Hands, everywhere; polishing his horns, buffing powder down his snout, tugging and adjusting and tweaking. It was suffocating. He grit his teeth and tried his utmost not to sneeze – a sudden movement could instigate smudges and frantic clean-up, and he wanted to get this over with as soon as possible. After an eternity of pampering and polishing, the gaggle of image professionals stepped back and squarked appreciatively. He stood and made a hasty exit, barely glancing in the mirror. Never saw the point of all this – it felt like an elaborate, futile process of removing all distinctiveness on his face, then painting it all back on again. They had made such a fuss about matching the tone near his eyes. Couldn’t they just… Not? The public liaison officer had obsequiously informed him about how important it was to give the right impression, but their explanation about how the make-up was vital for doing so has been incomprehensible. He stepped from the polished, air-conditioned office complex into welcome, dusty, dry landscape. Two anonymous, pretty women with grey suits and clipboards flanked him immediately, and began to gently guide him to the filming location. The deep orange dust underfoot was beautiful, but he found it hard to enjoy the powdery puff accompanying each step because stiff unyielding tailored suit pants pulled at his shoulders as he walked. The sun was dazzling, but sunglasses weren’t allowed – they had to see his eyes, the director had said. Hired on the basis of a litany of blockbuster movie credits. Blockbuster of public relations. A woman in khakis, a small sickly Velseth boy, and far, far too many lights. The kid was looking about with equal parts excitement and trepidation. Now he was there, someone started to tutor the boy about looking sad, directly at the camera. The kid obliged, eyes going absolutely enormous. Then he giggled, eyes returning to normal. Someone leant down and patted beige powder on the chuckling boy’s muzzle, further draining the pallor from his face. Three more hours of smoke and mirrors and he would be free.
“You look utterly miserable,” the director said, appearing at his shoulder.
“Fantastic! Sombre, morose, keep it up and we’ll have a wrap in no time.”
“Wrapped in thick, milky rags, the figure lurched jankily –” Jankily? Jerkily? Jaggedly… No, no… “… the figure lurched unsteadily toward the car.”
“Haydee clutched Angelo’s arm tightly. ‘We should get out of here,’ she quavered. Angelo squared his jaw. It’d taken him months to work up the courage to ask Haydee out. He couldn’t believe his luck when she had shyly accepted, and suggested Lover’s Point from behind long eyelashes. He was damned if he was going to let some joker wrapped in bog roll -” too scatalogical? Hmm, “… wrapped in strips of filthy cloth” – yeah, better – “spoil his special night with the beautiful cheerleader. He wound down his window.
‘Hey, idiot,’ he called out, ‘what’re you playing at?’
The figure paid him no attention and continued its unsteady progress toward them.
‘Close the window, my angel!’ Haydee begged. Angelo was feeling pretty freaked out by this point, but didn’t want to let on. He turned to her with a reassuring smile.
‘Don’t worry, babe – ’ he was cut off abruptly as the mummy’s desiccated hand closed over his windpipe. Angelo flailed one arm over his head, but couldn’t find any solid target to hit. Haydee still gripped his other arm, pinning it in place. His eyes bugged. He scrabbled at his throat, panicking.
‘No fair, said Haydee. She looked angry, Angelo realized. Why didn’t she look scared? The hand around his neck was joined by a second. The squeezing intensified.
‘You always make me SHARE’ Haydee screamed, mouth wide. Wider, wider… His vision was getting fuzzy from lack of oxygen, but Angelo could swear her whole head had hinged back onto itself.
Angelo Angerson’s car was found the next day, empty except for a small puddle of blood and a scrap of old cloth caught in the door.”
LeMM leaned back from the keyboard. He wasn’t too sure about this one. In his head, the beautiful blonde Haydee was skipping arm-in-arm with the crusty bandaged mummy into a bucolic sunrise. The mummy was probably a bit too similar to the Bandagal from a few months back. Hadn’t a hapless Angelo already stumbled into strife? Frowning, he ran a quick search through his archives, and sure enough, there was Angelo Anderson, pushed into the path of a streetsweeper by invisible hands. Five years, every week without fail, it was understandable things could get a little stale. Happily, if he didn’t catch it, one of his dedicated team of beta readers would. He’d brought them with him when he went pro, setting aside a fixed percentage of his income to thank them for their time. Some of his competitors thought he was wasting money, but it was well worth the investment. Fresh, varied, and twisted; “Lemmster’s Lore” had continued as other horror audio channels had atrophied over the years. Of course, he’d had the advantage. He’d had Colp.
ZiV’s retinue had him all but confined to quarters inside this plush box of a hotel. Outside, just a short jog away, there were markets full of fish and people and laughter and ideas, bright tents perched on powdery sand between ramshackle mudbrick homes and pools. Back in his university days, he’d be staying in one of those homes, couch surfing with a backpack, laptop to capture his thoughts. That was when he’d done his best work, ignoring assignment deadlines and immersing himself in new places, meeting new people. Now he’d be lucky to immerse himself in a puddle without two medics and a PR specialist materializing to “stabilize the situation”. He needed to talk to someone who understood. Time to make a call. Deftly he spun up the secure partition of his laptop, reinstalled his custom VPM (disguised as a company eMemo – nobody read the eMemos) and ran his memory backwards through to find the number. It saddened him to realize this was the most intellectually demanding thing he had done all month.
“Hello? Oh! Hello!” AXel’s tone was an admixture of bemusement and pleasure.
“Hey,” he replied. She looked older, thinner. Of course she would. He just hoped that not too much had changed in the last five years, that she’d still be there to bail him out, to listen.
“I’m… I think I need your help, AX.”
This one was much better. LeMM had dipped back into his inspiration list – hundreds of ideas sparked by photos, or conversations, or suggestions from his better half, Colp.
“they sped up the whale song, and the presenter was right, it sounded just like the birds,” Colp had enthused. She had been full of wonder after her first visit to BirdWorldnt. He had never visited, though it was just two trams from his apartment. Two trams too many, as far as he was concerned. He settled on the style of a wiki entry. Let the reader set their own tone, yeah. LeMM chuckled softly at his pun. He began to type.
Sonorous rocks are small boulders which make a curious noise when struck. Usually, they sound like a large brass bell. They are found inland in equatorial regions, typically in large numbers in well-defined fields. Some have been found in ancient settlements arranged in order of size, anthropologists think these were tribal musical instruments dubbed lithophones. They can also be sometimes found in small groups, or as single items, along ancient trade routes.
Similar ‘ringing’ rocks were found on Old Earth in the 1800s. Mineralists identified their variants as a form of felsenmeer, forming in dolerite ‘trap’ sills. While they were unable to uncover the full mechanism of how they produced sound, their peculiar properties held niche interest until 1960. Geologist Richard Faas from Lafayette College, in Old Pennyslvania, found that the rocks produced substantially more noise than the human ear could detect, notably in the lower end of the spectrum. He deduced that the audible tone was a side effect of sub-audible tones interacting with one another.
It is unclear whether the ringing rocks of old Earth are the same as their modern counterparts, but in the 4040s geologist ThruPP Flannagot made the same observation of concurrent multiple low frequency tones when struck. ThruPP went missing soon after publishing her findings, last seen on a service station’s CCTV camera January 10th 4043. She had taken her sample from disused land that had been in the Painter family for over a hundred years. The Painters denied giving ThuPP permission to take samples, pointing out their land was securely fenced off. They would not comment on the sonorous rocks.
Interest in sonorous rocks increased along with the rise of reality ghost programming in the 4060s. On fifteen occasions, these programs depicted the collection and audio testing of sonorous rocks from various equatorial sites. All but one of the programs were unable to replicate the low frequency findings from ThuPP’s original paper. The fourteenth attempt did find some low frequency responses when striking a sonorous rock with a large red crystal. This was later revealed to be a hoax when an observant listener sped up and reversed the purported recording and the program’s host could clearly be heard saying ‘well, this sucks’ on a loop. It is widely believed the discrepancy in results is because of the differing sources of the samples: none of the programs had been given permission to take samples from the Painter’s land.
On November 4045, online video producer Maya Byrne (of Byrning Curiosity INC) livestreamed an attempt to climb over the Painter’s fence and investigate further. Following several unsuccessful attempts to scale the fence, she rested the camera at a low angle that showed the mesh fence and some of the land behind. The remaining ten minutes and five seconds of footage showed her climbing the fence using both hands and wandering around on the other side. It appeared that she had brought a small tuning fork with her, and was tapping it at varying points on the ground. At approximately eight minutes into the recording, Byrne can be seen tapping at something just outside of the frame. She then remains unmoving until the footage abruptly ends. At the time of writing, this is the last upload on Byrning-Curiosity.net. Byrne was declared missing by her family on January 1st, 4046.
In 4047, the known final member of the Painter family, Heideigger Painter, walked into the ocean. There was a large amount of alcohol in his blood, and several rocks in his pockets. The coroner’s report describes them as deep grey with white speckles, roughly the size of grapefruits. The description matches a number of rocks found in the area of the beach, as well as the smaller sonorous rocks found on the Painter’s land.
Following Painter’s last will and testament, the entirety of the family’s disused land was covered in concrete. The Bolf Concrete contractors originally engaged to undertake the project withdrew, citing workers experiencing dizziness, nausea, and lost time. The site underwent two external biosafety examinations and was given the all-clear. In 4050, Dhaleico Corp completed the concreting work.
There have been no further confirmed instances of individuals coming into contact with the sonorous rocks from Painter’s land. Flannagot and Byrne have both been declared dead. A small memorial shrine has been erected on the concrete slab which covers Painter’s land to a depth of two meters.”
This was shaping up to be a multi-parter, LeMM realized. Next part, he’d introduce someone with an axe to grind, a jackhammer, and a decent motivation to speed up the sounds of the spooky rocks and see what they had to say. Whatever that may be…. Hmm, who should it be… An illegitimate Painter, maybe? Even better, an erstwhile student of Flannagot seeking closure and the completion of some university paperwork so they could finally graduate. Yeah. LeMM grinned to himself as he re-read his work so far. He was already looking forward to editing the ‘well, this sucks’ part. Maybe that’d be a good guest line for Colp.
This was it. AX had come through, just like she always had. They thought he was on a jet back to headquarters. Headquarters thought he was touring the rest of the Hawfred coast to talk to rural stakeholders about a possible development of a research and medical centre on Point Punt. In reality, he was on a rickety local bus, with nothing but a backpack and a laptop, heading to the nearest public airport. From there, somewhere fresh and green and filled with country folk who would not know him. His eidetic memory and fluency in code had brought him riches, but that didn’t seem to help when it came to people. The more successful he had become, the more people appeared, and he found himself at a loss as to how to make it stop. AX, on the other hand, had a way of making things work for her. Unusually slender for a Velseth, she wasn’t particularly charismatic. But she things always seemed to work for her. She’d never mentioned family, no support there, and was working two jobs when they’d met at uni. She liked his eyes, he liked her drive. It was brief and didn’t work out, mostly because she felt comfortable in places he didn’t. They made much better friends than lovers. When his company started taking off, she’d politely refused his help, and insisted on paying off her own debts. One day, they were suddenly paid. He had suspected she had gotten into some shady dealings when she refused to tell him how she’d managed this. Who was he to judge? He always felt in over his head, while she seemed so in control. All those years ago, he’d just finished the prototype for PayParp. She’d made it into medical school, even found a girlfriend and a place walking distance from her hospital. PayParp took off, and he started to get swept away… It could be months, but they would pick up right where they left off every time they got in touch.
They had talked for hours when he called her this time. Chuckled over the good times. They verged on hysterics recalling that one time he’d fallen down a cave, she’d found a local family from a nearby village willing to drive the 10K to fetch him, and he’d been found with a broken leg and a big grin by a cave wall covered in logic diagrams. “You took a sharpie, but not a flare,” she had wheezed. “Yes, but you once thought an annuity was a furry mammal,” he replied, doubling over. It had felt so good to laugh again. He smiled at his reflection in the bus mirror, faint against the bright orange dust outside. Maybe it’d all work out after all.
A small pile of coffee grounds at the foot of the veranda expanded with a soft splat. Two more shakes and the plunger was emptied. Colp turned her attention from the task at hand and took in a deep breath of fresh, country air.
She stood on the deck of a wooden, airy house perched halfway up a grassy hill. The view from the balcony was stunning. Vast green and brown hills unfurled themselves like a blanket, meeting a pale blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. The main sign of the season’s unusually high rainfall were patches of dense green at the foot of the hills, host to higher densities of short scrubby trees that scattered the landscape. The only sounds were the twitter of unseen birds and chirrup of crickets. A gentle breeze brushed Colp’s bare shoulders, shifting the afternoon shadows thrown by a line of carefully planted pines. Though they would seem an incongruous species amongst the grey-green trunks of the sparsely leafed grummle trees, they somehow blended in, and acted as perfect screen for the wrought iron and weatherboard sheds that housed archaic farming equipment further down the hill.
The peace was punctuated by the occasional barks of Dappy and Pongo, Colp’s canine charges, who were slowly returning from their Important Survey of the next hill over. If she squinted, Colp could just make out the streaks of white and orange against the muted green hill. The breeze carried their excited woofs across mostly empty paddocks and low scattered grey boulders. Turning, Colp clomped back into the house to return the plunger to the kitchen. The decor within was as countrified as the exterior, furniture all re-purposed crates and driftwood, charmingly mismatched plates, cutlery, and curtains. Smiling to herself, Colp picked up a patchwork apron and pulled it around her head and over her arms. She loved animals, dogs in particular, and was very thankful that Dappy and Pongo were such picky eaters. Their owners were the Brankthoms, ostensibly “retired” but more active than many full-time workers Colp had met. At the last minute, the Brankthoms had decided to go on a three-week junkit across the Western continent. Kennels were out of the question for Dappy and Pongo, who were used to the space afforded by a country home. Neighbors (loosely, the nearest was five kilometers away) were unwilling to prepare the nightly cooked meals that the gormonde Brankthom dogs were accustomed to. Plus, who would water the roses? Luckily, Colp was available at short notice, a decent chef, and had impeccable references when it came to caring for pets.
Colp had been house sitting for more than ten years. She began as a backpacker, hitching rides (and walking on hoof when none were available), wanting to see the world before settling down to a university somewhere with tramlines and tall shining sky scrapers and the same coffee blends on every menu. In two years, she’d circumnavigated the globe, and returned home with many photos and stories of the overcrowded bustle of Yokidi, strange salty east cost flats of Hurstralia, and curious mountain people of Phlupp. Her trusty ruggedized laptop had made the journey with her, bumped and scraped and unfailingly reliable. When the time came to put together her university applications, she had found her eyes repeatedly drawn from the website form fields to the scraped edges of the screen. The cracks and marks looked like trees. The slightly brownish discoloration at the top right corner had been courtesy of some wayward pompmellon juice, reminding her of the dear Phluppian bard who had thrilled her with his gargling melodies. She made it three months into an accounting degree before gathering her assets, bidding her parents farewell, and purchasing a plane ticket almost completely at random.
An unfortunate incident with a raging jurp (accidentally let loose during the annual day of the derp in Craudonia) had landed her in a cast in a ‘rustic’ public hospital. She had got talking to a rotund man in the bed next to her. Happily, his heart attack had turned out to be reflux, and even more happily, he had opened Colp’s eyes to the world of house sitting. He explained that he had been in Craudonia for three weeks, relaxing in a poolside villa with a lovely view of the bay. He hadn’t paid a cent for accommodation. Noting that she looked like a “responsible young lady,” (an odd observation given that she was in hospital with a fractured femur and a laptop that looked like it had seen active combat), he enthused that in return for cleaning, gardening, and typically pet care, Colp could enjoy weeks or even months of free food and accommodation in exotic locations around the world. No more twenty kilometer walks to apocryphal motels, putting up with talkative and smelly stranger dorm-mates, or pitching tents on damp, lumpy ground. She had pulled out her trusty laptop and made a profile on mindmyplaceandstuff.neg (“No need to ReMind you, we’re the best”) that night. By the time her knee was healed enough to walk on, she was set to observe a strict ten times daily back scratching regime for Pathe the tabby, matriarch and cat of a nearby villa.
Colp had been at the Brankthom’s home for just over a week now, easily falling into a daily routine of cooking, walking, and importantly, chatting with LeMM every evening. The first two days had been unexpectedly full; the Brankthoms had warned her that they had advanced their plane flight and left a list of unfinished tasks, but she had been unprepared for the full length of that list. Pruning, hosing, and composting a bewildering array of tubs and bags left in the kitchen and dining area. Hoping she was not throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, Colp had dutifully worked her way through the list, allowing some scant time each day to stroll and explore her new surroundings. Colp opened her laptop so the webcam could take in the whole kitchen, opened WoppsUP and leaned on the counter to watch Dappy and Pongo appreciatively wolf down their low-sodium beef tagine. The laptop pinged, signifying LeMM had logged in.
“Hellooooo gorgeous!” he chimed, voice slightly tinny over the laptop’s speakers.
“Why hello,” she said, shimmying almost flirtatiously, but not quite. Patchwork aprons were fascinating and functional cultural artefacts of historic human agrarian past, but ill-fitting for intimate moments. Unless you were into that kind of thing. Which LeMM probably wasn’t. The laptop screen filled with his face for a moment as he fiddled with his desk microphone. Then he pulled back to reveal his familiar backdrop of soundproofing foam in diagonal stripes of azure and black. A ring light mounted over his high-end streaming camera evenly lit his handsome features. High cheekbones and pointed jaw tapered to a fine snout, his pale blue complexion dusted with purple freckles and a patch of deeper purple under his chin. His chair was positioned so his head was framed perfectly, the tip of his horns just in shot. Less professionally, he was wearing a comfortable loose old t-shirt and bright orange earbuds with cords dangling precariously over a steaming mug of coffee.
“What’s the news out there in the raannch?” LeMM stretched out the last syllable in an appalling approximation of a Hurstralian accent. Dappy and Pongo, their meal demolished, nudged their empty bowls to Colp’s hoof. “Sun rose, dogs ran, and Old Hun has thrown another bud,” Colp reported as she stooped to spoon out their dessert, a pear and potato reduction with shrimp flakes.
“Old Hun,” LeMM frowned. “the rose they planted when their tractor died,” she reminded him. Lemm’s face lit up, “Oh, right! The -” his voice took on the smooth breathy tones of what he called his ‘work voice’ – “haunted tractor of the hills”. Colp giggled.
“Is that one done yet?” she asked.
“Almost,” LeMM replied, “I just need to work out how the tractor gets inside the house to finish its grizly murder spree.” He looked off into the middle distance for a moment. His eyes alighted on something just past the camera.
“Oh! Yes, you’ve had a bunch of mail,” he said. He reached out of view, then held a small pile of postcard-sized envelopes to the camera.
“Happy sneaky hatchday!” he proclaimed. Tired of junk mail and wary of privacy concerns, Colp had been falsely entering her hatchday as a few months before the actual date. She couldn’t use her ‘current address’ as it was someone else’s, so now she and LeMM shared a postbox back in his city of Fonda. He was looking at her expectantly.
“Want to do this outside?” Colp slipped off the apron and lifted the laptop in both hands. She twisted it to the window to reveal a small box of descending sun touching rolling fields with lavender light.
