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Excerpt from Andi C. Buchanan’s From a Shadow Grave

Cover image of From a Shadow Grave, by Andi C. Buchanan

From a Shadow Grave, bu Andi C. Buchanan, is the story of Phyllis Symons and Aroha Brooke, and the ways their lives and deaths overlap as time splinters into different threads. Phyllis dies, is saved, and saves herself and Aroha always finds her, or is found, herself, by the woman her own story twines itself around.


The searchers find your hand first, where you had almost but not quite broken the surface in your desperation. There’s a cry, and then others arrive with shovels.

It’s a strange thing to watch your own body dug up from beneath the soil. You don’t understand what’s happening at first, whether you’re alive or dead, whether you’re above ground or below. You want to yell at them that you’re here, not there, but you also want to hide from all of them, very quiet and very small. Your face looks pale beneath the soil, and your hair is muddy and matted. It’s a terrible thought, but you can’t help wondering if anyone could ever call you beautiful now.

*

You are no longer whole. You have been broken in two; victim and villain, vulnerable child and wild young woman. You are tethered to this hill, and yet you are being taken into town for examination. Cold hands and instruments and peering eyes and verdicts, until finally, you are being taken up to Karori and buried properly in a corner of the cemetery among the drifting petals of old roses.

You’re too far away from Karori. Like most ghosts, you’re tied to the location of your death, cursed to keep reliving it. Your spirit is on one hill, and your body lies deep within another. Your mother visits the Karori Cemetery every Sunday after church for a year, but she never visits Mount Victoria. She visits your body, but she never visits you.

You try, sometimes, to visit her, to move from this place, but you always end up moving in a circle. There’s nothing solid to hold you, but at the same time escape is impossible. It is a lingering pain, the final insult, an endless cage. Sometimes you’ve longed for death, real death, and you’ve thought, couldn’t he just have killed me properly?

But perhaps it is also a resistance, the last piece of you refusing to die, clinging on out of stubbornness, out of spite. Clinging on even as George is tried and hanged at Mount Crawford Jail, and after, on through the decades.

You haunt this hillside through the lingering Depression, and into another war. The tunnel opens, and the sound of picks against rock is replaced by endless motors. You haunt the hillside as the troop ships leave and return emptier, or don’t return at all. Fortifications are built on other hills for an invasion that never comes.

You feel the shudders of every earthquake, and wonder each time if the earth has finally come to swallow you up. You wish for a peaceful grave but are strangely relieved each time to find yourself still able to rise above the soil and rock and mud. You watch out over the harbour after the war, as the lights and the city grow, and you cannot grow at all.

*

You don’t remember when you first realised that the noise of car horns through the tunnel was directed at you. At first, you thought they were sounds of greeting or of anger, anger at each other as the roads packed ever tighter with cars.

You realise now, that it is you they are scared of.

You weren’t good, in the early days, at controlling your visibility. You’re not sure, even now, how you do it, but with enough practice it comes to you as naturally as speaking or swallowing once did. In the early days you were seen floating around the tunnel, semi-translucent in your old dress, and was your hair brushed neatly, or tangled and bloodied? You’re not sure.

You’d like to take their fear of you as power, to rise above it all. To know that they all fear you now, those who once looked down on you, the rich people and important people, the clever people, and they can do nothing to harm you. But you cannot. The car horns do not scare you away, as they like to think, but they make you feel forlorn, rejected, and despised in death as well as in life.

You are, after all, still only seventeen.

Over the decades, you watch buildings being constructed and demolished, the city rising and the cars changing, the girls heading up to school, how the fashions evolve each year. You can see only part of the city, tethered to this hillside as you are, but you know it has changed, that so many of the places where you spent your time are gone.

Every year, there are fewer and fewer people who remember you at all.

*

People will say that you are just a ghost story. They remember you only as a haunt, a presence that unnerves them, unnatural and perhaps malevolent. Something that needs to be sent away. You’re a memory of memories they’d rather forget.

They name you not with your name, but with the site of your murder. They don’t remember any of your other stories. To them, you will never be a lonely, angry, confused teenager, who liked to go to the movies and hoped she was in love, who fought with her siblings and always had a tune in her head. You’re a ghost story, and all other stories of you have been told and ended.

You deserve more stories than you get.

*

In this story you do not remain alone. In this story it’s eighty years later and Aroha Brooke has just arrived in Wellington, having loaded two cases of books, clothes and weapons onto the InterCity at Feilding and not looked back.

Aroha Brooke has black hair, heavy like inked lines, and year-round freckles scattering her face. She wears a black leather jacket, with knives in the inner pocket and more in the belt that runs through her jeans.

She finds a room in a rundown villa on Ellice Street and enrols to study law and sociology at Victoria, but that’s not why she’s really here. She doesn’t come to find you for almost a year, because she has other things to deal with, but there comes a time when you’re the only one who can help her.

Aroha Brooke isn’t scared of you. Anyone who considers themselves haunted by a girl who is always seventeen and just wanted to go to dances with her friends and listen to the radio and have children she could take out on the trolley to the beach at Island Bay, has led a charmed life as far as Aroha Brooke is concerned. She knows about real hauntings; you can see it in her eyes. And perhaps that’s why you can talk to her.

She finds you the old-fashioned way, by marching up the hill one night and calling your name. No-one’s ever done that before. There has been the odd ghost hunter – either drunk young men or middle-aged cranks with all kinds of equipment, but they’re interested in detecting changes in temperature or distributions of infra-red light, rather than talking to you. No-one’s called your name like they want to speak to you, like you were a person. Not until Aroha does. And so, you answer.

You expect your voice to be hoarse from lack of use after all these years, but you sound like you always did.

“Yes,” you say. “I’m here.”

“Good,” she says, like ghosts respond to her every day. “Can I see you?”

No human has seen you since 1932 – they made it clear you weren’t welcome, with all their screaming and waving of spades, and they’ve continued to tell you that you aren’t welcome ever since, palms pressed hard on their car horns, rhythms of determination as they speed through the tunnel. But you still show yourself sometimes to the birds and to the night air, just to prove to yourself that you can.

Still, it’s been a couple of years since you even did that, and you’re pleased to see you show little sign of your old injuries, at least as far as you can tell. Your smocked dress is crumpled and a little muddy and you’re bruised right through, but as long as you don’t turn your back to Aroha you look acceptable. You try to run your hands through your bobbed hair, to tease out the mud-matted knots, but your hair is air, your hands are air.

If losing your life and yet still being here makes any sense, if there is a way to understand being dead and yet not being dead, it is in this: you had some power over yourself, to decide on your own body – how it moved, where it went. To brush your hair and change your clothes. To dance or to sit still, to sing or to listen. He took your life from you; not your existence, but your choice to do all those things and more.

You still have some choices though, and you make one of them now. You walk forwards out of, or more accurately through, the gorse bushes and stand or hover or whatever it is you do now in front of her.

“Hi,” she says. “Thank you.” Then she pauses. “You’re Phyllis Avis Symons?”

You savour the syllables of a name barely spoken in decades, and smile in spite of yourself.

“That’s me,” you say.

“Aroha Brooke,” she says. “Pleased to meet you, Phyllis.”

She sits, more comfortably than you’d expect, on a stone ledge, not worrying about the dampness from the days of horizontal rain.

“How do you know about me?” you ask.

“You might not believe me,” she replies.

“I’m a ghost. I’ll believe most things.”

‘‘I deal with supernatural things, I guess. Ghosts, and all the others. Patupaiarehe, demons, shifters, werewolves, taniwha. Even had a dokkaebi someone had managed to import. That was … interesting. I could always see things other people couldn’t, but when my grandmother died, that’s when I started taking it seriously. Doing research. Taking responsibility for keeping people safe – wide definition of people there.”

You don’t recognise half the words she says, but it’s no surprise to you that there are other things out there that are neither human nor animal, not quite of this world. You haven’t come across them, because you’ve been tied to this hillside and they’ve had no reason to come to you, but you’ve always assumed there were other ghosts out there, and if there are ghosts, there could be anything.

“So you have a responsibility to meet all the … all the … people … like me?” you ask, unsure of your words. You have not spoken to another in so long.

Aroha laughs. It’s a deep, hearty laugh, with no  unkindness.

