Friday, October 14, 2016

Mongrel: Tardi in the Huddle's Mud

The Huddle's Mud Turned to Stone

“She be glad to be leaving,” Shad said. “Let’s be at it, Tar.”

“Whip crack about the sea-doors stung you,” Tardi said. 

“Not wrong. Go in clothes and all. Takes you too long to get them off over your tree bits.”

Tardi found a stool and a chair arranged to step up into the tank. “She stung me with her whip-crack about her witch’s cauldron,” he said. “Thought I might turn into the frog-prince.”

Shad laughed. 

Tardi felt around with his foot in the steaming grey mud for a step down into the tank. “Found it.” He squatted slowly into the mud aiming for a seat on the stool, taking notice he couldn’t help but, the stuff happening at the boundaries of himself and the mud. 

A sensation of a hundred thousand dulled points walked up him as he sank. He nearly missed the monster’s distress. Settling on the stool, he concentrated. 

The monster cringed out of all the places it had expanded into. 

Tardi shuddered recalling that feeling of the thing as he called it then, twisting and turning in him, making itself a nest. A kinaesthetic delusion, all it was. 

And now the monster retreated, ha ha, in advance of a grey mud army. Another delusion. He lifted a couple of handfuls of the mud to face-level. 

The way it dripped wasn’t like normal slurry mud or even like sand in seawater say you dug out a moat around a sandcastle. This went in globs and strands, with … he saw close-up … slime mould sporangium-sized fingers six millimetres tall and two millimetres thick … glued together along their lengths with a grey slime …

“Almost like a egg-white, say you’re trying to separate it,” Shad said. “You know, when you toss the yolk from shell to half-shell?”

“Mmm.” If he talked, he’d lose his grip. Besides, his mouth too dry. The mud was alive? 

Of course it was. What was it that Cele said? The mud learned. 

Fluid in the grey nearly-transparent fingerling bodies glittered as they compressed and lengthened. Hydraulically almost. The origin of the pointillist sensation. 

The mini-fingers stood up on his hand, more and more of them rising to an upright position. Bits of the mud threatening to drip from the sides of his hand was pulled in by the elasticity of the slime. 
Those standing on the hummocks of the friction pads at the base of his fingers started to rhythmically compress and lengthen, first only the dozens on the friction pads, then those near to them, spreading out to all that fitted on his hand. 

Definitely alive. Definitely having intention. He swung his hands down, a giant elevator, for them to join the rest in the tank. 

On his back, on the side where the bark ridges reached for his left shoulder blade, he couldn’t feel the tamping except as a generalised pressure as if through a layer of cardboard laid over the whole area. 
But … he concentrated all his attention there … the diligent pressuring of the creatures shredded the imaginary cardboard. 

At the surface of the mud they built towers of themselves to reach higher and fell back.

“Why don’t you do a head to toe?” Shad said, observing. He glimmer-smiled. “We don’t want none of them old stories coming true.”

Tardi nodded. He slow motioned forward onto his knees. Cross-legged onto the tank floor with his face turned up for air. 

He took a deep breath. 

Did the head to toe. Counted.

The pressuring on his back grew more localised. Should he think because the pins shredded the actual bark as well as the imaginary cardboard? Would they stop at his skin? 

His gut seemed relaxed … he had his gut feelings back? He angled his face up out of the mud. Sighed. about the relief of it. He’d missed being able to trust his gut to help make decisions. 

Started rising, slowly, giving the mud creatures time to coalesce and not fall from great heights. Knees under him. Engage leg muscles to standing.

He couldn’t feel the monster in him anywhere. 

Where would it go? Trinnet? The rest of the Stormies back home would surely be a backward step for it? 

Shad laughed. “If only you could see yourself now. Proper mud man.”

Friday, October 7, 2016

Mongrel: Why the Tree-bug?

Why the Tree-bug? Tardi asks. He doesn't get any promising answers. And apparently the only hope for him is a woman who has already proved untrustworthy ... 

Cele's Answers

“Why did you come here, Tree-man?” Cele said. 

Would she ask if she had the monster visiting her? “Anything you know about this disease.” He squished needles in his mangy hair. “Do you know it?”