“Ohh, yes, most certainly definitely yes.” LeMM replied. Colp balanced the laptop in one hand while clumsily maneuvering the kitchen door with the other. Pongo rocketed out past her hoof for his evening jaunt. “Woof!” LeMM called to them. “Woof arf woof,” Dappy seemed to reply, then also ran out into the garden. Colp walked a short distance from the house and popped the laptop down on a wrought iron table, careful to use an angle that captured both the sunset and as much as the garden as possible so LeMM could watch the cavorting puppies. This was much nicer than last year. As much as she had loved the lush jungle beaches of the Ganadad islands, any evening spent outside had cost her liters of insect repellant. In the end, LeMM had shipped her a small remote-controlled drone so they could explore the sunset island from the insect-netted comfort of her housesit. Since then she’d fallen into the habit of setting the drone aloft at varying times of day in the third week or so of each house sit, giving herself time to first walk on hoof and explore for herself. She’d send the footage to LeMM and they’d watch it together. She enjoyed the new perspective on her short-term home. LeMM archived the footage for safekeeping and swore one day he’d come visit her so they could eat pasta and edit it all into a short film together. One day. For now, when the weather was good and there were no biting insects (or deafening bats), they’d often sit outside like this.
“Ok, number one,” LeMM popped the pile down and scooped up the first postcard-sized envelope. He ripped open the top with aplomb. “Bolf polling congratulates you on your hatchday, and asks if you are happy with your current home insurance plan”. He turned the paper and held it to the camera so Colp could read it for herself.
“Ecstatic,” she rated. LeMM nodded sagely and threw the envelope and its contents over his shoulder.
“Rannagand Hastings co says ‘well done on making it to thirty two’. Huh, that’s a bit dire,” LeMM frowned at the buff paper. “Life and body insurance company,” Colp explained. “I’m with Candancy. But, ever since I logged in for free wifi at an airport one time, the rest of them; Rannagand, Dontbedumb, Faaaard, they’re all keen to profit from my continued non-death.”
“Well, you can’t blame them, now you’re staying right next to the haunted tractor of the hills” LeMM said.
“Ah, but it can’t get into the house,” Colp pointed out.
“You’re not in the house! Dun dun duuuun!” LeMM gesticulated widely, flinging the insurance advertisement to join the Bolf poll.
“Well, I’m not moving,” Colp giggled. The light had shifted to a deep yellow, tinging the fields with gold. Dappy and Pongo had quietly approached and flopped themselves at the legs of Colp’s chair, content to snooze and listen to the now familiar voices of their caretaker and the other one who was there and not there at the same time.
“Brave woman,” LeMM said with exaggerated conviction. He hefted the next one. “Ok, do you want a chance to win your own body weight in jubes?”
It seemed like no time at all when LeMM’s timer pinged, signaling his work day should begin. Half a world away, he was getting up two hours earlier than usual every morning to make their chats.
“Good night, beautiful,” he smiled.
“Good morning, dear” she responded. They both reached out to their screens, two fingertips lowering out of view to tap their screens. The feed went momentarily black, then faded back to the desktop.
LeMM leaned back and sighed happily.
“What a way to start the day!” he sung under his breath. He gathered up the pile of junk mail from floor and desk and shoved it into the room’s tiny bin. Overstuffed, he should probably empty it sometime. Not now, though, he had work to do.
“The haunted tractor of the hill idled stealthily around the side of the house. But tractors aren’t built for stealth. Everyone inside could hear the engine…” he began to type.
Colp was woken by the sound of an engine and Dappy having a veritable conniption. The sun had barely risen, the bedroom a collection of edges and shadows rather than dressers and hampers. Feeling a few hours short of rested, she waited a few breaths in the vein hope whoever it was had just taken a wrong turn and would drive away. The engine noise stopped, but then Pongo joined in the din. Sighing, Colp tipped out of bed and pulled a dressing gown tight around herself to ward off the chilly morning air. She clopped unevenly down the hall and into the living space, sparing her stiff knee (it was always worst in the mornings). Dappy and Pongo were bouncing at the front door. Colp was just drawing level when it erupted into a series of knocks.
“Hello?” a man’s voice echoed over Dappy and Pongo’s yapping. It sounded like Yehoram, the dairy farmer and cheesemaker from down the main entrance road. Colp opened the door, and sure enough, there stood the dark-skinned wiry man, in stained denim and aged baseball cap.
“Hello,” Colp replied thickly. Dappy and Pongo were running circles around Yehoram’s legs, ears and tails audibly clipping the door frame as they whizzed past.
“I’m sorry to wake you, miss,” Yehoram doffed his cap politely, “but I didn’t know who else to go to in these parts.” Colp blinked slowly.
“It’s just – I found – oh, just come and take a look.” Yehoram stepped over Dappy and almost tripped on Pongo, and retreated into the dim morning. Pulling her dressing gown even tighter, Colp followed. Yehoram’s ancient rusty blue truck was parked at the top of the entrance dirt track, just beyond the garden. The wooden palette was open at the back, revealing a pile of sacks.
“I think he needs help,” said Yehoram. Colp peered more closely at the sacks, and with a start realized someone was stretched out amongst the hessian. Yehoram had placed a sack below their head and pulled some empty cloth over as a makeshift blanket. Small puffs of steam from their snout in the cold morning air was the only sign of life.
“Found him in the dairy shed,” Yehoram explained. “Just lyin’ there. Breathing, but wouldn’t open his eyes or talk. I ran back to the house but the phone’s not been right since the storm last week. Now, I don’t want to be impolite,” Yehoram took off his cap and respectfully held it to his chest, “but if they were a man, I mean, a human man, I’dve had some ideas. But I’ve not known many of you lot, and you’re pretty, well, different. Don’t want to make matters worse, see. So I got young Josh,” he gestured to the passenger’s side truck window, which was opaque in the morning light, “and together we hauled this fellow up and brought him here.”
Colp smiled weakly and nodded. She was no nurse, but understood she was probably the only Negaleg Yehoram knew. Probably the first one he’d spoken to in years, going by the way he’d automatically reached out far too high to shake her hand when she’d wandered by his farm to introduce herself, then stared a bit too long at her four-fingered grip. She hadn’t minded, after all, almost all the farms in this region were human-run, and aside from the odd Heydra tenant. A hard-working farmer like Yehoram had little reason to come into contact with tourists. They had only spoken three or four times, and she’d found him gruff but polite in an old-fashioned kind of way. His nephew, Josh, stared when he thought she wasn’t looking. Yehoram had proudly stated that Josh was going to boarding school the next year to get a “proper education”. Colp hoped wherever the boy was headed had a good arts program. She’d bumped into him once or twice on her rambles, finding him sketching rocks and trees and birds with ballpoint pen on a small pad of paper he kept in his pocket. She thought he was very talented, though he seemed too shy to take the compliment.
“What should we do, miss?” Yehoram asked. Colp leaned into the truck chassis to get a better look. In the dim light it was hard to make out the mysterious Negaleg’s coloration, though if she had to guess, Colp supposed he was mostly buff orange with deeper reds around the eyes and horns. His legs were thin but well-muscled, much as Colp’s had been in her backpacking heyday, and though she couldn’t see both sides of his fulcrum-like body, his tight activewear t-shirt indicated a lean torso. Hiking wraps around his hooves furthered Colp’s suspicion that he was some kind of rambler, who got lost in the fields.
“I can’t see much out here, let’s bring him inside” said Colp. Yehoram extracted young Josh from the truck, and the two of them carefully pulled and hoisted and maneuvered the unconscious form from the truck to the house. Colp tried to help, but after her knee gave and her leg slid out on the dewy grass, Yehoram wordlessly batted her hand away and took the extra weight himself. They plopped the fellow on the couch while Colp went to the kitchen to set three full plungers of coffee brewing. When she returned, Josh was flopped on the carpet with Dappy and Pongo and Yehoram was hovering next to the couch, gingerly lifting one sleeve of the activewear t-shirt.
“When we found him, his, uh, arm bag has a mighty hole. I thought maybe he got bit by something, but I can’t see any marks there,” he explained. Colp reached to feel the unconscious Negaleg’s pulse (still strong) and then gently opened his mouth and sniffed. Yehoram stared.
“Do you still have his drink holster – um, the arm bag?” she asked. Yehoram dispatched Josh to fetch it from the truck. When he returned, Colp sniffed at the hole that Yehoram had referred to. A rich blend, possibly arabica. Colp nodded, relieved that she knew what to do. She returned to the kitchen and pushed the plungers down. She was beginning to feel a bit light-headed herself. Not wanting to appear rude, surreptitiously filled half a mug with the brew, poured some cold water into a mug to cool it, and quickly downed the lot. She wiped the rim before emerging back into the lounge room with filled plunger and mug in hand. Yehoram pulled his hand back guiltily. He must have been having an exploratory poke of the unconscious man’s horn.
Colp poured a full mug, then asked Yehoram and Josh to stand back. She tried to project confidence for the farmer’s sake, pragmatically ignoring the butterflies in her gut. Her mind raced through the basic CPR training they’d had at school. She’d established (a) any environmental danger had passed, and (b) breathing and pulse was steady but slow. (c) The patient was unresponsive, but, using the tint on the back of his hands as a guide, (d) his pallor hadn’t whitened. She raised the mug to the comatose snout, and (e) in three puffs gently blew the aromatic fumes into his nostrils. Then, she reached for his jugular to check the pulse. Still slow. Three puffs, check. Three puffs, check. Maybe a bit faster? Three puffs, check. At the fifth repetition, the nostrils twitched. Good, very good, three more puffs, and – relief flooded the room as her patient’s eyelids weakly fluttered open. His lips parted and she tipped a small amount of coffee into his mouth. Weak swallow. More, more, until the mug was empty. She gestured to Yehoram, who wordlessly re-filled the mug. At the second plunger, Colp gently asked for a name.
“DiV,” the patient drowsily slurred. He was still stretched flat on the couch, but was becoming strong enough to shakily hold the mug for himself.
“OK, DiV. I’m Colp, and this is Yehoram.” Yehoram nodded politely and proffered the plunger. DiV’s eyes lingered on Colp as he held out the empty mug. It was almost like he expected something, but she had no idea what. Deciding he didn’t look up for further conversation, Colp manufactured what she hoped was a carefree smile and asked, “Care for a cup?” Yehoram nodded slowly. “You got somethin’ good for the boy?” he asked. Colp had completely forgotten Josh. The customary hustle of Dappy and Pongo playing with each other had not abated since their entrance. They had drifted away from Josh, who now sat with his back to the wall and a pen and paper in his hands.
“Um, milk, water, and… Milk and water.” Colp replied, looking to the boy. Josh glanced up and then shyly looked away.
“Milk’s fine,” Yehoram answered on his behalf.
DiV was still watching Colp’s face. The color had mostly returned to his countenance. The striking vivid green patches around his eyes washed out his grey irises. She beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen. Then the gravity of the situation hit her. She had just witnessed someone on the verge of a full hypocaffeineic episode. If Yehoram had come just five minutes later, she might have to explain to the homeowners that there had been a dead body on their sofa. Adrenalin fled, turning her legs into leaden brittle pipes and mouth to desert wasteland. She dizzily tipped forward onto the sink, bumping her forehead on the rim. Unable to straighten at that moment, she let her head rest on the cool smooth metal. She waited until the rushing in her horns receded, and her fingers regained feeling. Slowly righting herself, Colp straightened up and saw herself reflected in the kitchen window, mirror-like in the dim morning light. Wide-eyed and tense, horns reaching for the sky. Her mind spiraled until it landed on thoughts of LeMM. He had always sworn by progressive relaxation. By the time she returned to the living room with the third plunger, some mugs and a pitcher of milk balanced on a tray, she had progressively tensed and relaxed every muscle she could think of, and recklessly taken a swig directly from the plunger. She had to admit, she did feel much better.
DiV was sitting up much straighter now. “I didn’t realize it was a dairy shed,” he was explaining to Yehoram, “I just saw a building and went toward it.”
“And a good thing you did,” nodded Yehoram. He went to refill DiV’s mug but the plunger was empty. Colp set down the tray, passed Yehoram the full plunger and slid onto the recliner opposite the door.
“I was just saying,” DiV turned to her, “I was hiking when I suddenly felt lightheaded. I had been following a dried creek bed and made it maybe another couple of meters before realizing it was serious. So I headed for the nearest building.” He paused, still looking at her. Colp wasn’t sure what to say.
“Oh,” she eventually offered. An agonizing moment stretched as his eyes intently searched her face.
“Well, Mr. DiV sir,” Yehoram said, “you gave me a mighty shock. I thought you were dead until Josh here saw you were breathing. I hope we didn’t cause you any harm lifting you up here, only, you people are kind of heavy”. It was almost like DiV was waiting for something. Then, like night and day, his face rearranged itself into a huge smile and his gaze lost its pointed air.
“I guess we are,” he grinned, and downed his topped-up mug in one fell swoop.
“Thank you so much, Ms. Colp,” he said, “Yehoram explained how exceptionally lucky I was that you were around.”
“So, what do you think happened?” Colp wondered.
“I said, I got dizzy, must’ve forgotten to fill my – ” DiV broke off. His hand grasped at his shoulder, where his coffee holster should have been. He frowned.
“I thought you’d been bit, so I took it off to check underneath” Yehoram explained.
“Where is it now?” DiV’s smile widened, revealing even more of his even blunt teeth. Before Colp could respond, Yehoram replied “truck bed.”
DiV he tried to stand. He wobbled dangerously, hoof sliding out and missing the coffee table by inches before plopping back down onto the table. Colp caught a flash of fearful frustration before DiV quickly covered it with a sheepish laugh.
“Whoops!” he chuckled.
“You’re in no fit state to be moving,” Colp announced, “I think we should call an ambulance”. DiV looked like he was going to protest, but then sank back into the couch with a demure “Ok.”
Colp prodded the TV to life and navigated to the callpad, dialling the non-emergency number. With a downbeat chime, the call failed to connect. She tried again. Nothing. She turned the TV off and on again, and tried again. Still no luck.
“Ma’am, I don’t think it’s got a connection” Yehoram said helpfully. True enough, she looked to the bottom left of the screen and saw the connectivity icon bisected by a red line. She went to her bedroom and fetched her trusty laptop, lopsidedly propped on the bedside table from last night’s chat with LeMM. Again, no connection. She trotted from the hall to the utility room, and found the router sitting on a shelf to the left of the boiler. The homeowners had thoughtfully left the manual underneath, and squinting through the simple diagrams and obtuse labels, ascertained that the orange LED indicated lack of external connection. She gingerly lifted the router and checked the ethernet cable was in place. It was. The problem must have been further down the line. Far enough that Yehoram also hadn’t been able to call for an ambulance himself, she realized. She returned to the living room doorway.
Yehoram was explaining the concept of milk permeate to an apparently enthralled DiV.
“So you take it all out, then put it back in?” DiV asked.
“Some of it, keeps the final product regular,” Yehoram nodded. DiV ‘ahhd’ with understanding.
“three grams, that’s the key” Yehoram continued. DiV was still smiling, a touch too broadly.
Colp found herself thinking of one of LeMM’s stories. In a suburb not unlike [insert your local suburb here], a leak on the second story of a home not unlike [insert your home here] had slowly weakened the floor until one day it gave way. The homeowner below had been flattened by a 140kg home entertainment cabinet. This resulted in a ghost with a very specific vendetta against plumbers. The ghost appeared harmless and cooperated with the protagonist (a medium-sized medium) for a time, but in a spooky climax turned on them when it became clear said protagonist couldn’t be used to lure plumbers into the house. Something about DiV’s behavior reminded her of LeMM’s flattened ghost.
“Of course, it’s not just numbers,” Yehoram said.
Colp quietly shuffled to the back door, not wanting Dappy and Pongo to rouse and draw attention to her exit. She slipped outside into a golden landscape, early morning light casting gentle shadows from dappled clouds. For once, she did not pay attention to the grandeur. She strode out toward the rose patch, which in park masked the subterranean service hatch that housed the internet cable node for the house. Then a thought struck her. She turned, and keeping the thick stand of pines between her and the house, made her way to where the truck was parked. The holster was where she had left it, dangling on the corner of the truck’s palette. Hastily, she ducked over to the truck, snatched it, then returned to the nearest pine. She inspected it closely, seeing far more in the better light. Made of expensive ruggedized fabric, the zippers at the top were shiny and new. Colp didn’t open them, not wanting to touch the typically gross and possibly chewed straw pipe coiled inside. The inward-facing padding was plump and unworn, but the outward-facing surface was scuffed and marked with grey grit that matched the scattered local rocks. Now she could see the hole much more clearly. About one inch in length, a neat incision punctured the bottom of the holster. The ruggedized outer fabric had peeled slightly away, revealing a thin layer of fabric padding and the edge of the pale plastic inner bag. The fabric padding was tinged brown from absorbing some of the escaping coffee. Gingerly poking at the incision, she slid an experimental finger between the inner and outer layers. She could feel the texture of the padding change from lightly crusty to fluffy at the second knuckle. At least some of the escaping coffee must have run backward into the holster.
“Wooof!” said Pongo. Colp jumped, nearly dropping the holster.
“Barf barf!” agreed Dappy. The two dogs swirled around her hoofs. They must have decided to follow her outside. Colp quickly surveyed the house – no sign of anyone at the front door. Taking a chance that nobody was looking, she tossed the holster back toward the truck. It landed squarely atop the sacks, which muffled any sound of its landing. Then she strode back along the pines, past the roses, and in through the back door.
“I can’t see anything wrong at the exchange,” she called out. Dappy and Pongo pushed past her and tumbled pointedly toward the kitchen.
“That’s OK, I’m OK,” DiV replied. His voice did sound much stronger. Colp was surprised to find him upright, leaning against the back of the couch. He was stomping a hoof into the soft carpet. Yehoram stood well back.
“Pins and needles,” DiV explained. Colp tried tapping at the TV one more time, but the connection icon remained resolutely crossed out.
“Yehoram here has offered to take me into town,” DiV smiled, “I can call my folks from there.”
The dogs began to whine from the kitchen. The new guests had been interesting, but now it was time to get serious. It was almost breakfast time.
“Alright,” Colp said, even though it most certainly probably likely mostly wasn’t alright. She’d made it most of the way through the CPR process, but they’d not gotten to (f) call an ambulance. But, DiV did seem substantially recovered, the dogs were hungry, and she had at least tried to make the call. DiV finished his stomping and took a few experimental steps toward the door. He was no less steady than Colp had been thirty minutes ago as she’d stumbled out of bed.
“I’ll lodge an error report ‘bout our connections while I’m there,” Yehoram offered.
“Alright.” Colp said again, this time with more enthusiasm. DiV made his way unassisted out the front door, across the balcony, and clopped down the short driveway to the truck. Yehoram followed, but paused in the doorway to shake Colp’s hand. No awkward fumble for grip, this time he had the right angle of approach.
“I usually take travelling folk for unreliable, but you stayed calm and did good” he said respectfully. High praise from a famer, Colp thought. She gripped his hand firmly.
“As did you, Yehoram. It’s not every day an unfamiliar species collapses in your milk shed.”
“That’s the truth,” Yehoram chuckled, then turned toward the truck. DiV was standing by the truck bed, tucking something small under his t-shirt. The arm holster, Colp surmised. Josh silently slid past her, and shuffled down the drive. Yehoram held out his arm, which DiV leant on heavily to haul himself into the truck’s cabin. Then Yehoram and Josh squeezed themselves into the cabin, which was just large enough to hold three people at a pinch. DiV awkwardly wound the window down and stuck his head out. He didn’t look back at the house. The truck groaned to life and puttered down the entrance road, slowly at first then picking up momentum as it turned and headed for town. Colp’s eyes followed the dusty trail until Dappy and Pongo jumped and bounced off her back in synchrony, almost knocking her off her feet. She couldn’t wait to tell LeMM about her peculiar morning.
