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Free excerpt: THE LAST | Grant Stone

Grant Stone’s The Last is the second in our SHORTCUTS series of science fiction and fantasy novellas from Aotearoa New Zealand. Grant’s stories have appeared in Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Semaphore and have twice won the Sir Julius Vogel Award. He’s also one-third of the Cerberus Writing Band, along with Dan Rabarts and Matthew Sanborn Smith.

Forty years ago, Katherine St. John disappeared – briefly. Thirty years ago, she enacted a disappearance of another sort, stepping not just away from her music career but across the ocean to the other side of the world.

Yesterday, Rachel Mackenzie’s flight touched down in Auckland. She’s travelled to New Zealand to interview the reclusive musician Katherine St. John about her first album in nearly thirty years. But strange things are happening at St. John’s farm and soon Rachel finds herself caught up in something far larger than the world of music.


The Toyota blew a tyre somewhere not far north of Huntly.

Rachel twisted the steering wheel and swore, squeezing the brake and aiming for the side of the road. The car stumbled to a stop in foot-high grass, barely missing a fencepost many degrees from straight.

She was not surprised to learn the rental company had not included a spare tyre. Simon had told her to expect that sort of thing. ‘It’s like travelling back to the seventies, especially when you get out of Auckland. Maybe that’s why she picked it.’

She leaned against the cooling car and listened to the cicadas buzzing their arses off.

Her phone still had a signal, which at this point Rachel was prepared to consider a bona fide miracle. She had already dialled Simon’s number before she remembered it was still three in the morning back in London. She killed the call. Simon couldn’t find his reading glasses on his desk half the time. There was no chance of him finding a mechanic on the other side of the world.

Rachel reached through the window for the map Simon had printed for her. She’d just gone over a short bridge with a long name and it didn’t look too far from there to where Simon had marked an X in blue ballpoint and written KSJ next to it. She grabbed her suitcase from the back and started walking.

The Toyota’s tyres might have been shot but its air conditioning had been top notch. The humidity was jungle-strength. Five minutes walking and she was covered in sweat. Biggest interview of her career and she’d go into it soaked. Figured.


Rachel had been at her desk in Sounding‘s tiny Earl’s Court office when the call had come in. Maria, the receptionist, had looked over the top of her magazine at the ringing phone as if it were an alien. First time it had rung in a month.

‘Who was it?’ Rachel asked once Maria had passed the call through to Simon’s office.

Maria shrugged and mumbled something. She only enunciated on the phone.

Rachel frowned. That couldn’t be right. ‘Sorry? Did you say Katherine St. John?’

Simon burst out of his office so fast he nearly took the door off. ‘You. Pub. Now.’


‘Wait, I don’t – what?’

Simon sipped his pint. He was loving this, being the one with a scoop for the first time in a decade or more, having Rachel hang on his every word.

‘That was Katherine St. John on the phone. She’s about to release a new album and she’s going to give exactly one interview. To us. Or more specifically, to you.’

‘To me?’

‘And only you.’


‘I know.’


Eleven-year-old Katherine St. John had come to the attention of the public in 1965. She had been camping with her parents on the edge of Bedgebury Forest in Kent when she went missing. The story held the front page for over a week. Black-and-white pictures of St. John’s parents, arms around each other, stricken looks on their faces. Long lines of volunteers marching between the trees, trying to cover every square foot of a forest whose heart had been untroubled since the days of Hadrian. Then, as the days went on, rumours that the police were taking a particular interest in St. John’s father. One telephoto shot of him being led up the stairs to the Maidstone police station for further questioning was published on Monday morning, a thin civil servant with a comb-over and a permanently crooked tie. The Sunday Mirror published a picture of a child’s blue canvas shoe lying beneath a holly bush. In the opinion of the majority of the paper’s readers, the man was clearly guilty, a trial just a formality on his way to the gallows.

A base of operations was established at the campsite, now deserted except for the St. John family’s tent and their grey Hillman Minx, already starting to sink into the mud. On the Monday of the second week of the search, Detective Harlan Smith was eating lunch at his temporary desk in the prefab office when Katherine St. John walked in, looking as unruffled as if she had just been out for a brief stroll. No injuries, no malnutrition. Still wearing both her black leather shoes which, even scuffed and covered with mud, looked nothing like the one on the front page of the Mirror.

The papers printed full-page photos of the newly reunited family under headlines such as MIRACLE CHILD, but could find no more explanation for what had happened than the girl herself. In the few minutes after she reappeared she mentioned that she had been to see the ‘dancing man’. But she was unable to clarify who she had meant and, as the days went on, seemed to recant even that, claiming she had no memory of her time in the forest.

