Sergeant Emerson James Ash stumbled from the Australian C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft and stared across the deserted tarmac, barely lit by the perimeter lights. The whine of the plane’s engines abated and the back wash buffeted him. He joined the formation of soldiers, and his shoulders drooped from memories of the stench and heat during the fight at the Horn of Africa. He wasn’t sure how he felt about being back in Australia. Part of him wished he were still fighting an undeclared war, one where chaos created its own order.
Emerson glanced across the tarmac toward the airport arrival gates, and disappointment twisted in his gut. The only life he noticed were the clouds of bugs that swarmed the military airport’s scattered, mercury-vapor lights. He hadn’t expected a hero’s welcome, but a night return, sneaking back into your own country while everyone slept, wasn’t what he had in mind. His body ached from avian flu, H5N1, and he coughed so hard he thought he’d broken several ribs.
He braced his chest with one arm, swung both of his dive bags over a shoulder and winced. All his joints ached. It brought on another coughing fit. He struggled against the pain and fought for breath. Emerson stumbled and fell from the single file of returning service personnel.
Someone in a ground staff haz-chem suit grabbed his cyber arm. It throbbed at the elbow where the amputee joined and Emerson pulled away as the implanted screen lit and basked the groundie and him in dull orange light. “C’mon soldier,” the man said. “Back in line.” The words were barely audible under the groundie’s breather mask, but Emerson nodded.
The military Infosphere feed scrolled with environmental data, terrain, time, and info from his last search: critical information on the terrorist Shudde-M’ell. He shut the display off before anyone could see the classified data. Emerson gritted his teeth and swung both dive bags over his shoulder again. He cringed and stepped back in line with the rest of the camouflaged soldiers. Every second or third soldier coughed and stumbled, too. He wasn’t alone.
Emerson walked until the soldier in front of him stopped, and they all regrouped at immigration. They’d said the H5N1 pandemic had been brought on by migratory birds, and it affected the area stretching from eastern Asia all the way to Siberia and to the Arabian Peninsula. Perhaps it’d even reached the Black Sea Basin. But Emerson knew different. It hadn’t been migratory birds. Just when they were gaining the advantage in the war, the enemy launched the virus. His team came down with it in a span of a few days, and even though they were jacked up on the guava extract, G, it hadn’t done any good. It hit them hard. He couldn’t be sure, but H5N1 changed everything, and—
He blinked away the memories and handed over his military passport.
“Sergeant Emerson James Ash?” the man asked.
Emerson stared at the immigration officer through bleary eyes. “Yes.”
“Anything to declare?”
Part of him wished he were back at the Horn. He stared at his prosthetic arm and shook his head. “Nothing.”
“On your way then.”
But he’d lied. Who didn’t? He’d never un-jacked his tech the day he got sick with H5N1. What was he going to do? Admit to it and lose his prosthetic arm? Have them rip it off at the elbow because it was classified? Not likely. It’s not like it held anything important: just the whole frickin’ Mogadishu ORBAT, critical IO points, and their C2 network. He’d hidden the unabridged translation of the G’harne Fragments, Chthonian tactics, and a bio on Shudde-M’ell and all his contacts, deep inside an encrypted data layer in his prosthetic arm’s tech. Sure, he was going to step forward with that intel.
After customs, they stood in line, arms wide open and faces upright. They sprayed everyone with an insecticide in case they’d brought anything other than H5N1 back, and they handed out worming poison to digest.
“Anyone got anything classified on them?” barked a warrant officer from the front of the group. “Anyone got live ammo? If so, step forward now and you’ll be handled appropriately. Last chance though.”
Emerson stared blankly at a soldier who strode forward with a full magazine of ammunition. They grabbed him and two men frog-marched him outside. He chuckled inside with contempt. Handled appropriately. Sure.
The rest of them shook their heads, and said the declaration in unison.
A man in a haz-chem suit stepped forward and handed Emerson a facemask. “Wear this until you feel better. And here…” He handed over an envelope and two bottles of meds.
“What are these?” Emerson asked.
“Voucher for a bus ticket home, and some doxy and flu tablets. Stay on the meds for two weeks and keep out of the sun.”
Stay out of the sun? In Australia? Emerson could have laughed if he’d had the energy. “Bus ticket?” He raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“Don’t worry, we’ll drop you off at the terminal. You won’t have to walk there.”
“Of course not.” The sarcastic comment didn’t come out the way he’d hoped, and he tried to smile but didn’t have the energy. Home was a five and a half hour drive north. Even with a bus fare he’d still have a fifty-minute walk home.
Psychedelic multi-colored monsters chased Emerson. They reached out with their hypnotic stares and power until he felt their commanding urge for him to obey. He pushed the image away and ran, firing his weapon, but the images returned. No matter how long he evaded capture, they always found him, and the dream started over again.
“Sir. We’re here… It’s time to get off.” The bus driver shook him awake at the Port. Port Augusta was where he had to get off.
Emerson pushed the nightmare images of the Horn away. He blamed the anti-malaria meds, or it may have been the months of communal living, and the hard bunks in small, overcrowded rooms with no escape from the enemy mortars. He clambered off the bus in a dark fog.
The driver waited long enough for him and two other passengers to disembark. Before Emerson could shoulder his bags, the driver pulled the door shut and headed down the road in a cloud of red dust. The Port had a prairie reputation, and you didn’t want to be out at night when the gangs of people roamed. Even high on medically-induced nightmares Emerson couldn’t blame him.
He swung his bags over his shoulders and winced, no better than when he had arrived back in Australia. He stared down the desolate road until the morning heat shimmer distorted his view. He wasn’t sure how he was going to get home, but pride stopped him from calling Aunt Rose and asking her to drive out and pick him up. It was early enough. He would walk.
But ten minutes in, the dust was almost as bad as it had been in the red zone overseas. He stopped outside a roadhouse and wiped the sweat of sickness from his face. He felt greasy and light-headed all at once. There was no way he could manage to walk home. He called Myles to come and pick him up.
He sat down in a finger of shade by the roadhouse and waited. His head spun and his breathing rattled through the mask they’d provided. He wasn’t sure what he’d tell Myles about the last eight months.
