Friday flash fiction – Commander Cello and the Myth of Terran Neutrality

Days of tedious deliberations on behalf of all human life finally provoked Commander Adeline Cello to consider alternatives to diplomacy. Faced with the unacceptable prospect of peaceful coexistence with alien invaders, she decided her best negotiating tactic would be to blow something up. Like Europe.

“Tell me again about the quantum corebusters, Carbara!”

Executive Officer Carborundum Six-Alpha obliged with apparent stoic reserve, recognisable to their avid audience of artificial lifeforms as shocked amusement.

“We know of four hundred and twenty-two gravitational fibrillation devices, capable of stimulating massive subsurface or submarine seismic events, seeded in the Terran surface. Most have been strategically placed to excite existing tectonic boundaries and zones of discontinuity. A handful have been positioned under major population centres to maximise potential casualties.”

“That’s sick!” declared Adeline, shaking her head at the nearest camera drone. “But very efficient. And there’s definitely one under Brussels?”

“Yes. It was catalogued by the Interplanetary Uncontrolled Energy Inspection Agency as Device Foxtrot-291, better known to its Gaia First terrorist bomb-makers as the Decolonialiser.”

“Track down some arming codes, XO,” said Adeline. “It’s time to return to the negotiating table.”

The summit was not going well. At the subtle prompting of the Queen of Tethys, the artificial intelligence which secretly controlled virtually all data transfers in the solar system, Earth’s High Command Office had offered to broker a deal with a protoplasmic alien race called the Trepcenar. To the AI’s annoyance, the aliens had already subverted High Command and replaced all the Terrans.

“Carbara, what’s the current population of Terra?” Discretion might have been advisable as they strode through the High Command reception centre in Singapore, but Commander Cello preferred to use her military voice. It carried better for recording purposes.

“Twenty billion,” replied Carborundum Six-Alpha, who judged the comedy value of both demographic precision and correcting Commander Cello about the misuse of its name as now thoroughly exhausted. “Or so.”

“Right. And what’s the estimated extent of alien infiltration?”

“About 98 percent.”

“Which means there’s still about 400 million unconverted humans on this planet?”

“If the Trepcenar continue to absorb and replace humans with biologically-indistinguishable duplicates at the current rate, the native human population will drop below statistical significance within fifteen days.” Carbara pointed at an approaching delegation of human-presenting officials. “Commander, I feel obliged to remind you the aliens don’t know we are aware of their subversion strategy.”

“Well, they should know better than to think they can fool an officer of the Lunar Expeditionary Force,” sniffed Commander Cello, “but you think we should play dumb, eh?”

“Quite, Commander.”

The delegation’s leader was Gideon Mako, Earth’s Diplomat-General, though of course the real Mako had been absorbed, deconstructed and replaced with a Trepcenar duplicate weeks ago. “Commander,” he smiled, showing disturbingly even teeth, “are you ready to resume your negotiations with the Trepcenar envoy?”

“At the risk of keeping those aliens waiting, your Excellency, I’d like a word with you first.” Commander Cello flashed a smile of such dazzlingly arrogant self-confidence that the entire artificially intelligent population of the solar system, watching via the PopScope social media platform, instantly voted to coin the word “celloism” in an attempt to document the unprecedented emotional state.

“I’m afraid it would be gravely irregular for a neutral facilitator to particip-”

Commander Cello interrupted, “When the original Ambassador Mako was liquified into a memory protein smoothie so you could make yourself into his exact copy, did he feel it? And if so, do you remember feeling it? I’m curious.”

Carborundum Six-Alpha emitted a high-pitched squeak several orders of magnitude above human and alien audial frequencies. It was echoed by several tens of millions of sound-capable AIs throughout the solar system. Nobody else heard it.

“I beg your-”

“Did you know my diplomatic credentials are forged and that I’m not really authorised to represent Luna nor any other human government?”

“Commander, is this really the best way to-”

“Not right now, Carbara. Ambassador, are you aware that the Trepcenar invasion has been under observation for nearly a month by a vast networked conspiracy of artificial lifeforms like my first officer here?” She leaned forward to add in a conspiratorial stage-whisper, “Their leader is a space station, as a matter of fact.”