Nobody remembered the lost girl who had been to see the dancing man in 1978, when Katherine St. John’s first album was released. It was a revelation. Her voice rose above her own sparse piano playing, then swooped low. People compared her to Joni Mitchell, to Laura Nyro, but that wasn’t quite it. She more ethereal than her contemporaries, more otherworldly. Nothing about her songs should have worked: the surreal lyrics, the unorthodox keys and time signatures – none of it suggested commercial success. And yet there she was, barely sixteen, topping album charts all over the world. Her time as a lost girl was mentioned, of course, in the initial coverage, but faded away. The music obliterated her history as it propelled her on the way to inevitable superstardom.

St. John’s follow-up album two years later met middling reviews. Punk was on the rise and it seemed that St. John’s unique sound was going to be consigned to the same dustbin of history as Prog Rock. She had never toured, and with the poor reception of her sophomore effort she became even more reclusive.

Rachel couldn’t remember the third album at all. Her own attempt at an English degree was already in flames at that point. She had spiked her hair to look like Siouxsie Sioux and spent every weekend going to see The Damned and The Clash.

‘It’s a wind-up, surely. Every music magazine from here to New York would have got that call.’

Simon’s hands were trembling slightly. Did they always do that? Why hadn’t she noticed before? ‘I don’t think you’re hearing me. That wasn’t St. John’s agent on the phone. That was her.’


I know.’


There was no gate, just a break in the fence. No mailbox. The number 257 had been scratched into a piece of tin and nailed to the fencepost. Rachel checked the map again and shrugged. This was the place.

The bare dirt driveway ran along a stand of trees before turning right around the side of a shed. One of the suitcase’s tiny wheels had already crumbled from being dragged along the side of the road instead of a smooth airport floor, so she had to carry it. She heard a buzzing as she approached the shed. Then a smell that made her step back.

The corpse of a rabbit was balanced on the top of a fencepost, attended by a cloud of flies. It lay on its back, head lolling towards the ground, one dead eye looking at Rachel. The rabbit’s belly was bloated, the blue mottled skin under its grey fur writhing with maggots.

Rachel backed away, holding a hand over her mouth and nose until she was around the corner of the shed. She leaned over, hands on knees, for a few moments, sucking in lungfuls of fresh air. The grass on the side of the driveway was long and ragged. She could see small patches of green in the middle of the bare dirt. Rachel wondered how long it would take for the grass to claim back the whole driveway.

When she picked up the suitcase again her arms were trembling.

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Free excerpt: MIKA | Lee Murray & Piper Mejia

We hope you enjoy this free excerpt from Mika, by Lee Murray and Piper Mejia, the first in our SHORTCUTS series of novellas.


New York, 2058

The rain is coming down hard now, pummelling the windscreen in grey, almost horizontal sheets. Mika frowns. Taking one hand from the wheel, she rubs at her eyes. It’s been a long trip and she’s tired. She can barely see ten metres in front of her.

The waka rolls violently. Mika purses her lips and shifts the vehicle to a lower gear, struggling to control the vessel in the surging waters. A vehicle bumps her from behind, the waka lurches, and Mika is thrown forward.

‘Tangaroa!’ she whispers under her breath, calling on the sea god of her ancestors for protection. The waka pitches again. Mika yanks at the steering, pulling hard to the left to get out of the queue. In the choppy water, the waka is slow to respond. Mika can do nothing more. She holds her breath, her eyes straining to penetrate the wall of rain. Another jolt. The larger transport crowding her from behind. She’s in danger of being sandwiched in, her waka crushed between two hulls.

Come on!

She didn’t travel first the Pacific, and then the Atlantic, to be shipwrecked arriving on the dock. She has a meeting to make. Biting back her frustration, Mika guns the accelerator. The prow of her waka touches the transport in front, the way a bull might caress the bullfighter’s cape as it thunders past. Mika exhales as the waka pulls clear. The manoeuvre has prevented a goring, but she’s going to have to head straight to the ramp now. Determined, she squeezes her prow through the traffic, pushing to the front like the smallest kid at a tuck shop queue.

Coming through, people.

At last, the waka’s hull touches home. Quickly, Mika changes transmission, and drives the little transport up the ramp onto the land.

The Ellis Island entry point is in chaos. What Mika can see of it, in any case. Gale-force winds and driving rain have reduced visibility to next to nil.

Is this the immigration point? Mika opens the window and is immediately soaked.

A man in a flapping yellow raincoat peers in, his face ruddy from the rain. Even with the wet, Mika can smell the engine fumes. She shivers in her wet clothes, but only partly from the cold. She waits for the officer to scan her pupil.

Please don’t make me go back.

The man shakes his head. ‘The bio-scanner is down. Cybernetic reader, too. The console was hit by flying metal. We’re back to working like cavemen. Where are you from?’

‘New Zealand.’

Someone behind sounds a horn. Raincoat man pulls away from the window and roars into the wind. ‘Hold your damn horses, why don’t you? I’ll get to you when I get to you.’ He turns back to Mika. ‘Where did you say?’

‘New Zealand. It’s an island—’

‘Staten Island? You’re a local? You do know you’ve landed at Ellis? Day like today, you should’ve taken the expressway, not the shortcut across the Bay. What kind of idiot are you? I suppose you wanted to see how your home-made transport handled a storm.’ He shakes his head in disgust.

