Friday flash fiction – Business As Usual

“Welcome to Ashburnham,” Andy Buckhurst’s new executive assistant Penny greeted him. “We have a crisis today.”

https://pixabay.com/en/field-agriculture-farm-landscape-3130604/

He’d caught a whiff of it, flying in the previous night. Strange strobing lights had followed the little single-engine passenger plane all the way down to the airstrip. As they’d taxied to the hangar, the lights had scattered.

“So I gathered,” he said. “Is this situation an extra-terrestrial visitation protocols kind of thing?”

Des Anchovy, the office manager whose button-up shirt featured neither sleeves nor a collar, stared at him, “Aliens? Don’t be stupid. There’s no such thing as aliens.”

Penny, who wore black from head to toe, including a raven dye job so severe it seemed to penetrate through to her scalp, added, “He means not before the wet season.”

The others, an oddball collection more reminiscent of tourists and shearers than public servants and policy advisors, all nodded. One of them lifted the window so he could spit outside, which caused Penny to hiss in irritation and Des to berate the offender for letting out the air conditioning.

Andy hung up his suit jacket. Between the brusque manners and the loose dress code, it was apparent they did things differently out here in the regional offices.

Andy gave the team his calmest smile. “Why don’t you tell me everything we know?”

#

Departmental policy stipulated two mandatory rules for field investigations of “irregular phenomena”. Those were “work in pairs” and “record everything”, though the 400-page operational handbook put it less succinctly. Andy preferred the summary version.

“Are you getting all this?” he asked his phone, as Des trained a camera around the scene.

“All coming through…ugh, bright and clear, boss,” replied Penny from the dimly-lit video-conference lab in the office basement. “Tell Des to hold it steady.”

Andy would have preferred Penny’s company for the site inspection. She was grounded, helpful, and didn’t bury every comment under an artificial layer of cynicism, unlike Des. But Penny’s personnel file was quite specific about the constraints of her medical condition, and he wasn’t about to wait until nightfall.

They’d driven the official vehicle, a dusty white four-wheel-drive with a Commonwealth crest and “Department of Abnormal Affairs” stencilled on the doors, out to a wheat paddock south of Ashburnham. The ready-to-harvest stalks were crushed in a chaotic arrangement that a drone camera revealed to be a portrait of television soap star.

“Well, damn!” said Des, uncharacteristically enthusiastic. “That’s Nelly Foster.”

“It’s a good likeness,” observed Penny. She messaged the results of an image search to Andy. “The shot is by a Channel Twenty-Three photographer from the Logies red carpet a few years ago. Used without attribution, I’ll bet.”

Penny’s filed mentioned an obsession with online copyright protection, among several other compulsive behaviours.

“Let’s not make assumptions,” said Andy. “Alien licensing laws could be different to ours.”

“There’s no such thing as aliens,” insisted Des.

Andy considered this a good time to get to know his team. Des’ personnel files were remarkably uninformative; Andy suspected he had clandestine access to his own records.

“What’s your theory, Des?”

“This is classic ghost behaviour,” yawned the office manager. “Unrequited longing, unresolved torment, can’t move on, blah blah blah. Ectoplasms are all the same. This one probably killed himself because of some plot twist on Strife Street and now he can’t cross to the other side without knowing how the cliffhanger turned out.”

Penny almost screeched in Andy’s ear. “That is such deceasist bigotry! Stereotyping the post-living community like that does real harm. I’m filing another complaint, Andy.”

“Noted, but let’s table that for later. We have a situation right now.” Andy flexed his leadership muscles. “Penny, I value your input. Do you have any ideas?”

“It’s a warning,” said Penny, keen to contribute despite her fury. “Time travellers from the future or somewhere inter-dimensional. They probably think we should kill Nelly Foster or make her Queen of Earth.”

“Great thoughts,” said Andy. “Great thoughts. So does that sort of thing happen a lot or would you say this is a bit of an outlier?”

“Mostly it’s hauntings, illegal portals, and the occasional possessed serial killer,” observed Des. “But once in a while something weird comes up.”

“How about celebrity stalking?”

Des grinned. “Don’t you mean celebrity wheat-stalking?”

“Let’s take this seriously and assume it’s a targeted threat.” Andy thumbed a message into his phone. “Penny, I’m sending you the number of an entertainment agency in Melbourne. Get onto Nelly Foster’s people and have them beef up her security.”

Des stared. “So you’re saying you can get in touch with Nelly Foster?”

“I still have some contacts through my last job in the Department of Culture.”

“That’s all I wanted to hear.” The sallow skin on Des’s face split open, revealing a mass of yellow globules writhing together in roughly humanoid form. As its human skin sloughed off like a moulting snake’s, it held up a small glowing box in a very insectoid pincer. “You don’t know how glad I am to change out of that suit. It was beginning to smell.”