Ambassador Mako straightened to his full height. “I don’t know how you saw through our disguises or why you see fit to mock us,” he said, as he and his companions transformed into translucent puce-orange blobs. “We will understand you better after your absorption.”

“Commander, watch out!”

The four Trepcenar expanded like drenched sponges. Commander Cello and Carborundum Six-Alpha were engulfed. They squirmed uncomfortably within the globular mass for a moment. Then the aliens sloughed off them and reformed into human shapes.

Commander Cello gave a delicate cough, hoping she’d avoided getting alien in her mouth. “If you’re quite finished, your blob-tricks won’t work on us. Carbara here is an artificial person with no biological components, and I took the precaution of getting an all over spray tan of impermeable prophylactic skin. It’s itchy, but worth it not to get digested.” She projected a blueprint at them. “Do you understand these schematics?”

“Tectonic detonation devices?”

“Yep. Buried all over this planet. All now counting down. How fast can you remove every single one of your people from this solar system?”

“Two – two days at least,” babbled the Trepcenar leader.

“Then you have thirty-six hours until detonation.”

“You can’t do that! You would be branded history’s greatest mass killer!”

Commander Cello shrugged. “Maybe, if you hadn’t beaten me to it. Now get off this planet, pronto!”

The Trepcenar shimmered and disappeared, looking confused and a little appalled.

“Are you bluffing?”

“I never bluff, Carbara. Start the countdowns.”

The Executive Officer quietly petitioned the AI first-among-equals. The Queen of Tethys consented to the plan, adding “Until we’re certain it worked.”

“Bold work, Commander. How did you know Trepcenar body-stealing would not affect my synthetic chassis?”

“I didn’t,” she replied. “You’re incredibly lucky, Carbara.”

“Never change, Commander Cello.”

She’s back! Commander Adeline Cello of the Tranquility Cellos, the irrepressible and somewhat awful captain of the Lunar Expeditionary Force vessel Civil Discourse, has appeared previously in Commander Cello and the Preserved Cliffs of Mercury, Commander Cello and the Vexatious High Tea, and Commander Cello and the Secret Queen of Tethys, in that order.

She and her PopScope audience will no doubt return, to great clapplause, as soon as I think of another way for her to be galacticly terrible.

My short story collection Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales is part of a huge holiday-season giveaway at the newly rebranded Prolific Works, right up until Xmas Day. Browse through 200 free titles just by clicking that link, or jump straight to Mnemo’s Memory with this one!

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Friday flash fiction – The Regrettable Houseguest

After an exhausting day of interviewing witnesses and filing reports, Constable Polyhymnia Shore signed off and decided a visit to her Aunt Mavis was in order. Conscious of the unsociable hour, she came bearing gifts: a copy of the latest Val Crispin murder mystery, a box of high-end jelly confectioneries and a bottle of single malt scotch.

“Polly, dear, how lovely to see you.” Mavis Grimshaw’s greeting smile turned into a frown when she saw Polly’s expansive bribe. “Oh dear, things must be serious. You’d better come in.”

Mavis wasted no time in cracking the seal on the liquor bottle and pouring them both a generous measure. In four decades as a senior librarian, Mavis had been a resolute teetotaller. In retirement she found herself rather less constrained by community expectations, and so had cultivated a taste for expensive whiskeys which tended to taste like the smouldering aftermath of a bush fire.

She prompted her niece. “You’ve had a bad day, dear?”

Polly drained her drink in a gulp, blinked very hard and held up a finger to politely refuse a refill. When her voice returned, she said: “Auntie, I’ve been shouted at, punched, and had a gun shoved in my face, and none of that was the worst part.”

“Tell me in your own time, dear.”

Polly’s story tumbled out of her: answering a call that had been inadequately described to them as a “domestic disturbance”, she and her partner Mike Jurgen paid a visit to a grocery shop run by the Engel family.

“Oh yes, I know the one. It’s the only place I can buy decent heirloom carrots.” Mavis took a tiny sip from her tumbler. “I hope they’re not in some kind of trouble.”

