerbic edge betrays his joke.

‘You.’ She wills her brain to kick into gear. ‘Jet lag.’

‘Jet lag? You got back four days ago!’ Ryan sits up against the salmon wall. ‘I did twelve hour days while you were gone.’

‘I know.’

‘And you’ve been at uni for what, three hours today?’

Elsie levers herself up. She presses her fingers into her scrunched eyes. She wants to tell him that jet lag is like being on the train home from the Big Day Out, times a hundred. She wants to explain how hard it is to concentrate in a three hour tutorial, how the fluorescents hum louder each passing hour. She can’t be bothered. It’s easier not to fight. ‘Thanks for my cuppa.’

‘Did I get the milk right?’

‘Yep.’ She decides to wait until next time to ask him to take the teabag out.

Ryan half rolls off the bed and finds a printout on the floor. He puts it on Elsie’s swaddled lap. She looks at the black and white thumbnail of a weatherboard house and next to it, Thur 5:15pm in Ryan’s left-handed scrawl. ‘Ryan… you know­—’

‘Know what? That you want to wait ‘til you travel? Hello, got your passport stamps, don’t you?’

‘I can’t afford this.’ She stares at the price in bold. It clinks in her vision like cash registers in cartoon eyes. ‘I’m broke. I don’t even know if I can get my job back.’

‘I can afford it.’

‘It has three bedrooms!’

‘It’s perfect!’

‘It’s Mayfield.’

‘It’s affordable.’

‘But it’s Mayfield!’

‘When did you become such a snob?’ Ryan snatches the paper from her.

Elsie feels the tell-tale heat behind her eyes. His shoulders relax back down. He folds the paper in half carefully.

‘I’m going to go look at it still. You don’t understand how tight the market is. It’ll take us ages to get one.’

She hears the apartment door open, Dan’s work boot holding it ajar, then grocery bags being passed in from the lobby. At the bottom of her mug, the teabag is a soggy clump of brown.

‘Is it really her? Globetrotter extraordinaire!’

‘That’s a bit of an overstatement.’ Elsie blinks her eyes into focus under the kitchen light. Everything looks green.

Dan straightens up from packing his food into the veggie crisper. ‘Holy shitballs! Check out the hair.’ A broad smile splits his browned face. Only Dan would have a tan in winter. ‘Seriously, you were made for that haircut.’

‘Oh stop it,’ Elsie swishes at an imaginary fly. She glances at Ryan, propped against the wall on a backless chair. His head tips to the side slightly, like he’s considering a painting. Maybe he’s getting used to her hair. Or her lack of it.

Ryan jumps up and jiggles some pizzas free from the freezer. The vodka bottle scrapes against the frost. Elsie squeezes her shoulders to her ears at the sound. Dan settles into Ryan’s chair with a mandarin. ‘What a welcome home feast!’ he winks at Elsie. ‘Ah McCain, you’ve done it a-gain!’

Ryan and Elsie look from each other to Dan.

‘Right, right. I keep forgetting I’m an old man! It used to be an ad for microwave pizzas.’

‘Gee Dan, how old are you?’ Elsie clears the seat at the other end of the tiny wooden table. Since Ryan moved in with Dan a year ago, she’s only known him to be vaguely older than them.

‘Twenty-nine.’ He sighs.

‘Wow, you’re totally old! You should be married and all that,’ Elsie jokes. She pulls her arms back through the sleeves of Ryan’s jumper, and hugs herself against the cool air.

‘Yeah, well, tried that.’ Dan peels off a mandarin segment. ‘Wasn’t for me,’ he laughs.

‘Shit, sorry, I didn’t know.’ She looks at Ryan with his head in the oven to check it’s on. He glances back and shrugs.

‘Water under a bridge,’ Dan waves away her pity. ‘Boring story. Tell me all about your trip. I want details, I want drunkenness, I want debauchery!’ He pounds the table with his fist.

Elsie snorts. ‘Wait, I’ve got something for you.’ She comes back and tosses a chocolate bar at him.