The smell of fuel and the shadows drifting across the wall triggered recent memories. Emerson’s nostrils flared with disgust as he remembered showering in the cubicle. Brown slime oozed from the shower drain and covered his feet. Other people’s excrement. He covered his mouth so as not to vomit. The webs between his toes were already bleeding from disease, he didn’t need this and vowed that the next shower he took would be from one of the other latrine and shower blocks further up the hill. Someone else could shower in his shit.
A siren went off to warn of incoming IDF. He threw himself into the dirt, close to the blast wall for protection. Out in the open, the risk of death multiplied. The sound of his racing heart pounded loud in his ears. The missile exploded a short distance away. Shrapnel smacked into the blast shelter above him and the ground shook. Another missile would follow. It always did. He stood and sprinted into the bomb shelter situated on the other side of the thick concrete wall. A second blast followed and he dived to the ground. The hand of God had saved him again. How many times had it been now? Eight? Too many. He closed his eyes and flicked the brown sludge from his feet. He told himself he was a cyber-warrior, proud of his recent attachment to the 53rd. Being part of the team that led the non-kinetic summer campaign had been cathartic after he’d left Amye. Going forward a short time after the SF landed in Mogadishu right when the Horn exploded as a hotspot of world terror had meant he had served in one of the fiercest areas in recent battle history. Some of the boneheads joked he wasn’t a real soldier, that he and the other geeks had never graduated from infantry school. Emerson got that: his work was different from their kinetic fight. The Infosphere was his world, and he embraced the Electronic Warfare Battle with as much vigour as they did their machine guns and armour-piercing rounds.
The toot of a car horn pulled him from the memory. Emerson waved to Myles in his classic fiery red Pontiac Trans Am. As bad as he felt, he couldn’t help but grin at Myles’ choice of blended bio fuel. It smelled like vomit.
Emerson climbed into the front, but Myles didn’t speak, which wasn’t unusual. He spun the tires and sent red dust sprawling behind them. Emerson was just glad he’d never asked him about Amye.
Myles frowned. “What’s the mask for?”
“I’ve got the flu,” said Emerson.
Myles nodded. “Must have it pretty bad then. How did you get here?”
“You caught the bus with a bad flu? Wow. When did you get in?”
“Flight arrived just after 2a.m. They shoved us on a bus and here I am.”
“That’s no welcome. Why did they do that? You should have had families there, people to cheer after the great work you guys did.”
Emerson shrugged. “We’re soldiers. We don’t need accolades. I’m just happy to be home.”
“Are you?” asked Myles. “Happy to be here I mean?”
Emerson’s stomach twisted with uncertainty. He shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
Myles headed out on the main road from town. “You look like shit, Emerson,” he said eventually.
Emerson laughed. Myles was right about that at least.
“I see you got a new arm. I wondered how you’d be able to serve after what happened.”
Emerson raised his prosthetic in the air. “Army issue,” he said. “Although, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it now. It’s not like I have a reason to access classified information or run battle ops anymore.”
“What was it like out there?”
He shrugged. He didn’t want to talk about it. Not here. Not now. They thought he was out in Afghanistan, not fighting on the Horn. What could he say?
He didn’t remember much after the virus hit, but what he did made him shiver. He had stumbled onto an unusual network out on the Horn. He’d found a chat room with a reference to the Cult of Nophru-Ka. The cult had fled the jungles of Western Africa, and they took with them some of the G’harne Fragments and translations made by important scholars over the years. They’d settled in the Land of Punt on the northern area of the Horn, undisturbed, until we’d arrived, guns blazing. That’s why the Nophru-Ka released the Chthonian from below the surface. Short-tentacled, eyeless squid, led by the terrorist Shudde-M’ell, a gigantic member of their species. The creatures had used their telepathic powers to mentally chain humans in one place so they were easy picking by the insurgents. They had an uncanny ability to mess with our minds if we got too close, to be able to confuse a person so they’d stumble into ambush and be killed.
Nobody would believe him if he said anything.
The journey to Stirling North sped by in silence. Myles was good to him. He always gave him the space he needed, and Emerson liked him for that. Stirling North was a small town on the edge of the Great Australian Sandy Desert, about as far removed from anywhere as you could get. It was just what he needed right now: solitude.
They drove into town and Emerson expected to see the same dogs curled up in the shade along the dusty streets as if nothing had changed in the nine months he’d been away, but the small town had exploded with people.
“Where have they come from?” he asked.
“They’re war refugees from Mogadishu. We’re taking them in, helping them to reintegrate into society. Apparently they’ve been fighting a civil war.”
Mogadishans? From the Horn? Emerson dared not speak. The war had followed him.
Myles pulled up in front of Emerson’s old Gram’s house, a ten-minute walk from Aunt Rose’s Farm. “See you at the pub tomorrow night?”
Emerson nodded. “If I’m feeling better…thanks for the lift.”
The afternoon sun lit the long verandah on the front of old Grams’ cottage and helped keep the sun off the thick stone walls. Emerson dropped his bags at the door and removed his mask. Sick or not old Grams wouldn’t stand for him wearing it. He stood and admired her collection of wilted snapdragons and delphiniums and collected his thoughts. Grams would see straight through him. She’d be able to tell he was uncertain and that he’d reached a crossroad in his life.
The screen door springs creaked. “Well, are you going to come in and wish your old Grams a welcome, or are you going stand out in the sun all afternoon, young Emerson?”
He turned and faced her. It didn’t matter how old he was, he’d always be young to her. He smiled. She seemed no different than when he had left almost a year ago.
“Have you seen her yet?”
He closed his eyes and shook his head.
“Well you should. Sort things out, boy.”
He nodded and walked over and hugged the old woman, careful not to crush her with his artificial limb.
He followed the bent-over woman inside into the cool and dimly lit kitchen. He sat down at the ancient wooden table. It was as if a load had fallen from him.
He nodded, and Grams poured him a cup, sat down, and sipped her own tea from a chipped saucer. She threw him, a toothless smile.
“Did you find what you were looking for, running away and joining the army?” She stared at his prosthetic arm. “Tell me what’s going on, Emerson.”
“I never ran away, Grams. I just lost my girl…” he raised his prosthetic limb. “… and my arm.”