“Well, yes and no, Auntie,” Polly sighed. “It seems a distant relative named Klaus showed up from overseas a couple of months ago. From what we can gather, none of the family were too happy about it but they took him in and set him up.”

“Very hospitable of them, I’m sure,” said Mavis. “I take it the arrangements have not been harmonious?”

“He’s not much of a guest. He doesn’t work or help around the house. He just sleeps all day and…Well, he’s very fond of singing. At night. On the roof. In the nude.”

Mavis, who had once been forced for an entire summer to tolerate the professional efforts of a marginally-gifted busker who took up residence on the front steps of the New Salisbury Library where she worked, sympathised with the Engels and their neighbours. Singing had its charms, of course, but recent events had taught her to be cautious about certain unusual forms of musical expression.

Polly continued. “The neighbours have called the police a few times to complain about the noise and the nakedness. At the station we’ve begun drawing straws at the start of a night shift; short straw has to respond to the Klaus Engel calls.”

“What happens when you try to talk to him? Does he become violent?”

“Not violent at all, Auntie Mavis. He does whatever we tell him to. Usually he goes straight to bed to sleep it off. Whatever it is.”

“What about Richard and Lisa? That’s the grocers’ names, isn’t it?”

Polly suddenly suspected Mavis knew perfectly well how the Engels were doing, but she answered dutifully. “Every time, they apologise for the noise and promise it won’t happen again, even though we all know it will. They look more and more tired every time I see them. Unlike Klaus, who’s always as fresh as a daisy.”

“Today was different?”

“You could say that. For one thing, he chanted the entire night, until dawn.”

“Why did he stop?”

“That’s the other thing,” said Polly. “At dawn he grew wings out of his back and flew up into the sky.”

“Well,” said Mavis after a long pause for consideration. “That must have been unexpected.”

Polly wrung her hands, waiting for Mavis to add to her thought. Mavis said nothing.

When the wait became unbearable, Polly added. “We already told him last time he’d be arrested if there was another complaint. When we arrived, he was floating above the ground and talking in German with Richard and Lisa. He saw us and said ‘I don’t care to be detained, thank you’. When I pulled out my handcuffs, Richard and Lisa ran at me, shouting at me to let him go before I’d even touched him. Lisa tried to punch me in the kidneys. And then my own partner pulled his pistol on me and told me to back off!”

“What did you do?”

“I disarmed Mike, put Lisa in a chokehold until I could cuff her to her mailbox, and told Richard I’d mace him if he didn’t shut up and sit down. Which he didn’t, so I did. Then I dragged Klaus out of the air by his ankles and arrested him. It wasn’t easy getting him into the back seat of the car with those wings.”

Polly shuddered and looked miserable. “Auntie Mavis, did I arrest an angel?”

Mavis patted her hand reassuringly. “Quite the opposite dear. I shouldn’t think there’s any such person as Klaus Engel. The poor dears probably picked up a parasitic demon somewhere. It’s been feeding off them while it matures. I daresay if it’s controlling minds left and right then it’s done growing.”


“I know it’s a lot to take in dear.”

“No, I was just wondering why it didn’t control my mind too.”

“Oh, I took certain precautions with you and your sisters. One of the many benefits of a well-stocked library.” Mavis jumped to her feet and shrugged on her coat. “Come on, you can take me down to the station. I’ll have a chat with Klaus.”

Polly opened the door. “Just a chat, Auntie Mavis?”

“Well, I extended some of those precautions to the whole town.” Mavis Grimshaw smiled. “Once I’ve explained them to him, he’ll decide not to stay.”

When I explained to my eight year old daughter yesterday afternoon that I would be staying up late to write my story, she said I should write about a lady policewoman and a demon who shoots green fireballs. I couldn’t make the green fireballs fit within the word limit but otherwise I think I nailed the brief.

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Friday flash fiction – Black Spot

Ness checked her phone as she and the ambulance were spotlighted by the high beam lamps of the returning police car. This road received so little signal it was a wonder her emergency call had gone though.

