We hope you enjoy this excerpt from “Splintr”, by Christchurch author AJ Fitzwater. Fitzwater is a Guest of Honour at Au Contraire III, New Zealand’s NatCon for 2016, and “Splintr” appears in our 2016 anthology At the Edge.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.’
‘And only you.’
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.’
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.