“Aughh,” LeMM was sprawled out on the thick carpet. It had been such a good day; the Haunted Tractor of the Hill was finally shaping up, and his ad-hoc composer had come through with a particularly good fifteen minute ambient track. “Just let the cat walk on the autoharp for a while, then stitched it together,” she had said humbly.
Then the stupid bin had exploded its stupid papers everywhere, and he’d damned well tripped on a stupid advertisement for a stupid coupon book. Stupid stupid stupid. He’d gone flying, head over hoof, and squarely headbutted the router on his way down. It lay with him, more pieces than there should be.
Morosely, he scooped them up into his lap and surveyed the damage. Not too bad, he supposed, all the components looked intact. But the wiring between them looked a bit dicey. Sure enough, when he gingerly plugged the ethernet cable back in, neither his desktop nor laptop picked up the local network. Most pressingly, that night’s upload remained at 33%. Hmm. He pulled his webcam’s flexible mounting and twisted the ring of LEDs to full brightness and took a closer look at the router. Should be something he could solder into place. Of course, there was no solder in the draw. Or the cupboard. Or, funnily enough, the fridge. But there was a tasty apple energy drink, which LeMM sipped on thoughtfully. He began to feel better as a “ritual” style plot swam into his head. Absently he loped back into the study. He sat in front of his computer and automatically pulled the keyboard tray outwards.
“You will need a small coil of solder,” he began…
Four pm, and the internet was still down. Colp had started to refresh her laptop’s connection icon an hour ago, lazily at first, but ever more frantically. Her morning with DiV and his neatly punctured coffee holster had left her uneasy. She felt tired, sure, but the kind of fatigue that comes with a coffee overdose; fatigued but fidgety, all leaden muscles and high heart rate. She had spent the day restlessly clopping about the house and garden, hesitant to go for her usual longer walk lest she miss a repair person or repeat visit from Yeshoram. No such luck. The time for LeMM’s call was approaching. It wasn’t that she minded being cut off – refresh connections – she’d been completely isolated before, sometimes weeks at a time – refresh connections – though that was years ago – refresh – back when she could jog for kilometers – refresh – “Oh for goodness sake,” Colp exclaimed out loud. She shoved the laptop to the far edge of the dining table and rested her face in her hands, rubbing at her eyelids. Even the laptop’s low-fi satellite connection had no signal out here. It was cable or nothing, and right now, that meant nothing. She clopped moodily into the kitchen and threw together a hasty pasta dish, separating it into two pots before adding sliced mushroom (for her) and beef liver chunks (for Dappy and Pongo). Sensing her tension, neither of them commented on the unusual earliness of dinner. They ate together in silence, the house under a blanket of stillness. When she’d finished washing up, Colp fetched her drone from the bedroom cabinet. If she couldn’t show LeMM the sunset in real time, she could at least record it to show him tomorrow. And it would be tomorrow. If the internet wasn’t back by lunchtime she’d hop in the one working tractor and darned well drive herself into town to and sort it out herself. She retrieved her laptop (OK, maybe just one more refresh – still nothing) and opened the drone’s program. A plethora of buttons and dialogue boxes surrounding a central blank square, where a live feed would be sent. The onboard camera recorded at a much higher resolution, the low-fi feed less detailed but more reliable vision used for real-time steering purposes. Colp flipped the drone over and toggled the ‘on’ switch. Immediately the black patch on the laptop resolved itself into an upside-down view of the living room.
Colp popped the drone on the open window ledge, plopped down on the couch, and pulled the laptop onto her lap. She opened the offline GPS map of the region and plotted out a figure-eight path that crossed over the house and swooped out to the east and west, pausing every few minutes so the camera could pan from ground to sky to take in as much of the setting sun and shifting landscape as possible. The whole loop should take about fifteen minutes. Glancing out the window, Colp could see it was still a bit early, the sun not quite close enough to the horizon to be truly ‘setting’. Partly to fill the time, partly to fool herself that he was there, she tapped the “record audio” button and recounted her morning in full to the feed of the garden, mentally compositing LeMM’s face in front of the pine trees.
It took a while to properly outline what had happened. She focused more on DiV’s strange behavior and glossed over her post-adrenalin near-collapse (LeMM had enough of his own anxieties, he didn’t need to know about her moments of feebleness). Halfway through her story, Dappy and Pongo had joined her on the couch and snuggled comfortingly against her knees.
“I don’t know why I snuck out to the arm holster,” she mused, “just that it seemed important, and that DiV sent my teeth on edge. And I think it was. That puncture on the arm holster was neat, like it had been done with a knife or scissors or something. And it was at the bottom. Surely he would have felt the coffee leaking down his arm before he got decaffeinated enough to get dizzy? Come to think of it,” she absently reached down to scratch Dappy’s ear, “how long had he been hiking, that he was just one arm holster away from collapse?” She paused thoughtfully. “Anyway, love, you’ll see the sky’s about to get amazing, so I’d better let you go.” She tapped the auto-take-off button and the drone dutifully whirred horizontally out from the window ledge, then sensing it was clear of the eves, zipped upward and embarked on the pre-programmed flight path.
Colp idly watched the low-fi feed. The low sun splashed golden rays across hills that gently undulated into the distance, fading to pale purple peaks on the horizon. The grummle trees, twisted and scraggy from the ground, looked almost soft from this vantage point. As the drone turned, she could make out the distant dots of Yeshoram’s cows, white smudges in the dimming light. They were loosely arranged around a small drinking pond, dotted randomly amongst a thicket of grummle trees. Distant flashes in the sky suggested a flock of birds passing overhead. The drone turned, revealing more of the flock. Many more. Very unusual. LeMM would love this. Colp tapped the manual override button and urged the drone closer. It lazily edged out of the pre-programmed turn and glided closer to the border with Yeshoram’s property. Slowly, more and more of the large, dense flock came into view. In the paddock below, a group of cows clustered tightly against the border fence. Something had the animal’s attention.
By the time the drone had come to about 100 meters from the border fence, the landscape was tinged with cool twilight shadows. The birds roiled in the air, a coiling dance folding individual birds into eccentrically coordinated larger three-dimensional shapes. Individuals would sometimes dip down to the cows at the fence line, then swoop up again to join their fellows. Even in the low-fi live feed, the motion was mesmerizing. Both the fading light and the drone’s battery life brought an end to the spectacle for Colp. The drone’s software automatically monitored battery life and distance from takeoff, and with a petulant ‘ding’ announced initiation of the recall flight path. Colp considered tapping override to keep the drone in place, then letting it land automatically and retrieving it the next day. As much as she would have liked more footage, the light was almost gone anyway, and she would probably be too busy traipsing around fixing the internet to search the fields for the valuable piece of tech.
It felt like an eternity as she waited for the drone to return. Talking to LeMM, well, sort-of, and watching the beautiful spectacle had provided some respite, but as the feed faded to black her uneasiness returned. Gently extricating herself from the napping Dappy and Pongo, Colp got to her hoofs. For the first time since arriving at the Brankthoms’ property, she fetched the keys from the kitchen draw and locked all of the doors and windows, save the window in the living room. When she returned to the couch, the live feed showed a small dots of yellow in a sea of black. They grew larger as the drone approached the house. Squinting into the complete darkness outside, Colp couldn’t see the drone. Dappy and Pongo must have known it was there, because they were both growling toward the window by the time it edged itself in through the window, proximity sensors working overtime to avoid clipping the frame.
“There there, it’s just Mr. Drone-y,” Colp soothed them as it deactivated itself on the floor. Clearly unimpressed with her platitudes, they continued to growl into the night. Colp closed the window a little too sharply and fumbled with the lock. She plugged the drone into the wall and set it to transfer the high-resolution recording to her laptop before retiring to the bedroom. That night, Colp and Dappy insisted on sleeping at the foot of her bed.
Tired of pacing around his apartment, LeMM sunk into his couch. The blinking corner clock indicated the early morning re-run of Long Time Cook Winner Chef Blast-off would be on in a minute. Such mind-melting nothings would be an ideal distraction from Colp’s mysterious silence. Almost three hours late. He had braved the short walk to the corner store and picked up the solder in person. That was huge, for him at least. The way the breeze had fluffed his clothes was disconcerting, conversation from passers by felt like shouting. But he’d done it, and repaired the router just in time. And she was late. She was never this late. He flopped his head to one side, sighing at the decidedly faded out ‘incoming call’ icon. He flopped his head back to face forward as the swell of deep synthesisers filled his apartment with context-free pathos.
“Balps,”a serious looking woman in khaki overalls said, staring directly down the barrel of the camera. It panned down to a sickly, dehydrated looking Velseth child sitting at her feet. Its raggedy fronds surrounded the most enormous, liquid eyes LeMM had ever seen. Too large. He idly wondered if they had been enlarged in post-production. The poor mite was very photogenic, but from its posture and colouration, it was obvious it had the balps.
An extremely fit, well-quaffed Negaleg walked into shot and bent to cup the child’s chin. Horns glinting in the sunlight, eyes wreathed in a startling green, the lithe newcomer looked pained and shook his head slowly. A pop-up nameplate labelled him ‘ZiV Apoorva, businessman and philanthropist’, accompanied by the Bolf logo.
“Every day, children on the Hawfred coast run this risk,” he said with furrowed brow. In a fluid motion, he scooped up the child and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the khaki-wearing woman. “Any balps is too many balps,” she said.
The screen faded to black, lingering a moment on the child’s wide-eyed face, before more white text informed LeMM that ZiV was taking time out of his very busy schedule right now to do something about this, so he least he (the viewer) could do would be to dig deep into hid pockets. LeMM did just that, and found remnant crumbs of a museli bar. He chewed them absently as the peppy chimes of Long Time Cook Winner Chef Blast-off kicked into gear.
The padlock to the tractor shed unlocked with anything but smoothness. It must have rusted during last week’s downpour. Colp wrestled the key free, and made a mental note to return with some lubricant at some point. Swinging the wide barn-like door open, she was hit by a wave of hot air. It had taken her until mid-morning to complete the usual routine of seeing to the dog’s breakfast, doing the dishes, generally tidying, then filling her backpack with what she’d need for her planned trip into town. She had slept in rather late, but then she’d got to sleep rather late, disconcerted by the dog’s strange clingy behavior. They seemed fine now, though, their usual demanding and playful selves. She waited for the hot puff of air to dissipate and tentatively stepped inside, aware that she should take care touching metal surfaces because the warm sun and tin roof had somewhat cooked the space within. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the slightly dimmer light. Inside the utilitarian box was dominated by a large red tractor, the sole form of transport left for her by the Brankthoms. It was flanked by about meter of space on all sides. The Brankthoms had kindly left it facing the door, but Colp was scared of reversing too far and smashing out the back wall of the shed, so she had left it nose inwards after her last shopping expedition. Slow, intimidating to drive, and with dubious suspension, her first tractor journeys toward town was less than pleasant. Those weeks ago, she had seriously considered whether she’d have been better off on hoof. But she’d got the hang of driving it during the return journey in the cooler afternoon air, with the back of the tract
or stacked with heavy shopping that she couldn’t possibly have carried on her own.
Colp reached up into the driver’s seat and pushed at the padding. It swung upward on a hinge to reveal a cleverly hidden space for assorted necessities like a bottle of water (which Colp had tipped out and filled with coffee, just in case), a wrench, breath mints, a small air pressure gauge, a local map, and hand-written instructions Brankthoms had left. Half-remembering, half using the guide, Colp circumnavigated the tractor and checked the tire pressure of each huge tire. Then she fumbled for the bonnet button. It was on an awkward angle for a negaleg hand, she had to stand back and twist her arm from the shoulder to get enough leverage to squeeze hard enough for it to ‘pop!’ into place. She looked back and forth between the Brankthoms’s hand-drawn engine diagram and the real-world engine in front of her. Yes, the engine was still there, she concluded. The fuel, it turned out, was not. She had hoisted her way into the driver’s seat, turned the ignition, and just made it out of the shed when the engine sputtered died. The needle on the fuel gauge belatedly swung from half to empty. Colp distinctly remembered it being at half when she’d returned from her last trip. Odd.
She sighed, yanked at the parking break, and toppled down from the driver’s seat. The step was clearly designed for toes, not hoofs. She made her way two sheds down to the supply shed. Thankfully, this padlock gave her no problem, and (with further consultation of the Brankthoms’ instructions) Colp was soon using a small manual plastic pump to re-fill the fuel tank. She listened as it filled, a sound not unlike boiling water filling a mug but with deeper bass, pitch slowly rising as the tank filled. She periodically stopped and poked a small dry stick into the opening, and waited for the base of the stick to come out wet. Wrinkling her nose at the stringent, earthy fumes she carefully secured the fuel cap then re-stacked and re-locked the supply shed. Her stiff knee creaked as she once again dragged herself into the driver’s seat. This time, the fuel gage cheerily indicated full. Free to move down the entrance road to the property, Colp completed her pre-trip checks, experimentally pumping the foot break with her hoof. All in order. With a ‘woop’ that was somewhat disproportionate to the actual speed of the tractor, she put the pedal to the metal and let the downward slope and churning engine propel her forwards toward town.
“Hup hup, oh no!”
The anonymous toothy host was taking exaggerated pleasure in yet another contestant succumbing to gravity. Another ‘plop’, swim to the side of the safety pool, and drippy breathless interview about doing it for “me mam”, who would purportedly be proud despite the obvious, abject failure to do “it”. In a throwback to his younger days, the morning run of Long Time Cook Winner Chef Blast-off had bled into many hours of meaningless daytime, now nighttime, television. LeMM had tried to work, he had really tried, it was hard to concentrate when his hands kept minimising the text editor to check the call icon (just in case). “Stupid hands,” he muttered, but this was drowned out by a tinny cheer of a crowd witnessing someone making it across the slippery plank of something-something. LeMM decided he would get up and do something, anything, and promptly did not.
The small town of Braedon sat comfortably in a shallow valley formed by three flanking hills. The single-story brick buildings and wide streets spiraled untidily around a small lake at the center of town. Often almost empty, today lake Brae was about half full from the previous weeks’ rain. Braedon was home to about three hundred permeant residents, but served almost twice as many people as it was a hub for that many farmers in the surrounding region. The Branthoms had enthused it had all the modern conveniences; a truly convenient convenience store, pub with a back room that sometimes doubled as a town hall, post office, bowls lawn, police station, Everton hardware and farmware warehouse (run by Eric Everton the local handiman, and his wife Bernice, who had an uncanny knack for eking the last gasps of life from even the most decrepit vehicles), and every other day, doctor Watford was available from a converted house of Peatsland street (lovely fellow). From this distance, Colp thought it looked like an ornately set pendant, blue sapphire lake flanked by emerald grass that contrasted with the paler greens and browns of surrounding fields, set in dusty gold roads and hanging from the above-ground pipeline stretching from the top of town to the north-east. Up close, the pipeline was big enough to crawl through, Colp noted as her churning tractor turned onto the main approach road. It was the sole highway that connected Braedon to the nearest city, Pentland, 200km away. The pipeline snaked parallel to the highway, a singular umbilical cord of water, power, and communications, wrapped in inch-thick teflon, just in case. It took her another half hour to reach the Braedon, trundling in the sun. Her only company was he occasional “moot!” of a cow. Not a single car passed her.
Coming from her rural house sit and the lonely journey, Braedon itself felt veritably teeming with life. Several people cheerily waved from the footpath as she trundled around to the northern bank of lake Brae, where the main street was located. A small fleet of motor bikes approached her from behind, then dropped their speed to keep pace neatly behind the large red tractor. Feeling a little self-conscious, she pulled up to the convenience store and gingerly parked the tractor next to an SUV. The motorbikes sputtered to a stop next to her. A huge man, as tall as he was wide, peeled himself from his impressive array of chrome and leather. He tugged his helmet free to lose a mane of grey curls and looked up at Colp. She returned his gaze with a wide smile.
“Hello,” she said.
“Afternoon, ma’am,” he said politely, and held out his arm. Colp gracelessly dismounted, gratefully accepting his assistance. Glancing at the sun she confirmed it was indeed afternoon. The day had gone so quickly, she’d have to be quick in town or Dappy and Pongo would be frantic come dinner time. A shame, she spent so much time in the secluded house it was a lovely change to be around people for a while.
“Thanks,” she smiled up at the tall biker. The figures behind him had all dismounted, humans of varying colours, shapes, genders and sizes. Were it not for the uniform of black riding leathers, and the slightly wild-eyed windswept look that typically accompanied long country journeys, Colp could easily picture them as middle management in a secretarial or public service setting. The largest bike belonged to the smallest member of the group, a stocky Caucasian man with tight auburn curls and a wide mouth. He muttered a polite “hello” in her direction, then made directly for the pub. The group shuffled after him, each nursing a helmet. Groups like this, Colp reflected, could be a lot like negalegs. Just as she was drawn to the pub by the promise of an inexpertly made yet glorious mug of coffee, this eclectic group of humans stumbled on stiff thighs toward a refreshing, cold beer.
They entered the Dappled Drongo in a singular lump. As Jim, the publican (cum reluctant barista, mostly for Colp’s sake) saw to their drinks, Colp chatted amicably to the enormous man, who introduced himself as “Lancy, whale of the land”.
“Big, grey, migratory, and ancient” one of Lancy’s fellow travelers chipped in.
“Pack it in, Criminal,” Lancy chuckled good-naturedly. A couple of locals in the corner looked up in alarm. Lancy introduced his friends in turn; Criminal, Barry, Gene, and at the end of the row, Pal. They all said ‘hello’, though Pal did so non-verbally (a little wave with pinky separated from the rest of the hand). Then she mimed something to Gene, who ordered for them both. Settled in, Pal pulled a thin cable from her helmet and plugged it into the hair somewhere behind her ear. Colp tried not to stare, then surreptitiously glanced into Lancy’s helmet, perched precariously on his lap. She could just make out an earpiece and microphone, and reasoned it was an intercom system so the bikers could talk while on the road. It must double as a listening device for Pal when they were stationary.
Lancy turned to Colp but spoke in a booming voice, clearly intended as much for the eavesdropping locals as Colp. She tried not to flinch and pulled her horns down slightly to dampen the noise, the negaleg equivalent of blocking her hears. Much better.
“There we were, third day into our trip. Beautiful day, sun shining, tanks full of petrol, cooler full of cool ones, perfect. We’re just wandering, really, so we follow our nose, well, Barry’s nose,” he gestured to the stocky man who had greeted Colp in the car park, “and then Jack here spots the pipeline in the distance. Great, Barry says, great, I say. You know why that’s great, miss?”
Colp felt like she’d been called onstage for a holiday pantomime, and took a deep breath.
“Follow the pipeline, find a town,” she boomed in her best movie trailer voice.
“Exactly!” Lancy boomed and slapped her on the back so hard she nearly chipped her mug against the counter. “Told you she had the look of a wanderer,” Lancy beamed to his friends. Pal made a negaleg shape with her hands. “It’s uncanny how you picked it,” Criminal agreed.
“So we were followed the pipeline when all of a sudden Criminal here announces he needs to take a leak. Bladder like a coin purse, that one. We pull over and, turn our backs respectfully and all that while he does his business, all ten milliliters of it, then we go our merry way. Ten minutes later there’s flashing lights and hollering and we’re being pulled over.”