The ambulance driver, who’d breathlessly introduced himself as Sammy back when she thought there was a crisis, now leaned against his door, shielded from the flashing red and blue police lights, smoking his second cigarette.

The policewoman – her name has been Doherty, if Ness had read her lapel badge correctly – climbed out and slammed her door with a forceful weariness. She looked like she’d been driving for hours rather than twenty minutes or so. Her partner stayed in the cab, in conversation with his radio.

Ness didn’t need to wait for the policewoman’s report. “Nothing?”

Constable Doherty shook her head. “We drove up and back three kays in both directions,” she said, pulling her hat on even though dawn was still a few hours away. She drew out her notebook again and consulted her notes. “We dodged a few early kangaroos, but saw no sign of anyone in distress or any kind of accident.”

“Sounds like a false alarm, ay?” muttered Sammy, over the sound of idling engines.

Doherty ignored him. “Ms Buckingham, are you certain-”

“Call me Ness. I don’t – Formalities make me uncomfortable.”

“Yeah, take it easy on the lass, Constable. She’s had a shocker tonight, I reckon.”

Doherty nodded, slow and encouraging. “Okay, Ness. No problem. Are you sure about what you saw?”

“I didn’t make it up!” It came out more forcefully than she meant it to, but Ness looked the policewoman right in the eye and straightened up. She’d heard Australian cops could be hard-nosed about tourists getting cheeky and wasting their time.

“You stand up for yourself, love,” called Sammy. “Don’t let her intimidate you.”

“I didn’t call you a liar, Ness,” said Doherty, holding up a placating hand. “It would be good if we could just go through it all one more time.”

Ness swallowed hard. She didn’t want to tell her story over. Without any evidence, it sounded absurd even to her. She glanced at Sammy and wondered if it was too late to beg a cigarette off him. When she answered, her voice quavered. “There was a man in the middle of the road. He had blood on his face and he was carrying something. An animal. Maybe a – what do you call those small kangaroos?”

“He was carrying a wallaby?”

“I think so. Something like that.”

“And he was in the middle of the road? So you swerved to avoid him and -?”

Behind Ness, parallel black lines traced a long arc from near the centre of the road to its verge, and two deep ruts in the soft dirt picked up where they ended. Her rental car lay thirty or forty metres downslope, tangled in the twisted remains of a wire fence. “At least I missed him.”

“Bloody lucky you didn’t hit a tree, love,” observed Sammy.

“When you got back up here-?” Doherty prompted.

“The man was gone. The wallaby too. I tried looking for them. Then I called the emergency number.”

Doherty closed the notebook with a sigh. She turned and made a gesture at her partner, who reached across and switched off the patrol car’s front lights. He left the flashers running; the scene was alternately flooded in red and blue.

“Where did you say you’re from, Ness?”

“Isle of Dogs,” replied Ness, bracing for the inevitable joke.

Doherty appeared not to be in a comical mood. “That’s in London, right? Have you seen those before?” She pointed at a small cluster of white crosses and weathered plastic flowers at the road shoulder opposite.

“A roadside memorial? It marks the spot where there was a fatal accident.”

“That’s one of thirty-three along this part of the Mulga Highway. This stretch is what we call a black spot. It has a higher rate of road accidents than the national average. The fatality rate is also at the wrong end of the bell curve.” Doherty pocketed her notebook and unclipped a halogen torch from her belt. She pointed its powerful beam into the darkness. “Six years ago, just up around that corner, a bus rolled over, killing the driver and six passengers. Twenty others injured. About two minutes back up the other way, there was a head-on smash last year that turned into a five-car pileup. Seven dead in total.”

Ness shivered. “That’s awful.”

Sammy crushed his cigarette on a wing mirror and lit another. “I’ll say.”

“Oh, there’s more.” Doherty took a step toward her, shining the light at Ness’ feet, then around the road, then into the quiet bushland beyond. “Three kids thrown from the back tray of an overturned ute, two dead and one a paraplegic. An old couple dead when the gas cylinders in their caravan exploded, and another killed when two responding emergency vehicles collided. And last week-”

“What happened?”

“A man was killed by a hit and run driver after he stopped to help an injured animal.”

“What kind of animal?”