“I know of it,” she said. “Never knew what it would do to humans if spread like fertiliser up and down the countryside.”

 “Need a cure. Not just for me either.” 

He said it all again, in case she hadn’t taken it in. “There are hundreds back home. They’re being called new-trees and they have their human souls still in them. Only a couple of us walking and talking. Partials.”

“An off-world bio-agent brought in by one of the Huddle to help them convert our air into something they can breathe,” she said.

That was a scrap of info and no use to him at all apart from tickling his interest. No mention of a cure. “What’s the other thing I have in me?” Tardi said. “That one allows the monster to invade my mind? I caught it from some silver-barbed coral?”

He couldn’t make out her expression. Fear?

“The Huddle hides me from the Engineer,” she said. “That’s what he once was. They protect me despite the terrible thing I did to them.” 

She seemed to go into a fugue of whys and wherefores. “Maybe they still expect to revenge themselves on me. Or maybe they are saving me from him to be able to get Ushen returned to them.”

Everything about the Huddle interested him but he couldn’t yet show that in his behaviour. He’d have to try and remember what she said and get her back to his problems as if he cared nothing about hers. “I don’t quite understand. The Huddle protects you from the infection, or from the invasion? How?”
“The infection is in the silver that he manufactures, that the Huddle now need to stay alive. In my opinion, he forces the stuff onto them to keep them caught.”

“He knew me the minute I was flung against Joe Loreno’s coral,” Tardi said.  “He knows my friend Poul. He knows a bunch of Stormies, Trinnet among them.”

“But he’s not that good at seeing the stuff happening right under his nose. He’s trusted the Huddle for so long.”

“How does it work when you and Callum both have a sheen all through you?” 

“I did that to hide us in plain sight. The Huddle is a bunch of beings. Hopefully the Engineer will think we’re bits of that group.”

“What else do you know?” he said. She was paler now, not so rosy-cheeked, though that could be the basement cold. 

“Whatever he snares, stays snared. Thousands of years,” she said.

“And knowing that, you’ve been spreading it. Joany Appleseed, my informant said. Casting it into the landscape.”

“Here’s the clinic,” she said. “Would you like us to sample some of your cells? To see what we can see?” She fanned out a half dozen swabs. 

What would be the use? The bastard was in him, therefore the silver was in him.  “The tree thing then. Can I get rid of that?”

“Why would you want to? I used it to enable the cetacean people to breathe in water.”

“What fish do?” Tardi said. “I’m a land animal.” 

“Earth-evolved fish. The other world’s species that live in water evolved a vegetative symbiosis to help them make oxygen.”

“Joe Loreno stole his sample from here. Or maybe it spilled and he mopped up. Whatever.”

“You can’t blame me for everything,” she said.

“What about that fish that you had here a while, the size of a mattress? I saw you feeding it, courtesy of the Great Bastard himself which is what the Stormies call him. By the time the mattress got down to Byron Bay it was a carpet-sized fish. Must have had a great feed on the way. Sharks, dolphins and Earth-evolved whales would all do, I expect. It has the biggest maw.” He had to tell her it all despite that she was now paper-pale. 

“He doesn’t even have to do the reformatting of Earth himself, you’re doing it for him,” he said.

“I’m spreading the stuff to save the Earth, to stop things dying. We rediscovered a species of krill the day Joe left.”

“Bet it’s a silver krill,” Tardi said. “Not an Earth-evolved species. And apparently you made a completely new silver sea mammal as well. Dolphins crossed with humans? Whose idea was that?”

“They’re humans so wanting the peaceful ocean life, and so loving their dolphin friends. So yes, I melded them.”

The peaceful ocean life? The poor fucking dolphins. But careful now, Tar-boy. You want her help. You are not her conscience. “The Great Bastard showed me a bunch of eggs containing the genetic material of his kind. Eggs that are waiting somewhere nearby, for good times had by all on a water planet. He’s picked me for the first of his new support system and he’s going to try to make me do things with bad repercussions. I hoped that you might have some suggestions on how to help overcome … I don’t know … prevent the worst?”

“The Huddle have controlled him for thousands of years. Get in with them.” 

The way she smiled reminded him of Rowan’s tricks. 