Dan studies the label and hoots. ‘Yorkie. It’s not for girls.’ He holds it up to Ryan. ‘Check it out, even has a cross through the picture of a chick.’

‘Actually I forgot to declare it…’

‘Contraband, my favourite.’

‘How come I didn’t get a Yorkie?’

Dan holds it out to Ryan. ‘Swap you for your jersey.’

‘Get stuffed.’

‘See? This is what I’ve had to put up with since you’ve been gone!’

Elsie laughs.

‘A whole month of Mr Mope Face.’

Ryan turns his back on them. ‘Piss off.’

Dan shoots Elsie an uh-oh, we’re-in-trouble look.

 

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From Fae’s Labyrinth, Eva Matheson

 

‘Everything is simpler than you think and at the same time more complex than you imagine‘

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

 Bonnie is the new school councillor after the usual one ‘disappeared’. Sarah must routinely visit the councillor, due to her home situation. Hayley is Sarah’s mum’s best friend.  For the past five years she has been the carer of both Sarah, and her mum.

Harry holds his distance from Sarah in social situations, but is aware of her every move. We don’t know his true intentions yet. He is fairly good-looking, but has dulled down his looks in an effort to appear more human. He has half-human blood (as does Sarah, which she has yet to discover) and half-Fae blood, from an elfin bloodline. Harry is Scottish and Sarah is English. The setting so far, is London.

 

SARAH

 

I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this. After talking to Bonnie, the school councillor, at my redundant weekly session, I was convinced the weekend holiday was not a good idea. Then after seeing Harry, talking to Harry, I felt strangely…. adventurous. It wasn’t much like butterflies in my belly, more like a whole bunch of beetles wiggling for space till I could barely stand it anymore. A blend of nerves and excitement I hadn’t felt since I was a kid going away on holidays. Long before Mum got sick. I arrived home from school, the front door creaked, and Hayley’s dogs barked from the back garden.

‘I’m doing the dishes!’

I walked to the den of a kitchen where Hayley stood facing the window.

‘Hi Hayley, looks like rain this weekend. What are your plans?’

Man I was talking fast. Hayley stopped washing the dishes, her pink-gloved hands still in the bubbles. She glanced back over her shoulder. I knew she was onto me.

‘Could you look after Mum?’ It was lame, but I pouted anyway.

‘Do you mean the whole weekend?’ Hayley went back to the dishes.

I lent my elbows on the kitchen bench next to Hayley and fiddled with the silver locket on my chain. ‘Some friends are going to the countryside. We’d be staying in their Auntie’s house, honestly.’

Hayley made a tutting sound with her tongue. She was always doing it. When she watched bad news on T.V, she tutted. If the newspaper was delivered late, she tutted. At the rising price of fuel, she tutted a lot. It was her way of disapproving of bad things, and occasionally her way of teasing the good.

She looked out the window as she washed the dishes. I followed her gaze. Mum was sitting at the table on the lawn. Her hands in her lap, her body completely still. Hayley’s two golden retrievers dozed at her feet.

‘No trouble at all Hayley. Go, pack, don’t worry about your Mum, we’ll be fine.’

I was relieved at how quickly she agreed, after all, it meant giving up her entire weekend to cook meals, bathe, walk, and put Mum to bed.

‘Thanks, I owe you,’ I replied, and squeezed my arms around her.

Hayley smiled and pulled the sink plug.

‘You can pay me back by doing your own dishes sometime!’

I grimaced as I bounced up the stairs behind her.

I didn’t pack much. Two changes of clothes, toiletries, and a book called Little Women to read for the umpteenth time. I turned the first page and read Mum’s birthday message inside. I was 11 years old then, the last birthday before she got really sick. A week later Hayley moved in.

I walked back down the stairs and that seed of guilt began to grow in my gut. How could I leave my Mum?

They were sitting at the kitchen table, the room now smelly from a slow cooked dinner. Mum stared at a wall with her hands around a cup of tea that would be cold and untouched. Hayley was chatting away about the cafe she was planning to visit for lunch the next day. Her cup was long empty. I knelt beside Mum.