“Says who? You young people got things to learn. Last time I looked, Amye was still in love with you, and that arm looks good enough to work on the farm.”
Emerson laughed. “It’s not that simple.”
“The farm is still there, waiting for you, you know?”
Emerson put his cup away. “I know. But she never wrote, not once. Never returned my calls. I’m not an idiot, Grams.”
Grams peered over her saucer and sipped her hot tea. She put it down but her eyes never left him. “No?”
“You know her mam died?”
“What?” Emerson. He shook his head and his throat tightened. “No, I didn’t know. When? How is she?”
“You should ask her yourself. You rushed off pretty quick after that argument. Her mam had a stroke just after you left. All that girl has done since you’ve been away is look after her poor mam. She’s had her hands full running the farm alone and taking care of her own. Amye buried her last month. I went to the funeral. I spoke to her. She said she wrote you and you never replied. That true?”
Tears blurred Emerson vision and he nodded. “I got shifted to another area. Nobody could contact us.” Damn the army! The work out on the Horn had been classified. Nobody knew of its existence, and they’d been cut off from everything. Even old Grams could have died and they’d never have told him. He sighed. He was an idiot. What had he done?
Amye had been all he wanted before the tractor race, before his arm had been severed at the elbow and the army gifted him a cyber-implant. He hadn’t seen or heard from her since he left Stirling North, but he had never stopped loving Amye. He’d been away long enough to regret his jealousy about her and Damien. He regretted even more the stupid race against Damien over her affections.
He wiped his eyes and looked up at Grams. “I’m going to see Amye in the morning.”
“I’m dog tired Grams.”
“You do look pretty beat, lad.” She leaned over and patted his arm. “I’m sure it won’t do any harm if you wait a day.”
He stood and frowned. Was Grams trying to tell him something? The truth was exhaustion clawed at him. He needed a good sleep before he fell down.
Emerson had always planned to take over the farm when he was ready. He’d had an idea that he could move into a different style of farming and move away from the struggle of growing wheat and barley. The climate had changed and with the lack of rain the crops were too hit and miss. No, he’d an idea that he could create a native produce nursery and grow quandongs, the wild peach, and make jam and Lemon Myrtle tea. Instead of fighting the land he would work with it. He’d even start a nursery and sell plants to other farms. There were over five thousand different native foods he could choose. So there’d be enough to fill the farm and turn it into a profitable market. He’d always wanted to start up a plant nursery and repopulate the region. He and Amye had talked about it using native quandongs and make jams and chutney. And now that he was home, he would check on the family of blue-banded bees out in the far paddock. He could collect some honey if they let him share it, and see about building up the swarm. Maybe he could sell the honey, too.
Emerson woke to the ground underneath him shaking. He stumbled from the small bunk and raced outside, head swimming, to be greeted by the mid-morning sun. The tremor stopped, and Grams banged on the kitchen window. She waved him in.
Overhead the corellas circled nervously, and some of the birds flew over and perched in the furthest gum trees near the edge of town and screeched. Emerson watched them settle, and heard Grams fill a kettle. He walked back inside.
“Loud, wasn’t it,” said Grams pulling a dressing gown over her withered body.
He nodded. “Sounded like someone had just ridden a truck over the world.”
“That was nothing. We’ve been getting them every day or so now.”
“How come?” Australia was supposed to be one of the most stable landmasses in the world.
“Beats me, Emerson. I heard it was the Chthonian tunneling under the Earth.”
Emerson drew a sharp breath and his stomach knotted. “Chthonian? You’ve seen them? Here?”
Emerson frowned. He couldn’t believe it. “Do you even know what they are? Who said that?”
Grams shrugged again. “I’m just telling you what Damien said last time we spoke down by the supermarket, and he was—”
Emerson stood and the chair tipped backwards to the floor. “Damien’s here?”
Grams frowned. “Of course. This is his town too, Emerson. He fought in the war like you. This issue between you both…between Amye…is water under the bridge.” She glanced at his prosthetic arm and swallowed. “You won her heart fair and square and left.”
“Did I, Grams?” Emerson couldn’t stop a frown knotting his forehead. “I’m not sure I won anything.” He shook his head. How could everything keep going back to one single day in his life when the trouble started? Was that why Damien had brought the Chthonian back? He sighed. The questions wouldn’t get answered on their own. “Does she still live on Hawker Drive? Grams?”
Grams didn’t look up, but nodded.
She smiled. “Always, Emerson.”
“I’ll go and see her. And then I’ll find Damien and see what he knows about these Chthonian creatures.”
“You’re feeling better then?”
He nodded. “I had a good night’s sleep.”
She laughed. “Sweet Emerson, you’ve been asleep for three days.”
He frowned. “Three?”
“Yes, I tried waking you a day ago, but you pushed me away. You were breathing fine, so I left you.”
He left his mask at home and strode outside, down the road toward Hawker Drive. Whatever else Grams thought, this wasn’t about a tractor race between him and Damien over Amye’s affections. He’d only won her heart because of the accident, when he’d lost his arm, but Damien had followed him over to the Horn…
How? He stopped and stared at the rising sun and wondered how Damien seemed to find a way into everything he did. The sun burned at his skin. It was as if he was back there again…out in the hot Somalian day, half protected by a rocky bank…
Emerson closed his eyes and heard the command. He cocked his weapon. Shapes moved forward.
“Fire,” said someone in authority.
Emerson returned fire at the approaching insurgents. He watched them dance like puppets on strings until they and their AK-47 rifles fell to the color of a setting bloody sun. Through his rifle sights, he could see another wave of insurgents approach from his right, this time more cautious. He changed his mag and re-cocked the weapon, training it back on the men and waited for the order to fire.
A squid-like creature the size of a large man appeared in his sights, and Emerson frowned. The eyeless creature had short tentacles for arms. Emerson blinked away the image. An aberration from the hot sun. But it was there again when he retrained his sights on the men, dressed in simple Somalian clothes. It seemed to direct the insurgents.