“I’ll start you on that road if you like,” she said.

“Is it irrevocable?” he said.

She laughed nastily. “Look at you, asking that.” 

She sobered. “The dust is forever, the Huddle told me again and again. What keeps them and now you in thrall. The mud needs constant refreshing. In the valley the ladies all had their own ponds to lie around in and for their clones to be born into.”

“Do you? Lie around in it?” Tardi said.

She stopped before a set of fire containment doors. Unlocked them. “Come on in and see my witch’s cauldron.”

Put like that he didn’t know if he wanted to. He stepped back, into someone right behind him.  
“I got your back, Tar. I be here a while, listening. You heard when she saw me.” 

Tardi tried to recall the moment when Cele focussed on how she might be able to help him. When Shad stepped from the shadows?

“The lady is saying the dust is forever,” Shad said. “There’s your irrevocable, she be saying. The mud sounds like a shield.” He nudged Tardi toward the tank Cele indicated. “Big enough for a swim, almost.”

“I’ll leave you gents to figure something. When I leave here, soon, I’ll be opening the sea-doors. Flooding all this,” she said with her arms spread. “You left my great great grandson … where?” she said, looking at Shad.

“Youngster is with Trinnet in the caf, learning his edibles.”

“Zebe might help you, if you ask her nicely,” Cele said.

“Zebe? She’s here?” Tardi said.

“You know her already?”

“Only that she came down to Byron Bay to help my friend Poul infect himself and her with the same silvery coral that I was in hospital for. She is a blonde and she doesn’t answer friendly emails.”

Now Cele laughed nastily. “You do not know Zebe. Trust me on that, if on nothing else. Just as well for you. After I leave, she’ll be the only one who can help you with that project.”

She swirled down a corridor opposite. 

They heard a second set of doors slamming back to the walls. A few minutes later the smell of the ocean trembled into the room.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Mongrel: Tardi at the Reefarium

If you have ever dreamed of being a dolphin ... you'll appreciate what Cele is doing.

Two short sections today. The first scene has Tardi explaining how he turned into a tree-man. The use of this scene is to remind readers of events in Mortal, part one of the series. The second scene is from Cele's POV, her reviewing parts of her backstory. 

Cele sat down opposite Trinnet and Tardi but perched on the chair as if she would run given the slightest reason.

So he should start in on his story. “I was thrown against some silver coral by a shock-wave from a boat, and sometime after the poison from the coral took hold in me, our countryside was sprayed with what Joe Loreno brought home. Aerial spray, by a personal harrier, it is believed.”

He stopped to sip from Shad’s brew. No input from Cele, Trinnet or the monster. “Where the resulting mist fell, people transformed into what we’re calling new-trees, for want of a more accurate description of what might have happened to them. They still have their human souls.” 

He short-cut where possible. In a minute Cele wouldn’t be able to take in any more of it. The cup-runneth-over syndrome. He’d seen it frequently since the unordinary times had taken hold. “Some people, inoculated by an earlier brush with the dust, are like me, walking talking tree-hairs. Weird that Loreno himself apparently wasn’t inoculated?” 

This was something Tardi thought of while slop-slopping on boat-ride over, experimenting with the way to tell the story. 

“He was a clean freak,” Cele said. “Never let anything touch him that might infect him.” 

“I brought a sample from Joe Loreno’s well,” Tardi said. He stood the spray-bottle by Shad’s mug. 

Cele got up. She did not touch Tardi’s peace offering. “Have a look around. I’ve got chores.”

Cele Rationalising

Cele was sociable enough, she hoped, and stayed long enough in the feeding pool that none of her clients realised her upset. And why did she even think of the people she’d come to love, as clients
The tree-man. The unordinary times. Joe Loreno, that damned greedy bastard. Yes. She should’ve kept her distance from what were essentially a bunch of experimental subjects. Before beginning with them, she’d made them sign every kind of statute she could think of. Used every kind of argument to try and talk them out of their intention. 

She’d desisted only when Mr Moneybags said he’d take his money elsewhere if she threw up any more resistance. All boiled down to money. Keeping the Reefarium open. Keeping the research going with none of it going anywhere until she surreptitiously added the silver mud to their sea-water supply. 