“I noticed, as a matter of fact.”

“Shut it, earthling. You’re coming with me.”

The Des-thing pinched its claws, causing the box to change colour. Shadows fell across the wheat field as a large, saucer-shaped object appeared overhead.

The wheat underfoot straightened as Andy floated up. “Where are we going?”

“My people have lived among you for centuries, waiting for the Iridescent Heralds to send us a sign of the Destroyer. You will lead us to Nelly Foster.”

Andy shook his head. “Sorry, I’m not at liberty to share confidential information.”

“I was thinking we’d use torture,” said the Des-thing.

“Oh.”

#

When Andy failed to call back, Penny emailed central office with a situation report, a harassment claim, and the recruitment paperwork for a new office manager and regional director. Again.

It was night when she finished. She went outside and counted the stars.

She took detailed notes on which ones were moving away, for the record.


I’ve been toying with writing a supernatural parody about working in the Australian Public Service for a long time; I think I’ve been sitting on the concept of the Department of Abnormal Affairs for more than a decade. It was going to be a pitch for a television series at one point, although Penny is the only character who survived from that incarnation to this one.

Since I’ve continued to work in the APS, which is both far weirder and far more boring than this story would have you believe, discretion will prevail. I’ll save my tell-all expose of the semi-clandestine activities of the DAA for my eventual retirement.

This story is set in Ashburnham, a fictitious Victorian country town featured in my short story ‘Seven Excerpts from Season One’ (available now in my collection Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales, which I remind you you can get for free by signing up for my newsletter). The story first appeared in the anthology At the Edge.

I bring that up not to maintain my unbroken record of relentless self-promotional shilling, but to note for the record that the story predates the recent excellent premiere season of Star Trek Discovery, a show which features characters named ‘Ash’ and ‘Burnham’.

A total coincidence – or is it?

 

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Mnemo’s Memory – Print on Demand

Just a heads up for anyone hanging out to own a paperback version: Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales is now available in print.

You can order your copy from Amazon in the United States or UK/Europe.

(Sorry, no Australian-based print-on-demand yet. Give it a year or two and they will probably have a megafactory set up in Adelaide or somewhere)

Lifelike rendition

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Friday flash fiction – Southbound Again

Cameron jolted awake at the hiss of the doors closing and the coach dragging itself off the unsealed shoulder and back onto the highway. He peered sleepily through the scratched, filthy perspex window into impenetrable darkness. No lights, no road signs. No signs of life at all. Why had they stopped in the middle of nowhere?

https://pixabay.com/en/road-highway-bridge-fog-cold-2616728/

He rolled his face away from the window, rubbing a line of drool off his swollen cheek. Sleeping on an overnight coach ride sucked only slightly less than staying awake. He’d have flown if he had the money but –

Who was he kidding? He didn’t have the money for anything better than this. He wouldn’t be crawling back home to his father if he did.

He blinked sleep tears from his eyes. They focused on an unexpected movement.

At the front of the cabin, a lean figure was silhouetted by the wan blue of the driver’s dashboard instruments. The shape stooped to whisper something to the driver, who seemed to think for a while before nodding slowly.

They must have pulled into a roadside coach stop. Cameron guessed the street lamps must have blown out; that’s why he hadn’t seen any lights. If so, the new passenger was damned lucky the driver had spotted him.

The passenger moved into the vague purple glow of the low aisle lights, which provided barely enough illumination for a drowsy passenger to make their way to the rear toilet stall and back. It was not bright enough for Cameron to make out the details of the new passenger’s face.

When the passenger ignored the empty seat next to Cameron and strode further down the aisle, Cameron licked his dry lips in relief. He shifted his shoulders, hoping sleep would return quickly. His watch put the hour at two-thirty. The next scheduled stop wasn’t until just before dawn. His stop.

He didn’t want it to come any sooner than it had to, but he sure as hell didn’t want to lie awake thinking about the coming Conversation with Dad.

The dull rumble of the coach had almost lulled him back to sleep when the passenger dropped into the vacant seat next to him.

“Can’t sleep, huh? Me neither. I don’t really have the knack.”

Cameron started. He hadn’t heard the man approach. Then surprise gave way to annoyance. “I was trying to get back to sleep,” he said pointedly.

The man chuckled. “Yeah, that was never going to happen. You’re all keyed up. I can smell it on you.”

Up close, Cameron had a better look at him. The passenger had Mediterranean features – the nose, the eyebrows, the lank black hair, and a dark complexion rendered sickly and drawn by the cabin lights. Something about the guy’s expression, which was somewhere on the spectrum from smug to bored, rankled Cameron instantly.

“Listen, I’ve got to get some sleep for tomorrow. Could you do me a favour and pick another seat?”