Emerson had a lot of respect for the proud people of Somalia who were filled with their own tradition and beliefs. Their battles were mainly tribal, born from the pairings of sons and daughters a lifetime ago. They didn’t deserve the splinter of insurgents, using their land as a pawn in a bigger world-game, but the squid-like creature could only be described as bizarre at best. More creatures appeared, short, naked, waddling on eight rubbery legs. A small army.
Emerson’s head felt dizzy as if he was swimming through a thick, disorientating fog. His rifle fell, but he forced it upright and lined the squid-like creature back into his sights. His finger tightened on the trigger and he slowly breathed out to fire.
A man stood in front and blocked his view. He knocked Emerson’s rifle off target, and the wild shot skittered into the distance, harmless. He recognized the man kitted out in infantry uniform.
“What are you doing here, Damien?”
Damien shrugged. “Had to end up somewhere.”
“But why here?” It was the first time he’d seen Damien since the accident back home. He thought he had been at home chasing Amye, helping her carry buckets of water from the salt water converter back to their homesteads.
The disorientating fog increased. Emerson clutched the ground as dizziness overwhelmed him. He closed his eyes and fought the wave of nausea. When it passed, he opened his eyes, but Damien, the creatures, and the insurgents had gone.
The earthquakes had started that day, and that had been his first glimpse at the insurgent leader Shuddle-M’ell and his Chthonian army…
Just recalling the event was enough to make Emerson sweat. He sat down in the cool shade of a gum tree in the main street of Stirling North. Perhaps he still had a fever from the flu? Curse them! He stood and his stomach churned with uncertainty. He hadn’t seen Amye since the day he’d enlisted, and he couldn’t be sure how she would greet him, not after the way he’d left things between them. He walked the short distance to her house and stopped in front.
He scanned the low valley that held the town, appalled that most of the trees had died in the time he had been away; the salt laden water table had seen to that. What the changes hadn’t affected, the sun had baked dry. Paint flaked off now rusty iron corrugated sheets that served as housing. He glanced at Amye’s dilapidated home for a moment, hoped that she might come running out, but there was no movement; she’d want him to do it the hard way, come begging her forgiveness. Perhaps Amye’s beauty had suffered the same fate out here too?
Sand had blown in from the nearby desert, and now the streets were lined with it. A hot wind lifted into his face. He rubbed his eyes and stared out past where the town’s boundary once finished, but it was now cluttered with makeshift housing as far as the eye could see.
He bit his lip. How could so many people now live here? There was not enough food and water to survive on. Why didn’t they just move somewhere else? He couldn’t figure it out.
He stared at Amye’s house. She hadn’t come out to meet him. He took a deep breath, tried to quell the butterflies in his stomach, and he took a step and stumbled.
Dimples, her pet poodle lay in the garden in a pool of blood, her throat cut. He closed his eyes and pushed back the disgust that shook him. Bile rose and burned his throat and he coughed it away. He’d help pick Dimples out from a local breeder, and together they’d picked the runt of the litter. A scrawny, one-eyed defect of a poodle. They’d fallen in love with her immediately. He shuddered. It sickened him to know that someone in Stirling North would do this to a defenseless animal.
He ran to her open front door and knocked hard on the edge of the fly screen.
There were no sounds inside. He banged on the outside door again. “Amye, are you there? It’s Emerson.” Again, nobody responded.
He contemplated going inside and wondered if he was overreacting. Amye could have been out shopping for all he knew. He turned to look back at Dimples. It wasn’t time to contact the police, not yet, but he couldn’t go until he’d checked inside.
“Amye, I’m coming in.” He pulled open the door and strode inside the dimly lit lounge room and smiled. It smelled like Amye, and her favorite scent of fresh lemongrass. A candle burned on the corner table, heated the fragrant oils. Judging by the level of it, she couldn’t have been gone long, no more than fifteen or twenty minutes.
The shutters were all closed against the heat, and pictures adorned the mantelpiece. He walked over and picked up one of them together, taken out by the lead mine, the year before he joined up. He put it down and picked up the one next to it of her, more recent and alone. She had blossomed and looked more beautiful, but there was something about the photo that was different. She looked lost. The idea twisted in his gut like a knife. It had been a mistake to reject her after the accident and leave.
He heard a scraping sound in the next room, and put the photograph down. He rushed into the kitchen. “Hello? Amye?” But the room was empty. She wasn’t there.
There was dirt across the kitchen floor from the back door. Not red soil from outside, but dark, as if it were from the lead mines. He picked some up and rolled it between his fingers. It felt smooth as if it had come from the talc tunnels out the back of town, but it was the wrong color. He sniffed it, and it smelled oily, dirty. Like a Chthonian had lain against it.
He frowned. How would Chthonian soil get here? It made him think of the explosions and Gram’s mention of the Chthonian. There was nothing for him at Amye’s house, so he stepped outside, back into the morning sun and looked at the dead front lawn. No one deserved to find Dimples like that, especially Amye. He grabbed a shovel from the garden shed and dug a hole in her back yard for the poor dog.
He switched on his cyber tech implanted arm and stared at the dull orange light. Before any of the screen items came up, he pressed an area on the touch screen and switched on video. He took some images of the site and of Dimple’s horrific injuries, and he examined the serrated cuts at her throat and made sure he could use them to find who did it. Then he buried her.
He shut the display off and strode down the street, but he was left with a lingering thought that somehow Amye was still there, at home. But if that was the case, what had he missed? He’d visit Amye again soon. He hoped she’d be there; he had a lot he needed to say to her. Part of him wanted to find Damien, but what could he accuse the man of, apart from being a traitor in a war that never happened, and for returning home? The soil on Amye’s kitchen floor bothered him. Damien being in town bothered him. The mention of the Chthonian bothered him. He’d talk it through with Myles…perhaps if he played out the scenarios in his head a bit more, Myles could get an extra hour or so of sleep.
Emerson walked out of town on aching legs. He felt years older than he was thanks to the flu, but he was keen to enjoy the morning sun: it was refreshingly mild compared to what he’d experienced. He wanted to go to his corner paddock and see how his small colony of blue banded bees were doing. Perhaps he could bring old Grams some native honey. It was a delicacy, sweet and tangy.
Amye and he had discussed building a rammed earth house in the bottom paddock, and having babies and growing old together. Amye had fallen in love with the gentle native bees, too.