‘The bus comes in ten minutes so I’d better get going… Mum?’  She looked like a fragile porcelain doll, except for the roots of silver in her hair, and the wrinkles that dolls never get.

I rested my hand on the back of her chair. Mum didn’t respond, so I touched her shoulder. She glanced over, looking at me, but her expression genuinely blank.

‘Mum, I’ll be back on Sunday. Will you be okay without me?’

She stared at me for a long moment; her blue eyes had tiny dots for pupils. Her eyes didn’t look like they even worked. Then her lashes flickered.

‘Sarah.’ She confirmed softly.

I froze. Mum hadn’t spoken in weeks, let alone recognised me.

‘Yes Mum….will you be okay here, with Hayley?’ My throat grew tight. Somehow this stopped tears.

Mum looked across the table to where Hayley sat, silhouetted by the window. Hayley was smiling back.

‘Yes.’ Barely a whisper. Then I could see in her eyes, she was fading again.

‘Pinkie promise?’ I reached my hand up, offering her my arched pinkie like I had done so many times when I was little.

Mum raised her hand and linked her finger with mine. Her mouth twitched at the corners. Then she looked to me and in the slowest motion ever, placed a warm, frail hand on the side of my face, cupping my cheek and chin.

‘I know you,’ her voice was hoarse, leaking with confusion.

I could only nod and place my hand over hers. It hurt when she was lost inside herself, and it hurt when she wasn’t.

‘I’ll be back soon. I love you Mum.’

As quickly as she had returned to the land of the living, her eyes glazed over and the porcelain doll face returned to the window. She was gone, somewhere deep inside her mind, somewhere out of my reach. I looked to Hayley, calm and collected, Mum’s best friend; and the only reason I had stayed out of foster care all these years.

‘Go Sarah, we’ll have fun, and so should you.’

I didn’t move.

‘Tut tut tut. Go.’

I nodded, and wrapped my arms around her; my throat was feeling tight again.

She was right, and it was in this moment that I realised just how wrong Bonnie was. I wasn’t being selfish like she had said.  I was just trying to be like a normal teenager with something that resembled a social life.

‘Thanks Hayley.’ I pushed my chair back. Mum didn’t react in the slightest to the scraping noise. Hayley leaned forward and gave me her serious face. She played the role of Mum, in Mum’s absence.

‘Be safe, have fun, and please don’t worry. She will be safe as long as she’s with me. I promise’.

I looked back one last time as I left the kitchen. For a moment I thought Hayley’s face seemed sad and worried, even though she gave me a smile and a wink. I hoped I wasn’t making a huge mistake.

 

HARRY

 

There she was, Bonnie, the school councillor, standing in the shadows to the rear of the platform. She was dressed in a full-length black dress; her hair fell about her shoulders, her pretty face painted with pretty make-up. She watched the small crowd entering the train station. Even in the dark she looked beautiful, and if I didn’t know better, I would have found her striking. But I did know better. I knew exactly what she was. And she was waiting for Sarah.

A water witch cleverly transformed. Naturally grotesque webbed feet, much too wide for human footwear; Bonnie wore long dresses all the time. That was my first clue. But the biggest give away was the smell leaking from her flesh.

A smell like clothes left to go damp in a laundry basket. The first time I met her, the smell was so subtle, but that odour and her feet were enough to give away her disguise. And yet, as clever as her disguise was to the inexperienced, this witch sure wasn’t good at spotting others in camouflage.

I looked at the clock on the wall above the platform. Bonnie hadn’t seen me yet, and the train would be here in five minutes, and that meant Sarah would also be arriving at any moment. I needed to get rid of the witch before she could get her claws into Sarah’s mind and convince her not to get on the train.