Got away with it right up until Zebe’s discovery. 

But why the love? Her need for physical contact with other people after losing all her own, barring Callum, she now thought. Everyday she doubted that he was hers. All of it started her down the road of wanting to belong. The only people presenting themselves the ones she made into a cetacean-human breed. 

What was she thinking, to even cave in? 

Not thinking. Needing. As now they need me. They won’t survive if we stay here. But Callum?
Ushen’s baby, brought to Cele at the Reefarium by Ushen herself. Named for Ushen’s father, Cele’s actual grandson. How easy to conflate the two after the Huddle had their way with the first Callum. The Callum she had now the spitting image of the Callum she had then, apart from the ancient human characteristics. 

Enough of the remembering. Need a couple of affirmations now with the bottom sagging from my world. 

I am done with the Huddle. 

Watering down their influence does work. 

Has worked for fifty years. It’s been my life’s work. 

And all the other lives. Nalbo’s. Colin’s and Bella’s. Callum’s. All the men eaten. All the women taken and then discarded. 

How can I live with all that on my conscience but by trying to save one small group of stupid stupid people?

There’s still Callum to organise. 

Let the tree-man think what he wanted, she knew the times were unordinary when a woman could raise her great great grandson. The raising was as finished as raising ever was. She knew Callum’s yearning. She’d done her best. Looks like the right people to take over his care came along in the nick of time. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Mongrel: Zebe at Xanthe's (Part 3)

The Contents of One of the Jars

Zebe visits her twin sister, Xanthe, in Brisbane and discovers some more of the effects of the Moogerah Monster's dust. And finally, there's Xanthe's reason .... 

Zebe sipped her drink in tandem with Xanthe while she thought. “And?” She made her mouthfuls smaller so she could hold out for the length of Xanthe’s drink. 

“It got me thinking. I decided to bring some of the dust home so I could really look at it.” Xanthe sculled down her drink to subvert Zebe’s tactics. 

Zebe grinned at her and their silent manoeuvring. 

“At last, a smile.” Xanthe swung off the couch. “Come on, I’ll show you.” She slid back the concertina room divider, one half to the dining area, one half to the kitchenette.  

Every horizontal surface was covered with glass laboratory jars. Zebe stared. “You must have just about emptied the shelves at SoHAB.”

“Not at all. A job lot at an auction. Cheap as.”


“Neil makes sure we’re rostered on for the same weekends. We autoclave them in the basement. You remember the equipment museum there?” 

They stepped into the kitchen gangway. Jars containing similar coloured contents were grouped together. 

“Culture medium?” Zebe said.

“A far more complicated story. These jars here,” Xanthe referred to a group of jars near the sink, “are with medium and dust. The first two rows started with a recipe we got off the internet. The back two rows with stuff we got from the lab. All these are the first lot we did. See what happened?”

Zebe stared into the jars. “Nothing? Like, just dust lying on top of the medium? I don’t even see the normal bacterial and/or fungal activity I’d expect from a smear of ordinary dust.”

“That’s right. Then there’s the third set in that batch, along the window sill.” Xanthe crowded Zebe towards the wide window sill. 

What she used to call her hanging gardens, now contained twelve jars of luxuriant silvery-green growth on a finger thickness of agar culture medium. A different leaf-shape in each jar. Jars sealed with glass lids. 

“I got that frustrated one day with nothing happening, I picked two-leaf twigs of all my herbs and stuck them into a jar each.”

Zebe rolled her eyes. “Our impulsive streak.” 

“Yes. But by next morning most had grown to where I put the lowest marks.”  

Silvery leaves of sage, thyme, oregano and the rest of Xanthe’s herb collection each filled its jar. All of them with five pen marks up the side of the jar. The agar jelly below was streaked with masses of roots. “You haven’t let them out, have you?” Zebe said urgently.

“You think I learned nothing all the time I spent at your precious facility? As you can see, Neil cut glass lids which we siliconed on.”

“We should do some to compare. Just agar and the herbs.”

This time Xanthe rolled her eyes. “See these? We started them the day after.” 