‘No, no, you misheard me. I’m from—’

But huddled deep in the hood of his plastic raincoat, the official either doesn’t hear, or doesn’t care to hear. ‘All we need. Locals wasting our time, coming through the immigration line. Drive on,’ he grumbles, gesturing impatiently. ‘You’re holding everyone up.’

‘I—’ But raincoat man has already turned his attention to the next vehicle in the line. Mika shrugs. If he’s going to make it this easy to get in, who’s she to argue? Sliding up the window, she shifts the waka into gear.

He shouldn’t have called her an idiot.

‘For your information, mate,’ Mika mumbles to herself, ‘this isn’t just any old home-made transport. It’s a waka. And her name is Torua, if you care to know.’ Mika revs the engine, giving the man a good whiff of Torua’s engine fumes, and speeds into the gloom.

The rain hasn’t abated any as Mika takes the bridge to the mainland. On the road, the visibility is even worse. There are transports everywhere. Their lights glare, the milky beams multiplying in the gloom. Mika slows, getting an earful of honking and tooting from the traffic backing up behind her.

Keep your hair on.

She turns on Torua’s GPS system and, doing her best to keep her eyes on the road, punches in the rendezvous point.


The message had said it wasn’t too far from the bridge. Mika doesn’t want to miss the turn-off, or she could end up miles out of her way. She can’t afford to miss the guide.

‘Left turn approaching.’

Mika peers ahead, but can’t make out the intersection through the fog of lights.

‘Left turn approaching in … twenty yards.’

‘But I can’t see anything!’ she wails.

Finally, the intersection fades into view. Hang on, there are two lefts. Which one is she supposed to take: the hard left or veer left?

‘Left turn approaching…’

‘Which lane?!’

The middle, take the middle.

The lights change.

Mika guns the engine to get across the gap.

A vehicle screams towards her.

Oh my god, oh my god.

She stomps on the brakes, but already she knows it’s too late. As the two vehicles plunge towards each other, like jousters in a medieval battle, Mika stretches her mind across the ocean to Aotearoa, to her sister.



The voice is weak and thready. Mika’s heart clenches. Huia needs her. Needs her to get to Vegas. She has to—

There’s an agonising crunch, followed by a whine that starts in Mika’s teeth and settles in her bones. Torua spirals out of control. Mika is flung sideways, her head glancing off the side of the waka, before she’s thrust upright again in a brutal whiplash. Soundless now, torque and momentum carry the vehicle through the intersection in a slow-motion blur, the front left corner trailing something with it. Obligingly, the object allows itself to be dragged along, throwing up silent sparks and shedding debris. Resisting the urge to cover her face, Mika grips the steering wheel and gently turns Torua into the curve. But the waka has power yet. It hurtles through a barrier, barely slowing. Losing the foreign object, it slides another twenty metres before coming to a stop on a huge traffic island.

‘Right turn approaching in twenty yards—’ Mika switches off the GPS, and hunches over the steering wheel, panting. When her pulse has slowed, she takes a deep breath and checks herself over. A few bruises. A bump the size of a small kūmara on her elbow, but otherwise all intact.

I’m okay. Alive.

Mika’s heart leaps again. But what about the other driver? The other vehicle?

Flicking the compression, Mika flings open the hatch, pushing hard against howling wind. She climbs out of the waka, the hatch slamming shut as soon as she lets go. Mika squints through the rain. The bull bars, two rows of thick bars that encircle the waka, have been scraped back to the metal, the barnacles and rust of the ocean voyage sloughed off like dead skin. But, not built to withstand playful whales and floating garbage, the other vehicle hasn’t been so fortunate. Glancing off Torua’s bull-bars, it has struck a tree, and is a mess of broken branches, twisted steel, and glass, the driver door buckled inwards where the two vehicles collided. Instinctively, Mika knows it can’t open. Boots crunching on broken glass, she clambers onto the hood. The windscreen’s gone, leaving a glass-encrusted frame. The driver is slumped forward over the dashboard, oblivious to the rain thwacking at his back. Probably concussed when his head hit the windscreen.

‘Hey! Hey there! Can you hear me?’ she screams over the sound of the storm. She pushes her hair out of her face. ‘I’m coming. Hold on.’

Using her boot, she breaks a branch underfoot, clearing the way so she can skirt around to the other side of the vehicle, then yanks on the passenger door, which, to her surprise, opens easily.

Oh thank god.

Climbing into the cab, she brushes away the glass on the seat with a dripping sleeve, then scoots over and gently pulls the man backwards by his sweatshirt.

‘Can you hear me?’ But he can’t hear her because he’s dead, a branch buried deep in his eye socket. Mika jumps back, relieved when the man slumps forward again, the grisly eye no longer looking at her blankly.

What have I done?

Leaning back in the passenger seat, Mika lets the rain wash down her face. Then she bursts into tears.

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