“Nope. I’m not a fucking networker or ambassador or whatever the fuck. I mean, it’s nice to meet you and all, and you seem lovely, but I have way too much to deal with without going out to find anyone I don’t have to. Believe me, if I had my way, I’d be spending my evenings alone with ice-cream and Netflix.”

You look at her blankly.

“I’ll explain Netflix to you some other time. You’ll love it. Anyway, this is a difficult case I’m on and I’m sorry it’s going to bring back some bad memories and shit, but if I don’t, people will die, so I’m going to ask for your help anyway.”

You laugh bitterly.

“I’m a ghost with a huge head wound. I don’t get that far away from my bad memories at the best of times.”

Aroha nods, and there’s an understanding between the two of you.

“The thing is,” Aroha says, “usually when there’s trouble it’s either someone being ignorant or someone fucking around. There are heaps of pranksters and tricksters in every culture, and sometimes they just need a firm word and a show of strength. Or it’s like … Pākehā complaining about a taniwha hanging out by their nice new river-view homes. And anyone with any sense interprets a taniwha as a warning not to build in a certain place because come the next earthquake or tsunami, you’re fucked. And yet, they act like the taniwha is the problem.

“There’s a lot of talking, a bit of posturing. Not as much danger as you’d think, though I’ve had my moments. But believe me, the worst people in my life, the biggest dangers, have been solidly human.” She pauses. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this stuff.”

“Because you need my help? And because you don’t have many people to tell it to?”

Aroha tosses her hair in the sort of dismissal that makes it clear you’ve hit the mark. “Yes, I need your help.”

“Do you want me to stop haunting or something? Because I don’t have that much choice in the matter. Practically no-one’s seen me in decades. And I know people get scared but I’m actually quite harmless.”

“Oh no. It’s not you that’s the problem. I mean, it relates to you, a bit. But I don’t want you to stop doing anything, just help me deal with something.”

You swallow, still uncertain what is happening.

“How can I help?”

Aroha laughs. “You’re meant to ask what’s in it for you. At least, that’s what I’m used to.”

You feel vaguely ashamed, as if you’ve missed out on learning an obvious social convention. “Is there something you can do for me?”

“I can free you from this place. Break the ties that hold you here. You can go through the whole city at will. Do what you want.”

You’ve been trying for a long time not to let yourself feel any hope for anything, but when you hear this, your heart soars. You know you can never get your life back, but to escape from this cold and unforgiving hillside, from the site of what had been done to you, is the best thing you could hope for.

You don’t let these feelings show. If she thinks you want it too much she can change the terms, demand more from you.

“How?” you ask.

“It’s an issue with body magnetism and directional positioning. Well. Not body, I guess. Birds always know where to fly when the seasons change because they’ve got some magnetic sensor in their heads. It’s similar with ghosts. You’re always pulled in one direction. It’s not strictly magnets, but it works the same way. When you died and became a ghost, something changed in the place where you died and it’s charged and pulling you back to it. I need to remove the sense of you from the soil or rock or wherever you’re tied to, and then you can move wherever you want.”

“And I just have to help you?” You try to hide the scepticism in your voice, but you struggle to believe this is all she’s asking for. “How long will it take to deal with that problem of yours?”

She shrugs. “How long is a piece of string?”

“I’m not agreeing to that. Not when there’s no escape for me. I’ll help you for a year, and then if we haven’t sorted it, I’m free to go.”

“Works for me. If it takes that long we’re all fucked anyway. I’m not trying to keep you captive though, I’m not into that shit. This is an exchange of services, that’s all. Deal?”

“Deal.”

*

Aroha breaks the bonds that hold you; she sets you free.

The whole hillside lights up around you and her, lines glowing like trails of stars, like neon crossing the darkness. You follow the intangible wires with Aroha close behind you, and when you see where they are leading, you stop. Memories overwhelm you. You’re not sure if it’s crying, when there are no tears, and you’re not sure if it’s nausea when it’s impossible for you to vomit, but it’s definitely something, and you find it harder and harder to move.

“Almost there,” Aroha says, like the cause of your slowing is something simple like a twisted ankle or a sleepless night, and that makes you want to laugh, and that distracts you enough to keep going. All the lines lead to one point, a patch of soil that is shining brighter than any other. You swallow.

That soil must have been turned and turned again, trampled upon, grass mown and regrown. Underneath, your blood that once soaked it is now indistinguishable from the mud. No-one looking at it would notice anything different, no-one would know that the last of your life force seeped out there.

You know.

“What are you going to do?” you ask. “Burn it?”

Aroha laughs. “Ohhhh no. Not unless you want to be a fiery terror flying around the city at night. Been there, done that, got the second-degree burn scars on my arm that will be with me for life.”

Once you dreamed of being something like that, unholy and vengeful, screaming around the city striking fear, wreaking retribution on every man like George, every man who misled young women and, worse than merely striking them, made them believe it was their own fault when they were struck.

There’s still a glimmer of appeal in it. But all you say is: “Right. Bad idea then.”

“If we scatter it widely enough it loses its strength. Sometimes it happens naturally. There are ghosts in this world far from where they ever lived. Though mostly even when they’re free, they stay put. Habit, I guess. Or not knowing they can move.”

Aroha grabs a handful of the glowing soil and throws it towards the city. Another on the path below, and then she moves quickly, picking up handfuls and throwing them in all directions, spinning, nearly dancing, laughing as she goes.

The light shatters. The soil loses most of its glow as it hits the ground, dispersed amid the grass and on the paths below. You float upwards and you keep floating over the hill, down the pathways and through the streets that are not the same as you left them but not impossibly different either. The Kings is gone but the Paramount and the Embassy are still there; you find traces of the past, traces of the world you were snatched from. You keep going and you are free.

The world splinters into shards of new stories for you to find.

Read on by purchasing From a Shadow Grave in paperback from our website (New Zealand only) or in ebook or paperback from any of these stores!

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Excerpt: Octavia Cade, The Stone Wētā

Cover image of The Stone Wētā, by Octavia Cade

Octavia Cade’s climate-change thriller The Stone Wētā is a claustrophobic story about how the web of connections between working scientists can be used to preserve research that could save our planet – or to hunt down the scientists themselves.

In the excerpt below, climate operatives have begun to disappear and one woman – who uses the code name the Fish-scale Gecko – fears she might be next.


“There’s got to be a contingency,” said the Sand Cat, in the first days after the first woman disappeared. “If one of us is found out.”

“We can’t just wait to be picked off, one by one,” argued the Japanese Sea Star. “We need a way to hide women as well as information.”

A necessary conversation, but one which had made the Fish-scale Gecko shudder. She was a creature of heights and canopy. Most of the data she’d heard of, the rumours of other women and the hiding places they chose, was a lot closer to underneath, and she didn’t enjoy her claustrophobia.

“How can we even know,” she said. “We’re not spies, not really. None of us! It’s guesswork and instinct and we’re trying.” Doing well even, for women faced with work they weren’t trained for, gritting teeth and getting on. “And if someone panics and runs off before they should, if they think they’ve been recognised and haven’t, all they’re going to do is draw attention. It’s better to stay put,” she said. “Our advantage is that we know our own communities. We’ve all got neighbours, colleagues.” People who knew them, who would come to help if they heard screaming, who might recognise a wrongness.

That had been the Sand Cat’s recommendation right from the start. “I don’t need the reminder,” she said.

“I think you do,” said the Fish-scale Gecko. But she said it kindly, because that first disappearance meant they had blood on their hands, all of them. Every woman involved, who had chosen to be involved, who had come in believing that they knew the risks. “And I’m the one who’s asked them to do it,” said the Sand Cat. “Even when it’s not me personally, it’s someone who can be traced back to me.”

“I’m not doing this for you,” said the Fish-scale Gecko. “This isn’t a cult of personality. I got involved to protect the science. I’d like to think I’d be doing that whether I knew you or not.”

And that was the truth – but it was also true that it was easier to be brave as part of a group. And all of them, everywhere, were just a few small strands away from being cut off from that group, from a compromise that had to see data moved elsewhere. “It’s knowing whether or not you’ve been compromised that’s the problem,” she continued. “It’d be easy if we knew for sure. But if we don’t know… if we’re left alone, all of us, someone’s likely to panic.”