“It was so dramatic!” Gene warbled.
“Unheard of,” Barry mumbled.
Pal theatrically placed a hand at her forehead, exaggeratedly swooning.
“The officer gets off her bike and walks up the line. I was pretty confused, thought for a moment it was something to do with a plumbing invoice I was a bit late issuing, funny how the mind works sometimes. But no, she goes right past me and stops by Criminal’s bike. ‘Sir’ she says, ‘Yeah?’ he says. His visor was up but his helmet was still on so we could all hear every word. ‘I am hereby serving you a notice of public misdemeanor’ she says, ‘Huh?!’ he says. ‘Public urination,’ she says. ‘What!?’ we all say. She hands something to Criminal, and he makes this ‘uuuhhh’ sound, like the last bit of water going down a plug hole. Then he just quietly gives her his details, pays some kind of fine, then she drives off. ‘What was all that about?’ Barry asks, but Criminal’s gone a funny shade of red and won’t say anything.” As Lancy talked, Criminal was slumping down in his seat, hiding his face behind his beer.
“Eventually, we worked it out. He only went and peed on the side of the pipeline,” Lancy beamed. Colp felt like she was missing something obvious.
“They’re only monitored 24/7 by cameras to pick up any faults,” Lancy explained, “or vandalism!” he practically whooped. Everyone in the pub had a good laugh. The locals insisted on buying Criminal his next beer. “Legend,” one of them shouted. Criminal was still blushing deeply, but hoisted the pint in an appreciative salute. They talked for a time, Lancy listening in awe when Colp recounted the incident with the raging jurp (they amicably compared knee scars). Gene and Pal in particular were fascinated by the concept of house sitting as a career. Reluctantly, she realized that the afternoon was disappearing and she had work to do.
Bidding farewell to Lancy et al, and feeling refreshed by Jim’s well-meaning but flavorless effort at a latte, Colp trotted over to the convenience store. She collected a small bag of sundry items, including a top-up of powdered milk. Fresh milk was all well and good, but a 20km tractor journey in hot afternoon sun was not conducive to continued freshness. She also picked up another bag of coffee beans, thinking it’d be nice to leave the Branthoms with a well-stocked supply.
“Can I please use your wifi?” she asked as she approached the counter.
“Of course!” responded Haley, the cheery shop keep. “You must be on Yeshoram’s line,” Haley commented, “he came in the other day and said his internet was out too.”
“Promise you won’t tell him I bought this,” she entreated as she hefted the powdered milk bag onto the counter.
“Only if you promise not to tell him we stock it,” Haley the replied with a wink. “Your total is ten dounts fifty, and the wifi password is ‘password’”.
Colp wondered at the trusting mentality of the Braedon locals as her laptop connected. The connection was stable but the upload speed slow. Colp had mentally composed her message to LeMM during the tractor journey, and hastily typed it out. “Internet down for now, I’m in town to send this and get it fixed. In the meantime, attached are the latest aerial wonderments, with bonus material. Stop the presses news from – ” she quickly scrubbed through the timecodes. “- 0:00:00-00:20:00, for your premium viewing enjoyment. See if you can hold out until I’m back on the grid, though. Talk to you soon, -C ”. She dragged the video to attach. The progress bar announced it would take eight million years, then adjusted itself to a more realistic thirty minutes.
“Do you mind if I leave this here?” Colp asked, “this will take a while and I still need to pop by the post office to get our internet sorted.”
Haley took the proffered laptop and set it down carefully below the counter.
Colp noticed the bikers had gone as she crossed the main street to the post office. Inside was a cheery bombardment of brightly colored postcards, wrapping paper, and knickknacks.
“Good afternoon,” a smiling clerk waved from behind the counter. Colp could see the top of a dusty brown mop of hair, and the occasional flash of blue-eyed smile from between the piles of papers, donation jars and postage-paid boxes. Colp tried to guess where the clerk actually was.
“Hello, I’d like to talk to someone about an internet issue,” she said through a pile of stuffed plush fishes labelled “best gift’s!!”.
“To your left,” the clerk replied, a hand and pointing finger wobbling into view from behind a large cylindrical box. Colp turned to see a small white kiosk in the corner. Nestled amongst the overflowing rainbow of items everywhere else in the store, the overlying “National Brobband” sign was conspicuously plain, simple font on white background. “Ask a National Brobband Representative,” proclaimed smaller italic font, with a faux hand drawn arrow pointing down to the open kiosk frontage. Approaching, Colp could the arrow pointed to a sallow, bored man staring vacantly at a tablet screen on his lap.
“Hello,” she said. He didn’t stir. The National Brobband branded overalls hung lumpenly on his slouched frame. He reminded Colp of a hybrid porcelain and cloth doll, hard hands, face and feet bridged by an amorphous humanoid middle of lumpy stuffing. She squinted at his name tag.
“Hello, Timofey” she tried. Yellowed eyes rolled glacially upwards from his tablet to her face.
“Hello madam what can I do for you today” he said in a dry monotone. His inflection lowered at the end of the sentence, producing a curious feeling of an anti-question.
“You can take a look at the cable junction two nodes out of town, to the east” Colp instructed. Seconds stretched as Timofey languidly reached for a clipboard leaning on the kiosk.
“4258B,” he read. When Colp showed no signs of recognition, he sucked the inside of his cheek and continued, “A Mr. Yeshoram lodged the job a couple of days back.” Another pause. “Medium priority. All medium priority jobs are actioned within ten business days of their lodgment,” informed her.
“What about high priority jobs?” she asked hopefully.
“One business day,” Timofey said.
“Ok, I’d like to lodge an urgent job for junction – ” Colp leant forward and found the appropriate junction number (it wasn’t difficult because there was only one job written on the sheet) “-4258B. I won’t be here next week and it has to be sorted before I go”. Timofey nodded and tapped at his tablet. It bleeped disconsolately.
“Can’t have two jobs on the same junction,” Timofey said.
“So, cancel the first one.” Colp shrugged.
“Can’t. Only the original lodgment client can cancel a job.” Timofey said.
“Update the status,” Colp could feel her shoulders tensing.
“Need administrator permissions for that,” Timofey said.
“Who has administrator permissions?” Colp asked, making a concerted to keep her tone even.
“Local National Brobband representatives,” Timofey said.
Colp looked pointedly at the italic “National Brobband Representative” letters above his head, read them aloud and exaggeratedly followed the arrow with her finger. He blinked slowly as she looked over both his shoulders, then both her shoulders. Her affable smile from earlier had settled into a dangerously exaggerated replica of a smile.
“I have the permissions, but… the password’s being reset,” he explained. Colp stared manically. Sensing danger, Timofey defaulted to his professional programming like a confused automatic phone routing service.
“Monthly passcode updates ensure client security and data safety” he offered.
“How long?” Colp asked softly.
“Ten business days,” Timofey replied.
“Update it to high priority,” Colp whispered.
“Can’t,” Timofey appeared to be shrinking as he spoke “need administrator permissions.”
Colp’s hand slammed across the clipboard, fingers splayed wide. It was ripped from Timofey’s grasp.
“Prompt and professional service to clients ensures…safety,” Colp purred, voice softly warbling between registers like a Theremin on a fairground ride. Timofey glanced desperately at the post office clerk. Just a shadow behind paper flowers and a box of ‘great value’ candles. No help there. He looked back to Colp. Her stare was hoops of marble set in obsidian. She abruptly marched to the counter, snatched a pen, and violently stabbed at the paper
“Oh look,” she cooed, brandishing the clipboard in front of Timofey’s face. “Urgent”, it proclaimed in an unhinged scrawl, multiple arrows pointing to the single pending job.
“Oh,” he muttered. Colp stepped back and Timofey shakily got to his feet.
“Great. Head for the penultimate entrance road to the Yeshoram dairy farm. There’s a big sign with a big cow, you can’t miss it. I’ll meet you there,” Colp said cheerily and released his clipboard. She pointedly continued to watch him as he shuffled outside and mounted his quad bike. He glanced back to see her watching through the window. Hastily he kicked the engine into gear and drove off.
“She shoots, and she scores!” the clerk whooped. The situation resolved, Colp felt suddenly embarrassed.
“Sorry about that,” she blushed. “Better make sure he’s not just done a runner.”
The clerk required a high-five (well, high four in Colp’s case) before she left the post office, fetched her laptop from the general store and once again scrambled onto her tractor. She was relieved to see the outline of Timofey’s quad bike underneath the huge cow billboard that marked her turn off. By the time she reached him, he had already taken the side off the node. The grass around him was surrounded in tools and parts. He was clipping wires from a small rounded green board, dangling out the side of the junction box. She cut the engine but didn’t dismount. Her knee was aching quite badly from all the day’s repeated clambering up and down.
“How’s the urgent job?” she called. Timofey jumped in fright.
“Looks like a something took out the whole portion,” Timofey we quavered. He gestured vaguely down the hill, hand wave extending up and down the pipeline, “node, moisture sensors, cameras at the junction blown out too.” As Colp supervised, he yanked the green thing free, tossed it on the ground, and more carefully pulled a replacement from the workbox tethered to the back of his quad bike.
“Lightening?” Colp guessed.
“Maybe. No scorching on the casing or anywhere else, though” Timofey replied. He affixed some wires to the green thing and deftly shoved it back into the junction box. He hastily shut the hatch before anything could settle and tip back out. Colp sat quietly but vigilantly as he picked up his discarded tools and stashed them in various caddies and pouches on his apron and quad bike.
“Should be right now,” Timofey informed her, staring fixedly at the ground.
“Thank you!” Colp called, feeling a little bad for using her full stroppy force on the man, but he had already gunned his engine. Her words were drowned out by the ensuing roar.
Alone, Colp peered down at the junction box, eyes tracing her best guess of where the subterranean connection would be, then finding the corresponding access output from the large pipeline by the highway. It looked just like every other output port she had seen in rural areas, no dents or scorch marks, no clear signs that it wasn’t working. From her vantage point, she could just see the sight raised nubs placed every twenty meters or so down the pipeline that she had always taken for screws or bolts, but now knew to be cameras. All this tech, a wide vastness of the space the network had to cover, and the administration was still the weakest point. Still, no harm done. Colp hummed cheerfully to herself as she re-started the tractor. She couldn’t wait to tell LeMM about Lancy, Criminal, and the rest of their friendly fleet. No need to mention her exchange with Timofey. LeMM had called her the ‘Implausible Hulk’ for a week last time she’d let slip a similarly forceful interpersonal success regarding a mixed-up flight booking.
After crafting a downright amazing lean kangaroo stew with shredded carrots she shared with Dappy and Pongo, she settled on the couch and opened her laptop. The small connection icon was gloriously lit up, and the WoppsUP connection went through immediately.
LeMM’s face swung into view. “Now there’s a sight for sore eyes!” Colp proclaimed. The feed was far from smooth at first, a low framerate making his face jump from place to place.
LeMM raised his eyebrows, “No- you ment-ion i–, yeah, they do look sore. Didn’t miss me that much, did you?” The feed stabilized as he spoke, clipped words giving way to the customary clear connection.
“The poor little country belle, wilting without her prince charming” Colp responded wryly, “definitely not a life goal”. LeMM chuckled good-naturedly, gentle wrinkles forming across his cheekbones. “Seriously, though, are you alright?” LeMM asked, “I heard your news and was suitably shocked and awed. Hypocaffeinic, right there, wow. I would have just noped out,” he flapped his hands illustratively, “but you totally took control! Hero! Red-eyed hero!”
“I’ll have that on a T-Shirt,” Colp smiled. She changed the subject and, as she’d guessed, LeMM was enchanted by the unfortunate story of Criminal. He asked her repeat her description of Lancy, (“he’d make a great tractor exorcist,” LeMM enthused). Their usual time for saying farewell came and passed. This time, LeMM wasn’t going anywhere. Almost two hours later, Colp remembered the amazing birds and suggested they review the footage together. LeMM, who admitted to taking a quick peek (“Just scrubbed through, I did not touch that play button!”) excitedly agreed.
They synched up their high-res videos and started about half an hour in, when the flock had first come into sight. As the drone approached the shifting spectacle, Colp turned her attention from the high-res video to the chat feed. LeMM was staring at his screen in wonder, eyes wide and mouth slightly open. His eyes jumped in gentle saccades as more of the birds came into view, an awed smile tugging at his lips. It was scary how much she’d missed him in just one day, Colp silently admitted to herself.
“Woah,” he said finally. When the light had almost completely faded and the drone started retreating back to the house, he began to bubble with questions about what the birds where (“proots”, Colp answered), why they were there (“No idea,”), how they could fly so closely without crashing into each other, let alone to form such interesting shapes (“Good question”).
“I’ll have to track down a prootologist,” LeMM mused, eyes half-focused on the video as he mentally searched his extensive contacts list. Then he blinked.
“Wait, what’s that?” he tapped at his screen. Colp looked. It was just the last few minutes of the recording, when the drone was approaching the house, just yellow windows in blackness.
“What?” she asked, puzzled. She watched LeMM reach for his mouse and click around for a moment. He leant forward, frowning. “What?” she repeated. “I thought I saw,” he broke off, eyes widening. “Just- just hold on a sec,” some more clicking.
“OK, so literally the last thing I want to do is scare you,” he said in an effortfully even voice, regrettably the most frightening possible tone in Colp’s estimation, “but have you locked the house for the night?”
“Why?” Colp asked,
“Have you?” LeMM repeated, sharply.
“Yes, yes I have” replied Colp. It had become a restless habit since DiV’s collapse had somewhat undermined the peace of the place. LeMM did not relax.
“Why?” she asked again, more forcefully this time.
“Time code 01:50:30,” LeMM said, voice still unnervingly even. Next to the live feed, Colp’s video playback had run its course and paused on the final frame. A clear image of her hand and hoof as she reached down to plug the drone in for charging. She carefully hovered the mouse over the timeline, small tooltip counting down the seconds, then minutes until she found the specified time. The drone was about thirty meters from the house. From this vantage point, the bright yellow living room and kitchen windows were clearly visible.
“Play, and watch the left window,” LeMM prompted. Colp swallowed dryly and did just that. A few seconds later she cried out and almost flipped the laptop off the desk.
The drone had captured the clear unmistakable outline of head and horns, standing at the living room window. Looking in.
Right outside the window. No wonder Dappy and Pongo had been so uncharacteristically quiet and clingy that night.
“Colp?” LeMM called, the even voice becoming decidedly uneven. Colp quickly righted the laptop and tried to get her breathing under control. “Yeah, yeah, I’m here,” she replied. She looked to the dog’s bed in the corner. Dappy and Pongo were happily curled up together. They had been behaving normally all day. Surely, if the lurker was still around, their defensive behavior would have continued. Colp focused on this thought, and progressively began to tighten and relax her muscles, starting at the ankle and working her way through her shoulders and down her body. There had not been the slightest hint of anyone else anywhere near the house all day. Still…
“Just… Stay with me, OK?” she asked. LeMM nodded.
“I’m going to go get a torch and look outside,” she decided. Colp stood, hefting the laptop in one hand so LeMM could still see her face, albeit from a low angle.
“What!?” LeMM gasped. He looked like he was about to faint.
“There’s no reason to think they’re still around, whoever they are” Colp rationalized, trying to convince herself as she spoke.
“You’re not going to go out there!” LeMM squeaked.
“No, of course not, I’ll just shine the light from in here,” Colp decided, “you can re-watch the footage and see if you can spot anything else.”
Colp turned off all the lights in the house as she went, navigating by torchlight and the gentle glow of her laptop. By the time she had shone the torch out each window, carefully inspecting the garden beyond, LeMM had scrutinized every frame of the drone’s approach to the house.
“Nothing” Colp reported when her circuit was complete.
“There’s nobody there” she concluded. She suddenly felt very, very tired. She flopped down on the couch, lying on one side and setting the laptop down on the low coffee table.
“That’s a relief” said LeMM. He looked anything but relieved.
“See anything more?” Colp asked. Though she no longer felt she was in imminent danger, the last thing she wanted to do was take another look at the footage.
“I don’t think he was there when the house first comes into view,” LeMM reported, “even from that distance I can make out a dot, which is the pot plant in the kitchen window. He’s definitely there – ” he broke off and swallowed thickly “-for about a minute, I’d say. From 01:50:15 through to 01:51:12. Came in from the left, looked in, then out to the right. Something must have scared him off, maybe he heard the drone,”
“Or the dogs. Dappy and Pongo were growling. I thought it was at the drone,” Colp explained. LeMM smiled weakly. “I’m glad they’re around. Little gourmand guards” he said. Colp couldn’t agree more. The night stretched deeper, and they both grew calmer as nothing continued to happen.
“So what now? Call the police?” LeMM asked eventually. Colp considered.
“It’s not really an emergency,” she prevaricated.
“But it’s not OK, either,” LeMM pointed out.
“I’m only here until the middle of the week,” she thought aloud. “Then I’m supposed to be heading out to a seaside town in Ghee. You remember, the refurbished schoolhouse,” she said. LeMM looked blank. “The one with the lime walls and purple skirting board.” LeMM nodded as recognition dawned.
“Horrible,” he said. “Just horrible”. Colp agreed.
Then they were laughing, a borderline hysterical expulsion of the night’s tension exploding forth in deep guffaws. LeMM honked with abandon, and Colp’s sides began to ache. Slowly they calmed down.
“Anyway, awful skirting aside, Ghee is far away and full of people” Colp said, “I don’t want to be stuck here dealing with the police.”
“Stuck dealing with the – we’re talking your safety here,” LeMM protested.
“I’m here, I’m safe,” Colp responded.
“Are you sure? Or do you just want to get away from it all, you flighty globetrotter” LeMM replied half-jokingly.
“Who, me?” Colp responded with exaggerated innocence. The ploy to lighten the conversation’s tone did not work.
“Yeah, you. Like the time someone stole your wallet at that music festival, or when you left the hospital early after bunging your knee. You’ll miss a flight because you stopped to help a family whose car has broken down, search for hours for the right brand of paprika – ” “Pongo won’t accept anything less!” Colp protested “- but when it’s your problem, the default reaction is just to move on and get on,” he finished.
“That’s better than never moving on, ever,” Colp shot back. She immediately regretted it. LeMM’s chin tucked into his neck as if she’d punched him on the nose.
“Oh, LeMM,” she groaned, “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”
LeMM did not respond, the picture of an animal caught in headlights. Colp massaged her temples and sighed. “You’re right. Horribly right.” She exhaled.
LeMM nodded minutely. She hated seeing him in shutdown like this, and it was worse when she knew it was her fault.
“Ok, not this time. But I need to get this sorted before it’s time to go. I’ll call the police first thing tomorrow.” She continued.
LeMM nodded slightly more noticeably.
“Could you please look up the local non-emergency number for the police?” she asked, proffering a small olive branch. She looked imploringly at the screen. LeMM was her guy in the chair. Never mind he almost never left the chair, he was still her guy. LeMM slowly, agonizingly slowly, began to relax and tap at his keyboard.
“I’ll tell the Brankthoms after, too,” Colp said. LeMM nodded, properly this time.
“And then I’ll call all the major news outlets and report a horrific incident of a tactless dolt of a negaleg,” Colp said with heartfelt emphasis on ‘tactless dolt’, “I can even give them the headline: Handsome virtuoso scorned”
LeMM relaxed some more.
“Fetching wunderkind disparaged” Colp continued.