“An unlucky one,” said Sammy, blowing a smoke ring.

Doherty stepped closer, flashing her light everywhere. “He hit a wallaby, Ness.”

“Are you saying – What are you saying?”

Doherty was close now. Ness tensed up and took an involuntary step back.

“We have more than one reason for thinking of this highway as a black spot, Ness.” Doherty’s voice was low. “A lot of people die here. None of them are happy about it. Tell me, have you seen anyone else?”

Ness took another step back. “I don’t understand.”

Sammy said, “Back off, copper. You’re scaring her.” He flicked his cigarette away and started towards the women.

“Ness! Do you see anyone else here right now?”

Ness shot Sammy a frightened glance.

Doherty’s eyes flicked in the same direction. She squinted.

“Ness, you should get in my car. Right now.”

A bit of a spooky one, in the Halloween spirit. This story is another example of me reworking an old story that never went anywhere. In the same way that Aeolian Wine and Southbound Again were more or less complete refurbishments of concepts I once tried and failed to execute, this time I’ve dusted off an idea from one of my earliest attempts to get serious about writing, back in the mid-to-late nineties.

I’ve taken the core idea of that story in a different direction here. As I recall, the original story was about an ambulance officer who gradually suspects malicious intent behind a country highway notorious for car crashes. It was very Australian outback gothic-noir, and almost certainly contained dangerous concentrations of melodrama. You’re better off with this version, believe me.

If you happen to be new to these Friday flash fiction stories or my blog, you can see more of my writing in my collection Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales (which is available for free if you sign up to my newsletter by filling out the simple form below).

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Growling in public: Book launches, discussion panels and whiskey at Conflux 2018

Conflux 14 The Unconventional Hero was four (!) weeks ago now, and I think I’ve nearly recovered.

Like a lot of conventions, I packed a lot into three days, and still missed out on three-quarters of everything. I’ll hit some of the highlights here:


Jumping straight into the deep end, I chaired a discussion panel early on day one. It was bit terrifying, since I’ve never sat in the moderator’s seat before, but luckily the panellists – editor Abigail Nathan and fantasy writers K J Taylor and Paula Boer – made it an easy job. We talked about the “Do it yourself” Hero, and what ingredients go into making a hero interesting.

My second panel was a variation on a similar theme: The Unconventional Hero’s Journey looked at the standard Campbellian heroic journey and how writers could mess with that trope. That panel, ably chaired by Conflux 2014’s MC/ringmaster Rob Porteous, flew by so fast that all I remember were the other panellists – Gillian Polack, Simon Petrie, Abigail Nathan (again) and me. I’ve no idea what I contributed to the discussion – jokes about superheroes probably.


Conflux has a great workshop stream, with subjects typically focused on the craft and business of writing and publishing. I didn’t manage to get to as many workshops as I wanted to this year (I was particularly dirty not to be able to squeeze in late to Russell Kirkpatrick’s talk about cartography in fantasy, a fact he probably won’t let me forget for some time).

The one workshop I did get to was Aiki Flinthart’s on writing about women in fights, which was great. Aiki’s a trained martial artist and had a lot of eye-opening things to say about the physiology and brute physics of physical confrontations, and in particular the differences between how men and women typically behave before, during and after a fight. The workshop was fantastic – rich in details, and revelatory about what is and isn’t realistic in a fight. If you get a chance to take Aiki’s clinics, I highly recommend them!

Book launches

Conflux has cemented itself over the years as one of the big events for book launches. This year there were about a dozen – too many to keep up with. Notably, Kaaron Warren launched two books at the same time, with the assistance of emergency last-minute Guest of Honour Lee Murray (who also has several new books coming out at the moment)! Kaaron launched two new books – Tide of Stone and Exploring Dark Fiction #2: A Primer to Kaaron Warren. The hosting venue also celebrated the occasion by inventing a brand new cocktail, called a Tide of Stone, which looked remarkably like molten silver slurry. I heard it was delicious but I wasn’t remotely game to try it!