They’d do it with the best of intentions. Sacrifice themselves, even, to lead the threat away, but intent didn’t mitigate outcome and that sacrifice, made before time, could be a long and costly one.

“I will not tell women they have to stay and even die if they are afraid, or if they are found,” said the Sand Cat. “I will not do it.”

“I don’t think you understand,” said the Fish-scale Gecko. “No-one ever said that you had to ask. We knew what we were getting into, all of us.” It was presumption to speak for them all, she knew, but no-one could bury data – literally bury it – without thinking of the need, and of what the acknowledgement of that need implied. “You have tapped into a population that tends to understand equations,” she said. “One life against the climate?”

They all had homes. They all had places that they loved.

“It’s not your place to make that decision for us,” she said. She might have to run, one day. She might not. She might have to leave everything behind, shed her old life and start again in a harsher world, but advice or not, friendship or not – conspiracy or not – that decision was hers to make. 

#

Their physiological escape mechanisms mean that the fish-scale gecko is very difficult to catch. Even a loose grip causes it to shed its skin and run for cover, and captured specimens are often damaged in this way, making investigation of entirely intact geckos a rarity. Even capturing them with wads of cotton is insufficient to prevent damage.

#

Jealousy. Indecision. The awareness of threat, both to herself and to science. It was hard to do nothing, hard not to want to recreate the bonds she’d felt while working with others.

She worked in the park as well, of course. Eco-tourism, introducing people to trees and lemurs, the organisms of an island life; a slow move to economic and environmental stability. The Fish-scale Gecko had colleagues there, a community there, and she enjoyed working with them. What they were doing was valuable; it would provide long-term benefits. But it was all open, lacking entirely in secrecy, and that tore at her, left her shamed.

Do I feel this way because there’s more that I could be doing, or because I miss the excitement of it, the danger?

In the end her greatest difficulty was plausibility, because she could almost convince herself that a return to conspiracy had rational support. But that, she knew, was a reasoning supported by ignorance.

The Fish-scale Gecko didn’t know how many climate operatives were in Madagascar, if any. She might be the only one. Might be the only one left in the entire region, all of south-east Africa. The numbers changed depending on circumstance and risk, and she knew that the Sand Cat had to keep sourcing more and more people for her network as more of them were compromised.

I might not be able to be as active as I’d like, thought the Fish-scale Gecko, but maybe I might be able to find someone who can.

It was a risk. If she were being watched, on the chance she might lead them into caches then she’d be watched if she were meeting someone as well, and even if that meeting could be explained away for other reasons the suspicion would only be slightly ameliorated.

So. Communication she couldn’t do, perhaps – or not yet. Observation, though… a scientist was trained to observe, to record data and analyse. The Fish-scale Gecko knew that was something she excelled at. Not only did it allow her to navigate the forests – and worse, the karst – of the Park, to see the small plants and animals that had otherwise escaped the view of many, but it may have saved her when the realisation that she was being observed herself had dawned.

The suspicion that came upon her – always that feeling of watching, whether she was out introducing the tourists to forest, or introducing the villagers to tourists – had been too convincing to ignore, and she’d contacted the Stone Wētā, ostensibly for work purposes, and ended the relationship.

So began her silence.

She’d never be able to tell if she had been identified. She suspected not, because there’d been no follow-up, no strange questions or strange people arriving at stranger times, no actionable threat. The watching had been certain, she’d swear to that, and her escape from it a near and thin-worked thing. But it had given her a sense of watchfulness, of what it felt like to be watched. That was a sense she wanted to avoid evoking in others.

If she was going to assess the people she worked with, to discover which of them would be open to conspiracy and willing to sacrifice, she couldn’t let them know that she was doing it.

“Did you ever think this would turn out so well, when we started?” she said to one of her co-workers as they waved tourists away, chattering and happy as lemurs as they got onto their bus to be driven back to town. Said it again to the women in the villages, talking to them about their children and their futures – and again to the local officials who helped to smooth the way for new sites, new employment opportunities. “And what do you think we could do better?”

#

Because the fish-scale gecko is restricted to a small region in Madagascar, being primarily found in the limestone karst and nearby deciduous forest of the Ankarana National Park, it is particularly vulnerable to threats. Illegal deforestation, grazing, and mining all endanger its habitat.    

#

The Fish-scale Gecko had always been an outdoors person. She didn’t much enjoy cities, far preferred the jagged landscape of limestone, the long stretches of forest, to noise and bright lights and the mass press of people, but that preference didn’t stop her from visiting the capital on occasion – mostly because her family lived there.

Her young cousin, especially, was a favourite. He was a cheerful little kid, had a real sense of wonder that she enjoyed and wanted to encourage. The Fish-scale Gecko had been invited down for his tenth birthday party and was eager to go. She’d ordered a telescope for him – not expensive, but enough for him to point towards Mars and dream, because the colonisation had been a marvel for him. He followed it along as much as he could, drove his parents crazy with questions they couldn’t answer.

“I want to go there one day too,” he said, and the Fish-scale Gecko had warned him that he’d have to work hard but she believed he could do it. She didn’t speak to him of what he’d leave behind, parents and siblings and her. More important, the forests of his home, the surrounding ocean. She’d have felt as if something were amputated from her if she’d have to leave them, though it was more likely, she admitted to herself, that they’d be taken away. But this was a grief far ahead of him and she couldn’t bring herself to squash his enthusiasm. Instead, she’d driven down to Antananarivo, picked up his present, let him open it and dream and smile.

“Do you think I’ll be able to see the colony from here?” he said, pink-cheeked and dancing from foot to foot with excitement as they set it up outside.

“Sorry, but it’s not that good a telescope,” said the Fish-eating Spider. “You’ll be able to see the Martian ice caps though, according to this.” The instruction booklet was spread out in front of them, but the light was fading now and she didn’t want to use a torch and get their eyes unaccustomed to the dark.

“You can see the space station from here too, did you know?” said her cousin. “Only for a couple of minutes. It’ll be here soon, you don’t need a telescope to see it either. I can show you if you like.”

“I would, thank you,” said the Fish-scale Gecko, and let herself be positioned for best viewing.

“You can see it move,” said her cousin. “There, just there! Can you see it?”

“I can see it,” she said, squinting. She’d seen it before this, but didn’t say, not wanting to begrudge him the ability to share what he’d learned. The space station was brighter than most of the stars in the sky, the sun reflecting off it most visibly close to sunset – and then it shone brighter and brighter, a small starburst of light, and was gone.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know,” said the Fish-scale Gecko, squinting in the dark and with apprehension rising up, because she’d seen , seen the space station move out of range before and it had never ended like that, and the shock of it, the sudden looseness of her flesh, made her think that perhaps it was because this time, the ending was different.

Her little cousin had his eye pressed to the scope, was swinging it around in wide arcs trying to make himself see but the Fish-scale Gecko, pushed him gently aside, glanced once and then put the lens cap firmly on the telescope and pulled the boy inside to his parents.

“Don’t let him look through that thing again tonight,” she said.

If they turned on the news they’d soon see why. The Fish-scale Gecko didn’t need the confirmation. She didn’t need to ban the child from his toy either – the orbit would take care of the debris – but she needed a few moments alone, to look up and not away, to understand what had just been taken from her. Taken from them all.

The way station to Mars, the place she’d passed data on to, trusting it to the hands of a woman she’d never met, one who she only knew by the name of Lichen. An orbital promise of exploration, a place to look down from and see the blue planet surviving still for all they did to it.

Gone.


Cover image of The Stone Wētā, by Octavia Cade

The Stone Wētā is out now. New Zealand readers can buy the paperback from our webstore, and readers across the world can buy the ebook at Amazon, Kobo, Apple or Barnes & Noble.

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Excerpt: A.J. Fitzwater, No Man’s Land

Front cover of No Man's Land by A.J. Fitzwater

A.J. Fitzwater’s queer WWII shapeshifter novella is out now. Read an excerpt from the first chapter below…


A piece of night complete with tiny stars flashed amongst the sun-dappled trees. A dog, Tea decided. It must be a dog, that fast and low to the ground.

But this dog made a sound like it was chuckling and whistling at the same time.

The dog had been shadowing Tea for a good five minutes. She squinted into the roadside pines, ready to throw her heavy suitcase.

A wolfish yip. Tea froze.