A small smile crept across LeMM’s face.
“Good-looking amazing author disrespected” she persisted.
“This just in, freaked out and tired negalass is harsh and mean. This is Colp, reporting for whats-the-things news,” she said, hefting her mug as if it were a microphone.
“Oh, she’s brought out the mugcrophone,” LeMM groaned, a smile growing despite himself.
“Ok, so you have something to go with your call, I’ll trim the footage and see what I can do to grab some more details in the figure, that way you can leave them with all we’ve got,” he offered.
“That’d be brilliant,” Colp agreed gratefully. There was a pause punctuated by LeMM’s tapping.
“I was thinking,” he said eventually, “about this mysterious patient of yours. And this whole business with his arm holster.”
Colp nodded encouragingly.
“You said the coffee had soaked quite a way up the padding, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Colp confirmed.
“So the coffee should have just poured out the bottom, down his leg. Instead, there was none on his pants and at least some of it had run back up into the bag and soaked into the padding. So it must have been tipped to one side, maybe even a bit upside down.” LeMM had broken off typing and absently gestured, miming an up-ending stance with his hands. Colp agreed, but couldn’t see the significance of LeMM’s deduction.
“So it drained out when he was dizzy, he probably fell over a couple of times,” she offered.
“Precisely. And he was in a creek bed, so instead of it puddling out and getting all over his pants, it drained away.” LeMM finished. Colp still couldn’t see where he was going with this.
“And then he stumbled to the milk shed, Yeshoram found him, and we know the rest,” she added.
“Exactly. We know what you saw; a hypercaffeinic negaleg with a hole in his coffee supply. We assumed one caused the other. But who would go out with just one arm holster when they were so decaffeinated to start with? What if he was hypercaffeinic before someone made the hole?” LeMM said. Colp’s mind raced.
“He was pretty rough by the time he was on my couch. Completely dry. That doesn’t happen in a few hours,” she thought aloud.
“Right. He must have felt off. So, who in their right mind would go out hiking feeling light-headed at the least, with just one arm holster?” LeMM said.
“Someone who wants to get away from something, or someone,” Colp breathed. DiV had been in such a hurry to stand, so quick to accept Yeshoram’s lift to town.
“Exactly. 6 6 8 8 4 2 8 8 7 4 3 6 8” LeMM said.
Colp dutifully wrote down the non-emergency police phone number.
LeMM had eventually relented to Colp’s increasingly booming yawns and bid her good night. Curtains drawn to prevent sun damaging the limited edition posters on his walls, the safe cocoon of his apartment was quiet and dim. In the quiet, he wasn’t quite sure how he felt. Anxiety at her silence, relief at seeing her, anxiety of finding the figure, followed by the uncharacteristically argumentative course of the call had left him in equal parts febrile and lethargic. He spent a few hours mindlessly browsing his favorites forums, listlessly scrolling without posting. Writing probably wasn’t going to happen today. But, the internet moves fast and waits for no one. Content had to be made. Running his fingers gently over his horns, he decided his mood might be a good fit for recording a particularly bleak story he had cued up for later that week. Must remember to prevent the uncomfortable listening experience caused by a dry mouth. He scooted lethargically from his chair to fetch an energy drink from his bar fridge. Last can. Returning to his desk LeMM opened the BolfMart online shopping portal to order by reflex, then paused. He’d promised Colp he’d keep up the program of physically going out for supplies. It had been hard at first, but over the months he had become at least somewhat accustomed to the familiar route and could tolerate the ceaseless noises of outside. He didn’t know the name of the rotund corner store owner, but they had developed some degree of subdued rapport primarily around a shared enjoyment of baked seaweed snacks. For now, though, he was wrung out and just wasn’t up to it. He added a microwavable dinner to his online cart while he was at it, before opening the cued text document and audio recording software, and clearing his throat.
“It was then I realized my hands were… wrong…” he began. The day dragged on from there.
Nursing her first sip of the day, Colp stood by the window, squinting over the fields until she could make out the trail of Officer Stella Milly’s bike. She had outdone herself with Dappy and Pongo’s breakfast, an epicurean exercise in intricate cooking, an attempt at self-distraction. The most she could manage for herself was a steaming plunger of coffee and plain oats. Despite the early hour of Colp’s video call, Officer Milly had exuded freshness and professionalism. Her ruddy, rounded face was bordered by a mop of sun-bleached blonde hair pulled loosely into an almost comically small ponytail. Judging the bike to be just five minutes away, Colp gingerly unlocked and opened the front door and experimentally poked her nose outside. The fresh smell of dewy grass and sun-warmed mulch hit her all at once. Dappy and Pongo pushed past her and rocketed out into the garden, then to the line of pines beyond. Colp gingerly stood on the front stoop and searched the horizon. She made a quick circuit of the house. Nothing but an expanse of green punctuated by the occasional rock, tree, and bird. Dappy and Pongo came into view, heading out from the pines and to the field beyond. They had passed through the only place out of Colp’s sight, and made no sound of sound of protest or aggression.
Resolutely deciding it was safe, Colp strode to the hose and began the daily business of watering the garden. It was better for the plants to do it in the evening, but there was no way Colp was going to stay outside, alone, without the security blanket of an approaching police officer. As it was, she had the hose jet perhaps a little too high, was moving perhaps a little too fast, to complete the task as quickly as possible. Some of the saplings bent under the spray, but righted themselves as she moved on. The mulch at their bases remained displaced. Her main task (basically) complete, Colp returned to the tap and filled a large watering can. She looked again to the approach road, and saw Officer Milly pulling up into the driveway. She smoothly dismounted her bike and pulled off her helmet, which she left dangling from the handlebars. She was heading to the front door.
“Good morning,” Colp called out from the side of the house. Officer Milly spotted her and changed course.
“Good morning, Ms. Clop” she said. Colp hurriedly wiped her dirty hand down her pants leg before reaching into the offered handshake.
“Colp”, she corrected.
“Colp, sorry,” Officer Milly blushed slightly, “I’m terrible with exotic names.”
“No problem. Happens all the time. Thanks for coming. Do you mind if we walk and talk?” Colp gestured to the filled watering can by her side. Old Hun needed watering, and there was no way she wanted to venture down to the old machine sheds alone. They were all padlocked shut, so nobody could get in and be lurking. Probably. Happily, Officer Milly agreed and strolled easily by her side the short walk down the wide gravel road. She was unexpectedly short in person, her head barely reaching Colp’s chin, but she had the practiced bearing and (perhaps more importantly to Colp at that moment) taser of an experienced officer of the law. Officer Milly had no problem keeping up with Colp’s longer stride, laden as she was with heavy watering can. By the time they had completed the journey and Old Hun had enjoyed a thorough drink, Colp had outlined the post-hoc discovery of the nighttime visitor. Officer Milly (“Call me Stella”) took the occasional note down, and nodded throughout.
“It wasn’t your morning visitor, Dim, wasn’t it?” Stella asked when Colp had finished.
“DiV,” Colp politely corrected, surprised. Stella smiled.
“Ah, yes, my Jim mentioned Eric said his Bernice had lunch with Yeshoram’s wife, Anne. I’ve heard all about the coffee Lazarus on your couch,” Stella smiled. She patted Colp’s shoulder conspiratorially. “News travels fast here,” she clarified, “besides, folks have been curious about you for a while. We don’t get many of your sort passing through. So, might it have been your visitor?”
“I thought maybe, but DiV-” Colp subtly emphasized the correct pronunciation for Stella’s benefit, “- had a much narrower face. Thinner horns. You’ll see in the footage that whoever was out there was much more stocky.” Stella nodded some more.
“And you’ve not seen anyone since? Nothing out of place?” she asked.
Colp shook her head. “No, but I’ve not really had much time to look.”
“Ok, let’s take a look around, shall we?” Stella suggested warmly. Music to Colp’s horns. They returned to the house, Colp abandoning the watering can next to Old Hun, and approached on the same angle as the drone. Colp stood a pace behind the police officer as she examined the ground carefully as they advanced on the living room window.
“There,” she muttered almost to herself, pulling a small handheld camera from her pocket. Colp followed the direction Stella pointed the lens, and made out faint indentations in the grass, deepest under the window. Hoofprints, long strides apart.
“How much do you weigh?” Stella asked, turning to Colp.
“Uh, about 150 kilos,” Colp replied. Stella looked at the flattened grass behind Colp’s hoofs. She noted something down. “What is it?” Colp asked.
“Oh, probably nothing, just trying to get a feel for things.” Stella said brightly. As the continued a circuit around the outside of the house, Colp looked back at her hoofprints and understood what the officer was thinking. Whoever was outside the window, they were heavy. Negalegs put fat on unevenly, disproportionately at the tail. The fulcrum balance of front to back disrupted, an overweight negaleg would tip backwards, their gait characteristically shortened in an attempt to maintain balance. These hoofprints were unevenly deep and tightly spaced. Colp drew closer to Stella as they passed through the house.
“You’ve done well with the place,” Stella said appreciatively when she had completed poking around the living room, “tidiest I’ve ever seen it. The Brankthoms are lovely, but that Jasey can be a scatterbrain. Twice, she’s called me up because someone stole the TV remote. Once, it was their Dappy. The second time, their Pongo,” she chuckled to herself. Colp smiled too, her spirits lifted by Stella’s friendly banter. Her smile faltered when Stella turned to her and asked for the machine shed keys. During last night’s protracted conversation with LeMM, they had agreed that if the lurker was still lurking, they’d be lurking in those sheds. Although it would be a relief to have them cleared, just getting close enough to water Old Hun had set her on edge. Dutifully she fetched the keys, and for a moment considered staying in the house and leaving the rest of the search to Stella. No, she decided, if she was going to get any sleep in the next millennium she had to see the empty interiors for herself. She picked up her own torch and followed the officer back out of the house.
One by one, they unlocked and ventured into the small collection of tin sheds. Each time Colp drew courage from the ‘click’ of the padlock, making herself lean into the exhalation of hot air unleashed from within to follow Stella into the dimness. Each time their torch beams alighted on nothing more than piles of sacking, spare parts and fuel. Their rhythm was disrupted when they reached the tractor shed, which was held closed by a bow of garden twine.
“The padlock was stiff,” Colp explained, “so I just tied it shut when I got back from town.”
Stella peered at the knot, an obtuse cluster of whorls and tangles. No loose ends were visible. Colp helpfully reached past and gripped a whorl of twine from the center of the knot and tugged. It neatly pulled open, unravelling to a single continuous untethered length of twine.
“Craudonian knotcraft,” Colp explained. Stella’s eyes swept Colp from hoof to horn with mild curiosity, as if she was attempting to visibly discern what else this unassuming negaleg had up her sleeve.
“You travel as much as I do, you pick this kind of stuff up,” Colp shrugged uncomfortably. Stella pulled the door open, and they peered inside. Colp watched from the doorway while Stella casually circumnavigated the interior, stepping over a scattering of paint tins and a crumpled blanket on the ground. Tractor, tins, walls, rough picnic blanket in the back corner.
Rough picnic blanket in the back corner.
“Nothing here either,” Stella said warmly, turning to leave. Colp didn’t move.
“I… I don’t think that was there yesterday,” she said thickly, her torch beam playing along the blanket’s checkerboard length. The edges bunched up at the edges against the tractor’s tire and the wall of the shed. If it had been there yesterday, Colp reasoned, she would have driven over and parked the vehicle on top of the blanket.
“Anything else new, missing, or out of place?” Stella asked. They swept the shed again, more carefully this time. Colp couldn’t see anything else out of place. Stella produced a large plastic bag from the pouch at her waist, and bagged the blanket. One by one, they revisited each shed. Then, Stella performed another sweep of the house and garden. There were no more signs of the intruder. Eventually, Colp had to agree that whoever it was, they were probably long gone. Stella left with a warm smile and a promise that she was just fifteen minutes away if Colp saw or thought of anything, anything at all.
Colp procrastinated over two steaming mugs of coffee before placing her next call. It took some time to for someone to pick up. Jasey Brankthom was crispy around the edges. A short wiry woman, her hair touched at bare shoulders, red crescents above a brightly patterned orange sarong. The view behind her milled with holidaymakers, cyan pool dropping off to turquoise shoreline fading to vivid blue sky.
“Hello?” she said again, squinting at a point somewhere below the camera and raising a hand in a vain attempt to shield the screen from blazing white sunlight.
“Hold on.” The view wobbled, then swam through a shoal of tourists in every imaginable form and colour. Everything went dim for a moment, then the camera adjusted. Jasey’s face was clear against what looked like a palm trunk, a white haze beyond.
“Ah, Colp, there you are” she said, triumphant.
“Hello, Mrs. Brankthom,” Colp replied, “I hope this isn’t a bad time.”
“Not at all. What did you need, dear? Have Dappy and Pongo hidden the remote control again?”
“Nothing like that, everything accounted for and two happy dogs on their current daily adventure” Colp answered quickly. Unsolicited calls to homeowners were usually met with panic. After the previous sleepless night’s shock (and, importantly, complete lack of sleep), Colp felt utterly ragged, and looked as bad as she felt. As the hours drew on, LeMM had fared much better, as it was mostly daytime at his end of the call. He had patiently helped her organize her thoughts into something coherent enough to present to the Brankthoms.
When Colp had finished her tale of first aid and, more importantly, nighttime strangers, “oh dear” was all Jasey Brankthom had to say. Colp waited. Jasey ducked her head and narrowly avoided a beachball, which gently bounced off the tree branch and out of shot.
“Um, is your flight still due in on Wednesday?” Colp enquired weakly. Jasey bit the inside of her cheek, counted on the fingers on her free hand, then nodded.
“Yes, I think so. We’ll see you then, and then we’ll get this whole business sorted.” Jasey’s voice was as warm as her sunny seaside setting. With that, she disconnected the call.
Colp’s head swam. Stereotype and personal experience led her to expect country folk to have a more laid-back approach than city homeowners, but this was taking it too far. Had Mrs. Brankthom even been listening? Colp clumsily plopped the laptop down and lay back on the couch. Maybe she was just too tired, her fatigue distorting Mrs. Brankthom’s reactions. Colp tapped at her email and opened the message from LeMM with the video footage of the stranger. He was still tinkering with it, but in the interests of time had sent her a cropped and slightly lightened version. She didn’t have the heart to watch it again, so just forwarded it directly on to the Brankthom’s shared email address. Somewhere, a proot warbled. Mentally confirming all the doors and windows were locked, Colp slid into an exhausted, dreamless sleep.
Colp’s eyes flew open. It was evening, and someone was hammering on the front door. Instantly awake, she lurched to her feet, stiff knee groaning. She peered out the long window that gave way to the balcony, but couldn’t see anyone. The hammering continued. Holding her breath, she shuffled forward as softly as hoof on wood flooring would allow. She could see the whole veranda now, and most of the steps leading up to the door. Still, nobody.
“Bark! Woof whine!” said Dappy. “Arf!” Pongo agreed. Colp exhaled an almighty puff of air. Looking to the door, she could see the hammering was actually the heavy hardwood door panel being knocked more deeply into its frame by a stiff wind. She walked over and unlocked it, then swung it open. The two dogs fell bodily through, unable to halt their shoulder charge. A stiff breeze followed them in, ruffling the pot plant leaves. The neat pile of mail Colp had been collecting by the door promptly redistributed itself throughout the lounge room. She hastily shut and re-locked the door.
“I’m sorry,” Colp apologized as she bent down to ruffle the recovering dog’s ears. They returned her affection with measured aloofness. “I’ll make it up to you,” she promised. Three courses (scrambled egg with spinach and salmon, turkey rice, and freshly baked pumpkin spice treats) and two extended back massages later, Dappy and Pongo felt she had kept her promise. They curled up contentedly in the corner as she set up her laptop for her evening chat with LeMM. While she waited, she swept the room and rounded up the errant mail. She’d collected it into an untidy pile on the coffee table when the laptop pinged.
“Hellooooo lovely lady!” came the customary greeting.
“Why hello,” Colp replied. The room began to feel warmer, more inviting, with the sound of his voice. She pushed aside the nagging guilt from prodding at his agoraphobia the night before.
“How did your call to the homeowners go?” LeMM wanted to know.
“Strange,” Colp sighed. She closed her eyes and rubbed at her eyelids. “I talked to Mrs. Brankthom. She seemed more concerned that the dogs sometimes hide the remote,” Colp replied. LeMM raised an eyebrow. “That is curious. Is that out of character?”
“I don’t know,” Colp said. “We’ve only met three time – well – four now, and only once in person. That was when they introduced me to Dappy and Pongo and handed over the keys.”
LeMM’s eyebrow climbed even higher.
“Huh, I can’t imagine leaving my home in the hands of someone I barely knew” he mused.
“Excuse me, mister, I’m a professional with impeccable track record,” Colp teased.
“And a winning smile and lovely eyes and of course if it was you,” LeMM gabbled in mock panic, “then I’d trust you with the bank vaults of the county. And my password to all my everythings. And also my apartment. Take it all!” he rocked from side to side as if his lower body was trapped in the jaws of a monster, “Take it all, you beast!”
Theatrics complete, his chair righted itself with a soft “pop” and he flopped into a more thoughtful posture.
“Seriously, though, is it normal to have that little contact with the homeowners?” LeMM asked.
Colp stifled further giggles and considered.
“I guess it was a bit quick, but their trip was all a bit last minute. Something about winning a contest, Mr. Brankthom said.” Colp replied.
LeMM looked like he was about to say something, and then thought better of it.
“Two more nights, then?” he asked.
“Two more nights, including tonight.” Colp nodded.
“You can re-use the coffee grounds at a pinch,” LeMM offered helpfully. Colp looked at him blankly.
“So you don’t have to go out and buy more,” he clarified.
“The nearest store is a four hour round trip, if I take the tractor. Last shop was last week, and I got enough to last a fortnight” Colp chuckled. LeMM slapped his forehead “Rural country house. Of course.”
“You tried, that’s what counts” Colp smiled. Thanks to LeMM she was feeling almost normal. Normal enough for the untidy pile of mail to tug at her attention. Continuing her conversation with LeMM, she pushed the laptop backwards a bit and began to shuffle the envelopes back into a neater stack. The task was made difficult by one piece of paper that was an awkward size, taller than the rest. A piece of paper, not an envelope. She pulled it to the top of the stack. It wasn’t a letter at all, but a small loose sheaf of paper that gave off the smell of ballpoint pen.
“Take a look,” she said, holding it up to the camera, “one of Josh’s drawings. He must have left it here when DiV slumped by.”
“Woah, that kid is good,” LeMM said appreciatively, “think he’d mind if I took a screenshot of this?”
“As long as he doesn’t see it on a mass-produced tea-towel or mug set credited to ‘E. LeMMuel the artistic genius’, I don’t see the harm” Colp replied.
“Ok, done,” LeMM informed her. She flipped the paper around to get a clearer look. Seemingly random shapes of intersecting geometric whorls covered almost the whole page. There were more in some areas to give the impression of shadow, and some patches of bare paper where highlight would naturally fall. Somehow, a distinct face emerged from the chaos. She held the paper up to better catch the slowly fading light. Deep shadows around blurred eyes, thin horns, soft jawline… Recognition dawned on Colp.
“It’s DiV,” she said, staring at the page.
“What! Where?!” LeMM almost jumped out of his seat.
Colp apologetically pointed to the page.
“Here, in the picture. It’s a sketch of DiV.”
LeMM calmed down immediately, sheepishly rubbing at his horn.
