“Welcome to Ashburnham,” Andy Buckhurst’s new executive assistant Penny greeted him. “We have a crisis today.”
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.
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?
Not meant to be a trollish question, I am just curious… why have you set your Australian small town of weirdness in Victoria instead of the rugby-league-playing states? Have you shelved the New Salisbury project or has it evolved in a very different direction since I last heard of it? Oops, that is two questions…
Aha! That is an excellent question and not at all trollish. In fact the reason is that when I wrote ‘Seven Excerpts’, I was in the middle of very unsuccessful edits on the novel set in New Salisbury, in which the weirdness had a very specific cause (or at least a specific focal point). For the Wattle Park Spook Hunters story, I needed a setting where the weirdness stacked a little more gratuitously than the setup I had in the Sawl. So I made a new place.
Functionally they aren’t that different, although the residents of Ashburnham probably recognise and acknowledge their aggressively supernatural surroundings more than folks from the Sawl.
I have just this minute realised they should probably be intense rivals in some sort of sport played nowhere else in the country or on this planet.
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