No wolves in New Zealand, except the zoo, isn’t that right, Robbie? “Sure, no wolves, weird or otherwise, or bears or tigers out in the wop-wops.” He hadn’t sounded convincing as he’d kissed her on the cheek, boarding that train to catch the ship to sail to … where? Somewhere far north of the equator. Somewhere he would exchange shearing clippers for a gun.

This piece of furry night wasn’t a weird wolf, but the way the dog stalked her was not entirely canine. She knew this with the same certainty that used to rush through her blood in the moments before her twin brother came home from being in a fight, again, or in those quiet times when they sat on the shed roof throwing pebbles into the creek near their house on the hill in Dunedin.

Magic? Now that was silly. Besides, how could anyone believe magic existed with someone like Hitler in the world?

“You a good boy?” Tea called into the thick roadside greenery. Her voice squeaked. Annoyed, she wet her mouth. “Come on out, there’s a good boy.”
That’s what you say to farm dogs, right, Robbie?

Nothing. No panting. Not even that strange, jaunty whistle-huff.

The rushing pressure in her temples subsided and Tea sighed. Maybe she was too hot and tired. Her new floral dress pulled too tight under the arms. She dropped her suitcase. It was heavier than it had been that morning. Another sigh as she eased her left heel out of her new leather shoe which she’d had to stuff the toe of with newspaper. Blisters. Botheration. Well, at least they’d match the hardening calluses on her hands from the clippers Robbie had taught her to handle before he left.

Gritting her teeth, she put the shoes back on and resumed her trek down the gravel road. Not the Land Service uniform she was still waiting on, but still: new dress, new shoes. It had taken a lot of clothing rations, but Mum had insisted, as well as using some of what she’d put aside for Robbie’s wedding suit. To Tea, it was out of place. Even her twenty-first birthday dress had been a hand-me-down.

Her mother had insisted. “Who knows what handsome farmers you’ll meet! You’ll be home from that silly job and married in a jiffy!”

Robbie hadn’t called joining the Land Service silly. He’d been proud of his sister when she told him she had applied to be a land girl, alongside the other women’s war services.

“You’re doing your duty for King and country,” he’d said, supplying her with a hug that left her uncomfortable but comforted at the same time. Mum wasn’t big on hugs. “It’s tough work. Heavy work. But I know you can do it, what with all you did looking after Grandad. And I know he would have been proud too.”

She squeezed her eyes shut, and peach light softened her lids. Grandad. Taken by something wet and phlegmy, something that felt yellow. The Great War had eaten him from the inside out and she was worried that this war would eat Robbie, too, now she couldn’t take care of her ‘baby’ brother. At least when he had been out shearing, she knew he was only a day or two away. Now he was too far away for her to make a difference. He may as well have been on the moon.

She didn’t even have a photo of either of them, to remember. Mum didn’t like those ‘soul-stealing things’.

“Toughen up, girl.” Tea could hear her mother’s voice in her head.

Grandad hadn’t been tough in those last days. He’d lost the ability, or maybe the will, to talk, the only sound coming out of him that awful, rattling cough.
“I’ll punch Rommel for you,” was the last thing Robbie had said as he boarded the train, laughing at her downcast face. Mum had expressed her disapproval of punching and pouting; it was especially bad behaviour. Such an admonishment sounded ridiculous considering the arms Robbie would be taking up.

Stop. None of that. She wasn’t a child anymore. She had her war duty to do, like any good girl. All of her fantasies about the world holding a secret in store for her came from those silly books Grandad had shared with her. Elves, mermaids, dragons, monsters, fairies and queens. There were no such things. It was time to grow up. She had to know her place.
But with the men gone, the call for the women to do their part, her place had been turned topsy-turvey. Every step down this road was a step towards the unknown. Tea had a job to do, if she could only find the MacGregor property. And get away from the strange dog.

She blew her frizzed front curl out of her eyes. The latest fashion for painstakingly manicured rolls would never survive the North Otago heat. She giggled at the thought of Betty Grable wrangling sheep as she paused again and extricated from her purse the envelope embossed with the Women’s War Service Auxiliary seal.

The address in the letter gave her no clue as to how far she still had to go. If she weren’t careful, she might get completely lost, walk all the way up the Pigroot, and end up in the middle of Central Otago nowhere. The Palmerston concept of ‘road’ differed greatly from that of Dunedin. “Up thataway,” the station master had nodded when no-one had been at the train to meet her. “Five miles or so. Not far.”

Her blistered heels protested that ‘not far’. Now she wished she had stopped at the tea rooms for a cuppa.

She hadn’t seen any vehicles since she’d left the main road, the valley steadily growing narrower and steeper alongside the Shag River, but that wasn’t unusual considering petrol rationing had been in place for almost a year. Only sheep and cows stared or scattered at her approach.

Oh, and there was the shadow and chuckle of the dog again. The shadow wriggled as if a heat shimmer rose from the road, a shimmer echoed in the strange squiggle that settled in her belly.

“Bother and damnation,” she said.

Enjoying the sound of her blasphemy, she said it again, louder, though her heart sped. Would someone leap out of the trees and slap her for her impudence? Or would her canine shadow take it upon itself to bite her?
The whistle-huff again, like the dog was laughing directly at her thoughts. Tea stared into the trees, tried her own whistle – a terrible, slobbery thing – but the dog didn’t appear. With a sigh and a wiggle of her shoulders against the unladylike sweat dripping down her back, she read her letter once more in an attempt to soothe herself.

The seal should have been that of the Women’s Land Service, but the office said they were still in the process of changing to the official name. No matter how much she’d squeezed her eyes tight and wished, it didn’t turn into the seal of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps or Women’s Royal Navy Service.

She’d volunteered early for the Women’s War Service Auxiliary, hoping to be manpowered to somewhere fancy like Wigram or Ohakea. Even the WAAF station at Taieri would have been great, if a little close to home. But, tempted by a rousing speech from MP Mary Grigg to a little-attended afternoon tea at church, and Robbie’s love for the countryside, she had forwarded her name to the Land Service. How strange it had been when the recruiter focused on her posture, dress, and quality of her shoes! How on earth would any of those help on a farm? Surely her nimble
gardening fingers and heavy-lifting ability from nursing Grandad were more important.

She’d felt conspicuous on the train with her lack of uniform or even a badge – the Service alluded they would be forthcoming if  she survived one month on the job. All she had were ugly gumboots and overalls to denote her call to duty, and she didn’t want to show them off to the other girls in their trim blue uniforms and smart hats.

“Oi! Gittin beyind, ya filthy mongrel!”

Tea flinched, and her purse shut on her finger. She yelped. Who would use such filthy words as a greeting to a girl? “Hello?”

“Who’s that?” A figure pushed through the tall, fluffy toetoe, weapon propped casually on one shoulder, prancing dogs at his heels.

Tea gulped down the taste of her heart. It wasn’t a weapon, just a spade.

“My name is Dorothy Gray. I’m looking for the MacGregor farm. Can you help me please?”

The heavy rhythmic thunk of hooves. A horse too big for the pallid boy atop pushed through the tussock and picked its way onto the gravel road. She bit her lip, annoyed at her surprise. This isn’t Dunedin anymore, Tea. You must pay attention to the smells, like Robbie taught you.

Dogs rushed her legs, but they danced rather than nipped. They were good dogs. And they were dogs, she was sure of that smell. The other dog, the strange one in the bushes, had smelled like … starlight.

How silly, she admonished herself.

The older man, dressed in sagging dusty pants and a red bush shirt, stepped to the fence line. His spade clanged against the wire; ‘number 8’, Robbie had called the ubiquitous fencing material.

“I’m MacGregor.” He sized her up too slowly for her liking. “Gray, huh? I know a shearer named Robbie Gray. You his thing?”

Tea set her shoulders like Robbie had taught her too. “I’m his sister. I’ve been sent here from the Land Service.”

“Huh. That’s right. Was expecting you on the evening train. Hmm. Robbie said something about a sister once. Didn’t expect a girl to follow in his footsteps.” MacGregor eyeballed Tea in a way that made her scalp prickle despite the warm spring afternoon. “You’re awfully dark for Robbie’s kin. You not one of them lazy mowrees, are ya?”

Tea didn’t hesitate; Mum hated such inferences, too. “No, sir. I simply take the sun easier than he does. We’re twins.”