I knew what had to be done. It wouldn’t be the first time, and there really wasn’t any other choice.  My job was to protect Sarah and bring her to the manor where the others waited, no matter what it took. I walked lightly on my feet towards Bonnie, adjusting my backpack over my shoulder as I went. Bonnie was hidden in the dark, and distracted by her goal.

She didn’t notice me until I was standing close to her, just behind her right side. I glanced around; no one was looking our way. I pulled my dagger from my jacket pocket, and held it out of sight, but ready nonetheless. It would take only one strike through the heart, and she would be finished quickly, and quietly.

But Bonnie turned and I was caught.

‘Harry! What are you doing here?’

Bonnie smiled in a friendly sort of way, but I noticed her mouth twitch. I had caught her off guard. ‘Waiting for Sarah,’ I replied.

Her smile disappeared. She eyed me up and down with suspicion. Her eyes tore at my skin like invisible fingernails, as she tried to see if anything lay beneath my outer appearance. Is he human? Or is he not? Her eyes questioned.

I took a step closer and gripped my hidden dagger. It had to be done, now. Suddenly, Bonnie’s eyes widened, and she stumbled back.

‘Romus!  I can see you… No, please Romus, no. I will leave her alone. Please don’t do anything.’ Bonnie began to cower and shrink before my eyes.

This was murder. This was not how my clan had raised me. I had only done it once before, cornered in a cave by a pissed off red-cap goblin. It had to be him or me. Today, it was me or Bonnie.

Maybe I could let this witch walk away? I hesitated, my dagger still by my side, but Bonnie embraced my hesitation as her opportunity. Her pretty face turned grey, her smile transformed into a jaggered, diseased grin of teeth.

My arm twitched.

Bonnie whipped a hand up to the spot behind her neck and drew a long thin knife, concealed by her blanket of hair. She cocked her head, cracking her neck.

‘Oh, it feels good to be me.’

My fingers tightened around my dagger.

She was fierce in her lunge as her jaw clenched, but I was faster, and my dagger dug deep up through her ribs, destroying her heartbeat. The witch dropped to her knees as I withdrew my dagger, and in her final breath, she transformed to her true appearance. Her body was grey all over, with gills carved up and down her throat, a hunch back, twisted bony arms, and a face and chest wet as though coated in Vaseline. Her eyes were hollow now, and black, cocooned by a drawn and sagging human-ish face.

Bonnie’s knife fell to the ground with a tinkle, followed by her limp, grotesque body. No one noticed a thing tucked away in that dark corner.

I managed to control my shaking enough to wipe the grey blood matter from my dagger, onto the witch’s dress. I couldn’t help but wonder if this kill was just the beginning. There was still a long way to go. I pushed her body back against the wall. It was already shrivelling, and soon she would be just a pool of dark water and wet clothes. In my stomach, and in my head, I was queasy, and there was sweat beneath my clothes. It might have been easier if I hadn’t known her, and it didn’t help to see the gruesome corpse transformation. Then I heard the train approaching, and as I did, I watched Sarah step onto the platform, her eyes searching for friends.

I moved along the wall, concealed by the shadows. I approached Sarah far from where the witch lay.

‘Hey! I’m real happy you came,’ I smiled, and shoved my sweaty hands in my pockets.

‘Hey, Harry. So, where are the others?’ Sarah asked, glancing around.

‘They’re catching the morning train. Dunno why, they didn’t go into detail.’

I knew I was talking too fast. I was sounding contrived. I imitated a yawn.

‘Thanks for meeting me. I probably would have gone home if no one was here.’ Sarah shrugged; I thought I saw a small smile.

The train doors slid open as we talked. People were beginning to find their seats.

‘Come on. It’ll be warmer on the train.’ I reached out my hand, but I knew I shouldn’t have, not to her. It wasn’t my place, even though we were on the human side. I could hardly believe I was about to succeed in bringing Sarah back. I didn’t want to let her go. The others would be waiting. She took my hand, and we stepped inside the train.