The new passenger considered the request. He tilted his head back and sniffed, as if testing a glass of wine in the air-conditioned chill. “All right.”

The passenger moved ahead a few rows, taking an aisle seat. Cameron bit his tongue hard to avoid saying anything that might protract the conversation. Trying to get the last word in had never worked for him in the past, had it?

A snuffling sound, like a basset hound dreaming of chasing rabbits, came from the seats ahead. Cameron felt a stab of guilt. Was the passenger hassling someone else now? Did he wake them for an unwanted chat?

While Cameron was caught in indecision between intervening and minding his own business, the new passenger stood up again. His lower face and throat were shadowed, giving his dark eyes a disembodied look. He returned Cameron’s gaze with a cheeky wink.

The man stooped toward his neighbour as if retrieving something from their lap. When he rose, he’d thrown a teenaged boy over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift.

He walked down the aisle carrying the limp figure effortlessly. As he passed Cameron, the dark patch on his face glistening on his skin and stained black the front of his white floral shirt.

“Back in a minute,” said the passenger in a cheerful whisper.  “I’ve just got to stow this.”

“Christ!” yelled Cameron, scrambling in his seat. The passenger was dumping the teenager into the toilet stall and closing the door. “Oh my God! He killed that kid! Wake up! Stop the bus!”

Cameron’s panic was doing all the talking, shouting and exclaiming and pinning him to his seat. He wasn’t great in a crisis. He always said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing. One of his father’s favourite criticisms was that Cameron’s inability to hold his shit together would get him killed one day.

Nobody moved. The driver stayed where he was, the coach maintained its southerly heading, the passengers went on sleeping.

The new passenger, his front slick with blood so fresh Cameron could feel the heat of it, sat down beside him again.

“You heading south?” The passenger smacked his lips and licked at the corners of his mouth. “Me too. I love this route. Beautiful straight stretch of highway. No potholes, no towns. Barely a car or a cop for hours at a time. And it’s just long enough between stops for me to digest properly.”

Cameron, his eyes wide, yelled, “Hey! This guy murdered someone! Somebody help–“

“Save your breath mate,” yawned the passenger. “They’re all gonna keep on sleeping on until after I’m gone. Not you though. I like you. You can stay awake and keep me company.”

Fear smothered Cameron’s panic like a pillow over his face. “Keep you company?”

“Yeah, I’m stuffed, mate. Wouldn’t want to drift off on a full stomach and sleep through to sunrise, would I?”

Cameron thought of his Dad, waiting in his kitchen with two cups of tea and an “I told you so” to share.

 


I had to do one of these sooner or later, right?

This is a revision of an old story I misplaced about four computers ago. The original shares the same name and premise but I can’t remember anything else about it. That version probably had a slightly more proactive protagonist than this one.

Say, if you happen to like this story (or more likely there’s another one you liked way better than this one), feel free to share it on Facebook or Twitter by clicking on the icons at the bottom of this post. I’m trying to convince more people to check in on these stories every week, but it will sound way more convincing coming from you rather than me.

And before you ask – no, I have no idea why on earth I decided there should be a LinkedIn icon in that set. (I accept no responsibility for anybody who jeopardises their career by admitting to their clients and colleagues they like stories about snarky spaceships, time cops and mafia bunnies. But come on – they probably already know)

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Friday Flash Fiction – The Last, Greatest Gig of the Shrieking Alpacas

The Screaming Alpacas played their last, greatest gig at the Wisdom Street Hotel on the night of the twenty-ninth of February. They had nothing left to prove after the five song setlist brought the house down.

https://pixabay.com/en/band-rock-band-music-concert-live-2167175/

Song One was “Ignorance” (3:47)

The rhythm section of guitarist Grendel Watson, bassist Charley Tancred and drummer Xaravash the Unremitting launched the set with a hammering riff that shook the floorboards and sent both patrons and bar staff leaping for their shaking glasses.

Lead guitarist and self-styled rock goddess Melinda Soo-Park strode from the smoky shadows to delivering a blistering wave of high-pitched oscillations resembling a security alert in the illegal biotech lab of an international soda manufacturer.

Lead singer and part-time sorcerer Deacon LaPage pushed himself away from a stand of empty beer bottles at the front bar and staggered elbows-first through the packed crowd toward the stage, growling the song’s opening lines. “Nothing’s as bad as it first appears/I wish I had your certainty/Most of us will still be smiling/Just before we’re hit by lightning.”

By the time he got to the first repetition of the chorus – “The truth is still irrelevant/Your ignorance is your defence/Again, again” – four small fires had started in various parts of the hotel.