These were twelve jars, each with a finger of the brown growth medium and a twig of one of the herbs, two leaves with the tops cut off. All of them with two or three new leaves. A couple of thin roots through the medium. Nothing like as luxurious as the herbs with the alien’s dust. 

Zebe alternated staring at the two sets of jars. Her thoughts spun like a centrifuge. 

She was silent too long for Xanthe. “There’s more.” With her hand on Zebe’s arm, she steered Zebe to the jars on the breakfast bar.

Three groups. Zebe concentrated on something ordinary. “Neil put this rim around the bench top?” Obviously to stop the jars falling off, there were so many in each division.

Xanthe nodded. “Told you already. All these,” she made a circle with her arms above the jars at the left end of the bench, “are flowers. The herbs and dust worked so well, we thought we’d experiment with anything organic. These are bits of all the plants out of a pair of his-and-her corsages we got for the SoHAB ball. Plus the dust, of course.”

“What about this lot in the middle?” The jar that really weirded Zebe out sported a clutch of tall, curved, spatula-shaped objects. With what looked like growth stripes in alternating white and silver. 
Xanthe laughed embarrassedly. “The one you’re looking at is Neil’s nail clippings. Like a bunch of sky scrapers, aren’t they?”

“And I suppose this is your hair? Gold with a silver overlay, that could be a good look too.”  
Xanthe didn’t notice Zebe’s coolness. “Then there’s this lot, Zebe.” Pent-up excitement exploded from her by way of a whooshing breath. 

Zebe stared at the final group of jars. “You used all the beach-wrack we collected?”

Xanthe explained impatiently. “Just shavings, Zebe. I’ve still got the things. Look at this one, this was a loose scale from that leatherjacket fish skeleton we found.” Xanthe lifted the jar to Zebe’s eye height. 

A sheet of translucent white hexagons each the size of a pinkie finger tip covered the interior glass of the jar. From each scale’s centre to every corner ran borders and struts of a denser silvered material, which should’ve been plain white calcium. 

Xanthe put that jar back down into its slot and lifted another. “And guess what this is.”

The jar insides heaved with a dense, live, wriggling mat of thin sea urchin legs. Zebe refused to accept that her dry mouth was due to apprehension. She croaked, “How much of the shell did you put in?”

“A sliver, broken off with a pair of pliers. The spines are in this next one.” Xanthe put down the jar with legs and took up one with a forest of thick silvery-red sea urchin spines.

Zebe closed her eyes. Walking into the living room, she bumped against the couch and sat down heavily. “I’m stunned. Speechless.”

Xanthe replace the sea urchin spines and came to sit down next to Zebe. “You need time to think it through. We’ll save the Reef together.”

Zebe stared at the School of Human and Alien Biology souvenir bags until she saw them. “Aren’t your bosses suspicious, Xan? When you walk out with ten souvenir bags of dust? What do you tell them?”

Xanthe laughed. “Those bags are part of Neil’s collection that he keeps here. They’re coded to the collectable figurines SoHAB produces every three months. One of their primary fund raisers. Come and have a look how much Neil loves the Huddle. We might as well get changed while we’re up there since Neil will pick us up in half an hour for our dinner date.” 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Mongrel: Zebe at her Sister's Place, (Part 2)

Maggy Cat

Zebe is introduced to the power of the alien's dust by way of a cat that had mangy fur ... 

“That kiss was a payment?” A fury against the new boyfriend gripped Zebe by the heart. 

Xanthe laughed. “No, Neil and I are mates! He’s in it as deep as I am.”

“More like lovers, it looks to me.”

“All right, yes, we’re lovers. We’ve even applied for a hearing to make it legal.”

“You let him?”

“Zebe! I said, ‘We have applied for a hearing.’ And once we’ve tied the knot we’ll be applying to have a child though it’ll be years before it’s our turn.”

“It’s that serious?” Zebe said to stall any further unsettling news.

Xanthe laughed again. “Oh, Zebe! You’ll get on fine with Neil. I’ve told him all about you. How we are. You’ll still be my funny Celtic twin. He’s helping me to help you without thought of the danger to his career.”

Zebe wasn’t mollified by the praises. “Celtic twin! Huh.” 