 

SARAH

 

We sat in a strange, easy silence. The train seats were like lumpy rocks. They smelt of feet, or bad food, or both, and were structured in rows, dappled, with people all facing the wrong way. By the time the train left the city, it was so dark that I could barely see a field or a tree. Harry and I piled up our backpacks and propped our feet on them like footrests. I glanced at Harry’s reflection in the window. He looked so deep in thought. I hardly knew him, even though he’d been hanging out with my group for most of term. I’d see him at the shops and movies, or whatever was going on that weekend.

Most of the time he just sat with the boys, not that he was anything much like them. He was…kind of weird, polite in an old fashioned way, holding doors open and saying, ‘After you.’ And he always looked so serious.

‘I heard about your mum.’

‘Heard what?’ my words cracked like a whip. ‘You heard she’s brain damaged? Gone crazy? A vegetable? A retard? What?’ Oh god shut up Sarah.

Harry was staring, his mouth parted.

‘Forgive me, I didn’t mean to –’

‘Don’t.  Don’t pretend you understand.’ It was so dark outside I could only see my face in the window.

I looked back at Harry.

‘I didn’t think you had green eyes.’

Harry was staring ahead. He dropped his eyes, and turned to me.

‘I don’t. They’re brown.’

As the train rolled on, Harry got a message on his phone. I pretended to stare through the dark window, but I was carefully watching his reflection. He looked worried at first, but when his phone beeped with a reply message, he smiled.

The motion of the train was winning. I closed my heavy eyelids; it was what they wanted. I didn’t know how long I slept for, but when I woke, my head was on Harry’s shoulder, and the train was slowing.

 

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From Slipstream, Kylie Nealon

 

The two men stared at the screen in front of them, disbelieving.

‘It worked,’ the older of the two whispered.

His companion’s eyes glittered under the lab’s eerie artificial lights. ‘This changes everything,’ he said. ‘Everything.’

The older man shook his head. ‘It makes no difference at all. We still can’t guarantee the subject’s safety, or the reliability of the transfer. I don’t want to take this to the committee yet.’

The younger man stood up, his athletic frame rigid with fury. ‘Your overcautious mentality is absurd, Richard. We’ve tested and retested, and we get the same result. Every. Single. Time.’ His voice rose to a half-shout on the last word.

Richard fixed his stare on his colleague of more than a decade. ‘Harry, do you understand the implications in saying something if we’re wrong?’

His voice was flat; he was weary of having the same argument they’d had dozens of times before. In the past, they’d always managed to resolve it, at least for the sake of appearances in front of the lab staff. Not this time, Richard thought. Something seemed to have shifted irrevocably in Harry. 

The latter strode to the security door as if unable to speak, clearly unwilling to break the impasse.

Don’t don’t do this, Harry!’ Richard attempted to appeal to the only thing he knew would reach him – a slim shard of morality that remained within an otherwise corrupted conscience. ‘You can’t inflict this on them. They aren’t ready. You’ll regret it, I promise!’

The younger man turned, his face hard. ‘The only thing I’ll regret, Richard, is that I wasted so many years listening to you.’

Harry slammed the ‘exit’ button, leaving Richard alone. His exhalation echoed around the room, save only for the beeping coming from the panel in front of him. He knew there was no longer any point in delaying. Touching the console in front of him, he waited. A woman’s face appeared in front of him, her concern evident. ‘Cerys? We have a problem.’

 

‘Miss Hambleton?’

The assertive query came amidst the shrieks of joy and garbled announcements over the loudspeakers. Even at 7:00am, Heathrow was mental. Sixteen-year-old Scarlett pushed her overloaded trolley towards a small man holding a ‘D’Orsay Academy’ sign with her name on it.

‘Hi, that’s me,’ she managed, holding her wayward trolley with one hand.

He smiled, and took hold of the trolley as it threatened to mow down a group of old aged pensioners who’d also come off her flight.

‘Welcome to London, Miss. Come with me – you’re the last one to come through.’ He began weaving through the throngs of waiting relatives and friends with an ease that spoke of many such previous trips.