He sat near the female’s shallow mudbrick burrows, and watched the glittering blue striped male bees hang from plant stems nearby. A few flew over and hovered by him, but he let them have their moment of curiosity and he didn’t stir them up. They were beautiful, placid creatures. Mind you, their sting was ferocious and they could sting many times and cause an allergic reaction. He loved them all the same.
He had to admit that he didn’t know what to do about Amye when he met her again, what to do about Damien or anything that involved Stirling North. Nothing was as he’d envisaged his return home. Emerson left his blue banded bee colony and strode back into town.
“Didn’t think I’d see you around these parts again, Emerson.”
Emerson recognized Damien’s voice. He spun around and scowled. “What are you up to, Damien?” After his involvement with the Chthonian, Emerson didn’t trust anything Damien did.
Damien laughed. “Oh, I thought I’d call in on Amye, and—”
“I was just there. She’s not home.”
“For you maybe, she’s always home for me.”
Emerson frowned. He stepped closer. “Were you there earlier today?”
“Might have been.” He smiled. “Who could say…?”
It wasn’t an answer. “Did you see her or Dimples today?”
“That’s none of your business, is it, Emerson? You left her, remember?”
“If you hurt her, or I find you had anything to do with Dimples, you’ll pay.”
Damien smirked and leaned forward, close enough for Emerson to see all Damien’s rotten teeth. The man smelled like he hadn’t showered for a month. “What are you going to do? Slit my throat?”
Emerson glared at the Damien, unsure how to respond.
“Go back to the army, Emerson, there is nothing here for you now.” And with that he shoved past Emerson sending him onto the dirty ground.
Emerson sat on the ground and coughed until his chest ached. He picked himself up and dusted the red soil from his clothes. Damien hadn’t caught the flu, unlike everyone else, but if he had, Emerson might have stood a fairer chance. He watched Damien swagger away and vowed he’d make him pay if he had anything to do with Dimples.
Emerson knocked on Myles’ bedroom window and waited for him to stir. Myles didn’t like waking before 11a.m. and it was almost that.
Myles pulled back the curtain. “Hang on.”
A few moments later, Myles opened his front door. Emerson smiled at Myles as he rubbed his eyes. He was still dressed in pajamas. “Where have you been, Emerson?”
Myles nodded slowly and stared at Emerson. “You look better for it, but something’s eating you. What is it?”
Emerson shrugged. “Can I come in?”
“Sure.” Myles stepped away from the door. “Just watch the cables,” he said.
“Nobody who doesn’t deserve it,” said Myles. “I think we have a right to know the truth about what the governments of the world are up to.”
Emerson wasn’t sure how to respond to that comment. “Can you get me an anonymous connection?”
“Sure thing, my friend, who you going to hook up with?”
“The frickin’ US National Security Agency? Shit, Emerson. Why?”
Emerson waved his prosthetic arm in the air. “I’ve got an account.”
Myles eyes widened. “Holy crap. What were you doing over in Afghanistan?”
“I wasn’t in Afghanistan, Myles. I was chasing a major terrorist group somewhere else.”
“La-la-la-la-laaa…” Myles covered his ears with both hands. “Don’t tell me anything—”
Emerson swiped one of Myles’ hands away. “Myles! They’re here, or at least I think they are.”
“In Stirling North?”
“Yes. I need your help.”
Myles exhaled and sat on his sofa in front of what looked like an exploded laptop computer—the cover had been removed and cables ran from it across the floor—and he typed in a series of commands. He looked up at Emerson. “Can you connect via wireless?”
“Password’s USS Enterprise—no spaces and 3, not E.”
“Seriously? You’re so old-school, Myles.”
Myles laughed. “Nobody can get through the layers of my security protocols”
Emerson believed him, Myles took computer security seriously.
Emerson’s throat tightened, and he swallowed a few times. He stepped away from Myles to get some privacy. Even though he’d used it to capture Dimples’ crime scene, he had vowed he wouldn’t use his arm again. It was a tool of the military, but this was important. He moved his good hand over the cyber implant of his left arm. The screen came to life and bathed him in an orange glow.
Emerson entered a password and then leaned in so that he could provide a retinal imprint and connect via a highly secure encrypted sub net within the dark web.
“Sweet,” whispered Myles from across the room.
Emerson typed in some search terms into the NSA’s intranet search and waited. Stirling North was a bit off the map, so if anything had occurred around town involving Shudde-M’ell and his group of Chthonian, it’d come up.
It took a moment for two reports to surface. One was a HUMINT report from the Horn, where one of the local sources had mentioned Stirling North. It was probably nothing, but the other caught Emerson’s eye. A local police report from the Stirling North police sergeant was quoted as seeing strange creatures out by the lead mine. By the description they were Chthonian. There was nothing else in the report, but an NSA analyst had added a comment against the report. Emerson opened it and read the one word response. All it said was Coltan. Emerson logged out and shut down the display.
“What do you know about Coltan?”
Myles frowned and shook his head. He leaned forward and typed on his computer.
“Coltan is short for columbite-tantalite, otherwise known as tantalite. It’s a dull black metallic ore, and tantalum is manufactured from it for capacitors and consumer goods. Coltan mining has been used to finance serious conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Myles looked up. “Does that help?”
Emerson nodded, and he wondered if that’s what had been on Amye’s kitchen floor.
“Finance serious conflict…” said Myles. “Does that mean what I think it does?”
Emerson nodded again. “I think I know what they are doing here.”
“They?” Myles frowned. “No, wait, don’t tell me.”
Emerson swallowed. If the Chthonian were mining under Stirling North to fund Shudde-M’ell’s organization, then it needed to stop. Damien had to be involved. He had to be.
“Emerson, what are you going to do?”
“I didn’t think you wanted to know.”
“I know,” said Myles, “but someone’s got to look out for you.”
“Okay then, but only because you asked. I’m going to stop them.”
Myles was silent for a long time before he spoke. “You’ve changed, Emerson. You’re not the same man who left and joined the army.”
“I’m the same person, Myles, I just had time to think about what’s important.”
“You wouldn’t have a private account somewhere I could store some data?”
“Sure, why? No don’t tell me!” He logged in. “Whatever it is, I don’t want to know.”