“Oh, right, I see.” He tapped at his keyboard for a moment. Opening the screenshot, Colp guessed.
“Huh, striking eyes. What was that colour?” he asked.
“Green. A really strong green,” Colp remembered. Then she shook her head.
“Can we talk about something else,” she requested. The last thing she wanted to do was focus on those unsettling pale eyes. She wanted to actually be able to sleep that night.
“Actually, maybe not,” LeMM replied. “Are the horns in this portrait right?” LeMM asked, fingers tapping away as he applied filter after filter to tweak the at the one-minute-ish slice of the video.
Colp reluctantly took another look.
“Yeah, they were quite thin. Kind of feminine, actually.”
LeMM tapped at his keyboard again.
“Ok, well that rules out return of Mr. Holster-hole,” LeMM said, “whoever we’ve got sneaking around at night, they’ve got big chunky horns.”
Colp’s laptop pinged softly and she shuffled LeMM’s feed to one side to open the attachment. Thanks to his tinkering, the silhouette, though not detail within, was slightly clearer. Stocky proportions, stout horns. Definitely not DiV. Colp wasn’t sure if this was good or bad news. On the one hand, it was comforting to think the unsettling DiV was far away. On the other…
“Awful coincidence, though” LeMM asked, fingers tapping away as he applied filter after filter to tweak the at the one-minute-ish slice of the video.
“You were the only local option Yesh-a-whatsit had for species-appropriate help with this mysterious DiV. You’re too far out to just walk past, this night time sneaker had to be in the area already.” LeMM leaned in, picking up steam, “plus, what are the chances of yours and Yesh-thingy’s internet blinking out at the same time as well? You’ve had weeks of pastoral peace. It’s too much of a coincidence for all that to happen in just one day”
Colp couldn’t fault LeMM’s logic. The problem was, they had too many questions and too few answers. In the short term, the answer was to keep LeMM on the line. The better, long-term answer would be to head for Ghee and never look back.
ZiV gratefully received the warm towel offered by the air hostess. He was unused to the engine rumble in business class, and was feeling uncharacteristically airsick.
Things had not worked out at all. The house was supposed to be empty. No actual empty houses out here, but AX’s gambit of a surprise holiday win had sent the lucky occupants far away to seaside luxury. Even she hadn’t considered that they would hire a house sitter. It was all because of those damned dogs. He’d made it to Braedon with a song in his heart. The weather was gorgeous, the landscape an inviting green blanket of hills with scattered copses of trees. The locals were too polite to stare directly, but they didn’t see him – they just saw an exotic foreigner, nothing more. He’d dropped by the corner store to enquire about the possibility of hiring a vehicle to explore the local area with. He considered stocking up on supplies, but decided that buying several kilos of coffee might look suspicious. He was running quite low, down to one holster, but hey, the house should have plenty. One of the locals, a weather-beaten man with a ponderous manner, kept a small fleet of quad bikes behind the post office for hire. He’d cheerfully paid double for a whole month and zoomed away, relishing the wind whipping past his horns. Things started to go wrong the moment he approached the cow-shaped billboard that AX had told him marked the entrance to the neighbour’s property. He could see fresh tracks leading up the dirt drive.
He had lowered the throttle and cautiously motored down the track and up the first rise. It was as AX had shown him on the satellite photo, a distant bucolic farmhouse with a few sheds and a scattering of trees. As he got closer, signs of life became more apparent. A tractor parked near, but not inside, the sheds. He pulled off from the road, parked the bike with the tethered supplies in a small patch of bushes and continued on foot. It was ludicrous, he knew, to take a closer look. He could just turn around and hire a room in Braethorn. But this felt like just the kind of adventure he had been missing. Stupid, very stupid choice in hindsight, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. He should have just driven on. But in that moment, he was free in the balmy afternoon and he felt like he could inhale the full width of the sky in every breath. He made out the line of trees tastefully separated the house from the farm sheds. He had used them to shield his approach from the large, inviting windows. By the time he reached the trees, it was clear someone was inside the kitchen. Excited barking and scrabbling from inside the house suggested they were accompanied by at least two dogs. He peered more intently through the trees. Steam was clouding the windows, blurring a tall, feminine silhouette. Negaleg. There were no negalegs living in this place; must be a visitor like him. A family friend, maybe. The dogs weren’t part of the plan. Neither was this interloper. For one crazy moment he considered simply knocking on the door and asking for a spare room. Absolutely impossible. Too much of a risk she’d recognise him, post about it somewhere online, and then the very same algorithms he had written to scrape the web to better aggregate search data would find his name where it certainly didn’t belong. He would not be staying in the farm house tonight. He walked slowly and stealthily back to the bike. Decided that he could at least take it off-road to explore the landscape a bit, trusting he could spot anyone approaching and drive away before they reached him. The farm was very large, cool grass and brilliant blue sky broken up by the odd tree or bush. Trancelike, his eyes travelled from the rolling terrain at his wheels to the gentle undulating hills, right to the distance.
Abruptly, the quad bike had bucked underneath him. In the blur of the moment it had felt like the front wheels had simply dropped out from existence. The world pivoted around his whole body, anchored at the hands, until they too gave way and he was sliding uncontrollably on dusty soil. There was no up or down, just dust and movement. Then there was a fence. His head slipped between the wires, his shoulders did not. Like an acrobat’s safety net, it bent under his momentum and then gently pulled back into place. The quad bike’s engine roared in protest from somewhere behind him, then pitifully trailed off with a patter. He had extricated his head from the fence and gingerly felt around for injuries. Miraculously, aside from an ache in his wrist, he seemed relatively unharmed. His overshirt was torn, but the coffee holster underneath was intact. He thoughtfully took a sip from the ruggedized plastic hose. Smooth arabica had indeed settled the swirling inside his skull. The quad bike was poised on its belly, teetering over a half-meter deep erosion trench. Luckily for him, there was very little clearance between the trench and the fence, just close enough to arrest his headfirst tumble and quite likely avoiding a snapped neck. Unluckily for the quad, there was no way he’d have room to manoeuvre if he pulled it forwards and tried to drive it out of the trench. The front wheels were completely suspended over the earth, but there was a chance he could use its own power in the back wheels to pull it back from the brink. Maybe? There was a whiff of petrol, possibly just fumes building, possibly the tank was ruptured. He should at least take a closer look to check if there was indeed a leak. Clumps of dirt crumbled underhoof as he tried to climb over the trench near the bike. It wasn’t happening. Sighing, he had looked up and down the fence line and, seeing no clear easy path, picked a direction at random and started walking. Then, he had heard the scream. In a moment of madness, he had run towards it.
Colp looked to the clock. Fifteen hours, she thought. The Brankthoms were due at 12 noon the next day, just fifteen hours away. She willed the clock’s arm to move faster, she could talk to LeMM and force that fifteen hour gulf to diminish. She also willed it to stay in place, didn’t want it to get dark. She huffed and once again checked did a circuit of the house, checking all the doors and windows were locked. She hauled the washing machine to block the arc of the back door for good measure. Back the living room, the dogs were quietly curled up in the corner in a pile of happy post-meal lethargy. She sat on the floor next to them, leaning against the wall. Aside from the faint glow of the laptop’s screen, all was dark. She jumped when the laptop pinged. She hastily plugged in her headphones. They were old, ratty, and held together with tape. Only one tiny speaker worked. Colp didn’t mind, she felt better keeping one horn free to listen into the night.
“Hellooooo enchanting,” LeMM’s voice was tinny but audible. Colp smiled tiredly, hand coquettishly framing her face. LeMM squinted at the screen. Colp’s skin was washed out to a pale blue, the low angle of the laptop light turning her face into a faint collection of angles and shadows.
“You’re looking…ghostly…this evening,” he commented, “everything OK?”
Colp nodded, then shook her head. “I don’t particularly want to be here anymore, so why not pretend I’m not?”
LeMM pondered a moment and then grit his teeth, puckered his lips and exhaled. He emitted the most singularly lame attempt at ocean wave noises that Colp had ever heard. He punctuated it with a much more impressive sea bird impression, “Caaahh!”. He raised his arms straight up, splayed his fingers wide and hastily announced “palm trees” before returning to the faux-wave sounds. Colp’s tension broke all at once. She covered her mouth to suppress a sob, which turned into a guffaw, which turned into hysterical giggles. LeMM flew off into a tangent about ice cream and the procurement thereof, voice flitting from a low voiced parent to a childish squeak. Colp’s eyes streamed and her sides ached. She pressed her nose to the screen. One of the ‘palm trees’ folded down, LeMM tenderly stroking at an approximation of her cheek.
“I’ve got some news on your mysterious DiV, if you want to hear it” he said softly. Colp shook her head and concentrated on breathing. In the corner, Dappy stirred and sneezed. LeMM cleared his throat and a news-report style bulletin about an amazing occurrence in Ghee, where a palm tree turned into an arm, and disastrously went on a campaign of swatting the locals off their feet and into the ocean.
“Palm-armed madman,” Colp croaked. They talked trivialities and nothings for an hour. Colp found it more refreshing than her body weight in coffee. Finally, she was ready to hear LeMM’s news.
“We’ve found him,” LeMM grinned. “Your mysterious DiV.”
Colp’s email pinged. She pushed the video feed to half screen and opened the attachment. Taken from a high angle, the frame captured a large, rounded dark wood desk set in a trendy modern office, all clean grey lines punctuated by tasteful pots overflowing with intense green foliage. Light cascaded in from large windows that revealed an out of focus but unmistakable Fonda skyline. Eight people sat around the table, captured in exaggerated executive action, all grasped pens and bright attentiveness. A man with immaculate grey hair and an even more immaculate blue-grey suit was talking, face only partially visible as it was at a three quarter angle to the camera. He was flanked by a diminutive Asian woman, and an officious looking negaleg, whose chair was placed awkwardly so he too didn’t have his back completely to the camera. The other attendees, two negalegs, a velseth, and two more humans, were a non-descript line of spotlessly tailored attentiveness. It looked for all the world like corporate stock photography.
“Top left corner,” LeMM encouraged. Colp looked to the top left corner and saw a negaleg wearing a very nicely tailored deep purple suit tailored expertly over lean shoulders.
“… horn wax?” she offered. Nobody’s horns glinted like that naturally, even under well-crafted photographic lighting.
“You’re impugning the natural shininess of ZiV Apoorva, CEO of Bolf and richest negaleg in the country,” LeMM replied.
“Wait, are you saying – ” Colp leaned forward, squinting.
“DiV. ZiV. You’d think he could come up with something a bit more imaginative,” LeMM said.
“Seriously?” Colp breathed.
“Seriously. Take a closer look” LeMM replied earnestly.
Colp concentrated, mentally swapped out the formal suit and cravat for the walking gear. Maybe… Frowning, she zoomed in to focus on the negaleg and held up her hands to mask out the background, framing his face to isolate it from the grey board room with its bright pot plants. Now purely in the context of his face, without the green plants to wash them out, the patch of vivid green around his eyes was unmistakable. ZiV Apoorva had almost died on her watch. All that awkward staring. He was waiting to be recognized. Nobody in the room had, a clueless out-of-touch globetrotter and parochial dairy farmer. Not to mention the forgotten, quiet boy in the corner.
“Fake name, convenient phone outage, just happens to be on TV so the world can see him on some remote island somewhere being all philanthropic” LeMM mused, “he went out of their way not to traced back to your green surrounds.”
Colp nodded thoughtfully. Dappy sneezed again, twice in rapid fire, waking Pongo. Colp watched them sniff the air. They showed no signs of aggression, no growling or raised hackles, just a vigilant interest in… something. She sniffed experimentally, but couldn’t make anything out clearly. She continued to chat to LeMM. After a time, she felt her eyes growing gritty and dry, probably from fatigue and staring at the laptop in darkness.
Dappy and Pongo were slowly becoming more agitated, sniffing at the gap below the front door.
“Hold that thought,” Colp interrupted LeMM. She slipped the headphone from her horn and set the laptop on the ground. LeMM’s faint entreaties of “What’s going on?” became inaudible as creaked to her hoofs and walked to the door.
“I’m fine,” she said over her shoulder to the laptop, “just checking the dogs.”
Dappy and Pongo were practically hyperventilating. Colp sniffed, and could just make something out. A bitter note on the edge of awareness, like the earliest rays of the sun. Carefully, Colp unlocked the door. As soon as she creaked it open, the dogs bolted into the dimness. Dimness. That wasn’t right, it was almost midnight. The silhouettes of the garden were just picked out in pale moonlight, blue against some orange light source that just filled in shifting details in the foliage. Dappy and Pongo were nowhere to be seen or heard. Colp tentatively stepped further out on the porch and took a deep breath.
Adrenalin shot down her spine and set her limbs in motion, and before she consciously realized what she was doing, she ran around the outside of the house to locate the source of the orange light. The stand of pines were black outlines against a fluid orange haze. The light was dim, which meant the fire was small, didn’t it? Call the fire service, no, that might take too long, if the fire is small maybe she could put it out before it spread and threatened the rest of the property. Her inner monologue continued to babble to itself as she cast about for the large watering can by the side of the house and filled it as high as she could carry. Arms straining and knee groaning under the weight, she half ran, half stumbled down the driveway toward the sheds. The smoke intensified as she approached. It was a still night, no breeze to stir the air and sweep the fumes away. Finally she made out the source of the light and smoke, silhouetted against the back rectangle of the open tractor shed door. Instinct and conscious recollection of news reports emphasizing how even small unchecked fires could raze land and property wove together and forged Colp’s resolve into a single drive. Put. It. Out. Holding her breath, she charged at the small fire, sliding to a halt when she could feel the heat on her skin and using the momentum to help swing the watering can forwards. Most of the flames were doused in this first drenching swing. She dealt a few peripheral flares using what remained in the can, then stomped on the shouldering coals for good measure. Then, all was darkness.
Colp breathed shallowly is the gradually clearing smoke. Her arms ached, so she set the watering can down. Her knee protested, so she stretched it. Sweat sunk into her light t-shirt. Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the low moonlight and she could make out the outlines of the sheds around her. There was no sign that any of them had been so much as touched by the fire. The emergency was over. She waited for the familiar wave of anxiety and doubt, delayed in a crisis but never expunged. Instead, she became acutely aware of her clothes sticking to her skin in the chilly night air. She looked senselessly down at her hoofs, up to the sheds, then up to the sky. What could have caused the fire? Lightening?
The answer made its way from her gut to her throat and sat there, an uncomfortable lump. Lightening didn’t cause the internet to drop out, either.
The silence of the night was shattered by hysterical shrieks and yaps from up the hill, then a loud slam. Colp ran directly through the trees and flew up the driveway. Dappy and Pongo roiled by the closed front door, a frenzy of frustrated snapping and growling. Breathing hard, Colp peered through the window and tried to see past her reflection into the darkness beyond. What she took for her reflection swore and retreated further back into the room. Colp reeled back as if physically struck. Stocky horns, rounded jaw. The stranger from the other nights ago was inside the house. With the laptop. Cutting her off from the safety of walls, and her only conduit to the outside world. Dappy and Pongo howled at the door. Colp stood at the edge of the porch, paralyzed between conflicting urges to break the door down and confront the stranger or turn and run.
Colp was knocked off her feet by a rocket of fur. The wooden veranda planks gave slightly, cushioning her fall, but nonetheless her breath was slammed from her lungs and her body jarred forward, painfully twisting her shoulders. Her head flopped back. She caught a glimpse of a second figure, something furry dangling from a raised arm that held a shiny, blunt object. Having toppled Colp, Pongo was getting back to his feet. The figure swung its encumbered arm and Dappy collided sharply with the corner of the house. With a whimper he dropped to the veranda at Pongo’s side. He rolled onto his side, stunned. Pongo stayed between Colp and the figure, growling viciously. Colp desperately rolled onto one shoulder and tried to straighten up. Her knee flashed in white hot pain. The figure had advanced, right to the edge of the veranda now, brandishing what Colp took to be a large heavy wrench. The open tractor shed door. The stolen tractor maintenance wrench made a wide arc and crashed into the front window, shards of glass driving Pogo backwards. Dappy has retreated shakily behind a pot plant. Colp flailed until her arm connected with one of the veranda supports. Relying on her good leg, she hauled herself back upright and pivoted to join the dogs in their wary retreat.
“Generah,” The voice was rough, quiet, but quite high-pitched for the man’s size. It was answered by a stifled whimper from inside the house.
Colp was still backing up, but she was running out of verandah. Weapons focus, gun blindness, she realized, useless to describe the wrench, she knew the wrench, she had to look at his face. Effortfully dragging her eyes from the weapon, which was still swinging widely to keep the dogs at bay, Colp tried to take in her assailant. He had stopped at the smashed window, glancing inside then back to the growling Pogo. He raised a crooked elbow to push more of the shattered glass free. He was more interested in the other intruder inside than her, Colp realized. The negaleg that was inside with the laptop. She hadn’t hung up. LeMM might still be there. He had to still be there. She began to shout in a high, clear voice
“Stranger from before inside house,”
The assailant turned attention back to her.
“Outside, there’s a human, male, lean, top heavy, like a -” her mind scrabbled for words and settled on the first thing that came to mind “- martini glass!”
He took another measured step toward her, Pongo bunched at her legs.
“There’s blood on his face, he has a wrench in his right hand,”
She had passed the front door and had run out of verandah, hoofs teetering over the empty space. Any further and she doubted the laptop’s aged microphone would pick anything up at all.
“Hair as long as a mug is tall,” she continued urgently, “shorter on his face, not black maybe brown hair, skin is light, skin is Caucasian maybe, can’t see the eyes, there’s blood, can’t see-” her next descriptor was drowned out
“Who are you talking to?” he roared, and charged forwards. Colp hastily gripped the verandah rail and swung down the meter drop to the garden bed below, Pongo skidding backwards and falling gracelessly onto the strawberry patch. The assailant was almost on top of her when the front door flung itself open. There was a meaty crunch and two smaller thunks as nose and boots slammed into unforgiving hardwood.
A furtive head popped out from the darkness.
“Run,” gasped the strange, thick-set negaleg.
“Who – ?” Colp asked.
“Hovik,” he whispered. Before she could respond, he sprinted from the house and launched into the darkness. Pongo followed. For a moment, the night air was still. The garden and the pines beyond vague silhouettes.
Colp fleetingly considered ducking through the open door and getting to the laptop, holing up inside as the stranger had done. “Augghh!” the man gurgled. Maybe he was Hovik, or maybe that was the stranger, or maybe – the man was getting to his feet, swearing profusely. He wasn’t disarmed, Colp could hear the heavy scrape of the wrench along the veranda planking.
Colp took a deep breath, shouted “Hovik!” with all her might, then lurched away from the house. Pongo did not follow. She stumbled blindly across grass and rock and gravel. Her knee was going numb and wouldn’t bend. She loped on a diagonal, using the slope of the hill to propel her faster and faster in a mad, skipping scramble away. No point trying for the tractor, too loud, too slow. She hit flat green farm planes and fell into an interminable rhythm of striding and breathing and keeping on going. Eventually she came up against a fence. The tempo of her flight broken, she leant heavily on a post and gasped for breath. Throbbing shoulders aside, her legs felt surprisingly study. Her lungs, however, felt like bags of burning parchment. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, she was able to wrestle her breathing into some semblance of normal and could hear past her own pulse and panting. She strained eyes and horns into the silence, turning her head in search of the slightest sound or movement. Nothing. Not even the distant ‘moot’ of a cow.