Scarlett followed, tripping over feet and earning a few scowling looks in the process. As she drew closer to the exit door, the air shimmered and she felt a familiar wave of nausea rooting her to the spot.

Multi-hued auras began appearing around people who were eyeballing her with wary expressions. Please, not here, she pleaded with the universe. She closed her eyes and took a few breaths, hoping it might disappear. These weird episodes, which appeared out of nowhere, had become more frequent over the last six months. Scarlett had no idea what was causing them, but she was pretty sure that the last thing she wanted was another one in the middle of the world’s busiest airport. The deep breathing was making her hyperventilate, and a cold sweat broke out between her shoulder blades, sticking her already grubby t-shirt to her back. Behind her, someone let out a harsh string of curses under his breath.

‘What is it with you tourists? Want to take a few pictures? Move, already!’ The sarcasm was unmistakable, made more prominent with an American twang. A tall, lean boy of about her own age, sidestepped Scarlett, his bright blue eyes glaring down at her. His movie star looks were spoiled by a scowl that tore up his face.

‘Geez, okay,’ Scarlett said. She wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans and straightened up.

The boy huffed. ‘Spare me your redundant apologies.’ His eyes flicked over her. Scarlett pushed her slightly damp hair back and looked up at him, nausea forgotten.

‘I don’t think I did apologise,’ she replied, stung by his rudeness. ‘I’m so sorry that I stopped you getting your,’ she glanced at the solitary bag slung over his shoulder, ‘duffel bag out of here. I can imagine how inconvenient it must be for you having to get all of that luggage out of here.’

The duffel bag was definitely a step down, for someone who looked like he wasn’t short of a bob or two, as her granny would say. She noticed that the boy’s knuckles were turning white as she spoke, an unexpected anxiety that was at odds with the arrogant attitude.

‘Whatever.’ He hoisted the bag closer to his body and brushed past her, leaving a whiff of leather and something metallic hanging in the air. Scarlett watched him climb into a car that must have cost more than her parents made in a year.

‘Uh, Miss?’ her driver’s voice called out to her from the kerb. ‘Gotta go, love, the traffic’ll be a nightmare if we wait any longer.’

Scarlett nodded and walked over. The boy’s car melted into the traffic and she realised that her ‘episode’ had been cut short by his unexpected intervention.  Cheered by the thought, she boarded her bus and put him completely out of mind.

 

On the D’Orsay bus, Scarlett met three other new students who’d arrived around the same time she had. They seemed nice, though she couldn’t imagine that she’d find a friend like Sass, who’d been her best friend since they were five. Determined to soak in as much detail for her first missive home, Scarlett studied the landscape, fascinated by how different everything looked here. It was so green and tidy, compared to the desiccated wild dryness of home.

‘First time away from home?’ Mike, a student from the States, leaned over as if able to read her thoughts.

‘Yep,’ she said. ‘You?’

‘Nah.’ He scooted closer. ‘Parents are diplomats, so I’m used to it.’

‘Wow. I’m from Melbourne. The closest I’ve gotten to diplomacy in action was a school trip to the capital in Year 8.’

He laughed. ‘Yeah, I’ve done a few of those.’ Mike had an assured sense of himself and his place in the world, with the kind of skills that suggested that diplomacy as a career might extend into a second generation. He had an unlimited supply of humorous travel stories to tell, and the trip into central London passed in a blur. He was in the middle of a particularly entertaining one, involving insects dipped in chocolate as a snack in a café in Central America, when the bus took a sharp corner, pulling up at what looked like the entrance to a medieval castle planted right in the middle of London’s urban metropolis.

‘Hey, check it out.’ Mike craned his head over the top of the seat as they pulled to a stop. ‘We’re here.’

Passing through D’Orsay’s ancient doors, the building looked like a something from a film set: all weathered stone and stained-glass windows, with an enormous, modern glass tower that shot skyward from the inside of the building. There was a particular kind of energy that seemed to reverberate from its stones, but as Scarlett looked around at her travel companions, none of them seemed to be affected by it. It almost felt, she thought, that if she reached out and touched the weathered grey stone, she could feel the pulse of the building underneath her fingers. Mike grinned as he made his way past her off the bus, mistaking Scarlett’s interest in D’Orsay’s surroundings for something touristy.