“Huh.” MacGregor looked unconvinced. “Gonna have to put that hair of yours up. None of those pins and rollers round this place.”

“I understand, sir.”

“You better have your gear, girl.” MacGregor lifted his chin at her attire. “Them gloves are useless out here and Mrs MacGregor don’t have time to be wasting on mending and frilly sewing.”

“Yes, sir. These are my Sunday clothes, sir.” She hefted her suitcase. “I have overalls and such, from the Land Service.”

“Fine, fine.” MacGregor waved her words away like a fly. “A boy and girl twin, you say? You don’t got Robbie’s hair or much of his face.”

“Fraternal twins, sir,” chipped in the skinny boy on the horse. He too had been watching Tea too close for her liking. The shivery rush of blood made her vision tunnel and she had to take a deep breath. “Means they don’t always look the same. Like Robbie can have brown hair and Miss Gray can have black.”

MacGregor grunted and kicked at one of the dogs snuffling near his shoes. It yipped and slunk away with a baleful backward glance. Shame pinched at Tea’s throat.

The boy bent forward a little and tipped his floppy brim hat, showing off big ears and a peeling, beaky nose. She was glad he couldn’t offer a hand from that height; he might crumble at a stiff shake. Or a breeze. “Nice to meet you, ma’am. Robbie told me a lot about you. I’m Grant Stevenson.”

The prickle went through her scalp again. And Robbie didn’t tell me anything about you at all, Tea thought.


Front cover of No Man's Land by A.J. Fitzwater

No Man’s Land is out now. New Zealand readers can purchase a paperback here on our website, and the ebook is available at Amazon, Kobo and Apple Books!

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Free excerpt: Pisces of Fate

Pirates! Adventure! Marine Science!

Pisces of Fate is the sequel to Paul Mannering’s award-winning Engines of Empathy. Join would-be oceanologist Ascott Pudding as his attempts to catalogue the flora and fauna of the Aardvark Archipelago are interrupted by a retired god, several varieties of pirate and a hunt for the oldest treasure of all … the Pisces of Fate.

In the warm tropical waters of the Aardvark Archipelago swims a fish that no one likes. The consensus is that the species, Deiectio Piscis, colloquially known as the ‘Poo Fish’, is a bit of a jerk. Inedible to humans and other predators, the Diarrhoea Fish has evolved explosive bowel evacuations as a defensive mechanism when threatened.

Ascott Pudding stopped typing and looked up, staring out from under the palm-leaf roof of his beach hut veranda. He gazed over the sunlit crystal waters of the lagoon, past the jagged fangs of the coral reef where the waves burst into foam, all the way to the horizon, where he saw the pale smudge of a man striding across the low waves.

‘This,’ he announced to the parrot that was drawing with crayons and paper on the table, ‘may require pants.’

‘Bithcuith,’ the parrot replied around the stub of Hibiscus Yellow clamped in its beak.

By the time Ascott had dressed in shorts and a loose shirt, and walked to the end of the small island’s narrow dock, the man was crossing the lagoon. Even at low tide, the water was two metres deep. As far as Ascott could tell, the man wasn’t walking on stilts, or wearing some kind of boat shoes. He was barefoot and walking across the pristine surface of the sea with the same casual stride of someone crossing a well-tended lawn.

‘Morning!’ Ascott called. The man raised a hand and shaded his eyes. From the dock, Ascott could see the walker was wearing the first pair of trousers he had seen in nearly two years. The man also wore a loose white shirt, a white hat and dark sunglasses. A pair of white sneakers hung around his neck by their laces and he clutched the handle of a small suitcase in his hand.

‘Ascott Pudding?’ the man said, looking up as he reached the water below the dock.

‘Yes?’

‘Son of Daedius and Krismiss, also known as Dorothy, Pudding?’

‘The very same.’ Ascott stepped back as the man climbed on to the dock and set his suitcase down.

‘And you are?’ Ascott said as the slender man removed his sunglasses.

‘You have a sister named Charlotte?’ the man asked, ignoring the earlier question.

‘I have a sister named Charlotte, yes. Look, what is this all—? AARRGH!’ Ascott fell back on the dock, blood streaming from his nose.

The man put his sunglasses back on and said, ‘I’ve travelled a long way to punch a member of the Pudding family in the face. Now that chore is over, how about a cup of tea, hmm?’ He picked up his suitcase and walked away towards the small house above the beach.

*

The tea tasted of blood, which Ascott assumed was because he couldn’t smell anything through his bruised nose. He pressed a damp cloth against his face and regarded the man sitting across from him. The stranger had introduced himself as Vole Drakeforth and, when he wasn’t punching strangers in the face, he looked almost civilised, like a crocodile in a business suit. Inside the clothes he seemed tall and thin, with dark hair and skin that looked as manicured as his nails. His eyes were a piercing blue and he wore an expression of mild contempt that seemed habitual.

‘So … you’re a god?’ Ascott said eventually.

‘I’m a retired god. I’m Arthur, the founder of Arthurianism.’

‘I thought you said your name was Vole Drakeforth?’

‘It is Vole Drakeforth. I also happen to be Arthur.’

‘Aren’t you supposed to have a beard or something?’

‘The problem with religion,’ Drakeforth said, ‘is that everything becomes codified.’

‘Which is why you don’t have a beard?’

‘Which is why I’m retired.’

‘You’ve retired to a small island in the Aardvark Archipelago?’ Ascott blinked. The island was small enough without sharing it with anyone else.

‘No, this is just a place I wanted to visit, specifically to punch you in the face.’

‘Oh, right.’ Ascott dabbed his tender nose. ‘It hardly seems fair to punch me in the nose because you’re angry with an ancestor of mine.’

‘Well, I am having an entirely different encounter with your sister,’ Drakeforth explained.

‘Please, don’t try to explain the quantum nature of perception to me again. It makes my head ache worse than my nose.’

Drakeforth ignored the request. ‘Simply put, at a quantum level, everything is taking place at the same time. While I am here, drinking tea with you, I am also drinking tea with your sister, Charlotte.’

Ascott groaned and sipped the blood-flavoured tea.

Drakeforth watched Charlotte’s younger brother wince. There was a definite family resemblance. They both had hair that black-brown shade of the possibly still edible bits of burnt toast. He decided to delay the bad news for a moment longer.

‘What do you actually do here?’ Drakeforth said, looking around at the bamboo-walled hut.

‘I sleep with fish,’ Ascott said.

‘Why?’

‘Pardon?’

Drakeforth spoke with exaggerated slowness. ‘Why do you sleep with fish?’

‘Because to truly know a fish, you have to interact with them completely. Swim where they swim, eat what they eat, sleep when they sleep. The more we know about the natural world around us, the more we can know about ourselves and our place in the Universe.’

‘What if I told you that fish exist only to make more fish. The only reason they are so dedicated to making more fish is that bigger fish eat them all the time. There’s your parallel to humanity’s place in the natural order of things right there,’ Drakeforth said.

‘I’ve seen species do things that no one has ever observed before. I’ve learned about their mating habits, their life cycles, the way they protect themselves from predators. I’m sure that they know more than they’re letting on.’

Drakeforth stared at the thin, slightly unkempt young man who had Charlotte Pudding’s eyes and a swollen nose. ‘Have you told anyone else about these ideas of yours?’

‘Not yet. I’m writing a book on it. A study of the fish species of the Aardvark Archipelago.’

‘Good for you. I suppose you survive on a diet of fresh fish and milknuts?’

Ascott blushed slightly. ‘I don’t eat that much fish. There’s a girl, Shoal, who comes from Montaban every couple of weeks with frozen pizzas.’

The parrot flew up and landed on the table, where it tested the strength of one of the tea mugs by biting it.

‘Get off the table, Tacus.’ Ascott waved his hand ineffectually at the bird.

‘Bithcuith,’ the parrot said.

‘Your bird appears to have a speech impediment,’ Drakeforth observed.

‘Nobody’th perfect!’

‘Tacus, this is Vole Drakeforth. Say hello to the nice man.’

Tacus hopped from foot to foot and kept his beak shut.

‘He is an excellent judge of character,’ Drakeforth said.

‘Are you hungry? I can heat up a pizza?’

‘Bithcuith!’ Tacus squawked.

‘Not necessary; the tea is quite sufficient,’ Drakeforth said.