“I understand, but things might get tough for you.”
“It’s fine. Download whatever you need. Your secret is safe with me.”
Emerson downloaded the entire contents of his cyber arm to Myles’ account, including the G’harane fragments. The complete deciphered text, yet unread by any human. There would be time for that later, after he had spoken to Amye. “Don’t let anyone see this! Nobody. If I die, keep it hidden”
“You’re not going to die.”
“Just keep it hidden. Can you?”
“Yes. What else?” said Myles, blowing air forcefully from his cheeks.
“I’m going to check out the lead mines. Want to drive me out there?”
“Sure.” Myles stood up. “Just let me get dressed.”
“Drive in slowly, in case there are people there,” said Emerson as they approached the gates to the mine out on the edge of town.” It was true they could have walked. It wasn’t that far, but Emerson wanted to get there quickly, and see what had been going on. He had no way of knowing if there would be anyone there.
“What are we going to do when we get to the mine?” asked Myles
“We?” said Emerson.
“Yes.” Myles nodded.
“You are going to hide the car and stay out of sight until I’m done.”
Myles frowned. “Don’t you think you’ll need some help?”
“No,” Emerson shook his head. “Why is that?”
“Well, you know, for one thing, you’re missing an arm.”
“It works just fine,” lied Emerson. Either way, the report that he had read might come to nothing. The mine would be abandoned.
“What do you expect to find?” asked Myles. He pulled up near an old dilapidated shed that marked the mine’s entrance.
“I don’t know. Lead. Coltan. Tantalum.” He turned and faced Myles. “Monsters,” he said. The attempt at humor helped settle the butterflies that circled in his stomach. He pushed open the door and stepped from the car and listened, but everything seemed calm. A few crows called out in the distance. He closed the door and spoke quietly to Myles through the open window. “Whatever happens, stay out of sight, and don’t, under any circumstances, come in.”
“Ok,” said Myles, but he shook his head. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Myles shrugged. “The chains on the shed door have been unthreaded. It’s unlocked. It’s never that way.”
Emerson stepped away from the car so he could see the front of the small shed. It was true. “Could mean anything,” he said, but Myles was right, the area had a bad feeling about it, and an itch ran along Emerson’s back. “I’ll be back in an hour, tops.”
Emerson crept over to the shed and moved the chain and a discarded brass lock half buried in the red soil with his foot. He heard Myles drive away slowly. Myles would be parking a hundred meters or so away under that small copse of trees. The car’s engine went quiet, and all Emerson could hear was the cawing of the crows again. He studied the cloudless sky and wondered what he was doing out here. He pulled the shed door open and peered inside. Cool air swam out and pressed against his face. It smelled fresh, and he couldn’t hear anything unusual, no voices or unexplained sounds. He stepped inside and pulled the door closed behind him. The dim light was barely enough to see the large, square-cut entrance into the side of the hill. Emerson strode into the darkness until the light behind him faded. He stopped, stood once again and listened, but he couldn’t hear anything. It was likely the walls would muffle any sound. He cursed for not thinking about bringing a torch, and turned on the cyber tech screen of his arm. The soft, orange light ebbed across the wide tunnel.
He crept down the tunnel and it opened up into a great cavern. Eight other tunnels spiraled out of the central cavern in a wagon wheel array. Emerson stopped near the edge and stepped forward, but he heard movement and stopped as a Chthonian stepped from a far tunnel.
The blue glow of the creature was followed by another. He crouched down and covered his tech. He turned the device off so that the light vanished. Another Chthonian, and another passed through the tunnels ahead of him, twenty, or thirty followed in a blur. The report had been right.
He waited until they had gone, and then turned on his tech and pulled down his shirt until the light was barely visible. Enough for him to navigate across the cavern and into the tunnel behind the Chthonian.
Ahead, the tunnel opened up again into a series of larger caverns. They were all there ten or so Chthonian, circling a tall creature in the middle. Emerson had never met Shudde-M’ell before, but he had seen imagery of the terrorist while he had worked out on the Horn. The vile creature was here, and it had something to do with Damien.
The thought of Damien, made him freeze. It was likely that the man was around here with them, somewhere close. He turned and looked in the other direction and saw him, too late to raise his hands as the butt of a rifle smashed into the side of Emerson’s head.
Emerson grunted from the impact and staggered forward. He fell to his knees.
“Emerson, I never gave you your hero’s welcome.” Damien laughed. He stood on Emerson’s cyber arm and smashed the rifle butt into the side of Emerson’s face again.
Pain tore through Emerson. Bright light lit behind his eyes and he felt giddy. He looked up at Damien with blurred vision, unsure how to respond. He wiped his face and could feel blood ooze from the cut.
“I told you to keep out of my way, but now you are going to pay.” The man stepped fully on his cyber arm, with both feet and jumped. He drove the butt of the rifle down hard on the join between the implant and Emerson’s flesh.
Emerson cried out and felt the implant tear buckle. He made a fist with his good hand and raised it high. With all the might he could muster, he drove his fist towards Damien, but one of the Chthonian creatures intervened.
It knocked his hand away and another of the creatures held him. He smelled the Chthonian around him and struggled, but it was futile.
The creature leaned in, and Emerson stared into its hypnotic eyes. Damien jumped on his arm again. He could almost hear the bones in his arm break, and his prosthetic limb gave way. If Emerson hadn’t been under the influence of the Chthonian’s hypnotic control, he would have screamed out loud. Instead the screams echoed around inside his head until he passed out.
Emerson woke. His arm ached, and the right side of his face stung. He’d been dreaming about Amye again, about a future where they were happily married and farming the land. Somebody kicked him in the ribs, hard, and he doubled up into a ball on the soft ground. Emerson realized that he still had his arm. His head felt it was at the end of a pendulum swinging back and forth; it made him giddy and sick. He ran his hand across his face and wiped away blood.
A large squid-like creature stood in front of him. It had to be the terrorist Shudde-M’ell.
“Is this the man?” asked Shudde-M’ell. He leaned in close to Emerson.
“Yes,” said Damien.
“And The G’harne fragments? They are within the tech?”