As she stood in front of the bus, she couldn’t help but wonder how on earth D’Orsay had managed to build such a huge building behind what appeared to be a church, especially in central London. Her musings were interrupted by a gentle Irish accent.

‘Welcome, all of you, to D’Orsay. My name is Maggie.’

A tiny woman with jet-black hair and bright green eyes introduced herself to them, as they craned their necks to see her. Scarlett found that she was thinking of leprechauns, and blushed when Maggie fixed her with a glance that suggested she’d been able to tell what she was thinking about.

Flicking her eyes back to the rest of the group, Maggie continued. ‘Some of you have had quite a long trip, so let’s get you settled in right away. Please, follow me and try not to fall behind.’

Scarlett stepped forward to follow the group inside, but felt herself being held back as if by some weird magnetic pull. Glancing over her shoulder, she came to an abrupt halt in front of Mike, who stumbled into her. Muttering a good-natured complaint under his breath, he stopped when he saw the look on Scarlett’s face, and he followed the direction of her glance.

You have got to be kidding, she thought. The boy from the airport unfolded himself from the back of his expensive car, and stood up. Scarlett felt his gaze fix on her from behind his dark Wayfarers.

Escorted by his driver, the boy walked past, turning his head with the barest of movements, one eyebrow raised over the top of his sunglasses. He still had a pretty tight grip on that duffel bag, Scarlett noted.

‘Friend of yours?’ Mike asked her from behind. They watched the boy disappear inside, and Scarlett felt the pull begin to dissipate.

‘Uh, no. I mean, not really.’

She explained what had happened at the airport. Mike chuckled.

‘Well, whoever he is, he must be someone pretty important. Us plebs are stuck doing the group tour. Which we’re about to lose if we don’t get a move on,’ he said, grabbing her arm.

They were led on a tour that was both swift and confusing. Corridors snaked off into a vast research laboratory section, as well as to other buildings that were used for the day-to-day running of the company. Scarlett wondered how anyone found his or her way to the right place. The term ‘rabbit-warren’ didn’t even begin to cover it.

‘The student wing is through here,’ Maggie said.

Going through the massive doors, Scarlett caught her breath.

No expense had been spared in furnishing the academic wing. A large circular living area with plush furniture was arranged around a vast array of high-end technological equipment, some recognisable, some she’d never seen before. Even Mike looked impressed.

‘Your personal rooms, dining hall, and classrooms are located off this central area,’ Maggie said. ‘Please, have a seat.’ Forty or so other students were already seated in the middle of the meeting area. A relaxed conversation was coming from the young staff gathered around the edges of the room. They were all dressed in identical blue uniforms, and appeared to have an alternative career option as high fashion models.

Scarlett slipped in near the back of the room, near a girl with platinum-blonde hair and a boy who was more interested in his cuticles than making eye contact with anyone. The girl smiled over at Scarlett as she sat down.

‘Welcome.’

Scarlett’s attention was drawn to the front of the room before she could strike up a conversation with either of them.

‘It’s lovely to have you all here, finally.’ This time, Maggie was standing on some kind of platform, so they could all see her, but instead of making her more imposing, it served to emphasise her diminutive stature even further.

‘As Head Mentor at D’Orsay, I’ll be overseeing your academic progress and psychological wellbeing during your time here with us. The mentors,’ she gestured over to the blue-clad staff, ‘are also here to provide support. Each of you has been matched to a suitable mentor, based on the psychological profile carried out prior to your departure.’ Maggie’s gaze swept the room. ‘We’ll have more time to chat later, but for now, we’ll get the initiation process underway and meet back here later this afternoon. If you’ll all make your way over to the Dispensarium, please follow the instructions once you’re inside.’ She indicated a large doorway set into the wall with misted glass doors.