The paltry moonlight was fading behind encroaching clouds. She felt the mesh of the fence with her hands. The close honeycomb of the Brankthom’s east pasture, or was it the west pasture? Either way, it was not the looser horizontal weave that bordered Yeshoram’s farm, the nearest source of help. East pasture, West pasture, either way heading back into the darkness and making for where Yeshoram may or may not be would constitute kilometers of walking that could well take her back towards the farm house. Not an option. Colp decided to follow the fence until she either circumnavigated the property (by which point daylight would help her find her bearings) or encountered the access road. The clouds had thickened now, completely blotting out moon and stars. Colp was marooned in complete blackness, the fence an umbilical lifeline of direction. She chose a direction and started walking. Time felt even more elastic than her blind flight from the house. Minutes, breaths, hours, strides blurred into a sightless soup of rigid purpose. Colp couldn’t tell if the air was growing heavy, or if it was just fatigue adding weight to her stride.
She stumbled on the odd rock or shrub, nothing serious, until the ground suddenly gave way below her hoofs. She grasped the fence instinctively and managed to halt her fall, at the expense of slicing several gashes into her hand. She clamped her mouth shut, hard, to avoid crying out. There was nothing she could do about her hoofsteps (negalegs were certainly not built for stealth), but she had no idea how much distance she had gained wrench-wielding maniac. Better to keep quiet. She gently felt around herself, fingertips brushing jagged wood. She stepped gingerly forward and her hooves ‘tink’ against something metallic. A hole in the fence, she realized.
Colp had just begun to allow herself some hope that maybe nobody was following her and maybe she would be OK when a distant peel of thunder flipped her heart into her mouth. A single drop of rain slid from the top of her head, around her brow and into her eye. She blinked it free, spinning around to stare into the inky blackness around her. The only effect that had was making her dizzy.
The drop was followed by another, then another. The air became heavy, oppressive, and then it felt like the sky opened directly on top of Colp’s head. Water filled her eyes, hammered hard on her shoulders, filled her nose. She reached out to find the nearest piece of intact fencing wire and began to follow the fence line, letting the slight slant of the rain push her forward. Lightening periodically gave brilliant, fleeting impressions of the landscape around her. One flash was accompanied by a startling, earthy noise. Cow. Frightened cow. She could not see in the darkness, through sheets of rain, but over the hammering of water on her horns, Colp could just make out the noises of distressed cows. Last time she had seem them, they had been white daubs on a picturesque, calm landscape spotted with grummle trees. Her head and shoulders were beginning to feel bruised by the rain. Air so full of water she almost felt as if she was drowning.
In a snap decision, she turned from the fence and pushed toward where she thought there may be even the slightest hope of shelter. She cupped her hands over her eyes, wincing as the cuts were exposed to the unyielding torrent, and forced herself to stare into the darkness ahead. Another flash confirmed she was somehow, fantastically, indeed heading toward a small copse of grummle trees. She stumbled heavily into the nearest one. If she pressed herself into its trunk, the hardy branches above her took the brunt of the rain’s force. It ran down the bark and still lashed at the small patch of her exposed tail, but the terrible force had been at least blunted. The cows clearly had huddled into the trees with similar plans, their distressed mooing placing them somewhere nearby and to the left. Colp began to feel like she was fully underwater, submerged in an endless cold depth. Her thoughts became sluggish, world narrowing to the chilled rough bark against her cheek and palms, the sting of water on her tail. Another flash, much brighter than the rest; a bone-chattering crack that left her horns ringing. The sound of cows bolting away, despite the driving rain. Almost lazily, Colp sniffed the air. A smell, powerful and new and only partially tamped down by the rain. Acrid, burned… cooked beef?
Trees in an electrical storm. She may as well have been hugging a lightening rod. Adrenaline returned and Colp threw herself away from the trunk. Thankfully the rain had softened somewhat. Not so thankfully, her hoof caught on something and she tipped sideways. She landed heavily on something soft and crispy. The ringing in her horns intensified and she slid into an even deeper blackness than the night.
LeMM felt like he was going to be sick. Colp had placed the laptop down so that he could see a segment of the Branthom’s cosy living room, and walked out of frame. He had waited patiently, until he caught her silhouette returning. He was just thinking of a greeting when he realized it wasn’t her – the outline was too short, too round. His blood ran cold when he realized it was the same profile as the person they had seen in the drone footage. It didn’t look like the intruder had noticed the laptop. After a brief moment of hesitation, LeMM muted himself and hit screen record. The intruder was looking under cushions, in bookshelves, clearly searching for something but not wanting to leave a trace. Heart racing, LeMM closed his eyes and began to tense his ankles, desperately trying to forestall a rising panic attack. He had almost made it through his progressive relaxation routine when the sounds of quiet shuffles and the muffled barks of dogs outside was punctuated by the sharp crack of breaking glass. LeMM opened his eyes and fixed his attention on the screen. The intruder had stopped searching and was backing away from the front door. LeMM helplessly wished the laptop was rotated just that bit more to the left so he could see what they were fixating on. Maybe it was Colp coming back? But why would she break a window? Seconds stretched interminably as the broken glass tinkled, and then a loud shout – “Stranger from before inside the house!”
It was unmistakably Colp.
ZiV was once again sitting in his office at his desk, fingers hovering uselessly over the keyboard. The familiar, oppressive blanket of administrative “support” and public relations and itinerary planning felt at once reassuring and suffocating. Ten minutes to draft a single, simple iteration loop. He closed the console without saving. Kept sitting, though, forearms leaning gently on the comfortable stylish padded lip of the desk, eyes blankly looking at nothing on the monitor. Every wall of this office was glass. Stunning view of the Fonda skyline, the amphibious metropolis taking on the light of the day, the hour. Less-than-stunning view of the department secretary, high-level debugging team and the media apartment’s latest attaché. Or, possibly more to the point, the department secretary, high-level debugging team and the media apartment’s latest attaché had a stunning view of ZiV. Long ago he had learned to give the appearance of deep thought or active typing at all times, lest someone waft through the (unlockable) glass doors, “just wondering if he would like a cup of coffee or a muffin”.
He knew he had to talk it through with AX. Knew since he had made it back, opened his triple encrypted message box and found her message: “So, how did it go ;)”. He responded “It’s complicated”. No reply. AX must be offline for now. He wondered how he would explain his experience with her. It was all still a tangle in his mind. He had never been black-out drunk before, but people who had been, and also suffered a hypocaffeinic episode, drew a direct equivalence between the two. Holes in one’s memory. First time he had forgotten… well, anything of note, really. It was extremely disquieting. He had to set events in order, if only so he could relate them properly. So he sat, stared, and let his mind continue to wind through his misadventure.
The scream had sounded again, more feeble this time, but he was closer. There, on the other side of the fence – a small corrugated iron lean-to with small piles of hay dotted around it.
“No – don’t!” someone called. Rough accent, unpolished vowels. Mid tones, unclear if it was male or female. He had picked up enough speed to vault the fence by that point, and twisted athletically in the air in a perfect translation of forward to angular momentum (if he did say so himself). In no time at all he had reached the lean-to. Skid to a halt. Registered an overweight negaleg lying in the hay, an unusually muscular man looming over him with something small and yellow in one hand, and long and sharp in the other.
“I don’t – I don’t have it!” the cowering negaleg had been sobbing. The next few moments of his memory were a blank, and picked up with the man looking at him and his leg going stiff. In a blink it had spread and his whole body was rigid. ZiV had toppled, stiff as a wireless keyboard knocked carelessly off a desk. It was exceedingly painful. The pain made the next few moments hazy, but at some point his leg had started to relax. He felt stiffness receding almost at random. His snout, elbow, ankle, all started responding again.
“Out of juice,” the man snarled in a high, strained voice. There was a thunk as he tossed away what ZiV realized was a spent tazer.
“Oh no no no – ” gasped the negaleg. ZiV lurched onto his side so he could at least see his assailant. The man was walking toward ZiV at an angle. He had a wicked, long kitchen knife in his right hand. ZiV had found he couldn’t look at anything else. Another hole in memory, just the impression of the scent of human body odour getting closer and closer. Then the impression of the stranger negaleg standing over the sprawled body of the man, a small rock clutched between his hands and a look of panic on his face. The man groaned and began to rise. With a yelp the negaleg dropped the rock onto the hand holding the knife. This resulted in a string of swear words that would have, in other circumstances, made ZiV’s eyes water, and an opportunity for the still tearful negaleg to scoop up the knife.
One of the first things ZiV had done upon his return to Fonda was go shopping for kitchen utensils. In the time it took his driver to take him from his apartment to the nearby mall, someone had called ahead and cleared out the whole department store. In this eerie ghost town of gleaming mirrors and gentle inoffensive piped music Ziv had picked up a spatula, masher, pan. Smokescreens for the true, singular goal; kitchen knife. Blue steel honyaki, ebony handle, twenty seven centimetre blade. It was an expensive item, but he was disappointed to find, but by no means exclusive or limited in number. They clerk offered an engraving service for a nominal fee. ZiV politely turned it down. There had been no engraving on the assailant’s knife.
From his place on the ground ZiV could see strange negaleg grasping the knife and staring at where the man had fallen. His hands were shaking, light glinting sporadically off the blade. The man stirred again and the negaleg had let out a strangled squeak and clumsily took to the hoof. Whoever they were, they were certainly not built for running. Their legs barely cleared their overwide body, pulling their desperate trot into an almost comical waddle. Some 100 meters away they stumbled and the knife flew from their hands, landing in a small grazing pond with a “plup!”. ZiV decided that running, elegant or not, was the right idea when the man with the knife began to haul himself to a sitting position. So he ran. His leg muscles built on a state-of-the-art gym training regimen and fuelled by adrenalin ran fast and strong and far. It was only when he was sure he was not being followed and slowed down that he had noticed the man had stabbed hole in his one-of-a-kind, Bolf monogrammed coffee holster. He had toyed with the idea of going to the police, abandoning the secrecy of his clandestine bid for albeit temporary freedom. A fine idea, but the implementation was flawed – he had no idea of where the nearest telephone, or police station, was.
Later, ZiV had surveyed the satellite imagery of the area from behind the shield of his VPN, and realized with more than a little annoyance at himself that he had simply wandered in random circles until he had approached the dairy shed, and collapsed. It was ironic, he mused, that the same house sitter who had thrown his plans off-kilter had also saved his life. Had she seen the strange negaleg and his sinister attacker? He should probably find her and ask. Anonymously, of course. He checked the chat again. Still no response from AX.
The golden glow of dawn was punctuated by dark, spent clouds stubbornly loitering near the horizon. Colp was slowly waking from dreamless sleep. Groggily she considered simply keeping her eyes closed and sleeping forever to avoid the sensation of everything aching. Her knee burned, her hand burned, something had burned…
Sheltering from the rain under a tree, what was once a young bull was now beef. As quickly as her protesting muscles would allow, Colp pulled her head off the grizzly pillow and rolled slowly to her knees. Even in the low light, she could see the poor animal had taken almost a direct hit. Its hindquarters were a blackened charred nub, its head medium rare. One of its horns had broken off, possibly shattered by a small boulder near the base of a tree. It must have been standing just like her, head to the trunk and rear to the rain. The pejorative ‘silly cow’ popped into her head. It felt like an appropriate descriptor of them both. She felt an unwarranted giggle building in her throat. No, no, she had to keep it together. Tentatively, Colp got to her hoofs. She could see a small crowd of cows bunched in a line against the fence, bedraggled and miserable. Individuals had struck off into the paddock on their own. Trying not to look at the struck bull, Colp surveyed the paddock for any sign of her pursuer.
All was still, eerily so after the fury of the storm. Signs of its passing were everywhere. Fence posts, once neat horizontal lines were a crooked crag of diagonals. Even the shallowest of rivulets had become small streams. Patches of grass had been lifted, bare soil forming tiny rivulets. The landscape had been so transformed, she could not even make out her own hoofprints. Slowly, Colp headed back to the fence. Assailants and murderous weather be dammed, she was going to find help, and tell LeMM all about the unexpected beef.
Officer Stella Milly stood before the Brankthom’s battered veranda. The night before, the call had come through that Ms. Colp might be in trouble. She had immediately set out on her motor bike, but heavy rain had soon set in, muddying the roads and making headway impossible. She’d set out again as soon as the storm had relented. Her route led her past the trail of destruction between Yeshoram’s farmhouse and his milk shed, all corrugated iron and chunks of plywood. Happily, the Brankthom’s house and sheds were constructed with less traditional products. The concrete and triple density PVA structures had proven far more robust, though on closer inspection some of the brick veneer cladding had come loose from the main house. Concerningly, the front door was hanging off its hinges. She laid a hand on her police-issue taser.
“Hello?” Stella called. She gave each veranda step a test push before placing her full weight on each one. There was no reply from the darkened house.
“Hello, it’s Officer Stella Milly. Is anyone there?” she tried again. This time she was answered by quiet whimpering, possibly coming from the kitchen. Squinting slightly in the dim light, Stella made her way into the house. She found Dappy and Pongo, sodden and shaking, huddled inside a kitchen cupboard. The door flapped open as they recognised her and wearily approached. Stella stooped to scratch under their chins. They both gratefully leaned in to her touch, tails clonking against cupboard doors in the confined space.
“What’s all this, then?” Stella asked them. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t answer. She was feeling increasingly uneasy.
“Are you here, Ms. Colp? Do you need help?” she called, much louder this time. The dogs were quiet, leaving the house completely silent. Stella searched room by room, then the yard, then the sheds. Gardens in disarray, chipping on the shed doors where chains rattled in the wind, but no sign of the house sitter. Yeshoram certainly hadn’t come across the negalady, he would have mentioned it during his long morose monologue about a promising young bull that had been struck by lightening. Stella sent a quick memo to HQ indicating the resident had not been found, and retraced her steps. Some of the branches from the stand of trees near the house had been ripped in two and thrown onto the lawn. Dappy and Pongo meekly shadowed her, looking about themselves with bleary eyes. With sinking heart, Stella mused that they most likely would have run to Colp, or at the least shown some sign of enthusiasm, if
she really was anywhere nearby. She called HQ with a verbal confirmation: Colp was nowhere to be found.
Some way away, Colp’s stride had become increasingly uneven, every other step half, then a third the length as she tried to ask as little as possible of her damaged knee. She periodically paused to lean on one of the more solid fence posts that had managed to weather the storm. The grass, punctuated as it was by puddles and impromptu streams, was gradually becoming less lush. Her pants were covered in a thick patina of mud. She should be cold, probably, but instead her skin just felt rubbery and dull. Her attention had narrowed to a slow, ungainly trot along the only piece of the world that still existed to her; muddy grass and crooked fence that stretched into eternity in front of and behind her. The land had swelled upward for a time, a gentle hill. When she crested the rise, hope met her tired eyes in the shape of the beautiful, wonderful outline of a huge, cow-shaped billboard. Unthinkingly she tried to move more quickly toward it. Within a step, her beleaguered knee simply gave way. She slid unceremoniously down, her body making a squishy ‘thunk’ as it hit the ground.
The light was much stronger now, the undersides of the clouds lit a brilliant flaming orange. Stunning against the mauve morning sky. Colp leant experimentally against a fence post behind her. Thankfully, it did not give way. She felt more and more awake as her bearings returned. She did her best to compartmentalize the pursuit and blindness of the night before, setting it aside as a nothing more than a nightmare so she could focus. Seeing as she was already sitting, well, sprawling at least, Colp decided it was time to stop moving and start thinking. Mentally picturing the map of the area, cross-referencing with the drone footage she had collected for LeMM, she reasoned she must be on the north-east hill of Yeshoram’s property. “Must have passed through that hole in the fence last night,” she thought. Looking either side of her, she saw the fence had many jagged broken posts, and patches of drooping wire. It made sense she would end up on Yeshoram’s land. Unless… Had she hit the fence line before or after the rain had started? She closed her eyes against the growing golden light, and strained to remember.
It started with the fire in the sheds. She always lost track of time when talking to LeMM, and hoped he had thought to note it down. She came back and there was an intruder – no – two. Thickset Negaleg in the house, martini-shaped man outside. Armed, aggressive, tried-to-bludgeon-her martini-shaped man. One of them might be called Hovik. Sounded more like a flat-pack furniture item than a name, she mused, but a whole bunch of traditional human names were like that. Gretchen and Zane and Bob. Like the haircut. “Bo-b” she said experimentally, lips popping exaggeratedly on the final ‘b’. Written in lowercase, but pronounced like BoB. A pseudo-silent ‘b’. Strange names, strange spellings. Weird body plan, too, come to think of it, legs coming off the bottom of the body. It’s funny how something can become so normal, and only seems weird when you think really hard about it. Lazily she opened one eye and looked appreciatively down at her arms, lovely and normally extending from her abdomen. She had folded them loosely to shelter her injured hand in the crook of her elbow. The sunrise was reflecting in a patchwork of puddles across the rolling hills before her. Views like this made all the hardships of travel worth it. She should take a film for LeMM. She reached for the drone, but felt only wet mud and sodden grass.
It’d been almost twelve hours since her last cup of coffee. Colp was getting distracted.
Back to the house, back to the dogs, the strange Negaleg gave her time, and then she ran… to the West fence line, she pieced together. Followed it until she fell and there was a break in the fence, then the trees – the biggest copse was on the southern border of his land, so she must have been going South. Then, the beef bull… And then up to here. She had taken the long way around to get to the road, she realized. Of course she had. 35, maybe 40 kilometers. Once she would have been able to jog that. But now, she was injured, tired, and was having difficulty corralling her thoughts to the important matter of survival. She thought again of the man who might be called Hovik, picturing his broad shoulders and dark hair. Almost like a…bob, she realised with a smile. Maybe she wasn’t so far gone after all. With a groan of effort, she made it back to her hoofs and resumed the slow stumble along the fence line toward the distant billboard.
“ Human male, lean, top heavy” … “Weapon” … “Not black maybe brown” … “there’s blood, can’t see”
LeMM played the recording over again. He had called the police, and spoken to a very professional, if unsympathetic, fellow who vowed they would alert the local Braedon authorities, and did not accept LeMM’s offer of forwarding the recording he had taken (apparently, it would be “premature at this time”). Then LeMM called the Braedon non-emergency number for the police, still on an unclosed tab from his search for Colp. A tired sounding woman had mumbled the “Officer Milly”, and asked him to slow down as he frantically relayed what he had witnessed. To her credit, Officer Milly had audibly woken up and reassured him she was on her way to “check it out”. That had been hours ago. From what LeMM could piece together, the intruder had slipped inside while Colp had gone to check on the dogs, locked the door, and when his search was interrupted had bolted. He couldn’t be sure, but LeMM could swear he could hear two sets of hooffalls – one high tempo, the other with a longer, but slightly uneven stride. The man Colp had been shouting about was probably too light to be heard, but the lack of glass breaking or any further sounds, and the lack of any further movement from what LeMM could see, he inferred the man had followed one of the fleeing negalegs. He desperately hoped they were following the intruder, and not Colp.
LeMM had isolated the portions of the recording where he thought he could hear the man saying something. Unable to think of what else he could do, he called in a favour of a friend of a friend to run it through state-of-the-art audio identification software. The results were decidedly unhelpful: post-puberty Human male.