“Neil said that as soon as I showed him my holo of us. Your dark hair, your eyes and your olive skin. He said that in his experience Celtic types were better at poker than anyone. Probably because in ancient history they were always having to play survival games against all the invaders.” 

“Quite the history buff, your Neil.” Underneath, Zebe was amazed and secretly pleased at the man’s reading of her. Though of course he would’ve had plenty of help the way Xanthe talked up Zebe when Zebe wasn’t around.  

“We don’t eat here anymore, you know,” Xanthe said. “The kitchen’s become quite the little lab.”
Zebe attended her sister with something like horror. “You’ve gone and done what?”

Xanthe had thrown herself down onto her vintage twentieth century couch, plumped up a couple of antique-style cushions and footled her shoes off. She lay back. “Get us our drinks in hand and I’ll tell you.”   

Zebe didn’t move. 

Xanthe said, “I’m not showing you anything while you’ve got that the-end-of-the-world-is-nigh mood on you.”

“Okay!” Zebe approached the transformed old roll-top-desk-made-into-a-drinks-cabinet. Up with the cover. Out with the preparation shelf on its slide-out supports. She stared unseeing at the array of bottles. 

“I’ll have the slitzicky on strawberry rocks,” Xanthe said.

The hot-and-cold food dispenser was next to the desk. Instead of being in the kitchen.  

Skim down the catalogue on the front and key in the code for the frozen strawberries. Press ENTER and wait for the strawberry container to get to the dispenser slot. A tall glass for Xanthe from the top shelf in the cabinet. Fill the glass with berries and slurp over the liquor. A chunky wide glass for herself. Three berries and mash them.  Lots of soda water. A little …

“Here, let me help you. At this rate you’ll need ten drinks before we can get on with the excitement.” Xanthe slurped up half of Zebe’s soda and filled the glass with a good amount of slitzicky – which was still the only successful product to come out of the research done at the SoHAB. She handed Zebe her drink.

Zebe sipped cautiously. “You’re going to save the world with something you’re concocting in your kitchen?” 

“With your help, you bet!” Xanthe laughed. 

“And it’s illegal?” It didn’t take too much thought to come to the riddle’s solution. “You’re stealing something from the labs?”

“Taking. The alien’s leavings. Dust. I extract it from the vacuum cleaner, bag it and bring it home. Merely following up on that thing that you suggested so elegantly but not as wishy washily as my news to you. Therefore much harder to wipe from the records.” 

“Oh. That’s what made you mad at me?” 

“How much training do you need? We’re twins. Have the same brain power.”

“Not look-alike twins.”

Xanthe bridled. “You had yourself changed. You’d rather be an islolate.”

“I didn’t want to be seen to be a clone of you, a glorified cleaner. How would I get work in my field?”

Xanthe laughed kindly. “My dear secret clone. Always half a step behind. The day I got your email, Neil nailed the last strips to the benches.”

Zebe glanced at the carrier bags. 

“Never mind them for now,” Xanthe said. “Normally the dust gets incinerated.

Zebe knew about cleaning because she began in her work as a lab technician cleaning out lab jars. Things like dead fruit fly experiments. Now the matter of cleanliness everywhere in the Reefarium, and indeed contamination, were her responsibility. 

Up to the moment she discovered the new living water in Callum’s swimming lesson tank, she’d been terrified that the wholesale reef death happening outdoors, in unmoderated sea water, would infect her coral nursery aquariums.

Xanthe said, “But after I had a little experience with some of it, I wouldn’t ever waste it again.”

Zebe said what she was meant to. “What little experience?”

“I’d run short on vacuum bags. So, thinking to re-use the bag I had, I shook the dust from it into the incinerator instead of throwing the whole bag in. A glittering silvery swag of it was blown off course …”

Zebe held her hand up. “Wait! Tell me you were wearing your isolation gear!”

“I was, but the mangy cat we feed on the sly wasn’t. The cat was downwind and got snowed over. Couple of days later, when it re-appeared, its fur was suddenly healthier than my hair. A process that would’ve taken weeks with the right drugs.”

“Why did you think it was the dust?”

“Because her fur is silvery now. Black and white in patches, with a silvery overlay. Very now.”