One by one, the students lined up, with Scarlett, the blonde girl and Cuticle Boy bringing up the rear.

When her turn came, Scarlett stepped through the sliding doors into a booth, from which a large cylinder dropped down over the top half of her body.

‘Please look straight ahead,’ a voice said. It was a dry, hollow-sounding voice of indeterminate gender that pulsed inside the capsule as it spoke. Scarlett waited, a little unsure. Was this like those eye tests you got at the optometrist, when you weren’t supposed to blink? She wondered.

A blue strand of light streamed into her eyes, not hurting her, but not comfortable either. It felt like a tickle deep inside her brain that she couldn’t itch. The light disappeared, and she was left standing in a blue glow.

‘Please place your hand on the scanner,’ the voice prompted. Scarlett was rewarded with a stinging sensation in her forefinger as she did so.

‘Ow,’ she hissed, nursing the finger. Peering at it closely, she could see that something tiny had been embedded under the skin. What was that? And how did they do that without drawing any blood?

‘Thank you,’ the voice told her. ‘Data collection is complete. Your assigned mentor is Gil.’ A picture of a young man, no more than twenty years old, flashed on the cylinder’s surface in front of her. ‘Please leave to the left, where you will find him waiting.’

Scarlett stepped out of the room, eyes a little tender under the bright, overhead lights. She walked up to Gil, her fingertip curled up in her palm.

‘Uh, hi,’ she said.

‘Scarlett, it’s very nice to meet you.’

Gil’s upper class BBC accent was gentle. Note to self, Scarlett mentally added to her list of things to tell Sass. Those accents actually existed in real life. Gil smiled as though he knew what she’d been thinking. Damn, that was twice today already! What was going on?

‘Let’s get you organised, shall we?’ He nodded to the other mentor he’d been chatting to, and he and Scarlett set off through one of the exits. ‘I hope your trip was uneventful? You’ll notice quite quickly that we aren’t like other schools here. There are lessons here, shall we say, that your normal school won’t have offered,’ he said as they made their way out of the meeting hall. ‘But I promise, you’ll find them quite interesting.’ He was moving quite fast, and Scarlett was struggling to keep up, trying not to miss anything he was saying. ‘How’s your finger?’ he asked.

Scarlett looked at her finger, which was bright pink and a little swollen. ‘Kind of sore,’ she admitted.

Gil picked up her hand and examined the fingertip. His hands were calloused, an unexpected contrast in someone who looked like he’d never done a hard day’s work in his life.

‘It looks fine. It’s D’Orsay’s way of ID-ing you.’ He let go of her hand. ‘We don’t carry cards or tags here. It might seem a bit extreme, but actually it’s a great idea. We’ve got your DNA profile, with some other odds and ends.’

‘Odds and ends?’ she asked. ‘Like what?’

‘You know, family history, genetic predispositions, other abilities.’

Other abilities? Scarlett opened her mouth to ask, but he cut her off.

‘Naturally, all of that is encoded, so if anything should happen to you, the information won’t fall into the wrong hands. If you’ll pardon the pun.’ He smiled at her, and gestured to a doorway that looked identical to the other dozen or so lined up in the corridor. ‘You just need to wave your finger over the sensor at the entrance to each room you’re in,’ he said. ‘It’s a bit retro, but we rather like keeping the past alive here at D’Orsay.’ Gil smiled to himself, as if enjoying a private joke. ‘If you have any questions, let me know. There’s a console in your room that you can contact me through. You’re in Room B5, which means that you’re the second tier out from the main meeting area. I’ll leave you to settle in. We’ll be meeting back in the main area in an hour. Your bags will already be inside. If you have any problems, use the console.’

‘Thanks. I guess I’ll see you in a little while.’ Scarlett hesitated before waving her finger over the sensor set into the wall next to her dorm room door. The panel lit up with her photo and DNA sequence. She looked at Gil, who smiled, and left.

That was pretty impressive, if a little freaky, she thought; a bit like D’Orsay.

 

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