Song Two was “Super Glue and Battle Scars” (4:22)

The only song in the Shrieking Alpacas’ playlist written by Charlemagne “Charley” Tancred was also by far their most musically accomplished piece and not incidentally the only one they released commercially. Featuring a wickedly complicated contrapuntal duel between the bass and rhythm guitars, and lyrics like “I loved you best when my intestines were still behind my skin”, its online crowdfunding campaign raised more than eight thousand dollars for Tancred’s preferred charity, the Bandersnatch Hill orphanage in which she had been raised and taught music theory.

If any song in the Shrieking Alpacas oeuvre could be described as “singable by human voices”, it was the crowd-pleasing “Super Glue”. It was by no means an easy melody, though. By the end of the number, LaPage had both a nosebleed and a light concussion from drumming on his own head with a discarded wine bottle.

Song Three was “Sentimentality Will Get Us All Killed and Eaten” (6:01)

Written as a more or less straightforward account of her previous career as a monster-hunting mercenary, “Sentimentality” remains Soo-Park’s signature piece. The song is famously reputed to incorporate certain infrasonic signals to which supernatural entities are particularly drawn, including attracting Xaravash the Unremitting to the band’s first rehearsal (during which it ate and replaced the Alpacas’ first drummer, whom they knew only as Sven).

On the night of the Shrieking Alpacas last gig, during the ululating warble at the height of the guitar solo, a group of six fully-transformed werewolves crashed through the doors and side windows of the Wisdom Street Hotel, injuring three patrons and causing an unknown number to flee. Subsequent inquiries were unable to verify whether the lycanthropes had succumbed to the song’s siren qualities or were merely relatives of Watson’s, there to show support for his musical career.

“Sentimentality” has since been reprised, in a heavily-altered arrangement, as the theme song of “Dusk Stalker”, Soo-Park’s well-regarded semi-autobiographical television series.

Song Four was “Revising My Statement” (12:59)

An almost-instrumental piece, lyrically punctuated only by unscripted caterwauling from LaPage which may or may not have been authentically anguished cries for medical attention at that point. By all accounts, the band’s performance of “Revising My Statement” on the night in question was both technically superb and fascinatingly awkward to watch.

The difficulties began a few minutes into the rambling jazz-metal section of the song, led by Watson to the howling approval of the werewolves, when Melinda Soo-Park received a phone call from her business manager. Accounts differ as to whether it was by accident or design that her headphone mic picked up and broadcast her side of the conversation.

What is known is that during the course of the call, she was notified that executives from the Static Network had ordered a ten-episode series of “Dusk Stalker” and offered Soo-Park a seven-figure contract as a consulting producer.

She quit the band as soon as her solo was complete.

A riot broke out immediately after. Opinions differ as to the primary cause of the affray, though Soo-Park’s departure, the increasingly smoky bar atmosphere and the sudden spike in werewolf bites were all likely contributors.

Song Five was “Your Fate is Sealed, Mortal Prey of Xaravash the Unremitting” (5:18)

Adapted from Xaravash’s first words in the Ephemeral Plane of Quivering Mortality (as it continues to refers to our world in interviews), this song is a high-energy blur of pompous gloating and thundering instruments. As performed on the night of the twenty-ninth, it also included the spectacular incursion into this spatial instance of the seething mass of tentacles, pincers and inhuman croaking known as Hetchag the Ravener.

Deacon LaPage was quick to claim credit for the sudden appearance of the many-mouthed, ancient horror, declaring that he had summoned Hetchag to petition for ultimate power, and uncharitably offering as unwilling sacrifices the hotel staff, his screaming fans and his fellow band members. He was consumed by Hetchag’s bloodthirsty floating maws before sealing the demonic compact, however.

Hetchag was quickly forced to return to its seat of authority in the Dark Crevasse, partly driven off by the outraged boos of a Shrieking Alpacas audience understandably dismayed by this shameless and ham-fisted attempt to offer up their souls, but mostly by a reversion incantation cast by Xaravash.

The damage was, unfortunately, done. Hetchag’s bulk and matter-decaying touch undermined the Wisdom Street Hotel’s roof, walls and foundations. The building collapsed shortly after the last punch-drunk, lightly-bitten patron had been dragged outside.

On the advice of their solicitor, the surviving band members mutually agreed to immediately dissolve the group and relocate to other countries.

In the opinions of many, the final performance of the Shrieking Alpacas will never be topped.


In my defense…
I started writing something much more witty and sensible than this. I was forced to abandon that project when I came up with this week’s title and realised I had no option to but to run with it.
I shan’t keep harping on about it, but I would just like to note that Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales is now live at all good ebook vendors (with the now-standard exception of Google Play).
Yesterday I also received my proof print copy, shipped from a print-on-demand factory in the US. I have a small bit of tinkering to deal with, and then the book should be available in print for anyone who wants a quality bit of mildly sinister baroque design for their bookshelf. Why would you not, eh?
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