Erling (“Lemmster”) LeMMuel. This was his way in. ZiV had resigned himself to an interminable day of aspiration and buzzwording at the locally hosted “conference of the minds”, drawing deep on the acting lessons the executive committee had recommended early on as a means of “Keeping the face of Bolf friendly”. Smile, nod, smile. Wait. Then, finally, he was clear to do some digging. It had been trivial to look up listings for the property AX had tried to secure for him, and there she was – first name and photo smiling at the camera above the listing for the right dates on mindmyplaceandstuff.neg . Colp, his unlikely savior, was a generally plain 30-something with suntanned horns and a twinkle in her eye. The profile page was light on content – just the photo, testimonials (“10/10, would hire again”, “Even left extra stock of coffee!!11!”), and basic email contact details (the email@example.com). He emailed that address, but a full day had passed with no reply. Some deeper, less legal digging revealed nothing else much, except… Regular, frequent video calls to one firstname.lastname@example.org. No connected calls, as far as he could see, for the past day, though. Made sense, if Colp had come home from holidays, perhaps they were meeting in person. Or, even, lived together.
Thankfully, this “Lemmster” had a much larger digital footprint than Colp. ZiV had never been particularly ofay with online culture outside of coding forums. He was surprised to find someone could base their entire livelihood on writing short horror stories and reading them to camera. They appeared to be professionally connected, as well as personally – Colp’s name was scattered periodically through the thumbnails and content summaries of LeMM’s impressively large back catalogue. “Thanks to Colp for the idea”; “Thumbnail based on photo taken by Colp”; and even “Props to Colp for reading this one for us all while I was sick – here’s to love and ginger tea!”. On a whim, ZiV saved that one to his tablet to listen to on his way home.
Lying back on his bed, LeMM pressed “replay”.
“This is the day I ran,” Colp’s voice rang clear through his headphones. The first take had been filled with stumbles and apologies and giggles, but the second take had been almost flawless.
“It had started out with a dreary drizzle,”
On one of his forays to the corner store, someone had kindly coughed on everything and everyone. By the next day LeMM had been a veritable dizzy fountain of all manner of untoward fluids. He’d just come back from a hiatus (a vacation to co-inside with the much anticipated release of a dastardly addictive clicker game), so had already well and truly eaten through his emergency backlog of content. Serves him right for going out to shop.
“I couldn’t get off the tram at my work stop. Workers in municipal vests were doing something to the platform”
Colp wanted to help, but had been quite unsure about her ability to record. Call open while she saved the higher quality file locally, he had croaked encouragements through the first take, then remained appreciatively quiet through the second.
“So I got off two blocks down from my office job. Everyone’s eyes were on their feet, trying to avoid puddles on the side walk.”
It had felt surprisingly good to hear her bring his words to life. Now it felt like a lifeline.
“But something made me look up. And I saw her. A little girl in a bright pink raincoat, holding a small, golden ball. The inflatable kind they leave near the counters in toy stores.”
Colp continued her slow shuffle. Her head felt heavy, but whenever she could she made an effort to lift her nose and look around. Logically, if her assailant did find her, there wasn’t much a muddy, exhausted woman relying on storm-damaged fence posts could do to defend herself. Nonetheless, if she had some warning at least she’d have the opportunity to give him a piece of her mind. The loudest, rudest piece. Then she saw it – a puff of dust rising next to the billboard – someone had entered the road! Throwing caution to the wind she hollered as loud as she could, windmilling her arms – “Hey! HEY! Over here!”. Risking falling over again, she tried to pick up the pace. It was no use. The vehicle little plume of dust maddeningly kept moving, heading away from Colp and toward oh-so distant Braedon. Maybe LeMM had called the police, and it was Officer Milly. Maybe it was Yeshoram heading into town to solicit extra pairs of hands to help clean up after the storm. Colp stared, frustrated, as either way, her nearest source of aid trailed down the snaking country road and out of sight.
She had made it to the road. Somehow. The sun had risen in the sky and the day was heating up. The air was musty and humid as the multitude of puddles began to evaporate. She stood in the shadow of the giant cow billboard and tried to marshal her thoughts. Hard to concentrate. Her hands were shaking. So was the rest of her. Could she just sit down and wait here? She looked across the road to the narrow pipeline that snaked away to distant Braedon. She did not have the energy to follow it all the way to town as she had followed the fence. Hell, she didn’t think she had the strength to follow the long driveway up to Yeshoram’s house, and that was based on the assumption he’d be home rather than out repairing the storm damage. She tipped her head back to the sky, then down again to the pipeline. Her attention settled on the internet node. A conduit to everyone, everywhere, and she didn’t have the key – without a tablet or a laptop, it was just a useless bundle of wires. She approached, glaring at the node. Unbelievable. Computer with no connection, connection with no computer. Unhelpful customer service. The thought of how National Brobband had let her down settled over her like a curtain.
“WORLD-wide,” she huffed. Her voice was husky from fatigue and the futile shouting at Stella’s departing bike. This made her even angrier.
“As in, all around the WORLD,” she continued, staring at the node with fury. She gestured stiffly, spreading her arms and pointing at the muddy landscape all around, “INCLUDING HERE!”
She punctuated the sentiment by standing on her good leg and swinging her other hoof with all her might. It connected squarely with the node with a loud “thunk!” which resonated satisfyingly in the large pipe behind it. The fear and fatigue fell away as her blood boiled, matching the increasing temperature of the day. “AAAAAHH!!” she screamed, kicking again and again until the node box was less of a box, and more of a collection of dents. She swung wide and pivoted and fell clumsily sideways. The mud was soft and cool under her cheek. Sorry wires trailed from the dented mass into the mud. Something sparked intermittently. Colp decided to stay there for a while.
ZiV looked through his reflection into the scenes of unreachable everyday life swimming past the car. The tinted windows added a cold element to the sunny day, he leaned into that feeling to better follow the tone of Colp’s reading.
“She was looking right back at me. I gave a little wave and continued on my way, trying not to stare. I turned the corner and there she was again, standing just under the eave of the building across the street from where I worked. How has she got there so fast? I was already running late because of the longer than usual walk from the tram, so I put it out of my mind and hurried through the entrance to my building. First coffee break, I caught a glimpse of something pink out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned to look, there was nothing there. Went to the copier, and almost went flying as a little golden ball rolled into my path. By the time I had righted myself, it was gone. It got worse at lunchtime. I came back from the sandwich dispenser to find the little girl sitting on my desk. How had she even got in here? I had no idea what to do. So I grabbed Dave from accounting’s arm as he walked past.
‘Hey, did you see her come in?’ I asked him, pointing to my desk. He glanced across and then looked at me, confused. “Who?” he asked.
‘The little girl on my desk,’ I replied. Dave from accounting scoffed and pulled his arm from my grip.
‘I don’t have time for practical jokes,’ he said. He walked away grumpily.”
She wasn’t going overboard trying to do the voices, slight changes in pitch to distinguish who was talking. Subtle.
“I looked around and realized everyone was sitting at their desks and working normally, as if there wasn’t a little girl in a pink parker sitting on my desk. She started to bounce her ball of the walls of my cubicle. Nobody responded to the rubbery ‘clonk’ as it hit the thin plywood. The guy who worked the next desk over, didn’t even look up as the impact shook something loose from his pinboard. It was like nobody else could see the little girl. She was looking at me, now. Then, she opened her mouth.”
LeMM was curled up on his side, gently cradling the small music player to his chest. In high, slightly whispery tones, Colp started to sing:
A wise old owl lived in an oak.
The more he knew the less he spoke.
The less he spoke the more he saw.
Until one day he took no more.
Listening in his car, ZiV recalled his classic literature classes. This was not the rhyme he was expecting. Literary inversion, he mused. A shiver run down the back of his legs, so he turned the air-conditioning down. It did not help.
He took no more and gave just some.
A silent wisdom too hard won.
His skin and bone shrank day by day.
He never moved. He went away.
LeMM hit ‘pause’ before Colp could read on. He wanted to hear her voice, so desperately, but it felt almost perverse not to hear it say something new. She was always bringing him something new; without her, he was just lying there. He slid into a fitful slumber.
A shaft of warm light swept over ZiV’s shoulder. They had arrived at his building. He nodded politely as he passed the driver, professionally as ever holding the door open for him. ZiV felt the driver’s eyes follow him into the foyer until he was safely under the purview of the concierge. He poured himself precisely two standard drinks of coffee liqueur, a Fahlua sourced from a local café who had perfected the art of the Focca suspiciously quickly after Bolf’s exclusive rights had been overturned. Cheers to their success. He made sure the glass was positioned squarely between one of the ten cameras he wasn’t supposed to know about and the top left corner of his home terminal. He filled the screen with multiple tabs of news, browsed for a time, then nonchalantly opened a disguised VPN terminal in the hidden corner of the screen.
“Hello, LeMMuel” he typed.
LeMM was woken by a chime from his laptop. What time was it? Not late. Must have drifted off. Groggily he pulled himself into a sitting position and swung the screen toward him. A window he didn’t recognise had popped up. It looked a bit like a system alert, except with a small scrollbar and an empty form field presumably intended for typing in.
“What the…” he squinted at the message. It didn’t read like a system alert.
“May I speak with Colp?” the system chimed again. LeMM’s tongue went numb. What was this?
“WheRE is shE!?” he typed unsteadily.
“Oh.” Came the reply.
“Who IS this!?” LeMM demanded, “WHat do you want?”
“I had an accident. My memory is unclear. She helped. I was hoping to speak with her.”
The text scrolled upwards as the messages filled the small alert window. LeMM noted there was no way to scroll back. He began to screenshot the exchange, just in case.
“She’s offline,” LeMM hedged.
“How long has she been offline?” the reply was swift, eager. LeMM swallowed thickly.
ZiV sighed. So, Colp hadn’t gone home, and it looked like LeMM did not know where she was. Was she linked up with the negaleg and man in the hay storage lean-to? But then, why would she have helped him? It was possible Colp had gotten tied up in this same chaos as him. Either LeMM did not know what was going on, or he was playing dumb. Either way, he was the only lead that Ziv had right now.
“More than an hour, less than a week” came LeMM’s non-committal reply.
“Have you told the police?” he asked.
“Who are you?” came the response. ZiV closed his eyes and gave in to cliché.
It took a quite some time of back and forth until ZiV had convinced LeMM he was a benevolent, if anonymous, actor. It didn’t take much longer for the cogs in LeMM’s mind to turn and recognise the vanishingly small possibility of intersection between someone who had the technological wherewithal to open a new form of chat window on his computer, and who had been passed out on Colp’s (temporary couch).
“I don’t care who you are,” LeMM had typed on impulse, “I can see you met her. For now, I just care about what you could do for Colp.”
This had given ZiV pause. He had been so tied up in what had happened to him, he had not spared much thought for the house-sitter after their paths had parted. Regrettably, to meet with his daily routine he had to call their chat short. Wonderfully, LeMM was present and willing to talk the next night. Perhaps foolishly, ZiV felt a rapport building through the questioning, counter-questioning and suspicion. They were both clearly acclimatised to establishing connections based purely in text. Eventually, LeMM agreed to send through some images. He had isolated the clearest image he could find of the intruder, cropped, and adjusted the contrast. ZiV immediately recognised the sobbing, then fleeing fellow he had encountered in the hay store.
“There were two of them,” LeMM explained, “a human guy who I think was after this guy.”
“Ok,” replied ZiV. He cued a print of a multi-page text document, slipping in the image LeMM had provided amongst the pages.
“Leave it with me.”
A long day in the office. “BBQ tonight, I think,” ZiV decided out loud. His driver navigated accordingly. Upon arrival, his usual waiter approached, smiled at ZiV and offered to take him to his usual table. ZiV smiled in return, and followed him to the back of the restaurant. The waiter held the rear door open for him, and ZiV tipped him the usual amount before stepping into the frigid alley. Hastily he pulled off his jacket to reveal a hoodie beneath, which he also pulled off, re-arranging the order of clothes and pulling up his hood. He emerged from the alley with bulky clothing disguising his lean frame, eyes in shadow from his hood, and hailed a taxi. Destination Fancy Front nightclub. After an interminable wait in the cue, he slid across the dancefloor until he found AX. Her fronds were incandescent in the blacklight, waving in time with the deep bassy rhythm. She looked tired.
“AX,” he had to shout to be heard over the music. She smoothly flattened her fronds, took his arm, and led him across the floor and around the corner to a table where the music was muffled and nobody could approach unseen.
“So good to see you,” she beamed. ZiV smiled in return.
“You’ve not been responding much lately,” he said.
“So, things have been a bit hectic,” she offered. ZiV made, and then kept eye contact. The combination of his pale eyes flanked by bright green colouration leant an intensity to his gaze that was considered attractive by some, and unsettling by others. Their old rapport had been sparked by the former, until it became abundantly clear their relationship was best calibrated as “friends”. Today, AX was feeling decidedly unsettled.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she squirmed uncomfortably. ZiV tilted his head slightly and waited. One thing he had learned from all that interminable media training was that people felt an instinctual need to fill silence. The longer you held out, the more pressure your interlocuter felt to fill the conversational space.
“OK, OK, I think I know why you are here. One of my sidelines hit a hitch,” AX offered. ZiV waited.
“A… deliverable… was sampled by the delivery man. And instead of doing the smart thing and letting his valued colleagues know and covering costs,” as she spoke, AX’s demeanour slid from sheepish to annoyed, “he decided not to tell anyone, and retrieve a previous package and deliver that instead.” ZiV’s face softened and he nodded slightly. Though and AX inhabited very different worlds, he understood the how subordinates scrambling to cover for mistakes, rather than cleanly address them, could lead to unnecessarily spiralling costs. Or, in her case, perhaps other consequences.
AX shrunk back in her seat, very clearly avoiding his gaze.
“So, uh, he went back for something I had meant for your holiday in Braedon…”
“You know I’m not into -” ZiV spluttered
“Yeah, but,” AX pouted at him and circled her hand defensively, “you weren’t into monetization before, either. You were clearly not OK when you called me. Straightjacketed. So I got you space, quiet, and thought maybe you might like a little something to really help you relax. But when my delivery man went back, so he very belatedly told me, the package he had left on the bench was gone.” AX trailed off as ZiV’s disapproving expression continued to be decidedly disapproving.
“Look, the key thing is, I’ve been putting out fires since the client hired a freelancer to speed up delivery, and it’s taken a lot to get them to calm down and retrieve my ex-employee.”
“This guy?” ZiV asked. He pulled up the image LeMM had sent him on his tablet. AX looked curiously at the image, then pulled back sharply, almost like he had slapped her.
“How do you – ” she began. ZiV huffed.
“Your delivery man and the client’s hound were still in Braedon when I arrived,” he leant forward, a green flush of anger splashing across his cheeks, “and I nearly ended up dead.”
AX’s eyes saccaded back and forth, as if she was trying to read invisible cue cards behind ZiV’s head.
“No, but – ”
“And an innocent house-sitter got tangled up in – ” ZiV cut her off, only to be cut off in turn.
“Look,” AX bristled, fronds rising, “You asked for a break and I gave you one. You’re sitting here, healthy and hearty. Any reports of a house sitting negaleg death in Braedon would’ve been in the news. They’re fine. It’s fine. Things are a mess because I tried to do you a favor. Not that I get any thanks for it. I’m not omnipotent. If you aren’t willing to take a risk, don’t ask again.”
“Oh, I won’t,” ZiV sighed. They tried to make conversation after that, but it felt forced and awkward. ZiV, clothing re-arranged, was picked up by his driver outside the BBQ restaurant within the hour. That evening he reopened chat with LeMM, and explained what he could, eliding any details that could be used to pin down AX’s identify. LeMM predictably pressed for more information, dissatisfied with ZiV’s evasiveness about the details of the hapless delivery driver and his pursuer. But, there was not much he could do. The next day, under the auspices of his rural healthcare outreach program, ZiV made some calls.
A gentle, rhythmic chime.
Colps tried to open her eyes, but they felt gummed shut. Mind cloudy, she noticed her pants felt clean. Somehow the layers of mud she had accrued during her fearful stumble through dark and storm and then baking sun were gone. Had it rained again, and rinsed her clothes? How long had she been lying there? There was a pillow under her head. Not a lightening-struck bull, blackened beef, but an actual soft pillow. She inhaled deeply. The pillow smelled of soap. So did the crisp sheet pulled up under her chin. She wasn’t lying in the mud near the billboard near Yeshoram’s farm.
“Hellooo lovely lady,” LeMM whispered. Close by. Very close. Colp had to unstick her tongue from the roof of her mouth before she could reply “Why hello”. LeMM let out a shuddering sigh, a deep exhalation that brushed her forehead and tickled her horns. He must have turned his head and leaned back, because his shout of “Nurse! Someone! She’s awake!” came from further away. He was here. This couldn’t be his apartment, they were somewhere else. A hospital? That didn’t matter. LeMM was actually here. For her. Tears welled up and her eyelids finally complied, weakly fluttering open. She could just make out a blurry impressionist whorl of pale blue and a dash of purple amongst a sea of white. The fine features and big, expressive eyes were just coming into focus when he lurched forward out of view. She felt a heavy warmth press gently across her chest. Breath on her neck, hand sliding into her hand. One arm was pinned beneath the sheet, but the other, hand wrapped in a thick foamy dressing was free to slide up the side of LeMM’s body and clutch onto his loose t-shirt. He felt so warm. Their embrace was interrupted by a pointed throat clear as three nurses entered the room. LeMM sheepishly pulled away and stepped back as they checked inscrutable readouts, asked Colp what year it was, asked her to squeeze their hands, and otherwise prodded until they were satisfied that she was unlikely to lose consciousness in the immediate short term. One of the nurses nodded to LeMM, but his attention was focussed on Colp’s face.
“How…?” she croaked. LeMM settled back into his chair by her bedside, gently reaching to take her free hand.
“National Brobband surveillance. They detected a line fault, and the cameras picked up a dirty, beautiful, very angry woman kicking the ever loving shit out of one of their node boxes” LeMM explained, “they alerted the local officer, who had already spoken to a certain handsome negaleg, and she arranged to have you on a dairy truck headed straight for the local hospital”.
Colp looked stunned.
“So we’re in Pentland?” She tried to sit up, but fell back as her head swam, “You made it all the way to Pentland?”
“Let’s not go nuts,” LeMM replied with a chuckle, “We’re in Fonda General Hospital. They stabilized you in Pentland, and a friend footed the bill to ship you here. Paid your fine with National Brobband, too.”
Colp’s frown deepened as she tried to take everything in.
“Not in a box, or anything, but a legit private jet,” LeMM clarified enthusiastically, “it was wicked quick compared to your usual long haul flights.”
With frequent interruptions from nurses, nap breaks, and generally having to get used to the novelty of physical interaction, it took several hours for LeMM to fully explain what he and ZiV had uncovered. She was particularly pleased to hear that, despite her departure, the Brankthoms had returned to find Dappy and Pongo rotund, Old Hun blooming, and had left a glowing review for Colp’s services. ZiV had taken the liberty of cancelling her next booking on her behalf.
“I guess it will be a bit late for Ghee by the time they let me out of here,” Colp sighed.
“You could stick around for a while,” LeMM gently suggested, “Fonda has beaches too. Plus, I know of an apartment that’s nice and quiet and would probably be a great place to rest.”
“What are the drone laws like in Fonda?” Colp asked.
“No idea, but the wifi coverage throughout the city is excellent, so you could just wear a camera hat and stream,” LeMM replied.
Colp’s eyes trailed down to their inter-twined hands, the touch so novel after years of connection. It wouldn’t hurt to stick around for a while.