‘I really did see you walking across the ocean?’

‘Hardly,’ Drakeforth said with a snort. ‘I flew into Montaban, then I got directions from some fishermen, then I hired a small boat, which—’

‘I’m sure I saw you walking on water,’ Ascott said.

‘—Which sank. From there I walked.’

‘From Montaban? That’s twenty miles.’

‘From some point between here and Montaban, it was far less than twenty miles.’

‘That’s still quite an achievement,’ Ascott said.

‘It is possible that instead of walking I could have simply materialised on your doorstep and punched you in the face. However, doing that would have been far too easy and it’s nice to appreciate something that you have actually worked for. Besides, it was a nice day for a stroll.’

‘Now that you bring it up,’ Ascott said thickly. ‘This may be a silly question, with an obvious answer, but why in the Hibiscus did you come all this way to punch me in the face?’

‘You’ve been here since your parents died?’ Drakeforth asked.

‘Pretty much. I ran away after their funeral.’

‘Leaving Charlotte to take care of things?’ Drakeforth made the accusation sound like a throwaway remark.

‘She is good at taking care of things.’

‘Yes – if the manuscript she hasn’t written yet is to be believed, she will soon be taking care of your great-grandfather.’

‘What?’

‘You haven’t been paying attention.’ Drakeforth nodded.

‘I have, but mostly to the fish,’ Ascott said.

‘Your sister, Charlotte, is dying. She is also presently uncovering a grave conspiracy to enslave the world and discovering the truth about many things, including the true source of empathic energy.’

Ascott’s mind reeled with cold shock. ‘Charlotte always has been good at multi-tasking,’ he managed.

‘So I am seeing,’ Drakeforth agreed.

‘Charlotte … is dying? I need to go home.’ Ascott stood up and turned in a complete circle while trying to decide what to do next. He didn’t have anything to pack other than the elderly typewriter and hundreds of pages of notes, drawings and manuscript.

When he turned back around, Drakeforth was gone.

‘Bithcuith!’ Tacus squawked.

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Free excerpt: The Ghost of Matter, Octavia Cade

We hope you enjoy this short excerpt from The Ghost of Matter by Octavia Cade, the last in our inaugural SHORTCUTS series of short science fiction and fantasy novellas from Aotearoa New Zealand.

1886. Two young boys disappear in the Sounds. Their mother grieves, all the music cut out of her heart; their father wanders the coast for a year, wanting and not wanting to find any part of them left behind. And their brother Ern, faced with a problem to which no solution can be found, returns to his laboratory – and to the smell of salt, soft voices in his ear, wet footprints welling seawater in the darkness.

MANCHESTER, 1909

The gold was beaten very thin, into leaf. It shimmered even as the room went dark around it, shimmered like the sea surface under sunset and Ernest held his breath, hoped for the absence of salt.

It was dark in the laboratory cellar, with pipes above and below. Whenever he heard voices on the stair, at the door, he’d have to warn them to duck their heads for the hot-water pipe, to take care when stepping over the other two water pipes just beyond. If they slipped in puddles and injured themselves, the experiment would have to be put off while they patched themselves up. Then the readjustment would have to start all over again, for it took half an hour in the dark to be able to see the scintillations, to not miss their presence with eyes too used to light. The worst of it was if they slipped, Ernest couldn’t even be certain what it was they’d slipped in. The puddles might have come from leaky pipes, but he’d gone over them all himself and never found a single leak. Those puddles that appeared in the dark, smelling of salt, would magically vanish when the lights turned on. It made the cellar floor untrustworthy.

Ernest was so careful, stepping down there himself. His knee had never been the same since those first days in London, when he’d fallen and damaged it. On a banana skin, too, and that made it worse. Such a ridiculous accident. He didn’t quite trust it to hold him if he skidded in water, if one leg shot out from under him and bent awkwardly. He always watched out for water, and the presence of gold always reminded him.

‘Half an hour, lads,’ he said. Adjusting to the darkness enough to see the scintillations, the scattered particles, could be tedious, a forced delay but a necessary one in a method that strained sight and patience both. They worked in relays, searching by turns and in single minutes for particles that wandered off-track, that rebounded in directions they were not supposed to go.

Ernest hunched over the microscope, blind and squeezed into position. He had to move slowly – they all did – to avoid stumbling, to keep the experiment from knocking over. He was looking for the little flashes that indicated radioactive particles shot through the leaf had hit the target: a phosphorescent plate, painted with zinc sulphide. Radon particles that by all rights should have hit dead on, like a boat headed straight for home.

The line wasn’t straight. Instead, a fuzziness, as if the particles had lost their way, and Ernest ordered the experiment reconfigured to search further, to see if the scattering was wider than they thought.

‘Do you see that?’ said Geiger, said Marsden, pressed up against him like brothers and the three of them crammed together in a little space and wondering. ‘I think some of them are coming back.’

One in eight thousand, they were: the little particles that hit the gold foil and rebounded back to where they came, as if returning to the source. Some scattered off to the sides, as much as ninety degrees off, but for Ernest it was the rebounders that caught him about the throat, that made his eyes squint and smart in the dark.

(Sitting in the church with Martha, with his father and his brothers and sisters, those that remained, sitting in front of an empty space where the coffins would be if they’d ever found bodies to put in them, listening to the priest talk as gently as he could of souls returned to God, and watching his mother twist a loose ring on fingers grown thin from grief.)

‘Professor!’ said Geiger (said Marsden and Charlie and Herbert). ‘Do you see that?’

‘I see it,’ said Ernest, of the strange, hard scatter that could only come if the foil was solid somehow and at the same time not, as if the gold united and fragmented at once. ‘I see it!’ he said again, and the thrill in his voice was from more than science, more than scatter – for while there had been no puddles on the floor, no salt water and no scent, the sight of scattering had come with a cold small hand, brief and damp on the back of his neck.

‘Don’t jump,’ said Geiger, laughing. ‘You don’t want to tip it all over.’

‘I’ll jump if I want to,’ said Ernest, quick and gruff and absolutely prepared to have his chilly, goose-bump flesh excused by a more tangible mystery, by results and equipment he could reach out and touch.

‘They’re punching through,’ said Marsden, and his breath in the dark was excited, as if he had run a race and come home first. ‘Most of them, anyway.’

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Free Excerpt: Landfall, Tim Jones

The penultimate novella in our SHORTCUTS series is Landfall, by Tim Jones.

Tim is a Wellington-based poet, author, editor and anthologist. His latest book is The Stars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry (IP, 2014), co-edited with PS Cottier. You can find him online at http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.com.

Desperation and betrayal on the border of a new life.

When the New Zealand Navy torpedoes a Bangladeshi river ferry full of refugees fleeing their drowning country, Nasimul Rahman is one of the few survivors. But even if he can reach the shore alive, he has to make it past the trigger-happy Shore Patrol, set up to keep the world’s poor and desperate at bay.

Donna is a new recruit to the Shore Patrol. She’s signed on mainly because of her friend Mere, but also because it’s good to feel she’s doing something for her country. When word comes through that the Navy has sunk a ship full of infiltrators, and survivors may be trying to make their way ashore, it sounds like she might finally see some action.

The twin torpedoes that ended the long journey of the Jamalpur-2 from Bangladesh to the Tasman Sea were scarcely necessary. The old river ferry had been held together by little more than wire and faith ever since they were chased out of Australian territorial waters. Strong winds and heavy waves had put paid to their backup plan of landing the vessel in some isolated cove in southern New Zealand; looking at those forbidding mountains half-choked by clouds, Nasimul Rahman had been relieved.

So they had run north, north before the wind, the ship juddering and groaning with every new onslaught from the sea. Each day there were a few more deaths – not many, for those most vulnerable had died long before. Fewer than half of those who had been aboard the vessel when it made the imperceptible transition from the Mouths of the Ganges into the Bay of Bengal were alive to greet the Fiordland coast, but that had still left over 150 souls aboard.

Nasimul’s wife Hasina was no longer among them. She had lasted through the tropics, kept alive by her hope that she would see land again, even if it was the unmitigated harshness of the Australian continent, where it was said whole groups of people could disappear into the interior without ever being noticed or pursued, if only they could find a way ashore through the frigates and the proximity mines and the thickets of razor wire. When Nasimul had slipped into desperation within a fortnight of the journey beginning, it had been Hasina’s belief that kept him going. But, already weakened by dysentery, the plunge into colder climates had been too much for her. She had died somewhere in the long, hopeless reaches of the southern Indian Ocean.