“I believe so, Great One,” said Damien. “If I’m not mistaken he downloaded the details about the G’harne Fragments before the site was destroyed.”
Emerson looked up at Damien. “Is that what this is all about?” said Emerson. “Is that why you brought these disgusting creatures here?”
“Tell me,” said Shudde-M’ell. “How much were you able to translate?”
Emerson smiled in spite of himself and prepared to tell the lie. “That H5N1 Flu you gave everyone out on the Horn? Well, it helped, it gave me a different perspective on the way the coded sequence within the fragments were ordered, and I was able to translate all of it.”
Shudde-M’ell stepped back abruptly like he’d been hit. One of his tentacles snaked toward Emerson, and an eye formed at the end. The giant orb stared at Emerson for a moment before it retreated.
Emerson wondered if he had detected a mix of fear and surprise, almost respect, in the creature.
“Did you read it?” asked Shudde-M’ell.
“No,” said Emerson, with disappointment. “I was too sick with the flu.”
“It’s contained within the arm?” Shudde-M’ell’s face twitched.
“You can’t get it. It’s military grade, encrypted, and they revoked my access once I became too ill with H5N1 to make clear decisions.”
Shudde-M’ell nodded as if he understood. “That is a shame. I would have liked to read of the G’harne Fragments again, before they were lost from the world, but never mind.” The creature turned and faced Damien. “Burn it, burn the tech so that it can never be recovered.” He pointed to Emerson. “And tie him up and quiet him,” said Shudde-M’ell.
“You don’t want him dead?” Damien frowned, and disappointment swam over his face. His shoulders drooped.
“Leave him. We may need to use him again,” said Shudde-M’ell. “If not, you can return and kill him.”
“It will be my pleasure.”
“Now take me to where they mine the Coltan,” said Shudde-M’ell. “Which tunnel takes us to the source?”
“There is no tunnel, Great One. We must travel over land.”
“In daylight? We cannot.”
“But, Great One, you must,” said Damien. “There is no other way.”
“We can’t cross the open land. There are bees there.”
Damien laughed at the absurd joke. “Don’t worry, the bees are harmless. They are more docile than the honey bees further south. I’ll keep them away, Great One.”
“Do not assume to know everything about us, human.”
“Great One?” Damien frowned. “They are harmless bees.”
“Not to us. Not if we are stung. We will follow you, but if I lose any of my people it will be on you. Are we clear?”
“Of course, Great One.”
“Bind him,” Shudde-M’ell said to Damien, “and we will go.”
Damien knelt down beside Emerson and snarled. “I’d kill you, Emerson, but I want you to know that I’m taking Amye with me, and I’m going to kill her straight after she tells us where her property’s tunnel is—”
“All those tunnel were filled in years ago. You’ll be wasting your time.”
“You’re wrong, Emerson—”
Shudde-M’ell stepped forward. “Is this right?”
“No, Great One,” said Damien. He faced Emerson. “I see what you are doing, but we are going there. She will never again be yours—”
Fury like nothing Emerson had felt before filled him. His muscles tightened. Emerson twisted on the ground and he kicked out at Damien with every last ounce of strength he had.
Damien’s feet slipped out from under him. The man fell hard, half on Emerson, and grunted.
Emerson struggled onto his side and head butted Damien in the face. Damien’s nose gave way and Emerson felt blood, Damien’s blood, cover his face.
“You wait,” yelled Damien, and he wiped blood away from his broken nose. “You and she are the same. Spoilt farmer’s children. You’ve had everything handed to you on a silver plate. Me, I’ve had to work for everything I ever had. Nobody ever gave me anything. I’m going to enjoy this.”
“You’re crazy,” said Emerson. He’d never had any help and had only ever work long tiring days on the farm. “If I’m going to die here anyway, just tell me one thing. Did you kill Dimples?
Damien laughed. He leaned in close and blood dripped over Emerson’s face. “Yes, I sliced her throat. I thought of you and Amye when I did it.”
Damien picked up his rifle off the ground. “I hope you die in here, and slowly. When I’m done, Amye will die quickly.” He raised his rifle into the air and smashed it onto the side of Emerson’s head.
Emerson fought the pain and let the darkness take him. It was better than the sound of Damien’s laughter.
“Emerson, wake up.”
Emerson opened his eyes to torchlight and realized he was still in the dark cave. “You can stop shaking me,” he said and noticed he’d been untied. His wound had been dressed with a section of Myles’ t-shirt. His friend had been busy. “What did I say about not coming in?”
“You said terrorists were here. I watched them,” said Myles. “Strange creatures with Damien.”
“Did they see you?”
“No, I’d have used this on them.” Myles brandished his father’s old 7.62 mm Australian L1A1 Self Loading Rifle.
Emerson smiled in spite of his circumstances. “Where did you hide the SLR?”
“I keep it in the wheel well of the car, just in case.”
Emerson laughed. “Figures, Myles. You never cease to surprise me. You wouldn’t still have that box of hollow point shells by any chance?”
“In the car glove box compartment.”
Emerson chewed on his bottom lip. A weapon with a decent range. Perhaps he could get a shot off. “Help me up,” he said. “I’ll see if we can’t see any of them through the sights.”
“No, you can’t,” said Myles. He shook his head. “They’d be over the rise by now. Close though.”
Emerson sighed. “That’s ok.” He wondered what he should do. He was only one person with an antique gun and one arm. Part of him said he should get help, but real help was days away in an NSA anti-terrorist cell that knew about these type of strange activities. Hell, Emerson wasn’t supposed to know about its existence, but he’d stumbled across a classified report by an Australian analyst that had mentioned Code 89. There had been enough in the report that was similar to what had been occurring out in the Horn and now here for it to make sense. Emerson had looked up the man’s name, Harrison Peel, where he worked. If only he could get the man and his team here now.
“How is your arm, Emerson?”
Emerson held up his stump and moved it in the torchlight. “It looks worse than it is. The nerves have mostly died around it. I can’t really feel anything,” lied Emerson. He’d hated the cyber attachment for so long, a symbol of his failed life with Amye and Stirling North, and yet here he was. He realized it was a part of him, and now it was gone. If he wasn’t careful he’d be an empty shell before too long.
“What are we going to do?”