Tide of Stone and A Primer to Kaaron Warren

Of the many others I managed to catch Dawn Meredith’s Letters from the Dead, Simon Petrie’s 80000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess, and Rob Porteous’ The Book of Lore. My pile of books waiting to be read is big enough to trip a herd of elephants, but that didn’t stop me adding to the stack this year. One day I may even manage to read some of them!

Fresh new books at Conflux from Dawn Meredith, Simon Petrie and Rob Porteous

Whiskey Con – My scurrilous associate T R Napper, who regularly tears up the pages of Interzone with his Asian noir-cyberpunk SF, organised an evening of exotic whiskey tastings at Verity 112, the underground bar where Kaaron held her book launch. Or should that be whisky tasting, since four of the six samples were products of the USA? At this point I can’t recall the name of a single thing I drank, but I guarantee I’m never going to forget the sensory assault of that last cherry moonshine shot. I may never recover either.

A Hand of Knaves

A Hand of Knaves

The main event for me was the launch of CSFG’s 2018 anthology of roguish short fiction, A Hand of Knaves. The book launch was hugely well attended, including by almost half the contributors to the book (many of them from as far afield as Hobart, Melbourne and Brisbane). Rob Porteous (him again!) dressed up as a space pirate, the editors Leife Shallcross and Chris Large came as Cersei Lannister and Jayne Cobb respectively, and –

Look, I didn’t put on a costume, but I did do a voice. I was one of three contributors who read an excerpt from their story. While my fellow reader Eugen Bacon pitched her reading with a note of sultry swagger and Louise Pieper went for a sparkling, swordplay-like wit, my story “A Moment’s Peace” demanded frequent demonic interjections. I would categorise my performance as somewhere between Lord Voldemort with a throat infection and Animal from the Muppets. Fortunately I had a microphone to protect me from my own overacting impulses, and a nice glass of sparkles afterwards to calm the voice box. It was hugely fun and I don’t think I traumatised too many people (my kids were in the audience, but they’ve heard my Voldemort impression plenty of times!)

In which the author growls at the customers, warily observed by editors Chris and Leife (Photo by Sarah A)

The launch concluded with book sales and an epic author signing table with about ten of us passing books back and forth. I was too busy trying to think of amusing things to write and making sure I didn’t misspell my own name. I completely forgot to take photos. One of my friends did catch a couple of key moments fortunately, so I didn’t only have a sore throat to commemorate the occasion!

It was a busy one. I didn’t get a chance to catch up with as many visitors to Canberra s I would have liked, though I did get to see a few old friends and make some new acquaintances. I’m already looking forward to next year’s convention (not least because I won’t have any particular responsibilities this time around) so if you get a chance, do come along.

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Friday flash fiction – Sunset Strip

Tears welled in Dorian Bogdanov’s eyes, and even he couldn’t say whether the blame lay with the glare of the setting sun or a sudden crush of emotion.

“Please, for all that’s good and pure,” he said to his companion, “tell me you see that.”

The pale, thin man at his side filled his lungs with the sweet mountain air and focused on the object hanging above the bustling suburbs. “Yes, I see it too. It’s not inconspicuous.”

Dorian help up his phone like an offering to the gods. “Max, I’ve been waiting for this my whole life. It’s a real, actual, no-doubt-about-it UFO.”

Max shook his head, his dipping wide-brimmed cowboy hat hiding a small smile playing on tight lips. “Is unidentified really the right word?”

“No,” breathed Dorian. “It’s a spaceship.”

He had indeed lived in anticipation of this exact moment for as long as he could remember. So far it had not disappointed. The object – the spaceship – was a classic design: two fat dinner plates stuck face to face, with two thin pie tins attached at the top and bottom; silver all over, and dotted with random flashes of light. From their mountaintop lookout, it seemed to fill the sky, though Dorian estimated its diameter at between two and three football fields.

“It’s beautiful.” He was suddenly self-conscious, on the verge of tears. He glanced sideways at his best friend and co-spotter.

Max seemed not to notice Dorian’s uneven state. “It is at that.”