Wife gone, son lost to cholera back in the camps before he had lived out his first year, Nasimul shivered and heaved up his food and crawled into a nest of damp clothing night after night, and somehow survived. The ship drove forward. The temperature warmed fractionally. The sky flamed red at dawn and dusk: ash and smoke from Australia, someone said. Perhaps the whole continent was burning.

And then, on another night of storm and cloud, the New Zealand Navy came, destroyers surging over the eastern horizon. There was no point in running, and nowhere to run. The Jamalpur-2 wallowed in the waves and waited for the end, while the people aboard made for the last slender hope, the lifeboats.

No self-respecting Bangladeshi river ferry sailed without at least twice the number of passengers it was rated for. But death, nipping at their heels the whole way, had achieved what no government functionary had ever been able to and reduced the number of passengers on the ferry to almost exactly the number it was allowed to carry. So there were almost enough lifeboat places for them all: if they had been fit, if they had been healthy, if the ferry had run into trouble on the flat reaches of the Lakhya or the Meghna or the Ganges. Now, it was the sick carrying the sicker, the injured carrying the half-dead, and the grey wolves of the sea bearing down on their prey.

The davits won’t work, thought Nasimul, eyeing up the rusted metal winches and the rusted chains that held the lifeboats high above the water. Yet all but one worked, each casting its freight of lives upon the waters. It was Nasimul’s good fortune that he was in the lifeboat that failed to deploy. He was working to free it, precariously perched on the lifeboat davit itself, when he glanced downwards and saw the straight track through the curving waters. Before he could nerve himself to jump, the Jamalpur-2 took matters out of his hands, throwing him into the water as it shuddered and began to break up from the force of the first and then the second explosion as the New Zealand Navy’s torpedoes did their deadly work.

Nasimul was a strong swimmer. He was born over water in his family’s tiny hut, perched on stilts above the banks of the mighty Lakhya, and he had been around and in water all his life. But this was like nothing he had ever experienced, and the first shock of cold and salt as he went under was almost too much for him. He struggled his way back to the surface and found himself clutching at something: a body. It was missing a leg. Floating beside the body was a curving length of wood from a lifeboat – perhaps the lifeboat he had been trying to launch. It was about two metres long and a little less than half as wide.

Nasimul managed to turn it over so that the concave side was upwards. It floated like the world’s smallest and least safe canoe. He clambered aboard his impromptu vessel and, despite how cold and damp he was, despite his left hand and right leg trailing in the water, despite the cries that drifted across the water from the boats and the machine-gun fire that silenced them, boat after boat after boat, he fell asleep. The cries grew fewer and the bursts of machine-gun fire less frequent, until both stopped altogether. The Navy returned to base. Night fell. Wind and tide and current took Nasimul Rahman and swept him towards shore.

Subscribe to SHORTCUTS for NZ $3.33/month to receive Landfall at the special subscriber’s price, along with the final SHORTCUTS novella in September | Purchase at Amazon | Purchase at Kobo 

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Free excerpt: POCKET WIFE, IK Paterson-Harkness

The fourth novella in our SHORTCUTS series is Pocket Wife, by IK Paterson-Harkness.

IK Paterson-Harkness is a currently Auckland-based, previously Dunedin-resident writer of prose and poetry who can be found online at http://ikpatersonharkness.com/ and @IKPatersonHark.

Carl’s work requires him to travel extensively, but he and his wife Jenny stay connected through their Tinys – four-inch-tall replicas of themselves which, when turned on, transmit whatever sensory information they are receiving directly into their living counterparts’ minds. Through his Tiny, which Jenny keeps close beside her in Auckland, Carl can see his wife, speak to her, even feel her touch. But when Jenny’s Tiny malfunctions and she can’t turn herself off, Carl has a major problem. He’s having an affair, and he’d rather his wife wasn’t around.

I felt behind my ear, found the little switch and turned it on. Jenny hadn’t activated my Tiny yet, but I figured I’d lie back and wait. It pays to sit still until it happens. I leaned back against the V-shaped pillow and stared at the light shade. I couldn’t help toying with the switch, and poking at the outline of the plastic disc, which lay flat beneath my skin. I’d been worried they’d have to drill through bone but when I’d expressed my concern to the technician he’d laughed. ‘The sensors are highly tuned,’ he’d said. ‘They pick it all up from outside the skull.’

The light shade was white, round, and smooth as a pickled onion. Seems everything’s getting smoother and rounder. Gone are the good old days when you could retire to your hotel after a long day at work and sink into a decent, squishy sofa. These days you sit down and slide right off. I glanced at the fridge – thought about the Indian Pale I had in there, the condensation misting the cold glass, the sound of released pressure as I popped open the top.

I felt the usual added strain on my mind as Jenny switched on my Tiny, and immediately closed my eyes and tried to focus on whatever it was I was supposed to be looking at. The little bugger’s eyes aren’t the best; the cameras don’t swivel properly. Ah, there we go. Jenny was holding my Tiny up in front of Nico.

‘Say hello to Grandpa,’ she said. The image rotated back and forth vigorously.

Nico gurgled something; it was hard to tell over the sound of whooshing air.

‘It’s your Grandpa!’ Jenny squealed. ‘Your Grandpa!’

‘Stop waggling me around!’ I called. I could hear my own voice coming from my Tiny’s speakers – the same, but not quite.

‘Sorry,’ she said, and the room suddenly stabilised. A monstrous baby’s hand reached towards my face and I braced against the hotel pillows.

‘That’s right,’ Jenny cooed. ‘He’s far, far away.’

Nico slapped the highchair tray with his palms, and Jenny pushed me right up into his snotty face.

‘Christ, that’s enough,’ I said, opening my eyes. The onion-shaped light shade was clearly visible through the now semi-opaque image of Nico. It looked like he had a third eye, right in the middle of his forehead. I stood up and inched towards the fridge, trying to concentrate on the hard lines of the hotel room. By the time I got back to the bed my head ached. I used a pillow to stifle the sound of the beer being opened, then lay back, closed my eyes again, and took a sip.

Jenny had propped my Tiny up on top of the kitchen bench back home, facing the sink, a chopping board, and a knife the length of a cricket pitch. Outside the window the sky was a deep blue. Sparrows and wax-eyes of pterodactyl proportions flew in and out of my vision. Jenny had bought the bird feeder a few years previously, had insisted I nail it to the fence. They made a hell of a mess, those birds, but Jenny loved to watch them. I could just make out the sound of cicadas. But I was cold. Damned cold, actually, like I was lying on snow.

‘Jenny, where on earth did you put my Tiny?’ I called.

She came back into view, carrying a bag of potatoes.

‘I’ve switched myself on,’ she said.

‘You’ve got to be joking.’

‘I told Rach I’d prepare some meals for Nico, which she can take home.’

‘Don’t be stupid. You’ll chop off one of your fingers. We don’t need to both be on. And why am I freezing here?’

I had a brief glimpse of the ceiling before she repositioned my Tiny.

‘Sorry. Frozen peas,’ she said. I presumed she’d pressed her hand against my Tiny’s back, since the cold became less.

‘Turn me on, Carl. You know I like to see where you are. I feel disconnected…’

I grumbled as I leaned over to the bedside drawer and pulled out her Tiny. About four inches tall, the thing had been made in her exact likeness. The brown eyes stared blankly. I carefully gripped the tiny left ankle between thumb and forefinger, starting to make the twist, then remembered the beer and quickly placed it on the floor where it couldn’t be spotted. I twisted the ankle and her Tiny’s eyes swivelled to look at my face.

‘You haven’t shaved today,’ Jenny said. Twice. The voice in my mind – heard by my Tiny on the other side of the world – and the voice coming from the speaker inside her Tiny’s chest. Sometimes the voices were in sync.

Her Tiny began to feel warm, and I placed it on the pillow, facing me.

‘I’ll shave tomorrow.’

‘You know it makes a difference.’

I had the usual dilemma. Did I close my eyes and watch what Jenny was doing back home, or did I keep them open and look at her Tiny? If I closed them, I’d have the relief of only one image to focus on, but her Tiny would be staring at my closed eyes, and Jenny didn’t like that. Really the whole system was flawed.