“Finish what I started.” Emerson stood. He bit the inside of his cheek and squeezed until he could taste blood. More pain endorphins flooded through his body. He could do this. “They are on foot, so there’s still a slim chance. I need you to drive as fast as you can out to Amye’s place. Let’s go. ”
Myles followed. “Not the police station?”
“No. We need to stop at the back paddock of the farm too,” said Emerson.
“What do you need?”
“Bees. Swarms of my angry blue banded bees.”
Myles coasted down the street near Amye’s place and stopped a house away.
Emerson patted the box of bees on the car seat. “Myles, I need you to do something for me.”
“Name it,” said Myles.
“Take the box of bees, and make sure you’re not seen. Go down to the back of Amye’s paddock and shake them up. Release the bees, and run back to your car. Then get out of the area.”
Myles grinned like he thought it was a great idea. “I can do that. I’ll come back and help.”
“No. Go home. Leave this to me. I want you to phone someone. Just in case…”
“There’s a guy I heard of, an Australian, name’s Harrison Peel. He works in Washington. I want you to tell him about what’s happened, but more importantly, he needs that translated copy of the G’harne Fragments and my files you’ve stored.” Emerson leaned further into the car. “The number is in my bag at home. Promise me!”
Myles just stared at the rifle. “How are you going to shoot with one hand? That thing kicks like a mule.”
“I just will. Promise me, Myles, and mean it this time.”
Myles closed his eyes and nodded. “Ok. I’m not happy about it, but yes.”
“Good man,” said Emerson. He stepped from the car, knelt down and gripped the rifle butt between his knees and cocked the weapon. He clicked the safety off and nodded to Myles. He crept across Amye’s front yard into the house through the open front door as quietly as he could.
Inside the cool, dimly lit room, Emerson could hear movement in the kitchen. He held the SLR ready at the hip and strode inside.
Damien stepped behind Amye and put a knife to her throat. There were several Chthonian creatures standing nearby with Shudde-M’ell.
“How did you escape?” said Shudde-M’ell.
“He had help,” said Damien. He frowned and glanced behind Emerson.
Emerson took a step toward Amye.
“Don’t come any closer, Emerson. I’ll use the knife. You know I will,” said Damien.
Emerson gritted his teeth.
Amye’s eyes widened. “Emerson—”
“Quiet.” Damien pulled her back toward the outside door and used her as a shield. He looked over at one of the Chthonian. “Mzoambi,” he said and nodded.
The Chthonian stepped forward and made a humming noise. The sound burrowed itself in his head, and he couldn’t help but look into its hypnotic eyes.
It wasn’t going to happen again, not now that he was here with Amye. He closed his eyes and fired from the hip. The creature was thrown backward. Emerson opened his eyes and watched the thing fall lifeless to the floor.
Shudde-M’ell turned without a word and ran from the kitchen out the back door.
Emerson turned the rifle toward Damien, aware that he wouldn’t be able to fire it until Amye was out of the way.
“Don’t hide behind Amye like a coward. Release her, and I’ll let you go free,” said Emerson. “But you’re not leaving with her. It’s over.”
Amye smiled and Emerson could see the truth in Grams’ words. Amye did still love him. Everything would be all right. It had to be.
“You make me sick,” said Damien. Both of you.” He pulled Amye back against the outside screen.
Emerson raised the rifle, and looked for a way to shoot Damien in the leg, or the arm, anything without harming Amye, but there were no opportunities. Not yet. After everything Damien had done to him, to Dimples, he vowed he would honour his word. He would let Damien go. Amye was worth it. “I mean it. It’s over. Whatever you think, you’ve won.”
“I have,” he said. He shoved Amye forward toward Emerson, at the same time slicing her throat open with the knife.
Emerson saw the life vanish from her eyes as she fell to the ground.
“No!” Emerson rushed forward.
He knelt down and covered her wound with his hand, careful not to strangle her, and he tried to stem the bleeding. But he couldn’t. Nothing he did seemed to help. She never opened her eyes again.
“Stay with me, Amye! No!” But she was dead. Gone.
Rage tore through him like wildfire. He picked up the rifle and ran outside.
Damien was already halfway across Amye’s back paddock. Emerson knelt into the hot red soil. He adjusted the rifle’s sight and lay down onto the sun baked soil. He took a deep, slow breath to still his rage-induced shaking. He pulled the rifle in tight against his shoulder, took aim at Damien through the sights, and pulled the rifle against his stump. He slowed his breathing and tightened his grip on the trigger. He held his breath and re-checked the sights and squeezed off two shots. It was enough. When he looked up, Damien had fallen.
Emerson scanned the horizon and could see that Myles had done his job. The bees were doing theirs, and the Chthonians ran everywhere trying to avoid their toxic sting. Many of them fell down like skittles. But just to be sure, he lined as many as he could in his sights and fired. A hollow point round did a lot of damage before it exited the body, and neither Damien nor the creatures he had enlisted to whatever end would have known what hit them. It didn’t give him any satisfaction. All he was now was a surgeon cutting out poison.
If Shudde-M’ell or any of his army made it to safety, they’d try and exploit the content of his arm, but they’d be in for a shock. It was so deeply encrypted it would take years to break it open. Who knew, by then he could be back in the army working on Myles’ backup of the G’harne Fragments with a new cyber arm. He pushed that thought away and fired the rifle again.
He didn’t stop until nothing moved across Amye’s property. By then he could hear police sirens approach, and an ambulance. Myles would have called them. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Amye was gone. Dimples was gone. Nothing would bring them back.
He stepped inside and sat beside Amye on the kitchen floor. He stroked her hair and her beautiful face, and he cried until the tears blurred his vision, until the ambulance took her away forever. More than anything, he would have loved the opportunity to give her a hero’s welcome.
David Kernot is an Australian author living in the Mid North of South Australia and when he’s not writing, he’s riding his Harley Davidson through the wheat, wine, and wool farming lands. He writes contemporary fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and is the author of over fifty published short stories in a variety of anthologies, magazines, and eZines in Australia, the US, and in Canada, including the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror (2011,2013) , and Award Winning Australian Writing (2012). More information can be found at www.davidkernot.com
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Story illustration by Max Martelli.