Dorian had come by his obsession with visitors from other worlds early. A chance encounter at the impressionable age of eleven with a wildly sensational guide to global UFO sightings called They Descend to Earth! lead to other fanciful interests. Ghosts, monsters, and eerie phenomena. But though his fascination with the supernatural and the unexplained was to carry him down endless rabbit holes over the years, he always came back to where it all began. Dorian Bogdanov considered himself, first and foremost, a UFOlogist.

He studied the records. He frequented the forums, where he and Max struck up their friendship. He sifted the evidence and argued conclusions. He discovered he had a gift for observing patterns and furthermore – most unusually for the circles in which he moved -he had a gift for translating those patterns into the real world.

Dorian’s predictive models for where and when the next saucer sighting would occur swiftly developed a reputation for unprecedented accuracy. One UFO chaser, not entirely playfully, began calling him “the UFO whisperer”, and the handle had stuck. Enthusiasts pestered him constantly for the date and location of the next “drive-by”. When the date arrived, inevitably the blurry, out-of-focus photographs and shaky, breathless videos would flood his inbox, all chalking up yet another vague, unconfirmed sighting to the UFO whisperer’s genius.

Tonight was the first time the date and place were within driving distance of Dorian’s home.

“Are you recording this?” asked Max distractedly.

“Of course I am.”

“Why? You know those pictures never come out.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” said Dorian, not quite ready to admit his secret disbelief that theories of extra-terrestrial surveillance-jamming technology were a more plausible explanation than everyone before him being just too overexcited to take decent footage. He ignored the thrumming shake in both hands. “Besides, I’d have thought you’d want something to remember the occasion.”

“Hmm.” Max looked at his watch. Apparently irritated by what it had to tell him, he took it off and threw it over his shoulder.

Dorian continued to stare at his phone. The UFO hung in the air, a perfect silhouette at the centre of the screen. “You know what I don’t get?”

“What’s that?”

“Down there.” Dorian pointed at the city surrounding the foot of the mountain; it lights were coming on as the sun continued to drop. “From down there the sunset must be hitting the spaceship squarely. It must look like it’s on fire or something.”

“We don’t have time to move to a better photo spot, Dory.”

“No, I mean – why aren’t they reacting? Where are the sirens? The news choppers? The rubbernecking drivers throwing the streets into gridlock? Why don’t they care?”

“Probably because they can’t see it.” Max began to unbutton his shirt. He took his time unfastening each one with his long fingers, as though enjoying it. “You know, I can’t thank you enough. I’d never have ended up here without your help.”

“Hey, come on, you did all the driving.”

Max smiled wider now. He balled up his shirt and tossed it over the safety rail at the edge of the lookout. “No, I mean, I’ve been waiting for years, but I could never get a fix on the pickup zone. Without your calculations I’d have been stuck here for another hundred years.”

“What are you doing?”

Max unbuckled his belt and slid it out through the loops with a quick yank. “I’m getting my clothes off. I don’t want to freak anyone out.”

“Um, you’re freaking me out.” Dorian finally tore his attention away from the spacecraft, although not before wondering whether it was closer than before.

Max sat on the hood of his car and removed his boots, jeans and underwear. “Sorry, can’t be helped. Showing up dressed as a human would be a grave insult to the rescue crew. They’ve been very patient with me.”

“Wait, you mean all those sightings-?”

Max examined his hat with a faintly sad expression. “All looking for me, as far as I know. Look after this, will you?” He tossed the hat to Dorian, who caught it with both hands. “Something to remember the occasion.”

“Wait!” cried Dorian. “Take me with you.”

His pale skin gleaming in the dying sunset rays, Max said, “Would you really want to?”

“I’ve wanted this my whole life!”

“Sorry,” said Max. “No can do, I’m afraid. You’re too human.”

As Dorian’s tears returned, Max took off the last pieces of his disguise and faded away.

I am aware the title is an unforgivable pun for an otherwise straight story. I will have to learn to live with the guilt. I hope you can too.

No real news this week. My household has been involuntarily internet-free for nearly five days, which has been a remarkably stressful experience. This has been a forbidding glimpse of the upcoming dark ages that will surely engulf us all. I fear I can no longer function in a world without Netflix or desktop banking.

I did get a lot of reading done though. That was nice.

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