‘Rach is at a job interview.’

Her Tiny was looking at me so intently. The lips didn’t move, but the voice came out all the same.

‘What job?’

‘At the high school down the road from where she lives. They want someone to look after the plants. It’s a gardening job, really. It might involve a bit of heavy lifting, which I’m worried about, but it’s only fifteen hours. She wants to start Nico at day care a couple of days per week. She says she needs to get out of the house. I told her I’d look after him, but she’s dead set on day care.’

I became aware of a knocking noise and closed my eyes. Jenny was chopping the potatoes with her own eyes closed.

‘She’s not built for heavy lifting,’ she continued. Her grey-auburn hair was tied in a loose plait, her cuffs rolled up. ‘I told her she should do a course. She was so good at science when she was at school. She could do pharmacology, or study to be a radiologist.’

‘A radiologist?’

‘Sue’s niece did some courses at university, and she’s a radiologist now. Rach could do so much better than gardening.’

‘Let her work it out for herself.’

I opened my eyes and the thing was still looking at me. It didn’t smile. Didn’t move at all – no muscles, I suppose. I never properly learned the science of it. All I knew was that there were sensors on my Tiny’s body, and cameras in the eyes and what-have-you, and that somehow, through satellites I suppose, the information was sent to my brain. When Jenny touched my Tiny it was like being poked through a thick blanket. The newer models can smell, and have a better sense of physical touch – or so the pop-ups claim. It’s probably only a matter of time before they’re walking around, creating havoc of their own.

The Tinys arrived from the manufacturers in their boxes, naked. We hadn’t expected that. There’s nothing more sobering that seeing your silver pubic hairs copied in minute detail. Jenny immediately took to dressing them like little dolls. You can buy accessories from the company page. Last November she dressed my Tiny in a Halloween costume and surprised me by holding it up in front of the mirror. There I was, dressed like an English schoolboy, and there was nothing much I could do about it.

‘Jenny love,’ I cut in. She was still complaining about Rachel. ‘I’m meeting Michel soon – the Chief Financial Officer. He wants me to go over some figures with him.’

‘So late?’

‘He’s a very busy man. I should shower.’

‘Okay…’ She sighed, the noise at my end coming out like static. ‘Make sure you shave. And dress warmly, dear. You don’t want to catch another cold.’

‘I will. See you the same time tomorrow.’ I switched off the switch behind my ear and reached for her Tiny. I rubbed its back with my finger. I knew Jenny would still be in there, would be switched on right to the last second, but I couldn’t speak to the thing. As soon as I’d twisted its ankle I chucked it back in the drawer, and slammed the drawer shut.

Subscribe to SHORTCUTS for NZ $3.33/month to receive Pocket Wife at the special subscriber’s price, along with the final two SHORTCUTS novellas for 2015 | Purchase at Amazon | Purchase at Kobo 

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Free excerpt: BREE’S DINOSAUR, AC Buchanan

The third novella in our SHORTCUTS series is Bree’s Dinosaur, by A.C. Buchanan.

A.C. Buchanan is a writer of mostly speculative fiction who lives near Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Their most recent release, Liquid City, is a science fiction novella about survival and belonging featuring a grumpy cephalopod. Other fiction has been published in a variety of venues, including anthologies from Crossed Genres Publications and The Future Fire. They have also written an MA thesis on disability in science fiction and co-edited three anthologies of speculative fiction, two of which won Sir Julius Vogel awards for Best Collected Work, and are the co-chair of LexiCon – The 38th New Zealand National Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. Their website is at http://acbuchanan.org.

Cam’s ambitions are straightforward: study Business English in Wellington for six months, then return to Vietnam to build a promising career. She doesn’t need any complications, least of all those created by Bree, her host-family’s secretive, troubled, teenage daughter. But when a dinosaur is being (very noisily) built in the bedroom next to yours, and a meteor-strike is threatening, it’s not always possible to avoid being sucked in – especially when there’s an extinct animal in your own history. And one winter night in Karori, Bree’s past resurfaces as well.

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There’s a phrase in English: the elephant in the room. As far as I can tell, the only reason for it being an elephant is that it’s big enough that no one can avoid seeing it. Perhaps what’s happening here is something even bigger than an elephant. A dinosaur in the room.

I broach the dinosaur in the room to Sue and Martin. Why is Bree building a dinosaur? Is it for school?

They look at each other, Martin in the armchair and Sue on the couch, a cup of tea in his hand and a phone in hers, conversation flickering between their eyes. Simultaneously, they return their gaze to me.

“It’s just something she enjoys doing, that’s all,” says Sue. “A hobby.”

“So it’s art?” I run through my mental dictionary for the correct word. “Sculpture?”

“Have you seen the dinosaur?” Martin asks me.  He’s wearing a polo shirt with the logo of his sailing club on the pocket, and it’s quite apparent where he’d rather be.

I shake my head. “She doesn’t let me in her room.”

More eye conversation. “We were hoping …” Sue says. “Bree’s always been a very shy girl. She doesn’t have any friends, really. We were hoping that having you in the house would encourage her to talk to people a bit more.”

Bree does have friends, though. I’ve seen her with them from the bus with their tartan skirts hitched up, passing headphones between each other, laughing, taking up the whole width of the footpath, drinking Coke. I saw her in McDonald’s once, with a group of boys and one other girl, flicking fries at each other’s faces. She’s not shy, but a veil descends around her in this house. She is not, to use another phrase, at home when she’s at home.

“I’ll try and talk with her,” I say, smiling, but there’s a hint of anger creeping up inside me. I want to help, but I pay them two hundred and forty dollars a week, and I’m here to study to further my career and I have my own family who need me. Bree – Bree cannot be my responsibility. I swallow the anger. Sue and Martin have not picked up on it, and I think that is for the best. It is important to me that I’m a good guest in their home.

“What’s a good recipe?” I ask Sue, moving on. “I’d like to bake something new.”

“Edmonds,” replies Sue, pulling a spiral-bound book from the shelves and handing it to me. “Real Kiwi icon.”

I’ve noticed how people emphasise things as cultural pointers but don’t explain them, only serving to mystify them further. Still, I’m sure it’s meant to be helpful; I take the book and thank her and she smiles in return and says it’s no problem at all, that she’s pleased I’m interested. Martin turns on the news and I stretch back on the sofa to flick through the recipes.

I make chocolate-coconut brownies. The recipe is easy, almost soothing – one saucepan and then into a tray, the oven. I take some time to myself while it’s cooking; headphones in, idle internet browsing.

On my way back, alerted by the oven timer, I almost trip over something large and white, about the size of a soccer ball, sitting halfway down the stairs. Bree runs out, grabs it and cradles it to her chest, mouths an apology and runs back to her bedroom. I only catch a glimpse of it, so I tell myself it was most probably a rugby ball. Except one end was considerably thinner than the other. Like a giant egg.

A few minutes later she follows me down. When I cut the brownies she takes one from the rack before it’s cooled, bites a chunk out of it hungrily. I think I see the hint of a smile on her face. I ask what’s your dinosaur, Bree? and panic clutches at my chest. I want to hear her say a sculpture, and at the same time, I’m not sure I do.

To my surprise, her face breaks into a clear smile. She perches on a stool, talks semi-incoherently as she forces the rest of the brownie into her mouth.

“It’s a Titanosaur,” she says, “A sauropod, like the Diplodocus or Brachiosaurus, only they came a bit later.”

I struggle to process the words, cycling between the known and unknown, a repeating translation running through my head as I scrub the saucepan and wipe the silicon baking pan.

“Long neck.” It’s the over-enunciation people tend to do when they underestimate my English, but it don’t sound like she’s being unkind – more that she’s lost in her own world with the dinosaur and is unsure how to communicate with people from outside it. “Eats plants.”

She grabs an envelope from the table behind her and starts to draw on the back of it. The outline of a dinosaur quickly emerges, a blue, long-necked creature. She finishes by drawing grass around its feet and labelling it in large, rounded capitals: TITANOSAUR.

*

Subscribe to SHORTCUTS for NZ $3.33/month to receive an early copy of Bree’s Dinosaur, direct to your inbox this Friday | Purchase at Amazon | Purchase at Kobo (Available June 2015)

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